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System error, reboot mind

New theory claims that brains catch ideas the way computers catch software viruses

Two assumptions underlie much contemporary study of the human condition: First, that humans are nothing more than complex, organic machines. Second, that as we learn to build more complex machines, their internal workings will increase our understanding of the human machine.

Some biologists believe that the role of DNA in biology and evolution goes a long way toward justifying the first of these assumptions.

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In this view, genes that produce loving humans survive because the children of such parents are more likely to survive. Similarly, genes that produce people who believe in God are more likely to survive because such people are less anxious and less vulnerable to disease produced by stress.

In this way, some biologists believe they can give an evolutionary explanation for many of the characteristics that we associate with being human. However, as Robert Aunger points out in his new book, "The Electric Meme," DNA cannot be the whole story.

If we really want to reduce everything human to the operation of a complex organic machine, we must also explain why people gossip and climb mountains when there is no survival benefit to genes that produce such people.

Aunger credits biologist Richard Dawkins with the next step in reducing humans to machines. According to Dawkins, not only are humans controlled by the brains and bodies that genes give them but also by ideas that they catch from other humans.

Such ideas – Dawkins and Aunger call them memes – have their own evolutionary history. Some of them survive, spread, and prosper. Others fail and disappear. "The idea is – to be only somewhat cute – the idea of infectious ideas."

In order to give substance to this theory of memes, Aunger turns to the second assumption – that the complex machines we have learned to build can help us understand the human machine. In this case, he argues that because the modern computer is something like a brain, then a brain might very well be vulnerable to something like a computer virus.

"A computer is like an organism in many respects," he writes. In this analogy, an activity like mountain climbing, that would soon die out if it were genetically produced, may spread like a computer virus from brain to brain.

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What does this theory claim, then, about the mechanism of the human mind? Up to a point, what humans think, say, and do is determined by their genetic makeup. Beyond that point, much of what humans think, say, and do is determined by whatever memes have infected their brains.

What kind of human thinking and behavior might be controlled by these memes? "Something as small as a sound or as large as a religious tradition," Aunger writes.

He readily admits that memes and genes may not be all there is to being human. But "this doesn't mean that the ancient philosophical notion of 'free will' can survive the coming onslaught of neuroscientific advances," he warns. "It is still likely that we will have to recognize that the mind is an emergent property of the brain, and nothing more."

If I understand this correctly, it would mean that biology itself and all the natural sciences may be nothing more than operations of an organic human machine. Assumptions such as the two at the beginning of this review may not be truths at all but only survivors in a complex evolutionary process. As Aunger himself points out, we do not even know if there is a physical world outside our thoughts. It may be only that a meme to that effect has infected many brains and is surviving there.

Aunger's ultimate goal, the explanation of human culture, runs like a thread through his entire narrative. For example, he speculates about the mutual dependence of a culture's artifacts and the memes that infect the humans in that culture.

In every way, this is a lucid, interesting book that will take any reader to the front lines of modern thinking about the human condition. Some readers will enjoy the trip, as I did. Others may find the materialism and determinism that pervade the book oppressive.

• David Nartonis is an freelance writer and researcher with a Ph.D. in physics.

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