Genes, memes, and temes/tremes

my TED lecture with subtitles in 23 other languages

Hay Festival 2011 lecture
Genes, memes and temes

Quadcopter droneAn eye for the tremes? 2 minute video
Here’s the idea – the phones, computers and servers we are building are becoming interconnected like neurons in a brain. But this treme machine has no senses to survey the real world. Or does it? With the advent of drones, sending images from their cameras to the cloud we may have found the eyes of the tremes.


Book chapter Dangerous memes: or what the Pandorans let loose
Article in New Scientist Evolution’s third replicator: Genes, memes, and now what?
Debate in the New York Times The third replicator

Podcast interview on US Public Radio To the best of our knowledge about memes and temes. 29 July 2012

TED 2008,Here’s the idea …..

Don’t think intelligence – think replicators!

Photo credit: Andrew Heavens TED 2008

I’ve just got back from TED 2008, where I presented some ideas on “Memes in the Cosmos”. Getting a new replicator is always dangerous for any planet because it means a new evolutionary process is let loose. We humans are earth’s “Pandoran species” who let the second replicator – memes – out of the box. We then became meme machines, protecting, copying and working for memes.

Earth now has three replicators – genes (the basis of life), memes (the basis of human culture) and temes (the basis of technology). I argued that the information copied by books, phones, computers and the Internet is the beginning of this third replicator and consequent new evolutionary process. We already have plenty of temes. We are on the verge of having true teme machines, that is machines that carry out all three processes of copying, varying and selecting information without us. This new teme evolution is fast, and powerful and we would do well to try to understand it.

At the moment temes still need us, but if teme machines became self-replicating then we humans would be redundant and they could carry on without us. The two talks before mine, by Craig Venter and Paul Rothemund, suggested that this step is closer than I had thought. This is important because temes currently use us to propagate themselves. In the process they are sucking up the planet’s resources and threatening to make it uninhabitable. If anything of our civilisation is to survive then either we have to ensure that climate change and environmental degradation do not kill us off, or self-replicating teme machines must appear before this happens.

When thinking about civilisations on other planets we should not concentrate on intelligence (as in SETI) but on replicators. In 1961 Frank Drake proposed his famous equation to estimate the number of civilisations in our galaxy capable of communicating with us. Instead I proposed a new equation – the number of planets times the fraction that acquire a first replicator, times the fraction that acquire a second replicator, times the fraction that acquire a third replicator. For it is only with temes that a planet can send out information into the cosmos and hence communicate with anyone else out there.

Every new replicator brings its dangers, which might explain why we have not yet heard from any other teme creatures. Life here on earth pulled through the first step, we humans pulled through the appearance of memes and hence culture. Will we pull through the third step? I don’t know.

Within hours these ideas were already out on the web. See, for example,Boingboing, the TEDblog, or a Q and A in Wired. Within a couple of days the word “teme” brought up several hundred relevant Google entries. So the teme meme seems to be spreading. But help please !!!

I don’t think “teme” is a very good word. I wanted a word that would describe information that is copied outside of human brains by some kind of technology. These are technological memes, or techno-memes, or …. an obvious abbreviation is “teme” but it’s so easily confused with “team” (indeed Wired mis-spelt it this way). What about artemes (artificial memes – but really they are no more artificial than we are). Or …

Update 2013

Dozens of new names were submitted but none seemed to stand out. My favourites are Thremes and Tremes. I have used these a couple of times but this seemed only to spread confusion. So – with some regret – I think the name stays at Temes.

Update 2014

Trying again! I have got fed up with people not being able to spell ‘temes’ (understandably). So I’m now trying ‘tremes’. This is, itself, a little memetic experiment. Let’s see whether ‘tremes’ does better than ‘temes’.