Mythic Characters

Mythic characters are a creative work designed to examine how memes work in our global digital culture. These are thought forms being brought to a digital life. We are looking how it is possible to create whole identities, no matter how ludicrous, and populate the virtual space with their presence. We can see a parallel with the phenomenon of celebrity culture in which people become famous simply for being famous. Our aim is to try and make these identities famous when there is actually no real substance behind them, a direct reference to celebrity culture.

The following story is one of memory and opinion.

The concept of the meme was first advanced by Richard Dawkins in his book, The Selfish Gene. Dawkins was always a hero despite his obvious flaws which were exposed in a lecture he gave in 1999 in Oxford. In this lecture he proposed that Darwinian evolutionary theory would be recognised as universal by visiting aliens in the same way they would recognise Newtonian laws of physics. Jack Adams was in the audience with Jennifer Summers and they both felt this was an exteremly bold if not foolhardy claim to make.

At the end of the lecture questions were invited and Jennifer raised her hand and was pointed out by the chair of the lecture series. The question was monumental:

“Professor Dawkins, not wanting to go over the Lemarkian debate, do you think it will ever be possible to cross the Weismann barrier?”

There is a well known resistance to Professor Dawkins work from Christian “thinkers” and so it may not be a surprise that Dawkins failed to take the question or the questioner seriously. Jennifer is a flambouant character and chooses to dress in an exotic manner which can be mistaken for something other than creative eccentricity. Dawkins chose to address the question by immediately centering in the Lemarkian debate and drawing a horizontal line in chalk on a blackboard to denote the Weismann barrier.

The professor then spent some time explaining how an individual breaking a bone in his lifetime could not pass on that event as a result of his own genetic information changing as a result of the incident. No doubt there was no intention to be patronising to the strange woman sitting in the front row but unfortunately the simplistic lines on the chalk board appeared more confused than enlightening. What the academic did not know, and how could he, was that Jennifer Summers was the editor of  the Australasian Science magazine. The question she was advancing was based on a paper she had seen which gave some preliminary indications that certain viruses may well have been able to adapt their own genome during their lifetime.

To be fair to Professor Dawkins he had been on stage for an hour delivering a very interesting and thought provoking lecture so technical questions the like of which Jennifer Summers asked may well have been tiring. The answer was so inadequate however, that the audience became quite agitated and a forest of hands were raised to pose more questions. The first of these was this:

“Surely Professor Dawkins, the very fact that we are decoding the human genome means that we have or will soon cross the Weismann barrier?”

This statement of obvious fact appeared to have a pressing effect on the lecturer who then drew another line of chalk on the blackboard in a different colour and stated that this line was a completely different type of line altogether. At this point the chair of the lecture called the lecture to an end and Professor Dawkins was released from further pressing after just two questions.

The next week Summers and Adams attended the second in the lecture series and were hugely disappointed when the chair of the series came on stage and announced that this series had got off to an exciting start with the first lecture in which Professor Dawkins had advanced exciting new ideas about the human genome and how that was changing genetic theory. Such an erroneous statement had absolutely nothing to do with Dawkins and perhaps was just a way of marketing the lecture series.

Professor Dawkins remains a hero and his body of populist work certainly has done more than anything else to help further an understanding of genetics in popular culture. One problematic response to an audience question in a public lecture cannot and should not detract from that work. We all have bad days after all. The point of telling this story is that it is ironic that the man who first made widely available in the public consciousness the concept of the meme could unintentionally be the victim of the creation of a false meme by virtue of another person’s over enthusiasm or inaccurate memory. Memes do not appear to be entities we necessarily have any control over.

The concept behind the mythic characters here is to develop them as contentious memes and observe how they grow and how others interact with them. We believe that this study is important because it provides a preliminary understanding of possibilities of human to artificial intelligence inter- relationships. These are surrogate characters who are a product of “programming” and provide a ripe field for the action of critical theory.