Monday, March 14, 2005

Memes, genes and progress

All flora and fauna represent genetic lines that have survived. We have a clear enough understanding of natural selection to appreciate this.

In recent years (at least since Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene appeared in 1976) we have also considered memes (ideas that are self-propogating and transmitted) and have wondered about what selection process governs the ideas that have (and will) survive. In the age of the internet (and blogging), this is ever more interesting.

Heath, Bell and Sternberg have reported on experiments that test the emotional selection of ideas vs. the informational selection of ideas. The latter seems practical and is traced to Oliver Wendell Holmes' evokation of the "marketplace of ideas" (in 1919). Alas, the authors present experimental evidence for the importance of emotional selection.

There are no straight evolutionary lines when it comes to genes or memes. In the latter case, the evolutionary dead ends are the ones associated with rumors, urban legends, conspiracies and the like.

Will new technologies (themselves based on good ideas that have survived) such as modern communications cause informational selection to gain a new edge over emotional selection? No one knows. But I do not know how it could be any other way.