Complex ideas procreate through citation
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A provocation from Dawkins: ideas are alive!
The gene, the DNA molecule, happens to be the replicating entity that prevails on our own planet. There may be others. If there are, provided certain other conditions are met, they will almost inevitably tend to become the basis for an evolutionary process. But do we have to go to distant worlds to find other kinds of replicator and other, consequent, kinds of evolution? I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet […] already it is achieving evolutionary change at a rate that leaves the old gene panting far behind.
Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. [...] memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically.
(Richard Dawkins, 1976. The Selfish Gene)
Also, we know evolution happens in any system with mutation, heredity, selection, so we can say memes evolve!
Heredity: people copy memes from other people.
Mutation: people riff on memes.
Selection: useful, interesting, or controversial memes get repeated.
Memes are the unit of selection here, so the funny thing is…
People don't have ideas. Ideas have people. (Carl Jung)
Dawkins is explicit about this in The Selfish Gene. Memes and genes just want to replicate. We happen to be useful vehicles for getting around. Sometimes they drive us to thrive, sometimes to rage, sometimes they drive us into the ground.
Dawkins’ selfish meme sounds a lot like a viral replicator, a replicator that procreates through hijacking a host.
I suspect this kind of viral procreation favors small ideas with low information payloads and high contagiousness. Why? The same reason Goldberg’s Building Block Hypothesis selects for short genes. The more compact the meme, the easier to copy. The higher the contagiousness, the more often repeated. R-selected information organisms.
This does seem to be what we see proliferating on social media. Exploitables, snowclones, #relatable content, hot takes, thirst traps, flamebait fishing for dunks, all under ruthless selection pressure to enhance virality.
These memes go through rapid mutation and selection, but there’s not so much complex heredity. Mostly cloning and mutation. Mitosis works for simple organisms.
So, social media favors viral outbreaks over complex multicellular organisms. Do these tiny, contagious memes have carrying capacity for complex thought? Can we coordinate a society through cat gifs?
Perhaps! But these r-selected memes seem better suited to negative-sum arbitrage, like many other viruses.
Complex evolution through composition
What if we could evolve more complex ideas? Can k-selected memes exist?
It must be possible, because we see multicellular thought all around us. Culture, art, religious tradition, the scientific body of knowledge, math, philosophy, law, cinematic universes—these complex meme ecologies carry vast amounts of information.
What kind of conditions might cause this kind of multicellular meme to evolve? And by what mechanism?
Well, what if ideas could have sex?
W. Brian Arthur’s research on technological evolution suggests a mechanism. Arthur notes that technology has a kind of recursive structure. Technologies are composed of technologies, which are composed of other technologies. For example, an F-35 jet is composed of…
…the wings and empennage; the powerplant (or engine); the avionics suite (or aircraft electronic systems); landing gear; flight control systems; hydraulic system; and so forth. If we single out the powerplant (in this case a Pratt & Whitney F135 turbofan) we can decompose it into the usual jet-engine subsystems: air inlet system, compressor system, combustion system, turbine system, nozzle system. If we follow the air inlet system it consists of two boxlike supersonic inlets mounted on either side of the fuselage, just ahead of the wings. The supersonic inlets…
(W. Brian Arthur, 2009. The Nature of Technology)
How does this come about? Technologies are invented, then become modularized and commoditized as they become better understood. These new modules are integrated into new, more complex technologies that solve new problems, which themselves become modularized and commoditized, in an upward spiral of evolutionary complexity.
Technology evolves through composition, a kind of sexual heredity that allows new technologies to inherit traits from many parents.
Technology, once a means of production, is becoming a chemistry. We are shifting from technologies that produce fixed physical outputs to technologies whose main character is that they can be combined endlessly for fresh purposes.
(W. Brian Arthur, 2009. The Nature of Technology)
Complex ideas procreate through citation
Ideas also compose. We call it citation—the same mechanism we use to build the body of scientific knowledge. Through this lens, we might see the entire body of scientific research, or law, or the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as memepools we can draw from to breed new memes.
These multicellular k-selected memes move slower, and are often less contagious than their r-selected cousins. Yet their longer lifespan and slower evolutionary loop make them capable of coordinating human behavior over long time periods.
Higher carrying capacity for information means big memes can also convey adaptive traits. Getting infected by a k-selected meme can make you smarter.
Notice that a person who has learned calculus fluently can in many areas out-think the greatest geniuses in history. Scientists after Newton were qualitatively more able than before, etc. (Alan Kay)
Most importantly, multicellular memes compose. This gives them compounding advantages over time.
Citation lets us compose new ideas from old ideas (heredity), and maybe a bit of novel research (mutation). As the memepool grows, the number of possible combinations scales exponentially. The complexity and power of these memes can scale exponentially too, at least for a time.
Evolving bigger memes
Are big memes always beneficial memes? No. But the ability to evolve big memes seems necessary, if not sufficient, for cultivating a beneficial meme microbiome.
Social media favors viral outbreaks over complex multicellular thought. Can the internet evolve multicellular memes? This seems like an important question for a civilization that is building on top of the internet.
Wikipedia strikes me as a bright spot, an existence proof that thinking together at scale is possible over the internet. Can we do more like this? How?
Posit: for a medium to be capable of evolving complex memes, it must have a mechanism for citation.
Complex ideas procreate through citation. Citation is heredity for ideas. So, is there a mechanism for citation?
For software, the mechanism is modules.
For scientific research, it is citing other research.
For the web it is links.
What is the mechanism of citation for Facebook? Is there one? You can comment, but you can’t compose.
Next, we want to consider evolutionary feedback loops that reward composition.
For software it is something like dependents/downloads/installs.
In science, this is something like an h-index or impact factor.
On the web, it could be PageRank, which counts the number of inbound backlinks.
What is it on Facebook? Is there one? Social media typically rewards engagement, not composition.
Social media’s reward function is recursive! What’s popular is what’s popular is what’s popular. Engagement drives powerful preferential attachment viral outbreaks, but seems unlikely to evolve multicellular memes.
The early web actually had a pretty strong evolutionary feedback loop toward multicellular memes: links + PageRank. This seems like a good place to start exploring.
In what ways might we learn from this early web loop, even improve upon it? One improvement might be reliable citation. Links on the web are not a very reliable mechanism for heredity.
Links die all the time. 1 out of every 200 dies each week.
Links also change all the time. You might reference an idea, only to have it change from under you.
Scientific publications have to work around this by citing time of access. This seems unfortunate, since the point of a URL is to point to something. The Internet Archive helps. What if we could do something like this at the protocol level?
Noosphere opens up a few new possibilities. It is a protocol for thought, a user-owned hypertext graph on IPFS, with a few useful properties:
Lots of copies keeps stuff safe. Content in Noosphere is distributed over IPFS, so links can be more resilient.
Change history: Noosphere is like a lightweight Git, so you can reference previous versions.
Cross-graph transclusion. Noosphere is a graph-of-graphs, so you can compose thoughts from your own notebook and other shared/public notebooks.
Backlinks: you could do your own hyperlocal PageRank by walking your follow network and seeing what they link to.
Layer on end-to-end encryption, and friend-to-friend networking, and you end up with a range of possibilities, from private end-to-end encrypted content, to small trusted groups, to public publishing.