Brain Velcro: Why good things happen to bad ideas

BrainMost people even mildly interested in evolution have heard about the “selfish gene.” The concept is simple yet with counterintuitive implications. Richard Dawkins, who coined the term, argues that the best way to understand evolution is to imagine that genes selfishly want to preserve themselves, and so produce elaborate replicator vehicles (us) designed to help them get from one generation to the next. You are, by his reasoning, your genes’ way of making copies of themselves.

According to this account, evolution is like a marathon at the genetic level. Teams of genes build bodies that pass the genetic torch from generation to generation. Most teams don’t make it. The teams that do apparently made bodies that were better suited to their particular stretch of the race track, and presumably the track ahead as well, since what worked yesterday is likely (though not certain) to work tomorrow too.

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Dawkins doesn’t really mean that genes have selfish desires or know that they’re trying to win a marathon, but rather that the effect of evolution’s recursive sifting process amounts to the same thing. The best replicator vehicles–the bodies most successful at producing offspring–reward their designer genes with persistence. The one thing you can say about all the creatures alive today is that their ancestors all the way back were good enough at making offspring.

Toward the end of his book, “The Selfish Gene,” Dawkins argues that ideas are like genes. As with genes, it’s reasonable to imagine that ideas selfishly want to make copies of themselves. They use us as vehicles for their replication. People are repeater stations for ideas, and the ideas that are better able to exploit people for their self-copying purposes are the ideas that are most likely to persist.

And again, ideas don’t really want anything, but the one thing you can say about all the ideas around today is that they were good enough at getting copied from mind to mind to make it to the present. It’s cultural evolution’s continual sifting through a vast variety of ideas that selects some to persist and those will have the kind of features that make them persist.

What features would those be? Dawkins argues that three qualities–fecundity, longevity, and fidelity–make some genes and some ideas more successful at spreading than others. Here I’ll describe them with respect to ideas:

Fecundity:  An idea you want to tell people is an idea likely to spread. We talk of some ideas as having “legs,” of being exciting or rewarding or useful to share. Compare juicy gossip or funny jokes with shopping lists–the former are more rewarding to share with other people, so they’ll spread faster.  Fecundity means fertility–an idea’s ability to spawn a lot of offspring. In parallel, genes that make a creature procreate more often will spread more readily than genes that don’t.

Longevity: A memorable idea is more likely to spread because the longer it sticks the more chances it will have to be passed on. If you can’t remember a joke you can’t tell it. If you get a chance to tell a joke only once a month, a joke you remember for two months will be told less often than one you remember for two years. In parallel, genes that make a creature live long enough to have offspring will spread more readily than genes that don’t. These days longevity is sometimes called “brain Velcro,” that quality of sticking to your mind when it comes in contact with it.

Fidelity: A consistent idea is more likely to spread than one that’s easily mis- or reinterpreted. Suppose you had a religious vision and ended up with a lot of followers and disciples who spread your gospel but got it wrong. Two thousand years from now people would still be claiming to be your followers, but if you knew what they were saying you’d be rolling around in your grave, because that wasn’t your idea at all.

Some ideas are more open to interpretation than others. For example, the idea that “things happen for a reason” lacks fidelity because its meaning is so open to interpretation. It could mean simply that cause and effect are real, that there’s one master reason, that nothing happens without someone wanting it to happen, that God has a reason for everything. The list goes on. Such ideas are sometimes called “promiscuous”–no sooner is one of them passed on than it goes wafting off toward some other meaning. These ambiguous ideas often spread very easily. You’ve heard lots of people say, “Everything happens for a reason.” There may be a trade-off between fecundity and fidelity. Vague concepts are often very comforting, so we’re inclined to share them.

To Dawkins, ideas that have fecundity, longevity, and fidelity are “successful memes”–the intellectual counterpart of successful genes. They’ve got legs, they’ve got brain Velcro, and they’re unambiguous.

Notice that accuracy is not among the qualities Dawkins regards as essential. An idea can spread far without being true. If his model holds up (and I think it does, with some important qualifications) we don’t retain ideas simply because they’re accurate. We retain ideas for lots of other reasons, too. For example, we like ideas that will make us popular (fecundity, or legs so they travel fast and far), and that conform to what we already believe (longevity or stickiness).

This piece is sort of a setup for two articles in coming months, in which I’ll look at a few implications of the fecundity-longevity-fidelity approach to ideas. In one I’ll reverse Dawkins and talk about ideas not as responses to environmental conditions but rather as a source of environmental conditions. Ideas constrain thinking and behavior. The ideas we tend to let govern us are the ones that also possess these three qualities.

I’ll also apply the concept to ideas within one’s own head. We think of beliefs as things we own and carry with us always, but when you stop to think about it, that’s not what they are. They’re ideas that come to mind, referenced or triggered with greater or lesser frequency. We can talk about the persistence of a belief then as how often it comes to mind. Insights into the intensity of a belief–our confidence levels about an idea–follow from the same fecundity-longevity-fidelity logic.

A lot of ground to cover. I hope promises enough fecundity to stick with.

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