In contemporary English, the word "evolution" has taken on a number of connotations that fall outside of the scientific usage of the word. For example, lists one definition as:

"a process of gradual, peaceful, progressive change or development, as in social or economic

structure or institutions."

This usage has the potential to confuse scientific discussions about evolution, such as this blog, so I thought I'd spend a post clearing things up a little.

There's a common misunderstanding that because life is evolving, it is therefore getting "better" in some universally meaningful sense. This is an especially tempting trap when looking back on the history of life on our planet: it certainly seems like today's life is just plain betterthan the simple single-celled organisms that dominated it a billion years ago. We are stronger, faster, and smarter - doesn't that show that evolution leads to progress?

The fallacy with the above logic is twofold. First, it relies on an entirely subjective (and fundamentally human-centric) view of what "better" means. Second, and more crucially, it conflates correlation with causation. Evolution does tend to result in changes that look like improvements to us, but that's not "why" they happen. They happen because stronger organisms can out-compete weaker ones; faster predators outrun slower prey; smarter hunters survive longer. In short, evolution finds ways to make organisms better at surviving and propagating, and it just happens that these same qualities are often lauded by human societies. (This apparent coincidence is memetically interesting in its own right, but that's a digression for another day.)

So what does all this mean for memetics? When we use the term "memetic evolution" what we're referring to is a process by which ideas (memes) that are better adapted to their environmenttend to produce more copies of themselves. Thus, understanding the environmental factors that affect memetic selection is essential to a useful exploration of the subject.

To illustrate this concept, consider the case of the meme "The Sun revolves around the Earth." For a long time this meme was quite successful: its environment consisted largely of human brains used to trusting immediate sensory data, with very little understanding of astrophysics. As the science memeplex (subject of an upcoming post!) took hold, however, the environment changed. Now many brains were accustomed to data-based analysis, could share astronomical observations from various times/locations, and began to understand the mechanics that govern our Universe. The meme consequently was out-competed in scientifically-minded brains, and today it's on the verge of extinction. (On a related note, we should all be thanking the Flat Earth Society for their diligent protection of endangered memetic species ;))

The memes that permeate and define our civilization are constantly evolving, but it's naive to think of them as evolving "towards" anything. As with genetic selection we might expect to see a trend towards greater complexity, and indeed this certainly seems to be the case. Most modern memeplexes are extremely complex; indeed it's hard to find a mainstream subject that doesn't have tens of thousands of pages written about it. However it's not hard to find memeplexes that are "bad" by any mainstream standard, and nothing in the structure of memetic evolution prevents them from coming to dominate the meme pool. On the contrary, history (not to speak of current events) is rife with instances of destructive memes gaining widespread traction.

As memeticists, our task is to understand how and why certain ideas spread while others die off. The point of this post is to convince you that how "good" or "bad" an idea is does not, in and of itself, affect its viability. We need to look deeper - and I hope to do so soon.

16 Aug 2011 | Tags: Memetics

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