Many people have claimed, in my opinion justifiably, that evolution is one of the greatest results ever to come out of human science. Its ability to explain the complexity we see around us in terms of an accumulation of simple steps is breathtakingly elegant. But the subject of this post isn't how science discovered evolution; it's how evolution discovered science.

Hard as it is for us to imagine in modern times, for most of human history there really wasn't anything resembling the scientific method of understanding the world. Instead most people interpreted their environment via pre-scientific lenses, based on a mix of myths, legends, guesses, and rumors. We should resist the temptation to attribute this to some modern superiority, as genetically speaking there's hardly any difference between us and our ancestors of 2000 years ago. Rather, the difference between us and them is in the progress that memetic evolution has made in the interim.

Like most everything bouncing around in our brains, the fundamental approach we take to building a model of the world is largely learned from our parents and peers. Memeplexes compete for this space, and over time those that do a better job at getting themselves copied will tend to dominate. One way that a memeplex can be successful is to be demonstrably better than its competitors at helping its host achieve his or her desired objectives, and memeplexes that yield better models of the world will tend to exploit this mechanism. And when it comes to good strategies for modeling your environment, science is hard to beat.

Whole volumes have been written about the various merits of science, so I won't go into details here. If you're reading this post, you're probably already pretty sold on that point anyway. What you may not have thought as much about is how complex and fiendishly clever the science memeplex really is. The idea that we should model the world by formulating hypotheses and then testing them in a repeatable manner is such a leap forward from "we believe this because a book says so" that it's little surprise science has proven such a formidable opponent for older and less agile worldview memeplexes.

The discovery of science also marks yet another case of evolution doing an excellent job of finding the sweet spots in a design space. There was an open niche for a memeplex that did a good job of modeling reality, and after a mere few thousand years we couldn't help but stumble onto it. Once the random mutations had fitted all the pieces together, the resulting thought process took off like wildfire. Instances like this give me great hope that there are even more powerful and transformative ideas out there, waiting for memetic evolution to stumble onto them - and equally great confidence that, in due time, it will.

04 Oct 2011 | Tags: Memetics

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