Wednesday, August 31, 2011

In the grip of our ideas

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, sociology, speculative sociology, north american history, ideas

My all-time favorite comic is Calvin and Hobbes. As a child, like Calvin, I was interested in everything, did poorly in school, and had a stuffed tiger, though mine was named Tigger. And, the biggest factor, like Calvin, I lived inside my own head. I still am most simpatico with cartoon characters who have a rich internal life, such as Snoopy in Peanuts or the Red Rascal in Doonesbury (except my own blog happens to be factual).

Richard Dawkins coined the term meme in 1976 (not knowing of the older term mneme), and it was about then that the old term noosphere finally became widespread outside Russia. I read Dawkins' The Selfish Gene before 1980 and the "meme" idea in his last chapter clicked with me. From time to time I've thought about its implications, and wondered just how granular memes are. Now I find a book by someone who has thought it through more thoroughly, and the answer is, very granular indeed, almost atomic, in fact. On the scale gene-cell-tissue-organ-organism-colony, Dawkins wrote that the genes rule. In the noosphere, memes are not ideas, but tiny bits of ideas that come together like the components of an eukaryotic cell.

When you are looking for the origins of things it helps to study an archipelago, preferably one with a short history. The Galapagos Archipelago and its very simplified ecology were the perfect example for a young Charles Darwin. Its endowment of fourteen species of finches exemplify the "natural experiment" in species radiation from a small founding population. Their history was long enough for variants to evolve into species, but short enough that their historical development could be determined.

When Jonnie Hughes, enrapt by memes and the noosphere, was looking for a subject to test his ideas, he realized that his native England had a history much too deep for the history of any ideas to be unraveled. So he and his brother Adam paid an extended visit to the American great plains, where he settled on a collection of "idea species" that could be easily distinguished, occupied a limited geographical area, and had a comparatively short history: Indian tepees (or tipis or teepees). Starting in Minnesota, they drove a few thousand miles, visiting historical sites and museums and attending a powwow or two. Hughes boils down his findings in On the Origin of Tepees: the Evolution of Ideas (and Ourselves).

The book is no dry tome of scientific findings. It is an incredibly fun travelogue of the road trip, well spiced with his musings on a great number of subjects related to memes and the noosphere. Rather than dump all the heavy ideas into a weighty introductory chapter or two, Hughes has skilfully woven them into his narrative. In a book full of ideas and about ideas, the method he has chosen manages to pack a ton of content into a package seemingly too small for it, and make it all palatable.

For example, one of the key ideas is the "ancestral flip book". It could have been introduced very early on, but was reserved for Chapter 7. It is a fantastic way to think about our ancestors, generation by generation (one per page), all the way back to the first Eukaryote (or if you are a glutton for punishment, the first cell a couple billion generations earlier). He estimates that the human eukatyotic flip book would have 200 million pages. But, counting at 20 years per human generation (for centuries prior to the 20th), morphing to nine years per ancestral ape or australopithecine, there are about 600,000 generations starting from the split between hominids and proto-chimps.

Such a flip book emphasizes a key feature: it represents a continuous record of breeding success, even though if you were to go back a few tens of thousands of generations, you'd find a creature with which you could not breed (and probably would be unwilling to try). A chapter or two later, such thoughts lead to a discussion of "what is a species, really?". Hughes concludes that, even for large, visible animals such as ourselves, the term species is slippery and ambiguous. Just as the flip book records a gradient through time, and can be divided into a succession of "species" at certain rather arbitrary points, the famous "ring species", herring gulls, are one example of a gradient in space.

It bears discussion, briefly: there are three populations of herring gulls in North America. At their margins, each can breed with the other two, but as they are distributed west to east, the ones on opposite coasts nearly never meet to do so (but they can when brought together). Crossing the Atlantic, we find another "species" of herring gull that can breed with the easternmost American variety. These gulls coexist with, and compete with, a smaller, darker gull, the Lesser Black-backed Gull, particularly in Hughes' home town. But wait; let's return to western North America. Crossing the Pacific, we find another herring gull that can interbreed with the western American variety. A series of gull varieties/species can be traced around Asia to Europe, where they become gradually darker and smaller, until we find, particularly in Western Europe, Lesser Black-backed Gulls! They are herring gulls in disguise, and cannot breed with their competitors, but form one end of a breeding population that rings the Northern Hemisphere and includes those competitors. Do we have one species here or many? Eight or nine names species comprise the whole ring. We find that the word "species" is not sufficiently well defined to be meaningfully applied to herring gulls.

This is even more true of ideas, and that is where Hughes is going with this discussion. Once he sets eyes on a few tepees, he learns they do come in different physical forms. One big division among types is whether the initial setting up is done using three poles or four. With either starting lash-up, you then arrange the rest of the poles (twenty or so) and mount the cover. Then, at the top of the cover there are two smoke flaps, and two methods of holding them open are used, one with a sewn pocket and the other with a hole and pin arrangement. This leads to a worrying matter; are (or were) all four possible arrangements in actual use, or does one kind of smoke flap always go with a 3- or 4-pole foundation?

It turns out not to matter too much. Idea reproduction is not like physical reproduction, where you have to have just one father and just one mother. Even among physical species, there are a few methods of horizontal gene transfer, such as retroviruses, which have recently been called the third sex.

After seeing several varieties of tepee, and in Montana stumbling on the book The Indian Tipi by Reginald and Gladys Laubin, Hughes is able to boil down his thinking into this diagram. He said to his brother that it isn't the origin of all tepees, but "the origin of these tepees." There is a Siberian tent much like a small tepee that probably bears a good resemblance to a true ancestral form. The ideas that were merged to lead to the various types of larger Plains Indian tepees originated of necessity, due to the particular environmental conditions along the eastern front of the Rockies, all across the North American grasslands.

Along the way, there is a discussion of genius, and how ideas originate. Though it may seem that certain ideas spring full-blown from a single mind, Hughes sticks to his thesis, that every idea, like every natural species, has a flip book of ancestors with very small differences from "generation" to "generation". In the case of seemingly giant leaps, such as evolution or relativity, many many generations of ideas were born, competed and died inside a single brain. In Darwin's case, the process took decades (both Einstein and Newton, while each had a seeming burst of ideas in a short period, percolated those ideas for a long time beforehand).

In the long view, it appears that the human brain and human society developed sufficiently to form a noosphere some 200,000 years ago. I would argue that full development required another 130,000 years, until the development of culturally modern humans some 70,000 years ago. Either way, once memes took over, physical evolution slowed down, way down. Mental evolution is so much faster. However, this is a variable process over the world. We need a new word for "mental ecology". Just as certain isolated parts of the world have their own unique ecology, certain human cultures, which may actually encompass a majority of Homo sapiens, occupy an ecology of mind that does not include modern medicine, sanitation, or widespread use of electricity.

In countries that have some aspect of the Western technological culture, life expectancy is in the 70-80 year range for infants and closer to 80-90 for adults. In many "underdeveloped" countries these figures are around 45 years for newborns and 50-60 for adults. Just spelunk around in the CIA World Factbook a bit. These are like different worlds, different mental ecologies. The spread of ideas that originate higher in the "design space" of the noosphere can be very fast indeed, but the ideas have to compete with existing ideas that are comfortable to the people they inhabit. "It was good enough for Grandpa, and it's good enough for me" doesn't refer only to the old-time religion. However, thinking geologically, the spread and continued development of Western culture over the past 2,400 years is astonishingly fast. Whole new species of ideas can arise in a year or two, where physical species take a few thousand to a million years to speciate.

Has human physical evolution stopped? I'd like to think it hasn't. I would like to see us become smarter, wiser, stronger and kinder. There ought to be no place for venality. Solomon wrote that an increase of books was a weariness of spirit. But writing is how memes achieve immortality. Do we have ideas, or do they have us? It is a little of both.

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