virus: >H An Ecology of Ideas, 9 Years Before Dawkins.
Fri, 08 Mar 1996 19:24:46 -0700

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Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the word "meme" to describe
the similarity of ideas to genes in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene.

Bertrand De Jouvenel, in his sparkling clear book _The Art of Conjecture_,
explains the theory behind memetics - without, of course, using the word -
quite clearly, back in 1967. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys
thinking about the future; I stuck post-its all through it as I consumed it
while researching my book on transhuman futures.

>From _The Art Of Conjecture_, p. 256

Unlike what happens in the sciences, an assertion is put forward without
being subjected to a systematic inquistion by qualified judges. Each
individual member of society accepts or rejects the assertion; there is a
free trade in ideas, and in this state of laissez faire the diffusion of
ideas in society depends on the individual choices of "consumers". The
members of society, unlike adepts in a particular scientific discipline, do
not share a single coherent corpus of ideas, which after artificial
selection have the same meaning for each and every one and are accepted by

Suppose that a census of the ideas existing in a given society at a given
time could be made. Before taking this census, we would want to classify
ideas by order, kind, species, variety. The actual census would consist of
counting the number of heads containing a given idea. If an idea is found
in a million heads, we may say that this idea has one million bearers or
that there are one million examples of this idea in our society. But the
word "examples" seems somewhat unsuitable, for it is extremely doubtful
that exactly the same idea is present in any two heads. It is tempting to
speak like this: in any two heads, the "same idea" presents the idea of
likeness and unlikeness which is characteristic of two individuals
belonging to the same variety. Thus we come to treat this idea as a
"population" of one million individuals.

In other words, I am suggesting that a human population should be regarded
as an "environment" inhabited by various, greater or smaller populations of
ideas. I do not claim that this way of looking at the question is the
correct one, but simply that it is suggestive and well suited to my

The population metaphor accords very well with certain commonly used
expressions. We say an idea is "ganining ground" when its population is
increasing , and that it is "losing ground" when its population is
declining. We also say that the idea has been "set aside": which is not to
say that the idea has disappeared, but that it has been relegated to a
relatively insignificant region of the social space.

These different populations form an "ecosystem", within which there are
relations of dependence and of competition. The same holds true for ideas:
some ideas compound with one another, others are at war. It is even true of
certain ideas, as of certain predatory species, that they can subsist only
as long as the species of idea on which they prey subsists in sufficient

An ecosystem has periods of stability as well as periods of rapid change
set off by a change in the environment or by the intrusion of a new
species. In these alternative causes of change we may see a fitting analogy
to the two causes - material and intellectual - over which there has been
so much dispute in the history of ideas.

This analogy is intended to make the notion of "a movement of ideas" seem
concrete. "But" the reader objects,"it is improper to treat ideas which are
not even 'concrete objects' as though they were plants and animals." To
this my reply is as follows: "Any intellectual representation of a reality
is fundamentally and necessarily inadequate, but it is necessary to
'represent' things in order to speak about them. The more concrete the
representation is made, the easier it becomes to speak about them."

The representation above suggests that the "natural selection" of ideas in
the social field must be compared with the "artificial selection" of ideas
in the scientific domain. Clearly, natural selection does not afford the
same guarantess of progress as artificial selection. The value of this
analogy can be brought out by the following observation: through artificial
selection of plants, a gardener can produce varieties of a rare excellence,
which propagate themselves only in much cruder forms and so cannot maintain
themselves in nature. Does not the same hold true for ideas? And surely it
is true that ideas flourishing in one environment languish or take rather
different forms when transported to another - English political ideas are
an obvious example.

I think therefore the image used here lends itself well to my
purpose...Which of the ideas now known - for how can we speak of ideas as
yet unknown - will make progress in society? In what forms will they be

Romana Machado
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