How Useful Ideas Propagate

Technologist and Author
Ideas pop up and are subjected to a Darwinian fitness test.
  • Transcript


Ramez Naam: Ideas spread for lots of reasons.  It might be a catchy tune or a funny joke that you’ve heard that sticks in the brain and makes you want to propagate it, to tell others.  But one reason that we know that ideas stick and spread is because they’re useful.  The useful ones propagate.  So an example is the wheel.  The wheel was invented in Egypt but it was improved upon hundreds of years later in Sumaria by going from a solid disk to spokes.  How did it get to Sumaria?  Well, merchants used it to travel and spread their goods from point A to point B.  So that utility to them, the fact that it was a useful invention helped the invention itself spread from place to place.  It was carried by humans to other places where then it was improved upon by other people. 

A very important factor is that there’s an evolution happening of ideas.  Lots of ideas are tried.  Lots of ideas are proposed.  Many of them don’t work out for whatever reason.  They’re not true or they’re not a good innovation.  But then ideas pop up that do pass sort of the Darwinian fitness test, if you will.  And they go on to thrive and they spread.  And then they meet other ideas.  And those ideas combine.  Matt Ridley talks about that as idea sex – when two ideas meet.  And then they can give birth to new ideas.

Any technique that develops new diversity of ideas helps that Darwinian evolution.  So Thomas Edison, for example, experimented with thousands of different filaments for the light bulb before he got to one that worked.  So it’s another way the Darwinian evolution can happen.  Lots of creational diversity and then a filter that picks just the ones that people want to pass on for whatever reason.

So this process of innovation of spreading ideas from person to person, one of the things we’ve been doing, some of the ideas we’ve been creating, are accelerators of that process.  When we invented writing maybe five to seven thousand years ago, that accelerated the spread of ideas.  When we went from writing on scrolls to the printing press that could print things thousands of times faster than monks could transcribe them by hand, that accelerated the spread of ideas and helped launch the scientific revolution and helped accelerate the Renaissance.  And now with the Internet ideas can spread very, very rapidly.  Funny cat pictures, of course, utilize that but so do scientific papers.  So do dialogue between researchers or scholars in all sorts of fields.

So everything we’re doing in society both increasing the number of people who are educated, giving them access to more tools to do their research and giving them more ways to communicate more quickly is all accelerating this process of Darwinian evolution of ideas.

Directed / Produced by Jonathan Fowler and Elizabeth Rodd