05 June 2013

The Evolution of Evolution - Competition of Genes Gives Way to Memes

My daughter casually mentioned that if fertility is a measure of success, the elites aren't doing so well. Birthrates are lower for wealthier and better educated people all over the globe.

Genghis Khan might be the clearest example of prolific elites.  Khan got his first choice of the most beautiful women after conquering an area. His grandson, Kublai Khan (the Emperor Marco Polo met whose conquests created what we now know as China) added 40 new virgins to his harem each year. The Khans were genetically prolific. Studies suggest that Genghis Khan has about 16 million living descendants. But genes are no longer the big arena for progress.

After he'd cured polio, Jonas Salk had a blank check to do whatever he wanted. What he wanted to do was open the Salk Institute and bring some of the best minds from around the world to La Jolla to focus on social evolution. (These best minds vetoed that idea, sadly.)

Salk was not the only one to believe that an interest in progress meant looking more at social than biological evolution. And if he's right, it would explain why the elites have turned from attempts to propagate their genes into future generations and seek instead to capture attention through successful products, companies, software, movies, theories, books, and ideas.

If social evolution does more to define progress than biological evolution, it makes sense that elites would shift their focus to this new kind of propagation. 16 million people on earth carry Khan's genes; at least 100X that many carry John Locke and Thomas Jefferson's idea of representative government. Mark Zuckerberg has yet to father a child but about a billion people use Facebook.

Elites are still wildly successful in propagation. It's just that they've slipped into the medium of memes, putting their effort into shaping social evolution instead. That, it seems to me, vindicates Salk's belief that social evolution has become more important, more defining, than biological evolution. As it turns out, even evolution evolves.

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