18 September 2015

Social Inventions Determine Whether Bright, Irreverent, Charismatic Kids Become Head of Apple or Head of ISIL

How you do in life is largely defined by a few lotteries that happen before you are conscious. We could mitigate that but it would require taking social evolution and social invention - what I'll just call memes - more seriously than we do now.

The first and most obvious lottery is parents. Do they have resources and wisdom to pass on? Or are they distracted by their own drama and deprivation? Are they connected to dozens of people who can help your career or are their friends drug dealers and ex-cons?

The second is the lottery that determines when you are born. No matter how well things are going, your life can be devastated - ended even - by being born shortly before a major war or plague or natural catastrophe. There were a lot of prosperous, intelligent, hard-working and ethical Jews who had the bad luck of being born in Europe before Hitler became Chancellor. Being born in Medieval Times means fewer options than being born in 2050. Being born so that your career begins with a major recession means lifetime earnings that are 10+% lower than had you started your career during a boom.

The third lottery to define your life is your nationality. Born in Canada or Sweden in the late 20th century? Or born in Iraq or Syria at that same time?

Which brings me to this poignant shot of Homs, Syria posted by Kumar Thangudu.  Steve Jobs' father was born and raised here and now the city itself has been razed by Assad's military. This community - like so many in Syria - is itself a casualty of the Civil War. This picture of Steve Jobs' father's home town reminds us of the vast gulf between Silicon Valley and Syria. Jobs was not raised here; he was instead raised in Sunnyvale at the dawn of the personal computer era. Here's what we know: there are kids streaming out of Syria now, displaced by devastation and death threats, who could have become the founders of Fortune 500 firms. They might yet, but the odds are so much lower than they would be had their parents raised them in Sunnyvale, CA instead of places like Homs, Syria. Their development has been stunted and every month their potential shrinks. Before the civil war, 97% of primary aged children attended school and now about 2.2 million children within Syria and about 500,000 who are refugees are not receiving education. These are not just normal kids who are being displaced, their lives disrupted. One of these kids was going to devise the cure for the cancer that will now kill you. Another was going to found the company that would have provided you with a great job so that you no longer have to rely on intermittent contract work. It is not just that their lives are made worse by this tragedy. Our lives are too.

Finally, the two lotteries that determine when and where you are born matter because at different stages of social evolution, in different places, you are born into a different sea of memes. Genes define biology; memes define society. One of the reasons that Medieval times were worse than now is because the memes were less evolved. People looked to supernatural explanations for a dead cow or neighbor rather than a biological cause. Today, if you get sick you might be asked to take a particular medicine in order to get well but rarely are you told to pay penance by praying 4 Hail Marys in the hopes that will make you well. Being born into a time when diagnosis that focuses on natural causes is common means that you'll be more healthy than people born into a time (or place even today) when the first cause is suspected to be supernatural, where people cast spells, chant incantations, burn incense or read palms for clues about what is wrong with you. Superstition and science both look for causes but the meme that says, "let's do science," makes for a better community than the meme that says, "let's do superstition."

The memes that make a country a great or awful place to live have a similar impact. A meme that says that Jews or the Irish or blacks or Hispanics are lesser people and should be treated as such are memes that can make the difference between a child who grows up performing at piano recitals and studying for the SAT and a child who learns to define her goals as simply avoiding violence.

Memes matter and in the same way that a complex set of genes orchestrate to create a leg or even a predisposition for a particular sort of heart disease or schizophrenia, memes orchestrate to create a prosperous, open community or one that's violent and oppressive. Memes define policies, governments, and cultural norms.

Few San Diegans know that when Jonas Salk founded the Salk Institute in 1960, his original intention was to gather the best and brightest to study social evolution. He felt that humanity's progress now depended on social evolution, not biological evolution that that social evolution deserves serious study. Nothing has happened since to suggest that he is wrong.

Get memes wrong and irreverent, charismatic, brilliant kids grow up to become Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, head of ISIL. Get memes right and those kids become a Steve Jobs. It is the memes kids grow up with, not the genes they grow up with that define them and their options. Communities can shape memes and the processes by which memes accidentally evolve and are intentionally changed (social evolution and social invention) deserve at least as much funding as research into genetic engineering. There is too much at stake to leave the evolution of memes to random mutation.

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