Artist Statement

Adam Wykes is a writer from Rockford IL. His writing focuses primarily on science-fiction, his poetry on the metaphysical. He would just like to say that he is a big fan of Emily Novak, Civ III, shrews, wikipedia, all things Welsh, emergence, and William Gibson.

On the Natural Selection of Ideas

Adam Wykes

 

The first humans had the first sentient thoughts, and these first thoughts were likely as violent and transient as the creatures who thought them. They were individual musings on the need to hunt, on the fear that the individual experienced when nightfall limited their perception of the world around them. Most of these thoughts probably didn't last more than a day or two in the mind of these primitive common ancestors - they were simply kept in mind as long as they were relevant to the present situation. But a few made their impression on the thinkers as especially useful or powerful ideas - ideas that helped them to cope with their environment throughout a wide variety of circumstances. These adaptive and fit thoughts would have been kept in mind like an individual ritual - the hunter would continually return to the place, perhaps, where her father had died, in order to remember this ancestor and help her cope with a sense of loss that otherwise might threaten to discombobulate her completely, causing her eventual demise. Thus it became apparent to both the early human and the early thoughts that it was in the best interest of both parties to try to keep the other as fit as possible for dealing with the world that they both existed in. Unfortunately, whenever the individual died, so did all of the thoughts that person had carried with them. No one else in the primitive social groups could benefit from the ideas of the deceased, and no ideas could escape the certain demise that came with their creator's death.

 

But ideas adapted to this circumstance. Strings of ideas combined in certain individuals in certain early cultures - the seeds of primitive language. At first perhaps pictorial, perhaps guttural, even these minute steps made it possible for ideas to copy their rudimentary essences into the minds of other humans, thereby reproducing and ensuring that they had a much better chance of survival than those thoughts still contained within a single transient mind. And in the beginning it was actually beneficial for language to be very nebulous indeed - whenever an idea made the jump from one mind to another via language, there was a good chance that significant portions of it might be misconstrued. Many times this meant that the individual received basically useless information and therefore benefited nothing from the idea - both the idea and the harboring individual remained of a lesser fitness than the parents - but in large groups of people a few were bound to misconstrue the ideas in a useful way. One person would indicate to another that a vapor could be seen rising off of water in the morning heat by expressing the hand motion for "water" followed by a rising hand motion above the previous motion. But the recipient of these two paired concepts instead construed that their mentor meant them to realize that when water was in the ground, things like plants rose from it - obviously a far more useful bit of information from this primitive standpoint.

For a time these early and nebulous languages propagated their mutant spawn among the groups of humans that had developed alongside these ideas, and these groups survived more often than those groups not able to pass on information necessary for survival. But when these fitter groups, made fitter by virtue of the large amount of thoughts now circulating amongst the community, began to communicate more clearly as their languages became more effective, they began to realize that many ideas they had thought they shared were in fact quite different from individual to individual. This was the great sexual revolution of ideas, for now individuals could receive an idea that positively contradicted another that they held, and the two ideas could form a synthesis idea that held the strengths of both old ideas, or perhaps even solved the problem in a new way, only tipping its hat to the old inspirations. So as language became clearer and one form of mutation became less prominent, sexual recombination took to the fore and provided ideas and humanity with a powerful tool of adaptation.

 

But even still this was not enough. The human form was a more powerful idea computer than anything nature had previously devised, but it lacked in several departments - it could not remember some of the most complex and useful thoughts that it had evolved, and when these complex thoughts lost some of their properties to forgetfulness, the emergent qualities of their complexity might disappear as well and render them less useful. Perhaps a man sat on a rock one day and divined that the world was made up of living and un-living things based on all of the previous knowledge that lived within him. This then implicated that he himself was one or the other, and he might realize that he was indeed living. This man might then, through the knowledge that if one thing is similar between two things, more things are likely to be similar between them, decide that other living things might have thoughts like he does - perhaps the deer, he postulates, speak their own languages, and if I can learn to understand this language too, then I will understand all that the deer understand and use to help them survive. But if the single idea that there is a difference between living and un-living things is forgotten, then the whole construct comes tumbling down.

Animals - humans included - take hundreds of generations to adapt significantly. But ideas can change in an instant - hundreds of generations of an idea can pass through a thinker's head in a single hour. So it is not surprising that again ideas solved their own dilemma. Building upon the oral tradition that had come before it, ideas then combined to form the concept of a written language in some oral cultures. This was only possible using oral languages that had advanced to a sufficiently complex and particular state - without such, the specific ideas meant to be preserved in an extra-human form would not benefit from the transferal, since it means that such ideas must again go through two translations - the author to the text, and the text to the reader. And much can be lost in translation if the rules are not sufficiently specific. Even then, as it is obvious to us today, much misunderstanding often comes of the attempt to translate meaning through the written word. But even so this advance was a colossal leap forward in the viability of ideas in the world. For the first time, ideas were made somewhat free of their host organisms - once put into written form, they might exist unchanged for hundreds of years and influence countless numbers of individuals, each of whom would then become a carrier of that idea and increase its chances of survival. Authors would allow two written works to have sex within their minds, and the child of these musings would then ink their page and go out to influence other ideas. Even ideas that proved relatively uninteresting to the humans of one era might yet find audience in the humans of another era, who might find it exceptionally useful to their adaptive needs.

 

It is this symbiosis between the idea and the human that drives the machinery of modern-day technological and literary achievement. All ideas that are beneficial to an individual increase the chance that said individual will remember the idea and perhaps communicate it to another individual in the course of their lives - and the longer that life is, the more chance that this individual will have the opportunity to communicate. Penicillin was one idea that allowed an increase in the viability of the substrate for ideas - the increased longevity of many humans. The telephone increased the audience of the old oral form of idea transference, just as the internet has vastly increased the literary substrate for ideas.

 

In many ways ideas are like symbiotic parasites that have evolved a spore stage to their sexual cycle - They begin in the mind as the child of many other ideas, and if this offspring proves viable it will likely be communicated to others. If the idea still proves viable in many of the new hosts, it will be more and more likely that one of these hosts will commit the idea into written word. Once here the idea rests in a dormant state, waiting to infect anyone who reads it. Once transferred from the page into the person, it finds itself in a whole new environment of ideas, and the process begins anew, ever adapting, ever changing. Ideas that are very different from the majority of the inhabitants in these mental environments and yet still prove fit do not have to compete with as many immediate competitors, but old ideas counter this evolutionary weapon with a tactic of their own, developing dogmas and traditions around their concepts that make it difficult for new ideas to arise and take their place. This is the vicious natural world of our ideas, and throughout it all we stand, generally, to benefit from this tumult. It is true that from time to time very bad ideas will be propagated that will reduce the viability of many humans, but these will be stamped out by the very virtue that those who cleave to them are more likely to die and therefore less likely to pass on the ideas that they harbor. Humanity has from the start benefited from these virulent and contentious constructs of our minds, and it can be said that the whole known history of the human race has been the history of our ideas, and their evolution.

 

Perhaps the greatest threat to the common idea today is that its former methods of reproduction and propagation have proven so effective that modern humans find themselves simply unable to support consideration of them all. Where before it was possible for humanity to consider all of the basic philosophies, now each individual must pick and choose, and it is imperative to ideas that they find a way to ensure that we are more likely to choose them from the vast Malthusian sea of concepts. These ideas will be, to my prediction, the ideas that offer a synthesis of a great many diverse concepts, and so offer their host a general understanding of a vast portion of their existence and general insight into the underlying principles behind a whole genus of ideas - the next age of ideas will be one of unification - just as this essay attempts itself.

Euphemism Campus Box 5555 Illinois State University Normal, IL 61790