We often think about evolution as organisms surviving, mating, and giving birth to organisms which will hopefully survive, mate, and give birth. However, I think evolution has gone through some meta-evolution, creating new powerful evolutionary tools.

At first, we had the evolution of particles. This is closest to what creationists complain about when they say "how could random chance have created a living organism?" Somehow, it seems like particles really did randomly fit together into some sort of particle that could reproduce itself.

After some time, a meta-evolution occurs in the form of cells and DNA. Probably DNA came before cells, but I don't know how that works. Anyway, cells and DNA can evolve more efficiently than pure randomness by using restricted randomness. That is, when DNA is copied, it is usually copied exactly, but sometimes mistakes are made, and these mistakes -- mutations -- allow the exploration of different sorts of cells. But DNA is structured in such a way where random mutations typically don't screw everything up completely. DNA encodes information in a very inefficient manner, taking up lots of space where it could theoretically compress the information. In fact, lots of information in human DNA isn't even used. This inefficiency is good though. It is the feature that allows changes not to effect too many things. If DNA was encoded using zip compression, then any mutation at all would completely change the entire meaning of the DNA strand.

After some more time, another meta-evolution occurred, in the form of organism. Organism have two parents. This allows organism to explore an even more restricted space, by essentially taking the mid-point between good points in this space, as well as searching randomly a bit with mutations. Cells on the other hand only have one parent, so the only mechanism they have for exploring the space is mutation.

After even more time, another meta-evolution occurred, in the form of brains. Brains divide an organism into hardware and software, where the hardware evolves in a 2-parent organism way, but the software can evolve differently. Brains encode "behaviors", and if we think of behaviors as software-organisms, then they are organisms with potentially many parents. I'm not sure exactly how behaviors are transferred, but I imagine that a creature can observe behaviors of other organisms and adopt those behaviors without needing to mate and give birth to a new creature (at least humans seem to be capable of this with "mirror" neurons). This allows an even more refined way of searching behavior space, by essentially taking weighted mid-points of many parents.

After even more time, another meta-evolution occurred, in the form of imagination. Imagination is the ability of a brain to simulate reality in it's head, without actually doing anything. This allows a brain to test a behavior without suffering too negatively if it is a bad behavior. This increases the turn-around time for exploring behavior space.

Now behaviors, or "ideas", seem to be like organisms themselves, and they are evolving in the ecosystem of brains. That is, the life and lineage of an idea or behavior doesn't necessarily follow blood lines. Hence, we might expect there to be "meta-evolutions" of idea-organisms. And it's possible that there already has been. Some ideas may already have created a sort of "cell and DNA" structure (memes?) so that they can more reliably survice and reproduce, with a more refined mechanism for searching the space.

In fact, I feel like one survival strategy of ideas is to infect a brain, grow, and be born in the from of a human thinking "I just came up with an idea!", where really, the idea had already been come-up-with, and it's just a good strategy for ideas to make their "mothers" think they are original creations so that the mothers will love and care for them, e.g., tell other people about them, so they can survive and reproduce. But the mothers didn't really create them, any more than a human mother cobbled together the DNA of their child.

Hence, I think the idea of "idea ownership" is bunk -- even if it has been a good strategy for ideas to make us feel this way thus far. That is, by understanding better how ideas actually evolve, we may be able to create an even more efficient ecosystem for ideas, in the same way we can develop better agricultural methods by understanding better how plants grow.

1 comment:

  1. Progress means not just ideas, but also choosing amongst ideas, and developing chosen ideas. All these aspects can build on prior work. Nobody owns anything, in full.

    But ownership is there to help divvy up the resources in the end. And it's pretty nice to have some sort of ownership. So maybe what we need is a better definition of ownership, that better optimizes towards divvying up resources?

    I personally think ownership should have a tax, like 10-15%, built into it. I'd make it easier for people to file patents, in exchange for more restrictions on "full monopoly" rights. I think stallman was into this recently.