There appears to be a broad consensus that ideas evolve. Ideas and beliefs emerge, die off, replicate, and mutate within our society, yet whether they are part of a grand evolutionary scheme is still hotly debated. It mostly comes down to how literally we want to talk about evolution in the biological sense and how we want to describe mechanisms that contribute to evolution. We’ll first have to figure out what we actually mean by evolution, then look at how various scholars have described the evolution of ideas under a rational system like science, and then look at how it might work under an irrational system like politics.
What is Evolution?
The problem with defining evolution is that the word was used in the lexicon far before Darwin’s theory. Just as Copernicus more accurately described the orbit of the Earth around the sun by building on the previously-conceived notion of orbits, Darwin merely gave a better explanation for an already established notion of evolution. Before Darwin, evolution simply meant an “unfolding” and had been used to describe the biological development of an individual organism among other things. Darwin himself even shied away from using the term, preferring instead to use “descent with modification” to describe his theory. Even today, with the explicit biological connotation of the word, it is still used fairly metaphorically to describe change over time with Google searches returning evolution of “hipsters” and “dance” just as much as Darwin’s theory.
In this broad metaphorical sense of evolution, ideas undoubtedly evolve. The ideas of today are obviously not the same as they were 50 years ago and so this definition adds nothing to anyone’s understanding. But what if we go in the opposite direction and take evolution at it’s most literal biological meaning?
In this case it’s a bit trickier, but as ideas are not genetic (even though they might be passed down from parents to their children), it’s ultimately inappropriate to call them hereditary. Even if individuals can be linked to certain beliefs as they are linked to genes, ideas are still much more malleable and a person can change their beliefs whereas they are unable to change their genes. On the opposite side, ideas are not the same as genes and therefore don’t follow the same specific biological mechanisms. But perhaps biology has missed the point of evolution, taking what’s really a much broader natural phenomenon and specializing it to the progression of organisms. After all, the other natural sciences have their own concepts of evolutionary processes such as the evolution of the universe and chemical evolution. However, both of these are used more metaphorically to simply describe a direction of a natural process rather than the competitive push-pull world of biology. Ideas, on the other hand, fall within the biological world. For instance, it is impossible to distinguish evolutionary advantages resulting from physical modification from those resulting from intellectual modification. An organism capable of holding certain concepts may be better suited to survive than those that can’t. In this sense, human consciousness may be seen as a biological singularity in which evolution transcended genotypic modification and added another layer to the mechanisms of evolution. Some, like Donald Campbell have taken this a step further to argue for a broad evolutionary scheme and have placed science at the pinnacle.
In the 1970’s Campbell proposed the idea of Evolutionary Epistemology which essentially states that evolution is simply a natural process using a “blind variation-selective retention” mechanism. By describing the mechanics this way, ideas are not all that different from genes, and while the process of evolution does not dictate increasing complexity, given enough time, complexity will emerge. At the highest level of this complexity sits science, where ideas evolved to a point of creating a method to objectively validate other ideas. According to Campbell, science creates its own subset of evolution where ideas evolve based on rational criteria.
Campbell was not the first to establish such a scheme and even co-developed his ideas with one of most prolific philosophers of science, Karl Popper. Popper’s main contribution was to establish the notion of falsifiability which is still invoked by scientists to justify why their knowledge is superior. Falsifiability states that science seeks to falsify their theories by performing experiments to test if they’re wrong. Corroboration for a theory does not prove it, but simply means that it has survived until another test is performed. Through these series of tests we are left with the theories we know today. Over his life Popper toyed with his own scheme of evolutionary epistemology, eventually trying to apply it to the biological world, and, oddly enough, leading his critics to point out that his views were anti-Darwin and more in line with the overthrown evolutionary theory of Lamarckism.
Thomas Kuhn, in a response to Popper’s philosophy of falsifiability, also developed his own theory of evolutionary epistemology through his concept of scientific revolutions. He said that science fluctuates between periods of normal science, where scientists work within a theory, and revolutionary science, where a theory is overthrown. Some of you may know Kuhn’s ideas from the notion of paradigm. If your boss tells the company that they need to switch paradigms, they are referring to Kuhn’s notion of scientific revolutions. Kuhn briefly outlined how his model of scientific progress is evolutionary yet it was not until Stephen Jay Gould published his theory of punctuated equilibrium that it became fully articulated. Like Kuhn’s theory, punctuated equilibrium states that evolution fluctuates between times of little variation in species and massive changes in species with high variation. Gould was even later accused of appropriating Kuhn’s theory for his own, charges which he completely denies.
In all these schemes, science operates to dictate the evolution of ideas through testing, articulation, and shifts. While generating consensus on ideas, it also requires an extreme malleability of belief where ideas are quickly discarded if evidence shows them to be wrong. This ideal view of science may represent one end of a spectrum of peoples’ ability to change their beliefs. Interestingly, on the other end, we might find that ideas more closely resemble genes, where an individual is unable to change their mind at all.
The figure above is a simple illustration of the spectrum but it’s important to note that science itself can often be found on the other end where older scientists may stubbornly cling to their beliefs until their deaths, as Kuhn once put it. Nonetheless, if we can establish an evolutionary view for ideas at both extremes, then surely we can come up with something for the middle where most mass beliefs lay.
Evolutionary Culture and Politics
However much people like to think they aspire to standards of ideal and unstubborn science, they simply do not, nobody does. We all hold beliefs that would be very difficult, if not impossible to change. Maybe you think that your ex was a shitty person, or you think that A-1 is the best steak sauce ever, or you’re so stubbornly open-minded that you refuse to hold another idea besides that one. In mass political culture it’s often worse, as entire blocks of ideas are non-negotiable amongst a political party’s members. Furthermore, to even understand how political beliefs evolve, you also have to consider that many of the beliefs are completely unarticulated in the population in the first place. Candidates will often compete for these non-partisan or undecided voters by attempting to spread their party’s beliefs simply by being the first to introduce people to it. Without being the first, the process must be one of conversion, requiring at least some ability for people to change their mind.
Unfortunately, we are only able to validate the evolution of these beliefs in retrospect, unlike science which validates beliefs through testing. In this sense political beliefs may be more akin to the famous evolutionary phrase “survival of the fittest.” In science “fittest” describes a theory’s ability to stand up to tests, yet in Darwin’s evolutionary theory and the evolution of ideas it essentially means that whatever survives was the fittest; fitness can only be determined retrospectively. Therefore, while we are in between the two useful criteria of ideal science and dogmatism, the middle of the spectrum provides nothing and is almost meaningless. But there is not reason for total despair as it does tell us the limitations of how beliefs evolve.
As we are not at either extreme, beliefs will emerge, grow, survive, and die out not in a rational method, and not in a genetic one, but some combination of both. Some people will never be converted on some issues while others could possibly be converted on nearly every issue. Between these two groups, only the latter is relevant for politics or ideas in general. As ideas diffuse and culture shifts between generations, ideas gradually shift with some fading as the last people that hold them die out, and others growing through conversions and the welcoming of younger adherents. The GOP was shocked by such a shift this past election when they neglected the evolution and a complete need for conversions. I might try to follow up on this analysis more in another article.
Ultimately, the evolution of ideas should be brought back to using an analogous description for “survival of the fittest” that was once put forth by the physicist Max Planck while criticizing science’s failure to live up to its ideals. He stated,
“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
While politics does not elicit the same authority of knowledge that science does, it is still fundamentally true for ideas in general. Conversions to a new theory are only important so much as to create a sizable mass in which to generate enough momentum to carry it through time. In other words, debates we have over ideas now are not to win over immediate opponents, but to establish those ideas in a realm of their own, one that transcends any individual, and can therefore be said to evolve.
I’m far too lazy to cite everything in this post but if you need a cite please just ask.