Essay 2

“Knowledge within a discipline develops according to the principles of natural selection.” How useful is this metaphor?

The quote in this question uses the evolutionary concept of natural selection as a metaphor for how disciplines form and develop. It then goes on to ask whether to do this is useful or not. As with all the other questions this year there are a wide range of directions you can take this question.

  • Could you emphasise the process of using metaphors to deepen understanding

At times different domains compete for dominance. An example of this is the rivalry between the natural sciences and religious knowledge. The recent rise of “new atheism” has brought this idea to the fore. Intolerant rationalists preach that we should no longer accept religious knowledge in an age when reason and advanced science have given us such insights into the nature of the physical world.

Ideas and Resources

  • What if we extend the metaphor so that we think of each AOK as an individual species. Some AOKs compete or take oppositional stances more than others. Consider pairs of AOKs that are most contradictory. How do they compete?
  • Evolution is the process by which organisms adapt and change to suit their environments and to further increase their chances of successful procreation. How do AOKs develop to adapt to environments? How do they ensure their survival and the “birth” of new knowledge within their domain?
  • Similarly AOKs sometimes have fringe elements. An example of this is Science and Pseudo-science. Who decides which “knowledge” belongs where? Is bad science evidence of “real science” developing in accordance with the principles of evolution?

Ideas is a remix

Meme Theory and Memetics

Definition – A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena.

Do we come up with ideas or do they, in fact, control us?

Mankind’s greatest inventions are all the result of individual flashes of inspiration – or are they? Jonnie Hughes argues that, instead, ideas are subject to evolutionary principles, and we humans are little more than their hosts.

“Like Darwin, I ventured abroad, into the cultural wilderness of America, to search out first-hand evidence that ideas are subject to natural selection. As I crossed the prairies, I classified the changing moustaches of farmers, plotted the evolution of the cowboy hat, dated American barns, and charted a taxonomy of tepees. In doing so, I found the evidence I needed to suggest that ideas do evolve just like the finches and tortoises that Darwin discovered in the Galapagos.

What’s more, I found that viewing our world through ‘meme goggles’ is like suddenly spotting that vase in the optical illusion with the two faces. Your focus shifts from the human beings to the things in between – the countless living ideas that skip through our seven billion brains, each one competing for space in our cerebrums and the chance to procreate through our tongue and wrist movements.”

…. read more here

Dan Sperber takes the idea of the meme further. He develops the idea of Cultural Attractors.


  • Why is it that memes seem to have a collective significance and yet they are hard to predict? (Think about twerking for instance – who saw that coming?).
  • What are the purposes of different cultural forms / genres?
  • How do cultural genes get transmitted and how do different cultural memes develop and what problems do they solve? Consider dubstep, new slang terms, etc.
  • How do cultural attractors determine peoples actions and beliefs? …. or is it the other way around?

More questions

  • Some knowledge or ideas die out over time because they cease to be useful or have been disproven. How does this happen? Can you give examples?
  • Who decides when particular knowledge ceases to be true?