Super-Replicating Ideas

The book Sapiens does a great job arguing that what makes humans different from other animals is our ability to believe in common myths or stories. Examples of these shared imaginations include religions, nations, companies, human rights, money, language, and the scientific method.

Before humans, the things that were passed down through generations were passed genetically. Now we pass beliefs between each other. Any time we talk to someone else, tell them an idea, get them to read a book, it's like we're getting their brain to run some code, and hoping that the outcome will be that their view of the world becomes more like our own.

I've always been fascinated by the fact that some beliefs seem to be more easily transmitted than others, even if there is no clear benefit to them. The principle of evolution would make you think that only beneficial beliefs would be spread over time. Genes are only passed on when they cause us to do things that transmit genes. Cancer is the obvious exception to the rule - it kills its host, but by promoting its own transmission with abandon. I think the same is true of some ideas. While overall our ability to pass down beliefs must promote the transmission of net true beliefs, there will be some false beliefs that get propagated simply because they lend themselves to aggressive transmission in some way.

The canonical demonstration of this is a giant game of telephone. Imagine you have two teams of people. The goal of the game is to have your team transmit the most true beliefs. Team 1 will only call their teammates to transmit a true belief. Team 2 tries to transmit only true beliefs, but sometimes they transmit a false belief. Now imagine that a Team 2 player transmits the false belief that "talking on the phone all day will make you happy." Other Team 2 players believe this, so they pass it on. At the end of the game, this will negatively impact their score. But, it may also cause Team 2 players to talk more on the phone, a side effect of which might be that they ultimately transmit more true beliefs than Team 1, winning the game in some cases. In this case, a false belief, but one that lent itself to increased transmission, endured.

We might expect then that certain beliefs that lend themselves to a stable society might endure, even if false. One obvious example is that making more money is always better than making less money. After every willing transaction, both parties believe they are better off than they previously were. Yet studies have shown that above a certain livable wage (say $70,000 per year), happiness does not increase much with increased wealth. But do people stop working so much when they hit $70k/year? Nope. In fact, in many cases it seems that the more money people make, the more they work.

Why would they do this if it doesn't increase their own happiness? This is where relative wealth comes in. We've all had that experience of being happy with our own existence, just puttering along, until we see that Bob next door just got a sweet new Tesla, and now we're thinking damn, maybe I should pick up a side gig so I can get a Tesla. Bob ain't gonna make a chump out of me. This psychological tick is actually the perfect match for a functioning, growth-oriented economy (and I'm not criticizing economic growth to be clear, but that's a different post). Because if everyone just stopped working and buying stuff, we'd be in trouble.

Our economy depends on people producing and consuming each other's products and services, even if doing so doesn't make anyone happier. And the trick is that a healthy economy supports a healthy society, and a healthy society spreads this belief that wealth leads to more happiness. This isn't some evil plot by those at the top. Remember the game of telephone - there was no plan to spread false beliefs, sometimes it just happens. The false link between money and happiness is the same. It's a super-replicating idea because its pursuit perpetuates economic activity, which perpetuates a stable society, which serves as a global network of perpetuating the link between money and happiness.

Another example is the belief that having children will make you happy. Many studies have shown that parents are less happy than their empty-nest friends (this is contested, and is somewhat linked to how much money you have - ironic given the previous example). So why do we have kids? Part of the reason is that when you ask your parents and grandparents about having kids, they almost always paint rosy pictures of parenthood. The continuation of society is obviously based on people having children, so the belief that children bring happiness is a super-replicating idea, because the opposite belief would simply die over time, as those holding it stopped having offspring.

By the way, I'm about to have my first kid, and I'm genuinely convinced it's going to be the single most rewarding experience of my entire life. Because I'm different and special. I'm definitely not a cog in a machine of delusional belief-perpetuation.