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Convergent Evolution

There's a phenomenon in biology that's known as convergent evolution, in which evolutionary pathways converge to produce similar organisms from different sources. It's not something I'm very familiar with if you go read Convergence in Biology, you'll basically know as much about it as I do. However, it did occur to me that if convergent evolution applies in biology, to genes, it also ought to apply to my favorite things, memes. Since then, I've been keeping my eyes open and collecting things that I think might count as examples of convergent evolution. I'm not claiming to prove anything, though. Some of the examples may be on the wrong track, and some of them may be factually wrong. Still, I hope you'll enjoy thinking about them.

In my defense, I imagine convergent evolution is hard to quantify, even in genetics how much more so is it then in memetics, which doesn't even really exist yet?

Before I get into the examples, I'd like to make one point about convergent evolution in general. The fact of convergence is less surprising if you remember that evolution is all about finding local maxima. If two things start out near the same maximum, of course they'll end up converging on it! Actually, although that's true, I have to admit I'm sweeping something under the rug. The quality function and the maxima depend on the environment it's no good for a bug to look like a leaf unless it lives on trees or bushes that have leaves. So, it's not obvious that things in different environments should ever converge. On the other hand, the quality function does have some stable features having eyes, for example, is useful in many different environments.

Now, as I pointed out in Convergence in Biology, convergence (in biology) operates on at least two levels. Organisms converge on useful designs, like eyes, and they also converge on standard roles, or trades. Convergence in memes operates on two levels that are, if not the same, at least vaguely similar. The useful designs, it turns out, are individual memes, while the standard roles are clusters of memes, or, rather, loci that can be occupied by clusters of memes. (So, in some ways the clusters play the role of organisms.)

I like to look at the individual memes in two different ways.

One way is to say that they're spontaneously generated. In other words, as I put it in Some Memes for Oni, they're strongly implied by the environment; in still other words, they're so simple and atomic that stray thoughts can converge on them in a single step, so that they seem to appear fully formed out of nothing. In case you don't like examples from a computer game (Oni), I have a couple of real-world examples, too.

  • As explained in A Strategy for Parking, Neal Stephenson and I came up with the same idea about parking lots.
  • As explained in Some Caveats, Frank Herbert and George Will both invoke the idea that political gridlock is a feature, not a bug. Maybe one of them influenced the other, or someone else influenced them both, but as far as I know they came up with it independently.

The other way (of looking at the individual memes) is to focus not on the meme itself but on the function that the meme performs. The bundling and evangelism memes that I described in Bundling and Evangelism are perfect examples of this point of view sure, any individual bundling meme was probably spontaneously generated at some time or other, but so what, they all look pretty much the same. The interesting question is whether a cluster of memes has a bundling meme, not where the bundling meme came from.



  See Also

  Another View (Free Time)
  Convergence in Biology
  Other Approaches
  Strategy for Parking, A
  Trash and Death

o June (2004)
@ September (2004)