Monday, March 20, 2006

Genes, Memes and the Innovation Commons

To make the next step in our organizations and societies, we need to develop cooperation within ever widening systems. And, if we are ever to develop "innovation commons", we must master cooperation and trust. An "innovation commons", calling on the old idea of a common pasture for a town where all the residents could graze their animals, is a place where ideas can exist, like the early molecules in the primeval sea, free to combine and reproduce to create even more complex ideas. A place where the stability of the complex ideas can be tested and their survival gauged. "Innovation commons" will be required to foster the trans-disciplinary innovation necessary for the merging of information, biological and nanometric technologies on our horizon. "Innovation commons" are needed now to handle the sociopolitical, economic and demographic problems we face amidst growing partisanship and yes, even hatreds. And, we must assure that we don’t fall prey to the "failure of the commons" where an individual or entity exploits the commons to the detriment of all others, and eventually themselves.

In the Selfish Gene, Dawkins writes, "In the beginning was simplicity. It is difficult enough explaining how even a simple universe began. I take it as agreed that it would be even harder to explain the sudden springing up, fully armed, of complex order – life, or being capable of creating life. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is satisfying because it shows us a way in which simplicity could change into complexity, how unordered atoms could group themselves into ever more complex patterns until they end up manufacturing people."
Dawkins uses the phrase "selfish gene" not in the sense that the gene has a motive or emotion, but in the sense that it is convenient to express the actions of genes in human terms. Genes behave as though they were selfish. His perspective is that we humans are "survival machines" for our genes. His revolutionary concept is that genes use our bodies for reproduction and not the other way around. Dawkins asks the question, is there a general principle of all life, even radical life forms unknown now? He answers his own question writing, "…all life evolves by the differential survival of replicating machines."

If our bodies are survival machines for the genes within us, that does explain a lot of human behavior. Some individuals kill, steal, rape, dominate and otherwise consider only their own survival and well being. But, on the surface it does not seem to explain other, higher forms of human behavior – altruism, care for others, cooperation, collaboration and other humanistic traits we have.

The Selfish Gene, The Moral Animal and The Origins of Virtue address this issue from various viewpoints and offer at least two different perspectives. In addition they provide an insightful look at human behavior in general, and worthy of your study.

"Think of it: zillions and zillions of organisms running around, each under the hypnotic spell of a single truth, all these truths identical, and all logically incompatible with one another: ‘My hereditary material is the most important on earth; its survival justifies your frustration, pain and even death’. And, you are one of these organisms, living your life in the thrall of a logical absurdity" comments Robert Wright, The Moral Animal.

The basis for cooperation according to Wright and Matt Ridley, The Orgins of Virtue, depends upon our awareness of with whom we share genes. Clearly we share genes with our children and it is advantageous to the survival of our genes that we care for our children and assure their survival. But we do not share genes with our mates. We care for them because they can help in the survival of our own genes through our children. We also share genes with our extended families and likewise will help them survive because it increases the probability of the survival of some of our genes.

I’ve done a lot of consulting work with small towns and I often hear the same phrase, "I like it in a small town because people care for one another. You don’t get that in big cities." In a small town "everyone is related." This is of course not strictly true, but is largely true. People in a small town do share a lot of the same genes. It’s in the gene’s interest to help assure the survival of people who share some of the same genes. This is not true of large cities.

The next factor that comes into play is that our genes dictate cooperation when it is beneficial to the survival of our genes if the group survives. "If a creature puts the greater good ahead of its individual interests, it is because its fate is inextricably tied to that of the group: it shares the group’s fate," writes Ridley. He continues, "A sterile ant’s best hope of immortality is vicarious reproduction through the breeding of the queen, just as an aeroplane passenger’s best hope of life is through the survival of the pilot." This also explains cooperative behavior in families and small towns. And, it is useful in understanding why people come together under threat or attack.
One of the more successful of the "innovation commons" experiments is Open Source. Open Source is a project to collaboratively develop software operating systems and applications that are free, available to anyone and not controlled by Microsoft. It has been successful in part probably because the group that joined together to create these programs felt threatened.
The more that you perceive that you as an individual are part of an interconnected web of life, the more likely you are to act selflessly. Random acts of kindness, heroic loss of life in a cause and ecological mindedness are all examples of this enhanced sense of interconnectedness and dependence.

"Our minds have been built by selfish genes," writes Ridley, "but they have been built to be social, trustworthy and cooperative. That is the paradox that this book has tried to explain. Human beings have social instincts. They come into the world equipped with the predisposition to learn how to cooperate, to discriminate the trustworthy from the treacherous, to commit themselves to be trustworthy, to earn good reputations, to exchange goods and information, and to divide labor. In this we are on our own. No other species has been so far down this evolutionary path before us, for no species has built a truly integrated society except among the inbred relatives of a large family such as an ant colony. We owe our success as a species to our social instincts; they have enabled us to reap undreamt benefits from the division of labor for our masters – the genes. They are responsible for the rapid expansion of our brains in the past two million years and thence our inventiveness. Our societies and our minds have evolved together, each reinforcing trends in the other."

These thoughts lead to two conditions for a successful "innovation commons". Participants must perceive that cooperation in the commons – the exchange of ideas and information – helps the individuals assure their genes thrive, and their own genes' survival depends upon the group’s survival. Secondly, a system of trust must exist within the network of participants. The development of workable trust systems will be an essential building block to a successful "innovation commons".

Game theory plays an important role in understanding the types of trust systems that will work. Several different people have proven that the "tit for tat" game survives best in computer simulations. "Tit for tat" says that everyone starts with trust in the participants. Sharing occurs until there is demonstration that an individual is not giving back the equivalent to what they are taking. When this occurs, the person taking more than they are giving is no longer trusted. This is exactly how it worked in a real commons. If someone overgrazed the common meadow, he or she was shunned by the community cutting them off from the benefits of the community and possibly imperiling they ability to survive.

Dawkins writes, "What has all this to do with altruism and selflessness? I am trying to build up the idea that animal behavior, altruistic or selfish, is under the control of genes in only an indirect, but still very powerful sense. By dictating the way survival machines and their nervous systems are built, genes exert ultimate power over our behavior. But the moment to moment decisions about what to do next are taken by the nervous system. Genes are primary policy makers; brains are the executive."

The basis for cooperation according to Dawkins goes beyond. Dawkins introduces the concept of "meme", an idea replicator. Memes are the thought equivalents of genes. Genes last only a few generations before individual gene combinations that make up a characteristic of a person are lost. J. S. Bach’s genes, as prolific as he was (he had 20 children) are no longer present in any recognizable way. But his music continues to exist. Not only does it exist, it continues to replicate itself through all composers that have ever studied his music even after over 300 years. And, even a Bach music lover, has some of his melodies embedded like a virus in their brains ready to spring forth when prompted. Whether this is immortality or not is inconsequential. The point is that memes, the creations of our minds, once released from our minds, join in the generative dance of replicators in the primordial sea of memes awash in the world.

Dawkins writes, "But if you contribute to the world’s culture, if you have a good idea, compose a tune, invent a sparking plug, write a poem, it may live on, intact, long after your genes have dissolved in the common pool. Socrates may or may not have a gene or two alive in the world today, as G.C. Williams has remarked, but who cares? The meme-complexes of Socrates, Leonardo, Copernicus and Marconi are still going strong."

"Once the genes have provided their survival machines with brains that are capable of rapid imitation, the memes will automatically take over," Dawkins remarks. He stops short of concluding that the sharing of ideas is the equivalent of the sharing of our genes through sexual reproduction in order to secure their survival, but it does not seem much of a stretch to postulate that. We have many cases where individuals were so driven to spread their memes into the world that they gave up their lives to do so. Artists and writers who live in poverty in order to pursue their art. Zealots who gave their lives to promote an idea. Inventors who died broke because they dedicated their lives to their invention.

The individuals who have dedicated their lives to their memes strive for their survival. They also seek to be identified with their memes. It isn’t enough just to have the meme live beyond them. An "innovation commons" must have some system for tagging the meme with the person who originated it. In the scientific world there is a strict cultural code of referencing and footnoting the work. Like a family tree, with this kind of system, the heredity of the idea can be traced. The more often a meme is referenced the more important the meme is likely to be. Plagiarism usually results in severe shunning.

Memes can bind people together. Musical pairs like Gilbert and Sullivan, and Rogers and Hammerstein created many successful meme complexes. Business partners are often held together by meme complexes that tightly bind like genes. Business and entrepreneurial teams are also held together by their memes. Musical groups like the Beatles are also bound together by their memes and the promise of the creation of many more. These teams, pairs and groups stay together as long as the magic is there (the creation of meme complexes) and there is continued trust among the members. When one or more of the members begins to feel that others are taking more than they are giving, the bond is usually broken. "Innovation commons" will hold together as long as the magic is still in the air. A successful "innovation commons" will either be one that has a known limited life or his built in mechanisms to keep it fresh.

Very powerful meme complexes can keep many people together for long periods of time. This is probably another reason why Open Source has been successful. Its vision is very grand. Think of the metaphor of the movie "The Fifth Element" where a cab driver, a young boy, a "priest" and a woman from outer space join together to bring down Zorg and his "evil empire." Other movies like Star Wars and The Ring have similar elements. The United States has been held together by a meme complex created over 200 year’s ago. Benjamin Franklin was asked by a woman upon leaving the constitutional convention what type of government we had. He replied, "A republic madam. The question is, can we keep it?" Another principle for a successful "innovation commons" is that the meme complex must be grand to achieve longevity.

Memes can also control us like genes. We are inculcated with meme complexes through our families, tribes and our cultures. These memes can unconsciously control our actions with respect to cooperation and altruism, making an "innovation commons" difficult to obtain.
An ESS (evolutionary stable strategy) in evolutionary genetics is a strategy that does well against copies of itself. There are four generally recognized conditions for ESS – longevity, fecundity and copying-fidelity. Fecundity is more important than longevity of a particular copy. If memes are like genes, then how many brains it can infect is critical to its survival. Unlike genes, that have a particulate nature and high copying-fidelity, memes seem to be quickly morphed into new forms, just as I am writing this and putting my own thoughts into the writing and shading it to make the points I wish to make. But the fundamental ideas are those of the original authors.

There are therefor then two additional principles for a successful "innovation commons". It must be a safe environment constructed with the tools and methodologies that allow individuals to breakthrough their limiting memes to become an active member of the network. And, it must provide the equivalent of the primordial sea to allow the memes to freely combine. Survival of individual memes or meme complexes will in all likelihood be governed by ESS.

"We do not have to look for conventional biological survival traits like religion, music and ritual dancing though these may also be present. Once genes provided their survival machines with brains that are capable of rapid imitation, the memes will automatically take over," writes Dawkins.

He continues, "One unique feature of man, which may or may not have evolved memically, is his capacity for conscious foresight. Selfish genes (and if you allow the speculation of this chapter, memes too) have no foresight. They are unconscious blind replicators."

This leads us to another principle of a successful "innovation commons". It has to include and foster foresight.

Later Dawkins writes, "… even if we look on the dark side and assume that individual man is fundamentally selfish, our conscious foresight – our capacity to simulate the future in imagination – could same us from the worst selfish excesses of the blind replicators. We have at least the mental equipment to foster our long-term selfish interests rather than merely our short-term selfish interests. We can see the long-tem benefits of participating in a ‘conspiracy of doves’, and we can sit down together to discuss ways of making the conspiracy work. We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. We can discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism – something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world. We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We alone on earth can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators."

Our problems today have a high degree of complexity. In the future, they will be even more complex. We do need "innovation commons".

About the Author
Paul Schumann is an innovation coach, consultant and speaker. He is also the editor and publisher of The Innovation Road Map Magazine. For help in organizational creativity and innovation, or to discuss the concept of an "innovation commons", contact him at 512.302.1935 or

The Origins of Virtue
Matt Ridley
Penguin Books, 1996, paperback, 295 pages

The Moral Animal
Robert Wright
Vintage Books, 1994, paperback, 466 pages

The Selfish Gene
Richard Dawkins
Oxford University Press, 1976 (1990), 368 pages