300,000 years ago a distant ancestor of ours sharpened a rock and tied it to the end of a stick to make a spear. This is the point when nurture started to beat nature. Big muscles lose to sharp spears. If you know the spear-making meme, you’re dramatically more likely to reproduce and pass on your genes. If you don’t you’re likely to get impaled. Acquiring spear-making isn’t the same as inheriting good genes: it’s taught not grown. You’re not limited to passing successful designs down to your children through DNA: you can share knowledge horizontally to friends and allies. Now shared culture can be as important as shared bloodlines, as it determines who the best ideas get distributed to. I’ll tell members of my tribe and religion, but I’ll hide my secrets from my enemies. Associates of early spear-makers catch more food, win more territory, and benefit from more safety. As hunting, attacking, defending get easier, there’s more downtime to invent and learn more memes. Better ways to make spears, weave baskets, craft pots, make fires, and built huts. Memes beget memes.
This virtuous cycle was a continuation of a trend that started 2.2 million years earlier, when we started using tools: predating when we became homo sapiens. A couple million years later we learned to talk. Memes can spread faster if you don’t have to resort to pointing and grunting. They’re also copied more accurately, and remembered for longer. Teaching is more effective if I can tell you what to do, not just show you. Once you know one concept, I can refer back to it with a handful of syllables, without having to play-act it out again. I can give you feedback on your idea, varying my tone to communicate with subtlety what I think of it. I can tell you my ideas for improving it, and you can simulate in your brain whether it would work, without having to build it first. This further reinforces the benefit of shared culture, as we need to speak the same language to communicate. Memes are still passed down vertically to our children, along with our genes, but their impact is far wider spread across tribes, villages, cities. At this point our genes haven’t really changed, but our memes are accelerating faster.
Only 58,000 years later do we learn to draw, and writing comes a mere 34,000 years after that. Now good stories can’t be as easily modified by their narrator, so the best memes are copied more faithfully. Rather than relying on recanting stories from memory, we can paint them on cave walls and re-mind ourselves of them later. It’s finally possible to store memes outside the brain, and some of them start to live forever: the phrase “an eye for an eye” survives to this day, because 3,700 years ago Hammurabi had the foresight to carve it into a stone tablet. Just 1,300 years after Hammurabi we started writing things on papyrus. It was expensive and manual work, reserved for a select few literate elites, but it’s finally possible to get the word out to people who aren’t physically located nearby. It’s far easier to send a scroll than it is to move carved stone blocks. Memes outpace genes entirely.
The invention of the printing press makes copying incredibly cheap. The cycle accelerates exponentially. Radio. TV. The Internet. Each new medium of mass communication decreases the cost of transmission, and increases the fidelity of copying. Each new invention changes what we thought possible, and opens us up to new possibilities. Knowledge is democratized: anyone can create ideas and distribute them globally, instantly, and effectively for free. These advancements generate enormous wealth in our society. The poorest in society have more access to information than kings of old. Billions are lifted out of absolute poverty, and connected into the global meme pool. Not only are the best ideas shared globally, but they can be edited by anyone and reshared for our collected benefit. The first computer was designed on paper. The second was designed on a computer. Designs for computers today are made collaboratively with updates shared over the internet. Every advancement builds on those that came before, and gets us to where we’re going even faster. We’re “standing on the shoulders of Giants”, as Newton proclaimed. By the year 2000 we’re advancing at 5x the average rate of the 20th century. Kurzweil believes the 21st century will progress 1,000 times faster. AI. AR. VR. the Metaverse. Neuralink. It’s not slowing down.
Breakthroughs increase the speed of innovation
History of paper
Musk words are lossy
Neuralink and the Brain’s Magical Future
Standing on the shoulders of giants
Why cultural evolution is faster