Viruses, Ideas and their Life Expectancy

The wiki page about virus says that it “is a small infectious agent that replicates only inside the living cells of other organisms. Viruses can infect all types of life forms . . .” Ideas are analogous to viruses because they too are infectious agents that replicate in living brains. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term meme to mean a unit of idea that can infect a brain and get transmitted to other brains. Viruses are responsible for genetic diversity through horizontal gene transfer. Analogously, ideas are responsible for diversity of human mentality.

Viruses of biological kind are generally bad for the organism, just like the software variety are bad for computers. There are no good viruses. In contrast, ideas come in two principle varieties: the benevolent and the malevolent. The good kind leads to overall benefits, both to the individual with the idea and to the collective of individuals that have that idea. The malevolent kind inflicts great harm but they eventually die out. There are two pathways. One, they just destroy the host collective, thus resulting in the extinction of the bad idea. Or, two, they mutate into a less malevolent form that does not kill the host, or even into a benevolent idea that benefits the host. Good ideas are forever and bad ideas are never forever.

The question then is: what is the lifespan of a bad idea and on what that? Let’s get back to biological viruses. Any virus that is very infectious (that is, it can be picked up very easily), easily transmitted (say through the air, water, or contact), and is extremely dangerous in that it kills the host within hours, will quickly destroy the host population and thus itself. It is self-limiting.

If the virus is very infectious and is not easily transmitted and it kills very quickly, then it will just kill the infected people and the virus will die out. The host population will survive.

Then there is the not very infectious virus, that is not easily transmitted, causes misery but does not kill the host individual — that can infect a large segment of the population. It causes much harm but does not kill the population.

So now let’s look in the life cycles of bad ideas. Really bad ideas that spread quickly end up destroying the population. But really bad ideas that do not kill immediately and that are hard to contract, spread slowly though the population and some sort of stable equilibrium is reached that persist for a while before the idea dies out.

What is the life expectancy of a particular bad idea is hard to say. But there is a rule of thumb that we can use to make an educated guess. The heuristic suggests itself from something that Nassim N. Taleb points out regarding the life expectancy of technologies. In his book Antifragile, he explains that technologies (and ideas) age in reverse. It basically says that the older an existing technology is, the longer it can be expected to survive. That is, suppose you have two technologies A and B in existence today. Suppose A has been around for 500 years, and B has been around for 50 years. You can reasonably conclude that A will last much, much longer than B will.

A collection of ideas is an ideology. Categorizing ideologies into good or bad, benevolent or malevolent, is a natural extension of the categorization of ideas. Ideologies that are routinely exposed to and subject to the stress of shocks, are continually tested consequently mutate and evolve are antifragile, to use Taleb’s terminology. The longer the time that they have had to evolve, the more antifragile they become and thus can be expected to have longer lives ahead of them.

This gives me hope. Consider destructive ideologies such as Nazism, communism (Marxism, Leninism), socialism, Islam. Nazism was very destructive. It did a great deal of harm, but died out rapidly. Communism is older than Nazism but over its lifespan it has killed in the hundreds of millions. It and its less virulent sister socialism are both terminally ill and will die soon. Contrast that with the idea of free markets. Humans have organized economic activities in free markets since even before settled agriculture. That is to say that the free market ideology has existed for around 10,000 years — and can be expected to be around in the indefinite future.

Now Islam. It’s the youngest of the monotheistic faiths, just 1400 odd years old. It is definitely not antifragile. It is never allowed to be stressed by shocks. It’s like a person who never gets off the couch and always avoids any exercise. Predictably, the person will suffer musculoskeletal atrophy and have a short life. Islam is fragile. Proof of that is all around in the form of the violence that its faithful unleash on the world whenever Islam is critically examined.

Judaism is the grand daddy monotheistic faith. Because it is non-proselytizing, it is not virulent at all. Being the oldest, my bet is that it will outlast the others. Christianity, child of Judaism, is proselytizing but has the ability to mutate, and has indeed mutated into less virulent varieties. It’s about 2000 years but will be resting in eternal peace in less than a century.

As I am a Hindu, I am biased towards the Indic religions — Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. Hinduism is really old. It is an amorphous collection of ideas that get continually examined, modified and tested for robustness. It follows the grand evolutionary pattern of heredity, mutation and selection. Buddhism, a descendant of Hinduism, around 2,500 years old. Unlike Hinduism, Buddhism got exported across the world. That makes sense if you take the view advocated by Alan Watts that Buddhism is Hinduism packaged for export. Jainism is equally old but is a much more austere ideology. Being less flexible and more demanding than Buddhism, it has limited acceptance in the rest of the world. Although it is a good for people, it can only serve a very specialized segment of the world population and thus is a niche ideology.

Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism will survive because they are antifragile. Monotheism as a general idea is old (but not as old as pantheism, deism or polytheism) and will survive for a while but Islam as the most virulent recent strain will die out in the near future. The collapse could come surprisingly soon. The constant ratcheting up of global Islamic violence indicates it is thrashing about in its final death throes.

I describe myself as a short-run pessimist but a long-run optimist. That is so because the trend in universal human welfare is positive, even though there are short term variations in the trend. The world is getting better all the time. It used to be much worse in the past. Steven Pinker — Harvard linguist, public intellectual, scholar, and all-around good guy — in his outstanding book “The Better Angels of Our Nature” makes the point convincingly that there has been a secular decline in all types of violence across the world, and this is true across time scales of decades, centuries and millennia. A compelling case can be made that the world is getting better along many other dimensions, not just in terms of violence. People are better off in terms of education, nutrition, longevity, health, lifestyle choices, freedom of the individual, etc etc.

No doubt new and different viruses — biological, computer and ideological — will infect humans but they will only endure for a short while. The good will endure for much, much longer. And that is worth remembering and celebrating.

Author: Atanu Dey


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