Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

How high can we fly, and on wings made of what?

rachelr's picture
Soundtrack to my paper...


            What makes us who we are? How am I a distinct and unique individual in this world of over 6.6 billion people? How are the homo sapiens of today here, descended from single-celled organisms of millions of years ago? Evolution, heredity, natural selection, reproduction rates, mutations, genetics, allele frequencies… all answers to these questions. Scientists can create models, phylogenetic trees, can run genetic tests to look for susceptibility to certain diseases and can pinpoint and isolate proteins and alleles. In the book The Seven Daughters of Eve, Brian Sykes presents the tracing of all European mitochondrial DNA in the world today back to seven “clan” mothers who lived tens of thousands of years ago. And all of this can be done in a lab and with a little historical research. It can all be tested genetically. But what about the things that define us that cannot be tested scientifically or empirically? A scientist analyzing my genes cannot tell what my favorite color is, what religion I am, what my passions are. Daniel Dennett encapsulates the spread of ideas or beliefs in the term “meme,” which he likens to the gene and its transmission of biological information. While this is a helpful analogy to grasp the concept of the spread of ideas and beliefs, how similar are a “meme” and a gene? Here I want to explore the transmission and persistence of genes versus ideas in order to understand both the biological and the environmental components that make us who we are.

The SIR Model of Epidemics, formed in 1927, has three stages: Susceptible, Infections, and Recovery. In essence, the model states that a population under the right circumstances can be susceptible to a virus, once the population is infected it transmits the disease at a rate dependant on how infectious the disease is, and given time the population will either recover or be terminated. Epidemics come in all shapes and sizes; if they have a life-cycle the disease will follow these rules but depending on the factors contributing to the strength of the population against the disease, it can have a very short lifespan or it can grow almost exponentially, as the Black Plague did. In his book The Tipping Point, author Malcolm Gladwell applies this model to the spread of ideas. He argues that

“One child brings in the virus. It spreads to every other child in the class in a matter of days. And then, within a week or so, it completely dies out and none of the children will ever get measles again… My argument is that it is also the way that change often happens in the rest of the world. Things can happen all at once, and little changes can make a huge difference. That's a little bit counterintuitive. As human beings, we always expect everyday change to happen slowly and steadily, and for there to be some relationship between cause and effect.”


The ideas that have ravaged the world are countless: expansion, trade, industrialization, civil rights, technology, sports, books, films, space travel, religion. The list is never-ending. Like a disease, ideas travel from person to person with little regard (in most cases) for country or state boarders, race, or religion.

            Evolution, changes in genetic makeup are caused by three primary factors: mutations, sexual recombination, and genetic drift. Our world is governed by randomness and the success and transmission of changes in genetic makeup are dependent on their success in each given environment and situation. The success, or adequacy, of the change then determines its longevity within individuals or eventually a population or race. In other words, if successful, a gene will persist within a population or species.

            But what factors make an idea successful? How are they transmitted and how do they persist and take hold over us? While the SRI model, like Bennett’s meme, is a useful basic template for looking at ideas, this model and the model of the gene do not take into account structures of societies that are crucial in the spread of beliefs and ideas. There is the traditional word of mouth method for the proliferation of a new idea but there is an increasingly global scale to all communications: the internet, email, phones, radio, television. With these mass-media tools new ideas can be cast over an immense number of people, and the larger the pool the more likely the idea will find supporters. Humans are “herd” a creatures, tending to side with the majority, whether they agree entirely or not. There are also ideas that are just so good that they are infectiously spread with little effort on the part of anyone. However the success of any idea depends on the circumstance- it must find the perfect opening in a receptive audience to flourish.

            There are in fact more than one type of idea, so perhaps the model of the idea as a gene is better fitted to one type of idea than the other. The adventitious ideas are born from experiences and are accompanied by judgments and have their roots outside of our own consciousness. There are also innate ideas, ideas born outside of the Library of Babel and never before conceived of. But even the originality of ideas is called into question on a daily basis in our age of copyright laws and restrictions. And idea stems from an individual, and individual made up of genes and stories, stories that define who they are but told from their eyes. Are their stories the “truth?” We have already established that truth is subjective and that there is no “absolute truth”, so how does this affect the validity of an idea? With no common truth can an idea in its pure form of inception ever be imparted to others in the way it was originally thought? I think that is the beauty of an idea, whether it be your own or someone else’s. They are mutable, they fill our heads and bring out something different and unique in each of us. As a species we wouldn’t still be thinking about ideas if there wasn’t a way that we could each bring something to it to keep it alive.

            Both genes and ideas are transmitted. Both, with success, will persist. Both are shaped by both internal and external circumstances. Both can evolve. Both employ an element of randomness. So is there a difference between how genes and ideas act? I think so. Ideas, while they may evolve after inception, are a pure and brilliant conscious child of the human mind. We can articulate our ideas, act upon them. They are the expression of our own internal experiences, presented to the world in a way that our genetics never can be. We are analyzers, imaginers, thinkers, and idealists, and our ideas have the ability to take us to new heights not always grounded in the “real” or the possible. Da Vinci designed the first prototypes for the modern day airplane at a time when human flight seemed an unachievable dream. His idea had a hope, and to the skepticism he said, “For once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return.”


Works Cited

"FAQ: Methods of Disease Transmission." Department of Microbiology: Toronto Medical Laboratories and Mount Sinai Hospital. Web. 13 Mar. 2011. <>.

"Gladwell Dot Com - the Tipping Point." Gladwell Dot Com - Malcolm Gladwell, Blink, Tipping Point and New Yorker Articles. Web. 12 Mar. 2011. <>.

Greg. "How Ideas Spread." Digital Tonto. Web. 12 Mar. 2011. <>.

"Idea." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 13 Mar. 2011. <>.

Mackinnon, Lauchlan. "5 Types of Ideas." Think Differently!! Web. 14 Mar. 2011. <>.

"Meme." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 14 Mar. 2011. <>.

Soundtrack to my paper...