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How to Create Ideas that Evolve

2010 January 17
by Greg Satell

Why do ideas spread?

By all rights, they shouldn’t.  Ideas are valuable things.  They can launch multi-billion dollar businesses, win wars and bring fame to those who possess them.  Moreover, an elaborate legal infrastructure has evolved to protect them.  Yet they not only spread, they often get better as they do.

Biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term meme in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, to make the point that cultural evolution is very similar to biological evolution.  If we want to know more about how ideas are created, disseminated, that’s as good a place as any to start.

Darwin’s Big Idea

Contrary to popular belief, evolution wasn’t Darwin’s idea.  The concept was around long before he was.  He did, however, propose a mechanism for how it all worked.

While evolution is still debated in some segments of society, there is little controversy about Darwin’s theory in the scientific community.  Amazingly, it hasn’t been significantly altered in the 150 years since he published On the Origin of Species and there is very little biological research that can be done today without Darwin somewhere lurking in the background.

For any theory as important as Darwin’s, there are a variety of aspects and perspectives on the theory.  For our purposes, we will focus on four primary elements:

Environmental Change: Geologists contemporary to Darwin had gathered evidence that the world was constantly changing, albeit too slow for us to notice through unaided observation.  As the environment changes, different traits become favorable.

For example, the sickle cell trait can be great for hot and humid environments, because those who have it are resistant to malaria, but the same gene is disastrous at high altitudes, where those who have it become anemic, get headaches and can even die from exertion.  Change the substrate, and you change the organism.

Superfecundity: Darwin had read a book by Thomas Malthus which pointed out that organisms reproduce faster than the resources that they need to survive.  Therefore, not all of them can survive and there is inevitably competition between them for resources.

Variation: Different organisms have different attributes which can help them or hurt them in their struggle to live.  This is one area of the theory that has been embellished over the years because the principles of genetics did not become well known until the early 20th century.

The two primary mechanisms for variation are mutation and genetic drift.  Mutation has been demonstrated in laboratory experiments with quickly reproducing organisms such as bacteria and fruit flies.  Genetic drift can be mathematically demonstrated and has been observed in split off societies such as the Pennsylvania Amish.

Replication: Successful traits are passed on through heredity.  Again, Darwin didn’t know how this worked but even without detailed knowledge of genetics it was obvious that parents pass down traits to their children.  Many scientists, including Dawkins, now see this point as perhaps the most essential.

In a nutshell, that’s the theory.  Organisms naturally vary and as the environment changes, so does their chances for survival.  Those that are successful propagate their traits (although some harmful traits inevitably piggyback on the successful ones).

Genes vs Memes

Darwin’s template readily adapts to the world of ideas.  Clearly, there are many more ideas than ones worth noting and the survival of an idea is highly dependent of its context.  A great idea is one whose time has come.

Darwin unwittingly illustrated this point in one of history’s great ironies.  He paved the way for genetics, which was actually discovered by Gregor Mendel at about the same time that Darwin published On the Origin of Species.  However, the idea didn’t catch on until decades later when natural selection became firmly established.

Variation also translates well into the conceptual sphere.  Many ideas are modified and improved over time and completely new ideas inevitably spring up every now and then.  Ideas can also combine with other ideas to form a powerful new concepts(which is also true in genetics).

However, what Dawkins emphasizes is the last point about replication.  He points out that as soon as something valuable can be copied it will be.  In Dawkins’ view genes are special because they are replicators.

Why Ideas Spread

Dawkins concept of replicators is much more powerful than it seems at first.  To take the argument a bit further, the more powerful the replicator, the faster and more robust the evolutionary process will be. So it shouldn’t be surprising that information technology enables our ideas to spread wider and change faster than ever before.

Since the dawn of writing, ideas have been easier to replicate than organisms and ideas persist longer than individuals do.  While we can’t faithfully leave behind our entire genomes intact, we can leave behind our ideas.

In some ways, memes are more powerful than genes.  While celibacy is not a successful trait genetically, it has survived for centuries in the Catholic Church as a meme.  Some ideas can attain immortality and actually grow stronger with time.  Socrates’ ideas are arguably more important now than they were in his lifetime.

Susan Blackmore posits that our ideas themselves have created a new replicator – a technological meme or “teme” – which she discusses in her TED speech.

Our ideas are much bigger than we are, so it’s not surprising that we are powerless to contain them.

How to Drive the Evolution of Ideas

As I pointed out at the beginning, the dissemination of ideas is generally a good thing that we want more of.  So it’s essential that we push the process as far and as fast as we can.

Here are three ways to do that:

Encourage Diversity: As Richard Florida points out, successfully creative places also tend to be more tolerant. Variation is a key driver of evolution.

Collaboration: Creativity theorists emphasize the importance of analogues in solving problems.  Getting different people with varied experiences enlarges the total database of analogues put to work on any particular problem.

Strategic Flexibility:  Much like the ecological world, the business world is always changing.  An idea is only valuable as long as it fits its context.  Being faithful to an idea rather than its purpose is more likely to kill the idea off than to ensure its survival.

A great idea is one that can evolve and adapt to a changing context.  Diversity, collaboration and flexibility create the conditions for ideas to spread far and wide and become more valuable in the process.

– Greg

9 Responses leave one →
  1. January 17, 2010


    Funny that you should post this right now.

    I just finished the book Made To Stick by Chip & Dan Heath less than two hours ago. It’s an excellent book that details the traits that make an idea Sticky. Something that definitely relates to this post.

    The word Sticky in Made To Stick refers to the Stickiness factor in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. Something you also wrote about in your earlier post – How ideas spread.

    For anyone wanting to read more on this topic I can really recommend Made To Stick:

  2. January 17, 2010


    Thanks for the tip:-)

    – Greg

  3. January 17, 2010

    Nice Article Greg, you are like an encyclopedia of references! 🙂
    …”Being faithful to an idea rather than its purpose is more likely to kill the idea off than to ensure its survival.”… This is a very profound statement and one that I will remember for my own good.

    It seems that I am thus a “Creativity Theorist”, I’d just been spreading the idea on the evolution of the AD Agency. or rather it’s imminent demise, depending which way you look at it.
    hopefully this idea’s time has come :

    While not as slickly written as your articles, do let me know your thoughts.

    Best Regards

  4. January 17, 2010


    Interesting article. Thanks.

    – Greg

  5. March 5, 2010

    @Greg – Like it or not, there is a big responsibility on the shoulders of anyone who is a creator. There exists something I call “unintentional causality,” a phenomenon whereby your creation gets hijacked by users, resulting in something the you never intended. Creators MUST consider this factor in the design process. Note that it is not just on the aesthetic level, but also on the pragmatic and ethical levels as well.

  6. March 6, 2010


    It’s an interesting point. Richard Feynman argued just the opposite. He liked to tell the story of how von Neumann once took him aside and told him that scientists can’t be responsible for every consequence of their discoveries. He later would say how much the talk helped him, it allowed him to work.

    btw. Put Chaos theory in the search box. You might find some articles that interest you.

    – Greg

  7. March 6, 2010

    But also, VARIATIO DELECTAT – Cicero

    Grigoryi, I would add/include an adjective to your leading title, which may naively look like: How to Create Good Ideas that Evolve. As Socrates used to say (although we don’t have a reliable proof for this as having been his thought): “All ideas are good, but it depends what you do with them.”

    Mussolini wanted trains to arrive on time at the destinations. But maybe that proved that it was/is not such a great idea after all. Hence the expression, “Better late than sorry.”
    Stalin wanted all people to be equal and the most famous son of Georgia and father-protector of Communist Mother Russia killed almost 8M people during the application of the noble concept/project. And so on…

    Ideas are triggers for social action. They usually are ignored until they get synchronized with social needs. If Democritus saw an inwards partition of matter, we could safely bet that he didn’t/couldn’t foresee the possibility of Hiroshima or the Tehran syndrome. Hence, ideas are mostly bullets in the dark.

    The best source for (Socratically valid) ideas is a simple question, “What if?”
    We keep museums and dioramas in order to understand the core of (mainly cultural and natural) evolution. Perspective allows for understanding evolution. As the unknown becomes gradually the (acceptable) known we favor the illusion of progress, which becomes a stronger impression as we hope that progress is always positive.
    The greatest spice of life still is the unknown, which equals with the immeasurable resourcefulness of G-d, the Great Spirit or Luminous Chance (depending on who fed you during your childhood or even who’s feeding you now). We are living and acting within our own dynamic dioramas and by issuing ideas we change these dioramas accordingly. It would be ideal to be able to choose your own diorama and most of us don’t even think about this possibility.
    Social and technological evolution is fueled by incipient ideas that have to be hugely numerous (abundant), perhaps like a good sperm count (sorry, if the biological analogy offends anybody from this/another planet). That’s right, real strength is in number, biologically or otherwise. Hegel was right with his observance of the phenomenon of critical mass (quantity) exchanging itself into the leap toward higher quality.

    As you (Grigoryi) have such a mercurial disposition and insightful mind I can appreciate that interesting topics are brought out for discussion. Moreover, you apply abstract thinking into business strategies and sufficient debate take place. With time I noticed that they are more and more heading to the realms of abstraction. That’s so unusual on social media/networks. It’s so unTwitter(l)y! The bullet thought doesn’t favor analysis and to present a conclusion without enunciating the process of its construction on the ethereal Internet board may at best be called inspiration or poetry.

    Gods get upset with us if we don’t translate ideas into some sort of useful application. Onan is a biblical example of that if you consider useful ideas as the seeds of mind. (Incidentally, it’s erroneous and a widely accepted confusion about the levirate marriage dilemma and the consequential masturbation and/or onanism).

    Perhaps another possible relevancy to Grigoryi’s thread would be…opportunity and how you create it. Let’s say that a great idea has been uttered significantly so. Yet, typically ideas become good ideas when they have an application or they could be applied in a productive way that truly serves progress (wellness) in a community. Good ideas are evolving in adeqaute environments.

    Re: Darwin…is not a person anymore, but a significant example of how the combination of ideas could lead to another powerful idea that could change our view of the world.
    We could say that Gutenberg didn’t invent printing as such; in fact he didn’t even invent the movable type of printing, which had already been in use in China for 400 years. But he did combine technologies of printing in such a way that the production of mass media became possible.
    Darwin is still Darwin, and Darwinian is still a term that divides the people who think into two opposing camps.
    Mendeleev was using a combination of already stated observations which he applied to an old Ars Combinatoria table that worked ‘nicely’ if you consider only some specific properties of elements. The perennial hope that there is some innate order in this world that requires perseverance to be understood helped him to advance his theory into a…law. Imagine a discussion between Dmitri Mendeleev and Harav Yitzchak Ginsburgh about the Kabbalistic value of the Periodic Table.

    “We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not.” If these were the words of Heraclitus which somehow became ‘popularized’ as “Nothing is permanent, except change” then I would wonder how his alleged statement “The things that can be seen, heard and learned are what I prize the most” could be ‘popularized’ in business.

  8. March 7, 2010


    Thanks for your insightful commentary.

    – Greg

  9. August 8, 2010

    Wow Cris, your comment is longer than the article itself.

    I think you should write some articles on the theme.

    Back to our bomb:

    Creationism versus evolutionism, meaning God against Science, at least this is what they were teaching us in school some 30 years ago.

    To me this fight does not exist.

    I’d rather see it as an evolution of the creation.

    In other words, God made the evolutionary model working, and allowed it to rewrite it’s own codes according to needs and environment chalanges, for all things, humans included.

    And here is where the ideas jump in.

    Ideas are but mere glimpses into God’s codes, not that we wouldn’t have access to the codes, since God’s creation is open source, is that we don’t have the capacity to see beyond the lenght of our own noses.

    And those that can are either idiots or genius, which is the same think, seing from a diferent prospective.

    If you saw right and could translate the code in a way others could make some use of, you were genious, if you saw right but translated incompresible, or saw wrong, you get to be an idiot.

    That’s why Einstein said about his relativity theory in it’s early days:
    “If the time will prove I was right, than the germans will say I am a german citysen, the hebrew that I am of hebrew origin and the french that I am a citysen of the world, but if the time will prove me wrong, than the Hebrew will say I was a german, and the german that I was a damn jew!” or something likewise, I don’t recall exactly.

    The question is: You dare looking over the lenght of your nose? And how far?

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