Many people have observed that you can model the growth and decline of ideas as an evolutionary process. They begin as mutations of other ideas; they have traits that help them to survive or reproduce, and other traits that might make it more difficult; the ones that are more fit tend to flourish, and the ones that are less fit die out. This observation is sometimes called ‘memetics.’
I’ve noticed that talking about “memetic fitness” can refer to one of two completely different things.
First, it can mean how many people believe an idea. I think this is the one people originally meant by “memetic fitness”. I believe ideas like “God doesn’t exist”, “you shouldn’t judge people for their sex lives as long as they aren’t hurting anyone”, “ideas can be modeled as an evolutionary process”, “you can save a human life for three thousand dollars”, and “the sky is blue”. I can try to spread these ideas for other people: for instance, I can share a link to GiveWell’s top charities. Ideas which tend to be more fit in this sense include ideas which fit into people’s preconceptions, true ideas, ideas that justify evangelizing to other people, useful ideas, and evidently by revealed preference ideas told in ALL CAPS BOLD on Tumblr followed by a Japanese emoticon. ٩(ര̀ᴗര́)
Second, it can mean how many people talk about an idea. To pick an obvious example: Elevatorgate. Elevatorgate is not a conventional “is” or “ought”, the way that the ideas I talked about in the previous paragraph are. Neither side in Elevatorgate is particularly conventionally memetically fit: it seems like everyone basically continued to have the opinions they started out with. And yet when it flared up I used to entertain myself by sneaking tangential references to Elevatorgate in my blog posts and seeing how long it took the comments to descend into Elevatorgate madness. In case you’re wondering, mentioning the word “elevator” in an entirely unrelated comment in an entirely unrelated post was enough to cause it to break out.
There is a sense, I think, in which Elevatorgate is absurdly memetically fit– not as a set of ideas but as a topic of discussion.
This is sort of the general case of toxoplasmosis of rage. Scott points out that the topics of discussion which are the most memetically fit topics of discussion are often the divisive ones that make everyone get angry and want to scream at each other. But I don’t think that all absurdly fit discussion topics fall into this category. For instance, Kim Kardashian has made her entire career out of being a very fit topic of discussion, even though she is not a particularly controversial person (everyone seems to pretty much agree that she sucks). And people can certainly viciously argue with each other about Keynesianism and monetarism, but in most social groups they are nowhere near as memetically fit a topic as anything ending in -gate. That’s probably because monetary policy is confusing and difficult and involves words a lot of people don’t know the meaning of, whereas nearly everyone has hit on someone or wanted to hit on someone and therefore feels entitled to have an opinion on the subject.
The problem with memetically fit topics of discussion is that they are unlike memetically fit ideas. For ideas, memetic fitness is at least correlated with truth. The most memetically fit ideas are ones like “trees exist,” which we don’t even think of as ideas because they’re obviously true. Also, if you disagree that memetic fitness is correlated with truth, then you have no reason to believe any of the things that you believe and are forced to become a radical skeptic.
There is no guarantee, however, that memetically fit topics of discussion are actually important. In fact, most memetically fit topics seem to be really unimportant. As I write this, my Facebook trending news stories are about a New York Post critic who thinks that women don’t get Goodfellas and a virtual reality headset shipping with the Xbox One controller. I would contrast this with examples of important, memetically unfit topics of discussion, but then I realized that they’re memetically unfit so I don’t know what they are.
Memetically fit topics of discussion tend to be divisive. They tend to be things that everyone feels qualified to have an opinion on (thus, social issues more than economic or foreign policy). They tend to be interesting or at least to give everyone Someone Is Wrong On The Internet syndrome. But they don’t tend to be particularly important, probably because important things probably affect a lot of people, and people are bad at dealing with things that affect a lot of people.
What do we do about this? I’m not sure. I myself tend to get into vicious arguments about things far less important and more interesting than things I don’t get into vicious arguments about. But at least we should maybe take a step back and say to ourselves “is arguing about the plight of sad nerdy guys who can’t get a date really the most important topic I could be arguing about?”