Paris is a city full of ideas. Concrete. Crystallized. Petrified. Brought forth from the minds of great men and women long since departed from this world. What we see around us today is the past writ large, realized, built of stone and cast in steel.
The ideas are everywhere…and everywhere they are inspiring.
The Église de Saint-Germain-des-Prés, a striking monument of Romanesque architecture, dates back to the 10th century. Its tower: sturdy…stout. Arches: few. Then, ideas…progress. Ideas…progress. Arches elongate, grow pointed, until they are eventually able to bear the full weight of Gothic aspirations. The Basilique Saint-Denis. Ideas…progress. Barrel vaulting crosses, then spiders. Flying buttresses relieve weary walls of their heavy burden, transferring the weight of the roof to the ground. Windows expand to occupy larger portions of thinner walls. Light floods in, illuminating once-dark naves.
Ideas…progress. Ideas…progress. The Renaissance. French Baroque and Classicism. Rococo. Neo-Classicism. A flurry of Consulate, Empire and Restoration. Arts Nouveau and Deco…but not before Haussmann.
The evolution of ideas…long before human action carves for them a place in history.
As Jeffrey Tucker, publisher and executive editor of Laissez-Faire Books, observed in his marvelous column, Hayekian Moments in Life, ideas must precede action. They are the seeds in which the full richness of human experience finds humble beginnings.
“It’s not raw nature that enthralls me,” observed Jeffrey. “It’s cities. It’s the small towns. It’s the lights. It’s the vast, cultivated farmland. It’s the seeming orderliness of human civilization that was no one’s plan, but rather emerges through the bit-by-bit creation of minds. Everything we see was once an idea, and then it was made real through action.”
Of course, not all ideas are created equal. Nor are they afforded automatic care and attention. They must fight for survival, each jostling for position in the minds of humans with the capacity and wherewithal to bring them to fruition.
In his provocative 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” to refer to ideas, styles or patterns of behaviour that spread through cultures and societies. Like its physiological cousin, a meme’s “success” depends, observed Dawkins, on three key traits: Longevity, fecundity and fidelity.
The first four notes of Beethoven’s fifth (listen) are often used as an example of a “successful meme,” in that they exhibit the characteristics of longevity (provided people enjoy hearing them — and continue copying them — these notes do not “expire”), fecundity (they are reproduced in abundance) and fidelity (it is relatively easy to copy the original sequence with a high degree of exactitude).
In some ways, Dawkins pondered, memes have the capacity to be even more powerful replicators than biologically-restricted genes. He noted that, after relatively few generations, a man’s facial characteristics, for instance, the phenotypic expression of his genetic coding, may be diluted to such an extent that a great-great-great-great, etc… grandfather could be, in all observable appearances, different than his extended progeny. (Assuming, of course, that he even has children…and that they, in turn, survive long enough for the relevant genes to replicate.)
A successful meme, however (like Beethoven’s memorable movements…or those ominous opening notes from the score to the movie, Jaws), might be widely recognized many, many generations after the author is dead and gone (along with his failed genetic replicators).
In 1976, Dawkins’ proposal was remarkable. Applied today, its implications are mind-boggling.
Once it took years, generations, for ideas to travel from one place to another. A renaissance takes hold in the City of Florence in the Late Middle Ages…but it is two centuries before its inherent sense of human proportion in all the arts, including architecture, finally arrives in France. Vallée de la Loire. Château d’Amboise…and nearby Clos Lucé, where da Vinci himself ended life’s journey.
Let us fast forward to the digital age, where units of information travel between nodes at speeds “faster than light” (in that it can reach multiple destinations simultaneously). Given its agreeable “transmission properties,” the Internet has become a vast and fertile meme cauldron, bubbling with replicators of all makes and models, each carrying with it into the wider environment messages and ideas of every conceivable variety. Memes are “able” to replicate — with high fidelity and potentially infinite fecundity — in a fraction of a second. A single “like” or “share” on any one of the exponentially-expanding social media netscapes has the power to catapult a meme, discreet or complex, into tens of thousands of minds all over the world, to the farthest reaches of the planet…and one day, beyond.
Compared to astronomical time, the universe of ideas may well be in the precious few seconds immediately following its own Big Bang moment. Expansion will follow. Acceleration will increase. And in a society built on the ideas of today — both good and bad — future generations will live.