Not Idea Zombiology: Idea Resurrection Biology

Zombie ideas was a term coined by Paul Krugman to refer to policy ideas that keep being killed by evidence and rising again because they suit a political agenda. The notion has since expanded to encompass ideas that are surprisingly robust, ideas that keep popping up in history, and across societies. Ideas that refuse to die, and that once killed, rise again from the grave.

I think ideas are really powerful. I don’t think I have to sell my readership on this. In what follows I first give a model of how it is that ideas get power. I then briefly touch upon mechanisms that allow undead ideas to keep rising and why Idea Zombiology is the wrong perspective.


The Power of Ideas

Keynes said that “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist”

I think that there are mines of gold in this quote, but I need to give a frame under which to understand it. Cue Steven Pinker and his theory of societal change. He calls it a norm cascade. Here are three arguments summarizing it. (Which admittedly are not perfect but good enough to pass what Pinker means in a more precise fashion.)


“Norm cascade” Argument of societal change

  1. The elites favor the position for which there are rational arguments.
  2. The position with rational arguments for it is position Y.
  3. Therefore, the elites favor position Y.
  4. If there are is an intense controversy between two opposed sides to a socially fractious issue (drug legalization, abortion, capital punishment, same-sex marriage), what the elite favors becomes legal norm.
  5. There are is an intense controversy between two opposed sides to a socially fractious issue  X
  6. Therefore, position Y will become legal norm [3,4,5]
  7. If nothing terrible happens, then, people and press get bored.
  8. Nothing terrible happens.
  9. Therefore, people and press get bored [7,8]
  10. If people and press get bored, then politicians realize issue is no longer a vote-getter
  11. Therefore, politicians realize issue is no longer a vote-getter. [9, 10]
  12. If politicians realize issue is no longer a vote-getter, then politicians will not reopen the issue.
  13. Therefore, politicians will not reopen the issue. [11, 12]
  14. If politicians don’t reopen the issue, no one will.
  15. Therefore, the issue is not reopened.  [13, 14]

Argument for “People accept the status quo as correct.”

  1. People accept the status quo as correct.
  2. Y is the status quo.
  3. Therefore, people accept Y as correct.

Argument for “Extremists cement the majority consensus.”

  1. “Norm cascade” Argument of societal political change
  2. Argument for “People accept the status quo as correct.”
  3. If a group goes against majority consensus and isn’t composed of elites, it will be seen as extremist/radical,
  4. Any group proclaiming ~Y, goes against the majority consensus
  5. Therefore, any group proclaiming ~Y will be seen as extremist/radical.
  6. The majority cements its consensus by opposition to extremist group positions.
  7. Therefore, the group proclaiming ~Y being seen as extremist/radical will further cement the majority consensus

This is roughly Pinker’s model. It has two pieces that help make sense of Keynes’ quote: the “elites change minds according to rational arguments and impose their rules” and the “people accept the status quo as correct” bit. Together these explain how the ideas of intellectuals (generally) can make it into the minds of the “practical man”.


Idea Zombiology

As with Dawkins and memes, I think the evolutionary metaphor is a good scaffold.  As a trivial example of the power of this metaphor, ideas that push for their own replication will outlast those that don’t, and those that push more forcefully will outlast those that don’t. It’s very much an arms race between ideas.

Religions are an awesome example of this. Forced conversion, religious coercion, preachers, civilizing missions; they have it all.

Dawkins has explored the analogy between gene and idea evolution with his “meme” terminology, the scientific study of which has mostly failed as far as I can see. Nonetheless, a mine of interesting concepts lies there.

Cultural attractors

Dan Sperber has suggested the ideas of cultural attractors as something that goes beyond memes. “Well, bits of culture—memes if you want to dilute the notion and call them that—remain self-similar not because they are replicated again and again but because variations that occur at almost every turn in their repeated transmission, rather than resulting in “random walks” drifting away in all directions from an initial model, tend to gravitate around cultural attractors. Ending Little Red Riding Hood when the wolf eats the child would make for a simpler story to remember, but a Happy Ending is too powerful a cultural attractor. If a person had only heard the story ending with the wolf’s meal, my guess is that either she would not have retold it at all—and that is selection—, or she would have modified by reconstructing a happy ending—and this is attraction. Little Red Riding Hood has remained culturally stable not because it has been faithfully replicated all along, but because the variations present in all its versions have tended to cancel one another out.

Why should there be cultural attractors at all? Because there are in our minds, our bodies, and our environment biasing factors that affect the way we interpret and re-produce ideas and behaviors. (I write “re-produce” with a hyphen because, more often than not, we produce a new token of the same type without reproducing in the usual sense of copying some previous tokens.) When these biasing factors are shared in a population, cultural attractors emerge.”


Natural Idea Resurrection Biology

I think that he is totally wrong in saying that variations are canceling out and that “construction” is caused by attractors and somehow a non-evolutionary process (in so far as all the meme processes are evolutionary), but he suggests 1 important idea.

The idea of cultural attractors, which I’d like to rename cultural evolutionary basins of attraction. Sperber gives the following example: “Rounded numbers are cultural attractors: they are easier to remember and provide better symbols for magnitudes. So, we celebrate twentieth wedding anniversaries, hundredth issue of journals, millionth copy sold of a record, and so on. This, in turn, creates a special cultural attractor for prices, just below rounded numbers—$9.99 or $9,990 are likely price tags—, so as to avoid the evocation of a higher magnitude.”

If you take the step of changing the analogy of ideas to genes (memes) to the analogy of ideas to organisms (ideanisms?) then there is no construction going on (A process that goes beyond Darwinian mechanisms in its explanation) and you instead gain a very simple explanation of what the fitness landscape is: the human mind.

Successful memes explore human cognitive invariants.

The mechanism above can, by itself, explain some social reality aspects being surprisingly robust, popping up across cultures and time. (This somewhat contradicts what I wrote when I said that worldviews were just fashion.) It is not that the ideas are coming back from the dead, but that the human mind has invariants of more and less stability and these invariants allow for natural resurrection biology. (Species die out, and then are selected into existence again because the fitness landscape is very stable in some regards.)

Cognitive invariants as evolutionary basins of attractors are beautiful because they explain how social reality can be properly robust, whilst being nothing-more-than the agreement of several social actors.

Stances are all over the place. This is thus explained: they are explained by exploring some evolutionary basin of attraction, some human cognitive invariants. But I want to focus on something which is as insidious, but more visible.

Magical Thinking

Magical thinking – which totally is a real psychological construct – refers to the attribution of causal relationships between actions and events which cannot be justified by reason and observation.

Supernatural explanations follow from it, including supernatural beings. These are selected in accordance to a particular basin of attraction:  “In principle there should be no limit to the diversity of supernatural beings humans can imagine. However, as Pascal Boyer has argued, only a limited repertoire of such beings is exploited in human religions. Its members—ghosts, gods, ancestor spirits, dragons, and so on—have all in common two features. On the one hand, they each violate some major intuitive expectations about living beings: expectation of mortality, of belonging to one and only one species, of being limited in one’s access to information, and so on. On the other hand, they satisfy all other intuitive expectations and are therefore, in spite of their supernaturalness, rather predictable. Why should this be so? Because being “minimally counterintuitive” makes for “relevant mysteries”  and is a cultural attractor. Imaginary beings that are either less or more counterintuitive than that are forgotten or are transformed in the direction of this attractor.”

The cognitive invariants in place are two opposing forces: (a) counterintuitive enough to be memorable and (b) not so counterintuitive that it is very costly to remember.

Gods are just overblown supernatural being – “Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer” said Voltaire.


A rough typology of ideas

Note that worldviews suggest a position on everything and are embedded in the culture. They are extremely rarefied and difficult to see from the outside because they are everywhere.

On the other end you have specific thought popping in your head about how you have to buy eggs, really specific, really easy to see into and not get merged into our taken by.

In the middle you have something like “X” thinking (Magical, religious, supernatural, scientific thinking).

These all vary around the dimensions of (a) how rarefied they are, (b) the breadth or scope of their application, and (c) the development level needed to see them.

The third factor is really interesting. You literally need to climb levels in psycho-social development to see the things that you were seeing through previously and the distribution of levels in adulthood in something like a normal distribution focused on the Conscientious stage, there being still at least 4 more possible stages.

This means that worldviews would be me more stable, since you would need to go up more levels to even see them, much less criticise or question them. This is a huge selection effect against worldviews ever being put up for selection, so to speak. Given this, worldviews can replicate easily and be relatively stable over long periods of time because newborns are just born into them.

This explains that the science of the study of worldview is young and inchoate (2) whilst that of studying “X” thinking is not, and that modernism was around for so damn long (still is), likewise with postmodernism.


  1. Bolton, D., Dearsley, P., Madronal‐Luque, R., & Baron‐Cohen, S. (2002). Magical thinking in childhood and adolescence: Development and relation to obsessive compulsion. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 20(4), 479-494.
  2. Koltko-Rivera, M. E. (2004). The Psychology of Worldviews. Review of General Psychology, 8(1), 3.





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