Ideas Having Sex

First published in Flourishing April 2011

In his 1987 classic, The Gift of Fire, Richard Mitchell compared thinking to sex:  “From the point of view of the species, if a species could have a point of view, the great advantage of sexual reproduction is the endless variety of possibilities to which it leads.  Every creature born of sex is absolutely new and unique.  Our thinking, on the other hand, is often amoebic, born only of itself.  If it is to be continually renewed, it needs new seed.” 1 

 In his most recent book,  The Rational Optimist, the geneticist Matt Ridley writes that the “…secret of the modern world is its gigantic connectedness.  Ideas are having sex with other ideas from all over the planet with ever-increasing promiscuity.  The telephone had sex with the computer and spawned the Internet. …The camera pill is an idea that came from a conversation between a gastroenterologist and a guided-missile designer.” 2

Ten thousand years ago, the earth was populated with about 1 million human beings.  Given that the human genome has changed very little (if at all) in the intervening years, it seems likely that those people shared our capacity for creative genius.  But, ice age thought leaders had a couple of problems that, thankfully, we do not share.  First, very few lived beyond the age of twenty, and most of their time and energy were consumed in foraging for food.  And, second, the poor devils rarely had co-workers, business partners, or venture capitalists with whom they could share their best ideas.  They may have been as smart as we are, but they were intellectually amoebic.

With the receding of the ice age came agriculture and more or less permanent community settlements.  As Matt Ridley points out 3, in settling into communities, human beings could specialize and develop a division of labor economy.  This led to the voluntary and mutually beneficial trading of goods and services.  With the expansion of trade, ideas could mate and multiply more readily.  Ideas could finally have sex.

Then, two hundred years ago, with the discovery, mining, and processing of fossil fuels, the stored energy of extinct species began to power the Industrial Revolution that dramatically extended human life expectancies and improved living standards.  Indeed, the decline of slavery owes as much to James Watt and the coal-fired steam engine as to Bishop Wilberforce and Abe Lincoln; and we owe as much to John D. Rockefeller and his entourage of chemists as to Louis Pasteur for our health and longevity.

In the 1950’s, my grandparents’ home west of Valley Center, Kansaswas still endowed with an outdoor, long-drop toilet.  And, I remember when my grandmother’s “crank” telephone and her wood-burning cook stove were in daily use.  Perhaps you recall, as I do, when the coming of electrification to rural Kansaswas a big deal.  But, in 2011, you’re probably “texting” your grandchildren on your Blackberry; or maybe you’re watching your granddaughter play her piccolo in an auditorium halfway across the state, or even across the globe, in real time, on your iPad.  As my Grandma used to say, “Who woulda thunk?” 

Or, who could have imagined—even a decade ago—that Asmaa Mahfouz,  a 26-year-old “Facebook Mom”, sporting a degree in business administration and armed with an iPad, would help lead a revolution to overthrow the Egyptian tyrant, Hosni Mubarak?4   The tools of communication and exchange are growing exponentially, both in efficiency and in their power to effect change.  So omnipresent are the new tools of communication and exchange, that we often forget to take them into account. 

Surely, it’s possible—and I believe it’s inevitable—that we’re currently witnessing the serial extinction of the world’s petro-fascist dinosaurs, as the most liberating ideas of Western Science and Civilization are mating with willing young partners in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Syria, Iran, et al.  Ditto, our own andEurope’s Jurassic bureaucracies.

Therefore, I invite you to plant a seed of positive possibility.  What kind of world will it be when today’s crises are forgotten?  When today’s problems are resolved or simply disappear?  When technologies not yet conceived are ubiquitous?  When benevolence and optimism dominate our daily conversations?  mh


  1. The Gift of Fire, Richard Mitchell, Fireside, 1987, p. 172.
  2. The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley, Harper, 2010, p. 270.
  3. Ridley, p. 352.
  4. 2011 Egyptian Revolution,