RE: There is No Altruism

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Fri Mar 25 2005 - 17:06:44 MST

At 10:38 AM 25/03/05 -0800, you wrote:
>I wrote
> > >...memes affect people strongly, and can take
> > >over to the point that people do lots of things that
> > >are "unnatural". Yet we have evolved just this ability
> > >to be controlled by memes, and many people here have
> > >testified that they'd die for rather abstract reasons.
>and Keith responds
> > Hominids lost serious predation a *long* time ago...
> > When... hard times were looming, a behavioral switch
> > turned up the "gain" on the circulation of xenophobic
> > memes in the tribe, and eventually the hyped up
> > warriors went out to do or die against neighbors.
> > ...
> > Assuming no logic errors, this is the origin of the
> > power memes have to control people.
>Enough of *origins*, already :-)

Heh heh.

At the moment we are stuck with being what we are. This may not be the
case in the future when we really can change human nature. This may or may
not be a good idea.

>The way the world works now, it seems obvious that one
>useful way to describe people's idealism and altruism
>is via memetics.
> From "I have but one life to give for..." through "just
>say no" and "mind your own business", our behavior indeed
>is deeply affected not only by sound bytes, but by ideas.
>So the recent spate of noble testimonials we've just
>heard on this list doesn't surprise me.
>This manifestation of altruism is definitely less selfish
>than the more directly gene-based variety!

The wisdom of those who are experts in this area says that *all*
manifestations of altruism are ultimately based on genes. In fact, every
physical and psychological trait humans have (as well as those of every
other animal) is either the direct result of natural selection or a side
effect, by-product, spandrel, "misfire," etc. of some trait that was
selected over evolutionary time.

That *includes* people's unwillingness to recognize this situation. :-)

The problem is that we have psychological mechanisms that change the very
*class* of memes that predominate in a human society--and there are very
few people who are willing to even consider the line of thinking that leads
to this depressing conclusion.

>(This buttresses the point that altruism exists. For what
>it's worth I too debated Ettinger through dozens of emails
>on Cryonet on the subject of altruism---it seems hopeless
>to get him to try to broaden his concept.)
> > There is a 20 page paper on this topic that I am trying
> > to have published.
>Good. I will be requesting a copy; perhaps it reflects some
>of your earlier ideas on memetics.

It does and it doesn't. My thinking on memetics has changed over the
years. Memetics is a useful way to think about the spread and persistence
of elements of culture, but it doesn't do a good job of answering the
implied question such as why does *this* meme becomes ascendent now?



"Some memes (for example Nazism) are
observed to thrive during periods of economic chaos just as diseases
flourish in an undernourished population. Thus it is not much of a
surprise that Nazi-related beliefs emerged in the Western farm states
during the recent hard times. "


"The vast majority of the memes we pass from person to person or generation
to generation are either helpful or at least harmless. It is hard to see
that these elements of our culture have a separate identity from us. But a
few of these replicating information patterns are clearly dangerous. By
being obviously harmful, they are easy to see as a separate class of
evolving, parasitic, lifelike forms. A very dangerous group leads to
behavior such as the People's Temple suicides, or similar cases that dot
our history. The most dangerous class leads to vast killings like that of
the Nazis in WW II, the Communists in post-revolutionary Russia, and the
Kampuchea self-genocide.

"The development of memetics provides improved mental tools (models) for
thinking about the influences, be they benign, silly, or fatal, that
replicating information patterns have on all of us. Here is a source of
danger if memetics comes of age and only a few learn to create meme sets of
great influence. Here too is liberation for those who can recognize and
analyze the memes to which they are exposed. If "the meme about memes"
infects enough people, rational social movements might become more common."

(It is amusing that there are 180 links to this article and a dozen copies
of it up on the net after 17 years.)

I no longer think it is memes that cause wars or related social
disruptions, though memes *are* one of the causal links. (*Some*
xenophobic meme--no matter how silly--will evolve out of random noise if
there is no preexisting population divisions to split along.) The root
cause is a population that perceives a bleak future, most often from
population growth exceeding the ecological carrying capacity. I can cite a
ton of examples.

The path to this painfully acquired knowledge that linked memetics and
evolutionary psychology for the answer to why xenophobic memes thrive in
stressed human populations is detailed in the "Sex, Drugs and Cults"
article. I credit a woman who was a former scientologist for starting me
down this path and Kennita Watson for helping me make the breakthrough
connection late in 1998.

Keith Henson

PS. Perhaps the most depressing aspect of this knowledge is that we
evolved and have the trait to suppress thinking rationally in some
circumstances. If you have the slightest doubt about this "feature" of
human psychology, then you have not been paying attention to the news.


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