From: micah glasser (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: Sun Aug 27 2006 - 11:25:45 MDT
Thanks for your response Keith. I'll have to check out one of your books as
this is a subject that greatly interests me.
Please allow me to clarify my thinking on this as it appears to differ
somewhat from yours. You said:
>It's a bit hard to figure out how far back language came into play, though
>genetic clocks on the area of the critical genes might give us a rough
>date. But certainly written language came too late to have had a lot of
>influence on hunter gatherer selected "morality" mechanism genes. Possibly
>even spoken language came too late.
Certainly you are correct that written language came too late to have any
significant effect on the pressures of genetic natural selection which
formed the human neurological/cognitive architecture. However, as you also
noted, this architecture is quite plastic.
My basic supposition is that within the plastic confines of human
neuro/cognitive architecture societies organize themselves according to
their needs for production and out of this organization arises a cultural
ethos that informs the specifics of that culture's morality (usually in the
form of religion). The variations in social organization account for the
variations in morality among different human societies and cultures
throughout the history of human civilization.
So what I'm trying to say is that since the invention of written language
man's ability to replicate and transmit memes has been growing
exponentially. This process of meme transmission and replication with
variation is identical to technological evolution. The result of all
technological evolution results in a greater and greater ability for man to
alter his environment. In the past this has varied greatly from culture to
culture. This leads me to the conclusion that because there exists
anthropogenic environmental differences as a result of the differences in
technological evolution there necessarily also exists different natural
pressures affecting genetic natural selection (albeit the genetic change
caused by these environmental differences is no doubt minuscule due to the
short time frame in question but still probably more significant than most
are willing to admit).
>I wish you would provide some examples where this happened. I just can't
>get a grip on what you are saying without examples. Perhaps from "Guns,
>Germs and Steel"?
What I'm trying to describe is merely a theory of human history based on the
interrelationship of memetic and genetic natural selection. As such all of
human history becomes an example. The gist of what I'm saying is that
morality and religion are functions of a society's culture. I define a
society as any group of people independently organized for the purpose of
economic production, and culture as the conglomeration of memes which allow
for this coordination of activity. From this perspective it is most
appropriate (in my estimation) to view societies and their cultures as the
primary carrier's of memes. Hence the primary actors involved in memetic
natural selection are societies and it is societies that are more or less
Usually the most memetically fit societies (having the most efficient system
of economic coordination) begin to expand empires and either subsume or
eradicate other society's cultures/memes - and sometimes their genes too.
The most common example of this might be the Spanish conquest of mesoamerica
but any example of imperial; expansion throughout history will do.
In sum one might say that before written language human evolution was in a
system state of divergence but that since then human evolution (both memetic
and genetic) has been heading for convergence - resulting in globalization
and eventually technological singularity.
I think the mental mechanisms that underlie our (flexible) sense of what is
moral are the result of stone age selection and are not going to be changed
>The flexible part comes from environmental conditions. It is not
>considered moral to steal or murder, but as we saw about a year ago, it
>only takes a few days before people get hungry enough to steal and not much
>more before murder would become common.
This is part of what I'm trying to say. Because morality is a function of
social organization when social order breaks down many people tend to revert
to stone age ethics, i.e. do whatever it takes to survive.
You say that it is not considered moral to steal or murder. I disagree. It
is only considered immoral to steal or murder within the confines of certain
circumstances dictated by a given culture. For instance many nomadic tribes
have organized their respective societies around theft from agricultural
societies. This form of theft becomes sanctioned by that culture and hence
it becomes moral for that culture. The ancient Greeks had very strict rules
about conduct amongst themselves but treated "barbarians" in a manner that
our culture would find morally reprehensible (such as the practice of
killing all children and raping all woman when a barbarian village was
conquered). A modern example might be between the secular west and Islam. It
goes without saying that much of what passes as moral in Islam would be
unthinkable in a secular state (such as the treatment of woman).
This is why I see morality as primarily a very plastic memetic epiphenomenon
emerging from the interaction of our inherited neurological architecture
with various environments. Also, for all of these reasons, i believe that
human morality has the potential to change rapidly as society rapidly
evolves - but perhaps this is too optimistic.
On 8/26/06, Keith Henson <email@example.com> wrote:
> At 01:31 PM 8/26/2006 -0400, you wrote:
> >Both memetic and genetic natural selection are inextricably interrelated.
> You're talking to the guy who was writing about this since the mid 1980s.
> >The homo-sapien cognitive architecture substrate results from the genetic
> >natural selection of all human ancestry. This architecture defined the
> >original social organization (mortality) of our primate forbears. Memetic
> >natural selection comes into play and dominates the evolutionary
> >replication process with the arrival of language (especially written
> It's a bit hard to figure out how far back language came into play, though
> genetic clocks on the area of the critical genes might give us a rough
> date. But certainly written language came too late to have had a lot of
> influence on hunter gatherer selected "morality" mechanism
> genes. Possibly
> even spoken language came too late.
> >However memes cannot remain successful replicators if they do not aid in
> >the survival of the host's genes.
> True. Consider Shakers and Mormons.
> >For this reason memetic fitness is mostly a function of societies and not
> >persons. A memetically fit cultural ethos is an ethos that can
> >organize a society so that it can successfully compete against other
> >societies for resources. With out a memetically fit ethos (morality) a
> >society/culture degenerates and sufferers form being either absorbed by a
> >more memetically fit culture or that society/culture will suffer from
> I wish you would provide some examples where this happened. I just can't
> get a grip on what you are saying without examples. Perhaps from "Guns,
> Germs and Steel"?
> >In the past more monolithic cultures would label any behaviour that does
> >not conform to that cultures ethos as "immoral". And in many cases such
> >persons would be put to death for their crimes.
> Most of our evolution took place before agriculture when "culture"
> circulated in the hunger gather band or at most a bunch of related
> bands. If the few remaining examples of hunter gatherer life can be
> extrapolated to the bulk of human evolution, then while violent death was
> common, putting a band member to death for "crime" was rare. I would say
> the very concept of crime comes way too late to have had much influence on
> human evolution.
> >These facts might lead one to the conclusion that morality both arises
> >from, and acts upon, genetic evolution. Additionally one might conclude
> >that "morality" is in a state of evolution -constantly changing as
> >certain memes become more or less fit according to the pressures of
> >natural selection.
> If you used the term "political correctness" instead of "morality" I would
> be more likely to agree with you.
> I think the mental mechanisms that underlie our (flexible) sense of what
> moral are the result of stone age selection and are not going to be
> The flexible part comes from environmental conditions. It is not
> considered moral to steal or murder, but as we saw about a year ago, it
> only takes a few days before people get hungry enough to steal and not
> more before murder would become common.
> Keith Henson
-- I swear upon the alter of God, eternal hostility to every form of tyranny over the mind of man. - Thomas Jefferson
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