From: Keith Henson (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: Mon Aug 28 2006 - 00:30:21 MDT
At 01:25 PM 8/27/2006 -0400, you wrote:
>Thanks for your response Keith. I'll have to check out one of your books
Sorry, no books. Lots of short articles and postings to mailing lists.
>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.
Yes and no. At the detail level, humans can learn a near infinity of
memes. The problems is a behavioral switch that ups the gain on xenophobic
memes when it seems to be time to thin out the population because hard
times are a-coming. This happened once or twice a generation across the
whole multimillion year history of our species so there was plenty of time
for gene saving responses to be engraved in the genome.
>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.
EP folks consider the entire span of civilization to be a blink as far as
evolution of psychological traits is concerned. I take a far more paranoid
view of the function(s) of religions. And off hand, I would say that the
variation in morality among human societies and cultures is low. I.e.,
there are many more common elements than there are discordant ones.
>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.
True. Maybe even super exponentially.
>This process of meme transmission and replication with variation is
>identical to technological evolution.
I don't think so. There is, for example, a vast collection of Talmudic
memes that contribute little or nothing to technological evolution.
>The result of all technological evolution results in a greater and greater
>ability for man to alter his environment.
True. It is instructive to consider the environment in which the
technological runaway started. There were mines in England where coal,
iron ore, limestone and fireclay could be mined out of the same shaft.
>In the past this has varied greatly from culture to culture.
It still differs, perhaps more today than any time in the past. The most
primitive now use steel instead of chipped rocks, the most advanced do
thing incomprehensible even to their own cultures ten years ago.
>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).
Lactose tolerance is one of the genes that did change in response to the
technology of dairy cultures if you would like an example.
> >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,
You make this sound like top down organization when an awful lot of
production is emergent. Certainly independent farmers will flood the
markets where people went hungry in the former communist countries.
>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
You should read Diamond's Collapse. He makes the case that societies that
fail often do so after damaging their environment due to too much
population growth. In which case what memes they have don't matter a bit.
>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
Diamond and others make the case that the main reason Europeans took over
the Americas was disease. (And for the same reason lost control of Africa.)
>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 don't see the case for divergence in the stone age. Hunter gatherers
faced pretty much the same physical and social pressures the world
over. And while we might be headed for convergence, I don't think the
divergence has ever been stronger.
>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
That's true, but it isn't what concerns me. Stone age selected mechanisms
included a behavioral switch. Human morality is pretty good when times are
looking good. When they start to look bleak "kill the neighbors" memes get
> >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.
Yes. And those are exactly what you would expect if the psychological
traits for moral behavior were due do gene selection.
>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).
They typically killed all the male children at least. This is not unique
to humans either. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capture_bonding Also
see Book of Numbers, from The holy Bible, King James version Chapter 31 vs
17: Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every
woman who has known man by lying with him.
18: But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him, keep
alive for yourselves.
>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).
It wasn't that long ago that secular state women were treated much like
Islamic women are today. The right to vote for women is less than 100
years old in the US, Birth control is much more recent. Griswold v.
Connecticut (1965), legalized contraception for married people, and Roe v.
Wade (1973) legalized abortion on a federal level.
>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.
I see it as closer to deterministic depending on the environment,
especially the environmental outlook. The moral values we associate as
positive are strongly correlated with good economic prospects and vice versa.
>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.
I assume we will get what we generally consider positive morality if wealth
per capita takes a big step up due to technological advances. But the
pessimistic side is that falling income per capita, especially long term
prospects for falling income per capita, will turn on genetic survival
mechanisms that eventually contract decent treatment to close relatives.
Sorry to be so mechanistic, but if I am right, it does provide a formula
for improving morality, avoiding war and the like.
>On 8/26/06, Keith Henson <<mailto:email@example.com>firstname.lastname@example.org>
>>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 efficiently
>> >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
>> >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 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.
>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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