Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Memes and the evolution of human ultrasociality


Hi! I'm Tim Tyler, and this is a video about memes and the evolution of human ultrasociality.

Humans are ultrasocial creatures. They live in large cities and and often congregate in huge numbers at social events of various kinds. Humans do not normally bristle with hostility on encountering other humans - and indeed are likely to engage in cooperative behaviour - even with strangers. Memetics offers an interesting explanation of human cooperation and ultrasociality.

The idea is that meme reproduction depends on social contact between humans. Increased levels of social contact between their hosts are good for memes since this results in more reproductive opportunities for them. Memes that promote human ultrasociality have the effect of pushing humans into close proximity with each other, so the memes can infect new hosts. All the memes in the host benefit from this - including the ultrasociality memes.

Ultrasocial humans collect more memes than less sociable humans. Since memes are - on average - beneficial, memes promoting ultrasociality can have the effect of increasing the genetic fitness of their human hosts - by allowing them to collect more memes. So, the hosts are typically eager to embrace ultrasociality-producing memes - and would eventually evolve some degree of ultrasociality anyway in meme-rich evironments. Over time the ultrasociality trait gradually begins to migrate into their germ line, via the classical process of genetic assimilation, so that learning it slowly becomes easier.

Memeplexes also tend to favour the incorporation of ultrasociality memes into them. Ultrasociality memes offer a double fitness boost to memes they have memetic linkage with. The first boost is due to being linked to the fit ultrasociality memes and the second boost due to being more likely to be spread around by the ultrasocial hosts of the ultrasocial memes. Memes in memeplexes are thus likely to welcome ultrasociality memes into the fold.

Large-scale group behaviour is a key component of many religions. In masses, a large mass of humans congregates and engages in a festival of meme exchange. Church services are regular mini-masses. Since memes are stored in fallible human memory and benefit from frequent rehearsal, the meme repetition that takes place at masses and church congregations is also beneficial to them. While such religious ceremonies may offer benefits to the humans that engage in them, they seem to be orchestrated by memes, and it is probably mostly the memes that benefit from them. Religions also promote social behaviour in another way - by actively promoting prosletysing. This essentially involves approaching strangers and attempting to spread your memes to them, and bring them into the flock. This is a particularly-blatant attempt by the memes to use host resources to further their own reproductive ends by infecting new hosts. An understanding of how memes cause humans to form masses and congregations - and to engage in prosletysing - looks as though it will form a important part of a naturalistic theory of religion.

As far as I know, links between memes and human sociality and cooperation were first proposed by Donald T. Campbell in a 1983 article titled "The two distinct routes beyond kin selection to ultrasociality". The theme was taken up by Francis Heylighen in 1992 and expanded on by him over the years. However, neither author really got the idea described here. The idea was eventually clearly spelled out and popularised by Susan Blackmore in a 1997 article titled "The Power of the Meme Meme" - and she has two whole chapters about memetic theories of altruism in her 1999 memetics book.

Recently, the idea that memetic evolution drove the evolution of human ultrasociality been the subject of much experimental work, and several books - by Herbert Gintis, Peter Richerson, Robert Boyd, Joseph Henrich and others.

While there is now a consensus that meme-gene coevolution is primarily responsible for human ultrasociality, alas, many of the academic researchers have ignored the simple and beautiful memetic hypothesis given here - and have instead adopted what appears to be a highly implausible model based on group selection. As an illustration of this neglect, in a 2000 review of why humans cooperate - by Boyd and Richerson - there is a broad review of classes of hypotheses that have been proposed to account for the phenomenon - and the memetics-based hypotheses described here doesn't even get mentioned.

The memetic explanation given here does not claim to be responsible for all prosocial behaviour. The standard evolutionary accounts of prosocial behaviour attribute it to kin selection, reciprocal altruism, virtue signalling, cooperating to perform demanding tasks and mating behaviour. Some other hypotheses also help explain human cooperation. Humans sometime manipulate other humans into cooperating. For example, this is done with the "fake" kin groups created by military uniforms and school uniforms which are used to encourage cooperation based on percieved relatedess. Also, humans may sometimes overgeneralise the moral that it pays to be nice to others - and behave in an irrationally nice manner. This effect could be magnified in the unusual modern ecosystems in which humans find themselves - where they meet large numbers of people who are not really members of their tribe. However, the memetic explanation appears to apply to most of the cases in which humans cooperate where chimpanzees do not.

The memetic explanation of human ultrasociality should be one of the triumphs of the field. At the moment, I think it is fair to say that it is not widely recognised or understood. That plainly needs to change. There is more about memes and human ultrasociality in my book on memetics, which is now available.

Lastly, here is Daniel Dennet, lecturing on the topic:



The Meme MachineSusan BlackmoreBlackmore is a parapsychologist who rejects the paranormal, a skeptical investigator of near-death experiences, and a practitioner of Zen. Her explanation of the science of the meme (memetics) is rigorously Darwinian. Because she is a careful thinker (though by no means dull or conventional), the reader ends up with a good idea of what memetics explains well and what it doesn't, and with many ideas about how it can be tested - the very hallmark of an excellent science book.
A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its EvolutionSamuel Bowles and Herbert GintisWhy do humans, uniquely among animals, cooperate in large numbers to advance projects for the common good? Contrary to the conventional wisdom in biology and economics, this generous and civic-minded behavior is widespread and cannot be explained simply by far-sighted self-interest or a desire to help close genealogical kin. In A Cooperative Species, Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis--pioneers in the new experimental and evolutionary science of human behavior--show that the central issue is not why selfish people act generously, but instead how genetic and cultural evolution has produced a species in which substantial numbers make sacrifices to uphold ethical norms and to help even total strangers.
Why Humans Cooperate: A Cultural and Evolutionary ExplanationJoseph Henrich and Natalie HenrichCooperation among humans is one of the keys to our great evolutionary success. Natalie and Joseph Henrich examine this phenomena with a unique fusion of theoretical work on the evolution of cooperation, ethnographic descriptions of social behavior, and a range of other experimental results. Their experimental and ethnographic data come from a small, insular group of middle-class Iraqi Christians called Chaldeans, living in metro Detroit, whom the Henrichs use as an example to show how kinship relations, ethnicity, and culturally transmitted traditions provide the key to explaining the evolution of cooperation over multiple generations.
Moral Sentiments and Material Interests: The Foundations of Cooperation in Economic LifeHerbert Gintis, Samuel Bowles, Robert Boyd and Ernst FehrMoral Sentiments and Material Interests presents an innovative synthesis of research in different disciplines to argue that cooperation stems not from the stereotypical selfish agent acting out of disguised self-interest but from the presence of 'strong reciprocators' in a social group.Presenting an overview of research in economics, anthropology, evolutionary and human biology, social psychology, and sociology, the book deals with both the theoretical foundations and the policy implications of this explanation for cooperation. Chapter authors in the remaining parts of the book discuss the behavioral ecology of cooperation in humans and nonhuman primates, modeling and testing strong reciprocity in economic scenarios, and reciprocity and social policy. The evidence for strong reciprocity in the book includes experiments using the famous Ultimatum Game (in which two players must agree on how to split a certain amount of money or they both get nothing.)
Foundations of Human Sociality: Economic Experiments and Ethnographic Evidence from Fifteen Small-Scale SocietiesJoseph Henrich, Robert Boyd, Samuel Bowles, Colin Camerer, Ernst Fehr, Herbert GintisThis path-breaking book addresses the nature of human sociality. By bringing together experimental and ethnographic data from fifteen different tribal societies, the contributors are able to explore the universality of human motives in economic decision-making, and the importance of social, institutional and cultural factors, in a manner that has been extremely rare in the social sciences. Its findings have far-reaching implications across the social sciences.
Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish BehaviorElliott Sober and David Sloan WilsonIn Unto Others, philosopher Elliott Sober and biologist David Sloan Wilson bravely attempt to reconcile altruism, both evolutionary and psychological, with the scientific discoveries that seem to portray nature as red in tooth and claw. The first half of the book deals with the evolutionary objection to altruism. For altruistic behavior to be produced by natural selection, it must be possible for natural selection to act on groups - but conventional wisdom holds that group selection was conclusively debunked by George Williams in Adaptation and Natural Selection. Sober and Wilson nevertheless defend group selection, instructively reviewing the arguments against it and citing important work that relies on it. They then discuss group selection in human evolution, testing their conclusions against the anthropological literature.

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