Monday, 27 February 2012

Symbiology adoption sluggish

Symbiology - the theory of symbiosis - took a long time to be accepted in the organic realm. The term "symbiosis" was coined in 1877 - but it wasn't until the 1960s that the significance of symbiosis dawned on evolutionary biologists - and there was still some doubt it until mitochondrial DNA was sequenced in the 1980s. For decade after decade it laboured on as a discredited idea - before finally being accepted by practically all scientists.

Now we are facing much the same situation with cultural evolution. We have had a pioneering theory of cultural symbionts - since Cloak (1975) and Dawkins (1976). Cloak (1975) said:

the best that can always be said for cultural instructions, as for parasites of any sort, is that they can't destroy their hosts more quickly than they can propagate. In short, "our" cultural instructions don't work for us organisms; we work for them. At best, we are in symbiosis with them, as we are with our genes. At worst, we are their slaves.
Dawkins (1976) said (quoting Nicholas Humphries):

Memes are 'living structures, not just metaphorically but technically.When you plant a fertile meme in my mind,you literally parasitise my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme's propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitise the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn't just a way of talking [...]
That was visionary material for the 1970s.

Memetics has subsequently put much more time and energy than any of its competitors into a proper theory of cultural symbiosis. It features parasites, mutualists, immunity, vaccines, kin selection and an equivalent of domatia.

Yet, as with the organic realm, understanding of symbiosis among scientists lags far behind that of the pioneers.

This is true even though scientists have the example of symbiosis in organic evolution to show them the way.

To give an example, Mark Changizi embraces linguistic symbiosis in the last few pagees of Harnessed. Here's a reviewer's comment:

I don't think it serves more than an illustrative purpose to call elements of culture symbionts; and I am willing to bet that the establishment in evolutionary biology is not going to be giving Changizi any high fives.
Changizi gets "high fives" from me - though more than a page or so might have helped. The problem is that he is a lonely early adopter.

Symbiosis is evolution's nicer side. Without symbiosis, competition rules - "survival of the fittest" - and all that. The darker side of social Darwinism should remind everyone in the field of the consequences of applying inaccurate conceptions of evolutionary theory to the realm of human social evolution. We already have enough inaccurate evolutionary theory inspiring economics. For goodness sake, fellow scientists, please get your act together on this one, or everyone will suffer.

The closest memetic equivalent of sequencing mitochondrial DNA is probably brain scanning. Perhaps - as happened with symbiosis in the organic realm - scientists won't "get it" until the evidence is shoved right into their faces. However, there is no reason why this step should be needed.


No comments:

Post a Comment