Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Cultural spite

Kin selection has a well-known dark side: Hamiltonian spite.

Genes can promote their interests by causing their owner to help relatives - which is the familiar kind of kin selection - or by causing their owner to hinder non-relatives - which is generally known as spite.

Initially, it was thought that paying a cost to hinder non-relatives was rare. Several reasons were given. Harming others often has significant associated costs - they can bite back. Relatives are often neighbours - making them easier to identify and more likely to be interacted with. Also it was thought that a very large number of non-relatives would need to be harmed (especially in large populations). Overall it seemed as though spite didn't add up.

While plenty of individuals do deliberately harm other individuals, they often benefit in some way. This theory of "selfish competition" explains phenomena such as male combat, sibling rivalry and competition between saplings to replace their parent in the canopy. This theory seemed to make a lot more sense than Hamiltonian spite.

However, Hamiltonian spite did bounce back to some extent. Though initially the search for Hamiltonian spite focused on small populations, it was realized that the size of the population of local competitors was what really mattered. Population viscosity would often mean that this was just a handful of individuals. Gardner and West cover this revolution in their paper Spite and the scale of competition. They say:

When competition is global and fitness is proportional to absolute success, spite cannot be favoured, but as competition becomes increasingly local fitness is increasingly determined by success relative to social partners, so that spite can be a winning strategy.

With this background, we can now turn to cultural spite. As in the organic realm, cultural spite is predicted by theory, but seems relatively elusive in practice.

  • Patriotism memes. These really do manipulate their hosts into fitness-reducing acts while benefitting near-identical copies of themselves in other individuals - comrades, generals, and propagandists. These appear to be a genuine case of cultural kin selection. Interestingly, patriotism memes sometimes seem to be implicated in acts that directly harm other individuals. In particular they are implicated in conflict and warfare. Could this be a real-world case of cultural spite?

    Maybe - but there's some room for doubt. In many cases, warfare generates kill-or-be-killed situations. When the benefit is survival, "selfish competition" is a more obvious explanation for the resulting conflict. The situation in warfare is complicated, and the link to spite is rather speculative and indirect. Patriotism memes are an interesting candidate case of Hamiltonian spite in culture - but it doesn't seem like an open and shut case.

  • Negative advertising in politics. American politics regularly features negative advertising. As well as hearing the good things candidates will do, citizens hear all about the bad things associated with competing candidates. When they outsource jobs, when they raise their own salaries, when they act like puppets of other politicians - and so on. An explanation in terms of spite is straightforwards: this is a case where the effective population size is small (and so spite can work). Also, destroying things is easier than creating them. The winners do contain DNA genes, but politics is also a battle between rival memeplexes. The main problem with this example is that it can be argued that the behaviour is merely selfish - since the advertising sponsor (or their affiliates) gain many of the votes lost by the target.
Another promising area to look for spite is corporate history. There may well be cases where companies have a limited number of competitors - and there will have been scope for acts where a company hurts itself, but hurts its biggest competitor more. However, this is research that remains to be done. The problem here is that individual acts that look spiteful would not be too impressive. What we would really like to find is spiteful adaptations. Corporate history may be less promising in this regard.

These are the strongest case for real-world cultural spite that I am aware of. However, they are not very convincing. If more convincing examples of cultural spite come along, I'll update this page.

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