Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Memetics and racism

To date, evolutionary psychology has mostly avoided the wrath of those sensitive to race issues by avoiding differences between human populations, and focussing on human universals. Despite this, it has been criticized by a wide range of the easily offended, for addressing issues to do with sex and age in humans. Evolutionary psychology has ignored, denigrated and generally failed to understand cultural evolution. Ignoring cultural differences is a pretty significant simplification. Memetics is all about more realistic models that account of cultural variation. One of the findings is that there's not really any such thing as the EEA (Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness). Instead, humans are quite plastic and use culture to adapt to a wide range of environments. Human nature is similarly polymorphic; what is 'natural' for humans is a function of their surrounding environment and cultural context. This tends to work against the averaging out of cultural variation that is often done by students of evolutionary psychology.

One political problem with models that account for cultural variation is that differences between human populations based on DNA differences can no longer be ignored. To quantify cultural differences between two populations, DNA differences need to be controlled for. Cultural transmission involves ethnic transmission biases - where people prefer to deal and interact with those with similar ethnic backgrounds. Cultural kin selection underlies homophily, which is the basis of much xenophobia.

I figure the result of the memetic focus on human differences will be a certain degree of entanglement between meme enthusiasts and those appointed to squish racism - who generally favor human equality. So far, I can't say I have noticed much going on in this area. Memetics and racism have, so far, mostly avoided intermingling. However, it is pretty easy to see this issue coming, IMO. There will probably be factions who promote politically correct versions of memetics and other factions who are not shy about using memetics to address race-related issues.

The influence of the politically correct factions is not negligible. James Watson and Frank Ellis illustrate the issue. It seems plausible that more heads will roll in the future.

I don't have much policy advice about what can be done to help avoid problems in this area. However, I do think science ought to be in a position to help inform policy advice relating to how to build societies with less race-based conflict - something widely recognized by all parties involved to be a desirable outcome. To do this we need to study topics such as the cultural evolution of ethnic tolerance. One one hand, such a study will probably attract flames - but on the other hand a proper scientific study of ethnic discrimination seems as though it is a necessary part of avoiding future race-related conflict.

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