Saturday, 21 July 2018

Cultural kin selection vs better communication

I have previously argued that cultural kin selection explains a wide range of common phenomena. Among these were cooperation between computers and printers, and cooperation between people who share a language.

I have long been aware that other explanations have been proposed for some of these phenomena. In particular one such explanation is that shared memes involving communication make it easier for the parties involved to communicate and communication fosters cooperation. I was hoping that a critic would make this point, so that I could reply and cite them, but there's little harm in being proactive.

I have a few separate points to make in response. Firstly these really are examples of cultural kin selection. They do involve shared memes resulting in cooperation, and part of the reason why they spread is that copies of them in one body has the effect of selectively favoring copies of them in other bodies.

Secondly, the case for cultural kin selection does not rest in any way on cases where communicaton between the parties involved is fostered because the shared memes help to establish a communication protocol. Take money for example. A shared currency facilitates cooperation, but it is hard to make a case that it does so by fostering communication between the parties involved. That is just not how it works.

Thirdly, shared memes fostering better communication is another explanation for cooperation that does not invoke the logic of kin selection, and yet is clearly involved in some of these phenomena. To the extent that I claimed that cultural kin selection is the reason why computers cooperate with printers, I misspoke. There's more than one mechanism involved in the correct answer to that. I don't know if I did actually write that. I did write (in 2012):

Shared memes are also a big part of why your computer cooperates with your printer

I hedged my bets a bit back then, but even what I wrote might still be an overstatement. Shared memes resulting in cooperation via cultural kin selection is involved in a complete explanation for why your computer cooperates with your printer - but I wouldn't like to defend it being a "big" part of the explanation.

Now that I have thought about this in a bit more detail, I am wondering about interactions between the two mechanisms. Shared memes can produce cooperation via cultural kin selection and shared memes can produce cooperation via facilitating communication between the parties - which often results in improved cooperation between them. However, to what extent does cultural kin selection promote this other effect? Does its effect frequently come first? What about interactions the other way around? Better communication could easily promote meme transfer between the parties involved resulting in more shared memes and more cultural kin selection. How about interactions with genetic kin selection? You learn your language from your parents initially. The shared genes result in shared memes, which foster communication, and promote meme transfer from the parents, turning genetic kin into cultural kin. These interactions are fascinating, and researchers with awareness of cultural kin selection should be peering in.

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