Thursday, 24 April 2014

On Darwinian paranoia

Critics of memetics have characterised it as a type of "Darwinian paranoia".

Here's Peter Godfrey Smith:

How did the gene’s eye view acquire such apparent power as a foundational description? I conjecture that this is because the gene’s eye view of evolution is a special kind of agential narrative.

Two explanatory schemata can be distinguished, within the general agent-positing category, which have a special psychological potency. The first is a paternalist schema. Here we posit a large, benevolent agent, who intends that all is ultimately for the best. This category includes various gods, includes the Hegelian “World Spirit” in philosophy, and includes stronger forms of the “Gala” hypothesis, according to which the whole earth is a living organism. The second schema is a paranoid one. Now we posit a hidden collection of agents pursuing agendas that cross—cut or oppose our interests. Examples include demonic possession narratives, the sub-personal creatures of Freud's psychology (super-ego, ego, id}, and selfish genes and memes.

Like me, Godfrey Smith links memetics to demonology and posession. However, while I see this link as validating some aspects of early superstitious thought, Godfrey Smith plainly intends it as a criticism of memetics.

Darwinian paranoia is a conceptual waste of space. It isn't paranoia if they really are out to get you. In the case of selfish genes and selfish memes there are plenty of cases where they are plainly out to get you. Should you give that AIDS virus the benefit of the doubt? What about that malaria protozoan? Or perhaps you would like to adopt some misunderstood smoking memes? Or maybe some memes from fast-food vendors, or memes from suicide bombers?

These "agents with agendas that cross—cut or oppose our interests" are not a paranoid fantasy. They are perfectly real - and perfectly hostile. It's public misinformation to brand negative reactions to them as "Darwinian paranoia". The associated threats are real, and people are perfectly correct to be concerned about them.

What's the opposite of paranoia? Foolhardiness. Humans are naturally on the paranoid end of the spectrum - and that's because natural selection built us that way. As Andy Grove put it "Only the paranoid survive". Foolhardiness is foolishness - and it's relatively rare in the world - for good survivalist reasons. My council is to avoid being foolhardy on this topic.

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