Thursday, 1 May 2014

Memetic eusociality or environmental mismatch

John Wilkins provides us with an opportunity to compare the eusociality of evolutionary psychology with the eusociality of memetics. He writes:

Many evolutionary psychologists hold to the contrary that we are “eusocial”, meaning inclined to be more cooperative than a game theory account might suggest we would be, because we evolved in small groups of related people, and that now, in a larger society of less related people, we have a moral module in our heads that misfires, so to speak.

I think this is a common perspective on how kin selection applies to groups of weakly-related humans from evolutionary psychologists.

In memetics, many humans are cultural kin - i.e. they share memes - significantly more than they share genes. Memes promote copies of themselves in other bodies by manipulating their hosts into behaviours that benefit others with shared memes. The kinship involved is real, not an illusion - or simply the product of an unnatural environment. The memes really are related. Often near-identical copies are present in the human hosts involved.

In the evolutionary psychology view, cooperation is a dwindling hangover from a rosier past. In memetics, the cooperation is strengthening - as the memes grow in numbers and power, due to cultural evolution.

The 'cooperation-as-hangover' view probably has some truth to it. However, it should be abundantly clear that the memetics approach to the issue does a vastly better job of explaining the rise of large-scale cooperative societies in the modern world.

In addition to hosting the existing kin of memes, other humans represent prospective kin for memes. Humans represent fertile ground in which existing memes can distribute their progeny. To reproduce, many memes need peaceful, cooperating humans in contact with other humans. It really is no surprise that this is what we see. This is the symbiont hypothesis of eusociality.

For anyone interested in learning more about the topic, the 'cooperation-as-hangover' view is sometimes called the environmental mismatch hypothesis.


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