Re: virus: What makes memes compete?

Martz (
Tue, 15 Apr 1997 00:05:04 +0100

On Mon, 14 Apr 1997, Robin Faichney <> wrote:

>Seems to me this way of thinking about altruism is
>pre-memetics, despite their co-existence in The Selfish Gene.
>Suppose that altruism is not genetic but memetic. Suppose
>further that the genetic base upon which altruism is built (or
>part of it) is a tendency towards empathy.

First off I think we need to define what we mean by altruism. Oxford

1. regard for others as a principle of action
2. unselfishness; concern for other people

The first one I can accept, but as soon as that word 'unselfishness' is
introduced I get a queasy feeling. I don't believe I've ever seen, or am
ever likely to see, a wholly unselfish act. I believe that people are
selfishly motivated and concern for others is simply a coincidental
byproduct. I realise that this is unprovable one way or the other and
it's mostly a matter of opinion although Occam's razor seems to be with
me on this one (I eagerly await the contradictions ;).

>Q 1: What do people around here think of the liklihood of a gene
>for empathy? Before you answer, I should say I think that it
>just *could* be one of the most important bases for the
>transmission of memes, because in its most basic form,
>empathy results in the copying of behaviour. For instance,
>empathic behaviours include flocking, schooling and
>herding, and the tendency of humans to fall into step when
>walking together. (And modelling (copying of) behaviour
>has been observed in *very* young children, including
>premature babies.)

I agree with what I think you're saying here. Way back in the dim and
distant past evolution discovered* that for some species, ourselves
included, cooperative behaviour bestowed certain survival advantages. I
think that came before anything that could be termed memetic showed up.
We are more likely to cooperate with those who we 'understand' (i.e.
empathise with) so as long as life is selecting for it the tendancy
would strengthen.

>Q 4: What can we say about altruism as a meme?

I would say it's a very strong (pervasive) meme but that it reflects a
distorted picture of reality.

* Language of convenience.


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