Re: virus: What makes memes compete?

Robin Faichney (
Wed, 16 Apr 1997 16:27:00 +0100

Tim Rhodes wrote:
>On Mon, 14 Apr 1997, Robin Faichney wrote:
>> 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.
>If you're defining empathy as mimicry, I think I can support a genetic

In psychological circles empathy is generally defined to include

>Although I think saying there is _a_ gene for
>mimicry/empathy is much, much too simplistic. More likely these traits
>are manifestations of the effects of several (if not thousands) of other

Depends what you mean by "gene", doesn't it? Dawkins suggested
that any unit of genetic information that survives a few (?) generations
could be considered "a gene". This is the way I use the word.

>This is also what, I think, is meant by a genetic basis for altruism. Not
>that there is _a_ gene for altruism, but that altruism emerges from the
>selfish workings of individual genes.

But does it? If there's recent work showing it does, I'd like to hear
about it.

>Perhaps it's effects are best seen
>at a memetic level (here I'm including non-linguistic proto-memes in the
>"memetic" catch-all), but that is not to say that it originates in the
>memes or in a specific gene either.

Why are non-linguistic ones only "proto-memes"? Dawkins' original
list included tunes and clothing fashions.

>> Q 2: What would be other consequences of an empathy
>> gene?
>Staggering, if such a thing existed. I, personally have my doubts,
>however, of ever locating one gene (or even a set of genes) that directly
>turn on or off the empathetic response.

I don't see why you go so far as to say "staggering". Remember,
like any other behaviour trait, we are only talking about tendencies.
The effect is statistical, not deterministic.

>> But I can probably define it a little better: as
>> well as coding for the copying of behaviour, it would
>> cause a tendency to identify with con-specifics. (And,
>> as a side issue, how are con-specifics identified? By
>> visual/behavioural/other type templates?)
>Sorry, I'm not familiar with "con-specifics". Can you define?

Others of the same species.

>> Q 3: We know that the concept of genetic altruism is
>> highly dodgy.
>By "genetic altruism" are you talking here about a gene for
>altruism or altruism arising from the selfish behavior of the genes?

The former. I'm not clear what the latter, as distinct from the
former, means.

>> So how does the concept of genetic
>> empathy stand up?
>Dodgier still, I'd muster.

I really can't see that. Surely empathy is much less unselfish
than altruism?

>> Q 4: What can we say about altruism as a meme?
>Other than that it may have a genetic underpinning? I think, "What can we
>say about empathy as a meme?" is a much more interesting question,

Maybe we need more discussion about what "empathy" means
before we can discuss its origins.

Robin Faichney