virus: Altruism, Empathy, the Superorganism, and the Prisoner's Dillema

Reed Konsler (
Thu, 17 Apr 1997 11:34:26 -0400 (EDT)

I think it only appropriate to begin by digressing:

Let's say a certian someone-who-shall-remain-nameless (Hastur
the unspeakable?) wanted to see their name propogate...and more
to the point, wanted to see their point-of-view propogated and
recapitulated among members of this group? What do you think
would be a good strategy for doing this? Hmmm.

You know, I'd better stay an academic. No matter how slick I
might think I am, I'm always one step behind the sharks. On the
other hand, it isn't like I'm escaping any of it here, either.
Paranoia is knowing there isn't any place to hide.

This is sort of a response to points brought up in the "why memes
compete" and the "altruism" and "empathy" posts. In order to
ensure that this is bass-ackwards I'll give you the bibliography first:

"The Axemaker's Gift" James Burke and Robert Ornstein, 1997
"Prisoner's Dillema" William Poundstone, 1992
"The Lucifer Principle" Howard Bloom, 1995

Of course, there are others (check the reading list)

It is, in my opinion, a common misconception that memetic evolution
"exploded" out of genetic evolution in an instantaneous manner.
Certianly in recent times memes have been evolving so rapidly that
genes seem to be standing still in comparison...but for a long period
in our history they evolved side by side. Every memetic advantage
that proto-humans were able to teach their decendents allowed a net
genetic disadvantage (for instance, live birth of immature children)
to be tolerated.

In essence, as our minds exploded, our bodies imploded. Were are,
with virtual realities, stock market speculation and the consulting
industry beginning to push the limit of "substanceless" production of
value. Concepts like memetics, information technology, and
intellectual property are recent in origin and bespeak our new
understanding that there are things of value, tools, which are entirely
of the mind. How far this concept can be pushed is yet undefined...
as recent discussions of "The Singularity" demonstrate. IF we find
no physical limit, things are going to take off.

The question is, which way do you bet?

The first axe, according to Burke, changed humans forever. Perhaps
our first invention of significance was something even more basic...but
the point is that the "extended phenotype" ability to learn new things
allowed our ancestors to invent, imagine and devlop a tool...and created
the first specialists. There were"axe makers", "axe users", "Research
and developers" etc. Initially, certianly, people filled multiple roles and
drifted amongst them, even as people drift amongst carrears and
professions today.

Eventally, however, there was a division of labor and a new problem.
If the "axe maker" created tools for the tribe who would feed the "axe
maker"? The first commerce was developed. Obviously we are the sense that we can engage in trade, that we can delay
gratification, that we are willing to "invest" effort today on the
assumption that there will be return with interest at a later date.

When this new question was confronted we were already evolved to
deal with it. Amongst a tribe of like indiciduals, all of whom are
non-speciallists, cooperation is still an advantage in some circumstances.
For instance: scavenging. A single scavenger has a small chance of
finding a large kill, enough to feed many. However, a single scavenger
needs food on a more regular basis. If we were snakes we could eat
one kill and digest it over a month...but we aren't.

Or, perhaps "we" were...but at some point a troop diverged...and took
a different path. We begain to "cooperate". You scratch my back and
I'll scratch yours devloped into "If you share the food you find today,
I'll share the food I'll find tomorrow".

Another step of abstraction: If you keep me steadily supplied with
common food (nuts and roots) I'll shae with you the scarce but vital
meat I find on occasion.

Another level of abstraction: If you feed me I'll make your tools.

Another level of abstraction: If you feed me I'll think of new tools.

Are those good bets from the "workers" persepective? Well, it
certianly seems that people have consumed most of the planet.
Are we happy? Do we have quaility of life? Gosh, those things are
hard to define, aren't they? Morality itself seems to be an invention
of the mind...emergent?

How best do we organize the superorganism? How do we keep
from being taken advantage of? What is the proper balance between
concern for self and concern for community? What is our purpose?

All of these ideas are based, as Rand might say, on the idea of trade.
I'll give you 1 apple for 1 apple.
I'll give you 1 apple for 1 orange.
I'll give you apples if you give me meat.
I'll give you food if you give me tools.
I'll give you sustinance and protection if you give me ideas.

We are a species of negotiators, of traders. Progress is a non-zero
sum game. Some people are used-car salesman, trading you junk for
precious energy. Some people are crazy inventors, consuming massive
amounts of resources on the off chance that they might come up with a
"miracle"...and how many dreamers can we support? And how will we
survive in the long run if we stop, as a species, dreaming?

The most vital human ability, the net message of politics, of economics,
of religion, science...our entire culture:

Am I getting what I payed for?

We have boosted our trading-ability from one level of abstraction to
another...and in the back of our minds each of us is an entrepeur...
looking for the next "trick" the next thing of value to trade.

So: yes. There are genes for altruism. There are memes for altruism.
There are genes and memes of empathy. We are the most cooperative
and trusting species on the face of the planet...and that trick has allowed
us to live almost everywhere. We are always looking for a better way to
cooperate, to trade.

In essence, Marx was right...the most efficient way of doing things is for
each person to do what they are good at and consume only and as much
as they require. In such a system there wouldn't be any need for a "state"

The question is how to institute such a system.

And the answer is, I think, to have a population so well educated
and connected that it is more productive to do your job than to take
advantage of you neighboor...that it is more productive to be
sincere and honest that to be cagey.

And the only way to do that right now, it seems, is to keep playing the

It's like that big computer finally learns in "WarGames" by playing
Tic-Tac-Toe against itself.

"The only way to win is not to play"

or in other words:

"Cooperate, don't defect"

But how can you make such a system stable? Especially given our
predeliction for taking advantage of one another?

Think, think, think.


Reed Konsler