FW: virus: What makes memes compete?

Robin Faichney (r.j.faichney@stir.ac.uk)
Mon, 21 Apr 1997 10:48:00 +0100

I originally sent this by mistake to Tim instead of to CoV. Thanks for
alerting me, Tim.
From: Robin Faichney
To: Tim Rhodes
Subject: Re: virus: What makes memes compete?
Date: Thursday, April 17, 1997 3:38PM

Tim Rhodes wrote:
>On Wed, 16 Apr 1997, Robin Faichney wrote:
>> >This is also what, I think, is meant by a genetic basis for altruism.
>> >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.
>Umm... the "I think" in the statement was meant to show that this is my
>understanding based on my reading of Selfish Gene theories. But I haven't
>seen any evidence of altruism arising from a specific set of genes,
>either, for that matter.
>I think we may be saying the same things in different ways. What I'm
>trying to communicate is this: There is this thing that genes seem to
>exhibit and we call it "altruism", but it doesn't really exist. Rather,
>this "altruism" is just selfishness exhibiting itself in a different
>Do you think there is a "altruism gene"? Is it just a meme?

I'm pretty certain there's no altruism gene. On the other hand,
I'm not sure I go along with the implications of *just* a meme.
Because I think to talk about whether such things "really"
exist is misleading. For me, the only useful definition of
altruism is behavioural, the ultimate motivation being
irrelevant. So, the question would be "does anyone ever
behave in an altruistic manner?" and the answer surely
is yes. Assertions like "I think all actions are ultimately
selfish" look like untestable and therefore unscientific
ideology to me. (Though "some/all actions are ultimately
unselfish" falls into the same category, of course. But
at least it's positive ideology.)

>> >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.
>Just my little attempt to clean up the jargon (unilaterally, of course).
>Dawkins may have come up with memes, but he never took a patient out on
>the idea. :-)

Take care not to clean out the baby with the dirty bathwater, then!

>> >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.
>The latter is the idea behind _The Selfish Gene_, as I read it. Where did
>the "gene for altruism" idea come from, it's new to me?

It's in The Selfish Gene! This is not a specialist interest of
mine, but I get the impression it's been a bug-bear of the
socio-biologically inclined for a long time.

>> >> 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?
>Not from a gene's point of view (not that a gene has a point of view,
>but... ). Altruism has a pay-off in increased odds that the gene will be
>passed on.

Only on a particular theory, or small set of theories, I think
you'll find. To be consistent with the usual conception of
altruism, for such behaviour to be genetically advantageous,
an act that was to my detriment as an individual would have
to be to the advantage of my genes, which is not the kind of
scenario you run across every day, though I guess it
could happen. I can't actually imagine an example, but I
know I'm not up on recent thinking in this area. Maybe if
you are for some reason incapable of having any more
children, and drown yourself while saving the lives of
several existing children of your's who are all highly likely
to become parents themselves?

>Empathy, as you /seem/ to be using it, shows no such advantage
>(or if it does I've missed it and I'll need you to restate).

I guess I never really explained it. It is about mimicry at the
most basic level, and the sharing of emotions at a higher one.
It is supposed to be one of the most important bases of all
social behaviour, present in every social species. It therefore
shares the advantages of social behaviour in general. I can
suggest a good book if you're sufficiently interested.

BTW, I'm fairly keen to attach my name to the suggestion
that empathy is a prerequisite for memetic transmission,
so if any of you entrepreneurial people out there are thinking
about passing it off as your own, don't expect to go
unchallenged! (Though I don't expect to publish anything
soon, I have mentioned it in circles even more prestigious
than this one, and I'm archiving all remotely related traffic

Robin Faichney