RE: virus: Genes vs. Memes: The War Heats Up

Grant Callaghan (
Wed, 4 Jun 1997 07:00:27 -0700 (PDT)

On Wed, 4 Jun 1997, Robin Faichney wrote:

> >No. I think human greed is genetic. I think the drive to devour
> >everything on the planet that can be devoured is genetic.
> I don't agree. (Except in the trivial sense that everything we do
> requires that we have the capacity to do it -- so like everything
> else, some of the elements that are part of greed are genetic.)
> I think greed is neurotic, in words an emotional/memetic disorder.
> We seek more than we really need because we are insecure, and
> mistakenly think that possessing more stuff will make us feel
> secure. This goes back to the recent quotes about greed vs
> contentment. To seek more stuff is to stoke the fires of desire
> and greed, while to seek contentment direct is to put out those
> fires.

If you study it, you will see that every emotion we have is the
product of genetic programming. In recent years they have found
genes for happiness, contentment, preference for certain colors,
etc. This is because all of the chemicals that create the feelings
we call emotions are produced by genes. Anger, fear, lust, angst,
all of this, is part of a programmed reaction to what goes on
around us. Memes come into play when they are able to determine
what we do with these emotions. We can program ourselves to do
positive things with our anger instead of negative things. Rather
than smashing our fist or our car into something in response to
a burst of anger, we can use it as a force to drive us to improve
our situation and do something about what it is that made us angry
in the first place. Also, we learn what to get angry about from
our parents at a very early age. What angers them will also anger
us. (Not necessarily the same exact incident, but the same
category of experience.) Men who watched their fathers beat their
wives and children use up the same behavior when they grow up
in most cases, or in some cases they rebel against what their
parents were doing and do the opposit. In either case, the
behavior they learn came from their parents.

I believe things like the ten commandments and other religious
memes were developed to counteract the emotional drives of our
early ancestors. It is a conflict that is still going on, and
the genes are winning. Tribalism reigns in most places in the
world and tribes align themselves against each other in times of
scarcity and deprivation. But we developed memes like the ten
commandments to keep people from different tribes who came to
live together from stealing from each other, coveting each
other's wives, killing each other, etc. They are memetic
programming to counteract the genetic programming of our desires
and fears. What we need to do to save ourselves from extinction
is to create new memes in the same way that tobacco companies
create memes to persuade you to smoke and other companies create
them to persuade you to buy various kinds of products. We have
to persuade the people of the world, very quickly, to buy the
idea that they must learn to live with less rather than more and
that what is good for everyone is more important than what makes
them feel good right now.

> Incidently, one of the biggest mistakes of standard neo-classical
> economics is the assumption that we know what will make us
> happy (secure).
> If greed was really genetic, wouldn't the situation be hopeless?

It very may well be. Changing human nature takes time and that is
what we are running out of. Attempts to change it have had very
little effect so far. We all mouth the memes of charity and good
will, but we still strive to get more food than we can eat, more
land than we can use, more houses than we can live in, more clothes
than we can wear, etc. It's programmed into us more strongly than
the memes that advise us against it. Despite more than 3,000
years of passing down the ten commandments, we still kill each other
on a daily basis, covet our neighbor's wife (and steal her when
the emotion arises) and property, disrespect our parents, and so on.
Three milliniums of memetic programming have not changed us much.
> >If the supplies of fish are being depeleted
> >with the number of people we have now, in a short time there will
> >be no fish left in the ocean but twice as many people wanting them.
> >Get it?
> Don't be so arrogant, Grant. Why do you think I'm in environmental
> economics? It's because I'm very well aware of "resource depletion"
> (and the fact that these things are more than just resources for
> humans) that I think we should be very clear-minded in
> understanding the causes. In serious situations we need to be
> smarter, not dumber.

I'm sorry if I sounded arrogant. I was just frustrated that with all
the evidence in that article about what was causing the problem, you
could only see the minor contributing cause rather than the main
cause in spite of all the arrows I had pointing at it. Someone
said once, the Tao is a finger pointing at the moon. Don't confuse
the finger for the moon.

I remember once that there was a cat in our backyard getting ready
to jump over the fence. I pointed at the cat and told my dog,
"Look, a cat." The dog kept looking at my pointing finger and
never did see the cat. That is how I feel about trying to point
out what I see as the cause of the worldwide misery that is just
around the corner. All anyone can see is the pointing finger.
You can't see what the finger is pointing at by disecting the