Memetic competition and wars (was transmission)

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Mon 19 May 2003 - 03:58:45 GMT

  • Next message: Keith Henson: "Re: Where's meme?"

    At 09:08 AM 17/05/03 -0700, you wrote:
    > >>Memory, idea, rule and performance are great words in their own right.
    > >>Smearing a word like "meme" across them does not seem to add much clarity.
    > >"Poodle, Collie, pit bull, and wolfhound are all great words in their own
    > >right. Smearing a word like "dog" across them does not seem to add much
    > >clarity."
    >Introducing the concept of a dog to underline what poodles, collies
    >and the like have in common...
    >Introducing the concept of a meme to underline what religions, ideas,
    >inventions and the like have in common...
    >Wow, brilliant rebuttal Keith! (No offense Scott...)

    In volley ball there is a term I can't recall for slow balls over the net that can be smacked down with little chance for the opposition to reply.

    I don't get those very often. Thanks Scott!

    In memetic terms, what is going on here among this group (and outside it) is memetic selection. In this case, we are engaged in memetic selection for the meaning of the word "meme." (Driven, of course, by our desire to enhance our status. Status obtained this way doesn't provide much in the way of "additional mating opportunities" any more. Human volution just has not caught up with the fact yet. :-) )

    In the long run, this may be seen as no more important than the Medieval arguments about how many angles can dance on the head of a pin. Or it could be considered of major importance in determining the fate of civilization.

    I don't know how many of you have seen this web site.

    I found it while looking for information on Charles Sheffield. Only thing I would argue with the author about is that memes range from highly parasitic to essential symbiotes. (From a gene's viewpoint.)

    In one of Charles Sheffield's stories (sorry can't remember which one) he included page long description of a race that was subject to periodic destructive meme plagues. When the population built up to a critical level, a meme inducing them to kill each other would spread. The spasm of killing would reduce their numbers back to a very small population.

    I think humans are subject to something similar to Sheffield's imaginary aliens. There are sound evolutionary reasons to believe this psychological trait has roots all the way back to our common ancestor with the chimpanzees.

    The organized killing of one chimpanzee group by another would seem to be meme based since it spreads among a number of chimps. Someone really needs to look at Goodal's reports in this. (See chunk at the end). In humans, memes leading to wars spread well when population has built up to the ecological limit and/or environmental productivity has taken a downturn.

    "Then in the mid-1970s "war" broke out among the chimpanzees studied by Jane Goodall and others at Gombe National Park. Males of one community seemed systematically to annihilate a neighboring group, and infanticide and cannibalism were observed repeatedly, both within and between communities. Similar events soon were observed by Toshisada Nishida and colleagues at Mahale National Park, the only other multi-decade chimpanzee study site (both are in Tanzania, about 150 km apart)."

    It would be really interesting to see if there was drought or some other fall in the productivity of the environment at the time of the chimpanzee wars. Or possibly the population had built up above the carrying capacity.

    There are lots of spectacular events of this kind in the archeological and historical record. The 95% collapse of the human population of Easter Island through wars after environmental destruction comes to mind as does the demise of a substantial population of corn growers in the American Southwest during the Little Ice Age.

    "LeBlanc's conclusion, backed up by archaeological and anthropological fieldwork from New Guinea and Polynesia to the American Southwest and ancient Europe, and by study of our closest primate relatives, is that, for most of their history, Homo sapiens have engaged in lethal, organized violence. Among hunter-gatherers, nomadic pastoralists and agricultural villagers, roughly 20 percent or more males died from or were crippled by wounds inflicted by others. Humans share this savage trait with their chimpanzee cousins, suggesting a link between warfare and primate sociobiology. The immediate cause of this bloody behavior has been the exhaustion of natural resources, especially by agricultural peoples.

    "Over-exploitation of the "carrying capacity" of their environments led to conflicts among human groups and encouraged evolutionary selection for aggression. Resource depletion frequently has been made worse by unperceived climate change, since it occurs over generations, and by mankind's pursuit of short-term needs. Even intelligent leadership could not recognize these causes and invoked divine ones. The ritualization of bloodshed in human and animal sacrifice and the rise of warrior cults were part of the mix - religion and warfare have long been with us. But for humans pressed for food, warfare has been, as LeBlanc points out, a
    "rational choice." "

    I might argue with LeBlanc slightly on his choice of words because while it is "rational" from the viewpoint of genes in a tribal environment, I would bet fair odds that the ability to think rationality is suppressed or even turned off under these conditions. I know it gets turned off in cult members. It would be very difficult to do psychological surveys in the middle of a Hutu/Tutsi conflagration but a number of the attackers reported in confessions afterward that they don't know what madness had come over them.

    Since humans have gone through a very large number of population crashes just from unstable climate, it would be hard to imagine us not being selected for psychological traits that leads to warfare when there is a resource shortage. These traits almost certainly affect how easy we are to be infected with certain classes of memes--particularly those dehumanizing the neighboring tribe about to be attacked.

    All of this has particular application to the current situation in Iraq. Bernard Lewis in "The crisis of Islam" (2003) notes "The combination of low productivity and high birth rate in the Middle East makes for an unstable mix, with a large and rapidly growing population of unemployed, uneducated, and frustrated young men." (page 113) This plus communications and immigration/travel makes the disparity between local conditions and the western countries all to obvious. Has this perception of relative privation turned on the evolved (but now inappropriate) memetic mechanisms to wage war on a richer tribe?

    To sum it up, do we understand what is going on? If so, can you think of anything we can do?

    This is a take-home exam. You have a week to turn it in. :-)

    Keith Henson

    Bygott (1974, 1979), Jane Goodall (1979 et seq) and Goodall et al. (1979) recently reported on the intercommunity relationships of the Gombe (Tanzania) population of chimpanzees, especially episodes of what Goodall literally called
    'primitive warfare'. Parties of up to ten adult males, sometimes accompanied by females and subadults, quite regularly patrol the boundaries, keeping close together, silent and alert, often stopping to listen intently, apparently actively searching for signs of neighbors. Sometimes they climb a tree to scout the
    'hostile' territory of the adjacent community, just like a human reconnaissance party might do (the original community had begun to divide into two separate communities about 1970). If no members of the neigboring community are detected, the patrol may stealthily intrude into the 'enemy' territory. When a fairly large 'enemy' party is encountered both parties may engage in vocal and gestural agonistic displays, or one of them may charge and chase the other away, or both give up and return to their core areas. At other times, a party, upon spotting 'enemies', may flee, thus avoiding encounter. When, however, small parties or single 'enemy' chimpanzees, particularly anestrous females, are encountered by the 'warriors', these may be severely and viciously attacked and killed. Goodall describes several such lethal episodes in some (gruesome) detail. "It seems", she continues, "that we have been observing a phenomenon rarely recorded in field studies - the gradual extermination of one group of animals by another, stronger, group. Why these brutal attacks? The northern males were not defending their own territory, since all the attacks except one were deep within the southern community home range. On the other hand, the aggressor males, before the community split, had access to the area that the southern community took over. If they were merely trying to reclaim territory they had lost, then they have certainly succeeded" (Goodall, 1979). Subsequently, Goodall (1986) reported observations of five lethal attacks, and some 13 more that left the victims - including adults and infants of both sexes - severely wounded and bleeding profusely. Why, she wondered, would the aggressors attempt to kill, maim or injure their victims instead of merely chasing them away?

    Bygott (1979) and Goodall et al. (1979) emphasize that the males actively seek out agonistic interactions with the adjacent community during their patrolling. Also Nishida (1979, 1980) and Itani (1982) have observed similar group antagonism in chimpanzees, which was described by Itani as a "skirmish in a war". On the patrolling behavior of some 'warrior groups' Itani also reports:
    "they looked as if they were aiming for the best chance of encountering another group", or as if they were looking for an opportunity to 'hunt down' conspecifics and inflict fatal injuries (Manson & Wrangham, 1991).

    Furthermore, the attacks were all characterized by "unusual brutality and persistence" (Bygott, 1979), and the observers could not escape feeling that the aggressors were 'intentionally' trying to kill their victims. All observed lethal attacks were unprovoked and lasted at least ten minutes. The victim was deliberately held down by some of the attackers, and subjected to a treatment more brutal than any found in intracommunity aggressive episodes. As Itani
    (1982) phrased it: "antagonistic interactions of a group versus an individual, or a group versus another group, with the intent to kill, is peculiar to chimpanzee society" (Cf. Fossey, 1981; Ghiglieri, 1988; Goodall, 1986; Goodall et al., 1979; Schubert, 1983; Wrangham, 1975, 1979; Manson & Wrangham, 1991). Interestingly, intercommunity encounters involve mostly males. Females
    (usually while in estrous) sometimes accompany males on patrol, but they do not typically initiate 'hostilities' (Goodall et al., 1979; Wrangham, 1975).

    Another intriguing observation is that the intense excitement shown by the aggressors during and after the attacks rather easily 'spills over' into hunting and killing other primates (red colobus or baboons), which might suggest that at least in some instances similar motivational mechanisms may be involved in both intraspecific violence and interspecific predation (Bygott, 1979; Vogel, 1989). Possibly brief attacks on females encountered in overlap zones between neighboring communities attract rather than repel the females concerned
    (Goodall et al., 1979); some young unhabituated females not only remained within the home range but gradually moved into the core area despite occasional attacks (Pusey, 1979). The male gang attacks on the old male Goliath are particularly puzzling, both in view of his extreme old age and his history of long and peaceful associations with the aggressor males. He could in no way be considered a reproductive competitor (Bygott, 1979).

    It appears that the violence of the chimpanzee 'warriors' is especially severe towards old, lactating, and anestrous females, and considerably less severe towards females in estrus, i.e., those with high repoductive value. "In particular, young nulliparous females are not attacked severely and instead may be escorted by or forced to travel with the aggressors (Wolf & Schulman, 1984; Goodall, 1986). This makes sense as part of a male reproductive strategy because such females are destined to transfer to a new group and are therefore potential mates. While lethal attacks were likely to be directed against solitary males and anestrous females, estrous females seem to be considered an attractive and alienable resource which can be transferred into the attackers' group" (Manson & Wrangham, 1981).

    Similarly, Ghiglieri (1984, 1987, 1988) recently reported on the Kibale Forest chimpanzee society in which cooperatively territorial and murderous males were observed to kill the adult males of a smaller group and then absorb their reproductive females (which also may have been a common strategy in hominid warfare). See also Nishida et al. (1985) for an account of the Mahale Mountains National Park chimpanzees.

    Ghiglieri (1987) and Alexander (1989) speculate that this strategy may be a pattern common to the human-chimpanzee-bonobo clade: "Unlike gorillas and orangutans, males of the chimpanzee-bonobo-human clade retain their male offspring predominantly, live in closed social groups containing multiple females, mate polygynously, restrict their ranging to a communal territory, are cooperatively active in territorial defense, and, apparently, when a neighboring community weakens, the males of some communities make a concerted strategic effort to stalk, attack, and kill their rivals as do men" (Ghiglieri, 1987). Especially, the combination of male-male cooperation, territoriality and female transfer has been singled out as the starting condition for lethal intergroup aggression (Goodall, 1986; Ghiglieri, 1987, 1988; Alexander, 1989; Manson & Wrangham, 1991; See also Ch. 8).

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