Memetic trapping and wars.

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Fri 27 Jun 2003 - 15:01:04 GMT

  • Next message: Keith Henson: "Re: Memetic trapping and wars."

    More thoughts about LeBlanc's book, _Prehistoric Warfare in the American Southwest_. Southwest history is different from other areas only in that the low rainfall and stone construction makes it easier to read the archeological record. LeBlanc goes into an amazing level of detail supporting widespread debilitating conflict over a long time and a large area. The combination of drought and the new "custom" (meme) of raiding over long distances depopulate the Colorado Plateau (24 of 27 substantial communities just died out). LeBlanc is as much mystified by the story he pieces together as anything else. The book is well worth reading. A review is here:

    The conflict, which continued into historical times, long after most of the population had died, reduced the carrying capacity for corn farmers in that area to a level far below what it had been before widespread conflict became the norm. The immediate reason was that once raiding started to happen, the survivors contracted into large densely populated fortified towns, often in defensive locations like the edge of a mesa.

    The towns were good for defense in that they had enough manpower to defeat an attack but (as LeBlanc points out) towns were rotten for farming because the contracted group could only farm a fraction of their former fields--making privation worse. LeBlanc makes the case that most of them died in place. (A fraction most likely migrated to the Rio Grande area.) Assuming wars *are* induced by privation or looming privation what happened about 1250 CE in the Southwest it looks like positive feedback to me. The harvest could not be expanded on the limited amount of land they could farm from a defensive site, so continued privation and the wars it induces became the norm.

    *Chimpanzees* make war against neighboring groups, almost certainly as a result of resource limitations. There is a strong case rooted deep in evolutionary psychology that the human line when facing resource limitations has done the same for millions of years. If you think about it, from a genes viewpoint going to war beats starvation even if you lose and all the men in a tribe are killed. Reason is that in most cases the women and sometimes the children who carry the same genes are incorporated into the tribe that wins (and presumably has more resources per capita).

    Since a group has to be synchronized into attacks, the mechanism where privation leads to war is likely based on an evolved psychological trait where xenophobic memes dehumanizing a nearby tribe propagate well. Privation adjusts the gain setting on memetic propagation if you will. Memes, being epidemic (exponential) in growth curves, respond in very nonlinear ways to gain settings.

    I think "memetic trapping" might describe such positive feedback situations. Privation turns up the gain on xenophobic meme propagation, which induces conflict, the conflict makes privation worse, keeping the psychological mechanisms jammed on that strengthens the xenophobic memes that in turn drive the war. There are lots of modern examples.

    It is possible for groups to escape this feedback trap as may have happened in Northern Ireland. As a guess, lower birth rate there eventually raised the income per capita (in spite of the conflict) which in turn lowered the xenophobic meme propagation/reenforcement gain factor below one.

    The case gets made that wars are caused by governments, militaries, and munitions makers. I don't the people who we see as being in control really are. I suspect that blind effects shaped by evolution and economic
    (resource) conditions are way more important. To put this in graphical terms, Hitler would have stayed a painter if the economic conditions in Germany had not been so bad.

    Keith Henson

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