Re: Encoding:- (was Re: Cultural Imperialism as Idea & Meme)

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Tue 01 Jul 2003 - 06:11:28 GMT

  • Next message: Van oost Kenneth: "Re: Encoding:- (was Re: Cultural Imperialism as Idea & Meme)"

    At 10:01 PM 30/06/03 -0500, joe wrote:


    >I agree that some memes are amenable to demonstration rather than
    >(or as well as) elucidation, but there is still an emotional response
    >component to tone sequences which can evoke joy or sadness or any
    >number of emotions in the listener (a kind of musical language), and
    >tunes can be transcribed in musical lotation, as can a description of
    >handaxe-knapping or pot-throwing or cobbling, although the
    >demonstration allows for a starting-point, after which questions may be
    >asked and answered (although some of our ancient ancestors were
    >nonspeakers and still tool-makers).

    The last point is probable, though hard to show until we dig out enough DNA to raise or simulate some of our small brained ancestors. The oldest shaped stone tool goes back about 2 million years. It is possible they were talking at that point, though I don't think it is likely.

    The rest of your points are *strongly* supported by Pascal Boyer's book, Religion Explained. The book *does* explain where religions come from and what quirks of the human mind support these memes. But explains most of the rest of the features of culture along the way, including the really
    "unnatural" development of science.

    There are a few places where Dr. Boyer says things that are practically paraphrases of the way I have put my thoughts on related subjects over the past ten years. Likely just common background, but I can't help wondering if he has read some of my articles. Of course he brings entire areas of anthropology and cognitive science I know only slightly into the discussion.

    This is a book much like _Selfish Gene_ in having a lot of meat to it. It will take reading parts of it over a few times before I can do a decent job of citing his arguments without errors, but I can quote a bit of it.

    After about two pages of discussion about the relative failure over the past centuries of religions to produce a more accurate world view than that produced by science:

    "In contrast, as biologist Lewis Wolpert suggests, scientific activity is quite "unnatural" given our cognitive dispositions. Indeed, many of the intuitive inference systems I described here are based on assumptions that scientific research has shown to be less than compelling. This is why acquiring some part of the scientific database is usually more difficult than acquiring religious representations."

    "What makes scientific knowledge-gathering special is not just its departure from our spontaneous intuitions but also the special kind of communication it requires, not just the way one mind works but also how other minds react to the information communicated. Scientific progress is brought about by a very odd form of social interaction, in which some of our motivational systems (a desire to reduce uncertainty, to impress other people, to gain status, as well as the aesthetic appeal of ingenuity) are recruited for purposes quite different from their evolutionary background. In other words, scientific activity is both cognitively and socially very unlikely, which is why it has only been developed by a very small number of people, in a small number of places, for what is only a minuscule part of our evolutionary history. As philosopher Robert McCauley concludes, on the basis of similar arguments, science is every bit as "unnatural" to the human mind as religion is "natural."6" (page 319-320)

    "To impress other people, to gain status" has been a theme of my speculations about a universal explanation for motivation (not just in science) since perhaps 1995. Because it applies to social primates and I am one, honesty requires that I recognize the fact. Unfortunately, even though it is a major if not *the* major motivation for people, saying so and applying it to yourself is considered really objectionable, especially to a certain judge who has taken me to task in his legal ruling for saying so.

    Of course, I am no more aware of this motivation on a day to day basis than the judge. *He* gave up being a lawyer where he made several times as much money for the higher status job of being a judge. Our deep motivations come from a mess of non-verbal "downstairs" agents we are not even aware of.

    Keith Henson

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