Re: Memetic trapping and wars.

Date: Wed 02 Jul 2003 - 04:56:51 GMT

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

    In a message dated 6/27/2003 10:03:07 AM Central Daylight Time, Keith Henson <> writes:

    Hi Keith.

    This is interesting. It does seem likely that there is an innate tendency toward hostile ideation during privation. That, in turn, could make people more receptive to hostile ideas expressed by others, thereby contributing to a self- sustained replication, as you say.

    There are, in my opinion, other factors that can also lead to the propagation of hostile ideas during privation. One of them that I discussed briefly in my book Thought Contagion is the simple fact that war is an inherently participatory activity. Thus, when someone in a prehistoric village got the idea of waging war for whatever reason
    (including acquiring more food), he or she would also feel a motive to persuade any fellow villagers who did not already have the same idea. The incentive would consist of getting enough collaborators to make the war happen in the first place and then to prevail once the attack happens. Thus, the idea of going to war could exhibit high transmissivity whether or not there was a strong innate component. There could, of course, be a mixture of innate and non-innate influences on the transmissivity and receptivity enjoyed by the idea of engaging in collective violence or warfare.

    Ideas that help justify a war could exhibit high transmissivity and receptivity for the same reasons. This would include, for instance, beliefs that tend to dehumanize "the enemy." Someone who holds the dehumanizing ideas would want to retransmit them in order to help recruit fellow combatants. This can help propagate dehumanizing ideas to many people who do not have any innate tendency to think that way. But again, there could also be some innate tendency to dehumanize others during severe privation, and if so, this would help increase replication rates -- possibly above the epidemic threshold.

    I put in some addenda to my paper "Thought Contagions in the Dynamics of Mass Conflict" at This includes some discussion about the very general recruitment-based transmissivity of warfare ideas, as well as how factors such as external threats, poverty, religious clashes, etc. can increase the transmissivity and receptivity of ideas favoring war and the specific reasons for war. The addenda also include a discussion of the propagation of beliefs about weapons of mass destruction that could have led to failures of military intelligence in the recent Iraq war.

    Recruitment-motivated transmissivity also helps propagate ideas favoring other forms of collective conflict that do not involve armed violence. This pertains even in the sciences: a scientist who gets the idea of attacking rivals, a theory, etc. can have recruitment motives for spreading their idea of conducting such attacks to others, and of spreading their ideas of how and why to wage the attack. They may even spread ideas that vilify or dehumanize "the enemy." Rather than oil or food, the stakes might be recognition, funding, or jobs. Political battles, legal battles, etc. also involve recruitment motives. Such factors can increase levels of non-violent conflict, litigation, etc. in a society.

    The trapping effect you describe for wars linked to privation is possible with both innate and non-innate influences on links between privation and hostile ideation.

    --Aaron Lynch

    Thought Contagion Science Page:

    > 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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