Re: Memetic trapping and wars.

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Sun 06 Jul 2003 - 20:47:52 GMT

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    >At 12:56 AM 02/07/03 -0400, Aaron wrote:
    >>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.

    Right. Only I would read "innate" as evolved, or wired-in, argument being that genes conferring such a psychological trait do better over evolutionary time than ones conferring a more placid approach to starvation. If humans had a different approach to times of shortage (like the mud fish do to a shortage of water) evolution would have selected an entirely different psychology.

    But our brains burn fuel at a high rate and we can't go without high energy food very long.

    >That, in turn, could make people more receptive to hostile
    >ideas expressed by others, thereby contributing to a self-
    >sustained replication, as you say.

    It only takes a slight positive gain for a system to go from one state to another.

    >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.

    Ideally, you want the entire village behind a war.

    >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.

    I have no idea of how you *could* sort out "innate" (built in) psychological components from "non-innate" components. An example might help a lot here.

    >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 have been thinking about this. Humans practice exogamy, marrying outside their village. Many times the very people who you would go to war with were also the source of wives. I.e., in non-privation/non-war times a tribe swapped women with the very neighbors they went off to kill.

    It seems to me that dehumanizing a neighboring group would take some time given previous relations of this kind.

    There must be studies on this point, perhaps of the Yanomano.

    It just occurred to me that one of the social problems the Pueblo might have encountered in moving into larger defensive groups was the effect of the kids being raised together. It is well known from the Israeli kibbutzim experience that raising kids together triggers an incest taboo. They are most reluctant to consider each other as marriage partners. This mechanism probably let to small isolated human groups failing. (The smallest long isolated group known was the Tasmanians who numbered about 4000.) Was this a factor in three groups, the Hopi, Zuni and Acoma that survived when 24 others failed?

    I have not previously had an interest in the Hopi, Zuni and Acoma societies. Does anyone have good pointers into the literature?

    >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.

    All this is possible. We can only guess at this stage about how psychological traits evolved over a long time in tribes would map into the current world. That these traits led to wars over game and later farm land is obvious. That oil shortages might be mapped into food shortages by current humans is entirely possible. (In fact, the relation makes sense given the essential role of oil in food production.)

    In your paper, two paragraphs up from the section "The 11th September event" you discuss "victimization." Arel Lucas (my wife) has extensively discussed "victimization" as a psychological component that drives group cohesion and "thought contagion" (she uses the M word). Though I agree with her thoughts and yours on this subject, I have long felt uncomfortable about "victimization" as either explanation or "driving force" since previous to today I didn't have it connected to something deeper.

    So in the mode of evolutionary psychology, we ask where did "victimization" come from, and why was it important enough to be such a motivating psychological element? In other words, why did people who had this particular psychological trait survive better than those who did not?

    Stated that way, it becomes obvious that the function of this trait was to invoke mutual tribal defense in social primate groups in response to attack. It didn't matter if it were lions or other humans who were doing the attacking. Genes that build psychological mechanisms that respond to predation by inducing strong cooperation (bonding together) and defending the attacked tribe are going to do better than genes that don't. (Shared genes even if you die defending your relatives.)

    Because humans communicate, you don't need to be a first hand victim of attack to activate this psychological mechanism. You don't even need for your tribe to be attacked. Rumor that the next tribe over is making large numbers of clubs, arrows, bullets or A-bombs is enough to turn on this strong "joint-defense-when-attacked" mechanism.

    (LeBlanc's book on prehistoric warfare in the Southwest discusses the response of groups to being attacked. Within a short time after an attack, the survivors of many smaller groups typically built large fortified structures, sometimes dismantling their previous homes for stones. He also sees places where two groups with different cultures built adjacent structures for common defense. Without a doubt, some built forts *before* being attacked.)

    My "Sex, Drugs, and Cults" paper discussed minor uses by cults of the capture-bonding (Stockholm syndrome) psychological mechanism and went into details on how cults (cult memes) hijack the evolved attention-reward psychological mechanism.

    It is now obvious to me that humans have a strong evolved psychological imperative for "joint-defense-when-attacked."

    I find it hard to see this social primate psychological trait as a weakness any more than capture-bonding or attention-reward since it has been an essential response to attack for millions of years. But it is clear that this psychological mechanism can *also* be hijacked by cults, demagogs, and jingoistic "going to war" memes by getting people to feel like victims.

    >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.

    And the more of these psychological mechanisms you combine, the stronger the effect. Pascal Boyer makes this case in _Religion Explained_.

    As a personal example, scientology staffers were subjected to privation and at the same time told the privation (feeding staff members on $7-8 a week) was because scientology was a victim of Internet attacks and money for their food was being diverted so lawyers would have plenty of money to sue evil "suppressives" like me.

    Keith Henson

    >--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
    >This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
    >Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
    >For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing)

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