Re: Memetic trapping and wars.

Date: Mon 07 Jul 2003 - 20:30:28 GMT

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    In a message dated 7/7/2003 2:23:23 AM Central Daylight Time, Keith Henson <> writes:

    > >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.

    Hi Keith.

    Basically, we agree that genetic evolution (evolutionary psychology) is the process that leads to innate psychological dispositions. Personally, I think that certain details of exactly what innate predispositions have evolved and how specific they are for humans remain to be uncovered, however. For instance, tendencies toward hostile ideation during privation could in principle help to precipitate war even in a species (e.g., hypothetical extraterrestrials) in which prior wars had not occurred, and hence, for which spoils of war were not among the evolutionary causes for the innate disposition toward hostile ideation during privation. In such a case, the evolutionary mechanism might be that hostile ideation leads organisms to gain spoils individually by aggressive or defensive actions against other individuals. Both mechanisms may have been involved in human genetic evolutionary history.

    > But our brains burn fuel at a high rate and we can't go without high
    > 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.
    > True.
    > >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.

    Right. Prevention of clandestine collusion with "the enemy" by "traitors" is one of the reasons for continued motivation for recruitment of and proselytism of jingoistic or dehumanizing ideas even after enough fellow combatants have been recruited to win the conflict.

    > >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.

    Well, I am not going to furnish an example of individuals or societies *known* to lack innate dispositions toward collective violence. The project of sorting out possible innate factors from non-innate factors would benefit considerably from knowing which genes or gene complexes or genotypes cause innate propensities toward collective violence, and by what ontogenetic mechanisms. Knowing that might allow one to see how much of violent behavior or hostile ideation could be attributed to inculcation with jingoistic ideas versus biological inheritance of specific genetic factors. But evolutionary psychology is not this developed yet. Still, it might be possible to learn from identical twins who underwent different inculcation histories, perhaps by being separated into military and civilian careers, or by being separated into different nations. But I have not designed such a study.

    > >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
    > 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
    > 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.)

    I would add that much of the mapping of ancient psychological traits into reactions and ideas about the current world depends upon replicated and replicating inculcations and imitations of ideas. On must be inculcated with ideas about what petroleum is and how it is presently used in order to become excited about shortages or instabilities in its supply. The fact that the military depend on oil is another crucial point, and an idea whose inculcation results in mapping thoughts about oil shortages into thoughts about violent threats from conspecifics.

    > 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
    > about "victimization" as either explanation or "driving force" since
    > previous to today I didn't have it connected to something deeper.

    Can you suggest a representative article or two by Arel Lucas?

    I should point out here that I am not trying to promote some kind of taboo against "the M word" (meme). Since the time you and I discussed the definition back in 1996, some definitions that are more radically contrary to each other have emerged. A widespread perception has developed that memeticists are being evasive about the definition, or that the sharply contrary definitions reflect fundamental conceptual or theoretical flaws, or even that the theory depends upon having this particular word. This creates some reasons for relying on other terms, and for making sure that those terms are explicitly defined. Currently, I am using the phrase "thought contagion" to denote "A memory item, or portion of an organism's neurally-stored information, identified using the abstraction system of the observer, whose instantiation depended critically on causation by prior instantiation of the same memory item in one or more other organisms' nervous systems." However, it is not necessary for me to use the term "thought contagion." I find the term convenient, but there is nothing sacred about it. I could just as well attach some other term to the same definition. The theoretical paradigm I am using does not depend upon having the particular phrase "thought contagion," and I could, if I wanted to, rephrase all of my work without it. For those who prefer the word "meme," I recommend including a copy of your own preferred formal definition in each article -- perhaps at least as a footnote. It might even be wise for people on this list to include the particular definitions they use in a signature file for all messages that use the term. I would recommend this even for people using the OED definition. The emphasis on imitation (as distinct from inculcation + imitation) in the OED definition is one of the aspects of that definition that cannot be assumed to be the same as the meaning that others intend when using the term.

    > So in the mode of evolutionary psychology, we ask where did
    > 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
    > the survivors of many smaller groups typically built large fortified
    > structures, sometimes dismantling their previous homes for stones. He
    > 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
    > 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,
    > jingoistic "going to war" memes by getting people to feel like victims.

    This all seems quite plausible as well.

    > >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
    > 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

    Thanks for commenting.

    --Aaron Lynch

    Thought Contagion Science Page:

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