Re: sexual selection and memes

From: Chris Taylor (
Date: Tue Jun 19 2001 - 15:13:36 BST

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    From: Chris Taylor <>
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    > What about the notion that a lot of cultural behaviours that don't
    > make much sense in terms of survival utility (hence something else must be
    > going on hence memes) may be explainable in terms of sexual selection? I
    > assume you don't buy that either?

    I think the framing of all these questions as being about the
    fitness/survival of the human host is the problem. For starters (and I
    know it's the 'good old' one) what about martyrs - certainly no sex for
    them as a result of their status, but people still become martyrs (and
    much more easily now they can blow themselves to kingdom come). Very
    little of culture makes sense in Darwinian terms if individual humans
    are seen as the units of selection; I didn't mention evolutionary
    psychology in the last full reply to you because I was aware I was being
    a little strident and didn't want to come across as just having a go,
    but this does reek of EP - genes driving behaviour and so on.

    EP tries to rationalise all this stuff with individuals (and groups) as
    the units of selection, but it will never work because the meme(plex) is
    the unit of selection. Like a good disease it doesn't kill the host
    unless it is to it's ultimate benefit (for example, maybe the equivalent
    of some made-up fungus that has to kill its host to fruit or something)
    or doesn't matter (because it spreads faster than the penalty, or even
    because the penalty itself is a positive factor [honourable death =
    salvation]), hence our martyrs. This can result in a fitness gain for
    the host if host fitness does equate with meme fitness, but there should
    be no doubt about who is in charge in this relationship. Whenever
    something appears to be selected for in a host for no reason, do not
    look for a reason applying to the host, but to the hosted. Behaviours
    are selected for or against because of their interaction with resident
    memes, not the likelihood of host reproduction.


    Memes fundamentally need hosts, but I see no advantage to a meme in
    getting anyone *in particular* to reproduce, mostly because the main
    mode of transmission of these things is horizontal, not vertical (with
    some notable exceptions, for example there is quite a lot of paranoia in
    Northern Ireland about Catholics trying to 'outbreed' Protestants).

    On some of the other points you raised:

    I agree that big memeplexes are hard to transmit, but as you say, they
    do change over time, so that seems to reinforce the choice of a memetic
    route of transmission (and the rate of change is far too quick to be
    genetic anyway). Also we should consider HIV here - this virus is
    absolutely bloody awful at making good copies of itself, which as we
    know is part of it's power and therefore a good thing for it; but also
    we should consider the idea of a master (='average') sequence (which may
    not actually exist in the population) - this 'centre of gravity' of the
    quasispecies moves much less quickly than the fringes of the population,
    in a sense, errors in different direction cancel out. This is perhaps
    easier to conceive of with memes actually - if ten people misreport a
    saying, I'll bet you could find all the bits of the original there,
    because they'll have made different mistakes, so the 'true centre' still
    gets transmitted on average. Sorry that was a bit muddled but hey.
    Fundamentally, large chunks of culture do get lost, bent, horribly
    misinterpreted and so on - this to me though reinforces the
    applicability of the memetic model over the genetic altenative -
    genetics would produce faithfull staid boring repetition - imagine if
    our cultures were only as diverse as our bodies.

    As for the birdsong one, that seems uncontroversial to me - songbirds
    often learn their songs from local older birds, so population divergence
    wouldn't be too hard even if it was purely by chance (some Hawaiian
    crickets speciate purely[...] because of chance song divergence, for
    example); and the other thing to consider is that rarely does anyone
    have all the facts in these scenarios; I'd want to know about brood and
    adult parasites, and *their* response to altitude and temperature; about
    food sources at different heights, and the strategies for
    obtaining/utilising them; about predators, energy budgets, habitat; any
    of these could drive population divergence through local adaptation,
    which would lead to low fitness 'inter-racial' offspring, fuelling the
    development of premating isolation mechanisms such as song divergence.

    Btw I'd be interested to hear Miller's arguments concerning the cultural
    vs. biological timescales, and especially those about genetic drift
    (primarily because that is my 'nuclear' argument for the EP people).

     Chris Taylor ( »people»chris

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