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Modern Replicators, Worry Worms, and Culture War

by Niklas Haas on January 24, 2021

Tagged as: life, philosophy, society, politics.

The origin of life as we know it is a fascinating tale. The first replicators, ostensibly no more than particularly stable chemical arrangements that happened to spontaneously catalyze amino acids into undergoing the same chemical reaction, set off a chain of events culminating in the evolution of cells, the invention of DNA, and ultimately the permanent establishment of the gene as a unit of natural selection. Over the aeons, these genes have become increasingly inventive at finding ways of copying themselves. They build little houses, organize themselves into communities, and invent all manner of technological solutions to solve the problem of getting themselves fed for long enough to reproduce. Genes appear to have lives of their own - molding, controlling and discarding their hosts in order to survive across generations.

How such a simple chemical process can culminate in something with so much apparent purpose is perhaps one of life’s greatest mysteries. And yet, at some point in our distant past, it happened again! The birth of the meme, and with it, the emergence of culture, heralded the transition to life 2.0. The invention of the brain, and more importantly, of language, catalyzed the start of a second runaway chain reaction. Once we became capable of storing, receiving and transmitting mental states, it first became possible for there to exist mental states that are particularly good at replicating themselves. Ideologies, religions, cultures - these are things that spread primarily because they are good at reproducing. Civilization is a second natural selection of sorts, a natural selection of the ideas that shape us. The ideas that survive are those which are the best at spreading - the ones that are best adapted for manipulating their biological hosts to obey their desire to be communicated.1

It is little wonder, then, why we humans have evolved to crave social connection. One needs not look far for genetic explanations, no more than one needs to look for chemical explanations for why food happens to find its way into the stomachs of animals. Sure, maybe it is better for an individual in a biological survival sense, to be living in a society. But whether or not that’s the case is irrelevant. Our thoughts control our actions, the mind has power over the body. From the point of view of the selfish meme, making us crave social connection allows them to better spread themselves across willing hosts. Furthermore, ideas that are particularly ruthless (and therefore effective) will transform their hosts into bloodthirsty, vicious machines capable of going to war with any potentially opposing ideology - competitors with a sufficiently low degree of memetic relatedness that we fail viewing them as extensions of ourselves. Indeed, it is little wonder why religion is widespread among society - holy wars and blind faith are a fantastic weapon to use in this fight for cognitive resources.

We are very receptive to inflammatory ideas and eager to participate in outgroup hate because our past ideas have increasingly incentivized us to go to war over ideas. The modern political divide is little more than an example of this mechanism in action. Left-wing and right-wing beliefs are competing for survival, and making them hate each other is one of the most effective ways of attacking the opposition; not only in that it allows them to dehumanize the other party enough to go to war over natural resources (and thus be capable of breeding more in-group members), but more importantly, it sets up cognitive barriers to resist any invading beliefs. That we are dumb when discussing politics (or religious/philosophical doctrines), is testament to how frighteningly good these ideas have become at surviving.

If ending the war between cells required homogenizing DNA across the entire culture,2 then ending the war between minds might require homogenizing beliefs across the entire society. I suspect for this reason that the most peaceful (stable) society is one in which individual ideological diversity is at a minimum, and in which any major “corruptions” in opinion are suppressed quickly and ruthlessly - in a manner not unlike the body’s immune system. Indeed, it does not take much imagination to ask the question of whether this form of “world peace” would be a utopia or a dystopia. Rather than a brutal authoritarian regime, however, I suppose that most of us would perhaps prefer a society based on open-mindedness and connectedness. After all, if an idea can easily spread from one host to another, it has little reason to make its hosts go to war with each other. Those ideas that remain viable in such a system would be those that compete effectively for internal thought space, rather than allocation of resources.3

Further complications arise when we consider the ability of memes to be selective in their ability to be comprehended. Ideas requiring an excess in cognitive aptitude or domain specialization, or ideas that rely on experiences only some people are biologically capable of having, are dangerous ideas because they naturally lead to the emergence of subcultures - and once subcultures are capable of emerging, a subcultural belief has an evolutionary advantage if it causes its host to start avoiding interacting with outgroup members. Being able to overcome these issues might require radical advances in our ability to homogenize our biological hardware, as well as directly communicating experiences using more senses than mere words.

To use an example, I suspect that the emergence of class warfare / wage slavery is an example of this in action, in particular with the privileged class being that of the “Machiavellian elite”. Being high on whatever genetic traits predispose you to being able to acquire great amounts of power,4 puts you into an exclusive class of people capable of having such experiences. It just so happens that, in a practical sense, this class (by assumption) is also more powerful than the rest of society. If a particular sentiment of “disdain for the commoners” happens to emerge in a powerful enough such subculture, it would be capable of enslaving the entire rest of civilization to its ends. I think, therefore, that the origin of exploitation of the masses precisely stems from the rarity of whatever genetic traits are required for one to earn lots of money - an inevitable natural consequence of the bell curve of cognitive ability and personality traits.

In any case, what’s clear to me is that, as long as human genetic predispositions are a thing, the unstable dynamics involved are enough that the pursuit of maximum utility needs a good way of preventing exploitative subcultures from getting out of hand - like tumors to be excised from a healthy body. For the reasons discussed previously, I personally suspect that some form of aggressive wealth redistribution, as well as severe punishments for those that try evading it and taking more than their share of the pie, is a fundamental prerequisite to a stable society not built on slavery.5

In addition, I believe that aspiring towards constructive and charitable discourse is a key meme to spread in order to encourage societal stability (and general well-being). By helping each other inoculate against infectious tribal beliefs, we not only set up an immune system against parasitic thought viruses, but also encourage a commonly accepted framework of discourse by means of which we can resolve differences in perspective - in principle, truly open-minded individuals could merely keep sharing evidence until all priors are equal. Though, in practice, I worry about the aforementioned exclusivity issues. From my limited experience with it, the “rationality movement”, for example, seems ripe with the usual issues of intellectual elitism, both intentional and unconscious. I don’t know how to best address that.

  1. This struck me as particularly philosophically profound. If genes can constitute an end, rather than merely a means, then surely so can memes! It is not, therefore, the case that we are slaves to our genetics, as I have previously lamented. If anything, it is our poor bodies - simple and stupid as they are - that are being exploited to the ends of our culture. Purpose is an emergent phenomenon, not an intrinsic one. Living in a society is what gives our thoughts purpose.↩︎

  2. This is not entirely true. It is surely the case that humans are in symbiosis with the bacteria living in their gut, even though this bacteria does not share the human’s DNA. I believe it’s possible, therefore, for rival subcultures to coexist as long as ideological/material trade between them is mutually beneficial.↩︎

  3. It’s not quite clear to me if this is truly better, though. Anecdotally, the thoughts best at competing for internal mental space are those that cause me a great deal of emotional reaction - but given that humans process negative emotions more strongly than positive emotions, this is biased towards the bad. The emergence of world news and mass paranoia might be an example of this phenomenon in action - ideas that serve mainly for the purpose of causing their hosts to worry anxiously about the contents of those ideas are very good ideas at spreading in an open-minded and well-connected society. For all the good the internet is doing in avoiding warfare, it’s also inevitably causing us an excess of worry and mental anguish, demonstrably so in the case of world news and moral panics.↩︎

  4. Which, in practice, appears to me as some combination of high IQ and high dark triad traits.↩︎

  5. Not that societies built on slavery can’t also be stable societies - indeed, even highly efficient ones. After all, the biggest argument for capitalism is that it works. The question of whether or not we should settle for merely continuing to live in a society fundamentally built on enslavement of the working class, however, is a question you both surely already have an opinion on, and a topic which I couldn’t do justice. Personally, I would be willing to accept that there might exist a fundamental trade-off between the fairness of society, and that society’s ability to make materialistic advances.↩︎