Wednesday, 21 January 2009

925 - Love Memes and Data Leaks

In Post 932, I started to pull some ideas together about Love. I defined it as the quality of expending oneself for another, with no thought of cost to oneself. I wondered why it was not explored in greater depth by neuroscientists, by which I guess, I meant, I wondered why I had not heard more reference made to it in the books on neuroscience, anthropology and evolutionary and positive psychology that I enjoy reading.

Well, there's at least one book: Why We Love, by Helen Fisher, an anthropologist. Richard Dawkins refers to it approvingly in The God Delusion. I'd like to hunt it down.

Dawkins is making the case that in the same way that romantic love tips us head over heels, so does religion. He wonders if religion is a result of our capacity to love one another misfiring in response to the wrong stimuli. In fact, a whole barrowful of misfirings, in response to a barrowful of the wrong stimuli, not just those related to love.

He proceeds to describe in detail how units of cultural inheritance may perpetuate themselves, by natural selection and random drift, in the same way that genes do. These units are, of course, memes. Religions might be collections of memes, replicating themselves the way viruses do, riding on the firings and misfirings of our neural networks, without necessarily bestowing benefits upon ourselves. My ears pricked up as I read Dawkins' exceptionally clear summary of memetics. When I started to write about data, at the beginning of the week, I was on meme territory.

If data are the raw components of information out of which culture is formed, memes are specific collections of data organised to replicate themselves within that culture. If all data leaks, or in Dawkins' expression, drifts, then no mere meme-barrier is sufficient to firewall an idea against change induced from the outside. Just as a virus can insert itself through a cell-wall into the DNA of that cell, so can a meme within a fundamentalist ideology.

I like Richard Dawkins, a lot. But where he is unremittingly negative about religion, using his insights I reckon I can be a bit more positive. The definition of Love I started with is a cultural unit. In that it defines one's highest fulfilment as the fulfilment of the needs of others, it bestows a sense of purpose and well-being on oneself. A community behaving in such a way acts reciprocally, and everyone's needs are, as far as the environment renders it possible, met. The cultural unit at the heart of such a culture is passed on. Therefore it is a meme.

If Love, so defined, is a meme, it is closer to the DNA of an optimally functioning human being than to a self-interested virus riding piggy on the DNA's back. But just as genes don't work in isolation, nor do memes.

Central to Dawkins' idea of genetic transfer is that genes that can co-opt elements in their environment to work for them stand a better chance of survival than those that are exposed to attack on all sides. So genes have evolved to build a casement around themselves - the phenotype - us. And if the environment fluctuates, the gene that can create a responsive phenotype is the one that succeeds. Draw a direct parallel: memes that survive exist within cultural phenotypes, the most successful of which can respond to changes in their environment. Sometimes a gene can ditch most, if not all, of its phenotype. Major geological catastrophes result in the decline of huge numbers of species, but result in subsequent speciation of the survivors to fill newly available environmental niches. Why should we not expect the same thing to happen culturally?

Here's a theory. Religions such as Christianity have evolved as cultural phenotypes designed to perpetuate the Love Meme. No meme is more successful than this, because no meme satisfies its host psychologically at the same time as he or she is satisfied physically (by the efforts of others loving the host, and by the host's efforts, seeking to remain healthy in order best to love others back). Christianity is a fairly successful phenotype, but if all it is is the co-option of various cultural values and stories designed to carry and protect the core value of Love, then, should those accretions no longer prove useful, they may be ditched and replaced by others without harm to the Love Meme itself. Given the vast and incremental weight of cultural (including scientific) achievement gathered over two millenia, it would actually be surprising if new cultural phenotypes were not to be tried and found successful. The language and culture of genes and memes may well furnish just such a new phenotype. I hope so.

The question remains, is Christianity (for instance) any more than the Love Meme in Judaeo-Roman cultural clothes? What of its claim to be a revelation of God? Here the hard question must be asked by Christians, if John was content to define God as Love, and if Love is defined as that which gives all without thought of itself, then is there any need to explain spirituality as anything other than one's subjective experience of a loving reality? Though a hard question might also be asked by atheists: if subjective reality includes a genuine experience of the divine, even if understood in terms of a cultural phenotype, provided it does not contradict the core message of the Love Meme, should it really be dismissed out of hand?

Speaking dualistically for a moment, Spirit might be something different to the material world, I guess, but if its essence is Love, materially expressing itself in that world, then miracles and other funny stuff can only ever be an added bonus.

I've made it my business to understand the way Love works. It's really all my business. If it is a key phenomenon of humanity, time spent developing new ways of talking about it, celebrating it, passing it on, cannot be a wasted activity, can it? If it really doesn't meet our core needs for survival, we should know about it, sooner rather than later. If it does, then the more of it around, the better. I guess that makes me a vicar of sorts, but at this stage in our cultural development I don't think the endorsement of a particular religion is helpful. Probably ever thus. Somebody will pay me for what I do, if I ever need the money.

4 comments:

Andy said...

i can also recommend "the origins of virtue" by matt ridley. how evolution might explain all kinds of behaviour.

Steve Lancaster said...

Hi Andy, thanks for dropping in again!

I've got Matt's book waiting on the shelf, and Mark Hauser's - Moral Minds: the unconscious voice of right and wrong.

My own (very provisional!) take on morality is that rather than the dualism of right/ wrong; black/white, it would make more sense to think in terms of homeostasis. So behaving morally becomes behaving most humanly (and vice versa)...

What do you think?

Andy said...

[sinister] I'm your number one fan![/sinister].

not sure what you mean.
homeostasis: feedback mechanisms for things like body temperature.

do you mean we behave in a certain way because of feedback received from society?

Steve Lancaster said...

Andy, you're kind of my only fan!!! Keep posting ;)

Homeostasis - feedback mechanisms evolved to keep the body's internal environment suitable for life? So temperature: not too hot, not too cold. Moisture: not too dry, not too turgid (right word?). Consciousness: not too bored, not too overloaded with information. Morality towards oneself: not too strained by pain, not too strained by pleasure? Morality towards others: not too painful, not hedonistic at the expense of another's health?

Fishing around here a bit, but not really about society telling us what to do - more what our bodies tell us is optimal for us?