Re: Evolutionarily Stable Strategies (ESSs)

From: Stevan Harnad (
Date: Sun Oct 12 1997 - 19:45:12 BST

> From: Katherine Lyne <>
> ...the connection between memes and genes....
> seems obvious... there is a strong link. Memes are
> cultural ideas that are passed through generations. These, like genes,
> will be the ideas that have best benefited a generation for whatever
> purpose; and so are carried on.

This is all controversial, so I'm not claiming to give the correct
answer, or even the standard one: You could say that a certain string
of arbitrary letters, "Microsoft," has managed to replicate itself from
computer to computer; and not just that: the word "Microsoft," spoken
as it is by every prospective computer buyer. is also being very
successful in replicating itself from generation to generation in
larynxes and brains.

Do we learn anything -- about either evolution or culture -- from this
analogy between the way genes replicate themselves and the way ideas or
words or rituals do? A gene is literally a self-replicator: It does so
in cell-division as well as in sexual reproduction. It's true that it's
the chromosomes or the DNA that we usually point to, when we are
referring to the blueprint, but we can be fairly confident that genes
are not fictions, and that once the human genome project is completed,
we'll know them all.

What is the counterpart for this in the world of "memes"? Ideas
"propagate" (in that I pass mine to you), but do they REPlicate?
Yes, I'm sure there is some sort of similarity to mine in some pattern
or part of your brain when you think the thought that I planted in your
mind. But how do we understand this better by thinking of it as a
self-replicating meme? If Bill Gates somehow went belly-up in the
Darwinian jungle of supply/demand economics, and "Microsoft" vanished
from our computers and our minds, do we learn anything more when we say
it became "extinct"?

> It was interesting that this was raised after the brief discussion
> about the battle of the sexes. Genes dictate that there is this dilemma
> of bear/care where the parent who deserts first is the benefactor as
> the other will have the dilemma. In our culture, the strategy of the
> female to be coy and to use the male to build a home etc is balanced
> with some natural promiscuity. (An ESS) However this is continued
> within memes in the same subject. Cultural ideas, portrayed by various
> means (eg religion, society, morality) back up the ideas of parents
> staying together, life monogamous relationships, etc reinforces the
> care ideals. On the other hand, as our society shows, there is also a
> cultural feeling of promiscuity, single parent families etc is the
> opposite of this. Thus the genetic (?) dilemma is mirrored in the
> dichotomy of the memes within a culture. In this area there seems to be
> an ESS within the care/ bear culture.

It's true that cultural practises can go with or against genetic
inclinations. Perhaps every man would prefer that his partner not be
seen by other men: In the Middle East, this preference -- which is surely
as evolutionary as our preference for sugar -- gets translated into
religious strictures, forcing women to wear veils. In the West, the
cultural influence is the opposite, encouraging explicit advertisement
of sexuality -- especial women's sexuality. The source of both
tendencies is of course biological. The bear/care (also called the R/k
strategies) is routed in the EEA; and we may well have settled into
an ESS that keeps the two in balance; but how does it advance our
understanding to treat the culture the same way we treat the biology:
as the evolution of it's basic entities (the genes and the memes).

I raise these questions just to encourage think about it.

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