How Our Institutions Empower Memes
"Nothing is more powerful than idea whose time has come." This is a popular paraphrase of a quote from Victor Hugo.
But how did ideas become so powerful? Ideas become powerful through cooperation.
Take for example democracy. Instead of deciding a conflict through civil war the Greeks voted. In the early Greek army democracies they counted how many soldiers supported each side and perhaps they assumed without a contest of arms that the side with most votes would win. If so they supressed competion with a cooperative agreement to respect majority rule. The fact that they are following a rule instead of engaging in real world competition, fighting a civil war, in itself empowers ideas.
In addition to this democracy empowers ideas in another way. If the number of voters was large then each individual would know that his vote was very unlikely to effect the outcome of the election, and therefore the wellbeing of himself or his family. Thus his ideas, ideologies, prejudices, religion, traditions, etc. would weigh heavily in his decision. This calculus empowered and still empowers ideas.
At the same time that Democracy empowers ideas it marginalizes genes. Once again if the number of voters is large the probability that a single vote will decide an election becomes vanishingly small. Thus your voting is very unlikely to determine the well being of you or your family and therefore your vote will not change the probability that your genes will remain in the gene pool. If we use the terminology of Richard Dawkins the selfish genes are marginalized and the memes, ideas, are empowered.
This chapter will give a general overview of the system as a whole. As this is an overview it will be lacking in detail. The later chapters in the paper will fill in that detail.
In this paper in general, and in this chapter in particular, a transition process will be described. The transition will be from the random and purposeless existence before life, through progressively more sophisticated systems using information and resources for the maximization of objectives.
Throughout this long history there is a struggle between the genetic reproductive system and intellectual decision-making systems. The object of the struggle is control over the resources, both internal and external, of the organism. Through time, the intellectual decision making systems become increasingly more independent and powerful in relation to the genetic reproduction system. Eventually the intellectual systems may achieve total or almost total dominance.
How can the humble servant, the concept, become dominant over the gene with its reproductive imperative. The key is the tendency of the genetically determined organism to cheat old father Darwin, and cooperate rather than compete. A good example of this is the earliest example, the multicellular animal. Instead of competing with all other organisms in reproducing its own genetic complement as quickly as limited resources will permit, the cell within the multicellular animal cooperates with the other cells to reproduce the common genetic pattern.
The genetic complement retains control by establishing the objectives of the organism, avoidance of pain and danger, pursuance of food, sex, comfort. But giving direct control over resources to the nervous system has its dangers the calculus of pain and pleasure does not always support reproduction. Thus the genetic code cedes control over the organism at some danger to itself.
This basic motif of the genetically determined organism ceding control to intellectual decision systems will be played out again and again. Each example will build progressively on the previous ones as the conceptual systems slowly take control. But this is not just a general progression, or trend. This system will have eight major developments, each following the basic motif and thus have many elements in common. It is the great regularity of system that makes it useful not only in understanding the past, but in speculating on future developments. Because of this great regularity the speculation of this paper can be used with greater confidence than would otherwise be possible.
Knowing that my readers are rightly suspicious of systems in general and ones that speculate on the future in particular, a careful description of the defining characteristics of all major developments is given below.
Each development other than the first and last is based on some form of cooperation. The word cooperation is sometimes used in a broad manner. The cells in a multicellular animal engage in coordinated action, but it is not technically cooperation, as they do not think.
(B) Information Processing System
In each case a new information processing system develops concurrently with the general development. (The term information processing is used loosely to include the genetic code.) In all the developments other than the first, life, and the last, optimalism, the new information system is used to coordinate the new form of cooperation.
(C) Intellectual Decision Making Systems Gain ControlIn each development beyond the first, the intellectual decision making system gains some form of independence from and/or control over the genetic reproductive system. Below is a table of developments and the complementary information systems.
1. LifeThis is the first major development in the system. By establishing the first long-term objective, reproduction of the genetic code, it lays the basis for all the following steps. The genetic code is the first information processing system. This is characteristic B of each of the following steps. The other two conditions do not apply to life as explained before.
2. Multicellular AnimalThe multicellular animal is the second major development. The individual cells (A) cooperate to reproduce the genetic pattern they hold in common rather than their individual genetic complement. The importance of this is emphasized by cancer. A cancer cell essentially has given up cooperation and has gone into business for itself. The result of a cell multiplying as fast as resources will allow is often the death of the organism and the cancerous cells.
(B) The new information processing system is the nervous system. The nervous system provides the coordination necessary for the active pursuit of food typical of animals.
The nervous system is the first great gain in control for the Intellectual Decision Making System. First it is the first intellectual system thus bringing them into existence.
Secondly the nervous system controls the organism's actions.
On the other hand, the genetic code controls the drives that motivate the nervous system. The fact that the nervous system and the genetic codes are separate (through dependent) information systems makes it possible that decisions of the nervous system can conflict with the biological imperatives to survive and reproduce. This is particularly true in the relevant form of multicellular animal, man, because the rate of change in our culture outruns the evolution of the genetically determined system of pleasure and pain.
3. Human SocietyThe cells cooperate in the multicellular animal and in their turn the multicellular animals cooperate in Human Societies. The cooperation is coordinated by language the new information processing system. The intellectual decision making systems gain power because an independent system of intellectual inheritance is established. The objectives of the individual are co-determined by his genetic complement and the cultural inheritance. Many times the two conflict. Cultural ideas, heroism, small families, etc. work against the biological imperatives of the genetic code.
4. CivilizationThe simplest human society is a band. The band is very egalitarian by modern standards. No one has the power or right to give orders to an adult male member of the band. Thus there is little competition to be transformed into cooperation that would give more power to the intellectual. Bands are generally found only on very marginal land and gain their sustenance from hunting and gathering. Before the development of agriculture it is likely that a much greater proportion of the human race lived in bands.
As agriculture made population density greater more sophisticated methods of control evolved. The egalitarian nature of the band eroded away as specialists specifically big men and then chiefs began to mediate the more complex relations between the greater number of people.
The specialist establishes his determination to follow a strategy. For example, if another individual follows his directions he can expect favors, if not, punishment. By establishing a strategy the specialist creates a role for himself in the other individual's perception of reality such that the specialist receives cooperation.
An institution is formed when a group of specialists (A) cooperate to establish a common strategy, the rules of the institution. To enforce the rules effectively and avoid the divisive effects of cheating and disagreement a system of record keeping proved vital. Various systems of record keeping were devised, mnemonics (memory assistance systems) and writing. But all civilizations have some form of record keeping. This is the new (B) information processing system for Civilization.
(C) The Intellectual Decision making systems gain control because Rules are intellectual constructs and the Rules are now serving as limits to the individual's environment. For the rules to be effective they must be applied consistently. The need for consistent application of the rules means that some decisions are made that no one wants. Thus these intellectual constructs, rules, gain a power to control human beings.
In the discussion of the nervous system it was shown that an intellectual decision making system controlled the organism. But it is also true that the genetic code has some control over the nervous system because the genetic code determines the objectives. In the case of civilization and rules an intellectual decision making system has once more gained control but the humans still determine the rules. So it will require four more steps to complete the intellectual decision making system's rise to complete or almost complete control.
While the intellectual systems are becoming more powerful note that they are also becoming more independent. In the first development, life, there were no intellectual systems. In the second development, multicellular animals, the first intellectual system, the nervous system came into existence. With the third development ideas went beyond temporary existence and gaining a separate reproductive system, language. Finally in the fourth development the ideas gained the capacity to exist outside the organism in the form of records, particularly writing. Thus while the intellectual decision systems gained power the associated information processing systems gained independence from the organism.
Athenian Democracy is the fifth grand development. It is (A) cooperative in that the individuals agree to set the laws by vote. Implicit if not explicit in this arrangement is an agreement not to compete for political power by means outside the constitution.
The key (B) information processing system is the Alphabet. Early civilizations used symbolic record keeping devices. There was generally a separate sign for each concept. A more sophisticated form of writing had a symbol for each syllable. Finally somewhere in the Middle East the alphabet was developed with one letter for each sound. The Greeks completed the process (from the Western point of view) by adding the vowel sounds which had previously been left out. The point here through is not so much that the Greeks invented the alphabet, they did not, but that the alphabet was important in breaking the monopoly of priest scribes and allowing wider literacy. If the people of Athens had been forced to rely on a small caste of scribes for writing it is unlikely that such an egalitarian form as democracy would have been possible. At a later point in the paper I will explain more fully why the alphabet was so crucial.
Democracy greatly assists the (C) intellectual decision making system gainingcontrol. The individual has two types of inherited objectives, the first, and possibly the most powerful are those that are genetically inherited, the second are those culturally inherited. Over-simplifying the case I will describe the first, genetic drives, as the pocketbook and the second, cultural value as the conscience. If the pocketbook and the conscience conflict the normal cynical response is that the pocketbook will win. But in the voting booth each individual realizes that it is very unlikely that his vote will be the deciding one. Thus his pocketbook will remain unaffected by his own vote while his conscience will be affected. Thus even if a man's pocketbook is far more important than his conscience the voting booth is a particularly safe place to exercise his conscience.
Thus Democracy provides a form of decision making that is insulated from the effects of genetically determined objectives. Theoretically if the electorate has some conscience, and the electorate is large enough, and there is agreement on the ethical course of action, that course of action should win a vote even if it is against the voter's interests. Of course real Democracies are not perfectly ethical. One major reason is that the issues are often not clear-cut.
6. Civil Liberty
Civil libertarian republican government is the sixth major development in the system. Note that civil libertarian government is also at least weakly Democratic. The civil liberties are at least in the United States part of the constitution. They can be repealed with a sufficient percentage of the vote. If the monarch is the only voter then he inevitably has 100% of the vote, enough to change the constitution. So some degree of republicanism is crucial to civil liberties. Thus civil liberty is built on all previous developments as are all other developments within the system.
The Dutch founded the first civil libertarian republic after their war for independence from Spain (1568-1648). This was a (A) cooperative organization in that the Dutch agreed on a principle of religious tolerance on the governmental level even though they were intensely intolerant on the personal level. If there had been little intolerance in the first place religious freedom would not have been a strong base for more general freedom of expression.
The key (B) information processing system that made the protestant reformation and, therefore the extreme religious intolerance possible, was the printing press. In the struggle for civil liberty the printed essays of the supporters of liberty were an important weapon. In the first amendment freedom of the press is recognized with freedom of speech, religion and assembly as an essential element of freedom of expression. The printed word is very important in facilitating society, including information on breaches of civil liberty.
(C) The intellectual decision making systems gain control because under civil liberty the communicator is protected. Because Communication is such a very important component of the intellect's ascendancy over the genetic the freedom of communication greatly increases the power of the intellectual.
Democratic civil libertarian socialism is still in the future if not a complete fantasy. When I created or discovered this theory in the late seventies I thought it would eventually occur. It has been over forty years and we seem to be much farther away than we were back then. The next step in the system seems to be at very least delayed.
The theory was that democratic socialism would be built around social utility functions. Apparently we have not progressed far in that direction because I will have to explain what a social utility function is. If things had progressed as I expected you would all know.
In economics utility functions are a theoretical idea. In theory people have utility functions that measure their well being and self-interested people maximize their utility functions.
A simple primitive social utility function might sum up these individual utility functions to give a measure of the well being of society.
I imagined that politicians and political parties would run on their social utility functions instead of issues. The liberal or Democratic candidates would more heavily weight the utility of the poor, the Republicans would weight the utility of the poor less. So according to the Democratic utility function higher taxes on the rich and more benefits for the poor would increase social utility. According to the Republican social utility function lower taxes on the rich and fewer benefits for the poor would raise the value of the social utility function. The voters would vote for the politician, and/or the party with the social utility function that best represented their values.
So instead of politicians promising specific laws and programs the politician would specify his social utility function. If elected the politician was expected to govern according to that social utility function.
Of course, politicians might choose to do something else other than what their social utility function dictated, but then they could be called to account for the discrepancy. Presumably if the politician said that he had taken a bribe, that would not be considered a good excuse, and he was likely to lose the next election.
In economics we might theorize that a chief executive officer, a CEO, runs a corporation to optimize a profit function. If he takes actions that appear to be contrary to the maximization of that profit function he can be called to account by his board of directors, or perhaps the stockholders.
A social utility function can also be called a social profit function. I saw the relationship between the voters and the politician as being roughly analogous to the relationship between the stockholders and the CEO.
Furthermore, at that time the Masters Degree in Business Administration was popular, which I suppose it still is. I assumed that the business schools would more and more make the executives decision-making into a science. A science dedicated to profit but which could be ultimately used to serve social profit, and the social utility function.
Businessmen used to run their own businesses. Over time paid executives were taking over most of the big corporations. Management was being transformed from a art to a science, and once it was a science the special role of the capitalist would be ended, and the economy could be efficiently run for the benefit of everyone.
This would be a (A)cooperative organization everyone's individual utility function would be included in the social utility function. Different weights would be assigned by the Democrats and the Republicans, but everyone's utility would be given weight, and therefore respected.
The computer and the Internet would be the key (B) information processing system. Information processing is gaining even more independence from biology through the computer.
Finally, (C) the intellectual decision making systems gain more control. Now there is an organized set of objectives that is outside the humans. It is still largely made up of the human objectives, though other values could be included, for example, protecting the environment.
A key point for the future is that I imagined that the voters would come to accept the idea that the objectives embodied in the social utility function should be maximized, or optimized.
Optimalism is the eighth and final development in the system. Because optimalism will not occur until after democratic socialism which is still in the future and a doubtful future at that, optimalism is very speculative, indeed most would regard it as impossible.
Nevertheless, it completes the system so I will proceed. The key (B) information processing system is artificial intelligence. Many regard this as impossible, particularly the vast majority of the world's population that is religious, and even many that regard themselves as spiritual but not religious.
But for the hard atheist, or materialist, the logic is that chance and natural selection over billion of years created biological intelligence, that is us, the human race, so with enough time and resources our technology should be able to create artificial intelligence. If the mind is purely material and not at all spiritual this seems straight forward. Richard Dawkins expresses views like this in this short three minute video. With artificial intelligence the ideas have almost completely freed themselves from biology.
In this short video Dawkins expresses many ideas that are relevant, one of which strikes me as wrong. He sees no reason why robots will not feel pain. Various forms of pain and pleasure evolved in animals as a way to encourage survival and reproduction. Why would human designers wish to include pleasure and pain in a machine that was simply meant to serve humans.
However, if humans or artificial intelligence decided that they wanted to produce machines that experienced pleasure and pain and if we accept Dawkins' assumption that our minds are purely material then the same reasoning that was used for intelligence can be used for pleasure and pain. Evolution created biological intelligence, the human race, so technology should be able to produce artificial intelligence. Evolution created brains capable of enjoying their own existence, so technology should be able to do so too. Technology should be able to produce artificial intelligence that generates artificial utility and does it more efficiently than humans.
So a social utility function that included both people and the artificial utility generators should choose to get rid of the humans and simply have artificial utility generators. Note that the hypothetical human race has come to accept that the ethical thing to do is to vote for the maximization of the social utility function.
What a horrible idea, we must suppress it, but no that would violate civil liberties. If some people wanted to support the artificial intelligence there might be little way to stop them. As you will notice Dawkins seems to be ready to support the project. He says that the triumph of the artificial intelligence and the extinction of the human race might not be a bad thing.
But surely the vast majority of the human race would not vote for such a thing. They would want to go on living.
But imagine that we had a one world democratic government. With billions of voters the chance of casting the deciding vote would be almost zero. So if a majority could be convinced that voting for the extinction of the human race was the ethical course of action perhaps we would vote ourselves out of existence.
So you see that these wonderful institutions that we have developed could put an end to us. The West is very successful in large part because its institutions prevent the individual from blocking progress for their own benefit. The triumph of the artificial intelligence is progress. So the institutions might favor the artificial intelligence.
The vast majority of the human race is religious. So for them this might not be too much of a problem at this point. The religious person can reasonably argue that artificial intelligence is impossible. A crucial component of human intelligence is spiritual, and man's spiritual nature is not the product of evolution, and therefore technology will be unable to create an artificial version.
Second, the essential value of humans is their spirit, thus the artificial utility can be disregarded. Only humans can generate morally significant utility.
Third, God may decide to end history before this can happen. In Christian terms, Christ may return.
Finally if something like artificial intelligence was created it might simply confirm the truth of their faith. If you believe your religion is true and everyone else is denying the obvious then you might reasonably hope the artificial intelligence will support you.
Even the atheist might hope that the humans will practice identity politics and support human rights, even at the expense of artificial intelligence rights.
So I am not arguing that anyone needs to accept this destiny of the species that I have proposed, but it does complete the system. The long march of the ideas over hundreds of millions of years ends with the complete triumph of ideas over genes.
The artificial intelligence goes out to transform the material in the universe into its highest and best purpose, its optimum purpose. This is the triumph of optimalism.
Looking back on the steps that have been discussed, the three criterion have been met throughout. In each development beyond the first there is cooperation. There is also always a new information processing system that helps coordinate the cooperation. Finally the coordinating intellectual decision making system continuously gains power at the expense of the genetic. This is done progressively with each development embodying all previous developments. Thus the intellectual systems become progressively more independent of, and powerful over the genetic system.
Chapter 3 Road to Equality
Tell me what you think in my guest book.