The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

Cultural Group Selection

If genes evolve and memes evolve, one has to wonder what is the connection between the two evolutions. The Russian geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky had already noted that human evolution cannot be understood as a purely biological process.

The US anthropologists Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson point out that the single most important difference between humans and other species is the highly-developed ability, and the consequent dramatic consequence, of transmitting culture so that it affects other individuals. Cultural evolution happens at a much faster pace than genetic evolution: it does not require millions of years to unfold. Being a symbolic species, humans are able to create the abstraction of the “social group”. A social group is, de facto, a cooperating group, regardless of whether the members of the group are kin or even know each other at all. It is this peculiarity of the human race that allowed the scale of societies to increase from the original tribal nucleus to full-fledged civilizations.

The US anthropologist William Durham argues that humans possess at least two information systems, one genetic and one cultural (and one has to wonder whether there are more). Culture is learned information that is conveyed socially and symbolic in nature (as in "language"), that has evolved over time, and that comes to constitute a system of knowledge. Human behavior is determined by two main information systems, one genetic and one cultural, that both spread over time and space. In other words, both the genetic repertory (the genotype) and culture are information systems that instruct phenotypes. The genotype and the culture stand in a symmetrical relationship to the environment, in that the environment selects "what" gets transmitted (inherited) in space and time. So genotype and culture stand in a symmetrical relationship with both the phenotype (each of them "instructs" it, although in different ways) and with the environment (each of them is "selected", although in different ways). Durham believes that two main forces are responsible for spreading culture across space and time: "selection by choice" and "selection by imposition". Choice is unique to culture because parents cannot choose which genes to pass on to their children, nor can children choose which genes to accept, whereas cultural parents can choose what to pass on and cultural children can choose what to accept. Imposition arises from the intervention of an intermediary that does not exist in the case of genetic transmission: sociopolitical constraints. More importantly, cultural evolution exhibits another unique property: self-selection. The cultural system can influence the direction and rate of its own evolution: memes influence human decisions that influence memes. The cultural fitness of an “allomeme” (a variant of a meme) indirectly depends on the meme itself.

 


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