Friday, May 31, 2013

Meme Expression

Genes hang out in gangs. genes come in packs. Genes are parts of a whole strand of DNA, Chromosomes, Cells. They just sit there, on a long bench until they need to do something to survive. At this point, I'd recommend you read 'The Selfish Gene' by Richard Dawkins, because I'm not a biologist, nor even a scientist and am going to grossly oversimplify everything.

So genes are what are the unit of selection for natural selection, and as a result you got all kinds of genes that hang out in your DNA that at one point or another allowed you to survive some environment or another.

And you may or may not have this gene MOA-A, 'the warrior gene' that may or may not be a cause of psychopathic behaviour. The warrior gene seems to correlate with individuals that when their wife leaves them for another man, tend to dismember their wives and wear their head around the house, as opposed to to just getting upset and crying into a beer.

The thing is, there are people who have the MOA-A gene in their DNA that go their whole lives without dismembering anybody. The other aspect of the theory of the warrior genes link to violent and antisocial behaviour is 'gene expression' it's suspected that for somebody with the MOA-A gene, it only 'expresses' itself when you undergo experiences of abuse. For example, child abuse. Conversely genetic psychopath candidates who grow up in loving, stable and secure environments wind up just being regular arseholes.

Now, what to do about psychotically violent individuals? We have two possible solutions.

End child abuse is one. Address the environmental factors that might bring about the warrior gene's expression in vulnerable children. I think it's fair to say, that in a number of societies around the world, this undertaking is underway already. And not just with the motif of making sure MOA-A gene's are dormant and unexpressed in people. And whatever the feasability issues, the relative lack of success in this possible solution, it's fair to say that trying to eradicate child abuse is a noble pursuit, worth adopting no matter how slim the chances of success may seem.

The second is eradicate the MOA-A gene. We may hope for example, that it will simply get bred out of existence as being a violent psychopath becomes more of a reproductive liability than it is a survival advantage. But suppose science makes it feasible to simply eradicate it, I don't know anything about designer babies, and I know even less about gene therepy, but suppose technology becomes such that through a vaccine or genetic screening or some little pill, we can begin ensuring babies don't have the MOA-A gene transmitted in the same way it has become possible for a mother to not transmit the HIV virus to her baby.

Some things to note, neither of these solutions to the problem of psychopathic behavior are mutually exclusive, one is eradicating the gene, the other the gene's expression. It is also fair to say that while both solutions implicitly recognise that psychotic violence is bad, only one recognizes that child abuse is bad.

But this is a very different thing than saying 'child abuse is bad, BECAUSE it can trigger psychopathy' Child abuse is bad for a whole number of reasons that apply to every victim of it regardless of their genetic makeup. The issue of child abuse is distinct and separate. One solution, or course, of action isn't necessarily superior because it addresses two wrongs, in fact it could be wielded in such a way as to make it worse.

This hasn't happened, because as far as I'm aware, there isn't a debate as to what to do about psychopaths, there's no either/or dilemma as yet. But humour me. Psychotic behaviors are bad, particularly the violent ones. As much as we may feel sympathetic to the cuckolded there are reactions that are acceptable, reactions that are even admirable (forgiveness, moving on, self-betterment) there are reactions that are unacceptable, like psychotic reactions. Learning that this is caused by the presence of a gene, and that due to childhood trauma's it may not occur to that person that there are better ways of dealing with it, might take the edge off the outrage we feel, might increase our compassion for the child that they were. I hope you agree with me, that it never makes what they did, acceptable.

Sam Harris' talk on 'Free Will' (you can find it, and several versions of it on Youtube) is well worth checking out, and he makes a non-gene based argument that is much the same, but much much better.

I've sidetracked a bit, but here is the thing, child abuse is a problem, and the gene IS a problem. And it's a problem for the people that have it. Our society is civilized now, there is a 'rule of law' that even if it fails to protect numerous children as it's supposed to, will still punish children who develop into adult psychopaths based on being threatened and abused in childhood.

There is a fallacy to be made, say for some reason a debate does come up, should we invest all our energy into stopping childhood abuse (stop gene expression) or all our energy into stopping psychopathy (stop the gene) or both? And say there's a group that advocate addressing gene expression only. Feeling that we may disable future generations chances of survival if we eradicate a gene that could be useful (say in a societal collapse). Personally I don't think that argument carries much water, but this group urges tolerance and compassion for MOA-A gene carriers, and points to the majority of gene-carriers that never express that gene, saying the 'real' problem is child abuse.

Here is the fallacy, this view fails to recognise that an abused child without the MOA-A gene is still better off than an abused child with the MOA-A gene. Because much as that child has been treated horribly and at a huge psychological disadvantage for entering adult life, they at least wont have the further disadvantage of becoming a psychopath as well.

It is thus perfectly valid for people to construct a case that says 'we should try and eradicate this gene from the gene pool' if there is such a thing as the psychopath gene, it is probably one of the most persuasive arguments for reducing the genetic diversity of the human race.

So, here's the thing. It currently isn't feasible to eradicate MOA-A gene. As far as I know. And as far as I know, the link between MOA-A, gene expression and being a psychopath isn't confirmed. So there is no debate. There could be. Why then did I write at length this whole thought experiment out in a blog post, a blog post called meme expression?

Meme's tend to cluster. For example, if you know somebodies stance on abortion, you probably have good chances of knowing their stance on capital punishment. Another place outside of people's heads that meme's tend to cluster is in books. Some books contain their own 'physics' meme, or metaphysics. Robert Jordan's the wheel of time contains a bunch of memes that set up rules for how magic works that are very different from how the wizard of Oz treats magic.

Suppose you have a book that contains two types of memes. The first type we'll call an 'authority' meme, the second type we'll call an 'instruction' meme. If the authority meme manages to successfully replicate in a persons mind, then the fidelity of which it does can be tested by how closely or literally that person then carries out the 'instruction' memes. It can be fairly said that if none of the authority memes copy over into the mime, then you would expect none of the instruction meme's to be active, or if they do, it to be entirely a coincidence.

I could have lost you in the quick transition from genes to memes, and if I know nothing about genes, I know less about memes. So I must disclaim that I am going to completely oversimplify and say that meme = idea. The use of the term meme is to think about ideas in the same way we think about genes in the framework of natural selection.

So we have 'instruction' memes that's survival is dependent in part on the survival of the authority memes it hangs around, and to an extent vice-verse. Now say you have an instruction meme that instructs a person to behave in a violent and anti-social way. Let's call it the 'extremist' meme. But the thing is that while most people who carry this extremist meme around in their head, never act on it, in a violent and anti-social way.

The key is that the extremist meme only expresses itself in situations where the person lives or comes from a warzone, that has a lack of economic opportunities and access to education. Then the extremist meme can activate and the person commits some act of violence.

Now, there's two possible ways of addressing the problem of anti-social violence. Without looking at the feasibility, you can attempt to eradicate poverty, improve education and broker peace (address meme-expression). Or say that through rational discourse, public discourse, policy and education, you could work to actually eradicate or stop the transmission of the extremist meme. Say you could 'vaccinate' future generations with some kind of 'anti-extremist' meme that makes their minds impervious to the transmission of the extremist meme.

Now, once again there's a fallacy to be made, both solutions recognise meme-driven violence as a problem, but one also recognises the problems of inequality. Poverty, lack of education and war are bad, but they are bad in and of themselves, regardless of the memes present in the people effected by it. Furthermore, there's no need for a dilemma between tackling both the meme-expression and the meme.

But here, a lot of well meaning people make the mistake of not recognizing that a war ravaged, impoverished and uneducated person is better off without the 'extremist' meme, disadvantaged and cruel though their life may be as a result of the war, the poverty and the ignorance. They aren't helped, nor do they help anyone else by having the extremist meme in their head.

But it's wrong for these well meaning individuals to say that we should exclusively address the environmental factors, much as it may eradicate the problems that arise from the extremist meme. It's wrong for them to attack people who are trying to eradicate the extremist meme, and or, promulgate 'anti-extremist' memes, meme-vaccines etc. And it is especially wrong to be an apologist for the extremist meme and respect it's right to exist and be reproduced.

I hope by now, you can make the connection. As uncertain as I am of my genetics, the good thing about memes is that unlike the intensive process that needs to be gone through to determine that the MOA-A gene 'tells' people to wear a hookers skin around their house, an instruction meme is really easy to read and understand for example 'thou shall not suffer a witch to live' is pretty easy to connect with behaviour, because memes either are coded in the very language we speak or very easy to translate into a language we understand.

An authority meme that says 'the instructions that follow are absolutely correct and beyond questioning' is very easy to understand, and gauge the impact of, even for somebody who is not an evolutionary biologist or even geneticist.

So even if you have the same cluster of memes presented to people in different circumstances, such that a person who is well educated and affluent winds up saying 'the authority meme clearly doesn't instruct us to follow the instructions literally, but to contextualize and interpret them' whereas somebody impoverished and uneducated says 'these instructions are perfect and meant to be carried out literally' would demonstrate that tackling meme-expression may produce desirable results.

But it also indicates perhaps, that the former person has been successfully vaccinated against the authority meme, but this vaccination unfortunately doesn't eradicate the extremist meme, but winds up protecting it.

Thus when Sam Harris says agnostics and atheists are at a disadvantage, because they don't understand what it means to actually believe what people say they believe, he has a valid point. And apologists do us all a disservice by defending a bunch of antisocial memes.

So I'm starting to get fucked off at people equivocating acts of violence and injustice carried out in war zones and regions that don't have established 'rule of law' by members of civilized non-warzones as the same problem as individuals committing willful acts of anti-social violence because of memes they are infected with. * Even when the death tolls are disproportionately stacked in the warzone injustice's detriment, the extremist meme is worth attacking because it remains a problem.

There is also a meaningful difference between anti-social violence generated by a gene, that appears almost randomly in a population and anti-social violence that is systemically generated by the spread of memes, even one that requires meme-expression.

Some of the advocates of attacking anti-social memes, have advocated interventionist wars, but always to achieve the goals of peace, economic opportunity and education. To my knowledge, none of the advocates of addressing the meme side of the problem advocate continued war and poverty and ignorance, but conversely many of the people advocating the meme-expression side of the debate advocate that the meme itself stop being attacked, that meme carriers are not identified as dangerous.

Nobody that thinks psychopaths are psychopathic by nature, thinks that they therefore should be free to roam the neighborhood. Just as nobody recognizing that bears by their nature are dangerous to humans thinks they should be free to roam through urban areas. But a psychopath should not be tortured or killed because of a gene they carry and a childhood they couldn't control. A bear should not be killed for wandering too close to a suburban development.

But if you could change a persons genes so that they would seek therapy instead of revenge, and change a persons ideas so that they would converse instead of riot. We should. What we shouldn't do is insist that a person carrying the MOA-A gene (or whatever gene it turns out to be) is genetically identical to people who don't.

Thus I suggest watching Sam Harris on Free Will: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pCofmZlC72g

and reading

Richard Dawkins' 'The Selfish Gene'

*if you feel this statement needs more defense I will begrudgingly oblige. But hopefully you can imagine many of the differences.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to say thanks for this post!