« Merry GravMas | Gene Expression Front Page | Discovery Institute Blog »
December 26, 2004

Evolution and the Contagion of Reason

It is often said that the ancient Greeks were the first Europeans. Indeed, their culture feels remarkably modern. Usually this is put down to the Greek spirit of inquiry, its dedication to reason, or perhaps cosmopolitanism. But there is another characteristic of ancient Greece which unites it with the present, and distinguishes it from the past. It is a characteristic that is almost universally overlooked, despite its importance, because its presence is so much a part of contemporary consciousness that its nature is exceedingly hard to convey: ancient Greece, like modern times, was a non-traditional culture.

Though I, myself, am often haphazard in my use of the word 'traditional' (for example, I often use the terms: 'traditional values' or 'traditional religion'), at least for the purpose of this post I will endeavor to use the word more precisely: A traditional culture is one that has explicit cultural institutions for transmitting tradition. The emphasis is on the word explicit - clearly, people in all cultures learn from their elders, and thus tend to propagate traditions. But in tribal cultures there is strong, if not universal, tendency to maintain cultural institutions whose purpose is to preserve and transmit the wisdom of the tribe. In other words: maintaining tradition is an explicit value - not just as a means to an end, but as an end in itself. The identity of the tribe is symbiotically bound to its memetic wisdom, and each strives to preserve the other.

Traditional culture is often thought of as a kind of super-stodginess: elders frowning and saying, "this is the way it's always been done". However, I have found (and I don't know how generally applicable this is) that in a certain way quite the opposite occurs. The maintenance of explicit institutions for transmitting tradition provides a forum, and a language, for examining it. We see it operate in the one area of life that, at least in Anglo-Saxon countries, still operates on traditional principles: Law. The legal profession, in common-law countries, maintains institutions for transmitting not just the law itself, but also how the law is understood. And when the law is applied, it is necessary to consider not just the law itself, but the whole weight of legal tradition - this tradition being considered, in fact, inseparable from it.

It is perhaps inevitable that tribal cultures would tend to be traditional. Clearly, those tribes which best succeed in transmitting their accumulated wisdom to the next generation are most likely to succeed, so maintaining explicit institutions for this purpose would tend to further this goal. But there is a better reason: traditional cultures create the infrastructure for memetic evolution.

Many systems, not just genetic systems, are evolutionary. To be evolutionary, a system need only:

1. Consist of units which propagate traits over time

2. Propagate units with advantageous traits better than units with disadvantageous traits

3. Have some kind of mechanism for mutation of traits

Thus, many systems, for example economic systems, can be thought of as evolutionary. But notice that (1) and (3) are contradictory: it is essential that the tendency to mutate be extremely low in comparison to the tendency to conserve and propagate traits. If the mutation rate is too high, it will overwhelm the ability to propagate advantageous traits, and the system will be defined not by evolution, but by the quirks of the mutation mechanism.

The ancient Greeks, in adopting reason as the standard for judging truth, implicitly rejected tradition. It is this, to my mind, that is most responsible for the modern feel of Greek culture. But in doing so, they rejected an evolutionary system in favor of a viral one. Reason is a mechanism for the rapid mutation of memes: Come up with a good reason, and you will change your mind, and others'. The fitness of a meme is determined not so much by the constraints of the environment, as by its attractiveness to the fallible mind.

Clearly, reason has brought us far. But with populations on the precipice of decline in every modern society, it might be relevant to ask: Will it win out in the end? Perhaps tradition will make a comeback? Or perhaps there is some synthesis of reason and tradition that is better than either of the two?

(Cross-posted at Rishon Rishon)

PS: I think this whole issue should be thought of as meta-memetic evolution: Memes which determine the evolutionary environment of memes. It is parallel to genes which determine the mechanism of reproduction.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 12:27 AM