Carlo Graziani December 2, 2008 8:54 AM

“Coalitional Aggression”. What an excellent new term of art. I’m going to have to start using it at cocktail parties.

I’d go sit in those talks if I were in Oregon.

Carlo Graziani December 2, 2008 9:19 AM

This is not my field, so I read that Hanson paper strictly from an outside, non-expert observer’s perspective.

That being said, I certainly hope that this “random” paper is not representative of the standards of intellectual rigor of this field. The ratio of declarative statements to evidence is way higher than I’m accustomed to in academic discourse. I suspect that many of the statements about the evolutionary origins of various cultural phenomena will leave evolutionary biologists squirming uncomfortably. For example, if “Stockholm Syndrome” is claimed to be an evolved trait due to the cited war-related evolutionary pressures, is there no obligation to indicate which genes might be involved? Isn’t it just a story if you don’t do a little technical biology? Not in this field, I guess.

And what’s a “Meme”? I mean, I know it’s an “element of culture”, but how can such a vague and amorphous construct serve as the basic infrastructure for a scientific theory? Does a technical definition of a “Meme” exist? Can a “Meme” be isolated? Is there a “Memodynamics” that traces the transformations, merging, and splitting of memes? Certainly, as used in this paper, the term “Meme” serves no rigorous technical purpose, for all its ubiquity. It’s just a word that’s supposed to evoke some idea of cultural persistence in the reader’s mind, with no assurance that different readers share that idea in any of its nuances.

I assume that the fact that this paper is blog-reviewed rather than peer-reviewed means the author is not held to journal-grade standards of rigor. I certainly hope that the peer-reviewed efforts are better.

worg December 2, 2008 9:23 AM

“And what’s a “Meme”? I mean, I know it’s an “element of culture”, but how can such a vague and amorphous construct serve as the basic infrastructure for a scientific theory?”

Read The Selfish Gene.

A nonny bunny December 2, 2008 10:41 AM

@Carlo Graziani

It is by necessity a very speculative field. You can’t, for example, knock out a few genes and see if people are still susceptible to Stockholm syndrome. And you can’t rerun human evolution with a few changes to see what the effect will be on human psychology and society.
It’s more philosophy than empirical science, and is, I suppose, more reasoning-based than evidence-based.
The best chance of getting evidence they might have is to use computer simulations. But that’s still hard to do for very complex behaviour. And it would still only tell you that something like X is likely (or not) to evolve in what kind of circumstance, not which human genes are responsible.

BF Skinner December 2, 2008 11:13 AM

@Roy “In Papua New Guinea, mothers are killing young sons”

Which I find odd given that young sons are likely not the ones at war.

A nonny bunny December 2, 2008 11:16 AM

@BF Skinner

Yeah, but they’re easier to kill; and in time would be the ones perpetuating war.

RH December 2, 2008 11:44 AM

I’m a strong advocate for memes. One of the things you have to remember, however, is that they are a lens through which to view behavior, not an actual theory in and of itself. They’re decidedly poor at predicting future behavior, just strangely good at modeling past behavior with very few terms.

For those programmers out there, its like the difference between a sorted array and a binary search tree. They both do the same thing, but some behaviors can be modeled in fewer terms with the array, some can be modeled in fewer terms with the tree.

For non programmers, look at some of the internet lingo that has arrived in our vocabulary. Every one of those is a meme… an idea that caught on, and could propagate itself between people.

War is a study of superorganisms. You do not see war in species where there are only collections of individuals (as an example, I do not believe frogs go to war, as they do not have socieities). You see war when there’s more than just the biomass of the individuals at stake.

Fraud Guy December 2, 2008 9:04 PM

And a research paper that quotes “Alice’s Restaurant” does have something going for it.

Roger December 3, 2008 6:08 AM

Funny, I was just reading an article in New Scientist on the same topic; evidence is mounting that warfare not only predates H. sapiens, but was a key driving factor not only in our evolution but also in the creation of our intra-species co-operation, societies, and civilisation.


In Papua New Guinea, mothers are killing young sons as the only way they have of stopping decades of incessant war.

I think the preponderance of evidence is that inter-tribal warfare in PNG has been incessant not for decades, or centuries, or even millennia, but for hundreds of millennia.

DanT December 3, 2008 6:45 AM

This does look interesting, but they need to broaden their inclusion of expertise.

From what I can see, two important perspectives are missing from this conference: criminal and military.

A military perspective would be able to explain and describe warfare behavior. For example, the description of chimps attacking in “overwhelming” numbers is an assertion by any except a trained military expert (a 2 to 1 advantage is not overwhelming for an attacker yet many non-military experts could think it was).

A criminal perspective would be able to explain and descibe aggressive behavior in the absence of strong central authority. Pre-historical conflicts probably resembled criminal gang activity more than military activity.

Twango December 3, 2008 9:03 AM


The earliest proposed date for human settlement of New Guinea is 60M years – hardly “hundreds of millennia”!

HJohn December 3, 2008 9:48 AM

@BF Skinner: Which I find odd given that young sons are likely not the ones at war.

@A nonny bunny: Yeah, but they’re easier to kill; and in time would be the ones perpetuating war.

I find it amusing that the same people picking off infant sons, who are guilty of nothing except being born with certain body parts, would probably be the same ones saying taking out Saddam after he racked up 1.1 million corpses (NY Times estimate) is wrong because it is “Coalition Aggression,” (or “going at it alone” or “texas cowboy” depending on the audience or information inconveniently present). I’m not arguing in defense of the Iraq War mind you, simply illustrating the illogic of some.

Under these fools (those killing babies, not the posters I quoted) logic, if someone rapes my daughter I can’t lay a hand on them, but I can start picking off baby boys in a highly extreme preemptive strike.

The annals of human irrationality never cease to leave me dumbfounded.

Moderator December 3, 2008 5:41 PM

Paul, 60M=60,000 in this context.

HJohn, I can only make sense of your comment if I assume you’ve heard a lot of opposition to the Iraq war from women in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea. That’s a remarkably flimsy reason to bring up a political issue that hadn’t been raised in this thread before — and it’s not even the only time today that you’ve dragged a thread in the direction of a controversial political topic that could easily take over the discussion. Everyone has pet subjects, but please resist the temptation to go off on them just because someone says something loosely related. It’s starting to feel like a reenactment of this classic Vaudeville routine:

averros December 4, 2008 5:54 AM


“A criminal perspective would be able to explain and descibe aggressive behavior in the absence of strong central authority. Pre-historical conflicts probably resembled criminal gang activity more than military activity.”

Well, the presense of strong central authority transforms low-level criminal gang activity into full-blown wars.

There’s no difference whatsoever between the gangs and the strong central authorities – both kinds of criminal organizations exist to engage in organized robbery from the productive members of the society – the difference being only scale and sophistication of the “authorities” (which also engage in massive propaganda intended to keep victims complacent).

As for the matter of scale… the strong central authorities were directly responsible for a quarter billion murders in 20th century… and keep murdering in 21th (Iraq, anyone?)

All small-time criminal gangs and lone criminals are many orders of magnitude less dangerous than the strong central authorities.

averros December 4, 2008 6:09 AM

@Carlo Graziani:

“And what’s a “Meme”? I mean, I know it’s an “element of culture”, but how can such a vague and amorphous construct serve as the basic infrastructure for a scientific theory? Does a technical definition of a “Meme” exist? Can a “Meme” be isolated?”

What is a gene? Geneticisis do not have a universally accepted definition of a “gene”. In fact, it’s very vague and amorphous – one DNA sequence may produce different proteins, transcription can be turned on and off (which may involve sequences relatively far away from the gene being affected, etc), it can be bent – which affects its transcription, epigenetic information (such as methylation of histones) controlling transcription of groups of “genes” can be inherited, information from genes is edited (by excising introns) before being used to build proteins, “genes” may hop around (so called transposons), the life of any complex organism fundamentally depends on other organisms (did you know that most of genes critical to your life are not in your genome but rather in genomes of your gut bacteria?), proteins can be folded differently depending on presense of other proteins (aka chaperons) significantly changing their function, etc, etc, etc.

That doesn’t stop geneticists using the term and genetics to be considered a science.

So is with memes. They obviously do exist – every word is a meme.

Carlo Graziani December 4, 2008 9:51 AM


Comparing the vagueness in the definition of a Gene to the vagueness in the definition of a Meme is like comparing the uncertainty in the outcome of a football game to the uncertainty in the outcome of a fight between Spiderman and Batman.

Yes, there is some ambiguity in the definitiion and usage of a “Gene”. But that’s not unusual feature of important scientific concepts, and doesn’t interfere with the Gene concept’s strong predictive properties, or prevent it from playing its role as a scientific organizing principle, along the lines that you cite, among others.

As far as I can see, the Meme concept has no predictive value whatsoever. It cannot be tested, or used to discover new cultural phenomena, or to influence culture in specific ways that are not otherwise possible. It has nowhere near the specificity and technical accuracy of even the Gene concept. As a scientific tool, it is utterly useless.

The purpose of the Meme concept is evidently as an aid to speculative philosophy. It appears to be useful for telling stories about cultural development that are not intended to be subject to any kind of serious testing or scrutiny or scientific critique. I have no intellectual objection to such philosophising (although that article seemed to me to be an egregiously sloppy example, compared to others that I’ve read). I do believe that it is necessary to understand the distinction between philosophy and science, and to preserve it.

joel8360 December 4, 2008 10:36 AM

“Geneticists do not have a universally accepted definition of a ‘gene'”

I’ll go one further. For decades after the advent of genetics, geneticists had no idea what a physical gene was, and for decades more believed incorrectly that genes were proteins. Despite this, the science of genetics proceeded rigorously.

Of course, humans have been breeding plants and animals for millenia before recognizing there was such a thing as genetics. I think by analogy, propagandists, teachers, public speakers, etc. have created and transmitted self-propagating ideas for millenia without recognition of memetics.

JimFive December 4, 2008 10:56 AM

“The purpose of the Meme concept is evidently as an aid to speculative philosophy.”

The Meme concept developed as a way to make an analogy between the development of culture and the evolution of species. In that analogy the word “meme” was coined to represent the cultural equivalent of a gene. That is, the reproduced element.

Personally, I feel that the analogy was strained to begin with and this has only gotten worse since “meme” has been degraded to a fancy word for “fad”. To illustrate my complaint. In certain groups quoting movies is a way to show your “in”ness to the group. Which movies to quote, however, is a matter of fashion. Quoting movies is a meme (if you like). Quoting Battlestar Gallactica is a fad.


Lawrence D'Oliveiro December 8, 2008 10:54 PM

I like what Jacob Bronowski said in “The Ascent of Man”:

   "Genghiz Khan was a nomad, and the inventor of a powerful war machine.
And that conjunction says something important about the origins of war
in human history. Of course, it's tempting to close one's eyes to
history, and instead to speculate about the roots of war in some
possible animal instinct, as if, like the tiger, we still had to kill to
live, or, like the robin red-breast, to defend a nesting territory.
   "But war--organized war--is not a human instinct. It is a highly
planned and co-operative form of theft. And that form of theft began
ten thousand years ago, when the harvesters of wheat accumulated a
surplus. and the nomads rose out of the desert to rob them of what
they themselves could not provide.
   "The evidence for that, we saw in the walled city of Jericho, and
its prehistoric tower. That is the beginning of war.
   "Genghiz and his Mongol dynasty brought that thieving way of life
into our own millennium. From 1200 to 1300, they made almost the last
attempt to establish the supremacy of the robber who produces nothing
and who in his feckless way comes to take from the peasant--who has
nowhere to flee--the surplus that agriculture accumulates. Yet, that
attempt failed. And it failed, because in the end, there was nothing
for the Mongols to do, except themselves to adopt the way of life
of the people they conquered. When they conquered the Muslims, they
became Muslims--they became settlers. Because theft--war--is not a
permanent state that can be sustained."

Roger December 10, 2008 4:47 AM

@Lawrence D’Oliveiro:

When Bownowski wrote that some 35 years ago, it was a widely accepted theory — even if there was more than a slight hint that this was the result that was desired, rather than evidenced by the facts.

The weight of evidence today seems to be veering very much in the opposite direction, toward the view that war is not only very much older than agriculture, but actually caused the evolutionary pressures that made humanity capable of creating complex, settled agricultural societies.

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