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More on Sapiens

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I am still reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, which continues to be fascinating. I looked through some Amazon reviews, and one comment  struck me. He (Steven Mason) writes “Using this twisted logic, a modern doctor today is less knowledgeable and capable, and has a smaller, less capable brain, than a paleolithic witchdoctor who happens to know how to hunt for food, start a fire, make clothes and weapons, navigate by the stars, etc. This is complete and utter nonsense and reveals an appallingly narrow and simplistic definition of intelligence and capabilities.”

It seems obvious to me that a less intelligent person can have more “knowledge” (in the sense of what Richard Dawkins defined (in chapter 11 of “The Selfish Gene”) as memes: units of cultural knowledge). With a greater number of memes, or more evolved memes, the less intelligent person can use those memes (that knowledge) to outperform a more intelligent person who lacks those memes.

Consider: A grade-school student can easily do long division, a task that taxed the abilities of even educated citizens of Classical Rome, not because students today are so much more intelligent than people in Classical Rome, but because students today have better memes in that application area.

A college student today can solve problems, using his collection of calculus memes, that would have been extremely difficult if not impossible for Newton—not because the student is so much more intelligent than Newton, but because the student has more evolved memes in the problem area. It seems at least possible that intelligence can decline even as memes thrive and evolve.

And just as genes are “selfish” in that they inevitably evolve in directions that help the genes and not necessarily the animal, so too memes will evolve in directions that help the meme’s survival even if there is a substantial cost to the meme’s human hosts (cf. the Agricultural Revolution: great for the meme, not such an unalloyed good for the human hosts).

Indeed, I would say that human consciousness is the result of an accumulation of memes, and it arose not from the breakdown of a bicameral mind (pace Julian Jaynes), but in the creation of a bicameral mind, with the part of the mind that deals with memes split off from the unconscious to become the conscious self, which seems to be constructed from memes. Note, for example, how one’s sense of identity, of who one is, is generally given in terms of memes.

 

Written by Leisureguy

30 December 2015 at 10:14 am

Posted in Books, Memes

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