Re: Heroism

Hal Finney (
Tue, 3 Feb 1998 14:40:24 -0800, still suffering from postus interruptus, writes:
> I am uncertain about the ancient origins of heroism, but analyzing heroism from
> a memetic perspective could prove fruitful. Heroism generally is respected
> most when it involves persona

Here is something I posted last Aug 13 about memetic propagation of
things like heroism:

> On Nova last night, I watched Edward O. Wilson rave about the marvelous
> success of ants. These are social insects, which work cooperatively and
> have been very effective in their ecological niche. They have changed
> very little over millions of years due to their success, and in many cases
> they dominate the ecology at their scale.
> The reason cooperation can work despite the competitive pressure of
> evolution is because all the ants are siblings, children of the same queen.
> A gene which encourages cooperation, even when it means sacrificing in
> favor of the sisters, may cause its host ant to die, but save multiple
> copies of itself in the siblings. So such genes can spread and thrive.
> When we look ahead to an era where people can have complete control over
> their reproduction, the question is whether a similar phenomenon could
> occur. It makes more sense to look at memes (self-reproducing ideas and
> customs). In terms of memetic reproduction, a meme for cooperation and
> self-sacrifice could succeed if it sufficiently increased its own spread.
> The loss of a host would eliminate that host as a vector for future spread
> of the meme. This could still be beneficial for the meme, in a couple of
> circumstances. The host's sacrifice could increase the survival of other
> hosts of the same meme. This would be directly analogous to the genes
> in the ants. In this case, we'd expect to see a meme for cooperation,
> but only with other people who shared the same meme. This could be
> something like a religion which preached kindness to other people who
> share the faith, but not to outsiders. Other social organizations like
> clubs or even racial groups could work the same way.
> Another way that a meme could benefit from its host's sacrifice would be
> if that event led to an explosive spread of the meme, like a plant which
> casts its seeds to the winds even as it dies. This might apply to a meme
> for heroic sacrifice in circumstances where stories would be told about
> the host's death.

I might add though that a similar effect is involved in the spread of the
memes for serial killing and for suicidal terrorism. The meme causes
an act whose notoriety spreads the meme widely. It then only needs to
take root in a few individuals to survive.

Of course, heroes are praised, while serial killers are condemned. So
there is more involved than just this simple memetic competition. But
the cases do share some similarities in how the memes spread.