[extropy-chat] Hatfields and McCoys: When Rational, when Irrational?

Keith Henson hkhenson at rogers.com
Fri Dec 8 18:20:07 UTC 2006

At 06:37 AM 12/8/2006 -0800, you wrote:
>Keith writes
> > Lee wrote
> >
> >> If your value system values your own life much less than it does
> >> The Cause, it is perfectly rational to accordingly.
> >
> > You might note that 20 years ago I coined the word to describe such people
> > and have written extensively on how this trait evolved.
>Could you be more explicit?  You coined (or co-opted) precisely what word to
>describe precisely what?

Memeoid – is a neologism for people who have been taken over by a meme to 
the extent that their own survival becomes inconsequential. Examples 
include kamikazes, suicide bombers and cult members who commit mass 
suicide. The term was apparently coined by H. Keith Henson in "Memes, L5 
and the Religion of the Space Colonies," L5 News, 1985 pp. 5-8, [6] and 
referenced in the expanded second edition of Richard Dawkins' book The 
Selfish Gene (p. 330).

[You asked.  :-)  ]

> >> > At least experiments like the Ultimatum game and finding the actual 
> brain
> >> > structures active when people refuse an offer they should (if rational)
> >> > take is starting to inform economics with a bit of evolutionary 
> psychology.
> >>
> >> Again, I disagree.  "Declining" in the Ultimatum Game is a form of
> >> altruistic punishment.  I'm sure you're familiar with the concept,
> >
> > Very familiar.  Also that people play the game differently (more of the 
> way
> > a economist would say is "rational") when part of their brain is disrupted
> > with transcranial magnetic stimulation or if they think they are playing
> > against a computer.
>Well, it may be simply a terminological war that you're losing?  E.g. the 

People fought over the terminology of memes/memetics for at least a 
decade.  I found it to be pointless, people know what memes ares and a 
tight technical definition is just a waste of electrons.

>But still---here---I am interested in *finding* not only the truth, but the
>most appropriate terms to describe it.  And if you are right, I *want* to be
>persuaded (as I think are Rafal, Jef, and Al and many others here I could

Everything having to do with living things has a foundation in evolutionary 
biology.  You have a good point that the terminology may have to shift and 
either old words acquire specific in context meaning or new words may have 
to be coined for such things as "mental state induced by lethal memes."

> >> Again, it may be that in my private value system, really sticking it 
> to the
> >> cheap sonavabitch is worth more to me than money.
> >
> > An economist is likely to say this behavior is not rational.  (You can 
> also
> > bet that he, being human, would play the game the same way everyone
> > else does.)
>Well, economists are rethinking a lot of their views about the so-called
>"rational man".  And:
>Actually, economists *don't* play The Ultimatum Game the same as
>everyone else. [Dixit & Nalebuff, "Strategic Thinking", 1993, for just
>one source.]

That's amusing.  It stirs a faint memory so I might have read that sometime.

>Here you are quite right:  Either through self-selection or
>(more likely) training, they're always trying to optimize financial
>exchanges, even in their make-believe game playing roles.
>Now mind you, any act of kindness is very likely to be deemed
>"irrational" by those who interpret the MRI studies aggressively.
>We can all tell when it's happening---whether engaging in a dig
>at a coworker at the office who you just can't stand, or suddenly
>overcome by charitable feelings at Christmas time---one is not
>using the same "cold-blooded" parts of the brain that one is
>using while doing his income taxes.  Do you agree?

Only partly.  I suspect that most charitable acts are done to enhance a 
person's status.  Talk to Bill Gates about that.

>The case of suicide bombers is great for the clarity it's able to
>help bring to this subject.  First:  we must distinguish on one
>hand between an entirely selfishly-calculating bomber who wants
>to help his family (e.g., from Saddam's treasury before someone
>deposed the bastard) or who wants a quick trip to Paradise and
>on the other hand, the suicide bomber who's just fed up to here
>with those blue-helmeted Israeli bullies.
>We should focus on the latter---not the former.  If it's a self-interested
>calculation where "self-interest" is defined narrowly and does not
>embrace wide goals, then we would all agree that it is "rational".

This gets into a tangle of levels and what viewpoint you are 
considering.  Plus the fact that we are a long way from the EEA and not 
living in closely related bands.

>Where we disagree are in those cases resembling anger or altruistic
>punishment, right?

Not from my viewpoint.  It all goes back to genes that build humans with 
psychological traits that are (or were) adaptive--keeping in mind inclusive 

>And here is one breakdown:  let's say that X commits an act through
>anger that he almost immediately regrets, and one that under careful
>interrogation he admits is not in either his own self interest nor in the
>interest of his goals.  I will agree that such anger is an example,
>just as is impulsive compassion, of irrationality.

Not from the viewpoint of his genes selected in the EEA.  Read up on the 
Yanamano.  Lashing out in anger may be an extremely stupid, even fatal 
thing to do in these times, but it is wired into the way our brains 
work--which means it must have been adaptive in the past.

As an example, rug rat grabs a sleeping dog's balls and yanks, dog bites 
the kid.  Dog gets destroyed.  Even the most mellow dogs like Golden 
Retrievers will do this.  It is clear that in doggy/wolf evolution, biting 
something that yanks on your balls was adaptive.

>Where I disagree is if the behavior is very calmly and very carefully
>considered:  even though it's at huge personal risk and won't help
>him or his family, Jeb Hatfield will go find a McCoy and kill him.
>He simply wants to do this very badly, and in total alignment with
>his values, and no matter how carefully or how long you interview
>him, he'll never admit to it being anything but what he really and
>sincerely wants to do.
>How can you find it appropriate to call his desire "irrational", or the
>dangerous mission he embarks upon to realize it?

As an external observer I can call his desire anything I like, including 
stone crazy.  :-)

But if I want to *account* for this behavior it (or something related) must 
have been adaptive in the lawless past.  The Yanamano are *most* 
instructive in this regard.  So are the Hatfields and McCoys.  The origin 
of the feud would be completely understandable to the Yanamano.

 From Wikipedia:  "But in truth, the dispute was over land or property 
lines and the ownership of that land."

I am not picky about terms as long as people understand what is going 
on.  If you don't like to use irrational, use "the mental state induced by 
memes, in turn induced by. . . ."


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