[extropy-chat] 300 and the Gates of Fire

Keith Henson hkhenson at rogers.com
Sat Mar 10 18:40:03 UTC 2007

At 03:04 PM 3/10/2007 +0100, Amara wrote:

>A movie called "300" opens this weekend in the US according to this
>New York Times Review:
>The movie doesn't sound worthwhile, but that doesn't mean that the story
>is not. This particular story belongs with the greatest epics. I've
>thought long and hard about why my physical wiring is so moved by this
>incredible story of sacrifice, and I honestly don't have an answer.


I do.

(from http://www.sl4.org/archive/0406/9271.html)

What are humans? They are survival machines built by genes that have been
selected by evolution.

Survival for *what*? According to modern evolutionary theory, survival to
propagate the genes that built them. (It *is* circular, but that's the
nature of evolution.)

If you buy into this view, then what people find "moral" should be highly
shaped by what promoted the survival of the genes they carry.

But as Hamilton figured out, the situation is more complicated than just
the genes they carry personally. The genes you carry are also carried in
your relatives, first your family, second your tribe, third your nation or
ethnic group and finally, the whole human race. If your sacrifice results
in a net gain in the number of surviving copies of your genes (compared to
the alternative) then behavior to sacrifice even your life will become more
common by simple evolution.

I remember years ago being disconcerted for reasons I could not express at
the time by some hard core Libertarians who made the claim that the proper
view for a person was to value their life above the entire rest of the
human race. That's not true. It is proper *from the gene's view* to risk
your life and even die so that copies of your genes in [family, tribe,
nation, race] may survive. To the considerable extent our mental biases
are shaped by our genes, this gene based rule determines what we find
"moral," and thus provides an objective basis for "moral."

Was the suicidal defense by the Greeks at Thermopylae against the Persians
in 480 BCE a moral act? Yes from the viewpoint of their genes. That is
one of the reasons the story is attractive and has stayed alive in human
culture for 2,500 years.


Perhaps an example from history would help.  Consider the Spartans at

" . . . as well as a symbol of courage against extremely overwhelming odds.
The heroic sacrifice of the Spartans and the Thespians has captured the
minds of many throughout the ages and has given birth to many cultural
references as a result."

. . .

"Knowing the likely outcome of the battle, Leonidas selected his men on one
simple criterion: he took only men who had fathered sons that were old
enough to take over the family responsibilities of their fathers. The
rationale behind this criterion was that the Spartans knew their death was
almost certain at Thermopylae. Plutarch mentions, in his Sayings of Spartan
Women, that after encouraging her husband before his departure for the
battlefield, Gorgo, the wife of Leonidas I asked him what she should do
when he had left. To this, Leonidas replied:

      'Marry a good man, and have good children.'"


Spooky!  Almost as if the Greeks understood EP and genetics.  Perhaps
living closer to the Stone Age and incessant war they would find it easier
to understand compared to modern people.

Leonidas' death <b>did,/b> save Greek genes, specifically the Spartans',
more specifically his genes through his children and even more specifically
the genes of his male children who would have been killed by the invaders.

Along with the preceding victory at Marathon some ten years earlier, "their
victory endowed the Greeks with a faith in their destiny that was to endure
for three centuries, during which western culture was born."


Google finds about 30 for Thermopylae "keith henson"

I should add that understanding why we react so strongly with this story 
does not prevent us from feeling the powerful emotional effects it provokes.


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