Friday, October 01, 2004

"A Theory of Power", Chapter 4

Chapter 4: The Rise of Symbolic Thought

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Symbolic thought—specifically the ability to invent new abstract representations and metaphors—most differentiates humans from other species. A symbol belongs to a subclass of memes—defined as an abstract representation of an object or force. The genetic advances that led to the human ability to work with symbols precipitated the development of language, writing and religion. Primates (and some other animals) have varying ability to recognize symbols. Gorillas, such as Koko[1], have even combined and applied existing symbols in simple ways. The ability to invent new symbols, to create new representations and connections, however, remains a uniquely human trait, as well as the greatest accomplishment of the symbiotic development of our genes and memes. Mastery of the symbol makes humans and human society unique.

With the mature ability to use and create symbols, an entirely new universe of complexity opened to the meme. Human ability to create and manipulate symbols led to a flowering of spoken language. While physical adaptations continued to participate in the development of language, providing a broader and more controlled ability to form sounds, language resulted from our mental mastery of symbols.[2] Complex languages proved enormously more effective for use in group coordination and decision-making than did simple verbal or gestural communication. The memetic complexes of small, proto-human groups quickly capitalized on the potential of language, developing profound new possibilities for the use of symbols, thereby aiding in the development of complex culture.

This great leap in the ability to handle information via symbols permitted an entirely new means of information storage and transfer. Among early primates, information existed at the group level only temporarily. The group quickly lost any information not retained in the memory of each individual. Advancements in human language permitted information storage in memetic devices such as stories and fables—huge information structures that existed in a group’s collective memory. This permitted the standardization of information (“That’s not how that story goes…”), quick recall (“Remember the story of…”) and facilitated more effective transmission from generation to generation. Stories conveyed complex sets of information: rules governing group behavior, interpretations of human psychology and justification of political structures. The fact that stories and fables remain so prevalent today demonstrates their proven evolutionary value.

Memes quickly expanded beyond the linguistic confines of their human host. Through symbols, memes could exist in many forms, often with great permanence and accuracy. Written language took flexible, constantly mutating oral stories and—often literally—set them in stone. In time, great libraries sprung up dedicated to maintaining a culture’s memes. The calcification of memes did not stop with writing. Public architecture such as burial mounds, government buildings and religious sites often appear strongly infused with memetic meaning. Memes could also manifest in other visual media: ritual ceremony, clothing and art all effectively store and pass on a culture’s memes.[3]

Memes represent useful tools for the storage of our cultural memories and standards. We must not, however, forget that memes do not serve humanity—rather, they use us for their propagation. Sweeping cultural features such as standards of behavior, roles in society and expected emotional responses represent tools of the meme-complex. They serve to mold humans into effective agents of the meme’s survival. They do not serve to guarantee our health and happiness beyond what they require to ensure that we remain effective hosts. The meme acts as a self-serving agent of control.

Surpassing language and writing, religion rapidly developed as the ultimate memetic control. With a developing capacity for rational thought, individuals gained the ability to weigh the utility of their decisions. This did not constitute independent thought, free from the control of genes and memes. Rather, it constituted an ability to make decisions with the awareness of their perceived long-term results. Animals have long been able to weigh choices subconsciously in order to maximize the release of desired neurochemicals for instant gratification. Rational thought allowed humans to attempt to consciously maximize their desired emotional or psychological states. Significantly, the conscious attempt to maximize these states worked most effectively over longer time frames, in complex cultural environments, and allowed the individual to consider the demands of the ego. Individuals could now act, believing that their actions represented a sacrifice today for greater happiness in the long run, e.g. making sacrifices today to ensure the well being of their offspring or the survival of the group. Happiness, of course, exists as no more than a genetically programmed desire for neurochemical release. This does not exclude the meme—the meme co-opts the entire complex of happiness into the larger sense of the ego, ensuring that memetic prosperity remains the end result of un-informed rationality. Ultimately, the process of ‘rational’ thought leads to ever-greater self-sacrifice in the name of the meme. This increasing drive towards self-sacrifice eventually confronts an individual’s lifespan: it wouldn’t seem rational for an individual to sacrifice until death, never to experience the envisioned rewards. Religion, an advanced memetic control mechanism, brought the promise of an after-life, making rational a complete lifetime of “self-sacrifice” to benefit the group’s meme. An eternal afterlife in paradise loomed as the ultimate, rational reward. Under this logic, an individual could justify sacrificing their entire life to hard work, or to willingly die in combat. Throughout history, the promise of eternal bliss has functioned as a powerful motivator.

One can easily conceptualize the flow of power-relationships between genes and the individual, but the power-relationships between the individual and a meme seem more difficult to envision. Ultimately, however, both represent nothing more than mechanisms for controlling something else. They exist as collections of power-relationships, just as in the earlier example of an oxygen atom. They appear as much “real” as matter or energy. When viewed through the lens of power-relationships, there seems little difference between a complex of symbols and a complex of molecules.

Perhaps the most lasting contribution of symbolic thought remains the individual’s ability to represent itself in symbol—conscious self-awareness, and ultimately the ego.[4] The conceptualization of the ego created a wide range of psychological errata, most significantly the sense of the sacred—or separate—status of humans from nature.[5] The self-aware separation of the individual, specifically the awareness that we exist for a limited time and then die, proved fertile ground for the development of spiritual and religious memes.

The ego also facilitated an entirely new basis for cultural stratification and organization. It served as the key that removed the last barrier to complete memetic control over humanity. The need for a meme to co-opt genetic mechanisms in order to control humans limited the reach and flexibility of cultural-memetic power-relationships. But with the increased ability of the human brain to process and store symbols, the individual now hosts memes that act entirely internally. The ego serves as a splice between these internal memes that co-opt genetic mechanisms and memes that link individuals with the larger cultural complex. It acts like a harness, providing a ready point of attachment for memes to control humans without the need to interface directly with genetically hard-wired responses. With new, and more capable channels of control, memes could motivate individuals to pursue more complex goals such as the accumulation of artifacts or the drive to acquire abstract power. Memes could even influence behavior through culturally encoded sets of abstract morals. The ego links such neurochemically-driven instinct to concepts of morality, aesthetics, family structure, changing gender roles and nearly every other memetic component of human society. Much of our psychological errata also stems from the practice of memes using primal genetic programs for other than their initially intended purpose.[6] This developing interface of symbols and neurochemicals paved the way for the next great leaps in human cultural complexity.


[1] Koko is a gorilla trained in American Sign Language by psychologist Dr. Francine Patterson. After 28 years of training, he is capable of using over 1000 signs and can recognize over 2000 spoken words. He does not, however, have the ability to form grammatically or syntactically correct sentences, create new symbols, or create new uses for existing symbols. This illustrates that his symbolic ability is constrained to recognition and repetition, not manipulation and creation.
[2] Origins of the Modern Mind, by Merlin Donald.
[3] See the discussion of External Symbolic Storage in Merlin Donald’s “Origins of the Modern Mind”
[4] As a means of relating an individual’s interaction with itself, and with genes and memes, I have used the concept of ego alone, rather than Freud’s divisions of ego, id and superego, as my intent is to elucidate the nature of human interactions, not intra-actions.
[5] Traces of an Omnivore by Paul Sheppard.
[6] Jungian, Freudian and other schools of psychology essentially identify the side effects of imperfections in the interface between genes and memes.

1 comment:

Brother Billy said...

Minor point: Koko, the gorilla, is a female.