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Primate Philosophy

Humankind has, from the earliest glimmerings of sentience on, endeavored to answer certain questions. What time is dinner? What's for dinner? Who caught dinner? Now that dinner's over, who wants to have sex?

These questions are all survival oriented, and are driven by brain structures that are common to nearly all air-breathing vertebrates. Deep within our lovely primate brains, instead of an ``inner child'' beloved by fiction and movies we have an inner reptile, and all sorts of very basic survival ``instincts'' (and a lot of higher order behavior that revolves around them) ultimately originates in our reptile brain1.1 1.2 .

These were not the only questions being driven by inherited1.3 brain structure, of course. Early primates were first and foremost mammals, and mammals had long since developed a cortex1.4 . This is a part of the brain that tends to control a variety of emotional and social activities such as the nurturing impulse towards children, instincts to form social groupings for mutual advantage, and the beginnings of higher brain function. Proto-humans were equally concerned with their ``tribes'' and achieving reproductive dominance therein, social grooming, fighting with neighboring tribes over territory and food supplies, and group foodgathering activities, all of which were basically more advanced versions of activities observed in a variety of reasonably advanced mammals in addition to primates.

Once the inner reptile was being satisfied on a moderately regular basis for at least a fraction of the proto-human population, once they were firmly established in a successful tribe/family group and had reproductive and social status, we can imagine that in that warm lull that follows a full belly, satisfying sex, and a round of playing with the children, proto-human minds used some newly developing layers and sections of the of primate cerebrum1.5 (neocortical regions that dramatically increased their ability to process information, solve problems, invent and manipulate tools, and communicate abstractly within their tribal cultures) to consider less evolutionarily important, but nevertheless intriguing, issues.

I wonder what those little bitty lights up there in the night sky really are? I wonder what would happen if I sharpened the end of this stick and poked it into a mastodon? I wonder how the fire comes out of chunks of cold rock struck together without consuming them but consumes wood to ash? I wonder how I'll get dinner tomorrow - could the stick help? I wonder if instead I'll turn out to be dinner for something else - could the stick help here as well? I wonder what happens to my awareness, the lights, the fire, the stick, if I turn into dinner for a sabertooth?

With these questions, humanity really began. That which differentiates humans from chimpanzees or gorillas (as much as anything else) is having the brain structures and ability to self-program those brains to reason symbolically, to imagine and communicate, to indulge in philosophy. Early humans were able, for example, to imagine their own deaths, to teach their offspring things that were far more complex than the relatively simple behaviors that were directly encoded into their brain at the hardware level. Humans became humans when they could self-program and pass on successful programs to their children, in a manner of speaking, much faster than was possible by waiting for genetic evolution to manage it.

What were these early ``programs''? What mechanism produced them? I would argue that the programs in question are composed of memes1.6 , the macroscale informational equivalent of genes, and that the process that developed them was a genetic optimization algorithm1.7 applied by nature simultaneously to both the genetic and memetic inheritance of proto-humans. This isn't really a going to be a focus of the current work, but I do think that this gives one valuable insights into much of what follows because (as we will see) many memes are also axioms and structure the way we think, especially think ``higher thoughts'' in philosophy, religion, politics, science and mathematics. Later we'll discuss memes in a bit more detail, but for now let us hold onto the thread of our story.

The early philosophers who asked these early questions also embarked on a long, error-fraught process of answering them. Some questions had answers that conferred a significant advantage on an individual or a social group that possessed them. It turns out, for example, that sharpened sticks are useful for killing all sorts of prey animals more efficiently than unsharpened ones, that fire can be controlled and used for defense, for offense, and to prepare food in healthier ways, and that a language was very, very useful for perpetuating the ever-increasing number of memetic discoveries produced by these early Einsteins. Given a strong survival advantage associated with the use of language, intelligence, and memetic inheritance, the brain structure that supported all of this rapidly co-evolved in these early primates.

I personally think that it is pretty safe to conclude from any sort of look at all at human history and prehistory that individuals that were intelligent and articulate enough to be educated and in turn to educate others (and the social groups to which they belonged) survived more often than those that were not as humans succeeded in passing on memes as well as genes to their offspring. Since even today memory is an important component of education and intelligence, we can assume that the rise of human language and intelligence corresponded with a vast increase in the quantity and quality of human memory.

Individuals with imagination and who were able to master sequential inferences based on observations of what amounted to cause and effect in their environment (stored in those improved memories) did better still. In the process of passing information on from generation to generation some of the information was changed, accidentally or deliberately. Some of those changes produced improved survival rates, others not, and the improvements thereby spread via the differential this created between competing social groups.

We can speculate that one of the earliest advantageous discoveries was that of extended tribal groups or societies. Of course social groupings are actually fairly common in the animal kingdom for a variety of reasons, but in the case of developing humans one of the most important reasons (possibly after the fact) was to facilitate the invention and preservation of non-instinctive learned behavior.

Societies are powerful vehicles for memetic sex, also known as social intercourse. Studying the relatively few stone age cultures surviving still today (and examining what traces pre-historical stone age cultures left behind), we can be reasonably sure that the earliest tribal groups were originally little more than extended familial groupings. These small groups frequently encountered one another and exchanged members or memes by means peaceful or otherwise, as happens with primate groups today. Thus memes and genes from one tribe or family group were carried to another. Tribal units themselves became ``superorganisms'' engaging in memetic sex in a hostile world - precisely the right conditions for the genetic algorithms that drive evolution to occur.

This sort of memetic ``crossover'' was doubtless then, as now, very fruitful. Sometimes two or more memetic ideas would get together in the right tribal member's ever more powerful brain and produce a new memetic idea (or more advanced version of an old one), an idea that carried still more survival potential. Tribes with fire and sharpened sticks found that fire hardened the sharpened end and turned them into primitive spears. Tribes that chipped rock pieces into sharp splinters found that those splinters made even better ends for their spears than fire-hardened wooden ones1.8. Individuals discovered that certain grass seeds could be harvested, dried, and stored to be eaten when other food sources were scarce, and it was they and their offspring and their tribe that survived famine and went on to found new tribes or otherwise propagated the information between surviving tribal groups.

Not all of the questions that were thought up, of course, had useful answers, but cultures that thought up many questions and did a fair job of answering at least some of them outperformed ones that were less curious or tried to sit back on their laurels after their last advance. Unlike genetic evolution, which often takes a very long time to make significant changes in a species, memetic and genetic co-evolution conferred such a large advantage on the most successful that the species itself and the memetic superorganisms improved quite rapidly. When written language appeared to permit memetic ``sex'' to span human generations and tribal cultures, it positively raced along, and it continues to do so today.

Throughout most of unrecorded pre-history, individuals and their tribes rarely had time to turn their less technological but still very interesting speculations into anything more complex than systems of metaphysical beliefs - religions - capable of providing mythopoeic1.9 answers to an entire class of very basic questions that arose in the process of performing memory-based inferences, specifically, identifying causes and effects (or at least systematically repeatable correlations between behavior, environment, and outcome). In case you are wondering how we know this given that they were pre-historical, we'll, okay, maybe we don't. We can infer it on the basis of such evidence as they left behind, or on the basis of what they didn't leave behind. One thing that they left behind was themselves, and from their graves we can see that they treated the dead with love and respect when they weren't eating them. We can find early art that at least appears to portray ``gods'' or ``goddesses'' although honestly it is difficult to prove that this is what they are and maybe they're the prehistoric equivalents of SpongeBob SquarePants1.10 instead.

These memetic systems of metaphysical beliefs were usually framed in a socially constructive way - one that reinforced tribal structures that were increasingly more complex and divergent from the simple primate/mammal extended family/tribal groupings that hold to this day in primate species that failed to become philosophers and discover the advantages of memetic co-evolution. Just as the genetic ``discovery'' by collections of clumped cells that differentiation and functional specialization led to advantages (a process that ultimately carried those cell clumps from being tiny blobs of a few identical cells to where they can do things like type these words into a computer), so did the discovery that organizing tribes into leaders, warriors, workers, childbearers worked much better than monkey-style tribes where every monkey took care of itself and its immediate family in a very simple social hierarchy. Structured memetic social superorganisms began competing (in the Darwinian sense) where before competition was primarily individual and familial and relatively unstructured1.11.

In the process of all this, the connection between questions, answers, and survival advantage was very nearly hard coded into the human brain structure at the genetic level. Humans sought answers to all questions, and their monkey curiosity was rewarded time and again for at least some of the answers they found in the only currency that mattered: survival and reproductive success for themselves and their social groups. Some of the questions that arose in the perfectly natural course of their increasingly human affairs were the really big ones that survive, unanswered, to this day:

Let us look at some of these questions and see how they, in particular, fit together.

next up previous contents
Next: Big Questions, Big Answers Up: Wanted: Answers to some Previous: Wanted: Answers to some   Contents
Robert G. Brown 2007-12-17