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It’s Nothing Personal

Occasionally I get phone calls from someone trying to sell me a new product or service. Before they get too far into their sales pitch I usually say that I don’t want to waste their time because I just don’t respond to unsolicited calls of that type, no matter what the product is. Then I say it’s nothing personal. I have nothing against them personally, just what they have to do because it’s their job.

The same applies when I criticise people with pointless or wasteful jobs. I don’t dislike individual managers, for example, I just disagree with the whole idea of management, at least in its current form. Again, my criticism is not about them directly, and it’s not personal.

And when I say someone who has extremely conservative and pernicious political views is acting like an unthinking idiot I’m not directly criticising some flaw in their character (although it often sounds that way), I’m really criticising that particular belief which makes them look like an idiot rather than them actually being one.

And finally there’s religion. I think that most religions are deeply harmful and divisive. They are also irrational, childish, and just plain stupid. I know there are some good aspects to religions too, but I’m trying to look at these things on balance. Note that I said the religion is stupid though, not the believer. Most religious people are quite sensible and would agree with me on many other points, so clearly a blanket judgement that they are stupid is unwarranted.

I do have to say that sometimes individuals really are just plain stupid. And I do admit that occasionally I attack the person, not the belief, but that is not my usual strategy, not because attacking people is impolite (I don’t care too much about that) but because it’s just not an accurate response to the situation under discussion.

I see extreme religious or political views as being like a sickness. I wouldn’t call someone evil because they have cancer. It is the cancer which is evil – for lack of a better word – not the person. And generally extreme beliefs are very similar. They are “contagious” social phenomena which are passed from one person to another through mechanisms which are similar in their action to actual biological diseases.

And evolution naturally occurs on these social mechanisms. Maybe it is the ultimate irony that creationism is the result of evolutionary processes!

I think social evolution might have been a bit overdone by some people in the past but that doesn’t mean it is completely invalid. In fact, like biological evolution, it is inevitable.

Imagine a new idea arises in a population somewhere. The idea is prone to adjustments because it is either spread from an individual’s memory or if a text is involved it is open to interpretation. As the idea spreads different variations will arise. Those that are most likely to be passed on to other people will thrive and the others will die out. Eventually only those which are easiest to spread to the most new people will still exist.

That is the exact mechanism of biological evolution through natural selection. The idea (often known as a meme) is a gene, the variation in interpretation is a mutation, the passing of ideas to others is reproduction, and the relative success of different ideas is natural selection.

Note that in both biological and social evolution we would expect a massive amount of divergence of ideas and of varying levels of survival, and in both cases that is exactly what we see. For example there are tens of thousands of different sects of the basic idea of Christianity with varying degrees of success in terms of their following.

The critical thing about social evolution is that the selection mechanism doesn’t select the “good” ideas based on how true they are or even how useful they are to the individual’s life. It’s very much like the idea in Richard Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene”. It’s the gene or meme which is competing for survival, not the individual. The person is just a host.

The idea is selected on how well it can be spread and simple ideas which contain elements that the person wants to hear (like life after death) are easier to spread than complex ideas, which are usually the true ones (reality is often far more complex than fantasy).

I have noted recently that ideas which diverge from what is considered to be the norm, especially if they deviate from standard political correctness, often result in severe sanctions against the person. That is completely unfair and I should note that this treatment originates more often amongst those on the political left than the right. Of course, it’s not the left-leaning person’s fault that they are unreasonable. They are just the victim of a meme which is currently spreading very successfully!

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