Extended Memotype: On Advice, Part 1

Extended Memotype: On Advice, Part 1

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People who give advice are annoying, kind, nosy, generous, pushy, helpful, proud, selfless, self-serving, and domineering. My advice is to ignore them completely and at your own expense.

I’ve been given advice-and as you know, I give my share of advice, too. Well, perhaps more than my share. I’ve been thinking about the dynamics of advice-giving, which I’ll now share.

In biology we talk about the phenotype. A plain, unextended phenotype is the corporeal representation of the genotype. In other words, it’s your body, the physical manifestation of your genetic record, or genotype.

Whatever else bodies have been doing for billions of years, this much is certain: the genotypes that build reproductively successful bodies are the genotypes that are left standing. In this sense your phenotype is your genotype’s way of making a copy of itself.

But your genotype doesn’t just spec out your body, it makes your body capable of enlisting the support of other bodies to facilitate them getting passed on. Your “extended phenotype” includes your entire sphere of influence-all the other life forms upon which your genotype depends for its successful reproduction. Your extended phenotype includes your breakfast, lunch, and dinner-the life forms that served as sun-digesting factories preparing molecules of stored energy for your body to use in the service of your genes. It includes the pine trees from which the studs in the wall of your nice warm home were made-just as, if you were a louse, it would include your host for the nutrients and warmth of its hide and hair. It includes your mating partners, the people whose bodies you enlist to co-create babies with you. If you were an alpha male elephant seal, it would include any lesser males you could enlist as allies to help you protect your harem.

There’s a lot of chutzpa in the biological realm, everyone imposing on everyone else, leaning mutualistically (I scratch your back; you scratch mine) and parasitically (I freeload; you scratch my back) into each other.

We humans are the world’s one major exception to strict gene dictation in the construction of phenotypes and the behavior by which phenotypes are extended. We have elaborate culture, so for us a body is more than a gene’s way of making more genes. We’re freed by our cultural successes from a full-time fight to perpetuate our genes. We’re lured by our culture to devote some of our attention to things that run independent of genetic perpetuation. Culture may have originally been useful strictly to help us pass along our genes, but by now it has taken on a life of its own. Your vocations and avocations aren’t solely in the service of increasing your biological reproductive success. We have both the means and ends to play cultural games. Genes and culture compete for our attention. We’re interested in producing children, but we’re also interested in producing brainchildren-passing on ideas we like, for example, by giving advice.

Researchers interested in the parallels and contrasts between biological and cultural evolution use the concept of memes. Oversimplifying a bit, we’ve each got a genotype and a “memotype,” the memotype being our memetic record-the ideas we live by. If your genotype is the genetic record from which your body is made, your memotype is the record of ideas by which your mind is made.

Who we are-our phenotype (body, genetic expression) and memotype (mind, mimetic expression), can both be extended. We don’t just have the biological chutzpa to eat other organisms, we have the cultural chutzpa to try to impose our values and opinions on other people, who are also trying to impose their values and opinions on us.

Both the extended phenotype and memotype carry the potential for individual gain. Just as it’s to my genes’ advantage that I influence other bodies, it’s to my memes’ advantage that my mental influence spreads.

It’s a dog-eat-dog world, but it’s also a human-persuade-human world. In next week’s article-second in a three-part analysis of advice-I’ll be advising on a generic conflict that arises often between the persuader and the unpersuaded. The persuader thinks the unpersuaded is closed-minded and stubborn. The unpersuaded thinks the persuader is nosy and pushy. Who’s right? Can you guess?