Infinite Mirrors and Sexual Selection

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In the previous blog post I've tried to show that Keynesian beauty contest — which is a terrible name; I will call it "infinite mirrors model" henceforth — is a more general mechanism than it seems to be at the first sight.

I've shown how it applies to pricing in general (not just pricing of stocks) and to natural language ("arbitrariness of the sign"). I've hinted at how it may be applied to political science.

After grasping the concept it should be relatively easy for the reader to choose an area of social science and find examples of infinite mirrors mechanics in that field.

But the whole thing begs a question: Given that the same mechanism can be found in such disparate fields can it be that we are looking as some kind of generic social phenomenon that crosses boundaries between individual social sciences?

The problem is that there's no common framework for social sciences. Thus, formulating ideas that transcend individual social sciences is hard. You simply don't have a language to do that.

Except, that is, for memetics. Yes, memetics, the way it takes concepts for biology and applies them wholesale to a completely different field, may be considered ugly or even brutal and yes, the entire field is moribund for at least a decade. But, on the other hand, memetics is the only framework that doesn't care about the minutiae of social phenomena and treats them the same whether they come from economics, linguistics, political science, history of art or from religious studies.

So, following the tradition of memetics, let's try to find the equivalent of infinite mirrors phenomenon in evolutionary biology. And, to make this post short and sweet, I believe the closest counerpart to infinite mirrors in biology is sexual selection.

Introduced by Darwin and later elaborated by Fisher, sexual selection is a kind of selection driven by choosing mates.

So, for example, overgrown tail feathers of a peacock have no survival advantage, they may even be detrimental to it by making it harder to escape predators, but they are still preferred by the evolution because peahens happen to prefer peacocks with long tail feathers.

In other words, a life of a peacock with long and bright tail feathers may be dangerous and short, but he mates a lot and has a lot of offspring. Which happens to be the only thing that matters in evolution.

But why would peahens prefer long tail feathers? If they preferred shorted feathers their sons would have shorter feathers as well and would be more likely to survive.

The answer is that while that is true, the sons would face the very same problem: With short tail feathers they would attract no mates and have no offspring.

We can imagine a peahen reasoning like this (of course, she doesn't reason, it's all about evolution, but let's pretend she does): I may prefer short-tailed cocks. However, all the other hens prefer long tail feathers so I should rather mate with a long-feathered cock so that my sons will have long feathers, be sexy and have a lot of offspring of their own.

She can even reason on the third level: Actually, all other hens may prefer short tails, but they believe that other hens prefer long tails and thus they are going to mate with long-tailed cocks. Thus, to make my sons sexy I have to choose a long-feathered mate rather than a short-feathered one.

Now, this argument sounds familiar. And yes, in its structure, it's exactly the argument of Keynesian beauty contest!

So it seems that the phenomenon of sexual selection, or its incarnation as infinite mirrors mechanism, is much more important in memetics than in genetics. After all, asexually reproducing organisms face no sexual selection. On the other hand, you'd be hard-pressed to come up with a social phenomenon that lacks it. The best I was able to imagine were jokes where one prefers the ones that are new and unknown to the most. But this is a fringe case. Everywhere else social consensus, executed via infinite mirrors mechanism, seems to be central. If you don't conform in economic sphere you loose money. If you don't conform in the linguistic sphere (i.e. you use words of your own making) you are not able to communicate. If you don't conform in political sphere you are killed or, at best, marginalized.

And a note for those who are now trying to figure out whether having male and female memes make sense: Sexual selection works perfectly well with hermaphrodites. There's no need for duality of sexes to get it.

As a final remark, let me raise a question of whether memetics have been stuck for years exactly because we've tried to apply the model of simple natural selection to memes, whereas, in reality, we are facing much more messy and complex world of sexual selection.

Martin Sústrik, August 13th, 2017

Next: On Tolerance

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