Saturday, 10 November 2018

David. S. Wilson: This View Of Life

Davis S. Wilson's new book looks set to be about about cultural evolution. It is called This View Of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution. Amazon link. Google books. It is coming out early in 2019.

David has a reasonable understanding of cultural evolution as far as I can tell. He has't supported memes very much - perhaps due to his conflicts with Richard Dawkins - but that issue is just terminology, right? No big deal.

David is perhaps best known (at least among evolutionary biologists) for his championing of group selection. I have previously found this to be a bit grating. Like many evolutionists, I generally favor kin selection over group selection. The two ideas seem broadly equivalent in their modern formulations - though there is an ongoing spat about which approach is more intuitive and which causes more confusion. David's group selection advocacy seems a bit foaming at the mouth to me. He argues, for example, that many kin selection enthusiasts missed the 1970s conversion to group selection by Price and Hamilton and are stuck in a 1960s timewarp. That seems ridiculous to me.

Recently David's books have focused more on the topic of this web site - the expansion of the domain of Darwinism into the social sciences. Not just via "evolutionary psychology" and the idea that human nature evolved - but also via the direct application of Darwinian evolutionary theory to cultural variation - the subject area closely associated with memetics.

I generally applaud any and all contributions to this area. David has certainly brought eyes, energy and enthusiasm to the topic. He appears to be good at social networking with other researchers. However to my eyes, there are a few problems with his contributions - things that I don't really like. He seems very focused on the social sciences. Darwinism also needs extending to psychology - with the natural selection of ideas, nerve impulses and synapses. I think David realizes this, but it rarely gets mentioned. Darwinism also needs extending to physics - something I don't think I have ever heard David discuss. David doesn't seem to be expanding the domain of Darwinism anywhere near far enough for my tastes.

Then there's the issues of religion. David, though technically an atheist seems to be a fan of religion. He not only argues that it is adaptive, but has written a whole book about the topic. I tend to regard the Abrahamic religions as ridiculous nonsense - and agents of the forces of darkness and ignorance. Yes it was important to have the "right" religion during the crusades, but times change, and so does what is adaptive. I can't share David's enthusiasm for religion.

An associated issue is Templeton foundation money. David seems happy to take it, and spend it on worthy scientific endeavours. In some respects, I would rather David manage this money than most of the other people in the queue for it. However, the Templeton foundation is on a religious crusade. They seem to far gone in the direction of the afore-mentioned forces of darkness and ignorance. Much of the research they sponsor is biased nonsense. Scientists who take their money inevitably risk being tarred by their sponsor's agenda. In common with many scientists, I am irritated by the influence of a large religious organization on my field of study. The multiple billions of dollars involved has the power to seriously distort small fields of science. One of the ways I can help by pushing back is ignoring the papers they help produce - and to some extent researchers who take their money. That - as it turns out - is a lot of cultural evolution research and a lot of cultural evolution researchers. They have themselves to blame for this. I appreciate that scientists need to eat too. I can't stop people from taking the money, but the influence of religion on science is a serious business. Scientists can fight back with criticism, but ignoring the work in question and outright reputational damage are among the other available approaches. It is fairly common to dismiss science on the grounds of its funding source - I'm not sure that Templeton-funded research is getting enough of this.

Friday, 9 November 2018

Symbionts and temporal discounting

In a now-famous paper, Alan Rogers once argued that sexual recombination was largely responsible for temporal discounting via kin selection. If people have, on average, around two kids each of which share half their genes, then at a similar point in their lives, investments in those kids are around half as valuable to a parent as investments in themselves. In the case of the kids, half of any investment by a parent would go to a bunch of unrelated genes from somebody else. If a generation is around 25 years (for women) and 30 years (for men). That results in around 2% temporal discount annually.

Much the same effect likely also resopnsible for the rate of senescence. The future losing half its value in every generation is not an unreasonable description of senescence. The net effect is that parents are disinclined to invest in their future selves (as well as their kids) - because they will be old people in the future.

This post is about the effects of cultural, microbial and other symbiosis on this result. Four points:

  • Firstly, culture and microbial symbionts are important. In our bodies, microbes outnumber the human cells 10 to one. In some respects, we are more microbe than man. Viruses are ubiquitous too. Cultural symbionts have enabled us to conquer the planet. We outnumber chimpanzees by more than 20,000 - 1. The effects of culture so far have been enormous.

  • Secondly, culture and microbes frequently engage in sexual recombination. Microbes inject their genes into passers by and pick up new genes by eating them. There's also some asexual reproduction going on at the same time. Culture is broadly similar - many ideas like to have sex.

  • Thirdly, culture and microbes often have very short generation times. If the logic of kin selection discounts the future according to the generation time, short generation times could be resoinsible for large discountung effects.

  • Fourthly, the interests of the symbionts matter because they are in a good position to influence their hosts. Microbes live inside their host's body. If they want more food, they can manufacture hormones that make their hosts hungry. If they want to spread to others, they can make their hosts cough, sneeze, shit, pee, cry or bleed. Cultural symbionts spend much of their lifecycle inside their host's brain. They have access to the behavioural master control system. There are immune systems designed to prevent such access, but these are not completely effective and sometimes fail completely.

What is the effect of all this? Do we discount the future more due to the interests of our symbionts? Alas, it is hard to say exactly, because some of the symbionts are asexual, which invalidates the above argument. Also, while microbes and culture sexually recombine, they typically don't have a fair meiosis that discards half their genes in every generation. Another effect with microbes and with some culture is that there's not much parental investment due to constraints. Microbes can't easily invest in their offspring after they are born. If they get extra resources after that, investing them in existing offspring is not an option.

Since direct theoretical analysis is a bit muddy, can we get a handle on the result we are interested in by proxy - e.g. by looking at how microbes affect lifespan? Faster senescence equates broadly to more furure discounting. I think that approach is more promising. Culture fairly clearly reduces the rate of senescence. Highly encultured countries clearly have retarded senescence. With microbes we typically see the reverse result - fewer microbes are associated with longer lives. These results come mostly from cross-country comparisons rather than controlled experiments - so they mostly have the status of associations, rather than causal influences.

Culture looks good today, but theory suggests that it might turn against us if horizontal transfer continues to rise in importance. Vertically transmitted culture tends to be aligned with the interests of the hosts. Horizontally transmitted culture - not so much. Culture has become increasingly horizontally transmitted over time. Perhaps soon it too will be treating humans as disposable recepticles - shortening our lives in the process.

Looking at effects on lifespan allows us to quantify the effects of microbes and culture on temporal discounting. The effects might have been bigger in the past before microbes and culture could spread internationally so much - but cross-country comparisons show around a 30% variation in life expectancy at birth today. It is probably fair to assume that that is mostly down to microbes and culture - rather than variation in the human genome.

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

How culture leads to hairlessness

I recently wrote a summary article about why humans are hairless. The content is broadly similar to my much longer 2011 article on the topic, "Memes and the evolution of human hairlessness". Please refer to that article for references.

Why do humans differ from other great apes? They have stable and open-ended cross-generational cultural inheritance - in addition to the more common DNA-based inheritance. Apes have cumulative cultural evolution too, but with a low complexity ceiling. This cultural difference leads to most of the other differences, from walking and swimming to talking, large brains and ultrasociality. How does culture affect hairlessness? In three types of ways:

  • It allows humans to compensate for the disadvantages of missing a genetic adaptation with cultural adaptations. Bedding, housing, clothing, baby slings, and so on all become possible with cultural inheritance.

  • Another way is by changing the intensity of selection pressures that favor hairlessness. One pathway is via ultrasociality and parasites. Larger group sizes with more social contact (which are facilitated by culture) may lead to more opportuities for parasites to spread, and may also result in more grooming opportunities. Bathing, wading and swimming may also affect hairlessness. As might the odd and no doubt culturally transmitted human habit of using pack hunting and long distance running to exhaust their prey.

  • Lastly, hairlessness is a sexually dimorphic trait. It is associated with neoteny, which seems to have been favored as a mechanism for other reasons during human evolution. Neotoney facilitates our culturally-magnified large brain fitting through the human pelvis - among other things. At some stage in human evolution, youthful, hairless females had benefits in terms of sexual attractiveness. Hairy women were not so favoured. Being visibly free from ectoparasites abd other disease may have been part of it. The effects of female hairiness may have spread over to men too, since men and women share many genes. Sexual selection seems to have been be a factor in promoting human hairlessness.

Sunday, 4 November 2018

No age of post-intelligent design

Here is Dennett, introducing his idea of an age of post-intelligent design:

The age of intelligent design is only a few thousand years old ... We're now entering the age of post-intelligent design. Because what we've learned as intelligent designers is that evolution is cleverer than we are at some things.

We're now turning to making technologies that are fundamentally Darwinian, or they're versions of natural selection. This is things like deep learning, the program that beat the world's Go champion, Alpha Go, these are technologies which do their work the way natural selection does. Mindlessly, without consciousness, without forethought, they grind out better and better and better designs.

And now, we have in effect black boxes that scientists can use, where they put in the data, they push the button, out comes an answer. They know it's a good answer. They have no idea how it got there. This is black box science. This is returning to our Darwinian roots and giving up on the idea of comprehension.

The problem with the idea of an era of post-intelligent design, is that it's likely nonsense. Evolution is characterised by increasing intelligence (give or take the occasional meteorite strike). The only way that there will be an age of post-intelligent design is if there's a massive disaster that wipes out all the intelligent agents. Machine intelligence isn't a regression to an earlier era of Darwinian design as Dennett claims. If scientists use a black box which they don't understand that doesn't mean there's no comprehension in the whole system - the machine could understand what is going on. Machine intelligence is an example of more and better intelligence. The proposed age of post-intelligent design doesn't make any sense. It is just wrong.

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Memetic mass extinction

I've previously discussed the idea of a cultural-cambrian-explosion - i.e. a rapid explosion of diversity followed by competitive winnowing.

I've also talked about the role of memes in the Holocene extinction event. That there's a large-scale extinction event of DNA creatures is widely recognized. However this is also a good time to see memes going extinct - and that seems to be a less well recognized phenomenon.

Some modern memes are spectacularly successful. For example, the many memes that compose the english language are all doing pretty well. However typically, whenever a very successful creature arises, numerous rivals are forced to give up their niches. There must be many languages that are losing their speakers and going extinct. Religious memes also look as though they are probably dropping like flies. Hunter gatherer tribes have been dwindling for a long time. They often take many of their memes with them.

This modern memetic extinction is best seen as part of the Holocene extinction event. Rapid cultural evolution causes environmental disruption, many entities can't adapt fast enough and so go extinct.

Sunday, 28 October 2018

Susan Blackmore - Artificial Intelligence - What is Our Role in the Future?

Susan speculates about machine intelligence and the future. Thanks to Adam Ford for the video.

I don't disagree with very much here. Susan seems a bit more pessimistic than me. Also, it seems to me that she exaggerates the extent to which machines are currently creating themselves. At the moment, I would emphasize that humans are still in the loop. Machines creating themselves will be a reality one day, but today the idea is a bit of a cartoon caricature. I also suspect that I spend less time than Susan thinking about whether the internet is conscious.

Monday, 15 October 2018

For memes, minds are like islands

Islands are natural evolutionary experiments. The history of evolutionary theory prominently features researchers who visited islands. Most famous of these was Darwin himself. Darwin's trip to the remote Galapagos islands was famously documented in The Voyage of the Beagle. This took place before Darwin had really got interested in evolutionary theory - and it was clearly a catalytic event.

Islands feature restricted gene flow. They also feature rapid evolution due to the environment being different from the ancestral one, and due to small population sizes and genetc drift. The size of the island and how isolated it is are important factors to the resulting evolutionary dynamics.

It has subsequently become understood that islands are a special case of restricted flow of heritable information. That means that the great lakes are like watery islands for fish. It means that deserts are like islands for cacti. It means that that mountains are like islands for their plants and animals. It also means that many hosts are like islands for their parasites.

Dogs are like islands for their fleas. Zits are like islands to their bacteria - and minds are like islands for their memes. Evolutionists got the most mileage out of archipelagos far from the mainland. The memetic equivalent would be lost or isolated tribes. Sure enough, anthropologists have long been fascinated by these types of group. Remote monasteries another possible object of study - and of course groups of humans can themselves become isolated on real islands.

Islands are natural experiments in group selection. Theory has long suggested that if the number of migrants per generation between groups falls to around 1, then groups of sexual organisms can start to behave rather like individuals which develop their own, distinct traits. They start to develop persistent differences between one another - instead of simply being part of the same gene pool. One migrant per generation is not very many and so conventional wisdom has argued that group selection is not very important. However, one place where isolation levels can be high is on islands. If an island is sufficiently remote, it is not very challenging to get into the ballpark of 1 migrant per generation.

Reproduction within islands is subject to one set of selection pressures, while reproduction between islands is often subject to a quite different set of selection pressures. Strawberry plants illustrate how such selection can pull organisms in two different directions. Strawberries have runners for local, asexual reproduction and seeds for sexual reproduction over large distances. Strawberries must allocate resources depending on their local conditions. If they are cramped, and under seige from parasites, then seeds start looking like an attractive option. This type of resource allocation dilemma is a common one for organisms on islands. Memes too must allocate their resources between fighting off competition within their existing mind and spreading to new minds. As with strawberry plants, they are often pulled by selection in two conflicting directions.

Islands are widely considered to be incubators of evolutionary innovation. On the mainland experiments often don't get very far before reality catches up with them and calls them to account. On islands, experients can last for longer before their day of reckoning comes. Often, rats come to the island, and destroy its native ecosystem - and that is the end of that. However, once is a while something amazing happens, and the island evolution produces something valuable that would never have evolved without the isolation. In the USA, many small start-ups attempt to reproduce this innovation-on-islands effect. Most fail, but sometimes, something amazing happens.

The evolutionary dynamics of island ecosystems seems like fertile ground for cultural evolution and memetics. It is territory that has already been explored to some extent, but there is still much left to learn.

There's an interesting analogy between organisms colonising a new volcanic island and individual enculturation of human brains. In both cases, pioneer species come first and create the ecosystem for their successors.

One of my early essays was about evolution on islands. I wasn't thinking about cultural evolution much back then. It is interesting for me to look back on the essay, now I that know more about the relevance of island dynamics to memetic evolution.

Saturday, 13 October 2018

Memes in U.S. Government Influence Campaigns

Thinktank CNA has a document out titled: "Exploring the Utility of Memes for U.S. Government Influence Campaigns". It's a 67 page document heavily loaded with pictures of internet memes and analysis of their potential influence.

It's one of a number of recent publications which attempts to reify the modern conception of an internet meme and retro-fit this onto the definition of the term "meme".

I think serious meme enthiusiasts need to reject this sort of thing as an unscientific perversion of the meme concept. IMO, it is OK to use of "meme" as an acceptable abbreviation for "popular internet meme". After all, popular internet memes are indeed still memes. However there's no good reason to redefine the term "meme".

I notice that even dictionaries are giving the nod to this new usage. For example, https://www.dictionary.com/browse/meme still lists the Dawkins-style definition first, saying:

a cultural item that is transmitted by repetition and replication in a manner analogous to the biological transmission of genes.

...but it goes on to say that "meme" can also refer to:

a cultural item in the form of an image, video, phrase, etc., that is spread via the Internet and often altered in a creative or humorous way.

The first usage is scientifically useful. The second definition, not so much.

It is worth noting that there was a similar movement to define "gene" in a frequency-dependent manner. In 1966 G. C. Williams defined a "gene" as follows:

In this book I use the term gene to mean 'that which segregates and recombines with appreciable frequency'

Going on to say:

In evolutionary theory, a gene could be defined as any hereditary information for which there is a favorable or unfavorable selection bias equal to several or many times the rate of endogenous change
It was pioneering to define a gene in terms of "any hereditary information" - but the idea of frequency-dependence wasn't broadly adopted. Few could stomach the idea that genehood depends on frequency in the way that Williams contended. It seems adaptationist to define genes under the influence of of genetic drift out of existence.

I like that "memes" are now very popular and widely-discussed - but now is not an appropriate time to forget about their roots.

Survivalism vs hedonism

Survivalism and hedonism are doctrines surrounding fitness maximization and pleasure maximization respectively.

Both schools vary along the individualism / collectivism axis. Survivalism ranges from individualists, who are out for themselves through those who profess to be against the extinction of our species. Similarly, hedonists vary from those out for their own pleasure, to those who think the total pleasure of all sentient beings is what is important.

Hedonists think they are more advanced than survivalists. They are further up in Maslow's hierarchy of needs. They view animal evolution as a transition away from basic survivalist goals towards more advanced optimization targets dictated by nervous systems. In turn, survivalists view hedonists as short-sighted folk prone to drug-taking, masturbation, casual sex, wireheading and other dubious activities oriented towards pleasure and often at the expense of basic survival. See the picture, for more examples.

For a while, I considered these teams' rivalry to be largely misplaced. Hedonists who neglected survival were short-sighted fools likely to end up with nothing. Only hedonists who recognised that hedonism depended on survival really needed to be taken seriously. However, such hedonists would be likely to behave a lot like survivalists until they were pretty certain that they were not going to encounter more advanced alien civilizations in the alien race. They might well be tens of millions of years in the future. If the two tribes behave in much the same way for billions of years, they don't seem too dissimilar.

I'm now a bit less confident of this assessment. Hedonists might think that alien races would also be hedonistic - and so might not be too concerned about the consequences of an alien invasion. I can also imagine a hedonist gambling on extinction vs making everyone three times as happy forever. A survivalist would be unlikely to take such a gamble - but possibly a hedonist might.

It also seems that in practice that the different optimization targets do result in different behavior. For example they differ regarding treatment of non-human animals. Many hedonists are concerned with animal welfare causes: factory farming, wild animal suffering and so on. However to survilists these look like bad causes. Non-human animals are probably not going to help make sure that spaceship earth completes its journey. This kind of practical difference today does not bode terribly well for the thesis that the behavior of these tribes will converge in the future. Maybe the survivalists and the hedonists will remain at odds.

Friday, 12 October 2018

Pretend to be part of your host

How do parasites avoid destruction at the hands of the host immune systems? Of course there are many ways, but one way is to pretend to be part of your host. Viruses are experts at this. They hide inside host cells, out of the way of the immune system. However the immune system has a window to cell contents the form of the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) proteins, which are detectable from outside the cell. Some viruses, for example cytomegaloviruses synthesize families of human-like proteins to fool the immune system into thinking that the host cell is still mostly human.

Is there an equivalent of this in cultural evolution? There's certainly a distinction between self and other and this is used by the memetic immune system when deciding which memes to reject. The components most clearly marked as beiong "self" are those that the host considers to be part of their own identity. So many memes compete for adoption by the identity of their host.

One way you can tell which memes are considered to be part of the identity of an individual is when they say "I am X". Some examples:

  • Religion: "I am a Christian"
  • Politics: "I am a Republican"
  • Jobs: "I am a nurse"
  • Sex: "I am transexual"
  • Ethnicity: "I am Jewish"
  • Disease: "I am disabled"
  • Age: "I am old"
One possible defense against unwanted memes masquerading as being part of you is to spring-clean your identity. If you reduce its footprint there will be fewer places for unwanted memes to hide. At any rate, regardless of whether you want to shrink your identity, it is worth looking closely at who you think you are, to make sure that it really is you.