Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Survival, survivors and survivalism

Fidelity, fecundity and longevity - the Dawkins trinity of replicator attributes - all share something in common: they are ways for patterns to persist over time. The most common term for this idea is "survival". Those who survive are known as "survivors". There's also an art of survival: "survivalism".

The main competitor for the "survival" terminology probably involves the term "persistence". Things that persist are described as being as "persistent". This terminology is less agent-centric. It can more conveniently be applied to non-living entities. It can be argued that it is more general. I generally favor the "survival" terminology - even when it comes to structures that are not conventionally regarded as being alive.

The most mainstream type of survivalism in evolutionary theory is genetic survivalism. In theory the idea of survivalism could be applied to practically any biological entity. A common biological entity that acts as though it wants to survive is the individual. However, many sexual individuals don't prioritize their own survival over the survival of their genes. Instead they are prepared to sacrifice themselves for their kin. So, there's a sense in which individual survivalism is a second rate idea in evolutionary theory. Much the same can be said for groups. Genetic survivalism explains pretty neatly the extent to which individuals and groups behave as though they are attempting to survive.

At least one clarification is needed. The term "genetic" should not be interpreted as being to do with DNA. Any inherited information will do - whether inherited via DNA, culture or some other aspect of the environment.

The popular idea of survivalism does not necessarily map onto the biological notion this article refers to. If disasters are sufficiently common, preparing from them makes sense - and most individuals will be recent descendants of those who prepared. However, many so-called "survivalists" seem to behave as though they have an unrealistically high probability estimate of the chances of a disaster taking place. From the perspective of evolutionary theory, many self-proclaimed "survivalists" look as though they are suffering from unhealthy levels of paranoia.

There do seem to be a few individuals who behave as though they are focused on individual survival. Many cryonics subscribers are possible candidates. However, such behavior is still compatible with conventional evolutionary theory. There are two main possibilities - these individuals are malfunctioning, or they are being manipulated - for example by memeoids.

An early user of the term survival was Edward Burnett Tylor. He used it to mean something a bit different.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Jeremy England on entropy and life

Jeremy England has been in the tech news recently. He's a physicist interested in the thermodynamics of living systems. He leads the England Lab at MIT. People have invited me to comment on his content.

Alas, I don't like Jeremy's content very much. Most of the ideas Jeremy is being credited with in news articles have been studied for decades under the name of maximum entropy thermodynamics. We have many papers and books on this topic [1] - by Schneider, Dewar, Lotka and others. Should the journalists know better? Maybe - but Jeremy hasn't been helping them find this material - because he doesn't cite any of it. His lists of references are miniscule. Why he doesn't cite the existing material is not clear - but whatever the reason, it's a bad result.

I found researching Jeremy's work tough going. His presentation skills are not very good. He rambles and doesn't get to the point. However he has managed to create a big media splash in which he is given credit for the old and well-trodden ideas of others. Publicity storms in areas of science that I care about are generally OK - but this one seems pretty egocentric and misleading.

I don't agree with some of Jeremy's technical ideas very much either. Jeremy's correct in saying that you can have entropy maximization with selection and without copying. Jeremy suggests that Darwinism is a special case of a more general physical principle involving entropy maximization. That's one way of putting it. However, Darwinian systems can model the maximization of an arbitrary fitness function. It can therefore cover cases which entropy maximization doesn't neatly deal with. For example you could create an environment where fitness depends on delaying entropy increases. Desert plants face an environment a lot like this. Entropy maximization frameworks can model such situations using long time horizons and constraints - but this seems obtuse. Entropy maximization and universal Darwinism are topics that have massive overlap and complement each other. However, it seems to me that both approaches have useful things to offer.

It's not that there's no revolution here. It's more that Jeremy doesn't seem to be familiar with the literature in the field - and so he doesn't seem to be a particularly good source of information on the topic.

The last few decades have seen plenty of invasions of biology by physicists. Many of these have been stimulating - but what I would like to see more of at this stage is more traffic in the opposite direction: applications of Darwinism directly to inorganic physics.

[1] For details of the history see my bibiographies of the topic, below:


News coverage



Saturday, 13 December 2014

Cultural superorganisms

Nature tends to produce hierarchies of organisms. For example, eucaryotes are composed of many previously-free-living cells - and eusocial colonies are composed of large numbers of independently-mobile animals. The easiest way for nature to make large organisms is by clumping lots of smaller ones together. When the interests of organisms in groups become sufficiently closely aligned, they can behave functionally like a single larger organism.

In modern times, we can see this process caught in action at various stages. In an ant's nest, there's still some conflicts between individual ants in a colony - as a result of them having different interests - for example as a result of not sharing all their genes with one another. A Portuguese man o' war shows another type of superorganism under construction. It is not an ordinary multicellular organism but rather a colony - a symbiotic union of a large number of much smaller animals.

Cultural evolution also produces superorganisms. Cultural kin selection and cultural eusociality are usually involved. Companies and religions are prominent examples of superorganisms with cultural components. However, it must be said that these contain organic components as well as cultural ones. Purely cultural superorganisms are mostly something for the future - but we do see some largely cultural superorganisms. Data centres are one of the best examples. There are unmanned data centres - sometimes called "lights-out data centres" - which have no human operators. These can't reproduce without humans yet, but their structure depends heavily on memes. In the future we can expect to see robot swarms - which are even more obviously reminiscent of eusocial insect colonies.

In the organic realm, superorganisms tend to remain colonial creatures. They can't seem to refactor themselves into proper whole organisms. Perhaps doing so doesn't pay - there are probably benefits associated with maintaining a modular cellular structure, to do with regeneration. However, perhaps cultural superorganisms will do a better job of refactoring themselves into first class organisms.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

The major transitions in cultural evolution

In their famous work, The Major Transitions in Evolution John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry identified cultural evolution as being a Major Transition. However, a more fine-grained classification than theirs seems attractive to me - and so, in this post, I'll consider what changes qualify as being the major transitions in cultural evolution.

These are my picks for the major transitions so far:

  • The origin of cultural transmission;
  • The origin of digital transmission via speech;
  • Human collectives with specialization (via agriculture);
  • The origin of writing;
  • Mass-produced written materials (via industry);
  • Computers;
  • The internet;

The list is heavily dominated by two kinds of improvements:

  • Better storage;
  • Better networking;

The evolution of cultural evolution has seen developments in computation, sensors and actuators - but these seem to have been more incremental - and less like "major transitions".

The next big major transition in cultural evolution looks set to be machine superintelligence.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Mike Lange's critique of cultural evolution

In my experience, critics rarely make videos (criticism is cheap) - but here is one from Mike Lange.

Mike mostly criticizes cultural evolution's concept of progress.

Evolutionary progress is denied by some cultural evolution researchers (notably Alex Mesoudi) - and is widely denied by evolutionary biologists. I call this "progress denialism". Evolutionary progress is obvious. Evolution is a gigantic optimization process. It seeks the fittest agents - the angels, so to speak. We are some of the first apes who learned to write - and are plainly not yet angels. Consequentially, the existence of progress is not very surprising.

Mike is mostly concerned with progressive unilinear cultural evolution. He says this is value-laden, false and racist. He says it has been used to justify colonialism. He describes it as as "problematic" and "insiduous".

Mike doesn't really attempt to make a scientific argument. Instead he mostly presents anecdotes arguing that belief in progress has led to negative social consequences.

I think this argument is like arguing that metallurgy is bad because guns can kill people. Yes, gun use leads to tragic deaths. However that's just one consequence of the findings of metallurgy.

I don't think there's any credible evidence that the idea of evolutionary progress leads to bad behaviour. If there was such evidence, I'm pretty sure that critics would present it. They seem unable to do this. Of course that doesn't mean that evolutionary progress is a harmless idea - but unless there's a good reason for thinking that progressivism is somehow worse than progress denialism, I don't think the progress advocates have too much to worry about when it comes to criticism on moral grounds.

The truth is rarely bad or evil. It is usually better to know than not to know.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Cultural evolution: everyone is an expert

Popular blogger Jerry Coyne has persisted for many years in writing about cultural evolution - despite plainly not knowing anything about it. Here is a quote from his most recent effort:

Cultural evolution is simply the spread of beliefs or practices through assimilation. Such evolution differs from genetic evolution in two important ways. While genes spread only from parent to offspring (‘vertically”), cultural traits can also spread “horizontally”: in the case of religion, by imitation, conversion, or conquest—processes much faster than the spread of genes. Second, while genetic evolution depends on a single criterion of fitness—the number of offspring produced by the carrier of a gene—cultural traits spread by many different psychological and cultural mechanisms. The forces responsible for the spread of Marxism differ from those causing the success of Madonna.

Alas, almost every sentence is wrong. Cultural evolution also involves processes such as forgetting. It is not an "assimilation only" idea. There's horizontal gene transfer as well as horizontal meme transfer. Wikipedia has a large article on horizontal gene transfer. It is part of biology 101. Lastly, there's cultural fitness as well as organic fitness. Practically every definition of fitness that has been applied to the evolution of DNA genes has a direct counterpart in cultural evolution. Counting organic offspring can be replaced by counting cultural offspring - and so on.

Coyne's article was a review of a book by David Wilson. Here's Wilson on Coyne (from 2011):

In the second article, Wilson is fighting on home turf. Unlike Coyne, David Wilson does actually have a reasonable understanding of cultural evolution. It's a walkover for Wilson. IMHO, Coyne should learn something about this topic before discussing it in public any further.

Daniel Cloud bashes ridiculous "meme theory" straw man

Here's Daniel Cloud in a recent interview discussing the ideas in his book:

So my theory falls into the genre of cultural evolution. The existing theory of cultural evolution is the “meme theory,” that culture works like a virus. The big problem with this is that the more bits of culture look like viruses, the more it becomes the case that they ought to be pathogenic.

This isn't a "big problem" with any meme theory I am familiar with. In most memetic theories, cultural symbionts can be parasites, mutualists or commensuals - in their relationships with humans. Many have said this explicitly. I don't think there is a "parasite-only" version of "meme theory". The explicitly virus-oriented variants of memetics promoted by Richard Brodie ("Virus of the mind") and Ben Cullen ("Cultural virus theory") go out of their way to avoid this mistake.

Daniel continues:

What the old theory, the meme theory, would predict about the internet is that it allows the pathogens access to a much larger pool of potential victims, so things are just going to get worse for us. But in a domestication theory, what you would expect is that language would improve on the internet, that there would be lots of people coming up with new things and refining things.

I think this is a silly dichotomy. It is true that memetics predicts an increased density of humans will lead to a greater proportion of memes that are deleterious to the genes of human hosts. Indeed, we can see the effect of a high density of humans and a large concentration of memes today - simply by looking at Japan. Japanese have below-replacement fertility. Their DNA genes are suffering. However - as far as I know, many Japanese folk live happy and peaceful lives. Instead of saying that memetics predicts that "things are just going to get worse for us" it would be more accurate to say that memetics predicts that more of the world will start to resemble Japan - in having a combination of high meme densities and below-replacement fertility.

If you look at eusocial ants and bees, they live close together and have horizontally-transmitted pathogens - but they also have a variety of meticulous hygene practices which work to minimize the impact of their pathogens. It seems likely that humans will respond similarly to higher population densities and more horizontal meme transmission - by developing cultural anti-pathogen techniques and strategies. Just as hospitals, vaccinations and quarantine are used to defend against DNA-based parasites, so their cultural equivalents will be used to defend against hostile memes.

One interesting question for humans is whether these defenses will evolve rapidly enough - or whether we will wind up with an "ebola-like" situation - where the human hosts are treated like disposable resources to be converted into memes as quickly as possible. In standard epidemiology, it is rare for a disease to wipe out its host population. However, we know some of the factors that make this type of event more likely to happen. For example, if a parasite only has one host species, it is unlikely to exterminate it. In this model, we are probably OK so long as we are the primary hosts for memes. However intelligent machines look set to become another host environment for memes in the near future. When that happens, human hosts may need to take greater care. Another factor is generation time. Slow-reproducing and slow evolving hosts are more at risk. We probably don't score too well there either.

Memetics seems to be the practically the only theory of cultural evolution with practitioners who are interested in these issues. For example, Susan Blackmore recently testified that many cultural evolution practitioners had bought into Ed Wilson's dopey 'leash' model of cultural evolution - in which meme evolution is constrained to be subservient to to DNA gene evolution. It would certainly be dangerously naive to think that the world's memes have been successfully domesticated - and so everything is going to be OK.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Why don't academics understand cultural symbiology?

I've previously documented the poor penetration of understanding of symbiology in cultural evolution in academia in my article Symbiology adoption sluggish.

As my cultural symbiology bibliography indicates there is some understanding of cultural symbiology out there. Dennett, Blackmore, Gontier - and so on - but most students of cultural evolution within academia just don't seem to get it. There's talk of "coevolution" - but if you look deeper, this is lip service, most of the people involved really don't understand symbiology. The terms 'parasite' and 'virus' are seldom mentioned. Epidemiological models of cultural transmission are systematically neglected - and so on.

To be clear, symbiology is an important foundation of the theory of cultural evolution. If you don't see culture as composed of cultural symbionts coevolving with human hosts, you don't really understand the topic. Without symbiology there's no way to properly understand cultural evolution. So: what are the academics doing? Why don't they understand?

One clear factor is cultural evolution's scientific lag. Symbiology proved hard for ordinary evolutionary biologists to understand. It wasn't until the 1960s-1980s that the implications began to sink in. These days we know from gene sequencing that the human genome is at least 8% virus. Symnbiology has proven itself to be a very significant evolutionary phenomenon. However, understanding of cultural evolution lags behind understanding of organic evolution. As a result, cultural evolution in academia is stuck back somewhere before the 1960s - back when symbiology was not properly understood.

Another factor may be that symbiology itself was a slow starter. Even in the 1980s understanding of symbiology grew slowly. Its main popularizer was Lynn Margulis - and Lynn was an idiosyncratic individual who seemed to have difficulty expressing herself clearly. She promoted symbiology, which helped it to grow - but no doubt some people didn't get the message because of the medium.

I think another factor is balkanization. Many academics are specialists. Cultural symbiology requires understanding of topics which have historically been widely separated - cultural anthropology and symbiology. This understanding hasn't been properly combined in a sufficiently large number of individuals for it to become widely known.

Another factor may be founder effects. The modern theory of cultural evolution was pioneered by a few individuals. By chance, they lacked the required memes, and didn't have the predisposition to acquire them. The modern theory has radiated from them. Under this model, the problem was bad luck, sampling effects and then magnification.

Memetics pioneered cultural symbiology. It was prominently there from the beginning - in the writings of Cloak (1975) and Dawkins (1976). It is frustrating to see the current level of ignorance in academia surrounding this topic. People are ignorant of the topic only to the extent to which they neglect the memetics literature.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Universal Darwinism claimed to be impossible

In 2011, Paul Fudulu has written a somewhat-interesting critique of Universal Darwinism - titled: The impossibility of a generalized Darwinism: comments on Darwin's Conjecture. Paul's writing is not always clear. However, I think this is his main criticism, in a nutshell:

If the Darwinist theory is the proper metatheoretical model of all social sciences including economic science, as the authors of this book claim, what does it tell us economists about the maximization hypothesis? In regard with the consumption of matter and energy of the living entities the authors of Darwin’s Conjecture asserts that they “have limited capacities to absorb” (p.33). However, there is a magnitude which is maximized by replicators - the number of offspring. But enough disappointing, human reality seems to be depicted by an upside down situation: it is rather the number of offspring which humans strive to limit and it is each individual’s consumption of matter and energy that is maximized. The authors do not seem aware of this serious contradiction and are not at all concerned to account for by a more comprehensive principle that reconcile these two principles of limitation and maximization, which apply differently to human and non-human living worlds.

I think this doesn't really hit the mark. Human offspring is what a naive human-centric, DNA-centric view of evolution might point to as evolution's maximand. It isn't that far from the mark - as today's 7 billion humans attests to. However, human DNA is only one of the things copied in evolution. There are also plants, bacteria and memes. Memes are what explains the demographic transition which Paul alludes to. Gene-meme coevolution is the only credible theory that accounts for the reduced levels of offspring creation associated with being a rich westerner. There's been quite a bit of effort put into understanding how it works.

There is no "principle of limitation" that only applies to the human world. Maximization explains things pretty neatly. The maximand isn't human offspring, though - memes count too. We are already witnessing the effects of high meme concentrations on human fertility - for example, in Japan. In the future, the number of humans may well dwindle - as existing humans get sucked into cyberspace and fail to procreate. This would not be a failure of Darwinian evolution - it will just illustrate one type of information being copied at the expense of another. Ultimately, entropy is the maximand - as has been argued by many.

Entropy maximization is consistent with Paul's claim that we should look to physics - and not biology - for the answer here. However, entropy maximization isn't really a replacement for evolutionary theory - it is more of a useful adjunct.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

My altruism boycott

Although the term "altruism" is a popular one among evolutionary biologists, I mostly boycott it. In this article I give my reasons:

  • The dictionary defines altruism "as concern for the welfare of others".
  • There's a biological conception of altruism - which means taking a hit (in personal fitness) for another party.
  • Then there's William Hamilton's (1964) conception of altruism - which argues that it means taking a hit (in inclusive fitness) for another party.
It is widely argued that kin selection and group selection are explanations for altruism. However, they can only explain the first two types of altruism.

I prefer the third definition of "altruism". However practically nobody uses it these days. Indeed there's a lot of confusion and muddle surrounding exactly what the term "altruism" refers to. This confusion is well documented by West, El Mouden and Gardner in Sixteen common misconceptions about the evolution of cooperation in humans (See section 6.1.1).

Alas, the definition they prefer is one of the ones I do not like. They say:

An individual's personal fitness is defined as the number of offspring that she produces that survive to adulthood (Dawkins, 1982; Grafen, 2007b; Hamilton, 1964; Maynard Smith, 1983; also termed neighbour-modulated fitness). From an evolutionary point of view, a behaviour (or action) is social if it has fitness consequences for both the individual that performs that behaviour (the actor) and another individual (the recipient). Hamilton (1964) classified social behaviours according to whether the consequences they entail for the actor and recipient are beneficial (increase personal fitness) or costly (decrease personal fitness) (Table 2). A behaviour which is beneficial to the actor and costly to the recipient (+/-) is selfish, a behaviour which is beneficial to both the actor and the recipient (+/+) is mutually beneficial, a behaviour which is costly to the actor and beneficial to the recipient (-/+) is altruistic, and a behaviour which is costly to both the actor and the recipient (-/-) is spiteful (Hamilton, 1964; Hamilton, 1970; West et al., 2007b

It is rather ironic that they cite Hamilton, 1964 here. Hamilton was pretty clear in saying that it was inclusive fitness he was talking about - not personal fitness. He says so plainly - at the bottom of page 14 of the paper.

I'm not drawing attention to this blunder in order to bash West, El Mouden and Gardner. My point is just that - if a paper by these folks trying to clear up confusion in the area is in this kind of conflict with its primary sources, then the situation is confusing indeed.

If I did use the term "altruism" I would have to constantly define it. My usual strategy would be to put up a page rather like this one, saying what I mean by the term - and then hyperlink to it whenever I needed to use the term. However, in this case, my preferred definition is a minority taste. W. D. Hamilton was apparently on my side of the issue - but that was long, long ago. I can't bring myself to abandon inclusive fitness and adopt personal fitness - that just seems scientifically stupid to me. However, rather than trying to fight this battle, I have mostly decided to just abandon the term "altruism", as being too polluted. Instead, I mostly use the term "cooperation". It doesn't mean the same thing - but it is much, much less confusing.