Saturday, 3 March 2018

Peter Richerson: Human Evolution in the Pleio-Pleistocene

The full title is: Human Evolution in the Pleio-Pleistocene: A World Queerer Than We Supposed.

Here Peter is mostly making the case that understanding human evolution requires an understanding of the influence of climate. Cultural evolution gets mentioned, but it is not really the main topic.

Memes from Russia with love

I've covered meme warfare before, and have other articles about use of memes in warfare and by the miltary. There have been some interesting developments in this area recently, as light has been shone on Russian attempts to culturally influence western nations via disinformation campaigns.

Russian involvement in the 2016 US general election acted as a catalyst for this interest. The spotlight was quickly broadened to include Brexit, the Scottish independent vote.

Russian media operatives bots have shown interest in a number of other areas. They get fired up by the gun regulation debate. They are opposed to vaccination. They are opposed to GMO crops.

Matt Ridley wrote an article recently about how Russia promoted the "nuclear winter" theory - which was subsequently widely-discredited.

Fracking, climate change and energy policy have been other targets of the Russians.

Russia's use of disinformation goes back decades, but has only been the last couple of years that awareness of it has become more widespread. "Disinformation" has become known as "fake news" - a term which exploded in populatity in November 2016.

This article is about Russian efforts, but I don't mean to suggest that other countries are not involved. American cyberwarfare operations include Operation Olympic Games and Stuxnet. The American efforts have been covert, though - while the Russian ones are easier to study because they often involve public distribution.

The topic is currently popular, and it could fairly easily be used as a case study for students of cultural evolution. The most obvious things we want to know are what issues the Russians have attempted to influence, how they have attempted to influence them, how successful they have been and what can be done about the issue.

One frequently reported Russian technique is to play both sides of an issue. However, it is not known precisely why they like to do that. There are two main possibilities. One is that they want to create conflict between Americans, creating domestic problems and distracting them from foreign policy issues. Another possibility is that they want to create media noise and controversy as part of spreading their message. If everyone is on one side of an issue, it becomes a non-issue, and that is not newsworthy or spreadable. Another possibility is that by controlling both sides of the argument they can better make one side look stupid. Audiences assess arguments by considering the merits of the case presented each side. They also consider which side they want to affiliate with. Infiltraring the other side and then presenting weak arguments and behaving like an idiot are techniques which can be used to damage your opponent's position.

For example, here is a Russian anti pro-DAPL meme and a Russian pro-DAPL meme:

Now, I think it is pretty obvious that the second meme is trolling. Pollution by protesters isn't the reason why some people favoured the DAPL. A more realistic reason is that they didn't want a tiny minority messing up energy distribution for everyone else due to selfish, NIMBY issues. The real intended message of the second meme is something like: those who favor the pipeline are assholes. This makes sense as a message that might be favored by the Russian manipulators: opposing the DAPL interferes with the American domestic energy distribution network.

Not everyone seems to agree with this conclusion. For a counterpoint, see this ArsTechnica article, which argues that the Russians were just trying to create conflict.

Disinformation campaigns are part of the dark side of memetics. By working to understand them it might be possible to combine performing useful science with doing social good. I'm hope that some people in the field will sieze this opportunity.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Resource allocation theory

A common class of problems which agents frequently face involve resource allocation. Organisms divide their resources between growth, maintenance and reproduction.

Resource allocation decisions can be fixed or flexible. They can be directly genetically controlled or dependent on cognitive evaluation of circumstances.

To help quantify the resources involved it is often useful to split these problems up so that they can be represented as scalars and visualized on a one-dimensional axis. Seceral such splits will be described in the rest of this post.

First a few words about the "interchangability" of resources. Economists often treat resources as interchangable, since there is a market on which they can be exchanged for one another. However, not all organisms have access to efficient markets. Without these, it might not be easy to convert resources from one form into another. If resources are not interchangable at all doesn't make much difference to most of the analysis on this page. Instead of one resource, this just means that there are multiple resources which can be treated independently. However, in practice, resources may often be "weakly" interchangable, through barter, favors, debt, etc. Or maybe if you don't have enough sodium, you can make do with some potassium instead. While these kinds of complication are fairly common, they go beyond the scope of this page. Here we will just talk about "resources" as though they can be represented by scalars.

A fairly basic split when modeling resource allocation decisions is between self and other. Resources allocated to yourself are often then sub-divided between growth and maintenance processes. Other-allocated resources typically go into a range of processes associated with reproduction: mate seeking, courtship, coitus, parental care - and so on. It is possible to manipulate this self/other axis in a wide range of organisms via dietary energy restriction. This diverts resources into maintenance processes and away from reproductive processes.

Another fairly common way in which resource investment can vary involves the parental investment axis. Organisms face a choice between investing in existing offspring, or investing in producing new offspring. Strawberries, salmon and elms often focus on creating new offspring - while by contrast, elephants, whales and humans tend to invest quite heavily in their existing offspring. The parental investment axis is often referred to as r/K selection, which I rate as one of the worst pieces of terminology in evolutionary theory.

The parental investment axis seems rather neglected to me. Apart from the associated terminological mess, another issue is political correctness. When the topic comes up, it often gets mentioned that the human fertility rate is pretty variable. In Nigeria and Somalia is about 6, while in Hong Kong and Taiwan, it is about 1. After a while, Rushton (1996, 1988) may get cited and then this often leads to accusations of racism flying around. The parental investment axis seems to be a hot-button topic which is difficult for many people to discuss dispassionately.

Whether to invest in existing or future kids is one decision, whether to invest in existing or future mating partners is another, related decision. Males and females both face this sort of decision sometimes - their existing mate may be damaged, old or infertile. Or maybe they became more attractive and can find a better mate. Some female animals carry sperm around with them - for them the issue can be whether to use the existing sperm or to get a new stock.

Another resource-allocation decision involves whether to put resources into reproducing sexually or asexually. Not very many creatures face this dilemma, but strawberries, some aphids and some fish can reproduce in both ways depending on the circumstances. Reproducing asexually avoids the costs of sex - such as the costs of producing and spreading pollen or semen, but also avoids the benefits of sex, such as producing diversity to hinder the spread of parasites.

Resource allocation theory (and optimal resource allocation) also apply to cultural evolution. Indeed these terms are more common in economics than they are in traditional evolutionary biology.

In biology, this topic is often treated as part of life history theory.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Observation evolution 101

I've written some articles about the evolution of observers and observations. Here I would like to try and boil those articles down to some basic bullet points indicating the areas which I think most need covering in such articles. Here we go:

  1. Evolution of observers and observations follows the the same rules that Darwin originally elucidated;
  2. Observation evolution is not a new scientific area requiring new principles and new specialists;
  3. The evolution of observers and observations leads to adaptations and goodness of fit;
  4. The concept of "observation of the observable" is a useful generalization of "survival of the fittest";
  5. The term "anthropic principle" totally sucks: the basic idea has nothing specifically to do with humans;
  6. The terms "observer selection" and "observation selection" do not really delimit the subject properly either: there's more to evolution than selection;
  7. While the topic has previously been covered by physicists and philosophers, most failed to apply evolutionary theory to it;
  8. While "observer selection" is pretty obvious, the idea that observations also obey Darwinian rules often needs spelling out;
  9. Observation evolution is not tautological or obvious - there is real, testable science in the area;
  10. Putting observers and observation evolution at the heart of Darwinism mirrors what happened with physics a century ago.


Thursday, 11 January 2018

Original sin

Today I have spent some time trying to understand the doctrine of original sin. Not because of a resurgence of interest in the memetics of Christianity, but because of an observation in an article titled: "The Theology of Global Warming" linking fossil fuel consumption with original sin. The author wrote:

It was Michael Crichton who pointed out in his Commonwealth Club lecture some years ago that environmentalism had become the religion of Western elites. Indeed it has. Most notably, the burning of fossil fuels (a concomitant of economic growth and rising living standards) is the secular counterpart of man's Original Sin. If only we would repent and sin no more, mankind's actions could end the threat of further global warming.
Readers may or may not be aware that I am not a fan of global warming hysteria. Long ago I identified global warming prevention as a bad cause. It has occurred to me that I may be able to contribute a little via positive destruction. So, I occasionally do things like celebrate the "The Catastrophic AGW Memeplex" page.

The whole business of global warming as a religion of secular western elites with fossil fuels playing the role of original sin and conservation and green energy being the path to salvation seems to me to have some truth to it. Both Christianity and global warming are like apocalyptic cults. Their members are out to save the world. There's even a secular version of hell: Venusian runaway global warming reputedly awaits if we do nothing.

I have some basic understanding of how causes use superstimuli (like hell and global apocalypse) to motivate people and morally-charged sentiments (like original sin) to attract their attention. It is fairly clear that both Christianity and global warming are pyramid schemes of virtue (and virtue signalling), where converting unbelievers is one of the main ways to advance up the pyramid. But how exactly does original sin work? and what can we learn about the global warming movement from understanding it?

One thing which is obvious is that putting a moral spin on the issue gives it salience. If you learn you can save a few bucks by shopping around the corner, you might tell some freinds, but if you learn you have been doing something morally wrong your whole life without even realizing it, then that's a message worth sharing more widely.

Another thing that is worth noting is that the whole scheme works even without any factual truth being involved. Christianity is proof of the concept that the whole "original sin" scam works without reference to truth, reality or facts being involved.

Original sin is generally accompanied by docrines of "redemption" or "salvation". Rarely do you hear that you were born a sinner - and there's nothing you can do about it. Sin is the hook, salvation is the bait. The path to salvation usually involves spreading the word to others - as memetics would suggest is favored by selection.

Deep general theories that explain many phenomena are worth looking into. I am intrigued by these parallels between Christianity and the global warming movement and expect that more can be learned by looking into them. Aside from original sin, there are other parallels between AGW alarmism and apocalyptic cults in general, including the modern variants that involve "existential risks" and an apocalypse involving intelligent machines.

Understanding the details of exactly how these types of social movement work is a massive challenge. This is just the sort of application which we need a mature version of cultural evolution to help us understand. It is worth digging in a bit, I think. Otherwise we will continue to see massive resource allocation failures arising out of memeplexes that exploit bugs in human psychology.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Robert Boyd: A Different Kind of Animal

Robert Boyd's new book on cultural evolution is out. It is titled:

A Different Kind of Animal: How Culture Transformed Our Species

The publisher's blurb is here. It says, among other things:

Human beings are a very different kind of animal. We have evolved to become the most dominant species on Earth. We have a larger geographical range and process more energy than any other creature alive. This astonishing transformation is usually explained in terms of cognitive ability — people are just smarter than all the rest. But in this compelling book, Robert Boyd argues that culture — our ability to learn from each other — has been the essential ingredient of our remarkable success.
Google books has it here and offers a peek inside.

The publisher's site says:

Based on the Tanner Lectures delivered at Princeton University, A Different Kind of Animal features challenging responses by biologist H. Allen Orr, philosopher Kim Sterelny, economist Paul Seabright, and evolutionary anthropologist Ruth Mace, as well as an introduction by Stephen Macedo.

There's a review here.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Evolutionary topology - the M.E.D.I.C.S. framework

I've long sought better ways of explaining and teaching evolutionary theory. A recent novel approach involves evolutionary topology. One approach to applying topological ideas to evolution is to apply it to the histoy of the relationships between the agents involved. This is commonly done when constructing family trees. Here is a set of primitive operations:







The operations are fairly self-explanatory, but some notes may help. To start with, this is a dualistic agent-environment framework. If it isn't clear what the agents are, that's the first thing to sort out. Agents have no properies or attributes - those would be modeled independently. Similarly there is no spatialization - again that would be modeled independently.

"Creation" refers to the construction of agents from non-agents. The most common way that agents originate is normally not "Creation" but "Splitting". An example of creation is the origin of life. However, creation can be more common than this suggests. For example as well as a first organism, there was a first ants nest and a first company.

The framework represents merging and splitting events from symbiology. Splitting is a common evolutionary primitive operation, but the significance of merging was not fully appreciated until the 1960s. Until then recombination was the only "merging" operation most evolutionists considered. Then it became seriously entertained that eucaryotic cells had symbiotic origins. While this endosymbiosis subsequently became widely-accepted science, it didn't have much effect on the foundations of evolutionary theory. Instead it was typically tacked on as an afterthought. Endosymbiosis was considered to be a rare accident during the history of life. Here, by contrast, merging is a primitive operation. It is the time reverse-operation of splitting.

Lastly immigration and emigration are included as fundamental operations. They are listed mainly because they are so important. If you are dealing with a closed system, feel free to reject them.

The framework is an alternative to the "selection-drift" framework, which seems to be one of the main ways in which the concepts of evolution are introduced to people. Selection includes both splitting and destruction, while here those are very different categories.

Historically this framework grew out of my Natural production and natural elimination. I noticed that adding more categories would help to improve the overall clarity. The concept of "evolutionary topology" is not mine. For earlier use see (for example): Topology of viral evolution (2013).

Monday, 4 December 2017

Memetic drift

Genetic drift is a well-established idea in population genetics. It generally refers to stochastic changes in gene frequency that are not caused by selection. The term comes from nautical language: if a ship is not driven by the wind it may "drift" around, pushed hither and thither by the waves. Historically, genetic drift was not considered to be a very important force until the 1960s, when it was shown to be significant experimentally, and it was discovered that many genomes were full of useless junk DNA, which was then subject to genetic drift, resulting in molecular clocks useful for dating evolutionary divergences. Genetic drift results in "neutral networks", whih in turn allow populations to maintain diversity that can be recruited by natural selection if the environment changes. Drift results in historical contingency and path dependence.

Complicating the definition of genetic drift is the desire to distinguish it from genetic draft. The term "genetic draft" refers to gene changes caused by linkage and selection at other loci. It is related to the concept of genetic hitchhiking. Like genetic drift, genetic draft can have a stochastic component, as a gene's neighbours vary over time. Unlike genetic drift, genetic draft can act persistently in the same direction.

Memetic drift is pretty much the exact same thing with memes instead of genes. Like gene frequencies, meme frequencies drift around in the absence of directional selection, resulting in loss of memetic diversity in small meme pools. As with genetic drift, memetic drift is a useful null hypothesis when dealing with the issue of whether an observed trait is an adaptation. As with genetic drift and genetic draft, we can distinguish between memetic drift and memetic draft.

Genetic drift is much discussed but memetic drift is rarely mentioned. I remember a good discussion of it in Kevin Layland's book "Sense and Nonsense". It is sometimes used by researchers as a null hypothesis. However, it is much less frequently mentioned than genetic drift is. This is, I believe, largely caused by cultural evolution's scientific lag. The significance of genetic drift was not recognised until the 1960s. Cultural evolution lags behind its organic counterpart in many ways, and this is plausibly one of them.

If you think about optimization frameworks in economics (one of the most advanced evolutionary social sciences) then the equivalent of genetic drift is rarely mentioned. It is the same with optimization frameworks in physics. Phyics features the "maximum entropy production principle" which explains a good deal of physical evolution. It too has concepts corresponding to genetic drift. However, it rarely mentions or makes use of these concepts. Phausibly, it is because these sciences are underdeveloped relative to evolutionary biology.

I'm generally a critic of contrasting "genetic drift" with "natural selection" (for details see here). Indeed, the definition of genetic drift is relatively complex, and it is often not a very useful scientific category, due to the practical difficulty of identifying it in any particular case. Memetic drift has much the same set of problems. However, I do, of course, acknowledge the significance of evolution by accident, and the systematic loss of diversity in small populations that arises due to factors which don't involve directional selection.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Quantifying memetic linkage in nursery rhymes

I created my pages about memetic linkage and memetic hitchhiking way back in 2011. However, I haven't seen much in the way of attempts to quantify memetic linkage. To help rectify this I performed a quick study of linkage between lines within nursery rhymes. The aim was to see how the distance between lines altered the chance of them being inherited together. Some results (obtained via Google searches):

Doe a deer

Reference lineTarget lineDocument count
Doe, a deer, a female deerRay, a drop of golden sun394,000
Doe, a deer, a female deerMe, a name I call myself353,000
Doe, a deer, a female deerFar, a long, long way to run296,000
Doe, a deer, a female deerSew, a needle pulling thread180,000
Doe, a deer, a female deerLa, a note to follow Sew116,000
Doe, a deer, a female deerTea, a drink with jam and bread121,000

This old man

Reference lineTarget lineDocument count
He played knick-knack on my thumbHe played knick-knack on my shoe3,290
He played knick-knack on my thumbHe played knick-knack on my knee2,670
He played knick-knack on my thumbHe played knick-knack on my door2,550
He played knick-knack on my thumbHe played knick-knack on my hive2,130
He played knick-knack on my thumbHe played knick-knack on my sticks2,030
He played knick-knack on my thumbHe played knick-knack up in heaven1,630
He played knick-knack on my thumbHe played knick-knack on my gate1,930
He played knick-knack on my thumbHe played knick-knack on my spine1,670

The first thing to say about this data is that memetic linkage is clearly evident, and its effect is quite large.

With genetic linkage, the probability of two genes being separated is roughly proportional to the distance between them, at least for small distances. This is a consequence of the logic of meiosis. However, with memetic linkage, much less linear relationships could be possible - because selection by humans for brevity is involved, and the shape of the linkage curve depends to some extent on how much humans like brevity.

While the data here suggests a fairly linear relationship, we should not expect that result to hold in general. It seems likely that some sets of adjacent memes will have natural "fracture points" where the probability of memes on either side getting unlinked during transmission is high.

A science of memetic linkage is important in advertising and marketing. Many want to attach memetic payloads to existing highly viral memes, in order to spread their content around. That means engineering high memetic linkage. At the risk of stating the obvious, sound engineering ought to be based on good science.


The term "memenomics" seems like an interesting fusion of "meme" and "economics". It seems to have become a brand at I rather like the word but am less convinced by the associated MEMEnomics book and its "vMemes". That seems more like marketing and self-promotion than science.

I think "memenomics" should just refer to some ground in the vicinity of economic approaches to memetics and evolutionary approaches to economics. "Evolutionary economics" already has a pretty nice name, so maybe "memenomics" could be used to refer to economic approaches to memetics. A nice example of this is the well-known idea of an "attention economy" - where attention is a scarce resource that memes compete to monopolise. That's an example of applying economic thinking to memetics, but there are other ways in which economics could be applied to memetics. For one thing, attention is not the only resource that memes are interested in. They also compete for storage space, transmission bandwidth and various other resources.