Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Susan Blackmore on machine ethics

Susan Blackmore weighed in recently on the topic of machine ethics - in article titled: It’s too late to give machines ethics – they’re already beyond our control.

While I generally think that students of cultural evolution ought to be well placed to contribute to prediction of the consequences of our actions in this area, I found several things to object to in Sue's analysis. On problem is the article's title. It strikes me as being defeatest. We ought to at least try.

Later in the article, Susan writes:

Replicators are selfish by nature. They get copied whenever and however they can, regardless of the consequences for us, for other species or for our planet. You cannot give human values to a massive system of evolving information based on machinery that is being expanded and improved every day. They do not care because they cannot care.

This seems like confused reasoning to me. We have examples of companies, governments and other organizations which have codified various human values. These are often in the form of 'laws' or 'rules'. If the argument is that memes and genes 'cannot care' because they are selfish replicators, then we have many examples of complex meme or gene products which do care - or behave as though they care.

Blackmore looks as though she is arguing from selfish memes to selfish organisms here. If so, that is a mistake parallel to the mistake that Richard Dawkins made in The Selfish Gene. Dawkins (1976) wrote:

I shall argue that a predominant quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness. This gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behavior. However, as we shall see, there are special circumstances in which a gene can achieve its own selfish goals best by fostering a limited form of altruism at the level of individual animals.

...and then...

Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.

He subsequently had to back-pedal, writing the following belated retraction (2006):

I do with hindsight notice lapses of my own on the very same subject. These are to be found especially in Chapter 1, epitomised by the sentence ‘Let us try to teach generosity and altruism because we are born selfish’. There is nothing wrong with teaching generosity and altruism, but ‘born selfish’ is misleading. In partial explanation, it was not until 1978 that I began to think clearly about the distinction between ‘vehicles’ (usually organisms) and the ‘replicators’ that ride inside them (in practice genes: the whole matter is explained in Chapter 13, which was added in the Second Edition). Please mentally delete that rogue sentence and others like it.
Selfish memes could result in selfish companies, governments and organizations - but it ain't necessarily so. Saying that such complex entities 'cannot care' seems like an unwarranted generalization to me. Maybe memes "cannot care" - but so what? It is memeplex products that we are mostly interested in when discussing machine intelligence. There's no good reason why they can't care.

Anyway, this topic is an important reason to study memetics. We need the best science has to offer to help us predict the consequences of our actions. The existing man-machine symbiosis probably won't last forever - there will probably be a merger or one side will assimilate the other. It looks as though we have enough power to be able to influence the outcome in a variety of ways - to the extent that technological determinism leaves some aspects of the outcome open. There's a lot at stake - and we should try our best to figure out what we should do.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Matt Ridley: Evolution of The Cloud

Matt Ridley: The Evolution of Everything

The book, "The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge" by Matt Ridley is out later this month.

The book has its own domain: http://www.theevolutionofeverything.co.uk/ Here is the book on Google books and Amazon. Peter Forbes says it is Ridley's "magnum opus". High praise - since many of Ridley's other books are pretty good.

The book has a form of Universal Darwinism at its core. Here's how one reviewer puts it:

The natural selection that Darwin described in The Origin of Species is only a particular example of a universal process. As he tells us at the start of this book, Darwinism is “the special theory of evolution”. But there is a general theory of evolution, too, and it applies to society, money, technology, language, law, culture, music, violence, history, education, politics, God, morality. The general theory says that things do not stay the same; they change gradually but inexorably; they show “path dependence”; they show descent with modification; they show selective persistence.

The special and general theories of evolution. I love it. What a great way to express the idea of Universal Darwinism.

From the list of examples, it looks as though Ridley might be missing out on Darwinian Physics, though.

You may find that the first chapter is available free here. It's a philosophical/historical overview of bottom-up explanations.


Sunday, 23 August 2015

Symbiont kin selection

Cultural kin selection proposes that cooperation can arise due to shared memes - as well as due to shared DNA genes.

However, cultural kin selection can be thought of as a special case of symbiont kin selection - an idea that may apply to many types of close living organisms.

Colony life - as found in ants, bees and mole rats - leads to increased levels of transfer of symbionts between the organisms involved (often due to sheer close proximity). The mole rats eat each others feces - and so come to share the bacteria they need to digest their tubers. Ants frequently cultivate fungi - and their nests are heavily dominated by fungi digesting rotting wood. They have many other symbionts too - there are special bacteria that they use to suppress the growth of competing strains of fungi, for example.

As well as acting on the host genes, kin selection acts on the genes of the symbionts too. If the symbionts in different organisms are related, then - to the extent that these can manipulate the behaviour of their hosts in favour of cooperation - they will tend to do so.

Probably ant fungus is the most extreme example of this form of kin selection. Though distributed the fungus is closely related - more so than the ants themselves are. It forms something like a massive multi-cellular organism in each ant colony - a superorganism. It may benefit from that ants acting as a coordinated whole more than the ants themselves do. The ants snack on the fungus - so it probably has a variety of ways of manipulating ant behaviour - through taste, smell and direct chemical action.

Seen from the crude perspective of Hamilton's rule, shared symbiont genes may elevate relatedness further. For example, intra-colony relatedness in naked mole rats has been estimated to be 0.81 - but this relatedness figure is based on the host genes. As with other mammals, most of the genes involved are not mole rat nuclear DNA, but are genes in gut microorganisms. The bacterial cells outnumber those of their hosts by a factor of ten. What happens to that relatedness figure once "horizontal" sharing of bacteria is accounted for? It probably goes up: a lot of those bacteria will be asexual clones.

For an example relevant to humans but still involving DNA genes, consider yeasts - as found in bread, wine and beer. Many yeasts have become human-transmitted symbionts. The main way they spread their genes around in the world involves human social contact. If they can somehow make their human hosts socialize more with other humans, they are likely to directly benefit. Kombucha may be one of the best examples of a socially-transmitted yeast - since it often spreads directly through peer-to-peer contact. Are Kombucha enthusiasts more sociable than other humans? Probably. But are they more sociable as a result of being manipulated by the Kombucha? It is an interesting question that deserves further study.

Symbiont kin selection is a bit different from the symbiont hypothesis of social evolution - but it is fair to say that these ideas are related.

Symbiont kin selection should illuminate cultural kin selection, which can be accurately modelled as a special case of it involving cultural symbionts - rather than DNA-based ones.

Symbiont kin selection is a neglected idea in social evolution. Because of lack of study, it is not easy to assess its overall significance - but it could easily be a big deal. If you look at humans, a lot of their cooperation is based on shared memes - rather than shared genes. In the workplace, for example, shared memes are ubiquitous - and shared genes are rare. Even within family life, shared memes are ubiquitous. Cultural kin selection could easily explain more cooperation than genetic kin selection does. This example illustrates the potential power of symbiont kin selection - but maybe it is equally powerful in other eusocial creatures. More powerful, maybe - since they are further along in the road to colony life than we are. Symbiont kin selection could easily be stronger in them than it is in us.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

The meaning of heredity

I generally use the term "heredity" to refer to the transmission of traits from one generation to the next.

However, I notice that some sources differ - confining the idea of "heredity" further. The Encyclopedia Britannica is explicitly DNA-gene centric:here:

heredity: the sum of all biological processes by which particular characteristics are transmitted from parents to their offspring. The concept of heredity encompasses two seemingly paradoxical observations about organisms: the constancy of a species from generation to generation and the variation among individuals within a species. Constancy and variation are actually two sides of the same coin, as becomes clear in the study of genetics. Both aspects of heredity can be explained by genes, the functional units of heritable material that are found within all living cells.
Reference.com confines the idea of heredity even more - to organisms that experience meiosis - with this:

heredity:the transmission of genetic characters from parents to offspring: it is dependent upon the segregation and recombination of genes during meiosis and fertilization and results in the genesis of a new individual similar to others of its kind but exhibiting certain variations resulting from the particular mix of genes and their interactions with the environment.

These sources are simply wrong. However, their mistake is widespread and leads to confusion about cultural evolution. For example, Larry Moran defines evolution using the term 'heredity' - saying: "Evolution is a process that results in heritable changes in a population spread over many generations." - and then goes on to argue that:

I've already alluded to one of the classic questions that a proper definition can answer — the increased height of Europeans over the past five centuries. Armed with a good definition of biological evolution we can focus on one of the key requirements; namely, heritable change. It turns out that the increase in height is due to a better diet and not to genetic changes. Therefore, this is not evolution according to the scientific definition.

This is a serious conceptual mistake. European diet has improved (largely) through memetic evolution. Memes are passed from one generation to the next in cultural evolution - and rather obviously this should meet any sensible scientific definition of evolution - as is attested to by the now-massive literature on cultural evolution. Yet Moran dismisses it - apparently due to his conception of the definition of the term 'heredity'. This seems like a spectacular mess to me.

Larry is not alone in this evolutionary denialism. Here's Mark Ridley on why cultural evolution doesn't qualify as being "evolution":

Changes that take place in human politics, economics, history, technology and even scientific theories are sometimes loosely described as evolutionary. In this sense "evolutionary" means mainly that there has been change over time - and perhaps not in a preordained direction. [...] human ideas and institutions can sometimes spit during their history - but their history does not have such a clear-cut branching tree-like structure as does the history of life. Change and splitting provide two of the main themes in evolutionary theory.

His complaint appears to be that cultural evolution is too reticulated - one of the most dopy objections to cultural evolution ever - once you consider how reticulated bacterial evolution is.

Anyway, these days, almost everyone agrees that cultural evolution is a type of evolution. The remaining debate in the area is mostly over whether cultural evolution is Darwinian. However we obviously have a mopping-up operation to do - as some folk don't even regard cultural evolution as being a type of evolution! That position seems indefensible to me.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

In light of cultural evolution

There's a recent trollish article doing the rounds titled:

The Theory Of Evolution Does Not Apply To Modern Human Beings.

Basically it argues that humans don't behave as the theory of evolution dictates. For example, the more resources you give a human, the fewer children they have.

I think this article nicely illustrates the confusion associated with a lack of understanding of cultural evolution. Almost everything in the article makes me think: "yes: but only if you ignore cultural symbionts".

It's well-known that parasites can reduce host reproduction - and even drive hosts extinct. The demographic transition is driven by cultural symbionts that reduce host reproduction. This has been extensively modeled by cultural evolution enthusiasts. This isn't contrary to the theory of evolution - you just have to include the evolution of memes in order to understand it.

If you add resources to a human population the memes absorb the resource faster than the human hosts do - and more memes often means less host reproduction.

Something very similar happens in the organic realm - if you add sugar to a human population. A little sugar might help with reproduction - but beyond a certain point, fertility begins to decline. Instead of making more human genes, the sugar fuels the reproduction of gut microbes at the expense of the genes of the human host. The host's belly swells up to accommodate them all. Eventually the host is effectively sterilized.

This all illustrates the dictum: Nothing in human evolution makes sense - except in the light of cultural evolution.


Terence Mckenna - on memes in 1990

Terence Mckenna - on memes in 1990. From a lecture titled: 'opening the doors of creativity'.

Here are some other meme-themed videos by Terence.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Recombination as a meme repair mechanism

In the organic realm, the idea that recombination can repair bad genes by replacing them with good ones is one of the two main theories that accounts for the origin and maintenance of sexual recombination (the other main theory is the Red Queen hypothesis).

The idea suggests that sexual recombination results in an uneven distribution of deleterious mutations in the offspring - with some having many bad genes and others having few. Those offspring with many bad genes are culled by selection - while those with few get to try again in the next round.

Even random assortment among mating partners would produce this effect. However in practice, the best quality individuals can often seek each other out - and so have offspring with an especially-low mutational load.

The "gene repair" theory of sex has been championed by Richard Michod, among others. He presents the theory in a stimulating popular book, titled: Eros and Evolution.

MIT is in the news today with a souped-up implementation of this idea applied to computer software. They are using recombination to fix crashing programs by using code from working ones. They call their software CodePhage. Here's the associated MIT press release. Their paper is called Automatic Error Elimination by Horizontal Code Transfer across Multiple Applications. It's an interesting case of bio-inspired computing.

I think recombination is a common meme repair technique. If you realize you have a bad meme, it makes sense to find someone with a functioning copy and acquire it. Much the same applies at the level of organizations and institutions. The need to repair dysfunctional memes probably drives a significant quantity of the memetic recombination that we see in the ideosphere.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Language - missing phylum of memetics

Language should always have been the king of the subjects studied by students of memetics and cultural evolution. Speech and writing have built-in error correction mechanisms. They are some of the things which are most likely to be copied with high fidelity - and thus to exhibit cumulative adaptations as they evolve. However linguists have not been very prominent in the field of cultural evolution. Famous students of language evolution - such as Steven Pinker and Noam Chomsky - are apparently clueless newbies when it comes to the topic.

I checked for books on the topic of the cultural evolution of language. There are:

This is a pretty small list. Also, all the books on it are very recent. When I became interested in cultural evolution, there was practically nothing.

This post asks: what happened? Why weren't linguists early adopters of memes and cultural evolution?

Though I think this is a good question, I don't have a terribly good answer. What follows are my speculations:

I think that many of the cultural evolution pioneers had backgrounds in evolution and population genetics. Most linguists would have lacked this background. They would have found much of the primary the literature hard to follow or irrelevant.

Also, until recently, cultural evolutionists were few and far between. Only in the last few years have supporters been coming out of the woodwork in large numbers. The dates on my book list reflect this. However, I think if I made corresponding lists for the cultural evolution of science, technology and religion, the 'science' and 'religion' lists would have more items on them - though the 'technology' list might have fewer.

The eusociality symbiont hypothesis and epistemic hygiene

The eusociality symbiont hypothesis relating to the evolution of eusociality pictures a positive feedback loop of interactions between hosts and symbionts, with each new symbiont pulling the colony tighter together as the symbionts manipulate their hosts into coming into contact with each other in order to reproduce.

The positive feedback loop involved in the hypothesis is counteracted by negative interactions involving hosts and symbionts - in other words by parasitism. As hosts interact more closely parasites can also spread horizontally between them. Since horizontal transmission promotes misalignment between host genes and parasite genes, after a certain point, parasites start to dominate more helpful symbionts - and then the hosts start to behave as though they want to live further apart from one another.

The significance of parasites is evident in most social insect colonies. These are vulnerable to parasitism - due to the close proximity of the members - and it is not uncommon to see nests obliterated by parasites. On the other hand, because of the parasite threat, the nests themselves are often policed by cleaning squads. Disease eradication is a big theme. Sick individuals are exiled and everything is kept remarkably clean.

Humans are a case study for the eusociality symbiont hypothesis. Our symbionts are typically cultural, but the basic dynamics are much the same - the cultural symbionts manipulate the humans into coming into contact with each other in order to reproduce. The result is human ultrasociality.

We know that humans living in close proximity are more vulnerable to horizontal transmission of genes. We can see this by comparing sick city dwellers with their more healthy country cousins. Parasite transmission favors situations where humans are crowded together. We have institutions to deal with this - such as hospitals.

Close proximity also favors horizontal memetic transfer. Assuming that humans want to avoid exploitation by deleterious memetic parasites, we are going to need organizations and institutions that promote epistemic hygine. These will involve schools, as well as other types of training more focused on the memetic immune system.

The negative effects of memetic parasites are clearly evident today. We have an obesity epidemic driven by fast food advertising. There are smoking, drinking and caffination epidemics which are widespread. Over the counter drugs are widely abused. Paranoia epidemics are fostered by the news media with resulting scares about terrorism, global warming, vaccination, resource depletion, and so forth.

Epistemic hygiene can reasonably be expected to become a big focus. Not necessarily the 'thought police' pictured by George Orwell - but other government-level infrastructure to protect populations against the negative effects of bad memes.