Sunday, 23 September 2018

Ed Yong - Parasitic mind control

I've witten a number of articles about parasitic mind control. I have also promoted the symbiont hypothesis of eusociality. I didn't see Ed Yong's 2014 talk until now, though.

There's only a bit in the video about parasite-induced social behavior, but this is turning into a big topic in memetics.

Ed has now written a book relating to this general topic: I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life. Here is a video of a book talk by Ed..

Saturday, 15 September 2018

Daniel Dennett: Memes as the key to human intelligence

Dennett of the hijacking of the term "meme", the "De-Darwinization" of cultural evolution, memes as "virtual machines" - and various other topics.

I've previously made some critical comments regarding some of this material.

SUsan Blackmore: From Memes to Tremes

Monday, 3 September 2018

Memetic dysbiosis

One piece of symbiology terminology that seems to be missing refers to the idea of host fitness being compromised by the lack of important symbionts. Connie Barlow memorably proposed that these be termed "Ghosts" in her book The Ghosts Of Evolution. Anyway, I am not going to address that issue here, but will instead discuss an umbrella category that includes these "ghosts" - dysbiosis.

Wikipedia says that "dysbiosis" is: "a term for a microbial imbalance or maladaptation on or inside the body, such as an impaired microbiota". Since the etymology of "dysbiosis" suggests that it is a symbiology term - like "symbiosis" - it ought to be a general term that can also be applied to human hosts in the context of cultural symbionts. "Maladaptation" should be taken to refer to the effect on host fitness. Of course, the dysbiosis could be adaptive from the perspective of the finess of the smaller symbionts.

From its definition, memetic dysbiosis could be the result of missing memes, bad memes - or some combination of the two. In either case, memetic dysbiosis could be addressed by some sort of meme therapy.

Sunday, 12 August 2018

Cairns-Smith: chemical evolution critic

One fairly prominent critic of "chemical evolution" was the late A. G. Cairns-Smith. He devoted a substantial section at the start of his book "Genetic Takeover" to explaining where proponents of chemical evolution got it wrong, arguing that the requirements for Darwinian evolution to get going were quite demanding - and most of the proposed prebiotic chemical systems didn't measure up.

This is contrary to the proposals made by proponents of Universal Darwinism, which suggest that copying with variation and selection are ubiquitous physical and chemical processes which can be used to model a wide variety of systems.

As readers may or may not be aware, I am both a proponent of Universal Darwinism and a fan of Cairns-Smith's ideas about the origin of life, so which side of this argument to support is a kind of dilemma for me.

The first thing to say is that Cairns-Smith got it wrong in detail, that simple physical and chemical systems do evolve and exhibit adaptations in much the way that he argued against. Cairns-Smith gave too much weight to the idea that simple physical and chemical systems lacked high fidelity copying - and would therefore undergo an error catastrophe, or a "mutational meltdown". We now know that with positional inheritance, high fidelity copying in prebiotic systems is ubiquitous.

Other problems besides lack of high fidelity copying mean that these systems typically do not go on to launch systems capable of open-ended evolution. One such problem is having a genome with a "low information ceiling" - and Cairns-Smith did discuss that problem. Another such problem is "local exhaustion". Dissipative systems destroy the energy gradients that they feed off. Unless they can continually find new energy sources, they will exhaust their own energy supply and die out. This happens with lightning strikes, for example. They typically do not last for very long, and the reason for that is because they run out of fuel.

It seems possible to me that prebiotic "chemical evolution" will involve adaptations that are on the pathway towards the origin of life (as Cairns-Smith argued against). However, I don't think negating Cairns-Smith's point about the relevance of ochemical evolution has all that much effect on his other arguments. Clay mineral crystals still seem like attractive candidates for the first living things, for essentially the reasons that Cairns-Smith gives in his books on the topic.

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

Virtue signalling: pro-social or anti-social?

In 2011, I stressed the positive side of virtue signalling, writing: "Signalling must often be costly to be effective." Costly signalling of virtuousness to an audience of sceptical cheating-detectors often involves actually being virtuous. However, since then it has become fashionable to use "virtue signalling" as a term of abuse.

In standard biological terminology, signalling can be accurate or misleading, costly or cheap, pro-social or anti-social. I recently saw one attempt to argue that virtue signalling was generally positive, and that pointing it out was usually an anti-social means of making yourself look good. The article was titled " The psychological explanation for why we sometimes hate the good guy". Here's what the authors concluded:

Critics often attack the motives of people who protect the environment, seek social justice, donate money or work too hard in organizations. Such good deeds are dismissed as na├»ve, hypocritical (“champagne liberals”) or as mere “virtue signalling” by those who do not perform those deeds. If left unchecked, this criticism may ultimately reduce how often people do good deeds.

Our research helps us recognize these attacks for what they are: A competitive social strategy, used by low co-operators, to bring others down and stop them from looking better than they do.

The problem with this is is that some people only appear to be virtuous, and pointing that out by saying that they are just virtue signalling can be pro-social - by encouraging more genuine forms of do-gooding.

Others have focused on the negative aspects of virtue signalling, arguing that it is a cheap subsitute for actually doing good employed by those with shallow, selfish motives. I don't think that is right either. Virtue signalling is responsible for a lot of the good that take place in the world. It often doesn't really matter if people do it for selfish motives, to impress prospective partners (or whatever) - since it still results in much good being done. Without virtue signalling the world would surely be a much worse place. Virtue signalling is mostly - but not exclusively - a positive force.

Sunday, 29 July 2018

Meme rich, meme poor

Some people have a larger load of memes than others. While different memes affect their hosts in different ways, the fact that many memes have common interests means that there's a set of phenotypic changes that broadly correlates with the extent of the host's meme load. Some of the correlates of having lots of memes include: living in rich countries, being rich, being older, living in a city and having "media consumption" devices. Meme-rich countries prominently include South-Korea and Japan, while Nigeria and Somalia would be meme-poor.

Researchers have explored the meme-rich/meme-poor axis. Small island communities are poor at maintaining a large meme pool and represent natural experiments. Those stranded on deserted islands are more extreme natural experiments. Another case of meme poverty involves individuals who have been raised by dogs. Researchers have looked at what happens when islands become detached from the mainland as land bridges erode. There are also the cases of sensory disabilities - such as blindness and deafness - and learning disabilities - such as difficulties in storing, maintaining or retreiving long-term memories. The meme-rich have been studied too. Indeed, we have more data about them than anyone else because they tend to leave a rich trail of data wherever they go. Many experimental subjects are W.E.I.R.D. (in the sense of Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic).

There's probably circular causality involved in many of the correlates of high meme load, but some look as though they are mostly consequences of having lots of memes. Memes tend to make their owners into articulate teachers and preachers. They tend to increase their host lifespan and decrease their fertility. Domestic product increases and malnutrition decreases. There's progress up the Human Development Index and the Industrialization Intensity Index. Having more memes makes most things better - though it also tends to result in coronary heart disease, obesity, hypertension, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, and osteoporosis - the "diseases of civilization".

Friday, 27 July 2018

Political correctness in evolutionary theory

Probably most of the interactions between political correctness and science come in areas where I don't really have much of a stake. Most of the hot-button race and gender issues don't really intersect the topics I am interested in very much.

The issue of evolutionary progress is one of the cases where it looks to me as though many folks have been led astray by political correctness. I am influenced in my views here by physics. Darwinism is closely allied with the idea that evolution maximizes entropy. If so, that gives a reasonable universal yardstick for claiming that some ecosystems are better that others - and that there has been significant improvement over time, as organisms have gradually accumulated adaptations for converting negentropy into offspring.

Why progress is much-denied phenomenon is down to politics, I think. If some creatures are better than other ones, then it might follow that some people are better than other ones, some cultures are better than other ones, and some ethnicities are better than other ones. Such notions run into human preferences favoring egalitarianism, and avoiding the opression of minorities. The preferences can't easily change, but the facts are malleable, and subject to distortion and spin-doctoring.

Another fear about progress is that it might lead to policies influenced by eugenics. If some people are better than other ones, then it is feared that there is a slippery sloope through state breeding programs to the sterilization of the unfit. This is not just idle speculation, mass sterilizations really did happen.

Steven J Gould was one of the ringleaders of the progress denialists. He wrote a whole book on the topic, variously titled "Life's Grandeur" and "Full House" depending on the region it is sold in. It's a bad book, due to its political influence. It is not as bad as "The Mismeasure of Man" which is more heavily saturated with bad politics. Gould wrote a number of essays about how various scientists were influenced by their political views. It is thus with some irony that I have to put down a number of his own efforts as Marxist-influenced pseudoscience.

Progress in cultural evolution is pretty obvious and has been clearly documented of late. However, progress in the organic realm is almost as obvious, but has mostly been written out of the textbooks. AFAICS, political correctness is to blame. It causes much confusion, and that is its goal - to hide unconfortable truths with muddle and misdirection.

io I have sometimes speculated that political correctness is part of the reson we have a watered-down version of human evolution oriented around evolutionary psychology is popular. This ignores differences between humans and focuses on how a hypothetical universal evolved human nature reacts in a different environment. Instead of that, we could have a much more mature theory of cultural evolution and meme-gene coevolution. The popular version of evolutionary psychology mostly averages out and then ignores human differences. By contrast, memetics is heavily oriented around human differences. It wouldn't suprise me to learn that this motivates some of the critics.

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Meme load

The terms "viral load" and "parasite load" exist, and I feel there is a significant need for corresponding memetic terminology. I proposed "meme load" in my 2011 article Meme terminology compared with gene terminology.

The term "genetic load" exists and refers to mutational load - a very different concept. We can't use "memetic load" as the cultural equivalent of "parasite load" without causing a great deal of confusion.

So: "meme load" is my proposed cultural equivalent of "parasite load". It is terminology inspired by epidemiology - along with "mind virus", "meme shedding", "viral video" and "contagious idea". There's no corresponding "gene load", but at least you can say things like: "he was laboring under a heay load of memes he had picked up as a child".

Assuming that memes are bad is something that critics have ticked meme enthusiasts off for. However, that is a weak criticism of borrowing terminology from epidemiology. The evidence says that the more memes you have, the fewer children you have - at least after a point. That tendency holds especially strongly if you are female, and it isn't adaptive - there's no way that South Korean women having an average of one child is good for their DNA genes. So, more memes are bad for your genes. That's pretty much how the distinction between mutualism and parasitism is typically drawn. Memes are - on average - parasites, not mutualists.

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

Memes and neoteny

The term "neoteny" refers to the retention of youthful characteristing into adulthood. It is a type of developmental delay, and it is widely thought to have been important in human evolution. Neoteny is what makes baby chimpanzees resemble adult humans.

It seems that only a few have speculated about the possible links between cultural evolution and neoteny. However, there are some rather obvious possibilities. For most of the last 3 million years, selection appears to have favored larger brains. According to my favorite theory this was because big brains can hold more memes. If large brains were selectively favored, an increase in size would have required a genetic basis, and neoteny is one way of making adult brains larger - since a large head to body size ratio is a juvenile trait. This hypothesis is the polar opposite of Steven J Gould's bizarre idea that large brains could have been a side effect of neoteny - and so didn't require any special adaptive explanation.

Delvelopmental delay creates larger adult brains, but it also prolongs brain plasticity - helping adults to continue to learn new things. Like large cranial volume, this attribute could well be a shared interest of many memes.

Another common theory is that neoteny triggers "helping" behavior from other individuals. A "cultural evolution" spin on that idea might say that neoteny triggers "teaching" behavior.

Discussions of neoteny frequently mention the idea that neoteny could have been favored by sexual selection. The preference by men for young women is often cited in this context, with younger women having a longer streak of child rearing ahead of them and with them being rated by men as being more attractive. Sexual selection is all very well, but it generally doesn't explain why we have stronger preferences in this area than chimpanzees do. Preferences are like fashion. They fossilize badly and it isn't easy to explain what traits are favored.

Another hypothesis is that humans are attracted to and interested in their young. Humans produce young which are born helpless and immature. They need help. A preference for youth could help to promote parent-child bonding and childcare responsibilities. Childcare is especially important for humans as young children are so helpless this is also when much enculturation takes place.

There are quite a few ideas explored in this article. It will be a challenge to future researchers to figure out which ideas are primarily responsible, abd which effects are bit players. The first ones mentioned - that developmental delay leads to larger brains and lifelong learning - seem like the big ones to me. However maybe the other ideas have merit - and maybe there are other ideas which I haven't yet thought of.

Overall, neoteny looks like a fertile subject area for students of cultural evolution.