Sunday, 19 February 2017

The Extension of Biology Through Culture - videos

These videos are from the Sackler Colloquium of the National Academy of Sciences, in Irvine California on 16 and 17th of November 2016 on: "The Extension of Biology Through Culture":

A full program listing is here.

Monday, 13 February 2017

The argument from imperfections

Part of the evidence for organic evolution involves imperfections in organisms. One of the alternative hypotheses - namely: creation by a powerful god - apparently predicts perfection. So: documenting the imperfections of organisms counts against the hypothesis of divine creation. The imperfections involved are often due to:

  • Genetic drift;
  • High mutation rates (devolution);
  • Historical and developmental constraints;
  • Changing environments;
  • Local maxima;
  • Shortage of time;
Much the same argument can be applied in the cultural realm - in an attempt to distinguish culture which evolved from culture which was intelligently designed by human designers. There are certainly many imperfections in many cultural products - and these often reflect their evolutionary history. However, the whole argument against intelligent design doesn't work too well in the cultural realm. There are two problems:

One problem is that a big part of the reason why the original argument worked was that it assumed omniscience and omnipotence on the part of the divine creator. Human intelligent designers are much more fallible - and their productions are themselves imperfect. This makes distinguishing between human intelligent design by human designers and products of evolution and natural selection acting on cultural variation more challenging.

The other problem is that few seriously dispute the idea that culture is partly the product of human intelligent designers. Any attempt to find intelligent design by humans will probably find lots of it. This contrasts with the situation with organic evolution - where we have no clear signatures of intelligent design at all.

I've described my resolution to this previously, in articles titled:

To briefly attempt a summary: In cultural evolution, intelligent design is generally best modeled as a type of mutation event. Relaxing the traditional constraints on mutation in evolutionary theory runs the risk of it losing its predictive power - but there are still constraints. Individual cavemen still can't conjure up spacecraft designs out of nothing.

Rather than viewing intelligent design and evolutionary theory as opposed hypotheses, modeling intelligent design as a part of evolution helps in another way: we can use multi-level models of evolutionary dynamics to delve inside the process of intelligent design and see how it works. Copying with variation and selection is ubiquitous in the brain. Information is copied whenever a signal passes down a branching axon. We can use classical evolutionary theory to study these dynamics and explain intelligent design in naturalistic terms.

Evolutionary theory is well accustomed to the idea that selection processes operate at many levels. If you put a bacterium in the top of an organism and later observe a antibiotic-resistant bacteria in its feces there's no need to invoke miracles or saltationist macromutations. Instead, a multi-generation selection process has gone on inside the organism, creating antibiotic-resistance as an adaptation. The same sort of thing goes on inside brains in cultural evolution. The ideas that come out of organisms are partly the product of a complex section process taking place inside the brain. Selection takes place between nerve impulses, synapses and higher level structures - such as thoughts and ideas. The result is intelligent design. Intelligent design can be usefully seen as being the product of evolutionary forces within the brain.

This all seems hard for many evolutionists to swallow. Many have been trained to see intelligent design as the enemy. Picturing intelligent design as part of evolution is so indigestible to them that some of them visualize a future dominated by intelligent design as an overthrowing of evolution - instead of as its culmination. The demonization of evolution is also sometimes involved. Apparently evolution is responsible for our base, animal aspects, and our mission is to dismantle the products of natural selection and enter a new era of intelligent design. Darwin probably started all this off with his comment about the: "clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horribly cruel works of nature". This is a one-sided view of evolution. Evolution is also responsible for all that we love and cherish in the world. The demonization of evolution seems inappropriate to me.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Memes: apps for your necktop?

In a recent video, Daniel Dennett is again promoting the idea that memes are "apps for your necktop".

I like the brain-as-necktop meme. It is Dennett's way to dramatize the similarities between brains and computers. Desktop, laptop, palmtop, necktop. The brain-as-computer metaphor gets some criticism from philosophers - but the basic idea that the brain is functionally an information processing device, something that accepts sensory inputs and transforms them into motor outputs - seems simple and it ought to be fairly uncontroversial.

Memes being like apps seems a bit of a stickier analogy. I think it is fair enough to portray culture as being software for the brain. Not all brain software is culturally-transmitted (some is the product of individual learning). Also, some items of culture we might prefer to call data - rather than software. However, a broad interpretation of the term "software" can include data - so that seems like a minor nitpick. A more significant disanalogy involves complexity. Memes, many say, are simple, almost atomic bits of culture. Apps, generally speaking, are large and complex. There are other terms for a bunch of memes: memeplex and memome. Apps seem more like these than they are like memes. As with genes there's a bit of a philosophical quagmire over how big memes are. G. C. Williams once proposed that genes needed to have an 'appreciable frequency' to qualify - the idea being that this rules out entire genomes - since they are unique in the population and therefore are typically not very "frequent". Apps actually pass this test - since the high-fidelity copying found on the internet means that apps are often identical to other copies of them - down to the last bit. So: apps have a meaningful frequency in the population of all apps. However, this seems more like a limitation of Williams' criterion than a legitimate reason for identifying memes with apps.

Memes being like apps is OK - in that both are types of software. Perhaps it's an analogy that shouldn't be pushed too far, though. It might be better just to say that apps are made of memes.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Richard Lewontin: The Wars Over Evolution

I've previously referenced Richard Lewontin's lectures on cultural evolution here. Lewontin was clearly skeptical of the topic.

He weighted in on the topic again in a 2005 article titled: The Wars Over Evolution.

That article concludes:

We would be much more likely to reach a correct theory of cultural change if the attempt to understand the history of human institutions on the cheap, by making analogies with organic evolution, were abandoned. What we need instead is the much more difficult effort to construct a theory of historical causation that flows directly from the phenomena to be explained.
The preceding paragraph in the document explains how he reached this conclusion. It's a philosophical argument about how best to do science. Lewontin says he doesn't think giving "simple explanations for phenomena that are complex and diverse" is very scientific. That's an odd argument - since building simple models for complex phenomena is a big part of what science is all about. From this evidence, it seems at least possible that Lewontin's failure to appreciate cultural evolution arose from his faulty scientific epistemology.

This is all rather ironic - since his 1970 paper The Units of Selection got the basics of cultural evolution correct.

Friday, 3 February 2017

Meme is a degenerate sign

An oft-cited criticism of memes comes from Kalevi Kull (2000) who wrote:
Meme is just an externalist view to sign, which means that meme is sign without its triadic nature. I.e., meme is a degenerate sign in which only its ability of being copied is remained.
Other critics cite Kalevi's criticism as though it is meaningful. For example it appears on RationalWiki's farcical page about memes. I recently thought of a new way of explaining how weak this criticism is: a word also a type of sign without its triadic nature. A word is similarly a type of degenerate sign.

To recap, the "triadic" nature of signs refers to Charles Sanders Peirce's ideas. Here's a diagram:

Kalevi is arguing that memes are only the bottom left. However, the same can be said of words. We count "park", "play", 'bark", "chair", "left" and "right" as one word, not two - despite their multiple meanings and even more numerous interpretations. This would be a feeble criticism of the concept of "word". We should assign it no more weight when it comes to memes.

Steven Rose: memes are vacuous

Here's Steven Rose on memes:
The problem is that a meme can be almost anything: a fashion for wearing your baseball hat backwards, a word, a snatch of music, a political affiliation, a comedian’s catchphrase or how to shape a stone axe. Where a gene is – more or less – a specific DNA sequence with an equally more or less defined biological function, memes can be whatever you choose. It is a term so vacuous, despite its regular appearance in dinner party chatter, that it has its philosophical and biological critics unable to choose between indignation and helpless laughter. Dennett realises this and devotes a chapter to responding to his critics. I could – just – condone his enthusiasm if he regarded memes as metaphorical, but he categorically denies this. A word, he insists, in his account of the origins of language, is merely a meme that can be pronounced.

Such vacuity makes the meme concept theoretically useless as a tool for understanding cultural evolution.

For me the fact that memes and memeplexes can represent any inherited cultural item is a virtue - that means that memes are general. For Steven Rose that makes them "vacuous". Does Steven Rose feel the same way about "information", I wonder. Information can represent literally anything you can imagine. Is the term "information" also vacuous? I would claim that information is not vacuous: it's the basis of information technology.

Perhaps I should not spend too much time on Steven Rose. Rose co-authored: "Not in Our Genes: Biology, Ideology, and Human Nature" - a really bad book that surely illustrates his ignorance.

Does Steven Rose have any understanding of cultural evolution? I searched to answer this question. I found out that Steven has edited a volume titled: "Alas, Poor Darwin: Arguments Against Evolutionary Psychology" - but little sign of any content relating to cultural evolution. This is yet another critic who not familiar with the subject matter. Alas, that is always the most common kind.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017


Johnnie Hughes once likened pioneer species colonizing a new environment to memes colonizing an infant's mind. He explained how the early species in an environment create the ecosystem for those that follow them. He then likened this to the way in which early memes create a mental environment for the more complex ones that follow them.

There's another way of looking at the educational process involving dependencies. It is widely understood that learned concepts often have prerequisites. Knowledge often depends on previous knowledge. For example, understanding written sentences depends on an understanding of the words involved which in turn depends on a knowledge of the alphabet. Knowledge can thus be pictured as an edifice in which higher structures depend on lower ones.

However, in large construction projects, scaffolding is often used. Scaffolding supports the structure while it is under construction and is then eventually removed. It seems obvious that some learning materials play the role of scaffolding in the construction of knowledge. For example, ABC books are on the bookshelves of toddlers, but not the bookshelves of adults. Adults don't need them any more.

Some concepts too get discarded during the learning process. I can clearly remember as a child thinking of my reputation as a nebulous fog that surrounded me which other minds interacted directly with. That might have been a useful concept which helped me to avoid making mistakes at the time, but I now know that it was a largely mistaken idea. Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, God, heaven and hell are all ideas which are regularly taught to children and are later discarded as the child grows up.

Educational scaffolding has been well studied by developmental psychologists since the 1950s. This Wikipedia article has more details of that.

Scaffolding, I would argue, is an abstract engineering concept which is useful for building all kinds of structures, from buildings to scientific theories. We could have a scaffolding theory that abstracts away substrate specific details and is applicable in a wide variety of domains. It could cover issues such as the following:

  • What type of scaffolding to use;
  • How much scaffolding to use;
  • When to add scaffolding;
  • When to remove scaffolding;
  • How to attach the scaffolding;
Details would no-doubt be domain specific, but we can still develop an abstract theory that is widely applicable.

Scaffolding is also a useful concept in biology. One application domain is ontogeny. The placenta is an example of developmental scaffolding that is discarded after being used. Removal of scaffolding sometimes leaves scars - and in this case, the belly button is an example of a scar marking a scaffolding attachment point that persists throughout life. A corresponding example from cultural evolution involves baking a cake. A cake tin acts as scaffolding for the cake. As with the belly button the tin leaves a scar that persists throughout the life of the cake. Another application domain is evolutionary theory. Evolution critic Michael Behe once defined the concept of "irreducible complexity" in his book Darwin's Black Box as follows:

A single system which is composed of several interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, and where the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning.

He went on to argue that "irreducibly complex" systems cannot evolve by a process involving small changes. However, of course such systems can evolve by using small changes - if they employ scaffolding. An stone arch depends on every stone: remove one stone and the arch collapses. However an arch can still be built by a gradual process of adding and removing stones. The key to construction is to use a mound of stones under the arch that supports it while it is being created. The mound is removed once the arch is complete.

For scaffolding in evolution, a lot of the engineering concerns listed above don't apply. Instead what would be useful are theories about how to identify details about missing scaffolding after it has been removed.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Timothy Taylor: what is a wine glass?

One of the responses to this year's edge annual question was critical of memetics. Timothy Taylor starts out by arguing that some elements of culture are different from what you find in biology:

Clarke argued that the world of wine glasses was different to the world of biology, where a simple binary key could lead to the identification of a living creature (Does it have a backbone? If so, it is a vertebrate. Is it warm blooded? If so, it is a mammal or bird. Does it produce milk? . . . and so on). A wine glass is a polythetic entity, which means that none of its attributes, without exception, is simultaneously sufficient and necessary for group membership.

This is a simple case of cherry picking an example. Of course there are "polythetic" entities in ordinary biology. Think of a nest, for example. Or a rainforest. Or an organ. It simply isn't the case that the world of biology is not "polythetic".

The article makes extensive use of the example of a wine glass, and one of the conclusion seems to be that wine gasses are not memes. Hang on a minute, though. Very rarely are wine glasses copied from other wine glasses. Most wine glasses are produced in factories. There are things that are copied during wineglass production, but they are usually blueprints or recipes for manufacturing the wine glasses and the components of the wineglass factories - not the wine glasses themselves. So, according to fairly conventional memetic ideas, wine glasses would be meme products - rather than memes themselves. This puts them mostly on the "phenotype" side of the genotype/phenotype divide.

So, it seems as though Timothy Taylor and Timothy Tyler agree that wineglasses are not memes. However, Timothy Taylor apparently thinks that this "indicates limits to the idea of the meme", while Timothy Tyler would argue that memes are small bits of inherited cultural information, and that most artifacts are better considered to be meme products.

Whether wine glasses are "polythetic" or not is an irrelevant issue. Its relevance to memetics depends on the implied idea that wineglasses qualify as being memes. This implied claim is unreferenced - and I think it is a claim that few would make in the first place.

Taylor argues that "polythetic entitation" means that:

it may be reasonable to consider the intentional patterning of matter by Homo sapiens as a new, separate kind of ordering in the universe

I would make a similar claim but not for "polythetic entitation". I think that intelligent design by engineers represents a new kind of evolution.

Monday, 2 January 2017

David Queller on the cultural origins of xenophobia

David Queller recently proposed the hypothesis that xenophobia evolved due to "isolation mismatch" - David's proposed name for the idea of cross-species incompatibility and infertility.

Having "mule" offspring is sometimes harmful - worse than having no offspring at all. Queller proposes that analogous cultural mismatches can produce broadly similar harmful effects - as memes battle with incompatible companions and generally fail to work together. He gives examples and argues that mechanisms to avoid these bad outcomes could result in xenophobia - via genetic and/or cultural evolution.

David's ideas here are obviously important and worthwhile - but I'm rather skeptical about whether "isolation mismatch" is largely responsible for xenophobia. Humans cooperate in part due to reciprocity and cultural kin selection. In the absence of those effects they can behave pretty badly. If you are a caveman, you don't bash in the brains of a member of a neighboring tribe because you are concerned about cultural mismatch. You do it because they are a competitor and would likely do the same to you given half a chance. Xenophobia is pretty well explicable as a baseline state that arises when the mechanisms responsible for cooperation are absent. That's not to say that divergent selection as a result of cultural mismatches due to isolation is unimportant, but that it may be only a small part of the story of the origins of xenophobia.

Much the same argument applies to explanations for xenophobia that invoke the cost of producing genetic mules. Mules do exist and do have significant costs, but a lot of xenophobic behavior is not directly associated with the production of mules. That hypothesis would predict more female xenophobia - since females bear most of the cost of bearing mule offspring. In fact, xenophobia is more likely to be exhibited by males (see reference below). Rivalry and competition for mates seem like more appropriate explanations for that than the costs of producing mules.

Finally, I'm completely onboard with David when he writes:

Indeed understanding the roots of xenophobia might provide ways to mitigate it.
This is one of the ways in which cultural kin selection is of great social and political importance. Aside from it being of scientific interest, there's also the issue of it providing scope for improving the scope of human cooperation by engineering and promoting shared memes.