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.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Darwinian Metaphysics vs Universal Darwinism

Momme von Sydow has a 2012 book titled: From Darwinian Metaphysics towards Understanding the Evolution of Evolutionary Mechanisms - A Historical and Philosophical Analysis of Gene-Darwinism and Universal Darwinism. The book is freely available to read online. At almost 500 pages, it's the longest critique of Universal Darwinism I've ever seen.

It's a fairly sympathetic critique - the author makes a serious effort to understand the topic before explaining where the perceived flaws lie. As the following quotation indicates, the author regards the blindness of variation as a key tenet of Darwinism:

the Darwinian tenet of the blindness of variation is challenged. It is argued that one should interpret biological evidence in a way that allows for a kind of directed and adapted process of variation – though this process is of course fallible and not omniscient. Paradoxically, this follows from pursueing a Darwinian approach up to its limits. Darwinism thus again demonstrates that it contains the seeds of its own destruction.
It is neo-Darwinism that got dogmatic about variation being undirected. Darwin himself was fairly agnostic about this topic - and indeed proposed a mechanism by which variation was directed by the experience of organisms.

This point revolves around a debate about what the term 'Darwinism' means. Personally, I see no compelling reason to attach Darwin's name to the more useless and out-dated theory - especially when Darwin himself had nothing to do with it.

The author also seem to think universal Darwinism is incompatible with the evolution of evolutionary mechanisms, saying:

Moreover, although it cannot be questioned that we can learn very much from Darwinism, it is claimed that Universal Darwinism as an interpretative framework can and should be replaced by an account of the evolution of evolutionary mechanisms – both in biology and in metaphysics.
I think the biological trial-and-error theory of Darwinism might also be urged to drop its universalism and acknowledge a certain evolution of evolutionary mechanisms.
The evolution of evolutionary mechanisms seems like a flat fact to me. Particularly the mechanisms that produce selection and introduce variation have complexified over time. Mutations produced inside minds can be a bit different from those produced inside cells. However, as far as evolutionary theory goes, the mechanism of production of mutations can be treated like a modular block box - with specific theories from genetics being plugged into it. A new mutational mechanism needs no changes to evolutionary theory itself - rather it's just a new mutation module. Much the same goes for selection. These days, selection can be produced by intelligent agents - for example by intelligently choosing compatible mate. Darwinism is big enough to include a variety of sources of selection. I think we can have a universal Darwinism while still leaving some space for the evolution of evolutionary mechanisms.

A critic might complain that, with these dependencies on other theories of mutation and selection, Darwinism barely qualifies as a theory in its own right. This has always been true, though. For example, to predict the fitness of a bat genome, Darwinism relies on theories of development, theories of aerodynamics and theories relating to radar. Dependencies on other theories has always been a fundamental part of Darwinism. Evolutionary theory doesn't stand alone.

These are some of the main criticisms in the book. I think that universal Darwinism survives these attacks just fine.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Memetics vs semiotics

Some students of semiotics seem to be irritated by the success of the meme. (e.g. Kilpinen, E. (2014)). Semiotics seems to be much more popular than memetics, and the term 'sign' seems to be much more popular than the term 'meme'. However, the term 'sign' does appear to have lost some important ground to the term 'meme'. Here's my take on how the meme managed to get a foothold.

Semiotics claims to be older than memetics. Semiotics became popular in the 1970s and 1980s - but claims roots going beck centuries. However, until the 1970s there wasn't very much in the way of semiotics publications. The founders of the various schools of cultural evolution may have ignored semiotics, because it had yet to become popular at that time.

By the 1970s, semiotics had basically failed to produce a school of cultural evolution. There was no explanation of how signs evolved based on broadly Darwinian principles. As Terry Deacon put it:

Until now, classic semiotic theories have not had much to say about why certain signs persist and others do not, or why certain semiotic systems evolved the forms they now exhibit.

The meme concept has generated recent excitement precisely because it seems to offer hope of providing something that other theories of social and semiotic processes have not succeeded in providing. It addresses the process of semiosis, i.e., the dynamical logic of how the symbolic and concrete constituents of culture arise, assume the forms they assume, and evolve and change over time.

Retrospectively, we can see that application of evolutionary biology to human communication mostly arose outside of semiotics - mainly from those trained in evolutionary biology and population genetics.

Perhaps the bypassing of the term 'sign' by cultural evolutionists was inevitable. The term 'sign' - in common parlance - comes with an associated object that is signified by the sign. Culture contains many signs - for example, letters, words and ideograms. However there are also non-signs: for example, knots, cups and fire. These have no obvious referents - they just are. For the concept of 'sign' to be useful as a unit to cultural evolutionists all culture would need to be signs. However, that violates the common dictionary definition of 'sign'.

The tpyical semiotics solution to this problem is to expand the definition of 'sign' to include knots, cups and fire - and indeed, practically anything. This is sometimes called 'pansemiotics'. If you do this, then semiotics becomes very general. Of course the problem is then that the original meaning of the term 'sign' has got lost. It is sometimes permissible to give common language terms counter-intuitive technical meanings. However, here, I think it just leads to pointless confusion.

As for the claim that the concept of 'meme' misses out the concepts of semantics and observation: this is just sour grapes on the part of the semiotics folk. One might reply that meaning and observers aren't part of the meme because they are context-dependent.

Monday, 15 June 2015

The edge of evolution

The domain of Darwinian evolution has expanded dramatically over the last 150 years. Darwinian evolutionary theory is now frequently applied to cultural evolution, the development of individuals and individual learning. More speculative extensions of Darwinism include ones that cover quantum physics, complex adaptive systems, cosmological natural selection and observation selection effects.

It is natural for observers of this expansion to ask: how far can the Darwinism go? Where is the the edge of evolutionary theory? What are the limits of Darwinism?

The questions relating to "Darwinism" might be criticized as being a bit vague - but we can replace these with similar questions about the domain of concepts such as fitness selection and adaptation - and have some more rigorous questions that more people are likely to be able to form a consensus about.

I think that the lesson of history is that the edge of evolution is farther out than we think. People are inclined to say that the edge of Darwinism lies at the outer edge of their personal understanding of it. However, we can see historically that Darwinism has repeatedly pushed into new domains, covering new phenomena.

Another possible position is that there's no real "edge" - instead evolutionary theory gradually breaks down as more and of its axioms are progressively broken. I think that it is clear that there's some truth to this perspective. However, evolutionary theory is fairly simple - and there aren't very many axioms to break. Nonetheless, we should not necessarily expect to find a single precipice at the edge of evolution - but rather a gradual disintegration in the form of some steps or a slope. This complicates the issue - but doesn't fundamentally alter the problem.

To finish this article, I have a characterization of where I think the edge of evolution is to offer. I think evolutionary theory applies to macroscopically irreversible systems. This gives it roughly the same domain as maximum entropy thermodynamics - which I claim it is very similar to. Part of the intuition behind this involves the link between selection (from evolutionary theory) and destruction (which leads to many macroscopic entropy increases).

This relationship is probably wrong in detail. There's nothing in evolutionary theory that forbids its application to macroscopic reversible systems. Selection need not necessarily be linked to destruction. However, this is the best, short characterization of the edge of evolution that I have. Without it, I am reduced to offering a laundry list of phenomena that I think that evolutionary theory applies to.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Alex Flint's problems with memes

Alex Flint has some excellent quality meme criticism in his essay titled: The problem with memes. If only all meme criticism was of this standard. Alex makes several points - here I will focus on just one of them. He says:

If evolution amongst memes really was responsible for, say, Rick Rolling, then we should expect to see a relatively continuous sequence of memes in historical records, analogous to the fossil record.

Maybe. The fossil record is patchy - and not always accessible - and much the same is true of culture. In practice, it's often possible to make valid inferences even if you have no fossils. If you see an organism, you can validly assume it has an evolutionary history - even if you have no fossils - simply because of common descent. We can often do much the same thing with memes.

Alex says:

The term “meme” has found widespread use in contemporary discourse, especially when discussing the public mindset, since the constitution of that mindset is what memetic evolution is supposed to explain. It is often used to refer to particularly catchy or trendy ideas, but I have argued that in many such cases there is little justification for assuming that an evolutionary process was responsible. Questioning whether the term “meme” should be applied in such cases process is dangerously close to a vacuous quibble over semantics; however, a few cautions do bear mentioning. First, it is a mistake to think that a deeper understanding has been reached just by calling something a meme. In the absence of evidence for an evolutionary process, calling something a “meme” is no different to calling it an “idea” or “phrase”. No greater understanding of its nature or origin has been reached by invoking the term, nor does the term suggest any new ways that it might be manipulated, magnified, or minimised.
Alex seems to think that you shouldn't call some aspect of culture a 'meme' if you can't back up your assertion with a memetic fossil record - showing competition and selection between memes. That goes to the definition of a meme - and I don't think the dictionary agrees with Alex. Here's what one dictionary says for "meme":

an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture .

Another defintion:

an element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by nongenetic means, especially imitation.

These definitions don't rule out memes that pop into existence by chance, or memes that are intelligently designed. The whole idea that the term "meme" implies an origin involving competition and selection between a series of evolutionary precursors seems to be contrary to how the word is commonly defined.

Alex is correct to say that calling something a 'meme' doesn't imply that it wasn't intelligently designed. However, that's simply a matter of definition. I don't see how it is a 'problem' - and I don't see why Alex calls it a 'problem'.

Alex closes with:

In this essay I have argued that although memetic evolution is a coherent concept, applying it as an explanation for specific phenomena requires extra evidence to corroborate its causal role in producing those phenomena. In the absence of such evidence we should be careful about using the term “meme” too liberally since we may make unjustified assumptions about the nature of the ideas we are dealing with.
The "unjustified assumptions" Alex is referring to is the assumption of an evolutionary history involving variation and selection. However, this assumption seems to be coming from Alex - not from memes or memetics. It is OK to have intelligently-designed memes - indeed the internet is full of them.

In summary: we can legitimately use the term "meme" liberally - if we simply adopt the standard definition of the term. I think Alex's concerns about "unjustified assumptions" are themselves unjustified.

Peter Godfrey-Smith on positional inheritance

I notice that Peter Godfrey-Smith has a section in Darwinian Populations and Natural Selection denigrating the significance of positional inheritance. He writes (on page 55):

Parent and offsping often correlate with respect to their location. It is possible to inherit a high-fitness location; one tree can inherit the sunny side of the hill from another. But the significance of this inherited variation is limited. A population can near-literally 'explore' a physical space, if location is heritable and is linked with fitness. It may move along gradients of environmental quality it may climb hills, or settle around water. But to the extent that reproductive success is being determined by location per se it is not being determined by the intrinsic features that individuals have. If extrinsic features are most of what matters to realized fitness — if intrinsic character is not very important - then other than this physical wandering, not much can happen.

What can happen is that adaptations can develop. Lightning strikes can find the shortest path to the ground, propagating cracks can locate weaknesses in materials and drainage patterns can develop structures that efficiently drain basins. The idea that concepts like 'fitness' and 'adaptation' apply to these kinds of simple inorganic systems is a big deal for physics - and a big deal for Darwinism.

Of course in these kinds of system more than position is inherited. For example, in electrical discharges, charge is also inherited. However position is important - it is copied with high fidelity, it can often vary considerably and many other properties can depend on it.

Godfrey-Smith attempts to draw a distinction between "intrinsic" and "extrinsic" traits - and then claims that this affects the "Darwinian character" of processes. However, traditional Darwinism has no use for such a distinction - all it cares about is whether traits are inherited. If you look at axiomatic expressions of Darwinian evolution, "intrinsic" and "extrinsic" don't get mentioned. That's because they don't matter. They are irrelevant to most evolutionary theory. Heredity of traits is what matters - not whether those traits are "intrinsic" or "extrinsic".

It's true that "intrinsic" traits can be more numerous than "extrinsic" ones. However, that's no reason to single out "extrinsic" traits and exile them from Darwinism. Darwinism makes no distinction between "intrinsic" and "extrinsic" traits. The exact same rules about copying with variation and selection apply equally to both types of trait.

Peter says "the significance of this inherited variation is limited". It seems to me that the significance of this inherited variation is huge. It it wasn't for positional inheritance, we would all have been born in the vacuum of space and died instantly. It may be only "physical wandering" that means that we were born on the surface of a planet - rather than in interstellar space - but it makes the difference between life and death for all of us. Location is actually a very important property that affects fitness. We should study how it evolves using good old-fashioned evolutionary theory - it absolutely does apply.