Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Marketing of memetics

A recent popular history of evolutionary psychology purports to explain "how evolutionary psychology went viral". The gist of the article is that E.P. hitchhiked to success on the back of sex-related memes and controversial content. This is essentially the same marketing strategy that The Naked Ape used - back in its day.

I've previously speculated that evolutionary psychology's biggest drawback - the failure of most of its practitioners to get to grips with culture and cultural evolution - has also contributed to its popularity. Ignoring human differences and concentrating on human commonalities has made evolutionary psychology less offensive and more politically correct. This is in stark contrast to memetics - which is all about the differences between humans.

Can memeticists learn anything from the evolutionary psychology marketing strategy? Memetics, like evolutionary psychology, studies human behaviour - a topic which most people are interested in. Where evolutionary psychology has historically studied human commonalities, memetics studies human differences. It is an essential sidekick for evolutionary psychology. Memetics has historically been controversial. It hasn't been linked to sexual content very much so far - though Susan Blackmore managed to write several chapters about that topic in The Meme Machine. The volume of sexual content on the internet suggests that there is plenty of content there to be studied. However, memetics has its own associated popular content (which evolutionary psychology lacked) - namely: internet memes. Hitchhiking on this content is the most obvious route to popularity for memetics, IMO.

Articles like: Indiana University Will Devote $1 Million to the Study of Internet Memes indicate that interest is out there.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Saving the world - with evolutionary theory

An NSF-sponsored paper is currently doing the rounds, claiming the evolutionary biology can help to "save the world". The associated NSF press materials are even titled: "How evolutionary principles could help save our world".

The full paper is accessible here. It's contents are reasonable: it points out how important evolutionary theory is in the modern world. However, one of the interesting things about the paper to me is that it only discusses blinkered Darwinism. Universal Darwinism - to my mind the best and truest version of Darwinian evolution - doesn't get referenced. There's no mention of the idea that culture also evolves.

If the authors understood that Darwinism applied to technology, science, economics, medicine, politics, law - and many other areas - the article would surely have had to put an even greater value on the topic.

I don't know how much longer we'll be seeing these blinkered Darwinism papers. The scientific community evidently has a lot of inertia. From my side of the paradigm shift, blinkered Darwinism looks pretty stupid. Presumably eventually it will become a matter of scientific embarrassment that well-educated humans were so slow to understand the full scope of Darwin's discovery.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Emotional contagion

It is well known that stress states such as fear, panic, and hysteria are socially communicable.

However, it is turning out that other mental illnesses have a component of social contagion implicated in their genesis as well. For example, the following articles deal with the contagiousness of depression and loneliness.

Emotional contagion may be a widespread phenomenon. Of course, social contagion alone doesn't prove that memes are implicated. Manipulation by transmissible DNA-based pathogens is also a possibility. However memes are surely the number one suspects in such cases.

A significant study that illustrates social contagion of emotions was recently conducted by Facebook. Such social networking studies have the potential to distinguish meme-based contagion from gene-based contagion - because they can filter out short-distance relationships, leaving long-distance ones - where only meme-based social contagion is likely.

Emotional contagion seems important to understand - because of the extent of its social significance. For example, many organizations would probably prefer to manipulate their workers into states conducive to a positive working environment - and not have them too depressed or stressed.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Daniel Dennett: A Darwinian view of religion in the 21st century

This presentation dates from August, 2014. The video starts out discussing the effects of "transparency". Most of the second half of the video is about Dennett's studies of religion.

The end of biological reproduction (not)

Here's an article about the future of cultural evolution by Cadell Last titled:

Human Evolution, Life History Theory, and the End of Biological Reproduction

There's no paywall. There's also an accompanying slideshow. Most articles speculating about the future of human evolution are written without an understanding of the theory of cultural evolution - however this is not one of those articles.

The article paints a picture of longer-lived humans and more effort expended by them on meme propagation than gene propagation. These seem like extrapolations of current trends.

However, the paper's forecasts extend out to 2050 - a significant distance out - and in a zone where is challenging to make reliable forecasts.

My own perspective is that we will probably see a large explosion of artificial life significantly before then - which will have a big impact on the terrestrial ecosystem. Eventually this will turn the human world into a sideshow - the coming memetic takeover which I frequently speak of.

This is likely to be the real story of the next forty years. Life extension and reduced fertility of humans seems like a rather irrelevant by comparison - these things will have negligible socio-economic impact.

Indeed, they are less certain outcomes - since the transition to a machine-based civilization might be a disruptive one. When most humans become redundant and unemployable, it isn't immediately obvious what will happen to them. No doubt here will be nature reserves - but a nature reserve that accommodates ten billion humans seems as though it might face significant budget scrutiny.

The article (irritatingly) contrasts biological and cultural evolution - as though culture is somehow non-biological - which is a newbie mistake. Even a full-blown memetic takeover wouldn't be "the End of Biological Reproduction". Cultural reproduction is a form of biological reproduction because culture is part of biology.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Tim Tyler: Memetic hitchhiking

Transcript:

Hi. I'm Tim Tyler - and this is a video about memetic hitchhiking and memetic linkage.

Genetic hitchhiking involves genes changing in frequency due to their proximity to other genes. Hitchhiking can involve either positive or negative selection - in other words, increases or decreases in gene frequencies. Genetic hitchhiking is based on genetic linkage - which is the tendency of nearby genes to be inherited together.

In cultural evolution, there are corresponding effects:

Memetic hitchhiking involves memes changing in frequency due to their proximity to other memes. It is based on memetic linkage - which is the tendency of nearby memes to be inherited together.

It's a commonplace observation that the proximity of two memes is correlated with the probability of them being inherited together. This is true across a large variety of meme types. Words are more likely to be copied together the closer they are together. Image components and video fragments behave in the same way. Generally, the closer two memes are, the greater their memetic linkage. The way in which linkage changes with distance can often be fairly easily quantified.

Memetic hitchhiking is an extremely important concept in marketing. Memetic hitchhiking is used by marketers because they frequently face the problem of how to memetically engineer content so that it spreads to a large number of users. Hitchhiking on an existing meme is a common solution to this problem. People attach product messages as payloads to viral videos, celebrities, beauty, news stories, humour - anything that people spread around. When the viral content is spread around the payload is delivered to an increasingly large audience at a low cost to the marketing department.

For marketers their payload acts as a parasite on the original content. As such there's a constant risk that the viral content will find a way to separate itself from the payload. Marketers have a range of techniques to avoid this happening. They can interleave the payload with the content. They can make the payload small, short or inconspicuous. They can transmit the payload subliminally. They can launch legal attacks on payload-free content.

Well-known popular experts at memetic hitchhiking include Weird Al Yankovic, The Gregory Brothers, and Ray William Johnson.

Memetic linkage is generally defined in terms of a distance metric. That metric need not necessarily be spatial distance - for example in the case of podcasts or videos, time is often the most appropriate metric to measure. Genetic linkage is always based on a spatial distance metric. However, it seems inappropriate to restrict memetic linkage to spatial distance metrics.

Genetic linkage causes functionally dependent genes to migrate towards each other. Each gene benefits from the proximity - due to the increased linkage reducing the chances of the genes being separated from one another. The result is that genes form functionally-linked complexes. In memetics, the same effect is seen: functionally dependent memes tend to migrate towards each other - which increases their memetic linkage and reduces the chances of the memes being separated from one another. The result is that functionally-linked memes form memeplexes.

Not all hitchhiking of memes on memes qualifies as being "memetic hitchhiking". In the organic realm, a snail can hitchhike a ride on a duck's foot. However, you wouldn't normally call that "genetic hitchhiking" - even though in a sense,snail genes are "hitchhiking" on duck genes. The term "phenotypic hitchhiking" seems more appropriate there. Similarly you wouldn't normally refer to a bumper sticker on a car as a case of "memetic hitchhiking". The germ line of the memes responsible for the car are in the car manufacturers headquarters, and the germ line of the memes responsible for the bumper sticker are in the sticker-making factory - which might be nowhere near each other. Again, the term "phenotypic hitchhiking" seems more appropriate in this case.

Enjoy,

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Cultural kin selection and the meme revolution

Kin selection played a significant role in the gene revolution. As William Hamlton put it:

We need to descend to the level of the gene, rather than the individual, in order to see that the gene exists surrounded by copies of identical genes that exist in all its relatives [...] Seeing this swarm of genes that exists around a particular one, we can then ask what is the behavior caused by this gene that is most likely to cause the propagation of this set of copies in the relatives around it.

This "descending to the level of the gene" is known as "the gene's eye view".

Just as kin selection led to and helped to promote the gene's eye view - so cultural kin selection will help promote the meme's eye view.

The meme's eye view has always been part of memetics, but is has been largely ignored by social scientists. Many of them are absurdly confused about the 'meme' concept - complaining that it atomizes cultural wholes into isolated pieces, or that replicators are only one part of evolution - or a string of other equally silly objections.

In 1985, Boyd and Richerson explicitly focused on the human hosts involved, saying:

This does not mean that cultures have mysterious lives of their own that cause them to evolve independently of the individuals of which they are composed. As in the case of genetic evolution, individuals are the primary locus of the evolutionary forces that cause cultural evolution and in modelling cultural evolution we will focus on observable events in the lives of individuals.

This rather myopic perspective has lasted for thirty years - with most analysis of cultural epidemiology focusing on the human hosts - and not on the memes themselves.

As Steven Shennan put it in 2013:

The variation, selection and retention processes that underlie cultural evolution were laid out in detail more than 25 years ago (Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman 1981, Boyd and Richerson, 1985) and have been extensively elaborated on since (e.g. papers in Boyd and Richerson, 2005). However, this has mostly been done from an agent-centred perspective and not from that of the cultural lineages themselves - the "memes eye view" - and the two are not the same.

It seems reasonable to expect that the rise of cultural kin selection will significantly promote the "memes eye view". From the perspective of memeticists this will be a long overdue development - since it is what they have been saying all along.

Memetics has been ahead of its time for far too long. Looking at the scale of cultural evolution's scientific lag in academia, it seems reasonable to expect that cultural kin selection will start becoming more prominent in academia around about now. It seems practically inevitable that this will drag the "meme's eye view" (and thus a big chunk of memetics) into academia as well. It will be about time.

References