Monday, 9 July 2018

Bonduriansky and Day: Extended Heredity

Bonduriansky and Day's book Extended Heredity: A New Understanding of Inheritance and Evolution is now available. The topic area has a big overlap with the topic area here. The Amazon blurb reads:
For much of the twentieth century it was assumed that genes alone mediate the transmission of biological information across generations and provide the raw material for natural selection. In Extended Heredity, leading evolutionary biologists Russell Bonduriansky and Troy Day challenge this premise. Drawing on the latest research, they demonstrate that what happens during our lifetimes--and even our grandparents' and great-grandparents' lifetimes―can influence the features of our descendants. On the basis of these discoveries, Bonduriansky and Day develop an extended concept of heredity that upends ideas about how traits can and cannot be transmitted across generations.

By examining the history of the gene-centered view in modern biology and reassessing fundamental tenets of evolutionary theory, Bonduriansky and Day show that nongenetic inheritance―involving epigenetic, environmental, behavioral, and cultural factors―could play an important role in evolution. The discovery of nongenetic inheritance therefore has major implications for key questions in evolutionary biology, as well as human health.

Extended Heredity reappraises long-held ideas and opens the door to a new understanding of inheritance and evolution.

The book looks interesting and it is certainly a welcome contribution to the literature on the topic, but it fairly quickly aroused my critical faculties. Check out page 19, to start with. The authors present a classification scheme for heredity, listing, genes, self-regenerating factors, non-self-regenerating factors, structural inheritance and epigenetic inheritance. It seems half-baked to me.

The authors seem rather obsessed with biological systems. If they are "extending" heredity, are they extending it to physics and to inorganic systems outside biology? Apparently not. In which case the authors are not really embracing the "extension" part of their thesis very well. Darwinian evolution, properly understood, applies to a range of inorganic physical systems and is not limited to biology.

The authors bemoan the dominant "gene-centric" view of heredity apparently without considering the possibility that all inheritance is mediated by genes by definition of the term "gene". If the gene really is the unit of heredity, then the "epigenetic inheritance" category they apparently favor becomes an oxymoron.

I searched for "memes": 1 hit. I searched for "universal darwinism": 0 hits. Universal Darwinism pioneers Blackmore, Plotkin and Dennett each get 0 mentions. It all seems like pretty poor coverage to me.

Here is one author's page about the book.

Sunday, 8 July 2018

George Christos: The Memetic World

I recently became aware of the book draft of The Memetic World. This is a book by George Christos. In 2017, George described the work as follows:

my unpublished book called "The Memetic World", which was basically written in 2003

George goes on to say:

I do not want to edit what I have previously written so there are bits that are incomplete. There are also ideas I wanted to work into the text at some stage. I am not sure I agree with everything I wrote then, but it is what it is.

The draft is clearly incomplete, with missing figures, notes to the author about where to insert more material, mysterious red sections. Also, the draft peters out into sketchy notes, and there's no index or references.

Book length treatments of memetics are fairly rare, so my attitude is to gratefully treasure what we have. So, I am pleased to find this manuscript. This book is clearly heavily inspired by Blackmore's 1999 book. George references Blackmore 146 times - more than all the other authors he mentions combined, I think. The themes tend to follow Blackmore's interests. That's mostly good, but it means that there's too much material about the self and consciousness for my taste. The book is a fair bit more amateurish than Blackmore's, even after accounting for its unfinished nature.

I'm not done analysing the contents so far, but so far I have learned at least one interesting thing from the book - to do with human longevity. Recent increases in human longevity are clearly memetically driven. My "background" theory would blame this on medical advances. However, as George points out there's a meme's eye view on this, which suggests that memes may divert resources away from DNA reproduction into maintenance processes that help the host to live longer as part of their strategy to get into more brains. Maybe this is a fairly obvious idea, but I don't recall having thought of it before reading The Memetic World.

To close, here's a recent promotional video for the book:

Tarrifs in evolutionary economics

In classical economics, targeted tarrifs are bad because they cause absolute harm both parties involved. Preventing win-win deals harms both sides. Much the same argument suggests that most conflicts are also costly and bad. In evolutionary economics, things are a bit different because fitness is relative. Paying a cost to harm another actor is then explicable - if they are a main rival.

Of course the actors involved should posture and dispaly their strength to each other first, but if neither side will back down, then they can be expected to fight. Do tarrifs damage yourself as much as them? Maybe, but maybe not if you pick the list of tarrifs and your plan factors in their capacity for retaliation. Even if the damage is equally distributed on both sides, there's also the capacity to endure damage to consider.

Targeted tarrifs are in the news at the moment due to the ongoing US-China trade war. I won't go so far as to argue that that trade war is rational, but it has some of the attributes that you might expect from a rational conflict. In particular, the US and China are fairly direct rivals. They are two of the largest players in the world and so maybe they are not worried that conflict between them will increase the relative strength and power of other parties not directly involved in the conflict. Also, America is currently is a strong position, but it is widely forecast that a business-as-usual strategy will result in China gradually overtaking the US in the next century, mostly due to its larger pool of human resources. It is not hard to imagine that the US feels it needs to switch things up a bit.

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Filtering, sorting, copying, mutation

One of the most popular schemes to classify evolutionary processes is based around the idea of selection. Evolutionists distinguish selection from genetic drift and then subdivide selective processes into kin selection, group selection, natural selection, artificial selection, sexual selection, divergent selection - and so on.

I'm not opposed to the idea of selection, but do think that the popularity of the concept has pushed alternative classification schemes into the shade. One of my preferred subdivisions is to start by ignoring the distinction between drift and selection and to divide initially by whether the process involves death or reproduction - or more broadly subtraction or addition. For example, here is an article on the topic adapted from my 2011 book: Natural production and natural elimination.

A closely-related classification scheme involves some other topics which I have promoted: sorting, filtering and copying. "Filtering is now my preferred term for evolutionary processes that subtract. "Sorting" refers to processes that neither subtract not add entities, but instead rearrange them. A focus on frequencies leads to sorting processes being ignored. However, in practice, sorting is common and influences evolution as a precursor to filtering.

One of the things I like about "sorting", "filtering" and "copying" is that they are pretty crisp computer science topics. One of the problems with selection is that is is so general. Saying "selection did it" is a very weak explanation because almost everything counts as a form of selection. Yes, genetic drift exists, but that's just a form of noise. If almost everything counts as being a form of selection, selection becomes difficult to falsify as an explanation.

While filtering obviously coveres "selection by death", it also crosses over into the realm of reproductive processes as well. Males are frequently sorted on "leks" and then the genes of the worst males are filtered out of the gene pool by females. While that is a form of subtraction, it is one which is pretty closely linked to reproduction - and what is commonly described in terms of "sexual selection".

Filters can vary in the time of their application, or filtering that takes place at different times can be modeled as a series of filters. These two approaches are equivalent.

"Filtering" is close to what Dawin originally meant by "natural selection". Darwin argued that "sexual selection" was not a form of "natural selection". The modern meaning of "natural selection" was introduced after Darwin's death. It pictures "sexual selection" as a type of "natural selection".

The picture here leads to the following classification scheme for evolutionary change:

  • Entity count changes
    • Filtering (subtraction)
    • Copying (addition)
  • Entity count remains the same
    • Sorting (rearrangement)
    • Mutation (in-place change)

Organisms moving around is not normally considered to be a form of evolutionary change - so "rearrangements" are mostly omitted or ignored. However, rearrangements are important. They are not completely ignored, but they are downplayed, I claim.

The left-hand labels in this classification scheme are all the information theory / computer science ones - except for the "mutation" category. That one has gone the other way - when the concept is used in computer science the biological term is often used.

Friday, 22 June 2018

Positive and negative feedback in evolution

Evolutionary theory has its own historical tradition and has developed its own terminology. However I sometime wonder what it would look like if it was (re)discovered by 21st century engineers. This post consists of some musings on that theme.

If evolution was (re)discovered by modern engineers, one concept that would probably be more extensively employed is "feedback". Feedback is the name for systems whose outputs are "fed back" into their inputs. Of course, this happens all the time in biological systems in various ways. The term "homeostasis" is often used in biology, and this is just a type of negative feedback. In particular, gene pools typically have their outputs fed back into them. From this perspective, favorable selection is a type of positive feedback acting on trait frequences (or gene frequencies), while unfavorable selection is a generally similar type of negative feedback.

Framing natural selection in terms of positive and negative feedback seems useful to me. The "feedback" terminology seems more general, and that is often a virtue in science.

Another piece of biological terminology that might be framed differently by engineers is "fitness". "Fitness" is an overloaded term, but "inclusive fitness" could plausibly be replaced by "utility" - the more general term from economics which refers to "that which is optimized". The common term "expected fitness" would become "expected utility" - another standard concept. One slight difference is that "fitness" is usually though of as being "relative", while "utility" is usually thought of as being absolute. It's a minor issue because there are usually many players and so the distinction doesn't make much difference. Anyway, IMO, the way to resolve this is to say that economics has got this wrong.

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Andres Gomez Emilsson's pure replicators

This post is about Andres Gomez Emilsson's proposed concept of "pure replicators". First, I'll let Andres introduce the concept:

I will define a pure replicator, in the context of agents and minds, to be an intelligence that is indifferent towards the valence of its conscious states and those of others. A pure replicator invests all of its energy and resources into surviving and reproducing, even at the cost of continuous suffering to themselves or others. Its main evolutionary advantage is that it does not need to spend any resources making the world a better place.
Conventionally, a "replicator" is something which copies are made of. Agents and minds aren't really replicators, they are large complicated things which can't easily be copied. "Reproducer" might be more appropriate terminology from this perspective.

Evolution optimizes for survival and reproduction. However, that does not mean that it builds creatures that are uniformly devoid of compassion. The evolutionary function of compassion may not be obvious or easy to explain, but it is likely to exist because compassion is widespread among humans. Probably, compassion promotes social cohesion and encourages acts of reciprocal altruism.

Andres warns against becoming a "pure replicator", but he defines this as an agent indifferent towards suffering, and most humans care act as though they care about the suffering of themselves or others - because compassion is built into them by evolution as a proximate goal. Becoming free of compassion does not seem as though it is a likely fate in the first place.

Andres apparently agrees, writing: "Most animals do indeed care a great deal about the valence of their own consciousness". He goes on to explain that "pure replicators" are mostly a future threat. There follows a bunch of speculation about how future intelligent machines might not use the pleasure-pain axis in their motivational systems.

I think that part of the problem here is a failure to properly distinguish between proximate and ultimate goals. A hypothetical agent with the sole goal of maximizing the number of their great grandchildren might still have proximate goals of minimizing the suffering of themselves and others. Many kinds of personal suffering are likely to be negatively correlated with the number of great grandchildren produced. Concern for others could well be adaptive too, though that's a bit harder to understand. That is how evolution can build compassionate creatures.

Andres apparently thinks that compassion is a useless spandrel. That seems tremendously unlikely to me.

However, my number problem is not with the science, it is with the terminology. You can't just hijack the "replicator" terminology and load it up with qualia for no good reason. The proposed termiology is simply ridiculous.

Friday, 15 June 2018

Carl Zimmer on heredity

Carl had a small but nice section on memes in his "Evolution" book. Carl's latest book on "Heredity" is out now. It is called "She Has Her Mother's Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity". It has a section related to cultural evolution, called "The Teachable Ape". Memes get mentioned, but pretty dismissively.Carl cites Ehrlich and Feldman saying that: "The most recent attempts using a 'meme' approach appear to be a dead end".

Carl does cover attempts to expand the concept of heredity to culture, but he avoided citing most of the literature on the topic. Carl managed to convey that he knew something about cultural evolution, but it didn't seem as though he had very much understanding of the topic. I thought the chapter was quite disappointing. It seemed like a step backwards from his 2006 effort.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018


"Meme, counter meme" is the title of a 1994 Wired article by Mike Godwin. Mike tells the story of how he combatted Nazi comparison memes on usenet by using counter-memes generated using memetic engineering. I don't know if "counter-meme" saw much use before 1994, but Mike Godwin either coined or popularized the phrase.

I think that "counter-memes" is a useful concept. Fighting bad memes with good ones is a common and obvious technique, and "counter-memes" seems like an appropriate name for the concept.

"Counter-memes" are part of the memetic immune system. Some are most effective before exposure to the memes they counter - those are like vaccines. Others are typically used after exposure - those are more like antibiotics.

I think that "counter-memes" is one of the bits of memetics that has the potential to go mainstream and enter the common vocabulary. It's fairly useful and fairly catchy. It could pretty easily happen that people start responding to posted memes with "counter-meme: <blah>". If explicitly saying "counter-meme" when responding to a meme with a corrective meme signals that you are up on the latest internet lingo, it could become quite common. I find this fantasy pleasing and would like to help make it a reality.

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Jordan Peterson new meme critique

Most modern meme critics frequently recycle the same content. Jordan Peterson seems to have come up with a new critique in a recent discussion with Sue Blackmore (starting 10 minutes in):

What do you think of the whoele meme theory? I think it's a shallow derivation of the idea of archetype and that Dawkins would do well to read some Jung. In fact if he thought farther and wasn't so blinded by his a-priori stance on religion, he would have found that the deeper explanation of meme is in fact archetype.
Jungian archetypes are innate, universal precursors to ideas. Memetics is related to the concept (since it deals with ideas), but archetypes aren't really a "deeper explanation of memes". "Meme" is mostly just catchy terminology for "socially-transmitted idea".

Modern scientists may not discuss Jungian archetypes very much - but there are certainly conceptual equivalents. One modern perspective involves the distinction between "evoked" and "transmitted" culture. Evoked culture is the product of innate Jungian archetypes interacting with environmental variation. Transmitted culture is not encoded in genes, it is instead, copied from others. There's a spectrum in between the two concepts. Some evolutionary psychologists are very interested in evoked culture and play down the significance of transmitted culture. The enthusiasts for "cultural attractors" are also involved in studying Jungian archetypes under another name.

Jungian archetypes are probably not mentioned very much due to association with the Jungian notion of a collective unconscious - a mystical notion which was subsequently widely rejected by scientists. Jungian psychology is about as out-of-date as Freud. I think if you tell modern scientists they should "read some Jung" you will generally get back some incredulous responses.

Anyway, Jordan Peterson's critique is apparently of a "straw memetics" that holds that ideas are 100% transmitted and 0% affected by our evolved psychology. No practitions actually believe this. In practice, our evolved psychology has always been on the table. There are plenty of ways of incorporating innate biases into cultural evolutionary models. They can affect the selective environment of memes, or they can influence recombination or mutation operators.

However, one of the central ideas of memetics (and cultural evolution in general) is that there's more to culture than innate predispositions (i.e. Jungian archetypes). Culture is not just about variations in the environment evoking different genetic responses (as in the "jukebox" model). There's also transmitted culture, and it is big and important, just an anthropologists have long been saying.

The sterilization of females

Memes can sterilize you, or dramatically reduce your fertility. This is true especially if you are a woman. The correlation between female education and fertility is strongly negative:

This isn't just a case of memes making people richer and r/K selection adaptively kicking in. The phenomenon is powerful enough to reduce fertility to sub-replacement levels - as seen in South Korea, Japan, and many other countries.

In memetics, the explanation for this is fairly obvious - diverting resources away from gene reproduction fuels meme reproduction. It is thus a common interest of many memes to sterilize their hosts. Dawkins gave this as an explanation of priest infertility in 1976 and the basic idea has held up.

If you consider memes as cultural symbionts, then this phenomenon may seem familiar. Many parasites also sterilize their hosts. Many human STDs do this, for example:

It is widely accepted that bacterial infections with Neisseria gonorrheae, Treponema pallidum and Chlamydia trachomatis can lead to fertility alterations. The impact on reproduction alteration is suggested but not well understood in the case of some viral STI, such as human herpes virus (HSV), adeno-associated virus, human immune-deficiency virus (HIV), human cytomegalovirus (HCMV) and human papillomavirus (HPV).
HPV is one of the better-known ones. It gives women cervical cancer and blocks up the tubes of their reproductive system with cancer cells.

Sybiont foodstuffs such as green leafy plants also frequently attempt to sterilize those that consume them. This prevents further consumption of the plant by offspring, and attempts to consume relatives. Phytoestrogens are a common method. These bind to the estrogen receptor and so defeminize many animals.

At this point, you may have noticed a theme. The targets of these attacks on the reproductive system are frequently female. It seems easier to sterilize females than it is to sterilize males. I notice that most human contraceptives also target women. If you look into forced human sterilization, the majority of victims there are women as well.

Why is it easier to sterilize females? I don't know the answer to that, but I have some ideas. Not all species have males. The female reproductive tract is mostly shared with those that reproduce asexually. Another factor might be that if population reduction is the aim, sterilizing males would not work unless you got almost all of the males. If you sterilize one male another can easily take his place. That is not so true of females. I'm not sure that these ideas explain all of my examples, though.