Thursday, 24 April 2014

On Darwinian paranoia

Critics of memetics have characterised it as a type of "Darwinian paranoia".

Here's Peter Godfrey Smith:

How did the gene’s eye view acquire such apparent power as a foundational description? I conjecture that this is because the gene’s eye view of evolution is a special kind of agential narrative.

Two explanatory schemata can be distinguished, within the general agent-positing category, which have a special psychological potency. The first is a paternalist schema. Here we posit a large, benevolent agent, who intends that all is ultimately for the best. This category includes various gods, includes the Hegelian “World Spirit” in philosophy, and includes stronger forms of the “Gala” hypothesis, according to which the whole earth is a living organism. The second schema is a paranoid one. Now we posit a hidden collection of agents pursuing agendas that cross—cut or oppose our interests. Examples include demonic possession narratives, the sub-personal creatures of Freud's psychology (super-ego, ego, id}, and selfish genes and memes.

Like me, Godfrey Smith links memetics to demonology and posession. However, while I see this link as validating some aspects of early superstitious thought, Godfrey Smith plainly intends it as a criticism of memetics.

Darwinian paranoia is a conceptual waste of space. It isn't paranoia if they really are out to get you. In the case of selfish genes and selfish memes there are plenty of cases where they are plainly out to get you. Should you give that AIDS virus the benefit of the doubt? What about that malaria protozoan? Or perhaps you would like to adopt some misunderstood smoking memes? Or maybe some memes from fast-food vendors, or memes from suicide bombers?

These "agents with agendas that cross—cut or oppose our interests" are not a paranoid fantasy. They are perfectly real - and perfectly hostile. It's public misinformation to brand negative reactions to them as "Darwinian paranoia". The associated threats are real, and people are perfectly correct to be concerned about them.

What's the opposite of paranoia? Foolhardiness. Humans are naturally on the paranoid end of the spectrum - and that's because natural selection built us that way. As Andy Grove put it "Only the paranoid survive". Foolhardiness is foolishness - and it's relatively rare in the world - for good survivalist reasons. My council is to avoid being foolhardy on this topic.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Gateway memes

It was once claimed that Marijuana was a "gateway drug".

Scientists seem to have mixed feelings about this claim - but there are certainly cases of a "gateway" effect in the world of drugs - where associations with drug dealers tend to make a range of illegal drugs more accessible.

Memes tend to pack-hunt - and it is quite common for acceptance of one meme to be followed by the assimilation of a range of associated memes. For example:

  • If you accept the virgin birth meme, that tends to open you up to christian memes about resurrection, the afterlife, the garden of eden and original sin.

  • Similarly, those who assimilate Linux memes are subsequently more likely to adopt memes related to vi, grep, gimp and git.

The term "gateway meme" can be used in cases where one meme commonly leads to exposure to a range of other associated memes.

The term works best when it's often the same meme that acts as a hook. For example, it is often Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" song that acts as a gateway to her back catalog.

The term also works best when the memes in question are undesirable or addictive. The association is with gateway drugs - which is a negative term used by opponents of drug use.

Cultural opportunistic infections

Until recently I had considered the obesity epidemic to be primarily a cultural epidemic - an epidemic of memes. Fast food companies spread their obesity-promoting memes throughout the population using advertising - and so manipulate people into eating more food, thus making them richer and financing the production of more obesity-promoting memes.

Obesity isn't just down to memes. Genes in foods are also involved - and humans are breeding fatter, tastier and sweeter produce to better cater to the human palate.

However, it is becoming clear that another source of genes is also involved - genes inside microbes in our intestinal flora. A variety of microbes have been fingered as obesity-promoting strains. One famous one is Candida albicans.

This suggests the disturbing picture of obese individuals as folks whose bodies have been hijacked by malevolvent microbes and turned into production factories that leave a trail of infection behind them. The microbes eating their food for them and pump hunger-promoting substances into their bloodstream.

This more complex picture of a swarm of obesity-promoting memes and genes makes it harder to blame the obesity epidemic on memes. However, it creates an interesting and unusual situation - where humans are being manipulated both by a swarm of memes and by a swarm of genes inside microorganisms. Can scientists learn anything from this simultaneous attempt to manipulate the same trait by both memes and microbial genes?

It may provide an interesting opportunity to compare organic and cultural evolution. For example, consider the question of whether genes or memes adapt faster. Most previous attempts to study this question have compared memes with human genes. However human genes reproduce at a very slow rate - and this is obviously an unfair comparison and a walk-over for the memes. Comparing memes and gut bacteria seems like a fairer comparison between the organic and the cultural.

Another related topic is cultural opportunistic infections when a host is infected by one parasite, that sometimes opens the door to other parasites. A classic example is Hepatitis D - which only attacks those already infected with Hepatitis B. In general, it is common for an overworked immune system to divert resources from one area to concentrate on an existing attacking force - leaving some areas less well protected. In the case of obesity, it is easy to imagine fast food memes promoting Candida infections. Probably hungry Candida sufferers are also more susceptible to fast food memes. Cross-domain opportunistic infections seem likely to be a real thing - but memeticists need to study this topic to better understand it.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Learned immune deficiency

One approach for parasites seeking to evade the host's immune system is to attack it and disable it. This approach is famously taken by the HIV virus - the virus which produces AIDS. However the result is typically a weakened immune system, and a collection of opportunistic infections that take advantage of the breaches in the host's defenses.

The nearest cultural equivalent to these types of parasite are probably beliefs that compromise critical thinking faculties. Probably the most famous of these is the belief that faith is a virtue. Faith - in the sense of belief without evidence - allows a variety of religious memes to thrive which would ordinarily be eliminated by critical faculties. Such memes benefit by association with the "faith" meme. However, the host of a "faith" infection is left with a weakened memetic immune system. This creates an environment in which a wide variety of other counter-factual beliefs can flourish.

In short, faith is the AIDS of the mind.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Gillian Crozier: Simulating Bird Songs To Study Cultural Evolution

Gillian Crozier at TEDx on cultural evolution. She explicitly discusses memes at 02:55.

Gillian starts out with big questions about cultural evolution, but then doesn't really offer answers to them - and closes with a "stay tuned" message.

Gillian contrasts the gene-meme analogy, the meme-parasite analogy and the idea that cultural traits are analogous to adaptations - saying that maybe one of these analogies will prove more fruitful than the others, or maybe they'll all turn out to be be wrong. I think the correct answer is that all of them are right: memes are cultural genes; some of those cultural genes are in parasites (while others are in cultural mutualists or cultural commensals), and many cultural traits are indeed cultural adaptations.

While some workers still seem to have some confusion associated with the gene-meme analogy, I don't see any sensible way of looking at cultural evolution that answers these questions differently. Workers should surely treat these as basic facts and move on.

Joint phenotypes

Joint phenotypes arise when multple individuals contribute to a trait. For example, an oak apple (see photograph on right) is the joint phenotype of an oak tree and a gall wasp. Similarly, a placenta as the joint phenotype of a mother and their offspring. The idea of a joint phenotype is an important concept in symbiology.

The idea of a joint phenotype is an important one in human cultural evolution - where most traits are phenotypes of both particular human hosts and cultural creatures.

For example, when someone sings "happy birthday to you" the resulting performance is the produce of both host genes and song memes.

A recent paper by David Queller discusses the idea of joint phenotypes observing that most cases of conflict between organisms over how local regions of space should be organized can be phrased in terms of relative contributions to joint phenotypes.

With joint phenotypes it is often possible to quantify the contribution of each host by asking what proportion of the observed variation in the trait each is responsible for. Of course to do this, you have to be able to measure the trait in question, and often there are multiple ways of doing this that can potentially provide different results. For example, in the case of the "happy birthday to you" song, the average pitch of the notes in the song is likely be mostly the product of host genes, while the relative pitch of each consecutive pair of notes is mostly the product of song memes.

Nonetheless, the idea of measuring joint phenotypes in this way represents a powerful tool for students of cultural evolution seeking to quantify the relative influences of genes and memes on particular traits.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Memetic metamorphosis

In the organic realm some creatures undergo radical metamorphosis during their own lifetimes. Probably the most famous example is the way that caterpillar turning into a butterfly. Tadpoles turning into frogs represents another example of animal metamorphosis.

In the cultural realm we also see some extreme transformations that deserve to be referred to as cases of "metamorphosis". In particular memes typically change the substrate in which their genetic material resides during their lifecycle. That's one of the most extreme transformations an organism can undergo. Many memes spend part of their time inside human brains, and part of their time in artifacts. Others divide their time between the human brain and sound waves.

There are transformations in the organic realm that involve shifting heritable information between different media. Information in DNA is copied into RNA, and then into proteins. Sometimes, the RNA themselves are copied - and even patterns in proteins are sometimes copied - in certain types of prion. However these transformations only rarely go around in a circle and wind up back where they started - due to the central dogma of molecular biology.

In cultural evolution, the central dogma of molecular biology does not apply, and radical transformations of genetic information between media are the norm.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Addictive memes

Memes - on average - have historically been good for their human hosts.

We can be fairly sure of that because of the evidence that the capacity for cultural transmission has a genetic basis.

However, memetics originally distinguished itself as a theory of cultural evolution by proposing that bad memes are out there as well - and that we should be cautious in dealing with them.

On type of meme that is often bad are addictive memes. Addictions aren't always negative - but they often are.

There's a recent book that deals with engineering addictive memes - Hooked: A Guide to Building Habit-Forming Products.

Enginnering addiction illustrates the dark side of memetics - rather like proaganda, indoctrination and brainwashing.

While a few work on engineering addiction we must all deal with the consequences of their work. We need strong and selective memetic immune systems. As part of this, resisting memetic addictions is a topic we should all be studying.

Memes in machine intelligence

For decades, machine intelligence researchers have considered the human brain to be their target - the thing whose functionality they need to inexpensively duplicate in order to automate much human labour and compete with human beings in the marketplace.

This is a reasonable perspective - but individual human brains are less significant today than they once were. The competition for machines these days mostly consists of networks of humans - and they are competing with them using networks of machines.

This means that cultural evolution is intimately relevant to the work associated with constructing machine intelligence. It is really cumulative cultural evolution which researchers are trying to produce in machines.

This perspective typically leads to a shift of emphasis. Rather than attempting to copy human intelligence, engineers should consider trying to copy human social skills. Today, networks of social machines are proving very useful - even though the individual machines are not very smart - by comparison with the brain of an adult human.

It looks as though ape imitation is very cognitively demanding - requiring the complex ability to put yourself in another person's shoes. However, with machines, transmission of ideas from one machine to another can be done without advanced cognitive faculties - for example by directly copying the relevant area of the machine's brain. It may be easier to produce social machines than smart machines. In other words, a memetics-based approach could well represent a short-cut to producing intelligent networks.

It is sometimes useful to consider the brain as a social network - with the neurons as individual agents and axons and dendrites as their communications network. It's a great proof of the concept that you can make a lot of stupid agents into a larger smart agent - if you have a social network with the correct topology and rules.

This link between cultural evolution and machine intelligence part of why the study of cultural evolution is so important. Not only does cultural evolution underpin most modern human evolution, it is also one of the key subjects for constructing and understanding the intelligent, social machines which will be so important to our future.

Related posts:

Friday, 4 April 2014

Attraction, repulsion, and the red queen of genes

At the level of individual organisms, mutual attraction, mutual repulsion and the type of "one-sided" attraction - where A is attracted to B but B is repelled from A - are familiar phenomena.

This post is about these kinds of attraction and repulsion between pairs of genes at a genetic level.

  • Mutual attraction: it has long been appreciated by geneticists that interdependent traits have some tendency to cluster together on chromosomes. The reason for this seems fairly obvious. If:

    • Two traits are functionally interdependent;
    • They are coded for by separate genes;
    • The genes are on the same chromosome;
    • The associated organism is sexual;
    • Neither gene is close to fixation;
    ...then mutations that reduce the distance between them - and so increase their linkage - will be selectively favoured. This reduces the chance of the genes being divided during meiosis.

  • Mutual repulsion: this is likely to happen when two genes benefit from not being linked together. This might happen if the genes code for traits involved in disease resistance - for example. There are cases where you want your offspring to have a different genotype from you - in order to avoid parasites traveling from parent to child. If you have two genes that code for a blood-group trait, you probably want to give your offspring different blood group from yourself - and minimizing linkage does that. Repulsion is the opposite of attraction.

  • Mutual indifference: this is a "dustbin" category, representing the absence of attraction and repulsion.

Attraction, repulsion and indifference need not be mutual. In parasite-host relationships the parasite is attracted to the host, but the host expressed repulsion towards the parasite. The same dynamics apply to genes - in the case of selfish genetic elements. These are like parasites that are part of their host's genome. They will be attracted to - and seek linkage with - useful host genes. However the useful host genes would prefer not to be linked to the selfish genes. This produces red-queen like dynamics at the genetic level - where parasitic selfish genes chase host genes around.

Motion histories can't be used to conclusively infer attraction. For example, if A migrates towards B, it may not be because A and B are attracted, but rather because both are attracted to C.

These kinds of effect also apply to cultural phenomena. For example, hammer memes tend to be attracted to nail memes - whereas Catholic and Islamic memes tend to repel each other.