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.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Meatspace memetics in Forbes

Forbes have an article on "meatspace memetics". It covers the use of social media tags as graffiti.

For me, the article is notable for using the term "meatspace memetics". Meatspace - as opposed to cyberspace - is a relatively old term, but it is one that works well with the "meme" term - contrasting "meatspace memes" with "internet memes".

A number of other terms from memetics seem to me to have the potential to go viral - and become much more popular. "Memetic hitchhiking" is an extremely important concept that should be mentioned in practically every marketing article ever written. However, the term is currently not getting those mentions, and as a result, the whole concept is under-used and under-appreciated. I think we should all be hearing much more about "memetic engineering", "memetic hijacking" and "meme warfare", "meme therapy" and "memetic linkage" too.

Essentially, I blame foot-dragging by social scientists - who don't understand memetics - for its poor update to date. The memophobes have been a drag on the field for far too long for my taste.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Molecular memetics

Molecular genetics was part of the 20th century revolution in our understanding of DNA genes - starting with the work of Watson and Crick relating to the structure of DNA in the 1950s.

Could there be a corresponding revolution in memetics? Many have looked forwards to this. For example, here is Robert Aunger, Writing in The Electric Meme.

It's time for a new scientific revolution, for the beginning of a “molecular memetics” to mirror the revolution in biology that occurred with the identification of physical genes.

Here's Johnnie Hughes, writing on how the lack of observable memes inside brains is a problem:

We don't know what a meme looks like.`That doesn't necessarily mean that we should dismiss their existence—the existence of Mendel's genes was mere speculation for a century before Watson and Crick “saw” them for the first time with an X-ray diffractor - but it certainly presents a barrier to widespread acceptance.
It is probably true that a greater understanding of how ideas are represented in brains would be a boost for memetics - and lead to new discoveries in the area. However, there will probably not be a "molecular memetics" for a long time. According to our current understanding of how the brain works, memories are stored in synaptic strengths - which are more electro-chemical than molecular. It seems likely that we will understand how the brain works as a neural network long before we go down to the level of molecules. Indeed, we have had the basics of this understanding since the 1980s - when the "Parallel Distributed Processing" works of Rumelhart and McClelland were published. These contained convincing computer simulations that illustrated the basics of how information was stored and processed in the brain. These simulations exhibited similar failure modes to their organic counterparts.

Furthermore, we don't need to understand the details of how brains work to be able to have a strong science of memetics. Genetics was doing pretty well before the 1950s - with population genetics. If memetics could get to where genetics was in the 1930s, that would represent dramatic progress in the field.

Although we can't really measure meme frequencies inside brains yet, memes need to pass out of the human brain in order to reproduce - and then we can measure their frequencies much more easily. This is particularly true of memes that travel through electronic networks. Then, the anatomy of the meme is often exposed and is easily visible to scientists.

By focusing on these digital representations of memes, memetics should now be able to make good progress. That doesn't necessarily mean treating the brain entirely as a black box. We can still use inductive inference to explore hypotheses about the workings of the brain - based on its inputs and outputs - as is routinely done by psychologists. However, we don't need to wait for neuroscience to produce a "Watson and Crick" moment before we can get on with the business of studying memes scientifically.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Unwanted dogmas from the modern synthesis

The modern synthesis of the 1930s and 1940s famously fused the thinking from Darwin, Mendel and population geneticists - resulting in a popular consensus relating to how evolution worked.

Evolution and genetics have been married ever since. However, Universal Darwinism really represents a divorce of evolutionary thinking from many of the ideas it acquired from genetics around that time.

In universal Darwinism, the main ideas from genetics and population genetics that Darwinism acquired in the modern synthesis - in particular that mutations are undirected and that mutation biases are not significant - are now seen as domain-specific - and not features of evolutionary processes in general.

Signs that a split between evolutionary theory and these ideas from genetics was going to be necessary were present early on, but things really started to go sour in the 1970s, starting with Lewontin (1970). Lewontin wrote:

Darwin's scheme embodies three principles (Lewontin 1):

  1. Different individuals in a population have different morphologies, physiologies, and behaviors (phenotypic variation).
  2. Different phenotypes have different rates of survival and reproduction in different environments (differential fitness).
  3. There is a correlation between parents and offspring in the contribution of each to future generations (fitness is heritable).
These three principles embody the principle of evolution by natural selection. While they hold, a population will undergo evolutionary change. It is important to note a certain generality in the principles. No particular mechanism of inheritance is specified, but only a correlation in fitness between parent and offspring. The population would evolve whether the correlation between parent and offspring arose from Mendelian, cytoplasmic, or cultural inheritance.

He pointed out the substrate neutrality of evolutionary theory, and explicitly invokes cultural inheritance as an example.

Evolutionary theory isn't dependent on DNA genes. In fact it is inclined to fool around with memetics - and other forms of inheritance not mediated by DNA. In these other domains, the dogmas about mutations being undirected and unbiased are unwanted baggage.