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.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Display motives

Humans are often hypocritical creatures, saying one thing and doing another. There seems to be terminology for discussing our actual motives. They are frequently called "hidden motives" or "revealed preferences". However there doesn't seem to be a standard term for the motives we use for virtue signalling- the ones that we pretend to have in order to appear wholesome in order to manipulate others into liking and trusting us.

To contrast with "hidden motives" I propose "display motives" to refer to the motives that we pretend are what drives us - for public relations purposes. The term emphasizes their signalling role. If you wanted to emphasize their role in promoting good behaviour, you might prefer something like "aspirational motives". However, I don't expect to be using that latter term too frequently.

For "revealed preferences", I think it should really be "hidden preferences" and "display preferences" - as we see with the "motives" terminology. However, since "revealed preferences" has become the more popular term, "sham preferences" seems like the most appropriate antonym. Your actions reveal your claimed motives to be a sham.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Daniel Dennett - Memes saved from extinction

Dennett wonders whether Richard Dawkins’ concept of a meme has gone extinct. This is from February 2017.

The blurb reads:

Richard Dawkins’ concept of a meme, an item of culture that is differentially replicated and hence evolves by natural selection, has provoked many misguided attacks, and yet survived in heavily transformed guise to become a dreaded buzzword.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Daniel Dennett - The Digital Planet 1998 (repost)

I previously posted videos in an article titled: Daniel Dennett - The Digital Planet 1998. Those videos were taken down - but it seems they are still available elsewhere on YouTube:

I originally introduced this as follows. The blurb reads:

Daniel Dennett describes how Darwin introduced the idea of natural selection by comparing it to the selective breeding of domestic animals; including intentional selection as well as unconscious selection. Dennett also introduces a fourth category, genetic engineering. He then goes on to show how these categories also apply to the evolution of cultures.

From a conference in 1998 called Der Digitale Planet (The Digital Planet), which also included Douglas Adams, Richard Dawkins, Jared Diamond and Steven Pinker.

IIRC, there was also a Q&A section, which had some good stuff in it. AFAIK, all the other videos are still lost, though there is some audio here.

Susan Blackmore interviewed by Bas Heijne

From 2015. The blurb says: Susan Blackmore is interviewed by Dutch journalist and philosopher Bas Heijne. [...] In this video, Heijne and Blackmore talk about her vision of cultural evolution, the symbiosis between humans and digital systems, and artificial intelligence.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

The Wired guide to memes

Wired has an article titled "THE WIRED GUIDE TO MEMES" out. It is subtitled "Everything you ever wanted to know about Nyan Cat, Doge, and the art of the Rickroll." The authors are Angela Watercutter and Emma Grey Ellisby. Most of the article is about internet memes. It credits Richard Dawkins, for the origin of the term "meme", but goes on to argue that memes "have evolved into something much different than what Dawkins originally envisioned". It says:

Dawkins coined the term in 1976, in his book The Selfish Gene, long before the modern internet, before memes morphed into what they are now. Back then, Dawkins was talking about passing along culture—song melodies, art styles, whatever. Today, denizens of the internet think of memes as jokes passed across social media in the form of image macros (those pictures of babies or cats or whatever with bold black-and-white words on them), hashtags (the thing you amended to what you just wrote on Twitter), GIFs (usually of a celebrity, reality star, or drag queen reacting to what you just wrote on Twitter), or videos (that Rick Astley video people used to send you).

This "incompatibilism" is bad. Content which people share widely on the internet are memes in Dawkins original sense. It is OK for people to use "meme" as shorthand for "internet meme", since so much social sharing takes place on the internet these days. But the people who say that "Milhouse is not a meme" - those people are just wrong. They lack basic meme literacy. "Milhouse is not an internet meme" would have more truth to it - though a lot of people stream The Simpsons over the internet these days.

The definition of "meme" has long been a controversial topic in memetics, but few have proposed or promoted confining the term to things shared on the internet - with Limor Shifman being the notable exception. We have the term "internet meme" for that.