Sunday, 24 July 2016

Darwin's Bridge

A new book on social applications of Darwinism is out:

Darwin's Bridge: Uniting the Humanities and Sciences, edited by Joseph Carroll, Dan P. McAdams, Edward O. Wilson

Joseph Carroll has previously written Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature

The publisher's blurb says:

  • Collects the most advanced work in the consilience movement
  • Demonstrates how far science has gone toward unifying knowledge about the human species, and what still needs to be done
  • Each chapter takes a different disciplinary approach to the question of "human nature"
  • Features expert perspectives from a variety of disciplines, including evolutionary biology, the humanities, social sciences, and more

The book seems quite focussed on Wilson's concept of consilience. There doesn't seem to be much about cultural evolution, though a few of the contributors are knowledgeable about it. Wilson doesn't seem to have got to grips with cultural evolution yet - still favoring the 'it all boils down to DNA genes' version he was promoting in the 1980s. This seems like a head-in-the-sand approach to me, ruling out the possibility of a memetic takeover on a-priori grounds. The main mention of memes is some meme FUD from Massimo Pigliucci. Initial impressions lead to low expectations for this volume here, though perhaps some of the contributions will be of interest.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Cultural evolution's scientific lag: is the modern synthesis to blame?

The study of cultural evolution has lagged far behind the study of organic evolution - much to the distress of its enthusiasts. One question is why there is such a lag. One answer is that the delay was caused, in part, by the modern evolutionay synthesis, which failed to include cultural evolution and is incompatible with it.

The story is that, for one reason or another, the architects of the modern synthesis had little or no understanding of cultural evolution. They failed to incorporate it into their synthesis. Then their synthesis became stagnant dogma, stifling innovation in the field.

I think that this story has considerable truth content, though obviously it isn't the whole story. A possible piece of evidence against the claim that the architects of the modern synthesis had little or no understanding of cultural evolution could potentially be found in the following books:

I haven't properly reviewed this evidence yet. Both books came out significantly after the modern synthesis crystallized, though.

Another problem with the thesis is that it doesn't offer an explanation for why the the architects of the modern synthesis lacked meme literacy in the first place. Maybe the explanation for that is sufficient to account for the lag, without the modern synthesis being to blame. I can't rule that out - but the modern synthesis was influential; it probably didn't help.

Looking at the memetics timeline the first half of the 20th century was an uneventful time for cultural evolution. In fact there are no entries at all from 1915 to 1945 - which is more-or-less when the modern synthesis came together. The founders of the modern synthesis were writing during a bleak time for cultural evolution. Perhaps the world wars were a factor here.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Sharing prohibition

I've long opposed the laws that criminalize information crimes. I make an effort to put my content into the public domain wherever I can - and have been writing open source software for decades.

The weakening of the copyright laws has long seemed inevitable to me. Today we are in a kind of twilight zone - where the copyright laws are violated on a massive scale, but very few people are prosecuted. The MPAA and RIAA phased out their litigation against file sharers long ago.

The war on sharing is reminiscent of the prohibition era and the war on drugs. It ought to be an embarrassment for humans that they kept the laws against sharing on the books for so long. Sharing comes naturally to humans, they like doing it. Overall, prohibiting sharing is personally and economically destructive.

In a democracy, sharing prohibition is not normally a vote winner - since consumers who are hurt by monopolies massively outnumber producers who are awarded the monopolies. However, voting is only one side of politics, the other side is lobbying. Special interest groups argue in favor of their monopolies and the infrastructure that perpetuates them. Since producers care a lot about this issue while consumers care less, the lobbying is mostly on the pro-monopoly side. It happens on a large scale and is well funded. The resulting sharing prohibition artificially creates monopolies and promotes wealth inequality - which likely has damaging effects overall.

From the perspective of memetics, sharing prohibition limits reproduction and recombination. To the memes, it is like a directive to not have babies - except under particular circumstances. For DNA genes, the state has mostly got out of the business of interfering with reproduction. China's one child policy (now two child policy) is the most prominent exception. However, meme reproduction is still legally regulated in many countries. It is a hangover from the pre-internet days. Today, it is an appalling impediment to all kinds of activities in computer science and elsewhere. We should declare that freedom to share is a basic human right and be done with the backwards prohibition era.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Memetics and racism

To date, evolutionary psychology has mostly avoided the wrath of those sensitive to race issues by avoiding differences between human populations, and focussing on human universals. Despite this, it has been criticized by a wide range of the easily offended, for addressing issues to do with sex and age in humans. Evolutionary psychology has ignored, denigrated and generally failed to understand cultural evolution. Ignoring cultural differences is a pretty significant simplification. Memetics is all about more realistic models that account of cultural variation. One of the findings is that there's not really any such thing as the EEA (Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness). Instead, humans are quite plastic and use culture to adapt to a wide range of environments. Human nature is similarly polymorphic; what is 'natural' for humans is a function of their surrounding environment and cultural context. This tends to work against the averaging out of cultural variation that is often done by students of evolutionary psychology.

One political problem with models that account for cultural variation is that differences between human populations based on DNA differences can no longer be ignored. To quantify cultural differences between two populations, DNA differences need to be controlled for. Cultural transmission involves ethnic transmission biases - where people prefer to deal and interact with those with similar ethnic backgrounds. Cultural kin selection underlies homophily, which is the basis of much xenophobia.

I figure the result of the memetic focus on human differences will be a certain degree of entanglement between meme enthusiasts and those appointed to squish racism - who generally favor human equality. So far, I can't say I have noticed much going on in this area. Memetics and racism have, so far, mostly avoided intermingling. However, it is pretty easy to see this issue coming, IMO. There will probably be factions who promote politically correct versions of memetics and other factions who are not shy about using memetics to address race-related issues.

The influence of the politically correct factions is not negligible. James Watson and Frank Ellis illustrate the issue. It seems plausible that more heads will roll in the future.

I don't have much policy advice about what can be done to help avoid problems in this area. However, I do think science ought to be in a position to help inform policy advice relating to how to build societies with less race-based conflict - something widely recognized by all parties involved to be a desirable outcome. To do this we need to study topics such as the cultural evolution of ethnic tolerance. One one hand, such a study will probably attract flames - but on the other hand a proper scientific study of ethnic discrimination seems as though it is a necessary part of avoiding future race-related conflict.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Denis Noble critiques gene as unit of heredity

Most of those who complain about gene centrism in evolutionary biology don't understand the position of the gene promoters. However, I have recently found a few who do at least address the position I hold: that genes are units of heredity and genetics is the science of heredity.

I mentioned David Dobbs's critique recently. I have also found Denis Noble has made explicit the criticism that defining a gene as a unit of heredity is unfalsifiable:

According to the original view, genes were necessarily the cause of inheritable phenotypes because that is how they were defined: as whatever in the organism is the cause of that phenotype. Johanssen even left the answer on what a gene might be vague: ‘The gene was something very uncertain, “ein Etwas” [‘anything’], with no connection to the chromosomes’ (Wanscher, 1975). Dawkins (Dawkins, 1982) also uses this ‘catch-all’ definition as ‘an inheritable unit’. It would not matter whether that was DNA or something else or any combination of factors. No experiment could disprove a ‘catch-all’ concept as anything new discovered to be included would also be welcomed as a gene. The idea becomes unfalsifiable.
This is, I think, a criticism that is very easy to refute. Science consists of, among other things, hypotheses, axioms and terminology. Hypotheses are what needs to be falsifiable. Axioms and terminology, not so much. You can criticize an axiom by saying it is false, but saying it is always true isn't much of a criticism. A similar situation applies to terminology. You can say terminology is unhelpful, unproductive, misleading and so on. However, the criticism that it is unfalsifiable cuts no ice. In science, it is hypotheses that need to be falsifiable. Unfalsifiable terminology is fine. It I say an atom is a stable mixture of protons, neutrons and electrons that can't be subdivided without changing its chemical properties, nobody can say that that's a bad definition because it is unfalsifiable. That's just a misunderstanding of how science works.

Spacetime partitioning

Many scientists are enthusiasts for dividing the world up into pieces, in order to study it. One of the simplest approaches to doing this involves spacetime partitioning. The partitions involved are usually disjoint. Partitioning schemes are often not unique. For example, on the left is one partitioning scheme, dividing the universe into organisms and environment, while on the right there's another partitioning scheme, dividing the universe into cells and environment.

With a perfect model of the dynamics of the contents of each partition and how they interact, different partitioning schemes would produce the same results. However, in practice models are imperfect and the partitioning scheme used can affect the results.

Spacetime partitioning schemes often work best when the partitions don't overlap. Of course, in reality organisms can have joint phenotypes - and can sometimes overlap. How can that be modeled? One approach is to use partially overlapping partitions. That generally leads to more complex and awkward models, but it is one approach. Another possibility is to partition genotypes, rather than phenotypes. Joint phenotypes are common, joint genotypes are much less common. In symbiotic relationships where joint genotypes occur, inheritance usually follows one of the partners, so even then, partitioning can be made to work reasonably well. The main problem with partitioning by genotype is that this fails to divide up phenotypes properly - they just get left out. It is a bit like hiding the problem. Sometimes you can model overlapping organisms using independent partitions. If your hosts and parasite phenotypes overlap, you can use one partition for the hosts and one for the parasites - where each is the environment of the other.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Splitting and simplification

Splitting and simplification are common operations which scientists routinely apply. Splitting can be applied to almost anything, but it is most commonly applied to the subject matter of scientific theories. Simplification is an operation that is applied to scientific theories themselves. In science, splitting subject matter up is sometimes given a technical name: reductionism.

Reductionism has become a bizarrely unpopular part of science. The most common complaint is that splitting things up leads to a focus on the parts and ignoring their interactions. Sometimes it is emergent properties that reductionism supposedly neglects.

That gets us on to the topic of simplification. Simplification is another basic tool in the scientific toolkit. The most common associations for many scientists when they think of simplicity are Occam's razor and the parsimony principle. However these are the tip of the iceberg. Simple theories act as foundations for more complex theories. It is easy to make complex theories that completely explain data - the problem is that such theories are poor at making predictions. To get a good predictive theory you need to find smaller theories.

I would say more about the virtues of simplicity. However, Boyd and Richerson have a fine essay titled: Simple Models of Complex Phenomena: The case of cultural evolution The essay is targeted at anthropologists - who are often complexity worshippers. Simple theories are incorrect theories, they seem to think. Perhaps because so many of their colleagues are confused about the topic, Boyd and Richerson go to considerable lengths to argue the virtues of simplicity.

Many social scientists don't like simplification. They think accuracy is more important. Jonathan Haidt expresses this perspective here:

I'm actually a anti parsiomonist: I'm opposed to the pursuit of parsimony. I take Occam very literally. Let's pursue truth. If two theories are equally good at describing reality take the simplest - but don't pursue simplicity. Whoever made us didn't give a damn about simplicity, so stop pursuing simplicity in psychology.

This attitude is a confused one which fails to understand why scientists prioritize simplicity so highly.

Many of the complaints about reductionism are about simplification. The fear is that after splitting things up, interactions between the components will be ignored, or the diversity of the components will be neglected. Perhaps it should be stressed more that splitting and simplification are technically orthogonal operations.

As far as terminology goes, the term "reductionism" has some weak points - it is an "-ism" - like Mormonism and Catholoicism. The term "reductionism" sounds as though it denigrates that which it reduces. Reduce" doesn't mean "split" - so the term doesn't say what it means: it is confusing. Lastly, reductionism is jargon. I think I am going to start using the terms "splitting" and "simplification" instead.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

The Balkanization of Darwinism

In modern times the study of Darwinian evolution has become split across multiple academic departments. There are evolutionary biology departments, ecology departments and departments of human evolution. Other departments study evolutionary economics and evolutionary epistemology. As far as I can tell, practically nowhere studies evolutionary theory itself.

The success of the field of evolutionary biology seems to be part of the problem to me. There are a number of academics who self-identify as "evolutionary biologists". There are evolutionary biology departments at universities all over the world. It seems to me that students of evolutionary theory who confine their attention to biology are missing out on Darwinian physics, and applications of evolutionary theory outside biology. Is this just a case of specialization? or do these folk not understand that Darwinism is more broadly applicable? Experience suggests that the latter hypothesis is usually the more accurate one.

For example, Mark Ridley's "Evolution" textbook says (3rd edition, page 4):

Evolution means change in living things by descent with modification

"Living things"? Since when is evolutionary theory limited to "living things". What about Darwinian physics? To me that's a classic example of the confusion associated with evolutionary biology. Those folk think they have a monopoly on evolutionary theory. What they actually have is bad terminology which is confusing the next generation of students.

Larry Moran once wrote: "Call me an evolutionary biologist". Well, OK - but it seems like a term of abuse to me. When I refer to people as "evolutionary biologists" I am usually referring to people who don't understand the true scope of Darwin's legacy.

Cancer evolution

For a long time, immune system evolution and brain evolution were some of the best documented-examples of evolution taking place within organisms as part of development (assuming that we don't count symbiotes such as parasites and gut bacteria). Such evolution is contrary to the textbook orthodoxy that changes to individuals over their own lifespan do not count as being a type of 'evolution'.

Ridley's "Evolution" textbook says (3rd edition, p.4):

Developmental change within the life of an organism does not count as evolution in the strict sense and the definition referred to evolution as "a change between generations" to exclude developmental changes.

Of course, generations of a multi-cellular organism is one thing, and generations of its cells are another. Developmental changes can indeed be a form of evolution from the perspective of somatic cell generations. Now it looks as though the evolution of cancers is turning into another well-documented example of Darwinian evolution during development which involves somatic cell lines. Some quote illustrate the cancer-related discoveries:

Over the last 2 years, there have been an unprecedented number of publications focused on cancer evolutionary processes in solid and haematological cancers, a trend that is set to continue over the next decade. [...] It is increasingly clear that many advanced tumors follow a branched, Darwinian evolutionary trajectory. This has been demonstrated in childhood ALL [1], pancreatic cancer [2, 3], colorectal cancer [4], clear cell renal carcinoma [5, 6], breast cancer [7, 8] and prostate cancer [9] among others. [source]


Cancer development within an individual is also an evolutionary process, which in many respects mirrors species evolution. Species evolve by mutation and selection acting on individuals in a population; tumors evolve by mutation and selection acting on cells in a tissue. The processes of mutation and selection are integral to the evolution of cancer at every step of multistage carcinogenesis, from tumor genesis to metastasis. [source]


Iconic examples of evolution (birds evolving from dinosaurs, hominids evolving an upright posture, or a lineage of lobe-finned fish evolving four legs and moving onto land) might seem unrelated to the growth of a cancerous tumor, but the process underlying them both — natural selection — is identical. We typically think of natural selection acting among individuals, favoring those carrying advantageous traits and making those traits more common in the next generation. However, the key elements of this process — variation, inheritance, and selective advantage — characterize not just populations of organisms in a particular environment, but also populations of cells within our own bodies. The cells lining your intestines, for example, are not genetically uniform; there is variation among them. [source]

A wikipedia page offers a summary of the topic.

The topic is receiving interest partly since evolutionary theory is involved in the treatment of cancer.

Somatic evolution becoming more orthodox will help with acceptance of cultural evolution. For one thing, once the textbooks get rewritten, people will no longer be able to point at them, saying that changes to individuals over their own lifespan do not count as being 'evolution' - by the definition of the term.

Refactoring Darwinism: where to start

The term "refactoring" commonly refers to a set of useful computer programming techniques which involve making structural changes to a program without altering its function. Refactoring is often done before making functional changes. If you launch into making changes without some preliminary refactoring, you are often more likely to make mistakes. Refactoring frequently allows you to make changes without breaking tests - so you can verify that your changes don't break anything. If you need to make a bunch of changes, it sometimes helps to make ones that you can verify do no damage first.

I argued in refactoring science that science can benefit from refactoring too. I agree with the many folk who think that Darwinism is in need of some changes. This raises a number of issues about what changes need making. One such issue is where to start from. Darwinism has had two main identifiable releases: Darwin's Darwinism and the Modern Synthesis. Many seem to assume that we should build on the most recent release of the theory, the Modern Synthesis. For example, here's Massimo Pigliucci:

It makes just as little sense to talk of "Darwinism" in modern science as it does to talk about Mendelism or Newtonianism. The current theory of biological evolution is the Modern Synthesis, and if one wants to make the point that cultural evolution works in the same way, one needs to take on board the most refined version available of the theory, not its earliest draft. Incidentally, I think that's why we should avoid talk of Lamarckism as well as Darwinism altogether: they refer to murky (in the first instance) or outdated (in the second) ways of thinking about biology, and it doesn't help to resurrect them as if the last two centuries of science hadn't happened.

This rather assumes that the Modern Synthesis was an improvement over Darwinism. However, some have argued that the Modern Synthesis consists of a bunch of overstatements. For example, Mesoudi (2011) has argued that cultural evolution is Darwinian, but not Neo-Darwinian. The modern synthesis is often billed as uniting Darwin's idea of natural selection and Mendelian genetics. The problem is that Mendelian genetics only applies to inheritance via DNA. As a result, other forms of inheritance were sidelined by the synthesis. From such a perspective, the Modern Synthesis looks like a bit of a broken version of Darwinism. Failing to encompass cultural evolution is a pretty serious flaw. In this case, maybe we should start from an earlier revision of Darwinism - one without so many problems.

Starting with Darwin's theory should allow cherry picking any useful bits from the Modern Synthesis. Starting from the Modern Synthesis would probably be followed by bunch of 'revert' operations - to get rid of the dogmatic and mistaken bits. The former operation looks easier to me than the latter one.

I have some other concerns about starting from the Modern Synthesis. It is vague. Of course Darwin changed his mind about some things too - and the various editions of "The Origin" describe rather different theories. However, it seems to me that Darwinism is more clearly specified than the Modern Synthesis was. The Modern Synthesis can be difficult for critics to criticize - since there's no canonical version. In science, that's not a good thing.

In some respects, the Modern Synthesis illustrates how not to produce an evolutionary synthesis. It subsequently became a bit of a straitjacket for researchers. Inevitably any new theory of evolution will also be incomplete - but there's no need for it to be dogmatic and mistaken.