Saturday, 21 May 2022

What counts as a population in general theories of evolution?

I stumbled across a paper today on a topic near to my heart. It addresses the question of: what counts as a population in forms of "generalized Darwinism".

It gives what seems to me to be a very complicated answer. It says that a population should be defined using the: “causal interactionist population concept” (CIPC) - a concept it attributes to Roberta Millstein (2010).

Here is the paper under discussion:

It introduces the causal interactionist population concept (CIPC) as follows:

According to Roberta Millstein’s CIPC (Millstein 2010, p. 67) emphasis added):
(a) Populations […] consist of at least two conspeciļ¬c organisms that, over the course of a generation, are actually engaged in survival or reproductive inter-actions, or both.
(b) The boundaries of the population are the largest grouping for which the rates of interaction are much higher within the grouping than outside.
I think this paper is over-thinking things. I am strongly opposed to defining a population in terms that prohibit populations with one member. We do not need one theory for populations of size greater than two and another for populations of size less than two. That would be ridiculous! Evolutionary theory can and should deal with populations of any size. There is no rule that says their size must be two or greater. If there is only one remaining organism in a diminishing lineage, evolutionary theory should still apply. Nor is it the case that such populations do not evolve - or can only evolve to extinction. They can evolve via self-directed evolution, for example and they can also grow into larger populations. Size less than two is a basic requirement and must be supported! I think that we can put evolutionary theories that fail to meet this basic test into the trash basket.

Nor is it appropriate to reference concepts such as "organism", "generation", "survival" or "reproduction" in a definition of what counts as a population. In general theories of evolution, the simplest population concept is a set - a mathematical set.

There's no need for anything more complex than this. Or so I claim. In my support, I cite Occam's razor. If your theory or your concept is too complex, ditch it. This is a good case in point.

Friday, 29 October 2021

The Knowing Universe by John Campbell

John Campbell's The Knowing Universe is out now.

Readers may be familiar with John Campbell because of his previous works, particularly:

Judging by the blurb, the work of Karl Friston is prominently on the menu.

Anyway, I didn't read this book yet, but subscribers may find it of interest.

Friday, 22 October 2021

The technical as a kingdom of life

Biologists categorize life into kingdoms. Animal, vegetable, fungal - and so on. Memetics proposes that culture is alive too. "Memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically". Where does culture fit into biology's grand classification schemes? As far as I can tell, it doesn't. I've looked at numerous resources about classifying living things into large-scale categories or "kingdoms" - and none makes any mention of culture.

A pioneer of promoting classification of culture as its own kingdom has been Kevin Kelly. In "The Technium" and "What Technology Wants" Kevin argues that "technical stuff" merits classification as a new kingdom of life. Here is Kevin in 2007:

One way to think of the technium is as the 7th kingdom of life. There are roughly six kingdoms of life according to Lynn Margulis and others. As an extropic system that originated from animals, one of the six kingdoms, we can think of the technium as a 7th.

Technology seems a bit narrower than culture, but it covers many cultural phenotypes, so sure: the technical should be up there with the animal and the vegetable as a large scale kingoms of life. Go Kevin!

While Kevin has basically the right idea, I am more worried about the rest of the world's biologists. How come they are promoting such messed up classification schemes? How can they think culture is not alive? Rocks are not alive, but culture is clearly alive. It reproduces. It exhibits adaptation. Anyone who thinks that culture is not alive has a pretty messed up conception of what life is. Biology is the study of life - by definition. How can that not include culture?

I don't know exactly what has happened, here, but it is obviously pretty messed up. Biologists should be embarassed and ashamed of their crappy classifcation schemes. What were they thinking? How come they have made such an enormous screw up? I don't have all the answers, but I suspect that "the social sciences" might have something to do with it. Apparently, anything to do with humans comes under the remit of the social sciences - and they have got stuck in a murky backwater for decades, with many of the practitioners not accepting the scientific method, not accepting evolution, not accepting cultural evolution, or promoting various other sorts of archaic nonsense. Even so, it takes two to tango. If the social sciences want to monopolize the science of human behavior, other biologists don't have to let them. Biologists should stand up and fight for culture to also be within their remit.

Look at a car - for example? Is it an animal? No. Is it vegetable? No. Is it mineral? No. It is something else. That many biologists can't sensibly classify such a common object reflects badly on them. They have screwed up. It is time for them to make amends.

Saturday, 9 October 2021

Male homosexuality

Male homosexuality has long been regarded as being an evolutionary puzzle. Around 4 percent of men are homosexuals. They have on average five times fewer children than their heterosexual counterparts. Why doesn't the behavior die out? A common explanation is that "superwoman" genes spread through the female lineage, while inducing female behavior in males as a side effect. No doubt this explains some male homosexuality.

I previously discussed the possibility of parasites causing male homosexuality in my 2017 "ubiquitous parasites" article.

At the time I discussed culturally-induced homosexual behavior - giving the example of celibate priests and altar boys. However, the possibility of male homosexuality being induced by organic parasites is also of interest.

Homosexual men spend more time having sex and less time raising children. That's a situation favoring parasite transmission. Homosexual men famously have a high parasite burden. Male homosexuality correlates with HIV/AIDS, hepatitis A, B and C, gonorrhea, syphilis, toxoplasmosis - and probably many other infectious diseases. It is widely understood that male homosexual behavior causes parasite transmission. However it also seems possible that causation could run the other way around: parasites could favor the production of homosexual behavior - for example: by interfering with development during childhood.

Many parasites would "prefer" to sterilize their hosts, as a strategy to divert host resources away from producing offspring and towards spreading parasite genes. Male homosexuality is not sterilization, but it drastically reduces reproductive output - and so from the Point of view of parasites, it comes close. Many parasites would "like" to influence their hosts in this direction. Their influences may systematically add up.

Of course, it is not politically correct to say that male homosexuality could be (a symptom of) a disease. It took a long struggle by activists to get homosexuality out of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. However, science doesn't care about what is in fashion - so the hypothesis need to be on the table and the evidence needs to be examined.

I don't have a lot of new evidence to present here. Many lab experiments relating to the topic are probably unethical, so we may have to rely on an analysis of the results of "natural experiments". Epidemiology is an obvious place to look for evidence for infectious homosexuality. My understanding is that homosexuality is fairly evenly distributed in human populations. That doesn't favor the hypothesis the "infectious homosexuality" hypothesis, but it is at least consistent with it - if a widespread parasite is involved.

Regardless of whether "infectious homosexuality" is a thing, science and technology are likely to be able to detect and reverse tendencies towards homosexuality in childhood. However, "infectious homosexuality" might make this outcome happen faster. Then that time comes, it seems likely to be a new controversial dilemma for those involved.


  • Ubiquitous parasites
  • Friday, 8 October 2021

    Why people kiss

    I've been reading about kissing - in particular about why people kiss. Kissing is not unique to humans, but humans and chimpanzees seem to do it more than most other animals. The consensus seems to be that kissing is mostly a mating behavior that is useful to humans. However, I am a bit sceptical about that being the end of the story.

    A large number of symbiotes are transmitted via kissing. Kissing transmits mononucleosis, influenza, coronaviruses, herpes, syphilis, HPV - and many other diseases. Practically eveyone has at least one of these. It is in the interests of these parasites and symbiotes to manipulate their human hosts into kissing each other. In this picture, human genes take more of a back seat, and the story of kissing hs more to do with how various parasite and symbiont visitors manipulate their human hosts into kissing each other. Just as coughing and sneezing are partly human and partly parasite caused, so it could be with kissing. Kissing would also be a case of a behavior favored by many different sets of parasite genes.

    The more sociable a species the more symbionts it has. There's a "spiral of sociality", where symbionts manipulate their hosts into ever closer contact, which in turn provides more opportunities for other symbionts to spread. This is an important theory in memetics - since memes act as social symbionts that induce ultrasocial behavior as part of their reproductive cycle. In other species, this "spiral of sociality" can lead to food sharing, grooming, coprophagia and many other social behaviors. Humans are quite sociable - and kissing seems to be part of the mix.

    How might parasites manipulate human behavior to influence kissing frequency? Since parasites are inside their hosts, they are in a good position to influence behavior. Drugs are one possibility. Another possibility is sterilizing the host. Resources spent raising children are resources that could have been spent kissing people. HPV is a famous example of human parasite-induced sterility. It blocks up the tubes of women with cancerous cells, preventing future births. Less well known, but HHV-6A is another common cause of female infertility. It infects saliviary glands, is spread via saliva and it causes infertility. The more partners a woman has, the higher her chance of infertility. Parasites are responsible for this. Men are probably harder to sterilize, but erectile dysfunction is one method. Various STDs induce this. Erection issues make it harder for a man to keep hold of any one partner, but they may make it easier for a man to kiss multiple prospective partners - and that's a situation that parasites might prefer.

    What evidence is there for symbiote hypothesis of kissing? Alas, I don't really know much about that yet. The hypothesis makes some predictions. It predicts that kissing frequency is likely correlated with infection with some specific parasites. It predicts that kissing behavior is more likely to be initiated by older individuals - since they will be carriers of a wider set of kissing-inducing symbionts. It predicts parasite-induced infertility - and that at least is known to be fairly common.

    The symbiote hypothesis of kissing is much the same as the symbiote hypothesis of sexual intercourse. As with kissing most people assume that sexual intercourse is there to benefit human genes. However a large number of diseases are spread by sexual intercourse, and a good fraction of observed sexual behavior could actually be there to benefit them.


  • HHV-6A
  • HPV
  • Sexually Transmitted Diseases and Infertility
  • Wednesday, 1 September 2021

    Cultural kin selection and political polarization

    Cultural kin selection often uses the same psychological mechanisms that are involved with kin selection. For example, if you want your factory workers to help each other more, you can put them in uniform, and then they see each other as brothers - because of evolved kin selection mechanisms that favor altruism between apparent kin - homophily, in a word.

    Cultural kin selection can act to magnify kin selection psychology - as we see with sports teams for example, which use relatedness and unrelatedness superstimuli.

    It is not that hard to imagine that we get to a point where iPhone users won't date Android users. Political polarization illustrates a similar divide. Too many memetic differences make people treat others as though they are not part of the same species. They unconsciously don't want to interbreed - as though through fear of infertile offspring. This is not to say that they literally fear this, it is implemented more as a kind of revulsion.

    Hamiltonian spite is generally thought to be a fairly minor effect - harming others offering more costs than benefits. However, cultural kin selection puts another spin on the issue with its superstimuli and psychological manipulation.

    Cultural kin selection - essentially the science of shared memes - seems like a critical tool for studying these issues to me. I've previously called for a science of racism. Perhaps a better plan would be a science of xenophobia. Much xenophobia is cultural origin - due to lack of shared memes - rather than lack of shared genes.

    One interesting suggestion relating to political polarization is that it arises - in part - as a battle between hedonism and survivalism - with the "right" being survivalists and the "left" being hedonists. Framed in terms of heritable information, that would be the right favoring DNA and the left being more on the side of memes and psychological replicators. That's not my idea - and I don't know what to make of it. I generally view most "left" and "right" parties as "absurd churches", and avoid getting involved. So: I'm not much of an insider and don't know what many of the doctrines are. I do think the idea may have some truth to it, though.

    Update: The idea that the "right" are survivalists and the "left" are hedonists came to me from Curt Welch. The nearest thing I can find to a public discussion of the issue by him is here.

    Sunday, 24 May 2020

    Synopsis of my replicator critique

    For most traditional meme enthusiasts, memes are "the new replicators" - or are practically defined in terms of the Dawkins replicator-vehicle framework. I'm reasonably convinced by the critics that this is an unsuitable foundation for a general purpose evolutionary framework.

    I've gone into this in a video/essay Against Replicator Terminology and in my 2011 memetics book, but here's a handy synposis:

    Part of the problem is terminology. Dawkins (1976) defined "replicator" as follows:

    "A replicator is anything in the universe of which copies are made."

    One issue (1) is the "replicator"-"replicatee" distinction. You would think the appropriate term would be "replicatee" - and "replicator" would be the thing doing the copying.

    Another issue (2) is copying fidelity. The "replicate" term suggests high fidelity copying. The corresponding term without that implication is "reproduce". A replica is normally a type of high fidelity reproduction. The Dawkins definition steamrollers over this distinction.

    These are terminology criticisms - but my last critique is scientific - rather than just being about what words refer to which meanings. The "replicator" terminology suggests a modeling framework in which two inheritied entities are either idenitical or different. It represents a kind of binary view of inherited information. That works quite well for advanced systems of herediy because those have evolved to be digital. Nucleic acid and language are both basically digital systems which involve and use redundancy and error correction to avoid contamination by noise. However, not all systems involving inherited information are like this. In particular some of the systems I am interested in are those which exhibit Darwinian family trees in a more-or-less analog media. For example, electrical discharges, propagating cracks and fractal drainage patterns. These exhibit copying (of position and other attribuutes) with variation filtered by the environment, and a good number of Darwinian models apply to these systems. However the replicator-vehicle framework seems pretty irrelevant to their study. This consideration has the effect of displacing replicators from the foundation of Darwinism. They are still applicable to more advanced systems with error detection and correction, (but see points 1 and 2). As students of cultural evolution sometimes point out, not all cultural inheritance involves error-corrected systems such as language.

    My personal preference is to just grant this point to critics of memetics and move on. The "m" word is still pretty useful, replicator terminology aside.

    Tuesday, 31 March 2020

    Sylvain Magne: a new theoretical model

    I've covered the work of Sylvain Magne here before, see:

    Here are some updated thoughts from Sylvain about memes:

    It is quite nice. I like what I would describe as the "information theory" perspective in these essays. However, I don't really agree with all of it. To go over some of the differences between our positions:

    • Sylvain likes and uses the "replicator" terminology, while I typically avoid it and think it is confusing.
    • Sylvain classifies varaints as identical or non-identical. IMO, that can work well for more digital systems, but isn't so useful for more analog ones.
    • Sylvain proposes that we divide evolving information systems into codes and readers. Readers classify and recognize codes. While readers are widespread for genes and memes I am not convinced that they are always present. It is often a useful idea - but "readers" seem non-fundamental to me.
    • Sylvain rejects memes inside brains. I like memes inside brains.
    • Sylvain proposes the term "transmemes" for memes that are routinely translated. For me that is practically all memes - so the terminology is not very useful.
    Regarding brains: IMO, we ought to be able to agree that evolving systems include psychological ones - as well as organic and cultural ones. There is copying with variation and selection inside individual brains. That is where many ideas have sex. That is where many ideas are copied. There are lots of books and literature about within-brain Darwinism. Treating the brain as a black box, identifying it as a "reader" and then claiming that it doesn't contain memes is only one perspective. You could also open it up and consider how it works. I have a summary of the case for within-brain Darwinism here: Keeping Darwin in mind.

    Regarding "replicator" terminology, I once explained my position in an essay: Against Replicator Terminology. The fight over the utility of the "replicator" term is now pretty well-trodden.


    Saturday, 28 March 2020

    Jason da Silva: When fear goes viral

    Jason offers a Coronavirus spiel with a heavy side helping of memetics.

    Wednesday, 11 December 2019

    Developmental knobs

    Development features a number of what are fairly widely called "developmental knobs". A "developmental knob" represents a scalar variable whiich affects development and which can be influenced, or "turned" by genes, the environment, or some combination of these factors. The knobs are implemented using a variety of means - including changing chemical concentrations, developmental delays or altered behaviour patterns. A few examples:

    • Reproduction/maintenance axis - controlled by the dietary energy restriction;
    • Muscle investment axis - controlled by exercise;
    • Hunger axis - controlled by hormones - e.g. grehlin;
    • Love axis - controlled by hormones - e.g. oxytocin;
    • r/K axis - controlled by resource availability;
    Not all of these knobs are solely under genetic control. Many can be influenced by symbiotic visitors. Some gut microbes are known to promote ghrelin synthesis - and probably that helps stimulate their hosts to eat more food which in turn feeds the microbes. Plants attempt to manipulate the developmental systems of the animals that feed on them. An example is phytoestrogens - which are typically hormone-like compounds in pllants that bind to estrogen receptors in animals, blocking uptake of real estrogen and so sabotaging the sexual development of the animals involved.

    Some memes are likely have access to some of these developmental knobs. They probably use them to divert host resources away from host reproduction - and into meme reproduction. Sterlizing their hosts is a common interest of many memes. That memes sterilize their hosts is very well documented. Getting a college degree appears to severely hamper reproductive output for many women. See The sterilization of females for more.

    The r/K axis is a well-known developmental axis. One end of it favors rapid reporduction and the other favors lots of parental investment in each offspring. If memes could get hold of it, they could reduce host reproductive output, likely to their own benefit.

    Another example is the "love" axis. Christian memes encourage their owners to love Jesus. That Jesus is a long-dead creature of myth and legend is apparently not a big deterrent. As far as I can tell, some Christians are genuinely in love with Jesus. That the associated memes benefit from creating this love seems likely.