Saturday, 6 July 2019

Stephen Shennan: Darwinian Archaeology, Culture, And The Origins of Agriculture

Michael Muthukrishna: Human Culture, The Cultural Brain, And Political Corruption

Robert Boyd: Gene-culture Coevolution, Cultural Evolution

Peter Richerson: Biology and Culture, Cultural Evolution, Cognition, and Group Selection

Richerson is asked about his beefs with memetics in the video. His #1 point is that memetics emphasized that memes are maladaptive pathogens. That just seems like a rather silly misunderestanding to me. The cases where meme interests and gene interests are not aligned are important because that's where theories based on them make different predictions. It is also where memetic immune responses can be expected to focus. However, that's about the size of it. Not all memesare bad for their hosts and nobody ever said otherwise.

His #2 critique seemed to revolve around "selflishness". I was remineded of the critique that "genes cannot be selfish or unselfish, any more than atoms can be jealous, elephants abstract or biscuits teleological". Richerson has previously made some more sensible criticisms of memetics; I think this was an off day.

Susan Blackmore: How Memetics Works

One critical point here: Blackmore compares and constrasts memes with the theories of Boyd and Richerson. Around 6 minutes in she says that other cultural evolution theorists argue that culture is for us, for our genes. That's not really right. Numerous theorists (including Boyd and Richerson) appreciate that culture can be and sometimes is genetically maladaptive. There might be a difference in emphasis here, since memetics, for good reasons has been much more interested in maladaptive culture than many other cultural theorists - but this isn't really a qualitative difference, IMO.

Meme theorists have historically emphasized the similarities with DNA-based evolution - since that lets us lever our existing knowledge and theories, while Boyd and Richerson tend to emphasize the differences - on the grounds that that is what is new and different about cultural evolution. Here is a summary of that from me: Differences remain exaggerated.

Here is one attempt by me to articulate the problem: The host-centric approach to cultural evolution. It's not so much that the models are wrong, it is more to do with their interpretation.

Ben Cullen nailed the issue as well as anyone, I think. See my review of Contagious Ideas for the details.

IMO, meme theorists should try and get onto the same page about what went wrong with cultural evolution in academia. If meme proponents produce criticisms that are invalid, that's not going to help to sort things out.

Friday, 5 April 2019

How to Go Viral The Art of the Meme (2019)

Features Dawkins 16 minutes in, Blackmore 18 minutes in and others.

Monday, 4 March 2019

Dawkins: memes are even more important than I dreamed

Here's the recent quote from Dawkins on Twitter:

I am increasingly persuaded, eg by Sue Blackmore (The Meme Machine) & @DanielDennett (all his recent books) that memes are even more important than I dreamed. Meme/gene coevolution probably explains human brain enlargement, origin of language + much else that makes us human.

This is, I think a turn around for Dawkins. Here he is at the 180 point, in 2008:

Although Darwin's theory can be applied to much beyond the evolution of organic life, I want to counsel against a different sense of Universal Darwinism. This is the uncritical dragging of some garbled version of natural selection into every available field of human discourse, whether it is appropriate or not. Maybe the "fittest" firms survive in the marketplace of commerce, or the fittest theories survive in the scientific marketplace, but we should at very least be cautious before we get carried away. And of course there was Social Darwinism, culminating in the obscenity of Hitlerism.

Apparently Dawkins has recently re-read The Meme Machine (source). He also commented: "What’s the memetic equivalent of kin-selected altruism? Who are my memekin? Memekin selection should make me work towards helping my students (grandstudents, readers of my books) to become meme fountains" (source) and "Why did we evolve bipedalism? Here’s my memetic theory. Temporary bipedalism is sporadic in primates: an eminently imitable trick, conspicuous demonstration of enviable skill. I think bipedal fashion meme spread culturally, sparking meme/gene (inc sexual selection) coevolution" (source).

These are well-trodden topics for this blog - e.g. see Walking made us human and Cultural kin selection.

Friday, 23 November 2018

What happened to the cultural intelligence hypothesis?

I read a bit more about the "cultural intelligence hypothesis" in academia recently. Here is a quote from 2007:

Humans have many cognitive skills not possessed by their nearest primate relatives. The cultural intelligence hypothesis argues that this is mainly due to a species-specific set of social-cognitive skills, emerging early in ontogeny, for participating and exchanging knowledge in cultural groups.


IMO, something has gone wrong here. The cultural intelligence hypothesis should be a cultural counterpart to the social intelligence hypothesis - which argues that complex social lives led to big brains and advanced cognition over evolutionary time. The cultural intelligence hypothesis ought to be the cultural version: culture led to big brains and advanced intelligence over evolutionary time. It does so in many other papers on the topic.

I don't know how the term "cultural intelligence hypothesis" came to refer to such a watered-down hypothesis. The 2007 paper cited above is an early use of the term which is often cited by later work. It seems lamentable that the more interesting version of the hypothesis is getting diluted by this inferior version. Other researchers seem to have abandoned the term in favor of the Cultural Brain Hypothesis (2018).

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Self selection, other selection

Biologists like to classify selective events. Natural selection, artificial selection, sexual selection, kin selection, group selection and observation selection are all examples of selective categories. This post is about two more categories - self selection, and other selection. These are classification categories which mainly apply to individual decisions.

  • Self selection involves decisions that affect the actor's own fitness. Positive self selection increases fitness, while negative self selection decreases it. Deciding to raise offspring is usually positive self selection. Deciding which of your shoelaces to tie first would not be self-selection - while it is a decision, it has negligible impact on fitness.

  • Other selection involves decisions that affect the fitness of others. Mate selection is a well-known example of positive other selection. Selection of a rival for combat is a well-known example of negative other selection. However there are other examples of other selection which are not associated with sexual selection. Choosing a trade partner can increase others fitness of others. So can choosing who to groom, who to go hunting with or who to share food with. Nepotism counts as other selection, although it is also a type of kin selection.

Self selection and other selection are not intended to be mutually exclusive categories. Sexual species feature more other selection, as do more social species. I mentioned individual decisions above, but "individual" can be interpreted broadly to include all kinds of loosely defined groups that can be assigned fitnesses. Companies and families would be examples.

The terms can also be applied at the level of the gene. That's an interesting level because there, other selection is not "polluted" by cases of kin selection. However, it if often polluted by cases of linkage instead - genes can affect the fitness of other genes via linkage. The other selection is most useful when these "polluted" areas are not involved. I said that these forms of selection "mainly apply to individual decisions". What does it mean for a gene to "make a decision". It means it affects some behavioural outcome, relative to its alleles.

I've looked into the history of these terms a little. A common use of "self selection" is via self-selection bias. That usage doesn't seem very closely related because it makes no mention of fitness.

Saturday, 10 November 2018

David. S. Wilson: This View Of Life

Davis S. Wilson's new book looks set to be about about cultural evolution. It is called This View Of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution. Amazon link. Google books. It is coming out early in 2019.

David has a reasonable understanding of cultural evolution as far as I can tell. He has't supported memes very much - perhaps due to his conflicts with Richard Dawkins - but that issue is just terminology, right? No big deal.

David is perhaps best known (at least among evolutionary biologists) for his championing of group selection. I have previously found this to be a bit grating. Like many evolutionists, I generally favor kin selection over group selection. The two ideas seem broadly equivalent in their modern formulations - though there is an ongoing spat about which approach is more intuitive and which causes more confusion. David's group selection advocacy seems a bit foaming at the mouth to me. He argues, for example, that many kin selection enthusiasts missed the 1970s conversion to group selection by Price and Hamilton and are stuck in a 1960s timewarp. That seems ridiculous to me.

Recently David's books have focused more on the topic of this web site - the expansion of the domain of Darwinism into the social sciences. Not just via "evolutionary psychology" and the idea that human nature evolved - but also via the direct application of Darwinian evolutionary theory to cultural variation - the subject area closely associated with memetics.

I generally applaud any and all contributions to this area. David has certainly brought eyes, energy and enthusiasm to the topic. He appears to be good at social networking with other researchers. However to my eyes, there are a few problems with his contributions - things that I don't really like. He seems very focused on the social sciences. Darwinism also needs extending to psychology - with the natural selection of ideas, nerve impulses and synapses. I think David realizes this, but it rarely gets mentioned. Darwinism also needs extending to physics - something I don't think I have ever heard David discuss. David doesn't seem to be expanding the domain of Darwinism anywhere near far enough for my tastes.

Then there's the issues of religion. David, though technically an atheist seems to be a fan of religion. He not only argues that it is adaptive, but has written a whole book about the topic. I tend to regard the Abrahamic religions as ridiculous nonsense - and agents of the forces of darkness and ignorance. Yes it was important to have the "right" religion during the crusades, but times change, and so does what is adaptive. I can't share David's enthusiasm for religion.

An associated issue is Templeton foundation money. David seems happy to take it, and spend it on worthy scientific endeavours. In some respects, I would rather David manage this money than most of the other people in the queue for it. However, the Templeton foundation is on a religious crusade. They seem to far gone in the direction of the afore-mentioned forces of darkness and ignorance. Much of the research they sponsor is biased nonsense. Scientists who take their money inevitably risk being tarred by their sponsor's agenda. In common with many scientists, I am irritated by the influence of a large religious organization on my field of study. The multiple billions of dollars involved has the power to seriously distort small fields of science. One of the ways I can help by pushing back is ignoring the papers they help produce - and to some extent researchers who take their money. That - as it turns out - is a lot of cultural evolution research and a lot of cultural evolution researchers. They have themselves to blame for this. I appreciate that scientists need to eat too. I can't stop people from taking the money, but the influence of religion on science is a serious business. Scientists can fight back with criticism, but ignoring the work in question and outright reputational damage are among the other available approaches. It is fairly common to dismiss science on the grounds of its funding source - I'm not sure that Templeton-funded research is getting enough of this.