Sunday, 31 July 2011

Christine Caldwell and her Spaghetti Towers

Christine Caldwell's "spaghetti towers" project rewarded people for building towers out of spaghetti and plasticine - and investigated how copying the results of previous participants allowed people to produce better designs.

Researchers looking at cultural evolution experimentally is a relatively new development - and it shows excellent scope for illuminating the evolution of culture.

Contrasting culture and biology makes no sense

Lots of people in this field contrast "cultural evolution" and "biological evolution". Or, more generally, they contrast "culture" and "biology".

The problem with this is that culture is part of biology. Biology is the study of life, and culture is part of that. The idea that culture is not part of biology is a kind of superorganicism - and it is mostly just wrong.

So: biological evolution includes cultural evolution - and biology includes culture.

If people find they want a term for the non-cultural evolution of ordinary organisms there are a variety of possibilities:

  • Nuclear evolution;
  • Organic evolution;
  • Cellular evolution;

...but please try to avoid saying "biological evolution" in this context. The term "biological evolution" must refer to the whole thing - including culture.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Simon Kirby - The Language Organism

Simon Kirby - The Language Organism: evolution, culture, and what it means to be human.

The video talks about "a new kind of evolutionary system". There's a discussion of "shielding" 35 minutes in.

32 minutes in, Simon says:

One way to think about this is to sort-of turn things on their head and, rather than think about us being adapted to language biologically, rather language is adapted to best survive in us. In order for language to get passed on and to work it has to be learnable by children - and that is the adaptive force at work in the explanation of these structural features - and this has led a number of researchers to suggest that language itself can be seen as an organism whose environment is our brains. Whether you can really make that analogy work, I am not so sure - but it's highlighting the point that you can look at language from this other perspective and understand the features of it.

This is very tentative material. To understand culture, you have got to grab this perspective by the throat - not tiptoe around it and call it an "analogy".

Oh, and it's not "The Language Organism". Languages are composed of many words, each one of which may be acquired from different individuals (or multiple individuals). So your language typically comes from many cultural parents in many organic hosts - except for those few who live alone on an island with their mother. So: language isn't well modelled as one organism, but rather many organisms, each with their own inheritance pathway. Our symbiosis with languages is more like our symbiosis with lettuces in that respect - lots of words are involved - just as lots of lettuces are involved.


Richard Lewontin - Does Culture Evolve?

Richard Lewontin - Lecture 1: What is Evolutionary Theory?

Richard Lewontin - Lecture 2: The Organism as Subject and Object of Evolution

Richard Lewontin - Lecture 3: Does Culture Evolve?

The third lecture features Richard Lewontin on memes. Lewontin was a critic of universal Darwinism - and of memes. Here's a quote:

I would claim to you that culture should not be analogised to particles like genes that are transmitted, that the notion of transmission is wrong, and that if we want to understand the history of culture, we need to start from culture, and not try to make it isomorphic with some other system of phenomena that we understand too well. That's the bottom line the thing I really want to impress on you most and that is the Darwainaian theory of evolution and its modern form, which I have tried to explain in the previous two lectures, are theories and systems designed to match a particular set of natural phenomena, there's nothing universal about them.

They are tailor-made in every aspect to deal with mortal individuals, with lifespans, with particular mechanisms of transmission of genes of particular kinds of relations and building of the environment, and so on... and if we are to have any kind of successful lawlike dynamical systems for human cultures, we need to discard our knowledge of the phenomenon of biological evolution, and take culture for itself as a set of phenomena and build a set of mechanisms and theories based on our understanding of that phenomenon.

Lewontin's position has failed to stand the test of time. The position he expressed in his 1970 paper The Units of Selection was much better.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Daniel Dennett - How Memes Made Minds: The Evolution of Reasons (video)

Memes start around 30 minutes in. Source: here. A similar video - from 2012:

Another one from 2013: Dennett on the Evolution of Reasons

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Parasitic mind control movies

In memetics, memes are the non-DNA genes of symbiotic visitors from the cultural realm. They influence our behavior for their own ends. Some of them are parasitic - in the technical sense that they typically reduce the fitness of their hosts. They do this by manipulating the minds of their hosts, so the hosts spend more resources on spreading their memes. As a result there are often fewer resources available for spreading host DNA around. Some memes are sometimes characterized as "mind viruses" or "viruses of the mind". This is a similar idea. The analogy to organic parasitic mind control seems pretty obvious.

Mind control parasites are a popular phenomenon in science fiction movies. Here are some trailers for some of those movies:

Shivers (trailer)

Slither (trailer)

Rabid (trailer)

The Thing (trailer)

The puppet masters (trailer)

Night of the creeps (trailer)

Dawn of the Dead (trailer)

Splinter (trailer)

This list was partly inspired by the TV tropes "Puppeteer Parasite" page.

Many other "zombie" movies have a mild "mind control" theme.

For some real parasitic mind control perhaps try my previous collection of videos on this topic.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011


Today my fiancée was on the lookout for images for my (forthcoming) memetics book. I had told her about my interest in cultural copying - as part of the research I had been doing for the section of my memetics book about similarities between cultural and organic evolution. So, things like this:

She had spotted an instance of cultural mimicry. It was in the form of a T-shirt with the "Viva la evolucion!" slogan - see below:

In telling me about this, she tried to use the word mimicry - but what came out was "memicry". I explained to her that words "mimicry" and "meme" had had sex in her brain and produced this new word.

It seems to be an interesting word. Memicry: memes copying other memes. I like it!

Memicry videos

Dennett's "Inside Jokes" book

Dennett's latest book is out - it is called Inside Jokes.

The book says it is by Matthew M. Hurley, Daniel C. Dennett, and Reginald B. Adams Jr.

There are some bits about memes, but memetics looks as though it gets rather minimal coverage. Oh well.

Steven Pinker's objections to memetics

Here are Steven Pinker's objections to cultural evolution, as expressed in Harvard in 2009:

Steven Pinker was a pioneer of the first wave of the Darwinian revolution in social science - but is one of the scientists who are dragging their feet when it comes to the second wave of the revolution.

His objections are essentially the same as the ones he expressed in How The Mind Works:

  • Memetics has never taken off;

  • We don't have a science of memetics;

  • Mutations in evolution have to be "blind";

  • Cultural evolution has intelligent design, and so doesn't need evolution;

  • If cultural evolution depends on Lamarckian evolution, that gives it no power;

  • If memes are like parasites, words lack adaptations to defeat host immune systems - and so would be rejected;

Pinker is usually a smart cookie. It's rather a shame that he doesn't have a proper understanding of cultural evolution.

Pinker starts by saying:

I will raise a point of disagreement - and that is that I think that Dan's close analogy between biological and cultural evolution I think works at cross purposes to his justifiable celebration of the power of natural selection I think the idea that cultural evolution works by natural selection actually guts the theory of natural selection of what makes it most interesting.

That what makes natural selection so powerful in the case of biological evolution - Dan haas called it "the best idea that anyone ever had" - is exactly what makes it useless in understanding cultural evolution.


For one thing, just empirically, the idea of memetics, of a science of cultural change based on a close analogy with natural selection, it is just a fact: it's never taken off. It's thirty-five years old almost at this point. Every five years a paper appears that heralds the final development that we have all been waiting for of a science of memetics - and nothing ever happens.

Compare this to other sciences that have just flourished since 1976: neural networks, cognitive neuroscience, evolutionary psychology - there are conferences and journals and textbooks - we don't have a science of memetics - despite the constant promise that it is just around the corner - and I think that there is a good reason why we don't that there is something deeply flawed with the idea.


Design without a designer is essential for biological evolution - but it is peverse for cultural evolution: there really is a designer - the human brain - and there's nothing mystical or mysterious about saying that.
Dennett replies in part 9, part 10 and part 11. He calls the internet "the Drosophila of memetics" in part 9.

Most of Steve's objections from How The Mind Works are old, have been gone over before - and I go over many of them again in my forthcoming book.

One that I haven't seen before is the idea that words are not like parasites because they are simple and can't defend themselves against being rejected by the memetic immune system. Memeticists allow for symbiotes that are mutualists, parasites or commensalists. There is no "parasites-only" version of memetics. Most individual words would be memetic mutualists - rather than memetic parasites - benefiting their host by helping them to communicate.

The objection regarding how deleterious memes could evade the host's memetic immune system is essentially much the same for memes as for parasites. More complex memeplexes do have memetic immune system evasion capabilities - for example: "trust me" and "that's the devil talking". Also: memes evolve quickly - whereas the host's memetic immune system is slower to respond and adapt - and the host's memetic immune system has to cope with many possible attackers, a considerable burden on it.

Lastly, with meme transmission, there is a twist that does not apply to organic immune systems. Memes are - on average - beneficial. Letting the good ones through while rejecting the bad ones is a very difficult problem. If we knew which ideas were the good ones, we wouldn't need cultural transmission in the first place - we could just invent the good ideas. However, we don't know that - so we do the best we can, and inevitably some bad ideas get through the net. The price we pay for getting lots of good ideas culturally is that some bad ones make it past our defenses. However, that is better than beefing up our defenses - since that would stop lots of good ideas from reaching us too.

Update 2015-04-04:

In 2012, I replied on video to each point here.

Commenting on this post, Marella says:

I am afraid that Stephen Pinker’s (of whom I am a great fan) objections to mimetics show a lack of understanding of both evolution and mimetics.

That's about the size of it.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Parasitic mind control

In memetics, memes compose the genomes of symbiotic visitors from the cultural realm. They influence our behaviour for their own ends. Many of them are parasitic.

Humans are not the only type of creature to be infected with mind-control parasites. Here are some videos illustrating the phenomenon:

Ant liver fluke lavae - Dicrocoelium dendriticum.

Wasp and caterpillar. Parasitic Mind Control doesn't start until 3:30.

Cordyceps Fungus - attacking an ant.

Glyptapanteles (wasp) - using a young caterpillar host to guard its own eggs.

Leucochloridium Paradoxum is a parasitic flatworm that uses gastropods (snails and slugs) as an intermediate host. It turns their eye stalks into an animated display and makes them crawl out into the sunshine.

Toxoplasma Gondii - makes rodents like cats.

Spinochordodes Tellinii - Infects grasshoppers - makes them drown themselves.

Rabies - affects mammals - makes them "bitey".

Cuckoo - parasitizing reed warblers - behavioural manipulation by remote control using superstimulii.

Orchard spider parasited by wasp grub

For more, perhaps see:

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Joseph Henrich - resources

Joseph Henrich is a researcher in cultural evolution.


The W.E.I.R.D.-est People in the World.

Polygamy & Democracy, Incompatible?

Are Taboos Adaptive? Evidence from the Island of Fiji

Joe Henrich - Thematic Series: The Emerging Science of Culture The Weirdest People in the World

BHTV: Jonathan Phillips and Joe Henrich



Russell Gray - resources

Russell Gray studies the evolution of language using methods based on phylogenetic trees.

Russell Gray is a meme critic. This video explains his argument:

The Pleasures and Perils of Darwinizing Culture (with Phylogenies). Part 1.

The Pleasures and Perils of Darwinizing Culture (with Phylogenies). Part 2.


Robert Boyd - resources

Robert Boyd is an experienced researcher in the field of cultural evolution.


Culture as an evolutionary phenomenon. Memes get a brief mention at 42:00.

UCLA Behavior, Evolution, & Culture.

The Cultural Niche - Social Learning and Human Adaptation

Mode and Tempo in Technological Change

CCPR Seminar: Rob Boyd (04/04/12) - Why Relatedness Is Not Enough to Predict Social Evolution.

Panel 2: Human Uniqueness, Culture and Morality (Rob starts 26 minutes in)



Andrew Whiten - resources

CARTA: Human and Non-Human Cultures - The Cultural Worlds of Child and Chimpanzee

Culturally transmitted information, nutrition and health in the great apes


Why the Hominin Cognitive Niche Was and Is a Crucially Socio-cognitive Niche

Eva Jablonka - resources

Eva Jablonka is a is a theorist and geneticist, known especially for her interest in inheritance.

Epigenetics Debate 1 of 5 - Eva Jablonka (with intro by Max Reuter).


  • Evolution in Four Dimensions [video].
  • Animal traditions [video].
  • Eva Jablonka at videolectures.
  • Memetics publications - from Eva Jablonka.
  • Eva Jablonka - wikipedia.
  • Kevin Laland - resources

    Kevin Laland is an academic researcher in the field.

    Kevin Laland - The Evolution of Culture

    What does an evolutionary perspective really mean?

    Animal Social Learning and the Evolution of Culture

    The above 2011 video is: The Mystery of Cumulative Culture



    Marcus Feldman - resources

    Marcus Feldman is one of the population geneticsts who pioneered the study of gene-culture coevolution - in 1973. Currently, this is mostly technical material, with limited relevance to cultural evolution. Marcus Feldman is an important figure in the field, though.

    Marcus Feldman - Interpreting Complexity: the Scientific and Social Meaning of Behavioral Genetics.

    Marcus Feldman, PhD - Genes & Environment 2010 - Stanford University

    Marcus Feldman & David Goldstein - Genes & Environment 2010 - Stanford University

    Marcus Feldman - Nobel Conference 2008

    Marcus Feldman - The Canadian Fur Trade and Evolution of Tuberculosis

    The DNA Telescope Provides A New View of Human Evolution in Africa


  • Home page
  • Recent publications
  • Memetics publications - from Marcus Feldman.
  • Future Talk 1-3, Human Genomics - video
  • Future Talk 1-4, Human Genomics - video
  • Seth Godin - resources

    Seth Godin wrote Unleashing the Ideavirus. Some videos from him:
    Seth Godin: Ideavirus

    Seth Godin: Bad ideas

    Seth Godin: On the tribes we lead

    Seth Godin: Sliced bread and other marketing delights

    Seth Godin: Ideas That Spread, Win

    Seth Godin: On standing out

    "All Marketers are Liars" - Seth Godin speaks at Google

    Seth Godin Explains Why You Need a Tribe

    Seth Godin Keynote: Aprimo Marketing Summit 2011

    Paul Marsden - resources

    Paul Marsden has written a number of papers on memetics. He explains himself on video:

    Monetizing Social Media (Interview with Dr. Paul Marsden 2010) - Legendado

    Memetics of marketing - Paul Marsden

    Word of mouth marketing - Paul Marsden

    F-Commerce - Selling on Facebook - Interview with Dr. Paul Marsden (2011)

    Paul Marsden interview from 1/5

    Paul Marsden interview from 2/5

    Paul Marsden interview from 3/5

    Paul Marsden interview from 4/5

    Paul Marsden interview from 5/5

    A Conversation with Paul Marsden (Part 1) - Moontoast TV

    A Conversation with Paul Marsden (Part 2) - Moontoast TV

    Syzygy UK Ideas Platform: Paul Marsden on building brand advocacy.

    Paul Marsden on WOM


  • ViralCulture - Paul's home page
  • Memetics publications - from Paul Marsden.
  • Thursday, 14 July 2011

    David Sloan Wilson - resources

    David Sloan Wilson is a researcher in evolutionary theory. His interests include altruism, group selection and religion.


    Celebrity Tabloids and the Evolution of Gossip.

    Darwin and the problem of altruism

    David Sloan Wilson: Evolving the City.

    From the Integrating Science and Humanities Conference

    The original link (since the above is just a preview): David Sloan Wilson: Evolving the City.

    David is also featured here: Great Issues Forum: What Is Religion?

    David Sloan Wilson at Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0

    The Evolution of Religion

    Evolution for Everyone


    Tuesday, 12 July 2011

    Daniel Dennett on Danish TV

    This one is mostly about religion, but it has some of Daniel's usual meme themes at the start of part 1.

    Alex Mesoudi - The Experimental Study of Human Cultural Evolution (video)

    Alex Mesoudi - The Experimental Study of Human Cultural Evolution. Abstract and video from here:

    Peter Richerson - How Possibly Language Evolved (video)

    Peter Richerson - How Possibly Language Evolved. Abstract and video from here:

    Sunday, 10 July 2011

    Peter Richerson - Tribal Social Instincts and Human Cooperation (video)

    Peter Richerson lecturing on cultural evolution. The video title: "Tribal Social Instincts and Human Cooperation".

    Saturday, 9 July 2011

    Big seed marketing

    Social media marketing departments must decide how to allocate their budget between making content that will spread - and distributing that content.

    The initial distribution is sometimes called "seeding", and focusing on that distribution is sometimes called using a "big seed".

    Big seeding was popularised in 2007 by an article entitled Viral Marketing for the Real World - by Duncan J. Watts, Jonah Peretti, and Michael Frumin.

    So, in the light of their article, the question naturally arises: does big seeding actually work?

    For my epidemic threshold article I made a simple computer simulation of epidemics that produced graphs showing how the number of infected individuals could increase or decrease over time.

    An epidemic - showing the number on infected hosts plotted against time.

    The model that produced the above diagram is extremely simple. Individuals are modelled as being either infected or not infected. They have a constant probability of dying in each generation. Senescence and pathology are not modelled. Infected agents infect more agents (randomly) in each generation. Then some individuals (chosen randomly) die, and are replaced by healthy newly-born individuals. The population size is a fixed constant - so the death rate and birth rate are equal. The plot was made by varying two parameters: the infection rate and the death/birth rate. These variables are sampled from a uniform bounded random distribution to create the plot.

    The seed population is fixed at the same value for each run and is shown as the y-intercept on the left hand side of the diagram.

    The diagram illustrates the concept of an epidemic threshold - if content is insufficiently infectious, it dies off, and goes extinct.

    The next issue I wanted to explore was to see how the seed population size influenced the extinction rate.

    This is a plot of survival against seed population size.

    Here, "survival" refers to having a population size of at least 1 at the end of the run - i.e. it refers to not going extinct.

    This graph illustrates two main things:

    • Having a seed population too small is often fatal - random fluctuations in population size too easily cause your seed population to execute a random walk into extinction.
    • Big seeding rapidly runs into diminishing returns - provided you seed on a reasonable scale, success depends quite a bit on how much you exceed the epidemic threshold by - and not so much on the size of your seed population.

    How to manage the tradeoff between the seeding budget and the contagiousness budget is beyond the scope of this article - but hopefully these graphs will help people to understand the basics of the dynamics involved.


    Dan Zarella - The Science of Blogging

    This one is a bit more of a slideshow, but it features more of Dan's content.

    Dan Zarella - Meshed 3 social media conference

    Dan's social media evidence-based myth busting. The small bit specifically about memes starts 3 minutes in. However, Dan is well worth most people's time - so it is probably best to just sit back and relax...

    Wednesday, 6 July 2011

    Molly on memes (video)

    Molly discusses internet memes for 31 minutes on C|NET. A fair bit of "Friday" here.