Friday, 30 September 2011

Tim Tyler: Can memetics predict meme fitnesses?


Hi! I'm Tim Tyler, and this video addresses a common objection to memetics. The idea is that "survival of the fittest" being a circular tautology is a problem for memetics, because we lack a predictive theory of meme fitnesses.

One fairly common objection to memetics is that it is vulnerable to the idea that "survival of the fittest" is a tautology - since the fittest are defined as being those that survive - and that is a circular argument.

David S. Wilson makes this point in an article titled "Flying Over Uncharted Territory" - which was a review of Blackmore’s book The Meme Machine. He says:
The oft-repeated accusation that natural selection is a tautology fails because fitness is not defined in terms of whatever evolves but in terms of the properties that enable organisms to survive and reproduce in their environments. Moths that are colored to match their background have a high fitness with respect to bird predation, but cryptic coloration may not evolve if the appropriate mutations either do not arise or are lost by genetic drift. The ability to define fitness independently of what evolves saves the concept of natural selection from being a tautology. For the meme concept to escape the same problem, we must define cultural fitness independently of what evolves. If the first four notes of Beethoven's fifth is a powerful meme only because it is common, we have achieved no insight.
Serenely and Griffiths (1999 p.334) also voice this complaint, saying:
With the possible exception of scientific ideas, we have no explanation of the nature of the fitness of ideas, nor do we typically understand why they differ in fitness. We can call a tune "a meme with high replication potential" rather than "catchy" if we like. But without source laws, this adds nothing to our understanding of musical trends.
Maria Kronfeldner also gives this objection in her 300 page critique of memetics. In her summary (p.290) she writes:
Either the analogy is heuristically trivial, because it loses its main claim, namely that memetics presents an alternative to the traditional explanation, which is given in terms of properties and interests of humans, or the explanatory units of selection analogy is trivial in explanatory terms, because it is tautological – it does not explain anything, since it merely states that those memes that have a high actual survival are those memes that have a high propensity for survival, without explaining where this high fitness emerges from.
Massimo Pigliucci gave much the same objection in a recent podcast:

[Massimo Pigliucci speaks]

We do, in fact know some things about which memes are fitter than other ones. This area is part of what is often called "Applied Memetics" (an area which also includes memetic engineering). It seems to be one of the better studied areas of the field to me - simply because social media marketing and advertising departments need to be able to predict what spreads and what doesn't in order to be able to rapidly construct successful viral marketing media without the expense of doing a lot of testing. Popular writers and musicians know what people are likely to share. Scientists often have some idea about what scientific ideas are more likely to persist. Good editors know what will sell and what will not. Military propaganda creators know which rumors are most likely to spread. Often meme fitness variations are obvious - for example, if you put "Lady Gaga" in the title of a video you create, it is likely to be viewed more than if you use "Joe Bloggs" instead. However, the area of what makes ideas spread has also been studied by social scientists.

Francis Heylighen's 1998 paper "What makes a meme successful? Selection criteria for cultural evolution" gives an early introduction to the field - breaking the meme lifecycle down into assimilation, retention, expression and transmission and observing that successful memes need strengths in each area. More recently, there have been many studies of social media on the internet that look into why memes spread. For instance see, Dan Zarella's "The Science of ReTweets" or his "The 8 Elements of Contagious Ideas".

Of course we don't know everything about this field, but it is often a challenge to determine the fitness of genes without testing them in organic ecology too.

Even if it was true that social scientists were totally clueless about what spreads and what does not - which is far from the case - then the correct attitude would not be to declare the whole enterprise of predicting meme fitnesses to be hopeless, but rather to actually do some field work - and figure out the factors that make some ideas spread while other ones do not.

The objection that "survival of the fittest" is a tautology is exactly as much of a fallacy in memetic evolution as it is in organic evolution for exactly the same reasons.


The rest of Massimo Pigliucci's critical comments are here.

For another example of this criticism, see: Jerry Coyne's review of The Meme Machine:

memetics seems completely tautological, unable to explain why a meme spreads except by asserting, post-facto, that it had qualities enabling it to spread. One might as well say that aspirin relieves pain because of its pain-relieving properties. The most interesting question — why some memes spread and not others — is completely neglected. Why did Christianity take hold during the waning days of the Roman Empire? You won’t find the answer,or any way to attain it, in memetics. (This, by the way, makes memetics utterly unlike biological evolution. The spread of genes through natural selection is not tautological because one can predict their fate through their known effects on replication and the reproduction of their carriers.)
Edouard Machery offers a similar complaint:
First, and most important, memetics has usually very little explanatory power. Too often, memetic explanations boil down to the uninformative claim that a given meme has spread in a population because it has reproduced itself successfully. The essential issue, What makes it the case that a cultural variant is preferentially transmitted?, is often dodged, or, when it is not, is addressed with sheer speculation.

There are now some nice books on the topic of why some ideas spread, while others do not:

I've a feeling that this is another criticism of memetics that simple progress will firmly assign to the dustbin of history.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Tim Tyler: Internalism vs externalism in memetics


Hi! I'm Tim Tyler and this is a video about the internalism vs externalism controversy in memetics.

One controversial issue in memetics since its early days concerns whether memes can be usefully said to be embodied in images, videos, and texts, or whether memes are things that only exist inside human minds. I cover this controversy in my book on memetics, which is now available. This video is intended to give subscribers a taste of the topic.

The controversy started in 1982 with Richard Dawkins (1982, p 109) doing a bit of an about-turn from his earlier definition of a meme as a unit of cultural inheritance - saying:
A meme should be regarded as a unit of information residing in a brain
Dawkins also said that he was insufficiently clear about distinguishing memotypes from phemotypes, and cited Cloak's conception from 1975 of i-culture and m-culture as the correct way to think about things. Dawkins held a similar view years later in the year 2000, when he said:
Well if the analogy with genes is right, there ought to be something equivalent to DNA, and that something I presume would be material in the brain. So when I pass an idea on to you, or when you pass an idea on to somebody else, something in your brain gets reproduced in that other person’s brain.
This position became known as "internalism". It is frequently contrasted with "externalism" - which holds that it is perfectly OK to talk about videos, images and texts as containing memes.

Internalism subsequently gained many supporters. Richard Brodie wrote:
A meme is a unit of information in a mind whose existence influences events such that more copies of itself get created in other minds.
Aaron Lynch defined memes as being a type of memory. Nick Rose praised internalism in his "Controversies in Meme Theory". Robert Aunger wrote a book called "The Electric Meme" about attemts to pin memes onto mental structures. In that book he wrote:
If memes could exist in brains, in speech and in artifacts, they would be the superheros of the replicator world, able to transform themselves into any shape or form at will, like the Proteus of Greek mythology. Instead, memes must be confined to one physical substrate, just as their brethren, the biological replicators genes and prions, are. I thus argue that only one substrate can be associated with memes.
However, many experts on memetics came out against internalism. Dennett is an externalist - writing in 2000:
I think the case is still overwhelming for defining memes abstractly, in terms of information
Blackmore is an externalist - writing in 2001:
We do a disservice to the basic concept of the meme if we try to restrict it to information residing only inside people’s heads - as well as landing ourselves in all sorts of further confusions. For this reason I agree with Dennett, Wilkins, Durham and Dawkins A, who do not restrict memes to being inside brains.
Derek Gatherer famously made a plea for memes to be measurable things - and not to tuck them away inside brains where they would be challenging to gain access to experimentally.

However, internalism is still alive and kicking today. A recent comment on an earlier video of mine eloquently complained:
Memes cannot expand to inanimate objects (like clay tablets) the same reason genes cannot expand to eyes, claws, fur,? etc... The clay tablet is a manifestation of memes, the same way the claw is a phenotype... I keep hearing this non-sense about the expansion of memes to computer hard-drives and so on, and it annoys me because it's simply illogical if you follow the genotype-memotype, phenotype-meme manifestation analogy.
The internalism/externalism debate has been mostly ignored in academia - since most academics are approaching the subject from a population-memetics angle - where heritable traits are the focus and the mechanisms of heredity are an implementation detail. However, internalism also appears to be still alive among academic students of cultural evolution. For example, in his recent book on cultural evolution, Alex Mesoudi, wrote:
The ideational definition of culture given in chapter 1 implies that the cultural equivalent of the genotype is the information stored in people's brains that represents their beliefs, attitudes, values, skills, knowledge, and so on. The cultural equivalent of the phenotype is the expression of that information in the form of behaviour, speech and artefacts.
Mesoudi goes on to explain how this makes cultural evolution Lamarckian.

Can we perhaps explain the extended persistence of internalism and externalism as representing two different perspectives on the same subject matter, each with their own strengths and weaknesses? I don't think so. Internalism just totally sucks. I think it persists because it is an intuitive and attractive approach which people adopt before they have properly thought things through.

Internalism introduces a bizarre system of inheritance which destroys germ-line continuity, and introduces a Lamarckian aspect to inheritance in which phenotypes recreate genotypes in each generation.

Also, internalism typically attempts to localise memes inside brains. However, brains are not the only repository of memes these days - memes also survive and are copied by computer systems. If you look at the latest music albums, you will see that they are widely copied on peer-to-peer networks, and that they undergo occasional corruption during transmission. However, what is actually copied is a bit pattern inside computers. This bit pattern makes it into human brains only as a pale shadow that is rarely actually copied from. The computer networks handle the actual information that is copied. With the transmission of much modern music, human brains never have most of the information that is actually copied around inside them in the first place - they actually contain part of the meme's phemotype - not its memotype.

Internalists sometimes recognise that one day there will be intelligent machines with thier own societies and cultural transmission, but they rarely seem to understand how much culture is copied, filtered and transmitted by machines - even today.

Computers storing, copying and expressing memes totally destroys the internalist dream of memes having only one substrate associated with them, with only one memetic code. There are in fact, hundreds of substrates for memes, with hundreds of memetic codes. That is exactly what the externalists have been saying all along - which brings us onto the topic of externalism.

By contrast with internalism, externalism is simple, beautiful and neat. It is based on an information theoretic version of genetics, according to which inherited information is the genotype, and everything that depeds on that is the phenotype. The heritable information can be represented in practically any physical medium - a simple consequence of information portability. From this perspective, memes can exist on CDs, hard drives, paper, film and clay tablets. When people describe videos and images as being memes, they are not making a daft category error - those things really do contain memes.

Externalism features germ-line continuity. It doesn't have a crazy Lamarckian stage in which phenotypes generate genotypes in each generation. Instead there is ordinary Weismannian inheritance where memes are copied to create more memes - just as genes are copied to create more genes in DNA evolution. That is not to say that memetic evolution is not Lamarckian at all - but that is another story which I am not going to get into here.

For me, internalism represents a common misunderstanding of memetic evolution works. Internalists entertain the idea that memetic inheritance features a bizarre Lamarckian inheritance paradigm in each generation. This makes people think that memetic evolution works in a manner that is wildly different from the way in which organic evolution operates. This hinders people's understanding of the depth of the relationship between the cultural and organic realms, preventing them from effectively reusing their knowledge of organic evolution in the cultural realm.

At this stage, I think internalism offers so little in the way of benefits, and causes so much confusion, that it should just curl up and die. I identify it here as a failed doctrine. It causes serious confusion when dealing with memes inside computers and serious confusion when considering the issue of Lamarckian inheritance of memes. Internalism's claimed benefits - of a single memetic storage medium and a single memetic code - are not benefits at all - but rather are misleading falsehoods. Death to internalism!



Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Tim Tyler: Seven steps to understanding evolution

Hi! I'm Tim Tyler and this is a video about some of the domains within biology to which evolutionary theory can be applied.

Evolution is a powerful theory with a broad range of applications to biological systems. For some reason, the application of evolutionary theory to many of these domains is widely unappreciated. So, this video contains a brief primer, to help interested parties get up to speed with some of the basic applications of evolutionary theory.

Evolutionary theory applies most directly to systems which involve copying. Essentially that means biology, since biology is the science of life, and life is that which persists via copying. Biological evolution is the domain of evolutionary theory which people tend to be most familar with. It typically deals with the evolution of plants, animals, fungi and microorganisms over millions of years. This is an umbrella category, which includes all the other processes discussed here. However, within biology, there are many sub-processes which have their own evolutionary dynamics - and those are what we will be looking at here. The approach taken in this video may be reminiscent to readers of the material in Gary Cziko's book "Without Miracles - Universal Selection Theory and the Second Darwinian Revolution". Seven of the main areas within biology which can be usefully be modelled by evolutionary theory are:

  • Immunology
  • Ontogeny
  • Neurobiology
  • Psychology
  • Memetics
  • Cybernetics
We will briefly cover each of these in turn - starting with the simplest area to understand:

  • Immunological evolution - In order to deal with rapidly evolving parasites, vertebrates employ an adaptive immune system which works using the principles of evolutionary theory. This uses a process known as somatic hypermutation to rapidly generate adaptive variants. It employs genetic recombination to allow a small number of genes to generate a large number of different antigen receptors which are expressed on the surfece of lymphocytes. Lymphocytes are then tested and successful ones are bred from. Lymphocytes can also produce memory cells that mediate long-term immunity. The result is a minature evolutionary process within the organism that helps it to adapt in response to rapidly-changing parasites. To most people, this is similar to the type of evolution they are familiar with - except that mutations are performed deliberately, and since there are mechanisms for actively making them, they are more likely to be somewhat biased towards being adaptive.
  • Ontogenetic evolution - In multicellular creatures, development is an adaptive evolutionary process. Tree roots grow around rocks, their trunks grow around obstacles and their branches seek out holes in the canopy. If you have pulled plants out of pots, you will see that there is often an adaptive fit between the roots and their containers. However the evolutionary dynamics underlying this kind of adaptation during development often remain unappreciated. It is obvious that development involves copying on a cellular level. However, evolution requires variation - and since all the cells are clones of each other what is not always clear is where variation comes in. However, if you look at the cell phenotypes, it is obvious that some kind of variation is coming from somewhere - since liver cells look totally different from muscle spindle cells, which look totally different from neurons. The variation arises not in the DNA of the cells involved, but rather from their environment and it persists via a form of environmental inheritance. This inheritance includes location, chemical concentartions, cell neighbours and other local feaures. To give an example of how such processes work, consider the evolution of plant root tips. Plant roots have identifiable tips. The tips divide, which represents a form of reproduction for them. The offspring tips inherit their physical location from their parent - and this location varies from tip to tip. Location represents the main form of evolving heritable information in this system. The plant allocates more resources to root tips in locations with moisture and yielding soil, and withdraws resources from those tips in locations that are too dry or rocky. Those resources are then used to fuel root tip reproduction - resulting in differental reproductive success of root tips, and root tip evolution. This generates an adaptive fit to the environment in which the roots find themselves.
  • Neurobiological evolution - Brains exhibit several interesting forms of evolution as they are used. Copying processes are ubiquitous in the brain. Since axons branch liberally any signal sent down them is copied many times - there is also variation and differential reproductive success of these signals. This results in neural spike train evolution. Also both axons and dentrites have a dynamic branching tree-like structure. The argument I gave explaining why plant roots evolve also applies to growing neurite tips. Neurons and glial cells also reproduce and undergo selection - as is documented in a book called "Neural Darwinism". There are other forms of low-level competition in the mind as well: axon tips compete for attachment points, synapses compete for neurotransmitters, and so on.
  • Psychological evolution At a higher level in the mind a virtual world is implemented - containing thoughts, ideas and memories. In this virtual world more copying, variation and differental reproductive success takes place. Copying takes place when memories are recalled - since this adds a memory of recalling the original memory. Copying takes place when actions are repeated or when they are rehearsed. Ideas and action plans are also copied. Lastly the mind contains a model of the world which is used to make predictions about the future. The elements that make up this model also evolve. Psychological evolution, can feature directed mutations and intelligent design. The psychologist, B. F. Skinner was among those how appreciated the evolutionary side of mental development. He wedded his theory of learning to Darwin's theory of evolution, and talked about the "extinction" of learned behaviours.
  • Memetic evolution - Memes also evolve over time in social spaces - resulting in social and cultural evolution. Like psychological evolution, memetic evolution features directed mutations and intelligent design. I discuss memetic evolution in a lot more depth in my book on Memetics - which is now available. Memetic evolution has snowballed, producing accumulating innovation and technological progress - which is in the process of leading towards...
  • Cybernetic evolution - Machines evolve too. Today machines mostly coevolve relatively slowly with humans - but the evolution of computer viruses, genetic algorithms and memetic algorithms gives us a taste of what future cybernetic evolution is likely to hold, once humans get eliminated from the innovation loop.

These, then, are seven different domains within biology to which evolutionary theory applies. Together they illustrate some of the breadth of the systems to which evolutionary theory can usefully be applied.


Tim Tyler: The meme's eye view


Hi! I'm Tim Tyler and this is a video about the virtues of adopting a meme's eye view of cultural change.

It wasn't until the 1970s - long after Darwin's discovery of evolutionary theory - that biologists started to become accustomed to the idea that it was useful to look at evolutionary change from the perspective of individual genes.

The idea is often attributed to William Hamilton. Richard Dawkins helped to popularise the concept in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene.

It is not obvious that it can be useful to think of genes as being selfish agents which have a point of view. Indeed, at first, the idea was much misunderstood, with the very idea that genes might have a perspective or be selfish being mocked by those who didn't understand it. However, these days the validity of the gene's eye view is really taken for granted by most evolutionary biologists.

In a nutshell, the idea is that genes can usefully be thought of as agents who are concerned with their own reproductive success. They behave as if they want to become ancestors, and adopt structures which facilitate this.

There are a couple of different perspectives which help to explain how and why this is useful.

One is game theory. It is possible to view the evolutionary process as a type of competition between the heritable elements that underlie different morphologies and strategies. The most successful genes are defined as being those that leave the most descendants. The common result is the appearance of design without a designer. This explains how genes come to adopt forms which help them to survive. It allows us to "cash-out" talk of genes as agents with goals, desires and a perspective in more conventional causal language that drains all the teleology and agency out.

The other perspective has to do with human psychology. Human beings have built-in mental apparatus that helps us to understand the behavior of other agent-like systems - by a process involving mentally putting ourselves in the other agent's shoes. Humans use a built-in model of themselves as the basis for this type of identification process. This system underlies both empathy and our imitation capabilities. The whole system is sufficiently flexible to allow for identification with agents with different goals, abilities and aptitudes. It is possible to identify with dogs, rodents and invertebrates - and doing so allows the brain to better make use of its architectural features to predict the behavior of such systems. Interestingly, the same architecture is even useful for inanimate systems - if they have goal-directed nature or represent an optimisation process. So, for example, it is possible to imagine yourself as a ball rolling down a hill, and imagine the path that you might take. The fact that evolution is an optimisation process is what allows this technique to do useful work in the case of genes. Genes do not literally have goals - but they behave as though they want to reproduce themselves. This allows a goal-directed model to do useful work, which in turn allows human built-in mental apparatus to model these as goal-directed systems, thereby helping us to attain insights into the operation of genes by making efficient use of the strengths of our own minds.

This then brings us to the meme's eye view. Just as the gene's eye view is useful, so the meme's eye view is useful. This has long been appreciated by students of memetics - and there the memes eye view goes back over 20 years - at least to Dennett's 1990 paper "Memes and the Exploitation of Imagination". However, students of cultural evolution in academia appear to have paid insufficient attention to the work of the memeticists in this area, and are still mostly attempting to struggle along without this important idea. One rare exception to this is Stephen Shennan - who publicly called for the meme's eye view to be more widely embraced in his presentation in the 2010 "Culture Evolves" conference.

The meme's eye view conjours up a picture of memes attempting to manipulate their environment for their own advantage.

For example, a sociobiologist looking at a modern office a might see humans using machines for their own advantage. However the meme's eye view suggests another perspective. In a mutualist symbiosis, each party typically attempts to control and manipulate the other. So: the memes are also manipulating the humans into creating more memes, and are often in competition with other memes which are striving to make use of the same human resources.

For another example consider mobile phones. The typical sociobiology perspective pictures humans using phones to promote their own ends, with the employees and bosses at the phone company using the technology to promote their own ends. The meme's eye view of this set-up looks rather different: the memes are using the human bodies of the users as sophisticated data-capturing devices and world manipulators. Giving on-screen instructions to humans allows the memes to take advantage of sophisticated actuators made using molecular nanotechnology, while cameras, microphones and keyboards allow for data input. The data is then fed to a server-side computer system, which acts like a large and sophisticated brain which manages the entire set-up. The whole system is arranged so as to promote and perpetuate the mobile phone company's memes - at the expense of the memes of its competitors.

Looking back at the timeline of human evolution, one of the first objectives for the memes would have been to make room for themselves in human brains. They did this by rewarding the humans with more space for memes with increased genetic fitness. Memes for language, music and fashion were probably mainly responsible for this. The result was 3 million years of steadily-expanding cranial capacity - which resulted in much more space for the memes.

Meme reproduction requires sociable humans - so those humans who interacted more with other humans would have been rewarded by the memes. The result of this was human ultrasociality.

Humans and their memes then developed spoken language - an adaptation which can be used for spreading memes. They also developed a taste for group chanting - which allows meme transmission with redundancy and error correction.

Next the memes increased human numbers - since the more humans there are, the more memes there are. Agricultural memes allowed humans to form closer symbiotic relationships with plants, animals and each other, which boosted their fitness and increased their numbers. The result was a massive increase in the worldwide population of memes.

The next problem for the memes was transmission fidelity. At this early stage, most memes were copied by using behavioural imitation - which provides very little in the way of copying fidelity. Environmental inheritance proved to be the answer here. By inventing the idea of writing memes could persist unaltered across extended periods of time.

Then there was the copying speed problem. Transcribing documents by hand was slow and tedious. However, the invention of mechanical printing presses allowed machines to take over this task from humans, resulting in much more rapid meme production and a vastly wider distribution of memes.

Today, many memes often still need the consent of a human brain to get copied - an obvious bottleneck from their perspective. The afflicted memes are currently busy sorting this issue out. Today, only a few parasitic computer viruses manage to reproduce themselves while skipping over the human brain completely. However, in the future, superintelligent machines seem likely to copy memes with the full consent of society.

To close, I would like to propose the meme's eye view as one obvious landmark to use for gauging the progress of academics in developing their understanding of cultural evolution. Academic study of cultural evolution has now fairly-clearly made it past the "Darwin" stage and the "Fisher" stage. However, it still appears to be somewhere around a hundred years behind the study of organic evolution. Since cultural evolution seems unlikely to produce a Mendel, or a Watson and Crick any time soon, the question arises of how best to measure the progress of academia in its understanding how culture evolves. The meme's eye view seems to provide a fairly suitable yardstick. At the moment, the penetration of the meme's eye view in academia is fairly clearly at an extremely low level. I think that places academia somewhere before the state of evolutionary theory in the 1970s. This metric suggests that academics still have a considerable way to go in developing their understanding of how culture evolves.

There's more about the meme's eye view in my "Memetics" book - which is available now.


Update 2012-03-26: Here is what seems to be the meme's eye view a little earlier than 1990 - in Luc Claeys' 1989's book "Behavior of Information". Chapter 1 says:

Chapter 1 Living Information - To understand the theory of the behavior of information, we have to place ourselves on the point of view of information itself. To facilitate the transition from our classical "self-centered" point of view to this new point of view, this chapter will show some analogies between the life of information and the life of some living species we all know about.
It continues in chapter 2:

Chapter 2 Information beings - The next step towards the point of view of information is to imagine that there is some consciousness associated with information. In other words, the life, the propagation and the survival of information is related to a desire to live, a desire to survive.

Monday, 26 September 2011

My "Memetics" book on Google Books

My "Memetics" book has shown up on Google Books.

Chapters 5-14 (pages 48-120) are browsable - which is a fairly significant chunk of the book. Much of the rest of the text of the book can be searched.

The pictures came through in colour. However, I can't say I approve of them missing off the covers of the book.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Steven Johnson - resources

Steven Johnson is interested in innovation - and how ideas combine. A couple of videos:


Steven Johnson: Where good ideas come from

Steven has a longer presentation on here: here.

"Chance favours the connected mind". Steven also has a blog.

Memetics FAQ

Memetics FAQ

The first version of my memetics FAQ is now available. Enjoy.

Daniel Dennett - The Human Mind as an Upside Down Brain

This a is two-hour video from 2011. The memes start around 50 minutes in.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Matt Ridley - Genes, technology and the evolution of culture

Matt Ridley discusses cultural evolution and the origins of modern humans, and how cultural evolution leads and DNA genes follow.

He gives the example of blue eyes, claiming it was a consequence of agriculture, followed by the colonisation of northern Europe. That seems plausible to me.

Matt is asked a question about memetics 58 minutes in, and he generally expresses his approval - saying:

Q: I was wondering how a theory of memetics maps on your account?

A: Yeah, um, good question: how does the theory of memetics map on to my ideas and the meme theory that ideas behave like genes in that they replicate - essentially remember I ran through a series of slides of things that you need to find for an evolutionary system to work - memetics is concentrating on that "replictoion" slide - where I showed a picture of aeroplanes on an assembly line - memetics is talking about whether ideas replicate and copy themselves, etc, and it's therefore part of the story - but I'm focussing on the other parts of the story, at least particularly the "recombination" part. It's another analogy for a genetic evolutionary process - which is all part of the story - so it's a different emphasis - it's a different side of the same coin.

In fact, memetic recombination is surely part of memetics, in exactly the same way that genetic recombination is part of genetics.

Matt wrote a whole book on cultural evolution recently. There's a lot of "ideas having sex" - but memes are only mentioned on one page. That was a spectacularly disappointing turn-out.

Matt gives a similar talk here: Deep Optimism.

What about Matt's ideas about cultural recombination (starting around 22 minutes into the video)? Memetic recombination is probably ancient - predating the split with chimpanzees. For example, this video 27 minutes in, apparently shows a combination of chimpanzee ideas. They barter too a little - but they don't really have many artefacts to barter. So yes, recombination may well be important - but we are probably just talking about a cultural snowball that eventually got big enough to start picking up speed on its own. If you want an event to pin the birth of the recent human explosion on, the end of the last glacial cycle looks as though it is the most obvious candidate.

The other thing to say is that trade is not really the same thing as memetic recombination. Trade might well increase the rate of memetic recombination - but they aren't the same thing. I gave some examples of memetic recombination in my own book on memetics. My examples were "portmanteaus" - like:

  • cyborg - comes from cybernetic and organism;
  • ginormous - comes from gigantic and enormous;
Why doesn't trade qualify? Trade is more like two ecosystems exchanging organisms. That does "recombine" things - in a sense - but we don't usually describe moving creatures around between ecosystems as being a form of sexual recombination. IMO, memetic recombination ought to cleave functional units - at least sometimes - or it isn't really playing the same functional role that recombination plays in the organic realm.

Lastly, it is worth noting that recombination within minds doesn't discriminate between ideas that are the product of individual learning and social learning. Individually-learned ideas can recombine - and that has nothing to do with trade, or socially-transmitted memes.

Why no cultural creatures in academia?

Now that cultural evolution is making such good progress in academia, can memeticists just leap onboard?

I don't think so - not just yet, anyway. Apart from the whole issue of long-winded terminology, although these are very similar theories, they have a different emphasis and history - and memetics is still much, much better in some areas. The approaches obviously need to fuse - but at the moment they still have some significant incompatibilities.

Alex Mesoudi - in his recent book - has a soundbite which encapsulates one of the differences in the approaches of academic researchers in cultural evolution and memetics.

Mesoudi says:

In a typical cultural evolution model, a population is assumed to be composed of a set of individuals, each of whom posseses a particular set of cultural traits. A set of microevolutionary processes is specified that changes the variation of those traits over time.

I can verify that this is a pretty accurate description of what most cultural evolution models in academia are like.

By contrast in memetics, there are organic creatures and cultural creatures - two interwoven lifecycles to consider. These typically play the role of host and endosymbiont. The endosymbionts are usually parasites, or mutualists. All the standard models of symbiosis in biology are thus applicable to the cultural realm, and can simply be imported.

On page 7 of Culture and the Evolutionary Process, Boyd and Richerson give what appears to be an argument against such cultural creatures. They say:

This does not mean that cultures have mysterious lives of their own that cause them to evolve independently of the individuals of which they are composed. As in the case of genetic evolution, individuals are the primary locus of the evolutionary forces that cause cultural evolution and in modelling cultural evolution we will focus on observable events in the lives of individuals.

This seems to be fundamentally the wrong approach. It is like saying: to study the evolution of AIDS, we should focus on on observable events in the lives of the AIDS sufferers. Yes, that method will result in some progress - but it is a fundamentally misguided approach - because it ignores the HIV virus itself.

I have looked at a lot of the literature and I don't think this is just a case of model simplification to produce something tractable. Cultural evolution researchers have a real blind spot when it comes to cultural creatures - although they do sometimes receive an occasional mention - usually as an "analogy". I give some examples of this in my book.

A more correct and complete model would include cultural creatures and organic creatures in a symbiosis. The cultural creatures do evolve outside of their organic hosts. Books get burned. CDs get scratched, hard disc drives crash, and computers filter and process memes. Yes, you can attempt to model these as "microevolutionary transmission processes" - but that produces nasty complexity - it is much better and much simpler to just recognise cultureal avolution as dominated by symbiosis - and then reuse existing symbiosis-based models.

OK - so cultural creatures may sound like something out of science fiction - but they are essential for understanding human culture. These things have genotypes, phenotypes, and their own lifecycles - it is just obvious that they are best treated as symbionts - if you stop and think about it for a moment or two.

Due to only attempting to model half of the creatures in the relationship, cultural evolution in academia has become a feeble and dumbed-down version of memetics - which got this right from the very beginning. The academic researchers involved apparently need to pull their socks up in this area - before they go very much further.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Phylomemetics of Christianity

Another visual representation of our theme here - a phylomemetic tree representing the evolution of Christianity:

Source: here. Note that there is a little bit of "webbing" in the "tree".

Monday, 12 September 2011

Logo evolution

Logo evolution provides a nice visual illustration of the phenomena under discussion here:

The evolution of Shell

The evolution of Pepsi

The evolution of Apple

The evolution of Volkswagen

The evolution of Ford

I think these logos illustrate progressive improvement.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Kim Sterelny - resources

Kim Sterelny is a researcher in evoultion interested in the culture.


The Fate of the Third Chimpanzee

Signals, Honesty and the Evolution of Language

The Fate of the Third Chimpanzee

No memes in these talks, but Kim has penned various critiques of memetics.

References with relevance to memes:

  • Sterelny, Kim, Smith, Kelly and Dickison, Michael (1996) The extended replicator.
  • Sterelny, Kim, and Griffiths, P. (1999) Sex and Death: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Biology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.[criticism][book]
  • Sterelny, Kim (2001) Niche Construction, Developmental Systems and the Extended Replicator. in Cycles of Contingency, R. Gray, P. Griffiths and S. Oyama (eds.), Cambridge: MIT Press. pp. 329'349.
  • Sterelny, Kim (2003) Thought in a Hostile World. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Sterelny, Kim (2006a) The Evolution and Evolvability of Culture. [criticism]
  • Sterelny, Kim (2006b) Memes Revisited. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 57. 145'165. [criticism]
  • Sterelny, Kim (2007) Snafus: An Evolutionary Perspective. Biological Theory.

William Wimsatt - resources

William Wimsatt is a researcher in cultural evolution. Here he is in action:

Wimsatt is a meme critic. He prefers what he calls "Meme Like Things" (MLTs).

His case is all to do with development - and he presents what we might call an "evo devo" critique. Of course development complicates organic evolution just as much as it complicates cultural evolution.

The science of genetics typically treats development as a black box. The rationale is that development is very complicated and we have little chance of understanding very much of it - and yet there is much that can usefully be understood while completely ignoring it. As a result of this simplification, genetics has made enormous progress in understanding the transmission of heritable traits. Memetics does the exact same thing, for the exact same reason and gets the exact same benefits. So: population memetics and population genetics normally treat development as a black-box and just continue without attempting to flesh it out. This is really just how science works.

Wimsatt is yet another critic that doesn't seem to appreciaate the depth of the parallels between cultural and biological evolution. For example, about 30 minutes into the talk, he writes:

  1. The fact that earlier MLT's (meme-like-things) affect the acquition and interpretation of later MLT's means that thet separability of heredity, development and selection in the architecture of standard pop. gen models is impossible. So the models are far more complex.

  2. In biology, one breeding population does for all traits--you inherit the whole thing at once. For culture, we occupy a succession of partially overlapping reference groups throughout the life cycle, so the institutions and organisations that mediate this trajectory make culturally-induced population structure crucial.

Both of these points are incorrect - and they are wrong due to misconceptions about the organic realm - not the cultural realm.

Earlier infections do affect later ones. Cowpox infections affect smallpox ones. AIDS infections affect pneumonia, tuberculosis and many other infections. Hepatitis D requires a previous Hepatitis B infection - and so on.

In the organic realm, you simply don't "inherit the whole thing at once". Inheritance comes along in dribs and drabs, one food symbiont, gut symbiont, pet or persistent viral infection at a time. The idea that you receive your entire organic inheritance at birth is nonsense - rather it is acquired gradually over the lifecycle as you pick up pathogens and symbionts. In other words: the organic realm is just like the cultural realm in these respects.


Thursday, 8 September 2011

The evolution of culture in a nutshell

This material was adapted from chapter 2 of my Memetics book.

The evolution of culture in a nutshell

The basic idea of cultural evolution

The idea that human culture evolves is an old one. In The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin (1859) explained his idea of descent with modification in the animal and plant kingdoms by using an analogy with the way languages change and evolve over time. Languages show a branching tree-like structure - with some languages being obvious descendants of other ones. This is very similar to the phylogenetic trees of organic evolution. In the absence of detailed information about how inheritance took place, Darwin typically mixed the concepts of cultural and organic evolution together. In 1871, he wrote:

The survival or preservation of certain favoured words in the struggle for existence is natural selection.

Looking back from our current vantage point, Darwin appears to be well ahead of his time in terms of his understanding of cultural evolution.

There are similarities and differences between cultural and organic evolution. Unfortunately, these days the similarities have become rarely-mentioned - and cultural evolution has become an extremely neglected idea. For example, it is often not mentioned in evolution textbooks at all.

However, it is fairly self-evident that some traits of organisms persist down the generations without being coded for in DNA. Speaking a particular language is passed from one generation to the next - but the words of the language are not stored in genes. Surnames are passed down the paternal line. Religion is passed from parent to offspring. Circumcision, body-piercings, hair styles and beards are also passed faithfully down the generations in some cultures. These things are all culturally inherited. Variation of such traits is also common - as are differences in their copying rates and the rate at which they are lost.

The case for cultural evolution

The basic case for cultural evolution is relatively simple - cultural change is evolution - according to most modern definitions of the term "evolution". Here is the definition of Strickberger (1996) - in his textbook on evolution:

Biological evolution entails inherited changes in populations of organisms, over a period of time, that lead to differences among them.

Notice that it does not say that inheritance must take place via DNA. If circumcised fathers are more likely to circumcise their sons, that is evidently a form of inheritance - but it is not mediated by DNA. The trait is passed on in some other way. Strickberger (1996) goes on to put the case for cultural inheritance concisely:

In short, humans have two unique hereditary systems. One is the genetic system that transfers biological information from biological parent to offspring in the form of genes and chromosomes. The other is the extragenetic system that transfers cultural information from speaker to listener, from writer to reader, from performer to spectator, and forms our cultural heritage.

That brings us onto the topic of the two primary inheritance channels of our species:

Dual inheritance theory

The idea that humans have two main inheritance systems is commonly known as Dual Inheritance Theory (DIT). The idea is that humans transmit information down the generations primarily via nucleic acids and human culture - and that other forms of inheritance are relatively insignificant. Dual Inheritance Theory is not yet widely appreciated - but it is of substantial importance to understanding the evolution of humans, the dynamics of the modern world, and what is most likely to happen in the future.

Shared underlying principles

There have been a number of efforts to identify common principles of cultural and organic evolution. They both exhibit:
  • Heritable information - which persists for extended periods, allowing transmission down the generations;
  • Imperfect copying processes - resulting in variation between the copies;
  • Differential reproductive success - some copies persist better than others.
These properties (inheritance, variation and selection) are the basic ones required for many definitions of evolution - and therefore cultural evolution is a type of evolution. Cultural evolution also exhibits cumulative adaptations - and so it produces true constructive evolution - not merely trivial or degenerative evolution.

Wheel evolution illustrates inheritance, variation and cumulative adaptation.

Cosmetic differences

However, there are also some differences between cultural and organic evolution. Some of the prominent examples:
  • Directed mutations - in organic evolution, mutations are usually considered to be undirected - and so do not systematically lead towards improvements. However, in cultural evolution mutations are sometimes highly directed. They can be made using induction, deduction, and Occam's razor - the full toolbox of intelligent design.
  • Lamarckian inheritance - among organic organisms, it is rare for modifications of the phenotype to be inherited and transmitted to the next generation. However, in cultural evolution, such things are fairly common. If someone sprinkles cinnamon on the muffins - and the guests seem to like it - the next time it might be incorporated into the recipe and baked in.
The scale of the differences causes some people to react negatively to comparisons between organic and cultural evolution. However, the common principles they share are important and deep - and much is lost if this common ground is neglected.

Family trees

In organic evolution, lineages can be represented using family trees. The same is possible in cultural evolution.
Language family tree.

This diagram illustrates the "tree model" of languages, using it to represent the relationships between the Germanic languages. The effects of horizontal word transfer between languages complicate these kinds of relationships, but it is still possible to construct glossogenetic trees for the world's languages that resemble the phylogenetic trees that can be constructed for organisms. If attention is confined to individual words, then their ancestry and relationships can be traced even more unambiguously.

These relationships between languages were known back in the 1850s - before Darwin wrote The Origin. Darwin actually used the descent with modification of languages to explain his theory of organic evolution. Back then, cultural evolution was more widely recognised as being correct than organic evolution.


The most powerful, obvious and straightforward way of modelling culture is as symbiotic organisms. Many will be familiar with the idea that wrist watches and wireless headsets can usefully be thought of as signs of the human symbiosis with technology. That is one manifestation of the symbiosis between humans and culture. There is an existing framework in biology for modelling symbiosis, and it works well when applied to human culture. Symbiotic relationships are usually classified as follows:
  • Mutualism - Mutually beneficial relationships;
  • Parasitism - One-sided relationships;
  • Commensalism - Neither beneficial nor harmful.
This suggests that some cultural entities are good for their host, while others are deleterious. Indeed we see both types of culture: fast food advertisements are bad for you, while a knowledge of language is beneficial.


Cultural phenomena exhibit transmission between individuals, and sometimes these reach epidemic proportions. Cultural entities have a certain level of contagiousness, and if this is below hat is known as the epidemic threshold. This threshold acts as a kind of tipping point. If you are below it, not very much happens - but above it, there is an explosion of activity, somewhat like a fission reaction, resulting in a cultural epidemic.

Model drawn from epidemiology treat culture as a symbiotic phenomenon. They are useful when explaining how news, fads, crazes and fashions spread through society.

Resource limitation

Resource limitation is one of the key concepts in evolutionary biology. The idea went mainstream with Thomas Malthus and his 1798 work: "An Essay on the Principle of Population". Malthus's essay went on to inspire both Darwin and Wallace to create their theories of evolution.

The idea is that populations of organisms have the ability and inclination to increase in size exponentially and tend to expand rapidly - up to the limits permitted by the available food supply. However, resources are typically much more limited. After a while expanding populations tend to reach a point where further growth is no longer supported by the available resources. At that stage, births must be balanced by deaths.

Darwin (1859) gave Chapter Three of "On The Origin of Species" the title "The Struggle for Existence". The chapter worked through the consequences of Malthus's insight. The idea is also highly significant in the realm of human culture. Cultural entities face a struggle for existence too. For them, the primary limited resource is human brains. Most reproduction of cultural entities currently either takes place in human brains - or is triggered by the action of human brains. Those brains have limited storage space for cultural items. So there is competition between them to find their way into brains.

Adaptive culture

We can be pretty sure that culture was adaptive among our ancestors since we have adaptations oriented towards spreading culture - our incessant babbling, our ultrasociality and the huge cultural libraries we carry around everywhere on our shoulders. It seems likely that culture is adaptive today - since culture-free humans are like primitive cave men, and most such creatures would not do very well in the modern world.

To summarise, culture allows individuals to:

  • Reduce costly errors associated with trial-and-error learning;
  • Quickly acquire useful ideas much more rapidly than trial-and-error learning would permit;
  • Acquire better quality ideas than they would have been likely to produce themselves.
Culture is adaptive because it allows individuals to obtain good quality ideas quickly, and at low cost. Why transmit these ideas culturally, rather than wiring them into the genome, then? The genome is much too small to accommodate all the required cultural knowledge. Even if evolution could somehow find a way to wire language, walking, or fire-starting instincts into the genome, the results would not be much better than transmitting the knowledge by cultural means. So, this is a challenging task for evolution with a pretty minimal pay-off.

Internet culture

As time has passed, human culture has expanded and diversified. This has resulted in many more examples of cultural evolution for scientists to study. Where once chain letters, urban legends, languages and scientific theories were used to provide the evidence supporting the idea of cultural evolution, now there is a plethora of new types of digital media on the internet - audio, video, text - all widely available to anyone who cares to look. There is also a lot more in the way of tracking and monitoring tools available. If you want to know when a particular computer virus mutated, such details are often archived and can be tracked down. If you want to know whether The Beatles were ever more popular than Jesus, that too can be investigated.

Going digital

One issue that seems to hinder understanding of the idea of cultural evolution is low-fidelity transmission. Organic inheritance mostly uses digital high-fidelity transmission - but sometimes cultural information is low-fidelity, or is represented in partly-analog systems. When present, high mutation rates can destroy the accumulation of culture, limit the quantity of culture that can exist, and result in fewer cultural adaptations. Some people have complained that this weakens the analogy between organic inheritance and cultural inheritance.

However, in modern times, we have seen a gradual switch to digital forms of cultural transmission and storage. This digital revolution has resulted in a greater volume of culture, a closer correspondence between cultural and organic inheritance, and much more evidence of cultural evolution. The objection that cultural evolution suffers from low-fidelity transmission was a pretty feeble one in the first place. However, it is becoming increasingly irrelevant - as culture is digitised and gains access to high-fidelity storage and transmission media.

Rise of the idea

The idea that culture evolves dates back to Darwin's era. As time has passed, academic and popular scientific publications supporting cultural evolution have gradually accumulated. Some of the better-known supporters of the idea include: Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Douglas Hofstadter, Susan Blackmore, David Hull, Rob Boyd, Peter Richerson, David Deutsch and Ed Wilson. These days there is a big mountain of supporting evidence. That culture evolves is a fact, much as the idea that the organic world evolves is a fact. If anything, we have better evidence for cultural evolution - since it happens so much more rapidly - and so we can see it talking place more clearly.


Though it should be obvious that culture evolves, exactly how it evolves has been a controversial issue. Most theories of cultural evolution are based in some way on Darwin's theory of evolution of by natural selection. However, to many it is not completely obvious which parts of Darwin's theory are applicable, and which are not. The issue has caused a substantial quantity of difficulties and controversy.


Cultural evolution is the single most important idea for understanding cultural change. In the organic world, evolution forms the central organising principle - the basic concept which practically everything else is explained in terms of. Cultural evolution has a similar significance for explaining human culture.

Most of the change in human civilisation is cultural. Organic evolution happens on a much slower timescale, and often happens too slowly for us to observe - so cultural evolution explains most of the significant recent human changes.

Cultural evolution is ancient, going back beyond our split from chimpanzees. It affected the whole of the last 7 million years of evolution, with increasing intensity as time passed. It is not possible to understand human evolution without having an understanding of cultural evolution. Many have attempted to understand human evolution without understanding cultural evolution - but their efforts are uniformly hopeless.

Cultural evolution is the key science for understanding change in human civilisation at the present time. Similarly, it is key to understanding where we are going. Humanity badly needs to understand how culture changes so that we can steer it in desirable directions. Undesirable culture can result in stagnation, wars, revolutions and genocide.


Though the idea of cultural evolution has been around for a very long while, its penetration into the scientific world is poor. Though the basic ideas seem fairly simple and obvious, a series of problems and setbacks have hampered its development. The problems have included mistakes by the founders, resistance from established academics in adjacent fields, and distaste for the whole idea of a Darwinian explanation of human culture. The result is that the field has suffered from slow development, a bad reputation, poor funding and status - and has been widely neglected.

The neglect of cultural evolution by social scientists has been a pretty major disaster for the scientific enterprise. Evolutionary theory is central to biology, and cultural evolution is central to understanding human culture. Without cultural evolution the study of culture remains stuck a pre-Darwinian era - in much the same way that the study of organic systems lacked a central organising principle in the days before Darwin. Cultural evolution has the potential to unite the social sciences. However, social science has never really got into Darwin. For over a hundred years, most social scientists have refused to face the Darwinian music - preferring instead to put their fingers in their ears and sing their own "la-la" song. This has kept the social sciences stuck in a pre-Darwinian era. As a result the social sciences are highly balkanised - with experts in adjacent fields lacking common principles and a unifying theory. This situation is intolerable. It has got to stop.

Modern ascendance

Though cultural evolution has been neglected, it seems to be fairly clearly in the ascendant in the last couple of decades. The last decade in particular has been a fertile one for the study of cultural evolution, with hundreds of publications on the topic, and a lot of empirical research being performed. That human culture evolves has always been pretty self-evident, but there has also been a lot of work on non-human animals in the last decade. We know a lot more about the topic of cultural evolution now than we have ever done before.

This material was adapted from chapter 2 of my Memetics book.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

"Missing the revolution" misses the revolution!

Evolutionary psychology seems to be producing some very bad science these days. Of course, nobody can deny that the human mind evolved - and so the field has a reasonable basis - but evolutionary psychology persistently fails to have any understanding of culture. My recent takedown of Pinker's views on culture does not represent an isolated incident, but is typical of the field.

It is rather as though memetics had never happened, and Wilson's sociobiology continues to lead a zombie existence, despite being dead for the last 35 years.

A nice way to illustrate the rot, is to consider the 2005 book: "Missing the Revolution: Darwinism for Social Scientists". Sounds good, yes? But alas, it takes an evolutionary psychology perspective. Neither memetics nor cultural evolution get a mention.

"Missing the revolution" misses the revolution! If this is where social scientists go to get their Darwinism, they will get a hopelessly screwed-up and out of date version.

Evolutionary psychology needs to pull its socks up. At the moment, it is a scientific bad guy, spreading disinformation.

The rot has been patiently explained to these folk - by: at this stage, there really is no excuse.

Dr. Mark Collard: Investigating the origin and evolution of culture with phylogenetic techniques

This is a phylomemetics presentation. It covers chimpanzee and human culture. It's 78 minutes long. It is a pretty good presentation on the topic. Mark is confident, articulate, and has chosen a fine topic to study.

For more from Mark (though without any memes), perhaps see: Darwin and Your Past.

Upcoming workshop: Naturalistic approaches to culture

There's an upcoming workshop entitled "naturalistic approaches to culture" in Budapest. Here's the web site and the papers.

Peter Richerson uses part of his presentation there to describe his resistance to the "meme" terminology:
In this exercise, we think it best to wear the analogy between genes and memes most lightly. For example, we have resisted using the term “meme” to describe the “unit” of cultural transmission. who knows if the structure of cultural inheritance is anything like the neatly particulate gene?
So, the idea is that memes are like genes in that they transmit heritable material from one generation to the next, they undergo drift, they recombine, they mutate, they are subject to selection, they engage in hitchhiking, they sometimes have associated phemes - and the ones that do evolve more slowly - and they evolve via Darwinian evolution. They are not necessarily like genes in every single way!

As for DNA genes being "neatly particulate", that is a highly dubious idea. DNA genes can be sliced and diced during meiosis every which way and can be modulated by methylation and by chromatin remodeling caused by post-translational modification of histone proteins. They are just not all that particulate. Even if they were: so what? Memes do not have to be like genes in every single way!

Internet memes have pretty neatly discrete and digital representations. I expect the earliest genes were less "neatly particulate" than modern ones are, through having poorer quality error correction and more analog noise. So: on closer inspection, the resemblance between the cultural and organic realms deepens.

Peter goes on to say:
We do know that culture is most ungene-like in many respects. Culture has the principle of inheritance of acquired variation (what one person invents another can imitate). we are not necessarily blind victims of chance imitation, but can pick and choose among any cultural variants that come to our attention and creatively put our own twist on them. we don’t have to imitate our parents or any other specific individuals but can always be open to a better idea, or own invention or someone else’s.
Acquired variation of a type broadly similar to what Peter mentions can be inherited in the organic realm too - as when a dog gets fleas and then passes them on to their offspring.

Humans can pick and choose the diseases they acquire - to some extent - as well as the ideas they acquire. Both realms have vaccination, immune systems, disease resistance and disease avoidance. Not so much of a difference there, it seems.

We don't have to have the same food symbionts as our parents. If a new foodstuff comes along we can form a symbiosis with that foodstuff instead. Other creatures have similar food symbioses - for example ants.

So, the differences Peter mentions are mostly exaggerated. Not that there are no differences - just that the similarities overwhelm them, abundantly justifying the meme-gene association.

If you understand that memes are the heritable material of cultural symbionts, you get to reuse all the standard mathematical models of symbiosis in biology - whereas if you don't you have to invent a whole bunch of new models - which is a big waste of time.

Will more of the people in academia someday "get" these kinds of relationship? Their persistent failure to do so just makes them look as though they don't properly understand their own subject to the memeticists. Is there some good reason why we can't we all get onto the same page on this issue? If so, what is it?

Kids interview kids about memes

The next generation is growing up in a world of memes. This school project about memes documents some of their experiences via interviews.

How I Got Famous on the Internetz

A documentary about ROFLCon 2010 featuring interviews with various internet meme characters.

Includes the "impossible is nothing" guy reflecting on his internet experience.

Daniel Dennett - The Evolution of Confusion

The blurb says this video is about purposely-confusing theology and how it's used. It also describes Dan's new project interviewing clergyman who secretly don't believe anymore.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

DARPA gets into memes with SMISC

Here's part of the DARPA announcement:
The general goal of the Social Media in Strategic Communication (SMISC) program is to develop a new science of social networks built on an emerging technology base. In particular, SMISC will develop automated and semi-automated operator support tools and techniques for the systematic and methodical use of social media at data scale and in a timely fashion to accomplish four specific program goals:

1. Detect, classify, measure and track the (a) formation, development and spread of ideas and concepts (memes), and (b) purposeful or deceptive messaging and misinformation.

2. Recognize persuasion campaign structures and influence operations across social media sites and communities.

3. Identify participants and intent, and measure effects of persuasion campaigns.

4. Counter messaging of detected adversary influence operations.

Hah! Memes get explicitly mentioned!

DARPA say they will "develop a new science of social networks". Hmm - we do have some existing science that deals with social networks...

More coverage:

Dawkins' Dangerous Idea


Hi, I'm Tim Tyler, and this video is on the topic of how memetics is a powerful and dangerous idea. I'm making it to promote my book on memetics - which is out now.

Some have pointed out that evolution is Darwin's Dangerous Idea.

In 1995, Dennett wrote, in a book with that title:

If I were to give an award for the single best idea anyone has ever had, I'd give it to Darwin, ahead of Newton and Einstein and everyone else. In a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unifies the realm of life, meaning, and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law. But it is not just a wonderful scientific idea. It is a dangerous idea.

If evolution was Darwin's Dangerous Idea, then memetics is Dawkins' Dangerous Idea. It is a subset of Darwin's idea - but it is one part of it which hits very close to home, if the human ego is resistant to Darwinism, memetics is one of the areas it objects to most - since it is so close to home.

Darwin's idea faced enormous resistance in its time. It took a very long time for it to be digested. Social science is still busy absorbing the implications of the fact that the human mind evolved. However, the idea that human culture evolves has been widely rejected for over a hundred years - including by most social scientists. It is more obvious that human culture evolved than that organic creatures evolved - since we can more easily see the process happening in real time over our lifetimes. However, by most kinds of reckoning, the study of cultural evolution is over 100 years behind the study of organic evolution.

Many blame Darwin for the eugenic sterilisation programs of Sweden, Germany, the United States and other countries. Memetics potentially holds some more serious problems for civilisation. Memetic engineering is vastly more powerful and dangerous than genetic engineering - and has the potential to turn us all into meme addicts. There's already a field of mililary memetics which studies propaganda, resisting propaganda, brain washing, manipulating public opinion, and other fun things. Memetic algorithms could ultimately go on to produce machine intelligence. Once the machines are smarter than us, humanity's days as masters of the planet may well be numbered.

Paul McFedries recently wrote:

Richard Dawkins became famous in the 1970s for his concept of the selfish gene, and he has become infamous in recent years for his unyielding atheism. But I predict that Dawkins will be known, a hundred years hence, not for these contributions to science and culture but for the concept of the meme. Feel free to spread that idea around.

Well, OK, then Paul, since you asked so nicely, citing my work and all, I will. I too think that memetics is Dawkins' Dangerous Idea. The evolution of culture is really the biggest and most important idea in The Selfish Gene. Of course some might object to attributing the idea to Dawkins, since we have Darwin saying:

The survival or preservation of certain favoured words in the struggle for existence is natural selection. the idea really dates back at least to Darwin - but Dawkins is likely to get credit for the terminology - and language shapes thought, so people are likely to continue to associate memetics with Richard Dawkins - so it seems likely that it will be: Dawkins' Dangerous Idea.


Monday, 5 September 2011

Rationally Speaking: Memetics

Critics, Massimo Pigliucci and Julia Galef express their difficulties in understanding memetics in a 2010 podcast here.

Massimo plays the role of expert explaining the problems with memetics. Julia plays the role of sidekick, struggling to understand Massimo's position, but having some sympathies to memetics. Those dynamics are quite fun. However, it seems to me that not too many problems are convincingly raised, and there's a lot of arguing via "I don't see how" and "it is not clear how you would do that"-style material. That doesn't work too well here: either I can see how and I do know how you would do that - or else I can explain why it it shouldn't be seen as being an important issue in the first place.

Julia Galef says at one point that she hasn't actually read anything from the Journal of Memetics. Hmm.

This is "armchair philosophy" material. They don't really mention any of the actual science involved.

Massimo says at one point that his biggest objection is that there's no ecological science of memetics which makes predictions about which memes are fitter than other ones.

This area is part of what is often called "Applied Memetics" (which also includes memetic engineering). It seems to be one of the better studied areas of the field to me - simply because social media marketing and advertising departments need to be able to predict what spreads and what doesn't in order to be able to construct successful viral marketing media.

Francis Heylighen's 1998 paper "What makes a meme successful? Selection criteria for cultural evolution" gives an early introduction. More recently, there have been many studies of social media on the internet that look into this sort of thing. For instance see, Dan Zarella's The Science of ReTweets. Of course we don't know everything about this field, but it is a challenge in organic ecology too.

If Massimo wants to understand the relationship between gene-culture evolution and memetics, a fairly sensible (if rather snarky) take on that is Mathematical models for Memetics by Jeremy R. Kendal & Kevin N. Laland. In a nutshell, these are different groups people approaching the same material from different angles and drawing extremely similar conclusions. Memetics has much better terminology, visualisation and visibility - and gene-culture evolution has much better studies, data and credibility within academia. The historical attempts by both parties to criticise each other appear to have been fairly uniformly hopeless and stupid. Now that we have the internet, it seems obvious that these groups should work out their differences and combine their forces.

The critics of memetics don't make too many videos, it seems, but a podcast is better than nothings - and so I might try a response video or two quoting Massimo and Julia at some stage.

Update 2011-09-30 - I respond here. Also, Massimo writes his ideas on the topic up here. Massimo still seems very muddled to me. He raises much the same objections as in the podcast, and approvingly cites the academic cultural evolution literature - apparently without realizing that it is saying a lot of very similar things to memetics - and that many of his objections are equally applicable to it.

Update 2014-07-30: Julia seems to have become quite a meme enthusiast. For example, she attributes human progress to memes many times here. Go, Julia!

Sunday, 4 September 2011

The role of high-fidelity transmission in memetics

Numerous academic researchers appear to have got into a terrible muddle regarding the role of high-fidelity transmission in memetics. So: what are the facts?

In living systems which exhibit cumulative adaptive evolution, you need to have some sort of a signal that passes largely-intact down the generations - otherwise existing adaptive complexity is not preserved and the system exhibits an error catastrophe.

This is the basic point that talk about high-fidelity transmission is usually attempting to get across. Of course, high-fidelity information transmission can still be implemented in systems with low-fidelity copying by using some kind of error correction technology. That is just basic information theory. Shannon covered this, as did von-Neumann in "Probabilistic logic and the synthesis of reliable organisms from unreliable components" from 1952.

How and why various researchers got into a muddle about this point is still not entirely clear.

One culprit appears to have been the late David Hull. Hull apparently attempted to reformulate evolutionary theory around the idea of copying of "structure" which leaves it "largely intact" - with a confused-looking and potentially-misleading presentation of the topic in "Science as a Process". Memeticists should probably publicly distance themselves from Hull's apparently misguided effort in this area.

Boyd and Richerson (1985, p. 266) say:

Richard Dawkins forward to Blackmore's book gives a particularly clear example of how important the high fidelity of transmission is taken to be by Dawkins at least.
My reading of pages x - xii there is that Dawkins is fending off the criticism that mutations obliterate any inherited signal, rendering an adaptive analysis redundant.

Perhaps Dawkins' presentation was partly to blame - though many seemed to manage to successfully understand it.

Dawkins did actively cause problems in being understood by redefining the term "replicator" without including the usual implication of high-fidelity copying. I can imagine how that might have caused misunderstandings.

Alas, most of the other hypotheses I can think of to explain how this situation arose are more uncharitable ones.

The result has been a rather unpleasant 25-year old rift between workers in closely-adjacent areas of cultural evolution. Er, shouldn't we all be working together?