Monday, 31 October 2011

The central dogma of molecular biology is toast

It is now clear that the central dogma of molecular biology is toast.

The central dogma of molecular biology was presented as follows by Francis Crick in 1970:
The central dogma of molecular biology deals with the detailed residue-by-residue transfer of sequential information. It states that such information cannot be transferred back from protein to either protein or nucleic acid.
Genetic engineers can now take detailed sequence information from wherever they like, wire it into genomes then and create adult organisms containing the new genes. We can sequence proteins (for example, consider the recent sequencing of dinosaur proteins), recreate the genes that produce them (give or take a little base-pair uncertainty) and then use standard gene-delivery mechanisms to put them into gametes. From there, they can go on to develop into organisms. The central dogma says all that is impossible - so it is simply wrong.

Others have pointed out the inaccurate nature of the central dogma in the modern era. Here's James Gardner (1999):

to a degree that is largely unappreciated by orthodox theoretical biologists, the ongoing revolution in biotechnology renders the central dogma obsolete. The fact is that information can and does flow upstream into the genome

The best defense of the central dogma is probably the claim that genetic engineering is not part of molecular biology. I think that is pretty self-evidently a feeble attempt to salvage an outdated piece of dogma. Molecular biology is the branch of biology that deals with the molecular basis of biological activity. Genetic engineering is "biological activity" and - like most other biological processes - it has a "molecular basis", so: it is part of molecular biology. Anyone sceptical of the idea that genetic engineering qualifies as "biological activity" should check with the definition of biology.

Another defense is that the genetic code is redundant, so reverse engineering can't learn exactly what the original codon is from the corresponding amino acid. This defense runs into a technical problem. The central dogma prohibits the flow of detailed sequence information from protein to DNA, from protein to RNA, and from protein to protein. Even if you accept a very strict definition of what "detailed sequence information" means, the central dogma's prohibition of protein to protein information transfer would still have been violated.

Here is Richard Dawkins (2004), defending the central dogma:

In this version the central dogma has never been violated and my bet is that it never will.
Here is Larry Moran (2012), defending the central dogma:

These days, there seems to be a class of evolution critics who are determined to overthrow the Central Dogma as part of their crusade to revolutionize biology. Shapiro falls into that group. It’s not a group you really want to be associated with if you value your intellectual reputation, because its members almost always misrepresent the correct view of the Central Dogma described by Francis Crick in 1958 and 1970. The correct version of the Central Dogma is that once information is transferred from nucleic acid to protein, it can’t flow back to nucleic acids. In other words, translation is unidirectional. The Central Dogma has never been overthrown or seriously challenged. If critics get that wrong, how can you believe anything else they say?
Despite being toast for some time, the central dogma of molecular biology is still in all the textbooks. We know from the history of religion that old dogma dies hard - this is a case in point.


Tuesday, 25 October 2011

The modern synthesis is toast

Eugene V. Koonin (2009) wrote:
In the post-genomic era, all the major tenets of the modern synthesis have been, if not outright overturned, replaced by a new and incomparably more complex vision of the key aspects of evolution.
Alex Mesoudi (2011) states that cultural evolution is Darwinian - but not neo-Darwinian.

I reviewed a couple of expressions of the modern synthesis - lifted from here and here:
  • All evolutionary phenomena can be explained in a way consistent with known genetic mechanisms and the observational evidence of naturalists.
  • Evolution is gradual: small genetic changes, recombination ordered by natural selection. Discontinuities amongst species (or other taxa) are explained as originating gradually through geographical separation and extinction (not saltation).
  • Natural selection is by far the main mechanism of change; even slight advantages are important when continued. The object of selection is the phenotype in its surrounding environment.
  • The role of genetic drift is equivocal. Though strongly supported initially by Dobzhansky, it was downgraded later as results from ecological genetics were obtained.
  • Thinking in terms of populations, rather than individuals, is primary: the genetic diversity existing in natural populations is a key factor in evolution. The strength of natural selection in the wild is greater than previously expected; the effect of ecological factors such as niche occupation and the significance of barriers to gene flow are all important.
  • In palaeontology, the ability to explain historical observations by extrapolation from microevolution to macroevolution is proposed. Historical contingency means explanations at different levels may exist. Gradualism does not mean constant rate of change.
- Wikipedia article on the modern evolutionary synthesis.
The major tenets of the evolutionary synthesis, then, were that populations contain genetic variation that arises by random (ie. not adaptively directed) mutation and recombination; that populations evolve by changes in gene frequency brought about by random genetic drift, gene flow, and especially natural selection; that most adaptive genetic variants have individually slight phenotypic effects so that phenotypic changes are gradual (although some alleles with discrete effects may be advantageous, as in certain color polymorphisms); that diversification comes about by speciation, which normally entails the gradual evolution of reproductive isolation among populations; and that these processes, continued for sufficiently long, give rise to changes of such great magnitude as to warrant the designation of higher taxonomic levels (genera, families, and so forth).
- Futuyma, D.J. in Evolutionary Biology, Sinauer Associates, 1986; p.12.

Looking at these, it does appear that the modern synthesis is toast.

The most obvious issues are merging/symbiosis, and directed mutations/cultural evolution.

So: the modern synthesis and neo-Darwinism are indeed dead.


Ditching alleles

"Allele" is the common abbreviation of "allelomorphic gene". It refers to a particular instance of a gene.

Allele is a very important concept represented by a terribly unpopular word. If you compare allele with gene in a search engine duel, you will probably see that "gene" outnumbers "allele" over 30:1. Even after you adjust for usage of "gene" as a name, the result is still a landslide against "allele".

If you look at the usages of the term "gene" you will find that many of them use the term to mean "allele". Indeed, if you compare search volumes for:

Most tellingly, "dominant gene" beats "dominant allele" and "recessive gene" beats "recessive allele".

"Gene" is more popular than "allele" - even in the cases where "allele" is technically more correct.

Problems with "allele" adoption include issues with pronouncing and spelling it, and the possibility that your audience will not understand the term.

Memetics imported the "gene-as-allele" meaning without blinking. Whenever you see "meme", usually it refers to an "allomorphic meme", or a "meme instance". There are "allomemes". However, that term is even less frequently used, with only 277 hits on the whole internet at the time of writing. If "alleles" had been called "genestances" there could have been "memestances" - but that terminology is not from this universe.

The term "allele" has done so poorly, that I think the best thing to do at this stage is ditch it. It is easy to switch to the term "gene" to describe "allele" - since the majority regularly use the term "gene" that way anyway. There will be a few anal-retentive types who will say "don't you mean allele?". Now those folk can be directed to this page.

Providentially, there's already a term for the spot which alleles compete over - a "locus". You can have a "genetic locus", and a "memetic locus" (e.g. "red", "rouge", "rot" and "rojo" compete for the same memetic locus) - so the concept is portable to memetics. A particular locus could be called a "gene locus" - or a "meme locus". Those concepts are all longer than "gene" or "allele" - but they do have the virtue of being pretty self-explanatory, and often the context will be clear enough to just say "locus".

The term "allele" can be ditched unilaterally, without much explanation being needed. The ditchers of the "allele" term might sometimes pay a small cost - in that sometimes readers will think: "(s)he probably means allele - does this chap know what (s)he is talking about?" This seems to be endurable to me, killing off terminology often has some associated costs.

One objection is that this involves more heavily overloading the term "gene". However, the term "gene" is already being overloaded in exactly this way - simply through popular usage. Ditching "allele" would pave the way towards ditching the old meaning of "gene" and promoting the term into what popular usage has made of it.

"Allele" may die hard, partly since using it signals being an expert. However, in this post, I am putting the boot in. If you agree, please feel free to engage in some public allele-trashing.

Memevolution and genevolution

Herbert Spencer wrote in 1862:
... there are not several kinds of Evolution having certain traits in common, but one Evolution going on everywhere after the same manner.
I think that is true, but also memetic evolution/cultural evolution and genetic evolution are common terms.

They are rather long-winded but they have pretty obvious abbreviations in memetics - namely memevolution and genevolution.

It would be nice if these were established terms. They aren't yet - although there are some uses. It seems about time to put them out there.

Examples: memevolution, memevolution.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Definitions of the term "meme"

A literature search found these proposed definitions of the term "meme". In no particular order:
A unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation.
- Richard Dawkins (1976) - The Seflish Gene
A unit of information residing in the brain (Cloak's i-culture).
- Richard Dawkins (1982) - The Extended Phenotype
An element of culture that may be considered to be passed on by non-genetic means, especially imitation.
- The Oxford English Dictionary
An idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture.
- Merriam-Webster
A cultural item that is transmitted by repetition in a manner analogous to the biological transmission of genes.
Any kind, amount, and configuration of information in culture that shows both variation and coherent transmission.
- William H. Durham (1992).
A unit of information in a mind whose existence influences events such that more copies of itself get created in other minds.
- Richard Brodie (1996, p 32).
Memes are the basic building blocks of our minds and culture, in the same way that genes are the basic building blocks of biological life.
- Richard Brodie (2008)
The unit of cultural heredity analogous to the gene; the internal representation of knowledge.
- Brodie 1995 - Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme
A unit of cultural inheritance.
- Bill Spight (2002) Standard definition
A section of heritable cultural information.
- Tim Tyler (2011) Memetics
Every sort of pattern which includes a template for its own replication.
- Evan Louis Sheehan (2006) The Mocking Memes, p.7.
A cultural expression which is passed on from one person or group to another person or group.
- John Gunders, Damon Brown, John Gunders (2011) The Complete Idiot's Guide to Memes
Constellations of activated and non-activated synapses within neural memory networks.
- Delius (1989)
Information patterns infecting human minds.
- Grant (1990)
Ideas or representations "...the internal end of the knowledge relationship"
- Plotkin (1993, p 215).
The hierarchically arranged components of semantic memory, encoded by discrete neural circuits awaiting identification.
- Edward Wilson (1998, p 148).
A memory item, or portion of an organism’s neurally-stored information, identified using the abstraction system of the observer, whose instantiation depended critically on causation by prior instantiation of the same memory item in one or more other organisms’ nervous systems. ("Sameness" of memory items is determined with respect to the above-mentioned abstraction system of the observer.
- Aaron Lynch (1991)
The least unit of socio-cultural information relative to a selection process that has favorable or unfavorable selection bias that exceeds its endogenous tendency to change.
- Wilkins, J. S. (1998) What's in a Meme?
A (cognitive) information-structure able to replicate using human hosts and to influence their behavior to promote replication.
- Henrik Bjarneskans, Bjarne Grønnevik and Anders Sandberg (2006) The Lifecycle of Memes.
Cultural information units that are the smallest elements that replicate themselves with reliability and fecundity.
- B.M. Ayyub (2010)
A unit of cultural information as it is represented in the brain.
- Liane Gabora (1998)
A pattern of information (a state within a space of possible states).
- Liane Gabora
A pattern of information, one that happens to have evolved a form which induces people to repeat that pattern.
- Peter de Jong
A brain control (or informational) state that can potentially cause fundamentally new behaviours and/or thoughts when replicated in another brain.
- Keith Stanovich
A contagious information pattern that replicates by parasitically infecting human minds and altering their behavior, causing them to propagate the pattern. Individual slogans, catch-phrases, melodies, icons, inventions, and fashions are typical memes. An idea or information pattern is not a meme until it causes someone to replicate it, to repeat it to someone else. All transmitted knowledge is memetic.
- Glenn Grant (1990)
The smallest idea that can copy itself while remaining self contained and intact.
- Brent Silby (2000) What is a Meme?
Istructions that can be followed to produce behavior.
- Brent Silby (2000) What is a Meme?
An idea, belief or belief system, or pattern of behavior that spreads throughout a culture either vertically by cultural inheritance (as by parents to children) or horizontally by cultural acquisition (as by peers, information media, and entertainment media).
- Urban Dictionary (2011)
A pervasive thought or thought pattern that replicates itself via cultural means; a parasitic code, a virus of the mind especially contagious to children and the impressionable.
- Urban Dictionary (2011)
The fundamental unit of information, analogous to the gene in emerging evolutionary theory of culture.
- Urban Dictionary (2011)
An idea that replicates by symbiotically infecting human minds and altering their behavior, causing them to propagate the meme -- similar to the way a t-phage virus reproduces by hijacking the DNA of a bacterium.
- Intelligen definition
A meme is information which propagates, has impact, and persists.
- Robert Finkelstein
A meme is information transmitted by any number of sources to at least an order of magnitude more recipients than sources, and propagated during at least twelve hours.
- Robert Finkelstein
A meme is information transmitted by one or more primary sources to recipients who, as secondary sources, retransmit the information to at leastan order of magnitude more recipients than primary sources, where propagation persists at least ten hours and the information has observable impact in addition to its transmission.
- Robert Finkelstein
A self-reproducing and propagating information structure analogous to a gene in biology.
- Robert Finkelstein and Bilal M. Ayyub (2009)
A unit of cultural information, such as a cultural practice or idea, that is transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another.
- Yahoo Reference dictionary (2011)
A feature of a culture, for example its language, that is passed from one generation to the next.
- Macmillan dictionary (2011)
Any unit of cultural information, such as a practice or idea, that is transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another. Examples include thoughts, ideas, theories, practices, habits, songs, dances and moods and terms such as race, culture, and ethnicity.
- Wiktionary (2011)
A self-propagating unit of cultural evolution having a resemblance to the gene (the unit of genetics).
- Wiktionary (2011)
a cultural unit (an idea or value or pattern of behavior) that is passed from one person to another by non-genetic means (as by imitation).
- (2011)
A meme is an idea or habit that's passed between people and generations through imitation. An example of a meme is the cultural tradition of women wearing skirts.
- (2011)

Other authors have offered broadly similar definitions, using dfifferent terminology. For example, here are By Robert Boyd, Peter J. Richerson (1985, page 33) - writing in "Culture and the Evolutionary Process":
The information that a particular individual inherits culturally will be referred to as that individual's cultural repertoire; specific elements of the cultural repertoire are called cultural variants.
This list remains under construction.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Memetics timeline

My "memetics timeline" is now available. It presents a chronological history of memetics.

The material is derived partly from the "History of memetics" chapter in my 2011 "Memetics" book - and partly from my online memetics booklist.

Indeed, you could say that these documents have engaged in sexual recombination.


Friday, 21 October 2011

Meme synonyms

The term "meme" did once have some competition.
  • Edward Burnett Tylor (1871) used the terms "customs" and "survivals";
  • Richard Semon (1921) called similar entities "mnemes";
  • George Kingsley Zipf (1935) used the term "actemes";
  • Arthur Oncken Lovejoy (1936) used the term "unit-ideas";
  • Julian Huxley (1955) used the term "mentifacts";
  • Leslie White (1959) called products of symbolism "symbolates";
  • Henry Murray (1959) called them "idenes";
  • Donald Campbell (1960) called them "mnemones";
  • Harold Blum (1963) endorsed "mnemes" by coining "mnemotype";
  • Ted Cloak (1966) used "Unit of Cultural Instruction";
  • Ralph Burhoe (1967) called them "culturetypes";
  • Ted Cloak (1975) used the term "cultural instructions";
  • Lumsden and Wilson (1981) called them "culturegens"
  • Carl Swanson (1983) called them "sociogenes";
  • Boyd and Richerson (1985) called them "cultural variants" - having previously used the terms "culture-types", "cultural representations" and "cultural traits".
  • M. Stuart-Fox (1986) called them "mentemes";
  • George Williams (1992) used "codex" as an umbrella term for memes and genes;
  • Richard Brodie (1996) prefered to talk about "mind viruses";
  • Joseph Giovannoli (2000) calls them "psychogenes";
  • Seth Godin (2000) refers to "ideaviruses";
  • William Croft (2000) used linguemes" for "linguistic replicators";
  • Aaron Lynch (2000) used a term he invented: "thought contagions";
  • Barry Hewlett (2002) calls them "semes";
  • Geoffrey Hodgson (2003) proposed we use "habits" and "routines" instead;
  • Peter Turchin (2006) called them "cultural genes";
  • George van Driem (2007) rechristened the unit of imitation as a "mime";
  • Craig Mackay (2011) calls them "supergenes";
  • Bill Benzon (2014) calls them "coordinators" [ref];

However, none of these other terms has become anywhere near as popular as the term "meme".

At the time of writing, the term "meme" has 219,000,000 hits on Google.

The large number of close synonyms -and the large number of usages - suggest an important, natural term.

For graphs of the statistics for previous usage of the term, see here.

Another new book on memes - and tepees

This one is: On the Origin of Tepees: The Evolution of Ideas (and Ourselves) by Jonnie Hughes. The title is a play on Darwin's title. It was published 10 days before my own book.

Curiously, it seems to be a travel tale - with memes mixed in. The blurb reads:

Why do some ideas spread, while others die off? Does human culture have its very own “survival of the fittest”? And if so, does that explain why our species is so different from the rest of life on Earth?

Throughout history, we humans have prided ourselves on our capacity to have ideas, but perhaps this pride is misplaced. Perhaps ideas have us. After all, ideas do appear to have a life of their own. And it is they, not us, that benefit most when they are spread. Many biologists have already come to the opinion that our genes are selfish entities, tricking us into helping them to reproduce. Is it the same with our ideas?

Jonnie Hughes, a science writer and documentary filmmaker, investigates the evolution of ideas in order to find out. Adopting the role of a cultural Charles Darwin, Hughes heads off, with his brother in tow, across the Midwest to observe firsthand the natural history of ideas—the patterns of their variation, inheritance, and selection in the cultural landscape. In place of Darwin’s oceanic islands, Hughes visits the “mind islands” of Native American tribes. Instead of finches, Hughes searches for signs of natural selection among the tepees.


Amazon link. Google Books. Facebook page. Author's blog. New Scientist review. Author podcast.

Meme commentary

The author has said this about memes:

The "meme" is a confused and confusing term, routinely raised as an analogue of the gene without due care. I've spent the last few years stripping it back to establish whether it has any use in better understanding cultural evolution. I have to conclude that it does, but only when you correctly apply the analogy, differentiating the "genes of culture" from the "organisms of culture", the "populations of culture" and even the "species of culture". Only with this full-hearted approach can you visualise the memetic view of cultural evolution, and only then upon admiting the vaguaries of the definition of "a gene" in the first place.



I now have the book. Some criticisms:

The memes are rather light, not starting until page 214. The book ends on page 274.

The author embraces internalism. I find that rather disappointing.

The author asks:

Why aren't all biologists talking about memes? (page 239).
He then claims that the answer is that people can't easily find memes in brains, but that this is gradually changing - with mirror neuron discoveries. IMO, that's a crock of nonsense - that isn't the reason why.

Richerson, Boyd, Feldman, Cavalli-Sforza, Lumsden, Wilson, Laland, Mesoudi and Whiten get about half a page in the bibliography. The excuse?

I have made a conscious effort to avoid naming scientists and philosophers throught the text unless it is really important to do so. My justification is that it formalises and slows down the story. (p.279)
So: this isn't really much of a science book at all.

The summary of the efforts of these first six scientists reads:

In the 1980s a series of researchers tried to get the same smug explanatory power by lashing our cultural evolution ever so tightly to our biological evolution in complex "coevolutionary" models.
I confess that, while wincing a little, I chuckled at this characterisation. That's a pretty neat summary of what those researchers did that was wrong.

Developments at IARPA

IARPA has some interesting projects in the pipeline: The Web Analytics for Security Informatics presentation in particular caught my eye. It has section titles of: "Meme analysis for emerging threat warning" and "Meme analysis for situational awareness" - and it says: "capability to detect significant, emerging “memes” at Web-scale has considerable utility".

DARPA's Narrative Networks

More military research into memetic engineering was announced recently.

Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), wants to hire a group specialising in "Narrative Networks" to figure out how susceptable people are to “narratives” (oral stories, speeches, propaganda, books, etc.) and then supplant these narrative messages with “better” messages - to make sure that the most "vulnerable" people do not become terrorists by mistake.

News coverage:

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

The problem with niche construction

Meme researcher Kevin Laland has been doing fine work for many years on what he calls niche construction.

Niche construction is defined here as being:

the process whereby organisms, through their metabolism, their activities, and their choices, modify their own and/or others' niches".

While the work that has been done under the "niche construction" umbrella seems great, I see a problem with it - and the problem is with the name.

According to the dictionary to "construct" something means: "to build or form by putting together parts".

However, "niche construction" is not defined as being an activity involving "construction". It just talks about "modification" - which includes destruction as well as construction. "Niche construction" does not mean what its name says. For me, that is one of the hallmarks of bad terminology.

Environment modification destroys niches as well as creating them. Mushroom rings demonstrate the phenomenon: the mushrooms destroy their own niche my depleting it of nutrients.

I am not the first to point out this terminology problem. Dawkins (2004) says much the same, citing Sterelny (2001). He says:

The problem I have with niche construction is that it confuses two very different impacts that organisms might have on their environments. As Sterelny (2001, p. 333) (29) put it, ‘Some of these impacts are mere effects; they are byproducts of the organisms’s way of life. But sometimes we should see the impact of organism on environment as the organism engineering its own environment: the environment is altered in ways that are adaptive for the engineering organism. Niche construction is a suitable name only for the second of these two (and it is a special case of the extended phenotype). There is a temptation, which I regard as little short of pernicious, to invoke it for the first (byproducts) as well.’ Let’s call the first type by the more neutral term, ‘niche changing’, with none of the adaptive implications of niche construction or – for that matter – of the extended phenotype.

"Construction" is hardly synonymous with "engineering" - but anyway, Richard correctly identifies the basic problem. However, I don't much like his proposal of ‘niche changing’ very much either.

There are various possible alternatives: "niche modification", "ecological modification" and "environmental modification". I tend to use "environmental modification" - since I usually want to distinguish it from changes which organisms make to themselves, and it fits in neatly with the concept of "environmental inheritance". However, "niche modification" is the one that most clearly refers to Laland's concept.

The proponents offer a defense against this specific criticism here - but their defense seems inadequate to me: they defend their science, but not their terminology.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Patrick Davison on cute kittens

Patrick Davison (from MemeFactory) presentation: "The Online Animal Economy: Examining the Cute Kitty Video".

This video - for internet meme enthusiasts - looks at online animal videos and categorises them.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Paul Erhlich's latest attack on memetics

Paul Erhlich's latest article in Seed Magazine offers the following critique of memetics:
Richard Dawkins’s brave conjecture about “memes” (gene analogs) being discrete units of cultural inheritance has not proved entirely fruitful - and the analogy is in retrospect far-fetched. Genes are passed unidirectionally between parent and offspring, and the recipients must accept them. Memes could be passed hundreds of generations at a leap (Aristotle to you), horizontally among peers (gang member to gang member), backwards in generations (learning from your grandkids), and so on. And, unlike genes, not only can cultural inheritances be rejected but they can also be purposefully modified.
Alas, these criticism are misguided. They reveal a lack of understanding of memetics.

Parasite genes spread horizontally among peers and there are disease avoidance strategies for rejecting them. They can travel from offspring to parent. Memes don't usually pass hundreds of generations in one leap - most memes that come from Aristotle actually have dozens of intermediaties. Memes can lie dormant on stone tablets - but genes can lie dormant too - the oldest documented germinating seed is estimated to be nearly 2,000 years old.

As for genes not being capable of being purposefully modified - in fact there is genetic engineering, just as there is memetic engineering.

This content is very similar to content from a previous interview with Paul - which I previously replied to.

I think the scientists involved should try harder to find a sympathetic interpretation of memetics. It isn't that difficult to do.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Memes and the great brain shrinkage

Coyne (1999) criticises the meme hypothesis for explaining big brains:

First, there is no evidence that brain-size increase had anything to do with memes — there are as many explanations (including language, social grouping, hunting) as there are evolutionists, and no way to judge which theory is best. Indeed, the meme hypothesis seems among the least likely. As others have noted, the serious proliferation of memes began roughly 30,000 years ago when humans commenced their march to larger social groups, writing and complex culture. The human brain, however, stopped enlarging after reaching its present volume nearly 500,000 years ago. Why did brain-size evolution stop so long before the heaviest rain of memes?
Mammal brain size increases can't go on forever - the female pelvis and the human neck act as restraints. That seems to be the most obvious explanation for increases in human brain coming to an end. Such a constraint apples equally well to all theories that posit a selective advantage to large brains - including the meme theory.

The volume average male brain reduced from 1,500 cubic centimeters to 1,350 cubic centimeters over the last 20,000 years. How does the meme theory explain this cranial shrinkage?

That is most likely to have been among the results of the agricultural revolution. Human settlements formed and role-specialisation began. No longer did each member of the tribe have to carry all the tribes memes around in their heads. Bakers, tailors, teachers, managers and priests established their own traditions. Then writing came along - allowing memory storage space to be out-sourced.

In short, humans domesticated themselves. Collective meme-storage took over - and individual meme-storage became less valuable.

Of course, we don't know with much certainty exactly what happened - but the meme hypothesis is at least consistent with conventional explanations for recent changes in human brain size.


Memes in "Not by genes alone"

Boyd and Richerson have led the adademic bashing of memetics by cultural evolution researchers, arguing the term "meme" too-strongly implies discreteness and high-fidelity copying. Scientific meme enthusiasts mostly disagree - saying that discreteness and high-fidelity copying are not too-strongly implied by the term - and they cite the dictionary definition of "meme"- which makes no mention of "discreteness" or "high-fidelity copying".

However Boyd and Richerson do use the term "meme" in their 2005 book "Not by genes alone" - in a context apparently divorced from criticism - on page 244:

Modern societies, by vastly enlarging the scope for nonparental transmission have also increased the chance of choosing maladaptive memes.
According to Runciman (2009, p.53), the explanation for this is that Boyd and Richerson initially drafted the book using the term "meme" throughout - and then replaced it with their own term ("cultural variant"). However their "meme sweep" did not catch all the occurrences of the term "meme".

Peter Richerson once had this to say about the similarity:
Our project has involved borrowing models from population genetics and applying them to cultural evolution - much like the meme idea.
I think Boyd and Richerson's "cultural variants" are the same thing as memes, despite their protesations to the contrary.

The history of memetics might have been rather different if "Not by Genes Alone" had endorsed the "meme" terminology. For one thing, there would have been less need for me to write my own (2011) book on memetics.

Having said that, I've also looked at "The Origin and Evolution of Cultures" - and it is pretty saturated with the "m" word - much of it apparently uncritical.


  • Richerson, Peter J. and Boyd, Robert (2005) Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution.
  • Richerson, Peter J. and Boyd, Robert (2005) The Origin and Evolution of Cultures.
  • Runciman, W.G. (2009) The Theory of Cultural and Social Selection.
  • Tim Tyler (2011) Memes in The Origin and Evolution of Cultures.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

The Memes of Memetasia

SuperNews deals with the topic internet memes - in The Memes of Memetasia.

Rather predictably, the apprentice memesters create a meme monster that consumes the world.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Memetics researchers - publications

Who publishes on memetics, cultural evolution and social evolution?

Here is an alphabetical list of some of the researchers who maintain lists of their publications:

Some research organisations also have lists of their publications:Interestingly many of those involved (including me until recently) seem to be based in the United Kingdom. It remains a hot-bed of research into evolution, 150 years after Darwin.

These lists are under construction.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Tim Tyler: On the gene-meme relationship


Hi! I'm Tim Tyler, and this video about the meme-gene relationship.

Memetics is largely based on the idea that there is a relationship between memes and genes. The relationship is based on the idea that genes are the things that carry heritable information in organic evolution - and so we need to have some term for the carriers of cultural inheritance - and the term "meme" is the one that was selected by Richard Dawkins and has subsequently become the dominant term.

Memes are like genes in a number of ways. They carry heritable information down the generations. They are subject to mutation. They are capable of recombination. They change in frequency due to favorable or unfavourable selection. They are subject to drift. They exhibit linkage disequilibrium and engage in hitchhiking. They are expressed. They are potentially immortal. Memes often compete with alternative forms - sometimes called allomemes. There are meme pools, much as there are gene pools. Meme flow is very similar to gene flow. Phylomemetics is the cultural version of phylogenetics. There are memetic algorithms - which are similar to genetic algorithms. There's a meme's eye view which is similar to the gene's eye view. There is - or at least there should be - a science that studies memes in the same way there is a science of genetics that studies genes.

However, there are also a number of ways in which memes are not like genes. Memes are not made of DNA. They are not arranged in linear strings. There is no equivalent to a base pair. There are not a small number of codes which translate between the heritable material and phenotypes, but rather thousands of such codes. 99% of genes are represented in DNA - with only a small fraction being stored in databases. With memes it is more the other way around - with many memes are stored in databases. Memes are often not obviously divided into multiple chromosomes. Memes are often easy to change deliberately, genes are often challenging to change deliberately. Genes are often transmitted with high fidelity. Most memes are too these days, but there are some types of memes that are still subjected to very distorted transmission. Memetic engineering is very common - genetic engineering is still relatively rare.

The best perspective is probably that genes and memes represent sections of heritable information in different media in which Darwinian dynamics can take place. Similarities arise from the shared Darwinian dynamics while most of the differences arise from the differences between the media of inheritance.

However, many people seem to insist on treating the relationship between memes and genes as an analogy - and this leads to them to seek out the points of disanalogy. Then they often reject the relationship on the ground that the analogy doesn't work properly.

The link between genes and memes is one the main things that distinguishes memetics from one of the main strains of cultural evolution in academia - spearheaded by the researchers Boyd and Richerson.

Here is what Boyd and Richerson wrote in Not By Genes Alone (2005, p.81):
We encourage you not to think of cultural variants as close analogues of genes but as different entities entirely about which we know distressingly little. They must be gene-like to the extent that they carry the cultural information necessary to create cultural continuity. But, as you will see, this can be accomplished in most un-gene like ways.
We even have the one-time meme enthusiast Bruce Edmonds, saying:
I claim that the underlying reason memetics has failed is that it has not provided any extra explanatory or predictive power beyond that available without the gene-meme analogy.
These kinds of comment raise the issue of whether the gene-meme relationship is worthwhile - or whether it just causes too much confusion. This seems to be a no-brainer to me. The relationship between genes and memes goes pretty deep, and is obviously worthwhile. The failure to embrace it may have contributed to the poor penetration of topics like linkage-based memetic hitchhiking and the meme's eye view in academia. Boyd and Richerson's advice to think of their cultural variants as being "different entities entirely about which we know distressingly little" appears to be simply awful to me. We should be making use of our knowledge of evolutionary dynamics from genetics - not ignoring it and starting afresh.

The relationship between memes and genes is one facet of a much deeper relationship between memetics and genetics. The main problem with understanding cultural evolution in the world is that people fail to appreciate the depth the this relationship. This problem extends into academia. For example, earlier this year we have Peter Richerson saying this:
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, o[u]r own invention or someone else’s.
These comments appear to illustrate a lack of appreciation of the depth of the relationship between memes and genes. Acquired variation can be inherited in the organic realm too - such as when a dog gets fleas and then passes them on to their offspring. That is not what biologists usually mean by the term "the inheritance of acquired characteristics" - but it is the same type of inheritance of acquired characteristics that is most commonly found in memetic evolution: acquiring an idea and passing it on is essentially same phenomenon as acquiring a symbiont (such as a parasite) and passing that on.

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

Animals subject to organic evolution are not "blind victims" of chance either - they can choose which symbionts they form associations with - in a very similar manner to the way in which humans choose their memetic symbionts.

As for only being able to choose parents in the cultural realm - we don't have to acquire the same parasites as our parents - we can collect different ones. Nor need we necessarily acquire the same food symbionts - 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, being able to select who you inherit symbiont genes from happens in organic evolution - in just the same way as it happens in memetic evolution.

So, the points Peter mentions to highlight the differences between memes and genes and illustrate how memes are "most ungene-like in many respects" mostly turn out to be deep similarities instead - once you properly grasp the concept of a meme-gene symbiosis. If you fail to grasp that then memetic evolution does indeed look very different from organic evolution - but only because you have not yet got a proper handle on the relationship between them. This is not to say that there are no differences between the memetic and organic realms - just that the similarities overwhelm them, abundantly justifying emphasizing the relationship between memes and genes.

Academia will have to eventually embrace the relationship between memes and genes. A failure to understand this relationship appears to be the cause of many current conceptual problems. Indeed, understanding the full depth and extent of this relationship, is really fundamental to understanding how culture evolves.


Evolutionary psychology defended

Memetics was created as a kind of antidote to thinking such as that found in Wilson's "Sociobiology".

Today, sociobiology lives on in a neww guise: evolutionary psychology. This more-or-less attempts to trace commonalities of human behaviour back to the influence of DNA genes. This remains a primitive and largely misguided approach to explaining human behaviour, since behaviour is influenced by genes, memes and other environmental influences. Since memetic influences are so strong, only paying attention to genes misses so much as to render the effort of explaining human behaviour in these terms near to hopeless.

Even an extremely restricted study of human behavioural universals is best explained by genetic and memetic inheritance - not by DNA alone! Once you study all forms of inheritance, there is no good reason to restrict behaviour to human universals - since at that stage you have a much more powerful theory at hand, one that can cope with all inherited behaviour. Since you can't realistically study study human universals without embracing memetic evolution, you might as well just do that - and then you have a theory that can cover all human inherited behaviour. By comparison, human universals which are explained only by shared DNA is just not a particularly interesting or even clearly-delimited area of study.

This issue has been patiently pointed out in these papers:

Does this recent defense of evolutionary psychology address these issues? No, it doesn't.

Evolutionary psychology could some day become a useful discipline. However, so far it has persistently missed the second wave of the Darwinian revolution - and so risks being left behind. Step one for evolutionary psychology looks as though it involves acknowledging how flawed and misguided its research programme has been up to this point.

Darwin's Dangerous Idea - the documentary

This is the "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" documentary - from the BBC.

Part 1 is Darwin's struggle to publish, part 2 covers social darwinism and eugenics and part 3 is the "green" part - featuring Silent Spring, coral reefs and Gaia.

Unlike in Dennett's treatment, Dawkins' Dangerous Idea doesn't get mentioned. There is some discussion of social evolution in part 2 - but this is portrayed as a perversion of Darwinism, and is linked to the holocaust.

The overall effect is rather like a documentary from the 1960s - before the second wave of evolutionary theory and the Darwinian embrace of human culture. The documentary does show the current primitive state of popular understanding of evolutionary theory in 2011 though.

Part one misguidedly says (54:00 minutes in):

Until recently George Price's equation was largely ignored or forgotten - but it's become very important in the study of evolution.

It is still the best mathematical explanation any scientist has come up with to show why altruism or goodness survives and thrives.
Price's equation is about kin selection - and we have much more satisfying and comprehensive explanations of altruism these days - involving reciprocal altruism, signalling and memes.