Wednesday, 29 February 2012

David Sloane Wilson - Evolving the Future

Not great sound, but here David Sloane Wilson discusses the significance of cultural evolution for three minutes and then goes on to describe his efforts to apply evolutionary theory locally.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Reply girls

Seen more cleavage than usual in the YouTube "related videos" bar recently?

Know Your Meme covers this latest type of memetic hitchhiking.

Richard Dawkins asks David Buss about memes

An interview between Richard Dawkins and evolutionary psychologist David Buss. Dawkins attempts to turn the discussion to memes at 4:26. David Buss turns the topic right back again to underlying evolved psychological mechanisms.

Evolutionary psychology currently isn't much of a Darwinian science of human behaviour. It only knows how to deal with human universals - and with the ubiquity of cultural modulation, not very much is universal. Can it mend its ways by importing what it has been missing - after all these decades with its head in the sand?

John Maynard Smith on social biology

Videos of John Maynard Smith on sociobiology:

A full list of the videos from the John Maynard Smith interview with Richard Dawkins is here.

John Maynard Smith only wrote about memetics a little. In 1999 he showed signs of having come around, writing:

I used to regard the meme as a fun idea - helpful in explaining to students that there can be more than one kind of replicator, and that all replicators evolve by natural selection - but not as an idea which could be used to do much serious work. Genes have clear rules of transmission (in sexual organisms, Mendel’s laws) whereas you can learn memes not only from parents, but from friends, books, films and so on. Consequently population genetics can generate precise, testable predictions, whereas it seemed to me difficult to make such predictions about memes. Susan Blackmore’s book, The Meme Machine, has gone some way to changing my mind. Perhaps we can make the meme idea do some work.

Update 2017: the full text of John Maynard Smith's review of the meme Machine is now online - from the link above.

Matt Ridley on the global brain

Matt Ridley talks about our "collective brain." for one hour. This address, which was delivered on February 1, 2012, was one in a series of lectures that are sponsored by the Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke University and named after the economist Friedrich Hayek.

The first 22 minutes is all about progress. Then we get on to material about cultural evolution.

Mark Pagel's "Wired for Culture" book is out

Mark Pagel's book "Wired for Culture - Origins of the Human Social Mind is out.

The book uses the term "meme" pretty heavily throughout. It has five pages of fairly positive content at the start all memes. It says:

In fact, it has become something of a badge of the true believer among those who study memes that there is no reason to expect our genes to win—that there is no reason to expect as the evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson maintained, that our "genes hold culture on a leash".
Mark doesn't seem to bother much with the critics of memetics. He just introduces the idea - and then gets straight on with using it. The memetics in the book looks pretty good. Mark discusses parasitism and commensalism - and approvingly cites Daniel Dennett. He talks about "brain parasites" and "viruses of the mind". Mark discusses the cultural immune system. There appears to be a little replicator rot for critics to feast on - but I'm OK with a little replicator rot here and there.


Guardian Podcast.

Not too many evolutionary biologists that I am aware of have openly embraced memes. There are a few - for example, Eörs Szathmáry mentions them now and again. It isn't clear terribly why this is. Many do not yet seem to fully understand that culture evolves along Darwinian lines. Conservatism may be one factor. Memetics being a bit of mess may be another factor. Anyway, congratualtions to Mark for being an early adopter. It seems to be a bit of a boost for the credibility of memetics to have Mark on board.

Matt Ridley's WSJ article says:

Bodies are just genes' ways of making more genes; similarly, culture is just another way of making genes.
Fellow meme enthusiasts will proabably want to scream: No! Culture is just the memes' ways of making more memes!

It does make a difference! For example, the gene-centric view is blind to the possibility of a memetic takeover.

Look to Japan - and the demographic transition there - to see how memes don't necessarily help genes to make more genes.

The podcast (above) has Mark expounding on this point. Memes apparently are there for the sake of the genes - according to Mark.

Here's our page about Mark Pagel resources.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Andy Thomson: How Religious Ideas Parasitise The Brain

Religion treated as a parasite and byproduct.

Symbiology adoption sluggish

Symbiology - the theory of symbiosis - took a long time to be accepted in the organic realm. The term "symbiosis" was coined in 1877 - but it wasn't until the 1960s that the significance of symbiosis dawned on evolutionary biologists - and there was still some doubt it until mitochondrial DNA was sequenced in the 1980s. For decade after decade it laboured on as a discredited idea - before finally being accepted by practically all scientists.

Now we are facing much the same situation with cultural evolution. We have had a pioneering theory of cultural symbionts - since Cloak (1975) and Dawkins (1976). Cloak (1975) said:

the best that can always be said for cultural instructions, as for parasites of any sort, is that they can't destroy their hosts more quickly than they can propagate. In short, "our" cultural instructions don't work for us organisms; we work for them. At best, we are in symbiosis with them, as we are with our genes. At worst, we are their slaves.
Dawkins (1976) said (quoting Nicholas Humphries):

Memes are 'living structures, not just metaphorically but technically.When you plant a fertile meme in my mind,you literally parasitise my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme's propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitise the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn't just a way of talking [...]
That was visionary material for the 1970s.

Memetics has subsequently put much more time and energy than any of its competitors into a proper theory of cultural symbiosis. It features parasites, mutualists, immunity, vaccines, kin selection and an equivalent of domatia.

Yet, as with the organic realm, understanding of symbiosis among scientists lags far behind that of the pioneers.

This is true even though scientists have the example of symbiosis in organic evolution to show them the way.

To give an example, Mark Changizi embraces linguistic symbiosis in the last few pagees of Harnessed. Here's a reviewer's comment:

I don't think it serves more than an illustrative purpose to call elements of culture symbionts; and I am willing to bet that the establishment in evolutionary biology is not going to be giving Changizi any high fives.
Changizi gets "high fives" from me - though more than a page or so might have helped. The problem is that he is a lonely early adopter.

Symbiosis is evolution's nicer side. Without symbiosis, competition rules - "survival of the fittest" - and all that. The darker side of social Darwinism should remind everyone in the field of the consequences of applying inaccurate conceptions of evolutionary theory to the realm of human social evolution. We already have enough inaccurate evolutionary theory inspiring economics. For goodness sake, fellow scientists, please get your act together on this one, or everyone will suffer.

The closest memetic equivalent of sequencing mitochondrial DNA is probably brain scanning. Perhaps - as happened with symbiosis in the organic realm - scientists won't "get it" until the evidence is shoved right into their faces. However, there is no reason why this step should be needed.


Kevin Allocca: Why videos go viral

Memetics on TED - again:

Kevin Allocca is the "trends manager" at YouTube.

Featuring the double rainbow guy, Rebecca Black's Friday, Nyan Cat, NYC bicycle fine protest crashes and "tastemakers".

"Tastemakers" are surely usually called "influencers". Yes, influencers also influence other things - besides taste - but I'm not sure about whether there is much need for this proposed terminology.

Truth and Reconciliation for David Sloan Wilson

As part of my recent "group selection" explorations, I got around to reading David Sloan Wilson's text Truth and Reconciliation for Group Selection.

I didn't wind up on anything llike the same page as Wilson, though I do feel as though I understand his position a bit more clearly.

This post will offer one specific criticism. David Sloan Wilson says:

If a trait is locally disadvantageous wherever it occurs, there is only one way for it to evolve in the total population - by being advantageous at a larger scale. Groups of individuals displaying social adaptations must survive and reproduce better than other groups, to counterbalance the disadvantage of the same adaptations within groups. All evolutionary theories of social behavior embody this logic.
I don't think this is quite right. Sneezing is a locally disadvantageous trait to the humans that engage in it. It evolves not by offering group level benefits to humans, but by offering benefits to a symbiote - in this case a flu virus.

Wilson makes the same point repeatedly. Here he is again:

How can a behavior evolve in the total population when it is selectively disadvantageous within each and every group? Only if it is selectively advantageous at a larger scale.
This isn't right. Coughing is disadvantageous in every group of humans - but it simply isn't selectively advantageous at a larger scale.

Cooperation among humans is partly caused by a broadly similar phenomenon. Rather than looking for benefits to high-level entities (groups) another hypothesis is that the organisms are being manipulated, to act against their own interests.

Many agents can perform manipulation - but in this case, cultural entities (based on memes) are important candidates to consider. Memes push humans into contact with one another for the simple reason that their reproduction depends on it. Memes often favour human contact - the more prolonged and frequent the better - because they need such contact in order to reproduce themselves.

This is the "symbiosis theory of altruism". Symbionts create a web of ecological interactions which pulls their associated communities together into tighter social groups. This is symbiology - not group selection.

With symbionts (disease agents or memes) in the picture, one can't just observe traits that are deleterious to the individuals that exhibit them - and then jump to the hypothesis that "group selection did it". That is not a legitimate move.

One could argue that these traits are beneficial sometimes - though not to the humans that exhibit them - they are beneficial to the memes whose extended phenotype they are part of. However, for some reason or another, it seems to be easy for people to accidentally leave memes out of their accounting scheme.

There are a few other ideas that can also help to explain the existence of apparently-deleterious traits:

  • They are closely linked to advantageous traits;
  • They are pleiotropic side effects of other traits;
  • They evolved in a different environment;
  • They are evolution's mistakes.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Wilson: The Social Conquest of Earth

Edward O. Wilson has a new book coming out on the topic of social behaviour: The Social Conquest of Earth. It seems to focus on human social behaviour.

The book also seems to focus on the topic of group selection. Wilson has touched on this topic before - with Superorganism, and some papers with David Sloane Wilson: Evolution “for the Good of the Group”, Survival of the selfless and Rethinking the theoretical foundation of sociobiology. These joint papers seem to be largely the voice of David Sloane Wilson to me. There was also a recent paper apparently bashing kin selection: The evolution of eusociality Martin A. Nowak, Corina E. Tarnita and Edward O. Wilson (with supplement). The New Yorker also recently published "Kin and Kind - a fight about the genetics of altruism" on the topic. 137 authors replied in Nature, saying, basically: Eugh.

The Wilsons seems to have got hold of the idea that eusociality involves group selection. In a sense it does, but group selection doesn't have a monopoly on viewing colonies as individuals. Social insect colonies can also be seen as the product of kin selection and manipulation (by queens and/or workers). David Sloane Wilson delights in claiming that kin selection is a special case of group selection. However, models of the two ideas are equivalent. However, shared genes and differential reproductive success of groups still seem to be pretty different explanations for why cooperation takes place - and kin selection between close relatives seems to account for most of the observed effect, while distantly-related group members are relatively insignificant.

Quietly muddling together kin selection and group selection seems to be a common problem. In Unto Others, David Sloane Wilson claims the evolution of virality to be one of the best documented cases of group selection - yet this heavily involves kin selection. The other example given there - female-biased populations - also seem to have been convincingly explained as cases of kin selection between close kin. The usual examples that are trotted out - slime molds, social insects, chickens, multicellularity - all seem to be better explained as cases of kin selection acting between close kin. There do not seem to be any examples of group selection in nature that are not better explained as cases of kin selection acting on close kin.

If you give group selection credit for kin selection's moves, then no wonder group selection looks as though it is important. The real issue here is surely whether a theory of group selection adds anyhing - after kin selection acting on close relatives is taken into account.

The blurb for the new book says:

Refashioning the story of human evolution in a work that is certain to generate headlines, Wilson draws on his remarkable knowledge of biology and social behavior to show that group selection, not kin selection, is the primary driving force of human evolution.
The "primary driving force of human evolution"? What's that, then? Human culture, perhaps?

Kin selection is a proven and important theory, explaining important phenomena such as parental care - while group selection is still a fringe theory that has hardly been proven to be responsible for anything. Unless of course you redefine the term "group selection" - to refer to kin selection, reciprocal altruism, virtue signalling, manipulation - and a bunch of other things - in the manner that David Sloane Wilson advocates - in which case this turns into more of a fight over terminology than one over facts.

Looking at the paper with Nowak, it looks as though Wilson is not doing much more than claiming that multi-level selection theory is more general than kin selection - which is usually regarded as not being correct. More usually the "new" group selection and kin selection are regarded as being broadly equivalent.

Wilson discusses the contents of the book a little here: E. O. Wilson’s Theory of Everything.

There's an interview with Carl Zimmer here: What Does E.O. Wilson Mean By a "Social Conquest of the Earth".

I have mixed feelings about Wilson's work in this area. Some of the "group selection" points seem correct, other ones seem more dubious. The group selection controversy is interesting material. However, I am inclined to side with Stuart West (2009) on this whole issue: the "new" group selection is already covered by the math of conventional inclusive fitness theory.

Update 2012-04-02: The book is now out. Here it is on Google Books.

I looked at the section devoted to kin selection: Wilson starts off with what appears to be a misquotation from Ernst Fehr and Simon Gachter (2002):

Unlike other creatures, people frequently cooperate with genetically unrelated strangers, often in large groups, with people they will never meet again, and when reproductive gains are small or absent. These patterns of cooperation cannot be explained by the evolutionary theory of kin selection and the selfsh motives associated with signalling theory or the theory of reciprocal altruism.
Of course, such patterns could be explained by cultural kin selection. Or the theory that kin selection could have given us these instincts while our ancestors were in small tribes. These folk also have a relavant explanation of why humans are so generous, even in one-shot interactions: The evolution of direct reciprocity under uncertainty can explain human generosity in one-shot encounters by Andrew W. Delton, Max M. Krasnow, Leda Cosmides & John Tooby.

Wilson then goes on to say:

Kin selection, as I have pointed out, cannot be the solution to this paradox. It might be thought to have worked in the bands of the early hunter-gatherers, where because of small numbers, kinship of the members was close. But mathematical analysis has revealed that kin selection of itself is inoperable as an evolutionary dynamical force. When closely related individuals come together such that cooperators are more likely to meet other genetic cooperators, the result will not, by itself promote the origin of cooperation. Only group selection, with groups containing more cooperators pitted against groups containing fewer cooperators, will result in a shift at the level of the species towards greater and wider instinctive cooperation.
So, it seems that Wilson is relying on "mathematical analysis" - and apparently from an unspecified source - for his critique of kin selection. OK - so: which mathematical analysis.

In fact, I think - even without seeing the analysis - that it is pretty clear that Wilson's claim that "kin selection of itself is inoperable as an evolutionary dynamical force" is false. As is the claim that "Kin selection is wrong." For example, it really does make a difference if you find out that someone is a relative.

One remaining question is whether being spectacularly wrong is a good way of selling a lot of books.


Edward O. Wilson, Harvard University on Charlie Rose in 2012.

Wilson's position on the topic of kin selection looks very shaky to me in this interview. It appears as though he is stuck in a bit of an intellectual bubble. He probably shouldn't be criticising Richard Dawkins like that - Richard is really just stating the conventional position here.

Here's Wilson on FORA TV:

I'm going to be a little bit strong worded about the 40 years - the four decades that we have laboured and spun our wheels with kin selection theory - and I'm guilty of that too because in my first books on sociobiology I adopted it as a good genetic expanation - and those words are: We now have got to clear the wreckage of kin selection off the road so we can move ahead. Now that that's being done what I have now written here will be much more likely to come to pass.

This is just nonsense. Wilson doesn't seem to know what he is talking about. The critique offered in the FORA TV is revealing. Wilson just doesn't understand the issue. My assessment is that group selection enthusiasts are rather unfortunate to have Wilson, Novak and Tarnita on their side.



  • Wilson, E. O. (2012) “The Social Conquest of Earth” FORA TV.
  • Wilson, E. O. (2012) Where does good come from?


  • Saturday, 25 February 2012

    A Cooperative Species - reviewed

    The book "A Cooperative Species" has had a few reviews recently.

    "Not so selfish" - by Peter Richerson and "Group Selection Theories are Now More Sophisticated, but are They More Predictive?" by Michael E. Price. There's also a review by Noah Mark.

    Michael E. Price's review has my sympathies. He mostly focusses on one issue - but it pinpoints one of the book's problems. The modern wave of academic cultural evolution is accompanied by an enthusiasm for cultural group selection that strikes me as being wildly out of proportion. Here's Coyne on Price's review.

    As recently noted, in a paper titled "The evolution of direct reciprocity under uncertainty can explain human generosity in one-shot encounters" human altruism may have been exaggerated in some of the lab experiments that purport to measure the aspects of it which seem to demand an explanation in terms of group selection.

    Cultural group selection is an interesting idea - but most theorists are not even considering explanations based on cultural kin selection. Leaping for group selection before considering kin selection seems to me to be a classic mistake. Plus there are plenty of good explanations for altruism that don't invoke group selection. Despite the equivalence results, there are still reasons for choosing kin selection over group selection. The current situation is rather like the Wynne-Edwards era all over again - but in the realm of cultural evolution.

    I happened to look through "A Cooperative Species" in the Boston Public Library yesterday.

    The book seems quite readable and comprehensive. I would compare the book with Not By Genes Alone - which is a pretty big compliment.

    However, I was most interested in what had been missed out. Looking through my list of why humans cooperate why humans cooperate the main things that were completely missing were cultural kin selection and induced cooperation - i.e. manipulation. Influences associated with cultural elements - including manipulation - are a pretty big deal in explanations of why humans cooperate the are derived from memetics.

    The book does treat kin selection, signalling and reciprocity - but they are not really the "main course" of the book. That centres around multi-level selection. It doesn't seem to be the good sort of multi-level selection - that deals with kin groups - but rather the more dubious kind of multi-level selection - that deals with distantly-related strangers.

    Unlike most popular works on the topic - like "The Calculus of Selfishness" and Supercooperators, Bowles and Gintis do treat cultural evolution seriously, and spend some time discussing its implications.

    I also briefly looked through Moral Sentiments and Material Interests: The Foundations of Cooperation in Economic Life - edited by Herbert Gintis, Samuel Bowles, Robert Boyd and Ernst Fehr.

    This book is pretty technical. Many of the pages are pretty densely packed with mathematical formulae. I thought it was on the inaccessible side.

    Friday, 24 February 2012

    Memes as the new phlogiston?!?

    Timothy Taylor (no relation) is the author of the interesting book "The Artificial Ape". He penned an anti-meme diatribe in the Evolution 2.0 book - titled "The Problem of ‘Darwinizing’ Culture (or Memes as the New Phlogiston)".

    It appears that the real Darwin wars continue <sigh>. There's at least one good thing in it. Timothy says:

    Dawkins and others who support his meme idea believe the former: where the influence of the replicators of organic nature (genes) fades, units of culture (memes) take over, ostensibly to continue the pattern of Darwinian competition. That the first are conceptually directionless (albeit anthropomorphized as 'selfish') while the latter are clearly directed (if not always under direct control) does not appear to present any problems to supporters of the idea. The territory claimed as won seems immense, as it allows human nature to be tidied up without an additional explanatory paradigm.

    Yes - that is the power of memetics - and cultural evolution - in a nutshell. Memetics enthusiasts do indeed think that directed mutations and intelligent design fit into Darwinian framework just fine. There's no rule in Darwinism that says that mutations have to be "conceptually directionless".

    Memetics is just Universal Darwinism applied to the realm of ideas, concepts, habits - and the other aspects of human culture. Despite the continual moaning of naysayers, this is a perfectly legitimate enterprise with rock solid theoretical and empirical foundations and a long history.

    Timothy proposes his own three-layer paradigm - and tries to make "a case for a realm of artifice with its own distinctive non-Darwinian generative processes."

    Many other authors in the field (including myself) seem to think that most artifact evolution to date is best modelled as being "phenotypic" in nature, with the associated heritable material being mostly transmitted via human minds. Most also think that a Darwinian framework is the most appropriate foundation to use for moselling this situation. Timothy Taylor's position is thus an odd one.

    It is true that we are gradually switching over to a realm in which information is inherited via artifacts - increasingly bypassing human minds in the process. Susan Blackmore has famously modelled this transition using her "techno-memes" (temes) terminology. Alternatively an externalist can equivalently simply model these as memes as well - of a slightly different kind - which deals fairly neatly with the problem of these proposed categories (brain memes and computer memes) blurring into each other when memes migrate between media. Essentially, memetics has this area pretty well covered. Susan Blackmore is the main proponent of a three-layer classification scheme within memetics. Her case has some problems - but if you really want to classify things this way, you can do so - the idea has at least some merit.

    Timothy's other criticisms are not all easy to make sense of. At one point he claims that there is no definitive "swastika" meme - saying that its shape can be arrived at in various ways, it can be called different things and it can mean different things. I think that such a criticism bounces off the target. There's heritable information that evolves when swastikas are transmitted down the generations. Maybe there's no "definitive" haemoglobin gene either - because of all the variants out there - but: so what? Who ever said that genes or memes needed to exist in "definitive" forms in the first place. Sure, we talk about the "haemoglobin gene" and the "swastika meme" - but that doesn't mean that anyone actually thinks these things are crisp natural categories with no blurring at the edges. Genes and memes can both be duplicated and then gradually mutate out of all recognition. This criticism seems to be attacking a straw man - and it fails to properly identify anyone who holds the position it is criticising.

    I didn't find too much of value in Timothy's effort here. He joins a long line of people who produce poor quality criticsms of memetics - apparently through failing to find a sympathetic interpretation of it - and then go on to promote their own pet ideas and terminology for cultural evolution. His ideas about symbiosis and baby slings were of much better quality.

    Thursday, 23 February 2012

    The epigenetic inheritance disaster

    This "Horizon" documentary is on epigenetics. Consider it an exhibit in showing how confused the new epigenetics is.

    Yes, there's a revolution in our understanding of inheritance. The number one player is human culture. The next biggest player is environmental inheritance. The new epigenetics appears to be the science of inheritance that isn't mediated via DNA, culture or the environment. Great: that will really help! The term "epigenetics" is defined to include all non-DNA mediated inheritance - but those involved don't seem to know about cultural or environmental inheritance. It's as though there's a blind spot that obscures both of the elephants in the room. It is a hopeless, unscientific approach.

    The other parts:

    Documentary - Why do we talk?

    This "Horizon" documentary features Simon Kirby - among others. The other parts:

    • Part 1
    • Part 2
    • Part 3
    • Part 4 - includes forbidden experiment and feral children.
    • Part 5 - includes Mark Pagel @ 08:00.
    • Part 6 - includes Simon Kirby's "alien fruit" experiments illustrating language evolution.

    Sunday, 19 February 2012

    How big is a meme?

    How big memes are is an issue which is often raised by meme critics and sceptics. The most common example given is Beethoven's 5th symphony. Here is Andrew Chesterman (2000):

    A further criticism has been the fuzziness of the meme concept: how big is a meme? Just the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth, or the whole symphony? Maybe both? It is true that the concept needs to be made sharper.
    Here is Martin Gardner (2000) writing:

    Given that there are cultural elements called memes, how do we distinguish a single meme, such as the "V for victory" gesture, from a vast bundle of memes, such as those that constitute a religion? To answer this question, memeticists have invented the word "memeplex" to denote a cluster of memes. Hilarious debates have raged over how to draw lines separating memes from memeplexes. For example, the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony (da-da-da-dum), as Blackmore records them, clearly are a meme because millions of people can hum those four notes without being able to hum the entire symphony. The symphony is, of course, also a meme, but best described as a memeplex because it consists of smaller memes. The question of where to mark the boundaries along meme spectrums is not easy.
    Martin Gardner (2000) seemed to think that this was a significant problem. He went on to write:

    All of science is a memeplex, but it is hopeless to decide when a scientific assertion becomes small enough to be called an individual meme. Is the fact of evolution a meme or a memeplex? Roman Catholicism is a monstrous memeplex. What aspects of it deserve to be called memes? The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception? Or is this a memeplex made up of such memes as original sin and the Virgin Birth? Should an entire mass be called a meme or a memeplex? The gesture of crossing the heart is surely a meme, but we encounter great difficulty sorting out the memes that make up a doctrine as complicated as, say, the Atonement.
    Critics contrast memetics with genetics in this area - where, supposedly, genes have clearly defined start and endpoints (defined by triplet codon sequences), while memes do not.

    This analogy isn't really valid. Start and stop codons are concepts from developmental biology - which have little to do with genetics. Genetics has its own conceptions of what counts as a gene - in the form of "mutons" and "recons", for example - and those don't tend to have clearly-defined start and end points.

    Memetics has the term "memeplex" to refer to collections of memes. So the question arises of: where do memes turn into memeplexes?

    This is also an area where memetics appears to differ slightly from the terminology of Boyd and Richerson - who appear to lack much in the way of specific terminology to distinguish between memes and memeplexes.

    Brent Silby (2008) has attempted to answer the question of how big a meme is:

    The best way to think of a memetic unit is to consider it to be the smallest idea that copies itself completely while remaining intact. So the first four notes of Beethoven’s 5th is a meme, but the first 3 is not.
    John Wilkins (1998) has attempted to answer this question too:

    A meme is the least unit of sociocultural information relative to a selection process that has favourable or unfavourable selection bias that exceeds its endogenous tendency to change.
    Wilkins defines neutral memes out of existence. That seems to be a dubious move.

    I think this is more of a "how many hairs make a beard?" issue. It is useful to distinguish the bearded from the beardless - but there is not too much profit to be made by attempting to place a fine line between the bearded and beardless conditions by using a specific definition.

    Indeed, in my book on the subject, I skip over the issue of how big memes are in my meme definition entirely - defining memes to be sections of heritable cultural information. While that is neat, it doesn't really capture popular usage of the term, or help with much with distinguishing memes from memeplexes.

    I think the isssue of how big memes are can be dealt with reasonably well by using heuristics. Then it is possible to say something useful about where "memes" end and "memeplexes" begin.

    The first thing to say is that memes are what meme frequency analysis studies. If something occurs at too high a frequency describing it as a "meme" starts to sound a bit strange. The same thing happens in genetics - where few would describe a nucleotide as being a "gene". Similarly too low a frequency strongly suggests that something is not a meme. Again there's a similar phenomenon in genetics - where chromosomes tend not to be described as being "genes". Then, some heuristics:

    • If a piece of cultural information can't be divided into two or more smaller memes, then it's a meme, not a memeplex.
    • If a piece of cultural information can be split into two or more memes that occur at a much higher frequency that the original, then it's memeplex.
    These heuristics don't cover every possible case, but that seems to be an acceptable outcome. Despite the complaints of Gardner and other critics, nothing momentus depends on exactly where the dividing line between memes and memeplexes is drawn. Frequency analysis can be applied equally well to both memeplexes and memes - and the math is just the same. The division is more a matter of convenience for those studying cultural phenomena than anything else.

    There are other areas where a similar phenomenon crops up. Criminology has the concepts of "clue" and "clues" - however sometimes whether you have one clue or two in ambiguous. Linguistics has concepts of "phoneme" and "phonemes" - but again there can be cases where whether you have one phoneme or two is ambiguous.

    Saturday, 18 February 2012

    Spanish memes

    In tracking the modern rise of the meme, I noticed that memes have invaded the Spanish-speaking world in a big way.

    Look at the geographical breakdown in Google insights for search and you will see that there is more interest in "memes" in Brazil than anywhere else in the world. The geographic distribution for the term "meme" looks much more reasonable. At first I wondered if "memes" was a native Spanish word - the way that "meme" is in French or Turkish. However, Google insights for search gives you the details of what is being searched for. So far, I see no evidence for the idea that these are anything other than genuine searches for memes. It looks as though youth culture in the Spanish world really, really likes internet memes - or "memes da net" as they seem to be called.

    The Spanish Wikipedia page on memes is here with an English translation here. Why is "memes" affected more than "meme"? I think that probably has something to do with Spanish grammar. For example "The Meme Machine" translates into Spanish as: "La máquina de los memes".

    Me Gusta is probably one of the most famous internet memes to come out of the Spanish-speaking world.

    Jesús Mosterín appears to be a leading Spanish philosopher who has embraced memes.

    The Spanish seem to go in for meme cartoons - memes tirinhas they call them.

    They also seem to be going in for meme apparel - for example havaianas memes (illustrated here).

    Meme faces in Facebook chat

    Facebook has added dozens of meme faces to their chat and message systems.

    To use them you type codes like this in:

    • Poker face [[129627277060203]]
    • Forever alone [[227644903931785]]
    • OK guy [[100002752520227]]
    • Me Gusta [[164413893600463]]
    • LOL guy [[189637151067601]]
    • Trollface [[171108522930776]]
    They seem a bit small and pixellated to me. A list of popular codes is here.

    Apparently these are profile IDs - not really part of a deliberate meme push by Facebook. Demonstration:

    Wednesday, 15 February 2012

    Disagree with Dawkins

    Dawkins has said some strange things about memes in his time.

    Jeremy Burman recently reminded me of one of the bits in The God Delusion where I think I disagree with Dawkins. On page 223 Dawkins says:

    The central question for meme theory is whether there are units of cultural imitation which behave as true replicators, like genes. I am not saying that memes necessarily are close analogues of genes, only that the more like genes they are, the better will meme theory work; and the purpose of this section is to ask whether meme theory might work for the special case of religion.
    I prefer the strategy of much of mainstream cultural evolution to what this sounds like. There's not much point in having a science that only deals with some kinds of cultural inheritance - because most of the math (e.g. of frequency analysis) is pretty-much the same for all kinds of heritable cultural information, so you might just as well have a science that covers the whole subject - which I think can still reasonably be called "memetics".

    The best domain to study has proved to be a tricky problem. Boyd and Richerson (1985) proposed the domain of study just cover information transmitted via imitation and teaching. Blackmore (1999) propsed the domain just cover imitation. None of these seem to me to "carve nature at the joints" very well. I think the most obvious domains to study are: social learning and all learning. Social learning is what most people have looked at so far - e.g. see Mesoudi's 2011 book. However, all learned information evolves together in the brain. Of course, covering all learned information would be a radical expansion beyond most previous evolutionary thinking on the topic.

    Dawkins seems to be thinking about having a science of memes that only covers a subset of social learning. That is almost certainly not the way to go, IMO.

    Tuesday, 14 February 2012

    Memes and memetics on Wikipedia

    Wikipedia has some articles on memes and memetics:

    Alas, I don't usually have time for editing Wikipedia - but I do have a couple of comments:

    The Wikipedia articles are pretty positive. The "criticisms" sections are mostly filled with nonsense (as opposed to criticisms by scientists in the field). There's some signs of problems in the "Talk" sections, but the pages themselves are fairly clean. These pages are also much more heavily linked to than the more sober page about Dual inheritance theory. Looking at Wikipedia, you might think that memetics was the most popular theory of cultural evolution out there.

    While I'm delighted to see memes getting good coverage, it does seem to be a curious and distorted picture of where most of the scientific effort has been taking place.

    By contrast, look at Wikipedia's page on cultural evolution. The page is terrible. It is full of irrelevant and useless material - with minimal coverage of the actual topic.

    I think that the internet might have a pro-meme bias. I know that lots of geeks are meme-friendly, and take it for granted that memetics - or something a lot like it - is essentially correct. I'd be delighted if Wikipedia's coverage of memes is a sign of things to come.

    Monday, 13 February 2012

    Was there a misunderstanding of memes?

    A few brief comments on this pretty long article:

    The article applies memetics to the concept of a "meme", treats it as a cultural phenomenon - and critically traces the evolution of the concept. The article's abstract starts by saying:

    When the “meme” was introduced in 1976, it was as a metaphor intended to illuminate an evolutionary argument. By the late-1980s, however, we see from its use in major US newspapers that this original meaning had become obscured. The meme became a virus of the mind.
    The author seems to think that Dennett and Hofstadter "activated" the concept of a meme, by performing a cut-and-paste job on Dawkins' original article in their own 1981 publication (The Mind's Eye). He gives the example:

    Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.
    However, that text appears in The Selfish Gene. Memes were pretty "active" from the beginning. To me, the author seems rather hung up on the issue of who first said that memes are "active". He says:

    Yet we should be clear: a meme, if it does exist, cannot seek out prey. And it certainly cannot leap from one brain to another. The conceit of thinking in this way is just useful sometimes.
    The "active" meme is classified by the author as a mistake that the author blames on Dennett and Hofstadter. I am sceptical. I don't see much of a problem here if the first place - memes are about as "active" as genes are - and I consider it to be "acceptable usage" to say that they propagate by "leaping from brain to brain". So: I don't think that was how things went down.

    Aside from its technical problems, the article is a bit of a subtle "hatchet job" on memes. While some of the author's historical digging is welcome,the article's title calls memes "unscientific", it implicitly suggests that the meme may have died in 1999 - and the main thesis is that parts of memetics arose from misunderstandings propagated by Dennett and Hofstadter's editing of Richard Dawkins' original article. This thesis just seems to be mistaken to me.

    It is also worth noting that Richard Dawkins didn't permanently abandon the meme - as the article seems to suggest. He returned many years later to actively defend the concept in his 2005 book "The God Delusion" - citing Richerson, Boyd, Shennan, Brodie, Distin, Aunger and Blackmore - and skewering meme critics. His promotion of memes has continued - with things like his Just For Hits video.

    Update 2013-05-12: Burman, in what seems to be a form of digital vandalism, has apparently defaced the Wikipedia articles on Memetics, Memes and Richard Dawkins with promotional references to his misleading article.

    Ed Wilson on cultural evolution

    What does E. O. Wilson think about cultural evolution these days - or at least in 2002? He still sees potential for the twain (the natural and social sciences) to meet.

    In this video (titled E. O. Wilson: Synergism Between Science and the Humanities) he discusses cultural evolution explicitly 49 minutes in. Wilson seems to be saying that he is looking forward to increased insights from scanning technologies.

    Tim Tyler: Degenerative Darwinism

    My latest video: "A video about Degenerative Darwinism - a term used to describe Darwinian processes which are too limited to result in cumulative adaptive evolution."

    The transcript is here: Tim Tyler: Degenerative Darwinism.

    Saturday, 11 February 2012

    The launch of Popular Memetics

    Popular Memetics has been launched. The latest edition is out now.

    Popular Memetics is an automatically-generated newspaper about memetics. It's made using the services of This service scours Twitter, Facebook, selected blogs and other sources for relevant content - and then constructs a newspaper from the links it finds.

    Popular Memetics was named after Popular Mechanics.

    There's another memetics broadsheet - Social Marketing Memetics Weekly.

    Friday, 3 February 2012

    Tim Tyler: Memetics - as an eBook?

    I am sometimes asked about an electronic version of my memetics book. My stock reply reads as follows:

    Those interested in my book on memetics do have some online options available:

    No eBook is currently planned - mainly due to piracy problems.

    Making books available in electronic formats increases the chance of them being pirated. This is mainly due to security flaws in the digital rights management systems used.

    The introduction - and part of chapter 14 - have been scanned (using a book scanner) and placed online - apparently as part of an academic course on memes at a Turkish university. The course is described here. The scanned chapters are available here.

    I am reasonably aware of the disadvantages of not having an electronic version of my book available. I will continue to monitor the area.


    MemIE'2012 - International Workshop on Memetics and Information Evolution

    There's a memetics conference coming up in Istanbul, Turkey. It has a computer science slant. Here are the details:

    MemIE'2012 - 1st International Workshop on Memetics and Information Evolution (Istanbul, Turkey) - forthcoming, 2012-08-26.

    The deadline for abstracts is 2012-04-07.

    Wednesday, 1 February 2012

    Doubling time of the "meme" meme

    There's one meme that I'm more interested in that most of the other ones. It's the "meme" meme.

    Last year I declared it to be the year of the meme - and I posted these graphs:

    Web search (meme):

    Web search (memes):

    Eyeballing them suggests that the "meme" meme enjoyed super-exponential growth in 2011 - with a doubling time of just a few months towards the end of the year.

    99% cute kittens, I am sure - but no doubt some will get around to wondering how memes evolve. So: that still looks quite positive for the long-term health of memetics, I figure.

    Early in 2012, the growth of the "meme" meme looks pretty incredible. How long can this go on for? Will we see "peak meme" - and if so, when?

    Are memes discrete?

    One issue that critics of memetics have perenially got their knickers into a twist over is the issue of whether memes are "discrete" or not.


    Tim Lewens questions the meme-gene relationship, saying in his book Darwin (2006):
    Genetic units are discrete particles; culture is not composed of discrete units
    Mesoudi (2011) writes:
    Memetics makes the neo-Darwinian assumption that culture can be divided up into discrete units that are inherited in a particulate fashion, like genes.
    Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza and Marcus W. Feldman (1981) wrote in Cultural transmission and evolution: a quantitative approach:
    Specific units, such as memes were intended to represent, have meaning when there is essential discontinuity between categories.


    If you check with the definition of 'meme' in a dictionary there is no mention of 'discreteness'.

    Memetic transmission is, in fact, about as discrete as genetic transmission is. Just like genes in sexual organisms, memes can be divided into sections with different paths into the future at practically any point. Cultural information can be sliced and divided into discrete pieces. It is just a fact that any source of information can be so divided up. Such divisions typically happen during cultural transmission - with different pieces of culture taking different paths to immortality or oblivion. Here's Cloak (1975) on the topic of cultural discreteness during transmission:

    I am rapidly coming to believe that much, if not most, of culture is acquired in tiny unrelated snippets, specific behavioral propensities culturally transmitted from one generation to another with remarkable fidelity. The fidelity and ease with which these "corpuscles of culture" are transmitted and acquired is possible only because the organisms in question are phylogenetically adapted for transmitting and acquiring cultural corpuscles.

    Culture is typically divided into discrete packages during transmission - but these "packages" may not necessarily be memes, sometimes they may be huge memeplexes. So: the discreteness of culture during most transmission processes doesn't tell us too much about the discreetness of memes - since transmission processes often transmit huge chunks of information.

    Another place where there's scope for confusion is meme frequency analysis. Many empirical studies of cultural epidemiology need to count the occurrences of cultural elements - to chart their frequencies, or to create phylomemetic trees. Some way of dividing cultural elements into discrete bins is consequently invented for this purpose. The culture is "digitised". The resulting memes which are then used in meme frequency analysis are necessarily discrete entities. This may contribute to the confusion over the discrete nature of memes. Memes used in meme frequency analysis are indeed discrete entities. This is true of any approach that uses frequency analysis to study and understand culture, and is not specific to memetics. This approach is absolutely fine - and it does not represent some kind of problem.

    Then there's the (different) issue of whether culture is like a bar of chocolate - with "discrete" preferred fracture points. To be sure much culture is indeed like this. If you look at quotations, for example, many of them start with a capital letter and end with a full stop. However, culture is not necessarily always discrete in this sense.

    Genes are less discrete than most memes are - in this sense. Occasionally there are preferred points of division (e.g. see restriction enzymes), but usually there are not - and the divisions that take place during meiosis can take place practically anywhere.

    Once the fact that memes are not necessarily always discrete in the "bar of chocolate" sense is explained, critics claim that this breaks the meme-gene analogy - since, they claim, genes are discrete in that way - with start and stop codons. However, start and stop codons aren't really a part of genetics. They have more to do with developmental biology than genetics - since they are involved with how DNA-genes are expressed. If we get into cultural developmental processes, then some memes are expressed in obvious discrete chunks and some are not - which is indeed rather different from how most DNA-genes are expressed. However development is a rather different field from memetics. It simply doesn't seem appropriate to invoke developmental concepts to criticise memetics. Development is treated as a black box in memetics, just as it is in genetics.

    The term phoneme provides another neat example of the use of the "-eme" suffix to denote a unit which divides a continuous stream into discrete parts. Few would debate the scientific usefulness of the concept of a "phoneme" - but, equally, few would claim that their starts and ends are necessarily going to be clearly defined down to the microsecond in any given audio stream. The starts and ends of phonemes are fuzzy - and sometimes it isn't even clear whether you have one phoneme - or two.

    Hull (2001, p.120) addresses the "particulate" criticism, as follows:

    Some authors argue that no general analysis of selection process equally applicable to biological and conceptual evolution is possible because genes are "particulate" while the units in conceptual replication are highly variable and far from discrete. In point of fact neither biological nor conceptual replicators are all that particulate. In both cases, the relative size of the entities that function either as replicators or as interactors is highly variable and their boundaries sometimes quite fuzzy.
    Blackmore is among those who have tried to sort this issue out:
    The population approach, they say, does not imply that cultural evolution is analogous to genetic evolution; nor does it depend upon “discrete, faithfully replicating, genelike bits of information.” I quite agree, but then so would Dawkins and most other memeticists.
    Then there's the issue of whether memes are "discrete" - when they are inside brains. Here's Blackmore (2006) on the topic:

    First, Mesoudi et al. claim that “A common assumption of memetics is that cultural knowledge is stored in brains as discrete packages of semantic information” (target article, sect. 3.5.2, para. 1). I disagree. This was not assumed by Dawkins (1976) when he invented the term “meme” thirty years ago this year, nor by Dennett (1991; 1995), nor by me (Blackmore 1999; 2001). Aunger (2002) does take this view, but otherwise it is mostly the critics of memetics who do so – aiding their attempts to demolish memetics.
    Lastly, it's possible to argue that genes are discrete - in the sense that they are always be divided into discrete nucleotides sequences - while memes have no equivalent to nucleotides - and so are less "discrete" - in this sense.

    This is reading the relationship between genes and memes a bit too closely - in my opinion. The intended idea is that memes are like genes - in that they convey heritable information down the generations - not that there's some kind of "cultural equivalent" to nucleotides!

    Genes are, in fact, not as discrete as all that. The breakdown in "discrete" conceptions of the gene was covered by Dawkins in 1982:

    Stent makes the more important point that my unit is not precisely delimited in the way that the cistron is. Well, perhaps I should say “in the way that the cistron once seemed to be”, for the recent discovery of “embedded” cistrons in virus ФX174, and of “exons” surrounding “introns” must be causing a little discomfort to anyone who likes his units rigid.
    Mesoudi, Whiten and Laland (2006) (who Susan quotes above) go on to explain that genes are not all that discrete either:

    However, the same putative “criticism” could equally be levelled at modern concepts of the gene (Laland & Brown 2002). As documented by Portin (1993; 2002), the concept of the gene has undergone significant changes through the past 150 years. The classical view, held from the time of Mendel (1866) until the 1930s, saw the gene as an indivisible unit of transmission, recombination, mutation, and function. That is, a gene is a unit of information that is transmitted whole, within which no recombination occurs, which mutates independently from other genes, and which produces a single molecular product (as captured by James Watson’s famous canon, “DNA makes RNA makes protein”). This simple and dated gene concept seems to be the view of the gene held by many social anthropologists who are critical of memetics. Advances in genetics since the 1930s, however, have shown this unitary gene concept to be inadequate and overly restrictive. Further reconceptualisation began in the 1970s following the discoveries of such phenomena as overlapping genes, where the same stretch of DNA codes for more than one protein; movable genes, DNA sequences that move around the genome; and nested genes, which reside inside other genes. Such revised conceptions have continued in the wake of modern discoveries, such as alternative splicing, nuclear and messenger RNA editing, cellular protein modification, and genomic imprinting.
    We now know from that "discrete" conceptions of genes have the added complications of methylation, and histone protein wrapping to deal with. Basically the idea that genes are particularly "discrete" is - in a lot of ways - out of date science.

    Genes also exist as sequences of information inside computers, and there, like memes, you can slice and dice them however you choose. Genes likely exist inside aliens on other planets - and the claim that they are always discrete thus seems like dubious and unproven assertion to me. If you think that genes are sequences of nucleic acid base pairs, you have a conception of genes and genetics that copes poorly with our distant ancestors, our distant descendants, and aliens - and need to expand your conception of what the term "gene" means.

    So: the answer to the question of: "are memes discrete?" depends on what you mean by the question. Memes are often defined as being some kind of fragment of heritable cultural information. In that respect, they are the same as Boyd and Richerson's "cultural variants". Pieces of information are discrete - so memes are discrete. However, that isn't intended to imply that culture necessarily has natural "fracture lines" - that allow it to be naturally divided up at specific locations - in the same way that many chocolate bars have scored fracture lines. Memes can be divided practically anywhere during the transmission process. That's much the same as with DNA genes - which can be divided practically anywhere during meiosis.

    I hope this article sorts out any confusion on the topic. Feel free to let me know if anything is unclear.


    What conferences have been held in connection with memetics and cultural evolution?

    Ongoing lecture series


    These lists are under construction.