Friday, 30 March 2012

South Park revisits memes with "Faith Hilling" episode

This recent episode of South Park centres around internet memes.

The episode begins with the boys attempting to get a photo of Cartman "Faith Hilling" (making pretend boobies with your shirt) at a Republican debate.

It continues with planking, owling, Bradying, Tebowing, and "Taylor Swifting" - a curiously-named meme which involves pulling your pants down and rubbing your butt along the ground like a dog. There's also a meme involving shoving a cat's head through a slice of bread and a meme called "Oh Long Johnsoning". There's also a public service announcement about memes (featured above) - which features the catchy tagline:

Use the approved poses if you wanna be a memer. Peace sign, bunny ears, fake wiener.
The idea of "fake wiener" is not at all new - but the specific photographic pose illustrated seems to be largely South Park's invention.

The blurb for the episode reads:

Mankind's evolution begins to accelerate at a rapid and disturbing pace. Concurrently, another species on the planet is exhibiting the same drastic development. Eventually the two species will battle to the death and Faith Hilling may be humanity's only hope.
The whole episode is pretty good. It's also a reasonable advert for memes and memetics. It features a consultation with a meme expert who goes into the history and theory of memes a little (8:30). Here's the specific bit:

The expert has a book apparently called "Memes through the Ages" - or something like that. It traces meme history back through "Fonzying", "mustaching", "Poodle Fisting", "Ass Wedging" and "Donkey Dicking". The book has some funny stuff in it - for example, it says:

In his book "The historical significance of Fonzy", Richard Dawkins states, "Fonzying showed a giant leap forwards in human intelligence because it was a very simple meme..."
I don't want to supply too many spoliers, but just to say it is a suprisingly worthwhile 20 minutes - assuming that you are interested in memes.

News coverage (contains spoilers): New South Park Episode: Faith Hilling, Swifting, Breading and Other Memes).

"Faith Hilling" wikipedia page (contains spoilers).

Here's a "Taylor Swifting video". It was uploaded before the episode aired - and so is probably part of an online publicity campaign. Of course after the episode many uploaded their own Taylor Swifting attempts.

The episode seems to have been somewhat successful in launching both "Faith Hilling" and "Taylor Swifting" memes on the unsuspecting world. "Taylor Swifting" seems to be a reference to Taylor Swift's existing undesirable meme fame at the VMA award ceremony - which we covered here. "Faith Hilling" is presumably a reference to Faith Hill's Stepford Wives breast growth scene.

After this episode, being "Taylor Swifted" now seems to be a pretty reasonable term for unsolicited fame that involves embarassment, grossness or other high negativity.

The rather obvious terms "memer" and "memeing" seem to have had a rather low frequency before the broadcast of this episode. I expect they will become more widely used in the future.

The last South Park "internet meme" episode was Canada on Strike.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

William Hamilton on memes

The late William Hamilton - an evolutionary biology superstar - was a meme enthusiast from the early days. In 1977 he correctly predicted that the term would come to dominate - writing:

He floats the term "meme" (short for mimeme) for the cultural equivalent of "gene". Hard as this term may be to delimit - it surely must be harder than gene, which is bad enough - I suspect that it will soon be in common use by biologists and, one hopes, by philosophers, linguists, and others as well and that it may become absorbed as far as the word “gene” has been into everyday speech.
His "Narrow Roads of Gene Land" volumes mention memes at numerous points. Here he is in one of the introductions in "Narrow Roads of Gene Land, Volume 2: Evolution of Sex" from 2002:
Quite possibly new memes that we are creating and are themselves vigorously 'Darwinizing' and thus self-improving may acquire strength to take us over almost completely, much in the way that a brain worm takes over behaviour in an ant. Whenever a weakness in the meme-acceptance system has been discovered there still seems little to stop this happening, at least within an individual lifetime.
As usual, Bill was ahead of his time.

Monday, 26 March 2012

William Burroughs - memetics pioneer

In 1970, William Burroughs wrote "The Electronic Revolution". In it he writes:
And what then is the written word? My basis theory is that the written word was literally a virus that made spoken word possible. The word has not been recognized as a virus because it has achieved a state of stable symbiosis with the host...(This symbiotic relationship is now breaking down for reasons I will suggest later.)
I have frequently spoken of word and image as viruses or as acting as viruses, and this is not an allegorical comparison. It will be seen that the falsifications of syllabic western languages are in point of fact actual virus mechanisms. The IS of identity the purpose of a virus is to SURVIVE. To survive at any expense to the host invaded.
Virus, symbiosis, it not being an analogy - he even talks about "taking the virus eye view" at one point.

Even eariler we had this - from "The Ticket That Exploded" (1962):

From symbiosis to parasitism is a short step. The word is now a virus. The flu virus may once have been a healthy lung cell. It is now a parasitic organism that invades and damages the lungs. The word may once have been a healthy neural cell. It is now a parasitic organism that invades and damages the central nervous system. Modern man has lost the option of silence. Try halting your sub-vocal speech. Try to achieve even ten seconds of inner silence. You will encounter a resisting organism that forces you to talk. That organism is the word.
A little later came this - from the essay Ten years and a billion dollars - reprinted in The Adding Machine: Selected Essays (1985):

My general theory since 1971 has been that the word is literally a virus, and that it has not been recognized as such because it has achieved a state of relatively stable symbiosis with its human host; that is to say, the word virus (the Other Half) has established itself so firmly as an accepted part of the human organism that it can now sneer at gangster viruses like smallpox and turn them in to the Pasteur Institute. But the Word clearly bears the single identifying feature of a virus: it's an organism with no internal function other than to replicate itself.
William Burroughs seems to have grasped a fair chunk of the essence of memetics in these paragraphs - and he did so quite early on. A case of art and science meeting, perhaps.


LOLSpeak is a dialect of English that appears to be largely associated with image macros. It features shortened and often misspelled words.


Like the abbreviations used in mobile phone text messages, instant messages and emails, LOLSpeak is abbreviated. Because space in image macros is limited, LOLSpeak is often highly abbreviated.


LOLSpeak apparently exists to make image macros more surprising, fun - and more shareable.

LOLSpeak sometimes acts like a cultural tag that marks the sender as part of a "cool" net-savvy in-group.

LOLSpeak represents an interesting example of an English subdialect evolving. There's an interesting thesis about the evolution of LOLSpeak.




Sunday, 25 March 2012

Richard Brodie reads from "Virus of the Mind"

Here's Richard Brodie reading the introduction to his memetics book "Virus of the Mind".

Universal Darwinism

Universal Darwinism is the idea that Darwinism is a broadly applicable theory - which applies to organic biology, but also applies to culture, development, the brain - and many systems beyond the organic realm.

Darwin's theory of evolution is substrate-neutral. Darwin himself recognized this - and included passages to that effect in "The Descent of Man", saying that:

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

The Wikipedia page on Universal Darwinism gives a long list of fields to which Darwin's theory of evolution has been applied. It ranges from the social sciences through complex adaptive systems to some much more speculative ideas - such as the idea that the visible cosmos itself evolved.

Memetics and cultural evolution represent Universal Darwinism applied to human culture.


Though Darwinism has historically been largely confined to biology, Universal Darwinism represents a massive expansion of its domain - into the social sciences, ontogeny and beyond: into physics, chemistry and systems theory. Position, velocity, mass, charge and many other physical attributes are all copied with variation and selection.


The idea was first expressed in modern times by Donald Campbell. One of the best histories of the idea comes from Henry Plotkin's book "Darwin Machines and the Nature of Knowledge". In the book, Plotkin repurposed the term "Universal Darwinism", assigning it its modern usage. He traces the idea from Darwin, Huxley, Piaget, Campbell and Popper before getting on to the topic of natural selection within the immune system and the nervous system.


Some (e.g. Geoffrey Hodgson) have questioned the "universality" of Universal Darwinism - saying that life is confined to our planet - and that the term "Generalised Darwinism" would be more appropriate. I think that "Degenerative Darwinism" - which applies Darwin's theory to fractures, ripples, crystals and other commonplace adaptive systems which are not "advanced" enough to exhibit cumulative adaptation - justifies use of the term "universal Darwinism". It does this without recourse to controversial ideas about black holes, quantum physics, or biologically-derived evolving systems, like culture, technology or modern computer systems.

History of the term

Richard Dawkins appears to have coined the term "Universal Darwinism" in 1983 to describe the conjecture that any possible life forms existing outside the solar system would necessarily evolve by Darwinian means.

Henry Plotkin's 1997 book "Darwin Machines and the Nature of Knowledge" had a chapter titled "Universal Darwinism". This redefined the term to refer to broader forms of evolution - specifically evolution within organisms (the immune system and learning) rather than between organisms.

Susan Blackmore, in her 1999 book The Meme Machine, also has a chapter titled "Universal Darwinism". This discusses applying Darwinism to a broad range of phenomena - including human culture.


"Universal Darwinism" is a very general theory. To make detailed predictions in specific cases, it typically depends on other theories. It is thus like a framework on which other, more specific theories are based. It has 'spaces' for theories of:

  • Mutation;
  • Selection criteria;
  • Recombination;
  • Development.

These elements are typically treated as pluggable black boxes by the theory - though there are typically constraints on what can be plugged in (for example, a mutation can't be allowed to be any possible change).

This incompleteness is expressed in papers like: Why we need a generalized Darwinism, and why generalized Darwinism is not enough.


Much of the debate over the utility of Universal Darwinism has taken place within economics - one of the first social sciences to take Darwinism seriously. However, economics has proved to be a myopic context in which to criticize the theory, with many critics getting out of their depth and struggling to understand the topic.


"Universal Darwinism" is a highly-criticized subject. It hasn't attracted as much heat as cultural evolution, memetics, or evolutionary psychology, but there are still many critics with a lot of different issues. Probably the single most important thing to say about the critics is that they are mistaken. However some of them do highlight genuine issues with the theory.

Probably the single most important criticism is that "Universal Darwinism" is mistaken because copying with variation and selection is not a scientific theory - since it is compatible with all observations and so is irrefutable. Levit, Hossfeld and Witt (2010) present this criticism in more detail. NeoDarwinism avoids this criticism since it claims that mutations are 'random' (in a bizarre technical sense of the word). However in Universal Darwinism, mutations are merely 'blind' (in a bizarre technical sense of the word due to Donald Campbell). This both weaker, harder to explain and more confusing, which leads critics to this objection.

A weaker version of this criticism is that "Universal Darwinism" constrains expectations only weakly - and so isn't very useful. However, applying weak constraints is still better than not applying constraints at all.

Speculative extensions

Some applications of Darwinism are pretty speculative. The idea that the visible universe is an adaptation - by James Gardner and Lee Smolin - is one example of this. These speculative aspects of universal Darwinism should not be used to detract from those that are hard science.


For a more up-to-date list, see: the universal Darwinism book list.


Saturday, 24 March 2012

Charles Darwin on cultural evolution

Darwin himself understood that culture evolves - writing in 1871:

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

The passage this quote comes from is of historical interest. Here it is in full:

The formation of different languages and of distinct species, and the proofs that both have been developed through a gradual process, are curiously parallel. But we can trace the formation of many words further back than that of species, for we can perceive how they actually arose from the imitation of various sounds. We find in distinct languages striking homologies due to community of descent, and analogies due to a similar process of formation. The manner in which certain letters or sounds change when others change is very like correlated growth. We have in both cases the re-duplication of parts, the effects of long-continued use, and so forth. The frequent presence of rudiments, both in languages and in species, is still more remarkable. The letter m in the word am, means I; so that in the expression I am, a superfluous and useless rudiment has been retained. In the spelling also of words, letters often remain as the rudiments of ancient forms of pronunciation. Languages, like organic beings, can be classed in groups under groups; and they can be classed either naturally according to descent, or artificially by other characters. Dominant languages and dialects spread widely, and lead to the gradual extinction of other tongues. A language, like a species, when once extinct, never, as Sir C. Lyell remarks, reappears. The same language never has two birth-places. Distinct languages may be crossed or blended together. We see variability in every tongue, and new words are continually cropping up; but as there is a limit to the powers of the memory, single words, like whole languages, gradually become extinct. As Max Muller has well remarked:- "A struggle for life is constantly going on amongst the words and grammatical forms in each language. The better, the shorter, the easier forms are constantly gaining the upper hand, and they owe their success to their own inherent virtue." To these more important causes of the survival of certain words, mere novelty and fashion may be added; for there is in the mind of man a strong love for slight changes in all things. The survival or preservation of certain favoured words in the struggle for existence is natural selection.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Death rate of English words rises

We're in a mass extinction event just now. Languages are going extinct as well as organic creatures. However, what you may not have known is that English words are going extinct too - according to the following study:

Statistical Laws Governing Fluctuations in Word Use from Word Birth to Word Death by Alexander M. Petersen, Joel Tenenbaum, Shlomo Havlin & H. Eugene Stanley (2012).

The study analyses Google's book corpus. It contains a number of pretty plots of word birth and death rates.

News coverage:

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Razib Khan: why meme dynamics are different

On his blog, Razib Khan once wrote about the different dynamics of memes vs. genes.

While the differences between memes and genes are interesting, I find that too much emphasis on the differences causes people to prematurely reject memetics - and then miss out on all its valuable aspects. So, I'm a little concerned that Razib may be inadvertently contributing to this problem.

Razib pointed out that gradual migration tends to result in the migrants adopting the memes of their new home - while their genes tended to survive the transition much better.

Someone who is sincerely looking for the corresponding area of genetics, should consider the genes in symbionts (parasites or mutualists) - not the genes in the humans. That is because cultural creatures (with memetic heredity) are much more like parasites and mutualists than they are like their human hosts.

So: do gradual human migrants pick up the colds, flus, tics, lice and bed bugs of their new home? Do they adopt the berries, grains and livestock of their new homeland? In some cases you'll find that the answer is "yes".

Also in the cultural case, sometimes the corresponding answer is "no". Consider the "surname" memes - they typically manage to survive the transition intact. Or imagine an inventor - some of their memes may survive and thrive in the new ecosystem - almost as if they had brought across a potent new viral strain.

From this broader perspective, memes and genes turn out not to look so very different. The dissimilarity arose from considering one type of meme and one type of gene. If you are considering memes that spread horizontally between hosts, the appropriate point of comparison is genes that spread horizontally between hosts - e.g. the genes in viruses.

Anyway, it is nice to see that Razib is at last using the "m"-word - after originally having some doubts on the topic back in 2004.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Generalised epidemiology

Epidemiology dealls with the spread of health-related phenomena through populations. These could be pathogen-borne illnesses, poisonings, work-related illnesses, or a range of other health-related events.

Many traits that spread are the result of some kind symbiosis. Pathogens spread through populations - but so do mutualists - such as the relationship between humans and various kinds of fruit and vegetable. Humans also have mutualistic relationships with a variety of decorative and medicinal plants.

Other traits that spread through populations are cultural traits. These can usefully be seen as being cultural symbionts. Fads, fashions, and trends spread through populations much like plagues and viruses do. They too spread like epidemics and plagues - and have their own epidemic threshold.

Other types of phenomena spread as well - for example radioactive fallout, sunburn and frostbite.

However, not all of the phenomena that spread are particularly health related. Currently the fields of mutualisms and memetics borrow heavily from the terminology of epidemiology to describe the dynamics of the systems they study. It seems desirable to generalise epidemiology to cover all traits.

So, here we propose generalised epidemiology - the science that studies how traits spread through populations - irrespective of whether the traits are related to health. This field differs from demography through its focus on change - and through not being confined to humans.

A similar coinage is infodemiology. One paper claims:

Infodemiology can be defined as the science of distribution and determinants of information in an electronic medium, specifically the Internet, or in a population, with the ultimate aim to inform public health and public policy.
That's a pretty duff definition, but the word could work. Generalised epidemiology is intended to cover infodemiology and epidemiology. However, "infodemiology" may be more of a rival term - and it is a bit of a shame that the first stab at it didn't cover the general case.

It is proposed that use of the term "epidemiology" to refer only to health traits should eventually be deprecated, allowing the term "epidemiology" be reassigned to refer to the concept of generalised epidemiology described here. This proposal is supported by the etymology of the word "epidemiology" - which says that it means, roughly speaking: "what is on the people".

This posts builds on this previous post on much the same topic.

Monday, 19 March 2012

The collective noun for memes

I think there's a need for a collective noun for memes. This is partly because of the way memes sometimes tend to clump together - in conferences and churches for example - or in the minds of the paranoid or obsessed.

The resulting effects are rather like a flock of birds or a school of fish...

Here are some of the more noteworthy proposals so far:

  • a library of memes
  • a plague of memes
  • an epidemic of memes
  • a pool of memes
  • a swarm of memes
  • a plethora of memes
  • an infestation of memes
  • a hash of memes
  • a copy of memes
  • a sneeze of memes
  • a contagiousness of memes
  • an infectiousness of memes
There's also a proposed collective noun for internet memes:
  • a roflcopter of internet memes
The sources for many of those are here and here.

If you think you can contribute, please make your mark in the comments below - or simply tweet with hashtag: #collectivenouns.

Tim Tyler: Shennan, Genes, Memes and Human History (review)


Hi! I'm Tim Tyler and this is a brief review of this book:

Genes, Memes and Human History: Darwinian Archaeology and Cultural Evolution by Stephen Shennan.

This is a book about archaeology. It starts out with a couple of chapters about human behavioural ecology and cultural evolution. Stephen begins by saying that he was originally turned on to the idea of cultural evolution by reading the chapter on memes in Richard Dawkins' 1976 book The Selfish Gene. However, he said that, at the time, he didn't see how to apply the idea of memes to archeaology. He later came across the book "Culture and the Evolutionary Process" by Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd - which set the wheels turning in his mind and gave him some clearer ideas about the practical significance of the idea.

Most of this book is about archaeology - and its fairly dense material. Archaeology is not my own area - and so I can't offer a balanced review of much of the content of the book. However, I can comment on the parts of the book that relate to cultural evolution.

I had positive expectations of Stephen's work after listening to him eloquently advocate the value of the meme's eye view at the 2010 "culture evolves" conference. However, there's not much meme's eye view in this 2003 book. Indeed, there isn't much memetics at all. Stephen starts out by saying that he has:

considerable reservations about the role and reality of memes in the strict sense, conceived as specific discrete cultural elements copied from one person to another.
In his chapter about cultural evolution, he says that many authors have doubts about memes. He lists a string of those doubts and then writes:
It appears then that the "meme as replicator" model has considerable problems as the basis for a theory of cultural inheritance. Fortunately, accepting that culture is an inheriance system does not depend on the meme model.
The index of the book lists memes on only separate eight pages. Since the book has the word "memes" in its title, I was disappointed by this sparse and unsympathetic coverage.

For students of the topic, it is obvious that something a lot like what memetics discribes is going on as culture evolves. I think that students of memetics should be trying to get memetics to work - by finding sympathetic interpretations of it that do useful work. Unsypmathetic interpretations that are not useful - such as the one that Stephen seems to have adopted - can surely be binned as not contributing to the main effort.

Stephen appreciates that memes can be deleterious - and that drift and selection apply to them - but there isn't much sign of the symbiosis perspective on memes. At one point Stephen does say:

we do not need to accept the cultural virus or meme ideas to see how the processes of genetic and cultural transmission can lead to different outcomes.
That's a bit negative about symbiosis - but shows that Stephen has at least heard of the concept.

The early chapters on human behavioural ecology and cultural evolution are generally not too bad. The cultural evolution is fairly basic - though a sophisticated theory is probably not needed for most archaeological applications. Archaeology can mostly get by with just diffusion, selection, drift and the basic concepts of phylomemetics.

One other chapter was of some interest to me - the book has a chapter on group selection. Stephen had previously stated that group selection "did not seem to work" - in his chapter on behavioural ecology. However, in the "group selection" chapter he cites Soltis, Skyrms, Bowles and Gintis - and discusses group selection in favourable terms. However, I am inclined to think that much of the work that has been done on human group selection by these authors is problematical - since they don't seem to be properly aware of the concept of cultural kin selection - which explains many of the effects they are attempting to model at the group level by using interactions between close cultural kin. There's a sense in which group selection and kin selection models are equivalent - but because close cultural kin are involved, this is fairly clearly a case where group selection is getting credit for kin selection's moves.

The group selection chapter was mostly involved with an examination of the evidence - and didn't delve into theoretical issues very much.

This book has its moments. However, it is all about archaeology - and people should not buy it expecting to learn very much about memes. Memes essentially get bashed by the author in the book. Memetics is treated more sympathetically elsewhere.


Thursday, 15 March 2012

Tim Tyler: Ryan, Darwin's Blind Spot (review)


Hi! I'm Tim Tyler and this is a brief review of this book:

Darwin's Blind Spot: Evolution Beyond Natural Selection by Frank Ryan.

The book is about symbiology. My interest in the history of the idea of symbiosis arises because I am interested in a symbiological theory of cultural evolution - namely memetics. Academia was incredibly sluggish in adopting symbiosis in the organic realm. It was almost a hundred years between its discovery and its acceptance. The modern problems with the failure of academia to adopt symbiosis in the cultural realm broadly mirrors the probem it had in adopting symbiosis in the organic realm. If cultural symbiology takes a hundred years to be accepted that might take us up to around 2075. The thought of one of my favourite theories sitting around in limbo for another sixty three years before going mainstream is not much fun to contemplate. So - I'm hoping that - by better understanding the history of symbiosis - I'll be able to find a way to move things along a little.

Frank Ryan's book is quite good. Probably the part I found most interesting was the speculation about how metamorphosis in butterflies could possibly have arisen out of a symbiotic union. I had not previously considered that possibility - and I looked it up on the internet. The most vocal advocate of the idea has been a fellow called Don Williamson, who has written a whole book on the topic. Numerous scientists have poured scorn on Don's idea. Don proposed that a winged insect impregnated a velvet worm - to produce butterflies. That seems to be an unlikely story. However there are plenty of wasps that use caterpillars as incubators. In some cases there's one host insect for each baby wasp (for example that happens with Jewel wasps). It is relatively easy to imagine that such a symbiosis eventually evolves to cut out the stage where the adult has to track down a new host.

Frank Ryan has gone on to write another book titled "The Mystery of Metamorphosis: A Scientific Detective Story" - which is all about this topic - which I might have to read one day - in order to determine whether the idea of metamorphosis being linked to symbiosis has anything to it.

The rest of the book didn't teach me that much. The writing was okay - though not exactly riveting. The book rambled around quite a bit covering The Gaia hypothesis, the origin of life and the origin of sex - and many other topics.

The book does approvingly mention memes - but it doesn't seem to grasp the possibility of them acting as cultural symbionts. It does have a chapter starting with a quote from Richard Dawkins that reads:

But do we have to go to distant worlds to find other kinds of replicator and other, consequent, kinds of evolution? I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet. It is still in its infancy, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup, but already it is achieving evolutionary change at a rate that leaves the old gene panting far behind.
That sounds promising - right? I though so too - however, the chapter rambles around the idea that maybe cooperation between humans is a form of symbiosis - and then concludes with the idea that maybe trade is another form of symbiosis - and that's the extent of it. It is great to see some coverage of cultural symbiology. However, this coverage is feeble and misses out most of the topic. Ryan doesn't seem to understand the possibility of cultural creatures existing - and so tries to find ways of considering cultural symbiosis that involve multiple humans. The history of symbiosis will need rewriting once cultural symbiology is more widely understood.

One area where I wanted more information than the book provided was the negative effects of science stumbing along with the wrong theory for decades. Without symbiosis, evolution is less cooperative and more more competitive. One of my concerns is that: people might stumble along with the wrong theory of cultural evolution for a long time - and in the process cause substantial damage to society through promoting competitive variants of politics and economics. Indeed, the damage done by incorrect forms of Darwinism in the past seems to have been substantial. The idea that a Darwinian economy or political system is one dominated by competition has the potential to be especially harmful to society - and this is part of why a symbiotic theory of cultural evolution is such an urgent issue.

My appetite for the topic was not entirely satiated by the book - and I might yet have to read more books on the history of symbiosis, to get a fuller picure of the subject.


Laura Fortunato - resources

Laura is currently at the SantaFe Institute. Her research investigates the evolution of human social organization, focusing on the social norms regulating kinship and marriage. This involves understanding why societies differ with respect to these norms – for example, why some prescribe monogamous marriage, while the majority allow polygyny; and how this variation came about – for example, whether the prevalence of monogamous marriage among European societies is simply an artefact of history, or whether it reflects ecological and/or social determinants.


Laura Fortunato - The Evolution of Marriage and Kinship Systems

The above video is: The Evolution of the Human Family

The above video is: Interview with SFI Omidyar Fellow, Laura Fortunato


The above podcast is an interview with Laura Fortunato


Home page.

Ara Norenzayan - resources

Ara Norenzayan is a social psychologist at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. His areas of research include evolutionary and cognitive approaches to religious thought and behavior, issues of cultural variability and universality in human psychology, and relations between culture and evolution.


Darwin and your beliefs - Ara Norenzayan

Memes get explicitly mentioned at 1:12:00 in the above video. Ara says "the meme idea is underdeveloped".

Ara Norenzayan talk

Darwin Day - Art Beauty and Human Evolution


Home page.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Jonathan Haidt: Religion, evolution, and the ecstasy of self-transcendence

Jonathan Haidt: Religion, evolution, and the ecstasy of self-transcendence

Jonathan has a book out on this topic: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

The above video is mostly about group selection. Memes get briefly mentioned at 07:00 - Jonathan says:

Many scientists who study religion take this view: the "New Atheists", for example, argue that religion is a set of memes, parasitic memes that get inside our minds and make us do all kinds of crazy religious stuff, self-destructive stuff like suicide bombing. And after all, how could it ever be good for us to lose ourselves? How could it ever be adaptive for any organism to overcome self-interest? Well, let me show you.
That's when the material about group selection begins.

Jonathan says:

In other words, Charles Darwin believed in group selection. This idea has been very controversial over the last 40 years, but it is about to make a major comeback this year especially after E. O. Wilson's book comes out in April making a very strong case that we and several other species are products of group selection.
Does Jonathan understand that the "new" group selection makes all the same predictions as inclusive fitness theory - which has been orthodoxy in evolutionary biology for decades? If so, that doesn't come across in this video. Kin selection doesn't even get mentioned - which seems to be pretty ridiculous in a talk about why humans are so other-oriented. Indeed, from this talk, it isn't clear whether Jonathan Haidt actually understands the issue he is discussing very well.

I notice that - like me, Jerry Coyne is not too impressed.

I also notice that the Jonathan Haidt page on Wikipedia says he was given the 2001 Templeton Prize in "Positive Psychology" - a hundred thousand US dollars.

Necrotrophic memes

Some memes are "necrotrophic" - meaning that they kill their hosts. Keith Henson once called the carriers of necrotrophic memes "memeoids".

Patriotic fervour and suicide bombing are examples of memes which are "to die for" - memes which have the potential to kill.

A common complaint about the possibility of necrotrophic memes is: "but surely the hosts would evolve defenses".

Peter Turchin expresses this complaint - in connection with deaths of volunteers in warfare - as follows:

Yes, “memes made me do it” is one possible response from Richard Dawkins and his followers. It’s a variant of what might be called the “great deception” hypothesis, e.g. Marxist explanations how people are fooled to fight and die for the sake of the ruling class’ interests. The problem is that fighting in war has very significant fitness consequences (roughly one-quarter of male deaths in small-scale societies is due to warfare). So by the “selfish gene” logic such fierce selection should result in the evolution of very effective resistance to such lethal memes.
There are a number of reasons why, in fact, such defenses do not arise that frequently in practice:

  • Rapid cultural evolution - As with lethal diseases, deleterious memes typically have a shorter generation time and evolve more quickly than their hosts.

  • Greater investment - Most lethal memes are memetically engineered by powerful agents. The memes responsible for the obesity epidemic are engineered by large corporations. The memes responsible for patriotic fervour are engineered by governments. The memes responsible for suicide bombing are the products of powerful and ancient religions. However, all these types of meme target individuals - who cannot afford comparable expenditure on defenses.

  • Frequency-dependent selection - Memes that kill humans are not that common.

  • Antagonistic pleiotropy - An "obey authority meme" might be useful most of the time - except when the authority happens to be sending you off to war.

  • Only one chance - Fatal memes sometimes offer restricted opportunities to learn about their hazards. If they kill their hosts reliably, then conventional trial-and-error learning mechanisms may offer relatively little protection against them.

  • Embryological tangles - Some of the memetic immune system is probably innate. That component has difficulty in identifying specific memes, since it must work through embryology. A "obey authority meme" might be generally positive while an "obey the general" meme might be generally negative - but it may be difficult to distinguish between them for a system which must manipulate its products via the tangles of embryology.

However, I don't mean to criticize the memetic immune system too much. Those with suppressed memetic immunity probably die from necrotrophic meme infections quite a bit more often.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

The Social Evolution Forum

For those who have yet to encounter it, the Social Evolution Forum is a relatively new blog which discusses the evolution of society and culture. It seems to be administered by Peter Turchin and David Sloane Wilson. Those are two major group selection enthusiasts.

Peter Turchin's latest post there enquires after the alternatives to group selection - challenging visitors to explain deaths on behalf of unrelated strangers during warfare - if the humans (or their memes) are not acting "for the good of the group".

I attempt to keep the discussion straight in the comments there.

Peter Turchin's post Cooperation in Humans: Is It Really ‘Strong Reciprocity’? is another area where I attempt to straighten things out in the comments.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Daniel Dennet speaks at Creative Innovation

Professor Daniel Dennett, one of the world's leading philosophers and cognitive scientist talks about the 'Prospective gains and losses from the information explosion'. Cultural evolution is discussed in briefly the first three minutes.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Memetic takeover dramatized

It's a mashup of Susan Blackmore at TED, internet memes and the iRobot movie - featuring a narrated memetic takeover. "In the beginning was the meme"...

It's the "Hollywood" version - where the humans accidentally drop the ball - and do themselves in "through their own stupidity". This seems rather unlikely.

Cultural symbiology bibliography

Most memeticists understand cultural symbiology - but who else does?

Here's a provisional list of related works (in date order):

Boyd and Richerson also briefly acknowledge cultural symbiology in a number of their works. Most prominently in:

In some of his articles (e.g. here) Geroge van Driem, traces back the history of cultural symbiology to 19th century linguists. There's an associated video of that here.

Related articles

Nathalie Gontier - resources

Nathalie Gontier is a researcher interested in evolutionary epistemology. She has a background in both philosophy and anthropology. Her main research interests are philosophy of evolutionary biology - symbiogenesis, punctuated equilibrium and abiogenesis - evolutionary epistemology and the origin and evolution of language.

She's one of a small minority of researchers who actually understands the role of symbiosis in cultural evolution. Cultural evolution researchers are rare. Those who are up to speed with the significance of symbiosis are also uncommon. The intersection of these groups seems to be very small sometimes - but Nathalie is one of the researchers with a foot firmly in both groups.

Nathalie's home page is here.

Here papers on the topic are great. I particularly like her 2007 and 2012 pieces on "universal symbiogenesis". Here's a few of her papers:


Thursday, 8 March 2012

Cultural common descent

Evolutionary theory holds that organisms exhibit common descent - that they arose from a common ancestor.

A basic question that arises in cultural evolution is: is there cultural common descent. Are all the memes in the world related?

Cultural common descent is a problematical idea. For one thing, different creatures may well have came up with cultural transmission independently - e.g. humans and songbirds.

Even if we confine the discussion to humans - there are creole languages out there and other kinds of de novo culture.

Interestingly, lack of common descent in cultural evolution would pretty-much destroy the concept of common descent - when applied to the evolutionary process as a whole. Perhaps think about that for a moment.

However, novel memes which have no cultural parents - in a sense - could be considered to be the "descendants" of the creatures that created them - their "mind children" - so to speak. In that case, the common ancestor of all memes would be a primitive organic creature somewhere.

I think it is better to adopt this interpretation than to sacrifice common descent. Memes are another case of life coming from life - and do not represent a form of de novo creation.

Others may find the idea of organic creatures being the ancestors of memes impossible to swallow - and prefer to embrace the idea of de novo creation of memes. Those people would have to reject the doctrine of common descent, and embrace a view of the history of life that permits multiple origins.

Does cultural ontogeny recapitulate phylogeny?

In a recent article titled: "A Simple Rule for Cultural Evolution", Samuel Arbesman gets in on the issue of whether "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" in cultural evolution - in the Wired science "social dimension" blog.

Samuel starts out by calling the idea "completely wrong" in the organic realm - which seems a bit strong.

The answer Samuel gives for the cultural realm is that it's not always wrong in the case of cultural evolution - saying that "cultural ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny".

However, unfortunately, it turns out that Samuel isn't talking about cultural development processes at all! An example of a cultural development process would be where a recipe turns into a cake - i.e. memes turn into meme products. Instead, Samuel is talking about the process of acculturation - the way in which humans acquire memes during their own developmental process. Describing this process as being analogous to ontogeny in cultural evolution seems to be pretty misleading to me. That's the ontogeny associated with the human genome going on there - not a form of cultural ontogeny! I don't think that Samuel means what he says...

Anyhow, at least he is asking questions about the topic. This coverage arises from a paper by Alex Mesoudi titled Variable Cultural Acquisition Costs Constrain Cumulative Cultural Evolution - which I've previously given feedback on here.

Mesoudi doesn't make this mistake in the original article. Instead he says:

Individual ontogeny recapitulates cultural history for mathematical knowledge: children learn mathematical concepts in the same order that they were first invented historically.
That seems fine to me - he's talking about an individual human child. Though as an aside we do see computer programming before calculus these days.

Does ontogeny recapitulate phylogeny in the cultural realm? Probably less so than in the organic realm. The reason ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny at all is because developmental processes build on top of prototypes without going back to refactor them out of existence. There's also layering processes in development. So, for example, the "reptilian" brain appears in mammal embryos before the neocortex does - a case of ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny. The same kind of thing happens in the cultural realm - occasionally - and it's probably a universal evolutionary process. A skyscraper starts out looking a bit like a house (which was invented first) - because it is like a house with more layers added on top. However, ontogeny probably recapitulates phylogeny less frequently in the cultural realm - because engineers are so often involved there - and they are often better than natural selection at refactoring - and eliminating the sort of signs of phylogenetic history that residual prototypes and developmental layering often depend on.

The science of intelligent design

Memetics positions intelligent design as an important source of mutational change, and as a guider of recombinatory change in cultural evolution.

The upper levels of the Tower of Optimisation involve engineering - and thus intelligent design.

Of course, the role of intelligent agents in guiding evolution is not exactly new. Sexual selection and The Baldwin Effect provide clear mechanisms where the choices of intelligent agents can go on to influence the course of evolution.

However, intelligent design and engineering are new evolutionary forces. They are also relatively complex and difficult to understand.

There have been some attempts to break intelligent agents down into more comprehensible pieces - and to model intelligence as a Darwinian process. When that can be done, variation will no doubt be found to arise by a range of simpler processes - which will ultimately arise from basic physical processes. However, these kinds of model are not yet finished - and they don't yet work. Today there isn't much of an alternative to modelling choices made by intelligent agents at a high level - using primitives such as "agent" and "preferences".

Basically, this means that we need a science of intelligent design - to help us understand the evolution of culture. Of course, in some respects we already have this - science studies various aspects of engineers and engineering. However, there are a number of significant areas that remain not so well studied.

Designed entities have somewhat different properties from designoid ones. They show different kinds of evolutionary mistakes. Designers have better refactoring capabilities than simpler forms of evolution. They also typically apply different fitness criteria to their productions. However, designers have limited access to molecular nanotechnology - and they don't yet have access to much of nature's parallelism.

As a result of these kinds of factors, mobile phones and cats are very different kinds of entity. Also, the evolution of the mobile phone is systematically different from the evolution of the cat - though both exhibit the key evolutionary hallmark of gradualism.

So far, there hasn't been much scientific study of these kinds of differences. We haven't had a proper science of cultural evolution - so comparing cats with mobile phones has probably seemed pointless to most people. However, now, things are different. We now understand the importance of intelligent design to cultural evolution - and so next we need to study it.

I have long debated how to present the issue of intelligent design to the community of evolutionary biologists - without provoking a memetic immune reaction and immediate rejection. Intelligent design is commonly - but falsely - assumed to be a realm of boundless crackpottery.

One possibility is to call it something else. Engineering design is the most obvious alternative. However, I think that intelligent design is a better name. I'm not the only one to use it - for example, here is Daniel Dennett:

We are the first intelligent designers in the tree of life.

Here is Richard Dawkins, speaking at the Reason Rally on March 24th 2012:

Now at last, finally, after four billion years of evolution, we have the opportunity to bring some intelligent design into the world. We need intelligent design. We need it to intelligently design our morals, our ethics, our politics, our society. We need to intelligently design the way we run our lives.

I don't think that common use of the term "intelligent design" as shorthand for the idea of intelligent design of nature by god should be too much of an issue. That is indeed a type of intelligent design - or at least it would be if it actually existed. Yes, there's the issue of search term pollution. However, I think that it is more important to use the right words, than to bother too much about any squatters who are currently using them.

I think it's also useful to be clear about what Intelligent Design is not. It's not this:

Intelligent Design is simply the science of design detection — how to recognize patterns arranged by an intelligent cause for a purpose.

That's part of the subject area - but there's more to it than that. Science is about building models and making predictions; it's not just about recognition and classification.

Intelligent design surely is surely involved in genetic engineering and memetic engineering.

intelligent design may not have been an important force in the past, but it looks set to be an extremely important force in the future. We should start to study it properly now.