Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Why vote?

Here's Herb Gintis on the topic:
In large democratic elections, the selfish individual will not vote because the costs of voting are positive and significant, but the probability that one vote will alter the outcome of the election is vanishingly small. Thus the personal gain from voting is vanishingly small. The cost, however, is a significant amount of time and energy that could have been devoted to other, materially rewarding, purposes. It follows also that a selfish individual will generally not bother to form opinions on political issues, because these opinions cannot affect the outcome of elections. Yet people do vote, and many do expend time and energy in forming political opinions. This behavior does not conform to the selfish gene model.
Here are three factors which contribute to pro-voting behaviour:

  • Forming political opinions is not "about" voting - it is about signalling. It signalls affiliation with powerful individuals, becoming part of a powerful tribe and showing that you care about issues facing society. So: people form political opinions for signalling reasons, not to decide which way to vote. People typically do not like to admit all this to themselves - because it makes them look bad. So: they use a cover story - for others and themselves: their political opinions are about policy. This makes them seem more noble - but it makes not voting into inconsistent behaviour that might give away their motives - so they vote.
  • Your decision whether to vote has more impact than changing just one vote. That's because there are other people out there, similar to you, making the same decision. Imagine that you decide deterministically, and they are exactly like you. Then they will decide as you do. In those circumstances your vote carries the weight of their numbers. In practice, others may not be exactly the same as you - but this principle still holds. This idea is not a new one.

  • Voting may be (partly) an evolutionary legacy. Voting makes sense - in hunter gatherer tribes. The human brain mostly acts as though it is in a hunter gatherer tribe. This might explain some pro-voting tendencies.
There's also a "memetic" take on voting. Voting doesn't help voters, but it is vitally important to politicians. Voting could be politicians using memetic engineering to create virulent political memes that hijack human brains and manipulate voters into actually voting - thereby giving the politicians more power. This is the "manipulation" theory of voting. People frequently neglect manipulation as an explanation - but it is often very important.

Summary: people don't vote in national elections in order to influence the results. Rather voting is part of a behaviour pattern to do with affiliating with powerful individuals, being part of a team, and being involved in big and important moral and political issues. It is in the interests of politicians to manipulate their supporters into voting. The human brain is malleable - so sometimes they succeed.


Tuesday, 26 June 2012

New thinking: the evolution of human cognition

The latest Royal Society Theme Issue is out. It's titled:

"New thinking: the evolution of human cognition"

The issue's abstract:

Humans are animals that specialize in thinking and knowing, and our extraordinary cognitive abilities have transformed every aspect of our lives. In contrast to our chimpanzee cousins and Stone Age ancestors, we are complex political, economic, scientific and artistic creatures, living in a vast range of habitats, many of which are our own creation. Research on the evolution of human cognition asks what types of thinking make us such peculiar animals, and how they have been generated by evolutionary processes. New research in this field looks deeper into the evolutionary history of human cognition, and adopts a more multi-disciplinary approach than earlier ‘Evolutionary Psychology’. It is informed by comparisons between humans and a range of primate and non-primate species, and integrates findings from anthropology, archaeology, economics, evolutionary biology, neuroscience, philosophy and psychology. Using these methods, recent research reveals profound commonalities, as well striking differences, between human and non-human minds, and suggests that the evolution of human cognition has been much more gradual and incremental than previously assumed. It accords crucial roles to cultural evolution, techno-social co-evolution and gene–culture co-evolution. These have produced domain-general developmental processes with extraordinary power—power that makes human cognition, and human lives, unique.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Beautiful Minds: Richard Dawkins

The blurb reads:

Professor Richard Dawkins reveals how he came to write his explosive first book The Selfish Gene, a work that was to divide the scientific community and make him the most influential evolutionary biologist of his generation. He also explores how this set him on the path to becoming an outspoken spokesman for atheism.
It is of interest to fans - though memes appear to have been omitted.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

The Institute for Cultural Evolution

The Institute for Cultural Evolution has coughed up for a domain:

Their byline: “Nothing in politics makes sense except in the light of cultural evolution.”

Their site says:

The Institute for Cultural Evolution is a non-profit social policy foundation or "think tank," which is now forming to apply recent breakthroughs in the understanding of how human society develops. We are seeking funding to work on the root of many of the cultural and political problems philanthropists seek to address, beginning with the "wicked problem" of climate change.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Group selection and kin selection are formally equivalent

Update 2013-12-30: there's now a more up-to-date version of this article here.

No memes today - but I should probably comment on the ongoing "group selection" spat:

Richard Dawkins, E. O. Wilson, Martin Nowak and Steven Pinker have all weighed in on group selection recently. They are all wrong about it.

Richard Dawkins is focussed on the "old" group selection - the object of criticism by J. Maynard Smith, G. C. Williams - and himself. In the endnotes to the second edition of The Selfish Gene (1989) he wrote:

Kin selection is emphatically not a special case of group selection.
His views do not appear to have changed. In his 2012 review of Wilson's "The Social Conquest of Earth" he states:

[Edward Wilson] treated kin selection as a special case of group selection, an error which I was later to highlight in my paper on “Twelve Misunderstandings of Kin Selection” as Misunderstanding Number Two. Kin may or may not cling together in a group. Kin selection works whether they do or not.
Here Dawkins is apparently talking about the "old" group selection. Wilson, Wilson (and practically everyone else) has moved on - and few use the term "group selection" in that sense any more. The "new" group selection models are really the only ones remaining on the table.

Martin Nowak, Corina Tarnita and Edward O. Wilson (2010) have this to say on the topic:

Group selection models, if correctly formulated, can be useful approaches to studying evolution. Moreover, the claim that group selection is kin selection is certainly wrong.
E. O. Wilson and Martin Nowak are in spectacular muddle on the topic - as practically everyone else agrees.

E. O. Wilson is still going strong regarding his kin selection denial as of June 2012.

Steven Pinker also doesn't understand the topic. He describes the new group selection by saying:

sometimes the term is used as a way of redescribing the conventional gene-level theory of natural selection in different words: subsets of genetically related or reciprocally cooperating individuals are dubbed "groups," and changes in the frequencies of their genes over time is dubbed "group selection."
He then says: "To use the term in these senses is positively confusing". Expert David Queller sets Pinker straight in the comments right under Pinker's article.

These days, there's a scientific consensus about group selection - and these folk are not part of it.

As Marek Kohn said in 2008:

There is widespread agreement that group selection and kin selection — the post-1960s orthodoxy that identifies shared interests with shared genes — are formally equivalent.
The observation dates back to Hamilton (1975). Queller (1992) is another important paper on the topic.

Modern paper titles in the area include: "Group selection and kin selection: two concepts but one process" and "Group selection and kin selection: formally equivalent approaches".

In "Social semantics: how useful has group selection been?", West, Griffin and Gardner (2009) state:

There is no theoretical or empirical example of group selection that cannot be explained with kin selection.
The theoretical equivalence of kin selection models with those of the new group selection seems to be fairly widely recognized. Wilson and Wilson (2007) seem to agree, saying:

The theories that were originally regarded as alternatives, such that one might be right and another wrong, are now seen as equivalent in the sense that they all correctly predict what evolves in the total population. They differ, however, in how they partition selection into component vectors along the way. The frameworks are largely intertranslatable and broadly overlap in the kinds of traits and population structures that they consider.
The term "group selection" has been radically redefined since the criticisms of Dawkins, Williams and Maynard Smith.

Formal models of "group selection" and "kin selection" are now widely regarded as producing the same results. Gardner and Grafen (2008) say:

group selection has already been incorporated into social evolution theory, and is found to be exactly equivalent to kin selection: the two approaches are simply different ways of describing the same evolutionary process and both lead to the prediction that individuals should maximize their inclusive fitness
Kerr and Godfrey-Smith (2002) recommend switching between the two perspectives - saying:

we also argue that each type of model can have heuristic advantages over the other. Indeed, it can be positively useful to engage in a kind of back-and-forth switching between two different perspectives on the evolutionary role of groups. So the position we defend is a “gestalt-switching pluralism.”
To his credit, group selection enthusiast David Sloane Wilson is now on the correct side in this debate. So is group selection enthusiast Peter Richerson.

Even group selection hater Jerry Coyne is at least aware of the consensus on the topic. His articles on the topic are unbalanced, though. Kin selection has its advantages, so does group selection. However, Jerry seems unaware of that. Biologists can't simply bury all the group selection nonsense by declaring group selection to be redundant - it isn't a redundant idea.

Daniel Dennett has a mild-mannered response to Pinker's article, but it looks as though he doesn't understand the topic very well either.

Wikipedia also seems rather confused about the topic, saying:

"Kin group selection" should not be confused with the concept of "group selection": a theory that a genetic trait can become prevalent within a group because it benefits the group as a whole, regardless of any benefit to individual organisms.
Dawkins, Wilson, Nowak and Pinker certainly didn't get the memo on this one.


Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Pinker calls cultural evolution a "loose metaphor"

Pinker - in his recent, scientifically mistaken article about group selection - writes:

What all this means is that so-called group selection, as it is invoked by many of its advocates, is not a precise implementation of the theory of natural selection, as it is, say, in genetic algorithms or artificial life simulations. Instead it is a loose metaphor, more like the struggle among kinds of tires or telephones. For this reason the term "group selection" adds little to what we have always called "history." Sure, some cultures have what it takes to become more populous or powerful or widespread, including expansionist ideologies, proselytizing offensives, effective military strategies, lethal weaponry, stable government, social capital, the rule of law, and norms of tribal loyalty. But what does "natural selection" add to the historian's commonplace that some groups have traits that cause them to grow more populous, or wealthier, or more powerful, or to conquer more territory, than others?

What indeed? Adaptation, cultural kin selection, memetic drift, founder effects, population memetics, phylomemetics, shifting balance theory, memetic linkage, memetic hitchhiking - amongst many others.

Pinker also says:

The truly Darwinian mechanisms of high-fidelity replication, blind mutation, differential contribution of descendants to a population, and iteration over multiple generations have no convincing analogue.
His ongoing muddle about cultural evolution still continues, it seems.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Evolution's Purpose - another book on Universal Darwinism

Another book on Universal Darwinism is out this September.

It is Evolution's Purpose: An Integral Interpretation of the Scientific Story of Our Origins by Steve McIntosh.

McIntosh has a web site and a blog.

There's a contents page online. It looks a bit new-agey - and is mainly about the interesting, but curiously unfashionable topic of evolutionary progress.

More about Universal Darwinism:

Sunday, 10 June 2012

EvoLang IX conference videos

The videos from the 2012 EvoLang IX conference are up. Apparently, the missing videos should be uploaded shortly. Enjoy.

Monday, 4 June 2012

New book on Universal Selection by D. B. Kelley

A new book on Universal Selection is coming out in September.

It is called: "The Origin of Everything via Universal Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Systems in Contention for Existence".

An introduction is online. It looks interesting. I've previously written about this very topic:

Previous book-length works in the area include: Promotional blurb for The Origin of Everything: Related online resources: Update 2012-06-12: I've now received a signed copy by post - yay!

Update 2012-10-30: Review.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Differences remain exaggerated

I was frustrated to see Boyd and Richerson trotting out their list of the "main differences between genes and culture" in their paper to celebrate Darwin, 150 years on. Here, I respond to their points:

  • First, an individual is not restricted to sampling just their two biological parents to acquire a cultural trait. [...]

    • Organic traits can be acquired from individuals besides direct parents too - for example at 'pox parties'.

  • Second, we are not limited to imitating people of our parental generation; peers, grandparents, and even ancient prophets can influence cultural evolution. [...]

    • Organic traits can be acquired from generations other than the parental one too. For example, itching, coughing and sneezing behaviours can be acquired from offspring, peers and grandparents.

  • Third, individuals acquire and discard items of culture throughout life. One is stuck with one’s genes, though expression of genes can be modified throughout life. [...]

    • Actually, organic symbionts can be acquired and discarded throughout life in a similar manner to cultural symbionts.

  • Fourth, variations acquired during an individual’s lifetime are readily passed on to others by coupling the common animal ability to learn to imitation. [...]

    • Variations acquired during an individual’s lifetime are passed on in organic evolution as well - for example, when a pathogen "tunes in" to its host's genotype and then spreads to its relatives.

Cultural evolution and organic evolution are not exactly the same, but I've been over these particular misconceptions about cultural evolution before.

Having said that, this paper was probably written some time back in 2009.

Boyd and Richerson also nod towards cultural kin selection in the paper. Alas, their comment seems rather disparaging:

Many evolutionary social scientists have been keen to apply the main theoretical and empirical results of evolutionary biology, such as Hamilton’s inclusive fitness rule, to human behavior. Contrariwise, using the formal, mathematical, experimental, and observational methods of Darwinian biology to study cultural evolution has turned out to be an effective way to understand the distinctive processes of cultural evolution and the coevolution of genes and culture.

Applying kin selection theory to memes is pretty central to understanding the behavior of modern humans. It seems extremely incorrect to suggest that these results from evolutionary biology do not apply - or are unproductive - in the case of human cultural evolution.

Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett on memetics in 2012

Memes are the topic for the first 30 minutes - and in the questions.

Daniel Dennett says he is planning a memetics book - a few minutes in:

Actually right now I am planning - as soon as I have finished the book I am working on - to write a book about memetics and memes, the bad arguments against them and what it really can do.
Go Daniel!