Sunday, 26 August 2012

Internet memes and "The Singularity"

I've written extensively about the possibility of a memetic takeover. Here's what the idea looks like once you have smoked a few spliffs:

Friday, 24 August 2012

Generalised symbiosis

Universal Darwinism requires a generalised theory of symbiosis.

Currently this area is largely covered by the concept of a biological interaction.

The theory of biological interaction uses the terminology of symbiosis - although the conventional definition of symbiosis specifies close interactions and excludes competition.

The terminology is illustrated in the following table (showing combinations of fitness deltas):

-CompetitionAmensalismPredation / Parasitism
+Predation / ParasitismCommensalismMutualism

What's the best way of expanding the theory of symbiosis to cover all biological interactions?

The most obvious option is just to ditch the traditional concept of symbiosis, and redefine it to refer to any form of biological interaction. The terms "competition" and "predation" already cover practically any level of interaction between the parties.

Another option involves adding the following terms:

  • Protosymbiosis;
    • Protomutualism;
    • Protocompetition;
    • Protoamensalism;
    • Protocommensalism;
    • Protopredation;
    • Protoparasitism.

These terms refer to biological interactions in which neither of the parties have been interacting with each other for long enough to be adapted to the other's presence.

The second option has the virtue of not demanding redical redefinition of the terms "mutialism" and "symbiosis". It does redefine the more-common terms "competition" and "predation", though.

The idea is based on the concept of protocooperation. Under the proposal, this term would become a largely-redundant near synonym of "protomutualism".

I think we have to choose between these two options - or very similar ones. The existing situation is an irregualar and unsustainable mess - a terminological hangover.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Mark Pagel - Wired for Culture: The natural history of human cooperation

This is an RSA video. The blurb reads:

Mark Pagel, one of the world's leading experts on human evolution and development, visits the RSA to investigate our species' capacity for culture, cooperation and community.

Saturday, 18 August 2012


Of course, as I have pointed out, scientists do study memes - they just don't always use the "m" word. My list of references documents many of their efforts.

However, the study of cultural evolution lagged over 100 years behind evolution applied to the rest of the organic realm. Cultural evolution is a slow starter. Additionally, the field is developing slowly. Despite some 40 years of work, the whole field of cultural evolution is still tiny - its small size massively out of proportion to its high significance. How best to explain this imbalance?

Part of the explanation for this involves resistance to Darwinism being applied to human behaviour. Memetics resistance is part of a larger resistance to Darwinism being applied to humans. Early approaches to human cultural evolution were characterised as being "social Darwinism" - which soon became a term of derision. Soon, preaching "Social Darwinism" conjoured up images of racial cleansing, forced sterilization, Nazia, Hitler - and so on. This made it hard for scientists applying Darwinian explanations to human behaviour to get funding.

This hypothesis explains how the one form of Darwinian science that has become popular - namely evolutionary psychology - avoids accusations of racism and promoting inequality - by the bizarre methodology of totally ignoring human differences and only studying human universals. Evolutionary psychology is thus relatively politically correct - compared to the real study of human evolution.

Another - intriguing - explanation for memetics resistance has been offered by Richard Brodie (1997) and Keith Stanovich (2004). According to them certain memeplexes actively resist knowledge of memetics - since a proper understanding of their origins and nature would lead to their ejection from their host brains. Resistance to memetics can this be seen as a cultural adaptation by "bad" memes that don't want their owners to eject them.

This hypothesis probably party explains why religious institutions have long history of being opposed to Darwinism - and, indeed, much of science. The religious memes resist the truth - because the truth spells their own demise.

Another theory is that individual humans are designed by evolution to feel special and valuable - more angel than animal. Darwinism and memetics are percieved as degrading human specialness and dragging humans down to the animal plane - so therefore they must be rejected.

It is curious that humans seem to have such a blind spot when it comes to their own evolution. Human evolution is the type of evolution we need most urgently to understand. Of particular importance is memetic evolution - for much the same reason as the study of parasite evolution is important.

Memes in the driving seat

It is widely believed that cultural evolution goes much faster than the evolution of human DNA can manage.

In my book on memetics, I discuss the "upright gait hypothesis" and the hypothesis that much speciation in the hominid lineage was assisted by memes.

Looking at the changes memes have produced in us, I think it is reasonable to propose the following bold hypothesis:

Practically all the significant differences between chimpanzees and modern humans are the consequences of human cumulative cultural evolution.

We can see the normal rate of morphological and behavioural change in primate lineages - by looking at our nearest relatives. Human evolution has been like a rocket by comparison - and memes explain why.

Much modern evolution is cultural evolution - memes explain all the interesting evolutionary change, while genes plod along at a glacial rate which is hardly noticable.

Coevolution between memes and genes mostly takes the form of memes dragging genes around in the adaptive landscape. The memes lead, while the genes follow. Genetic evolution is thus the delayed consequence of cultural evolution. The practice of drinking milk led to lactase genes being active an adults; the practice of talking led to larynx changes, and the practice of walking upright led to modified knees and ankles - and so on.

This idea also explains why our brains swelled up and why humans are ultrasocial.

It is an old idea in memetics. For example, Susan Blackmore (1999 p.80) raps on the Lumsden-Wilson "leash" metaphor - of memes being held on a leash by genes - saying:

In this way the memes are, as it were, dragging the genes along. The leash has been reversed and, to mix metaphors, the dog is in the driving seat.

The hypothesis here is the polar opposite of the position of Coyne 1999 who wrote:

Similarly, the self replication of memes does not mould our biology and culture; rather, our biology and culture determine which memes are created and spread.

Of course memes and genes coevolve, but the point is that the memes lead, and the genes are dragged along in their wake. This is an example of large organisms using small symbiotes to adapt quickly.

Since this "memes-lead" hypothesis explains so much of human evolution so well, I think the challenge is to look for puzzle pieces which it doesn't explain. I've looked, and haven't found very much - thus the bold hypothesis above.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Meme laundering

Evgeny Morozov appeats to have coined the term "meme laundering" in his 2012 article The Naked and the TED.

Today TED is an insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering — a place where ideas, regardless of their quality, go to seek celebrity, to live in the form of videos, tweets, and now e-books. In the world of TED — or, to use their argot, in the TED “ecosystem” — books become talks, talks become memes, memes become projects, projects become talks, talks become books — and so it goes ad infinitum in the sizzling Stakhanovite cycle of memetics, until any shade of depth or nuance disappears into the virtual void. Richard Dawkins, the father of memetics, should be very proud. Perhaps he can explain how “ideas worth spreading” become “ideas no footnotes can support.”

His "international meme laundering" is a clear descendant of "international money laundering". Money laundering 'cleans' dirty money (i.e. stolen money) - and from this it is pretty clear what "meme laundering" should mean.

"Meme laundering" should be a black arts marketing concept - involving disguising the source of ideas. Astroturfing is a common and basic form of meme laundering. Sockpuppets and other types of false flag operation are often used in meme laundering operations.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Verbal diarhoea

The symbiosis between humans and their gut bacteria is usually a happy one. The humans feed the gut bacteria and the gut bacteria feed the humans. It's a classic win-win relationship - an example of a mutualsim.

However, the relationship is not always a happy one. Sometimes "bad" bacteria get inside people - and cause them to commit anti-social acts - such as leaving a trail of liquid feces behind them whereever they go. This is good for the bacteria, but not so good for the humans. We say that such people have diarhoea.

Memes are not always good for their host humans either. One of the manifestations of some types of bad memes is verbal diarhoea. You've probably encountered the type: pyramid marketing enthusiasts, conspriacy theorists, apocalyptic missionaries, people trying to recruit you for their preferred cause or religion. Of course a certain amount of talking can be good for you - but too much talking is probably good for the associated memes, but not so good for their hosts. Those with verbal diarhoea are taking their talking too far.

The expression verbal diarhoea is an interesting case of folk cultural epidemiology.

Large organisms use small symbiotes to adapt quickly

One of the problems of being a large organism is that you evolve slowly. That's OK if your environment is static - but in a rapidly-changing environment, you can't evolve as quickly as smaller creatures can. A failure to adapt to a new environment can rapidly result in extinction.

The number one example of this is gut bacteria. The edible aspects of an organism's environment may undergo all kinds of fluctuation - including seasonal changes, and dramatic changes in habitat due to migration. Using gut bacteria allow microorganisms to evolve to traqck the habitat changes within their host's lifespan. Their shorter reproductive cycle allows them to evolve faster.

Humans use their symbiosis with gut bacteria to adapt to rapidly-changing aspects of their environment. They also use their symbiosis with memes to adapt to rapidly-changing aspects of their environment. The principle of a large organism using small symbionts to adapt quickly remains the same, however.


What are hypermemes? Hypermemes are the cultural equivalent of hyperparasites. Hyperparasites are parasites that infect other parasites. So, similarly, hypermemes are memes that propagate themselves by using other memes.

Computer viuruses are one obvious example. The computer virus named after the sexy tennis star, Anna Kournikova (see picture to the right) was an example of one meme piggy-backing on another one.

The phenomenon of hyperparasites is quite common and well-known. Malaria infects blood-sucking mosquitos; Lyme disease infects blood-sucking tics - and so on.

Hypermemes are closely related to memetic hitchhiking. They are also closely related to memejacking.

When borrowing terminology from generalised epidemiology there's often a dilemma - regarding whether the implications of parasitism are appropriate.

In this case, I think it is pretty clear that they are not. Hypermemes need not necessarily be deleterious to their host memes - any more than ordinary memes are necessarily deleterious to their host humans.

One interesting phenomenon associated with hyperparasites is that the parasites who are themselves parasitized often become more "bitey". Mosquitoes infected with malaria bite more frequently. This is because their behaviour is being manipulated by their own parasites - who typically care a lot about how many victims are bitten - and not very much about activities relating to mating and reproduction by their mosquito hosts.

While the same dynamics can happen with cultural evolution, this situation is not very common. Memes seem more likely to join with other memes to make a composite creature with shared reproducitve ends. The reasons for this difference are interesting to ponder.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Peter Richerson and Hal Whitehead - The Rise and Fall of Cultures

Peter Richerson and Hal Whitehead - The Rise and Fall of Cultures

Peter Richerson is up first. Hal Whitehead starts 30 minutes in. Then it is back to Peter Richerson 59 minutes in.

The main topic seems to be the collapse of societies.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

The problem with the term "memeoid"

Memetics pioneer Keith Henson coined the term "memeoids" in 1985 - as follows:

We need a name for victims that have been taken over by a meme to the extent that their own survival becomes inconsequential. "Memeoids" is my suggestion.

I think there's a problem with the term "memeoids":

"Parasitoid" is a conventional term in epidemiology. That term is quite suitable for use in memetics - however it doesn't mean what Keith Henson said "memeoids" meant. A "parasitoid" is a parasite that kills its host. So: "memeoid" makes sense as a synonym for necrotrophic memes.

Since "memeoid" seems more suitable as a term for cultural parasites than their victims, what could their hosts be called? "Parasitoid host" seems to be the dominant terminology from epidemiology. So: the most obvious option is: "memeoid host". There's also the terminology of memetic hijacking to consider here - we could refer to hosts as victims of memetic hijacking.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Cultural species

Some claim there is no such thing as a species - in the context of cultural evolution.

For example, the image to the right is a slide from one of Robert Boyd's lectures (Rob plainly borrowed it from Krobner (1948)). He explains (38 minutes in) that the left tree is the tree of life and the right tree is the tree of culture. He says:

Famously cultural evolution doesn't have any analog to species

There's no such thing, there's nothing like a species in cultural evolution and the theories that have been built of it don't have anything like a species in them.

However, there surely are cultural species. The problem with this diagram is not that the right-hand side is wrong, but that the left-hand side is wrong. To a first approximation, most organisms are bacteria, and their phylogenetic tree looks much more like the right-hand tree than the left-hand tree. A bit of information transfer doesn't destroy the idea of a species. If it did, then horizontal gene transfer by viruses would mean that there is no such thing as a species. Remember that 8% of human DNA comes from viruses.

My most common examples of cultural species are origami patterns and FORTRAN programs. These things are pretty clearly delimited - and so qualify as species. Also, let's remember that whale song has yet to be decoded. Whale memes and human memes have yet to combine to an appreciable degree.

"Species" is too useful a concept to be confined to the organic realm. The cultural realm surely has its species too.

If your conception of a species is such that it turns out that there are no cultural species, then your concept of species has turned out to not be very generally applicable - and you should reconsider the criteria that you are using.

Others in the field do use the concept of cultural species as well. Kate Distin has a large section on cultural species in her Cultural Evolution book.