Monday, 24 September 2012

The external womb

As discussed extensively on this site, memes prefer to have an enlarged human cranium in which to swarm.

However, how did they engineer things so that they had one? Probably a big part of the answer was that they created an external womb in which the human brain could be better incubated.

This external womb took the form of baby slings. These slings created a protective environment for the human cranium after birth - allowing more premature birth to take place - before the skull bones had fully formed. The result was a marsupial-like phase of human evolution - with the newborn living in a synthetic pouch.

Baby slings are ancient - and the relaxed selection pressure on the skull was probably highly significant. This idea has been covered in more detail by Timothy Taylor and Duncan Caldwell.

The next-most significant factor letting memes inflate the human cranium was probably reduced nutritional constraints - a hypothesis covered in some detail in the book The Driving Force: Food, Evolution and the Future by Michael Crawford and David Marsh.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

On the rate of cultural evolution

One of the myths about cultural evolution is to do with its speed. It is often claimed that cultural evolution is faster than biological [sic] evolution. This claim may - or may not be correct. However, almost all of the proponents of the idea are using very bad accounting techniques to prove their claims.

A good example comes from a recent paper by Charles Perreault titled: The Pace of Cultural Evolution.

This compares rates of cultural evolution and biological [sic] evolution - and finds that cultural evolution is faster. However, the article makes two very wrong assumptions:

It compares cultural evolution with evolution rates in wild animals. Animal populations have much longer generation times than some biological systems - sich as bacteria and viruses. Memes are a lot like bacteria and viruses in that they reproduce rapidly and can spread from host to host. Wild animals are not an appropriate point of comparison for memes - their lifespans are too long.

Charles Perreault anticipates this objection - to some extent - by going on to argue that the effect is independent of generation times. However for cultural evolution he compares to the generation time of the host humans, writing:

the amount of cultural change observed per generation time (20 years) is significantly faster than what we would expect from biological evolution for a species with the same generation time as humans
Well, duh. Cultural change is the result of rapidly-reproducing memes, not slowly-reproducing humans. Mixing these two up is a fundamental mistake. The generation time in cultural evolution is the time for meme reproduction. The generation time in organic evolution is the time taken for gene reproduction in germ-line cells. Neither is 20 years - even in humans - unless you are confining your attention to sexual reproduction.

Meme reproduction rates can be very rapid - especially when you take intracrainial memetics into account. Since much meme reproduction occurs inside minds, large numbers of variations can be explored in a short period of time.

I'm afraid I think that the kind of analysis in this paper is completely hopeless - since it is based on a faulty understanding of the nature of cultural evolution.

Looking at the skyscrapers, microchips and space travel that have arisen in a remarkably short space of time as a result of cultural evolution, there may be something to the case that it is - in some sense - faster than DNA-based evolution. However, dud accounting doesn't help make the case for this, it just piles confusion onto the issue.

Update 2013-11-23: Charles Perreault now has a 2013 video titled: "The pace of cultural evolution".

Monday, 17 September 2012

Parasite therapy

What to do if you have an over-active immune system - and are suffering from auto-immune self-strikes, in the form of allergies, lupus, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, etc.

One idea is to dose youself with parasites - and give your immune system some real work to do.

This interesting idea is discussed in the book An Epidemic of Absence.

The challenge is to find parasites that will give your immune system a good work out without actually causing too many serious problems. Intestinal nematode worms seem to be a favourite parasite - and are used in helminthic therapy. However, the idea is a controversial one.

Reading about it, I quickly found myself wondering whether there a memetic equivalent. Scepticism, suspicion and conservatism act against bad memes. If we systematically wipe out the worst memes in the world, is there a risk that these defense systems will turn on the good memes, just so they get some exercise? What about the possibility of these defense mechanisms attacking the psychological infrastructure of their hosts?

These are interesting questions - but perhaps not pressing ones. We seem far from wiping out the worst memes in the world. Memetic parasites are widespread, and I don't think there's really a shortage of work for our memetic immune systems to do.

However, we do have people with hyperactive memetic immune systems - who have various learning difficulties as a result. Could "parasite therapy" help them?

Maybe. We do already teach people about bad ideas, to help them better appreciate good ones. We tell them about phlogiston, pyramid schemes and cults. However, this seems more like vaccination than "parasite therapy". In the organic realm, vaccination and "parasite therapy" are rather different - but perhaps in the cultural realm, they are more similar.

Anyway, "parasite therapy" for auto-immune disorders is an interesting idea. I'll bear it in mind.


Sunday, 16 September 2012

My "Pinker takedown" videos

Steven Pinker is one of memetics more distinguished critics. However, unfortunately, he has a very weak understanding of the topic.

To promote my 2011 memetics book, I did a series of "Pinker takedown" videos - to help illustrate the cluelessness of modern critics of memetics. However, I never collected them together on one page - until now.

If you missed them the first time around, enjoy:

Tim Tyler: Memetics features directed mutations

Tim Tyler: Are most words intelligently designed?

Tim Tyler: Why is there no science of memetics?

Tim Tyler: Can memetics explain creativity?

Tim Tyler: Are memes like parasites?

Tim Tyler: Does the Lamarckian aspect of memetics make natural selection redundant?

Memetics: a slow starter

Memetics got off to a slow start. Few articles mentioned memes in the decade after 1976. Here are most of those that did:

  • Dawkins, Richard (1976) Memes: the New Replicators.
  • Dawkins, Richard (1976) Memes and the evolution of culture.
  • Sullivan, Damien (1977) Review of Memes: the New Replicators.
  • Greene, Penelope J. (1978) From genes to memes?
  • Bohannan, Paul. (1980) The Gene Pool and the Meme Pool.
  • Hofstadter, Douglas R. (1981) Reflections on Selfish Genes and Selfish Memes.
  • Hull, David L. (1982) The naked meme.
  • Dawkins, Richard (1982) The Extended Phenotype
  • Bouissac, Paul (1984) Editorial: Memes Matter
  • Ball, John A. (1984) Memes as replicators.
  • Henson, H. Keith. (1985) Memes, L5 and the Religion of the Space Colonies.
These are taken from my memetics references.

Why there was so little fuss about memes in the years after "The Selfish Gene" was published seems like a bit of a mystery.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Michael Ruse on memetics

Michael Ruse once wrote:

I don't buy into this meme bullsh** but put everything — especially including ethics — in the language of genes.

Fighting talk! However his public critiques seem to have left something to be desired. For example, in Darwinism and its Discontents, Ruse claims that cultural evolution is progressive, while organic evolution is not. However, that is complete nonsense - both cultural and organic evolution are progressive.

The longest criticism from Ruse that I've seen so far is now available in the book:

The Philosophy of Human Evolution (Cambridge Introductions to Philosophy and Biology).

I read it. It seems vacuous to me. Ruse mostly confines himself to expressing the criticisms of others - citing Bruce Edmonds, Adam Kuper and Tim Lewens. The positions of Adam Kuper and Tim Lewens are confused - and are hardly worth bothering with. Bruce Edmonds's criticism is sociological - he says that memetics never became popular. However, science isn't entirely a popularity contest. There's also the issue of whether ideas are correct to consider.

Like many meme critics, Ruse poses many rhetorical questions. For example, he asks whether an undergraduate degree in physics represents the same meme as an an undergraduate degree in philosophy. I think the critics think such questions make memetics look vague. However, the exact same problem also applies to genes. Inversions and deletions scramble up genes in a big way. If geneticsits don't always agree about whether two DNA sequences represent the same "gene" or not, there seems to be no good reason for holding memeticists to a higher standard.

The science doesn't depend upon such issues. You can still do meme-frequency analysis without bothering too much with the issue of what counts as a meme. Different researchers can measure meme distribition in different ways, and that's fine.

Ruse concludes:

Until it seriously starts to produce results we can put it to one side.
Memetics has been vindicated on practically all fronts in the years since 1976. The science behind memetics seems to be snowballing to me, with more and more publications about Darwinian cultural evolution year on year. Ruse shows little sign of knowledge or understanding of the area, IMO.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Stowaways and slipstreaming

The terminology of symbiosis - "mutualism", "parasitism" and "amensualism" - is all very well, but these terms are somewhat technical.

A range of more familiar terms has emerged to describe relationships between symbionts and their hosts - derived from hitchhiking, hijacking, takeovers, partnerships - and the idea of a "trojan horse". Epidemiological terms are also used - such as "epidemic", "virus" and "plague".

Some other possibly-suitable terms are not being employed in this context so much - perhaps most notably, "stowaways" and "slipstreaming".

  • Stowaway - a relatively harmless hitchhiker without the host's awareness or consent;
  • Slipstreaming - gaining benefit from a host rather indirectly.

Both terms refer to types of commensalism.

There's some overlap between these concepts and the established idea of a free rider - however, I think there's some room for some nuanced variations of this basic idea.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Cultural symbiosis in cybernetics

Memetics has been the number one theory of cultural symbiosis for several decades now. Symbiosis in cultural evolution has made relatively little progress in academia, which mostly seems to be in the "bean-counting" phase of its analysis - rather reminiscent of Fisher's "bean bag genetics" - from the 1930s.

However, there are a few specialized areas where cultural symbiosis has made some headway. One is in linguistics, with the concept of symbiosism. Of course marketing has embraced a range of metaphors derived from the idea of symbiosis - most notably "viral marketing". Lastly computer science and cybernetics routinely use symbiosis terminology - to describe computer viruses and the man-machine symbiosis.

This recent TED video showcases our understanding of the human-computer symbiosis:

However, the idea that all human culture has a symbiotic relationship with humans can only be described as progressing sluggishly. It really does seem to be a case of waiting for the rest of the world to catch up.

Friday, 7 September 2012

How culture drove human evolution - A Conversation with Joseph Henrich

The Edge has this recent interview - titled "How culture drove human evolution - A Conversation with Joseph Henrich [2012-09-04]"

It offers this video of Joe - complete with a transcript:

I noted several familiar themes. One was:

Part of my program of research is to convince people that they should stop distinguishing cultural and biological evolution as separate in that way. We want to think of it all as biological evolution.

That's been a theme here for a while - e.g. see: Contrasting culture and biology makes no sense.

Another was:

we've begun to pursue this idea called the cultural brain hypothesis—this is the idea that the real driver in the expansion of human brains was this growing cumulative body of cultural information

That's the "big brain" hypothesis of Blackmore and Dawkins that I've been talking about here for a while - in Big brains as meme nests and Tim Tyler: The big brain as a meme nest.

The title of "how culture drove human evolution" telates directly to Blackmore's "memetic drive" hypothesis - though somehow there is no mention of memes or Blackmore.

It's nice to see that researchers are finally converging on similar views - even if they don't always do a great job of giving each other credit.

Henrich says:

Another signature of cultural learning is regional differentiation and material culture, and you see that by about 400,000 years ago. So, you could have a kind of late emergence at 400,000 years ago. A middle guess would be 800,000 years ago based on the climate, and then the early guess would be, say, the origin of genus, 1.8 million years ago.
Yet chimps have culture. In my book I point out that walking is a culturally-transmitted trait that is many millions of years old. Baby slings are also pretty ancient. 1.8 million years ago is a remarkably recent guess.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Universal Darwinism vs "constructal theory"

All paradigm shifts result in casualties. On of the likely casualties of Universal Darwinism seems set to be the "constructal theory" developed by Adrian Bejan. Constructal theory is described in the recent popular book Design in Nature.

Universal Darwinism seems to be largely a superset of "constructal theory" - it explains all the same phenomena and many more besides. Where constructal theory seems associated with the maximum power principle, Universal Darwinism is more closely associated with the maximum entropy thermodynamics - which is similar, but better.

I can't be sure that constructal theory will go up against the wall - as Universal Darwinism eats its lunch. Perhaps constructal theory will succeed in carving out a niche for itself. However, it does look as though the writing is on the wall for it, written with Dennett's "universal acid".

Update 2013-11-13: I got around to reading and reviewing - Bejan's book, Design in Nature. The details are here.

Counter attacks turn on memetics

One source of half-baked criticisms of memetics seems to be when people use memetics in an argument, and the counter-argument turns into an attack on memetics. I think that pretty-much explains what is going on with Alister McGrath - in his attack of memetics on behalf of God. Another example appears in this recent defense of libertarianism:

While the idea of memes seems to be effective, it is difficult to study memes as a science because memes are not consistent, nor they are continuous. It has been proved beyond doubt that memes, like traits, will continually be integrated and changed by the receiver of the information. That is, while a receiver will attain information through various memes, he will refine and interpret that information and will use or practice it in his own independent way. There are some other refutations that derecognize the importance of memes.
Alas, genes inside viruses change and evolve inside their hosts in much the same way that memes do. Genes in pathogens adapt to the environment inside their hosts - just as memes do. This criticism of memetics is half-baked - a silly straw man attack.

To reiterate, there are no valid technical criticsms of memetics, just the ignorant ramblings of those who haven't bothered to properly understand it.