Sunday, 29 December 2013

Subfields of genetics

The science of heredity could be usefully subdivided into:

Symbiotic genetics is probably an unfamiliar concept. It would deal with the "genetics" of symbiotic unions. Basically this largely consists of studying when symbiotes are gained or lost from such unions.

Symbiont gain should be called "symbiogenesis" (though, in fact, that term is often used to refer to something else). Much of the symbiology literature addresses this topic.

There's an interesting book about symbiont loss: The Ghosts Of Evolution Nonsensical Fruit, Missing Partners, And Other Ecological Anachronisms by Connie C. Barlow.

In a previous article I offered a classification scheme for mutations. It is interesting to think how the various types of mutation apply to symbiotic genetics and population genetics.

Symbiotic genetics is particularly relevant to students of cultural evolution - since cultural evolution is heavily based on symbiology.

Mutations classified

Arbitrary document modifications can be modeled as a series of insertions and deletions.

This sort of scheme works pretty well as the basis for a mutation classification scheme - in both organic and cultural evolution.

Sometimes it is useful to model a combined insertion and deletion as a replacement.

With insertions and replacements, the source of the introduced information can be used to sub-classify. The most obvious sub-classification involves whether the inserted information comes from self or other. A replacement of material from yourself could be classified as a rearrangement.

An insertion of material copied directly from yourself would be a duplication. A movement of material is commonly called a translocation.

This scheme is similar in some respects to the existing one used to classify organic mutations - though my proposal is substrate neutral.

An orthogonal classification scheme is whether the mutations are accidental or deliberate. Deliberate mutations are seen in the immune system, for example. They are also a common feature of cultural evolution.

Mutations can also be classified by their effect on function, by their effect on fitness and by whether they are inherited. These classification schemes work equally well in the organic and cultural realms.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

The sciences of memory and copying

A possible alternative to having a science of heredity is to have a science of memory and a science of copying (since memory and copying are the main components of heredity). In a number of respects, this would be good - since memory and copying are pretty different phenomena.

We already have a science of memory: "mnemology". This is named after Richard Semon's fine concept of the "mneme" - which was great, but ultimately lost out to the "gene". Unfortunately, mnemology does not seem to be a well-known subject area. There are also "memory studies" and "memory theory" - which don't quite seem to be the same thing. The science associated with memory seems to be a bit fragmented. Animal memory seems to have been assimilated into psychology and cognitive science - and not given a name of its own. The topic of "genetic memory" has been assimilated into genetics.

If you look for a science of copying, there doesn't seem to be much out there - except for evolutionary theory, biology, genetics and "epigenetics" [sic]. There is information theory - perhaps that is the nearest thing.

A science of copying would probably have two foundations: the concept of mutual information - from Shannon information theory - and the concept of causality. I've gone into this in more detail in my article: What are inheritance and copying?

Since one way for patterns to persist is via copying, we could have the science of memory including the science of copying. That way we could still call it the "science of heredity", "science of persistence", or "genetics". Persisting without copying is a topic unto itself - but perhaps one that is not worthy enough one to have its own separate field.

This whole situation seems rather unfortunate. The sciences of persistence and memory seem fragmented, while the science of copying barely seems to exist - outside of biology.

Perhaps my perspective on this is a bit different from other scientists. For me, storage and copying are fundamental operations. They are certainly fundamental operations inside computers. If you think about it, they are pretty fundamental operators in the rest of the world as well. To have a science of memory and a science of copying seems like a natural way to carve the world up to me. However, what we currently have seems to be a long way from this.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Universal Darwinism and the origin of life

One of the more coherent critiques of universal Darwinism I am aware of comes in the first part of the book Genetic Takeover: And the Mineral Origins of Life by A. G. Cairns-Smith. The author argues in some detail that there's no such thing as "prebiotic evolution", or "chemical evolution" - and the origin of life represented the dawn of the era of adaptation. He rejected the idea that you could draw on the concept of adaptation before the first self-reproducing agent existed.

We now know that this idea is wrong. There was copying with variation and selection before the origin of life. Evolutionary theory applies to a variety of non-living systems that preceded the first living things. The concept of "adaptation" also applies to such systems.

The rest of the thesis in this book seems little-affected by these more recent developments. Crystals still look as though they are the most likely candidate substrate for the first living things. The idea of a genetic takeover still seems to be highly significant.

Probably, universal Darwinism makes the probability of the origin of life seem larger - since invoking adaptation before the origin provides new paths and mechanisms via which life could arise.. However our main evidence relating to the likelihood of life's origin still consists of observations about its history on the planet and astronomical observations of other worlds - rather than arguments from physics or chemistry. So perhaps this doesn't make much difference.

However, universal Darwinism might help to illuminate possible pathways towards the origin.

Video: Richard Dawkins On Meme

I can't embed this video. It's called "Richard Dawkins On Meme".

Dawkins is promoting his autobiography here - and he describes the role of memes in The Selfish Gene.

The video is dated November 2013.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Against phenogenotypes

The term "phenogenotype" has been proposed to refer to a mixture of cultural and genetic traits - originally by Marc Feldman, I think.

Robert Aunger was critical of this concept - saying that such combinations tended to be transitory.

Herbert Gintis once wrote:

He shows that culture cannot be identified with phenotype or behavior. It follows that we must drop the term 'geno-phenotype'. In its place we can use the term 'geno-memotype.'

I don't like the term "phenogenotype". It's a confusing mixture of two different kinds of thing. Phenotypes include genotypes - so a "phenogenotype" would be just a phenotype. Instead, "phenogenotype" is used to refer to combinations of traits - or to combinations of genes.

In practice, "phenogenotype" is generally used to mean something close to a "geno-memotype". This name is better - but the concept is rarely needed, since memes and genes typically have different inheritance paths, and lumping them together in this way confusingly suggests that they are closely associated.

The proposed concept of a "phenogenotype is on my mind today because I read A Cooperative Species" recently - and the authors use this terminology.

I notice that Marcus Feldman was still teaching the "phenogenotype" terminology in 2014 here.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

The domain of the science of heredity

I more-or-less take it for granted that:

  • We should have a science of heredity;
  • That this science should be called "genetics";
There seem to be a fair number of people who think that the term "genetics" is best reserved for the study of nucleic-acid-based heredity - but that seems like an extremely parochial and out-dated perspective to me.

Nor do there seem to be other sensible proposals for the name of a science of heredity. In my "Against Replicator Terminology" essay, I propose "replicatology" as the name for a possible alternative science of heredity. However, it doesn't seem very likely that "replicatology" will get anywhere. We already have a science of heredity. It's called "genetics".

This post is about another topic, namely: what is the proper domain of the science of heredity. If you look up "genetics" you'll see that it is often defined as the science of heredity in living organisms. This would make it part of biology. However, heredity, like evolution, is not confined to living things. Both of these concepts apply to all kinds of things that are not conventionally considered to be alive - electrical discharges, drainage basins, propagating cracks - and so on.

Do we really need a science of heredity for living things - and another science of heredity for non-living things? I am sceptical. I'm pretty sure that the domain of the proposed science of heredity should not be limited to things that are alive. This proposal means that genetics would not be a sub-discipline of biology.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Parallels to universal Darwinism

Alex Mesoudi's recent book was titled: Cultural Evolution: How Darwinian Theory Can Explain Human Culture and Synthesize the Social Sciences.

However in Universal Darwinism, evolutionary theory also applies to physics, chemistry and computer science. This expanded scope of Darwinian explanation means that it has the potential to unify all the sciences - extending even beyond the physical laws of our universe into the realms of mathematics.

Parallels seem inevitable. Statistics also penetrates all branches of science. Thermodynamics (in the form of statistical mechanics) describes processes that aren't confined to universes with physics like ours. Universal Darwinism is a lot like statistical mechanics. Another case that springs to mind is complexity theory. Complexity theory deals with systems on an abstract level. Systems theory and cybernetics have similar potential for generality. Computer science and mathematics are also very general. Let's list these items as follows:

  • Mathematics;
  • Statistics;
  • Computer science;
  • Systems theory;
  • Complexity theory;
  • Statistical mechanics;
  • Cybernetics;
Conventionally, Universal Darwinism describes a set of processes. It doesn't seem as broad as mathematics, statistics or computer science (which are pretty process agnostic). However, its precise scope has yet to be fully elucidated. Some argue for a very general version of Darwinism that applies to all non-miraculous change. Such an expansive conception of Darwinism would put it on the same level as computer science - which studies computable processes.

However, overall, statistical mechanics looks like the best parallel to me.

In the 1930s Fisher noted resemblances between some aspects of population genetics and statistical mechanics, writing:

It will be noticed that the fundamental theorem proved above bears some remarkable resemblances to the second law of thermodynamics. Both are properties of populations, or aggregates, true irrespective of the nature of the units which compose them; both are statistical laws; each requires the constant increase of a measurable quantity, in the one case the entropy of a physical system and in the other the fitness, measured by m, of a biological population.

For me, that pretty-much captures the spirit of universal Darwinism.

Universal Darwinism seems to be in the process of being born into a storm of controversy. Complexity theory offers the nearest parallel here, I think - but the advent of complexity theory seems like a relatively mild revolution - in comparison to the one that universal Darwinism heralds.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Rupert Sheldrake on memetics

In my last blog post here, I wrote:

I'm actually secretly pleased when such folk criticise memetics. If only Roger Penrose, Rupert Sheldrake, John Searle, Deepak Chopra and Al Gore could be persuaded to say some bad things about memetics!

I just checked: Rupert Sheldrake has said some bad things about memetics! In Morphic Resonance: The Nature of Formative Causation he says:

Richard Dawkins coined the word meme to refer to “a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. He deliberately chose a word that sounded rather like gene to stress the analogy between genes and memes as replicators. But one of the problems with this term is that it is atomistic: it implies that memes are independent units, at the same level as each other. By contrast, thinking of cultural inheritance in terms of morphic fields has no such implication: morphic fields are organised in nested hierarchies.

So: memes are "atomistic" - and the answer is "morphic fields"!

For anyone unfamiliar, Rupert Sheldrake is a card-carrying pseudoscientist. His writings are full of parapsychological nonsense. Sheldrake's concept of "morphic resonance" is sheer pseudoscience.

So: would I like to replace cultural Darwinism with a bunch of mystical phoney baloney? Thanks - but no thanks!

Of course, just because some ignorant folk criticise memetics, it doesn't mean that it is true. However, from the perspective of an advocate, the more of the opponents are idiots, the better. One of the historical problems with memetics is that its prominent supporters have been folk other scientists don't want to associate with. That's not a problem with the theory, it's more of a sociological problem. However the "other side" isn't too great either. Rupert Sheldrake is the tip of an iceberg of undesirables.

Velikovsky on criticisms of memetics

I've spent some time going through the criticism of memetics from the memeophobes. I do this on my web site, on my blog, and in my 2011 book on the topic.

Others have spent time on this too - including Dennett, Blackmore and Hull. However I felt that more effort was needed in some places.

Another recent defender of memetics has been Sylvain Magne. Now, Joe Velikovsky is making some welcome contributions. Thanks, Joe!

Replies to some critics of “Memetics as a pseudo-science”

These articles seem to be promoting Velikovsky's paper on the topic - but that's fair enough.

I'm not sure all these critics are worth bothering with. Benitez-Bribiesca (2001) is an oft-cited critic of memetics - but the associated paper is totally hopeless. I rarely bother with addressing such nonsense. I feel much the same about Lanier. Lanier has lots of opinions, but a large proportion of them seem to be worthless nonsense.

I'm actually secretly pleased when such folk criticise memetics. If only Roger Penrose, Rupert Sheldrake, John Searle, Deepak Chopra and Al Gore could be persuaded to say some bad things about memetics!

Friday, 13 December 2013

Defenders of neoDarwinism

The "modern synthesis" - though vague - was too specific and must now be considered to be toast.

However it still continues a zombie existence in the minds of some researchers. Here's Joe Feldstein:

the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis has been challenged by people who invoke epigenetics, phenomena of evo-devo, punctuationism, and a variety of other existent and nonexistent phenomena. the Synthesis has survived all these. It has turned out that some of these phenomena either do not exist (as in the case of neo-Lamarckian mechanisms). Other such as epigenetic mechanisms have little long-term effect. The rest can be considered to be examples of the workings of the mechanisms of mutation and selection, as in the case of evo-devo phenomena.
Here's Jerry Coyne:

I’m constantly puzzled these days by how often people argue that the neo-Darwinian synthesis is wrong, and that we need a new paradigm. Genetic assimilation, epigenetics, horizontal gene transfer—all of these buzzwords are evoked as reasons to jettison our “conventional” view of evolution. But always, when you look at the data, the evidence that these phenomena will overturn neo-Darwinism is nonexistent. I’ve already written a lot on the epigenetics hype, and have shown that there’s no evidence that a single adaptation in nature involves the fixation in the DNA of an epigenetic alteration of the genome that isn’t initially inherited. Yet people keep banging on about epigenetics. I’m not sure why the hype continues, but perhaps it has to do with the fact that the main paradigm of evolution—the neo-Darwinian synthesis-is largely consolidated, and is correct. Sure, there are surprises to come, and interesting new phenomena, but there’s no “quantum mechanics” of evolution on the horizon.
The modern synthesis was missing symbiology and universal Darwinism. It was so vague that its possible to argue that these things have been - or could be - incorporated into it - but it seems better to say that we're now in a new world that the founders didn't see coming - rather than siding with those defending these outdated and misleading dogmas.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Richard Dawkins - on the definition of the term "meme"

Richard Dawkins recently wrote - in an AMA on Reddit:
  • Q: How do you feel now that memes, first discussed in your book The Selfish Gene, have become ubiquitous in internet culture? [...]
    • A: I'm pleased that the concept of meme has become widely understood, but the true meaning is a bit broader than the common understanding. Anything transmitted with high fidelity from brain to brain by imitation is a meme. [...]
Of course, that is true. However, to briefly recap why this sort of definition of a meme is not very useful scientifically:

Cultural elements spread from one human to the next irrespective of their copying fidelity. Essentially the same math applies to cultural elements that are copied with high fidelity and poor fidelity. Of course poor fidelity copying typically leads to a mutational meltdown - and acts against adaptive evolution. However, it does not always do so. There are ways of applying error correction to systems that exhibit poor copying fidelity. Some of these are used in real life cultural situations. Copying the most popular variant can stabilize even poor fidelity copying systems - and prevent a mutational meltdown. It is basic information theory that you can preserve signal fidelity even if you have poor quality data transmission channels.

There's little point in having a science of high fidelity copied cultural elements. It's would be a subset of the science of all copied cultural elements.

Also, there is no good reason to mention "imitation". Imitation is a type of social learning. A science of all social learning is at hand. This covers imitation, teaching, local enhancement - and other types of social learning. Being specific when you can so easily be general is not the scientific way.

In my opinion, Dawkins isn't helping memetics with this kind of material.


Self-confessed memetic hijacking victims

Memetics suggests that we might observe individuals so infested with memes that the interests of their genes are overridden. I refer to this as memetic hijacking. Susan Blackmore proposed we call such creatures "meme fountains" - which sounds remarkably positive to me. I've previously use the term "meme shedding" for the way in which such creatures leave a trail of memes wherever they go.

One of the most famous examples of memetic hijacking involves chaste priests who devote their energy to prosletysing. They tend to produce copies of their memes, not copies of their genes.

Theory suggests that memes might adapt in ways that divert host reproductive success towards meme replication - as is seen in the organic realm - where some parasites sterilize their hosts - in order to make use of their reproductive resources.

Of course many necrotrophic memes also reduce the fertility of their hosts by shortening their lifespan. Suicide bombers - who are sterilized by their memes in a most dramatic fashion - are an obvious example of this.

Not many memetic hijacking victims are "self-confessed". However we do see a few. Richard Dawkins recently volunteered that:

as for me, I'd rather spread memes than genes anyway.

He had previously said:

I'm unlikely to be among those who turn out to be ancestral to all. But I'd rather spread memes than genes anyway.

Richard does have a daughter, though. Similarly, Steven Pinker famously wrote in How the Mind Works:

I am happy to be voluntarily childless, ignoring the solemn imperative to spread my genes. And if my genes don't like it, they can go jump in the lake.

There are probably many other self-confessed memetic hijacking victims out there. I'll try to add them to this page as I track them down.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Coyne gets heredity wrong

Popular science blogger (and meme critic) Jerry Coyne seems to be in a terrible muddle about the basic biological concept of heredity these days.

Here he is on his blog:

All heritable differences between species, in fact, must reside in the DNA; we know of no cases in which they don’t. Where else could they be?
Heritable differences between species can also reside in culture or the environment. The fact that modern humans have rocket-ships and Neanderthals did not is due to cultural variation - not genetic variation. It just isn't true that heritable differences "must reside in DNA". The idea that "we know of no cases in which they don’t" is just bunk. About 20-40% of variation in modern humans is due to cultural inheritance. That's not as much variation as DNA is responsible for - but it is a non-trivial amount.

Heredity can also reside in the environment. For instance, most marsupials over the last million years have inherited their position on the Australian continent from their parents - along with their DNA. Position is inherited too.

This is similar to the last time - where we had:

Geneticists now know the genetic basis of dozens of adaptive traits that differ between populations and species. All of them reside in the DNA. If non-genetic adaptive change was common, we would have found it.
Coyne has a long history of misunderstanding cultural evolution. One wonders when the penny is finally going to drop with him.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

The limits of evolutionary theory

The quest for the edge of evolutionary theory has been pursued by many. Often they conclude that morality - or some other aspect of human nature is "beyond the edge of evolution".

My search for the limits of Darwinism is a bit different. It's obvious that Darwin's theory of evolution covers all living things. However, it is now also now clear that the same theory applies to a range of inorganic systems - drainage systems, propagating cracks, electrical discharges - and so on. I discuss this in more detail in various places - including:

So: what are the limits of evolutionary theory? One solution is to have a theory that covers all change. I've briefly discussed this possibility in:

Such a complete theory of evolution has also been proposed by Nathalie Gontier. However, notoriously a theory that predicts anything also predicts nothing. This is not necessarily a fatal flaw - Turing's theory of computers applied to the universe in the form of the Church, Turing, Deutsch principle also predicts nothing. However, not making concrete predictions is not a very positive feature. This motivates the search for more easily falsifiable evolutionary theories.

Evolutionary theory usually involves a reproducing population undergoing mutations and subject to selection. However, this leaves open the issue of what counts as a "population", what a "mutation" is and what qualifies as "selection".


One classical way of constraining the predictions of evolutionary theory is to insist that mutation occurs at random. Obviously unconstrained variation can't be permitted - since otherwise you can explain any form of change by saying: "that's just a macromutation". Random mutations represents the opposite extreme.

The problem with the "random mutations" solution is lack of realism. Mutations aren't really random. Variation isn't really undirected with respect to fitness. The idea may be a pillar of neo-Darwinism, but it's just a confused mistake.

I think that Donald Campbell nailed the nature of the constraints on variation in 1974 - by saying that they depended on existing "knowledge" - where "knowledge" is intended in a broad sense that includes the accumulated "wisdom" stored in organisms' genomes.

Donald Campbell's solution might have been technically correct, but it isn't very neat. To apply it one must know what counts as "existing knowledge" - which is a non-trivial problem. Modelers typically tend to stick with random mutations - since these are more tractable.


A population is a clearly defined concept in the case of sexually-reproducing organisms. In most other cases it isn't so clear. I generally advocate that a broad conception of what counts as a population be used: any collection of one or more entities.


Selection takes the form of production and elimination. Entities are produced and eliminated. Production and elimination are a bit like creation and destruction - except that production could take the place of revealing an existing thing - while elimination could just hide something - rather than destroying it.


A clue about the domain of universal Darwinism is that it appears to cover the same domain as maximum entropy thermodynamics - whose application domain is fairly well established.

Another clue is that it appears to underpin all goal-directed systems and all adaptations.

Most systems that are macroscopically reversible are not usefully modeled by universal Darwinism.


The options for falsifying theories based on universal Darwinism are mostly based on evolution taking place too fast - and insufficiently gradually. Insisting on random (or undirected) mutations is the classical way of doing this. However, even if you relax this notion - and only insist that the mutations are based on existing knowledge - that still provides reasonable possibilities for falsification.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Against postbiological evolution

There seems to be an enormous quantity of nonsense on the internet about "Postbiological evolution".

Acoording to the Wikipedia page on the topic:

Postbiological evolution is a form of evolution which has transitioned from a biological paradigm, driven by the propagation of genes, to a nonbiological (e.g., cultural or technological) paradigm, presumably driven by some alternative replicator (e.g., memes or temes), and potentially resulting in the extinction, obsolescence, or trophic reorganization of the former.
Of course, "postbiological evolution" is an oxymoron. Culture and technology not nonbiological - they are biological. Culture and technology are products of living systems - they are part of biology.

This is a basic mistake which I have highlighted before.

Paul Davies is one of those who have been suckered in. He writes - in "The Eerie Silence":

I think it very likely – in fact inevitable – that biological intelligence is only a transitory phenomenon, a fleeting phase in the evolution of the universe. [...] If we ever encounter extraterrestrial intelligence, I believe it is overwhelmingly likely to be post-biological in nature.
I'm sorry, but: no. Extraterrestrial intelligence, is not likely to be "post-biological" in nature. There's no such thing as "post-biological" intelligence. The whole concept is just stupid. Intelligence will always be biological. If you think otherwise, look up "biology" in the dictionary.

Dick (2002) writes:

The possibility of a postbiological universe ~ one in which most intelligence has evolved beyond flesh and blood to artificial intelligence (AI) ~ has not been considered in detail because humans are unaccustomed to thinking on cosmic time scales and following the logical consequences of cosmic time scales for biology and culture.

Er, no. A "postbiological universe" would be one in which there were no living things any more. Machine intelligence would be biological, not "postbiological".

Stephen Pinker on memetics in his latest book

Longstanding meme critic, Stephen Pinker has some more critical comments on memes in his latest book. Over to Stephen:

I think that that mind-life parallel inherent in memetics holds out the promise of new ways of understanding cultural and historical change, but that it also poses a danger.

Many theorists, partly on the basis of Dawkins's arguments about the indispensibility of natural selection in explaining complex design in living things, write as if natural selection, applied to memes rather than genes, is the only adequate explanation of complex design in human cultural achievements. To bring culture into biology, they reason, one must show how it evolved by its own version of natural selection. But that doesn't follow, because the products of evolution don't have to look like the process of evolution. In the case of cultural evolution they certainly don't look alike - human cultural products are not the result of an accumulation of copying errors, but are crafted through bouts of concerted brainwork by intelligent designers. And there is nothing in Dawkins's Universal Darwinism that makes this observation suspect. While it remains true that the origin of complex design on earth requires invoking selection (given the absence of any alternative mechanisms adequate to the task), in the case of complex design in culture, we do have an alternative, namely the creative powers of the human brain. Ultimately we have to explain the complexity of the brain itself in terms of genetic selection, but then the ladder can be kicked away, and the actual process of cultural creation and transmission can be studies without prejudice.

This is mostly the same bunch of confused notions that I criticized in my "Pinker takedown" series of videos from 2011.

This time, Pinker doesn't name the "many theorists" whose ideas he is criticizing. I doubt that they exist - because the idea involved just isn't what Pinker says. The basic idea of selectionism - since Donald Campbell proposed the idea in the 1960s - has been that adaptation and goodness-of-fit is the product of variation-and-selection mechanisms - or their products - and that the products of variation-and-selection mechanisms often themselves contain variation-and-selection mechanisms within them. Here's the relevant section from Campbell (1974):

  1. A blind-variation-and-selective-retention process is fundamental to all inductive achievements, to all genuine increases in knowledge, to all increases in fit of system to environment.
  2. The many processes which shortcut a more fully blind-variation-and-selective-retention process are in themselves inductive achievements, containing wisdom about the environment achieved originally by blind variation and selective retention.
  3. In addition, such shortcut processes contain in their own operation a blind-variation-and-selective-retention process at some level, substituting for overt locomotor exploration or the life-and-death winnowing of organic evolution.
Pinker criticizes the first point, agrees with the second point, but seems to be completely missing the third point. The human mind is simply not an alternative to variation-and-selection mechanisms. It works via variation-and-selection mechanisms. There's selection between ideas within individual minds. There's selection between synapses competing for attachment points. Selection acts between axon/dendrite growth tips competing for nutrients - and so on. The brain is a Darwin machine. This idea has long been recognized by neuroscientists. For more details about this, see my article titled: Keeping Darwin in mind.

Cultural evolution is indeed poorly characterized as being "a series of copying errors". However, organic evolution does not work by "a series of copying errors" either. Organic evolution involves recombination, mergers and changes that are not errors in addition to copying errors. So does cultural evolution.

It is odd to hear this criticism from someone knowledgeable about evolution. It's just a pure misconception about how the mechanics of evolution works. I went through this already in my "Are most words intelligently designed?" video. Is Steven Pinker on the internet? Perhaps someone can draw his attention to this conceptual problem.

It's true that intelligent design has been applied to memes - in memetic engineering. However intelligent design has been applied to genes too - in the form of genetic engineering. In neither case is evolutionary theory compromised. Cultural evolution and organic evolution remain "curiously parallel".

Memetics indeed "holds out the promise of new ways of understanding cultural and historical change". However it is far, far ahead of Stephen Pinker's understanding of it.


  • Campbell, Donald T. (1965) Variation and selective retention in socio-cultural evolution.
  • Campbell, Donald T. (1974) Evolutionary epistemology.

The internet: the drosophila of memetics

Daniel Dennett described the internet as the drosophila of memetics in a 2009 Harvard lecture. It's so true.

It's not that we didn't have data before, but now we have a huge mountain of it, on every topic, complete with search engines, frequency analysis, cross-referencing and APIs for querying the mountain. There are good archiving facilities and high-fidelity copying is ubiquitous. Practically every aspect of human culture has been digitized and put on the internet. We have audio, video, pictures, words and all kinds of new machine-readable data. The 2011 internet meme explosion highlights some popular areas. Plus there's a bunch of other researchers working in the field.

Additionally, the internet promises to accelerate research in all scientific fields - by facilitating the sharing of data, making criticism easier and generally making it easier for researchers to communicate and collaborate with each other. I look forwards to more rapid progress in my own field - as well as in other ones.

The internet is pretty-much a paradise for meme researchers. Thank ARPA for the internet.

Cultural evolution vs memetics

Cultural evolution has become a much more popular idea recently. Not just in the sense that culture changes, but that it changes in a manner broadly compatible with Darwinian evolutionary theory.

However, academically, cultural evolution ought to be a kind of wasteland - in the sense that it has little or no content which is not shared by ordinary conventional evolutionary theory.

As Herbert Spencer put it - in 1862:

there are not several kinds of Evolution having certain traits in common, but one Evolution going on everywhere after the same manner.

The main differences between cultural and organic evolution turn out to be differences between memetics and genetics. Once those differences are accounted for, a theory of cultural evolution doesn't have a lot of theoretical work to do - since orthodox evolutionary theory already does most of the job required. I think that this issue has been poorly understood by many workers in the field.

My "differences remain exaggerated" article describes this problem. Misconceptions by researchers about how cultural evolution operates apparently led them to believe that there were considerable differences between the dynamics of organic and cultural evolution - and that we needed a new field of "cultural evolution" to study these differences. However, it turns out that these differences have been greatly exaggerated - that many of the perceived differences were illusory, and that most of the actual differences are in the memetics / genetics departments.

Apart from memetics, the other things needed are cultural ecology and ethology. However, there isn't much work for a theory of cultural evolution to do - once memetics is accounted for. Orthodox evolutionary theory has it covered. Memetics covers the field where the real action is.

Once you understand that culture evolves, the topic of "cultural genetics" is really the next thing on the horizon. Just as genetics followed evolution historically, so "cultural genetics" will follow "cultural evolution" during the modern Darwinian revolution. Of course, memetics enthusiasts have been working on the topic of how cultural elements mutate and recombine for decades - but it will be good to have an influx of new researchers into the field.

Academic cultural evolution and the internet meme explosion

I had a look for coverage of the 2011 internet meme explosion in the 2013 book:

Cultural Evolution: Society, Technology, Language, and Religion edited by Peter J. Richerson, Morten H. Christiansen

All I could find was this:

Dawkins's theory of replicators is part of a general theory of “memetics” (Blackmore 1999), which proposes that only genes are replicators in biological evolution, that they are units of selection, that organisms are mere "vehicles" for genes/memes, and that cultural meme replication and selection is analog to biological parasitism. This more general theory, in our opinion, has generally not been successful in providing novel insights into cultural evolution [...]

Leaving aside the ridiculous straw man attacks, is this really the best these folk can do? We've seen the most amazing explosion of memes online recently, with great facilities for tracking and monitoring how they mutate and recombine. The internet really is the drosophila of memetics. Yet these academics seem to be so in denial about the M word that they can't even sensibly discuss the topic.

I think these folk need to get with the program. Studying prehistory is all very well - but the rest of the world has moved on. Memes are all over the internet. The next generation is growing up with memes. Memes are the future. Mememtics was ahead of its time, is all. The objections of some academics to memetics make them look stupid - in my opinion. It's a bunch of sour grapes.

Academics in the field that don't understand memes and memetics are not doing themselves any favours. If there are technical criticisms, bring them on. However, as we have seen, the technical criticisms are all simply confused misunderstandings. If you are confused about a topic and don't understand it, perhaps seek out those who are in the know - rather than parading your misunderstandings in public.

Overall, the war with the popularisers is not helping the field. It's time for a cease fire.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Memes in marketing - recent articles

Marketers have gone meme crazy over the last few years. Here's a sample of articles on the topic published in November 2013:

Even if no-one else is interested, marketers will turn memetics into a science - in order to help them to sell things.

What's in a meme - infographic

I've featured quite a few "meme" infographics before. Here's a particularly large one, titled "what's in a meme". It seems to be mainly concerned with internet memes. I've added it to my collection.

Selection vs drift - the conceptual mess at the heart of evolutionary theory

This post criticizes modern usage of the term "natural selection".

Natural selection is often defined as being non-random change. Genetic drift is defined as being random change. However, what constitutes randomness is a philosophical quagmire - and it is often difficult to determine whether a given change is genuinely random or not.

Further, some would say that genetic drift occurs when change is mostly random. It turns out empirically that the split between drift-like phenomena and directional selection is not a binary division into two distinct categories, but rather a sliding scale - going from pure randomness and drift at one end - to pure directional selection at the other.

Nature can choose randomly - and the term "natural selection" makes no mention of non-randomness. The terminology doesn't mean what the words say. It's simply confusing for people to learn.

So: why does the terminology of evolutionary biology enter into this philosophical quagmire? Why does it foist a false dichotomy on us? Why doesn't the terminology mean what it says?

I argue that this is a locked-in historical accident. I think that there's a much better classification scheme out there - involving natural production and natural elimination.

We could redefine the term natural selection to cover all changes in the frequency of births and deaths - and then write the equation:

Natural selection = natural production + natural elimination

...instead of today's:

Natural selection + genetic drift = natural production + natural elimination

Today's concept of genetic drift would become "random natural selection". Today's concept of "natural selection" would become "non-random natural selection". These terms are rather useless, and I doubt they would see much action - due to the difficulty of establishing randomness and the "false dichotomy business" described above.

I think this would be a big breakthrough in the way in which evolutionary theory is learned - and taught.

It would also make the term "natural selection" much more useful.

It a creature dies, that's natural selection. If a creature reproduces, that's natural selection. No more time-consuming and pointless enquiries into whether a given death or birth was "random" or not.

Non-randomness was not part of the definition of natural selection in the modern synthesis. In Evolution: The Modern Synthesis (1942), Julian Huxley wrote:

The term Natural Selection is thus seen to have two rather different meanings. In a broad sense it covers all cases of differential survival: but from the evolutionary point of view it covers only the differential transmission of inheritable variations.

Randomness doesn't get mentioned here.

However, the origin of the idea can probably be traced to Darwin's usage in the Origin. Darwin wrote:

if variations useful to any organic being do occur, assuredly individuals thus characterised will have the best chance of being preserved in the struggle for life; and from the strong principle of inheritance they will tend to produce offspring similarly characterised. This principle of preservation, I have called, for the sake of brevity, Natural Selection.

Here, Darwin was rather vague about exactly what qualified as "natural selection" - but you can see where people are getting the idea from.

The modern usage probably ossified in the 1970s. In The Units Of Selection (1970), Lewontin defines "natural selection" in a way that excludes genetic drift. This was an influential paper at the time. The polarization associated with the controversy about the significance of the work of Motoo Kimura on genetic drift may also have contributed.

Of course, redefining well-established terms increases your crackpot index. However, in this case, there is a clear rationale:

Placing the concept of "randomness" at the heart of evolutionary theory is an unnecessary bad move. Trying to create a dichotomy out of a continuum is another bad move. Today's terminology incorporates a philosophical quagmire, represents poor-quality classification and it doesn't mean what the words literally say. This terminology isn't just bad, it is obviously bad. It's time for a change.

Narrow definitions of natural selection

It's come to my attention that the "production" aspect of natural selection has come to dominate over the "elimination" aspect - in some popular definitions of natural selection.

For example, here's Wikipedia:

Natural selection is the gradual process by which biological traits become either more or less common in a population as a function of the effect of inherited traits on the differential reproductive success of organisms interacting with their environment.

...and here's M. Prakash (2007):

Natural selection is defined as the differential reproduction of genetically distinct individuals or genotypes within a population. Differential reproduction is caused by differences among individuals in such factors as mortality, fertility, fecundity, mating success, and the viability of offspring.

Here's Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye (1988):

In modem evolutionary genetics, natural selection is defined as the differential reproduction of genotypes (individuals of some genotypes have more offspring than those of others).

In these cases natural selection is defined in terms of differential reproduction. Differential mortality is demoted to a mechanism producing differential reproduction. This is bad. The things that we observe are the product of both differential production and differential elimination. It isn't true that differential elimination only matters when it produces differential production.

The proposal that differential reproduction is what matters is implicitly proposing that we have another category of selection: for differential elimination that doesn't cause differential reproduction. However that's a farcical category. What are we going to call that?

Those who want to define natural selection in terms of differential reproduction have not thought things through. Their proposed classification scheme is dreadful.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Viral Marketing: The Science of Sharing

Another new book related to the topic here has been recently published:

Viral Marketing: The Science of Sharing by Karen Nelson-Field

This one has a promotional video:

She argues against epidemiological models of viral phenomena!

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Going Viral - the book

"Going Viral" was published today. It's by Karine Nahon and Jeff Hemsley.

The Google books page for it is here.

There's a brief review here: Plague of Viral Memes? - Scott McLemee.

Entrepreneurial LOL, Fail & Meme

Cheezburger CEO explains how he used internet memes to build a business and raise 30 million dollars in venture capital in 2011.

This is mostly a "how-to-run-a-successful-business" talk.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

New UCLABEC videos

The UCLA Center for Behavior, Evolution, and Culture put out some new videos recently. Some of them are relevant to our topic here. In particular:

I think most of these videos were previously available via their web site. Now they're on YouTube.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Medicine vs microbes: comparing evolutionary rates

Much has been written about how cultural evolution is faster than organic evolution. Unfortunately most of it is nonsense. The problem is that people compare the rate of evolution of humans with the rate of evolution of memes - which typically have a much shorter generation time. This comparison is unfair and unhelpful - as I've previously documented my previous article: On the rate of cultural evolution.

A fairer contest would be to compare cultural evolution with the evolution of organic microbes. A natural experiment is currently doing that on an enormous scale. Hospitals and medical organizations wage constant war on microbes. In some cases, humans care quite a bit about the outcome - it can't be claimed that they aren't trying. This contest gives us some data about the relative rates of evolution in the two realms.

Looking at this data, it's hard to make much of a case for cultural evolution being faster. The extinction rates of disease causing microbes are especially poor. Perhaps, one day, cultural evolution will clearly outstrip organic evolution - but we don't seem to be quite there yet.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Tim Tyler: Book reviews

I've reviewed some books over the last few years - many of them relevant to cultural evolution in some way. I used to make videos of my book reviews relating to cultural evolution and memetics - and post them on this blog. These videos have become less frequent - but I still read and review many books. To summarize this activity, my reviews are listed below:

  1. From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds by Daniel C. Dennett
  2. Memetics: Evolutionary Perspective for Interpreting Culture by Mr Eko Wijayanto
  3. The Mystery of Metamorphosis: A Scientific Detective Story by Frank Ryan
  4. The Domestication of Language: Cultural Evolution and the Uniqueness of the Human Animal by Daniel Cloud
  5. Machine Super Intelligence by Shane Legg
  6. Evolution As Entropy: Toward a Unified Theory of Biology by Daniel R. Brooks and E. O. Wiley
  7. The Engine of Complexity: Evolution as Computation by John E. Mayfield
  8. Why Humans Cooperate: A Cultural and Evolutionary Explanation - by Joe Henrich and Nathalie Henrich
  9. Evolution, the Extended Synthesis edited by Massimo Pigliucci and Gerd B. Müller
  10. Niche Construction: The Neglected Process in Evolution - by F. John Odling-Smee, Kevin Laland, Marcus Feldman
  11. Evolution's Eye: A Systems View of the Biology-Culture Divide (Science and Cultural Theory) by Susan Oyama
  12. Darwinian Sociocultural Evolution: Solutions to Dilemmas in Cultural and Social Theory by Marion Blute
  13. Ethical Artificial Intelligence by Bill Hibbard
  14. Disinfect your mind by Ely Asher
  15. Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era by James Barrat
  16. The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter by Joseph Henrich
  17. The Master Algorithm: How the Quest for the Ultimate Learning Machine Will Remake Our World by Pedro Domingos
  18. Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man by Mark Changizi
  19. The Anthropic Principle: Man as the Focal Point of Nature by Reinhard Breuer
  20. The Evolution of Everything: How Selection Shapes Culture, Commerce, and Nature by Mark Sumner
  21. The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge by Matt Ridley
  22. The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress by Peter Singer
  23. Darwin's Conjecture: The Search for General Principles of Social and Economic Evolution by Geoffrey M. Hodgson
  24. Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies by Nick Bostrom
  25. Riddled with Life: Friendly Worms, Ladybug Sex, and the Parasites That Make Us Who We Are by Marlene Zuk
  26. Darwinian Dynamics by Richard Michod
  27. Darwin Does Physics by John Campbell
  28. Probably Approximately Correct: Nature's Algorithms for Learning and Prospering in a Complex World by Leslie Valiant
  29. Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe Is Just Right for Life by Paul Davies
  30. The Biology of Moral Systems by Richard Alexander
  31. Cultural Evolution: Society, Technology, Language, and Religion by Richerson and Whitehouse
  32. Science and Selection: Essays on Biological Evolution and the Philosophy of Science by David L. Hull
  33. War and Peace and War by Peter Turchin
  34. Proving Darwin: Making Biology Mathematical by Gregory Chaitin
  35. The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridley
  36. Machines Who Think: A Personal Inquiry into the History and Prospects of Artificial Intelligence by Pamela McCorduck
  37. The Intelligent Universe: AI, ET, and the Emerging Mind of the Cosmos by James N. Gardner
  38. Anthropic Bias: Observation Selection Effects in Science and Philosophy by Nick Bostrom
  39. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
  40. Genetic Takeover: And the Mineral Origins of Life by A. G. Cairns-Smith
  41. A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution Paperback by Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis
  42. In the Beat of a Heart: Life, Energy, and the Unity of Nature by John Whitfield
  43. Mathematical Models of Social Evolution: A Guide for the Perplexed by Richard McElreath and Rob Boyd
  44. Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson
  45. The Ghosts Of Evolution Nonsensical Fruit, Missing Partners, And Other Ecological Anachronisms by Connie C. Barlow
  46. Guerrilla Creativity: Make Your Message Irresistible with the Power of Memes by Jay Conrad Levinson
  47. The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future by Martin Ford
  48. Darwinizing Culture: The Status of Memetics as a Science by Robert Aunger
  49. Zarrella's Hierarchy of Contagiousness: The Science, Design, and Engineering of Contagious Ideas by Dan Zarella
  50. The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves by W. Brian Arthur
  51. Design in Nature: How the Constructal Law Governs Evolution in Biology, Physics, Technology, and Social Organization by Adrian Bejan
  52. Biocosm: The New Scientific Theory of Evolution: Intelligent Life Is the Architect of the Universe by James N. Gardner
  53. Did Darwin Get It Right?: Essays on Games, Sex and Evolution by John Maynard Smith
  54. The Penguin and the Leviathan: How Cooperation Triumphs over Self-Interest by Yochai Benkler
  55. Darwinian Populations and Natural Selection by Peter Godfrey-Smith
  56. Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame by Christopher Boehm
  57. Evolutionary Worlds without End by H. C. Plotkin
  58. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
  59. The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World by David Deutsch
  60. The Evolutionary World: How Adaptation Explains Everything from Seashells to Civilization by Geerat J. Vermeij
  61. Into the Cool: Energy Flow, Thermodynamics, and Life by Eric D. Schneider and Dorion Sagan
  62. The Origin and Evolution of Cultures by Robert Boyd
  63. Natural Selection: Domains, Levels, and Challenges by George C. Williams
  64. The Dawn of Symbolic Life: The Future of Human Evolution by Jon Beach
  65. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell
  66. I'll Have What She's Having: Mapping Social Behavior by Alex Bentley
  67. The Imagined World Made Real by H. C. Plotkin
  68. Darwin Machines and the Nature of Knowledge by H. C. Plotkin
  69. What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly
  70. The Complete Universe of Memes: Branches of Reality on The Reality Tree by Lloyd Whitling
  71. Why Evolution Is True by Jerry A. Coyne
  72. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond
  73. An Introduction to Evolutionary Ethics by Scott M. James
  74. Cosmos and Culture: Cultural Evolution in a Cosmic Context by NASA History Division
  75. The Things We Do: Using the Lessons of Bernard and Darwin to Understand the What, How, and Why of Our Behavior by Gary Cziko
  76. The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good by Robert H. Frank
  77. Coevolution: Genes, Culture, and Human Diversity by William H. Durham
  78. Culture and the Evolutionary Process by Robert Boyd
  79. People Will Talk: The Surprising Science of Reputation by John Whitfield
  80. The Social Conquest of Earth by Edward O. Wilson
  81. Darwinism and Human Affairs by Richard D. Alexander
  82. The Mocking Memes: A Basis for Automated Intelligence by Mark Martin
  83. The Cerebral Code: Thinking a Thought in the Mosaics of the Mind by William H. Calvin
  84. Plan and Purpose in Nature: The Limits of Darwinian Evolution by George C. Williams
  85. Evolution and the Levels of Selection by Samir Okasha
  86. Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society by David Sloan Wilson
  87. CHECheating Monkeys and Citizen Bees : The nature of cooperation in animals and humans by Lee Alan Dugatkin
  88. Information and Meaning in Evolutionary Processes by William F. Harms
  89. Contagious Ideas: On Evolution, Culture, Archaeology and Cultural Virus Theory by Ben Sandford Cullen
  90. On the Origin of Tepees: The Evolution of Ideas (and Ourselves) by Jonnie Hughes
  91. The Robot's Rebellion: Finding Meaning in the Age of Darwin by Keith E. Stanovich
  92. The Origin of Everything via Universal Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Systems in Contention for Existence by D. B. Kelley
  93. Summary of The Origin of Cultures by John Lin
  94. Universal Darwinism: The path of knowledge by John Campbell
  95. The Altruism Equation: Seven Scientists Search for the Origins of Goodness by Lee Alan Dugatkin
  96. Genes, Memes, Culture, and Mental Illness: Toward an Integrative Model by Hoyle Leigh
  97. Genes, Memes and Human History: Darwinian Archaeology and Cultural Evolution by Stephen Shennan
  98. Darwin's Blind Spot: Evolution Beyond Natural Selection by Frank Ryan
  99. SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed by M. A. Nowak
  100. The Imitation Factor: Evolution Beyond The Gene by Lee Alan Dugatkin
  101. Ever-Expanding Horizons: The Dual Informational Sources of Human Evolution by Carl P. Swanson
  102. The Theory of Cultural and Social Selection by W. G. Runciman
  103. Genes, Mind, And Culture: The Coevolutionary Process by Charles J. Lumsden
  104. Cultural Evolution: How Darwinian Theory Can Explain Human Culture and Synthesize the Social Sciences by Alex Mesoudi
  105. Promethean Fire: Reflections on the Origin of Mind by Charles J. Lumsden
  106. Sense and Nonsense: Evolutionary perspectives on human behaviour by Kevin N. Laland
  107. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Memes by Damon Brown
  108. The Selfish Meme by Kate Distin
Amazon indexes many of my book reviews here.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Genes are not sections of nucleic-acid

All through the first half of the twentieth century, the term "gene" referred to the heritable aspect of traits. Then, in 1953, the structure of nucleic acids was discovered. It had been discovered that genes were made of nucleic acids!

Not quite. Some genes are made of nucleic acids. Other genes are not made of nucleic acids.

Since the 1950s, some people have got confused about what genes are. When I talk to them they say things like what Massimo Pigliucci said to me last year:

Tim, I'm a geneticist by profession, and let me tell you: genes do not exist inside hard drives, or anywhere else but in living organisms. And they are always made of RNA or DNA.
This isn't just a case of people using words differently - it's a basic science mistake. Watson and Crick never discovered that all genes were made of nucleic acids. They discovered that some genes were made of nucleic acids. Our most-distant ancestors probably had genes which were not made of nucleic acids. Our descendants will probably have genes that are not made of nucleic-acids. Aliens will probably have genes not made of nucleic acids. The belief that all genes are made out of nucleic-acids is just a terribly confused scientific mistake. There is no parallel universe where genetics is the study of nucleic-acid-based inheritance. The genes representing the heritable aspect of the trait of circumcision are not encoded in nucleic acids. Surnames are not encoded in nucleic-acids. Stress levels are not encoded in nucleic acids. Not all traits are encoded in nucleic acids!

I often encounter people who claim that memes are not like genes because of - some difference or other. After a little while it turns out that they think that genes are made of nucleic acids. Nope. Some genes are made of nucleic acids. Other genes are not made of nucleic acids. The idea that all genes are made of nucleic acid is just a basic scientific mistake.

If someone ever claims that memes are not like genes - and it turns out that they think that genes are made of nucleic acids, this page is designed for them. Memes are not just like genes. They are genes. Full stop. Anyone who says otherwise is likely to be perpetuating a decades-old basic scientific mistake about what genes are made of.

Boyd and Richerson are some of the more prominent culprits here. They wrote a whole book titled "Not By Genes Alone". It argued that culture wasn't like genes. Except that this perpetuates the science mistake under discussion here. Memes aren't just like genes. They are genes. Those who promote the idea that genes are made of nucleic acid are peddling a mistaken, pseudoscientific dogma that does not withstand close inspection.

Part of the problem comes from molecular biologists. As Stephen Pinker put it:

Part of the blame goes to molecular biologists, who hijacked the term "gene" for protein-coding sequences, confusing everyone.
If this seems cryptic, Pinker has clarified and elaborated here:

Molecular biologists have appropriated the term "gene" to refer to stretches of DNA that code for a protein. Unfortunately, this sense differs from the one used in population genetics, behavioral genetics, and evolutionary theory, namely any information carrier that is transmissible across generations and has sustained effects on the phenotype.

See also, Against epigenetic inheritance.

Other examples

  • Larry Moran: A gene is a DNA sequence that is transcribed to produce a functional product.
  • P Z Myers: "But what the hell do we mean by a “gene”? Sure, it’s a transcribed sequence in the genome that produces a functional product; it’s activity is dependent to a significant degree on the sequence of nucleotides within it"

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Pemetic engineering

In order to develop engineers, evolution used:

  • Organic inheritance (genes);
  • Individual learning (pemes);
  • Social learning (memes);
The engineers proceeded to develop memetic engineering and genetic engineering. However engineers also engineer individually-learned ideas, in a process that is rarely mentioned and doesn't have such a common name.

Here I'll refer to it as pemetic engineering. This is named after pemes (private memes), my preferred meme-like term for individually-learned ideas.

The topic has some overlap with rational thinking. It involves applying engineering to individual learning, and your own thoughts.

In this post, I'll make two basic points:

  • The order the engineers approached these topics is the reverse of the order in which they were originally developed - i.e. memetic engineering preceded pemetic engineering which preceded genetic engineering.

  • Pemetic engineering is interesting stuff.
The universality of language means that most ideas can be socially transmitted. However there's still a large role for individual learning. Riding a bike, for example, is maybe about 10% socially-learned and 90% individually-learned. Individual-learning is an important form of learning - and it represents a big and important topic.

Pemetic engineering involves about applying engineering techniques to individually-learned material. It's a fairly personal thing - and not very social. If something can be passed on to others, it's probably more a case of memetic engineering.

Although individually-learned ideas, by definition, have not yet been socially-transmitted, some of them are protomemes - and do go on to be transmitted socially - i.e. pemes can become memes.

Though pemes are not normally socially transmitted, pemetic engineering techniques can be. There's considerable overlap between pemetic engineering techniques and those used in memetic engineering.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Wanted: a book on the evidence for cultural evolution

We have several recently-published books about the evidence for organic evolution:

However the evidence for organic evolution is overwhelming and uncontroversial. This issue has been scientifically dead for over a century - due to overwhelming evidence. These are books targeted primarily at educators and lay people - not scientists.

What science needs at the moment is more a book on the evidence for cultural evolution. Plenty of authors have covered this issue - including myself. However, the topic seems to be of a suitable scale for a book. The evidence is interesting and the topic is on the cutting edge of modern science.

Related posts: Wanted: the history of cultural evolution

Domesticated humans

Humans have domesticated many memes - making them less harmful and more docile and friendly servants via selective breeding. In modern times, this idea is often called domestication_theory.

However there's also an important sense in which humans themselves have been domesticated by the organizations they are part of - the companies, governments and churches they associate with. The image shows some domesticated employees of Toyota in Japan.

The signs that humans have recently been domesticated are widespread. Protection and food production have both been outsourced - as with domesticated animals. The modern shrinkage of the human brain can probably be attributed to domestication.

Domestication and neoteny seem to be associated. Young domesticatees are often more docile, and are more easily moulded by the domesticator. The longer the child-like stage lasts, the better. Domestication and imprinting are also related ideas: the domesticator often benefits if the domesticatee imprints on them.

The process has sometimes been described as "self-domestication". The term "self-domestication" suggests that humans domesticated each other - while it seems to me that the truth is more that organizations and institutions domesticated humans.

Slavery, wage slavery and imprisonment represent fairly clear cases of domestication in progress.

The organizations of today that have domesticated humans are products of genes and memes. However, without the memes they would not exist in their current form. So, in a sense, memes are domesticating humans. It seems likely that this will become more true in the future, as automation gradually replaces the human components in organizations with machines. Humans originally domesticated memes. Their domestication in turn by organizations represents a bit of a role-reversal.


Snowclone analysis

A "snowclone" is a multi-use template into which many things can be substituted. For instance:

  • ___ is the new ___;
  • There are always more ___ in the ___;
  • Keep ___ and ___ ___;
  • Once a ___ always a ___;
  • Dude, where's my ___;
  • The new ___ on the ___;
  • You say ___, I say ___;
  • Yo Dawg, I herd you like ___, so I put a ___ in your ___ so you can ___ while you ___;
Snowclones make relatively attractive targets for meme frequency analysis and phylomemetics - since there are many related variants, and the surrounding phrasal template often makes it easy to find and identify them.

To help illustrate the idea, I did some meme frequency analysis on Theodosius Dobzhansky's famous snowclone:

Nothing in ___ makes sense except in the light of ___

The results:

  • Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution (560,000)
  • Nothing in medicine makes sense, except in the light of evolution (20,200)
  • Nothing about protein structure classification makes sense except in the light of evolution (8,220)
  • Nothing in glycobiology makes sense except in the light of evolution (4,690)
  • Nothing in evolution makes sense except in the light of DNA (1,750)
  • Nothing in evolution makes sense except in the light of ecology (754)
  • Nothing in morality makes sense except in the light of evolution (337)
  • Nothing in biochemistry makes sense except in the light of evolution (124)
  • Nothing in psychology makes sense except in the light of evolution (119)
  • Nothing in economics makes sense except in the light of evolution (81)
  • Nothing in evolution makes sense except in the light of phylogeny (74)
  • Nothing in politics makes sense, except in the light of cultural evolution (55)
  • Nothing in human psyche and society makes sense except in the light of cultural evolution (10)
  • Nothing in evolution makes sense except in the light of genetics (9)
  • Nothing in Nazism makes sense except in the light of evolution (5)
  • Nothing in evolution makes sense except in the light of fitness landscapes (5)
  • Nothing about human cooperation makes sense except in the light of cultural evolution (3)
  • Nothing in physics makes sense except in the light of the big bang (3)
  • Nothing in economics makes sense except in the light of ecology (3)
  • Nothing in physics makes sense except in the light of information (2)
  • Nothing in biology (including psychology) makes sense except in the light of evolution (1)

Protolanguage 3 videos

Language ought to be the jewel in the crown for students of cultural evolution and memetics.

So far, it hasn't always turned out that way - with many students of the evolution of language apparently ignoring cultural evolution and memetics.

The exceptions include Mark Changizi, Simon Kirby, Peter Richerson and George van Driem and Frederik Kortlandt.

Anyway, enough of my preamble. The point of this post is to say that the Ways to Protolanguage 3 videos are out. There seem to be only four of them - they are available here.

Though we may have some students of language evolution subscribed here, these vidoes don't have much content that relates to cultural evolution - which is a shame. Language evolved culturally, adapting to the human mind. Then some genes coevolved with the language memes - to produce babbling babies and the other traits of modern language-adapted humans. The cultural evolution of early language is really the key to understanding this picture.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Bill Benzon on Dan Dennett and memes

Bill Benzon recently authored a series of posts critical of Daniel Dennett and memetics. These posts were cross-posted to the Replicated Typo blog. The posts are listed below:

This content is also available as a PDF document - minus the comments from myself and other readers.

I responded in various ways at the time, writing a post explaining what I thought was wrong with Bill Benzon's position that memes don't enter minds titled: The excesses of externalism.

Bill Benzon is correct that Daniel Dennett doesn't mention meme phenotypes very frequently (though he doesn't ignore them completely!). I disagree with him about almost everything else.

I'd describe the series as being Bill 'venting' about memes. Bill has described the term "meme" as "a brilliant coinage", saying "I think the term is brilliant, which is why I use it". However, he seems less enthusiastic about the current usage of the term.

The content of these essays doesn't seem very coherent to me - though it certainly makes irritating and frustrating reading for memeophiles such as myself.