Thursday, 31 January 2013

Chimpanzee cumulative cultural evolution

"Cumulative cultural evolution" has been identified by many authors as the thing that sets humans apart from animals. Animals have culturee - but it doesn't "add up" - supposedly. However the alternative hypothesis - that non-human animals have cumulative cultural evolution, but a low "complexity ceiling" has been poorly explored. Some recent articles weigh in on the topic:

It looks as though non-human animal culture does "add up" - but rarely gets very far.

Update 2014-11-06:


Update 2017-06-04:

Saturday, 26 January 2013

The virtualization of conflict

Nature makes conflict virtual, as part of its drive towards efficiency. In animal ethology, virtualised conflict is seen in terms of threat displays. Rather than fighting in the real world, organisms display to each other, and then both sides calculate who would win a fight. If they agree, the loser backs down. If both parties think they would be the winner, the conflict escalates.

Humans engage in threat displays too. In modern times we have virtualised warfare - with ritualised sports events and marketplace competition between companies. Here is an example of a human threat display:

When comanies "die" or sports teams "lose", it is sometimes sad, but no human beings are typically harmed in the process. It's Darwinian evolution that has lost its sting. Evolution via differential reproductive success is largely an alternative to evolution via death.

Virtualised conflict is often better than real conflict - because it results in faster evolution and adaptation at lower cost. It has the same kinds of advantage that rapid prototyping has over building things for real. While A and B are fighting, C and D - who negotiated a truce - are off making babies, and they often out-reproduce both A and B.

Cultural evolution to date has led to a large reduction in expensive real-world conflicts. There have been rises in communication and surveillance technologies - which are capable of capturing aggressive acts and other bad deeds - and then broadcasting them widely. Also, part of the effect seems due to a rise in the use of virtualisation technology - with brain-based and computer-based simulations both progressing dramatically. The wiser we are, the less likely it is that combatants will mis-calculate the outcome of a fight - and have to fight in real life.

We should be trying to understand the factors influencing the trend towards the virtualization of conflict - so we can better ensure that it continues unabated.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Tim Tyler: Sheehan, The Mocking Memes (review)


Hi. I'm Tim Tyler, and this is a review of this book:

The Mocking Memes:A Basis for Automated Intelligence by Evan Louis Sheehan

This is a great book. In fact I think the author's views of the topic of memetics are more similar to my own views that practically any other author I can think of. Like me, the author cites the work of A.G. Cairns-Smith on genetic takeovers, and discusses the possibility of a memetic takeover. Also like me, the author is interested in the link between memetics and machine intelligence.

The author doesn't seem particularly interested in orthodox views. He starts out by radically redefining the term "meme" to be the inherited unit in universal Darwinism. That's a radical break with tradition, and I can't say I entirely approve - though certainly the inherited unit in universal Darwinism is badly in need of a name. He also radically redefines the term "information" - to means something other than what the term means in Shannon's information theory. This seems to be getting more into crank territory, and I don't think the author pulls this one off. Like me, the author regards evolution as purposeful. Like me, the author sees deep links to moral behaviour in evolutionary theory. Both views are contrary to mainstream orthodoxy.

I love this book, and don't want to spend too much time criticizing it. However, if I have to say some bad things: the book doesn't refer to the scientific literature enough for my tastes. The literature on universal Darwinism is fairly patchy, but there's more to it that this book might suggest. I also felt that the universal Darwinism was of a rather mild kind, that only covered the biological realm. An extreme form of universal Darwinism that extends to propagating cracks, turbulence, flames and crystals seems quite defensible, but such ideas don't get coverage in this book.

Probably my favourite part of the book was where an argument for Lamarckism in the organic realm was presented.

Lamarckism - in the form of the inheritance of acquired characteristics - is an idea which is widely disparaged in modern times. One of the common arguments given against cultural evolution being Darwinian is that it works partly on Lamarckian principles, while organic evolution is solely Darwinian. A common response is that cultural evolution is not Lamarckian either - however here I will take a different position.

Lamarck apparently thought that all acquired traits could potentially be inherited. However the fact that some acquired characteristics are inherited in the organic realm is pretty obvious - such as when a dog acquires fleas and then its offspring inherit them. Indeed, with 8% of human DNA inherited from viruses, it seems difficult to argue that no acquired traits are inherited. At this point, there are various replies by those who still want to claim that organic inheritance is wholly non-Lamarckian - I won't go into those here. This book provides another type of case where we see the inheritance of acquired characteristics in the organic realm - one that doesn't involve symbiosis. The author argues that surgical breast enhancements are inherited, and tend to produce offspring with larger breasts. A mechanism is provided: those with breast enhancements tend to attract mates who prefer larger breasts, and some of that preference will have a genetic basis. Genes in men for a preference for larger breasts will tend to be statistically linked to genes whose expression produces bigger breasts when in women, due to their shared evolutionary history. So: we can expect breast enhancement patients to have offspring with larger breasts than would have been produced if no enhancement surgery had taken place. The reasoning here can be applied to most sexually-selected traits. It also works with traits that can be amplified naturally - using Lamarck's principle of use and disuse - such as large, bulging muscles.

The centerpiece of the book is a large section about the memory-prediction framework and bi-directional hierarchies in the brain. This material was inspired by Jeff Hawkins' book On Intelligence. While interesting, this was the most long-winded and difficult section of the book. While I am sympathetic to the idea of the brain as a prediction engine, I think machine intelligence will feature a considerable quantity of bottom-up engineering, with neuroscience and biomimicry playing a relatively minor role. The author seems to envisage a much more neuroscience-inspired approach than I do. An aeroplane and a bird both make use of lift. Similarly, a computer and a brain will both be masters of inductive inference. However, they differ considerably in the details of their operation. The brain is hampered considerably by design constraints - like being made mostly out of cells - and having to squeeze through the female human pelvis. We should be able to do much better.

The book finishes by discussing the evolving universes of Smolin and Gardner, and proposing an alternative hypothesis - involving worlds simulating worlds which in turn are simulating worlds. Though labelled as speculation, such a scenario seems relatively unlikely to me.

Anyway, this is a great book. As well as hard copy, it's also available as a free download on the author's web site.


Monday, 14 January 2013

Three million bucks to study religion

The web site says:

“The Evolution of Religion and Morality” is a grant awarded to a group of directors from UBC-SFU’s Centre for the Study of Human Evolution, Cognition and Culture (HECC), led by Edward Slingerland (PI) at UBC. It centers on a project of unprecedented scope and ambition aimed at exploring the cultural evolutionary roots of religion.

This six-year project brings together the expertise of over fifty scientists, social scientists and humanities scholars from universities across North America, Europe and East Asia—along with postdocs and graduate students—into a research network that will be called the Cultural Evolution of Religion Research Consortium (CERC). Over this six-year project, CERC aims to answer the question of what religion is, how it is linked to morality, and why it plays such a ubiquitous role in human existence.

I pray that the money is spent wisely...

New coverage: Smart atheist heads $3-million grant into religion and morality.

Sunday, 13 January 2013


Delegation is an important type of biological interaction. In general, optimizers often find it beneficial to delegate tasks or functions to other optimizers. Delegation is common in mutualistic relationships.

An example of delegation occurs with gut bacteria. We can't break down foods as well as they can so we delegate this task to them. Another task we have some difficulty in performing alone is photosynthesis. However, we need to harvest energy from the sun to live. This task is delegated to plants, which we then eat or burn, and these days to solar panels as well.

Delegating tasks to other agents is often beneficial. However it also has certain risks associated with it. One is that the agents that you are delegating to go extinct. If this happens sometimes other ones can be substituted which play the role instead. Or sometimes, the organism has to struggle on without a partner. This latter phenomenon has been ably documented in the book The Ghosts of Evolution: Nonsensical Fruit, Missing Partners, and Other Ecological Anachronisms.

Another problem with delegation is that the symbionts have their own goals and these can cause problems. For example, while most gut bacteria are desirable, some cause diarrhea. Steve Jobs illustrates another example of how delegation can cause problems. He founded the Apple computer company, it grew - and the result was that Steve was removed from his managerial duties as head of the Macintosh division and eventually left Apple completely.

Delegation is relevant to within-brain evolution. Genetic optimisers construct brains and delegate their tasks to psychological optimizers. Genes require nutrients to survive and in animals the task of obtaining nutrients has been delegates to a separate evolving structure (the brain). This adapts to a changing environment much faster than the organism's genes do, but has a somewhat different optimization target (sometimes referred to as happiness). Often the two optimizing systems work together (and the organism becomes happy, fat and then pregnant). However sometimes things don't work out so well, and the organism may become pathologically obese, or turn into a heroin addict.

Delegation is relevant to cultural evolution because genes have often delegated tasks to brains, which in turn have delegated them to memes. Rather than programming behaviour directly, human genes have built flexible brains which can adapt to their environment rapidly. Those brains have, in turn, found it beneficial to avoid controlling behaviour directly, but instead to hand control over to "cultural software" - which has been downloaded from the ideosphere. This double layer of delegated control structures is part of what makes human behaviour so flexible and complex. In practice, there are often other levels of delegation: our cultural software often tells us to delegate tasks to other agents, or to "technological optimisers", such as computers.

Delegation it is part of symbiology. It is part of a more general process in which agents use (or manipulate) other agents. Related concepts include:

Slowly-reproducing agents often find it beneficial to delegate tasks to smaller, more rapidly-reproducing ones. This is because large organisms use small symbiotes to adapt quickly.

Vicarious selection

The concept of delegation has typically been discussed in the context of evolutionary theory as a form of "vicarious selection". The similar term "vicarious forces" was made popular by Donald Campbell (1965 and 1974).

Various theorists have previously related the idea to cultural evolution. F. Heylighen, & C. Joslyn (1992) published on the topic.

Agner Fog (1999) introduces the idea as follows:

Cultural selection processes can often be described as vicarious selection (Campbell 1965. The concept is also sometimes called preselection). The principle behind vicarious selection is that a slow and ineffective selection process is supplanted by a faster and more effective selection process leading in approximately the same direction, whereby the adaptability is increased. The vicarious mechanism is in some way created by the old selection process, and may possibly be checked by the latter - albeit ineffectively - if it runs away. Campbell mentions our choice of food as an example. If we eat something inappropriate we may die from malnutrition or poisoning, so the choice of food is ultimately determined by natural selection. Our immediate choice, however, is based on taste. The genetic evolution has designed our sense of taste in such a way that healthy food tastes good. The taste criterion is approximately equal to the criterion of nourishment, and in this way the selection based on taste has become a replacement for the much slower selection based on survival.
He concludes:

The concept of vicarious selection is important because the cultural selection process as a whole acts vicariously for the genetic selection, and indeed very effectively so.
As you can probably see from this page, I do not approve of the "vicarious selection" terminology. I think it is jargon. I feel about it the same way as I would if we called imitation "mimicry selection" or if we called coercion "threat selection". "Delegation" is a perfectly good term - and I think that biologists should make use of it.

Some folk sometimes use the terminology "principal–agent problem". This terminology also makes little sense to me. It is surely better to use the "delegation" terminology rather than using the term "principal-agent".


Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Jason Silva gets his memes on

Jason Silva gets his memes on in his latest video.

It's pretty cool. My thought while watching was: is our evolutionary success really measured by how far we replicate our memes? That's the evolutionary success of something - but maybe not what we normally think of as "us".

My recommendation for a future video is to look into the relationship between Cairns-Smith's genetic takeover and the possibility of a memetic takeover.

For media coverage see here.

Jason expands on his ideas about memes here:

Monday, 7 January 2013

Phylomemetic inertia

Phylogenetic inertia refers to the way genetic traits tend to stay the same, lagging behind environmental changes.

Phylomemetic inertia is the same concept - but applied to memetic traits.

So, for an example of phylogenetic inertia, the human rib cage made structural sense when spines were hung horizontally between four limbs, but not when the vertebrae are balanced on top of each other.

Phylomemetic inertia can be seen in the way in which Abrahamic religions persist into the 21st century - despite the fact that the world has moved on and made them no longer appropriate.

In both cases, it is challenging to distinguish inertia from stabilizing selection.

Between them, phylomemetic inertia and stabilizing selection are two of the most plausible explanations for cultural stasis.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Tim Tyler: Calvin: The Cerebral Code (review)


Hi. I'm Tim Tyler, and this is a review of this book:

The Cerebral Code: Thinking a Thought in the Mosaics of the Mind by William H. Calvin

I read this book because William Calvin coined the term "Darwin machines" - named after Turing machines - in 1987. He was a pioneer in studying Darwinian evolution within the brain. The evolution of mental structures is now an important field, which relates to understanding the mind and emulating its properties using machines. Calvin also attempted to formulate basic principles of Darwinian evolution - in an area now widely known as Universal Darwinism.

The book continues work which was pioneered by Gerald Edelman in Neural Darwinism which was based on work dating back to the late 1970s.

The book introduces the idea of mental evolution through the idea of cultural evolution. Calvin says that:

Dawkins’s real contribution has turned out to be on the copying side, not the selection side, of mental Darwinism. In his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, he extended the notion of copying genes to copying memes (cultural entities such as words and tunes). It took awhile before anyone realized its implications for copying inside a single brain.

This is a pretty accurate summary of what happened back in that era. The blurb for this book describes Calvin as a theoretical neurophysiologist. I don't consider myself an expert in neurophysiology - but I think I know enough about brains to say that most of this this book is misguided and outdated. The main problem is with Calvin's geometrical obsession. Calvin is the Buckminster Fuller of the brain - but not in a good way. He sees the brain's layers as composed of large numbers of hexagonal units, less than a millimeter across. When he considers the evolution of brain structures, these hexagonal units are what he considers to be evolving. He broadly equates them to concepts and has them evolving on the surface of the brain - rather like a two dimensional cellular automaton.

The book presents this vision, but does a miserable job of presenting evidence for it. Calvin cites lateral inhibition, and recurrent excitation between equidistant neurons to argue that neurons will tend to form triangular assemblies of interlinked neurons which fire together. He argues that such linked neurons will fire synchronously - like fireflies - rather than fire in cyclic chains.

It is true that loops of neural activity in the brain are probably important to it's function. However, Calvin doesn't produce much evidence for his vision of hexagonal cerebral mozaics, and I think it is fair to say now that not much evidence of them has been uncovered since this book was published. This wouldn't matter so much, except for the fact that the hexagonal patches seems to be the main theme of the book - and it is completely saturated with them.

It is pretty easy to see what is copied at a low level in the brain. Neural impulses are copies as they travel down branching axons, and axon and dendrite tips are copied as they grow and divide. Apparently there's also some gross electrical copying as electrical waves propagate through the brain and neurons directly affect their neighbours. These basic copying processes in turn go on to support higher-level copying processes - as memories are recalled, as habitual behaviours are performed and as ideas interact.

However, these days, Calvin's search for a geometry of the brain seems rather misguided. The problem seems to be the lack of a proper scientific methodology. Calvin's brand of armchair philosophy is reminiscent of a mixture of numerology and phrenology. It pays insufficient heed to scientific evidence. I think Calvin's axiomitization of Darwinism suffers from a similar problem. He didn't convince me that we needed six axioms of Darwinism - or the eleven that he later went on to present. I don't think axiomitizing things is one of Calvin's strong points.

In summary, I thought this book was pretty disappointing. It's hard to recommend it to anyone interested in the evolution of brain structures or mental entities - it just has too much speculative nonsense in it. On the positive side, the contents of this book are available free of charge on Calvin's web site - which makes it good value for money.