Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Attributes of the successfully copied

Long ago, Richard Dawkins famously described some common attributes typically posessed by successful replicators as being: "fidelity", "fecundity" and "longevity".

The list has stood up well over time, despite being misunderstood by confused critics. However, these aren't the only attributes which many successfully-copied entities tend to possess.

If adding to the list, "sociability" and "brevity" would be at the top of my list.

Most successfully-copied entities are sociable - meaning that they tend to associate with other genes or memes. Some use direct hitchhiking to spread - through being components of successful gene or meme complexes. Others use phenotypichitchhiking. Unsociable loners exist, but they are not the main players.

Lastly, brevity counts. Consider the following searches:

The shorter string is more common - simply because shorter strings tend to be more common as a statistical rule. This is true for most genes and memes - and can be expected to be true of other copied entities - provided they are sometimes divided.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Matt Ridley: Adam Darwin

It's Adam Smith meets Charles Darwin. After a historical overview, Matt launches into an extended plea for cultural evolution (at 7:52).

I think that Matt is sounding a lot like me these days - except for my use of the M word.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Wither evolutionary political science?

Looking at the list of fledgling evolutionary social sciences, evolutionary political science is usually conspicuous by its absence. Yet evolution is critical to understanding political systems - from the evolutionary psychology that governs our political propensities to the memetic engineering that produces our political propaganda.

Why the evolutionary myopia when it comes to politics? If evolutionary scientists are willing to study religion, why can't they study politics too?

No doubt we will eventually be seeing some more evolutionary political science, but its slow start is a symptom of cultural evolution's scientific lag. It may also fit in neatly with some of the ideas in my memetics resistance article. Proverbially, politics and religion are not discussed over cocktails. Political memeplexes may have joined religious memeplexes in actively defending themselves against certain types of critical scrutiny.

Complexity through socialization

In the realm of conventional, organic biology, nature has often made complex systems out of simpler ones by networking those simple systems together using social groups.

Multicellular organisms arose by aggregating single-celled organisms together. The social insects are similar aggregations of multiple individuals into a unified, functional whole.

Today, we see much the same thing with the internet - many smaller computers have been networked together into a much larger and more complex system.

It seems likely that we'll see the same thing with intelligent machines, as these develop. As humans get better at building smart machines, we will deliberately compound their power by constructing social networks out of them.

The science of social and cultural evolution is not just important for understanding the development of our own species - to applies equally to the growth of computer networks and machine intelligence.

The development of machine intelligence is humanity's most significant task at the moment. In addition to memetic engineering and memetic algorithms being key to their construction in the first place, we will have to think about the evolutionary dynamics of heterogeneous networks of humans and intelligent machines - since that's what we are most likely to see going forwards.

Dimensional analysis of memes

Memetic linkage uses a distance metric to help determine the chance of two contiguous pieces of cultural information being inherited together. Where you have a distance metric, you can use it to do a kind of dimensional analysis. Not the kind of dimensional analysis where you compare the units of different quantities, but the kind where you calculate the number of dimensions from multiple distance measurements. This is sometimes known as a Hausdorff dimension.

Dimensional analysis of memes clearly shows that most memes are one or two dimensional. Speech is one dimensional. Images are two-dimensional. Writing consists of two-dimensional characters, arranged in a one-dimensional stream, coiled up in two dimensions on pages. Videos are mostly two dimensional. The limit on the dimensionality of memes generally matches the dimensional limits on our audio and visual sensors.

Are there any higher dimensional memes? In theory, brains and computers can create simulations of higher-dimensional spaces. The brain routinely constructs a three-dimensional model of the world, and movie directors could potentially transmit their three-dimensional models to others - in which case maybe there will be some three-dimensional memetic linkage. Maybe. It's not easy to produce compelling examples of cases where three-dimensional linkage inside brains has been significant. Another main case for higher dimensional memes involves computers. Computers can potentially create hyperspaces with large numbers of dimensions, and transmit these verbatim to other computers. No doubt in the future there will be good examples of higher dimensional memes inside computers. Another potential case of three-dimensional memes is three-dimensional artifacts. While such objects are clearly three-dimensional, the memes that produce them are rarely three-dimensional. Instead, they often reside in factories and manufacturing facilities as one-dimensional construction recipies and two-dimensional plans. However, perhaps it can be granted that some three-dimensional artifacts probably represent three-dimensional memeplexes.

However, I think that today, the bottom line is that one- and two-dimensional memes and memeplexes dominate the ideosphere.

Friday, 26 July 2013

Internalism, Externalism, Informationalism

I found out recently that I had been using the term "externalism" differently from others in the field - or at least differently from some self-proclaimed externalists.

I had been using "externalism" to refer to the idea that memes could exist outside minds - for example, in cultural artifacts. However, others seem to have used "externalism" to refer to the idea that memes only exist outside minds.

From my perspective, this presented a dilemma. Should I continue with my usage - or adopt theirs? I was initially reluctant to adopt their terminology - since use of the term "externalism" promotes their position. Also, we then need a new, different term for the position I favour: that memes consist of cultural information, and may thus be represented in any medium - including brains, behaviours and artefacts.

However, I've decided to bite the bullet. Henceforth, I'll discuss the topic in terms of "internalism", "externalism" and "informationalism". "Internalism" is the idea that memes only exist inside minds. "Externalism" is the idea that memes never exist inside minds. "Informationalism" refers to the idea that memes are cultural information and are substrate-independent. "Informationalism" isn't a great term, but it really has to fit in with the existing terms - and I think it is the best that we can do.

I endorse "neuromemes" as the term for what the internalists would call "memes".

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Phenotypic hitchhiking

I've previously written about memetic hitchhiking. This is one of the main ways in which memes catch rides with other memes - via memetic linkage.

However, there's also another type of hitchhiking involved with cultural evolution: phenotypic hitchhiking. This is like the hitchhiking done by parasites and commensuals in the organic realm - where snails hitchhike on birds' feet and lice hitchhike in mammalian hair. Unlike memetic hitchhiking and genetic hitchhiking, this type of hitchhiking doesn't really depend on linkage. It takes place between symbiotic partners, rather than within a single organism.

Symbiotic hitchhiking can be categorized as follows:

  • Organic hitchhikes on organic - e.g. a snail on a duck's foot;
  • Organic hitchhikes on cultural - e.g. a mouse on a boat;
  • Cultural hitchhikes on organic - e.g. memes in a human mind;
  • Cultural hitchhikes on cultural - e.g. sticker on an advertising hoarding.
The idea appears in Bettinger, Boyd and Richerson (1994). They say:

Hitch-hiking, however, does not necessarily require any linkage in the physical sense, only an initial statistical association. Because of this, genes can easily hitch-hike with cultural innovations or vise versa.

A paper by Whitehead, Richerson and Boyd (2002) also discusses "cultural hitchhiking".

The 2011 academic paper "Religion, fertility and genes: a dual inheritance model" discusses a case of genes for religiousity hitchhiking of cultural religious practices.

While academia seems to have grasped "phenotypic hitchhiking" involving cultural variation early on, it doesn't seem to have cottoned on to memetic hitchhiking very well at all. Yet this is surely the most common and important form of hitchhiking in cultural evolution.

Referring to genes hitchhiking on cultural variation as "cultural hitchhiking" seems like bad terminology - since there are also other kinds of cultural hitchhiking that are take place. Genes hitchhiking on memes is just one type of hitchhiking involving culture.


Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Darwin's Business

The Evolution Institute has made a bunch of videos about evolutionary economics:

The videos seem to have arisen from the workshop: Darwin’s Business: New Evolutionary Thinking About Cooperation, Groups, Firms and Societies.

The Evolution Institute's home page says:

What does evolutionary science say about economics? A special issue of the Journal of Economics and Organization Behavior that was produced with the Evolution Institute addresses important issues that impact how we understand economics and daily life. Click here: here for the articles for a limited time.

Several of the talks relate to the topic of this blog: memes and cultural evolution.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Memetic drive

Susan Blackmore is the best known user of the term "memetic drive". She wrote:
Successful memes changed the selective environment, favouring genes for the ability to copy them. I have called this process memetic drive.
However, that's not an obvious way to use the term - and there are other competing possibilities:

  • "Memetic drive" is quite a good term for meme-led meme-gene coevolution.
  • "Genetic drive" is most commonly used to refer to "meiotic drive".
  • "Genetic drive" is also fairly commonly used to refer to instincts.
These all seem better than Sue's proposal to me. In case anyone is wondering how "meiotic drive" applies to memes, memetics doesn't prominently feature meiosis, but it does feature cooperative memeplexes where some specific memes gain a transmission advantage. The GPL is a good example of this. It is included in complex software packages, but it hitchhikes on all the other memes it is packaged with, and uses legal threats against users to promote its own propagation.

"Memetic drive" seems to be a conflicted term. Though it has some possibilities, I don't personally use it. I encourage users to offer a definition if they do so. Also, I recommend against using the term with Sue's proposed meaning - we can surely manage to do better than that.

Friday, 12 July 2013

Instincts meet memetics

Biology has the concept of an "instinct" - referring to heritable behavioural traits. The concept becomes broader once you have an understanding of memetics. After accounting for memes the idea of an "instinct" looks as though it breaks down into three concepts:

  • Instinct - heritable behavioural trait;
    • Genetic instinct - primarily genetically-encoded behavioural trait;
    • Memetic instinct - primarily memetically-encoded behavioural trait.
As you can see, I have proposed names for these concepts. You could possibly call them "genestinct" and "memestinct" for short.

As an example of a memetic instinct, consider the common propensity of cell phones to make beeping noises when their buttons are pressed.

Note that humans don't have memetic instincts. An instinct is something you are born with - and newborn humans have no memes.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Universal Darwinism meets chaos theory

Way back in the 1980s, I was one of the first students to be taught chaos theory at university.

At the time, the attitude of a number of proponents of the new science of complexity was that self-organization - rather than evolutionary adaptation - was actually responsible for some of the features of evolved organisms. This was a theme of both Kauffman and Wolfram - for example.

Many years down the line, a bit of a role-reversal seems to have taken place - with the rise of Universal Darwinism. It now appears that many of the features of organisms which were once attributed to self-organization are actually best understood as being due to Darwinian copying with variation and selection.

Some examples of phenomena which self-organization has lost to the new wave of Darwinism include:

Notice the trees present in these phenomena. These trees are actually evolving lineages. Many self-organization systems without visible tree structures are also best understood as the product of Darwinian dynamics.

Even the branching tree-like self-similar structure of fractals takes on a new Darwinian significance when you realize that such fractals are made by an series of iterated self-copying processes from varying starting points, with selection. Nearby whorls in Julia and Mandelbrot sets look similar - because they are related. Another important concept in chaos theory is bifurcation diagrams. I reproduce one to the right. It is clearly a family tree. Adjacent branches represent close relatives.

While not every aspect of complex systems is illuminated equally by Darwinism, it now looks as though Darwinian evolution is the key unifying principle in the science of complexity - just as it is in so many other areas of science.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Cultural evolution's meme wars

Cultural evolution has had some meme wars of its own. One is over a topic close to the heart of this blog: memes.

One feature of cultural evolution's meme wars has been that it has mostly been a war between the scientists and the popularizers. Of course some scientists have been on the meme team - Durham, Pagel, Hamilton, Williams, etc - but the "other side" is practically all scientists, whereas most popularizers have gone for the "meme" terminology.

Normally I would be inclined to side with the scientists in such disputes. However, this time it looks to me as though the popularizers have it right - and the academics are dragging their feet for no terribly good reason.

One problem is the academics make bogus technical criticisms of the meme terminology - showing in the process that they haven't even managed to find a sympathetic interpretation of it. That's a bad position to launch technical criticisms from.

Such a war is pretty unusual. You might think that academics would cooperate with the popularizers, and encourage them in bringing attention to their field. Instead we appear to have fractures, division, fighting and tribalism.

Cultural evolution's meme wars look as though they have been pretty destructive to me. Academics are mostly still struggling with a backwards and watered-down version of memetics, apparently designed to appeal to anthropologists. Without much in the way of a PR department, the associated revolution in our understanding of evolution has been progressing at a snail's pace for decades. Cultural evolution and memetics are key areas of science - of great social and political import. It is pretty tragic to see so many of the participants struggling over wounds inflicted by their fellows - who they surely ought to be cooperating with.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

The scale of the modern evolution revolutions

The scientific revolutions represented by universal Darwinism and cultural evolution are the biggest scientific revolutions I've ever seen.

For a while I've been interested in comparing these modern revolutions in Darwinism with other historical scientific revolutions.

There's been enormous progress in computer science in my lifetime, but that hasn't really been much of a revolution, it's just been growth. Maybe the rise of complexity and chaos theory should be counted as a significant scientific revolution, though.

Symbiology represented a pretty large revolution within biology. However, overall, it seems relatively small - compared to universal Darwinism and cultural evolution.

Before that, the molecular revolution in the 1950s - as a result of work by Watson and Crick - had a big impact on biology. Again, that was more an expansion of knowledge than a paradigm shift.

Before that was the 1930s revolution that established NeoDarwinism as an 'improved' version of Darwin's theory.

The next biggest revolution in biology before that probably involved the rediscovery of Mendel's work, and then the one before that was the one Darwin's publications triggered.

There were also some pretty neat revolutions in physics around 100 years ago.

Of course, much depends on how you measure them, but Universal Darwinism and cultural evolution may well be the biggest scientific revolutions in the last 100 years. It's pretty amazing to see how the Darwinian revolution is still going on, 150 years down the line. That's got to be the longest-running scientific revolution ever.

Progress in fMRI imaging

Many have long believed that the memetics revolution will be assisted by neuroscience - in much the same way that the genetics revolution was helped by Watson and Crick.

When we can track ideas being copied within minds, the areas of memetics that deal with memes inside minds will have a sounder scientific footing - some think. That may still be some way off, but exciting progress is being made in the area:

A recent study:

How the brain creates the 'buzz' that helps ideas spread

...looks specifically at brain factors that influence social spreading using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Mapping some of the main brain regions that memes stimulate to help propagate themselves is certainly a step in the right direction.

The evolution of egalitarian memes

Egalitarian memes have made great strides during the last few thousand years. Consider the rise of memes suppressing:

  • Nepotism;
  • Slavery;
  • Racism;
  • Sexism;
  • Ageism.
...and favouring:
  • Monogamy;
  • Democracy;
  • Gay marriage;
  • Taxation.
It should also be pointed out that other memes are simultaneously promoting inequality. Wealth inequality is still enormous - bigger than ever before in some areas. I think what's going on there is pretty obvious - progress is unevenly distributed and provides elites with the means to keep their wealth out of the hands of others.

The pro-egalitarian memes are a little more puzzling. It seems as though the memes of the down-trodden majority have been progressively getting the upper hand over time - at the expense of the memes of the elites. But why? The elites control a lot of broadcasting machinery. They can hire propaganda experts. They can build churches and educational institutions. Why are their memes doing so badly?

I don't have a complete answer. Part of the answer may be that progress happens to disproportionally favour networking and social technology - which helps the masses to organize. Part of the answer may be that humans have genetically-encoded egalitarian preferences, and cultural progress has resulted in memes pandering to these preferences - much as cultural progress has resulted in greater satisfaction of our preferences for ice cream and chocolate gateau.

Memetics suggests asking the question: "what's in it for the memes?" Especially in such cases such as this - where the reproductive interest of genes of human hosts are being systematically suppressed.

In this case, it looks as though the pro-egalitarian memes are mostly just being used by one group of humans to manipulate other humans for their own benefit. In other words, this looks like one of those cases where the meme's eye view doesn't buy us too much.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Memes and the inner voice

The invention of speech was a fantastic boon to memes, leading directly to writing, the modern era and its revolutionizing of the biosphere. As well as leading to external dialog, speech led to an internal monologue - which is the topic of this post.

Many modern humans constantly talk to themselves. Some seems to be usefully rehearsing future conversations, while some is devoted to imaginary arguments and analysis. Some seems to be humans applying meme therapy to themselves - with affirmations and the like. Others seems to be the product of fear, paranoia, depression and self-punishment. Some of it is cached thoughts. Some is prayers and mantras. Some of it is advertising jungles, pop songs and political slogans - memes and their psychological productions.

The chatter is continuous - and for many it is hard to shut off. Often years of training in meditation is required before people can shut off their internal voices at will.

It's not easy to imagine the human brain was like before language colonized many of the brain's areas of higher function. Perhaps there were 'pre-speech' mental languages, which we now find difficult to imagine. Or perhaps there were just more non-verbal thoughts.

Speech represents a programming language for the mind. It's Turing complete and can express practically anything. It seems likely that speech radically revolutionized the internal organization of the human mind. Certainly language profoundly affects thought.


Thursday, 4 July 2013


Dysmemics is the study of bad memes. It's named after dysgenics and eumemics.

With both dysmemics and eumemics, there's some scope for how the term is interpreted. Most of this revolves around the issue of what agent the memes involved are good or bad for. The value of memes is often considered with respect to their human hosts. However, one might also consider their value to memeplexes they are part of - or to society as a whole. I favour a broad definition of these terms that leaves open the issue of who or what the memes involved are good or bad for.

Though dysmemics and eumemics have almost opposite meanings, one of the main reasons for studying bad memes is to figure out ways of eliminating them. So, in practice, dysmemics and eumemics are rather like close cousins.

In science, the role of skeptics and reviewers is to identify and expose bad memes. In the arts, this work is done by reviewers and critics. Identifying and exposing bad memes is important work. However those who do it are notoriously unpopular. Society should try and ensure that skeptics and critics are well supported and positively motivated.

That which has been copied from

The phenotype/genotype split in cultural evolution remains controversial, with at least four different positions being advocated for: internalism, externalism, informational memetics, and the idea that the distinction is unhelpful and doesn't apply.

However, there's a related distinction that I think everyone could agree on: that systems are divided into those that have been copied from and those that have not. This is the split between ancestors and non-ancestors. The state of having been copied from is the defining characteristic of ancestors.

This classification scheme is relatively simple and unambiguous. It applies equally to the cultural and organic realms. For me, it does a lot of the same work as the phenotype/genotype split - although it is clear that the concept doesn't refer to the exact same thing. Entities that have been copied from are on the germ line. Those that have not been copied from will probably turn out to be phenotypes.

From the perspective of this classification scheme, structures in children are classified as being "genes" because they might be copied from. Structures in mules are classified as being "genes" because they are the kinds of things that are usually copied from. However, such statements contain the qualifiers "might" and "usually" - and so are are rather vague and open to interpretation. So: while the ancestor characteristic is fairly crisp, the phenotype/genotype distinction is less clear.

One of the pieces of work the phenotype/genotype split is used for is to divide genetics from ontogeny - and thus memetics from ontomemy. Could we use the less-ambiguous ancestor characteristic for that purpose instead? Under such a scheme, ontogeny would become the study of those operations that led from recurrently copied information to information that is destroyed before being copied. We could - but I don't think anyone would go for the redefinition. Although being an ancestor is a much more clear cut and uncontroversial concept than phenotypes and genotypes are, it doesn't do exactly the same job.