Sunday, 25 August 2013

Jerry Coyne embarrasses himself over the issue of cultural evolution

Jerry Coyne offers a spirited defense of the modern synthesis in his recent article:

Famous physiologist embarrasses himself by claiming that the modern theory of evolution is in tatters

Unfortunately, Jerry embarrasses himself over the issue of cultural evolution, writing:

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.

Jerry, we did find it. It's culturally transmitted. Memes let humans inhabit Greenland, live underwater and in space. They let Mormons and Amish have five kids each and led to the modern population explosion. Non-DNA-based adaptive change is very common in human beings - and it is quite common in various other animals that exhibit cultural transmission - from chimpanzees to fruit flies. Jerry appears to be simply unaware of this important discovery - describing it instead as among:

superficial and meaningless parallels with natural selection’s winnowing of genetic variation
The modern synthesis is toast. It is Jerry's attempted defense of it which is an embarrassment. His position is straightforwardly factually mistaken.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

VEHBİ METİN DEMİR's memetics critique

A large criticism of memetics was published in 2012:

Can Culture be Considered In Continuity with Nature: Susan Blackmore's Memetic Appraoch and Its Critiques - by VEHBİ METİN DEMİR.

The author focuses on Susan Blackmore's 1999 version of memetics. That's not too disimilar from my own position - though I don't put so much stress on imitation - and generally benefit from the fourteen years of subsequent work in the area.

I've read Susan Blackmore's 1999 book and VEHBİ DEMİR's 2012 thesis criticizing it. I think it's a walkover for Blackmore. Her book is brilliant. By comparison, this thesis comes across as sour grapes.

Apparently, by claiming that ideas really exist, "memetics is Darwinizing Plato". Yawn. Claiming that memetics is Platonic, postivistic and reductionistic leaves me cold.

IMO, the thesis offers no credible technical criticisms of memetics. The author lacks a proper understanding of cultural evolution, and writes from a position of ignorance and misunderstanding of the topic. The work of other scientists in the field is conveniently not addressed - presumably since the target is Susan Blackmore. However, this approach seems silly to me - this just isn't a one woman field, and the work of other scientists is pretty relevant. Scientists are cited when they disagree with Blackmore, but the scientists who support her various positions are not referenced in her defense.

The author has apparently read Darwinizing culture, and cites from it liberally. Indeed, the thesis largely consists of citations of the positions of other memeophobes - Lewontin, Gould, Sperber and Kronfeldner. However, at least this critique is more readable than Maria Kronfeldner's massive 2010 effort.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Are meme components memetically linked?

One issue concerning the definition of memes is whether their parts are necessarily memetically linked together. With genes, their components are linked together via genetic linkage. You can't have a gene that is split between two chromosomes. So, perhaps the components of memes ought to similarly be linked together - via memetic linkage.

While this might sound sensible, few definitions of the term "meme" make any mention of the point. In most cases, the lack of a specification of linked parts allows memes to consist of components that lack memetic linkage.

The conception of a "cultural variant" in academia also typically lacks any specification of linkage. I've long claimed that the term "cultural variant" - used by some in academia - is a synonym of "meme", but I'm now starting to doubt that: "meme" now seems to have stronger implications of linkage than the term "cultural variant" does.

The main downside of having memes being defined as having linked components is that it seems to make their definition more complex. It would no longer be possible to say that memes are what meme frequency analysis studies - or that memes are small, inherited pieces of culture. Simple definitions are good. It also seems undesirable if linkage-related issues complicate the issue of what counts as a meme. This whole issue seems non-trivial to me.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Convergent cultural evolution

Convergence is on of the similarities between the cultural and organic realms. It largely arises out of the dynamics of selection.

Several factors prevent convergent evolution - among them are drift and fitness landscapes with multiple peaks.

Heritage constraints involving multiple origins can also act to prevent convergence.

Convergent cultural evolution is common. It can be invoked to explain most cases of simultaneous invention. However, proven cases of convergence are not so easy to come by - since common descent of cultural forms could also be involved in most cases. To find good evidence for "real" convergent cultural evolution, the easiest thing to do is to wind the clock back to eras in which formidable geographic barriers divided some human populations. Writing, baby slings, pottery and the domestication of animals, plants and fire were all invented many times independently. These events aren't explicable in terms of social contagion / common descent of cultural forms.

One cause of cultural convergence is technological determinism - which is an impotant historical force. Technological determinism provides a modern theoretical foundation for the progressive theories of evolution championed by Herbert Spencer.

There's also cross-realm convergence. For example, the wheel was invented independently by humans and by the bacterial flagellum. Similarly, walking invented independently by humans and by the kinesin proteins.

As I have argued elsewhere all convergence can ultimately be seen as a form of relatedness.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Bryan Wilder: Linking Pattern and Process in Cultural Evolution

The blurb reads:

This work aims to lay the theoretical and methodological foundations for investigating how individual level interactions aggregate to produce population level patterns of cultural diversity.

The video mostly discusses a particular computer model.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Inheritance and development diagrams

Here are some diagrams of inheritance and development - showing how genes - which are inherited - produce gene products (phenotypes) - which are not inherited:

The gene products do go on to influence the genes via selection - as illustrated by the dotted lines in this diagram:

However, for the sake of simplicity, we won't attempt to illustrate the effect of selection in the next diagrams. The next one shows a host lineage and a parasite lineage:

The parasite generations are faster than the host generations. Often many orders of magnitude faster, so the picture is not to scale.

The next picture is of a host lineage and the lineage of a cultural symbiont:

This represents our modern understanding of how culture evolves. Notice the similarity with the host-parasite picture. Like parasites most cultural symbionts have shorter generation times than their hosts, are more diverse than them, and are much more numerous than them.

In the last two diagrams, many of those in academia might choose to picture the gene products and meme products as being more entangled with each other than this diagram shows - but the basic picture is essentially the same.

Lastly, here's a diagram from Boyd and Richerson's 1985 book, page 6:

To me, it seems as though, back then, the pair didn't have a very modern-looking conception of how cultural evolution works. They pictured cultural inheritance as part of the phenotype. These days, most students of memetics usually regard cultural inheritance as more like a genotype - with a parallel inheritance track.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Homo Memeticus

Homo Sapiens has been the proposed name for modern humans for a while now. However, it has become increasingly clear that it's not very appropriate.

Our most distinctive trait - compared to our ancestors - is not really wisdom, but rather: the ability to put socially-transmitted information to good use. What wisdom we have exists largely as a consequence of this ability, and exists most prominently in social groups - in the form of the wisdom of crowds.

Homo Memeticus and Homo Imitans are some of the proposals intended to highlight this. I favour Homo Memeticus - since it makes good use of the evocative term "meme".

Friday, 9 August 2013

Meme classification by substrate type

In the chapter in my memetics book about classification I proposed classifying memes by substrate. Substrates can be usefully grouped into types as follows:

  • Memes
    • Neuromemes (brains)
    • Artimemes (artifacts)
    • Actimemes (behaviours)

This is proposed as a more modern-sounding alternative to the (rather dubious) mentifact / artifact / sociofact classification scheme - originally proposed by Julian Huxley.

We may additionally need names for memes inside computers (a subset of artimemes) and memes represented as signals.

For signals, there's maybe "vibramemes" - since most signals take the form of waves (audio, visual, radio and electrical signals are all mediated by waves).

Or maybe we could have a category that grouped memes inside minds and memes inside computers together.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Cities as blisters

Cities can be usefully seen as being cultural blisters on the planet. Here is New York City:

As with many blisters, cities contains swarming organisms that are capable of spreading the blisters to new areas - in this case, meme-infected humans. Roads act as the main vessels through which the infection is spread. Ships can spread the infection across the oceans.

It's hard to avoid epidemiological terminology in this sort of discussion, but I don't mean to imply that humans or cities are bad or undesirable. They spread like a plague on the planet, but that doesn't mean that we need a cure for the pox. Instead, encouraging the spread of the phenomenon - using education - seems more appropriate. In the glorious future it seems likely that the whole planet, including the oceans, will be covered.

To the right, is a picture of Europe at night:

Memes and the Holocene extinction

The invasion of the biosphere by memes has had some rather negative consequences - as well as some positive ones. In particular, memes are primarily responsible for the ongoing Holocene extinction event. Without memes, humans would have remained minor players in the biosphere - and nobody would have obliterated the megafauna of South America and Australia.

If you look at the proximate causes of many of the extinctions you often find that a newly-introduced parasite or predator is involved. So: superficially, it looks like ordinary genetic evolution - and not to do with memes. However, appearances can be deceptive - and if you ask why the parasite or predator involved has recently appeared on the scene, the answer almost always involves human transportation technologies: planes, trains and automobiles. So, memes really are implicated.

The meme's eye view suggests that we ask: "what is in it for the memes?" There are several answers to this question. Sometimes memes just create a new environment, with different winners and losers. Some creatures can hitchhike on memetic creatures better than others can - and these get spread around, while the things they prey on or parasitize suffer. In such cases, extinction seems like an accidental byproduct of meme activity.

In other cases, competition is involved. Creatures with DNA genomes compete with memetic creatures for resources. Memes at first promote a human world - since humans can host memes better than other animals can. Then, after the development of computers, memes promote them instead - since computers are better hosts for memes than humans. Its not that the memes are out to get other forms of life - it is just that they need the same resources, and the memes are fitter and more viable.

One issue is whether the current extinction event will turn into a mass extinction - with most species dying out. This may depend on the scale of our conservation efforts - which are difficult to predict. However, it seems quite likely that most species will either die or be confined to much more restricted ranges.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Machines have culture too

It seems like a fairly simple and straightforwards prediction of memetics that there will be a memetic takeover. The "one-size fits all" strategy of DNA will soon have had its day - and we are likely to enter a new era dominated by intelligently designed genotypes and phenotypes, which will displace most of the existing players in modern ecosystems.

Such a possibility has been recognised by Susan Blackmore, Richard Dawkins, Evan Louis Sheehan - and various other students of memes. However, cultural evolution theorists in academia mostly seem to be blindsided with respect to this topic. No doubt some of this is down to sheer conservatism, but:

One problem is the focus on the distant past. Cultural evolution in academia seems to have mostly been looking at events in prehistory that affected the evolution of modern humans. Machines seem to be too recent a phenomena to be considered in most papers on the topic.

Some authors explicitly focus their attention on the human actors involved - e.g. here are Boyd and Richerson on page 7 of Culture and the Evolutionary Process:

This does not mean that cultures have mysterious lives of their own that cause them to evolve independently of the individuals of which they are composed. As in the case of genetic evolution, individuals are the primary locus of the evolutionary forces that cause cultural evolution and in modelling cultural evolution we will focus on observable events in the lives of individuals.
This is hardly an attitude that lends itself well to thinking about the evolution of cultural artifacts such as machines - except perhaps in the old-fashioned manner of "machines are our tools" and "computers will do what we tell them".

It is the job of science to make future predictions. Cultural evolution theorists should be uniquely well place to be able to forsee these coming changes. Participants need to dust off their copies of Genetic Takeover and Mind Children, put two and two together.