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.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Design in nature

I haven't yet weighed in on the controversy over whether adaptations represent real design or merely the appearance of design. Dennett and Bejan claim it is real design - calling it "design without a designer". Dennett writes:

The work of exploring the grand unity of Design Space is distributed between the slow ratcheting of natural selection of genes, and the swift trial-and-error explorations of individual brains (and their numerous artifactual exploration vehicles), so I will continue to use the umbrella term “design” to cover it all.


I have gone to considerable lengths over the years to show how “design-without-a-designer” is no more a contradiction in terms than “splittable atom”

Bejan complains, in Design in Nature:

Design may be the foundation of the built world, but it is anathema when the conversation turns to nature. Its six letters have become the four-letter word of biology and physics.

By contrast, Richard Dawkins says much adaptation represents merely the appearance of design. He calls many adaptations, designoid. Dawkins wrote:

The world is divided into things that look designed (like birds and airliners) and things that don't (rocks and mountains). Things that look designed are divided into those that really are designed (submarines and tin openers) and those that aren't (sharks and hedgehogs).

"Design" is an ordinary English word - so this is mostly an issue for dictionaries. My reading of the dictionary is that Dawkins is correct - while Dennett and Bejan are not. Should we make an exception, and try and redefine the term "design" - or give it a special scientific meaning? I don't see much of a case for that. We already have multiple words for the "with-or-without a deigner" category, in particular the terms "adaptated" and "optimized". These are seem like perfectly good words to me.


Sunday, 10 November 2013

Axonal and dendritic growth tip selection

I covered axonal and dendritic growth tip selection in my 2011 book on memetics. They are important forms of natural selection in the brain.

These days, animated scanned tissue images are available - which illustrate what the process looks like:

These images were originally from

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Memes and omega three fatty acids

Historically memes needed more real estate. They were dependent on human brain matter. To grow, they needed bigger brains - and more of them. Eventually they got both of these, but it took them a while.

Brains are expensive organs. One of the main things they are made of is fat, which provides the myelin sheaths around axons, and gives the brain its whitish appearance.

Among the necessary fats are omega three fatty acids. These are though to be one of the main limiting nutrients in brain growth and development.

These days our food is often fortified with omega three fats. However, in the ancestral environment, good sources of these fats were not so easy to come by. Probably most of our more recent ancestors obtained many of their omega three fats by eating other animals. They hunted them with the assistance of spears, gutted them with the assistance of knives, and cooked them with the assistance of fire. Memes contributed at every stage to feeding those ancestral brains stoked with the fats the memes needed to sustain themselves.

The idea that human evolution was facilitated by lifting nutrient constraints is the theme of the book The Driving Force: Food, Evolution and the Future by Michael Crawford and David Marsh.

Humans are water-friendly apes. They fish and eat seafood. Various explanations have been offered for this, but the most obvious one is that humans acquired memetic adaptations to watery environments - involving swimming, fishing and seafood consumption. No doubt the added seafood helped provide the resources to fuel the development of the brains of our ancestors.

Memes and baby slings

Baby slings were probably an important technological development that facilitated the expansion of the human brain as our distant ancestors evolved.

Baby slings provided an external womb - in which immature infants could continue their development in reasonable safety and security. The innovation broadly resembles a marsupial's pouch.

Sling manufacturing techniques are culturally-transmitted today - and probably this was always the case.

Baby slings are ancient - the date of their arrival has been traced via the study of lineages of associated lice.

Baby slings probably reduced infant mortality, providing a strong survival advantage to newborns of mothers with the relevant memes. The relaxed selection pressure on cranial size turned out to be a highly significant phenomenon for all memes. Larger brains meant more space for the memes. By providing the technology to facilitate the growth of the human brain, the memes had come across a way of dramatically expanding their own living quarters.


Friday, 8 November 2013

Stuart Kauffman on memes

Stuart Kauffman is a famous complexity theorist. Along with many other pioneers in studying complexity, Kauffman claimed ground from Darwinism, proposing self-organizing systems as an alternative to Darwinian evolution when it came to "the origins of order". These days, Universal Darwinism is slowly clawing much of that turf back again.

Stuart Kauffman once made some critical comments about memes. He wrote:

the concept of meme, and its descent with modification, is taken as a (or perhaps the) central conceptual contribution to the evolution of human culture. But the conceptual framework is so limited as to be nearly trivial. Like NeoDarwinism, it suffers from the inability to account for the source of new forms, new memes. Moreover, mere descent with modification is a vastly oversimplified image and understanding of how in cultural and technological evolution, new concepts, artifacts, legal systems, modes of governance, and modes of coevolving organizations at different level have come into existence in the past three million years, of how culture continues to transform today.
"Descent with modification" is an incomplete characterization of evolution - since most evolution also includes merging. Merging is very important in both genetic and cultural evolution. So: criticising the phrase "descent with modification" on these is reasonable - but it doesn't seem to have much to do with memes.

As for the alleged "inability to account for the source of new forms" - that's a vague and weak critique of modern evolutionary theory.

Update 2014-10-08: More critical comments from S.K. here: A Holistic, Non-algorithmic View of Cultural Evolution.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Culturomics: Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books

The blurb reads:

Construct a corpus of digitized texts containing about 4% of all books ever printed, and then analyze that corpus using advanced software and the investigatory curiosity of thousands, and you get something called "Culturomics," a field in which cultural trends are represented quantitatively.

In this talk Erez Lieberman Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel — co-founders of the Cultural Observatory at Harvard and Visiting Faculty at Google — show how culturomics can provide insights about fields as diverse as lexicography, the evolution of grammar, collective memory, the adoption of technology, the pursuit of fame, censorship, and historical epidemiology.

I think the term "culturomics" should probably die. It isn't a good word.

Susan Blackmore: Meme machine

Here's Susan Blackmore on memes in 2013:

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Nicholas Humphrey: The Family that Walks on All Fours

This is a documentary called "The Family that Walks on All Fours". Nicholas Humphrey is the presenter. It presents evidence that relates to a theory that I covered in my 2011 book on Memetics - that the distinctively human bipedal gait is partly culturally-transmitted.

This is an important hypothesis for students of memetics, since it places cultural transmission at the origin of our species. Maybe memes were present in a big way from the beginning. Maybe memes contributed to human speciation via symbiogenesis.

The documentary covers a family with multiple individuals that never learned to walk. By the end of the documentary, a number of them learn to do so, via social learning. These individuals are mentally handicapped - but it still adds to the evidence on the topic from feral children.

Another family that Walks on All Fours has also been found.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Observation selection classified

Observation selection effects can be classified as follows:

Observation selection includes selection between observers and selection within observers.

Selection within observers could be further subcategorized into unconscious filtering and deliberative filtering.

Unconscious filtering has dynamic and static components. Static unconscious filtering includes perceptual limitations.

Selection of observations within observers is rarely seen in the context of observation selection - and it seems to be a neglected topic. Sometimes observation selection is used as a synonym of observer selection. This seems like bad terminology to me - it's important to distinguish between these different phenomena.


Monday, 4 November 2013

Ernst Mayr on memes

Ernst Mayr disapproved of Dawkins and his gene-centric view of evolution. He wrote in The objects of selection:

Dawkins (19) has introduced the term “meme” for the entities subject to selection in cultural evolution. It seems to me that this word is nothing but an unnecessary synonym of the term “concept.” Dawkins apparently liked the word meme owing to its similarity to the word gene. In neither his definition nor the examples illustrating what memes are does Dawkins mention anything that would distinguish memes from concepts. Concepts are not restricted to an individual or to a generation, and they may persist for long periods of time. They are able to evolve.
By long convention, memes are socially transmitted - whereas concepts and ideas need not be. All memes are concepts - whereas not all concepts are memes. This simple observation destroys the criticism that "meme" is a synonym of "concept". "Meme" and "concept" refer to different sets of things - and have done so since 1976.

Memetic terminology offers a benefit which the term "concept" does not. As I put it in 2008:

One good thing about the term "meme" is its link to the term "gene" - which immediately conjours up the intended association. The term "concept" does not do this. This association helps people to grasp the basic idea of cultural evolution.
Of course, we still need the idea of conceptual evolution - since individually-learned ideas evolve too.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Peter Richerson: HBES interview

A brief history of copying

In a grand historical view of copying on the planet, we have something like this:

Genes -> Ideas -> Memes

  • Organic copying resulted from the origin of life;
  • Psychological copying which evolved within minds;
  • Cultural copying which evolved between minds.
Each stage led to its own explosion of living systems. Nucleic acid copying led to the Oxygen holocaust. Psychological copying led to the Cambrian explosion. Cultural copying led to the modern technology explosion.

There's some controversy over whether the last stage should be split into two - with human copying and machine copying being distinguished from one another - with a meme-driven human explosion preceding the ongoing technology explosion. Probably the main proponent of this split is Susan Blackmore.

Another controversy surrounds the origin of life. Probably there were copying systems before DNA. Also there were probably copying systems before the origin of life. A. G. Cairns-Smith argued forcefully in Genetic Takeover that there was no such thing as pre-biotic evolution. It now looks as though he was wrong - and that pre-biotic copying and selection are commonplace. Their role in the origin of life seems probable - though somewhat uncertain.

On Lamarckism in cultural evolution

The claim that cultural evolution is Darwinian is often met by critics with cries that no, it is Lamarckian.

Lamarckism was invoked by Gould, Pinker, Pigliucci, Gabora and Kronfeldner.

Some claim cultural evolution is Lamarckian (Boyd, Richerson, Turchin). Others claim it is not (Hull, Wilkins, Hodgson).

In fact Darwin embraced a wide range Lamarckian evolutionary mechanisms - so contrasting Darwinian and Lamarckian approaches to evolution is a little strange. Perhaps critics would be best off contrasting Weismannian and neo-Darwinian inheritance. However that might not be so much fun.

Much of the debate is over what "Darwinian" and "Lamarckian" actually mean. Lamarck famously endorsed the principle of use and disuse, and the principle of inheritance of acquired characteristics:

  • Use and disuse is well established in some domains. Used muscles get bigger while unused muscles atrophy. The brain responds similarly to use and disuse. However the principle has some limitations.

  • The inheritance of acquired characteristics was famously disproved by Weismann. However, few argue that dogs can't acquire fleas and then transmit them to their offspring. That is, technically, the inheritance of an acquired characteristic. Some acquired characteristics are inherited while others are not. If Weismann had chosen a different trait - for example, stress - he might well have drawn the opposite conclusion.

The majority of the controversy seems to revolve around the inheritance of acquired characteristics.

The proper view of Lamarckism in the context of cultural evolution involves two different claims:

  • Cultural evolution is less Lamarckian than often thought;
  • Organic evolution is more Lamarckian than often thought;

To address these in turn:

Cultural evolution is less Lamarckian than often thought

The inheritance of acquired mutations is commonplace and uncontroversial. Only the inheritance of acquired phenotypic traits is problematical. This requires a distinction between genotype and phenotype. The distinction between genotype and phenotype I advocate places the split between inherited traits and their products. In which case, only the genotype is inherited from - by definition. This approach defines the inheritance of phenotypic traits out of existence, since anything inherited from is classified as being part of the genotype.

Another issue here is empirical: much cultural inheritance consists of verbatim copying of construction instructions. Biblical texts have survived for many generations with few changes. In the internet era, copying culture without changing it is ubiquitous. Non-Lamarckian cultural inheritance is commonplace.

Organic evolution is more Lamarckian than often thought

Lamarckian inheritance has been out of fashion in evolutionary biology for a century.

However, there are multiple cases that seem to qualify:

  • Dogs acquire fleas and then transmit them to their offspring. Arguing that this isn't a case of inheritance of acquired characteristics requires considerable special pleading.

  • Stress levels are another trait commonly transmitted down the generations. Stressed parents tend to have more stressed offspring. This isn't high-fidelity transmission, but it is the inheritance of an acquired characteristic.

  • Many sexually-selected traits are also subject to inheritance of acquired characteristics - due to mate choice. For example, acquiring large breasts is likely to result in larger-breasted offspring. This is because large breasts are likely to attract males with preferences for large breasts - who are also more likely to carry genes for large breasts (due to historical association). A similar argument applies to practically every trait affecting mate preferences.

  • What about the idea that Lamarckian inheritance required reverse-engineering of traits from the phenotype into the genotype? I don't think that is true - Lamarck never said any such thing. However, just hypothetically. Such reverse-engineering certainly happens in the cultural realm. The problem is that it happens with DNA too these days. Genetic engineering allows the full spectrum of intelligent design techniques to be applied to DNA evolution. The window when cultural evolution permitted reverse-engineering of phenotypes - while organic evolution did not - was pretty narrow.

  • Cultural inheritance isn't the only means of acquiring traits non-genetically. Immune resistance may be transmitted and acquired via breast milk. Other non-cultural traits may be transmitted and acquired via the environment (e.g. a beaver might acquire a dam from another family of beavers during its lifespan, and then its children might inherit it).

  • CRISPRs illustrate that some organisms adaptively slurp up DNA from parasites - and then pass it on to their descendants.

  • Recent findings appear to show that even some highly-specific learned traits are transmitted into gametes. While this seems extraordinary and may turn out to be wrong perhaps it will turn out to be true.

In summary: the occasional inheritance of acquired characteristics is not an oddity of cultural evolution, but rather is a general feature of evolutionary processes. Organic evolution isn't entirely Lamarckian - but neither is cultural evolution.

There's a nice treatment of organic Lamarckian inheritance in: Darwinism Extended: A Survey of How the Idea of Cultural Evolution Evolved.

Unconstrained mutation predicts everything and is useless

In his 2001 book Science and Selection, David Hull proposed that prefixing variation with "blind" or "random" was unnecessary:

In sum, statements about the sorts of variation that function in selection processes need not include any reference to their being "blind," "random," or what have you. All of the terms that have been used to modify "variation" are extremely misleading. Hence, we see no reason to put any adjective before "variation" in our definition of selection.

While "blind" and "random" are unfortunate word choices, one can't allow completely unconstrained mutations in evolutionary models - or else they lose all predictive value. If mutation is a completely unconstrained process literally: anything goes.

As far as I can see, Donald Campbell got this issue right long ago - but used the unfortunate term "blind" to describe it. Campbell basically said that variation was generated on the basis of existing knowledge. Since then he has been much misunderstood on this topic, due to a poor choice of terminology.

Alas, while technically correct, the idea of generating variation on the basis of existing knowledge doesn't help modellers very much. Most modellers of evolutionary dynamics typically stick with undirected mutations, which often work pretty well, and are simple to model.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Andy West: The Catastrophic AGW Memeplex

I identified global warming as a bad cause some time ago. However, I don't discuss the AGW fiasco very much - since fighting the hysteria is so obviously a lost cause. Also, capable people like Matt Ridley seem to have much more time to spend on it.

Now there's a neat analysis of catastrophic anthropocentric global warming as a parasitic memeplex - written by Andy West.

These links promote a more detailed PDF document (128 pages). It closes with:

My closing comment is that if memeticists want a prime example to shore up their nascent science, of how a rampant memeplex can trample individual wills and common sense, can sweep up millions of individuals into the "agenda" of its own survival, not to mention causing net negative effects on a global scale, then they need look no further than CAGW.
Overall, it's a good analysis. I endorse Andy West's message.

It's sad that Andy West finds it necessary to include a memetics 101 in the document. People should have learned this material in school.

Eörs Szathmáry: The hardest problem in science? The biology of language origins

A rare video of Eörs Szathmáry. He is talking about the origins of language:

Szathmáry argues that meme-gene coevolution and represents a large complication that hinders our understanding of language origins.

There are a few more videos of Eörs Szathmáry online that are relevant to our topic:

Dan Sperber: Attraction and Selection in Cultural Evolution

This video is from the 2013 International Conference on Evolutionary Patterns.

The other conference videos are here.

Dan Sperber is a cultural evolution enthusiast, who embraces the type of cultural epidemiology pioneered by Cloak (1975) and Dawkins (1976), but rejects the idea that cultural symbionts have anything much like genes.

He seems yet to find a coherent sympathetic interpretation of memes - instead mistakenly likening them to cultural attractors.

Carl Knappett: Using Network Thinking to Understand Transmission and Innovation in Ancient Societies

This video is from the 2013 International Conference on Evolutionary Patterns.

The other conference videos are here.

Robert Boyd: How Culture Shaped Human Evolution

Here are a couple of recent videos from cultural evolution pioneer, Robert Boyd:

Robert Boyd: "How Culture Shaped Human Evolution"

Interview: Robert Boyd

Friday, 1 November 2013

Disagree with Cziko, Campbell on instructional learning

Gary Cziko and Donald Campbell famously attempted to explain instructional learning in terms of variation with selective retention. This was part of a grand scheme to show that all knowledge was the product of such processes. In Without Miracles, Gary Cziko recounts a string of cases where instructional learning turned out - on closer inspection to involve selective retention.

After some reflection about this, I think they are wrong about the issue. Instructional learning (e.g. rote learning) is usually best modeled by copying - not by processes necessarily involving selective retention. It's true that selective retention is common - and that if you examine processes closely enough, you can usually find some selective retention going on somewhere. However, to model instructional learning using copying is simple, obvious and correct - whereas to model it using selective retention seems like a case of special pleading.

We don't need a grand scheme which attributes all cases of adaptive fit to selective retention. Such a scheme is mistaken. Some cases of adaptive fit are the result of copying. Not necessarily copying results of previous processes involving selective retention - just plain copying.

Henry Plotkin briefly makes much the same criticism in Evolutionary Worlds without End. I think he is correct - and that Cziko and Campbell were wrong. Shoehorning instructional learning into models involving selective retention is an "unhelpful" activity that evolutionary epistemology should distance itself from. Instructional learning is mostly just copying, which is perfectly compatible with modeling individual learning within Darwinian frameworks.

Update 2015-05-25:

I've changed my mind on this a bit. See: Selection is simple, general and explains goodness of fit for the details.

It is possible to see all copying as a form of selection. Maybe this is a bit contrived. It certainly depends a lot on the details of the definition of the term "selection" that you use. However, classifying copying as a form of selection is possible - and it helps to explain how Cziko and Campbell's position can be internally consistent.