Sunday, 21 June 2015

Language - missing phylum of memetics

Language should always have been the king of the subjects studied by students of memetics and cultural evolution. Speech and writing have built-in error correction mechanisms. They are some of the things which are most likely to be copied with high fidelity - and thus to exhibit cumulative adaptations as they evolve. However linguists have not been very prominent in the field of cultural evolution. Famous students of language evolution - such as Steven Pinker and Noam Chomsky - are apparently clueless newbies when it comes to the topic.

I checked for books on the topic of the cultural evolution of language. There are:

This is a pretty small list. Also, all the books on it are very recent. When I became interested in cultural evolution, there was practically nothing.

This post asks: what happened? Why weren't linguists early adopters of memes and cultural evolution?

Though I think this is a good question, I don't have a terribly good answer. What follows are my speculations:

I think that many of the cultural evolution pioneers had backgrounds in evolution and population genetics. Most linguists would have lacked this background. They would have found much of the primary the literature hard to follow or irrelevant.

Also, until recently, cultural evolutionists were few and far between. Only in the last few years have supporters been coming out of the woodwork in large numbers. The dates on my book list reflect this. However, I think if I made corresponding lists for the cultural evolution of science, technology and religion, the 'science' and 'religion' lists would have more items on them - though the 'technology' list might have fewer.

The eusociality symbiont hypothesis and epistemic hygiene

The eusociality symbiont hypothesis relating to the evolution of eusociality pictures a positive feedback loop of interactions between hosts and symbionts, with each new symbiont pulling the colony tighter together as the symbionts manipulate their hosts into coming into contact with each other in order to reproduce.

The positive feedback loop involved in the hypothesis is counteracted by negative interactions involving hosts and symbionts - in other words by parasitism. As hosts interact more closely parasites can also spread horizontally between them. Since horizontal transmission promotes misalignment between host genes and parasite genes, after a certain point, parasites start to dominate more helpful symbionts - and then the hosts start to behave as though they want to live further apart from one another.

The significance of parasites is evident in most social insect colonies. These are vulnerable to parasitism - due to the close proximity of the members - and it is not uncommon to see nests obliterated by parasites. On the other hand, because of the parasite threat, the nests themselves are often policed by cleaning squads. Disease eradication is a big theme. Sick individuals are exiled and everything is kept remarkably clean.

Humans are a case study for the eusociality symbiont hypothesis. Our symbionts are typically cultural, but the basic dynamics are much the same - the cultural symbionts manipulate the humans into coming into contact with each other in order to reproduce. The result is human ultrasociality.

We know that humans living in close proximity are more vulnerable to horizontal transmission of genes. We can see this by comparing sick city dwellers with their more healthy country cousins. Parasite transmission favors situations where humans are crowded together. We have institutions to deal with this - such as hospitals.

Close proximity also favors horizontal memetic transfer. Assuming that humans want to avoid exploitation by deleterious memetic parasites, we are going to need organizations and institutions that promote epistemic hygine. These will involve schools, as well as other types of training more focused on the memetic immune system.

The negative effects of memetic parasites are clearly evident today. We have an obesity epidemic driven by fast food advertising. There are smoking, drinking and caffination epidemics which are widespread. Over the counter drugs are widely abused. Paranoia epidemics are fostered by the news media with resulting scares about terrorism, global warming, vaccination, resource depletion, and so forth.

Epistemic hygiene can reasonably be expected to become a big focus. Not necessarily the 'thought police' pictured by George Orwell - but other government-level infrastructure to protect populations against the negative effects of bad memes.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Darwinian Metaphysics vs Universal Darwinism

Momme von Sydow has a 2012 book titled: From Darwinian Metaphysics towards Understanding the Evolution of Evolutionary Mechanisms - A Historical and Philosophical Analysis of Gene-Darwinism and Universal Darwinism. The book is freely available to read online. At almost 500 pages, it's the longest critique of Universal Darwinism I've ever seen.

It's a fairly sympathetic critique - the author makes a serious effort to understand the topic before explaining where the perceived flaws lie. As the following quotation indicates, the author regards the blindness of variation as a key tenet of Darwinism:

the Darwinian tenet of the blindness of variation is challenged. It is argued that one should interpret biological evidence in a way that allows for a kind of directed and adapted process of variation – though this process is of course fallible and not omniscient. Paradoxically, this follows from pursueing a Darwinian approach up to its limits. Darwinism thus again demonstrates that it contains the seeds of its own destruction.
It is neo-Darwinism that got dogmatic about variation being undirected. Darwin himself was fairly agnostic about this topic - and indeed proposed a mechanism by which variation was directed by the experience of organisms.

This point revolves around a debate about what the term 'Darwinism' means. Personally, I see no compelling reason to attach Darwin's name to the more useless and out-dated theory - especially when Darwin himself had nothing to do with it.

The author also seem to think universal Darwinism is incompatible with the evolution of evolutionary mechanisms, saying:

Moreover, although it cannot be questioned that we can learn very much from Darwinism, it is claimed that Universal Darwinism as an interpretative framework can and should be replaced by an account of the evolution of evolutionary mechanisms – both in biology and in metaphysics.
I think the biological trial-and-error theory of Darwinism might also be urged to drop its universalism and acknowledge a certain evolution of evolutionary mechanisms.
The evolution of evolutionary mechanisms seems like a flat fact to me. Particularly the mechanisms that produce selection and introduce variation have complexified over time. Mutations produced inside minds can be a bit different from those produced inside cells. However, as far as evolutionary theory goes, the mechanism of production of mutations can be treated like a modular block box - with specific theories from genetics being plugged into it. A new mutational mechanism needs no changes to evolutionary theory itself - rather it's just a new mutation module. Much the same goes for selection. These days, selection can be produced by intelligent agents - for example by intelligently choosing compatible mate. Darwinism is big enough to include a variety of sources of selection. I think we can have a universal Darwinism while still leaving some space for the evolution of evolutionary mechanisms.

A critic might complain that, with these dependencies on other theories of mutation and selection, Darwinism barely qualifies as a theory in its own right. This has always been true, though. For example, to predict the fitness of a bat genome, Darwinism relies on theories of development, theories of aerodynamics and theories relating to radar. Dependencies on other theories has always been a fundamental part of Darwinism. Evolutionary theory doesn't stand alone.

These are some of the main criticisms in the book. I think that universal Darwinism survives these attacks just fine.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Memetics vs semiotics

Some students of semiotics seem to be irritated by the success of the meme. (e.g. Kilpinen, E. (2014)). Semiotics seems to be much more popular than memetics, and the term 'sign' seems to be much more popular than the term 'meme'. However, the term 'sign' does appear to have lost some important ground to the term 'meme'. Here's my take on how the meme managed to get a foothold.

Semiotics claims to be older than memetics. Semiotics became popular in the 1970s and 1980s - but claims roots going beck centuries. However, until the 1970s there wasn't very much in the way of semiotics publications. The founders of the various schools of cultural evolution may have ignored semiotics, because it had yet to become popular at that time.

By the 1970s, semiotics had basically failed to produce a school of cultural evolution. There was no explanation of how signs evolved based on broadly Darwinian principles. As Terry Deacon put it:

Until now, classic semiotic theories have not had much to say about why certain signs persist and others do not, or why certain semiotic systems evolved the forms they now exhibit.

The meme concept has generated recent excitement precisely because it seems to offer hope of providing something that other theories of social and semiotic processes have not succeeded in providing. It addresses the process of semiosis, i.e., the dynamical logic of how the symbolic and concrete constituents of culture arise, assume the forms they assume, and evolve and change over time.

Retrospectively, we can see that application of evolutionary biology to human communication mostly arose outside of semiotics - mainly from those trained in evolutionary biology and population genetics.

Perhaps the bypassing of the term 'sign' by cultural evolutionists was inevitable. The term 'sign' - in common parlance - comes with an associated object that is signified by the sign. Culture contains many signs - for example, letters, words and ideograms. However there are also non-signs: for example, knots, cups and fire. These have no obvious referents - they just are. For the concept of 'sign' to be useful as a unit to cultural evolutionists all culture would need to be signs. However, that violates the common dictionary definition of 'sign'.

The tpyical semiotics solution to this problem is to expand the definition of 'sign' to include knots, cups and fire - and indeed, practically anything. This is sometimes called 'pansemiotics'. If you do this, then semiotics becomes very general. Of course the problem is then that the original meaning of the term 'sign' has got lost. It is sometimes permissible to give common language terms counter-intuitive technical meanings. However, here, I think it just leads to pointless confusion.

As for the claim that the concept of 'meme' misses out the concepts of semantics and observation: this is just sour grapes on the part of the semiotics folk. One might reply that meaning and observers aren't part of the meme because they are context-dependent.

Monday, 15 June 2015

The edge of evolution

The domain of Darwinian evolution has expanded dramatically over the last 150 years. Darwinian evolutionary theory is now frequently applied to cultural evolution, the development of individuals and individual learning. More speculative extensions of Darwinism include ones that cover quantum physics, complex adaptive systems, cosmological natural selection and observation selection effects.

It is natural for observers of this expansion to ask: how far can the Darwinism go? Where is the the edge of evolutionary theory? What are the limits of Darwinism?

The questions relating to "Darwinism" might be criticized as being a bit vague - but we can replace these with similar questions about the domain of concepts such as fitness selection and adaptation - and have some more rigorous questions that more people are likely to be able to form a consensus about.

I think that the lesson of history is that the edge of evolution is farther out than we think. People are inclined to say that the edge of Darwinism lies at the outer edge of their personal understanding of it. However, we can see historically that Darwinism has repeatedly pushed into new domains, covering new phenomena.

Another possible position is that there's no real "edge" - instead evolutionary theory gradually breaks down as more and of its axioms are progressively broken. I think that it is clear that there's some truth to this perspective. However, evolutionary theory is fairly simple - and there aren't very many axioms to break. Nonetheless, we should not necessarily expect to find a single precipice at the edge of evolution - but rather a gradual disintegration in the form of some steps or a slope. This complicates the issue - but doesn't fundamentally alter the problem.

To finish this article, I have a characterization of where I think the edge of evolution is to offer. I think evolutionary theory applies to macroscopically irreversible systems. This gives it roughly the same domain as maximum entropy thermodynamics - which I claim it is very similar to. Part of the intuition behind this involves the link between selection (from evolutionary theory) and destruction (which leads to many macroscopic entropy increases).

This relationship is probably wrong in detail. There's nothing in evolutionary theory that forbids its application to macroscopic reversible systems. Selection need not necessarily be linked to destruction. However, this is the best, short characterization of the edge of evolution that I have. Without it, I am reduced to offering a laundry list of phenomena that I think that evolutionary theory applies to.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Alex Flint's problems with memes

Alex Flint has some excellent quality meme criticism in his essay titled: The problem with memes. If only all meme criticism was of this standard. Alex makes several points - here I will focus on just one of them. He says:

If evolution amongst memes really was responsible for, say, Rick Rolling, then we should expect to see a relatively continuous sequence of memes in historical records, analogous to the fossil record.

Maybe. The fossil record is patchy - and not always accessible - and much the same is true of culture. In practice, it's often possible to make valid inferences even if you have no fossils. If you see an organism, you can validly assume it has an evolutionary history - even if you have no fossils - simply because of common descent. We can often do much the same thing with memes.

Alex says:

The term “meme” has found widespread use in contemporary discourse, especially when discussing the public mindset, since the constitution of that mindset is what memetic evolution is supposed to explain. It is often used to refer to particularly catchy or trendy ideas, but I have argued that in many such cases there is little justification for assuming that an evolutionary process was responsible. Questioning whether the term “meme” should be applied in such cases process is dangerously close to a vacuous quibble over semantics; however, a few cautions do bear mentioning. First, it is a mistake to think that a deeper understanding has been reached just by calling something a meme. In the absence of evidence for an evolutionary process, calling something a “meme” is no different to calling it an “idea” or “phrase”. No greater understanding of its nature or origin has been reached by invoking the term, nor does the term suggest any new ways that it might be manipulated, magnified, or minimised.
Alex seems to think that you shouldn't call some aspect of culture a 'meme' if you can't back up your assertion with a memetic fossil record - showing competition and selection between memes. That goes to the definition of a meme - and I don't think the dictionary agrees with Alex. Here's what one dictionary says for "meme":

an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture .

Another defintion:

an element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by nongenetic means, especially imitation.

These definitions don't rule out memes that pop into existence by chance, or memes that are intelligently designed. The whole idea that the term "meme" implies an origin involving competition and selection between a series of evolutionary precursors seems to be contrary to how the word is commonly defined.

Alex is correct to say that calling something a 'meme' doesn't imply that it wasn't intelligently designed. However, that's simply a matter of definition. I don't see how it is a 'problem' - and I don't see why Alex calls it a 'problem'.

Alex closes with:

In this essay I have argued that although memetic evolution is a coherent concept, applying it as an explanation for specific phenomena requires extra evidence to corroborate its causal role in producing those phenomena. In the absence of such evidence we should be careful about using the term “meme” too liberally since we may make unjustified assumptions about the nature of the ideas we are dealing with.
The "unjustified assumptions" Alex is referring to is the assumption of an evolutionary history involving variation and selection. However, this assumption seems to be coming from Alex - not from memes or memetics. It is OK to have intelligently-designed memes - indeed the internet is full of them.

In summary: we can legitimately use the term "meme" liberally - if we simply adopt the standard definition of the term. I think Alex's concerns about "unjustified assumptions" are themselves unjustified.

Peter Godfrey-Smith on positional inheritance

I notice that Peter Godfrey-Smith has a section in Darwinian Populations and Natural Selection denigrating the significance of positional inheritance. He writes (on page 55):

Parent and offsping often correlate with respect to their location. It is possible to inherit a high-fitness location; one tree can inherit the sunny side of the hill from another. But the significance of this inherited variation is limited. A population can near-literally 'explore' a physical space, if location is heritable and is linked with fitness. It may move along gradients of environmental quality it may climb hills, or settle around water. But to the extent that reproductive success is being determined by location per se it is not being determined by the intrinsic features that individuals have. If extrinsic features are most of what matters to realized fitness — if intrinsic character is not very important - then other than this physical wandering, not much can happen.

What can happen is that adaptations can develop. Lightning strikes can find the shortest path to the ground, propagating cracks can locate weaknesses in materials and drainage patterns can develop structures that efficiently drain basins. The idea that concepts like 'fitness' and 'adaptation' apply to these kinds of simple inorganic systems is a big deal for physics - and a big deal for Darwinism.

Of course in these kinds of system more than position is inherited. For example, in electrical discharges, charge is also inherited. However position is important - it is copied with high fidelity, it can often vary considerably and many other properties can depend on it.

Godfrey-Smith attempts to draw a distinction between "intrinsic" and "extrinsic" traits - and then claims that this affects the "Darwinian character" of processes. However, traditional Darwinism has no use for such a distinction - all it cares about is whether traits are inherited. If you look at axiomatic expressions of Darwinian evolution, "intrinsic" and "extrinsic" don't get mentioned. That's because they don't matter. They are irrelevant to most evolutionary theory. Heredity of traits is what matters - not whether those traits are "intrinsic" or "extrinsic".

It's true that "intrinsic" traits can be more numerous than "extrinsic" ones. However, that's no reason to single out "extrinsic" traits and exile them from Darwinism. Darwinism makes no distinction between "intrinsic" and "extrinsic" traits. The exact same rules about copying with variation and selection apply equally to both types of trait.

Peter says "the significance of this inherited variation is limited". It seems to me that the significance of this inherited variation is huge. It it wasn't for positional inheritance, we would all have been born in the vacuum of space and died instantly. It may be only "physical wandering" that means that we were born on the surface of a planet - rather than in interstellar space - but it makes the difference between life and death for all of us. Location is actually a very important property that affects fitness. We should study how it evolves using good old-fashioned evolutionary theory - it absolutely does apply.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

The work of Henry Jenkins

This post is about the work of Henry Jenkins. Henry is interested in marketing and advertising. Here are some of his blog posts on this topic:

There's a PDF document with much of this content collected in it: If It Doesn’t Spread, It’s Dead.

Here's a book he wrote:

Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture by Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, Joshua Green

In the PDF I mentioned, Henry criticizes memes, writing:

Use of the terms “viral” and “memes” by those in the marketing, advertising and media industries may be creating more confusion than clarity. Both these terms rely on a biological metaphor to explain the way media content moves through cultures, a metaphor that confuses the actual power relations between producers, properties, brands, and consumers. Both have been used so loosely they can refer to everything from word–of–mouth marketing efforts to remix videos to popular content in ways that don’t help us understand the nature of these different activities and the potential relationships between them. Both terms seek to explain the process of cultural transmission but do so in such a way they strip aside the social and cultural contexts in which ideas circulate, and the human choices which determine which ideas get replicated.
The terms 'viral' and 'memes' refer to a range of things. The term 'culture' does so too. This criticism of the terms 'viral' and 'memes' applies equally to the widely-accepted and useful term 'culture'. For me that illustrates the vacuousness of this critique. Saying something is 'cultural' doesn't help distinguish between the different aspects of culture. That's not the point of the terminology. Instead it highlights how it is copied and passed on - for example by imitation or teaching.

I fail to see how the terms “viral” and “memes” strip aside the social and cultural contexts in which ideas circulate. Those are environmental factors that act as selective forces. This is surely cultural evolution 101.

Perhaps Henry has been confused by the specialized nature of memetics. Just as genetics is quite focused on how genes mutate and recombine, so memetics is focused on how memes mutate and recombine. However, these disciplines do not stand alone - there are other folk looking more at things like development, the nature of selective forces and interactions with the surrounding ecology.

However, I'm speculating here. Henry doesn't explain where he gets his conception from. To me this criticism seems to be unsubstantiated.

Henry also writes:

Talking about memes and viral media places an emphasis on the replication of the original idea, which fails to consider the everyday reality of communication — that ideas get transformed, repurposed, or distorted as they pass from hand to hand, a process which has been accelerated as we move into network culture. Arguably, those ideas which survive are those which can be most easily appropriated and reworked by a range of different communities. In focusing on the involuntary transmission of ideas by unaware consumers, these models allow advertisers and media producers to hold onto an inflated sense of their own power to shape the communication process, even as unruly behavior by consumers becomes a source of great anxiety within the media industry.
Talk of memes does not "place an emphasis on the replication of the original idea" at the expense of transformation. In biology, there are copying, recombination and mutation. Saying that biological models emphasize copying at the expense of recombination and mutation seems as though it would be silly to me. Evolution depends critically on both copying and mutation. Recombination is very important too. A copying-only version of evolutionary theory would be impotent indeed - but there's no such thing - except as a straw man in the minds of critics.

I do like the "If It Doesn’t Spread, It’s Dead" slogan, though. To many memeticists, myself included, culture is alive, "not just metaphorically but technically".

Holocene extinction and memetic takeover

The term "Holocene extinction event" refers to the currently ongoing extinction of species. It is apparently largely caused by the impact of humans on the environment. This makes it the first extinction event caused by a proliferation of memes.

At the moment, the Holocene extinction fails to meet the criteria for a mass extinction. In a mass extinction 75% of species go extinct in a short space of time. However, knowledge of memetics suggests the possibility of a memetic takeover - in which the substrate of the heritable medium of biology changes - and the era of the DNA molecule comes to an end. Such an event could be accompanied by a large mass extinction. In such circumstances, many DNA-based creatures would probably be preserved in nature reserves or historical simulations - and thus not technically go extinct. However, it is far from clear what fraction of the currently-known species would survive.

One problem with extinctions is that things of value get lost. Assuming that preventing this is desirable, we can ask what steps could be taken to help prevent species loss.

I think a slower memetic takeover would result in a reduced chance of things getting lost by accident. Technological determinism probably means that we can't do much to slow progress by machines down. However, what we probably can do is speed up our own progress - and that of our companion creatures. The aim would not be to keep up with the machines - which does not look feasible - but rather to prolong the period of our usefulness - and prevent us from becoming an early casualty of the current extinction.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

The smoothness of nature

This post is about Darwinian physics. In optimization theory, for evolutionary approaches to work as effective search algorithm, the fitness landscape must not be too rough. If fitness at nearby points in the fitness landscape are unrelated, an evolutionary search will do no better than a random search.

In positional inheritance the domain of fitness landscape maps corresponds to a two or three dimensional physical space. Fitness usually depends significantly on the location within that space.

It is pretty clear empirically that fitness at nearby locations is often correlated - i.e. fitness is heritable in cases of positional inheritance. However this leads to the question of: why is fitness heritable?

That question goes to the smoothness of nature. If you look at the world, nearby parts are often similar to each other. It isn't just neighbouring fitness that is similar - all neighbouring properties tend to be similar. Why is that the case? Here are three significant reasons:

  • Entropy increase causes many lumpy and rough phenomena to become more smooth and uniform.
  • Copying also causes like to associate with like. In a forest, the trees are similar because of genetic copying processes.
  • Gravity causes air to associate with air, water to associate with water and rock to associate with rock. It is a major force causing like to associate with like.

It's possible to argue that copying is the fundamental phenomena here - and that gravity and entropy increases are the result of copying. Entropy increase can also plausibly claim to be fundamental. Gravity cannot claim to be fundamental.

I like the explanation in terms of entropy. Nature might not exactly abhor a gradient, but it isn't terribly keen on edges. There are a bunch of dissipative processes that gradually scuff, dissolve and erode them out of existence.

Digital watches in the prehistoric

J.B.S. Haldane is reported to have responded to a challenge about what would destroy his confidence in the theory of evolution with the phrase "fossil rabbits in the Precambrian".

One might analogously ask: what would destroy our confidence in the modern theory of cultural evolution?

I think that "Digital watches in the Prehistoric" would have an effect broadly similar to Haldane's fossil rabbits in the Precambrian. With cultural evolution, such an observation might be a bit easier to swallow - due to the existence of another optimizing process capable of producing adaptations - namely human creativity. Nonetheless, individual creativity can only go so far. If advanced technology was present and the evidence of it was sufficiently good we might have to give up the modern theory of cultural evolution - and adopt an approach to history based on alien intervention - or some other source of apparent miracles. It would certainly mean a major rewrite of the history books.


Memesis refers to the origin(s) of meme(s). Its etymology derives from the terms 'meme' and 'genesis' - it's a contraction of meme-genesis. It can refer to the origin of a particular meme - or more generally to the origin of evolving culture.

The origin of cultural evolution is an area which has been studied extensively in academia. For some reason, many academics in the field seem to have specialized in the pre-history of cultural evolution - an area where we have a paucity of data and which it is difficult to explore experimentally. Why this happened is another story, but it did happen - and as a result we know more than we otherwise would about the origin of cultural evolution. In particular the work of Boyd and Richerson - as reported in their 2005 books - significantly illuminates this subject area.

They speculate that the glacial climate of the current ice age provided a challenging, spatio-temporally varying environment for our ancestors - and a variable environment increases the benefits provided by rapid cultural adaptations. They also suggest that the mild climate in the modern inter-glacial period led directly to the modern flourishing of humanity.

The doctrine of common descent suggests that all living things share a common ancestor. If taken literally, this means that the first memes came from evolving ideas within minds - and these ultimately arose from DNA genes. The initial dependence of cultural evolution on DNA-based evolution suggests that cultural evolution doesn't violate the common descent doctrine.

However the origin stories of individual memes can certainly involve external influences that are neither genes nor memes. A classic example of this is "the face on mars" (see right). While elements of this meme arose within human brains and involved cultural artifacts - such as spaceships and telescopes - it is hard to deny that an important part of the meme originated on Mars.

Ultimately, the origins of cultural evolution should be traced back beyond our common ancestor with chimpanzees (since these also carry a significant cultural inheritance with them).


Monday, 8 June 2015

Peter Diamandis on memes

A partial transcript follows (starting one minute in).

It struck me as I looked back thinking about how life has evolved that really patterns repeat themselves over and over and over again, and we're in the midst of a repeating pattern right now. The notion that as life evolved on Earth, it began as very simple, single-cell organisms called prokaryottes. Prokaryotes were basically a bag of cytoplasm with some DNA and those single-cell organisms started to incorporate biological technology into them. By biological technology, I'm referring to mitochondria that helped them process energy more efficiently, and create energy so they could become more capable cells, golgi apparatus nuclear membranes and so forth... And I thought about how those single-cell life forms incorporated technology very much as we today as humans are beginning to incorporate technology in us, whether it's the cellphone or bio-medical technology in our bodies. What life did next was that uh... life was it went from being prokaryotic to eukaryotic life forms, more complex single-cell life forms, and those eukaryotic life forms began to become multi-cellular life forms where a collection of 100 cells, a 1,000 cells, a million cells would come together and form a more complex organism where all of these individual cells were alive but when they worked together they did an extraordinary thing. You and I are a collection of 10 trillion cells that make up tissues and organs, and ultimately a unique human being. And I've thought about the technology that we are creating today at an exponential rate. Literally, the human machine interface technology will ultimately be able to plug in through optogenetics or human machine chip interfaces on the Internet of course, are giving us the ability to communicate in a much more intimate fashion where I think that well within the next decade, there's going to be the potential for me to know people's feelings and thoughts in a much more intimate fashion. And if all of a sudden, we are becoming a species of 7 billion interconnected individuals, what I call a meta-intelligence we are in new organism just like yes weren't worth seven billion individuals we are a new organism just like... yes, we are 7 billion individuals just like I'm a collection of 10 trillion individual cells. But these 10 trillion cells become conscious as an individual named Peter Diamandis. And I think that on this planet we are alive during a period of of evolutionary change where we are going from a collection of of billions of individuals to a connected populous of humans interfacing with an extraordinary amount of artificial intelligence computational power that's around the Internet where we together are becoming what I call this meta-intelligence. That's an exciting time to be alive. And I think about us as a species becoming conscious on a new level like never before. We are going from evolution by natural selection, which is Darwinism to evolution by intelligent direction. We're on a planet where we're going to start to evolve our biology and as you say, to become independent of this substrate that evolves very slowly. Humans are becoming themselves an information technology. It's really our thoughts, our memes our consciousness, which if we can begin to liberate from the biological constraints that we have that will allow us to evolve far faster. We've seen this time and time again, where things go from one substrate to the next and there's no reason not to believe that we can't do that again.
It looks as though Peter and I agree about a lot. We agree that meme-based cultural symbionts share some similarities with eucaryotic endosymbionts. We agree that we are likely entering an era of self-directed evolution. We apparently agree that a memetic takeover is a likely outcome - and that there will be a change of substrate as most thinking goes digital.

Another video of Peter's is titled: Intelligent Self-directed Evolution. It is reminiscent of my own self-directed evolution video. There's a similar rap about eucaryotes and memes about 9 minutes into Peter's video.

Friday, 5 June 2015

Quantifying the impact of cultural evolution on traits

There's a fairly standard methodology for quantifying the relative significance of genes, the environment and chance.

It involves asking what proportion of the observed variance in a trait is explained by variation in genes and what proportion is explained by variations in the environment.

This idea is related to the concept of "heritability" - which is defined to be the proportion of variance in a trait which is attributable to "genetic" variation.

Of course, there's memetic variation to consider as well - and it would be nice to quantify how important it is.

If you have a definition of culture that's good enough you can use it to determine to what extent environmental factors are culturally transmitted. Then you can apply the same methodology to see what the scale of the cultural influences are.

You would then be able to say things like: in population X 80% of the variation in trait X is due to culture and 20% of the variation in trait X is due to DNA genes.

Just as you don't have to sequence every gene to get results from this methodology, you wouldn't have to identify every meme to be able to say something useful about the impact of cultural heredity. You could still make statements like: "these known memes account for 20% of the observed variation in this trait in this specified population".

Quantification would be useful. At the moment, there seems to be some dispute between anthropologists - who seem to think that culture is a very important determinant of human behavior - and evolutionary psychologists - who often seem to treat culture as simply an emergent property of DNA genes in an environment - e.g. put humans in the arctic and out will pop igloos, snow shoes and sleighs. A table illustrating the extent of the impact of culture on the variance of a variety of traits would certainly be interesting.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Daniel Dennett: Cultural Evolution and the Architecture of Human Minds

Cyclical selection in cultural evolution

Cyclical selection is an important concept from ecology. It involves organisms which have lifecycles involving environments that vary cyclicly. Cyclical selection is sometimes called "alternating selection". It is sometimes described in terms of "switching environments". Cyclical selection is part of a more general phenomenon - known as "fluctuating selection". Some examples of cylical selection:

  • Seasonal variation - organisms may face one environment in the summer and another one in the winter.

  • Male gametes - these spend most of their lives inside male testicles - but must periodically run an obstacle course inside female organisms - where they face very different selection pressures.

  • Parasites - many pathogens reproduce inside host organisms and must repeatedly find new hosts. Thriving within a host present systematically different set of challenges to spreading between hosts - and so the pathogens face an alternating selective pressure.

This brings us to cultural evolution. Cultural symbionts behave similarly to organic pathogens - in that they can reproduce within a host as well as find new hosts. Different selection pressures apply inside minds compared to outside them. Inside minds memes must compete for attention - so that they can persist by being repeatedly rehearsed in short-term memory. Outside minds, memes need to get shared on social media sites and avoid spam filters. It's a different environment with different sources of selection. Memes multiply within minds as well as spreading between them. This may not be completely obvious - but the idea is supported from many directions. Some mental illnesses are explicable in terms of overgrowths of thoughts relating to fear, paranoia, negativity, anxiety or obsessions. Memories fairly plainly involve copying and creativity often involves making copies with variations. Again, copying criteria inside minds are different from copying criteria used by computer systems in the external world.

For parasites there's the risk that adapting to the environment inside a host will result in the loss of the ability to spread between hosts. Memes face much the same problem - adapting to survive within a host can result in the loss of the ability to spread between hosts. Too much intracranial selection can lead to intercranial sterility.

Parasites may resist evolution within hosts - since this may destroy their ability to spread between hosts. Resisting evolution within hosts has the disadvantage of reducing their fitness there. Parasites that are not able to rapidly evolve within a host are more likely to be obliterated at the hands of the immune system - or by other existing residents. Memes face the same dilemma. They don't want to lose their ability to spread between hosts - but may be under considerable pressure to evolve and adapt to their host's internal environment.

Intracranial selection may suggest some theraputic strategies to help deal with virulent memes. Cylical selection suggests that an extended period of selection within a host might result in reduced virality. The parasite may appear to make peace with its host. This suggests - for example - that the memes from old evangelicals might help to pacify young ones.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Junk memes

One of the findings of genetics is that many organisms have chromosomes that consist largely of non-functional 'junk'. Not all organisms have this junk. Some creatures - particularly some small creatures - are clearly under selection for small genome size. However, among larger creatures, there's a lot of variation in genome size - even among closely related forms - in a manner that is largely inconsistent with the 'junk' having an important function.

The are several ideas about why this junk exists.

  • We know that the junk consists largely of selfish DNA - e.g. LINEs and SINEs. Perhaps this DNA is parasitic on its host and exists solely to benefit itself.

  • The junk could exist as a result of a random walk in genome size. In this case, the junk could persist simply because the resulting selection pressure to eliminate it is relatively weak.

  • Evolution often proceeds by duplicating genes - or sometimes entire chromosomes. Some parts of the duplicated structure are then redundant, are under reduced selection pressure - and so decay. Of course, evolution can delete things too. The prevalence of junk could be as a result of duplication being a more useful source of novel variation than deletion.

  • Eucaryotes typically have much more junk than procaryotes do. This difference could be explained by sexual recombination - which acts to conserve genome lengths by selecting strongly against small changes in genome length - which is the type of mutation which is needed to gradually eliminate junk DNA.

  • There are a bunch of ideas that claim that the sequence doesn't matter - but that the junk still weakly performs some useful function. Larger genomes take longer to divide and result in larger cells - these are traits that could be selected positively for. The junk could act as an absorber for randomly-inserted retroviruses - which would then not be expressed. Or it could act as a harmless sink for chemical mutagens within the cell.

I don't know whether all these hypotheses have been distinguished between yet. There may be truth in more than one of them.

The gene-meme analogy suggests that we may find that a lot of culture is worthless junk too. This idea is strongly reminiscent of Sturgeon's law - named after Ted Sturgeon, who famously said:

Sure, 90 per cent of science fiction is crap. But then, 90 per cent of everything is crap.

Many superstitions certainly look like junk memes - in that they are behaviours that don't have much impact fitness, and where the details don't matter very much. Whether you touch wood or throw salt over your shoulder makes little difference.

In genetics, the idea of 'junk' refers to sequence being irrelevant - and not significantly impacting fitness.

I think fairly simple thought experiments show that if you randomly change 'sequence information' in the Bible, in The Origin of Species, in Harry Potter, in MP3s, or in videos, their fitnesses would be negatively affected. Junk memes seem to be less common than junk genes are.

Computer programs are another area to consider. Here, large programs often use multiple libraries - and sometimes there's a lot of library routines that aren't used. Random changes to these would then have little effect on the resulting phenotype. However, these large programs are more like symbiotic unions than individual creatures. They have many genomes - not one main genome. This weakens the comparison with junk genes.

Maybe libraries and organizations have their share of junk - but again, these are more like ecosystems than individual organisms - and the comparison with junk genes again becomes more strained.

If we provisionally grant the conclusion that junk memes seem to be less common than junk genes are, the next question that arises is: what feature of cultural evolution leads to this difference. Some ideas about that follow:

  • Cultural evolution doesn't have recombination that acts to preserve genome size. That could mean that small selection pressures to eliminate junk memes have a chance to work - and small deletions are not strongly selected against by the pressure to have the same genome size as everyone else in the population.

  • The idea that the junk defends against retroviruses (and other endogenous mutagens) doesn't work very well in cultural evolution either. There are sometimes parasites, and even some memes that work like retroviruses (by inserting themselves into other texts) but this isn't so much of a problem as it is in the organic realm.

  • The memetic codes used in cultural evolution often lack the "start" and "stop" codons that make junk genes possible in the first place. Where there are such codes (e.g. inside computers) there's often more junk.

  • Memes are often compared to viruses. Viruses have little junk DNA. Maybe these memes also resemble viruses in that regard.

  • Lastly, maybe there's just more selection pressure against junk in cultural evolution.