Sunday, 28 February 2016

The problem with norms

I've criticized those who focus on norms before - but reading some recent literature makes me aware that I need to present a more specific critique.

Some discuss cultural evolution as though it is all about the evolution of norms. For example, Joseph Henrich does this in his recent book The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter. The problem with this is that there's more to culture than norms, and thinking in terms of norms omits all the 'abnormal' stuff. The problem is exacerbated by there not really being any term for this "abnormal" content - making it hard for the norm enthusiasts to even think about it. If there was a term for cultural non-norms, it would probably be a dustbin category, defined by what it excludes.

Another basic problem is that norms have a long-winded definition, being based on what other people think you ought to do. For example, here's what Wikipedia says on the topic:

Norms are cultural products (including values, customs, and traditions) which represent individuals' basic knowledge of what others do and think that they should do. Sociologists describe norms as informal understandings that govern individuals' behavior in society. On the other hand, social psychology has adopted a more general definition, recognizing smaller group units, such as a team or an office, may also endorse norms separate or in addition to cultural or societal expectations. In other words, norms are regarded to exist as collective representations of acceptable group conduct as well as individual perceptions of particular group conduct.

Normally, basic scientific concepts should be short and snappy - as suggested by Occam's razor. If you classify culture as being composed of norms and non-norms, you have a long-winded and vague classification criteria and a nameless dustbin category. Basically the whole enterprise sucks and it is unsuitable as a foundation for terminology associated with cultural evolution.

Meme enthusiasts have faced the same problem to some degree - with various critics claiming that there's more to culture than memes, and memetics leaves it out. It is true that there's more to culture than memes, but there's a term for the other stuff: 'meme products'. Some people call meme products 'phemes'. This division into memes and meme products reflects the classic split between genes and gene products in biology - dividing content into heritable information and things that are affected by it. It isn't really part of memetics or genetics - but we do have a field that studies it - ontogeny. Meme products could be criticized as being a 'dustbin category' too - but I think that 'phenotype' has proved itself to be a useful concept - and ontogeny is a useful field. We need the gene / phene category split in cultural evolution too.

By way of contrast, 'norms' are more of a fringe concept. I would generally encourage people not to think about culture only in terms of 'norms'. From what I can see, it tends to lead to a blinkered view of cultural evolution.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Memetic immunity

I have a whole chapter about memetic immunity in my 2011 book on memetics. There's a brief summary on my meme therapy article but otherwise, but I don't have much in the way of public web pages on the topic. It's a very important subject area, so perhaps I should have a public resource on the topic.

Memes are the genes of cultural symbionts. They can be mutualists or parasites. Avoiding memetic parasites is what memetic immunity is all about. In my book, I classify ways in which memetic immune systems can be boosted. My classification goes something like this:

  • Memetic vaccinations;
  • Probiotic 'good' memes;
  • Behavioural meme avoidance and prophylactic meme barriers;
  • Immunity from past infections;
  • Immunity from existing infections by rival memes;
To give some examples, mantras block out memes, affirmations replace bad memes with good ones and scepticism attempts to selectively target bad memes by strengthening the memetic immune system.

Boosting memetic immunity is an important aspect of meme therapy. It is a type of memetic preventative medicine.

Memeticists have previously proposed the terms "memune" and "vaccime" to refer to concepts associated with memetic immunity. These days I find these terms to be too irregular and too cutesy.


Monday, 22 February 2016

The social Darwinist pledge

In 2014 I declared: I Am A Social Darwinist.

I was protesting against the hijacking of the basic term by critics. I figure that I am not the only Social Darwinist out there - dozens of scientists appear to me to fit the description. However, I notice that few seem to have 'come out' and publicly declared themselves to be social Darwinists. In the hope of encouraging them I invite them to take the Social Darwinist pledge - and publicly declare themselves to be Social Darwinists. A cadre of proud social Darwinists seems like the best way to combat the stigma associated with the term by critics. #socialdarwinism

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Evolutionary progress and political correctness

I've long supported the idea of evolutionary progress. I've previously argued that cultural evolution will cause a reexamination of the topic. One author who understands cultural evolution - Kevin Kelly - has argued in favor of evolutionary progress - in What Technology Wants. However, few students of cultural evolution seem to have publicly addressed the topic - which is rather disappointing.

I think the story of the suppression of the idea of evolutionary progress has to do with political correctness. Ever since Darwin wrote "Never say higher or lower" in a notebook margin, evolutionary progress has been a hot potato - because of the political implications of some individuals or groups being 'higher' than other ones. Many humans have a sense of egalitarianism; they favor equality, and strive to create it where it does not exist. Evolutionary progress conflicts with the idea of egalitarianism in a number of ways - by denying that equality exists, and by casting doubt on the idea that equality is desirable. In the face of this conflict, many keep their egalitarian ideas and reject the concept of progress.

For me, this seems like a fairly common situation. Political correctness says one thing, and scientific truth says another. Racial and sexual equality run into the same problem: science says one thing, political correctness says something else and then the humans get their panties in a knot.

Evolutionary theory doesn't do equality. The whole idea of evolution is predicted on some creatures doing systematically better than other ones. Cultural evolution compounds the problem - by proposing that differences between humans can arise as a result of cultural transmission - and so can be very large.

The link to political correctness doesn't seem to be much of a secret. One of the most famous proponents of denial of evolutionary process was Steven J Gould. Gould made no secret of his Marxist tendencies.

The influence of political correctness on science is an insidious problem. As we race towards an era of intelligent machines, it becomes increasingly important to have accurate models of our situation. Massive wealth inequality mocks our preferences for egalitarianism. Humans will face increasing cognitive dissonance as their superstitions conflict with the facts.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

The symbiont hypothesis of cooperation and Toxoplasmosis

I've previously promoted the symbiont hypothesis of cooperation and eusociality. As a brief summary, this proposes that sometimes agents cooperate because they are being manipulated into coming into contact by symbionts whose reproduction depends on interaction between their hosts. Here is my 2014 essay on the topic:

The theory has substantial significance for the evolution of eusociality in the organic realm. It also applies to the spread of cooperation in cultural evolution - based on the model that memes are the genes of cultural symbionts. Many memes promote cooperation partly because they need extended contact between humans in order for them to reproduce themselves.

One interesting illustration of the symbiont hypothesis involves Toxoplasmosis. Toxoplasmosis is caused by a microorganism that makes mice love cats - and is transmitted from mice to cats. It turns out that Toxoplasmosis also makes people love cats - and might be contributing to the plague of cat memes on the internet. Toxoplasmosis is an interesting example of a microorganism promoting love - partly because it is so well known. It makes a useful illustration of the symbiont hypothesis.

Update: for a sceptical take on the topic see here.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Tribal markers

Tribalism is a largely-cultural phenomena in which individuals signal group membership to other members of their group - and sometimes to outsiders. The signalling is often done using "tribal markers" - where signalling tribe membership is their main function.

Some of the most obvious tribal markers in cultural evolution are uniforms. Sports teams, military, religions, companies and other organizations all use uniforms as means of signalling shared memes. These can then act as targets of altruism via cultural kin selection.

If we classify uniforms as examples of primary tribal markers, then we can also recognise the existence of various secondary tribal markers. For example, badges, bumper stickers and tatoos all function as tribal markers that don't dominate the appearance of individuals. Using secondary tribal markers it is possible to simultaneously signal affiliation with multiple organizations.

Another way to classify tribal markers is whether they are voluntary or not. Most secondary tribal markers are voluntary. However there are many cases where workers are made to wear uniforms where they would not choose to do so - unless they were being paid to do so. Among incarcerated prisoners, uniforms are not voluntary in any way at all. Things like language and money are interesting corner cases. They are often dictated by the rest of the society - giving the individual few realistic options. These also serve other functions besides signalling tribe membership, though.

Another interesting case is markers that denigrate out-groups. Normally secondary tribal markers promote in-group members. In biological systems, competitors are not normally worth wasting resources on. However, the is the phenomenon of local competition. If rivals are few in number - for example because they are nearby - then it is sometimes worth attacking them. In the cultural realm, we see this with negative advertising targeting political rivals. In politics, there are often only a few viable competitors - and it is possible to profit by attacking them. Often such attacks are performed semi-anonymously - and so individuals don't often associate themselves with such attacks. It is observed sometimes, though. Check the bumper stickers (below) for some examples saying: "JAIL BUSH", "TOO OLD", "SCUM", "YUK!" "JERK", "SCHMUCK", "JACKASS", "SHAME" and "IDIOT".

Tribal signalling is an example of memes harnessing our genetic tendencies. Animals often favour their own kin. Tribal markers create cultural kin - kin that share memes rather than genes. A superficial similarity of appearance is created - and this then triggers animal kin-selection circuitry, which fosters cooperation, which in turn helps the memes associated with the tribal markers to spread.

Tribalism has been studied by anthropologists before the advent of cultural kin selection - but they have generally lacked a proper theoretical framework with which to interpret it. While this situation is obviously deplorable, at least there's a lot of data with which to test more modern theories.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Why cultural evolution is faster

So far most comparisons of the rate of cultural evolution - relative to the evolution of DNA-based creatures - have failed to control for the shorter generation times of memes compared to their hosts. A failure to do this leaves open the possibility that cultural evolution is faster than mammal evolution simply because memes have shorter generation times than mammals do. This is a problem with Charles Perreault's 2012 article on the topic, for example, as I pointed out at the time.

John Wilkins laid down the gauntlet on this issue in 2009, here:

the speed of cultural evolution is pretty much the same as the speed of biological evolution. The problem is that the “rate” is not absolute. Speed in evolution is always relative to generations, not to years. I feel that cultural evolution will tend to be roughly the same relative rate as biological, if only because error rates tend to be at or about the same general level in transmission processes.

However, intuitively it seems as though cultural evolution has led to nuclear power and moon landings in a short period of time - while organic evolution stumbled around for billions of years without doing these things. It seems as though empirically, cultural evolution really is faster, contra-Wilkins.

There's no shortage of theoretical candidates that hope to explain why cultural evolution is faster. In cultural evolution, mutations take place in brains, rather than cells. Variation can arise as a result of intelligent design, using interpolation and extrapolation. Evaluation can be performed under simulation. If you consider brains as containing Darwinian or quasi-Darwinian processes then the generation time there is even faster than cultural generation times - faster even than bacterial generation times.

One of my favorite candidates for a factor that explains the increased speed of cultural evolution involves the distinction between supervised learning and reinforcement learning. In supervised learning, mistakes are corrected by a supervisor, that presents the correct solution. A common alternative to this is reinforcement learning - where actions are scored by a reward function or a utility function. Mistakes are scored, but not corrected.

In organic evolution, organisms are mostly scored - in terms of reproductive success. However, bad quality actions are mostly not corrected. Supervised learning is associated with having a brain. Once you have a nervous system you can often learn using supervised learning. An important function of the brain is predicting consequences of actions - and the most common case of supervised learning involves predicting future sensory inputs. Here, after predictions relating to future sensory inputs are made, sensory inputs are actually received. The predicted and actual perceptions can be compared and supervised learning techniques can be used to correct any mistakes. Though there's no actual supervising agent, this qualifies as supervised learning - since the correct output is presented to the learner on every timestep.

Where does culture come in? Culture makes individual learning add up over the lifetimes of multiple individuals. Without culture, learned information is lost when the individual dies and their brain is eaten by worms. In principle, learned information can still get into the germ line via the Baldwin effect - but that is still a pretty slow process. With cultural transmission, information acquired using supervised learning can directly be passed down the generations and it can accumulate over time.

I won't lay out the case here for supervised learning being faster and better than reinforcement learning - that's part of machine learning folklore.

At first glance, this seems like an argument for psychological evolution being faster than DNA evolution. After all, brains have been around for 500 million years or so. They aren't a new phenomenon. So, how can supervised learning explain how it is only cultural evolution that seems faster? The idea is that psychological evolution is also faster, but that until the origin of culture, it couldn't really go anywhere. Without culture, information in brains is obliterated in every generation and can't really accumulate. As I mentioned, it can still affect evolutionary rates - via the Baldwin effect. No doubt the Baldwin effect does speed up evolution - but it does not do so as much as cultural transmission does.

I think these observations help to address some criticisms of cultural evolution. For example, here's Massimo:

The conclusion that biological and cultural evolution are different also nicely accounts for the fact that cultural evolution is so much more dynamic (it happens much faster) and unpredictable than its biological counterpart. If we think of both as instances of Darwinism that difference becomes more puzzling.

To start with, this is a bit of a straw man, practically nobody is saying that cultural evolution and biological evolution are exactly the same (excepting maybe Ben Cullen).

Anyway, according to the idea described on this page, one of the most significant differences is explained by learning theory - it is supervised learning. The impact of this on evolution dates back 500 million years or so - to the origin of brains. However before culture got started, its influence on the evolutionary process was somewhat muted - due to the regular destruction of information in brains in every generation.

Supervised learning represents a type of feedback from outcomes to the production of new variants to test. In the context of evolutionary theory, this is somewhat similar to Lamarckian inheritance: the inheritance of acquired characteristics. It is however important to note that this is not really a new effect - it dates back 500 million years. Nor can one say that such evolution is not "Darwinian" - since Darwin was an enthusiast for such feedbacks. Indeed, he promoted a theory of "gemmules" which featured feedback from somatic cells to the germ line. What we can say is that cultural evolution is not Weismannian. It features non-selective feedback from the phenotype to the genotype. However, we must also note that evolution in the organic realm is not really Weismannian either. Weismannian evolution - in which phenotypes only affect genotypes via selection and mate choice - was a product of Weismannian's choice of traits. He cut the tails off rats - and observed that this 'acquired characteristic' was not inherited. If Weismann had looked at rat fleas of rat pox instead he might have drawn the opposite conclusion - that acquired characteristics were inherited.

In computer science, lack of access to supervised learning helps to explain the limitations of genetic algorithms and genetic programming - and helps to explain why memetic algorithms are needed.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Wanted: analysis of the meme as a meme

Joe Brewer once wrote:

It is a beautiful irony that the “meme” meme won out (as indicated by the amount of attention garnered with it as the label for cultural transmission) using the very evolutionary processes that constitute how cultural evolution actually works.
The story of the "meme" meme is indeed an interesting one. There have been some histories of memetics published. One of the more comprehensive ones is:

I think there's some further scope for analysis of the rise of the "meme" meme.

One of the features of the story is the repeated attacks on the meme concept by confused academics who don't properly understand it. Cultural evolution has featured an ongoing war between academics and popularizers which has, I believe, been a destructive war which has done damage to the field. Presumably, without this conflict, the term "meme" would be even more widely used and understood.

Another interesting feature of the rise of the "meme" meme is its use of memetic hitchhiking on the most viral content on the internet. A massive marketing department probably couldn't have come up with a better plan for promoting the "meme" meme - and yet the whole business with internet memes apparently happened with very little central planning.

Anyway, the rise of the "meme" meme - in competition with the various meme synonyms - is an interesting topic for students of cultural evolution. It's metamemetics! I look forward to the whole topic being given a more comprehensive treatment.