Sunday, 24 April 2016

Cultural evolution and Weismann's barrier

In case anyone needs a recap, August Weismann was the guy who cut the tails off of rats. He concluded that a barrier prevented somatic cells from contribution to evolution - now known as the Weismann barrier. The Weismann barrier is a real phenomenon, but people vary on how permeable they think the Weismann barrier is.

There's a corresponding barrier in cultural evolution. Cakes contribute to recipes, but mainly through selection. Anywhere where reverse engineering is complex and difficult, something like the cultural equivalent of the Weismann barrier comes into play. It is hard to dispute the idea that there is less of a barrier in the cultural domain, though. The difference between the domains is partly because there is more reverse engineering in cultural evolution. Genetic engineers can reverse engineer designs originally coded in DNA as well, but for various reasons, they rarely bother. There's plenty of secret computer software in the world, but only a small number of secret genomes. So, people are forced to reverse engineer software from web sites, while few are forced to reverse engineer gene sequences from organic phenotypes.

It's important to recognize that Weismann's barrier is also pretty seriously compromised even if you ignore cultural transmission. As I explained in my article on Lamarckian inheritance in cultural evolution:

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.

Another problem for Weismann's barrier is genetic engineering. These days a scientist can transfer whatever information they like into the genome. Acquired characteristics, information from somatic cells, detailed sequence information, genes from other species, prime numbers - whatever they like, really. The permeability of Weismann's barrier is increasing as time passes and biotechnology improves.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Matt Ridley - Evolution of Everything book videos

Here's Matt talking at Google:

Matt talks explicitly about memes 40 minutes in - raising the objection that memes are particulate, while culture doesn't have to be. He describes memes as being "a bit restrictive" and says: "I feel it's moved on since then".

I regard these objections as bogus ones. Memes represent heritable information in cultural evolution, just as genes represent heritable information in the organic realm. The idea that memes (and genes for that matter) are too 'particulate' is to do with the molecular biology definition of the 'gene' - not the evolutionary definition of the gene. Remember that genes are not sections of nucleic-acid.

Memes (and genes) are 'particulate' in the sense that they are informational - and so can be divided up as much as you like. Information can be subdivided into particulate bits and sent down cables. That's just a fact, and it isn't specific to memetics: most other theories of cultural evolution assume a basis in information theory, focus their attention on heritable cultural information and use some kind of meme synonym.

Here are a couple of other recent videos from Matt on the same topic:

Friday, 15 April 2016

Shared interests of unrelated symbionts

Unrelated symbionts tend to affect the host in similar ways. For example, many symbionts tend to make hosts leak bodily fluids - through bleeding, diarrhea, coughing, sneezing and pimples. Similarly, many stimulate interactions between hosts to facilitate their own reproduction - with rabies, toxoplasmosis and malaria being some of the best-known examples.

Can we make the same sorts of statements about cultural symbionts? I think so. Most of the rest of this post will give examples. Speaking and writing skill skills are a common pathway into the future for many memes. Speaking to large audiences is especially desirable. Teaching skills are particularly useful to many memes.

Like their organic counterparts, cultural creatures depend on contact between their hosts for their transmission - and so many of them tend to promote frequent, peaceful host interactions.

Another area involves resource allocation. As with organic parasites, many cultural parasites benefit from reducing the fertility of their hosts. Resources spent on host reproduction are resources not available for parasite reproduction. There's a considerable body of evidence that shows that memes do tend to have this effect.

Symbionts are also interested in host lifespan. They tend to follow one of two strategies. One involves turning the knob that controls the reproduction-maintenance axis towards maintenance - a living host is typically more useful to symbionts than host offspring are. This tends to increase host lifespan. The other strategy is to burn through host resources and convert them into symbiont offspring as fast as possible. Ebola would be an example of this strategy. This sort of thing tends to decrease host lifespan. The second strategy is often especially harmful to the host.

The whole phenomenon of shared symbiont interests is, I think, something useful to be aware of. If many agents are attempting to influence you in the same direction, that increases the chances of their collective manipulations being successful. Some people might want to take steps to compensate.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Restraint and confinement

This post is about a topic in symbiology - symbiont restraint of host. The idea applies to both organic and cultural symbionts, so I will attempt a presentation in general terms and then give examples from both domains.

Symbionts have their own optimization targets, involving maximizing the number of their offspring. These typically conflict with the optimization target of their hosts. So the symbionts typically manipulate their host into acting against its own interests. There are many ways of performing such manipulation - but this page is about one type of manipulation: preventing the host from acting.

Restraint is one of the simplest types of manipulation. Restraint has most of the advantages of destruction over construction. Just as it is easier to destroy than create, it is easier for symbionts to eliminate host behavior than it is to create new behaviors.

High on the list of behaviors that it often pays for symbionts to reduce involves making host babies. Babies consume time and resources, that might otherwise be spent on symbiont reproduction.

In the organic realm, many parasites sterilize their hosts, or reduce their fertility. Among humans, sexually transmitted infections are a common source of infertility. Chlamydia and gonorrhea are common culprits. If you have babies, you are likely to have less sex with fewer partners. Keeping you childless is pretty clearly in the interest of STDs.

Cultural symbionts reduce fertility in much the same way. Degree of female education, is strongly negatively correlated with fertility. Cross-country comparisons show that the most educated countries have the lowest fertility. Family planning and contraceptive memes are implicated. Thanks to technological memes, many choose to have sex without paying the childcare costs.

Many symbionts share the same goals regarding preventing hosts from engaging in resource-intensive activities that further their own ends. Their influences tend to add up. The result is a bit of a war between a host and its symbonts. The symbionts don't all pull in the same direction, but their pulls are correlated in ways that restrain host activities. Even mutualist symbionts can contribute to the restraint.

The idea of restraint by symbionts is similar to Mark Changizi's proposal that memes harness human hosts. Mark's harnesses also restrain their hosts. They also typically result in resource transfers from host to symbiont. The idea here is that no harness needs to be involved. Merely caging or confining the host can be sufficient to effect such resource transfers.

Restraint of host resource expenditure on host offspring isn't the only common interest of host symbionts. Many symbionts are also interested in promoting host social behavior, for example.

This idea provides theoretical support for ideas in folk memetics about meme jails, meme bubbles and people being imprisoned by their own memes.

Friday, 8 April 2016

Templeton foundation gets into cultural evolution

The John Templeton Foundation has been funding research into cultural evolution for a while now. Past grant recipients include:

Recent news says Kevin Laland, Andrew Whiten, Richard Watson and others have landed a 8 million dollar Templeton Foundation grant to explore their proposed extended evolutionary synthesis - which includes 'extended inheritance' - one of the topics frequently discussed on this blog.

A Templeton foundation grant also helped to "incubate" the Cultural Evolution Society - as described here.

It's sad times for the field if researchers are reduced to taking Templeton Foundation money. Scientists getting involved with the Templeton Foundation seems as though it is generally bad news. It legitimizes the Foundation's theistic efforts - and tends to produce junk science, like the 2010 Templeton-funded Nowak, Wilson and Tarnita debacle. Of course scientists can choose to accept any source of grant money, but perhaps at the expense of their reputations.

Here's commentary from David Sloane Wilson, Jerry Coyne and Larry Moran.

Evolutionary foresight goes mainstream

The mainstream seems to be finally waking up to some of the idea I expressed in 2008 in my "evolution sees" essay. In particular, Richard Watson, Eörs Szathmáry and others have recently been arguing that evolution can learn. Not just with trial-and-error learning, but with real connectionist learning. Here are some of their papers:

Though their conclusions seem similar to mine, their argument looks a bit different. They suggest that connectionist learning in ecological populations might be important. If that happens without animal nervous systems, that would be new and interesting. Even without this idea of theirs, my argument for the evolutionary significance of connectionism still stands.