Friday, 30 September 2016

Joe Henrich: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter

The blurb reads:

The ability of human groups to socially interconnect and learn from one another has allowed us to create ingenious technologies, sophisticated languages, and complex institutions that have enabled successful expansion into myriad environments. Drawing insights from lost European explorers, clever chimpanzees, mobile hunter-gatherers, neuroscience, ancient bones, and the human genome, Joseph Henrich, author of The Secret of Our Success, will discuss how our collective intelligence has propelled our species’ evolution.

Some similar recent book talks:

Also, here are some recent videos relating to evolutionary psychology, most of which feature Joe Henrich:

The Leda Cosmides video is interesting because she responds to the cultural evolution enthusiasts. Leda specialized in culture and evolution, but almost completely missed memetics - adopting a position closely related to Wilson-style sociobiology. It now seems obvious that Darwinian cultural evolution is a very important concept - but Leda missed it. In the video she says the idea makes her "uncomfortable". Rightly so. That's cognitive dissonance for you. Leda Cosmides should say: "how extremely stupid not to have thought of that".

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Memes on the Nature web site

For many years now, it has been very hard to get a paper published in Nature if it mentions memes. That still seems to be true, but I notice that papers about memes have been making their way onto the Nature web site recently - via the Scientific Reports journal. Here are four papers there from the last four years that are explicitly about memes. I suspect that the 2011 internet meme explosion is responsible for this change. The general rise of cultural evolution in academia may also be involved. Anyway, it may be premature to claim that memes are back, but this seems like a positive change in the publishing climate.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Van Valen on Darwinian physics

Leigh M. Van Valen (of Red Queen fame) came up with an early expression of Darwinan physics in 1989. He pointed out that natural selection is common in the inorganic world. Here's what he said in Three Paradigms of Evolution:

Then again, look at the rock called granite. It is composed mostly of grains of feldspars and quartz, with some mica and other minerals inserted among them. When granite weathers, the feldspars and micas become clays but nothing much happens to the quartz grains. They are most resistant and get transported down streams or along shores. Thus most beaches are the result of differentially eroded granite. This is an example of natural selection in the nonliving world. Quartz grains survive longer than feldspar grains, and there is a progressive increase in the average resistance to weathering, of the set of grains that have still survived. This action of natural selection is even creative as we see by the formation of a beach. The lack of reproduction imposes constraints on the flexibility of evolution here, but one shouldn't confuse that with the selection itself. We do have here a common sort of evolution by natural selection and there are many other non-living examples.
I've made much the same point in my universal selection essay.

Of course, the case for Darwinan physics is quite a bit stronger than this passage implies - because copying and reproduction are also common in the inorganic realm. Rocks split into smaller rocks, streams split into smaller streams, and so on. There's also evidence of family trees - as seen in diffusion limited aggregation, and optimization and exploring a search space - as when a lightning strike finds the highest point in a landscape. However, Van Valen had some of the important ideas quite early on in the history of the field.

Monday, 26 September 2016

Domesticated memes

Domestication is surely an important concept for students of cultural evolution. Unfortunately, it first requires the concept of a cultural organism, something that academics seem to have difficulty in swallowing.

Daniel Cloud has written extensively on the domestication of words and language. Cloud credits Dennett with the idea that language could be domesticated - though he argues that Dennett didn't take the idea far enough. The earliest reference to domesticated memes from Dennett I can find is in his 1998 essays Memes: Myths, Misunderstandings and Misgivings AND Snowmobiles, horses, rats, and memes.

Dennett goes on to discuss the idea of domesticated memes some more in Breaking the Spell (2006), writing:

What I now want to suggest is that, alongside the domestication of animals and plants, there was a gradual process in which the wild (self-sustaining) memes of folk religion became thoroughly domesticated. They acquired stewards. Memes that are fortunate enough to have stewards, people who will work hard and use their intelligence to foster their propagation and protect them from their enemies, are relieved of much of the burden of keeping their own lineages going. In extreme cases, they no longer need to be particularly catchy, or appeal to our sensual instincts at all. The multiplication-table memes, for instance, to say nothing of the calculus memes, are hardly crowd-pleasers, and yet they are duly propagated by hardworking teachers — meme shepherds — whose responsibility it is to keep these lineages strong. The wild memes of language and folk religion, in other words, are like rats and squirrels, pigeons and cold viruses — magnificently adapted to living with us and exploiting us whether we like them or not. The domesticated memes, in contrast, depend on help from human guardians to keep going.

However, I notice that Adam Westoby seems to have written extensively on domesticated memes in 1994. He has the idea that memes domesticate humans as well as the idea that humans domesticate memes. Here's his 1994 manuscript. To quote from it:

The memes of theoretical natural science, as Wolpert (1992) points out, are highly "unnatural" memes, remote from "common sense". Like cattle or sheep, they have been bred for generations into the forms preferred by their domesticators (of whom some of the most important are other memes). Testability, generality, uniform vocabulary, unambiguous meaning, internal consistency, and so on - even taken singly such traits are rare memes, and to assemble them all requires long intentional selection. The domesticated memes of theoretical natural science, having embodied such significant adaptations to artificial circumstances, could no longer survive reintroduction to the wild. They can live and breed only with the aid of rather complex arrangements to sustain them. The cultivation of theoretical science (like keeping sheep) has come to rely on auxiliary breeds, such as scientists - rather like sheepdogs, who keep the flock together and bark at intruders. By comparison, much social science consists of more "common sense" memes, less "deformed" by domestic breeding. They more resemble semi-domesticated breeds which forage freely on the mountain slopes in summertime, but are herded in for the winter.
Westoby is the earliest reference to the idea of domesticated memes I have found so far. Is this the true origin story for the idea that memes could be domesticated? Did anyone else come up with this idea earlier? Please let me know if there's an earlier reference that I'm currently missing.

The importance of domestication in cultural evolution is apparently an illustration of the superiority of memetics in this area - compared to other strains of cultural evolution. It looks as though meme enthusiasts got to this idea first - because they have a symbiosis-aware version of cultural evolution. Academics are now picking up the idea (for example, Joseph Henrich's latest book has culture domesticating humans in its subtitle) but they appear to be playing catch-up.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Memetics and the science of going viral

I've seen a fair number of new popular articles on memetics (not just memes) as a result of the internet meme explosion. Here's one of the latest ones, titled memetics and the science of going viral. It's a reasonable article - though academic students of cultural evolution don't even get a mention - and instead we get some links to the author's own content from the field of law. The article notes that even the US president has referenced internet memes - as a testament to their popularity.

I noticed one mistake: he article says that the term “memetics” was first proposed by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his popular 1976 book “The Selfish Gene”. Chapter 11 of that book does use the term "population memeticist" - but the term "memetics" is usually attributed to Ariel Lucas - following Douglas Hofstadter's attribution in his 1983 book, Metamagical Themas. I'm often surprised how many people go from meme to memetics, completely bypassing the academic literature on cultural evolution, much of which systematically ignores memetics.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Ingold's straw men

Social anthropologist and memeophobe Tim Ingold has recently posted: a piece explaining the problems he has with cultural evolution. He writes:

One of these ideas, endlessly rehashed over the past century and more, is that there is a parallel between biological inheritance and cultural heritage. News to anthropologists? Certainly not. For us it is long-discredited old hat. Most sensible social and cultural anthropologists effectively abandoned the idea some fifty years ago.
It seems to be true that most social and cultural anthropologists abandoned the idea of Darwinian cultural. However, this observation is well explained by other hypotheses. These folk know little about evolutionary theory, were actively misled by poor quality teachers - and so on.

In the article, Tim focuses on two straw men. He claims that evolution:

requires a kind of ‘population thinking’ (the phrase comes from Ernst Mayr) according to which every living organism is a discrete, externally bounded entity, one of a population of such entities, and relating to other organisms in its environment along lines of external contact that leave its basic, internally specified nature unaffected.

Instead, Tim says the correct position is incompatible with this. That position is:

This is that the identities, characteristics and dispositions of persons are not bestowed upon them in advance of their involvement with others but are the condensations of histories of growth and maturations within fields of relationships. Thus every person emerges as a locus of development within such a field, which is in turn carried on and transformed through their own actions.

This isn't an either-or situation, though. In biology, organisms have their own largely-unchanging essence specified in their genome, and they also grow, develop and change as a result in interactions with other organisms and with the environment. It isn't easy to imagine why Tim thinks that developmental changes are incompatible with modern evolutionary theory. As far as I can tell, practically nobody else thinks this is a problem. Tim's proposed solution is to make biology more relational. However, biologists already study biological interactions. Biology is already highly relational. It has been so since the beginning - but became even more so during the symbiology revolution of the 1960s-1980s.

Tim's other straw man is 'scientism'. Tim defines this as follows:

Scientism is a doctrine, or a system of beliefs, founded on the assertion that scientific knowledge takes only one form, and that this form has an unrivalled and universal claim to truth.

Really? Who are these 'scientism' enthusiasts? Do they know any Bayesian statistics? I doubt these folk actually exist. Tim's cult of scientism is a straw man. I can easily believe that scientists fairly uniformly reject Tim's nonsense - but that does not make them part of a cult of 'scientism'. It just means that Tim is peddling a bunch of unorthodox doctrines that few scientists accept. These days, that is the unfortunate position of all anthropologists who reject who cultural evolution. The facts and evidence are not on their side, and so increasingly they will have to turn to conspiracy theories and imaginary cults to explain the positions of their opponents.

We've had over 150 years of pre-Darwinian thinking in the social sciences. Now we have the internet, finally some social scientists are waking up and getting on board, with economists typically leading the way, confirming the position of economics as the most scientific of the social sciences. However, the evolution revolution evidently takes some time, and some people get on board earlier than others.