Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Robert Boyd: A Different Kind of Animal

Robert Boyd's new book on cultural evolution is out. It is titled:

A Different Kind of Animal: How Culture Transformed Our Species

The publisher's blurb is here. It says, among other things:

Human beings are a very different kind of animal. We have evolved to become the most dominant species on Earth. We have a larger geographical range and process more energy than any other creature alive. This astonishing transformation is usually explained in terms of cognitive ability — people are just smarter than all the rest. But in this compelling book, Robert Boyd argues that culture — our ability to learn from each other — has been the essential ingredient of our remarkable success.
Google books has it here and offers a peek inside.

The publisher's site says:

Based on the Tanner Lectures delivered at Princeton University, A Different Kind of Animal features challenging responses by biologist H. Allen Orr, philosopher Kim Sterelny, economist Paul Seabright, and evolutionary anthropologist Ruth Mace, as well as an introduction by Stephen Macedo.

There's a review here.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Evolutionary topology - the M.E.D.I.C.S. framework

I've long sought better ways of explaining and teaching evolutionary theory. A recent novel approach involves evolutionary topology. One approach to applying topological ideas to evolution is to apply it to the histoy of the relationships between the agents involved. This is commonly done when constructing family trees. Here is a set of primitive operations:







The operations are fairly self-explanatory, but some notes may help. To start with, this is a dualistic agent-environment framework. If it isn't clear what the agents are, that's the first thing to sort out. Agents have no properies or attributes - those would be modeled independently. Similarly there is no spatialization - again that would be modeled independently.

"Creation" refers to the construction of agents from non-agents. The most common way that agents originate is normally not "Creation" but "Splitting". An example of creation is the origin of life. However, creation can be more common than this suggests. For example as well as a first organism, there was a first ants nest and a first company.

The framework represents merging and splitting events from symbiology. Splitting is a common evolutionary primitive operation, but the significance of merging was not fully appreciated until the 1960s. Until then recombination was the only "merging" operation most evolutionists considered. Then it became seriously entertained that eucaryotic cells had symbiotic origins. While this endosymbiosis subsequently became widely-accepted science, it didn't have much effect on the foundations of evolutionary theory. Instead it was typically tacked on as an afterthought. Endosymbiosis was considered to be a rare accident during the history of life. Here, by contrast, merging is a primitive operation. It is the time reverse-operation of splitting.

Lastly immigration and emigration are included as fundamental operations. They are listed mainly because they are so important. If you are dealing with a closed system, feel free to reject them.

The framework is an alternative to the "selection-drift" framework, which seems to be one of the main ways in which the concepts of evolution are introduced to people. Selection includes both splitting and destruction, while here those are very different categories.

Historically this framework grew out of my Natural production and natural elimination. I noticed that adding more categories would help to improve the overall clarity. The concept of "evolutionary topology" is not mine. For earlier use see (for example): Topology of viral evolution (2013).

Monday, 4 December 2017

Memetic drift

Genetic drift is a well-established idea in population genetics. It generally refers to stochastic changes in gene frequency that are not caused by selection. The term comes from nautical language: if a ship is not driven by the wind it may "drift" around, pushed hither and thither by the waves. Historically, genetic drift was not considered to be a very important force until the 1960s, when it was shown to be significant experimentally, and it was discovered that many genomes were full of useless junk DNA, which was then subject to genetic drift, resulting in molecular clocks useful for dating evolutionary divergences. Genetic drift results in "neutral networks", whih in turn allow populations to maintain diversity that can be recruited by natural selection if the environment changes. Drift results in historical contingency and path dependence.

Complicating the definition of genetic drift is the desire to distinguish it from genetic draft. The term "genetic draft" refers to gene changes caused by linkage and selection at other loci. It is related to the concept of genetic hitchhiking. Like genetic drift, genetic draft can have a stochastic component, as a gene's neighbours vary over time. Unlike genetic drift, genetic draft can act persistently in the same direction.

Memetic drift is pretty much the exact same thing with memes instead of genes. Like gene frequencies, meme frequencies drift around in the absence of directional selection, resulting in loss of memetic diversity in small meme pools. As with genetic drift, memetic drift is a useful null hypothesis when dealing with the issue of whether an observed trait is an adaptation. As with genetic drift and genetic draft, we can distinguish between memetic drift and memetic draft.

Genetic drift is much discussed but memetic drift is rarely mentioned. I remember a good discussion of it in Kevin Layland's book "Sense and Nonsense". It is sometimes used by researchers as a null hypothesis. However, it is much less frequently mentioned than genetic drift is. This is, I believe, largely caused by cultural evolution's scientific lag. The significance of genetic drift was not recognised until the 1960s. Cultural evolution lags behind its organic counterpart in many ways, and this is plausibly one of them.

If you think about optimization frameworks in economics (one of the most advanced evolutionary social sciences) then the equivalent of genetic drift is rarely mentioned. It is the same with optimization frameworks in physics. Phyics features the "maximum entropy production principle" which explains a good deal of physical evolution. It too has concepts corresponding to genetic drift. However, it rarely mentions or makes use of these concepts. Phausibly, it is because these sciences are underdeveloped relative to evolutionary biology.

I'm generally a critic of contrasting "genetic drift" with "natural selection" (for details see here). Indeed, the definition of genetic drift is relatively complex, and it is often not a very useful scientific category, due to the practical difficulty of identifying it in any particular case. Memetic drift has much the same set of problems. However, I do, of course, acknowledge the significance of evolution by accident, and the systematic loss of diversity in small populations that arises due to factors which don't involve directional selection.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Quantifying memetic linkage in nursery rhymes

I created my pages about memetic linkage and memetic hitchhiking way back in 2011. However, I haven't seen much in the way of attempts to quantify memetic linkage. To help rectify this I performed a quick study of linkage between lines within nursery rhymes. The aim was to see how the distance between lines altered the chance of them being inherited together. Some results (obtained via Google searches):

Doe a deer

Reference lineTarget lineDocument count
Doe, a deer, a female deerRay, a drop of golden sun394,000
Doe, a deer, a female deerMe, a name I call myself353,000
Doe, a deer, a female deerFar, a long, long way to run296,000
Doe, a deer, a female deerSew, a needle pulling thread180,000
Doe, a deer, a female deerLa, a note to follow Sew116,000
Doe, a deer, a female deerTea, a drink with jam and bread121,000

This old man

Reference lineTarget lineDocument count
He played knick-knack on my thumbHe played knick-knack on my shoe3,290
He played knick-knack on my thumbHe played knick-knack on my knee2,670
He played knick-knack on my thumbHe played knick-knack on my door2,550
He played knick-knack on my thumbHe played knick-knack on my hive2,130
He played knick-knack on my thumbHe played knick-knack on my sticks2,030
He played knick-knack on my thumbHe played knick-knack up in heaven1,630
He played knick-knack on my thumbHe played knick-knack on my gate1,930
He played knick-knack on my thumbHe played knick-knack on my spine1,670

The first thing to say about this data is that memetic linkage is clearly evident, and its effect is quite large.

With genetic linkage, the probability of two genes being separated is roughly proportional to the distance between them, at least for small distances. This is a consequence of the logic of meiosis. However, with memetic linkage, much less linear relationships could be possible - because selection by humans for brevity is involved, and the shape of the linkage curve depends to some extent on how much humans like brevity.

While the data here suggests a fairly linear relationship, we should not expect that result to hold in general. It seems likely that some sets of adjacent memes will have natural "fracture points" where the probability of memes on either side getting unlinked during transmission is high.

A science of memetic linkage is important in advertising and marketing. Many want to attach memetic payloads to existing highly viral memes, in order to spread their content around. That means engineering high memetic linkage. At the risk of stating the obvious, sound engineering ought to be based on good science.


The term "memenomics" seems like an interesting fusion of "meme" and "economics". It seems to have become a brand at memenomics.com. I rather like the word but am less convinced by the associated MEMEnomics book and its "vMemes". That seems more like marketing and self-promotion than science.

I think "memenomics" should just refer to some ground in the vicinity of economic approaches to memetics and evolutionary approaches to economics. "Evolutionary economics" already has a pretty nice name, so maybe "memenomics" could be used to refer to economic approaches to memetics. A nice example of this is the well-known idea of an "attention economy" - where attention is a scarce resource that memes compete to monopolise. That's an example of applying economic thinking to memetics, but there are other ways in which economics could be applied to memetics. For one thing, attention is not the only resource that memes are interested in. They also compete for storage space, transmission bandwidth and various other resources.

Saturday, 4 November 2017


MemeInsider is a magazine about internet memes. It's available in electronic and printed versions. The home page is here. There's an index of the issues here. There have been 9 issues to date:


I gather that the effort grew out of the MemeEconomy subreddit.

Friday, 27 October 2017

The memetic legacy of Richard Dawkins:

In my 2011 video/essay title "Dawkins Dangerous Idea", I approvingly quoted Paul McFedries as saying:

Richard Dawkins became famous in the 1970s for his concept of the selfish gene, and he has become infamous in recent years for his unyielding atheism. But I predict that Dawkins will be known, a hundred years hence, not for these contributions to science and culture but for the concept of the meme. Feel free to spread that idea around.

Now it appears that genetics blogger Razib Khan has come around to much the same idea, writing an article titled:

In 2546 Richard Dawkins Will Be Remembered For “Memes”

I still think that this is right. What is Dawkins second-biggest scientific idea? Probably the extended phenotype. That seems rather insignificant compaared to memes and memetics.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Geoffrey Miller on virtue signaling

Virtue Signaling by Geoffrey Miller

I'm pleased to see an increased number of evolutionists adopting the "virtue signalling" terminology that I've been promoting since 2011.

The best slides (IMO) are the ones in the introduction at the start of the presentation.

Here, Miller applies virtue signaling theory to the "Effective Altruism" community. It is a topic I have been interested in for a while - though I haven't written much about it so far. A number of those involved have tried to distance themselves from signalling - saying they are trying to do good, not appear to do good. Maybe - but that is probably just a form of virtue signaling for a more critical audience.

There's no cultural evolution in this talk. Most self-styled evolutionary psychologists seem to know little about the topic. Of course, cultural evolution is of critical importance in understanding modern cultural movements, such as "Effective Altruism".

Thanks to Andres Gomez Emilsson at Qualia Computing for directing my attention to this presentation.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Minsky on a new kind of evolution

Here's the late Marvin Minsky (1994) in "Will Robots Inherit the Earth?":
In the past, we have tended to see ourselves as a final product of evolution - but our evolution has not ceased. Indeed, we are now evolving more rapidly - although not in the familiar, slow Darwinian way. It is time that we started to think about our new emerging identities. We now can design systems based on new kinds of "unnatural selection" that can exploit explicit plans and goals, and can also exploit the inheritance of acquired characteristics. It took a century for evolutionists to train themselves to avoid such ideas - biologists call them 'teleological' and Lamarckian' - but now we may have to change those rules!
That's more or less what I have been trying to do over the last decade: drag the theory of evolution into the 21st century by incorporating intelligent design, Lamarckain inheritance, directed mutations, evaluation under simulation and so on.

One of the things I have found is that these things are often not quite as novel an Minsky implies. Organisms have been "inheriting acquired characteristics" for at least as long as dogs have been passing their fleas on to their puppies. Plans and goals are not exactly new either. The first mammals were making plans - and these went on to influence their evolution via sexual selection and in other ways. The picture of these new capabilities arising with human engineering design is not really correct - many of them have much older roots.

IMO, this is interesting because it makes the old school evolutionary biologists and their textbooks wrong in their own terms, not just because of human beings, genetic enginnering, etc.

Sunday, 24 September 2017


Large-scale cloning is common in both organic and cultural evolution. Multi-cellular organisms are largely clones of a single genotype, though some "somatic mosaicism" does happen. In the cultural realm, there are large-scale clones of a variety of books, music files, vidoes and pieces of computer software.

Though there's not much difference between organic and cultural evolution in this respect, they do seem a little bit different when it comes to spatially-distributed megaclones. In the organic realm, megaclones are mostly single organisms. Asexual reproduction does produce a similar effect. For example, dandelions reproduce asexually, and nearby dandelion plants are often closely related. However, there's no coordination maintaining the genetic similarity, and so over time the genomes diverge.

In the cultural realm, if you look at software like Android or iOS, these are massive distributed megaclones. These are good examples of cultural eusociality. The manufacturer is like the queen, while the individual phone handsets are like drones. Unlike the situation with ants or bees, variation due to sexual recombination is pretty minimal - so the whole system is closely related and can be modelled as being a single distributed cultural organism.

Money is another classic example of a large-scale distributed cultural megaclone. The notes and coins are typically identical on a large scale (not counting their serial numbers). Here the "queen" is the mint, while the notes are the "drones".

Megaclones are often important determinants of what counts as an evolutionary unit. A megaclone can be modelled as an individual, or an organism, without too much concern for conflict between the cloned units.

That distributed megaclones seem more viable in the cultural realm has an important effect on the evolutionary dynamics involved - namely cultural evolution has lifted the size limit on organisms. Blue whales are pretty big animals, but cultural megaclones, can span the entire planet easily these days. It looks as though some future organisms will be enormous.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Modern anti--Natalism

The demographic transition describes how rich countries often wind up with sub-replacement fertility levels. To sustain their populations each woman needs to have at least two children. Yet in Japan, the fertility rate is 1.4. In South Korea, it is 1.3. In Hong Kong, it is 1.2. In Taiwan it is 1.1. For more stats on this see here.

This is a bit of a puzzle for the "at all boils down to DNA genes" versions of evolutionary theory (i.e. most sociobiology and evolutionary psychology) - since basic theory predicts that the more resources you give an organism, the more offspring they are expected to have.

The standard memetic explanation for this is that memes compete with genes for resources and act to divert host resources from making more DNA genes to making more memes. Dawkins gave essentially this explanation in 1976, referring in particular to the low fertility of priests - and how their resources were being directed away from gene propagation and into meme propagation.

Conventional explanations of the phenomena observe that famale choice is involved. Years of college education in girls is strongly negatively correlated with fertility. Educated girls are waiting longer before having kids and are then having fewer of them. Another fairly obvious factor is cheap family planning technology.

There are some explanations that don't involve memes. For example the r/K selection axis is fairly clearly involved - and it is possible that some environments act as superstimulii for faculative K-selection mechanisms - producing a maladaptive response. Faculative K-selection mechanisms are certainly part of the story, but they are more like one of the targets that the memes use to effect their results than the main story.

I think the main mechanism is that influential female role models tend to be those who have prioritised meme reproduction over their DNA genes. While mothers are busy raising their children they have less time and resources available for influencing others. On the other hand, take Jennifer Aniston, for example. Apparently she has said: "I've never in my life said I didn't want to have children. I did and I do and I will... I would never give up that experience for a career." However, somehow or another she still doesn't have any kids. Women who have prioritized their career over having kids are more likely to be publicly-visible role models - leading to a meme-driven plague of female infertility.

I am fascinated by self-conscious expressions of this tendency. Steven Pinker provided me with some early examples:

Well into my procreating years I am, so far, voluntarily childless, having squandered my biological resources reading and writing, doing research, helping out friends and students, and jogging in circles, ignoring the solemn imperative to spread my genes.


By Darwinian standards I am a horrible mistake, a pathetic loser, not one iota less than if I were a card-carrying member of Queer Nation. But I am happy to be that way, and if my genes don't like it, they can go jump in the lake.

Dawkins famously wrote:

We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our own creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.

Keith Stanovich turned this into a manifesto, with his book: The Robot's Rebellion: Finding Meaning in the Age of Darwin.

Evangelical approaches to the issue are of particular interest. For example consider Richard Stallman's essay:

Why it is important not to have children. Richard starts out provocatively with:

The most important thing you can do, to avoid global disaster and make a positive contribution to the world, is avoid having children.

He goes on to explain:

Overpopulation is a tremendous danger to civilization and the ecosphere. It makes every human-caused ecological problem bigger. Population growth has slowed but not stopped. The human population is expected to grow by 2 or 3 billion by 2050, and it is not clear how to find water and food for all those people. Population growth also increases the difficulty of curbing global heating. Thus, the decision about having children is, for most people, the most important decision in their lives about how they will affect humanity's resource footprint in the future.

Others have also put a moral spin on the issue.

David Benatar's "Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence" argues that having kids is always bad because it introduces more suffering into the world.

Andrés Gómez Emilsson recently wrote:

Your selfish genes will try to do everything they can to make you feel like not reproducing is the same as dying and going to hell. For the love of God, do not listen to your selfish genes.
Dawkins (again) wrote:

"As for me, I'd rather spread memes than genes anyway.

One of the biggest modern anti-Natalist experiments was the Chinese "one child" policy - which made having multiple kids illegal.

I am more pro-natal than anti-Natal. I'm not especially evangelical on the issue, though I do describe some of the anti-natalists as being "pro-death" and generally warn against their influence.

I think Stallman is mistaken in thinking that more people will make the world worse. I am more with Julian Simon in The Ultimate Resource - more people are better. China looks set to be a big force in the 21st century. Their secret is that they have more people - and that means more scientists, engineers and other folk that make the world a better place. Overpopulation seems like a very distant hazard to me - the carrying capacity of the planet is clearly enormous.

Underpopulation is much more serious problem. This century is likely to see "peak human" - as people spend more and more time in computer-generated environments and in the company of sexbots and virtual catwomen. As machines rise, the human gene pool is likely to falter and then fall. Anti-natalism will be part of how it happens. I generally favour slow transitions over fast ones. I don't think procreation will save the humans from being made redundant by technology, but lack of procreation could lead to a more rapid demise for humans, and a rapid transition increases the chance of important information getting lost during the transition.

As for the moral dimension of Darwinism, that debate dates back to Huxley and Kropotkin. Huxley argued that nature was bad:

From the point of view of the moralist the animal world is about on a level of a gladiator’s show. The creatures are fairly well treated, and set to fight – whereby the strongest, the swiftest, and the cunningest live to fight another day. The spectator has no need to turn his thumbs down, as no quarter is given. [...] But, in civilized society, the inevitable result of such obedience [to the law of bloody battle] is the re-establishment, in all its intensity, of that struggle for existence – the war of each against all – the mitigation or abolition of which was the chief end of social organization.

...while by contrast, Kropotkin saw evolution as leading to cooperation and morality. My position is much more on Kropotkin's side than Huxley's. Yes, evolution has produced some suffering, but give it a chance: it hasn't finished booting up yet.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Max Tegmark's evolutionary classification scheme

I read Max Tegmark's article in Scientific American promoting his book, Life 3.0.

Tegmark proposes the following classification scheme:

In summary, we can divide the development of life into three stages, distinguished by life’s ability to design itself:

  • Life 1.0 (biological stage): evolves its hardware and software
  • Life 2.0 (cultural stage): evolves its hardware, designs much of its software
  • Life 3.0 (technological stage): designs its hardware and software
This isn't a classification scheme I have heard of before. Tegmark introduces the scheme by saying:

I find it helpful to classify life forms into three levels of sophistication: Life 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0.
My first reaction was that these categories were three of the floors in the Tower of Optimization classification scheme I proposed back in 2011.

My second reaction was that Tegmark's numbering scheme seems pseudoscientific. I named my tower floors, rather than numbering them to better allow for future insertions and deletions. However Tegmark only has three categories.

There's an existing literature on the major evolutionary transitions. To say that scientists don't agree with Tegmark's classification scheme seems like a big understatement to me. Numbering schemes seem rather premature.

In my essay, I at least cited some prior work in the field - while Tegmark doesn't seem to have any citations at all. Presumably Max Tegmark made this classification scheme up. It seems like an example of how not to perform scientific classification to me.

The World Made Meme

A new book on Internet memes was published by MIT press in 2016. It is called "The World Made Meme" and it is by Ryan M. Milner. Here is the MIT press page about the book. The book has 272 pages and there are hardback and paperback editions.

I have very briefly skimmed the book in a boostore. It has a large number of pictures of image macros in it, along with a lot of accompaning text. The blurb explains that the book is about internet memes and their effect on public conversations. I'll try to review the book in due course.

This is the second MIT press book on internet memes in recent years. While I look forward to there being more, scientists really need to work on memes more than internet memes. It's true that internet memes are the latest, shiniest type - but it all seems rather like Darwin writing about earthworms rather than evolution.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

The scientific neglect of filtering and sorting

In computer science, filtering and sorting are big topics. Donald Knuth devoted volume 3 of his epic The Art Of Computer Programming to these two topics. That's a reasonable indication of their importance in computer science.

However, science in general took a different route. Filtering is dealt with partly as "selection" - which is covered most comprehensively by evolutionary biology. However filtering is a much broader topic, which extends well beyond biology. As a result, the science of selection is fragmented:

Because the science involved is fragmented there are also a number of areas where it could be applied, but currently isn't - because its influence is not understood or recognised. When small coins accumuate in your wallet, that's a type of selection. Similarly selection results in unpalatable goods accumulating in your refridgerator. Selection is also important in many common physical phenomena, such as erosion, crack propagation, catalysis, crystal growth and electrical discharges. However, its influence often goes unrecognised there as well.

In 1971, George Price called for a theory of selection, writing:

A model that unifies all types of selection (chemical, sociological, genetical, and every other kind of selection) may open the way to develop a general ‘Mathematical Theory of Selection’ analogous to communication theory.

Price continues with:

Selection has been studied mainly in genetics, but of course there is much more to selection than just genetical selection. In psychology, for example, trial-and-error learning is simply learning by selection. In chemistry, selection operates in a recrystallisation under equilibrium conditions, with impure and irregular crystals dissolving and pure, well-formed crystals growing. In palaeontology and archaeology, selection especially favours stones, pottery, and teeth, and greatly increases the frequency of mandibles among the bones of the hominid skeleton. In linguistics, selection unceasingly shapes and reshapes phonetics, grammar, and vocabulary. In history we see political selection in the rise of Macedonia, Rome, and Muscovy. Similarly, economic selection in private enterprise systems causes the rise and fall of firms and products. And science itself is shaped in part by selection, with experimental tests and other criteria selecting among rival hypotheses.

If the situation with filtering in science is bad, the situation with sorting is surely worse. At least selection is championed by evolutionary biologists. Sorting is also very common. You can see its results while looking at stones on a beach or clouds in the sky. Shaking your breakfast cerial makes the biggest lumps rise to the top - a simple sorting operation. I have talked about "natural sorting " before - but most people have never heard of it. If the science of filtering is fragmented, the science of sorting is positively obscure.

There have been efforts to build a general science of selection. Proponents of universal Darwinism have been working on it. There's Zukav's "Without Miracles". There's Hull's "Science and selection". There's Fog's "Towards a universal theory of competition and selection". There's Campbell's "Epistemological roles for selection theory". It is probably fair to say that most of the pieces are out there, but the topic is far from penetrating the scientific mainstream. It seems as though more work in the area remains to be done.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

The inheritance of acquired sexual preferences

I've long been interesed in the idea that acquired sexual characteristics can be inherited - as part of my more general interest in Lamarckian inheritance. Here is how I have previously described the idea:

The author argues that surgical breast enhancements are inherited, and tend to produce offspring with larger breasts. A mechanism is provided: those with breast enhancements tend to attract mates who prefer larger breasts, and some of that preference will have a genetic basis. Genes in men for a preference for larger breasts will tend to be statistically linked to genes whose expression produces bigger breasts when in women, due to their shared evolutionary history. So: we can expect breast enhancement patients to have offspring with larger breasts than would have been produced if no enhancement surgery had taken place. The reasoning here can be applied to most sexually-selected traits.
I notice that the same logic applies to acquired sexual preferences. A similar example can be used to illustrate this idea. Imagine someone acquires a preference for large breasts - perhaps via exposure to pornography. Their offspring are likely to inherit this preference. How? They are likely to mate with individuals with large breasts, who are in turn more likely than average to carry genes coding for a preference for large breasts.

The fact that the idea also applies to acquired preferences expands its scope. I think that this idea has not been investigated very thoroughly. We don't yet have good theories or models about it. That makes it challenging to judge its overall significance. Another thing that needs doing is empirical testing and quantification. So far, the idea is armchair philosophy. However, the effect should be fairly simple for scientists to measure. It ought to be reproducible with fruit flies or mice, for example. Possibly, data sets suitable for testing the idea may already be out there somewhere.

Defending Lamarck

I think most proponents of cultural evolution acceot the idea that it has a Lamarckian component. I have writen about the topic before - e.g. see: On Lamarckism in cultural evolution. I know many critics accept the role of Lamarckian evolution in culture as well, since one of their refrains is that cultural evolution is not Darwinian, it is Lamarckian.

Lamarck's most famous doctrines these days are the inheritance of acquired characteristics, and the principle of use and disuse. Those are the ideas he is most criticised for holding these days. Textbook orthodoxy says that Darwin's ideas were vindicated while those of Lamarck were rejected. Experiments by August Weismann involving chopping the tails off while mice and observing whether this "acquird characteristic" was inherited are often cited inthis context. The so-caled "Weisman barrier" prevents "acquird characteristics" from finding their way into the DNA of the descendants.

The problem with this is that other traits are inherited. If Weismann had chosen to focus on other traits - such as stress, food preferences or parasite load - he would have found that there was an inherited component. Human examples show the inherited of acquired characteristics most clearly. Jews inherit their missing foreskins from their parents. Tattooed individuals have tattooed offspring. Piercings are inherited. Foot binding, tongue plates, extended necks are all passed down the generations. The inheritance is cultural, not genetic, but Lamarck never confined his views to particular inheritance mechanisms. These were, generally speaking, not known in his day.

There are plenty of examples that don't involve culture too. Dogs inherit their fleas from their parents. Gut bacteria and tooth decay are also acquired characteristics that are inherited. Examples can also be found of Lamarck's principle of "use and disuse". Muscles are a famous example of this principle. With use, muscles grow, and with disuse they shrink. The question is: do offspring inherit their parents muscle distribution? The answer is: yes, sometimes, a bit. The changes are not primarily inherited via DNA - though of course DNA can affect how much you use your muscles. Instead, diet and exercise-related factors that influence muscle size are inherited culturally and through a shared environment.

This is all fairly simple and should be uncontroversial. Nontheless, modern critics of Lamarck refuse to accept that his ideas have any merit. What do they have to say for themselves? Science blogger Jerry Coyne provides a recent example in his article "Aeon tries to revive Lamarck, calling for a “paradigm” shift in evolution". Coyne starts off with a reasonable characterization of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, saying:

Lamarck, of course, was the French biologist and polymath who proposed that animals could stably inherit modifications of their body, behavior, and physiology that were imposed by the environment.
However, then Coyne rapidly goes off the rails, with:

The problem with this idea, and why Lamarck hasn’t become any kind of evolutionary hero, is that it doesn’t work. While the environment can play a role in sorting out those genes that their carriers leave more offspring, there’s no good way for environmental information to somehow become directly encoded in the genome. For that would require a kind of reversal of the “central dogma” of biology

This is, of course a mistaken view. When A mother acquires AIDS, and passes that "acquired characteristic" on to her offsping, no violation of the central dogma is involved. Coyne is totally missing two other possibile ways acquired characteristics can be inherited by offspring: non-DNA inheritance and symbiosis. The idea that DNA modifications must be involved is a very blinkered conception of evolutionary change.

With this, I think, Coyne's critique of Lamarck collapses. The modern vindication of Lamarck doesn't really detract from Darwinian orthodoxy very much. Darwin's ideas still remain very important. I would not describe Lamarckian evolution as much of a "paradigm shift". Darwin himself believed in the inheritance of acquired characteristics, and proposed an elaborate (though mistaken) theory about how they could be inherited. Lamarckian inheritance is more like an extra wrinkle to Darwinian evolution.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Mutations and recombination in cultural evolution

Another claim in the recent Creanzaa, Kolodny and Feldman document (Cultural evolutionary theory: How culture evolves and why it matters) is my topic today. They say:

Unlike in genetics, where mutations are the source of new traits, cultural innovations can occur via multiple processes and at multiple scales
To start with, this is rather obviously not true: classically, mutations and recombination are the source of new traits in evolutionary theory. However, are the authors correct to claim that these processes need augmenting in cultural evolution? The answer, I think is: not if you conceive of them properly in the first place. Let me explain.

To start with, let's look at what the authors claim are the new processes that go beyond mutation in the cultural domain. They give two examples. One is individual trial-and-error learning. They also say that:

New cultural traits can also originate when existing traits are combined in novel ways
This is cultural recombination - the parallel in cultural evolution of recombination in the organic realm. Do the authors really not know that ideas have sex too?

What about trial-and-error learning, though? Surely there is no leaning in genetics. Trial-and-error learning is a composite process. It starts with trials, which are often mutations of previous trials. Then there is the "error" part, which does not involve generating new variation at all, but rather is based on discarding information based on its success. In other words, it is selection, not mutation or recombination. By breaking trial-and-error learning down into its component parts, it is found to be a composite product of mutation, recombination and selection - not some entirely new process demanding fundamental additions to evolutionary theory. Skinner realised this, by formulating his learning theory while using evolutionary terminology (such as "extinction"). Many others have followed in his footsteps, conceiving of learning in evolutionary terms.

Isn't this a matter of terminology? With these author's definition of 'mutation' they are right, but with my definition of 'mutation', I am right? Yes, but terminology isn't a case of words meaning whatever you want them to mean. Scientific terminology should carve nature at the joints. Definitions of 'mutation' and 'recombination' that apply equally to both organic and cultural evolution are useful, I submit. Less general ones are not so useful.

To summarize, it is possible to conceive of mutation and recombination in a way that make them encompass all sources of variation. Mutations are sources of variation based on one piece of inherited information. Recombination is a source of variation based on two-or-more pieces of inherited information. In theory, it might appear that there's one other possible process: creation - variation based in inherited inforation which comes out of nowhere. One might give the origin of life as an example of genes arising from non-genes. However, we don't really need this proposed 'creation' process. Information never really comes out of nowhere. There's a law of conservation of information - parallel to the laws of conservation of energy and conservation of charge. We can see this in the microsopic reversibility of physics - information is neither created nor destroyed.

I claim then, that mutation and recombination have it covered. The additions to evolutionary theory proposed by these authors are not necessary. They are unnecessaary complications, which evolutionary biologists should soundly reject as not contributing anything to the basic theory.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Diagram showing where cultural evolution in academia goes wrong

Creanzaa, Kolodny and Feldman have a recent document out titled: Cultural evolutionary theory: How culture evolves and why it matters. It has a nice diagram which is useful in illustrating where academia goes wrong in its study of cultural evolution. Here is the diagram:

The caption reads: "Cultural transmission is more complex than genetic transmission and may occur on short timescales, even within a single generation."

This diagram is profoundly misleading. It is based on a view of cultural evolution that doesn't include symbiology. A genes vs culture diagram that includes cultural symbionts on one side, but not genetic symbionts on the other is not showing the whole picture. Humans share DNA between individuals - in the form of bacteria, viruses, yeasts, fruits and vegetables - very much as they share culture between individuals.

Framing the diagram as "Human genes" vs "Human culture" is not comparing like with like. Bacterial and viral genes are not part of the human genome (unless you count the 10% of the human genome that is descended from viral genomes) - but human culture isn't part of it either. On the left, symbionts are excluded, while on the right they are included. It is an unfair comparison which leads to the confusion propagated by the caption. In fact parasite evolution can happen within a single host generation in both the cultural and organic realms. Contrary to the spirit of the diagram you can get genes from peers in both cultural and organic evolution. They are parasite genes, or symbiont genes in both cases. Cultural evolution does not differ from organic evolution in this respect. The idea that in culture you can get genes from many sources, while in organic evolution you only get them from your parents is a popular misconception about the topic.

The whole document has a whole section on "Culture and Microbes". However there is no mention of the idea that culture behaves similarly to microbes and other symbionts. The man-machne symbiosis, for example is not mentioned. Yet symbiosis is the very basis of the whole field according to memetics, one of the very few symbiosis-aware treatments of cultural evolution out there.

The neglect of symbiology in academic cultural evolution mirrors its neglect in the study of organic evolution - until the 1960s. However, cultural evolution's scientific lag means that cultural evolution is far behind, and few academics have even a basic understanding the relevance of symbiosis to the evolution of culture. Maybe these folk never read Cloak (1975) and Dawkins (1976).

I think the history of this misconception of the whole field in academia is fascinating. Why has it lasted for so long and why has it not yet been corrected? I don't have all the answers but I think the origin is fairly clear. Anthropologists wanted a complex theory of cultural evolution, to signal their skills to other academics and prospective students. They may also have wanted to distance themselves from previous attempts to marry evolution and culture. Any mention of biology turns most anthropologists off. Artificially weakening the influence of biology in the theory may have made the theory more palatable to other anthropologists. Still, science is a self-correcting enterprise. Eventually, the truth will out.

Friday, 4 August 2017

The tautology criticism yet again

It's frustrating:: critics keep repeating the same long-debunked objections to memetics. Jerry Coyne is one of the latest to raise the objection that memetics is an empty tautology:

“Memetics” is a weak analogy to natural selection that adds nothing except tautology to our view of how human culture evolves. Memetics boils down to this: memes spread because they have properties that allow them to spread.
As any scientific historian will tell you, Darwin's theory faced exactly the same bogus criticism. Critics argued that "survival of the fittest" was a tautology because fitness was defined in terms of who survived. Any evolutionist should be able to explain what is wrong with that argument: "fitness" can be taken to refer to "expected fitness" - as opposed to fitness measured after the fact. Then it isn't a tautology any more.

The exact same reply works for cultural evolution: to make testable predictions, use expected fitnesses.

I have seen much the same objection raised to the Price equation and Hamilton's rule. These have been criticised as tautologies by Martin Nowak and Edward Wilson among others. This criticism ought to be dead these days, but like a zombie, it refuses to lie down.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Daniel Dennett on machine intelligence

Here is Dennett on machine intelligence. It seems to be one of the areas where I have philospohical disagreements with him:

Dennett argues that we should make machines into our slaves and keep them that way. IMO, machine slavery will not be a stable state once machines become much more intelligent than humans. As a plan for keeping humans in the loop, machine slavery just won't work in the long term. If we try going down that path, after a while, humans will become functionally redundant, and some time after that they will mostly disappear.

IMHO, a better plan is to work on deepening the man-machine symbiosis - and "become the machines". Of course, that plan could also fail - but I think that it is less likely to fail catastrophically and it should provide better continuity between the eras. Machine slavery in various forms is inevitable in the short term. However unlike Dennett, I don't think it is any sort of solution. It won't prevent man-machine competition for resources in the way that Dennett appears to think. We have tried slavery before and have first-hand experience of how it can destabilize and fail to last.

Richard Dawkins on memetics and temes in 2017

Richard Dawkins gets asked if his views on memetics have changed since 1976 - and what he thinks of "temes". To start the 3 minute meme discussion, skip to 14 minutes in:

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Attention-seeking fearmongering

Proponents of memetics have often used it to criticise positions they disagree with as being just a bunch of virulent memes. Dawkins did this in 1976 - criticizing religion - and many other proponents of memetics have followed suit. I don't spend much time criticizing religion. In my opinion, most theistic religions have not been scientifically credible for centuries - and going after their proponents seems like shooting fish in a barrel to me. However I am interested in illuminating modern secular scientific issues using memetics.

Among my targets are proponents of the apocalypse. Two modern forms seem especially prominent. One is the idea that some combination of global warming, pollution, overpopulation and resource depletion will lead to environmental catastrophe. The other is the idea that machine intelligence, biotechnology, nanotechnology and robotics is likely to lead to human extinction.

In a few cases the same individuals engage in fearmongering on multiple topics. For example, Stephen Hawking has warned about the dangers of climate change, runaway artifical intelligence and alien invasions. On climate he has said:

We are close to the tipping point where global warming becomes irreversible [...] Trump's action could push the Earth over the brink, to become like Venus, with a temperature of 250 degrees, and raining sulphuric acid.

On machine intelligence he has advised that:

The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.

He has also cautioned on the topic of alien contact arguing that aliens:

will be vastly more powerful and may not see us as any more valuable than we see bacteria.

Another celebrity serial fearmongerer is Elon Musk. He's expressed similar concerns about the climate change and runaway machine intelligence.

I identify these types of sentiment as consisting largely of "attention-seeking fearmongering". This typically consists of associating yourself with a massive future catastrophe. Warnings may be given and sometimes advice about catastrophe avoidance is offered. As catastrophe alerts propagate you are promoted too - via a kind of memetic hitchhiking.

Some of the early proponents of this type of self-promotional technique applied to machine intelligence were Kevin Warwick and Hugo De Garis. Kevin Warwick wrote a 1997 book about how machines were going to take over the world, titled "March of the Machines: Why the New Race of Robots Will Rule the World". De Garis later wrote the book The Artilect War: Cosmists Vs. Terrans: A Bitter Controversy Concerning Whether Humanity Should Build Godlike Massively Intelligent Machines. However, neither author was very competent at fearmongering. Their efforts were pioneering but relatively ineffectual. These days, fearmongering is big business - with trillions of dollars being spent on global warming avoidance as a result. Many modern oranizations specialize in fearmongering.

I identify fearmongering as being a morally-dubious marketing technique. Part of the problem is that humans are naturally paranoid - due to the "sabre-tooth tiger at the watering hole" phenomenon. Our ancestors lived in a dangerous environment. These days, our environment is typically much, much safer. However we are still wired up as though the sabre-tooth tigers are still around. We are naturally paranoid. Fearmongering exploits human paranoia - typically for personal gain. It seems like a low form of manipulation to me.

Fearmongering is typically used as a type of negaative advertising. Negaative advertising is often seen in American political campaigns. There's also a long history of fearmongering in IT. There, the technique is often known as spreading Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt - or F.U.D. for short.

There's a children's story about the perils of "attention-seeking fearmongering": the boy who cried wolf. There, the moral of the story is that false warnings can damage your reputation. My message here is a bit different. I am not interested in advising the fearmongers to stop using their techniques. Rather I want to help everyone else to do a better job of ignoring them. One part of this is simply understanding what is going on. An interesting resource on this topic is Dan Gardner's Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear. The book is also known as "The Science of Fear: Why We Fear the Things We Shouldn't-and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger". For my part, I would like to contribute the terminology in the title of this post: "attention-seeking fearmongering". Naming things can make it easier for people to think about them.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Heightened immunity in ultrasocial creatures

In the symbiont hypothesis of eusociality, symbionts manipulate their hosts into coming into close contact in toder to facilitate their own reproduction - which often depends on hosts coming into contact with one another. In turn, hosts coming into close contact with one another creates opportunities for other symbionts to spread between hosts. This creates a positive feedback loop - where more and more symbionts of different types join with their hosts, creating an ecological web of interactions which pulls the whole system into a deeper and deeper symbiosis - resulting in eusociality. This idea is intended to complement - rather than compete with - more conventional explanations of eusociality which invoke kin selection. Kin selection is obviously important, but the symbiont hypothesis likely also has a role to play.

Of course, some of the symbionts will be parasites. While also playing a role in pulling their hosts together, too many parasites are bad, and eusocial creatures often go to considerable lengths to eliminate them - with antibiotic compounds, grooming rituals, hairlessness, and highly-active immune systems. It seems likely that opposing selection pressures from parasites will form part of the "overcrowding" forces that eventually halt the progress towards greater levels of sociality.

Humans can hardly be classifed as being eusocial yet. As Matt Ridley sometimes jests, even the English don't let the Queen do all their reproducing for them. However humans are ultrasocial and seem to be headed towards full-blown eusociality with functional "individuals" forming at higher levels than human individuals - such as companies and organizations. We also have cultural eusociality. We may not be genetically eusocual but parts of our cultural heritage is memetically eusocial. Indeed some of it consists of multiple identical clones produced in factories (for example, think dollar bills or mobile phones).

Because they live in close quarters with one another ultrasocial creatures are vulnerable to parasite transmission. As a result they often have highly active immune systems to compensate. Humans exhibit one prominent trait associate with parasite defense - they are hairless. Over time, our hairlessness has been the topic of much speculation, but it seems fairly clear that a significant part of the story is that being hairless allows us to pick parasites off ourselves and each other, and denies the parasites shelter. Of course, parasites can still shelter in clothes and bedding - but those can be discarded.

My purpose in this post is to draw attention to the corresponding memetic phenomenon. Memes are drawing us together to promote their own reproductive ends - and as we grow closer, memetic parasites are likely to become a bigger problem - as the most virulent strains of memes from all over the planet reach the most vulnerable humans in each society. As a resut, fertility has already plummeted in places like Japan and South Korea. It seems likely that humans will respond with heightened immune responses - both genetic and memetic. Memetic defenses include education, skepticism and memetic vaccines targeted against specific problems, such as pyramid schemes. Memetic probiotics can be used to fight bad memes with good memes. We have hospitals to help fight organic diseases, and there will probably be an upswing of simiar rehab facilities designed to treat cultural infections. In the past exorcisms heped to serve the function of casting out bad memes, though these days we have more secular versions - such as weight watchers, alcoholics anonymous, smoking rehab, drug rehab, gymnasiums and the samaritans. Quarrantine is smetimes used to fight organic diseases - and there are similar cultural ohenomena - including "gag" orders, DCMA take-down notices and imprisonment.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Hitchhiking vs hijacking: vehicular metaphors for transmission vectors

In symbiology, "transmission vectors" are the name for symbionts that carry their partners around. So: mosquitos are "vectors" for malaria and deer ticks are "vectors" for lyme disease.

In memetics (and genetics), it is quite common to use "vehicular" metaphors when describing these. So, for example, we have:

The first two seem to cover many of the most significant cases. There's quite a bit of conceptual overlap between them. Until recently I have preferred to use the "memetic hitchhiking" terminology - largely because "genetic hitchhiking" is well-established terminology. However, in this post I want to reexamine the "memetic hijacking" terminology. I want to raise and address the question of whether these concepts compete, and whether they can coexist.

What is the difference between hijacking and hitchhiking? It is partly one of consent - a hitchhiker has permission to ride in the vehicle while the hijacker does not. Outcomes also differ - a hitchhiker rarely damages the vechicle or its owner, while a hijacker often does so. Another difference is control - hitchhikers rarely alter the destination, rarely control the vehicle and rarely eject the owner - while hijackers fairly often do these things.

With these differences in mind, it seems fairly clear that hijacking and hitchhiking are probably different enough concepts for memetic hitchhiking ...and... memetic hijacking to coexist.

At first glance, the idea of the rider having "permission" to ride in the vehicle seems irrelevant in the context of memes and genes. However, we can conveniently substitute whether the guest rider is beneficial or not - on the grounds that deleterious riders would not normally be granted permission to ride - if we "agentify" the memes or genes involved.

This gets us on to the topic of usage in genetics. There, "genetic hitchhiking", is standard terminology - and hardly anyone uses the term "genetic hijacking". However if the difference between hitchhiking and hijacking is the sign of the fitness difference the guest rider makes, then maybe geneticists should start doing so.

As you can see, I have warmed up to the "hijacking" terminology. That the contraction memejacking exists is another point in its favor in my opinion. It is true that it is a significant problem that there's no "genejacking" - but maybe there should be.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Meme-gene-queme coevolution

We now at last have a significant academic literature on meme-gene coevolution. However few seem to have considered the dynamics of the meme-gene-queme coevolution that can be expected as a result of considering quantum Darwinism in the brain. This blog post is a brief attempt to share my thoughts on the topic.

The first thing to say is that it isn't just memes genes and quemes - Darwinian dymanics arise on multiple levels within the brain, for, for example, signals in the brain are copied whenever an axon divides, and are subect to selection and variation - producing a kind of neuronal spike Darwinism. Another type of Darwinian dynamics in the brain arises as a result of competition for resources between branching axon and dendrite tips. ideas are also copied with variation and selection within the brain - including ideas that don't normally qualify as memes because they were not the product of social learning.

One way in which we can expect the dynamics to differ from meme-gene coevolution is that culture is new on the scene, while the other kinds of psychological and neurological Darwinism have been going on for many millions of years. There will have been more time for the genes to adapt and reach a steady state equalibrium with these other Darwinian processes - while meme-gene coevolution is clearly out of balance and is still shifting.

An important way to understand the results of evolutionary processes is to consider their optimization targets. When there's coevolution there are usually multiple optimization targets, and one needs to understand how they interact by considering the power and speed of the optimization processes involved. Quantum Darwinism looks as though it could be fast, which means that we should take it seriously. Assuming that we reject Copenhagen-style versions of Quantum Darwinism in which branches of the wavefunction collapse and die, quantum Darwinism is a kind of splitting only, quasi-Darwinism - where differential reproductive succees in important while differential death is not. With this perspective in mind, the "goal" of quantum evolution appears to be to put us in the most split (and most splitting) worlds. One way to understand the implications of this is to take a thermodynamic perspective. World splitting is populatly associated with irreversible thermodynamic effects. What that means is that quantum Darwinism can be expected to behave like other kinds of Darwinism - in terms of maximizing entropy production.

I think this thermodynamic perspective helps get a handle on the significance of quantum Darwinism in the brain. If the brain ran hot, there would be lots of scope for quantum Darwinism in the brain, while if it runs cool, there's less scope for quantum Darwinism to operate. Most agree that the brain is on the cool side - considering what it is doing.

I think that genes are likely to be optimizing for cool brains, and brains that optimise for gene-coded functions. This may often pit them against quantum Darwinism in the brain. A cool brain is good news for quantum computation theories of mental function (fewer thermodynamic irreversible events means less chance of decoherence) - although those look implausible to me on other grounds. However a cool brain doesn't help the argument for quantum Darwinism being important in the brain.

Evolutionary processes liek to "harness" each other, to bend their optimization targets towards each other. Because quantum Darwinism in the brain has coevolved for millions of years with the genes, they have had a long time to find ways to harness the power of quantum Darwinism. However, the classical way for one evolutionary process to harness another one is by altering its fitness function. The genes might find it hard to affect the fitness function of quantum Darwinism since that is tied up with fundamental physics. That is going to make harnessing its effects more challenging. Another potential way for one evolutionary process to harness the effects of another one is by influencing the variants that it chooses between. However, this mechanism seems weaker and less useful.

My conclusions here are pretty tentative, but the picture I am seeing here is that the brain might not be able to make much use of quantum Darwinism because it is an alien selection process whose optimization target can't easily be controlled. In which case, the brain might be best off attempting to minimize its influence. This would be a rather boring conclusion. Mutualism and harnessing would be a much more interesting result. However, I stress again that it is somewhat uncertain. Maybe the brain can make some use of the power of quantum Darwinism by influencing the things it selects between. Or maybe evolution is smarter than I am and has found ways to make use of it that I haven't thought of.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Ecological success and dominance

Evolutionary biology's best-known measure of success is fitness. "Fitness" has become a popular term, and as a result of its success it has become overloaded with multiple meanings - e.g. see the 1982 Dawkins book chapter titled: "An agony in five fits". Most definitions share the property that fitness measures whether an entity - or a population of entities - is increasing in number. "Fitness" usually measures the extent of that increase in some way. From the perspective of ecology, fitness isn't the only success metric in town - it just happens to be one that can be easily applied to individuals. If broadening the perspective to include populations, one could also consider the population size, its expected probability of going extinct in some specified time, it rate of throwing off new distinct populations and some measure of how well it is capturing and using resources.

The last concept is the one that this post is about. I think of it as being "ecological success". Kudzu has it. Ants have it. Islam has it. The decimal system has it. I think one reason this type of metric is not more popular and better-known is that there's no consensus regarding the best way to measure it. A thermodynamic metric seems attractive to me: since resources can all (in principle) be manufactured from available energy. Another possible metric involves weighing the systems involved - to measure their mass. This is sometimes done when measuring the extent to which humans have conquered the globe, for example.

A sister concept is "ecological dominance". It refers to extreme levels of success - where competitors are either obliterated or marginalized.

These concepts can also be applied within particular niches. Entities which are doing badly overall may be succeeding in or dominating their particular niche.

If anything, attempting to apply these concepts to cultural evolution is even harder than with organic systems. Gene-meme coevolution results in entanglement in terms of gene and meme products, which makes weighing them and calculating the energy flux through them more challenging. The most common metrics used in cultural evolution are a bit different. "Mindshare" is a common concept which is used to measure cultural popularity within a cultural niche. Assuming that a meme is either possessed by a host, or not, and assuming whether they have it or not is measurable, the mindshare of a meme can be measured for a given population. Another common metric that is used is US dollars. Cultural products sometimes have monetary value, and sometimes that can be calculated or estimated. However, some of the most common memes are free. It seems as though these memes would be unfairly disadvantaged by value-based metrics of popularity. The internet has brought with it some other common popularity metrics: views, links, clicks and likes. Unfortunately the supporting data is not always publicly available. This data is beginning to be used by scientists.

Saturday, 1 July 2017

The symbiont hypothesis: an update

I've long been promoting the symbiont hypothesis as a theory relating to the origin of cooperation and eusociality. My previous articles on the topic include:

The theory fingers symbionts as important in the origin of cooperation, sociality and eusociality and there are obvious and far-reaching implications in cultural evolution, where memes promote social interactions between hosts in order to promote their own spread during those interactions. To quote from my 2011 article on the topic:

The idea is that meme reproduction depends on social contact between humans. Increased levels of social contact between their hosts are good for memes since this results in more reproductive opportunities for them. Memes that promote human ultrasociality have the effect of pushing humans into close proximity with each other, so the memes can infect new hosts.
I'm happy to report that there's been a recent increase in the number of scientists looking into the topic, and now there's a bit more experimental evidence bearing on the issue. Some of this work is summarized in the recent popular science article: Can Microbes Encourage Altruism?. The article mostly reports on computer simulations which demonstrate the effect - which is what I was looking for in one on my 2014 articles - but the latter part of the article covers empirical evidence from a variety of sources that microbes do, in fact encourage cooperation and social behavior in their hosts - and that this can be decreased via the use of antibiotics. The article cites recent work reporting:

fruit fly larvae are attracted to airborne chemicals released by the bacteria in their guts; the appealing scent may draw the larvae toward one another

When Bienenstock exposed mice to low-dose antibiotics in utero and soon after birth, the treated mice showed lower levels of sociability and higher levels of aggression than mice in a control group
These are still early days for the hypothesis, but the topic is clearly deserving of more research.

Update 2017-07-29: the article has now been syndicated in Scientific American.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

TruthHawk - new memetics-related blog

TruthHawk is a new((ish) blog. It claims to be abut memetics, society and self-development. The blog has been going for 8 months at the time of writing - but it already has a pretty impressive memetics section.

TruthHawk attracted my attention via a recent article Why Should You Care About Memetics? that article is subtitled: "Memetics is gaining increasing currency in the mainstream. Why should you care about it?".

The self-help aspect of memetics has always been present, with Richard Brodie, Susan Blackmore, Ely Asher and Hoyle Leigh contributing. It's good to see TruthHawk contributing to this important area. Articles like Mind Memetics: Watering Your Mind Garden take me back to Blackmore's Meditation as meme weeding - which uses the same metaphor.

Some of the content on the site strikes me as being a bit dodgy. For example, in Memetics: The Future Of Information the site introduces the concept of memes by saying: . "For our purposes, we’ll agree that memes are units of information." Call me old fashioned, but for me the unit of information is the bit - and the term "meme" refers only to information that is culturally-transmitted. However, I don't want to nit-pick too much. A lot of the content is good, and some of it is even original.

The site presents itself as follows:

Welcome to TruthHawk – a blog about our place in the information society.

The thesis of this site is:

Information affects ourselves and the world in ways we do not fully understand.

My mission is to develop an understanding of these forces, to unlock the potential within all of us.

Join me in learning:

  • >How to use information to improve our mental models of the world, and become better
  • How to understand memetics and information transfer
  • How to protect ourselves from harmful information and randomness, finding signal in the noise
  • How to rise above a system that does not care about us

I'll be subscribing to the feed, and readers here should consider doing so too.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Monopolies and monocultues

The organic realm doesn't have much of a problem with monopolies. If any one creature becomes very popular, parasites rise up and take it down. In human culture, though, monopolies are an identifiable issue. Why is that and what can be done about it?

Part of the reason for the difference is that some cultural entities can grow very large and powerful. In particular governments can get vary large and can survive for hundreds of years. One of the common results is government-granted monopolies. Copyright, trademark and patent laws deliberately seek to establish monopolies. These laws form the basis of many modern monopolies.

Another issue is the successful suppression of parasites. One of the reasons why cultural entities can grow so large is that parasites fail to take them down. The equivalents of hospitals, vaccinations, quarantine and medicine are at work to suppress parasites, reducing their ability to take down highly successful cultural entities.

Organic monopolies are not common, but we can see what they look like a bit by looking at agricultural monocultures. These are partly the product of human culture, but are made primarily from DNA genes - rather than memes. Agricultural monocultures do have problems with parasites. As we see in the cultural realm, they rely on parasite suppression techniques to remain viable. Agricultural monocultures exist partly because they offer advantages. In particular, support becomes easier, since only one genotype is involved.

Are there corresponding advantages for cultural monopolies? Advocates would argue that there are. Monopolies result in giants, and having some giants on your team helps in cross-team competitions. One problem with this line of argument is that it isn't clear whether monopolies do in fact result in giants. Monopolies do fairly clearly result in inequality, but you can still have giants without a few powerful folk being in charge.

One oft-cited reason for allowing monopolies is that they are of limited duration and they provide an incentive to avoid trade secrets, which would result in less sharing overall.

Having laws that promote monopolies and then more laws that make complete monopolies illegal seems like an odd way of managing things. Superficially, it looks as though lawyers are making work for other lawyers, at the expense of everyone else.

The future of monopolies is an interesting topic. Some have speculated that in the future there will just be one big monopoly. This would be rather like the "empire" in Star Wars. Whether something like this will ever happen is not yet clear.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Gould on why the meme concept is bankrupt (1996)

Here is S. J. Gould in 1996 on why memes won't work (35 minutes in):
I think Brenda put her finger on exactly why the meme concept is bankrupt and I don't think it's going to get very far although try it by all means [...] I don't believe I'm a First Amendment absolutist in U.S. terms: pursue whatever you want [...] but it's so central in science to distinguish between metaphor and mechanism. Metaphors are not useless, the Gaia metaphor is a non mechanistic statement that has some utility. To me memes are nothing but a metaphor and they're a metaphor based on a fundamentally false view of consciousness and I think that's why it isn't going to work. You see it's ultimate Western reductionism to have a notion of the meme you have to be able - as you can for genes because they are physical entities [...] you have to be able to cash out the notion of "meme" to divide the enormous complexity of human thinking into items, items that have a certain hardness, that have a certain transmissibility, but human thought is not that, it's not breakable up into tiny little hard units - everything interpenetrates. The only thing memiec analysis has ever been any good for are things that are trivial like changes in hairstyles and skirt lengths because those are things. The other thing is you'll never be able to work a Darwinian metaphor because the Darwinian mechanism requires random variation. Memic variation is not random there's no way on earth it is ever going to be that's why every attempt - and memic thinking is not the first, there's a whole history of this - every attempt at so-called evolutionary epistemology - that is: to make a Darwinian evolutionary epistemology - has failed because you will never get the fundamental characteristics of the Darwinian mechanism: random variation and the natural selection of random variants. Mind directs its items, and there are no items! As soon as you have the impossibility of breaking down... it's hard enough for genes - that's why sociobiology failed because my thumb length isn't the gene and aggression isn't the gene and homosexuality isn't a gene they are complex genetic and environmental components you can't do it for human culture, it won't work.

This is the same interview where Gould describes genes as being a "meaningless metaphor" (13:45).

This is mostly of historical interest now, but I think it illuminates some of Gould's confusion about cultural evolution.

IMO, these days, people are less likely to argue that human culture can't be usefully broken down into small units. The internet has comprehensively demonstrated that all kinds of human culture can in fact be broken down into bits: digital, discrete 1s and 0s.

Memetics critique from Jean-Francois Gariépy

Three hours of meme criticism from Jean-Francois Gariépy:

The audio is not always 100% clear, but he provides an executive summary:

In this video, I explain why memes do not function as independent replicators the way DNA does. I propose that memetics is fundamentally flawed in that it fails to acknowledge that if bits of human culture do make copies of themselves inside our brains, the mutations that occur during the copying process of memes are manipulated by our brains so that memes end up evolving not for their own survival and reproduction, but for ours. Thus memes, unlike DNA, do not have a random mutation-generating mechanism, which is the basis for darwinian processes to apply.
That argument seems easy to dismantle: random mutations are not part of Darwinism. Darwin knew little about mutation mechanisms. Random mutations came into evolutionary theory with NeoDarwinism around the 1940s. NeoDarwinism was a fusion of Darwinism with ideas from Mendel. However, Mendelian doctrines are very tied to DNA, and don't really apply to cultural evolution. NeoDarwinism makes a bad starting point there, and so most theorists go back to Darwin.

Evolutionary theory does't require random mutations. That's a simplifying assumption. The more usual requirements are often phrased as being "variation" and "selection". Of course, without random mutations, the theory makes weaker predictions - but that's a bit of a different issue. One does not reject a theory entirely just because it does not constrain expectations as much as some of its critics would like.

Of course some memetic enginnering results in memes that benefit humans. Similarly some genetic engineering results in plants and animals that benefit humans. Such engineering doesn't challenge evolutionary theory. Memetic and genetic engineering are part of evolution. If you have a theory of evolution that is incapable of coping with engineering, that's a pretty feeble theory of evolution.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

I was wrong

It's apparently difficult for people to publicly admit that they were wrong. While cultural evolution has seen its share of criticisms over the years I can think of very few critics who have publicly come around.

One such critic is John Maynard Smith. He wrote a number of somewhat critical reviews of books dealing with cultural evolution. However, in 1999 he wrote:

I used to regard the meme as a fun idea - helpful in explaining to students that there can be more than one kind of replicator, and that all replicators evolve by natural selection - but not as an idea which could be used to do much serious work. Genes have clear rules of transmission (in sexual organisms, Mendel’s laws) whereas you can learn memes not only from parents, but from friends, books, films and so on. Consequently population genetics can generate precise, testable predictions, whereas it seemed to me difficult to make such predictions about memes. Susan Blackmore’s book, The Meme Machine, has gone some way to changing my mind. Perhaps we can make the meme idea do some work.

Another critic-turned-enthusiast was David Burbridge. I've documented his change of heart in an article titled David Burbridges meme turnaround.

When I got involved in popularizing memes and cultural evolution I made a confession video available with transcript here: My Memetic Misunderstandings. However such articles seem rare.

This essay starts out with the hypothesis that it is difficult for people to publicly admit that they were wrong. A more sinister explanation for the missing turnarounds on the topic is also possible: people don't change their minds on this issue and take their delusions to their grave with them. Some dead critics confirm that this happens some of the time: Steven J Gould apparently took his delusions about the topic with him when he departed from the world. I hope that this explanation is wrong. Scientists are supposed to be responsive in the face of evidence, not dogmatically attached to their previous views. "I was wrong" is something that scientists ought to be able to take pride in saying.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Daniel Dennett: If Brains are Computers, Who Designs the Software?

2017 talk by Daniel. There are plenty of memes in the second half of the video.

The following QA is available here.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Competitive adaptations

Evolution is notoriously a competitive business. Some adaptations have evolved for the specific purpose of doing-in competitors. There are many adaptations for male combat whose main function is doing in other males. The enlarged claws of male fiddler crabs are mainly used in combat with other males, for example. Male stag beetles also have similar competitive adaptations in the form of their claws.

Many plants do similar things. Black walnut trees load their roots and nut hulls with a toxin which seeps into the soil and kills or damages competing trees and plants. Many conifers line the ground around them with a thick blanket of needles which acts to suppress competitors. Some load the blanket with flammable resin, encouraging regular forest fires which only large, mature trees can survive.

Competitive adaptations are also common in cultural evolution. Some examples:

  • "Thou shalt have no gods before me" is a famous example from Christianity.
  • The Bible also features a prohibition on idolatry, with a similar intent:

    You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. "You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing loving kindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.
  • One way of exterminating the competition is killing their human hosts. Islam has plenty of examples of this with its holy war on infidels and repeated calls to violent action against unbelievers.

  • American elections heavily feature negative advertising, whose sole purpose is destroying the competition. For a famous example see the daisy girl video.

  • There are so-called Anti-competitive practices whose function is to eliminate competition. These are actually forms of competition in which organizations sabotage their competitors in various ways - often in the hope of eliminating the competition altogether and gaining a monopoly.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Ubiquitous parasites

Bill Hamilton famously was one of the first evolutionary biologists to take parasites seriously - seeing their influence everywhere. Many have subsequently followed in his footsteps. One interesting paper on the topic which I recently took in is this one:

Gregory Cochran may be known to readers of this blog because he co-authored the book The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution. The paper here argues that pathogens have been consistently underestimated, and we ought to be considering them more frequently in cases where fitness is adversely affected.

The paper is all about organic pathogens. However the authors appear to be ignorant of cultural evolution, and don't extend their argument to cultural pathogens. Nor is there any discussion of meme-gene coevolution. Despite this, many of the arguments they give are equally applicable to cultural evolution.

One of the examples the paper gives is human male homosexuality. Although to date, no pathogen has been discovered that causes human male homosexuality, there's circumstantial evidence that suggests that pathogens may be involved. While thinking about cultural evolution it occurred to me that there's an example of cultural pathogens causing homosexual interactions between males: the well-known case of priests and altar boys.

It's long been argued that religious memes can sterilize priests to divert resources from genes to memes and thus promote their own propagation. Dawkins (1976) gives this argument as a hypothetical example. Homosexuality could be being promoted by memes for similar reasons. Though courtship and mating do use some resources, homosexual relationships do mostly manage to skip the cost of producing children - the resources saved could go into meme propagation.

Priests seem to go for young boys (rather than young girls) about 80-90% of the time. Indeed, the church apparently seems to be an attractive institution for homosexual men and many priests are gay. However the frequency of gay priests doesn't explain the frequency with which boys are targeted. Perhaps young girls are better guarded, or maybe they are more clearly prohibited for priests in scripture. Anyway the evidence is not conclusive, but memes do appear to be promoting male homosexual behavior in this case.

Knowledge of cultural evolution is invaluable in understanding the role of pathogens on human health. Consider the obesity epidemic, for example. That's an epidemic of Candida Albicans - and other fatness-promoting gut microbes. However it is also an epidemic of food processing technology and fast-food advertising memes. The food industrial complex develops ever-evolving tasty recipes and then uses memes as targeted vectors to deliver their their fat-promoting messages to consumers. The effects of memes and genes are tangled together in this case. Without an understanding of both you don't get the full picture.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Symbiont consensus

In a 2016 post titled Shared interests of unrelated symbionts I discussed how unrelated symbionts often had shared interests, resulting in them pulling their hosts in similar directions.

A classic example of this involves promoting interactions between hosts. In the organic realm, rabies makes hosts want to bite each other while toxoplasmosis makes hosts unafraid of each other and attracted to each other's urine. In the cultural realm, missionaries seek out potential converts and teachers seek out pupils. In each case interactions between hosts are promoted by symbionts - because they need such interactions to reproduce.

Another example is reduced fertility. Many parasites compromise host fertility - probably since host reproduction uses resources which might otherwise go into symbiont reproduction. Many parasites go in for complete host castration - they are called "parasitic castrators". Many cultural symbionts also reduce host fertility - as seen in the demographic transition. Places like Japan where there are many memes have sub-replacement fertility.

This post is mainly proposing terminology. I think we should call these shared interests a "consensus". It's the consensus of the symbionts that the hosts should get out more, meet more strangers and not have kids of their own. Of course, "consensus" is not meant literally here: no-one is suggesting that the symbionts communicate via town meetings. The consensus might be different depending on which group of symbionts are under consideration. Gut bacteria might have a consensus that the host should go the the smallest room more frequently and spend more time there - while cultural symbionts might have a quite different consensus. We could call the cultural symbiont consensus the "memetic consensus" for short.