Tuesday, 10 January 2017


Johnnie Hughes once likened pioneer species colonizing a new environment to memes colonizing an infant's mind. He explained how the early species in an environment create the ecosystem for those that follow them. He then likened this to the way in which early memes create a mental environment for the more complex ones that follow them.

There's another way of looking at the educational process involving dependencies. It is widely understood that learned concepts often have prerequisites. Knowledge often depends on previous knowledge. For example, understanding written sentences depends on an understanding of the words involved which in turn depends on a knowledge of the alphabet. Knowledge can thus be pictured as an edifice in which higher structures depend on lower ones.

However, in large construction projects, scaffolding is often used. Scaffolding supports the structure while it is under construction and is then eventually removed. It seems obvious that some learning materials play the role of scaffolding in the construction of knowledge. For example, ABC books are on the bookshelves of toddlers, but not the bookshelves of adults. Adults don't need them any more.

Some concepts too get discarded during the learning process. I can clearly remember as a child thinking of my reputation as a nebulous fog that surrounded me which other minds interacted directly with. That might have been a useful concept which helped me to avoid making mistakes at the time, but I now know that it was a largely mistaken idea. Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, God, heaven and hell are all ideas which are regularly taught to children and are later discarded as the child grows up.

Educational scaffolding has been well studied by developmental psychologists since the 1950s. This Wikipedia article has more details of that.

Scaffolding, I would argue, is an abstract engineering concept which is useful for building all kinds of structures, from buildings to scientific theories. We could have a scaffolding theory that abstracts away substrate specific details and is applicable in a wide variety of domains. It could cover issues such as the following:

  • What type of scaffolding to use;
  • How much scaffolding to use;
  • When to add scaffolding;
  • When to remove scaffolding;
  • How to attach the scaffolding;
Details would no-doubt be domain specific, but we can still develop an abstract theory that is widely applicable.

Scaffolding is also a useful concept in biology. One application domain is ontogeny. The placenta is an example of developmental scaffolding that is discarded after being used. Removal of scaffolding sometimes leaves scars - and in this case, the belly button is an example of a scar marking a scaffolding attachment point that persists throughout life. A corresponding example from cultural evolution involves baking a cake. A cake tin acts as scaffolding for the cake. As with the belly button the tin leaves a scar that persists throughout the life of the cake. Another application domain is evolutionary theory. Evolution critic Michael Behe once defined the concept of "irreducible complexity" in his book Darwin's Black Box as follows:

A single system which is composed of several interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, and where the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning.

He went on to argue that "irreducibly complex" systems cannot evolve by a process involving small changes. However, of course such systems can evolve by using small changes - if they employ scaffolding. An stone arch depends on every stone: remove one stone and the arch collapses. However an arch can still be built by a gradual process of adding and removing stones. The key to construction is to use a mound of stones under the arch that supports it while it is being created. The mound is removed once the arch is complete.

For scaffolding in evolution, a lot of the engineering concerns listed above don't apply. Instead what would be useful are theories about how to identify details about missing scaffolding after it has been removed.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Timothy Taylor: what is a wine glass?

One of the responses to this year's edge annual question was critical of memetics. Timothy Taylor starts out by arguing that some elements of culture are different from what you find in biology:

Clarke argued that the world of wine glasses was different to the world of biology, where a simple binary key could lead to the identification of a living creature (Does it have a backbone? If so, it is a vertebrate. Is it warm blooded? If so, it is a mammal or bird. Does it produce milk? . . . and so on). A wine glass is a polythetic entity, which means that none of its attributes, without exception, is simultaneously sufficient and necessary for group membership.

This is a simple case of cherry picking an example. Of course there are "polythetic" entities in ordinary biology. Think of a nest, for example. Or a rainforest. Or an organ. It simply isn't the case that the world of biology is not "polythetic".

The article makes extensive use of the example of a wine glass, and one of the conclusion seems to be that wine gasses are not memes. Hang on a minute, though. Very rarely are wine glasses copied from other wine glasses. Most wine glasses are produced in factories. There are things that are copied during wineglass production, but they are usually blueprints or recipes for manufacturing the wine glasses and the components of the wineglass factories - not the wine glasses themselves. So, according to fairly conventional memetic ideas, wine glasses would be meme products - rather than memes themselves. This puts them mostly on the "phenotype" side of the genotype/phenotype divide.

So, it seems as though Timothy Taylor and Timothy Tyler agree that wineglasses are not memes. However, Timothy Taylor apparently thinks that this "indicates limits to the idea of the meme", while Timothy Tyler would argue that memes are small bits of inherited cultural information, and that most artifacts are better considered to be meme products.

Whether wine glasses are "polythetic" or not is an irrelevant issue. Its relevance to memetics depends on the implied idea that wineglasses qualify as being memes. This implied claim is unreferenced - and I think it is a claim that few would make in the first place.

Taylor argues that "polythetic entitation" means that:

it may be reasonable to consider the intentional patterning of matter by Homo sapiens as a new, separate kind of ordering in the universe

I would make a similar claim but not for "polythetic entitation". I think that intelligent design by engineers represents a new kind of evolution.

Monday, 2 January 2017

David Queller on the cultural origins of xenophobia

David Queller recently proposed the hypothesis that xenophobia evolved due to "isolation mismatch" - David's proposed name for the idea of cross-species incompatibility and infertility.

Having "mule" offspring is sometimes harmful - worse than having no offspring at all. Queller proposes that analogous cultural mismatches can produce broadly similar harmful effects - as memes battle with incompatible companions and generally fail to work together. He gives examples and argues that mechanisms to avoid these bad outcomes could result in xenophobia - via genetic and/or cultural evolution.

David's ideas here are obviously important and worthwhile - but I'm rather skeptical about whether "isolation mismatch" is largely responsible for xenophobia. Humans cooperate in part due to reciprocity and cultural kin selection. In the absence of those effects they can behave pretty badly. If you are a caveman, you don't bash in the brains of a member of a neighboring tribe because you are concerned about cultural mismatch. You do it because they are a competitor and would likely do the same to you given half a chance. Xenophobia is pretty well explicable as a baseline state that arises when the mechanisms responsible for cooperation are absent. That's not to say that divergent selection as a result of cultural mismatches due to isolation is unimportant, but that it may be only a small part of the story of the origins of xenophobia.

Much the same argument applies to explanations for xenophobia that invoke the cost of producing genetic mules. Mules do exist and do have significant costs, but a lot of xenophobic behavior is not directly associated with the production of mules. That hypothesis would predict more female xenophobia - since females bear most of the cost of bearing mule offspring. In fact, xenophobia is more likely to be exhibited by males (see reference below). Rivalry and competition for mates seem like more appropriate explanations for that than the costs of producing mules.

Finally, I'm completely onboard with David when he writes:

Indeed understanding the roots of xenophobia might provide ways to mitigate it.
This is one of the ways in which cultural kin selection is of great social and political importance. Aside from it being of scientific interest, there's also the issue of it providing scope for improving the scope of human cooperation by engineering and promoting shared memes.


Memes on The Edge

The term 'meme' is given on the edge home page - www.edge.org - as an example of The Edge 20th Anniversary Annual Question, which is:


It says:

Richard Dawkins' “meme” became a meme, known far beyond the scientific conversation in which it was coined. It’s one of a handful of scientific ideas that have entered the general culture, helping to clarify and inspire.

Apparently they are not saying that 'meme' should be more widely known, but rather asking what other scientific concepts could and should go mainstream - in the way the meme has previously done.

The responses to the annual-question also feature memes in a big way. I counted the occurrences of the term "meme" on the page. It is used 43 times. In some cases it is not just used as a shorthand for "viral internet phenomenon", but for actual discussion of memes in science. It isn't just one contributor using the term 43 times: 12 different people mention memes, as follows:

This is great. When I got into promoting memetics, the meme was in a moribund state. Since then we've seen a massive explosion of memes on the internet - the 2011 internet meme explosion. I've long believed that the popularity of the term 'meme' is likely to have the effect of forcing the term down scientists' throats. The technical objections to the use of he term by scientists are all bogus ones - based on their own confusions and misunderstandings. This is a case where the wisdom of the crowd has worked out for the best.

The corresponding stats from previous years show that 2017 is a bumper year for "meme" mentions:

One concern about this outpouring of meme enthusiasm is that maybe the meme references in 2017 were't spontaneous. Maybe John Brockman gave "memes" to the respondents as an example.