Tuesday, 28 March 2017

The significance of cultural common descent

Back in 2012 I wrote a landmark article on common descent in cultural evolution titled cultural common descent. Alas, my article included no references because - as far as I knew at the time - nobody else had seriously considered the idea. Revisiting the idea in 2017, my views have not changed very much. Nor has the situation with other researchers. Maybe my search skills are lacking, but: where is everyone?

Cultural common descent remains a useful concept which forces researchers on to the horns of a dilemma: either reject or accept common descent for life on earth. All the evidence isn't yet in - but common descent still looks like a pretty useful concept that can be applied to cultural evolution too. What that means is that researchers need to consider the possibility that memes evolved from genes or gene products.

Doesn't the "face on mars" meme disprove cultural common descent? No more than do inheritance of knowledge about gravity, water or rocks from the inorganic environment disprove common descent in the organic realm. Perhaps some will respond that of course, some memes evolved from genes or gene products. However, I think it is fair to say that this possibility is not really on the horizon of many cultural evolution researchers - and it is far-from obvious how widespread memes having purely non-memetic ancestors is in modern times. Maybe - as in the organic realm - established creatures have occupied their niches and eat them and their lunch.

IMO, what we really need at this stage is more researchers to join in. Cultural common descent has been a neglected concept for far too long now. That's rather puzzling because you might think that common descent is a core evolutionary concept and that philosophers of evolution would be eager to get their teeth into the issue. IMO, it is now time to put the concept firmly on the map.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Kevin Laland: Darwin's Unfinished Symphony

Laland's recent book on cultural evolution is out. It is titled: Darwin's Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind.

The blurb reads, in part:

Kevin Laland shows how the learned and socially transmitted activities of our ancestors shaped our intellects through accelerating cycles of evolutionary feedback. The truly unique characteristics of our species--such as our intelligence, language, teaching, and cooperation--are not adaptive responses to predators, disease, or other external conditions. Rather, humans are creatures of their own making.

It goes on to say:

This book tells the story of the painstaking fieldwork, the key experiments, the false leads, and the stunning scientific breakthroughs that led to this new understanding of how culture transformed human evolution. It is the story of how Darwin's intellectual descendants picked up where he left off and took up the challenge of providing a scientific account of the evolution of the human mind.

This sounds promising. Laland has previously written other books on the same topic. The book Sense and Nonsense was a well-written overview of the subject area. The first edition had a whole chapter omn memetics. Kevin's recent book apparently mentions memes only in a brief footnote explaining how irrelevant they are. Laland also once co-authored the paper Mathematical Models for Memetics which proposed that the various schools of cultural evolution would benefit from putting their heads together and encouraged meme enthusiasts to get their math on.

The publisher has a page about the book which offers some endorsements and has a table of contents. ArsTechnica has a review. The review says:

[Laland's] contribution is to realize that the spark that got the whole thing started were innovations in food-processing techniques that let us get more energy from our diet. More efficient eating allowed for brain growth, an extension of lifespan, and population growth.

I'm not sure whether Laland can take credit for that one. That's pretty much the thesis of the book The Driving Force: Food, Evolution and the Future (1991) by Michael Crawford and David Marsh.

Anyway, I am pleased to see that the books on cultural evolution keep on coming.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

How significant are internet memes?

A recent article is claiming that internet memes are "the most significant cultural phenomena of our time". How can we assess this claim?

My immediate reaction was skepticism. The author doesn't consider any other candidates - making me wonder whether they had thought the claim through. For example, how can internet memes be more significant than the internet? Or, what about technological progress? Or, how about language?

If confronted with these objections I think advocates of this thesis would have to do some clarification of definitions. For example, they might argue that a "cultural phenomena" refers to something that can be transmitted from person to person (typically over an electronic network). "The internet" doesn't really qualify here - since you can't pass "the internet" from one person to another. As for language, that's been around for a very long time. It might well be highly significant - but it would be hard to claim that it is "of our time" since it isn't just of our time.

How then do internet memes stack up after these caveats have been imposed? Maybe not too badly - but if they win, their victory seems a bit hollow. The term "internet meme" does not really refer to a particular cultural phenomenon, but rather to a whole class of phenomena. It mostly just refers to things that are shared a lot. So the claim that internet memes are "the most significant cultural phenomena of our time" boils down to the idea that the most popular things are the most significant ones. I wouldn't normally equate popularity with significance - but they are certainly correlated. For one thing, sheer popularity tends to make things have more impact - which tends to make them more significant.

Perhaps, competition for internet memes in this area comes from machine intelligence - or indeed, computer software in general. This could potentially be more impactful without being more popular. Relatively few people need to understand software for it to have a large impact. As with internet memes, machine intelligence is influencing elections and leading to social change - and notoriously, software is eating the world. In a war metaphor, internet memes would be bullets but machine intelligence systems would be generals.

The article closes with "memes are, without a doubt, the most significant cultural phenomenon of our time". Presumably we are supposed to read that as "internet memes" - or else it is an empty tautology. That claim seems even more debatable: there seems to be considerable room for doubt.

Boosting the collective intelligence of machines

Stuart Russell recently expressed the idea that our brains are responsible for most of what we value:

So the way I think about it is, everything good that we have in our lives, that civilization consists of, is from our intelligence, it’s not the result of our long teeth or big scary claws.

This seems to conflict with the idea that culture is largely responsible for our success - an idea expressed as follows by Richard Dawkins in 1976:

Most of what is unusual about man can be summed up in one word: `culture'.

Indeed, culture may well lave led to the production of our large brains, according to the idea that big brains are meme nests.

Of course the ideas that brains and culture are our primary powers are not completely independent. Culture requires brains, and many animals have rudimentary cultures, so culture alone is not enough. Indeed even brains and culture are not enough. Whales have both in considerable abundance - but they lack opposable thumbs and so never invented technology.

If Stuart Russell is right then smarter machines are what we need. However if it is our collective intelligence that needs boosting, there there might be other, better ways of accomplishing this besides boosting the individual intelligence of machines. During the agricultural revolution, human development took off when humans crowded together in cities. At the same time, their levels of aggression and hostility went down and they became more sociable. It was networking - rather than individual intelligence - that was most obviously involved.

Machines are now also clustering together - in data centers and in the cloud. They also face barriers to communication and trade mirroring our own hostility, paranoia and distrust - in the form of firewalls and incompatible protocols. It is quite common for machines in adjacent racks to never communicate at all. Humans in skyscrapers are similarly anti-social, but this is hardly an ideal situation.

Theory suggests an obvious way of improving cooperation between machines: use cultural kinship. Shared memes result in cooperation in the same way that shared genes do. If we can (somehow) get the machines to share enough software they will start talking to each other more - and this is likely to accelerate the ongoing machine cultural explosion, mirroring - or rather extending - the human cultural explosion that kicked off for us thousands of years ago.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Susan Blackmore - Consciousness in treme machines?

Susan Blackmore talks to a student group as part of CogNovo Summer School "ColLaboratoire" from CogNovo on Vimeo.

Susan makes an extended argument for 'tremes' - a third replicator.

New book: For Whose Benefit?

A new book on cultural evolution is coming out soon: For Whose Benefit? The Biological and Cultural Evolution of Human Cooperation by Patrik Lindenfors.

It seems to be Patrik's fourth book. The blurb starts out by saying:

This book takes the reader on a journey, navigating the enigmatic aspects of cooperation; a journey that starts inside the body and continues via our thoughts to the human super-organism. Cooperation is one of life’s fundamental principles. We are all made of parts – genes, cells, organs, neurons, but also of ideas, or ‘memes’. Our societies too are made of parts – us humans. Is all this cooperation fundamentally the same process?

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Attraction in conventional evolutionary theory

Thomas C. Scott-Phillips has recently weighed in on the 'cultural attraction' issue. Acerbi Alberto drew my attention to the paper with a blog post. Thomas writes:

If propagation is replicative, as it is in biology, then stability arises from the fidelity of that replication, and hence an explanation of stability comes from an explanation of how and why this high-fidelity is achieved. If, on the other hand, propagation is reconstructive (as it is in culture), then stability arises from the fact that a subclass of cultural types are easily re-producible, while others are not, and hence an explanation of stability comes from a description of what types are easily re-producible, and an explanation of why they are.
The problem I see with this is that 'reconstruction' is not confined to cultural evolution, it happens in the organic realm as well. Stability of DNA-based creatures is not explained simply by invoking high-fidelity copying. Living fossils illustrate stability comes from other sources. Nobody in their right mind would argue that Alligators or Ginkgo Biloba trees resemble their ancestors from millions of years ago only because of high fidelity copying. That would be failing to give longevity and fecundity their due. It's not that mutations affecting leaf shapes and leg lengths never arise due to high copying fidelity. Rather these stable forms represent adaptive peaks: sweet spots in the fitness landscape that are hard to improve on. In dynamical systems theory such spots are sometimes known as 'attractors' in state space.

In both organic and cultural evolution, stability is explained by a mixture of high copying fidelity, longevity and fecundity. Characterizing stability in organic evolution as only the result of copying fidelity is a mistake. In both organic and cultural realms, some entities are also better at reproducing themselves than other ones, and are more long-lived than other ones. The fitness landscapes they evolve on have stable adaptive peaks that result in stable forms that can last for hundreds of millions of years. We can use much the same theory of adaptive peaks and adaptive stability in both organic and cultural evolution.

I think the reason confusion over this issue arises is due to a misclassification of generation times. If you look at one generation, then it might seem that fidelity is the only factor in the organic realm - since longevity and fecundity take time to measure. While in one generation of cultural evolution, all kinds of reconstructions can happen - inside a mind. The problem here is that extra generations have been ignored in the cultural case. There's all kinds of copying with variation and selection going on within the mind, representing generations which are simply not being counted. Comparing one generation in the organic realm with multiple generations (within a single mind) in the cultural case is where the comparison comes unstuck.

Stability from sources other than copying fidelity - and adaptive peaks (A.K.A. attractors) - are well known and well understood in conventional evolutionary theory. However, not all anthropologists appear to be aware of this. They apparently think that these are newfangled discoveries associated with cultural evolution.