Monday, 20 February 2017

Joe Brewer's YouTube channel

I found Joe Brewer's YouTube channel. It is here.

Joe and I have similar interests. He and I have reviewed some of the same books. While I share Joe's hope that an evolutionary science of culture will result in positive social and political effects, I find Joe's mixture of activism and science a bit tough to swallow. My concern is that the science will get bent out of shape to serve the interests of the activism.

To give a specific example, Joe says:

Take the global ecological crisis as an example. It is now well documented that the convergent threats of climate change, top-soil losses, ocean acidification, deforestation, and ecosystem collapses are deeply intertwined with the cancerous logic of economic growth in our extractive capitalist system. There is no real separation between it and the massive poverty, extreme wealth inequality, political corruption, and all the human suffering caused by these things.
For me, economic growth is positive. These are the best days of humanity so far and things just keep getting better. We live longer, have more money, are more peaceful, healthier and happier than ever before. This has been argued by Matt Ridley, Steven Pinker and others - and they are correct. Those who think that the environment is collapsing probably spend too much time with the news. Humans are news junkies, but the news is a bad way to learn anything.

Daniel Dennett: Memes 101: How Cultural Evolution Works

Daniel Dennett: From Bacteria to Bach and Back - video

Sunday, 19 February 2017

The Extension of Biology Through Culture - videos

These videos are from the Sackler Colloquium of the National Academy of Sciences, in Irvine California on 16 and 17th of November 2016 on: "The Extension of Biology Through Culture":

A full program listing is here.

Monday, 13 February 2017

The argument from imperfections

Part of the evidence for organic evolution involves imperfections in organisms. One of the alternative hypotheses - namely: creation by a powerful god - apparently predicts perfection. So: documenting the imperfections of organisms counts against the hypothesis of divine creation. The imperfections involved are often due to:

  • Genetic drift;
  • High mutation rates (devolution);
  • Historical and developmental constraints;
  • Changing environments;
  • Local maxima;
  • Shortage of time;
Much the same argument can be applied in the cultural realm - in an attempt to distinguish culture which evolved from culture which was intelligently designed by human designers. There are certainly many imperfections in many cultural products - and these often reflect their evolutionary history. However, the whole argument against intelligent design doesn't work too well in the cultural realm. There are two problems:

One problem is that a big part of the reason why the original argument worked was that it assumed omniscience and omnipotence on the part of the divine creator. Human intelligent designers are much more fallible - and their productions are themselves imperfect. This makes distinguishing between human intelligent design by human designers and products of evolution and natural selection acting on cultural variation more challenging.

The other problem is that few seriously dispute the idea that culture is partly the product of human intelligent designers. Any attempt to find intelligent design by humans will probably find lots of it. This contrasts with the situation with organic evolution - where we have no clear signatures of intelligent design at all.

I've described my resolution to this previously, in articles titled:

To briefly attempt a summary: In cultural evolution, intelligent design is generally best modeled as a type of mutation event. Relaxing the traditional constraints on mutation in evolutionary theory runs the risk of it losing its predictive power - but there are still constraints. Individual cavemen still can't conjure up spacecraft designs out of nothing.

Rather than viewing intelligent design and evolutionary theory as opposed hypotheses, modeling intelligent design as a part of evolution helps in another way: we can use multi-level models of evolutionary dynamics to delve inside the process of intelligent design and see how it works. Copying with variation and selection is ubiquitous in the brain. Information is copied whenever a signal passes down a branching axon. We can use classical evolutionary theory to study these dynamics and explain intelligent design in naturalistic terms.

Evolutionary theory is well accustomed to the idea that selection processes operate at many levels. If you put a bacterium in the top of an organism and later observe a antibiotic-resistant bacteria in its feces there's no need to invoke miracles or saltationist macromutations. Instead, a multi-generation selection process has gone on inside the organism, creating antibiotic-resistance as an adaptation. The same sort of thing goes on inside brains in cultural evolution. The ideas that come out of organisms are partly the product of a complex section process taking place inside the brain. Selection takes place between nerve impulses, synapses and higher level structures - such as thoughts and ideas. The result is intelligent design. Intelligent design can be usefully seen as being the product of evolutionary forces within the brain.

This all seems hard for many evolutionists to swallow. Many have been trained to see intelligent design as the enemy. Picturing intelligent design as part of evolution is so indigestible to them that some of them visualize a future dominated by intelligent design as an overthrowing of evolution - instead of as its culmination. The demonization of evolution is also sometimes involved. Apparently evolution is responsible for our base, animal aspects, and our mission is to dismantle the products of natural selection and enter a new era of intelligent design. Darwin probably started all this off with his comment about the: "clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horribly cruel works of nature". This is a one-sided view of evolution. Evolution is also responsible for all that we love and cherish in the world. The demonization of evolution seems inappropriate to me.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Memes: apps for your necktop?

In a recent video, Daniel Dennett is again promoting the idea that memes are "apps for your necktop".

I like the brain-as-necktop meme. It is Dennett's way to dramatize the similarities between brains and computers. Desktop, laptop, palmtop, necktop. The brain-as-computer metaphor gets some criticism from philosophers - but the basic idea that the brain is functionally an information processing device, something that accepts sensory inputs and transforms them into motor outputs - seems simple and it ought to be fairly uncontroversial.

Memes being like apps seems a bit of a stickier analogy. I think it is fair enough to portray culture as being software for the brain. Not all brain software is culturally-transmitted (some is the product of individual learning). Also, some items of culture we might prefer to call data - rather than software. However, a broad interpretation of the term "software" can include data - so that seems like a minor nitpick. A more significant disanalogy involves complexity. Memes, many say, are simple, almost atomic bits of culture. Apps, generally speaking, are large and complex. There are other terms for a bunch of memes: memeplex and memome. Apps seem more like these than they are like memes. As with genes there's a bit of a philosophical quagmire over how big memes are. G. C. Williams once proposed that genes needed to have an 'appreciable frequency' to qualify - the idea being that this rules out entire genomes - since they are unique in the population and therefore are typically not very "frequent". Apps actually pass this test - since the high-fidelity copying found on the internet means that apps are often identical to other copies of them - down to the last bit. So: apps have a meaningful frequency in the population of all apps. However, this seems more like a limitation of Williams' criterion than a legitimate reason for identifying memes with apps.

Memes being like apps is OK - in that both are types of software. Perhaps it's an analogy that shouldn't be pushed too far, though. It might be better just to say that apps are made of memes.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Richard Lewontin: The Wars Over Evolution

I've previously referenced Richard Lewontin's lectures on cultural evolution here. Lewontin was clearly skeptical of the topic.

He weighted in on the topic again in a 2005 article titled: The Wars Over Evolution.

That article concludes:

We would be much more likely to reach a correct theory of cultural change if the attempt to understand the history of human institutions on the cheap, by making analogies with organic evolution, were abandoned. What we need instead is the much more difficult effort to construct a theory of historical causation that flows directly from the phenomena to be explained.
The preceding paragraph in the document explains how he reached this conclusion. It's a philosophical argument about how best to do science. Lewontin says he doesn't think giving "simple explanations for phenomena that are complex and diverse" is very scientific. That's an odd argument - since building simple models for complex phenomena is a big part of what science is all about. From this evidence, it seems at least possible that Lewontin's failure to appreciate cultural evolution arose from his faulty scientific epistemology.

This is all rather ironic - since his 1970 paper The Units of Selection got the basics of cultural evolution correct.

Friday, 3 February 2017

Meme is a degenerate sign

An oft-cited criticism of memes comes from Kalevi Kull (2000) who wrote:
Meme is just an externalist view to sign, which means that meme is sign without its triadic nature. I.e., meme is a degenerate sign in which only its ability of being copied is remained.
Other critics cite Kalevi's criticism as though it is meaningful. For example it appears on RationalWiki's farcical page about memes. I recently thought of a new way of explaining how weak this criticism is: a word also a type of sign without its triadic nature. A word is similarly a type of degenerate sign.

To recap, the "triadic" nature of signs refers to Charles Sanders Peirce's ideas. Here's a diagram:

Kalevi is arguing that memes are only the bottom left. However, the same can be said of words. We count "park", "play", 'bark", "chair", "left" and "right" as one word, not two - despite their multiple meanings and even more numerous interpretations. This would be a feeble criticism of the concept of "word". We should assign it no more weight when it comes to memes.

Steven Rose: memes are vacuous

Here's Steven Rose on memes:
The problem is that a meme can be almost anything: a fashion for wearing your baseball hat backwards, a word, a snatch of music, a political affiliation, a comedian’s catchphrase or how to shape a stone axe. Where a gene is – more or less – a specific DNA sequence with an equally more or less defined biological function, memes can be whatever you choose. It is a term so vacuous, despite its regular appearance in dinner party chatter, that it has its philosophical and biological critics unable to choose between indignation and helpless laughter. Dennett realises this and devotes a chapter to responding to his critics. I could – just – condone his enthusiasm if he regarded memes as metaphorical, but he categorically denies this. A word, he insists, in his account of the origins of language, is merely a meme that can be pronounced.

Such vacuity makes the meme concept theoretically useless as a tool for understanding cultural evolution.

For me the fact that memes and memeplexes can represent any inherited cultural item is a virtue - that means that memes are general. For Steven Rose that makes them "vacuous". Does Steven Rose feel the same way about "information", I wonder. Information can represent literally anything you can imagine. Is the term "information" also vacuous? I would claim that information is not vacuous: it's the basis of information technology.

Perhaps I should not spend too much time on Steven Rose. Rose co-authored: "Not in Our Genes: Biology, Ideology, and Human Nature" - a really bad book that surely illustrates his ignorance.

Does Steven Rose have any understanding of cultural evolution? I searched to answer this question. I found out that Steven has edited a volume titled: "Alas, Poor Darwin: Arguments Against Evolutionary Psychology" - but little sign of any content relating to cultural evolution. This is yet another critic who not familiar with the subject matter. Alas, that is always the most common kind.