Monday, 15 October 2018

For memes, minds are like islands

Islands are natural evolutionary experiments. The history of evolutionary theory prominently features researchers who visited islands. Most famous of these was Darwin himself. Darwin's trip to the remote Galapagos islands was famously documented in The Voyage of the Beagle. This took place before Darwin had really got interested in evolutionary theory - and it was clearly a catalytic event.

Islands feature restricted gene flow. They also feature rapid evolution due to the environment being different from the ancestral one, and due to small population sizes and genetc drift. The size of the island and how isolated it is are important factors to the resulting evolutionary dynamics.

It has subsequently become understood that islands are a special case of restricted flow of heritable information. That means that the great lakes are like watery islands for fish. It means that deserts are like islands for cacti. It means that that mountains are like islands for their plants and animals. It also means that many hosts are like islands for their parasites.

Dogs are like islands for their fleas. Zits are like islands to their bacteria - and minds are like islands for their memes. Evolutionists got the most mileage out of archipelagos far from the mainland. The memetic equivalent would be lost or isolated tribes. Sure enough, anthropologists have long been fascinated by these types of group. Remote monasteries another possible object of study - and of course groups of humans can themselves become isolated on real islands.

Islands are natural experiments in group selection. Theory has long suggested that if the number of migrants per generation between groups falls to around 1, then groups of sexual organisms can start to behave rather like individuals which develop their own, distinct traits. They start to develop persistent differences between one another - instead of simply being part of the same gene pool. One migrant per generation is not very many and so conventional wisdom has argued that group selection is not very important. However, one place where isolation levels can be high is on islands. If an island is sufficiently remote, it is not very challenging to get into the ballpark of 1 migrant per generation.

Reproduction within islands is subject to one set of selection pressures, while reproduction between islands is often subject to a quite different set of selection pressures. Strawberry plants illustrate how such selection can pull organisms in two different directions. Strawberries have runners for local, asexual reproduction and seeds for sexual reproduction over large distances. Strawberries must allocate resources depending on their local conditions. If they are cramped, and under seige from parasites, then seeds start looking like an attractive option. This type of resource allocation dilemma is a common one for organisms on islands. Memes too must allocate their resources between fighting off competition within their existing mind and spreading to new minds. As with strawberry plants, they are often pulled by selection in two conflicting directions.

Islands are widely considered to be incubators of evolutionary innovation. On the mainland experiments often don't get very far before reality catches up with them and calls them to account. On islands, experients can last for longer before their day of reckoning comes. Often, rats come to the island, and destroy its native ecosystem - and that is the end of that. However, once is a while something amazing happens, and the island evolution produces something valuable that would never have evolved without the isolation. In the USA, many small start-ups attempt to reproduce this innovation-on-islands effect. Most fail, but sometimes, something amazing happens.

The evolutionary dynamics of island ecosystems seems like fertile ground for cultural evolution and memetics. It is territory that has already been explored to some extent, but there is still much left to learn.

There's an interesting analogy between organisms colonising a new volcanic island and individual enculturation of human brains. In both cases, pioneer species come first and create the ecosystem for their successors.

One of my early essays was about evolution on islands. I wasn't thinking about cultural evolution much back then. It is interesting for me to look back on the essay, now I that know more about the relevance of island dynamics to memetic evolution.

Saturday, 13 October 2018

Memes in U.S. Government Influence Campaigns

Thinktank CNA has a document out titled: "Exploring the Utility of Memes for U.S. Government Influence Campaigns". It's a 67 page document heavily loaded with pictures of internet memes and analysis of their potential influence.

It's one of a number of recent publications which attempts to reify the modern conception of an internet meme and retro-fit this onto the definition of the term "meme".

I think serious meme enthiusiasts need to reject this sort of thing as an unscientific perversion of the meme concept. IMO, it is OK to use of "meme" as an acceptable abbreviation for "popular internet meme". After all, popular internet memes are indeed still memes. However there's no good reason to redefine the term "meme".

I notice that even dictionaries are giving the nod to this new usage. For example, still lists the Dawkins-style definition first, saying:

a cultural item that is transmitted by repetition and replication in a manner analogous to the biological transmission of genes.

...but it goes on to say that "meme" can also refer to:

a cultural item in the form of an image, video, phrase, etc., that is spread via the Internet and often altered in a creative or humorous way.

The first usage is scientifically useful. The second definition, not so much.

It is worth noting that there was a similar movement to define "gene" in a frequency-dependent manner. In 1966 G. C. Williams defined a "gene" as follows:

In this book I use the term gene to mean 'that which segregates and recombines with appreciable frequency'

Going on to say:

In evolutionary theory, a gene could be defined as any hereditary information for which there is a favorable or unfavorable selection bias equal to several or many times the rate of endogenous change
It was pioneering to define a gene in terms of "any hereditary information" - but the idea of frequency-dependence wasn't broadly adopted. Few could stomach the idea that genehood depends on frequency in the way that Williams contended. It seems adaptationist to define genes under the influence of of genetic drift out of existence.

I like that "memes" are now very popular and widely-discussed - but now is not an appropriate time to forget about their roots.

Survivalism vs hedonism

Survivalism and hedonism are doctrines surrounding fitness maximization and pleasure maximization respectively.

Both schools vary along the individualism / collectivism axis. Survivalism ranges from individualists, who are out for themselves through those who profess to be against the extinction of our species. Similarly, hedonists vary from those out for their own pleasure, to those who think the total pleasure of all sentient beings is what is important.

Hedonists think they are more advanced than survivalists. They are further up in Maslow's hierarchy of needs. They view animal evolution as a transition away from basic survivalist goals towards more advanced optimization targets dictated by nervous systems. In turn, survivalists view hedonists as short-sighted folk prone to drug-taking, masturbation, casual sex, wireheading and other dubious activities oriented towards pleasure and often at the expense of basic survival. See the picture, for more examples.

For a while, I considered these teams' rivalry to be largely misplaced. Hedonists who neglected survival were short-sighted fools likely to end up with nothing. Only hedonists who recognised that hedonism depended on survival really needed to be taken seriously. However, such hedonists would be likely to behave a lot like survivalists until they were pretty certain that they were not going to encounter more advanced alien civilizations in the alien race. They might well be tens of millions of years in the future. If the two tribes behave in much the same way for billions of years, they don't seem too dissimilar.

I'm now a bit less confident of this assessment. Hedonists might think that alien races would also be hedonistic - and so might not be too concerned about the consequences of an alien invasion. I can also imagine a hedonist gambling on extinction vs making everyone three times as happy forever. A survivalist would be unlikely to take such a gamble - but possibly a hedonist might.

It also seems that in practice that the different optimization targets do result in different behavior. For example they differ regarding treatment of non-human animals. Many hedonists are concerned with animal welfare causes: factory farming, wild animal suffering and so on. However to survilists these look like bad causes. Non-human animals are probably not going to help make sure that spaceship earth completes its journey. This kind of practical difference today does not bode terribly well for the thesis that the behavior of these tribes will converge in the future. Maybe the survivalists and the hedonists will remain at odds.

Friday, 12 October 2018

Pretend to be part of your host

How do parasites avoid destruction at the hands of the host immune systems? Of course there are many ways, but one way is to pretend to be part of your host. Viruses are experts at this. They hide inside host cells, out of the way of the immune system. However the immune system has a window to cell contents the form of the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) proteins, which are detectable from outside the cell. Some viruses, for example cytomegaloviruses synthesize families of human-like proteins to fool the immune system into thinking that the host cell is still mostly human.

Is there an equivalent of this in cultural evolution? There's certainly a distinction between self and other and this is used by the memetic immune system when deciding which memes to reject. The components most clearly marked as beiong "self" are those that the host considers to be part of their own identity. So many memes compete for adoption by the identity of their host.

One way you can tell which memes are considered to be part of the identity of an individual is when they say "I am X". Some examples:

  • Religion: "I am a Christian"
  • Politics: "I am a Republican"
  • Jobs: "I am a nurse"
  • Sex: "I am transexual"
  • Ethnicity: "I am Jewish"
  • Disease: "I am disabled"
  • Age: "I am old"
One possible defense against unwanted memes masquerading as being part of you is to spring-clean your identity. If you reduce its footprint there will be fewer places for unwanted memes to hide. At any rate, regardless of whether you want to shrink your identity, it is worth looking closely at who you think you are, to make sure that it really is you.

Thursday, 11 October 2018

Weaken host immune system by creating a diversion

I have a previous article about cultural immune deficiency disorders. I've also written about cultural opportunistic infections - the cultural version of the well knnown phenomena, opportunistic infections.

I've long recognised the possibility that infections could attack the host immune system to create a hole to penetrate host defenses - and that such a hole could then let in other parasites. Clearly these dynamics apply in cultural evolution as well - as is seen in cultural immune deficiency disorders.

This article is about a related set of strategies involving diverting host immune system resources elsewhere. Rather than directly attacking the immune system parasites may be able to create a diversion. One strategy would be to absorb host immune resources via deliberate immune stimulation using expendible, fake targets. Another strategy might be to liberate suppressed persistent infections already present within the host by making holes in the immune system for them.

The former strategy has some well-studied examples. Some parasites release what are known as superantigens - which act to stimulate the immune system, sapping its resources.

A couple of analogies illustrate the proposed effects. Invaders sometimes liberate prisoners from the territories they are invading. The reason is not always clear - but they may be creating a diversion which saps the resources of the defenders. They may also engage in arson. Causing chaos can help them to achieve their own goals. Another analogy involves the saying that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend". It is widely recognised that uniting against a common enemy can result in strength gains. Orwell wrote about this in the book "1984". Unrelated parasites may effectively gang up on their hosts - since they have a shared interest in a weakened host immune system.

I don't have much in the way of concrete evidence or examples in the cultural domain to offer in this post. However the possibility that these dynamics might also apply to cultural evolution seems intriguing.

Saturday, 29 September 2018

Why groups form

Why groups form is a basic question in sociobiology.

Biologists recognise a number of common reasons why groups form - which include:

  • Raising offspring;
  • Safety in numbers;
  • Hunting in packs;
  • Gathering to mate;
This post will attempt to find general versions of these ideas that cover most of the reasons why groups form in nature.

  1. Kin selection - Family groups are some of the most common reasons why groups form in nature. Theres a well-established theory which covers this: kin selection. My main comment here is to say that a symbiosis-aware version of kin selection theory is needed. Groups can form not because their members are kin, but because their members' symbiotic partners are kin. This idea should be taken to cover shared cultural symbionts as well.

  2. Combined power - groups are often stronger and more capable than their individual members. They can do things which individuals cannot. For example, 10 ants may be able to transport a leaf which no single ant can lift. Groups are thus biology's multipliers. Groups can build bigger and better nests than individuals can. A pack of animals is can tackle larger prey than a single hunter. Similarly, a herd of animals can often mount a better joint defense against predators than a single animal can manage. Combining power does not require synergy - where the group is stronger than the sum of its component parts. Additivity (or worse) can still be enough. The term "power": is intended to refer to motor power, sensory power, compute power - or some combination of these.

  3. Sharing information - groups often form in order to share information between their members. One classical way in which this hapens is the group members share their genes with other group members by having sex with them. This happens on leks for example. This is part of the reason why groups consisting of members of the same species form so frequently. We clearly need a symbiosis-aware version of this idea. Hosts may form groups not so they can have sex with each other, but so their parasites or symbionts can have sex. Indeed, it isn't just sex - groups can form so that individuals can transmit their symbionts to others who don't yet have them, or so individuals can gain symbionts from others. Cultual symbionts also need to be included. For example, when Catholic groups form, one thing that happens is that the Catholic memes get to meet and mate with other Catholic memes. Some other things happen as well - which could be characterized as "collect the full set" and "get the latest upgrades". Those with incomplete sets of Catholic memes can get new synergetic meme partners. Those with out-of-date Catholic memes can upgrade to the latest versions. A good generalized version of these ideas is to say that groups sometimes form in order to share information between group members.

I don't pretend that these ideas explain all group formation in nature. For an example of group formation which they explain poorly, consider the following article from Ed Yong (2013):

  • Parasites Make Their Hosts Sociable So They Get Eaten

    That's a case of sharing genetic information. However, there the information involved is shared across groups, not between individuals within the group.

    Group selection is sometimes cited as a force driving group formation. However, the claims of group selection advocates seem to be covered by 1 and 2 above - at least if you use a post-1975 version of kin selection theory. The claim that group selection explains things that the 1960s versions of kin selection theory cannot does not seem to be worth very much.

    Though not complete, I think the above principles explain most cases of group formation. The exceptions I am aware of are not far from this framework, but near to the edge of it.

  • Sunday, 23 September 2018

    Ed Yong - Parasitic mind control

    I've witten a number of articles about parasitic mind control. I have also promoted the symbiont hypothesis of eusociality. I didn't see Ed Yong's 2014 talk until now, though.

    There's only a bit in the video about parasite-induced social behavior, but this is turning into a big topic in memetics.

    Ed has now written a book relating to this general topic: I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life. Here is a video of a book talk by Ed..

    Saturday, 15 September 2018

    Daniel Dennett: Memes as the key to human intelligence

    Dennett of the hijacking of the term "meme", the "De-Darwinization" of cultural evolution, memes as "virtual machines" - and various other topics.

    I've previously made some critical comments regarding some of this material.

    Susan Blackmore: From Memes to Tremes

    Monday, 3 September 2018

    Memetic dysbiosis

    One piece of symbiology terminology that seems to be missing refers to the idea of host fitness being compromised by the lack of important symbionts. Connie Barlow memorably proposed that these be termed "Ghosts" in her book The Ghosts Of Evolution. Anyway, I am not going to address that issue here, but will instead discuss an umbrella category that includes these "ghosts" - dysbiosis.

    Wikipedia says that "dysbiosis" is: "a term for a microbial imbalance or maladaptation on or inside the body, such as an impaired microbiota". Since the etymology of "dysbiosis" suggests that it is a symbiology term - like "symbiosis" - it ought to be a general term that can also be applied to human hosts in the context of cultural symbionts. "Maladaptation" should be taken to refer to the effect on host fitness. Of course, the dysbiosis could be adaptive from the perspective of the finess of the smaller symbionts.

    From its definition, memetic dysbiosis could be the result of missing memes, bad memes - or some combination of the two. In either case, memetic dysbiosis could be addressed by some sort of meme therapy.

    Sunday, 12 August 2018

    Cairns-Smith: chemical evolution critic

    One fairly prominent critic of "chemical evolution" was the late A. G. Cairns-Smith. He devoted a substantial section at the start of his book "Genetic Takeover" to explaining where proponents of chemical evolution got it wrong, arguing that the requirements for Darwinian evolution to get going were quite demanding - and most of the proposed prebiotic chemical systems didn't measure up.

    This is contrary to the proposals made by proponents of Universal Darwinism, which suggest that copying with variation and selection are ubiquitous physical and chemical processes which can be used to model a wide variety of systems.

    As readers may or may not be aware, I am both a proponent of Universal Darwinism and a fan of Cairns-Smith's ideas about the origin of life, so which side of this argument to support is a kind of dilemma for me.

    The first thing to say is that Cairns-Smith got it wrong in detail, that simple physical and chemical systems do evolve and exhibit adaptations in much the way that he argued against. Cairns-Smith gave too much weight to the idea that simple physical and chemical systems lacked high fidelity copying - and would therefore undergo an error catastrophe, or a "mutational meltdown". We now know that with positional inheritance, high fidelity copying in prebiotic systems is ubiquitous.

    Other problems besides lack of high fidelity copying mean that these systems typically do not go on to launch systems capable of open-ended evolution. One such problem is having a genome with a "low information ceiling" - and Cairns-Smith did discuss that problem. Another such problem is "local exhaustion". Dissipative systems destroy the energy gradients that they feed off. Unless they can continually find new energy sources, they will exhaust their own energy supply and die out. This happens with lightning strikes, for example. They typically do not last for very long, and the reason for that is because they run out of fuel.

    It seems possible to me that prebiotic "chemical evolution" will involve adaptations that are on the pathway towards the origin of life (as Cairns-Smith argued against). However, I don't think negating Cairns-Smith's point about the relevance of ochemical evolution has all that much effect on his other arguments. Clay mineral crystals still seem like attractive candidates for the first living things, for essentially the reasons that Cairns-Smith gives in his books on the topic.

    Wednesday, 1 August 2018

    Virtue signalling: pro-social or anti-social?

    In 2011, I stressed the positive side of virtue signalling, writing: "Signalling must often be costly to be effective." Costly signalling of virtuousness to an audience of sceptical cheating-detectors often involves actually being virtuous. However, since then it has become fashionable to use "virtue signalling" as a term of abuse.

    In standard biological terminology, signalling can be accurate or misleading, costly or cheap, pro-social or anti-social. I recently saw one attempt to argue that virtue signalling was generally positive, and that pointing it out was usually an anti-social means of making yourself look good. The article was titled " The psychological explanation for why we sometimes hate the good guy". Here's what the authors concluded:

    Critics often attack the motives of people who protect the environment, seek social justice, donate money or work too hard in organizations. Such good deeds are dismissed as na├»ve, hypocritical (“champagne liberals”) or as mere “virtue signalling” by those who do not perform those deeds. If left unchecked, this criticism may ultimately reduce how often people do good deeds.

    Our research helps us recognize these attacks for what they are: A competitive social strategy, used by low co-operators, to bring others down and stop them from looking better than they do.

    The problem with this is is that some people only appear to be virtuous, and pointing that out by saying that they are just virtue signalling can be pro-social - by encouraging more genuine forms of do-gooding.

    Others have focused on the negative aspects of virtue signalling, arguing that it is a cheap subsitute for actually doing good employed by those with shallow, selfish motives. I don't think that is right either. Virtue signalling is responsible for a lot of the good that take place in the world. It often doesn't really matter if people do it for selfish motives, to impress prospective partners (or whatever) - since it still results in much good being done. Without virtue signalling the world would surely be a much worse place. Virtue signalling is mostly - but not exclusively - a positive force.

    Sunday, 29 July 2018

    Meme rich, meme poor

    Some people have a larger load of memes than others. While different memes affect their hosts in different ways, the fact that many memes have common interests means that there's a set of phenotypic changes that broadly correlates with the extent of the host's meme load. Some of the correlates of having lots of memes include: living in rich countries, being rich, being older, living in a city and having "media consumption" devices. Meme-rich countries prominently include South-Korea and Japan, while Nigeria and Somalia would be meme-poor.

    Researchers have explored the meme-rich/meme-poor axis. Small island communities are poor at maintaining a large meme pool and represent natural experiments. Those stranded on deserted islands are more extreme natural experiments. Another case of meme poverty involves individuals who have been raised by dogs. Researchers have looked at what happens when islands become detached from the mainland as land bridges erode. There are also the cases of sensory disabilities - such as blindness and deafness - and learning disabilities - such as difficulties in storing, maintaining or retreiving long-term memories. The meme-rich have been studied too. Indeed, we have more data about them than anyone else because they tend to leave a rich trail of data wherever they go. Many experimental subjects are W.E.I.R.D. (in the sense of Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic).

    There's probably circular causality involved in many of the correlates of high meme load, but some look as though they are mostly consequences of having lots of memes. Memes tend to make their owners into articulate teachers and preachers. They tend to increase their host lifespan and decrease their fertility. Domestic product increases and malnutrition decreases. There's progress up the Human Development Index and the Industrialization Intensity Index. Having more memes makes most things better - though it also tends to result in coronary heart disease, obesity, hypertension, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, and osteoporosis - the "diseases of civilization".

    Friday, 27 July 2018

    Political correctness in evolutionary theory

    Probably most of the interactions between political correctness and science come in areas where I don't really have much of a stake. Most of the hot-button race and gender issues don't really intersect the topics I am interested in very much.

    The issue of evolutionary progress is one of the cases where it looks to me as though many folks have been led astray by political correctness. I am influenced in my views here by physics. Darwinism is closely allied with the idea that evolution maximizes entropy. If so, that gives a reasonable universal yardstick for claiming that some ecosystems are better that others - and that there has been significant improvement over time, as organisms have gradually accumulated adaptations for converting negentropy into offspring.

    Why progress is much-denied phenomenon is down to politics, I think. If some creatures are better than other ones, then it might follow that some people are better than other ones, some cultures are better than other ones, and some ethnicities are better than other ones. Such notions run into human preferences favoring egalitarianism, and avoiding the opression of minorities. The preferences can't easily change, but the facts are malleable, and subject to distortion and spin-doctoring.

    Another fear about progress is that it might lead to policies influenced by eugenics. If some people are better than other ones, then it is feared that there is a slippery sloope through state breeding programs to the sterilization of the unfit. This is not just idle speculation, mass sterilizations really did happen.

    Steven J Gould was one of the ringleaders of the progress denialists. He wrote a whole book on the topic, variously titled "Life's Grandeur" and "Full House" depending on the region it is sold in. It's a bad book, due to its political influence. It is not as bad as "The Mismeasure of Man" which is more heavily saturated with bad politics. Gould wrote a number of essays about how various scientists were influenced by their political views. It is thus with some irony that I have to put down a number of his own efforts as Marxist-influenced pseudoscience.

    Progress in cultural evolution is pretty obvious and has been clearly documented of late. However, progress in the organic realm is almost as obvious, but has mostly been written out of the textbooks. AFAICS, political correctness is to blame. It causes much confusion, and that is its goal - to hide unconfortable truths with muddle and misdirection.

    io I have sometimes speculated that political correctness is part of the reson we have a watered-down version of human evolution oriented around evolutionary psychology is popular. This ignores differences between humans and focuses on how a hypothetical universal evolved human nature reacts in a different environment. Instead of that, we could have a much more mature theory of cultural evolution and meme-gene coevolution. The popular version of evolutionary psychology mostly averages out and then ignores human differences. By contrast, memetics is heavily oriented around human differences. It wouldn't suprise me to learn that this motivates some of the critics.

    Wednesday, 25 July 2018

    Meme load

    The terms "viral load" and "parasite load" exist, and I feel there is a significant need for corresponding memetic terminology. I proposed "meme load" in my 2011 article Meme terminology compared with gene terminology.

    The term "genetic load" exists and refers to mutational load - a very different concept. We can't use "memetic load" as the cultural equivalent of "parasite load" without causing a great deal of confusion.

    So: "meme load" is my proposed cultural equivalent of "parasite load". It is terminology inspired by epidemiology - along with "mind virus", "meme shedding", "viral video" and "contagious idea". There's no corresponding "gene load", but at least you can say things like: "he was laboring under a heay load of memes he had picked up as a child".

    Assuming that memes are bad is something that critics have ticked meme enthusiasts off for. However, that is a weak criticism of borrowing terminology from epidemiology. The evidence says that the more memes you have, the fewer children you have - at least after a point. That tendency holds especially strongly if you are female, and it isn't adaptive - there's no way that South Korean women having an average of one child is good for their DNA genes. So, more memes are bad for your genes. That's pretty much how the distinction between mutualism and parasitism is typically drawn. Memes are - on average - parasites, not mutualists.

    Tuesday, 24 July 2018

    Memes and neoteny

    The term "neoteny" refers to the retention of youthful characteristing into adulthood. It is a type of developmental delay, and it is widely thought to have been important in human evolution. Neoteny is what makes baby chimpanzees resemble adult humans.

    It seems that only a few have speculated about the possible links between cultural evolution and neoteny. However, there are some rather obvious possibilities. For most of the last 3 million years, selection appears to have favored larger brains. According to my favorite theory this was because big brains can hold more memes. If large brains were selectively favored, an increase in size would have required a genetic basis, and neoteny is one way of making adult brains larger - since a large head to body size ratio is a juvenile trait. This hypothesis is the polar opposite of Steven J Gould's bizarre idea that large brains could have been a side effect of neoteny - and so didn't require any special adaptive explanation.

    Delvelopmental delay creates larger adult brains, but it also prolongs brain plasticity - helping adults to continue to learn new things. Like large cranial volume, this attribute could well be a shared interest of many memes.

    Another common theory is that neoteny triggers "helping" behavior from other individuals. A "cultural evolution" spin on that idea might say that neoteny triggers "teaching" behavior.

    Discussions of neoteny frequently mention the idea that neoteny could have been favored by sexual selection. The preference by men for young women is often cited in this context, with younger women having a longer streak of child rearing ahead of them and with them being rated by men as being more attractive. Sexual selection is all very well, but it generally doesn't explain why we have stronger preferences in this area than chimpanzees do. Preferences are like fashion. They fossilize badly and it isn't easy to explain what traits are favored.

    Another hypothesis is that humans are attracted to and interested in their young. Humans produce young which are born helpless and immature. They need help. A preference for youth could help to promote parent-child bonding and childcare responsibilities. Childcare is especially important for humans as young children are so helpless this is also when much enculturation takes place.

    There are quite a few ideas explored in this article. It will be a challenge to future researchers to figure out which ideas are primarily responsible, abd which effects are bit players. The first ones mentioned - that developmental delay leads to larger brains and lifelong learning - seem like the big ones to me. However maybe the other ideas have merit - and maybe there are other ideas which I haven't yet thought of.

    Overall, neoteny looks like a fertile subject area for students of cultural evolution.

    Sunday, 22 July 2018

    The non-randomness of mutations

    Sometimes people contrast organic and cultural evolution by saying that in cultural evolution, mutations are not random, they can be the result of "intelligent design". IMO, the most correct response to this is is to say: "mutations are not random in organic evolution either". I haven't written about the "random mutations" issue too much because others have been capably handling the issue. One exception was here, where I complained about goalpost moving by proponents of random mutation.

    Here I want to concentrate on here is explaining the case for mutations being biased towards being adaptive in the organic realm in simple terms.

    The basic idea is that the mutations used in evolutionary models are themselves often the product of selective processes. A simple example of this is mutations in multicellular organisms. The differences in organisms between one generation and the next are what shows up in evolutionary models as having a mutational component. However, the mutations are actually the product of a selective process - namely the repeated production and selection of germ-line cells during development.

    What about mutations in single-celled organisms? Even measuring these across a single generation introduces selective bias. Some mutations kill their owners. Those muatations won't be found in immediate descendants because they are selectively filtered out.

    Another perspective comes from Perry Marshall, who writes: "Damage is Random. Repair is Not". Gene repair mechanisms are common and selectively bias mutations is adaptive directions.

    A possible response to these types of claim is to say that it is mixing up selection and mutation. Mutations are not biased towards being adaptive before selection acts on them. That argument represents a declaration of victory by definitional fiat, but that is not its only problem. In many of the cases described so far, the mutation and selection involved are causally separate and take place at different times. The mutation happens first, and then selection happens later. In such cases, defining mutation as changes in the absence of selection seem viableHowever, there is no rule saying that mutation and selection can be so separated. As an example consider mutations that arise during copying. Imagine that somer sequences are more prone to mutation than others. There, mutation and selection occur at the same time and are entangled. Even stereotypically random sources of mutation - such as cosmic rays are vulnerable to this type of entanglement, for example if DNA sections can be shielded or reinforced by methylation, or in other ways.

    Since defining adaptive mutations out of existence fails, what other avenues of retreat are available for the "random mutation" proponents? There are probably some involving redefining "randomness". Proponents already redefined this term to mean "not adaptively biased", maybe they could redefine it further to mean "not adaptive". Most mutations are still deleterious, so that position seems more defensible. It would be an enormous retreat, though.

    Another defense against the type of argument given above might consist of insisting on empirical evidence. If biased mutations are so common, then we ought to be able to find them empirically. That's a reasonable request. Looking at the existing experiments that have been performed, I don't see an obvious case that decides the issue. So, this seems like a hole in the case for adaptive bias to me. On the other hand, I think the theoretical case is pretty watertight, and isn't likely to be overturned by experiments.

    Another response could be to claim that the effects of adaptive bias are minor, and mutaions being random are a good approximation, and one that simplifies things considerably. I could cope with that. I can think of some circumstance where random mutations are not a very good approximation - such as genetic engineering - but they are also currently fairly rare. Randomish mutations might well be the rule inside cells for moost of evolutionary history.

    I've been living with an understanding of adaptive mutations for over a decade, and my testimony is that Darwinism survives reasonably well without them. Darwin didn't believe that mutations were random - he know that variation existed, but "mutation" wasn't really a significant concept back then. The concept of "equivocal mutations" came in with the neo-Darwinian synthesis. Random mutations are still available as a theoretical approximation, should they be required. Mutations necessarily being non-adaptive is a dead concept in my book. Its defenders come across as being defenders of out-dated dogma.

    The whole idea of mutations being different in cultural evoilution and organic evolution still has merit. Brains are a different environment from cells, and different types of change can happen in them. There are still bounds and limits to what can hapopen inside a brain, though. It isn't the case that anything goes, and so cultural evoiolution becomes an unfalsifiable theory that is compatible with any observations on the grounds that it could be a macromutation. However, the idea that mutations are directed in cultural evolution, but not in the organic realm is mistaken and has to go.

    Saturday, 21 July 2018

    Cultural kin selection vs better communication

    I have previously argued that cultural kin selection explains a wide range of common phenomena. Among these were cooperation between computers and printers, and cooperation between people who share a language.

    I have long been aware that other explanations have been proposed for some of these phenomena. In particular one such explanation is that shared memes involving communication make it easier for the parties involved to communicate and communication fosters cooperation. I was hoping that a critic would make this point, so that I could reply and cite them, but there's little harm in being proactive.

    I have a few separate points to make in response. Firstly these really are examples of cultural kin selection. They do involve shared memes resulting in cooperation, and part of the reason why they spread is that copies of them in one body has the effect of selectively favoring copies of them in other bodies.

    Secondly, the case for cultural kin selection does not rest in any way on cases where communicaton between the parties involved is fostered because the shared memes help to establish a communication protocol. Take money for example. A shared currency facilitates cooperation, but it is hard to make a case that it does so by fostering communication between the parties involved. That is just not how it works.

    Thirdly, shared memes fostering better communication is another explanation for cooperation that does not invoke the logic of kin selection, and yet is clearly involved in some of these phenomena. To the extent that I claimed that cultural kin selection is the reason why computers cooperate with printers, I misspoke. There's more than one mechanism involved in the correct answer to that. I don't know if I did actually write that. I did write (in 2012):

    Shared memes are also a big part of why your computer cooperates with your printer

    I hedged my bets a bit back then, but even what I wrote might still be an overstatement. Shared memes resulting in cooperation via cultural kin selection is involved in a complete explanation for why your computer cooperates with your printer - but I wouldn't like to defend it being a "big" part of the explanation.

    Now that I have thought about this in a bit more detail, I am wondering about interactions between the two mechanisms. Shared memes can produce cooperation via cultural kin selection and shared memes can produce cooperation via facilitating communication between the parties - which often results in improved cooperation between them. However, to what extent does cultural kin selection promote this other effect? Does its effect frequently come first? What about interactions the other way around? Better communication could easily promote meme transfer between the parties involved resulting in more shared memes and more cultural kin selection. How about interactions with genetic kin selection? You learn your language from your parents initially. The shared genes result in shared memes, which foster communication, and promote meme transfer from the parents, turning genetic kin into cultural kin. These interactions are fascinating, and researchers with awareness of cultural kin selection should be peering in.

    Monday, 9 July 2018

    Bonduriansky and Day: Extended Heredity

    Bonduriansky and Day's book Extended Heredity: A New Understanding of Inheritance and Evolution is now available. The topic area has a big overlap with the topic area here. The Amazon blurb reads:
    For much of the twentieth century it was assumed that genes alone mediate the transmission of biological information across generations and provide the raw material for natural selection. In Extended Heredity, leading evolutionary biologists Russell Bonduriansky and Troy Day challenge this premise. Drawing on the latest research, they demonstrate that what happens during our lifetimes--and even our grandparents' and great-grandparents' lifetimes―can influence the features of our descendants. On the basis of these discoveries, Bonduriansky and Day develop an extended concept of heredity that upends ideas about how traits can and cannot be transmitted across generations.

    By examining the history of the gene-centered view in modern biology and reassessing fundamental tenets of evolutionary theory, Bonduriansky and Day show that nongenetic inheritance―involving epigenetic, environmental, behavioral, and cultural factors―could play an important role in evolution. The discovery of nongenetic inheritance therefore has major implications for key questions in evolutionary biology, as well as human health.

    Extended Heredity reappraises long-held ideas and opens the door to a new understanding of inheritance and evolution.

    The book looks interesting and it is certainly a welcome contribution to the literature on the topic, but it fairly quickly aroused my critical faculties. Check out page 19, to start with. The authors present a classification scheme for heredity, listing, genes, self-regenerating factors, non-self-regenerating factors, structural inheritance and epigenetic inheritance. It seems half-baked to me.

    The authors seem rather obsessed with biological systems. If they are "extending" heredity, are they extending it to physics and to inorganic systems outside biology? Apparently not. In which case the authors are not really embracing the "extension" part of their thesis very well. Darwinian evolution, properly understood, applies to a range of inorganic physical systems and is not limited to biology.

    The authors bemoan the dominant "gene-centric" view of heredity apparently without considering the possibility that all inheritance is mediated by genes by definition of the term "gene". If the gene really is the unit of heredity, then the "epigenetic inheritance" category they apparently favor becomes an oxymoron.

    I searched for "memes": 1 hit. I searched for "universal darwinism": 0 hits. Universal Darwinism pioneers Blackmore, Plotkin and Dennett each get 0 mentions. It all seems like pretty poor coverage to me.

    Here is one author's page about the book.

    Sunday, 8 July 2018

    George Christos: The Memetic World

    I recently became aware of the book draft of The Memetic World. This is a book by George Christos. In 2017, George described the work as follows:

    my unpublished book called "The Memetic World", which was basically written in 2003

    George goes on to say:

    I do not want to edit what I have previously written so there are bits that are incomplete. There are also ideas I wanted to work into the text at some stage. I am not sure I agree with everything I wrote then, but it is what it is.

    The draft is clearly incomplete, with missing figures, notes to the author about where to insert more material, mysterious red sections. Also, the draft peters out into sketchy notes, and there's no index or references.

    Book length treatments of memetics are fairly rare, so my attitude is to gratefully treasure what we have. So, I am pleased to find this manuscript. This book is clearly heavily inspired by Blackmore's 1999 book. George references Blackmore 146 times - more than all the other authors he mentions combined, I think. The themes tend to follow Blackmore's interests. That's mostly good, but it means that there's too much material about the self and consciousness for my taste. The book is a fair bit more amateurish than Blackmore's, even after accounting for its unfinished nature.

    I'm not done analysing the contents so far, but so far I have learned at least one interesting thing from the book - to do with human longevity. Recent increases in human longevity are clearly memetically driven. My "background" theory would blame this on medical advances. However, as George points out there's a meme's eye view on this, which suggests that memes may divert resources away from DNA reproduction into maintenance processes that help the host to live longer as part of their strategy to get into more brains. Maybe this is a fairly obvious idea, but I don't recall having thought of it before reading The Memetic World.

    To close, here's a recent promotional video for the book:

    Tarrifs in evolutionary economics

    In classical economics, targeted tarrifs are bad because they cause absolute harm both parties involved. Preventing win-win deals harms both sides. Much the same argument suggests that most conflicts are also costly and bad. In evolutionary economics, things are a bit different because fitness is relative. Paying a cost to harm another actor is then explicable - if they are a main rival.

    Of course the actors involved should posture and dispaly their strength to each other first, but if neither side will back down, then they can be expected to fight. Do tarrifs damage yourself as much as them? Maybe, but maybe not if you pick the list of tarrifs and your plan factors in their capacity for retaliation. Even if the damage is equally distributed on both sides, there's also the capacity to endure damage to consider.

    Targeted tarrifs are in the news at the moment due to the ongoing US-China trade war. I won't go so far as to argue that that trade war is rational, but it has some of the attributes that you might expect from a rational conflict. In particular, the US and China are fairly direct rivals. They are two of the largest players in the world and so maybe they are not worried that conflict between them will increase the relative strength and power of other parties not directly involved in the conflict. Also, America is currently is a strong position, but it is widely forecast that a business-as-usual strategy will result in China gradually overtaking the US in the next century, mostly due to its larger pool of human resources. It is not hard to imagine that the US feels it needs to switch things up a bit.

    Sunday, 1 July 2018

    Filtering, sorting, copying, mutation

    One of the most popular schemes to classify evolutionary processes is based around the idea of selection. Evolutionists distinguish selection from genetic drift and then subdivide selective processes into kin selection, group selection, natural selection, artificial selection, sexual selection, divergent selection - and so on.

    I'm not opposed to the idea of selection, but do think that the popularity of the concept has pushed alternative classification schemes into the shade. One of my preferred subdivisions is to start by ignoring the distinction between drift and selection and to divide initially by whether the process involves death or reproduction - or more broadly subtraction or addition. For example, here is an article on the topic adapted from my 2011 book: Natural production and natural elimination.

    A closely-related classification scheme involves some other topics which I have promoted: sorting, filtering and copying. "Filtering is now my preferred term for evolutionary processes that subtract. "Sorting" refers to processes that neither subtract not add entities, but instead rearrange them. A focus on frequencies leads to sorting processes being ignored. However, in practice, sorting is common and influences evolution as a precursor to filtering.

    One of the things I like about "sorting", "filtering" and "copying" is that they are pretty crisp computer science topics. One of the problems with selection is that is is so general. Saying "selection did it" is a very weak explanation because almost everything counts as a form of selection. Yes, genetic drift exists, but that's just a form of noise. If almost everything counts as being a form of selection, selection becomes difficult to falsify as an explanation.

    While filtering obviously coveres "selection by death", it also crosses over into the realm of reproductive processes as well. Males are frequently sorted on "leks" and then the genes of the worst males are filtered out of the gene pool by females. While that is a form of subtraction, it is one which is pretty closely linked to reproduction - and what is commonly described in terms of "sexual selection".

    Filters can vary in the time of their application, or filtering that takes place at different times can be modeled as a series of filters. These two approaches are equivalent.

    "Filtering" is close to what Dawin originally meant by "natural selection". Darwin argued that "sexual selection" was not a form of "natural selection". The modern meaning of "natural selection" was introduced after Darwin's death. It pictures "sexual selection" as a type of "natural selection".

    The picture here leads to the following classification scheme for evolutionary change:

    • Entity count changes
      • Filtering (subtraction)
      • Copying (addition)
    • Entity count remains the same
      • Sorting (rearrangement)
      • Mutation (in-place change)

    Organisms moving around is not normally considered to be a form of evolutionary change - so "rearrangements" are mostly omitted or ignored. However, rearrangements are important. They are not completely ignored, but they are downplayed, I claim.

    The left-hand labels in this classification scheme are all the information theory / computer science ones - except for the "mutation" category. That one has gone the other way - when the concept is used in computer science the biological term is often used.

    Friday, 22 June 2018

    Positive and negative feedback in evolution

    Evolutionary theory has its own historical tradition and has developed its own terminology. However I sometime wonder what it would look like if it was (re)discovered by 21st century engineers. This post consists of some musings on that theme.

    If evolution was (re)discovered by modern engineers, one concept that would probably be more extensively employed is "feedback". Feedback is the name for systems whose outputs are "fed back" into their inputs. Of course, this happens all the time in biological systems in various ways. The term "homeostasis" is often used in biology, and this is just a type of negative feedback. In particular, gene pools typically have their outputs fed back into them. From this perspective, favorable selection is a type of positive feedback acting on trait frequences (or gene frequencies), while unfavorable selection is a generally similar type of negative feedback.

    Framing natural selection in terms of positive and negative feedback seems useful to me. The "feedback" terminology seems more general, and that is often a virtue in science.

    Another piece of biological terminology that might be framed differently by engineers is "fitness". "Fitness" is an overloaded term, but "inclusive fitness" could plausibly be replaced by "utility" - the more general term from economics which refers to "that which is optimized". The common term "expected fitness" would become "expected utility" - another standard concept. One slight difference is that "fitness" is usually though of as being "relative", while "utility" is usually thought of as being absolute. It's a minor issue because there are usually many players and so the distinction doesn't make much difference. Anyway, IMO, the way to resolve this is to say that economics has got this wrong.

    Saturday, 16 June 2018

    Andres Gomez Emilsson's pure replicators

    This post is about Andres Gomez Emilsson's proposed concept of "pure replicators". First, I'll let Andres introduce the concept:

    I will define a pure replicator, in the context of agents and minds, to be an intelligence that is indifferent towards the valence of its conscious states and those of others. A pure replicator invests all of its energy and resources into surviving and reproducing, even at the cost of continuous suffering to themselves or others. Its main evolutionary advantage is that it does not need to spend any resources making the world a better place.
    Conventionally, a "replicator" is something which copies are made of. Agents and minds aren't really replicators, they are large complicated things which can't easily be copied. "Reproducer" might be more appropriate terminology from this perspective.

    Evolution optimizes for survival and reproduction. However, that does not mean that it builds creatures that are uniformly devoid of compassion. The evolutionary function of compassion may not be obvious or easy to explain, but it is likely to exist because compassion is widespread among humans. Probably, compassion promotes social cohesion and encourages acts of reciprocal altruism.

    Andres warns against becoming a "pure replicator", but he defines this as an agent indifferent towards suffering, and most humans care act as though they care about the suffering of themselves or others - because compassion is built into them by evolution as a proximate goal. Becoming free of compassion does not seem as though it is a likely fate in the first place.

    Andres apparently agrees, writing: "Most animals do indeed care a great deal about the valence of their own consciousness". He goes on to explain that "pure replicators" are mostly a future threat. There follows a bunch of speculation about how future intelligent machines might not use the pleasure-pain axis in their motivational systems.

    I think that part of the problem here is a failure to properly distinguish between proximate and ultimate goals. A hypothetical agent with the sole goal of maximizing the number of their great grandchildren might still have proximate goals of minimizing the suffering of themselves and others. Many kinds of personal suffering are likely to be negatively correlated with the number of great grandchildren produced. Concern for others could well be adaptive too, though that's a bit harder to understand. That is how evolution can build compassionate creatures.

    Andres apparently thinks that compassion is a useless spandrel. That seems tremendously unlikely to me.

    However, my number problem is not with the science, it is with the terminology. You can't just hijack the "replicator" terminology and load it up with qualia for no good reason. The proposed termiology is simply ridiculous.

    Friday, 15 June 2018

    Carl Zimmer on heredity

    Carl had a small but nice section on memes in his "Evolution" book. Carl's latest book on "Heredity" is out now. It is called "She Has Her Mother's Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity". It has a section related to cultural evolution, called "The Teachable Ape". Memes get mentioned, but pretty dismissively.Carl cites Ehrlich and Feldman saying that: "The most recent attempts using a 'meme' approach appear to be a dead end".

    Carl does cover attempts to expand the concept of heredity to culture, but he avoided citing most of the literature on the topic. Carl managed to convey that he knew something about cultural evolution, but it didn't seem as though he had very much understanding of the topic. I thought the chapter was quite disappointing. It seemed like a step backwards from his 2006 effort.

    Wednesday, 13 June 2018


    "Meme, counter meme" is the title of a 1994 Wired article by Mike Godwin. Mike tells the story of how he combatted Nazi comparison memes on usenet by using counter-memes generated using memetic engineering. I don't know if "counter-meme" saw much use before 1994, but Mike Godwin either coined or popularized the phrase.

    I think that "counter-memes" is a useful concept. Fighting bad memes with good ones is a common and obvious technique, and "counter-memes" seems like an appropriate name for the concept.

    "Counter-memes" are part of the memetic immune system. Some are most effective before exposure to the memes they counter - those are like vaccines. Others are typically used after exposure - those are more like antibiotics.

    I think that "counter-memes" is one of the bits of memetics that has the potential to go mainstream and enter the common vocabulary. It's fairly useful and fairly catchy. It could pretty easily happen that people start responding to posted memes with "counter-meme: <blah>". If explicitly saying "counter-meme" when responding to a meme with a corrective meme signals that you are up on the latest internet lingo, it could become quite common. I find this fantasy pleasing and would like to help make it a reality.

    Sunday, 10 June 2018

    Jordan Peterson new meme critique

    Most modern meme critics frequently recycle the same content. Jordan Peterson seems to have come up with a new critique in a recent discussion with Sue Blackmore (starting 10 minutes in):

    What do you think of the whoele meme theory? I think it's a shallow derivation of the idea of archetype and that Dawkins would do well to read some Jung. In fact if he thought farther and wasn't so blinded by his a-priori stance on religion, he would have found that the deeper explanation of meme is in fact archetype.
    Jungian archetypes are innate, universal precursors to ideas. Memetics is related to the concept (since it deals with ideas), but archetypes aren't really a "deeper explanation of memes". "Meme" is mostly just catchy terminology for "socially-transmitted idea".

    Modern scientists may not discuss Jungian archetypes very much - but there are certainly conceptual equivalents. One modern perspective involves the distinction between "evoked" and "transmitted" culture. Evoked culture is the product of innate Jungian archetypes interacting with environmental variation. Transmitted culture is not encoded in genes, it is instead, copied from others. There's a spectrum in between the two concepts. Some evolutionary psychologists are very interested in "evoked" culture and play down the significance of transmitted culture. The enthusiasts for "cultural attractors" are also sometimes involved in studying Jungian archetypes under another name.

    Jungian archetypes are probably not mentioned very much due to association with the Jungian notion of a collective unconscious - a mystical notion which was subsequently widely rejected by scientists. Jungian psychology is about as out-of-date as Freud. I think if you tell modern scientists they should "read some Jung" you will generally get back some incredulous responses.

    Anyway, Jordan Peterson's critique is apparently of a "straw memetics" that holds that ideas are 100% transmitted and 0% affected by our evolved psychology. No practitions actually believe this. In practice, our evolved psychology has always been on the table. There are plenty of ways of incorporating innate biases into cultural evolutionary models. They can affect the selective environment of memes, or they can influence recombination or mutation operators.

    However, one of the central ideas of memetics (and cultural evolution in general) is that there's more to culture than innate predispositions (i.e. Jungian archetypes). Culture is not just about variations in the environment evoking different genetic responses (as in the "jukebox" model). There's also transmitted culture, and it is big and important, just as anthropologists have long been saying.

    The sterilization of females

    Memes can sterilize you, or dramatically reduce your fertility. This is true especially if you are a woman. The correlation between female education and fertility is strongly negative:

    This isn't just a case of memes making people richer and r/K selection adaptively kicking in. The phenomenon is powerful enough to reduce fertility to sub-replacement levels - as seen in South Korea, Japan, and many other countries.

    In memetics, the explanation for this is fairly obvious - diverting resources away from gene reproduction fuels meme reproduction. It is thus a common interest of many memes to sterilize their hosts. Dawkins gave this as an explanation of priest infertility in 1976 and the basic idea has held up.

    If you consider memes as cultural symbionts, then this phenomenon may seem familiar. Many parasites also sterilize their hosts. Many human STDs do this, for example:

    It is widely accepted that bacterial infections with Neisseria gonorrheae, Treponema pallidum and Chlamydia trachomatis can lead to fertility alterations. The impact on reproduction alteration is suggested but not well understood in the case of some viral STI, such as human herpes virus (HSV), adeno-associated virus, human immune-deficiency virus (HIV), human cytomegalovirus (HCMV) and human papillomavirus (HPV).
    HPV is one of the better-known ones. It gives women cervical cancer and blocks up the tubes of their reproductive system with cancer cells.

    Sybiont foodstuffs such as green leafy plants also frequently attempt to sterilize those that consume them. This prevents further consumption of the plant by offspring, and attempts to consume relatives. Phytoestrogens are a common method. These bind to the estrogen receptor and so defeminize many animals.

    At this point, you may have noticed a theme. The targets of these attacks on the reproductive system are frequently female. It seems easier to sterilize females than it is to sterilize males. I notice that most human contraceptives also target women. If you look into forced human sterilization, the majority of victims there are women as well.

    Why is it easier to sterilize females? I don't know the answer to that, but I have some ideas. Not all species have males. The female reproductive tract is mostly shared with those that reproduce asexually. Another factor might be that if population reduction is the aim, sterilizing males would not work unless you got almost all of the males. If you sterilize one male another can easily take his place. That is not so true of females. I'm not sure that these ideas explain all of my examples, though.

    Sunday, 13 May 2018

    Display motives

    Humans are often hypocritical creatures, saying one thing and doing another. There seems to be terminology for discussing our actual motives. They are frequently called "hidden motives" or "revealed preferences". However there doesn't seem to be a standard term for the motives we use for virtue signalling- the ones that we pretend to have in order to appear wholesome in order to manipulate others into liking and trusting us.

    To contrast with "hidden motives" I propose "display motives" to refer to the motives that we pretend are what drives us - for public relations purposes. The term emphasizes their signalling role. If you wanted to emphasize their role in promoting good behaviour, you might prefer something like "aspirational motives". However, I don't expect to be using that latter term too frequently.

    For "revealed preferences", I think it should really be "hidden preferences" and "display preferences" - as we see with the "motives" terminology. However, since "revealed preferences" has become the more popular term, "sham preferences" seems like the most appropriate antonym. Your actions reveal your claimed motives to be a sham.

    Thursday, 19 April 2018

    Daniel Dennett - Memes saved from extinction

    Dennett wonders whether Richard Dawkins’ concept of a meme has gone extinct. This is from February 2017.

    The blurb reads:

    Richard Dawkins’ concept of a meme, an item of culture that is differentially replicated and hence evolves by natural selection, has provoked many misguided attacks, and yet survived in heavily transformed guise to become a dreaded buzzword.

    Thursday, 12 April 2018

    Daniel Dennett - The Digital Planet 1998 (repost)

    I previously posted videos in an article titled: Daniel Dennett - The Digital Planet 1998. Those videos were taken down - but it seems they are still available elsewhere on YouTube:

    I originally introduced this as follows. The blurb reads:

    Daniel Dennett describes how Darwin introduced the idea of natural selection by comparing it to the selective breeding of domestic animals; including intentional selection as well as unconscious selection. Dennett also introduces a fourth category, genetic engineering. He then goes on to show how these categories also apply to the evolution of cultures.

    From a conference in 1998 called Der Digitale Planet (The Digital Planet), which also included Douglas Adams, Richard Dawkins, Jared Diamond and Steven Pinker.

    IIRC, there was also a Q&A section, which had some good stuff in it. AFAIK, all the other videos are still lost, though there is some audio here.

    Susan Blackmore interviewed by Bas Heijne

    From 2015. The blurb says: Susan Blackmore is interviewed by Dutch journalist and philosopher Bas Heijne. [...] In this video, Heijne and Blackmore talk about her vision of cultural evolution, the symbiosis between humans and digital systems, and artificial intelligence.

    Sunday, 1 April 2018

    The Wired guide to memes

    Wired has an article titled "THE WIRED GUIDE TO MEMES" out. It is subtitled "Everything you ever wanted to know about Nyan Cat, Doge, and the art of the Rickroll." The authors are Angela Watercutter and Emma Grey Ellisby. Most of the article is about internet memes. It credits Richard Dawkins, for the origin of the term "meme", but goes on to argue that memes "have evolved into something much different than what Dawkins originally envisioned". It says:

    Dawkins coined the term in 1976, in his book The Selfish Gene, long before the modern internet, before memes morphed into what they are now. Back then, Dawkins was talking about passing along culture—song melodies, art styles, whatever. Today, denizens of the internet think of memes as jokes passed across social media in the form of image macros (those pictures of babies or cats or whatever with bold black-and-white words on them), hashtags (the thing you amended to what you just wrote on Twitter), GIFs (usually of a celebrity, reality star, or drag queen reacting to what you just wrote on Twitter), or videos (that Rick Astley video people used to send you).

    This "incompatibilism" is bad. Content which people share widely on the internet are memes in Dawkins original sense. It is OK for people to use "meme" as shorthand for "internet meme", since so much social sharing takes place on the internet these days. But the people who say that "Milhouse is not a meme" - those people are just wrong. They lack basic meme literacy. "Milhouse is not an internet meme" would have more truth to it - though a lot of people stream The Simpsons over the internet these days.

    The definition of "meme" has long been a controversial topic in memetics, but few have proposed or promoted confining the term to things shared on the internet - with Limor Shifman being the notable exception. We have the term "internet meme" for that.

    Saturday, 31 March 2018

    The evolution of racism

    I've long believed that a proper scientific understanding of racism can help us engineer societies which are relatively free from racial tensions. However I haven't spent much energy writing about the topic. That is largely because of the heat the whole topic often attracts. However, I don't think that is a very good reason for avoiding discussing the issue in public. If everyone did that it would become impossible to have any sensible policy discussions. Anyway, here are some of my views on the topic:

    Some worry that treating racism as a natural phenomenon, will be used to justify it as "natural" and therefore excusable. I don't really share that concern. Science explains "rape" as a natural phenomenon, but "my genes made me do it" is not treated as a valid excuse in court. It's much the same with explaining racism scientifically.

    Xenophobia is likely to have had survival value for our distant ancestors. Back when outgroup members were uniformly likely to bash your head in with a rock, knowing who is part of your tribe would have been pretty important.

    Humans are tribal creatures. We know empirically that humans like to form groups which exaggerate their similarities with ingroup members while exaggerating their differences from outgroup members. The result is tribal markers which are culturally transmitted, subject to rapid cultural evolution and likely to diverge quickly and easily.

    It has long been observed that kin selection and homophily are associated with racism. Humans are nice to their relatives, and part of the clues of relatedness involve physical appearance. The implementation of kin recognition involves some similarity detection. Based on this, people of a different race would represent a super-stimulus of unrelatedness. The idea has been dubbed "ethnic nepotism". However, kin selection based on similarity between DNA genes probably doesn't explain racism very well. It mostly preducts outgroup indifference, not outgroup hostility. There is the phenomenon of Hamiltonian spite - which predicts active hostility to non-relatives, but this is widely though to be a minor phenomenon.

    I think that the simple intuition that kin selection is involved in racism is correct, but I also think that cultural kin selection needs to be invoked, along with cultural hijacking of kin selection mechanisms.

    Other thinkers have also invoked culture in the explanation for racism. For example, here is what Richard Dawkins had to say on the topic in his 2004 article "Race and creation".

    We are indeed a very uniform species if you count the totality of genes, or if you take a truly random sample of genes, but perhaps there are special reasons for a disproportionate amount of variation in those very genes that make it easy for us to notice variation, and to distinguish our own kind from others. These would include the genes responsible for externally visible "labels" like skin colour. I want to suggest that this heightened discriminability has evolved by sexual selection, specifically in humans because we are such a culture-bound species. Because our mating decisions are so heavily influenced by cultural tradition, and because our cultures, and sometimes our religions, encourage us to discriminate against outsiders, especially in choosing mates, those superficial differences that helped our ancestors to prefer insiders over outsiders have been enhanced out of all proportion to the real genetic differences between us.

    However, Dawkins has also stated that he doesn't think that kin selection is involved. Here are comments from "Darwin's dangerous disciple":

    The National Front was saying something like this, "kin selection provides the basis for favoring your own race as distinct from other races, as a kind of generalization of favoring your own close family as opposed to other individuals." Kin selection doesn`t do that! Kin selection favors nepotism towards your own immediate close family. It does not favor a generalization of nepotism towards millions of other people who happen to be the same color as you.

    Dawkins goes on to mention another theory involving divergent selection:

    I could imagine that racist feeling could be a misfiring, not of kin selection but of reproductive isolation mechanisms. At some point in our history there may have been two species of humans who were capable of mating together but who might have produced sterile hybrids (such as mules). If that were true, then there could have been selection in favor of a "horror" of mating with the other species. Now that could misfire in the same sort of way that the cuckoo host's parental impulse misfires. The rule of thumb for that hypothetical avoiding of miscegenation could be "Avoid mating with anybody of a different color (or appearance) from you."

    The "divergent selection" theory predicts racism would be most pronounced between individuals of the opposite sex. That might be true, but I don't think any such effect is very big. Divergent selection might explain some racism, but I don't think it is a very good or complete explanation.

    I don't think Dawkins's rationale for rejecting kin selection makes sense. For one thing, he is apparently only thinking of genetic kin selection. If you take cultural kin selection into account, it becomes immediately obvious how kin selection can be applied to large groups of people who are not closely related in terms of their DNA genes. Although they might not share genes they do share memes. Patriotism memes can convince soldiers to fall on grenades to save their unrelated soldier "brothers in arms". Kin selection is not just a theory about DNA genes - it also applies to shared cultural phenomena.

    I think it is important to note that culture often exaggerates and amplifies tribal signals. These work by acting as superstimulii of relatedness. Memes involving uniforms for example dabble in kin selected psychology, and try and convince people that they are surrounded by their super-brothers and super-sisters. They frequently do this in order to encourage altruistic behavior associated with kin altruism. Memes often need their hosts to be nice and sociable to promote their own spread. Surrounded by culturally strengthened kin signals - and attempts at manipulation involving artificially strengthened kinship signals - it would probably have benefitted our ancestors to pay close attention to such signals and detect when the signals are being manipulated.

    Hijacking and manipulation of kinship signals by culture gives a different dynamic to the process. Hijacking of kinship signals can be done without culture - as when a long-lost relative turns up and claims their inheritance. However cultural kin selection makes hijacking and manipulation much more common.

    What about the objection to kin selection that I raised earlier? That it predicts indifference towards outgroup members, rather than hostility?

    Indifference can still lead to very bad behaviour. Kin selection siggests that humans are indifferent to the fate of chickens, but that doesn't prevent humans from killing chickens in huge numbers in slaughterhouses. In the absence of kin selected altruism and altruism based on reciprocity, and reputations, it seems reasonably plausible that the default standard of behavior towards others among our ancestors involved bashing their heads in with rocks.

    Anyway, this is my proposed explanation for racism. In a nutshell, kin selection, especially cultural kin selection plus some meme-gene coevolution.

    Some would prefer to reframe this in terms of group selection and cultural group selection. That should make no technical difference, due to the equivalence of modern kin selection and group selection frameworks.

    What are the policy recommendations associated with this idea? The obvious suggestion is to increase sharing. This could involve shared genes, or shared memes. If either promotes cooperation, then more shared genes and memes seems as though it would have a positive effect. Creating genetic uniformity could be done, for example, by promoting inter-racial marriage, or even just international travel. However, even these sorts of intervention could prove controversial. Rather than creating genetic uniformity, the most obvious policy would be to aim at creating shared memes. Get people speaking the same language, using the same money, the same software and following the same religion. That should help to make them nice to each other.

    There are some downsides to this sort of proposal. Historically, globalization has led to more widely shared memes, but it has simultaneously led to larger and more powerful groups. It does look as though the general trend lines are pretty positive, but it is at least worth noting that large powerful groups can cause a lot of damage if they come into conflict with one another. The path to humans all being of one tribe is likely to lead through a state where there are two or three tribes - and that stage could potentially have some associated dangers.

    Another problem is more abstract. More shared memes is likely to lead to less memetic diversity that could lead to a less effective search of meme-space and slower memetic evolution. That could have several consequences. It could result in monopolies and stagnation. It could mean that the quest for shared memes is self-limiting - as those societies that pursue it are out-competed by those with greater memetic diversity. Or it could result in some of the down-sides of monocultures - for example catastrophic parasite attacks. Diversity is, amongst other things, a defense against parasitism.

    Since it is the appearance of similarity that is most important, it might be worth focusing on methods that superficially hide race-related signals. A man wearing a suit has obliterated 90% of the signals related to the colour of his skin. As technology improves the options here may also improve. Michael Jackson's racial transformation may become more widely accessible, and less surgery-intensive options involving drugs or gene therapy may become available.

    Another related policy area involves what I call virtualization. It appears that armed conflicts and sports share some traits and that indulgence in sporting events substitutes and displaces armed conflict - at least to some extent. A similar approach could be used in an attempt to defuse racial tensions - again using sports or other areas where uniformed teams compete with each other. This approach seems a bit dangerous and it is easy to imagine ways in which it could backfire. However, it should at least be explored and studied.

    Lastly, it seems as though a lot of progress has been made via memetic evolution of anti-racism memes. One marker for this evolution is the rapid rise of the words "racism" and "racist". Before the 1960s these words were virtually unknown. Then, between 1960 and 2000, their use rapidly skyrocketed. See this chart for more details:

    The rapid rise of the terms "racism" and "racist" probably does not indicate an increase in these phenomena. Instead, it probably marks a rise in anti-racist memes. A number of modern policy efforts focus on direct suppression of racism, by spreading anti-racism memes around and persecuting percieved racists.

    This seems reasonable to me, though my favoured explanation of racism doesn't really throw much light on what policies in this area would be most effective.

    One thing in this area which I am concerned about the "James Watson" effect, where social justice warriors ruin the careers of otherwise respectable scientists over the issue.

    The area of science covered by this blog is all about differences between humans (and groups of humans). The differences being examined are primarily cultural differences, but that topic still touches on genetic differences, since these must often be controlled for. I would hate for my preferred area of science to become a hotbed of racial controversy because of this.

    One problem involves the quest to minimise percieved racial differences. Rather obviously there will be less racial discrimination if lots of people believe racial differences are small or insignificant. That results in an advocacy effort to minimize percieved racial differences. The problem is that this domain is largely a matter of fact, accessible to scientific enquiry. The advocates are naturally inclined to distort the facts in favor of their position - perhaps hoping for a self-fulfilling prophesy effect. Unfortunately, this leads them into conflict with those seeking the truth.

    I think that the quest to suppress racism should take care not to run too roughshod over the facts. If you base your moral position on false facts, then it is likely that the truth will out in the end, taking the basis of your moral position with it. In particular, there's no urgent need to deny the existence of heritable differences in ability with a geographic basis when trying to help people with different ethnic backgrounds get along. There are profound differences if you consider age or sex as your control variable - instead of race. With age, discrimination based on many of those differences is enshrined in the laws concerning marriage, drinking voting, driving, etc. Differences between people that affect their abilities are OK, society can cope with them. Positions like "race is a social construct" and general denial of race related differences are not really scientifically credible positions.

    The current situation is that many of the "race denialists" are fighting with scientists and with the facts. It doesn't seem as though they occupy the moral high ground. I don't think they are actually helping their own cause. They are just making themselves look scientifically illiterate.

    Saturday, 3 March 2018

    Peter Richerson: Human Evolution in the Pleio-Pleistocene

    The full title is: Human Evolution in the Pleio-Pleistocene: A World Queerer Than We Supposed.

    Here Peter is mostly making the case that understanding human evolution requires an understanding of the influence of climate. Cultural evolution gets mentioned, but it is not really the main topic.

    Memes from Russia with love

    I've covered meme warfare before, and have other articles about use of memes in warfare and by the miltary. There have been some interesting developments in this area recently, as light has been shone on Russian attempts to culturally influence western nations via disinformation campaigns.

    Russian involvement in the 2016 US general election acted as a catalyst for this interest. The spotlight was quickly broadened to include Brexit, the Scottish independent vote.

    Russian media operatives bots have shown interest in a number of other areas. They get fired up by the gun regulation debate. They are opposed to vaccination. They are opposed to GMO crops.

    Matt Ridley wrote an article recently about how Russia promoted the "nuclear winter" theory - which was subsequently widely-discredited.

    Fracking, climate change and energy policy have been other targets of the Russians.

    Russia's use of disinformation goes back decades, but has only been the last couple of years that awareness of it has become more widespread. "Disinformation" has become known as "fake news" - a term which exploded in populatity in November 2016.

    This article is about Russian efforts, but I don't mean to suggest that other countries are not involved. American cyberwarfare operations include Operation Olympic Games and Stuxnet. The American efforts have been covert, though - while the Russian ones are easier to study because they often involve public distribution.

    The topic is currently popular, and it could fairly easily be used as a case study for students of cultural evolution. The most obvious things we want to know are what issues the Russians have attempted to influence, how they have attempted to influence them, how successful they have been and what can be done about the issue.

    One frequently reported Russian technique is to play both sides of an issue. However, it is not known precisely why they like to do that. There are two main possibilities. One is that they want to create conflict between Americans, creating domestic problems and distracting them from foreign policy issues. Another possibility is that they want to create media noise and controversy as part of spreading their message. If everyone is on one side of an issue, it becomes a non-issue, and that is not newsworthy or spreadable. Another possibility is that by controlling both sides of the argument they can better make one side look stupid. Audiences assess arguments by considering the merits of the case presented each side. They also consider which side they want to affiliate with. Infiltraring the other side and then presenting weak arguments and behaving like an idiot are techniques which can be used to damage your opponent's position.

    For example, here is a Russian anti pro-DAPL meme and a Russian pro-DAPL meme:

    Now, I think it is pretty obvious that the second meme is trolling. Pollution by protesters isn't the reason why some people favoured the DAPL. A more realistic reason is that they didn't want a tiny minority messing up energy distribution for everyone else due to selfish, NIMBY issues. The real intended message of the second meme is something like: those who favor the pipeline are assholes. This makes sense as a message that might be favored by the Russian manipulators: opposing the DAPL interferes with the American domestic energy distribution network.

    Not everyone seems to agree with this conclusion. For a counterpoint, see this ArsTechnica article, which argues that the Russians were just trying to create conflict.

    Disinformation campaigns are part of the dark side of memetics. By working to understand them it might be possible to combine performing useful science with doing social good. I hope that some people in the field will sieze these kinds of opportunity.

    Sunday, 14 January 2018

    Resource allocation theory

    A common class of problems which agents frequently face involve resource allocation. Organisms divide their resources between growth, maintenance and reproduction.

    Resource allocation decisions can be fixed or flexible. They can be directly genetically controlled or dependent on cognitive evaluation of circumstances.

    To help quantify the resources involved it is often useful to split these problems up so that they can be represented as scalars and visualized on a one-dimensional axis. Seceral such splits will be described in the rest of this post.

    First a few words about the "interchangability" of resources. Economists often treat resources as interchangable, since there is a market on which they can be exchanged for one another. However, not all organisms have access to efficient markets. Without these, it might not be easy to convert resources from one form into another. If resources are not interchangable at all doesn't make much difference to most of the analysis on this page. Instead of one resource, this just means that there are multiple resources which can be treated independently. However, in practice, resources may often be "weakly" interchangable, through barter, favors, debt, etc. Or maybe if you don't have enough sodium, you can make do with some potassium instead. While these kinds of complication are fairly common, they go beyond the scope of this page. Here we will just talk about "resources" as though they can be represented by scalars.

    A fairly basic split when modeling resource allocation decisions is between self and other. Resources allocated to yourself are often then sub-divided between growth and maintenance processes. Other-allocated resources typically go into a range of processes associated with reproduction: mate seeking, courtship, coitus, parental care - and so on. It is possible to manipulate this self/other axis in a wide range of organisms via dietary energy restriction. This diverts resources into maintenance processes and away from reproductive processes.

    Another fairly common way in which resource investment can vary involves the parental investment axis. Organisms face a choice between investing in existing offspring, or investing in producing new offspring. Strawberries, salmon and elms often focus on creating new offspring - while by contrast, elephants, whales and humans tend to invest quite heavily in their existing offspring. The parental investment axis is often referred to as r/K selection, which I rate as one of the worst pieces of terminology in evolutionary theory.

    The parental investment axis seems rather neglected to me. Apart from the associated terminological mess, another issue is political correctness. When the topic comes up, it often gets mentioned that the human fertility rate is pretty variable. In Nigeria and Somalia is about 6, while in Hong Kong and Taiwan, it is about 1. After a while, Rushton (1996, 1988) may get cited and then this often leads to accusations of racism flying around. The parental investment axis seems to be a hot-button topic which is difficult for many people to discuss dispassionately.

    Whether to invest in existing or future kids is one decision, whether to invest in existing or future mating partners is another, related decision. Males and females both face this sort of decision sometimes - their existing mate may be damaged, old or infertile. Or maybe they became more attractive and can find a better mate. Some female animals carry sperm around with them - for them the issue can be whether to use the existing sperm or to get a new stock.

    Another resource-allocation decision involves whether to put resources into reproducing sexually or asexually. Not very many creatures face this dilemma, but strawberries, some aphids and some fish can reproduce in both ways depending on the circumstances. Reproducing asexually avoids the costs of sex - such as the costs of producing and spreading pollen or semen, but also avoids the benefits of sex, such as producing diversity to hinder the spread of parasites.

    Resource allocation theory (and optimal resource allocation) also apply to cultural evolution. Indeed these terms are more common in economics than they are in traditional evolutionary biology.

    In biology, this topic is often treated as part of life history theory.