Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Tim Tyler: The meme's eye view


Hi! I'm Tim Tyler and this is a video about the virtues of adopting a meme's eye view of cultural change.

It wasn't until the 1970s - long after Darwin's discovery of evolutionary theory - that biologists started to become accustomed to the idea that it was useful to look at evolutionary change from the perspective of individual genes.

The idea is often attributed to William Hamilton. Richard Dawkins helped to popularise the concept in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene.

It is not obvious that it can be useful to think of genes as being selfish agents which have a point of view. Indeed, at first, the idea was much misunderstood, with the very idea that genes might have a perspective or be selfish being mocked by those who didn't understand it. However, these days the validity of the gene's eye view is really taken for granted by most evolutionary biologists.

In a nutshell, the idea is that genes can usefully be thought of as agents who are concerned with their own reproductive success. They behave as if they want to become ancestors, and adopt structures which facilitate this.

There are a couple of different perspectives which help to explain how and why this is useful.

One is game theory. It is possible to view the evolutionary process as a type of competition between the heritable elements that underlie different morphologies and strategies. The most successful genes are defined as being those that leave the most descendants. The common result is the appearance of design without a designer. This explains how genes come to adopt forms which help them to survive. It allows us to "cash-out" talk of genes as agents with goals, desires and a perspective in more conventional causal language that drains all the teleology and agency out.

The other perspective has to do with human psychology. Human beings have built-in mental apparatus that helps us to understand the behavior of other agent-like systems - by a process involving mentally putting ourselves in the other agent's shoes. Humans use a built-in model of themselves as the basis for this type of identification process. This system underlies both empathy and our imitation capabilities. The whole system is sufficiently flexible to allow for identification with agents with different goals, abilities and aptitudes. It is possible to identify with dogs, rodents and invertebrates - and doing so allows the brain to better make use of its architectural features to predict the behavior of such systems. Interestingly, the same architecture is even useful for inanimate systems - if they have goal-directed nature or represent an optimisation process. So, for example, it is possible to imagine yourself as a ball rolling down a hill, and imagine the path that you might take. The fact that evolution is an optimisation process is what allows this technique to do useful work in the case of genes. Genes do not literally have goals - but they behave as though they want to reproduce themselves. This allows a goal-directed model to do useful work, which in turn allows human built-in mental apparatus to model these as goal-directed systems, thereby helping us to attain insights into the operation of genes by making efficient use of the strengths of our own minds.

This then brings us to the meme's eye view. Just as the gene's eye view is useful, so the meme's eye view is useful. This has long been appreciated by students of memetics - and there the memes eye view goes back over 20 years - at least to Dennett's 1990 paper "Memes and the Exploitation of Imagination". However, students of cultural evolution in academia appear to have paid insufficient attention to the work of the memeticists in this area, and are still mostly attempting to struggle along without this important idea. One rare exception to this is Stephen Shennan - who publicly called for the meme's eye view to be more widely embraced in his presentation in the 2010 "Culture Evolves" conference.

The meme's eye view conjours up a picture of memes attempting to manipulate their environment for their own advantage.

For example, a sociobiologist looking at a modern office a might see humans using machines for their own advantage. However the meme's eye view suggests another perspective. In a mutualist symbiosis, each party typically attempts to control and manipulate the other. So: the memes are also manipulating the humans into creating more memes, and are often in competition with other memes which are striving to make use of the same human resources.

For another example consider mobile phones. The typical sociobiology perspective pictures humans using phones to promote their own ends, with the employees and bosses at the phone company using the technology to promote their own ends. The meme's eye view of this set-up looks rather different: the memes are using the human bodies of the users as sophisticated data-capturing devices and world manipulators. Giving on-screen instructions to humans allows the memes to take advantage of sophisticated actuators made using molecular nanotechnology, while cameras, microphones and keyboards allow for data input. The data is then fed to a server-side computer system, which acts like a large and sophisticated brain which manages the entire set-up. The whole system is arranged so as to promote and perpetuate the mobile phone company's memes - at the expense of the memes of its competitors.

Looking back at the timeline of human evolution, one of the first objectives for the memes would have been to make room for themselves in human brains. They did this by rewarding the humans with more space for memes with increased genetic fitness. Memes for language, music and fashion were probably mainly responsible for this. The result was 3 million years of steadily-expanding cranial capacity - which resulted in much more space for the memes.

Meme reproduction requires sociable humans - so those humans who interacted more with other humans would have been rewarded by the memes. The result of this was human ultrasociality.

Humans and their memes then developed spoken language - an adaptation which can be used for spreading memes. They also developed a taste for group chanting - which allows meme transmission with redundancy and error correction.

Next the memes increased human numbers - since the more humans there are, the more memes there are. Agricultural memes allowed humans to form closer symbiotic relationships with plants, animals and each other, which boosted their fitness and increased their numbers. The result was a massive increase in the worldwide population of memes.

The next problem for the memes was transmission fidelity. At this early stage, most memes were copied by using behavioural imitation - which provides very little in the way of copying fidelity. Environmental inheritance proved to be the answer here. By inventing the idea of writing memes could persist unaltered across extended periods of time.

Then there was the copying speed problem. Transcribing documents by hand was slow and tedious. However, the invention of mechanical printing presses allowed machines to take over this task from humans, resulting in much more rapid meme production and a vastly wider distribution of memes.

Today, many memes often still need the consent of a human brain to get copied - an obvious bottleneck from their perspective. The afflicted memes are currently busy sorting this issue out. Today, only a few parasitic computer viruses manage to reproduce themselves while skipping over the human brain completely. However, in the future, superintelligent machines seem likely to copy memes with the full consent of society.

To close, I would like to propose the meme's eye view as one obvious landmark to use for gauging the progress of academics in developing their understanding of cultural evolution. Academic study of cultural evolution has now fairly-clearly made it past the "Darwin" stage and the "Fisher" stage. However, it still appears to be somewhere around a hundred years behind the study of organic evolution. Since cultural evolution seems unlikely to produce a Mendel, or a Watson and Crick any time soon, the question arises of how best to measure the progress of academia in its understanding how culture evolves. The meme's eye view seems to provide a fairly suitable yardstick. At the moment, the penetration of the meme's eye view in academia is fairly clearly at an extremely low level. I think that places academia somewhere before the state of evolutionary theory in the 1970s. This metric suggests that academics still have a considerable way to go in developing their understanding of how culture evolves.

There's more about the meme's eye view in my "Memetics" book - which is available now.


Update 2012-03-26: Here is what seems to be the meme's eye view a little earlier than 1990 - in Luc Claeys' 1989's book "Behavior of Information". Chapter 1 says:

Chapter 1 Living Information - To understand the theory of the behavior of information, we have to place ourselves on the point of view of information itself. To facilitate the transition from our classical "self-centered" point of view to this new point of view, this chapter will show some analogies between the life of information and the life of some living species we all know about.
It continues in chapter 2:

Chapter 2 Information beings - The next step towards the point of view of information is to imagine that there is some consciousness associated with information. In other words, the life, the propagation and the survival of information is related to a desire to live, a desire to survive.

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