Tuesday, 25 December 2012

The war on violent memes

Cultural epidemiology has found some new converts recently - in the area of combating violence. Here's cureviolence.org:

Treating violence as an infectious epidemic is effective

Three main strategies are used in reversing infectious epidemic processes. These are:

  • detecting and interrupting potential infectious events;
  • determining who are most likely to cause another infectious event and reducing their likelihood of developing disease and subsequently transmitting; and
  • changing the underlying social and behavioral norms, or environmental conditions, that directly relate to this infection.
These methods have resulted in reductions in shootings and killings of 16% to 34%.

The Cure Violence method is designed around these principles. This method begins with epidemiological analysis of the clusters involved and transmission dynamics, and uses several new categories of disease control workers – including violence interrupters, outreach behavior change agents, and community coordinators – to interrupt transmission to stop the spread and to change norms around the use of violence. Workers are trained as disease control workers, similar to tuberculosis workers or those looking for first cases of bird flu or SARS.

- http://cureviolence.org/what-we-do/

Another recent article on the topic is: Can Murder Be Tracked Like An Infectious Disease? by Shankar Vedantam.

Older articles on the topic include: Violence may be a 'socially infectious disease', Gun Violence Is Social Disease, Public Health Experts Say and Is It Time to Treat Violence Like a Contagious Disease?.

Meme inoculations, therapy and engineering have potential for treating other disorders besides violence. Drug abuse, road rage and many other mental health disorders could likely be treated as infectious diseases. However, first academics need to understand the idea of cultural epidemiology before they can properly investigate hypotheses based on it.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Humans vs Darwinism

One argument against memetics is that evolutionary theorists should not go in for controversy - and should instead close ranks to concentrate on their real foe: theism. I don't really approve of this argument - on the grounds that theism is has been scientifically dead for over a century, and there's no point is kicking a dead horse.

However, it is certainly true that some are still struggling with the first wave of the Darwinian revolution, let alone stages 2 and 3. A case in point is the recent works by philosophers:

Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False by Thomas Nagel and What Darwin Got Wrong by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini.

I'm inclined to blame such material on Sturgeon's Law. It is an illustration of human irrational resistance to Darwinism, though. Memetics brings Darwinism into human culture. The evolving brain puts Darwinism into the human mind. Some humans can't stomach this.

End of the world memes

Paranoia about the end of the world is an ancient phenomenon. Everyone wants to warn others about risks - and the end of the world acts as a risk superstimulus. Doomsday cults have capitalized on this effect throughout recorded history to spread their message, recruit new members and reallocate their resources. The result is large numbers of humans running around obsessed with the apocalypse.

In a curiously parallel phenomena, academic institutes have appeared which cater to those who fear the end of the world. The Cambridge Project for Existential Risk Oxford's existential-risk.org and Oxford Martin Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology. No doubt these will add credibility to the end of the world soothsayers and generally escalate the level of paranoia on the topic. There's also a high-tech cult - whose mission is to save the world from the coming apocalypse.

Whether the rise of the end of the world memes is desirable is debatable. Humans are naturally prone to paranoia due to the association between the ancestral environment and dangerous predators. Now we live in a comparatively safe environment, but out brains are still wired up as though we might die tomorrow. Humans are more jumpy and twitchy than makes sense, and feeding their natural paranoia seems unlikely to help them - instead causing them to waste their time and resources on insignificant risks.The last thing they need is large organizations feeding them risk superstimulii.

Indeed to combat such things, the US government now has a page for teaching parents how to reassure their kids in the face of the wave of apocalyptic memes they currently face.

The academics studying the topic suggest that many of the genuine risks facing humanity are caused by technological development. Technological development has in fact made the world a much safer place to live in for individuals. However, it should also be admitted that it has resulted in large nuclear stockpiles that could potentially cause large scale destruction of our planetary ecosystem. No such disaster has ever actually happened - so it is rather challenging to assess its probability.

The potential for technology to destroy the world seems likely to grow. No doubt there will be a parallel evolution of safeguards - to ensure that no such event never arises. However, I expect a corresponding escalation of end of the world memes - as we progress towards the next likely suspect: broad-spectrum superhuman machine intelligence.

The best memes of 2012

A roundup of lists from other sites:

The 'Buzzfeed' article says: "2012 will forever be known as the year the meme went mega-mainstream" - yay!

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Tim Tyler: Wilson, Darwin's Cathedral (review)


Hi. I'm Tim Tyler, and this is a review of this book:

Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society by David Sloan Wilson

This is a relatively early book by a scientist looking at religion. Religion is a messy subject, which only a few scientists have attempted to deal with. Wilson's thesis is that religion is functional, and that its associated benefits accrue to groups of humans. He compares religious communities to beehives - on the grounds that their members cooperate with each other much as members of a bee hive do.

What are we to make of David's thesis? Bees in hives cooperate because they are extremely close relatives - since they are all daughters of the same queen. However most humans in religious communities are not anywhere near as closely related. So, in terms of DNA genes, the relationship between religious communities and bee hives is pretty far fetched. However, religious communities also share their memes, and a reasonable fraction of their memes is shared between community members. In particular the memes associated with their religion are often present in the form of near-identical copies in different members of the same religious community. Cultural relatedness does not necessarily lead towards altruism between the hosts involved, but it can do so. Much depends on the nature of memes in question and the strength of the host's memetic immune system. Memes don't have a free ride in manipulating the behaviour of their host - since they must compete with the other memes in the host and the host's own DNA genes. However with large coadapted meme complexes many memes can gang up together in an attempt to influence their host by force of numbers. That's exactly what religious memes do - and they evidently do have considerable success in influencing their host's behaviour. So, a comparison with bees may have something to it - though memetic relatedness between humans from the same religious group is probably not as high as genetic relatedness between bees within hives.

Another of the ideas David advocates is that religion is "functional" - by which he seems to mean adaptive to humans or groups of humans. He contrasts this position with "religion as a byproduct" hypotheses, economic theories involving religion as a form of transaction with alleged supernatural agents and the idea of religion as selfish memes. I think most consider religion to frequently be adaptive to its hosts. Religious people typically have more kids than secularists, often quite a lot more. One of the insights into the subject from cultural evolution is that when talking about the adaptive function of some aspect of religion, the DNA genes of the hosts are not the only possible beneficiary - religious traditions may be treated as cultural symbionts which have adaptations that benefit themselves. Wilson acknowledges the possible viability of such hypotheses, but categorises them in such a way that they compete with his own preferred explanation. He categorises adaptive theories of religion into those that invoke benefits to individuals, those that invoke benefits to groups, and those that treat religion as a cultural parasite that often evolves at the expense of individuals and groups. However, real religions vary considerably in the extent to which the interests of their memes is aligned with the the interests of the DNA genes of their hosts. Those religions which are transmitted primarily vertically down the generations can be expected to have evolved to have interests aligned with those of their hosts. Cultural and organic evolution pulling in the same direction explains the cases where religious groups typically have many children. By contrast, evangelical religions depend less on vertical transmission with respect to their hosts, and spread virally even between unrelated hosts. Such religions can be expected to be less in tune with the interests of their host's DNA genes, and more inclined towards redirecting host reproductive resources into meme propagation via evangelism. They will tend to be nastier religions.

David's correctly identifies kin selection at work - though he classifies it as group selection. Since group selection and kin selection are now widely thought to be equivalent, this is a valid perspective. However he doesn't really identify it as a cultural phenomenon. Indeed he seems to identify cultural evolution with the idea of "demonic memes" that act as parasites on humans - and then largely ignores it. Instead he proposes human groups as the beneficiaries of selection on religions. This seems like a muddled way of looking at the situation to me. Instead, the humans genes are weakly kin-selected, the religious memes are strongly kin selected - and the genes and the memes coevolve in a symbiosis. The interests of the memes and genes are somewhat aligned - largely due to the component of vertical transmission of religious beliefs. I felt that David's treatment of the topic muddled together cultural and organic evolution.

It is possible to ask whether religion is adaptive without distinguishing between cultural and organic evolution. I compare this approach to asking whether smallpox is adaptive. Through much of human history, smallpox helped groups of humans with smallpox to obliterate other tribes of humans who lacked it. Evidently smallpox is an adaptive trait at the group level. While partly accurate, this analysis is unorthodox - and misses out much of interest about the relationship between the smallpox virus and its human hosts. David's explanation of religion is like this. He just says it is adaptive at the group level - without teasing apart the relationship between the cultural and organic components of the system involved.

David does display some understanding of cultural evolution in this book. He invokes Calvin and Plotkin's idea of "Darwin Machines", uses it to explain how the brain evolves in a Darwinian fashion and then goes on to explain that human culture evolves. The section near the start of the book about cultural evolution is quite reasonable - as far as it goes.

Memetics isn't the only rival theory which I felt David treated unsympathetically. He also contrasts his approach with the idea of religion as a by-product. While functional explanations and "by-product" explanations can be seen as being opposed, it is pretty evident that the various "by-product" theories of religion have a lot going for them. The "Hyperactive Agent Detection Device" idea, is correct, for example. "By-product" hypotheses explain quite a few aspects of religion. Also, some of the traits which religion is thought to be a "by-product" of are themselves adaptive traits - so "by-product" hardly means the same as "non-adaptive". I think we should accept many of the "by-product" hypotheses concerning religion - without necessarily granting them everything.

It would be nice to have a scientific understanding of religion, not least so we can build new and better religions that draw from the best parts of their historical practices while missing out their toxic elements. However to do that we need to understand which bits of religion are desirable and which are not. Some things are obvious: yoga and meditation are good while hellfire and the oppression of women are not. However with other practices, things are not so clear. Just saying that religions are adaptive doesn't really help to identify which are the useful practices.

At the end of the book, David explains that a grant from the Templeton foundation helped to finance the book. The Templeton foundation is famous for paying scientists to say nice things about religion. I expect this funding source will turn off some readers.

Studying religion seems like a dirty job for a scientist - but someone has to do it. David Sloane Wilson seems to be OK with the topic. However back in 2002, he seemed to be rather hampered by his preference for explanations based on group selection and his reluctance to conceptually separate out cultural and organic evolution. Also, alas, this book isn't terribly readable. I found the long section analysing Calvinism in the middle to be especially tedious. I recommend that those interested in David's work should read Evolution for Everyone first.


Sunday, 9 December 2012

Tim Tyler: Whitfield, People Will Talk (review)


Hi. I'm Tim Tyler, and this is a review of this book:

People Will Talk: The Surprising Science of Reputation by John Whitfield

This is a science book all about the topic of reputation. Reputations are an important reason why humans cooperate. They lubricate reciprocal interactions by allowing creatures to consider a long history of an actor's behaviour towards others before dealing with them. Reputations are largely a product of sophisticated communication mechanisms and so represent something which humans have that most other animals lack.

I've been interested in the science of reputations for a while. In 2009, I made a video titled "universal karma" - which proposed we make more use of reputation systems, to better keep organisations in check, and for many other purposes.

This book is a popular science book covering what scientists know about reputation. The book is brilliant. It's well written, about a very important topic, and covers a good balance of subject areas. The author is evidently very smart, which always helps. Most of the book is devoted to explaining the science, but there are occasional sections about how to use the discoveries to improve the world.

The main message of the sections about how to change the world is that anonymity results in bad behaviour, while traceable identities and surveillance tend to make people behave well.

The book met or exceeded my expectations in practically every area. However, there were a few things I would have like to seen included that were omitted. I was expecting coverage of religious folklore oriented towards reputations. For example, the Hindu concept of Karma, or the idea that as you reap so you will sow. I also would have liked to see a bit of a historical perspective, showing the rise of reputation systems over time. The book does have a chapter about the internet era, and it's a pretty good one. I still wanted more though. Technology improves memory storage and facilitates surveillance - it has a powerful effect on the effectiveness of reputation systems.

The part of the book I was most irritated by was the section at the very end about global warming. The author is trying to find ways to apply reputations to big global problems, but I rate global warming as an awful choice of problem - it is a bad cause which already attracts far too much attention - without people trying to add further weight to it. Fortunately this section was short.

Overall, this book is pretty sweet. There aren't many science books on reputations and this is an excellent one - I recommend reading it.


Interview with the author about the book here.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Tim Tyler: Zarrella, Zarrella's Hierarchy of Contagiousness (review)


Hi. I'm Tim Tyler, and this is a review of this book:

Zarrella's Hierarchy of Contagiousness: The Science, Design, and Engineering of Contagious Ideas by Dan Zarrella

Dan Zarrella's an internet marketing Guru. He's researched internet marketing and social media, and has some ideas about what makes things go viral. Some of them are encapsulated in this book.

The book is very small and very short. Much of it was previously posted on Dan's web site. However a small book-shaped package is a convenient format. Dan says the bunnies on the front represent rapidly-reproducing ideas.

Dan uses memetics, cites Richard Dawkins and says:

Our world is made of memes. If you've ever seen the matrix movies, You'll remember their world was composed entirely of computer code. Everything people interacted with was built from computerized instructions. Similarly, our world is made of contagious ideas. Everything made by huamns - from the chair you're sitting on, to the book you're reading - exists only because someone had the idea to invent it and that idea caught on, spreading from person to person.
It's a memorable image: our world is indeed made of memes.

The book is full of social media marketing tips of the type Dan posts on his blog. It's full of graphs and charts telling you what and when to tweet for the best results.

There was one bit of the book which I really didn't like - where Dan defined a measure of the rate of increase of memetic infections per generation, claimed that trying for an explosive epidemic was unrealistic and then recommended using big seeds.

Dan doesn't seem to think small seeds are effective. It is true that you should spend some of your marketing budget on seeding your idea. However making your idea spreadable is really very important. Dan says that when you do get a viral idea, it's just a fluke, and you shouldn't build your marketing strategy on luck. But relying on big seeds is not really correct advice in general. Pop songs may not reach every single member of the population before dying away, but they do reach many millions and that's good enough for their composers.

Some do have to rely on big seeds, since they have content that requires it - but most should try and use highly-contagious memes in their marketing, for best effect.

Dan advocates a science of marketing. However, few marketers do very much science, since they often don't want to publish their raw data, and they often don't trust what other marketers say. It's probably more realistic to advise marketers to cherry pick the best bits from the scientific method - such as iterating the process of performing experiments, measuring their outcomes and making changes. Maybe it's best to regard marketing as a technology - rather than a science.

The book is pretty neat. It is short, readable and fun. Most readers will probably be hungry for more details, but at least this is a start.


Sunday, 2 December 2012

Tim Tyler: Pagel, Wired for Culture (review)


Hi. I'm Tim Tyler, and this is a review of this book:

Wired for Culture by Mark Pagel.

The book says it is about how and why humans have evolved so that they were able to rapidly build today's large-scale, complex societies. It discusses cooperation, deception, religion, altruism, kin selection, reciprocity, reputations and language. This is an interesting set of topics and the book offers a unique perspective on them.

The book is largely about origins - so a hefty chunk of it is about things that happened thousands or millions of years ago. It is written more as a popular science book than a science book. The book was definitely a good read, but alas, I often found myself irritated, frustrated or in disagreement with the author while reading it. I'll start with some of the negative points, and then get on to what I liked.

The book is saturated with human exceptionalism. We hear that only humans have proper culture and a proper language. Mark discusses cultures and languages in non-human animals, but is ultimately dismissive of them, since non-human cultures are insufficiently cumulative, and non-human languages are insufficiently symbolic. I tend to emphasize the opposite perspective. I think it is important to see the close links between human and non-human animal cultures and languages and use comparative ethology to illuminate these features of human social life.

Next: cultural evolution. Mark is aware of cultural evolution, and it plays an significant role in his narrative. At the very start of the book, he discusses the subject in terms of memes, gives Richard Dawkins credit for the idea and then lays out his understanding of the topic. Mark cites Dennet, discusses brain flukes, rabies, and the Cordyceps fungus. Wilson's idea of genes holding "culture on a leash" is discussed and Mark invokes the Terminator, and HAL (from 2001) to illustrate how Wilson might turn out to be completely wrong about that. He discusses memes that produce suicidal behaviour, compares such negative memes to viruses and then discusses the idea of a cognitive immune system with its own internal Darwinian mechanisms whose function is to reject bad memes. This part of the book is quite good.

However, cultural evolution is not really the topic of the book. Indeed, it receives only occasional attention in the rest of the book. Instead, the book is all about human evolution in terms of DNA genes. Mark emphasises that culture is generally good for our genes, and generally treats culture as a set of tools that genes have used to get what they want.

Many of those discussing the origins of human ultrasociality invoke gene-meme coevolution, with memes driving and genes being dragged around in their wake. Mark does invoke lactose tolerance as an example of this effect, but this kind of scenario doesn't really feature prominently in his narrative. Indeed, in most cases, where I would invoke benefits to memes, Mark instead talks about benefit to genes - sometimes mentioning the idea that culture is generally good for us, or we wouldn't have it. There's quite a large literature on how genes and memes coevolved to produce the human social mind, and Mark hardly cites any of it. There are a few jabs at "strong reciprocity" and "group selection", but that's about it. Mark obviously has a strong scientific background, and he does have some understanding of cultural evolution - but I was left with the impression that he hadn't finished thinking through its implications, and hadn't read much of the literature on the topic.

The story of human evolution is really the story of the rise of memes. That story is far more interesting than the tale of the bigger brain and the modified vocal chords. By concentrating so much on DNA genes, Mark misses out most of this story. Cultural evolution is actually very important to understanding how human DNA evolved, due to meme-gene coevolution. For example, once people start to consider cultural evolution properly their story about why humans have big brains typically starts to look very different from the "Machiavellian intelligence hypothesis" that Mark advocates in this book. For me, the emphasis on DNA genes was the single biggest problem with the book.

Mark discusses the idea of "cultural survival vehicles" - using terminology that Richard Dawkins once attempted to bury. The idea of what counts as a cultural "vehicle" broadly corresponds to the idea of what a cultural 'organism' is. Organisms have poorly delimited boundaries in the organic realm - what with ant colonies, slime molds, and symbiotic unions - such as the Portugese man'o'war. However, the situation in cultural evolution is even muddier, with transient coalitions between memes arising on many different scales. CDs, MP3s, PDFs are examples of things that many would treat as cultural organisms. However, Mark doesn't really discuss the whole issue of what counts as a cultural "vehicle". Instead he defines "cultural survival vehicles" to be the cultures associated with tribes of humans, and then uses this definition consistently throughout the book. My assessment is that Mark's approach to the topic of what counts as a "vehicle" in cultural evolution was narrow, dogmagtic and poorly thought through.

Next Mark's treatment of group selection. Mark devotes a few pages to criticism of group selection in the book. However, he doesn't seem to me to have tracked the recent literature on group selection very well. For many years group selection enthusiasts believed that they had a new theory that acted as a superset of kin selection. However after many attempts to say exactly what it was that group selection predicted which kin selection did not, the group selection enthusiasts mostly seem to have given up on this, and now largely recognise that modern group selection and kin selection theories make the same predictions - and so represent different ways of looking at the same process. Mark embraces kin selection, but is sceptical of group selection - a position that doesn't make sense if these are ideas that make the same set of predictions - as most modern group selection advocates now agree is true. I expect modern group selection advocates won't be too impressed by Mark's criticisms. They will just say that he failed to understand their position. As far as I can see, they will be correct.

On page 81, Mark attempts to explain patriotism and nationalism in terms of a "special" and "limited" form of nepotism by which a single gene for altruism recognises itself in other individuals and then helps them. Mark's explanation of this phenomenon appears to be unorthodox to me. He offers no references to supporting scientific literature. I don't think the explanation Mark offers for the existence of patriotism and nationalism is correct.

Mark also offers an explanation of how individual cells in slime mold populations can help each other despite being unrelated to one another. However Mark's explanation seems largely unnecessary to me - since cells in slime mold populations which exhibit multicellular stages are almost always close relatives - a fact which Mark fails to mention.

I thought that there quite a few of these dud explanations in the book. The lack of references to supporting material and uniform authoratative style made it hard to distinguish to good explanations from the bad ones. I wound up not entirely trusting a lot of what Mark was saying, and making mental notes to check up on his facts in cases where he was presenting material I was not familiar with. That is not a great relationship for a science writer to have with the reader.

Much of the book is about the reasons why humans cooperate. However, this material is distributed over many chapters and covered in a rather rambling way. The book really needs a summary of this material, saying which mechanisms are important.

Mark's most frequent answer to the puzzle of cooperation is that it pays. This is true of reciprocity and reputations, and it's true with the forms of byproduct mutualism which are frequently mentioned in the book. The coverage of cooperation in the book deals reasonably well with the theories of kin selection, reciprocity and reputations - though the cultural versions of these theories receive rather cursory treatment. However the book had little coverage of the important topic of cooperation due to manipulation. I remember one section on the subject - about how people used religion to manipulate each other. Memes manipulate humans into interacting with one another because contact between humans facilitates their own spread - but Mark doesn't discuss such possibilities.

Towards the end the book has some rather rambling digressions. Genomic impriniting may be fascinating, but it doesn't seem to have a lot to do with the main topic of the book. Mark also discusses his research on human hairlessness as an anti-parasite adaptation. An interesting topic no doubt - but again, not a whole lot to do with the main theme.

While it refers to the relevant science there are very few citations of actual papers. Instead the work of scientists is spun into a narrative. It's a narrative that is pretty well written. The lack of references in the body of the text probably helps a little with the flow, but at some expense to the science. There are references for each chapter at the end, but inconveniently, there are no footnotes or endnotes to explain how they relate to the chapter.

Enough about the dubious aspects of the book. There's also a fair amount of good material in it:

The book contains a pioneering section on cultural kin selection. Mark offers an explanation for altruism in humans that invokes the green beard effect - and makes it clear that he thinks that the explanation applies to both genes and memes. He uses terms such as "cultural relatedness" and "cultural nepotism". He also correctly explains that the green beard effect is just kin selection applied to individual genes or memes. This material is good. However, there are no references and no attempt to place this theory in its historical context. Nor is it a very comprehensive treatment of the subject. I would have preferred this section of the book to be longer. I'm rather sceptical that the green beard effect is the best way of describing cultural kin selection. We don't describe organic kin selection in terms of the net effect of a bunch of green beard genes - and I don't see any terribly good reason for describing cultural kin selection in those terms.

Mark offers a fairly withering critique of use of the ultimatum game by some researchers to illustrate how humans cooperate in anonymous one shot interactions where reputations and reciprocity can't possibly be involved - and so therefore the observed cooperation must be down to group selection. Mark offers what seems to me to be the obvious refutation - that subjects tend to play it safe in case they are not really anonymous in the laboratory environment - an explanation which had been previously given by Andrew Delton in 2011. As Mark says, the ultimatum game represents poor quality evidence for kin or group selection.

In summary, this book is rather patchy, with some good bits and some bad bits. The good bits are good enough to make the book worth reading, though. It's certainly nice to have a professor of evolutionary biology using memetics and cultural kin selection.


Sunday, 25 November 2012

Tim Tyler: Harms, Information and Meaning in Evolutionary Processes (review)


Hi. I'm Tim Tyler, and this is a review of this book:

Information and Meaning in Evolutionary Processes by William F. Harms
This book starts out with a 80-page critique of "replicator theories" - a term the author uses to cover the cultural evolution theories of Dawkins, Dennett, Blackmore, Hull and various other players. However, memes seem to attract most of the fire. We hear about how Dawkins backtracked apologetically after introducing memes, playing down their significance. How David Hull was only interested in memes to the extent that they helped him develop a scientific epistemology, and how Dennett got his memes second hand, and just wanted to use them to bolster his concept of the "intentional stance". Memes are based partly on G. C. Williams attempt to rechristen the gene. We hear that this rechristening never caught on, and the word "gene" today still has a totally different meaning in biology textbooks, leaving memes dependent of a dead definition. Further the definition of "gene" that Williams used makes little sense - since it defined genes in terms of selection pressures, which might fluctuate wildly in real life, causing genes and memes to flit in and out of existence. On page 67, Harms writes:

The reader cannot help be aware by now that I do not like the meme concept. It seems, in a word, "superstitious" to me - just the sort of concept that scientific progress will require us to abandon.
There's criticism of the concept of "selfishness" and criticism of the concept of "replication". Harms recognises the "meme's eye view" as a valid perspective, but claims that describing culture in terms of a symbiosis between memes and genes is "awkward". He writes, on page 51:

Methodologically, ontologically, the meme is a mess. For the purposes of popular appeal, however, it could not have been better designed by a Madison Avenue advertising exec. I must nevertheless urge that the only relevance that the meme and its shortcomings have to the application of evolutionary theory is as a distraction, or perhaps an embarrassment.
Harms does make some good points amidst the rhetoric. I agree that G.C. William's definition of a gene is not very usable - though not all information theoretic definitions of the term share the same problem. I don't much like the term "replicator" either. Many have been misled by its confusing connotations of high-fidelity copying. At best, it needs defining prominently by those who use it - to avoid misunderstandings.

However, I think his rejection of the meme is totally unwarranted. I think that all students of cultural evolution should find a sympathetic interpretation of memetics. If you don't understand memes you close yourself off from a lot of important literature on the topic. Further, you then have to find objections to memetics - and there aren't really any decent technical criticsms of memetics: it's a perfectly valid framework for studying cultural evolution with. Failing to understand memes isn't big or clever, it just means you didn't try very hard to understand them.

To respond to the specific criticism that "describing culture in terms of a symbiosis between memes and genes is awkward" - that's mostly nature's fault - the fact that creatures are symbiotic composites of multiple types of agent which exhibit partial genealogical independence is certainly a complication when constructing models. However, looking at the tangles the rival "inclusive phenotype" approach results in, a symbiotic union comes out looking like the simplest model which captures the observed behaviour. Such models of symbiosis have been widely, though sluggishly adopted by mainstream biology - though their impact on academic cultural evolution so far has been pretty minimal.

Having rejected the entire body of existing work on cultural evolution and memetics, Harms is, in his own words sent back to the drawing board in understanding cultural evolution. His idea of a replacement theory is one oriented around cells. He titles a section "cultural transmission as a cellular process", and explains that the cell is the basic explanatory nexus in biology. He says:

You can account for everything that memes are supposed to do in terms of the things that human beings do. The converse does not hold.

I think this proposed project has proved fruitless. Writing off most of the massive existing literature on cultural evolution was misguided. It isn't even clear that Harms is fully aware of the literature he is dismissing. Boyd, Richerson, Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman get one mention, and that says that these folk "seem to find memetics a timely label for an established and respected approach to the study of cultural evolution and transmission". Since I don't recall ever hearing a positive word about memetics from Cavalli-Sforza or Feldman, this raises the issue of whether Harms has actually looked at their work. It certainly isn't clear from the book that he has. Certainly these days, many in the field will roll their eyes at an attack on Dawkins, Dennett and Blackmore. They have a point: why not criticise some of the actual scientists working in the area - rather than their popularisers.

The proposed explanation of cultural evolution that Harms offers - namely "the cells did it" - seems to me like no explanation at all. It is like explaining the function of the brain by saying that it "computed" something. The point of memetics is that it allows you to use the existing theoretical framework of evolutionary biology to understand culture. Recombination, mutation, selection, adaptation, drift, frequency analysis, phylogenetics all apply to culture as much as to DNA-based organisms. We don't really have a corresponding theory of cellular function - since cells are flexible, diverse and can do many things. Cells aren't even really on an appropriate level to offer an explanation of culture. Nor do cells help much with the increasingly common phenomenon of cultural transmission via computers. Harms discards a lot of useful material - and doesn't offer much to replace it with.

I was expecting the rest of the book to expound on Harms' own theory of cultural evolution, but it doesn't. Next he has rather abstract chapters on populations, information theory and selection. The chapter on populations sets up a framework for a kind of universal Darwinism. He observes the generality of selection, discusses the sorting of pebbles on a beach and discusses general population-based models with variation and selection. Harms focuses on philosophical foundations.

Towards the end of the book there are two chapters about a naturalistic approach to meaning. The first chapter is about epistemology, and the second one is about morality. Harms is a philosophy instructor with an interest in ethics, and these seem like the punchline of the book. Harms objects to the idea that you can't go from is to ought. Instead he thinks that evolutionary theory informs morality, without endorsing any particular moral position. Rather he thinks that evolutionary theory helps explain why we adopt a diverse range of moral positions. Harms writes these chapters a bit more passionately than the rest of the book, and I don't disagree with his positions.

However, this whole book is pretty dry and tedious. Though the subject matter is dear to my heart in many places, Harms ladles on Kant, Quine, Locke and Hume in hefty doses, sprinkles on dry mathematics and dissects the philosophical minutae involved until the topics become dry and lifeless. Part of the problem is that I have a scientific background, and Harms is a philosopher - so we aren't speaking the same language much of the time.

Apart from the memetics critique, my favourite part of the book was where Harms discusses Otto Neurath's boat. Harms writes:

Neurath likened conceptual progress to rebuilding a ship on the ocean while traveling in it.
This is a beautiful image that I hadn't encountered before. However, the fact that this was a highlight reflects rather poorly on the rest of the book.


Friday, 23 November 2012

Tim Tyler: Positional inheritance


Hi. I'm Tim Tyler, and this is a video about positional inheritance.

In universal Darwinism, copying is found ubiquitously in nature, from spreading ripples to propagating cracks, from growing crystals to scattering radiation. Copying - in conjunction with variation and selection - forms the basis of Darwinian evolutionary theory.

The copying in universal Darwinism includes DNA, culture, and a whole bunch of other aspects of the environment. To give some examples of environmental inheritance, rabbits inherit rabbit warrens, corals inherit their coral reef - and so on. The most common form of environmental inheritance is positional inheritance. To give some examples of this:

  • Raindrops - split and produce offspring that inherit their parents' position.
  • Cracks - have dividing tips and offspring crack tips start their lives near to their parents.
  • Atoms - split during nuclear decay - and the offspring particles originate near the parent atom.
Because of the property of physics known as locality, any form of inheritance is also accompanied by positional inheritance. That makes positional inheritance the most widespread form of inheritance in existence.

The products of positional inheritance often form tree-like structures. The roots and branches of plants resemble trees - and actually are phylogenetic trees of plant cells, laid down in order during development - in a combination of phylogeny and ontogeny. Similarly, lightning, propagating cracks, fractal drainage patterns, and crystalline dendrites are all associated with prominent visual trees. In each case, these are family trees, that show the path of descent. Sometimes the associated phylogenetic trees are less obvious. For example, in a landslide, each moving boulder has been pushed into motion by collisions with one or more parent boulders. Though each boulder can trace its ancestry back to the first falling stone, the resulting family tree is not obvious to casual observers. It's the same with raindrops in clouds and vortices in turbulent fluid flow.

Positional inheritance also results in adaptation - another hallmark of Darwinian evolution. Cracks adaptively seek the weakest path through matter, streams adaptively trace out the boundaries of their associated drainage basins and turbulence selectively forms where there is the most energy to feed it.

One thing that evolving systems typically need, in order to exhibit complex adaptations, is high-fidelity copying. Excessive noise often results in inherited information getting lost - and this leads to the disintegration of complex adaptations. However, positional inheritance often has pretty high fidelity - allowing complex adaptations based on it to remain stable.

Though positional inheritance is a pretty central concept in Darwinian evolution, it is a curiously neglected idea. While some seem to appreciate that organisms inherit their parents' environment as well as their genes, simple inheritance of position gets practically no recognition as a component of evolutionary theory. Sad times for Darwinism.


Note: This is an expanded version of a previous post on this topic. See also: velocity inheritance.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

2012 interview with Peter Richerson

6:10 has Richerson's discussion of "cultural units". He says:

There's this idea that has been promoted, particularly by Richard Dawkins that inherited systems have to be digital - the way genes are supposed to be - that there have to be discrete units that are potentially infinitely long lived - and Rob Boyd and I think this is not correct actually - you can have "unitless" evolution without any trouble really.
I'm pretty sure this is a misunderstanding. What Dawkins said (in "River Out Of Eden", page 19) was:
Only a digital genetic system is capable of sustaining Darwinism over eons of geological time.
The idea that I think Dawkins was getting at here is that evolving systems "go digital" after a little while, and discover the advantages of digital transmission. Genes went digital this before DNA was invented, and many types of meme went digital before computers were invented - in what is known as the digital revolution. They key driver of these transitions is attaining better copying fidelity - and thus gaining the ability to maintain the integrity of a larger genome.

Richerson attacks the idea that everything that is inherited is digital - but that claim seems to be a very silly one. I don't think that is a claim that Dawkins ever intended - or would endorse. Indeed, Dawkins himself gives examples of low-fidelity cultural transmission in the same chapter, namely: audio tape recorders and photocopying (see page 16).

Tim Tyler: Cullen, Contagious Ideas (review)


Hi! I'm Tim Tyler, this is a review of this book:

Contagious Ideas: On Evolution, Culture, Archaeology and Cultural Virus Theory by Ben Sandford Cullen

Ben was writing this book when he died unexpectedly in 1995. His manuscript was subsequently combined with parts of his doctoral thesis on the topic, edited together and published in the year 2000.

In the book, Ben puts forwards his own theory of cultural evolution - which he calls the "Cultural Virus Theory". Though Ben says his theory was developed independently of memetics, the two theories are complementary - a fact that is recognised in the book.

Ben starts out with what he calls the cultural virus critique. He devotes his first four chapters to looking at alternative theories of cultural evolution, and explaining what's wrong with them. The first chapter criticises social Darwinism, the second criticises Ed Wilson's sociobiology, and the third and fourth chapters criticise cultural selectionism.

The critique of Ed Wilson's sociobiology is pretty accurate. Wilson's attempt to reduce cultural phenomena to things that benefit genes looks misguided retrospectively. However, since this book was published, Wilson's brand of sociobiology has mostly faded away - and been largely replaced by a more politically correct form: "evolutionary psychology". In avoiding all mention of differences between humans, this doesn't so much attempt to explain culture in genetic terms but rather belittles its influence and ignores it. Its practitioners typically don't have an understand cultural evolution.

The third and fourth chapters mostly look at what Ben calls "American Cultural Selectionism". This is characterised by explaining culture in terms of human traits, and tracing their passage between humans in terms of "oblique" and "horizontal" transmission of those traits. Ben classified these models as being "inclusive phenotype" models - since they include traits encoded by genes and memes in the phenotypes of human individuals. Rather than featuring distinct cultural individuals, phenotypes and populations - like memetics does - the "inclusive phenotype" models combine cultural and genetic influences within one human phenotype - in what Ben patronisingly refers to as a "bio-cultural muddle".

Of course, since cultural traits exhibit geneaolgical independence from the human germ line, modeling them in terms of a combined phenotype makes very little sense. It is rather like modelling a human population infected with smallpox by considering the DNA of the human hosts and the DNA of the smallpox virus as a single phenotype influenced by both sources, with the smallpox traits exhibiting horizontal and oblique transmission. Then you can consider one group of humans with the "smallpox trait" wiping out other groups of humans that lack it. However, biologists don't tend to do this much because of Occam's razor. Rather considering one phenotype, with multiple inheritance pathways, is simpler and neater to consider the smallpox virus to have one phenotype - and the human hosts to have another phenotype - and to consider their relationship to be a parasitic symbiosis between the two distinct entities. The exact same approach works very effectively with cultural inheritance.

Ben's critique of position of the American Cultural Selectionists is pretty devastating, in my opinion. It's much the same critique as I have previously offered, but spread out over two book chapters. I tend to use the term "extended genotype" instead of Ben's "inclusive phenotype" - but we are essentially talking about the same idea. Ben's critique remains relevant today - since the strain of American Cultural Selectionism involved is associated with the work of Cavalli-Sforza, Feldman, Boyd, Richerson, Durham and Rindos - and it has subsequently gone on to become the most popular form of cultural evolution within academia. Understanding where these folk originally went wrong is important to understanding the history of the field. A better model of cultural transmission invokes cultural symbionts. This has previously been previously described by Cloak and Dawkins - in 1975 and 1976 respectively.

While a single "inclusive phenotype" with genetic and cultural traits isn't all that much use for modeling cultural evolution with, one thing it is good for making byzantine mathematical models that appear to be sophisticated and original. The correct perspective on cultural evolution reuses the same concepts of symbiosis that already exist in the realm of organic biology. However it requires practically no new science - and so isn't a great source of revolutionary papers. By claiming culture exhibits the strange new phenomena of oblique and horizontal transmission that were absent from the organic realm, the American cultural selectionists had found an excuse to develop their own innovative models of the process of cultural transmission. If you think of academia as a place where affiliations with prestigious individuals are cultivated, these complex mathematical models make a lot of sense - since advanced mathematics is an impressive thing. However, the combination of an awkward, complex model and the associated reams of complex mathematics had an unfortunate side effect: few understood the work. As a result, the important science of cultural evolution has stagnated in academia for decades.

How has American Cultural Selectionism survived for so long - when it is based on such misguided models? Some of the practitioners involved do seem to have tipped their hats hat towards the perspective of symbiosis in the mean time. The books on the topic from the 1980s typically made no mention of symbiosis, viruses, parasitism, epidemiology - or any of the tools you actually need to understand cultural evolution. However, if you fast forward to the 21st century, you will see occasional mentions of these things in the associated academic literature - where they are often described as being "analogies". This takes the sting out of the type of criticism given here - since the defenders of the theory can point out these occasional passages related to symbiology and say: look, we actually have that covered. However the symbiology remains little more than a cosmetic veneer. The incorrect "inclusive phenotype" model is still there, misleading a new generation of researchers about the nature of cultural transmission in humans.

After explaining the problems with the competing theories, Ben goes on to lay out his own proposal: the "Cultural Virus Theory". It is a symbosis-based theory - a lot like memetics, but with its emphasis on cultural phenotypes - rather than heritable information. Ben explains that memes act as the genotype, while his cultural virus idea plays the role of phenotype in his model. He says he thinks the virus perspective is more palatable than considering artifacts to be organisms - since historically most artifacts have hijacked copying machinery inside humans to ensure their own reproduction. Ben doesn't seem too worried about the negative connotations of culture as a virus. There are some helpful viruses and many viruses go on to become part of the germ line of their hosts - so viruses aren't all bad.

For me one of the most interesting parts of the book was where Ben expounds on the idea of cultural kin selection and cultural eusociality. Ben has a whole chapter on cultural eusociality - where he explains that many of the cultural artifacts that we see that don't conspicuously reproduce are really sterile worker individuals. He says that things like chairs and tables don't directly reproduce, but instead they act to divert resources (particularly money) back towards the factory that produced them - and the factory plays the role of "queen". Ben's ideas about kin selection and eusociality in culture are mostly good - and were well ahead of their time. However I think that in places they may go a bit too far. When you have a distributed organism with sterile castes it is sometimes best to describe it as one big organism - rather than as an advanced form of social organisation. Also distributed phenotypes need not necessarily be classified as cultural individuals - they could be more like hair or nails, feathers or tusks. My nit picking aside, Ben is pretty clearly correct about the ubiquitous nature of cultural eusociality - and many of his examples of it are good ones.

Lastly I should probably say some bad things about the book:

  • The book starts off slowly - and I didn't get along with much of the material about evolutionary progress and Lamarckism in the first chapter.
  • Ben was an archaeologist and he uses examples from archaeology ubiquitously in the book - but it is a general book about cultural evolution, and he should probably have cast his net wider when selecting examples.
  • The idea that cultural entities act as viruses may be easier to swallow than the idea that they are partly-independent symbiotic fully-blown organisms. However, it is difficult to deny that memes create their own manufacturing facilities - rather than simply hijacking the brains of human hosts. Computers and the internet are the product of memes, much more than genes. The "cultural virus" perspective is too narrow - as well as having undesirable connotations of parasitism and host harm.
  • Ben talks quite a bit about cultural predators preying on humans. It turns out that his definition of a predator is that it is a large parasite - and it makes no mention of quickly devouring the victim for food. Most require predators to kill their hosts.
  • Most of the book is fairly readable - but with the material imported from his thesis, the readability goes through the floor.
However, overall, this book is pretty great. It's nice to have a thorough critique of American Cultural Selectionism available in print - and Ben was a pioneer in applying the theories of kin selection and eusociality to cultural evolution. If academics had been smart enough to follow in Ben's footsteps, the theory of cultural evolution wouldn't be in anything like the mess it is in today - but alas, that isn't what actually happened - and there's still much work to be done.


Saturday, 17 November 2012

Tim Tyler: Universal reproduction

Subscribers who share my interest in Universal Darwinism may be interested in my latest video:

Transcript: http://alife.co.uk/essays/universal_reproduction/

Friday, 9 November 2012

Positional inheritance

In universal Darwinism, copying is found ubiquitously in nature, from spreading ripples to propagating cracks, from growing crystals to scattering radiation. Of course, copying, variation and selection are the basis of Darwinian evolutionary theory. The copying takes a variety of forms, but the most basic is positional inheritance - the topic of this post.

It is common knowledge that people inherit the environment of their parents - along with their parents genes. They inherit the local climate, the local language, government and religion - along with traits coded in DNA. These are examples of positional inheritance.

Many other organisms lack good dispersal strategies and exhibit the same kind of effect. Rabbits tend to inherit the warren of their parents. Corals inherit their parent's reef - and so on. Much the same is true of many inorganic natural forms. For example:

  • Splitting raindrops - produce offspring that inherit their parent's position.
  • Propagating cracks - when a crack tip divides the offspring crack tips start their lives nearby.
  • Nuclear decay - when atoms split, the offspring particles originate near the parent atom.
Because of multiverse locality, any form of inheritance is also accompanied by positional inheritance. That makes positional inheritance the most widespread form of inheritance in existence.

Since positional inheritance is so fundamental, how come you have never heard of it before? How come searching for the term just turns up this page? Well, there are some "nearby" terms, which have received more attention historically. Ecological inheritance, environmental inheritance and niche inheritance. These terms are fine - but they simply don't mean the same thing as positional inheritance. Positional inheritance is the inheritance of spatial position. That often comes with a bunch of other things as well - but not necessarily.

Helpful illustrations:



Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Tim Tyler: Hughes, On the Origin of Tepees (review)


Hi! I'm Tim Tyler, this is a review of this book:

On the Origin of Tepees - by Jonnie Hughes
This book has a title which is obviously based on Charles Darwin's 1859 book. It's about the author's discovery of cultural evolution and memetics. The author imitates Darwin's trip to the Galapagos by seeking out cultural islands within the American mainland - mainly looking at artefacts - hats, barns and tepees. It is an unusual mixture of popular science and road trip.

The author uses the metaphor of view-point-altering googgles to help describe his journey. When he puts the goggles on he looks at things through the eyes of a cultural evolutionist - and the world looks pretty different and unusual to him.

The memetics in this book is good. Jonnie Hughes has a pretty good understanding of the topic, in my opinion.

The author spends most of the book on cultural evolution, and then describes how the "gene" revolution - which transformed evolutionary biology in the 1950s and 1960s - has a direct parallel in cultural evolution - which has its own little bits of inherited cultural information: memes. This insight has led to the "meme's eye view" - and other important developments.

If I made scientific criticisms, I would first point to the author's endorsement of internalism, which I find to be an unhelpful perspective. The other thing that I thought was wrong was his explanation for why memes have not made much progress in academia. He says it is the difficulty in actually identifying them in the brain. That isn't really the right answer. Plenty of other things that can't be directly observed don't face the same problem. There are several other reasons why academia has had trouble digesting memetics.

Much of the serious science in the book is confined to a bibliography at the end. It is four pages long. I would have preferred the whole book to have been like that. Memetics needs the attention of scientists more than it needs conversion stories by science writers.

Lastly I'll tell you about my favourite bit of the book. It's a bit near the end - where the author likens pioneer species colonising a new environment to memes colonising an infant's mind. Hughes explains in some detail how the early species in an environment create the ecosystem for those that follow them - in the same way that early memes create a mental environment for the more complex ones that follow them. This is a beautiful analogy, and in the hands of an eloquent science writer like Hughes, it is a joy to read.

Let's hope Jonnie keeps those memes coming in the future.


Tim Tyler: Stanovich, The Robot's Rebellion (review)


Hi! I'm Tim Tyler, this is a review of this book:

The Robot's Rebellion: Finding Meaning in the Age of Darwin - by Keith Stanovich.

The book is a manifesto expanding on Richard Dawkins' idea at the end of The Selfish Gene. Dawkins wrote:

We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism - something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world. We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.
Stanovich turns this into the central thesis of his book. His book is about a type of morality and ethics which is informed by evolutionary theory.

Stanovich comes from a long line of thinkers that views nature as immoral, or at best amoral. Thomas Henry Huxley, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and many other thinkers have painted nature as curel and indifferent - and evolution as bad and not to be imitated.

Stanovich - like Dawkins - proposes that humans rebel against selfish replicators - namely genes and memes - and instead promote their own interests: "the interests of the vehicle", as Stanovich calls them.

Most of the book is about why and how humans should rebel against their genes. He pictures humans as part-conscious and part-unconscious systems. He sides with the conscious component, or the ego, and characterises our unconscious minds as sub-human saboteurs, getting us to do things that make us miserable against our own best interests.

The whole topic is an interesting one, though the book is a bit on the dry and repetitive.

The book has a section on memes, which is quite good. Stanovich recognises memes as forming a second evolutionary system, and has a pretty good understanding of memetics. However, memes are just another type of selfish replicator to Stanovich. They no more have our interests at heart than our genes do. Indeed, he characterises many memes as being especially nasty - "nastier than genes even", as he puts it.

In the rest of this review, I will directly address Stanovich's main thesis. I should say at this point that I am not sympathetic towards it. The idea that evolution is bad has been opposed by thinkers such as Julian Huxley and Peter Kropotkin. Like them, I see in evolution's positive, cooperative side a guide about how to behave. The views of Huxley and Kropotkin have been mostly trampled on by subsequent thinkers, but their ideas about evolution and cooperation are essentially correct - even though they are not currently in vogue.

The idea of enlightened humans rebelling against the interests of sub-human replicating agents is an intriguing one, but I don't think it is founded in good science. The problem is that Stanovich's picture doesn't include all the copying processes that are taking place.

While Stanovich deserves credit for recognising both DNA genes and memes, he doesn't treat within-brain change as an evolutionary process. However the fact that individual learning also forms its own evolutionary process was recognised long ago by Skinner, Campbell, Calvin, Cziko, Dennett and others. Indeed, any non-trivial goal-directed system is going to have a fitness function and an evolutionary tree-pruning algorithm at its heart.

In rejecting genes and memes, Stanovich is just throwing has hat in with other evolving structures within the brain. Stanovich claims to be siding with "the vehicle", but, in practice this turns out to be something close to the ego, which itself is composed of a bunch of happiness-promoting replicating structures that Stanovich didn't consider. In short, all positions to this topic involve siding with some bunch of copying entities or other. Copying with variation and selection underlies every optimisation process. The issue is not whether to side with a bunch of copied entities, but rather which ones you side with. With this framing of the problem, much of Stanovich's rhetoric about the inhumanity of stupid mindless replicators falls flat.

There are indeed some reasons follow the dictates of your conscious mind - that part of you is often smart and forward thinking. However, the brain's analytic side is heavily dominated by the ego - which is rather like the brain's public relations department. A big part of its job is to convince everyone else how wonderful you are. Stanovich's proposal is rather like giving control over a company to its public relations department. Egoism is fairly common, but there's more to a human than their ego. Thinking of yourself as being your ego is an impoverished picture of yourself which ignores much of what makes you human. Egoism is partly a western disorder - those from non-western cultures are less likely to identify completely with their egos. So: I think Stanovich's idea takes things too far.

Since the ego is largely constructed by genes, we can expect most humans to not have rebellious egos - since those with a tendency to rebel against their genes would have left behind fewer children. So, one wonders what fraction of humanity Stanovich is preaching to.

Stanovich proposes redefining the word "rationality" to refer to actions that promote the interest of "the vehicle". This plan strikes me as being a hopeless one - that just isn't what the word "rationality" means. I think that idea that rationality consists of optimising the function that Stanovich recommends is a non-starter.

Stanovich's book can be regarded as an interesting example of an attempt at founding a secular religion based on science. Stanovich's memes do get cited from time to time and have found themselves an audience. There's a type of human that hopes that their ego will live forever - and isn't interested in reproducing - and some of them seem to approve of Stanovich's ideas.

However, my council is to consider Stanovich's book as another memeplex that wants you to divert your resources into propagating it - at the expense of your own genetic heritage. There are a lot of memes out there hoping that you will divert some of your reproductive resources towards their propagation. Stanovich promises you happiness - if you are prepared to get off the genetic train and - consign your genes to eternal oblivion. If you are normally OK with memes hijacking the goals that nature gave you, then, by all means, go for it. However, if you don't usually approve of that, then I recommend being as cautious of embracing Stanovich's memes as you are of any other ones.


Sunday, 28 October 2012

Tim Tyler: Kelley, The Origin of Everything (review)


Hi! I'm Tim Tyler, this is a review of this book:

The Origin of Everything via Universal Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Systems in Contention for Existence

...by D. B. Kelley. The book is clearly named after Darwin's 1859 book titled:

On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life

My book is a review copy - which was sent to me ahead of its release by its publishers. The main topic is universal selection - and what an important idea it is. I'm pretty much on board with the author's views regarding the high level of significance of the topic. Universal Darwinism is a tremendously important subject - and universal selection is a big part of it.

Many people who are interested in expanding the domain of Darwinism only extend the theory to cover the social sciences, the brain and development - leaving the idea still confined to the life sciences. By contrast, this book extends the idea of selection far beyond the social sciences - emphasizing that selection applies to practically everything - including natural selection of moons, stars, atoms, galaxies, chemical compounds and all manner of other things. I think this emphasis is correct - Darwinism and natural selection do also cover the inorganic realm.

Some apply selectionist ideas to complex adaptive systems, but the author points out that even atoms qualify as being complex - and so pretty much any system you care to think of qualifies as a complex system. The author prefers to just call them "systems". I think this is a helpful perspective.

The book offers a symbiosis-friendly version of Darwinism - extending mutualism and parasitism into the organic realm as well. I think that makes reasonable sense - though some will probably view it as being a step too far.

The author presents selectionism as a part of physics. However, since it also applies in a wide range of universes with different physical laws - such as Conway's Game of Life - I prefer to think of it as a principle of statistics - broadly similar to statistical mechanics.

The book offers a treatment of universal selection and the anthropic principle. It's the best treatment of this topic that I have encountered. There is a discussion of memetics, although it is pretty small section. The book also discusses selectionism as a grand unifying principle in science, and the scale of its possible impact.

However, this is a book with a number of problems - some of which I will now describe:

The book is quite repetitive, making essentially the same point regarding the ubiquity of selection over and over again.

There's a lot of discussion of selection, but not much breaking this down into copying and destruction. Copying and destruction are very different ideas, which demand independent treatment and analysis. Bundling them together into the single category of "selection" doesn't really do either of them justice.

The author doesn't really distinguish much between cumulative adaptive evolution and degenerative evolution. This is a pretty critical distinction if extending Darwinism into the inorganic domain.

Other principles - besides universal Darwinism purport to explain the evolution of complex adaptive systems. In particular maximum entropy thermodynamics purports to explain the evolution of a wide range of living and non-living systems. Those discussing universal Darwinism need to discuss the relationship between it and existing ideas like these - but the author doesn't really do that. There is a chapter on entropy - but that addresses quite a different topic.

There's quite a lot of discussion regarding links between Darwinism and relativity in the book. I think this link is overstated.

The author seems to think the material in the book is quite original. However, I wasn't really convinced of that. I published an essay titled "Universal Selection" online in 2010 - which fairly plainly and clearly extended selection into the inorganic domain. I didn't come up with the idea either - my essay cites a paper from 1996 on essentially the same topic.

Radical extensions of Darwinism can expect to face criticism. For example, Massimo Pigliucci says:

Physicists talk about the evolution of the universe all the time but all they mean by that is: change over time. Now, if that is what we mean by "evolution", then pretty much everything falls under evolution - so surely we must mean something more specific than that.

I think those writing in the area should make an effort to anticipate and address such criticisms. However, this book doesn't seem to be written with critics in mind - rather it is a book of enthusiastic advocacy of the idea. I also think that those working on radical reformulations reformulations of Darwinism should probably take efforts to appear credible. The author could have taken more steps in that direction. For one thing, I spotted a number of mistakes. For example, the book claims that trees are asexual. It claims that monkeys and dinosaurs coexisted. It repeatedly reports a discovery of faster than light travel, which was subsequently widely discredited. These kinds of things don't make a positive contribution to making the case.

So, to summarise, this is a good and important book, but it also suffers from a number of flaws. However, because of the vaccuum in the area, any contributions to it are very welcome - and consequently this book makes essential reading for anyone interested in the issue of the domain of Darwinian theory.


Tim Tyler: Campbell, Universal Darwinism (review)


Hi! I'm Tim Tyler, this is a review of this book: Universal Darwinism - by John Campbell

This is one of a tiny number of books on the tremendously important - yet dreadfully neglected - topic of Universal Darwinism. The extension of evolutionary theory into fields beyond the realm of organic biology is long overdue.

The book adopts a perspective based on information theory - and makes many links to the concept of Bayesian updating. It suggests that knowledge acquisition by brains and the accumulation of survival know-how by evolution are closely related. This aspect of the book is excellent.

The book takes a rather conservative approach to Universal Darwinism - sticking to those cases with the best literature support. This conservatism has a positive side - in that critics will find fewer flaws in the book. However, it means that there is little discussion of Darwinism in prebiotic systems - such as whirlpools, crystal growth, propagating cracks and turbulence. Nor is there much discussion of the law of "survival of the stable", or natural selection on a cosmic scale - though Smolin's ideas do get a few lines.

The author correctly links Universal Darwinism to maximum entropy thermodynamics. This is a real and important link - but the author's treatment of the maximum entropy idea is very cursory: he just treats maximum entropy as a constraint. Universal Darwinism and maximum entropy thermodynamics are deeply-linked ideas, but although this book has a whole chapter on the topic, it doesn't really go into their relationship very much.

The book deals with four main examples of Universal Darwinism: quantum physics, biology, learning and human culture. The 'biology' section seemed rather unnecessary to me - application of Darwinism there is well known and this topic has been treated by many others. The sections about cultural evolution and brain evolution are both good. For me, it was also nice to see material about memetics in the book. Lastly, there is a large section about "Quantum Darwinism". Quantum physics doesn't make a great example to illustrate Universal Darwinism with simply because quantum physics is so difficult to understand. I didn't really get on with the author's presentation, because it was framed in terms of "wave function collapse" - a proposed physical process which, so far, we have yet to find any evidence for. A presentation that is more agnostic about its interpretation of quantum physics would probably have a smaller chance of alienating the reader.

I thought that probably the biggest problem with the book is what it omits. Application of Darwinism to complex adaptive systems is a large and important subject. It is also much easier to understand than quantum physics. I wasn't convinced that the author understood this aspect of the topic very well - otherwise, surely it would have been included.

So, overall, this is a very welcome contribution to the topic, but I think it leaves considerable scope for further light to be thrown on the subject.


The corpses of dead and discredited theories

One problem for evolutionary theorists interested in human behaviour is that the field is littered with the corpses of dead and discredited theories.

  • Social Darwinism - has now become a synonym for evolution-inspired racism and eugenics programs and supposedly-discredited unilinear evolutionary theories.
  • Sociobiology - both the memetics and cultural evolution were born in a revolution against Wilson's sociobiology - whose reduction of everything to genetics was half-baked.
  • Evolutionary psychology - this has turned out to be the study of human universals. That is a travesty of a genuine evolutionary study of human psychology.
  • Behaviourism - the study of behaviour, or so you might think. Alas, what went wrong?
The problem is that these theories have sensible-sounding names, which now can hardly be used, due to their pollution with the bad ideas from the past.

Evolutionary psychology should be the study of psychology from an evolutionary perspective - including the evolution of individually and socially learned ideas - instead of the current mess.

Social Darwinism should be the study of the evolution of societies from a Darwinian perspective - obviously an important field.

Sociobiology should be the study of social behaviour in biology - and not refer to Wilson's ideas on the topic, which didn't always make a lot of sense.

Behaviourism should be the study of behaviour. Alas, to most people it refers to a discredited theory today.

We can probably rescue these words from the dustbin of history - but only if we make an effort to start using them to mean what they ought to mean.


Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Susan Blackmore - 2011 Creativity Forum

Creativity Forum - Susan Blackmore.

Susan discusses memes, religion and creativity.

Susan Blackmore interview in 2012

Susan Blackmore interview in 2012

Susan Blackmore: The Meme Machine.

Sue talks about memes, temes and ego.

A glowing review of The Meme Machine

This fellow certainly sounds as though he enjoyed The Meme Machine.

Maybe I should send him a copy of my book on the topic.

Update 2014-01-02 - this video now seems to be a dead link - sorry 'bout that.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Planned "shock-and-awe" campaign

The expansion of the domain of Darwinism to the human sciences is the biggest and most significant scientific revolution I have ever lived through. However, I am disappointed with the slow progress of the revolution. There's a lot of tenures on the line, and it seems as though some are prepared to fight every step of the way, and others who don't want disruption. As a result, progress is frustratingly slow.

So far, I've mainly focussed on memetics - which seems to be the most important domain in terms of applications. Next-most important is probably the field of within-brain evolution. However, for a while I've been aware that Darwinism has a much broader domain of application, going beyond the organic sciences into inorganic realms: turbulence, cracks, erosion, fires, crystals, radiation, etc.

After my next "memes" book, I will probably focus some of my energy on explaining and promoting Universal Darwinism. Universal Darwinism is relatively simple and easy to understand. The field is so badly neglected that a shock-and-awe campaign in the area could easily result in big gains in understanding.

While the inorganic sciences may lack human impact, more widespread acceptance of Darwinism's broader base would imply the correctness of memetic and brain within-brain evolution as sub-fields.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Jonathan Marks and the view from anthropology

Confused critic of cultural evolution Jonathan Marks penned this article in the journal Evolutionary Anthropology, reviewing several of the recent books in the area. It's called Recent Advances in Culturomics [sic].

For Jonathan Marks's previous efforts in the area see here.

I agree with Marks about at least one thing - there's too much "bean bag genetics" in cultural evolution - and not enough understanding of the role of symbiosis - mirroring the situation of organic evolutionary theory between 1930 and 1980. Marks attributes this trait to memetics - which ironically seems to be the most symbiosis-aware strain of cultural evolution to me.

The rest of the article is painful reading for cultural evolution enthusiasts. Not because it makes good points, but because arrogance and confusion don't mix well.

The rest of Evolutionary Anthropology is also a pretty strange place. As with many of those concerned with human evolution, it seems to be preoccupied with the distant past. There's an awful lot of modern data on human cultural evolution that not enough people seem to be looking at.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Critic Massimo Pigliucci offers daft objections to memetics

Massimo Pigliucci has another dopey article out on memes:

Scientists and philosophers have cast doubt on the usefulness, even the coherence, of the very concept. As my evolutionary biology colleague Jerry Coyne has said, it is ‘completely tautological, unable to explain why a meme spreads except by asserting, post facto, that it had qualities enabling it to spread’. We don’t know how to define memes in a way that is operationally useful to the practicing scientist, we don’t know why some memes are successful and others not, and we have no clue as to the physical substrate, if any, of which memes are made.

This criticism doesn't get any less stupid through repetition. Social scientists do know a lot of things about which memes spread. The problem here is that Pigliucci doesn't know about the relevant social science.

I made a video about this one a while back: Tim Tyler: Can memetics predict meme fitnesses?

New book on evolutionary economics from Geoffrey Hodgson

For details see here:

From Pleasure Machines to Moral Communities: An Evolutionary Economics without Homo economicus.

Helena Cronin: flat denial of cultural evolution

One of the most outrageous comments on Steven Pinker's misinformed anti-group selection rant came from Helena Cronin.

Helena Cronin once wrote the nice book The Ant And The Peacock, which included somne positive comments about memes. However, now we have this:

The eminent philosopher sat frozen in horror, forkful of lunch poised between plate and mouth. What enormity had caused the shock? The conversation had turned to cultural evolution. And I had suggested that there is no such thing. There's culture; there's history; there's change; there's progress; there's technological innovation; there's growth of knowledge; there's social learning; and there's lots more. But there's no cultural evolution.

It's flat denial of the large literature on cultural evolution. Helena Cronin obviously doesn't have a clue what she is talking about.

These days, it's rather weird for me to think of this parallel universe which some evolutionary biologists inhabit - where culture doesn't evolve. I think some of these folk still need to get on the internet and read up about the topic before opening their mouths.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Generalised genetics

Many people associate genetics with DNA. It often says in the definition of genetics that it is the science of heredity and inheritance in living organisms. However the phenomena of heredity and inheritance are not confined to living organisms. They extend to inorganic systems - raindrops, electrical discharges, propagating cracks, photons hitting dust. See the articles positional inheriance, velocity inheritance and darwinian physics for details about this.

If genetics is the science of heredity and inheritance in living organisms, what is the science of heredity and inheritance in non-living systems living called? It doesn't have a name. Most people don't know that it exists. There are no journals or conferences. It is a dark area of science.

Universal Darwinism requires generalised symbiosis. However, it also requires generalised genetics.

The most famous approach to generalising genetics is the "replicator" concept of Richard Dawkins. However, this concept is misleadingly-named and has caused widespread confusion - as documented in my references below.

Probably the next most famous approach to generalising genetics is the "mneme" concept of Richard Semon. This was conceptually pretty good, but it never took off, and its "mneme" doesn't roll off the tongue.
Other approaches are described in my essay:

The basic problem with genetics is that it is confined to living organisms. Many things in nature are copied with variation and selection that are not conventially considered to be alive. These include crystals, cracks, lighning, drainage patterns, refraction, reemission, turbulent eddies, etc. For more details see my essays:

Generalised genetics expands the concept of a science of heredity to all the cases where information is copied in nature. It uses conceptions of gene inspired by G.C. Williams - who described genes as:

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

- Williams, 1966, page 241.

The existing concept of genetics could be described as "narrow genetics" - to distinguish it from the generalised version. The principles are pretty - much the same. Eventually we could deprecate the "narrow" version of "genetics" as being redundant - and drop the "generalised" prefix.