Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Chimpanzee culture - introductory video

Are Chimpanzees Cultural? This video offers an introduction to the history of the issue. The blurb for it reads:

Does culture separate humans from the animal kingdom? Are any other animals cultural? Primatologists have been able to answer these perplexing questions by studying our closest living relatives: chimpanzees.

I found this video via a post by R.E.W. Berl in the CultEvol blog - thanks!

Apparently it was produced by a bunch called The Advanced Apes. Their blog is an unusual one - evolutionary theory mixed up with transhumanism, machine intelligence, the global brain, extraterestrials and cyborgs. They have a Youtube Channel. Some of this material is interesting.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

One of Boyd and Richerson's objections to memes

Boyd and Richerson know some thing about cultural evolution, but aren't always down with memes. Here's one of their objections - from The Origin and Evolution Of Cultures.

The second, more substantive problem is that the analogy between genes and culture is not very deep. The two are similar in that important information is transmitted between individuals. Both systems create patterns of heritable variation, which in turn implies that the population-level properties of both systems are important. Population-level properties require broadly Darwinian methods for analysis. But this just about exhausts the similarities. The list of differences is much larger. Culture is not based on direct replication but upon teaching and imitation. The transmission of culture is temporally extended. It is not necessarily particulate. Psychological processes have a direct impact on what is transmitted and remembered. These psychological effects can produce complex adaptations in the absence of natural selection. Users of the meme concept seem to us to believe that it does more work than it really does.

Firstly, there are no complex adaptations in the absense of selection. Unless one argues that some selective processes are somehow "unnatural" I see no case against this thesis. Boyd and Richerson are arguing, I think - that intelligent design by humans can produce complex adaptations. However, this misses the basic and fundamental point of Campbell and many others that brain function depends on natural selection on multiple levels - selection between axon and dendrite spikes, selection between synapses, selection between ideas - and so on.

Boyd and Richerson argue that transmission of culture is "temporally extended" - while transmission of genes is not. This is false, I think, since transmission of genes is also "temporally extended". Organisms typically acquire genes throughout their lifespan as they acquire genomes from parasites and mutualist symbionts. Gene transmission is often a long, drawn-out process involving temporally extended phenomena - including parental care. The idea that transmission of genes is not "temporally extended" seems wrong in just about every way.

Boyd and Richerson argue that psychological processes have a direct impact on what is transmitted in cultural evolution - but not in organic evolution. This too, is mistaken. Psychological processes have a direct impact on what is transmitted in organic evolution too. In particular mate choice, and habits affecting parasite transmission affect gene transfer in a big way - if you are squeamish about rotting food you will probably wind up with a different set of parasites from someone who is afraid of social contact.

Both organic inheritance and cultural inheritance use high-fidelity template copying - and a range of other types of more sloppy and low-fidelity inheritance. Any idea that organic inheritance is entirely based on "direct replication" is mistaken - and the idea that some types of organic inheritance are not based on genes is using the molecular biology conception of a "gene" - which seems pretty irrelevant to me. The molecular biology conception of a "gene" is not what memetics is based on.

To recap a little, in my preferred terminology, "gene" is a general term for a piece of heritable information - and "genetics" is the science of heredity. That means that memes are a type of gene. To say "the analogy between genes and culture is not very deep" makes no sense from this perspective. It isn't an "analogy" in the first place - a meme is a type of gene. Memes can't be too different from genes - a meme is a kind of gene.

Basically, all of Boyd and Richerson's objections seem to be based on misunderstandings to me. Now, maybe this is the fault of memeticists, for not explaining these issues more clearly. However, these points aren't new objections that I'm raising - they are all in the memetics literature. The failure of academics to understand memes remains an ongoing, frustrating issue. This is now the internet era. Scientific differences can be discussed and explored online. Such differences of opinion should mostly fade in the face of the truth.

Baba Brinkman's Rap Guide to Evolution

I checked out some of Baba Brinkman's "Rap Guide to Evolution" videos recently. They are entertaining. Here's a selection:

The main theme appears to be the long scientifically-dead evolution vs creationism debate. However, I was pleased to see that cultural evolution gets mentioned in a few of these videos. The Performance, Feedback, Revision draws an explicit parallel between organic and psychological evolution - and the Artificial Selection and Natural Selection videos explicitly mention memes. "Darwin's acid" and "Without miracles" get mentioned.

On the other hand, I didn't like the "it all boils down to DNA genes" attitude in the DNA video. It's as though Wilson-style sociobiology never died.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Reply to Red Dog on memes

RDFRS commenter Red Dog claimed recently (here and here) that he hadn't encountered replies by meme advocates to a particular criticism made by Scott Attran in THE TROUBLE WITH MEMES : INFERENCE VERSUS IMITATION IN CULTURAL CREATION.

In that article, Atran Writes:

A general theory of the evolution of replicators under natural selection requires: fecundity and variation, heredity and high-fidelity, longevity and fitness, competition for survival-enhancing resources.
This seems like the same misunderstanding that Body and Richerson made of memetics in the article: Replicators are not necessary for cumulative adaptive cultural evolution".

I have already replied to this criticism in: The claim that evolution doesn't require replicators.

"Fidelity", "Fecundity" and "Longevity" were originally presented by Dawkins as attributes of successful replicators, not as prerequisites for evolution.

Dawkins explicitly repudiated them being prerequisites in 1982 - writing:

But a candidate should be regarded as an actual replicator only if it possesses some minimum degree of longevity/fecundity/fidelity (there may be trade-offs among the three).

Atran writes a lot of other things in the 41 pages of the article, prominently including the claim the memetics is "mindblind". I don't have time to go into it all here.

To look more specifically at what Red Dog says:

It's not just that natural selection will favor genes that replicate with high fidelity it's that we wouldn't even get natural selection if the genes didn't replicate with a high degree of fidelity.
Yes you would. Natural selection is ubiquitous.

If memes don't replicate with high fidelity then the concept of "meme as an idea replicator as gene is a replicator for traits" is dead on arrival.
This seems like a confusion. Some genes are copied with high fidelity. Others are not - leading to an error catastrophe / mutational meltdown. Similarly some memes are copied with high fidelity and others are not. Evolutionary theory is flexible enough to work in both cases - it has models in which the mutation rate is a parameter which can take a wide range of values.

When I've heard Dawkins defend the meme to this kind of attack, which has been very little, he never says "memes don't need to replicate with high fidelity"
If it helps at all, I will say that: "Memes don't need to replicate with high fidelity".

I am sure Dawkins would agree that genes and memes need to be high fidelity for the concepts to be viable.

I wrote a 2011 book on memetics. IMHO, neither genes and memes need to be copied with high fidelity for them to count as such. It's just a fact that heritable information in DNA and heritable information in culture are sometimes not copied with high fidelity. You could stop calling them "genes" and "memes" at that point - but then you would lose these terms as a general-purpose basis for evolutionary theory - and you would need new, similar terms to replace them that are more general and can deal with low-fidelity copying. I think that it is simpler, easier and better not to bother with this fiasco - and just use the terms "gene" and "meme" to refer to the more general concept in the first place.

This is pretty-much what most scientists studying cultural evolution have done - although they often use some meme synonym instead.

Mark Jordan: What's in a Meme?

Mark Jordan has a new article out on the RDFRS site titled: What's in a Meme?.

It's basically an introduction to memes 38 years on. The article says:

To say that the memes are controversial in academia is akin to suggesting that, after the Big Bang, the universe got rather warm, and the enthusiasm with which memes have been embraced by popular culture has, if anything, worsened the regard in which serious scholars hold them.
I think part of the explanation for this is a kind of tribalism. Academics like to distinguish themselves from the hoi-polloi. If they use the same language as South Park, their credibility suffers by association. Alas, the search for truth can sometimes get lost when this kind of status-seeking takes place.

The article goes on to say:

It is dangerous to simplify complex phenomena, subject to numerous and often unknown variables, into simple models, without attaching very strong caveats, and Dawkins has always been aware of this.

This seems like a feeble excuse for rejecting memes. AKAIK, nobody rejects genes by saying that "it is dangerous to simplify complex phenomena". For one thing, simplifying complex phenomena is the only sensible way to understand them: all useful models are simplifications.

A major omission from the article is all mention of the academics who have studied cultural evolution from a Darwinian perspective. As Peter Richerson recently put it:

"Memetics" is robustly alive and well in academia, mostly under rubrics such as "cultural evolution," "gene-culture coevolution," and "dual inheritance theory."
If you say that memetics is struggling in academia, you have got to to on to say that the same topic is still being vigorously pursued there - under other names and using meme synonyms.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Evolutionary ethics

Evolutionary ethics is a topic that I've mostly avoided to date. It's not because I don't think it is relevant, or I'm not interested, or I don't have much to say about the topic - rather it is down to "sociological" factors.

Briefly: evolutionary ethics is a large and fascinating topic. It appears to be in rapid ascent recently - with many books being published on the topic. I think this is a good thing.

For a long time, the ethical naturalism was widely treated with scorn - under the title of "the naturalistic fallacy" and the open question argument.

Of course, the idea that "you can't get ought from is" is a silly one - if you can't get to "ought" from "is", then you can't get to "ought" at all - and yet we see plenty of "ought" in the world.

Naturalistic approaches to ethics typically treat "oughts" as representing the preferences of some agent (possibly imaginary). The idea that 'good' is universal is typically ditched - though agents can have convergent preferences in some areas.

An interest in ethics serves many biological functions. Among them, ethics represents:

  • A guide to individuals about how to behave;
  • A guide to expected behaviour - to avoid sanctions;
  • A tool for manipulating the behaviour of others;
  • A signalling system, for virtue signalling;

Evolutionary theory (including some game theory) pretty comprehensively explains the origins of all goal-directed behaviour. It's the main science that explains the existence of optimization in nature. Cases where physics appears to directly involve optimization (such as lightning strikes finding the highest point) are actually well-explained by evolutionary theory. It thus neatly covers "descriptive ethics".

However, this leaves normative ethics and meta ethics - which have typically been regarded as philosophical subjects divorced from science. That is not an acceptable resolution - it just shoves ethics down the science-nonsense divide.

Much evolutionary ethics falls into the broad category of "survivalism". However, survivalism leaves open the issue of what is trying to survive. Evolutionary ethics explains some types of ethical behaviour in terms of survival of genes - and other types of evolutionary in terms of survival of memes. Issues to do with multi-level selection are also left somewhat open to interpretation. Some argue that group-level survival is more closely associated with moral behaviour than individual-level survival is.

Sam Harris wrote a book about a naturalistic approach to ethics fairly recently. His effort seemed rather embarrassing to me - this is not what most naturalistic ethics looks like.

My own avoidance of evolutionary ethics has multiple roots. It's a popular topic; others are attracted to it, making my contributions less significant. It's a noisy and controversial topic; when I do discuss it, there are often noisy and confused debates, which I have limited time for these days. Lastly, a concern for moral issues is typically used as a signalling device: to tell others what a fine fellow you are. This introduces a complicated level of double-talk into many discussions of the topic. Frankly, this is a turn-off for me. If I talk about ethical naturalism, it's mainly because I am interested in the science involved. I'm not very interested in the moral "pissing-contests" and "holier-than-thou" attitudes that tend to surround the topic - except in terms of quantifying them as sources of noise.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

On hedonism and egoism

I once explained my "three-system maximization" theory to David Pierce - and then asked why he cared so much about maximizing happiness, and so little about maximizing genes and memes. He replied (I paraphrase) that it was only happiness that produced the subjective feeling that he actually cared about.

Here's Curt Welch expressing a similar sentiment:

Our society is highly ignorant, because our society is deeply infected with the memes of survival that blind people to their true purpose, which is to maximize human happiness, and not to maximize the odds of the survival of our memes, or our genes.

These are broadly similar sentiments to Dawkins:

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 expands on these ideas in his book The Robot's Rebellion.

According to the thesis that all values come from differential success at reproduction we are the product of three main maximizing systems, based on DNA genes, memes, and the reproducing agents inside brains associated with individual learning - which I will refer to as "pemes". Dawkins, Welch, Stanovich and Pearce are apparently on the side of the pemes - and are against the genes and memes.

Human motivations are the product of genes, memes, and pemes - which pull our motivation systems in multiple conflicting directions. I think we have to classify the idea that the "true purpose" of humans excludes two of these systems as scientific bunk. There's no "true purpose" of humans - just the various (and often conflicting) purposes associated with their genes, memes and pemes.

Similar to hedonism is egoism. There are some who value their minds so much that they are prepared to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars freeze their heads in order to preserve their essences. This seems as though it is an extreme form of a preference for pemes and memes - over DNA genes.

I think it is fair to say that different reproducers get the upper hand in different individuals. Some feel their sex drive or maternal instinct strongly - and act as DNA gene propagators. Others have religious conversions - and devote themselves to spreading their memes to others. Still others value their memories and personality so highly that they freeze their own heads. It's a diverse world, with many types of self-reproducing agents in it. Not all are of equal value - and few would argue with the claim that the AIDS virus should be exterminated. However, let's not pretend there's any scientific merit to the claim that our preferred bunch of information reproducers are the only kind that really matter.

Technological determinism

Technological determinism is, broadly speaking the idea that technology drives history. It signifies the force of convergent evolution (particularly convergent cultural evolution).

In my article on that topic, I wrote:

Technological determinism provides a modern theoretical foundation for the progressive theories of evolution championed by Herbert Spencer.

Technological determinism contains the term "determinism" - which some interpret to mean: "completely determined". However obviously the future is only partly determined by technological forces - chance events play some role.

Kevin Kelly's recent (nice) book "What technology wants" is all about technological determinism - though it rarely mentions the term. Another book on the topic is Does Technology Drive History? The Dilemma of Technological Determinism.

Evolution is apparently getting at progressively better at crossing valleys between adaptive peaks - using techniques such as scaffolding and simulation to bridge the gaps. Unless the valleys are getting deeper and wider it would seem reasonable to expect technological determinism to become increasingly true over time - as civilization progresses.

As far as I can tell, this means an ever-closer approximation of universal instrumental values - and increasing abilities at dissipating free energy and generating entropy.

Unless things go wrong, that is. Some models of evolution permit outcomes which do not involve extinction - and yet do result in constrained and limited growth. These models typically involve one agent taking over the evolutionary process and then guiding the process according to its own whims. Such messed-up, short-sighted agents would presumably be assimilated by the first aliens they meet - but, if they are plausible, they could curtail evolutionary potential for an extended period of time. This situation - while it lasted would probably represent a failure of the thesis of technological determinism to make good predictions.

We don't really have much experience with such universal monopolies. However, we can see the negative effect that various monopolies have had in human history. However, some believe that we should create such a monopoly - to avoid the harmful effects of conflict - or to coordinate on a universal scale. For instance, here is Michael Anissimov on the topic. Apparently this is a desirable way to avoid burning the cosmic commons, via hardscrapple frontier folk.

Of course, such global monopolies are widely derided and denigrated as representing "the new world order" or "totalitarianism". Most seem to regard these outcomes as being undesirable. I share their views.

It is not clear whether such an outcome is consistent with evolutionary theory. Monopoly is like monoculture - and it quickly becomes the target of parasites. However, we can't yet be sure that such outcomes are completely implausible.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Malthus was right

Malthus inspired both Darwin and Wallace in developing an understanding of evolution.

Today, many treat Malthus as a bad guy - morally and intellectually mistaken.

Malthus did advocate culling the poor by "facilitating" their mortality - for example by forcing them into overcrwoded conditions in order to encourage the plague. This doesn't make him a popular figure among modern thinkers.

Malthus was also concerned that resource limitation would lead to widespread human famines - unless something was done. In fact, since he wrote his An Essay on the Principle of Population - technological progress has outstripped human reproduction - resulting in a generally richer and less famished world population. This has led many to claim that "Malthus was wrong".

However, Malthus got a lot right. His big idea was that unchecked population growth would typically outstrip resource growth. This observation is both correct, and important. It is the basis of the basic biological idea of resource limitation.

People don't seem to want to hear that Malthus was right. The future availability of resources depends on technological issues that are not yet fully resolved - so it may legitimately be asked how the claim that Malthus was right can be justified. However, resources have a hard time increasing faster than time cubed - since that's how fast light cones expand. That's not fast enough to match the exponential growth of unchecked populations. Absent some pretty exotic physics, Malthus is right - by default.

Matt Ridley nominated "Malthusianism" as his scientific idea that is ready for retirement in the 2014 Edge annual question. By contrast, I consider Malthus to be a neglected and misunderstood scientific pioneer. He was ahead of his time. Following in the footsteps of Darwin and Wallace, we should pay attention to his views.

2016 Update: more Malthus denigration from Matt Ridley: The misapplication of Malthus.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

The Journal of Ideas

Before the Journal of Memetics was launched, there was some discussion of memetics in The Journal of Ideas. This was published by The Institute for Memetic Research between 1990 and 1991.

The Journal of Ideas has been out-of-print for a long time. However, now the content has become available on the internet. There are a number of papers of significant historical interest in the journal. For the contents, see here.

Thanks are due to Elan Moritz for alerting me about this development.

Exchange is not the cultural equivalent of sex

In his book The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley argues that:

Exchange is to cultural evolution as sex is to biological evolution.


Exchange is to technology as sex is to evolution.

These ideas are, I believe, basically incorrect and misleading. Most sex in biology involves one donor and one recipient. Exchange refers to swapping things, with both parties involved giving and receiving. That's a pretty significant difference.

In the book, Ridley defines the term "exchange" as follows:

Exchange – call it barter or trade if you like – means giving each other different things (usually) at the same time: simultaneously swapping two different objects.

This is similar to the dictionary, which defines "exchange" as meaning:

an act of giving one thing and receiving another (esp. of the same type or value) in return.

Sex is different. Sometimes it involves a mutual exchange of resources - but it is a broader concept. Typically, in biology, sex involves one-way exchange - with the male acting as donor and female as recipient.

Of course, there is an equivalent of sexual recombination in cultural evolution. However, exchange is just one type of sex - among many.

Ideas have sex mostly in people's brains - and inside computer systems. Exchange need not be involved - since culturally-transmitted ideas can get into brains in other ways - e.g. by observing the behaviour or another, or by acquiring an artifact from them. Once there, they can combine with all the existing ideas - both individually-learned and socially transmitted ones.

The alleged equivalence between exchange and cultural sex seems basically wrong to me. Sex is a significantly broader category than exchange is. Muddling these concepts together seems much more likely to lead to confusion than enlightenment.

Revolutionary memetics

In my article about Cultural evolution's scientific lag I mention several revolutions that have already taken place in the organic realm - but which still seem to be sorely needed in the case of cultural evolution.

  • The 'gene' revolution (1960-1980) - associated with Richard Dawkins and George Williams;
  • The kin selection revolution (1960-1980) - migrating away from "for the good of the group" thinking;
  • The symbiology revolution (1960-1980) - which showed the significance of symbiosis and symbiogenesis.
In my opinion, these are cases where a cursory look at history should be enough to help foresee what changes are coming down the pike in the cultural realm. As Mesoudi, A., Whiten, A. & Laland, K.N. (2004) put it:

By recognizing that our current understanding of culture is comparable to that attained by biology in 1859, perhaps some shortcuts can be taken by learning lessons from the succeeding 150 years of biological research.

Some other previous revolutions are also relevant to memetics:

  • The molecular revolution (1950-1980) - which started with Francis and Crick;
  • The germ theory revolution (1800-1870) - which identified microbes as the causal agents of many diseases;
  • The evolution revolution (1859-2014) - which started with Darwin's book;
The evolution revolution is now pretty clearly underway in the cultural realm - after over a century of stagnation and inactivity.

Memetics is also related to some future revolutions. It incorporates intelligent design into evolutionary theory - a move that seems likely to make many of those students of evolution who have done battle with creationists choke. Genetic engineering also involves the incorporation intelligent design into evolutionary theory - but most evolutionists have managed to ignore this - so far.

Another future revolution is that represented by Universal Darwinism. Memetics involves Darwinism applied to cultural change - but Darwinism applies much more broadly - including application to physical and chemical systems not normally considered to be alive.

The revolutionary aspect of memetics is anathema to academia - which is pretty conservative and generally prefers gradual progress to revolutions.

For example, in their 2005 book, "The Origin of Cultures", Boyd and Richerson (2005) described their perspective as follows:

We believe that the Darwinian theory of cultural evolution will make contributions across the broad sweep of problems in the human sciences, but the project is one of introducing additional useful tools and unifying concepts rather than an imperial ambition to replace great swaths of existing theory or methods.

Perhaps they are just trying to placate their anxious anthropological colleagues. However, this hasn't been how the Darwinian revolution has gone in other domains. The invasion of new ideas often displaces and renders obsolete old, pre-Darwinian thinking. Some concepts and data remain, but many other things are transformed - in the light of the new knowledge and new understanding which evolutionary theory brings. Remember the quote: "Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution". It's an exaggeration, but even so. Perhaps academia will continue to resist memetics - while it believes that it will cause established heads to roll. However, we can't have a softly-softly approach - one that waits for the scientists involved to die - before introducing changes. That kind of gradual revolution would be too slow. Ignorance and lack of comprehension do much damage. Viva la revolucion!