Saturday, 31 May 2014

The gene revolution

20th century biology saw what we might call the gene revolution - a new emphasis on and understanding of the importance of genes. A number of landmarks in the revolution might be identified: the rediscovery of Mendel's work around the turn of the century, the development of population genetics, the discovery of the structure of DNA, and the work of George Willams, William Hamilton, Richard Dawkins and others in developing a gene-oriented perspective on evolution.

What did we gain during the gene revolution? What did we lose?

We gained a renewed understanding of how useful it is to split organisms into heritable information and everything else. The genome is inherited and goes on to strongly affect evolution. The phenome is not inherited - and only affects evolution via its effect on genotypes and their distribution. The transitory nature of phenotypes means that they can be ignored in population genetic studies.

We also learned how useful it is to split the genome up into pieces and analyze the pieces - and the relationships between them, such as linkage. This perspective led to the ideas of kin selection and intragenomic conflict. Organisms had previously been regarded as harmonious wholes. The atomization of the genome during the gene revolution showed that organisms were more like loose coalition of parties with interests that are not always shared.

Famously, the gene revolution also led to the genes eye view, a means of analyzing and visualizing the operation of particular genes.

The gene revolution also seemed to result in an unhealthy focus on genes in some areas. People equated inheritance with DNA, and this led to much muddle and confusion. Part of the problem was that molecular geneticists started calling pieces of DNA 'genes' - and this usage became wildly popular, leading to people equating genes and small DNA sections. Other forms of heredity, such as cultural inheritance, became neglected during this time. This aspect of the gene revolution was quite negative. My proposal for combating this problem is to try and ensure that everyone understands that genes are not sections of nucleic acid.

The gene revolution seems to have been pretty positive overall. However, it has its critics. Many of them object to the atomization of genomes into genes. They say that gene expression is context sensitive, that genes interact during development, that traits aren't the product of single genes, that each gene influences multiple traits.

However, splitting phenomena into pieces and analyzing the pieces and their relationships is a strategy called "reductionism". Reductionism is a widely recognized as a legitimate strategy in science. It acts as bedrock for most 20th century science.

Another complaint is that a focus on the gene diverts attention from phenotypes - portraying them "passive" or ignoring them entirely.

For example, in Darwinian Fundamentalism S. J Gould wrote:

Only one causal force produces evolutionary change in Darwin’s world: the unconscious struggle among individual organisms to promote their own personal reproductive success - nothing else, and nothing higher (no force, for example, works explicitly for the good of species or the harmony of ecosystems). Richard Dawkins would narrow the focus of explanation even one step further - to genes struggling for reproductive success within passive bodies (organisms) under the control of genes - a hyper-Darwinian idea that I regard as a logically flawed and basically foolish caricature of Darwin’s genuinely radical intent.
The gene's eye view has been the target of the most criticism - with people saying it anthropomorphizes genes, introduces teleology into biology - and a wide range of other criticisms. Most of the criticisms of the gene's eye view appear to be ridiculous misunderstandings of it.

The gene revolution seems to have not yet hit cultural evolution. The cultural version of the gene revolution is the meme revolution, which - by most accounts - has yet to happen. This seems likely to be because of cultural evolution's scientific lag.

Cultural evolution does have the cultural equivalent of population genetics, though. Frequency analysis of memes is common. However, there is still very little work on cultural kin selection. This puts cultural evolutionary theory at a point corresponding to where organic evolutionary theory was somewhere between 1930 and 1960.

Many of the criticism of memetics are isomorphic to the criticisms of the gene oriented perspective on evolution. Sometimes the same criticisms are raised by the same people. Just as genetics proponents faced criticism for dividing the genome up into genes, so memeticists face the same criticism for dividing cultures into memes.

Some doubt that a meme revolution will ever happen:

This revolution won't happen. Because there is nothing comparable to the gene in "cultural evolution", no identifiable replicator that could serve as a foundation for a scientific theory. Dawkins, Blackmore et al. proposed the ominous "meme", but this concept never lived up to the expectations of its supporters. "Memetics" is in a permanent comatose state, with no signs of recovery.
I think this is unduly pessimistic. The split between genotype and phenotype can easily and usefully be applied to culture too: simply by saying that memes are heritable, while other aspects of culture are not. Dividing cultures up into pieces in order to analyze them makes obvious sense too - and the meme's eye view is about as useful as the gene's eye view - and its validity has been recognized by leading scientists in the field.

Memetics was ahead of its time, is all. Memes have already conquered the internet. The next generation is growing up with memes. We seem bound to see a science of them in due course. I'm still hoping that we won't have to wait for the tenures of the existing cultural anthropologists to 'expire' before we see it.

Friday, 30 May 2014

Repology 101: reps

An early contribution to repology took place in 1976, when Dawkins introduced the concept of a "replicator" to biologists. In 1982, he wrote:

I define a replicator as anything in the universe of which copies are made.

The "replicator" terminology has gone on to be popular, but controversial. The controversy centres around the issue of the ordinary English term "replicator" strongly implying high-fidelity copying, while Darwinian evolutionary theory doesn't require high-fidelity copying in order to work - according to standard information theory - e.g. see John Von Neumann (1952) "Probabilistic logic and the synthesis of reliable organisms from unreliable components".

Repology is based instead on the "rep". A rep is defined as follows:

Rep: anything that has been copied from something else

High-fidelity copying is emphatically not implied. Instead, copying fidelity is an attribute of the rep. High-fidelity copying is not a defining trait.

Note that the definition differs from the Dawkins definition of "replicator" is that the child is the "rep", while the parent is the "replicator". Whether an entity is an ancestor can change during the course of their lifetime, while an offspring is always an offspring. Once a rep, always a rep. DNA sequences in mules are "reps", but they do not fit the definition of "replicators" - since they are never copied from.

Reps differ from a generalized version of the concept of "gene" - since you can have inheritance and heredity without copying. If we take "gene" to refer to the basic unit of heredity, this need not refer to a copied entity. For example, I inherited my grandfather's clock. However, I didn't copy it. Reps are not the basic unit in a science of heredity.

Having side-stepped the controversies associated with the replicator concept, repology should be able to put the science of copying on a firm foundation.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Is evolution a form of learning?

Some say that learning is a form of evolution - e.g. see my Keeping Darwin in mind essay. However others say that evolution is a form of learning. For example, here's Leslie Valiant (from Probably Approximately Correct) in a section titled "Evolution as a form of learning":

To see evolution as a form of learning we view the genome in evolution as corresponding to the hypothesis in learning. The performance of the genome corresponds to its expected closeness to ideal behaviour, where the expectation is taken over the distribution of experiences the world offers.

What is going on here? Is evolution a form of learning? Or is learning a form of evolution?

I think that this is a fairly easy question: learning is a form of evolution, but not all evolution is a form of learning. Some evolution is more like forgetting than learning. It represents a loss of adaptive fit. If you forget everything you ever knew, that's still a part of evolution, but it is hard to see it as a form of learning. So: evolution is the larger category, while learning is a subset of it.

Perhaps those who claim that evolution is a form of learning should start by making it clear that it is only adaptive evolution they are talking about. Then they would have a reasonable point.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Is failure to understand memetics due to stupidity?

Memetics (and cultural evolution in general) is a poorly-understood area of science. However, memetics doesn't seem especially difficult to understand (unlike, say, quantum theory). Plenty of people have understood memetics. So: why don't most people understand it?

One theory that has been proposed is that understanding of memetics threatens a wide range of memes - since an understanding of memetics tends to result in a better cultural immune system. The threatened memes thus tend to "conspire" to ensure that their hosts don't understand memetics. Not literally "conspire", of course (that would be silly) - I just mean to say that multiple memes would have been exposed to selection pressure to influence host behaviour in the same direction.

I've previously covered this hypothesis in my memetics resistance article.

Another hypothesis is needed to explain resistance to memetics among social scientists. Cultural evolution and memetics have faced over a century of organized resistance from social scientists. Apparently, they think it is, wrong, bad and a threat. The first two seem like delusions - but they are correct in identifying cultural evolution and memetics as a threat. Many social scientists are busy fighting a turf war with biological approached to human behaviour. At stake are jobs, prestige and traditions. Every piece of confusion they can tar their opponents with is one more day of salaries for them and their colleagues.

I've also previously noted that memetics is part of a larger-scale resistance to to Darwinism being applied to human behaviour:

Part of the explanation for this involves resistance to Darwinism being applied to human behaviour. Memetics resistance is part of a larger resistance to Darwinism being applied to humans. Early approaches to human cultural evolution were characterised as being "social Darwinism" - which soon became a term of derision. Soon, preaching "Social Darwinism" conjoured up images of racial cleansing, forced sterilization, Nazia, Hitler - and so on.

Darwinism threatens the human ego's desire to be a special angelic form. Out genes have programmed us to believe we are wonderful, special and irreplaceable. Darwinism seems to say that we are descended from worms. Some people can't stomach that.

What about failure of the memeticists to educate others? This seems likely to also be a factor. Richard Dawkins has not pushed memetics very much. Academic students of the topic neglected to popularise it. Memetics experienced neglect and slow development. Not enough people have put a concerted effort behind research and education in the field.

In summary, stupidity looks like an unlikely hypothesis for the widespread failure to understand memetics. Manipulation, vested interests and cognitive bias seem likely to be involved instead.


Friday, 23 May 2014

The memexplosion continues

Three years ago I wrote an article for this blog titled "2011 - year of the meme!". It started out by saying:

The latest Google Trends results for "meme" are pretty spectacular

However, what happened next was even more spectacular - memes exploded on the internet - mainly in the form of "internet memes". 2011 was the year that memes went viral on the internet.

Another article tracked the gene-meme crossover point. Retrospectively we can say that 2011 was the year when memes became more popular than genes on the internet.

However then things seemed to plateau and level off. I wrote the peak meme article - wondering if internet memes would prove to be a fad.

Now, memes are on the rise again. It seems clear that the memexplosion is continuing. Here are the graphs:

The current Google Trends results for "meme"

The current Google Trends results for "memes"

The memexplosion has probably been good for memetics. We have lots of new article and scientific articles using the "meme" terminology. There's a new association with shallow pop culture - which might further put off those in academia - but I think we can live with the association for the sake of sheer popularity. It is hard to say for sure - but it looks as though the resistance to memes in academia hasn't held back the online memexplosion very significantly. If it did ever have an effect on meme adoption, it looks as though it isn't going to any more.

There still seem to be a lot of scientists who are simply confused about memes, memetics - and cultural evolution in general. However, it now seems practically inevitable that the next generation - who have been brought up with memes - will enthusiastically adopt the term. While it is true that science is not a popularity contest, I expect that, as time passes, more of the older scientists will cave in to popular usage - and make their peace with the excellent and appropriate term for sections of heritable cultural information: "meme". Even if that doesn't happen they will eventually die off: "Science progresses one funeral at a time".

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Stephen Hawking on cultural evolution

In 2009, Stephen Hawking made some comments about cultural evolution. He said:

with the human race, evolution reached a critical stage, comparable in importance with the development of DNA. This was the development of language, and particularly written language. It meant that information can be passed on, from generation to generation, other than genetically, through DNA. There has been no detectable change in human DNA, brought about by biological evolution, in the ten thousand years of recorded history. But the amount of knowledge handed on from generation to generation has grown enormously. The DNA in human beings contains about three billion nucleic acids. However, much of the information coded in this sequence, is redundant, or is inactive. So the total amount of useful information in our genes, is probably something like a hundred million bits. One bit of information is the answer to a yes no question. By contrast, a paper back novel might contain two million bits of information. So a human is equivalent to 50 Mills and Boon romances. A major national library can contain about five million books, or about ten trillion bits. So the amount of information handed down in books, is a hundred thousand times as much as in DNA.

Even more important, is the fact that the information in books, can be changed, and updated, much more rapidly. It has taken us several million years to evolve from the apes. During that time, the useful information in our DNA, has probably changed by only a few million bits. So the rate of biological evolution in humans, is about a bit a year. By contrast, there are about 50,000 new books published in the English language each year, containing of the order of a hundred billion bits of information. Of course, the great majority of this information is garbage, and no use to any form of life. But, even so, the rate at which useful information can be added is millions, if not billions, higher than with DNA.

This has meant that we have entered a new phase of evolution. At first, evolution proceeded by natural selection, from random mutations. This Darwinian phase, lasted about three and a half billion years, and produced us, beings who developed language, to exchange information. But in the last ten thousand years or so, we have been in what might be called, an external transmission phase. In this, the internal record of information, handed down to succeeding generations in DNA, has not changed significantly. But the external record, in books, and other long lasting forms of storage, has grown enormously. Some people would use the term, evolution, only for the internally transmitted genetic material, and would object to it being applied to information handed down externally. But I think that is too narrow a view. We are more than just our genes. We may be no stronger, or inherently more intelligent, than our cave man ancestors. But what distinguishes us from them, is the knowledge that we have accumulated over the last ten thousand years, and particularly, over the last three hundred. I think it is legitimate to take a broader view, and include externally transmitted information, as well as DNA, in the evolution of the human race.

The time scale for evolution, in the external transmission period, is the time scale for accumulation of information. This used to be hundreds, or even thousands, of years. But now this time scale has shrunk to about 50 years, or less. On the other hand, the brains with which we process this information have evolved only on the Darwinian time scale, of hundreds of thousands of years. This is beginning to cause problems.

This content seems reminiscent of my A new kind of evolution essay/video - from 2008.

However, the proposed Darwinian / external transmission dichotomy does not seem to be viable to me. For one thing, external transmission is going on all the time - even with primitive creatures. It's called "environmental inheritance".

Stephen also has a section about what I refer to as the coming memetic takeover:

It might be possible to use genetic engineering, to make DNA based life survive indefinitely, or at least for a hundred thousand years. But an easier way, which is almost within our capabilities already, would be to send machines. These could be designed to last long enough for interstellar travel. When they arrived at a new star, they could land on a suitable planet, and mine material to produce more machines, which could be sent on to yet more stars. These machines would be a new form of life, based on mechanical and electronic components, rather than macromolecules. They could eventually replace DNA based life, just as DNA may have replaced an earlier form of life.

This mechanical life could also be self-designing. Thus it seems that the external transmission period of evolution, will have been just a very short interlude, between the Darwinian phase, and a biological, or mechanical, self design phase. This is shown on this next diagram, which is not to scale, because there's no way one can show a period of ten thousand years, on the same scale as billions of years. How long the self-design phase will last is open to question. It may be unstable, and life may destroy itself, or get into a dead end. If it does not, it should be able to survive the death of the Sun, in about 5 billion years, by moving to planets around other stars.

Stephen seems to think that Darwinian evolution is coming to an end. For instance, he says:

There is no time, to wait for Darwinian evolution, to make us more intelligent, and better natured. But we are now entering a new phase, of what might be called, self designed evolution, in which we will be able to change and improve our DNA.

This is partly a terminology issue: the issue of what set of processes the term "Darwinian evolution" refers to. However many thinkers have put forward a good case for classifying human cultural evolution as being "Darwinian". Basically a) we should give Darwin credit and b) it is challenging to produce a sensible definition of "Darwinian evolution" that includes the process that produced plants and animals, and excludes the processes that go on inside brains and are responsible for thought processes. Once the need to keep Darwin in mind is properly understood, it is hard to go back to classifying mental processes as - in some sense - non-Darwinian.

The main points used to classify cultural evolution as non-Darwinian revolve around the issues of the 'randomness' of mutations and 'Lamarckian' inheritance. This is ironic - Darwin knew little about the source of variation, and he pioneered the idea of 'gemmules' - which were mediators of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Calling cultural inheritance non-Darwinian on either of these grounds surely involves historical revisionism.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Universal Darwinism book list

I've put together a Universal Darwinism book list.

There are not that many books on the list at the moment. That reflects the current paucity of material available on the topic.

Hopefully more material will appear - now that the significance of the topic has become more clearly evident.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Richerson and Brown on rival theories

Gillian R. Brown and Peter J. Richerson have a nice 2013 article on the differences between:
  • Human Behavioural Ecology;
  • Evolutionary psychology;
  • Cultural evolution;
Since they are both proponents of cultural evolution the article spends much of its time explaining where the other fields go wrong.

It's a good article, but while reading it, I was reminded of the difference in perspective between what the article describes as cultural evolution and the memetics tradition.

The concerns of memetics seem modern to me, while these authors seem to be mostly concerned with distant prehistory - a poorly-documented era which it is difficult to study.

The article contrasts the idea of an "adaptive lag" (from evolutionary psychology) with cultural evolution's idea that cultural adaptation works quickly to eliminate adaptive mismatch. They say:

Thus, Cultural Evolutionists expect that many types of temporal and spatial mismatches between ancestral human adaptations and their current environments will be solved by Cultural Evolution fairly quickly; for example, the development of protective clothing and shelter technology systems has allowed human beings to survive in environments with extreme low temperatures. Cultural Evolution seems to explain why humans have been, if anything, more successful in the Holocene than in the Pleistocene.

This is perfectly reasonable - but memetics is typically much more interested in the areas of mismatch - where meme and gene interests are not aligned. Mismatch helps to distinguish gene-based theories from meme-based ones. It covers the cases where humans are manipulated by others, using memes - an important case to defend against. Basically, misalignment of interests has the advantages of conflict over cooperation - there's more damage and more newsworthyness.

The authors are aware that memes can be maladaptive. For example, they write:

the risk of acquiring maladaptive information might have increased substantially in modern environments, for example because mass media exposes us to many attractively packaged cultural variants designed by advertisers to increase their sales, not the recipients fitness.

Just so - but memetics focuses on these types of case a lot more.

Other differences are that the authors invoke group section - rather than kin selection - to explain cooperation caused by cultural evolution. Also the article seems symbiology free to me - as though the revolution in our understanding of symbiosis in the 1960s-1980s never happened. An article from someone versed in memetics would surely be full of terms such as "parasite" and "mutualist" to describe cultural symbionts. This article skips over these concepts and terminology - it is symbiology-challenged.

Human behavioural ecology and evolutionary psychology seem like weak competitors to what the authors describe as "cultural evolution" to me. It is plain that these disciplines will need to incorporate theories of cultural evolution if they expect to do very much useful work.

Memetics on the other hand, covers the same subject matter in a similar way - but with considerably different emphasis from these authors. Reconcilliation there is also needed - but it looks like a more challenging prospect to me.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Richard Dawkins on memes in 2013

Richard Dawkins: Memes

Richard Dawkins: Religion a Computer Virus

I can't embed it, but in this last video, Richard Dawkins gets into memes (and memeplexes) during the book tour associated with the first part of his autobiography: Richard Dawkins On Meme.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Do we need sciences of longevity and fidelity?

I wrote recently about repology - the proposed science of copying. However heredity famously involves other things besides copying. Famously, it is 'fecundity, fidelity and longevity' - not just 'fecundity'.

So, where does science stand regarding longevity and fidelity? The situation with longevity seems to be quite good. For one thing there's a science of longevity, featuring evolutionary theories affecting senescence - such as the 'disposable soma', 'mutation accumulation' and 'antagonistic pleiotropy' theories of aging - and things like 'the reliability theory of aging' - which is a "non-evolutionary" theory of aging that also applies to non-living things.

Then there's stability theory. Stability isn't quite the same thing as longevity - but the ideas are closely related. Catastrophe theory is another related area of mathematics.

How about fidelity? 'Fidelity' is perhaps not quite the right word. We want a term to cover avoiding mutation during copying and avoiding mutation at other times. There are engineering sciences of error correction and detection that deal with high fidelity copying and transmission. I haven't really heard too much about a science of robustness - or staying the same. However, those who make computer memory chips are sophisticated students of this topic. Perhaps any lack in this area is not too important. Repology and the science of copying seems to be a much more significant missing piece.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Daniel Dennett: The De-Darwinizing of Cultural Change

Here is Daniel Dennett on what he calls the De-Darwinizing of Cultural Change. Here, Dennett claims that human culture started out working along Darwinian lines, and then gradually became less Darwinian. Dennett claims that Turing, Shakespeare, Gaudi and Einstein represent intelligent design - which is not so Darwinian.

Is this thesis correct? We have to keep Darwin in mind here. A human genius still has a pretty thoroughly Darwinian process going on inside their mind. Dennett is, I believe, well aware of this, most of the time. So, it isn't clear why he is thinking of intelligent design as being 'non-Darwinian' here.

On a different topic, Dennett has a nice description of the cultural origins of languages near the end of the video.

Update April 2015: In 2015, Dennett expanded on the topic in another video: De-Darwinizing Culture.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Meme denialism

Around the time that the 2011 internet meme explosion happened, I predicted that memeticists would see less of the criticism that ¨Memes don't exist¨. Claiming that ¨memes don't exist¨ had been a common criticism of memetics for decades before that. For example, here's J. Marks (2000):
Now unlike genes, memes have the decided disadvantage of not actually existing.
However, now - with memes saturating popular culture and the news, critics who claim that memes don't exist run a bigger risk of looking out-of-touch - or just stupid.

I think this has happened - memetics has seen less of this criticism of late. Meme denialism is on the wane. However, I was reminded of this issue recently by reading a 2013 article by Charles Goodnight - in which he claims that ¨Memes do not exist, end of story¨ and ¨there is no meme¨.

I can't say I'm impressed by Charles' position. He seems to want to act as though the 'gene' revolution of the 1960s and 1970s never happened. This would, I believe, be a retrograde step. Distinguishing between heritable information and its expression is extremely useful to evolutionists - even if Charles doesn't seem to appreciate this.

Charles also seems hung up on the issue of whether 'discrete' memes can represent 'continuous' human culture. This seems like a non-issue to me. For one thing, there's no evidence that human culture is 'continuous' in the first place. Forms of culture that can't be digitized and put on the internet have proved elusive. Alleged 'continuous' human culture has not been shown to exist. Indeed, philosophers don't know if anything in the world is continuous. In Shannon information theory, all information is represented by finite quantities. Supposedly-continuous phenomena can only be described via discrete approximations. Direct descriptions are impossible - since the value of a continuous variable would typically takes an infinite quantity of information to specify. Memetics operates in this realm of information theory. This isn't a bug, it's a feature.

Update 2014-07-13:

Another recent case involves Gene Anderson:

Memes and culture traits: There is an absolutely enormous amount of work on this. Nothing remotely like a “meme” exists. Cultural knowledge is not packaged in neat little clumps, does not spread like genes or bugs or viruses from person to person, and does not have a life or identity of its own.
I think that Gene is mistaken and confused. He's an anthropologist, but I don't see any sign that he has an understanding of cultural evolution. This puts him low on my list of critics that are worth bothering to address.


Wednesday, 7 May 2014


I've long been sceptical about whether a science of copying could compete against genetics - or even find much of a niche in its presence.

However, I've now changed my mind about its potential viability. In particular, I've previously lamented the lack of a science of copying. Saying that the topic is part of information theory doesn't really cut it.

Since I think naming things is important, one of the things I've looked for is a name for the science of copying - and now I think I've found one: "repology".

Repology is the science of reproduction, replication and copying.

By "copying", I mean what it says in the 2013 article: What are inheritance and copying? Basically, copying involves information in one place spreading to multiple locations. It has two essential elements: Shannon mutual information and causality.

A science of copying isn't the same thing as a science of heredity. In particular, heredity consists of other means for patterns to persist besides copying - including: longevity and resisting modification. However, copying is an important component of heredity.

In terms of the Dawkins trinity (of fidelity, fecundity and longevity), repology is the science of fecundity - whereas heredity involves all three components.

My hope is that the term "repology" will be acceptable to both advocates and opponents of the replicator terminology promoted by Dawkins, Hull and Szathmary.

To dismiss a possible objection immediately, no implication that the reproduction, replication or copying involved are "high fidelity".

Repology does have some advantages over genetics. In particular, it doesn't come with useless historical baggage linking it to nucleic acids, or confining its domain to biology. It is unencumbered by such nonsense.

The most significant criticism of repology seems to me to be the idea that is is essentially the same thing as the science of heredity (i.e. a generalized version of genetics). Yet, fidelity, fecundity and longevity are somewhat different topics - and there are some benefts from a more fine-grained approach.

Repology hasn't seen very much action so far - but I'm hoping that giving the field a name will help a little with that.


Monday, 5 May 2014

A large critique of memetics

This 16-page critique of memetics comes from Vilém Uhlíř and Marco Stella - anthropologists from the Czeck republic. It was published in the Czeck journal, Anthropologie.


I don't have that many comments. This critique is pretty bad. Here's one painful excerpt:

For memetics, culture is not driven by the motives of humans, but by non-conscious "instincts" of its own particles, memes. No matter that the true Darwinian evolution has no agency and is essentially aimless. This passive fatalism with no space for human consciousness seems to stem from animated ultra-metaphors clumsily used to describe memes.

Here's how they present the modern rise of theories of cultural evolution:

It seems to us that we are facing an attempt to "exhume" or resuscitate memetics inside biosocial theories of culture, via a conscious strategy of avoiding the downgraded words "meme" and "memetics" (e.g., Distin 2011).


the fatal fault of memetics is that it is too dependent on Dawkinsian reduction.
From my perspective, this article is interesting not so much because it offers interesting critique of memetics, but rather because it clearly illustrates the swathes of nonsense that emanate from anthropology departments on this topic. These folk know enough to see that there is a turf war going on - but not enough to coherently defend their positions.

It's rather surreal to see the science I love twisted around for the purpose of these kind of "straw man" attack. I hope that nobody is stupid enough to get their information about memetics from sources like this.

Against the requirement that genes are "functional"

I've previously pointed out how stupid and parochial the requirement that genes be made out of nucleic acid is.

Only daft biologists would define their terminology without thought to their own ancestors, descendants, aliens, or non-nucleic inheritance.

Various sensible biological thinkers - such as Richard Dawkins, George Williams and David Hull clearly took pains to avoid this mistake.

However, I think they all made another mistake - in insisting that genes are defined as being "functional" or "active".

It's onerous to determine whether a particular inherited unit is "functional". Typically, one must test out its carriers in a wide range of environments.

The requirement of activity needlessly complicates the concept of a gene. Scientific concepts should be simple. When they are simple they are beautiful. Complex concepts typically represent a failure to apply reductionism properly. The idea of genes that must be "functional" or "active" drags in factors from ontogeny into genetics. This influence is unnecessary and unwarranted. Scientists went to great pains in all other areas to keep concepts in genetics and ontogeny separated out - but then muddled them up in the definition of the term "gene".

Hull defends "activity" requirement for genes in the book "Science and Selection". He says that Mendelian genes are active by definition - and so therefore, it's OK. For one thing, we can't blame Mendel for this mess - he never even used the term "gene". For another, this seems like an argument from historical legacy to me.

Richard Dawkins explained why genes needed to be "active" by definition in his "The active germ-line replicator" chapter - from 1982. The answer seemse to be adaptationism:

The whole purpose of our search for a 'unit of selection' is to discover a suitable actor to play the leading role in our metaphors of purpose.

This does not seem remotely convincing to me: some genes can be purposeful without every gene being defined to be purposeful.

To see what biology would be like without the requirement that genes be functional, consider the work of Richard Semon, coiner of the term "mneme". Mnemes were just units of memory/inheritance. There was no requirement that they served any useful purpose. "Mneme" lost out to "gene" - but it was not on grounds of scientific merit. In every respect - except for ease of pronunciation - mnemes have genes beat.

Another modern attempt to get away from this mess is the concept of "replicator". However, this is questionable terminology - for many reasons. Probably the most serious is that the "replica" root strongly implies "high-fidelity" copying - an inappropriate connotation for a proposed unit of inheritance. I've gone into all this in my book - and in Against replicator terminology.

A science of replicators would still leave the "gene" and "genetics" terminology in a hopeless mess. If we repair the "gene" and "genetics" terminology, a separate science of replicators would no longer be necessary.

I have faith in the ability of scientists to refactor their terminology - and clean this mess up. The alternative is to lumber innuemerable future generations with a terminological mess. Let's not choose that option.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

What to propagate?

I've been asked privately that - since I think that all goal-directed behaviour comes from differential reproduction of copied entites, what I would recommend propagating.

Many people promote various different answers to this question. However, the main reason for this seems to be in order to manipulate the behaviour of others. This advice is obviously of low value for those trying to decide what to do.

Of course the bottom line is that most people are free enough to propagate whatever they like. So: please consider the rest of this article as my two cents:

From a scientific perspective there are three main classes of copied entity that have the most direct influence over human behaviour: DNA genes, social learning (memes), and individual learning.

The DNA genes with the most influence are usually those of the host involved, but sometimes the genes of other people, mutualists or parasites are also significant.

Human genes have delegated most of our behavioural repertoire to the human brain. So, in practice the brain makes most of the body's decisions that are more complex than reflex actions. However, genes still get to have their say - they originally designed the brain's reward system - constraining the brain's options.

In practice most humans act as though they are propagators of both genes and memes. The significance of gene-propagation is quite high - just looking at the seven billion humans. Indeed some opponents of memetics argue that the influence of genes is overwhelming - and that the common examples of deleterious memes (such as smoking memes and obesity memes) generally exist because they benefit the genes of various corporation owners). However, I think any sensible analysis denies the validity of the "it all boils down to genes" perspective - i.e. memetics beats Wilson-style sociobiology.

Some have suggested that meme propagation is personally important to them. Famous examples include Dawkins - who wrote:

I'd rather spread memes than genes anyway.

...and Steven Pinker - who wrote, in How the Mind Works:

I am happy to be voluntarily childless, ignoring the solemn imperative to spread my genes. And if my genes don't like it, they can go jump in the lake.

Personally I am much more sceptical about meme propagation at the expense of their gene propagation. I tend to regard it as memetic hijacking. I tend to view those who propagate memes at the expense of their genes as memetic hijacking victims. If memes steal your genetic genetic fitness, you are probably being manipulated.

Many seem to regard nature as "wasteful, cruel and low". They see gene propagation as bad. However, my perspective is rather the reverse of this: evolution is good.

Some regard personal gene-propagation as selfish - and advocate propagating their group, species or ecosystem instead. For example, The Laughing Genes recommends propagating high-level entities - such as your own species. I regard this advice as probably a form of signalling. Selfishness has a poor reputation, and consequently, many want to signal unselfishness. This appears to be the basis of much moral preaching promoting unselfishness.

What about the idea that memes are on the rise? That there is likely to be a memetic takeover - and so attempts to spread genes are ultimately likely to be futile?

It is true that in the last genetic takeover, few organisms from before the transition made it through. However, that seems unlikely to happen again. These days there are too many museums for anything to get that lost. Genes can still reasonably dream of immortality.


Saturday, 3 May 2014

The alleged eusociality of humans

Kevin Foster and Francis Ratnieks once asked if humans were eusocial - apparently on the grounds that sterile grandparents frequently care for human young. More recently Edward Wilson and John Wilkins have also claimed that humans are "eusocial".

It seems like an extreme stretch to refer to humans as "eusocial". Many other workers - including myself - have used the term "ultrasocial" to refer to humans instead. Future human societies may conceivably feature large numbers of sterile human clones. Then, the term "eusicial" would become much more appropriate. However we just aren't anywhere near that today. As Matt Ridley likes to quip: not even people in England delegate their reproductive activities to the queen!

Modern human societies do have eusocial components, though. Memetic eusociality is quite common. For example, most dollar bills do not reproduce directly - and instead prefer to delegate reproduction to banks. It is the same with many books - individual books are typically sterile workers - whose purpose is to divert resources towards a reproductive "queen". This type of eusociality does, in fact, play a significant role in promoting human sociality. However, it would be a tremendous muddle to call humans "eusocial" - on the grounds that some human memes are eusocial. Such muddling together of organic and cultural evolution would create a big conceptual mess. Typically memes don't interbreed with humans - since they aren't part of the same species. Memes have their own lineages which are not to be muddled up with those of humans. Eusocial meme lineages do not make eusocial humans!

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Memetic eusociality or environmental mismatch

John Wilkins provides us with an opportunity to compare the eusociality of evolutionary psychology with the eusociality of memetics. He writes:

Many evolutionary psychologists hold to the contrary that we are “eusocial”, meaning inclined to be more cooperative than a game theory account might suggest we would be, because we evolved in small groups of related people, and that now, in a larger society of less related people, we have a moral module in our heads that misfires, so to speak.

I think this is a common perspective on how kin selection applies to groups of weakly-related humans from evolutionary psychologists.

In memetics, many humans are cultural kin - i.e. they share memes - significantly more than they share genes. Memes promote copies of themselves in other bodies by manipulating their hosts into behaviours that benefit others with shared memes. The kinship involved is real, not an illusion - or simply the product of an unnatural environment. The memes really are related. Often near-identical copies are present in the human hosts involved.

In the evolutionary psychology view, cooperation is a dwindling hangover from a rosier past. In memetics, the cooperation is strengthening - as the memes grow in numbers and power, due to cultural evolution.

The 'cooperation-as-hangover' view probably has some truth to it. However, it should be abundantly clear that the memetics approach to the issue does a vastly better job of explaining the rise of large-scale cooperative societies in the modern world.

In addition to hosting the existing kin of memes, other humans represent prospective kin for memes. Humans represent fertile ground in which existing memes can distribute their progeny. To reproduce, many memes need peaceful, cooperating humans in contact with other humans. It really is no surprise that this is what we see. This is the symbiont hypothesis of eusociality.

For anyone interested in learning more about the topic, the 'cooperation-as-hangover' view is sometimes called the environmental mismatch hypothesis.