Sunday, 31 May 2015

Why are some evolutionary biologists still meme skeptics?

One reason I have given for anthropologists rejecting evolutionary theory is that they regard evolutionists as alien invaders - to be rejected with a kind of immune response.

The same theory suggests that evolutionary biologists should be meme enthusiasts: proponents of expanding evolutionary theory to cover human culture.

Certainly, many evolutionary biologists have embraced the idea of cultural evolution. The list includes: Richard Dawkins, William Hamilton, John Maynard Smith, David Sloane Wilson, Eors Szathmary, Mark Pagel and Marcus Feldman. Meme-literate science writers have included Matt Ridley, Robert Wright and Carl Zimmer.

However some evolutionary biologists don't seem to be up to speed with the new application domain of evolutionary theory. these include Steven Pinker, Jerry Coyne, Mark Ridley, Massimo Pigliucci, Steven J Gould and Richard Lewontin. As Steven Pinker has put it:

No one could be more sympathetic to the application of evolutionary biology to human affairs than I am, and I have made use of many of its tools. But group selection and memetics have been unhelpful, and even evolutionary psychology in its totality can take us only so far.

You might think these folk would be meme literate by now. Instead they appear to be confused - and are among those dragging their feet and resisting the transition into this new era for evolutionary theory.

The point of this post is to speculate about how this state of affairs arose. Is there a grand theory that explains memetics resistance by evolutionary biologists? Or do they all object for different reasons. Are these folk the tip of a larger iceberg of silent objectors? Or are they merely the dregs at the bottom of the barrel - soon to be mopped up.

I'm not sure that a grand theory of memetics resistance is needed to account for the facts in this case. Cultural evolution has been a big scientific revolution. Any such revolution takes time and there are early adopters and late adopters. In this case it just so happens that some evolutionary biologists are among the late adopters.

Some of the existing evolutionist critics are long-standing critics. They got into the anti-meme camp early on and then maybe felt commitment towards their position - or the need to be consistent. Another possible factor is conservatism. Textbooks are notoriously conservative and Mark Ridley is an author of evolutionary biology textbook.

My hope is that at this stage the remaining mopping up operation will go relatively quickly - at least among the remaining evolutionary biologists. It is true that the revolution has been going on for 150 years so far already - but science on internet time should result in more rapid progress. Anthropologists might hold out for longer - I picture most of them as being more out of touch on the relevant issues.

Dawkins on Darwinian human affairs

Richard Dawkins may have pioneered and popularized the idea of cultural evolution but he does't always seem to have a good handle on the topic these days. For example, I was pretty disappointed with his treatment of Darwinian economics recently. In The Genius of Charles Darwin, Dawkins discusses social Darwinism, the efforts of John Rockafeller and the evolutionary business practices of Enron - and then concludes:

Darwinism in business seems to be little more than metaphor an analogy.

This material is 107 minutes in. Next, Dawkins asks:

Can Darwinism be applied to other areas of human affairs?

His answer to this question: eugenics. Dawkins goes on to explain:

I've always hated how Darwin is wheeled out to justify cut-throat business competition, racism and right-wing politics.
That's all very well - but this presentation about how Darwinism applied to human affairs is "little more than metaphor an analogy" is distorted and wrong. It's a missed opportunity to explain how Darwinism actually does apply to human affairs. If Dawkins really thinks that "Darwinism in business seems to be little more than metaphor an analogy", he's simply confused and mistaken.

The evolution of the "meme" meme

I described the recent evolution of the term "meme" in a 2010 article.

Recently Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett have attempted to characterise this evolution. Dawkins wrote:

Instead of mutating by random chance before spreading by a form of Darwinian selection, Internet memes are altered deliberately by human creativity

Daniel Dennett recently stated:

Dawkins introduced memes to be evolvers, to be things that evolve by natural selection but internet memes are the creations of presumably intelligent designers. There's competitions on the internet: who can design the meme that goes viral best. An intelligent designed meme would seem to be a contradiction in terms. And I admit: for a while I thought so too and I deplored the fact that Dawkins' wonderful word and concept was being sullied, was being cheapened by being transformed in this way into the word it is on the internet... and then I suddenly realized: no! no! maybe this is a contradiction in terms - so what. After all the splittable atom is also a contradiction in terms. The word "atom" initially meant "unsplittable thing". Now we have splittable atoms.

The idea that memetic engineering makes the term "meme" less appropriate seems like pure nonsense to me.

We still call genetically engineered genes "genes". I see no reason why we should not call memetically engineered memes "memes". No definition of gene or meme that I am aware of excludes the use of engineering techniques.

The idea that internet memes are engineered is also an incorrect characterization of the way the meaning of the term "meme" has changed. Plenty of memes were memetically engineered before we had the internet - and plenty of internet memes were not memetically engineered - for example most "fail" videos.

The real difference in meaning is the one I mentioned in my 2010 article: that internet memes must be popular. The difference is well illustrated by the "Millhouse is not a meme" meme. Internet meme experts seem to agree with the sentiment expressed by this meme, while enthusiasts for the Dawkins meme think that the idea that "Millhouse is not a meme" is ridiculous: of course Millhouse is a meme. You got it by from someone else via human culture - and it has been copied millions of times all over the internet.

The new meaning of "meme" as an abbreviation for "internet meme" - referring to things that spread in massive numbers on the internet - is all very well, but it takes the term "meme" away from its origin as a unit of cultural inheritance. Scientifically, all culture should be made of memes. Memes that only account for some parts of culture are not a general enough concept to do very much useful scientific work. Meme critics have already had a field day with the idea that memes only explain culture that is copied with high fidelity. Soon we will probably be hearing the equally ridiculous objection that memes only explain popular culture.

Pop mememtics

These days there's a fair amount of pop memetics out there. Know Your Meme is one of the best-known examples, but these days, most news channels give some coverage to memes and there's plenty of idle speculation about topics such as why some memes are more successful than others. Marketing is another common source of speculative pop memetics.

Taking a historical perspective, it seems likely that memetics has been hindered by real scientists not wanting to associate themselves with the work of folks such as Richard Brodie and Aaron Lynch.

Evolutionary psychology illustrates the down-side of popular interpretations producing inaccuracies. There's a whole bunch of scientists that view evolutionary psychology as a giant cess-pool of poor-quality scientific speculations. While I don't think this is a defensible attitude towards evolutionary psychology, I can understand that looking down on dodgy science probably plays a signalling role for scientists.

Should memetics take care to avoid the fate of evolutionary psychology in this area? I'm inclined to think that a wealth of memetics "just so stories" are inevitable at this stage - and that there's not much that can be done about this.

Indeed, it seems to me that evolutionary psychology has suffered little from its reputation for consisting of just-so stories. Instead, if anything, controversy appears to have attracted attention to the ideas associated with the field. Sometimes, marketers claim that there's no such thing as bad publicity. Evolutionary psychology seems to illustrate this idea.

Memetics also seems to have considerable potential for controversy. Where evolutionary psychology focuses on human universals, memetics studies the causes of differences between humans. This is a potentially sensitive subject area touching on areas such as inequality, xenophobia, political differences and religion. One one hand this makes it all the more important to get the science in these areas right. However, it may also offers memetics controversy-based marketing opportunities. The recent piece of pop memetics This Video Will Make You Angrydescribes how warring memeplexes attract attention and energy of netizens. The term "meme" has does a good job recently of hitch-hiking - its way to success - by attaching itself to highly-spreadable viral content. Perhaps the term "memetics" can do something similar - by hitch-hiking on controversial scientific content relating to topics such as politics and religion.

Saturday, 30 May 2015

Memetics and unilinear cultural evolution

The issue of unilinear cultural evolution was recently raised in a discussion of memes and cultural evolution:

A major critique with the concept of using memetics and the concept of cultural-evolution as analogy is that it perpetuates neo-evolutionary theories from the 1960's that posited ideas of culture unilineally evolving from simple to complex (the same stuff that Herbert Spencer was talking about in the 19th century).

My reply follows:

Cultural evolution is sometimes smeared by its opponents for promoting what is generally known as unilinear cultural evolution.

The biggest problem with this smear is that unilinear evolutionary theories have been out of fashion in biology for a hundred years. We now know that evolution produces tree-shaped bushes, not ladders.

This is an emotive issue, since the "ladder of progress" model with westerners at the top was historically used to help justify slavery and genocide.

Also, it has become pretty obvious that cultural evolution is directional - taking humanity from apes to angels. The cultural evolution theorists from a hundred years ago were factually correct about there being a direction to cultural evolution. In the era of Moore's law, progress denialism is looking increasingly stupid.

Darwin famously wrote in a notebook: "Never say higher or lower". There's some wisdom in this advice, but it seems stupid to apply it to cultural evolution - since that is so clearly and obviously directional.

I think the concern about the concept of cultural progress is that it will be again used to justify the extermination of those lower on the ladder.

It isn't clear whether this fear is justified or not. There's no evidence that knowledge of evolutionary theory is correlated with misdeeds. One thing is fairly clear: cultural progress itself has led to massively reduced rates of homicide and massively increased life expectancies.

Anyway, whether the idea of cultural progress causes people to exterminate each other doesn't bear on whether the idea is true. That would be like arguing that atomic theory is wrong because, if true, it might lead to atom bombs - which could kill millions.

A bishop's wife once declared:

My dear, descended from the apes! Let us hope it is not true, but if it is, let us pray that it will not become generally known.

This revulsion towards evolutionary theory has afflicted many historically, and caused them to argue against evolutionary theory - and in particular its applicability to humans.

In my opinion, the arguments by many anthropologists against applying evolutionary theory to human culture are best seen in this light. They are motivated cognition. Not only are biologists invading anthropological turf, they are doing so using a horrible, dreadful, theory that will only lead to economic dog-on-dog competition and a callous indifference to the suffering of others.

In my opinion, the best argument anthropologists have is that previous attempts to applying evolutionary theory to human culture have been simple minded. This criticism applies to Wilson-style sociobiology - which tries to boil everything down to genes - and to evolutionary psychology - which has mostly focused on human universals, and whose theories of culture have been things like the simple-minded 'jukebox' model. However, memetics acknowledges the importance of human culture, granting anthropologists one of the things they have been saying for a century or so - that culture is big and important influence on human behaviour. One of the early pioneers of the topic - Donald T Campbell - was an anthropologist.

Perhaps evolutionists will inevitably make some mistakes with their new theory. However Darwinian denialism is surely profoundly worse. This is the head-up-the-backside approach to evolutionary theory that has kept anthropology in a pre-Darwinian time warp for over 150 years now.

Heredity and development can be profitably treated as different topics

Memetics advocates separating the study of heredity from the study of development in the study of culture. These topics are somewhat muddled together today - by anthropologists and students of cultural evolution alike. I had a go at explaining why this split was desirable recently in a conversation. Here's the relevant section:

The concept of evolution of culture and memetics is generally panned off as "oldschool" in anthropology nowadays. One major criticism of memetics, at least from the side of linguistics/semiotics for example, is that it fails to account for the multifaceted aspects and historical contexts of ideas. In other words, the meme or the idea is simply a one sided idea that is only copied. Memetics in this regard fails to account for translation and interpretation which can have varied consequences.

My reply:

Saying that memetics fails to account for translation and interpretation is like saying that genetics fails to account for transcription and development. Memetics and genetics are sciences that study heredity - cultural heredity and organic heredity respectively. There are other branches of science (with different names) that study things like development and ecology. It is possible to argue that the divisions between these disciplines are in the wrong place or that a unified approach is important, but the criticism that memetics doesn't study every aspect of culture is surely misplaced.

If memes are like genes, memetics should surely be like genetics. Genetics studies heredity - the way in which genes mutate and recombine. Memetics, in turn, studies cultural heredity - the way in which cultural information mutates and recombines. It is absolutely standard practice in academia to break complex subjects up into a variety of specialist sub-disciplines. Increasing levels of specialization has been an important way in which civilization has progressed over the year. No single individual can know everything any more - and science has become a group effort.

Splitting the field of genetics off from development happened in the organic realm around the 1930s - some time after evolutionary theory was first developed. The split was a very productive one (genetics and development have different principles and are profitably studied as separate topics). The idea of memetics is to apply the same conceptual split to the study of human culture. As in the organic realm, changing a recipe and combining it with other recipes is quite a different topic from how recipes turn into cakes - even though both are important to understanding cakes. We now have a science of cultural evolution - but it is still struggling to spawn its equivalent of genetics. This makes a lot of sense - given what we already know about cultural evolution's scientific lag.

Friday, 29 May 2015

Philip K Dick on memes

Sci-Fi author Philip K Dick once weighed in on William Burrough's language-as-information-virus thesis. The first quote sounds a bit negative:

I cannot accept Burroughs' view that we have been invaded by an alien virus, an information virus, yet on the other hand I cannot readily dismiss this bizarre theory as mere paranoia on his part.
...but Dick then goes on to take the idea seriously:

Burroughs may have indeed detected an "information virus" or something like an information virus, but my supposition is that, if you grant its existence, it is of long-standing. World mythology supports this. Not just Christian.

Where Burroughs and I sharply disagree is that my supposition is that if-if-an information life form exists (and this is indeed a bizarre and wild supposition), it is benign; it does not occlude us; on the contrary: it informs us (or perhaps it has no interest in doing either, but simply rides our own information traffic, using our media as a carrier; that is entirely possible.

These quotes were unearthed by the Philip K. Dick and Religion blog in 2011. It offers more extended quotations than I give here.

Dick claims that memes are benign. Memetics famously suggests that Dick was wrong: gene and meme purposes may coincide - or they may not - and fairly often they do not.

Dick describes the idea of cultural lifeforms as "a bizarre and wild supposition". In a nutshell, that's probably why so many have a hard time digesting it. It is pretty amazing that evolution now has a second high-fidelity 'information superhighway' from parent to offspring - in addition to our genes - and that it has already generated adaptations that have lasted for thousands of years.

Monday, 25 May 2015

Disagree with Daniel: Are memes going out of date?

I don't much like many of Daniel's recent ideas about "DeDarwinizing" culture. However one particularly bad idea seems to me to be the one that the idea of memes worked best in the early days of cultural evolution. Here's Daniel:

Now, if you look at it this way, then one of the nice things of this is that it means that I can still cling to one of my favorite ideas — the idea of a meme — and say where the meme's eye point of view really works, and really when it is needed is in the early days. The best example of memes are words. Words are memes that can be pronounced; that's their genus and species. Words came into existence not because they were invented, and languages came into existence not because they were designed by intelligent human designers, but they are brilliantly designed and they're designed by cultural evolution in the same way that a bird's wing and the eye of the eagle are designed by genetic evolution. You can't explain human competence all in terms of genetic evolution. You need cultural evolution as well, and that cultural evolution is profoundly Darwinian in the early days. And as time has passed, it has become more and more non-Darwinian.

IMO, evolution is becoming more and more meme dominated. The copying fidelity of memes has gone up, and their volume and signifince is exploding. Another change is that memes are experiencing more and more horizontal transmission - horizontal w.r.t. the DNA genes of their human hosts, I mean. Dennett seems to think that intelligently designed memes are an oxymoron. However, genetically engineered genes are still called "genes". The involvement of intelligence makes no significant difference in either case. Memes aren't going out of fashion, they are in the ascendant.

Acerbi and Mesoudi on the differences between cultural and organic evolution

Acerbi and Mesoudi discuss the differences between cultural and organic evolution in a recent paper [*]. I don't think they get it right. Here is the passage:

While they adopted the same mathematical tools as used in biology, they were careful not to import assumptions regarding genetic evolution that are unlikely to apply to cultural evolution. For example, Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman (1981) modelled the consequences of not just vertical cultural transmission (learning from biological parents) but also oblique cultural transmission (learning from unrelated members of the parental generation) and horizontal cultural transmission (learning from peers), as well as specific forms of the latter such as one-to-many transmission (typical of mass media). Boyd and Richerson (1985) modelled conformist cultural transmission (preferentially adopting the majority behaviour in the population) and model-based cultural transmission (preferentially learning from particularly high status or prestigious individuals), which again have no clear parallel in biological evolution.

IMO, this content is practically all mistaken:

  • You can get memes from unrelated members of your parents generation. However you can also get genes from them: genes for coughs, colds and flea bites.
  • You can get memes from peers. However you can also get genes from them: genes for AIDS, pox and warts.
  • Memes exhibit one-to-many transmission. However so do genes (see measles outbreaks).
  • Menes which are like population averages can spread - but so can average genes. Beauty genes are a common example - where extremes are avoided and average is beautiful.
  • Memes from high status or prestigious individuals spread. However often so do their genes. The phenomenon is known as "sexual selection". High status and prestige are often sexually attractive.

The similarities and differences between cultural and organic evolution should be part of cultural evolution 101. These seem like pretty basic differences to me and I don't really understand why they are so persistent. Is it inertia? A failure to communicate? The slow adoption of symbiology? Or what?


Daniel Dennett: Information, Evolution, and Intelligent Design

Cultural evolution starts 7 minutes in. Memes start 18 minutes in.

48 minutes in Dennett has a strange section about how internet memes are a contradiction in terms (because they are designed rather than evolved). Few meme enthusiasts would agree with Dennett here, I think.

Acerbi and Mesoudi on the genotype/phenotype split

Acerbi and Mesoudi discuss the genotype/phenotype split in a recent paper [*].

The picture they criticize is the picture I prefer - and I will respond to their critique. First, here is what they say:

One proposed solution to this puzzle is to consider the information, wherever stored, as the equivalent of the biological genotype, and the expression of the information in behaviours or artifacts as the equivalent of the biological phenotype (Dawkins 1976). The problem here is that it assumes that, when copying, we have access to a “cultural core” (Sperber and Claidière 2008), which represents the information/genotype, which we then use to build variable phenotypic expressions. This might be loosely the case: the classic example is the transmission of a recipe to cook, say, lasagne, where the recipe represents the transmitted, stable, genotype, and what you serve to your guests at dinner is the variable phenotype. However, in many cases, we do not have access to a “recipe”, but we extract the information from the result/phenotype (such as when we try to reproduce lasagne after tasting it at a friend’s home). Richerson and Boyd (2005) make a similar point when noting how the mental representations of different individuals who have tied the same bowline knot might in principle be very different. What is the genotype here? The individual, variable, mental representations of the bowline knot cannot be the genotype, as they are not, in general, transmitted, because they are different. For the same reason, the information stored in the artifact itself does not transfer directly in the (variable) mental representations.

In response I would deny the assumption at the end of the second sentence. The picture of genotype-as-inherited information and phenotype as genotype products does not assume that there's a "cultural core" - a recipe to be copied. Some of the "genotype" can go on to reside in the cake. The rule here is that it is germ-line if it is copied from.

I agree that this picture of the genotype/phenotype split is imperfect. However, the genotype/phenotype split is a very productive concept in many cultural and organic domains. IMO, putting the split between genotype-as-inherited information and phenotype as genotype products is the best place to put the divide. It works well in both organic and cultural evolution.

The rule that it is germ-line if it is copied from also seems fairly neat to me - by contrast with the idea that it is germ-line if it is the product of copying.

Blackmore (1999) wrote:

I will not, therefore, use the concept of the meme-phenotype because I cannot give it a clear and unambiguous meaning.

I claim that the picture of genotype-as-inherited information and phenotype as genotype products is both clear and unambiguous. It also happens to be the standard meaning of the concept - as far as I can tell.

IMO, the phenotype-genotype split is essential to both organic and cultural evolution. Trying to skip the distinction is a feeble cop-out. The issue is not whether to make a divide, but where to make it. Criticism of one proposal needs to be accompanied by a better proposal - if it is to cut any ice. This is where Acerbi and Mesoud don't really come through. They can see flaws in the proposal that I prefer - but they don't really have anything better to offer. Consequently, I think their criticism fails. Imperfections are not enough - critics need to have a better proposal.

Here's what they say next:

While this may appear pessimistic, we believe that pluralism in the conceptual definitions of the unit of analysis in cultural evolution is not a problem (see also Lymann and O’Brien 2003; O’Brien et al. 2010). Biologists, too, work simultaneously with multiple concepts of the ‘gene’, varying with context and use (Stotz and Griffiths 2004). Depending on various domains, and on the questions one is interested in, an opportunistic strategy can be the best choice.

Pluralism. Maybe. Of course the problem with pluralism is confusion and ambiguity. You can have a plurality of concepts without them clashing over terminology.

In the case of their example, 'gene' the main problem is the usage by molecular biologists. The term 'gene' belongs to evolutionary biology. The molecular biologists should simply abandon their claim on the word.


What does it mean to say that memes consist of information?

It seems to me that there's a lot of confusion surrounding the idea that memes consist of information. To give some examples, Here's Ted Cloak, apparently advocating a kind of behaviourist memetics:

You may note that I don’t think memetics concerns information, or ideas, or mind, or thought, or consciousness, or language. I assert that culture, and therefore memetics, is simply about behavior. Its job is to explain why people and some infrahuman animals do certain things.
...and here's John Wilkins:

For some time now [1] I have had problems with the notion of information. Not, please note, with this or that piece of information, but with the notion itself, especially in the natural sciences. In this age of computers and internets, we have taken to mistaking the thing described for the thing itself, and treat information as a property out there in the world, not a representation in our heads and language.
My perception is that a lot of these kinds of objection come from not knowing enough about information theory.

Anyway, perhaps a few clarifications are in order. I generally endorse and promote the standard Shannon/Weaver notion of information - that the concept of "information" makes sense in the context of an observer and it represents the aspects of a message that they don't already know.

However, many have struggled to see how to relate this sort of information to evolutionary theory - where it isn't obvious what observer we should be considering. Having a scientific quantity being observer-dependent seems to limit its usefulness. Surely there will be arguments about measurements by different observers. Scientific consensus and objectivity will surely suffer.

There are other concepts competing for the term 'information' (for example, Fisher information). Often these are not observer-dependent. Why should scientists use an observer-dependent quantity?

I think that Shannon/Weaver information provides the most popular meaning of the term "information" - and that its popularity is well deserved. As for scientific objectivity, I think the concept of a "reference observer" is useful. To avoid ambiguity, scientists can specify the observer. For example they might specify an observer that knows what A, T, G and C base pairs are - but has no knowledge of their likely sequence. They consequently assume the maximum entropy distribution - in which all sequences are equally likely.

Yes, it's possible to debate which "reference observer" is most appropriate - but in practice there are relatively few such debates. Much the same problem afflicts the notion of "complexity" - but that is still a useful concept.

Once you have an observer then the issue of what counts as information to that observer becomes simple - it's anything they don't already know. If you hypothesize a highly ignorant reference observer, then practically any possible message qualifies.

Another perspective on information comes from dimensional analysis. Many scientific quantities have attached dimensions: units of time distance, mass - and so on. Information is dimensionless. However, you can measure quantities of information - in 'bits'.

Information is what can be transmitted over the internet. It is measured in bits. Information is portable. It is substrate neutral. The same message can be transmitted in a variety of different media.

Saying that memes carry culture or that they are inherited are making fairly specific statements about what counts as a meme and what does not. Saying that memes are made of information is also a kind of constraint - but it's a kind of negative constraint, an avoidance of more constraining constraints. It conflicts with the idea that memes are necessarily neural structures, or that they behaviours or artifacts. The picture of memes as information allows memes to exist inside brains, behaviours and artifacts. Their inheritance pathway can involve a type of biological metamorphosis - as they move from one substrate to another.

Some apparently think that there's more to cultural transmission that inherited information - and thus more to cultural transmission than memes. The internet illustrates that you can learn almost anything from pure informational sources. However it is possible to point to some types of martial arts, massage techniques as being very challenging to learn over the internet. Rather that indicating some kind of non-informational cultural transmission, it seems to make more sense to me to consider this as a current limitation of our recording and playback facilities - one that is likely to be rectified in the future.

In my humble opinion, this picture of memes as inherited cultural information aligns neatly with the picture of genes as inherited information from evolutionary biology. It allows information theory to act as a common backbone for memetics and genetics. I go into this in my informational genetics article.

Donald Campbell: Pioneer of Universal Darwinism

It's well known that Donald Campbell was an early pioneer of cultural evolution. Most in the field acknowledge his work as influential or historically important. One of his early papers on "Blind variation and selective retention" dates from 1960. Later in life, Donald Campbell explored the limits of evolutionary theory - applying it to a range of inorganic phenomena. In particular, there's the following paper:

Bickhard, Mark H. and Campbell, Donald T. (2003) Variations in Variation and Selection: The Ubiquity of the Variation-and-Selective-Retention Ratchet in Emergent Organizational Complexity. Foundations of Science, 8(3), 215–282.
Here, Campbell and Bickhard apply the principles of variation and selection to a range of phenomena - including why gravel accumulates at the edges of roads, crystal growth, crystal stability, the formation of atoms and molecules and catalysis. They argue that "energy wells" are common causes of selection phenomena - giving rocks, planets, stars, and galaxies as examples.

Campbell mostly avoids the terminological debate about whether such phenomena qualify as being "Darwinian" - which is still the source of much modern noise and confusion. Instead he uses terminology oriented around the terms "variation" and "selection" and examines whether they produce "goodness of fit", "adaptation" and "evolutionary historicity".

There seem to be some differences between my understanding of this area and Campbell's (which admittedly dates from the 1990s). I would give examples of tree-like phenomena in nature - such as electrical discharges, propagating cracks, fractal drainage patterns and diffusion-limited aggregation - and say they these trees are family trees, showing clear ancestor-descendant relationships. I make that argument in more detail on my positional inheritance page.

Another apparent oddity of Campbell's perspective is that none of his examples of selection seem to involve things being destroyed. Death is a common source of selection in the organic realm - so it seems natural to me to give instances of destruction as examples of selection in the inorganic realm. For example, the destruction of islands by the sea, of rocks by landslides, of sediments by subduction, and of pebbles by erosion all seem to me to be fine examples of selection. Campbell seems to me to systematically steer clear of destructive examples. However, this seems like a very curious thing to do. Did Campbell really not regard destruction as being a source of selection?

Though Campbell still seems to me to have a bit of a restricted perspective on the scope of selective explanations, he applied the concepts of selection, fitness and adaptation deeply into the realms of physics and chemistry in the 1990s. That makes him into one of the pioneers of Universal Darwinism.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Brent Jesiek's history of memetics

In 2013 I called for a history of cultural evolution. Something like a more fleshed-out version of my own Memetic Timeline.

However at that stage I hadn't seen Brent Jesiek's 110 page MSc thesis. This presents a comprehensive history of memetics. It mostly concentrates on the period from 1975 to 2003. It is available free of charge online - to ResearchGate members.

Brent Jesiek's history is comprehensive and impressive. It's a history of memetics - rather than a history of cultural evolution - focusing heavily on those thinkers that dealt with the possibility of there being cultural equivalents of genes. This rules out much of the work done in academia on cultural evolution - much of which is still very confused and muddled about this point.

Unfortunately, this focus leaves out much of interest - and some of what it puts in its place is not too interesting. For example, there's quite a large section devoted to the efforts of Aaron Lynch. Alas, Lynch's book on memetics was pretty terrible. Paul Marsden's account of how bad it was is of much better quality. Also, Susan Blackomre doesn't get much space in this history - which doesn't seem very fair, given the scale of her efforts.

Anyway, despite some misplaced emphasis, Brent Jesiek's history is an essential guide to the history of memetics. It's great to have such a resource available online.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Cultural evolution vs history

Some wondered why we call it "cultural evolution" - rather than "history".

In 2012, Steven Pinker asked:

Does Cultural Group Selection Add Anything to Conventional History?

In 2015, Richard Lewontin asked:

Why do you use cultural evolution instead of cultural history? Why evolution instead of history?

To me these are odd questions to ask - but I think there are reasonable answers:

  • The term "history" has traditionally referred to human evolution after the invention of writing. By contrast, cultural evolution goes back many millions of years and also applies to non-human animals.

  • The term "evolution" conjures up Darwin's famous explanation of how evolution operates. The term "history" fails to do this. The association is appropriate.

  • History has traditionally been studied as part of the humanities. The humanities have historically been characterized by poor quality scientific traditions. In particular, historians widely rejected theory, picturing theories as preconceptions which could distort the facts. As a result, history increasingly turned into a fact-gathering exercise. This is, of course, not a scientific approach to the topic. As a result, many scientists don't want to associate themselves with historians. The historians dirtied their own nest, and many scientists don't want to be tainted by their stench.

We have the terms "evolution" as well as "natural history". They don't mean exactly the same thing. "Evolution" traditionally refers to change - whereas "history" can cover both change and stasis. Also, "evolution" has stronger connotations of gradual change.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Cultural evolution: evolutionary frontier

I've talked in the past about Cultural evolution's scientific lag. At first glance it might seem as though cultural evolution is a scientific backwater. There are few conferences or journals. Representation at universities is very patchy. Funding is poor. Sympathetic colleagues are hard to find and progress has been depressingly slow. This doesn't seem like a very attractive package to a budding young scientist. So: what is the attraction?

Though in one sense it is true that theories of cultural evolution lag behind their organic counterparts, in another respect cultural evolution is on the leading edge of evolution itself. If you look at most recent significant changes in the world, many of them involve cultural evolution. For example, memes - more than genes - are responsible for space travel, computers and the internet. Cultural evolution is on the cutting edge.

Cultural evolution is also on the leading edge of evolutionary theory. Organic evolution is a done deal - and has been for over a hundred years. There, researchers are mostly putting the icing on an existing cake. Cultural evolution is where the real action is. It is where new researchers can make an impact and make important discoveries.

Cultural evolution is of enormous social and political significance. A proper scientific understanding of how culture evolves is critical for making good policy decisions. Cultural evolution is much too important to be left to cultural anthropologists, who have failed to get to grips with the topic for over a hundred years and seem to suffer from poor scientific literacy.

Lastly, the role of cultural evolution looks set to become ever more important as time passes. In particular, memetic algorithms - which emulate cultural evolution - look set to play a critical role in the development of machine intelligence. Memetic algorithms and memetic programming are similar to genetic algorithms and genetic programming - only they are inspired by cultural evolution rather than organic evolution. Machines, like their human inventors before them, look set to harness the power of cultural coevolution - in order to attain the rapid rate of change which will fuel their future expansion and prosperity. The "code rush" as some call it. It is on.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Tim Lewens: Cultural Evolution: Conceptual Challenges

Tim Lewens has a book on cultural evolution coming out later this year: Cultural Evolution: Conceptual Challenges. For Google's preview of the book, see here.

His 2004 book - Organisms and Artifacts: Design in Nature and Elsewhere - also related to the topic.

I have generally dismissed Tim Lewens in the past as a feeble-minded meme critic who doesn't know what he is talking about. However the blurb to this book weakly suggests that he is in the process coming round to a sympathetic understanding of cultural evolution. Or maybe not, we will see. Here is the blurb:

Tim Lewens aims to understand what it means to take an evolutionary approach to cultural change, and why it is that this approach is often treated with suspicion. Convinced of the exceptional power of natural selection, many thinkers - typically working in biological anthropology, cognitive psychology, and evolutionary biology - have suggested it should be freed from the confines of biology, and applied to cultural change in humans and other animals. At the same time, others - typically with backgrounds in disciplines like social anthropology and history - have been just as vocal in dismissing the evolutionary approach to culture. What drives these disputes over Darwinism in the social sciences?

While making a case for the value of evolutionary thinking for students of culture, Lewens shows why the concerns of sceptics should not dismissed as mere prejudice, confusion, or ignorance. Indeed, confusions about what evolutionary approaches entail are propagated by their proponents, as well as by their detractors. By taking seriously the problems faced by these approaches to culture, Lewens shows how such approaches can be better formulated, where their most significant limitations lie, and how the tools of cultural evolutionary thinking might become more widely accepted.

Update 2016-02-08: C. Heyes review. From this polite review, the book doesn't sound to me as though it is going to be much good.

Here's a 2011 critical essay, showing Tim's perspective.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Sylvain Magne: What is a meme?

Here's Sylvain Magne - with a 20 minute presentation on the definition of the term "meme".

There's a transcript here.

I'm pleased to see discussion of the topic. However, since space and time are limited, I'll mostly confine my comments to the points where there is disagreement.

I think this topic is best explored using the infrastructure and terminology of information theory. Information theory has useful concepts that formalize this topic - such as the idea of Shannon mutual information - which is useful for formalizes the notion of copying. This article suffers from failing to build on this previous work.

Sylvain defends the notion of a "replicator" - which has proved to be a controversial term. The concept of as replicator was originally promoted by Richard Dawkins - with the admirable aim of enlarging the scope of evolutionary theory beyond the realm of DNA genes. However it has also resulted in much misunderstanding, confusion and criticism. Though for many, it's a foundational concept for memetics, I've generally been quite critical of the replicator terminology.

The biggest problem is that the etymology of "replicator" implies high-fidelity copying - whereas most models of evolutionary processes accept the copying fidelity as a parameter - and do not insist that copying be high fidelity.

I think that the best way to defend the notion of a "replicator" is to abandon the notion of high fidelity copying. That's the approach I take with "repology". This makes "replicator" into a misnomer - but this is still the best option for those wanting to keep the terminology.

Sylvain presents a defense of the "replicator" concept that preserves its notion of high-fidelity copying. His defense hinges on the concept of a "reader". Sylvain's "reader" is a system which identified whether two copies are identical or not. Sylvain gives the example of key copying to illustrate the concept. The lock acts as a reader and determines whether keys are functionally identical or not. Certainly in many evolving systems there are "readers". These typically perform error correction and detection. DNA copying features physical systems which act as readers. The same is true for must cultural systems which copy words. However, for other systems, it is not obvious that a "reader" exists. When ants copy each others' pheremone trails, there's no system deciding whether the behaviours are identical copies or not. Nature often doesn't care much about whether copies are identical or not. It sometimes cares about similarity - but that's a bit different. Rather than dividing the world of copies into those that are identical and those that are not, it is usually better to consider identity to be the extreme end of a continuum of varying levels of similarity.

Scientists sometimes care whether two systems are identical or not. However nature doesn't insist on the critera they use - and different scientists may use different criteria. A geneticist might treat genes with the same base pair sequences as being identical - while someone studying proteins might have a different idea about what 'identical' means in this case.

The concepts of "replicators" and "readers" may seem attractive when dealing with digital genes and memes - but they seem more like added complication when dealing with more general versions of evolutionary theory - where high-fidelity copying is not necessarily present. There, the concept of imperfect copying seems simpler. Variable-fidelity copying makes the concept of a "replicator" functionally redundant. The concept of "similarity" is broader and richer than the idea that copies are either identical or they are not.