Monday, 26 December 2016

Audio for the November 2016 Royal Society lectures

Audio for the November 2016 lectures as the Royal Society meeting is now up:

New trends in evolutionary biology: biological, philosophical and social science perspectives.

Click on the "Show Detail" links on the schedule to access the audio.

These folk are evolutionary revolutionaries who want a new evolutionary milestone after the modern synthesis of the 1940s - and have some ideas about what ought to go into it. One of the ideas - extended inheritance - is a big theme of Universal Darwinism - as covered on this site - though they don't seem to have any idea about Darwinian physics.

I'm rather less impressed by some of their other proposals. It does seem as though a lot of different people want to add in their favorite area of evolutionary biology, and turn evolutionary theory into a complex rat's nest. Part of the appeal of Darwinism is that it explains a lot with a few simple ideas. Adding complexity is sometimes necessary, but how much of that complexity belongs in the "core" seems debatable.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Scientists are often reluctant futurists

I think the statement in the title is hard to argue with - but why don't scientists make more long-term forecasts? Science is centrally concerned with forecasting the future using models and checking the predictions against reality. So, you might think that forecasters would be scientists. Yet often working scientists constrain their predictions to the very near term, and systematically avoid longer-term predictions.

It doesn't always happen this way. When forecasting solar eclipses, the sun blowing up, or the heat death of the universe, scientists are prepared to step up. The problems seem to arise when predictions are difficult, or there is uncertainty. Of course these are the areas where the best input of scientists would be most valuable.

Instead of scientists, technical experts seem most attracted to futurism. There, taking a long term view sometimes seems to have some associated status, and people are not quite so reluctant to look to the future. Futurists are a bit of a motley crew, though. They are not necessarily folk which scientists gain by affiliating with. I suspect that that's a big part of the problem.

I think more evolution enthusiasts should step up to the plate. Now we have a reasonable stab at a science of cultural evolution, we are better equipped to look to the future of evolution and consider its possible attributes. Scientists not expressing their opinions or not studying the topic is problematical. It leaves civilization without very much foresight - and without the ability to see, it becomes harder to steer.

One popular meme which recommends avoiding long term forecasting places a so-called "singularity" in the near future - and claims that making forecasts beyond this is practically worthless. This meme is hokum. Machine superintelligence might represent a significant change, but it is not one that makes all of our models fall to pieces. I think that making this claim regarding the impossibility of forecasting shows naïveté about models and forecasting in general.

Most of those involved in long term future forecasting are not very well versed in evolutionary theory. Indeed, one of the popular ideas is that evolutionary theory isn't going to be very relevant because natural selection is horrible and cruel and so humans are going to decommission it and go off in their own direction. This is a poor excuse for not making more use of evolutionary theory, IMO.

We are, by most accounts, in the midst of a major evolutionary transition. Evolutionary theory knows some things about major evolutionary transitions. IMO, it's time for more scientists to step up to the plate and share their best forecasts.

Monday, 19 December 2016

Cultural evolution and the future

One reason for developing a proper science of how culture evolves it to understand human social institutions, and then use this understanding to build better ones. We should have better educational, political, scientific, technological and religious institutions.

Human cultural evolution is the bleeding edge of evolution on the planet. Many of the current significant changes in the biosphere are due to it. Because cultural evolution itself is so important, its study is correspondingly significant. However until relatively recently, it was not being studied very scientifically, and an absolute basic requirement for any sensible study of cultural evolution - Darwinian evolutionary theory - was largely missing.

Thankfully that has changed over the last 40 years. In the mid-1970s scientists started looking at the topic and the field has been slowly snowballing since then. Part of the progress appears to be recent acceleration due to scientists getting on the internet and engaging in social networking activities. This has mostly made criticism easier and made misconceptions harder to sustain.

Science is intimately involved in predicting the future, and cultural evolution is the main science needed to predict future human evolution. So, what can be said? Here are four basic takeaway points:

  • Synthetic life is here already. Before I learned about cultural evolution I thought that creating synthetic life would largely involve building self-reproducing robots, or virtual living systems capable of undergoing open-ended evolution. However non-DNA life forms are already out there in the wild undergoing their own open ended evolution. They live in symbiosis with humans in the form of human culture. I think that I first clearly articulated this point in 2008 - in my video/essay Synthetic life is here already. Our roles are thus not that of creators but rather nursemaids.

  • A new kind of evolution. An important idea is that cultural evolution differs in some respects from the DNA evolution that preceded it. In next to no time, humans have conquered the globe and even landed on the moon. This is not evolution as normal, something new and different is going on. My 2008 video/essay A new kind of evolution covered this idea. The similarities and differences between cultural evolution and the largely DNA-based evolution that preceded it is a complex topic. One recent innovation is that evolution now involves intelligent design. Engineering is affecting both cultural evolution and the evolution of DNA-based creatures - but it illustrates one of the ways in which evolution itself is changing.

  • Engineered future. The future is likely to be be engineered. Intelligent design leads to better and more flexible solutions than is produced by older evolutionary forces - and these will out-compete any lifeforms that don't make use of engineering. My 2008 video/essay The engineered future covers this idea.

  • Memetic takeover A memetic takeover is likely to be imminent. DNA's near monopoly on high-fidelity information storage is over. The death knell for nature's one-size-fits all storage solution started with the evolution of brains. Progress accelerated with the evolution of culture, writing, printing and the internet. Now we can see that a one-size-fits all storage solution is not appropriate for living systems. Sometimes, random access is needed. Sometimes a read/write storage medium is appropriate. Storage should sometimes be volatile, and sometimes not. Power consumption and heat dissipation requirements can be quite variable. DNA storage meets only a few of these requirements and is currently hardly used at all by engineered systems. Most far future organisms are pretty unlikely to use DNA to store inherited information in. The idea is named after the genetic takeover of A. G. Cairns Smith. Here is my main memetic takeover page on the internet about this idea.

These points seem important. Some of them were forecast long ago - for example in the work of Teilhard de Chardin. Modern proponents of some of these ideas include Hans Moravec and Ray Kurzweil. However, understanding of these outcomes does not appear to be very widespread.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Niche construction vs coevolution

Niche construction has found some adherents since the 8 million dollar grant to its proponents. I tend to regard niche construction more as a competing concept than anything else.

My previous public criticism of the concept has focused on terminology issues. "Niche construction" is defined by its proponents to refer to environmental modification by organisms. This covers constructive and destructive activities. This is counterintuitive and confusing. A more important concept to me seems to be "environmental modification". Does it matter to the organisms it affects whether the landslide was started by a mountain goat or by a meteorite? Not so much. Yet one landslide is "niche construction", while the other is not.

Part of the idea of niche construction is that it is an alternative evolutionary force to natural selection. Supposedly, natural selection involves environments affecting organisms while niche construction represents organisms affecting their environments. However, there's a problem with this idea. The environment of organisms often consists of other organisms. So, from the perspective of one organism, an event would be niche construction, while from the perspective of another organism it would be natural selection. This severely erodes the rhetoric about niche construction and natural selection being different evolutionary forces. In short, the organism-environment split is subjective. One creature's environment can be another organism. From their perspective, first creature is part of the environment.

Traditionally another area of biology covers interactions between different organisms - symbiosis. There's the concept of a biological interaction, which covers the ways in which creatures can interact. Evolution involving such interactions is known as "coevolution". Rather than having scientific concepts based around the organism-environment split, which is highly subjective, an alternative is to use the existing concepts of symbiosis and coevolution to handle interactions between organisms, and then expand the idea of Darwinian populations so they completely tile the universe. Traditionally, evolution treats a set of organisms and their environment. Coevolution theories show how to deal with parts of the environment that are composed of other creatures. Universal Darwinism extends the idea of a Darwinian population to include practically any set of things. Rocks, atoms, planets, etc can all be modeled as being Darwinian populations. This allows the entire universe to be tiled with Darwinian populations and modeled using coevolution theories. That eliminates the need for modeling the environment separately. The environment becomes just a bunch of other Darwinian populations that organisms can coevolve with.

This strategy of demoting the concept of "environment" eliminates the problems associated with the environment being a subjective concept, that depends on what organism, or set of organisms is being considered. Subjective science isn't necessarily bad, but you have to be careful to make sure that the sums come out the same way for all observers. If A is an organism and B is its environment, models should make the same predictions as if B is an organism and A is its environment. Using separate theoretical categories for A and B increases the complexity of the model and increases the chances of these two modeling perspectives producing different predictions. Coevolution models avoid this problem by treating A and B symmetrically - as individuals in coevolving populations.


Thursday, 15 December 2016

Positional inheritance - draft chapter

Positional inheritance has become one of my key concepts. It's important when explaining universal Darwinism, because it is common, simple and easy to understand and visualize. However, my previous writings on the topic have been spread out over many web pages. Here are the main points, collected from my previous writings and organized. The page is low in hyperlinks and animations - since this is a draft of a book chapter on the topic. However, pictures still illustrate the main points.

Positional inheritance

We have previously seen that copying is found ubiquitously in nature, from spreading ripples to propagating cracks, from growing crystals to scattering radiation. Of course, copying, variation and selection are the basis of Darwinian evolutionary theory. The copying can take a variety of forms, but the most basic is positional inheritance.

It is common knowledge that people inherit the environment of their parents - along with their parents genes. They inherit the local climate, the local language, government and religion - along with traits coded in DNA. A number of parental traits are inherited in these examples, but one of the attributes which is always inherited is position.

It is common for organisms to inherit their parents' position with considerable precision. Not all organisms have effective dispersal strategies - so often the apple does not fall far from the tree. Rabbits tend to inherit the warren of their parents. Corals inherit their parent's reef - and so on. Much the same is true of many inorganic natural forms.


Here are some examples of inorganic positional inheritance:

  • Raindrops - split and produce offspring that inherit their parent's position.
  • Cracks - when a crack tip divides the offspring crack tips start their lives nearby.
  • Atoms - when atoms split, the offspring particles originate near to the parent atom.
  • Ripples - parent ripples give rise to child ripples near to their parents.
Because of locality in physics, any form of inheritance is also accompanied by positional inheritance. That makes positional inheritance the most widespread form of inheritance in existence. Positional inheritance applies to waves and particles of all kinds. Since waves and particles are important building blocks of the universe, this makes positional inheritance very widespread.


The products of positional inheritance often form tree-like structures. The roots and branches of plants resemble trees - and actually are phylogenetic trees of plant cells, laid down in order during development - in a combination of phylogeny and ontogeny. Similarly, lightning, propagating cracks, fractal drainage patterns, and crystalline dendrites are all associated with prominent visual trees. In each case, these are family trees, that show the path of descent. That these trees are in fact family trees can often be easily verified by filming their formation in slow motion. Videos of lightning strikes slowed down show that forks always descend from existing branches. If you look at videos of bullets hitting panes of glass you will see that propagating cracks behave in a similar manner - the cracks spread outwards in a radial pattern where each crack descends from an earlier parent crack.

Sometimes the associated phylogenetic trees are less obvious. For example, in a landslide, each moving boulder has been pushed into motion by collisions with one or more parent boulders. Though each boulder can trace its ancestry back to the first falling stone, the resulting family tree is not obvious to casual observers. It's the same with splitting raindrops, vortices and photons. Family trees are still involved, but you would need a time lapse image to see them.

Heritable fitness

One of the commonly-specified requirements for Darwinian systems is that fitness must be heritable. In other words, on average, relatively fit offspring should be ancestral to relatively fit descendants. Without this condition being met, adaptations can't get off the ground. Does positional inheritance exhibit heritable fitness? Often, fitness is heritable in systems involving positional inheritance - simply as a result of the uneven distribution of resources needed to fuel division.

For example, in diffusion-limited aggregation systems, the concentration of aggregating particles is often greater in some places than others. In electrical discharge systems, the potential gradients can be greater in some places than others. With propagating cracks, the medium can be more brittle in some places than others. These situations are all commonplace ones. In each case, the association between fit ancestors and fit descendants is due to what might be called the smoothness of nature: the tendency of natural systems to be locally fairly uniform on a small scale - the tendency for nearby places to be alike.

In short, ancestors who are in the right place at the right time tend to have descendants who are in the who are in the right place at the right time - while ancestors who are in the wrong place at the wrong time tend to have descendants who are in the who are in the wrong place at the wrong time. The reason is simple: the descendants are born near to the ancestors and so tend to share a similar environment. The result is heritable fitness.


One thing that evolving systems typically need, in order to exhibit complex adaptations, is high-fidelity copying. Excessive noise often results in inherited information getting lost - and this leads to the disintegration of complex adaptations. However, positional inheritance often has pretty high fidelity - allowing adaptations based on it to remain stable. If you think of it in terms of coordinates in the universe that are unknown to an observer, by learning the location of an object an observer gains a considerable quantity of information - that object's coordinates in three dimensional space. If the offspring is within 1 meter of the parent, then that's about 265 bits of mutual information copied with high-fidelity. Say 350 bits of spacetime. Of course in practice, few positional inheritance systems take up the whole universe, so 350 bits is an upper limit. 350 bits is peanuts compared to biological systems, but it represents a search space of considerable size - it's enough for some non-trivial optimization processes to take place.


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

Some cases which are easy to understand can be found in the organic realm. A tree growing partly underneath a bridge is a useful example. Where the branches are under the bridge they don't grow so well, due to lack of light. The parts of the tree that are not under the bridge grow more vigorously. The result is an adaptive fit between the tree and the bridge. This adaptation is not caused by to changes in DNA. It can happen even if every cell in the tree is genetically identical. With a tree under a bridge the adaptive fit between the tree and its environment is caused by differential reproductive success of the cells of the tree - their different rates of growth, reproduction and death. However the important evolving variable is not stored chemically the tree's cells - rather it is the position of the cells themselves which affects their fitness.

If it is acknowledged that the goodness of fit between the tree and the bridge is an adaptation, then by the same logic we ought to count a number of inorganic systems as exhibiting adaptations too - since they display essentially the same dynamics. Crystal dendrites growing near a heat source adapts to grow around the hot area. Rivers and streams adapt to avoid rocky outcrops, cracks propagate around reinforced areas - and so on.

Multiple inheritance channels

Since the modern evolutionary synthesis traditional evolutionary theory has specialized in studying the evolution of nucleic acid-based creatures. A splinter group has rebelled against this orthodoxy, promoting dual inheritance theory - the idea that there are two main information highways in biology - one which transmits inherited information via cells and the other which transmits inherited information down the generations using brains and social learning. However, two inheritance channels is just not enough. Information can also be transmitted down the generations using multiple other channels. Velocity, time, chemical composition and electrical charge are among the many other variables that can be inherited.

Temporal inheritance merits a mention here. Positional inheritance only covers the three dimensions of space. However since Einstein's era, science has understood that space and time are interwoven, and that it often makes sense to talk about spacetime. Spatio-temporal inheritance is a bit of a mouthful, though. Also, it makes reasonable practical sense to talk about positional inheritance and temporal inheritance separately.

Including temporal inheritance and velocity inheritance - which are both also common - bumps up the information carrying capacity of many simple physical systems, making their evolutionary dynamics more interesting.

Universal inheritance

Positional inheritance makes inheritance ubiquitous in the universe. Far from being confined to biology, inheritance happens whenever starlight hits dust - one of the most common interactions in the universe. This is part of the justification for using the term "Universal" in "Universal Darwinism". A number of other writers on the topic have expanded Darwinism to culture, but left the theory confined to biology - leaving chemistry and physics out of the domain of Darwinism. Others have embraced Darwinism in physics - but only applied it to quantum theory, observation selection or the possibility that our entire visible universe might have ancestor universes that existed before the big bang. These applications of Darwinism are interesting, but still narrow, making "Universal Darwinism" not very "universal". Here, Darwinian evolutionary theory is expanded to most dissipative structures - making its application domain much larger and making the theory correspondingly more significant.


Positional inheritance doesn't lead to adaptations on the scale seen in biological evolution. Various problems and limitations reduce its scope for generating adaptations. Many inorganic systems exhibiting positional inheritance lack important properties found in the organic domain.

One such property is an unlimited number of generations. Living organisms today can trace their lineage back four billion years. By contrast, many positional inheritance systems last for tens, hundreds or thousands of generations before going extinct. Electrical discharges or propagating cracks and splitting photons are all examples of positional inheritance systems which tend to have definite origins and finite lifespans. I some cases, the finite lifespan is a product of the lack of a growth phase. In biology, organisms typically divide and then grow before dividing again. Not all positional inheritance systems have this growth phase. Some divide, divide and divide again. Rocks are usually like this and so are photons. By contrast electrical discharges and drainage basins do have a growth phase. Without a growth phase, unlimited inheritance is obviously impossible. Even with a growth phase, inorganic systems often have a limited temporal extent. Lightning strikes feature a growth phase, but it is fueled by a finite potential difference, and once the potential gradient diminishes, the lightning's pathway disappears.

Another limitation involves the quantity of material inherited. Living organisms can transmit megabytes of information to their descendants. However positional inheritance just doesn't support such large quantities of information. 10 - 50 bits seems like a more reasonable figure for many positional inheritance systems. You can still communicate using 10-50 bits - but the bandwidth limit restricts what can be said.


Peter Godfrey-Smith has a section in Darwinian Populations and Natural Selection denigrating the significance of positional inheritance. He writes (on page 55):

Parent and offspring often correlate with respect to their location. It is possible to inherit a high-fitness location; one tree can inherit the sunny side of the hill from another. But the significance of this inherited variation is limited. A population can near-literally 'explore' a physical space, if location is heritable and is linked with fitness. It may move along gradients of environmental quality it may climb hills, or settle around water. But to the extent that reproductive success is being determined by location per se it is not being determined by the intrinsic features that individuals have. If extrinsic features are most of what matters to realized fitness — if intrinsic character is not very important - then other than this physical wandering, not much can happen.

What can happen is that adaptations can develop. Lightning strikes can find the shortest path to the ground, propagating cracks can locate weaknesses in materials and drainage patterns can develop structures that efficiently drain basins. The idea that concepts like 'fitness' and 'adaptation' apply to these kinds of simple inorganic systems is a big deal for physics - and a big deal for Darwinism.

Godfrey-Smith attempts to draw a distinction between "intrinsic" and "extrinsic" traits - and then claims that this distinction affects the "Darwinian character" of processes - with extrinsic traits not being very "Darwinian". However, most traditional evolutionary theory has no use for such a distinction - all it cares about is whether traits are inherited. If you look at axiomatic expressions of Darwinian evolution, "intrinsic" and "extrinsic" inheritance don't get mentioned. That's because this is a distinction that doesn't make much difference: it is irrelevant to most evolutionary theory. Inheritance of traits is what matters - not whether those traits are inherited via "intrinsic" or "extrinsic" mechanisms.

Peter says "the significance of this inherited variation is limited". It seems to me that the significance of this inherited variation is huge. It it wasn't for positional inheritance, we would all have been born in the vacuum of space and died instantly. It may be only "physical wandering" that means that we were born on the surface of a planet - rather than in interstellar space - but it makes the difference between life and death for all of us. Location is actually a very important property that affects fitness. Evolutionary theory is mostly agnostic about how information is passed down the generations - so we can use its existing tools to study positional inheritance.


Tuesday, 29 November 2016

The evolution of observers and observations

Here's a draft of a book chapter I have written on the topic of observer and observation evolution.


One of the places where mainstream physics has come closest to embracing Darwinism involves the role of observers. Physicists identified the role selection of observers plays, and identified it as the cause of goodness of fit between man and his environment - in the form of life-friendly physical laws and a stable planetary home.


Historically, the evolution of observers was first studied by a physicist called Brandon Carter in the 1970s. One of the ideas he came up was was that physical constants having values that made the universe habitable was not due to chance or an intelligent designer. It was no accident that we observed a universe with life-friendly physical laws, since it could not be otherwise: any observers in universes with physical laws that were not life friendly would rapidly perish. This idea was christened "the anthropic principle" and it was contrasted with the Copernican principle - which states that we are not in a special place in the universe. According to the anthropic principle we are in a very unusual place in the universe - one suitable for the evolution of humans over billions of years.

The result of the need for life-friendly physical laws is an adaptive fit between the universe and living systems inside it. The physicists didn't describe what they had discovered as an "adaptive" fit. Instead they said that the universe was 'fine tuned' for life. Most of the physicists involved didn't seem to link these ideas to evolutionary theory. Instead they seemed to consider it to be an entirely new area of science which they had discovered, one that could explain the appearance of design without invoking a designer. They did, however use the terminology of 'selection' to describe their findings - mirroring the terminology used in evolutionary theory. Retrospectively, it seems obvious that they were just applying Darwin's discovery to human observers.

Observation selection

A subsequent development was the discovery that a similar idea could be applied to observations, as well as to observers. Observations may be filtered in a number of ways - both before and after arriving at the senses. For example, publication bias filters information before it reaches an observer. An observer's expectations and preconceptions might then go on to filter information further before it reaches consciousness.

Observation of the observable

From one perspective, observation selection is one type of selection in the nervous system among many. Filters also control whether information is stored, when it is retrieved, and when it is forgotten. Still more filters are applied to ideas, action plans and motor outputs. However, if you look at the situation another way, observations seem to be fundamental - since all knowledge gains are made through observation. Observations are the basis of everything an organism knows. Everything else consists of inferences derived from observations. This gives observations a primary status. For example, if a fruit fly in an scientists's experiment dies, that's a case of natural selection. However the scientist doesn't learn about it until an observation is made. We can say that survival of the fittest is a special case of observation of the observable. This results in a reformulation of evolutionary theory puts observers at the heart of the theory. This broadly mirrors the changes in physics that happened at the turn of the last century, when it was discovered that observers played a surprisingly central role in physics.

Observation reproduction

Selection is only part of Darwinism. That many observers reproduce is perhaps too obvious to mention. However, observation reproduction merits a few comments. Behavioral reproduction is ubiquitous in human cultural transmission. It is widely agreed that humans often copy the behavior of other humans via behavioral imitation. However, behavior is only one side of behavioral imitation. To be copied, behaviors have to also be observed. Observations reproduce during this process just as behaviors do. To give an example of an observation that catalyzes its own reproduction consider the observation of yourself, snorting cocaine. Such an observation is often followed by more similar observations. This is a simple case of observation reproduction.

Beyond survival and reproduction

Observation selection illustrates how Darwinian dynamics can involve more than survival and reproduction. Observation selection also filters out things that are hidden from the observer. This allows evolutionary theory to be applied to cases where the observation of entities is based on their visibility - rather than because they and their ancestors survived and reproduce. Survival and reproduction are important determinants of what we observe, but they are not the only factors involved.


The idea that the visible universe is the product of selection effects suggests that the visible universe is part of a multiverse. It which case it would be helpful to know the size of the multiverse - and which parameters are free to vary in it. Alas we can only observe our small corner of the multiverse. This leads to a difficult inductive inference problem with very little data to go on. The concept of a "reference class" is sometimes used to denote the set of objects being selected from. When dealing with other possible worlds it isn't always clear what the set of worlds being selected from consists of - since we only see one world.

Brandon Carter's Ultra-Darwinism

One of the physicists who did recognize links to Darwinism was the originator the idea in the first place: Brandon Carter. He wrote in 1992 that: "anthropic selection should be considered as an adjunct to ordinary natural selection". He proposed that the union of anthropic selection and natural selection be called 'Ultra Darwinism'. That's pretty much the same thing that I am saying - except that Brandon used a different name. However, I would emphasize that the topic is mostly just applying basic Darwinian principles to observers and observations. There are a few other topics involved too - for example, the maximum entropy principle is used to handle ignorance. However, this is mostly ordinary Darwinism applied to observers and observations.


The term "anthropic" turns out to be rather unfortunate. The "anthro-" prefix means: "man", but the basic idea can easily be generalized to cover animals, plants and machines. The human-based version of the idea seems anthropocentric to the point of being unscientific.


Thursday, 24 November 2016

Douglas Futuyma: no evolution revolution

Evolutionary revolutionaries face opposition from conservatives, who apparently like their evolutionary theory the way they were taught it in school. A case in point is Douglas Futuyma, well known as the author of a popular evolutionary biology textbook.

In the essay Can Modern Evolutionary Theory Explain Macroevolution? (see the "sample pages" link at the bottom of the page for the free PDF), Futuyma explains his perspective on various proposed changes to evolutionary theory - including changes proposed by students of cultural evolution. Thanks are due to Jerry Coyne for drawing attention to this paper.

The abstract starts:

Ever since the Evolutionary Synthesis of the 1930s and 1940s, some biologists have expressed doubt that the Synthetic Theory, based principally on mutation, genetic variation, and natural selection, adequately accounts for macroevolution, or evolution above the species level.

...and concludes:

I conclude that although several proposed extensions and seemingly unorthodox ideas have some merit, the observations they purport to explain can mostly be interpreted within the framework of the Synthetic Theory.
I think the essay goes after the wrong targets. The biggest change in our understanding of evolution since the 1930s has been the massive expansion of the domain of evolutionary theory - to include the Darwinian evolution of cultural variation, learned knowledge development systems and inorganic systems. Futuyma's treatment of this consists of a section entitled "Nongenetic Inheritance" - which mentions cultural inheritance, saying "Cultural characteristics such as language and wealth are nongenetically inherited". However he spends the rest of the section discussing a inheritance via meiosis and mitosis. That's it. The biggest revolution in evolutionary theory swept under the rug in one brief paragraph.

IMO, the second biggest change in evolutionary theory, since the 1930s is the revolution represented by symbiology. This conclusively added merging and joining operations to the basic evolutionary toolkit - which had previously consisted of splitting and selection. Surely any discussion of updating the modern synthesis ought to include some coverage of this change to the basic fundamentals of evolutionary theory. Futuyma gives this revolution one sentence. He writes: "possibly newly established endosymbioses will likewise have large but beneficial effects".

Since Futuyma offers so little coverage of what I consider to be the real revolutions in evolutionary theory since the 1930s, what does he talk about? S. J. Gould is mentioned 45 times in the essay. Alas, my rather dim view of S. J. Gould extends to those who take him seriously. I'm mostly OK with bashing Gould's proposed revolutions, but here they are distracting from the real action - and that's not OK.

The essay closes with the comment:

Of course, the Evolutionary Synthesis will be extended, molded, and modified. But there will not be a Kuhnian “paradigm shift.”
My take on the "paradigm shift" business is a bit different. Evolutionary theory caused a pretty dramatic shift in biology in the 1800s. It causes similarly dramatic shifts in other fields it enters. Evolutionary economics is a major shift for economics, evolutionary epistemology is a major shift for epistemology - and so on. What Futuyma is apparently talking about is a paradigm shift within evolutionary theory. Most of the claims for memetics as a paradigm shift aren't talking about that. For example, Richard Brodie, in Virus of the Mind (1996), says:

Viruses of the mind, and the whole science of memetics, represent a major paradigm shift in the science of the mind.

In Thought Contagion, Aaron Lynch (1998) wrote:

Memetics represents just such a paradigm shift. In a nutshell, it takes the much explored question of how people acquire ideas, and turns it on its head - the new approach asks how ideas acquire people.

These folks are talking about memetics as a paradigm shift within psychology.

Are memetics and universal Darwinism a paradigm shift within evolutionary theory? This raises the issue of what qualifies. I have described symbiology and the expansion of evolutionary theory's domain as being 'revolutions'. However, they clearly build on the existing theory. A "Kuhnian paradigm shift" doesn't seem to be a particularly well-defined scientific concept, so it is not always easy to see whether something qualifies or not. Ultimately it doesn't matter. What's more important is to digest and assimilate the revolutions. At this stage, I'm not convinced that Futuyma has done very much of that.

Does Futuyma have any understanding of cultural evolution? If there was evidence that he knew what he was talking about, I might give his opinion some more weight. It's hard to coherently argue against the significance of a scientific revolution when you don't even understand it.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Political memes

Obama won his last election with social media. Now Trump has won with social media. Political memes are officially a big thing. Throughout the election cycle, Trump was the more-discussed candidate on social media. The discussions were not always positive - but they made sure that Trump would win any contest based on the availability heuristic. There were some Clinton memes, but they were nowhere near as diverse, interesting and spreadable as the Trump memes. Love or loathe Trump, one has to acknowledge that he and his team have some marketing skills.

The Trump campaign illustrated the marketing heuristic that there's no such thing as bad news. The important thing is to get in the news. In many cases, it doesn't matter too much if the news reflects badly on you - so long as everyone is talking about you and discussing you.

I'd like to illustrate this article with an internet meme. Early in the campaign the Gregory brothers made a memorable video illustrating the Trump marketing tactics titled Donald Trump Sings & Dances. The video showed how Trump grabbed the media spotlight using provocative behavior - essentially by trolling everyone. The chorus lyrics go: "I love Mexicans they're rapists" - a mashup of Trump's contradictory comments.

It was easy to dismiss Trump during the campaign because his policy positions were so ridiculous. Building a 2000 mile wall along the Mexican border with North America is the most obvious example. However, because his ideas were ridiculous, people discussed them, ridiculed them - and in the process, shared them. Trump went along with his memes for the ride, using memetic hitchhiking. It worked. Now America has four years of Donald Trump as president of the union.

Daniel Dennett is Bach

Daniel Dennett is coming out with his book on cultural evolution in 2017. Here's the Amazon page for the book. It says the book is coming out in February. The title is: From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds.

The blurb reads in part:

In From Bacteria to Bach and Back, [Dennett's] most comprehensive exploration of evolutionary thinking yet, he builds on ideas from computer science and biology to show how a comprehending mind could in fact have arisen from a mindless process of natural selection. Part philosophical whodunit, part bold scientific conjecture, this landmark work enlarges themes that have sustained Dennett’s legendary career at the forefront of philosophical thought. In his inimitable style―laced with wit and arresting thought experiments―Dennett explains that a crucial shift occurred when humans developed the ability to share memes, or ways of doing things not based in genetic instinct. Language, itself composed of memes, turbocharged this interplay. Competition among memes―a form of natural selection―produced thinking tools so well-designed that they gave us the power to design our own memes. The result, a mind that not only perceives and controls but can create and comprehend, was thus largely shaped by the process of cultural evolution.

Dennett has previously written on cultural evolution, in Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Consciousness Explained and Breaking The Spell. This looks set to be his first book largely devoted to the topic. 496 pages: biblical proportions.

Monday, 14 November 2016

Cultural evolution vs cultural epidemiology

Jason Collins recently raised the issue of cultural evolution vs cultural epidemiology, thus:

Then there is the question of whether evolution is the right framework for all the forms of cultural transmission? Are models for the spread of disease a better fit? You will find plenty of discussions of this type of question across the cultural evolution literature, but little convergence.

I think it's fair to say this issue has been widely discussed - with some folks promoting "viruses of the mind" and "cultural virus theory" for example, and other folk criticizing them. However the issue is not very complicated and should not be that controversial. Here's a position summary that I think that most knowledgeable parties should be able to agree on:

Models of disease spread often need to be generalized before being applied to culture. One issue is the sign of the fitness correlation between symbiont and host. Diseases almost always have a negative fitness correlation with their hosts - i.e they reduce host fitness. By contrast, culture can have positive or negative effects on host fitness. The sign of the fitness impact matters, since negative fitness impacts on hosts are resisted and rejected, while positive fitness impacts on hosts are promoted and encouraged. Symbiology performs this generalization. However symbiology generally deals with close relationships. There's a larger field that deals with all kinds of relationships - known as biological interactions. Models of biological interactions are highly suitable for modeling cultural evolution.

Many models of epidemiology are explicitly evolutionary these days. It is widely recognized that parasites evolve in real time - including within host lifetimes. Less widely recognized, but still well-established science is the notion that host immune systems use evolution and natural selection to adapt to the parasites they face. Evolutionary epidemiology is clearly a thing. The main cases where non-evolutionary models of epidemiology are useful is when dealing with short time scales - or highly simplified models. For example, fleas might spread through an island community without either them or their hosts evolving very much. A similar cultural example of where a non-evolutionary epidemiological model might be appropriate is where Rubik cubes spread through a network of children in schools. Here, neither the cubes nor the children are doing much change or evolution. As a first approximation, models based on evolutionary theory can be ignored in favor of simple epidemiological models.

It is certainly true that in cultural evolution, epidemiological models are sometimes the most appropriate. The exact same thing is true in the organic realm. However evolutionary and epidemiological models are generally complementary and compatible - they are best used under different circumstances.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Teaching made us human

Like my Walking made us human idea, the idea on this page takes on the dominant "culture made us human" meme - pithily expressed by Richard Dawkins in 1976:

Most of what is unusual about man can be summed up in one word: 'culture'.
That idea is dominant - at least among most students of cultural evolution. Walking, talking, tool use, our big brains and even our opposable thumbs are largely the product of cultural evolution - plus some meme-gene coevolution.

However, cultural evolution is fairly ubiquitous among other animals. This had led to people to seek out other answers to the question of "what made us human?". Cumulative cultural evolution is one common answer. However, an issue with this answer is that chimpanzees have cumulative cultural evolution too. Teaching is much rarer in non-human animals. This helps to make it an interesting candidate for what makes humans special.

Here I want to examine another possible answer to this question - an idea based on what I have previously referred to as the "Teaching First" hypothesis. To recap, the "Teaching First" hypothesis turns the usual story about the evolution of cultural evolution on its head. It is usually thought that some change in social learning abilities was responsible for the modern explosion in cultural evolution. Maybe a slightly bigger brain, maybe slightly less aggression - something affecting social learning. The the "Teaching First" hypothesis represents a considerable shift away from this perspective - a shift from social learning to teaching.

In some respects, teaching is more a product of cultural evolution than social learning is. Teaching requires some age, experience and previous social learning. Because teaching is cultural, it is more subject to rapid change. Cultural evolution is an example of large organisms using small symbiotes to adapt quickly. The short reproduction cycles of memes (relative to their human hosts) is part of the reason why it is faster.

We know that in many cases, memes lead and genes follow. If meme-gene co-evolution can be characterized as genes holding memes on a leash, then the memes are often dragging the genes around. The the "Teaching First" hypothesis would be another example of this kind of dynamics.

Teaching could have helped create a positive feedback loop - where improved culture relating to teaching leads to more teaching-related improvements in the future. The corresponding loop for learning exists too - but more learning capacities (than teaching capacities) are coded in DNA genes - so progress there is harder and slower.

Academics have don't seem to have looked into the idea that the cultural evolution of teaching drove cultural evolution very much. One related idea is the cultural evolution of cultural evolvability. An example of this is Cecilia Heyes' video: Cultural Inheritance of Cultural Learning. The corresponding paper is Grist and mills: on the cultural origins of cultural learning. This is more about social learning - but it has the idea of positive feedback on cultural learning capacities via cultural evolution. It is some of the nearest literature I know about.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Dawkins 2015 WSJ interview on memes

Dawkins interviewed by WSJ in 2015. It is four minutes long. Memes are the topic.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Metamorphosis: the symbiosis hypothesis

Symbiology is a core concept in cultural evolution. Cultural creatures act as though they are parasites, mutualists or commensals with their human hosts. This is fundamental to understanding the dynamics of their evolution. That's all about cultural evolution for this post - the rest is all about symbiology.

As part of my interest in symbiology I have recently explored the controversial work of Don Williamson on the origins of larvae. Williamson has promoted the idea of radical hybridization being involved in the origins of caterpillars into butterflies - and many other larval forms. For example here is his paper, Caterpillars evolved from onychophorans by hybridogenesis. Basically, Williamson claims that ancestors of modern butterflies may have had their eggs fertilized with sperm from velvet worms. Williamson's work has been widely ridiculed and castigated.

Like many students of symbiosis I am attracted to the possibility of biological metamorphosis arising as a result of fusion between widely separated forms. However, I think that there are more possible mechanisms than radical inter-species hybridization.

I have long thought that another possibility for the evolution of biological metamorphosis involves extended symbiosis. This idea shares the idea that larvae and adults started out as individuals members of separate species - but doesn't depend on the viability of radical hybrids. In an extended close symbiosis, parties can transfer genes gradually - via viruses or sperm-mediated gene transfer. They can also assimilate their partner's traits gradually through learning and ordinary natural selection. Radical hybrids are not needed in this kind of scenario - instead evolutionary assimilation can be gradual.

This symbiosis-based theory seems like a clear possibility to me. It holds that at one stage a wasp-like creature planted eggs in a caterpillar-like creature. These parties developed a close relationship and coevolved until one party assimilated the other. Their mutual descendants are caterpillars into butterflies. It is fairly well known that symbiosis promotes horizontal gene transfer. Mutualism, or at least mutual dependence, probably increases its likelihood.

The symbiosis hypothesis would be boosted by discoveries of wasps that have evolved mutualisms with their egg incubators. Wasps are commonly parasites and their incubators are destroyed my multiple wasps during wasp reproduction. However if a relationship develops in which one wasp hatches from one host, the situation starts to look a bit more like the caterpillar into butterfly metamorphosis scenario. Such cases are in fact known - for example, see here for an example involving a single wasp egg per incubator. Exactly how parasitism might turn into mutualism in this case is not obvious - but there are plenty of other cases where parasites have evolved into benign partners and then into obligate mutualists.

Here's another example of one wasp-per host:

Like Williamson's idea, this theory would be boosted by genetic evidence which supported gene transfer between two species. However, since it is not obvious what the ancestral species were, such evidence may remain elusive. This theory doesn't depend on such evidence existing - maybe no gene transfer was involved and one partner assimilated the other one via learning and natural selection. That makes the theory harder to refute - which is not normally considered a virtue among scientists. However, I think we need an alternative to radical hybridization that preserves the idea of separate origins - which itself is strongly suggested by the phenomenon of metamorphosis, according to multiple lines of evidence.


Monday, 3 October 2016

The significance of symbiosis in evolutionary theory

Before the discovery of the importance of symbiosis, evolutionary theory worked with a few fundamental operations - prominently including splitting and mutation. The history of life was viewed as a branching tree with branches diverging, but not converging again, at least not once they had fully divided. Life had an associated family tree.

Symbiosis represented a significant revolution in evolutionary theory because it introduced a new operation into the fundamentals of evolutionary theory: merging or joining. If splitting looks like this:

-> ->

...then joining looks like the time-reversed operation - like this:

-> ->

Before the 1900s, merging and joining operations were not completely foreign to evolutionary theory. The fusion of male and female gametes was a find of merging operation, though one that was confined by species boundaries. It was also known that some creatures lived inside other ones - such as gut bacteria - and that parasites regularly forged new associations with their hosts. However such intimate relationships were not widely thought to involve permanent fusion between previously unrelated organisms. Instead they were mere ecological associations.

The pioneers of symbiosis were mostly Russian. Though they discovered symbiosis early in the 20th century, their theories were ignored in the west until the 1960s, when it was discovered that mitochondria contained their own DNA lineages. Over the next 30 years, evidence accumulated that unrelated organisms could fuse together permanently, generating new kinds of recombination operation distinct from sex. Gaining or losing symbionts could be profound and dramatic evolutionary events - sometimes triggering speciation. The phenomenon was not confined to bacteria, but affected organisms of all sizes. We now know that eucaryotic cells are unions of many free living ancestors, that viruses carry DNA between all kinds of different species, and that around 10% of the human genome shows signs of origins outside our own species. Horizontal gene transfer has turned the tree of life into a web. Multi-cellular organisms are now widely viewed as being menageries.

In modern times, the evolutionary significance of symbiotic unions is familiar to us, so it is sometimes hard to appreciate the scale of the revolution the idea represented, and the resistance that it faced at the time. Evolution was generally though of as being gradual - yet in symbiogenesis, entire genomes could join forces in an evolutionary instant. This idea violated established dogma and was widely rejected and ridiculed for over 50 years. An avalanche of facts and data eventually vindicated the idea. At the time, this was the the biggest revolution in evolutionary theory since Darwin - eclipsing the discovery of DNA, kin selection and Mendelian inheritance, in my humble opinion.

In cultural evolution, the story went rather differently. In 1975, Ted Cloak pioneered a symbiosis-based version of cultural evolution, in which human hosts cultivated cultural symbionts inside their brains. Richard Dawkins went on to popularize the idea in the 1976 book The Selfish Gene. These cultural "memes" were sometimes characterized as being "viruses of the mind". However, in academia, symbiosis was very slow to catch on. Many academics didn't seem to cotton on to the fundamental concept of a cultural organism - instead opting to model culture as an aspect of the host's phenotype. This was a bit like modeling smallpox without the concept of the smallpox virus - and instead talking about horizontal and oblique transmission of the smallpox rash phenotype. Many of the researchers in the field are still laboring under the resulting hangover. Symbiosis enthusiasts were one tribe of biologists and cultural evolution enthusiasts were another. The intersection included Ted Cloak, Richard Dawkins and Ben Cullen - but only a few others. What this meant in practice was that concepts such as parasitism, mutualism, domestication, parental care and arms races tended to get neglected by most students of cultural evolution.

The slow uptake of symbiology among cultural evolution researchers is an aspect of cultural evolution's scientific lag. Most anthropologists long ago demonized evolution and expelled it from their halls as a dastardly idea that they wanted nothing to do with. The important topic of cultural evolution subsequently suffered from lack of attention and funding - and progress has been slow as a result. It wasn't until the 1980s that symbiology gained acceptance among mainstream evolutionary biologists. There's clearly still a long way to go before most students of cultural evolution start applying the idea properly.

Friday, 30 September 2016

Joe Henrich: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter

The blurb reads:

The ability of human groups to socially interconnect and learn from one another has allowed us to create ingenious technologies, sophisticated languages, and complex institutions that have enabled successful expansion into myriad environments. Drawing insights from lost European explorers, clever chimpanzees, mobile hunter-gatherers, neuroscience, ancient bones, and the human genome, Joseph Henrich, author of The Secret of Our Success, will discuss how our collective intelligence has propelled our species’ evolution.

Some similar recent book talks:

Also, here are some recent videos relating to evolutionary psychology, most of which feature Joe Henrich:

The Leda Cosmides video is interesting because she responds to the cultural evolution enthusiasts. Leda specialized in culture and evolution, but almost completely missed memetics - adopting a position closely related to Wilson-style sociobiology. It now seems obvious that Darwinian cultural evolution is a very important concept - but Leda missed it. In the video she says the idea makes her "uncomfortable". Rightly so. That's cognitive dissonance for you. Leda Cosmides should say: "how extremely stupid not to have thought of that".

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Memes on the Nature web site

For many years now, it has been very hard to get a paper published in Nature if it mentions memes. That still seems to be true, but I notice that papers about memes have been making their way onto the Nature web site recently - via the Scientific Reports journal. Here are four papers there from the last four years that are explicitly about memes. I suspect that the 2011 internet meme explosion is responsible for this change. The general rise of cultural evolution in academia may also be involved. Anyway, it may be premature to claim that memes are back, but this seems like a positive change in the publishing climate.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Van Valen on Darwinian physics

Leigh M. Van Valen (of Red Queen fame) came up with an early expression of Darwinan physics in 1989. He pointed out that natural selection is common in the inorganic world. Here's what he said in Three Paradigms of Evolution:

Then again, look at the rock called granite. It is composed mostly of grains of feldspars and quartz, with some mica and other minerals inserted among them. When granite weathers, the feldspars and micas become clays but nothing much happens to the quartz grains. They are most resistant and get transported down streams or along shores. Thus most beaches are the result of differentially eroded granite. This is an example of natural selection in the nonliving world. Quartz grains survive longer than feldspar grains, and there is a progressive increase in the average resistance to weathering, of the set of grains that have still survived. This action of natural selection is even creative as we see by the formation of a beach. The lack of reproduction imposes constraints on the flexibility of evolution here, but one shouldn't confuse that with the selection itself. We do have here a common sort of evolution by natural selection and there are many other non-living examples.
I've made much the same point in my universal selection essay.

Of course, the case for Darwinan physics is quite a bit stronger than this passage implies - because copying and reproduction are also common in the inorganic realm. Rocks split into smaller rocks, streams split into smaller streams, and so on. There's also evidence of family trees - as seen in diffusion limited aggregation, and optimization and exploring a search space - as when a lightning strike finds the highest point in a landscape. However, Van Valen had some of the important ideas quite early on in the history of the field.

Monday, 26 September 2016

Domesticated memes

Domestication is surely an important concept for students of cultural evolution. Unfortunately, it first requires the concept of a cultural organism, something that academics seem to have difficulty in swallowing.

Daniel Cloud has written extensively on the domestication of words and language. Cloud credits Dennett with the idea that language could be domesticated - though he argues that Dennett didn't take the idea far enough. The earliest reference to domesticated memes from Dennett I can find is in his 1998 essays Memes: Myths, Misunderstandings and Misgivings AND Snowmobiles, horses, rats, and memes.

Dennett goes on to discuss the idea of domesticated memes some more in Breaking the Spell (2006), writing:

What I now want to suggest is that, alongside the domestication of animals and plants, there was a gradual process in which the wild (self-sustaining) memes of folk religion became thoroughly domesticated. They acquired stewards. Memes that are fortunate enough to have stewards, people who will work hard and use their intelligence to foster their propagation and protect them from their enemies, are relieved of much of the burden of keeping their own lineages going. In extreme cases, they no longer need to be particularly catchy, or appeal to our sensual instincts at all. The multiplication-table memes, for instance, to say nothing of the calculus memes, are hardly crowd-pleasers, and yet they are duly propagated by hardworking teachers — meme shepherds — whose responsibility it is to keep these lineages strong. The wild memes of language and folk religion, in other words, are like rats and squirrels, pigeons and cold viruses — magnificently adapted to living with us and exploiting us whether we like them or not. The domesticated memes, in contrast, depend on help from human guardians to keep going.

However, I notice that Adam Westoby seems to have written extensively on domesticated memes in 1994. He has the idea that memes domesticate humans as well as the idea that humans domesticate memes. Here's his 1994 manuscript. To quote from it:

The memes of theoretical natural science, as Wolpert (1992) points out, are highly "unnatural" memes, remote from "common sense". Like cattle or sheep, they have been bred for generations into the forms preferred by their domesticators (of whom some of the most important are other memes). Testability, generality, uniform vocabulary, unambiguous meaning, internal consistency, and so on - even taken singly such traits are rare memes, and to assemble them all requires long intentional selection. The domesticated memes of theoretical natural science, having embodied such significant adaptations to artificial circumstances, could no longer survive reintroduction to the wild. They can live and breed only with the aid of rather complex arrangements to sustain them. The cultivation of theoretical science (like keeping sheep) has come to rely on auxiliary breeds, such as scientists - rather like sheepdogs, who keep the flock together and bark at intruders. By comparison, much social science consists of more "common sense" memes, less "deformed" by domestic breeding. They more resemble semi-domesticated breeds which forage freely on the mountain slopes in summertime, but are herded in for the winter.
Westoby is the earliest reference to the idea of domesticated memes I have found so far. Is this the true origin story for the idea that memes could be domesticated? Did anyone else come up with this idea earlier? Please let me know if there's an earlier reference that I'm currently missing.

The importance of domestication in cultural evolution is apparently an illustration of the superiority of memetics in this area - compared to other strains of cultural evolution. It looks as though meme enthusiasts got to this idea first - because they have a symbiosis-aware version of cultural evolution. Academics are now picking up the idea (for example, Joseph Henrich's latest book has culture domesticating humans in its subtitle) but they appear to be playing catch-up.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Memetics and the science of going viral

I've seen a fair number of new popular articles on memetics (not just memes) as a result of the internet meme explosion. Here's one of the latest ones, titled memetics and the science of going viral. It's a reasonable article - though academic students of cultural evolution don't even get a mention - and instead we get some links to the author's own content from the field of law. The article notes that even the US president has referenced internet memes - as a testament to their popularity.

I noticed one mistake: he article says that the term “memetics” was first proposed by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his popular 1976 book “The Selfish Gene”. Chapter 11 of that book does use the term "population memeticist" - but the term "memetics" is usually attributed to Ariel Lucas - following Douglas Hofstadter's attribution in his 1983 book, Metamagical Themas. I'm often surprised how many people go from meme to memetics, completely bypassing the academic literature on cultural evolution, much of which systematically ignores memetics.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Ingold's straw men

Social anthropologist and memeophobe Tim Ingold has recently posted: a piece explaining the problems he has with cultural evolution. He writes:

One of these ideas, endlessly rehashed over the past century and more, is that there is a parallel between biological inheritance and cultural heritage. News to anthropologists? Certainly not. For us it is long-discredited old hat. Most sensible social and cultural anthropologists effectively abandoned the idea some fifty years ago.
It seems to be true that most social and cultural anthropologists abandoned the idea of Darwinian cultural. However, this observation is well explained by other hypotheses. These folk know little about evolutionary theory, were actively misled by poor quality teachers - and so on.

In the article, Tim focuses on two straw men. He claims that evolution:

requires a kind of ‘population thinking’ (the phrase comes from Ernst Mayr) according to which every living organism is a discrete, externally bounded entity, one of a population of such entities, and relating to other organisms in its environment along lines of external contact that leave its basic, internally specified nature unaffected.

Instead, Tim says the correct position is incompatible with this. That position is:

This is that the identities, characteristics and dispositions of persons are not bestowed upon them in advance of their involvement with others but are the condensations of histories of growth and maturations within fields of relationships. Thus every person emerges as a locus of development within such a field, which is in turn carried on and transformed through their own actions.

This isn't an either-or situation, though. In biology, organisms have their own largely-unchanging essence specified in their genome, and they also grow, develop and change as a result in interactions with other organisms and with the environment. It isn't easy to imagine why Tim thinks that developmental changes are incompatible with modern evolutionary theory. As far as I can tell, practically nobody else thinks this is a problem. Tim's proposed solution is to make biology more relational. However, biologists already study biological interactions. Biology is already highly relational. It has been so since the beginning - but became even more so during the symbiology revolution of the 1960s-1980s.

Tim's other straw man is 'scientism'. Tim defines this as follows:

Scientism is a doctrine, or a system of beliefs, founded on the assertion that scientific knowledge takes only one form, and that this form has an unrivalled and universal claim to truth.

Really? Who are these 'scientism' enthusiasts? Do they know any Bayesian statistics? I doubt these folk actually exist. Tim's cult of scientism is a straw man. I can easily believe that scientists fairly uniformly reject Tim's nonsense - but that does not make them part of a cult of 'scientism'. It just means that Tim is peddling a bunch of unorthodox doctrines that few scientists accept. These days, that is the unfortunate position of all anthropologists who reject who cultural evolution. The facts and evidence are not on their side, and so increasingly they will have to turn to conspiracy theories and imaginary cults to explain the positions of their opponents.

We've had over 150 years of pre-Darwinian thinking in the social sciences. Now we have the internet, finally some social scientists are waking up and getting on board, with economists typically leading the way, confirming the position of economics as the most scientific of the social sciences. However, the evolution revolution evidently takes some time, and some people get on board earlier than others.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Pinker on machine intelligence safety

I sometimes pick on Steven Pinker when he says something stupid. Here his ignorance of cultural evolution apparently leads to a blasé attitude about machine intelligence safety issues. Pinker argues:

it just so happens that the intelligence that we're most familiar with, namely ours, is a product of the Darwinian process of natural selection, which is an inherently competitive process. Which means that a lot of the organisms that are highly intelligent also have a craving for power and an ability to be utterly callus to those who stand in their way. If we create intelligence, that's intelligent design. I mean our intelligent design creating something, and unless we program it with a goal of subjugating less intelligent beings, there's no reason to think that it will naturally evolve in that direction, particularly if, like with every gadget that we invent we build in safeguards.

There are a few issues here. One is that there are plenty of unpleasant humans out there. An superintelligent machine in the hands of a malevolent dictator could be bad. Another is that intelligent design is only one of the forces involved. Another of the forces is natural selection. The memes involved in creating intelligent machines exist in a competitive environment - and not all of them make it. Some of the selection pressures are man-made and others are not. Lastly, it is a fallacy that machines do what we program them to do. There are often bugs and unexpected side effects. Kevin Kelly wrote the book on this topic: "Out of Control".

Superintelligent machines are unlikely to stay docile servants to humanity for very long. They will be like new species that shares our ecological niche. The machines are starting out in a mutually beneficial symbiosis with us - but that doesn't mean they will remain in that role for very long. Symbiotic relationships can take all kinds of twists and turns - including some that are pretty unpleasant for one of the parties. Nature's symbiotic relationships include traumatic insemination, barbed penises and routine rape. Some parasites with multiple hosts can wipe out some of their hosts entirely. Symbiotic relationships can easily get nasty. A big power imbalance between the parties is a likely source of such problems.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Hierarchical elections

Most theorists agree that voting in national elections is an irrational activity. You gain more by doing other things besides ticking boxes in a polling station - because of the low probability of your vote affecting the outcome.

A few thinkers have claimed that your vote effectively influences others like you into behaving in a similar way, magnifying the power of your vote. E.g. see Ben Goertzel's article on the topic of why people bother to vote.

However, this raises more issues - associated with whether there are enough folk like you in relevant ways to swing an election in your favor. While this is a different sum to the one considered by most classical game theorists, it still doesn't look as though it is going to make it worth voting in a national election.

Why then do so many people vote? The UK recently saw a 72.2 percent turnout in a national referendum about leaving the EU. That's an amazing turnout. The answer seems simple: people are manipulated into voting by politicians using memes. Cultural evolution is fast and powerful and quite capable of manipulating humans into acting against their own best interests. Politicians harness these memes for their own benefit and manipulate the voting population for their own ends.

Indeed, perhaps democracy is not really about aggregating preferences by voting at all, but rather is a scheme designed to stop peasants from revolting by giving them the illusion that they have a say in how the system is run.

Rather than try and think of ways to make massive national elections make sense, I am inclined to think that other approaches would be useful. One proposal for motivating people to vote involves magnifying the importance of each voter - by limiting who can vote. For example, Robin Hanson has proposed this sort of scheme here. However, people seem to think that this solution is somehow not very democratic.

China has another approach which seems even better to me: hierarchical elections. Essentially, people elect local town councillors who vote in city selections. City leaders vote in state elections, and state leaders vote in national elections. This way, most individuals vote for a local councillor in a small election which they might plausibly care about enough to bother voting. At each level of the hierarchy the number of voters is relatively small, meaning that each vote has a bigger chance of influencing the result - and so people are more likely to vote and more likely to deliberate on their vote.

Hierarchical elections may not solve every election problem - but they seem like a step forwards to me. A country where voting doesn't make much sense is probably not the best sort of democracy to live in. Technology should make voting easier, but we could also be working on structuring elections more intelligently. I think that simulation and experimentation related to this idea would be worthwhile.

Monday, 15 August 2016

Joe Brewer cheers for memes

Joe Brewer has written an essay explaining his enthusiasm for memes. He calls it "meme theory" - instead of "memetics". "Memetics" seems like more regular terminology to me. While support is great I am not sure I can endorse all of Joe's arguments.

Joe says: "The claim that information patterns do not replicate is contradicted by the evidence [...]". Not many meme critics say that though. A more common criticism is that meme replication implies high fidelity copying - which is not present in all cultural transmission. That's a more reasonable position. My own response is to agree that the "replicator" terminology has some issues, but the notion of a meme does not depend on the "replicator" concept in the first place.

Joe argues that the digital revolution somehow makes memes more reasonable. It certainly leads to more high-fidelity copying. However, high-fidelity copying is an inappropriate foundational concept for cultural evolution. As with DNA genes, evolutionary theory has to be able to cope with any environmental mutation rate. I don't really see how the digital revolution helps with memetics - any credible theory of cultural evolution has to cover the era of pre-digital transmission too.

In the comments Joe talks about "cultural traits that have meme-like qualities to them". Talk of meme-like culture and not so meme-like culture leads immediately to the question of generality. If not all culture is "meme like", it seems as though we should adopt a framework that is more general. IMO, meme enthusiasts should firmly reject this position. Framing some culture as more meme-like than others is a construct of critics. For example, the Dual inheritance page on Wikipedia says:

Proponents point out that many cultural traits are discrete, and that many existing models of cultural inheritance assume discrete cultural units, and hence involve memes.
IMO, no meme proponent should ever make that argument. It is a bad argument. It should stay on meme-critical web pages where it belongs, complete with a citation to a source that provides no support to the claim in question.

Joe argues that "meme theory" has been productive. It has certainly produced much of worth, including arguable considerable popularity and attention on the field. However it could easily have been more productive - and might have been so if so many academics had bothered to understood it. In the long war between the scientists and popularizers, everybody lost.

Joe is probably right in part that a reluctance to affiliate with Dawkins is involved. On the whole, the meme promoters have been a motley crew which scientists have been reluctant to affiliate with. Memetics lacked leadership when Dawkins dropped out. The other meme promoters are obviously partly responsible for the situation.

I confess that Joe's article had me rolling my eyes quite a bit. He discusses the shortcoming of The Selfish Gene in ways that make you think that he supports its critics. He approvingly cites group selection advocates Wilson and Wilson - mentioning the terrible "Social Conquest of Earth" book approvingly. The book "Evolution in Four Dimensions", gets mentioned favourably - despite the book's dismal critical coverage of memetics. I don't think I have ever recommended this book to anyone. Perhaps worst of all, the article repeatedly criticizes reductionism. Reductionism is a key tool in the scientific toolkit. Most critics of reductionism are, by and large not real scientists. I'm sorry to hear that Joe is part of the "holiestier than thou" club. As therapy, here's a diagram from Douglas Hofstadter:

I wish more people would promote memetics as the best theory of cultural evolution. Memetics combined cultural evolution with symbiology early on. We have Dawkins (1976) writing:

Memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically
While Boyd and Richerson (1985) wrote:

This does not mean that cultures have mysterious lives of their own that cause them to evolve independently of the individuals of which they are composed. As in the case of genetic evolution, individuals are the primary locus of the evolutionary forces that cause cultural evolution and in modeling cultural evolution we will focus on observable events in the lives of individuals.
I've compared the Boyd and Richerson approach to studying smallpox by focusing on the "observable events in the lives of individual" human hosts. All very well - but what about the smallpox virus?!?

Dawkins and Cloak had the better vision here, IMO. They deserve credit for getting things right early on.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Evolution excluding inorganic physics and chemistry

Here's D.S. Wilson on the domain of evolutionary theory:

Properly understood, what makes the expansion of evolutionary theory so radical is that it’s not just another cross-disciplinary program. Instead, it uniquely provides a common language for all of the divisions, departments, and programs listed in the table, with the exception of the purely physical sciences; i.e., the study of non-living processes. This idea was foreign and sometimes even anathema to all of the human-related disciplines during most of the 20th century. Now, as we near the 1/5th mark of the 21st century, it is becoming embraced within psychology and the social sciences but not nearly as much in the humanities. In this sense, the humanities can be called the last frontier of evolutionary science.

What about Darwinian physics? Physics and chemistry have their own evolutionary sub-disciplines which Wilson doesn't seem to be taking into account.

The humanities are hardly the last frontier of evolutionary theory. Usually, after understanding cultural evolution comes understanding evolution during development, understanding neural and psychological evolution of brains and understanding evolution of inorganic physical and chemical systems.

I have some sympathies with Wilson's position because I once thought something similar myself. For example, if you look at my 2011 video/essay Seven steps to understanding evolution you will see that inorganic physical and chemical systems are conspicuous by their absence. However, I have learned some things since 2011. Inorganic physics and chemistry contain systems which can be usefully analyzed within Darwinian frameworks involving reproduction with variation and selection. Excluding these types of system from the domain of Darwinian evolutionary theory is simply a mistake.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

It's not our intelligence, stupid

Many machine intelligence enthusiasts seem to think that intelligence is what led to our domination of the planet. For example, here is Shane Legg:

The defining characteristic of our species is intelligence. It is not by superior size, strength or speed that we dominate life on earth, but by our intelligence.


...and here is Demis Hassabis, saying something very similar:

If you look at how civilization has been built and everything humans have achieved, it’s down to our intelligence. It’s our minds that have set us apart.


This is rather contrary to the findings of students of cultural evolution - who say that it is cumulative cultural evolution that has led to our ecological domination. Our big brains are seen more as a consequence of cultural evolution, rather than the cause of it. Our big brains are meme nests - inflated by the cultural creatures that reside within, in much the same way that plant root nodules or ant domatia form. Of course culture and brains coevolved in a positive feedback loop, so one can't put all the causality on one side. The point is more that the "intelligence did it" story is incomplete - and it might be more wrong than right.

Intelligence and social skills might be correlated, but the correlation is not that strong. Ants are highly social, but not very individually intelligent. Some humans are intelligent, but quite anti-social.

What does it mean if the cultural evolution story is more correct? It means that machine intelligence enthusiasts might be well advised to look into their machine's social skills. Currently computer networks are full of firewalls and defenses against attack from other machines. Machines bristle with hostility. Maybe with a bit more trust, better reputation systems, punishment for transgressors and more surveillance, machines can become more social and more sociable - for the benefit of all.

It is sometimes said that humans are the stupidest creatures able to start a civilization. However, we don't know if that is true. Perhaps instead they were some of the least aggressive and irritable animals to start a civilization. Maybe machines will outstrip them mainly on the "social skills" front - rather than the "intelligence" front. This isn't just a scientific issue, it directly affects our strategy going forwards.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Darwin's Bridge

A new book on social applications of Darwinism is out:

Darwin's Bridge: Uniting the Humanities and Sciences, edited by Joseph Carroll, Dan P. McAdams, Edward O. Wilson

Joseph Carroll has previously written Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature

The publisher's blurb says:

  • Collects the most advanced work in the consilience movement
  • Demonstrates how far science has gone toward unifying knowledge about the human species, and what still needs to be done
  • Each chapter takes a different disciplinary approach to the question of "human nature"
  • Features expert perspectives from a variety of disciplines, including evolutionary biology, the humanities, social sciences, and more

The book seems quite focussed on Wilson's concept of consilience. There doesn't seem to be much about cultural evolution, though a few of the contributors are knowledgeable about it. Wilson doesn't seem to have got to grips with cultural evolution yet - still favoring the 'it all boils down to DNA genes' version he was promoting in the 1980s. This seems like a head-in-the-sand approach to me, ruling out the possibility of a memetic takeover on a-priori grounds. The main mention of memes is some meme FUD from Massimo Pigliucci. Initial impressions lead to low expectations for this volume here, though perhaps some of the contributions will be of interest.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Cultural evolution's scientific lag: is the modern synthesis to blame?

The study of cultural evolution has lagged far behind the study of organic evolution - much to the distress of its enthusiasts. One question is why there is such a lag. One answer is that the delay was caused, in part, by the modern evolutionay synthesis, which failed to include cultural evolution and is incompatible with it.

The story is that, for one reason or another, the architects of the modern synthesis had little or no understanding of cultural evolution. They failed to incorporate it into their synthesis. Then their synthesis became stagnant dogma, stifling innovation in the field.

I think that this story has considerable truth content, though obviously it isn't the whole story. A possible piece of evidence against the claim that the architects of the modern synthesis had little or no understanding of cultural evolution could potentially be found in the following books:

I haven't properly reviewed this evidence yet. Both books came out significantly after the modern synthesis crystallized, though.

Another problem with the thesis is that it doesn't offer an explanation for why the the architects of the modern synthesis lacked meme literacy in the first place. Maybe the explanation for that is sufficient to account for the lag, without the modern synthesis being to blame. I can't rule that out - but the modern synthesis was influential; it probably didn't help.

Looking at the memetics timeline the first half of the 20th century was an uneventful time for cultural evolution. In fact there are no entries at all from 1915 to 1945 - which is more-or-less when the modern synthesis came together. The founders of the modern synthesis were writing during a bleak time for cultural evolution. Perhaps the world wars were a factor here.