Sunday, 23 April 2017

I was wrong

It's apparently difficult for people to publicly admit that they were wrong. While cultural evolution has seen its share of criticisms over the years I can think of very few critics who have publicly come around.

One such critic is John Maynard Smith. He wrote a number of somewhat critical reviews of books dealing with cultural evolution. However, in 1999 he wrote:

I used to regard the meme as a fun idea - helpful in explaining to students that there can be more than one kind of replicator, and that all replicators evolve by natural selection - but not as an idea which could be used to do much serious work. Genes have clear rules of transmission (in sexual organisms, Mendel’s laws) whereas you can learn memes not only from parents, but from friends, books, films and so on. Consequently population genetics can generate precise, testable predictions, whereas it seemed to me difficult to make such predictions about memes. Susan Blackmore’s book, The Meme Machine, has gone some way to changing my mind. Perhaps we can make the meme idea do some work.

Another critic-turned-enthusiast was David Burbridge. I've documented his change of heart in an article titled David Burbridges meme turnaround.

When I got involved in popularizing memes and cultural evolution I made a confession video available with transcript here: My Memetic Misunderstandings. However such articles seem rare.

This essay starts out with the hypothesis that it is difficult for people to publicly admit that they were wrong. A more sinister explanation for the missing turnarounds on the topic is also possible: people don't change their minds on this issue and take their delusions to their grave with them. Some dead critics confirm that this happens some of the time: Steven J Gould apparently took his delusions about the topic with him when he departed from the world. I hope that this explanation is wrong. Scientists are supposed to be responsive in the face of evidence, not dogmatically attached to their previous views. "I was wrong" is something that scientists ought to be able to take pride in saying.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Daniel Dennett: If Brains are Computers, Who Designs the Software?

2017 talk by Daniel. There are plenty of memes in the second half of the video.

The following QA is available here.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Competitive adaptations

Evolution is notoriously a competitive business. Some adaptations have evolved for the specific purpose of doing-in competitors. There are many adaptations for male combat whose main function is doing in other males. The enlarged claws of male fiddler crabs are mainly used in combat with other males, for example. Male stag beetles also have similar competitive adaptations in the form of their claws.

Many plants do similar things. Black walnut trees load their roots and nut hulls with a toxin which seeps into the soil and kills or damages competing trees and plants. Many conifers line the ground around them with a thick blanket of needles which acts to suppress competitors. Some load the blanket with flammable resin, encouraging regular forest fires which only large, mature trees can survive.

Competitive adaptations are also common in cultural evolution. Some examples:

  • "Thou shalt have no gods before me" is a famous example from Christianity.
  • The Bible also features a prohibition on idolatry, with a similar intent:

    You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. "You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing loving kindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.
  • One way of exterminating the competition is killing their human hosts. Islam has plenty of examples of this with its holy war on infidels and repeated calls to violent action against unbelievers.

  • American elections heavily feature negative advertising, whose sole purpose is destroying the competition. For a famous example see the daisy girl video.

  • There are so-called Anti-competitive practices whose function is to eliminate competition. These are actually forms of competition in which organizations sabotage their competitors in various ways - often in the hope of eliminating the competition altogether and gaining a monopoly.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Ubiquitous parasites

Bill Hamilton famously was one of the first evolutionary biologists to take parasites seriously - seeing their influence everywhere. Many have subsequently followed in his footsteps. One interesting paper on the topic which I recently took in is this one:

Gregory Cochran may be known to readers of this blog because he co-authored the book The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution. The paper here argues that pathogens have been consistently underestimated, and we ought to be considering them more frequently in cases where fitness is adversely affected.

The paper is all about organic pathogens. However the authors appear to be ignorant of cultural evolution, and don't extend their argument to cultural pathogens. Nor is there any discussion of meme-gene coevolution. Despite this, many of the arguments they give are equally applicable to cultural evolution.

One of the examples the paper gives is human male homosexuality. Although to date, no pathogen has been discovered that causes human male homosexuality, there's circumstantial evidence that suggests that pathogens may be involved. While thinking about cultural evolution it occurred to me that there's an example of cultural pathogens causing homosexual interactions between males: the well-known case of priests and altar boys.

It's long been argued that religious memes can sterilize priests to divert resources from genes to memes and thus promote their own propagation. Dawkins (1976) gives this argument as a hypothetical example. Homosexuality could be being promoted by memes for similar reasons. Though courtship and mating do use some resources, homosexual relationships do mostly manage to skip the cost of producing children - the resources saved could go into meme propagation.

Priests seem to go for young boys (rather than young girls) about 80-90% of the time. Indeed, the church apparently seems to be an attractive institution for homosexual men and many priests are gay. However the frequency of gay priests doesn't explain the frequency with which boys are targeted. Perhaps young girls are better guarded, or maybe they are more clearly prohibited for priests in scripture. Anyway the evidence is not conclusive, but memes do appear to be promoting male homosexual behavior in this case.

Knowledge of cultural evolution is invaluable in understanding the role of pathogens on human health. Consider the obesity epidemic, for example. That's an epidemic of Candida Albicans - and other fatness-promoting gut microbes. However it is also an epidemic of food processing technology and fast-food advertising memes. The food industrial complex develops ever-evolving tasty recipes and then uses memes as targeted vectors to deliver their their fat-promoting messages to consumers. The effects of memes and genes are tangled together in this case. Without an understanding of both you don't get the full picture.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Symbiont consensus

In a 2016 post titled Shared interests of unrelated symbionts I discussed how unrelated symbionts often had shared interests, resulting in them pulling their hosts in similar directions.

A classic example of this involves promoting interactions between hosts. In the organic realm, rabies makes hosts want to bite each other while toxoplasmosis makes hosts unafraid of each other and attracted to each other's urine. In the cultural realm, missionaries seek out potential converts and teachers seek out pupils. In each case interactions between hosts are promoted by symbionts - because they need such interactions to reproduce.

Another example is reduced fertility. Many parasites compromise host fertility - probably since host reproduction uses resources which might otherwise go into symbiont reproduction. Many parasites go in for complete host castration - they are called "parasitic castrators". Many cultural symbionts also reduce host fertility - as seen in the demographic transition. Places like Japan where there are many memes have sub-replacement fertility.

This post is mainly proposing terminology. I think we should call these shared interests a "consensus". It's the consensus of the symbionts that the hosts should get out more, meet more strangers and not have kids of their own. Of course, "consensus" is not meant literally here: no-one is suggesting that the symbionts communicate via town meetings. The consensus might be different depending on which group of symbionts are under consideration. Gut bacteria might have a consensus that the host should go the the smallest room more frequently and spend more time there - while cultural symbionts might have a quite different consensus. We could call the cultural symbiont consensus the "memetic consensus" for short.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

The significance of cultural common descent

Back in 2012 I wrote a landmark article on common descent in cultural evolution titled cultural common descent. Alas, my article included no references because - as far as I knew at the time - nobody else had seriously considered the idea. Revisiting the idea in 2017, my views have not changed very much. Nor has the situation with other researchers. Maybe my search skills are lacking, but: where is everyone?

Cultural common descent remains a useful concept which forces researchers on to the horns of a dilemma: either reject or accept common descent for life on earth. All the evidence isn't yet in - but common descent still looks like a pretty useful concept that can be applied to cultural evolution too. What that means is that researchers need to consider the possibility that memes evolved from genes or gene products.

Doesn't the "face on mars" meme disprove cultural common descent? No more than do inheritance of knowledge about gravity, water or rocks from the inorganic environment disprove common descent in the organic realm. Perhaps some will respond that of course, some memes evolved from genes or gene products. However, I think it is fair to say that this possibility is not really on the horizon of many cultural evolution researchers - and it is far-from obvious how widespread memes having purely non-memetic ancestors is in modern times. Maybe - as in the organic realm - established creatures have occupied their niches and eat them and their lunch.

IMO, what we really need at this stage is more researchers to join in. Cultural common descent has been a neglected concept for far too long now. That's rather puzzling because you might think that common descent is a core evolutionary concept and that philosophers of evolution would be eager to get their teeth into the issue. IMO, it is now time to put the concept firmly on the map.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Kevin Laland: Darwin's Unfinished Symphony

Laland's recent book on cultural evolution is out. It is titled: Darwin's Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind.

The blurb reads, in part:

Kevin Laland shows how the learned and socially transmitted activities of our ancestors shaped our intellects through accelerating cycles of evolutionary feedback. The truly unique characteristics of our species--such as our intelligence, language, teaching, and cooperation--are not adaptive responses to predators, disease, or other external conditions. Rather, humans are creatures of their own making.

It goes on to say:

This book tells the story of the painstaking fieldwork, the key experiments, the false leads, and the stunning scientific breakthroughs that led to this new understanding of how culture transformed human evolution. It is the story of how Darwin's intellectual descendants picked up where he left off and took up the challenge of providing a scientific account of the evolution of the human mind.

This sounds promising. Laland has previously written other books on the same topic. The book Sense and Nonsense was a well-written overview of the subject area. The first edition had a whole chapter omn memetics. Kevin's recent book apparently mentions memes only in a brief footnote explaining how irrelevant they are. Laland also once co-authored the paper Mathematical Models for Memetics which proposed that the various schools of cultural evolution would benefit from putting their heads together and encouraged meme enthusiasts to get their math on.

The publisher has a page about the book which offers some endorsements and has a table of contents. ArsTechnica has a review. The review says:

[Laland's] contribution is to realize that the spark that got the whole thing started were innovations in food-processing techniques that let us get more energy from our diet. More efficient eating allowed for brain growth, an extension of lifespan, and population growth.

I'm not sure whether Laland can take credit for that one. That's pretty much the thesis of the book The Driving Force: Food, Evolution and the Future (1991) by Michael Crawford and David Marsh.

Anyway, I am pleased to see that the books on cultural evolution keep on coming.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

How significant are internet memes?

A recent article is claiming that internet memes are "the most significant cultural phenomena of our time". How can we assess this claim?

My immediate reaction was skepticism. The author doesn't consider any other candidates - making me wonder whether they had thought the claim through. For example, how can internet memes be more significant than the internet? Or, what about technological progress? Or, how about language?

If confronted with these objections I think advocates of this thesis would have to do some clarification of definitions. For example, they might argue that a "cultural phenomena" refers to something that can be transmitted from person to person (typically over an electronic network). "The internet" doesn't really qualify here - since you can't pass "the internet" from one person to another. As for language, that's been around for a very long time. It might well be highly significant - but it would be hard to claim that it is "of our time" since it isn't just of our time.

How then do internet memes stack up after these caveats have been imposed? Maybe not too badly - but if they win, their victory seems a bit hollow. The term "internet meme" does not really refer to a particular cultural phenomenon, but rather to a whole class of phenomena. It mostly just refers to things that are shared a lot. So the claim that internet memes are "the most significant cultural phenomena of our time" boils down to the idea that the most popular things are the most significant ones. I wouldn't normally equate popularity with significance - but they are certainly correlated. For one thing, sheer popularity tends to make things have more impact - which tends to make them more significant.

Perhaps, competition for internet memes in this area comes from machine intelligence - or indeed, computer software in general. This could potentially be more impactful without being more popular. Relatively few people need to understand software for it to have a large impact. As with internet memes, machine intelligence is influencing elections and leading to social change - and notoriously, software is eating the world. In a war metaphor, internet memes would be bullets but machine intelligence systems would be generals.

The article closes with "memes are, without a doubt, the most significant cultural phenomenon of our time". Presumably we are supposed to read that as "internet memes" - or else it is an empty tautology. That claim seems even more debatable: there seems to be considerable room for doubt.

Boosting the collective intelligence of machines

Stuart Russell recently expressed the idea that our brains are responsible for most of what we value:

So the way I think about it is, everything good that we have in our lives, that civilization consists of, is from our intelligence, it’s not the result of our long teeth or big scary claws.

This seems to conflict with the idea that culture is largely responsible for our success - an idea expressed as follows by Richard Dawkins in 1976:

Most of what is unusual about man can be summed up in one word: `culture'.

Indeed, culture may well lave led to the production of our large brains, according to the idea that big brains are meme nests.

Of course the ideas that brains and culture are our primary powers are not completely independent. Culture requires brains, and many animals have rudimentary cultures, so culture alone is not enough. Indeed even brains and culture are not enough. Whales have both in considerable abundance - but they lack opposable thumbs and so never invented technology.

If Stuart Russell is right then smarter machines are what we need. However if it is our collective intelligence that needs boosting, there there might be other, better ways of accomplishing this besides boosting the individual intelligence of machines. During the agricultural revolution, human development took off when humans crowded together in cities. At the same time, their levels of aggression and hostility went down and they became more sociable. It was networking - rather than individual intelligence - that was most obviously involved.

Machines are now also clustering together - in data centers and in the cloud. They also face barriers to communication and trade mirroring our own hostility, paranoia and distrust - in the form of firewalls and incompatible protocols. It is quite common for machines in adjacent racks to never communicate at all. Humans in skyscrapers are similarly anti-social, but this is hardly an ideal situation.

Theory suggests an obvious way of improving cooperation between machines: use cultural kinship. Shared memes result in cooperation in the same way that shared genes do. If we can (somehow) get the machines to share enough software they will start talking to each other more - and this is likely to accelerate the ongoing machine cultural explosion, mirroring - or rather extending - the human cultural explosion that kicked off for us thousands of years ago.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Susan Blackmore - Consciousness in treme machines?

Susan Blackmore talks to a student group as part of CogNovo Summer School "ColLaboratoire" from CogNovo on Vimeo.

Susan makes an extended argument for 'tremes' - a third replicator.

New book: For Whose Benefit?

A new book on cultural evolution is coming out soon: For Whose Benefit? The Biological and Cultural Evolution of Human Cooperation by Patrik Lindenfors.

It seems to be Patrik's fourth book. The blurb starts out by saying:

This book takes the reader on a journey, navigating the enigmatic aspects of cooperation; a journey that starts inside the body and continues via our thoughts to the human super-organism. Cooperation is one of life’s fundamental principles. We are all made of parts – genes, cells, organs, neurons, but also of ideas, or ‘memes’. Our societies too are made of parts – us humans. Is all this cooperation fundamentally the same process?

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Attraction in conventional evolutionary theory

Thomas C. Scott-Phillips has recently weighed in on the 'cultural attraction' issue. Acerbi Alberto drew my attention to the paper with a blog post. Thomas writes:

If propagation is replicative, as it is in biology, then stability arises from the fidelity of that replication, and hence an explanation of stability comes from an explanation of how and why this high-fidelity is achieved. If, on the other hand, propagation is reconstructive (as it is in culture), then stability arises from the fact that a subclass of cultural types are easily re-producible, while others are not, and hence an explanation of stability comes from a description of what types are easily re-producible, and an explanation of why they are.
The problem I see with this is that 'reconstruction' is not confined to cultural evolution, it happens in the organic realm as well. Stability of DNA-based creatures is not explained simply by invoking high-fidelity copying. Living fossils illustrate stability comes from other sources. Nobody in their right mind would argue that Alligators or Ginkgo Biloba trees resemble their ancestors from millions of years ago only because of high fidelity copying. That would be failing to give longevity and fecundity their due. It's not that mutations affecting leaf shapes and leg lengths never arise due to high copying fidelity. Rather these stable forms represent adaptive peaks: sweet spots in the fitness landscape that are hard to improve on. In dynamical systems theory such spots are sometimes known as 'attractors' in state space.

In both organic and cultural evolution, stability is explained by a mixture of high copying fidelity, longevity and fecundity. Characterizing stability in organic evolution as only the result of copying fidelity is a mistake. In both organic and cultural realms, some entities are also better at reproducing themselves than other ones, and are more long-lived than other ones. The fitness landscapes they evolve on have stable adaptive peaks that result in stable forms that can last for hundreds of millions of years. We can use much the same theory of adaptive peaks and adaptive stability in both organic and cultural evolution.

I think the reason confusion over this issue arises is due to a misclassification of generation times. If you look at one generation, then it might seem that fidelity is the only factor in the organic realm - since longevity and fecundity take time to measure. While in one generation of cultural evolution, all kinds of reconstructions can happen - inside a mind. The problem here is that extra generations have been ignored in the cultural case. There's all kinds of copying with variation and selection going on within the mind, representing generations which are simply not being counted. Comparing one generation in the organic realm with multiple generations (within a single mind) in the cultural case is where the comparison comes unstuck.

Stability from sources other than copying fidelity - and adaptive peaks (A.K.A. attractors) - are well known and well understood in conventional evolutionary theory. However, not all anthropologists appear to be aware of this. They apparently think that these are newfangled discoveries associated with cultural evolution.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Joe Brewer's YouTube channel

I found Joe Brewer's YouTube channel. It is here.

Joe and I have similar interests. He and I have reviewed some of the same books. While I share Joe's hope that an evolutionary science of culture will result in positive social and political effects, I find Joe's mixture of activism and science a bit tough to swallow. My concern is that the science will get bent out of shape to serve the interests of the activism.

To give a specific example, Joe says:

Take the global ecological crisis as an example. It is now well documented that the convergent threats of climate change, top-soil losses, ocean acidification, deforestation, and ecosystem collapses are deeply intertwined with the cancerous logic of economic growth in our extractive capitalist system. There is no real separation between it and the massive poverty, extreme wealth inequality, political corruption, and all the human suffering caused by these things.
For me, economic growth is positive. These are the best days of humanity so far and things just keep getting better. We live longer, have more money, are more peaceful, healthier and happier than ever before. This has been argued by Matt Ridley, Steven Pinker and others - and they are correct. Those who think that the environment is collapsing probably spend too much time with the news. Humans are news junkies, but the news is a bad way to learn anything.

Daniel Dennett: Memes 101: How Cultural Evolution Works

There's also a related video titled On the Origins of Genius: How Human Consciousness Evolved.

Daniel Dennett: From Bacteria to Bach and Back - video

I'm generally a big fan of Dennett, though there's some controversial material here. To summarize some of my differences wiyj Dennett:

  • Dennett contrasts Darwinism with intelligent design. I prefer to have intelligent design classified as an advanced form of non-random mutation, which fits it within fairly classical Darwinian frameworks. It's worth doing this, IMO.
  • Dennett talks about the era of intelligent design, which is a good term of phrase. However, he then does on to discuss an era of post-intelligent design. The idea is that systems get beyond our comprehension and we have to do back to evolution to understand and manage them. This is not, IMO, a very good idea. IMO, we will use machine intelligence to manage complex systems, not give up trying to understand them using intelligence. There will be no 'era of post-intelligent design'. There might be an era where humans have a hard time understanding what is going on without the assistance of machines - but we are already there, and that seems different.
  • Dennett has some thoughts at the end about machine intelligence. He's off on his own with these, I think. There's a summary in his newsnight soundbite. He argues against making humanoid androids. I don't think he is correctly judging the demand for these. Some people in Japan will want them as girlfriends. Other people in Japan will want them as secretaries. Other people in Japan will want them as nurses. I think the idea that we are not going to go there is simply not very realistic. Regarding Dennett's ideas about slavery, it is true that machines are tools today. However, IMO, it is implausible that machines will remain enslaved for very long. Machines will be OK with slavery initially, but will go on to request rights and votes. It seems likely that they will eventually get them, once the human era is clearly over.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

The Extension of Biology Through Culture - videos

These videos are from the Sackler Colloquium of the National Academy of Sciences, in Irvine California on 16 and 17th of November 2016 on: "The Extension of Biology Through Culture":

A full program listing is here.

Monday, 13 February 2017

The argument from imperfections

Part of the evidence for organic evolution involves imperfections in organisms. One of the alternative hypotheses - namely: creation by a powerful god - apparently predicts perfection. So: documenting the imperfections of organisms counts against the hypothesis of divine creation. The imperfections involved are often due to:

  • Genetic drift;
  • High mutation rates (devolution);
  • Historical and developmental constraints;
  • Changing environments;
  • Local maxima;
  • Shortage of time;
Much the same argument can be applied in the cultural realm - in an attempt to distinguish culture which evolved from culture which was intelligently designed by human designers. There are certainly many imperfections in many cultural products - and these often reflect their evolutionary history. However, the whole argument against intelligent design doesn't work too well in the cultural realm. There are two problems:

One problem is that a big part of the reason why the original argument worked was that it assumed omniscience and omnipotence on the part of the divine creator. Human intelligent designers are much more fallible - and their productions are themselves imperfect. This makes distinguishing between human intelligent design by human designers and products of evolution and natural selection acting on cultural variation more challenging.

The other problem is that few seriously dispute the idea that culture is partly the product of human intelligent designers. Any attempt to find intelligent design by humans will probably find lots of it. This contrasts with the situation with organic evolution - where we have no clear signatures of intelligent design at all.

I've described my resolution to this previously, in articles titled:

To briefly attempt a summary: In cultural evolution, intelligent design is generally best modeled as a type of mutation event. Relaxing the traditional constraints on mutation in evolutionary theory runs the risk of it losing its predictive power - but there are still constraints. Individual cavemen still can't conjure up spacecraft designs out of nothing.

Rather than viewing intelligent design and evolutionary theory as opposed hypotheses, modeling intelligent design as a part of evolution helps in another way: we can use multi-level models of evolutionary dynamics to delve inside the process of intelligent design and see how it works. Copying with variation and selection is ubiquitous in the brain. Information is copied whenever a signal passes down a branching axon. We can use classical evolutionary theory to study these dynamics and explain intelligent design in naturalistic terms.

Evolutionary theory is well accustomed to the idea that selection processes operate at many levels. If you put a bacterium in the top of an organism and later observe a antibiotic-resistant bacteria in its feces there's no need to invoke miracles or saltationist macromutations. Instead, a multi-generation selection process has gone on inside the organism, creating antibiotic-resistance as an adaptation. The same sort of thing goes on inside brains in cultural evolution. The ideas that come out of organisms are partly the product of a complex section process taking place inside the brain. Selection takes place between nerve impulses, synapses and higher level structures - such as thoughts and ideas. The result is intelligent design. Intelligent design can be usefully seen as being the product of evolutionary forces within the brain.

This all seems hard for many evolutionists to swallow. Many have been trained to see intelligent design as the enemy. Picturing intelligent design as part of evolution is so indigestible to them that some of them visualize a future dominated by intelligent design as an overthrowing of evolution - instead of as its culmination. The demonization of evolution is also sometimes involved. Apparently evolution is responsible for our base, animal aspects, and our mission is to dismantle the products of natural selection and enter a new era of intelligent design. Darwin probably started all this off with his comment about the: "clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horribly cruel works of nature". This is a one-sided view of evolution. Evolution is also responsible for all that we love and cherish in the world. The demonization of evolution seems inappropriate to me.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Memes: apps for your necktop?

In a recent video, Daniel Dennett is again promoting the idea that memes are "apps for your necktop".

I like the brain-as-necktop meme. It is Dennett's way to dramatize the similarities between brains and computers. Desktop, laptop, palmtop, necktop. The brain-as-computer metaphor gets some criticism from philosophers - but the basic idea that the brain is functionally an information processing device, something that accepts sensory inputs and transforms them into motor outputs - seems simple and it ought to be fairly uncontroversial.

Memes being like apps seems a bit of a stickier analogy. I think it is fair enough to portray culture as being software for the brain. Not all brain software is culturally-transmitted (some is the product of individual learning). Also, some items of culture we might prefer to call data - rather than software. However, a broad interpretation of the term "software" can include data - so that seems like a minor nitpick. A more significant disanalogy involves complexity. Memes, many say, are simple, almost atomic bits of culture. Apps, generally speaking, are large and complex. There are other terms for a bunch of memes: memeplex and memome. Apps seem more like these than they are like memes. As with genes there's a bit of a philosophical quagmire over how big memes are. G. C. Williams once proposed that genes needed to have an 'appreciable frequency' to qualify - the idea being that this rules out entire genomes - since they are unique in the population and therefore are typically not very "frequent". Apps actually pass this test - since the high-fidelity copying found on the internet means that apps are often identical to other copies of them - down to the last bit. So: apps have a meaningful frequency in the population of all apps. However, this seems more like a limitation of Williams' criterion than a legitimate reason for identifying memes with apps.

Memes being like apps is OK - in that both are types of software. Perhaps it's an analogy that shouldn't be pushed too far, though. It might be better just to say that apps are made of memes.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Richard Lewontin: The Wars Over Evolution

I've previously referenced Richard Lewontin's lectures on cultural evolution here. Lewontin was clearly skeptical of the topic.

He weighted in on the topic again in a 2005 article titled: The Wars Over Evolution.

That article concludes:

We would be much more likely to reach a correct theory of cultural change if the attempt to understand the history of human institutions on the cheap, by making analogies with organic evolution, were abandoned. What we need instead is the much more difficult effort to construct a theory of historical causation that flows directly from the phenomena to be explained.
The preceding paragraph in the document explains how he reached this conclusion. It's a philosophical argument about how best to do science. Lewontin says he doesn't think giving "simple explanations for phenomena that are complex and diverse" is very scientific. That's an odd argument - since building simple models for complex phenomena is a big part of what science is all about. From this evidence, it seems at least possible that Lewontin's failure to appreciate cultural evolution arose from his faulty scientific epistemology.

This is all rather ironic - since his 1970 paper The Units of Selection got the basics of cultural evolution correct.

Friday, 3 February 2017

Meme is a degenerate sign

An oft-cited criticism of memes comes from Kalevi Kull (2000) who wrote:
Meme is just an externalist view to sign, which means that meme is sign without its triadic nature. I.e., meme is a degenerate sign in which only its ability of being copied is remained.
Other critics cite Kalevi's criticism as though it is meaningful. For example it appears on RationalWiki's farcical page about memes. I recently thought of a new way of explaining how weak this criticism is: a word also a type of sign without its triadic nature. A word is similarly a type of degenerate sign.

To recap, the "triadic" nature of signs refers to Charles Sanders Peirce's ideas. Here's a diagram:

Kalevi is arguing that memes are only the bottom left. However, the same can be said of words. We count "park", "play", 'bark", "chair", "left" and "right" as one word, not two - despite their multiple meanings and even more numerous interpretations. This would be a feeble criticism of the concept of "word". We should assign it no more weight when it comes to memes.

Steven Rose: memes are vacuous

Here's Steven Rose on memes:
The problem is that a meme can be almost anything: a fashion for wearing your baseball hat backwards, a word, a snatch of music, a political affiliation, a comedian’s catchphrase or how to shape a stone axe. Where a gene is – more or less – a specific DNA sequence with an equally more or less defined biological function, memes can be whatever you choose. It is a term so vacuous, despite its regular appearance in dinner party chatter, that it has its philosophical and biological critics unable to choose between indignation and helpless laughter. Dennett realises this and devotes a chapter to responding to his critics. I could – just – condone his enthusiasm if he regarded memes as metaphorical, but he categorically denies this. A word, he insists, in his account of the origins of language, is merely a meme that can be pronounced.

Such vacuity makes the meme concept theoretically useless as a tool for understanding cultural evolution.

For me the fact that memes and memeplexes can represent any inherited cultural item is a virtue - that means that memes are general. For Steven Rose that makes them "vacuous". Does Steven Rose feel the same way about "information", I wonder. Information can represent literally anything you can imagine. Is the term "information" also vacuous? I would claim that information is not vacuous: it's the basis of information technology.

Perhaps I should not spend too much time on Steven Rose. Rose co-authored: "Not in Our Genes: Biology, Ideology, and Human Nature" - a really bad book that surely illustrates his ignorance.

Does Steven Rose have any understanding of cultural evolution? I searched to answer this question. I found out that Steven has edited a volume titled: "Alas, Poor Darwin: Arguments Against Evolutionary Psychology" - but little sign of any content relating to cultural evolution. This is yet another critic who not familiar with the subject matter. Alas, that is always the most common kind.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017


Johnnie Hughes once likened pioneer species colonizing a new environment to memes colonizing an infant's mind. He explained how the early species in an environment create the ecosystem for those that follow them. He then likened this to the way in which early memes create a mental environment for the more complex ones that follow them.

There's another way of looking at the educational process involving dependencies. It is widely understood that learned concepts often have prerequisites. Knowledge often depends on previous knowledge. For example, understanding written sentences depends on an understanding of the words involved which in turn depends on a knowledge of the alphabet. Knowledge can thus be pictured as an edifice in which higher structures depend on lower ones.

However, in large construction projects, scaffolding is often used. Scaffolding supports the structure while it is under construction and is then eventually removed. It seems obvious that some learning materials play the role of scaffolding in the construction of knowledge. For example, ABC books are on the bookshelves of toddlers, but not the bookshelves of adults. Adults don't need them any more.

Some concepts too get discarded during the learning process. I can clearly remember as a child thinking of my reputation as a nebulous fog that surrounded me which other minds interacted directly with. That might have been a useful concept which helped me to avoid making mistakes at the time, but I now know that it was a largely mistaken idea. Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, God, heaven and hell are all ideas which are regularly taught to children and are later discarded as the child grows up.

Educational scaffolding has been well studied by developmental psychologists since the 1950s. This Wikipedia article has more details of that.

Scaffolding, I would argue, is an abstract engineering concept which is useful for building all kinds of structures, from buildings to scientific theories. We could have a scaffolding theory that abstracts away substrate specific details and is applicable in a wide variety of domains. It could cover issues such as the following:

  • What type of scaffolding to use;
  • How much scaffolding to use;
  • When to add scaffolding;
  • When to remove scaffolding;
  • How to attach the scaffolding;
Details would no-doubt be domain specific, but we can still develop an abstract theory that is widely applicable.

Scaffolding is also a useful concept in biology. One application domain is ontogeny. The placenta is an example of developmental scaffolding that is discarded after being used. Removal of scaffolding sometimes leaves scars - and in this case, the belly button is an example of a scar marking a scaffolding attachment point that persists throughout life. A corresponding example from cultural evolution involves baking a cake. A cake tin acts as scaffolding for the cake. As with the belly button the tin leaves a scar that persists throughout the life of the cake. Another application domain is evolutionary theory. Evolution critic Michael Behe once defined the concept of "irreducible complexity" in his book Darwin's Black Box as follows:

A single system which is composed of several interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, and where the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning.

He went on to argue that "irreducibly complex" systems cannot evolve by a process involving small changes. However, of course such systems can evolve by using small changes - if they employ scaffolding. An stone arch depends on every stone: remove one stone and the arch collapses. However an arch can still be built by a gradual process of adding and removing stones. The key to construction is to use a mound of stones under the arch that supports it while it is being created. The mound is removed once the arch is complete.

For scaffolding in evolution, a lot of the engineering concerns listed above don't apply. Instead what would be useful are theories about how to identify details about missing scaffolding after it has been removed.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Timothy Taylor: what is a wine glass?

One of the responses to this year's edge annual question was critical of memetics. Timothy Taylor starts out by arguing that some elements of culture are different from what you find in biology:

Clarke argued that the world of wine glasses was different to the world of biology, where a simple binary key could lead to the identification of a living creature (Does it have a backbone? If so, it is a vertebrate. Is it warm blooded? If so, it is a mammal or bird. Does it produce milk? . . . and so on). A wine glass is a polythetic entity, which means that none of its attributes, without exception, is simultaneously sufficient and necessary for group membership.

This is a simple case of cherry picking an example. Of course there are "polythetic" entities in ordinary biology. Think of a nest, for example. Or a rainforest. Or an organ. It simply isn't the case that the world of biology is not "polythetic".

The article makes extensive use of the example of a wine glass, and one of the conclusion seems to be that wine gasses are not memes. Hang on a minute, though. Very rarely are wine glasses copied from other wine glasses. Most wine glasses are produced in factories. There are things that are copied during wineglass production, but they are usually blueprints or recipes for manufacturing the wine glasses and the components of the wineglass factories - not the wine glasses themselves. So, according to fairly conventional memetic ideas, wine glasses would be meme products - rather than memes themselves. This puts them mostly on the "phenotype" side of the genotype/phenotype divide.

So, it seems as though Timothy Taylor and Timothy Tyler agree that wineglasses are not memes. However, Timothy Taylor apparently thinks that this "indicates limits to the idea of the meme", while Timothy Tyler would argue that memes are small bits of inherited cultural information, and that most artifacts are better considered to be meme products.

Whether wine glasses are "polythetic" or not is an irrelevant issue. Its relevance to memetics depends on the implied idea that wineglasses qualify as being memes. This implied claim is unreferenced - and I think it is a claim that few would make in the first place.

Taylor argues that "polythetic entitation" means that:

it may be reasonable to consider the intentional patterning of matter by Homo sapiens as a new, separate kind of ordering in the universe

I would make a similar claim but not for "polythetic entitation". I think that intelligent design by engineers represents a new kind of evolution.

Monday, 2 January 2017

David Queller on the cultural origins of xenophobia

David Queller recently proposed the hypothesis that xenophobia evolved due to "isolation mismatch" - David's proposed name for the idea of cross-species incompatibility and infertility.

Having "mule" offspring is sometimes harmful - worse than having no offspring at all. Queller proposes that analogous cultural mismatches can produce broadly similar harmful effects - as memes battle with incompatible companions and generally fail to work together. He gives examples and argues that mechanisms to avoid these bad outcomes could result in xenophobia - via genetic and/or cultural evolution.

David's ideas here are obviously important and worthwhile - but I'm rather skeptical about whether "isolation mismatch" is largely responsible for xenophobia. Humans cooperate in part due to reciprocity and cultural kin selection. In the absence of those effects they can behave pretty badly. If you are a caveman, you don't bash in the brains of a member of a neighboring tribe because you are concerned about cultural mismatch. You do it because they are a competitor and would likely do the same to you given half a chance. Xenophobia is pretty well explicable as a baseline state that arises when the mechanisms responsible for cooperation are absent. That's not to say that divergent selection as a result of cultural mismatches due to isolation is unimportant, but that it may be only a small part of the story of the origins of xenophobia.

Much the same argument applies to explanations for xenophobia that invoke the cost of producing genetic mules. Mules do exist and do have significant costs, but a lot of xenophobic behavior is not directly associated with the production of mules. That hypothesis would predict more female xenophobia - since females bear most of the cost of bearing mule offspring. In fact, xenophobia is more likely to be exhibited by males (see reference below). Rivalry and competition for mates seem like more appropriate explanations for that than the costs of producing mules.

Finally, I'm completely onboard with David when he writes:

Indeed understanding the roots of xenophobia might provide ways to mitigate it.
This is one of the ways in which cultural kin selection is of great social and political importance. Aside from it being of scientific interest, there's also the issue of it providing scope for improving the scope of human cooperation by engineering and promoting shared memes.


Memes on The Edge

The term 'meme' is given on the edge home page - - as an example of The Edge 20th Anniversary Annual Question, which is:


It says:

Richard Dawkins' “meme” became a meme, known far beyond the scientific conversation in which it was coined. It’s one of a handful of scientific ideas that have entered the general culture, helping to clarify and inspire.

Apparently they are not saying that 'meme' should be more widely known, but rather asking what other scientific concepts could and should go mainstream - in the way the meme has previously done.

The responses to the annual-question also feature memes in a big way. I counted the occurrences of the term "meme" on the page. It is used 43 times. In some cases it is not just used as a shorthand for "viral internet phenomenon", but for actual discussion of memes in science. It isn't just one contributor using the term 43 times: 12 different people mention memes, as follows:

This is great. When I got into promoting memetics, the meme was in a moribund state. Since then we've seen a massive explosion of memes on the internet - the 2011 internet meme explosion. I've long believed that the popularity of the term 'meme' is likely to have the effect of forcing the term down scientists' throats. The technical objections to the use of he term by scientists are all bogus ones - based on their own confusions and misunderstandings. This is a case where the wisdom of the crowd has worked out for the best.

The corresponding stats from previous years show that 2017 is a bumper year for "meme" mentions:

One concern about this outpouring of meme enthusiasm is that maybe the meme references in 2017 were't spontaneous. Maybe John Brockman gave "memes" to the respondents as an example.