Dawkins interviewed by WSJ in 2015. It is four minutes long. Memes are the topic.
Memes and the Science of Cultural Evolution
Sunday, 23 October 2016
Wednesday, 19 October 2016
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 worm, 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.
Like Williamson's idea this theory would be boosted by genetic evidence which supported gene transfer. However, since it is not obvious what the ancestral species were, such evidence may remian elusive. The 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
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:
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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