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 classical game theorists, it 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 and 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.

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 another approach 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 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 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 considerzble 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.
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 to 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. 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 point, it 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.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Sharing prohibition

I've long opposed the laws that criminalize information crimes. I make an effort to put my content into the public domain wherever I can - and have been writing open source software for decades.

The weakening of the copyright laws has long seemed inevitable to me. Today we are in a kind of twilight zone - where the copyright laws are violated on a massive scale, but very few people are prosecuted. The MPAA and RIAA phased out their litigation against file sharers long ago.

The war on sharing is reminiscent of the prohibition era and the war on drugs. It ought to be an embarrassment for humans that they kept the laws against sharing on the books for so long. Sharing comes naturally to humans, they like doing it. Overall, prohibiting sharing is personally and economically destructive.

In a democracy, sharing prohibition is not normally a vote winner - since consumers who are hurt by monopolies massively outnumber producers who are awarded the monopolies. However, voting is only one side of politics, the other side is lobbying. Special interest groups argue in favor of their monopolies and the infrastructure that perpetuates them. Since producers care a lot about this issue while consumers care less, the lobbying is mostly on the pro-monopoly side. It happens on a large scale and is well funded. The resulting sharing prohibition artificially creates monopolies and promotes wealth inequality - which likely has damaging effects overall.

From the perspective of memetics, sharing prohibition limits reproduction and recombination. To the memes, it is like a directive to not have babies - except under particular circumstances. For DNA genes, the state has mostly got out of the business of interfering with reproduction. China's one child policy (now two child policy) is the most prominent exception. However, meme reproduction is still legally regulated in many countries. It is a hangover from the pre-internet days. Today, it is an appalling impediment to all kinds of activities in computer science and elsewhere. We should declare that freedom to share is a basic human right and be done with the backwards prohibition era.