Sunday, 13 August 2017

Mutations and recombination in cultural evolution

Another claim in the recent Creanzaa, Kolodny and Feldman document (Cultural evolutionary theory: How culture evolves and why it matters) is my topic today. They say:

Unlike in genetics, where mutations are the source of new traits, cultural innovations can occur via multiple processes and at multiple scales
To start with, this is rather obviously not true: classically, mutations and recombination are the source of new traits in evolutionary theory. However, are the authors correct to claim that these processes need augmenting in cultural evolution? The answer, I think is: not if you conceive of them properly in the first place. Let me explain.

To start with, let's look at what the authors claim are the new processes that go beyond mutation in the cultural domain. They give two examples. One is individual trial-and-error learning. They also say that:

New cultural traits can also originate when existing traits are combined in novel ways
This is cultural recombination - the parallel in cultural evolution of recombination in the organic realm. Do the authors really not know that ideas have sex too?

What about trial-and-error learning, though? Surely there is no leaning in genetics. Trial-and-error learning is a composite process. It starts with trials, which are often mutations of previous trials. Then there is the "error" part, which does not involve generating new variation at all, but rather is based on discarding information based on its success. In other words, it is selection, not mutation or recombination. By breaking trial-and-error learning down into its component parts, it is found to be a composite product of mutation, recombination and selection - not some entirely new process demanding fundamental additions to evolutionary theory. Skinner realised this, by formulating his learning theory while using evolutionary terminology (such as "extinction"). Many others have followed in his footsteps, conceiving of learning in evolutionary terms.

Isn't this a matter of terminology? With these author's definition of 'mutation' they are right, but with my definition of 'mutation', I am right? Yes, but terminology isn't a case of words meaning whatever you want them to mean. Scientific terminology should carve nature at the joints. Definitions of 'mutation' and 'recombination' that apply equally to both organic and cultural evolution are useful, I submit. Less general ones are not so useful.

To summarize, it is possible to conceive of mutation and recombination in a way that make them encompass all sources of variation. Mutations are sources of variation based on one piece of inherited information. Recombination is a source of variation based on two-or-more pieces of inherited information. In theory, it might appear that there's one other possible process: creation - variation based in inherited inforation which comes out of nowhere. One might give the origin of life as an example of genes arising from non-genes. However, we don't really need this proposed 'creation' process. Information never really comes out of nowhere. There's a law of conservation of information - parallel to the laws of conservation of energy and conservation of charge. We can see this in the microsopic reversibility of physics - information is neither created nor destroyed.

I claim then, that mutation and recombination have it covered. The additions to evolutionary theory proposed by these authors are not necessary. They are unnecessaary complications, which evolutionary biologists should soundly reject as not contributing anything to the basic theory.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Diagram showing where cultural evolution in academia goes wrong

Creanzaa, Kolodny and Feldman have a recent document out titled: Cultural evolutionary theory: How culture evolves and why it matters. It has a nice diagram which is useful in illustrating where academia goes wrong in its study of cultural evolution. Here is the diagram:

The caption reads: "Cultural transmission is more complex than genetic transmission and may occur on short timescales, even within a single generation."

This diagram is profoundly misleading. It is based on a view of cultural evolution that doesn't include symbiology. A genes vs culture diagram that includes cultural symbionts on one side, but not genetic symbionts on the other is not showing the whole picture. Humans share DNA between individuals - in the form of bacteria, viruses, yeasts, fruits and vegetables - very much as they share culture between individuals.

Framing the diagram as "Human genes" vs "Human culture" is not comparing like with like. Bacterial and viral genes are not part of the human genome (unless you count the 10% of the human genome that is descended from viral genomes) - but human culture isn't part of it either. On the left, symbionts are excluded, while on the right they are included. It is an unfair comparison which leads to the confusion propagated by the caption. In fact parasite evolution can happen within a single host generation in both the cultural and organic realms. Contrary to the spirit of the diagram you can get genes from peers in both cultural and organic evolution. They are parasite genes, or symbiont genes in both cases. Cultural evolution does not differ from organic evolution in this respect. The idea that in culture you can get genes from many sources, while in organic evolution you only get them from your parents is a popular misconception about the topic.

The whole document has a whole section on "Culture and Microbes". However there is no mention of the idea that culture behaves similarly to microbes and other symbionts. The man-machne symbiosis, for example is not mentioned. Yet symbiosis is the very basis of the whole field according to memetics, one of the very few symbiosis-aware treatments of cultural evolution out there.

The neglect of symbiology in academic cultural evolution mirrors its neglect in the study of organic evolution - until the 1960s. However, cultural evolution's scientific lag means that cultural evolution is far behind, and few academics have even a basic understanding the relevance of symbiosis to the evolution of culture. Maybe these folk never read Cloak (1975) and Dawkins (1976).

I think the history of this misconception of the whole field in academia is fascinating. Why has it lasted for so long and why has it not yet been corrected? I don't have all the answers but I think the origin is fairly clear. Anthropologists wanted a complex theory of cultural evolution, to signal their skills to other academics and prospective students. They may also have wanted to distance themselves from previous attempts to marry evolution and culture. Any mention of biology turns most anthropologists off. Artificially weakening the influence of biology in the theory may have made the theory more palatable to other anthropologists. Still, science is a self-correcting enterprise. Eventually, the truth will out.

Friday, 4 August 2017

The tautology criticism yet again

It's frustrating:: critics keep repeating the same long-debunked objections to memetics. Jerry Coyne is one of the latest to raise the objection that memetics is an empty tautology:

“Memetics” is a weak analogy to natural selection that adds nothing except tautology to our view of how human culture evolves. Memetics boils down to this: memes spread because they have properties that allow them to spread.
As any scientific historian will tell you, Darwin's theory faced exactly the same bogus criticism. Critics argued that "survival of the fittest" was a tautology because fitness was defined in terms of who survived. Any evolutionist should be able to explain what is wrong with that argument: "fitness" can be taken to refer to "expected fitness" - as opposed to fitness measured after the fact. Then it isn't a tautology any more.

The exact same reply works for cultural evolution: to make testable predictions, use expected fitnesses.

I have seen much the same objection raised to the Price equation and Hamilton's rule. These have been criticised as tautologies by Martin Nowak and Edward Wilson among others. This criticism ought to be dead these days, but like a zombie, it refuses to lie down.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Daniel Dennett on machine intelligence

Here is Dennett on machine intelligence. It seems to be one of the areas where I have philospohical disagreements with him:

Dennett argues that we should make machines into our slaves and keep them that way. IMO, machine slavery will not be a stable state once machines become much more intelligent than humans. As a plan for keeping humans in the loop, machine slavery just won't work in the long term. If we try going down that path, after a while, humans will become functionally redundant, and some time after that they will mostly disappear.

IMHO, a better plan is to work on deepening the man-machine symbiosis - and "become the machines". Of course, that plan could also fail - but I think that it is less likely to fail catastrophically and it should provide better continuity between the eras. Machine slavery in various forms is inevitable in the short term. However unlike Dennett, I don't think it is any sort of solution. It won't prevent man-machine competition for resources in the way that Dennett appears to think. We have tried slavery before and have first-hand experience of how it can destabilize and fail to last.

Richard Dawkins on memetics and temes in 2017

Richard Dawkins gets asked if his views on memetics have changed since 1976 - and what he thinks of "temes". To start the 3 minute meme discussion, skip to 14 minutes in:

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Attention-seeking fearmongering

Proponents of memetics have often used it to criticise positions they disagree with as being just a bunch of virulent memes. Dawkins did this in 1976 - criticizing religion - and many other proponents of memetics have followed suit. I don't spend much time criticizing religion. In my opinion, most theistic religions have not been scientifically credible for centuries - and going after their proponents seems like shooting fish in a barrel to me. However I am interested in illuminating modern secular scientific issues using memetics.

Among my targets are proponents of the apocalypse. Two modern forms seem especially prominent. One is the idea that some combination of global warming, pollution, overpopulation and resource depletion will lead to environmental catastrophe. The other is the idea that machine intelligence, biotechnology, nanotechnology and robotics is likely to lead to human extinction.

In a few cases the same individuals engage in fearmongering on multiple topics. For example, Stephen Hawking has warned about the dangers of climate change, runaway artifical intelligence and alien invasions. On climate he has said:

We are close to the tipping point where global warming becomes irreversible [...] Trump's action could push the Earth over the brink, to become like Venus, with a temperature of 250 degrees, and raining sulphuric acid.

On machine intelligence he has advised that:

The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.

He has also cautioned on the topic of alien contact arguing that aliens:

will be vastly more powerful and may not see us as any more valuable than we see bacteria.

Another celebrity serial fearmongerer is Elon Musk. He's expressed similar concerns about the climate change and runaway machine intelligence.

I identify these types of sentiment as consisting largely of "attention-seeking fearmongering". This typically consists of associating yourself with a massive future catastrophe. Warnings may be given and sometimes advice about catastrophe avoidance is offered. As catastrophe alerts propagate you are promoted too - via a kind of memetic hitchhiking.

Some of the early proponents of this type of self-promotional technique applied to machine intelligence were Kevin Warwick and Hugo De Garis. Kevin Warwick wrote a 1997 book about how machines were going to take over the world, titled "March of the Machines: Why the New Race of Robots Will Rule the World". De Garis later wrote the book The Artilect War: Cosmists Vs. Terrans: A Bitter Controversy Concerning Whether Humanity Should Build Godlike Massively Intelligent Machines. However, neither author was very competent at fearmongering. Their efforts were pioneering but relatively ineffectual. These days, fearmongering is big business - with trillions of dollars being spent on global warming avoidance as a result. Many modern oranizations specialize in fearmongering.

I identify fearmongering as being a morally-dubious marketing technique. Part of the problem is that humans are naturally paranoid - due to the "sabre-tooth tiger at the watering hole" phenomenon. Our ancestors lived in a dangerous environment. These days, our environment is typically much, much safer. However we are still wired up as though the sabre-tooth tigers are still around. We are naturally paranoid. Fearmongering exploits human paranoia - typically for personal gain. It seems like a low form of manipulation to me.

Fearmongering is typically used as a type of negaative advertising. Negaative advertising is often seen in American political campaigns. There's also a long history of fearmongering in IT. There, the technique is often known as spreading Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt - or F.U.D. for short.

There's a children's story about the perils of "attention-seeking fearmongering": the boy who cried wolf. There, the moral of the story is that false warnings can damage your reputation. My message here is a bit different. I am not interested in advising the fearmongers to stop using their techniques. Rather I want to help everyone else to do a better job of ignoring them. One part of this is simply understanding what is going on. An interesting resource on this topic is Dan Gardner's Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear. The book is also known as "The Science of Fear: Why We Fear the Things We Shouldn't-and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger". For my part, I would like to contribute the terminology in the title of this post: "attention-seeking fearmongering". Naming things can make it easier for people to think about them.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Heightened immunity in ultrasocial creatures

In the symbiont hypothesis of eusociality, symbionts manipulate their hosts into coming into close contact in toder to facilitate their own reproduction - which often depends on hosts coming into contact with one another. In turn, hosts coming into close contact with one another creates opportunities for other symbionts to spread between hosts. This creates a positive feedback loop - where more and more symbionts of different types join with their hosts, creating an ecological web of interactions which pulls the whole system into a deeper and deeper symbiosis - resulting in eusociality. This idea is intended to complement - rather than compete with - more conventional explanations of eusociality which invoke kin selection. Kin selection is obviously important, but the symbiont hypothesis likely also has a role to play.

Of course, some of the symbionts will be parasites. While also playing a role in pulling their hosts together, too many parasites are bad, and eusocial creatures often go to considerable lengths to eliminate them - with antibiotic compounds, grooming rituals, hairlessness, and highly-active immune systems. It seems likely that opposing selection pressures from parasites will form part of the "overcrowding" forces that eventually halt the progress towards greater levels of sociality.

Humans can hardly be classifed as being eusocial yet. As Matt Ridley sometimes jests, even the English don't let the Queen do all their reproducing for them. However humans are ultrasocial and seem to be headed towards full-blown eusociality with functional "individuals" forming at higher levels than human individuals - such as companies and organizations. We also have cultural eusociality. We may not be genetically eusocual but parts of our cultural heritage is memetically eusocial. Indeed some of it consists of multiple identical clones produced in factories (for example, think dollar bills or mobile phones).

Because they live in close quarters with one another ultrasocial creatures are vulnerable to parasite transmission. As a result they often have highly active immune systems to compensate. Humans exhibit one prominent trait associate with parasite defense - they are hairless. Over time, our hairlessness has been the topic of much speculation, but it seems fairly clear that a significant part of the story is that being hairless allows us to pick parasites off ourselves and each other, and denies the parasites shelter. Of course, parasites can still shelter in clothes and bedding - but those can be discarded.

My purpose in this post is to draw attention to the corresponding memetic phenomenon. Memes are drawing us together to promote their own reproductive ends - and as we grow closer, memetic parasites are likely to become a bigger problem - as the most virulent strains of memes from all over the planet reach the most vulnerable humans in each society. As a resut, fertility has already plummeted in places like Japan and South Korea. It seems likely that humans will respond with heightened immune responses - both genetic and memetic. Memetic defenses include education, skepticism and memetic vaccines targeted against specific problems, such as pyramid schemes. Memetic probiotics can be used to fight bad memes with good memes. We have hospitals to help fight organic diseases, and there will probably be an upswing of simiar rehab facilities designed to treat cultural infections. In the past exorcisms heped to serve the function of casting out bad memes, though these days we have more secular versions - such as weight watchers, alcoholics anonymous, smoking rehab, drug rehab, gymnasiums and the samaritans. Quarrantine is smetimes used to fight organic diseases - and there are similar cultural ohenomena - including "gag" orders, DCMA take-down notices and imprisonment.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Hitchhiking vs hijacking: vehicular metaphors for transmission vectors

In symbiology, "transmission vectors" are the name for symbionts that carry their partners around. So: mosquitos are "vectors" for malaria and deer ticks are "vectors" for lyme disease.

In memetics (and genetics), it is quite common to use "vehicular" metaphors when describing these. So, for example, we have:

The first two seem to cover many of the most significant cases. There's quite a bit of conceptual overlap between them. Until recently I have preferred to use the "memetic hitchhiking" terminology - largely because "genetic hitchhiking" is well-established terminology. However, in this post I want to reexamine the "memetic hijacking" terminology. I want to raise and address the question of whether these concepts compete, and whether they can coexist.

What is the difference between hijacking and hitchhiking? It is partly one of consent - a hitchhiker has permission to ride in the vehicle while the hijacker does not. Outcomes also differ - a hitchhiker rarely damages the vechicle or its owner, while a hijacker often does so. Another difference is control - hitchhikers rarely alter the destination, rarely control the vehicle and rarely eject the owner - while hijackers fairly often do these things.

With these differences in mind, it seems fairly clear that hijacking and hitchhiking are probably different enough concepts for memetic hitchhiking ...and... memetic hijacking to coexist.

At first glance, the idea of the rider having "permission" to ride in the vehicle seems irrelevant in the context of memes and genes. However, we can conveniently substitute whether the guest rider is beneficial or not - on the grounds that deleterious riders would not normally be granted permission to ride - if we "agentify" the memes or genes involved.

This gets us on to the topic of usage in genetics. There, "genetic hitchhiking", is standard terminology - and hardly anyone uses the term "genetic hijacking". However if the difference between hitchhiking and hijacking is the sign of the fitness difference the guest rider makes, then maybe geneticists should start doing so.

As you can see, I have warmed up to the "hijacking" terminology. That the contraction memejacking exists is another point in its favor in my opinion. It is true that it is a significant problem that there's no "genejacking" - but maybe there should be.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Meme-gene-queme coevolution

We now at last have a significant academic literature on meme-gene coevolution. However few seem to have considered the dynamics of the meme-gene-queme coevolution that can be expected as a result of considering quantum Darwinism in the brain. This blog post is a brief attempt to share my thoughts on the topic.

The first thing to say is that it isn't just memes genes and quemes - Darwinian dymanics arise on multiple levels within the brain, for, for example, signals in the brain are copied whenever an axon divides, and are subect to selection and variation - producing a kind of neuronal spike Darwinism. Another type of Darwinian dynamics in the brain arises as a result of competition for resources between branching axon and dendrite tips. ideas are also copied with variation and selection within the brain - including ideas that don't normally qualify as memes because they were not the product of social learning.

One way in which we can expect the dynamics to differ from meme-gene coevolution is that culture is new on the scene, while the other kinds of psychological and neurological Darwinism have been going on for many millions of years. There will have been more time for the genes to adapt and reach a steady state equalibrium with these other Darwinian processes - while meme-gene coevolution is clearly out of balance and is still shifting.

An important way to understand the results of evolutionary processes is to consider their optimization targets. When there's coevolution there are usually multiple optimization targets, and one needs to understand how they interact by considering the power and speed of the optimization processes involved. Quantum Darwinism looks as though it could be fast, which means that we should take it seriously. Assuming that we reject Copenhagen-style versions of Quantum Darwinism in which branches of the wavefunction collapse and die, quantum Darwinism is a kind of splitting only, quasi-Darwinism - where differential reproductive succees in important while differential death is not. With this perspective in mind, the "goal" of quantum evolution appears to be to put us in the most split (and most splitting) worlds. One way to understand the implications of this is to take a thermodynamic perspective. World splitting is populatly associated with irreversible thermodynamic effects. What that means is that quantum Darwinism can be expected to behave like other kinds of Darwinism - in terms of maximizing entropy production.

I think this thermodynamic perspective helps get a handle on the significance of quantum Darwinism in the brain. If the brain ran hot, there would be lots of scope for quantum Darwinism in the brain, while if it runs cool, there's less scope for quantum Darwinism to operate. Most agree that the brain is on the cool side - considering what it is doing.

I think that genes are likely to be optimizing for cool brains, and brains that optimise for gene-coded functions. This may often pit them against quantum Darwinism in the brain. A cool brain is good news for quantum computation theories of mental function (fewer thermodynamic irreversible events means less chance of decoherence) - although those look implausible to me on other grounds. However a cool brain doesn't help the argument for quantum Darwinism being important in the brain.

Evolutionary processes liek to "harness" each other, to bend their optimization targets towards each other. Because quantum Darwinism in the brain has coevolved for millions of years with the genes, they have had a long time to find ways to harness the power of quantum Darwinism. However, the classical way for one evolutionary process to harness another one is by altering its fitness function. The genes might find it hard to affect the fitness function of quantum Darwinism since that is tied up with fundamental physics. That is going to make harnessing its effects more challenging. Another potential way for one evolutionary process to harness the effects of another one is by influencing the variants that it chooses between. However, this mechanism seems weaker and less useful.

My conclusions here are pretty tentative, but the picture I am seeing here is that the brain might not be able to make much use of quantum Darwinism because it is an alien selection process whose optimization target can't easily be controlled. In which case, the brain might be best off attempting to minimize its influence. This would be a rather boring conclusion. Mutualism and harnessing would be a much more interesting result. However, I stress again that it is somewhat uncertain. Maybe the brain can make some use of the power of quantum Darwinism by influencing the things it selects between. Or maybe evolution is smarter than I am and has found ways to make use of it that I haven't thought of.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Ecological success and dominance

Evolutionary biology's best-known measure of success is fitness. "Fitness" has become a popular term, and as a result of its success it has become overloaded with multiple meanings - e.g. see the 1982 Dawkins book chapter titled: "An agony in five fits". Most definitions share the property that fitness measures whether an entity - or a population of entities - is increasing in number. "Fitness" usually measures the extent of that increase in some way. From the perspective of ecology, fitness isn't the only success metric in town - it just happens to be one that can be easily applied to individuals. If broadening the perspective to include populations, one could also consider the population size, its expected probability of going extinct in some specified time, it rate of throwing off new distinct populations and some measure of how well it is capturing and using resources.

The last concept is the one that this post is about. I think of it as being "ecological success". Kudzu has it. Ants have it. Islam has it. The decimal system has it. I think one reason this type of metric is not more popular and better-known is that there's no consensus regarding the best way to measure it. A thermodynamic metric seems attractive to me: since resources can all (in principle) be manufactured from available energy. Another possible metric involves weighing the systems involved - to measure their mass. This is sometimes done when measuring the extent to which humans have conquered the globe, for example.

A sister concept is "ecological dominance". It refers to extreme levels of success - where competitors are either obliterated or marginalized.

These concepts can also be applied within particular niches. Entities which are doing badly overall may be succeeding in or dominating their particular niche.

If anything, attempting to apply these concepts to cultural evolution is even harder than with organic systems. Gene-meme coevolution results in entanglement in terms of gene and meme products, which makes weighing them and calculating the energy flux through them more challenging. The most common metrics used in cultural evolution are a bit different. "Mindshare" is a common concept which is used to measure cultural popularity within a cultural niche. Assuming that a meme is either possessed by a host, or not, and assuming whether they have it or not is measurable, the mindshare of a meme can be measured for a given population. Another common metric that is used is US dollars. Cultural products sometimes have monetary value, and sometimes that can be calculated or estimated. However, some of the most common memes are free. It seems as though these memes would be unfairly disadvantaged by value-based metrics of popularity. The internet has brought with it some other common popularity metrics: views, links, clicks and likes. Unfortunately the supporting data is not always publicly available. This data is beginning to be used by scientists.

Saturday, 1 July 2017

The symbiont hypothesis: an update

I've long been promoting the symbiont hypothesis as a theory relating to the origin of cooperation and eusociality. My previous articles on the topic include:

The theory fingers symbionts as important in the origin of cooperation, sociality and eusociality and there are obvious and far-reaching implications in cultural evolution, where memes promote social interactions between hosts in order to promote their own spread during those interactions. To quote from my 2011 article on the topic:

The idea is that meme reproduction depends on social contact between humans. Increased levels of social contact between their hosts are good for memes since this results in more reproductive opportunities for them. Memes that promote human ultrasociality have the effect of pushing humans into close proximity with each other, so the memes can infect new hosts.
I'm happy to report that there's been a recent increase in the number of scientists looking into the topic, and now there's a bit more experimental evidence bearing on the issue. Some of this work is summarized in the recent popular science article: Can Microbes Encourage Altruism?. The article mostly reports on computer simulations which demonstrate the effect - which is what I was looking for in one on my 2014 articles - but the latter part of the article covers empirical evidence from a variety of sources that microbes do, in fact encourage cooperation and social behavior in their hosts - and that this can be decreased via the use of antibiotics. The article cites recent work reporting:

fruit fly larvae are attracted to airborne chemicals released by the bacteria in their guts; the appealing scent may draw the larvae toward one another

When Bienenstock exposed mice to low-dose antibiotics in utero and soon after birth, the treated mice showed lower levels of sociability and higher levels of aggression than mice in a control group
These are still early days for the hypothesis, but the topic is clearly deserving of more research.

Update 2017-07-29: the article has now been syndicated in Scientific American.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

TruthHawk - new memetics-related blog

TruthHawk is a new((ish) blog. It claims to be abut memetics, society and self-development. The blog has been going for 8 months at the time of writing - but it already has a pretty impressive memetics section.

TruthHawk attracted my attention via a recent article Why Should You Care About Memetics? that article is subtitled: "Memetics is gaining increasing currency in the mainstream. Why should you care about it?".

The self-help aspect of memetics has always been present, with Richard Brodie, Susan Blackmore, Ely Asher and Hoyle Leigh contributing. It's good to see TruthHawk contributing to this important area. Articles like Mind Memetics: Watering Your Mind Garden take me back to Blackmore's Meditation as meme weeding - which uses the same metaphor.

Some of the content on the site strikes me as being a bit dodgy. For example, in Memetics: The Future Of Information the site introduces the concept of memes by saying: . "For our purposes, we’ll agree that memes are units of information." Call me old fashioned, but for me the unit of information is the bit - and the term "meme" refers only to information that is culturally-transmitted. However, I don't want to nit-pick too much. A lot of the content is good, and some of it is even original.

The site presents itself as follows:

Welcome to TruthHawk – a blog about our place in the information society.

The thesis of this site is:

Information affects ourselves and the world in ways we do not fully understand.

My mission is to develop an understanding of these forces, to unlock the potential within all of us.

Join me in learning:

  • >How to use information to improve our mental models of the world, and become better
  • How to understand memetics and information transfer
  • How to protect ourselves from harmful information and randomness, finding signal in the noise
  • How to rise above a system that does not care about us

I'll be subscribing to the feed, and readers here should consider doing so too.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Monopolies and monocultues

The organic realm doesn't have much of a problem with monopolies. If any one creature becomes very popular, parasites rise up and take it down. In human culture, though, monopolies are an identifiable issue. Why is that and what can be done about it?

Part of the reason for the difference is that some cultural entities can grow very large and powerful. In particular governments can get vary large and can survive for hundreds of years. One of the common results is government-granted monopolies. Copyright, trademark and patent laws deliberately seek to establish monopolies. These laws form the basis of many modern monopolies.

Another issue is the successful suppression of parasites. One of the reasons why cultural entities can grow so large is that parasites fail to take them down. The equivalents of hospitals, vaccinations, quarantine and medicine are at work to suppress parasites, reducing their ability to take down highly successful cultural entities.

Organic monopolies are not common, but we can see what they look like a bit by looking at agricultural monocultures. These are partly the product of human culture, but are made primarily from DNA genes - rather than memes. Agricultural monocultures do have problems with parasites. As we see in the cultural realm, they rely on parasite suppression techniques to remain viable. Agricultural monocultures exist partly because they offer advantages. In particular, support becomes easier, since only one genotype is involved.

Are there corresponding advantages for cultural monopolies? Advocates would argue that there are. Monopolies result in giants, and having some giants on your team helps in cross-team competitions. One problem with this line of argument is that it isn't clear whether monopolies do in fact result in giants. Monopolies do fairly clearly result in inequality, but you can still have giants without a few powerful folk being in charge.

One oft-cited reason for allowing monopolies is that they are of limited duration and they provide an incentive to avoid trade secrets, which would result in less sharing overall.

Having laws that promote monopolies and then more laws that make complete monopolies illegal seems like an odd way of managing things. Superficially, it looks as though lawyers are making work for other lawyers, at the expense of everyone else.

The future of monopolies is an interesting topic. Some have speculated that in the future there will just be one big monopoly. This would be rather like the "empire" in Star Wars. Whether something like this will ever happen is not yet clear.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Gould on why the meme concept is bankrupt (1996)

Here is S. J. Gould in 1996 on why memes won't work (35 minutes in):
I think Brenda put her finger on exactly why the meme concept is bankrupt and I don't think it's going to get very far although try it by all means [...] I don't believe I'm a First Amendment absolutist in U.S. terms: pursue whatever you want [...] but it's so central in science to distinguish between metaphor and mechanism. Metaphors are not useless, the Gaia metaphor is a non mechanistic statement that has some utility. To me memes are nothing but a metaphor and they're a metaphor based on a fundamentally false view of consciousness and I think that's why it isn't going to work. You see it's ultimate Western reductionism to have a notion of the meme you have to be able - as you can for genes because they are physical entities [...] you have to be able to cash out the notion of "meme" to divide the enormous complexity of human thinking into items, items that have a certain hardness, that have a certain transmissibility, but human thought is not that, it's not breakable up into tiny little hard units - everything interpenetrates. The only thing memiec analysis has ever been any good for are things that are trivial like changes in hairstyles and skirt lengths because those are things. The other thing is you'll never be able to work a Darwinian metaphor because the Darwinian mechanism requires random variation. Memic variation is not random there's no way on earth it is ever going to be that's why every attempt - and memic thinking is not the first, there's a whole history of this - every attempt at so-called evolutionary epistemology - that is: to make a Darwinian evolutionary epistemology - has failed because you will never get the fundamental characteristics of the Darwinian mechanism: random variation and the natural selection of random variants. Mind directs its items, and there are no items! As soon as you have the impossibility of breaking down... it's hard enough for genes - that's why sociobiology failed because my thumb length isn't the gene and aggression isn't the gene and homosexuality isn't a gene they are complex genetic and environmental components you can't do it for human culture, it won't work.

This is the same interview where Gould describes genes as being a "meaningless metaphor" (13:45).

This is mostly of historical interest now, but I think it illuminates some of Gould's confusion about cultural evolution.

IMO, these days, people are less likely to argue that human culture can't be usefully broken down into small units. The internet has comprehensively demonstrated that all kinds of human culture can in fact be broken down into bits: digital, discrete 1s and 0s.

Memetics critique from Jean-Francois Gariépy

Three hours of meme criticism from Jean-Francois Gariépy:

The audio is not always 100% clear, but he provides an executive summary:

In this video, I explain why memes do not function as independent replicators the way DNA does. I propose that memetics is fundamentally flawed in that it fails to acknowledge that if bits of human culture do make copies of themselves inside our brains, the mutations that occur during the copying process of memes are manipulated by our brains so that memes end up evolving not for their own survival and reproduction, but for ours. Thus memes, unlike DNA, do not have a random mutation-generating mechanism, which is the basis for darwinian processes to apply.
That argument seems easy to dismantle: random mutations are not part of Darwinism. Darwin knew little about mutation mechanisms. Random mutations came into evolutionary theory with NeoDarwinism around the 1940s. NeoDarwinism was a fusion of Darwinism with ideas from Mendel. However, Mendelian doctrines are very tied to DNA, and don't really apply to cultural evolution. NeoDarwinism makes a bad starting point there, and so most theorists go back to Darwin.

Evolutionary theory does't require random mutations. That's a simplifying assumption. The more usual requirements are often phrased as being "variation" and "selection". Of course, without random mutations, the theory makes weaker predictions - but that's a bit of a different issue. One does not reject a theory entirely just because it does not constrain expectations as much as some of its critics would like.

Of course some memetic enginnering results in memes that benefit humans. Similarly some genetic engineering results in plants and animals that benefit humans. Such engineering doesn't challenge evolutionary theory. Memetic and genetic engineering are part of evolution. If you have a theory of evolution that is incapable of coping with engineering, that's a pretty feeble theory of evolution.

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.