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.