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.