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.