Sunday, 13 May 2018

Display motives

Humans are often hypocritical creatures, saying one thing and doing another. There seems to be terminology for discussing our actual motives. They are frequently called "hidden motives" or "revealed preferences". However there doesn't seem to be a standard term for the motives we use for virtue signalling- the ones that we pretend to have in order to appear wholesome in order to manipulate others into liking and trusting us.

To contrast with "hidden motives" I propose "display motives" to refer to the motives that we pretend are what drives us - for public relations purposes. The term emphasizes their signalling role. If you wanted to emphasize their role in promoting good behaviour, you might prefer something like "aspirational motives". However, I don't expect to be using that latter term too frequently.

For "revealed preferences", I think it should really be "hidden preferences" and "display preferences" - as we see with the "motives" terminology. However, since "revealed preferences" has become the more popular term, "sham preferences" seems like the most appropriate antonym. Your actions reveal your claimed motives to be a sham.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Daniel Dennett - Memes saved from extinction

Dennett wonders whether Richard Dawkins’ concept of a meme has gone extinct. This is from February 2017.

The blurb reads:

Richard Dawkins’ concept of a meme, an item of culture that is differentially replicated and hence evolves by natural selection, has provoked many misguided attacks, and yet survived in heavily transformed guise to become a dreaded buzzword.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Daniel Dennett - The Digital Planet 1998 (repost)

I previously posted videos in an article titled: Daniel Dennett - The Digital Planet 1998. Those videos were taken down - but it seems they are still available elsewhere on YouTube:

I originally introduced this as follows. The blurb reads:

Daniel Dennett describes how Darwin introduced the idea of natural selection by comparing it to the selective breeding of domestic animals; including intentional selection as well as unconscious selection. Dennett also introduces a fourth category, genetic engineering. He then goes on to show how these categories also apply to the evolution of cultures.

From a conference in 1998 called Der Digitale Planet (The Digital Planet), which also included Douglas Adams, Richard Dawkins, Jared Diamond and Steven Pinker.

IIRC, there was also a Q&A section, which had some good stuff in it. AFAIK, all the other videos are still lost, though there is some audio here.

Susan Blackmore interviewed by Bas Heijne

From 2015. The blurb says: Susan Blackmore is interviewed by Dutch journalist and philosopher Bas Heijne. [...] In this video, Heijne and Blackmore talk about her vision of cultural evolution, the symbiosis between humans and digital systems, and artificial intelligence.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

The Wired guide to memes

Wired has an article titled "THE WIRED GUIDE TO MEMES" out. It is subtitled "Everything you ever wanted to know about Nyan Cat, Doge, and the art of the Rickroll." The authors are Angela Watercutter and Emma Grey Ellisby. Most of the article is about internet memes. It credits Richard Dawkins, for the origin of the term "meme", but goes on to argue that memes "have evolved into something much different than what Dawkins originally envisioned". It says:

Dawkins coined the term in 1976, in his book The Selfish Gene, long before the modern internet, before memes morphed into what they are now. Back then, Dawkins was talking about passing along culture—song melodies, art styles, whatever. Today, denizens of the internet think of memes as jokes passed across social media in the form of image macros (those pictures of babies or cats or whatever with bold black-and-white words on them), hashtags (the thing you amended to what you just wrote on Twitter), GIFs (usually of a celebrity, reality star, or drag queen reacting to what you just wrote on Twitter), or videos (that Rick Astley video people used to send you).

This "incompatibilism" is bad. Content which people share widely on the internet are memes in Dawkins original sense. It is OK for people to use "meme" as shorthand for "internet meme", since so much social sharing takes place on the internet these days. But the people who say that "Milhouse is not a meme" - those people are just wrong. They lack basic meme literacy. "Milhouse is not an internet meme" would have more truth to it - though a lot of people stream The Simpsons over the internet these days.

The definition of "meme" has long been a controversial topic in memetics, but few have proposed or promoted confining the term to things shared on the internet - with Limor Shifman being the notable exception. We have the term "internet meme" for that.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

The evolution of racism

I've long believed that a proper scientific understanding of racism can help us engineer societies which are relatively free from racial tensions. However I haven't spent much energy writing about the topic. That is largely because of the heat the whole topic often attracts. However, I don't think that is a very good reason for avoiding discussing the issue in public. If everyone did that it would become impossible to have any sensible policy discussions. Anyway, here are some of my views on the topic:

Some worry that treating racism as a natural phenomenon, will be used to justify it as "natural" and therefore excusable. I don't really share that concern. Science explains "rape" as a natural phenomenon, but "my genes made me do it" is not treated as a valid excuse in court. It's much the same with explaining racism scientifically.

Xenophobia is likely to have had survival value for our distant ancestors. Back when outgroup members were uniformly likely to bash your head in with a rock, knowing who is part of your tribe would have been pretty important.

Humans are tribal creatures. We know empirically that humans like to form groups which exaggerate their similarities with ingroup members while exaggerating their differences from outgroup members. The result is tribal markers which are culturally transmitted, subject to rapid cultural evolution and likely to diverge quickly and easily.

It has long been observed that kin selection and homophily are associated with racism. Humans are nice to their relatives, and part of the clues of relatedness involve physical appearance. The implementation of kin recognition involves some similarity detection. Based on this, people of a different race would represent a super-stimulus of unrelatedness. The idea has been dubbed "ethnic nepotism". However, kin selection based on similarity between DNA genes probably doesn't explain racism very well. It mostly preducts outgroup indifference, not outgroup hostility. There is the phenomenon of Hamiltonian spite - which predicts active hostility to non-relatives, but this is widely though to be a minor phenomenon.

I think that the simple intuition that kin selection is involved in racism is correct, but I also think that cultural kin selection needs to be invoked, along with cultural hijacking of kin selection mechanisms.

Other thinkers have also invoked culture in the explanation for racism. For example, here is what Richard Dawkins had to say on the topic in his 2004 article "Race and creation".

We are indeed a very uniform species if you count the totality of genes, or if you take a truly random sample of genes, but perhaps there are special reasons for a disproportionate amount of variation in those very genes that make it easy for us to notice variation, and to distinguish our own kind from others. These would include the genes responsible for externally visible "labels" like skin colour. I want to suggest that this heightened discriminability has evolved by sexual selection, specifically in humans because we are such a culture-bound species. Because our mating decisions are so heavily influenced by cultural tradition, and because our cultures, and sometimes our religions, encourage us to discriminate against outsiders, especially in choosing mates, those superficial differences that helped our ancestors to prefer insiders over outsiders have been enhanced out of all proportion to the real genetic differences between us.

However, Dawkins has also stated that he doesn't think that kin selection is involved. Here are comments from "Darwin's dangerous disciple":

The National Front was saying something like this, "kin selection provides the basis for favoring your own race as distinct from other races, as a kind of generalization of favoring your own close family as opposed to other individuals." Kin selection doesn`t do that! Kin selection favors nepotism towards your own immediate close family. It does not favor a generalization of nepotism towards millions of other people who happen to be the same color as you.

Dawkins goes on to mention another theory involving divergent selection:

I could imagine that racist feeling could be a misfiring, not of kin selection but of reproductive isolation mechanisms. At some point in our history there may have been two species of humans who were capable of mating together but who might have produced sterile hybrids (such as mules). If that were true, then there could have been selection in favor of a "horror" of mating with the other species. Now that could misfire in the same sort of way that the cuckoo host's parental impulse misfires. The rule of thumb for that hypothetical avoiding of miscegenation could be "Avoid mating with anybody of a different color (or appearance) from you."

The "divergent selection" theory predicts racism would be most pronounced between individuals of the opposite sex. That might be true, but I don't think any such effect is very big. Divergent selection might explain some racism, but I don't think it is a very good or complete explanation.

I don't think Dawkins's rationale for rejecting kin selection makes sense. For one thing, he is apparently only thinking of genetic kin selection. If you take cultural kin selection into account, it becomes immediately obvious how kin selection can be applied to large groups of people who are not closely related in terms of their DNA genes. Although they might not share genes they do share memes. Patriotism memes can convince soldiers to fall on grenades to save their unrelated soldier "brothers in arms". Kin selection is not just a theory about DNA genes - it also applies to shared cultural phenomena.

I think it is important to note that culture often exaggerates and amplifies tribal signals. These work by acting as superstimulii of relatedness. Memes involving uniforms for example dabble in kin selected psychology, and try and convince people that they are surrounded by their super-brothers and super-sisters. They frequently do this in order to encourage altruistic behavior associated with kin altruism. Memes often need their hosts to be nice and sociable to promote their own spread. Surrounded by culturally strengthened kin signals - and attempts at manipulation involving artificially strengthened kinship signals - it would probably have benefitted our ancestors to pay close attention to such signals and detect when the signals are being manipulated.

Hijacking and manipulation of kinship signals by culture gives a different dynamic to the process. Hijacking of kinship signals can be done without culture - as when a long-lost relative turns up and claims their inheritance. However cultural kin selection makes hijacking and manipulation much more common.

What about the objection to kin selection that I raised earlier? That it predicts indifference towards outgroup members, rather than hostility?

Indifference can still lead to very bad behaviour. Kin selection siggests that humans are indifferent to the fate of chickens, but that doesn't prevent humans from killing chickens in huge numbers in slaughterhouses. In the absence of kin selected altruism and altruism based on reciprocity, and reputations, it seems reasonably plausible that the default standard of behavior towards others among our ancestors involved bashing their heads in with rocks.

Anyway, this is my proposed explanation for racism. In a nutshell, kin selection, especially cultural kin selection plus some meme-gene coevolution.

Some would prefer to reframe this in terms of group selection and cultural group selection. That should make no technical difference, due to the equivalence of modern kin selection and group selection frameworks.

What are the policy recommendations associated with this idea? The obvious suggestion is to increase sharing. This could involve shared genes, or shared memes. If either promotes cooperation, then more shared genes and memes seems as though it would have a positive effect. Creating genetic uniformity could be done, for example, by promoting inter-racial marriage, or even just international travel. However, even these sorts of intervention could prove controversial. Rather than creating genetic uniformity, the most obvious policy would be to aim at creating shared memes. Get people speaking the same language, using the same money, the same software and following the same religion. That should help to make them nice to each other.

There are some downsides to this sort of proposal. Historically, globalization has led to more widely shared memes, but it has simultaneously led to larger and more powerful groups. It does look as though the general trend lines are pretty positive, but it is at least worth noting that large powerful groups can cause a lot of damage if they come into conflict with one another. The path to humans all being of one tribe is likely to lead through a state where there are two or three tribes - and that stage could potentially have some associated dangers.

Another problem is more abstract. More shared memes is likely to lead to less memetic diversity that could lead to a less effective search of meme-space and slower memetic evolution. That could have several consequences. It could result in monopolies and stagnation. It could mean that the quest for shared memes is self-limiting - as those societies that pursue it are out-competed by those with greater memetic diversity. Or it could result in some of the down-sides of monocultures - for example catastrophic parasite attacks. Diversity is, amongst other things, a defense against parasitism.

Since it is the appearance of similarity that is most important, it might be worth focusing on methods that superficially hide race-related signals. A man wearing a suit has obliterated 90% of the signals related to the colour of his skin. As technology improves the options here may also improve. Michael Jackson's racial transformation may become more widely accessible, and less surgery-intensive options involving drugs or gene therapy may become available.

Another related policy area involves what I call virtualization. It appears that armed conflicts and sports share some traits and that indulgence in sporting events substitutes and displaces armed conflict - at least to some extent. A similar approach could be used in an attempt to defuse racial tensions - again using sports or other areas where uniformed teams compete with each other. This approach seems a bit dangerous and it is easy to imagine ways in which it could backfire. However, it should at least be explored and studied.

Lastly, it seems as though a lot of progress has been made via memetic evolution of anti-racism memes. One marker for this evolution is the rapid rise of the words "racism" and "racist". Before the 1960s these words were virtually unknown. Then, between 1960 and 2000, their use rapidly skyrocketed. See this chart for more details:

The rapid rise of the terms "racism" and "racist" probably does not indicate an increase in these phenomena. Instead, it probably marks a rise in anti-racist memes. A number of modern policy efforts focus on direct suppression of racism, by spreading anti-racism memes around and persecuting percieved racists.

This seems reasonable to me, though my favoured explanation of racism doesn't really throw much light on what policies in this area would be most effective.

One thing in this area which I am concerned about the "James Watson" effect, where social justice warriors ruin the careers of otherwise respectable scientists over the issue.

The area of science covered by this blog is all about differences between humans (and groups of humans). The differences being examined are primarily cultural differences, but that topic still touches on genetic differences, since these must often be controlled for. I would hate for my preferred area of science to become a hotbed of racial controversy because of this.

One problem involves the quest to minimise percieved racial differences. Rather obviously there will be less racial discrimination if lots of people believe racial differences are small or insignificant. That results in an advocacy effort to minimize percieved racial differences. The problem is that this domain is largely a matter of fact, accessible to scientific enquiry. The advocates are naturally inclined to distort the facts in favor of their position - perhaps hoping for a self-fulfilling prophesy effect. Unfortunately, this leads them into conflict with those seeking the truth.

I think that the quest to suppress racism should take care not to run too roughshod over the facts. If you base your moral position on false facts, then it is likely that the truth will out in the end, taking the basis of your moral position with it. In particular, there's no urgent need to deny the existence of heritable differences in ability with a geographic basis when trying to help people with different ethnic backgrounds get along. There are profound differences if you consider age or sex as your control variable - instead of race. With age, discrimination based on many of those differences is enshrined in the laws concerning marriage, drinking voting, driving, etc. Differences between people that affect their abilities are OK, society can cope with them. Positions like "race is a social construct" and general denial of race related differences are not really scientifically credible positions.

The current situation is that many of the "race denialists" are fighting with scientists and with the facts. It doesn't seem as though they occupy the moral high ground. I don't think they are actually helping their own cause. They are just making themselves look scientifically illiterate.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Peter Richerson: Human Evolution in the Pleio-Pleistocene

The full title is: Human Evolution in the Pleio-Pleistocene: A World Queerer Than We Supposed.

Here Peter is mostly making the case that understanding human evolution requires an understanding of the influence of climate. Cultural evolution gets mentioned, but it is not really the main topic.

Memes from Russia with love

I've covered meme warfare before, and have other articles about use of memes in warfare and by the miltary. There have been some interesting developments in this area recently, as light has been shone on Russian attempts to culturally influence western nations via disinformation campaigns.

Russian involvement in the 2016 US general election acted as a catalyst for this interest. The spotlight was quickly broadened to include Brexit, the Scottish independent vote.

Russian media operatives bots have shown interest in a number of other areas. They get fired up by the gun regulation debate. They are opposed to vaccination. They are opposed to GMO crops.

Matt Ridley wrote an article recently about how Russia promoted the "nuclear winter" theory - which was subsequently widely-discredited.

Fracking, climate change and energy policy have been other targets of the Russians.

Russia's use of disinformation goes back decades, but has only been the last couple of years that awareness of it has become more widespread. "Disinformation" has become known as "fake news" - a term which exploded in populatity in November 2016.

This article is about Russian efforts, but I don't mean to suggest that other countries are not involved. American cyberwarfare operations include Operation Olympic Games and Stuxnet. The American efforts have been covert, though - while the Russian ones are easier to study because they often involve public distribution.

The topic is currently popular, and it could fairly easily be used as a case study for students of cultural evolution. The most obvious things we want to know are what issues the Russians have attempted to influence, how they have attempted to influence them, how successful they have been and what can be done about the issue.

One frequently reported Russian technique is to play both sides of an issue. However, it is not known precisely why they like to do that. There are two main possibilities. One is that they want to create conflict between Americans, creating domestic problems and distracting them from foreign policy issues. Another possibility is that they want to create media noise and controversy as part of spreading their message. If everyone is on one side of an issue, it becomes a non-issue, and that is not newsworthy or spreadable. Another possibility is that by controlling both sides of the argument they can better make one side look stupid. Audiences assess arguments by considering the merits of the case presented each side. They also consider which side they want to affiliate with. Infiltraring the other side and then presenting weak arguments and behaving like an idiot are techniques which can be used to damage your opponent's position.

For example, here is a Russian anti pro-DAPL meme and a Russian pro-DAPL meme:

Now, I think it is pretty obvious that the second meme is trolling. Pollution by protesters isn't the reason why some people favoured the DAPL. A more realistic reason is that they didn't want a tiny minority messing up energy distribution for everyone else due to selfish, NIMBY issues. The real intended message of the second meme is something like: those who favor the pipeline are assholes. This makes sense as a message that might be favored by the Russian manipulators: opposing the DAPL interferes with the American domestic energy distribution network.

Not everyone seems to agree with this conclusion. For a counterpoint, see this ArsTechnica article, which argues that the Russians were just trying to create conflict.

Disinformation campaigns are part of the dark side of memetics. By working to understand them it might be possible to combine performing useful science with doing social good. I'm hope that some people in the field will sieze this opportunity.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Resource allocation theory

A common class of problems which agents frequently face involve resource allocation. Organisms divide their resources between growth, maintenance and reproduction.

Resource allocation decisions can be fixed or flexible. They can be directly genetically controlled or dependent on cognitive evaluation of circumstances.

To help quantify the resources involved it is often useful to split these problems up so that they can be represented as scalars and visualized on a one-dimensional axis. Seceral such splits will be described in the rest of this post.

First a few words about the "interchangability" of resources. Economists often treat resources as interchangable, since there is a market on which they can be exchanged for one another. However, not all organisms have access to efficient markets. Without these, it might not be easy to convert resources from one form into another. If resources are not interchangable at all doesn't make much difference to most of the analysis on this page. Instead of one resource, this just means that there are multiple resources which can be treated independently. However, in practice, resources may often be "weakly" interchangable, through barter, favors, debt, etc. Or maybe if you don't have enough sodium, you can make do with some potassium instead. While these kinds of complication are fairly common, they go beyond the scope of this page. Here we will just talk about "resources" as though they can be represented by scalars.

A fairly basic split when modeling resource allocation decisions is between self and other. Resources allocated to yourself are often then sub-divided between growth and maintenance processes. Other-allocated resources typically go into a range of processes associated with reproduction: mate seeking, courtship, coitus, parental care - and so on. It is possible to manipulate this self/other axis in a wide range of organisms via dietary energy restriction. This diverts resources into maintenance processes and away from reproductive processes.

Another fairly common way in which resource investment can vary involves the parental investment axis. Organisms face a choice between investing in existing offspring, or investing in producing new offspring. Strawberries, salmon and elms often focus on creating new offspring - while by contrast, elephants, whales and humans tend to invest quite heavily in their existing offspring. The parental investment axis is often referred to as r/K selection, which I rate as one of the worst pieces of terminology in evolutionary theory.

The parental investment axis seems rather neglected to me. Apart from the associated terminological mess, another issue is political correctness. When the topic comes up, it often gets mentioned that the human fertility rate is pretty variable. In Nigeria and Somalia is about 6, while in Hong Kong and Taiwan, it is about 1. After a while, Rushton (1996, 1988) may get cited and then this often leads to accusations of racism flying around. The parental investment axis seems to be a hot-button topic which is difficult for many people to discuss dispassionately.

Whether to invest in existing or future kids is one decision, whether to invest in existing or future mating partners is another, related decision. Males and females both face this sort of decision sometimes - their existing mate may be damaged, old or infertile. Or maybe they became more attractive and can find a better mate. Some female animals carry sperm around with them - for them the issue can be whether to use the existing sperm or to get a new stock.

Another resource-allocation decision involves whether to put resources into reproducing sexually or asexually. Not very many creatures face this dilemma, but strawberries, some aphids and some fish can reproduce in both ways depending on the circumstances. Reproducing asexually avoids the costs of sex - such as the costs of producing and spreading pollen or semen, but also avoids the benefits of sex, such as producing diversity to hinder the spread of parasites.

Resource allocation theory (and optimal resource allocation) also apply to cultural evolution. Indeed these terms are more common in economics than they are in traditional evolutionary biology.

In biology, this topic is often treated as part of life history theory.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Observation evolution 101

I've written some articles about the evolution of observers and observations. Here I would like to try and boil those articles down to some basic bullet points indicating the areas which I think most need covering in such articles. Here we go:

  1. Evolution of observers and observations follows the the same rules that Darwin originally elucidated;
  2. Observation evolution is not a new scientific area requiring new principles and new specialists;
  3. The evolution of observers and observations leads to adaptations and goodness of fit;
  4. The concept of "observation of the observable" is a useful generalization of "survival of the fittest";
  5. The term "anthropic principle" totally sucks: the basic idea has nothing specifically to do with humans;
  6. The terms "observer selection" and "observation selection" do not really delimit the subject properly either: there's more to evolution than selection;
  7. While the topic has previously been covered by physicists and philosophers, most failed to apply evolutionary theory to it;
  8. While "observer selection" is pretty obvious, the idea that observations also obey Darwinian rules often needs spelling out;
  9. Observation evolution is not tautological or obvious - there is real, testable science in the area;
  10. Putting observers and observation evolution at the heart of Darwinism mirrors what happened with physics a century ago.