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.