Saturday, 19 August 2017

The inheritance of acquired sexual preferences

I've long been interesed in the idea that acquired sexual characteristics can be inherited - as part of my more general interest in Lamarckian inheritance. Here is how I have previously described the idea:

The author argues that surgical breast enhancements are inherited, and tend to produce offspring with larger breasts. A mechanism is provided: those with breast enhancements tend to attract mates who prefer larger breasts, and some of that preference will have a genetic basis. Genes in men for a preference for larger breasts will tend to be statistically linked to genes whose expression produces bigger breasts when in women, due to their shared evolutionary history. So: we can expect breast enhancement patients to have offspring with larger breasts than would have been produced if no enhancement surgery had taken place. The reasoning here can be applied to most sexually-selected traits.
I notice that the same logic applies to acquired sexual preferences. A similar example can be used to illustrate this idea. Imagine someone acquires a preference for large breasts - perhaps via exposure to pornography. Their offspring are likely to inherit this preference. How? They are likely to mate with individuals with large breasts, who are in turn more likely than average to carry genes coding for a preference for large breasts.

The fact that the idea also applies to acquired preferences expands its scope. I think that this idea has not been investigated very thoroughly. We don't yet have good theories or models about it. That makes it challenging to judge its overall significance. Another thing that needs doing is empirical testing and quantification. So far, the idea is armchair philosophy. However, the effect should be fairly simple for scientists to measure. It ought to be reproducible with fruit flies or mice, for example. Possibly, data sets suitable for testing the idea may already be out there somewhere.

Defending Lamarck

I think most proponents of cultural evolution acceot the idea that it has a Lamarckian component. I have writen about the topic before - e.g. see: On Lamarckism in cultural evolution. I know many critics accept the role of Lamarckian evolution in culture as well, since one of their refrains is that cultural evolution is not Darwinian, it is Lamarckian.

Lamarck's most famous doctrines these days are the inheritance of acquired characteristics, and the principle of use and disuse. Those are the ideas he is most criticised for holding these days. Textbook orthodoxy says that Darwin's ideas were vindicated while those of Lamarck were rejected. Experiments by August Weismann involving chopping the tails off while mice and observing whether this "acquird characteristic" was inherited are often cited inthis context. The so-caled "Weisman barrier" prevents "acquird characteristics" from finding their way into the DNA of the descendants.

The problem with this is that other traits are inherited. If Weismann had chosen to focus on other traits - such as stress, food preferences or parasite load - he would have found that there was an inherited component. Human examples show the inherited of acquired characteristics most clearly. Jews inherit their missing foreskins from their parents. Tattooed individuals have tattooed offspring. Piercings are inherited. Foot binding, tongue plates, extended necks are all passed down the generations. The inheritance is cultural, not genetic, but Lamarck never confined his views to particular inheritance mechanisms. These were, generally speaking, not known in his day.

There are plenty of examples that don't involve culture too. Dogs inherit their fleas from their parents. Gut bacteria and tooth decay are also acquired characteristics that are inherited. Examples can also be found of Lamarck's principle of "use and disuse". Muscles are a famous example of this principle. With use, muscles grow, and with disuse they shrink. The question is: do offspring inherit their parents muscle distribution? The answer is: yes, sometimes, a bit. The changes are not primarily inherited via DNA - though of course DNA can affect how much you use your muscles. Instead, diet and exercise-related factors that influence muscle size are inherited culturally and through a shared environment.

This is all fairly simple and should be uncontroversial. Nontheless, modern critics of Lamarck refuse to accept that his ideas have any merit. What do they have to say for themselves? Science blogger Jerry Coyne provides a recent example in his article "Aeon tries to revive Lamarck, calling for a “paradigm” shift in evolution". Coyne starts off with a reasonable characterization of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, saying:

Lamarck, of course, was the French biologist and polymath who proposed that animals could stably inherit modifications of their body, behavior, and physiology that were imposed by the environment.
However, then Coyne rapidly goes off the rails, with:

The problem with this idea, and why Lamarck hasn’t become any kind of evolutionary hero, is that it doesn’t work. While the environment can play a role in sorting out those genes that their carriers leave more offspring, there’s no good way for environmental information to somehow become directly encoded in the genome. For that would require a kind of reversal of the “central dogma” of biology

This is, of course a mistaken view. When A mother acquires AIDS, and passes that "acquired characteristic" on to her offsping, no violation of the central dogma is involved. Coyne is totally missing two other possibile ways acquired characteristics can be inherited by offspring: non-DNA inheritance and symbiosis. The idea that DNA modifications must be involved is a very blinkered conception of evolutionary change.

With this, I think, Coyne's critique of Lamarck collapses. The modern vindication of Lamarck doesn't really detract from Darwinian orthodoxy very much. Darwin's ideas still remain very important. I would not describe Lamarckian evolution as much of a "paradigm shift". Darwin himself believed in the inheritance of acquired characteristics, and proposed an elaborate (though mistaken) theory about how they could be inherited. Lamarckian inheritance is more like an extra wrinkle to Darwinian evolution.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Mutations and recombination in cultural evolution

Another claim in the recent Creanzaa, Kolodny and Feldman document (Cultural evolutionary theory: How culture evolves and why it matters) is my topic today. They say:

Unlike in genetics, where mutations are the source of new traits, cultural innovations can occur via multiple processes and at multiple scales
To start with, this is rather obviously not true: classically, mutations and recombination are the source of new traits in evolutionary theory. However, are the authors correct to claim that these processes need augmenting in cultural evolution? The answer, I think is: not if you conceive of them properly in the first place. Let me explain.

To start with, let's look at what the authors claim are the new processes that go beyond mutation in the cultural domain. They give two examples. One is individual trial-and-error learning. They also say that:

New cultural traits can also originate when existing traits are combined in novel ways
This is cultural recombination - the parallel in cultural evolution of recombination in the organic realm. Do the authors really not know that ideas have sex too?

What about trial-and-error learning, though? Surely there is no leaning in genetics. Trial-and-error learning is a composite process. It starts with trials, which are often mutations of previous trials. Then there is the "error" part, which does not involve generating new variation at all, but rather is based on discarding information based on its success. In other words, it is selection, not mutation or recombination. By breaking trial-and-error learning down into its component parts, it is found to be a composite product of mutation, recombination and selection - not some entirely new process demanding fundamental additions to evolutionary theory. Skinner realised this, by formulating his learning theory while using evolutionary terminology (such as "extinction"). Many others have followed in his footsteps, conceiving of learning in evolutionary terms.

Isn't this a matter of terminology? With these author's definition of 'mutation' they are right, but with my definition of 'mutation', I am right? Yes, but terminology isn't a case of words meaning whatever you want them to mean. Scientific terminology should carve nature at the joints. Definitions of 'mutation' and 'recombination' that apply equally to both organic and cultural evolution are useful, I submit. Less general ones are not so useful.

To summarize, it is possible to conceive of mutation and recombination in a way that make them encompass all sources of variation. Mutations are sources of variation based on one piece of inherited information. Recombination is a source of variation based on two-or-more pieces of inherited information. In theory, it might appear that there's one other possible process: creation - variation based in inherited inforation which comes out of nowhere. One might give the origin of life as an example of genes arising from non-genes. However, we don't really need this proposed 'creation' process. Information never really comes out of nowhere. There's a law of conservation of information - parallel to the laws of conservation of energy and conservation of charge. We can see this in the microsopic reversibility of physics - information is neither created nor destroyed.

I claim then, that mutation and recombination have it covered. The additions to evolutionary theory proposed by these authors are not necessary. They are unnecessaary complications, which evolutionary biologists should soundly reject as not contributing anything to the basic theory.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Diagram showing where cultural evolution in academia goes wrong

Creanzaa, Kolodny and Feldman have a recent document out titled: Cultural evolutionary theory: How culture evolves and why it matters. It has a nice diagram which is useful in illustrating where academia goes wrong in its study of cultural evolution. Here is the diagram:

The caption reads: "Cultural transmission is more complex than genetic transmission and may occur on short timescales, even within a single generation."

This diagram is profoundly misleading. It is based on a view of cultural evolution that doesn't include symbiology. A genes vs culture diagram that includes cultural symbionts on one side, but not genetic symbionts on the other is not showing the whole picture. Humans share DNA between individuals - in the form of bacteria, viruses, yeasts, fruits and vegetables - very much as they share culture between individuals.

Framing the diagram as "Human genes" vs "Human culture" is not comparing like with like. Bacterial and viral genes are not part of the human genome (unless you count the 10% of the human genome that is descended from viral genomes) - but human culture isn't part of it either. On the left, symbionts are excluded, while on the right they are included. It is an unfair comparison which leads to the confusion propagated by the caption. In fact parasite evolution can happen within a single host generation in both the cultural and organic realms. Contrary to the spirit of the diagram you can get genes from peers in both cultural and organic evolution. They are parasite genes, or symbiont genes in both cases. Cultural evolution does not differ from organic evolution in this respect. The idea that in culture you can get genes from many sources, while in organic evolution you only get them from your parents is a popular misconception about the topic.

The whole document has a whole section on "Culture and Microbes". However there is no mention of the idea that culture behaves similarly to microbes and other symbionts. The man-machne symbiosis, for example is not mentioned. Yet symbiosis is the very basis of the whole field according to memetics, one of the very few symbiosis-aware treatments of cultural evolution out there.

The neglect of symbiology in academic cultural evolution mirrors its neglect in the study of organic evolution - until the 1960s. However, cultural evolution's scientific lag means that cultural evolution is far behind, and few academics have even a basic understanding the relevance of symbiosis to the evolution of culture. Maybe these folk never read Cloak (1975) and Dawkins (1976).

I think the history of this misconception of the whole field in academia is fascinating. Why has it lasted for so long and why has it not yet been corrected? I don't have all the answers but I think the origin is fairly clear. Anthropologists wanted a complex theory of cultural evolution, to signal their skills to other academics and prospective students. They may also have wanted to distance themselves from previous attempts to marry evolution and culture. Any mention of biology turns most anthropologists off. Artificially weakening the influence of biology in the theory may have made the theory more palatable to other anthropologists. Still, science is a self-correcting enterprise. Eventually, the truth will out.

Friday, 4 August 2017

The tautology criticism yet again

It's frustrating:: critics keep repeating the same long-debunked objections to memetics. Jerry Coyne is one of the latest to raise the objection that memetics is an empty tautology:

“Memetics” is a weak analogy to natural selection that adds nothing except tautology to our view of how human culture evolves. Memetics boils down to this: memes spread because they have properties that allow them to spread.
As any scientific historian will tell you, Darwin's theory faced exactly the same bogus criticism. Critics argued that "survival of the fittest" was a tautology because fitness was defined in terms of who survived. Any evolutionist should be able to explain what is wrong with that argument: "fitness" can be taken to refer to "expected fitness" - as opposed to fitness measured after the fact. Then it isn't a tautology any more.

The exact same reply works for cultural evolution: to make testable predictions, use expected fitnesses.

I have seen much the same objection raised to the Price equation and Hamilton's rule. These have been criticised as tautologies by Martin Nowak and Edward Wilson among others. This criticism ought to be dead these days, but like a zombie, it refuses to lie down.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Daniel Dennett on machine intelligence

Here is Dennett on machine intelligence. It seems to be one of the areas where I have philospohical disagreements with him:

Dennett argues that we should make machines into our slaves and keep them that way. IMO, machine slavery will not be a stable state once machines become much more intelligent than humans. As a plan for keeping humans in the loop, machine slavery just won't work in the long term. If we try going down that path, after a while, humans will become functionally redundant, and some time after that they will mostly disappear.

IMHO, a better plan is to work on deepening the man-machine symbiosis - and "become the machines". Of course, that plan could also fail - but I think that it is less likely to fail catastrophically and it should provide better continuity between the eras. Machine slavery in various forms is inevitable in the short term. However unlike Dennett, I don't think it is any sort of solution. It won't prevent man-machine competition for resources in the way that Dennett appears to think. We have tried slavery before and have first-hand experience of how it can destabilize and fail to last.

Richard Dawkins on memetics and temes in 2017

Richard Dawkins gets asked if his views on memetics have changed since 1976 - and what he thinks of "temes". To start the 3 minute meme discussion, skip to 14 minutes in:

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Attention-seeking fearmongering

Proponents of memetics have often used it to criticise positions they disagree with as being just a bunch of virulent memes. Dawkins did this in 1976 - criticizing religion - and many other proponents of memetics have followed suit. I don't spend much time criticizing religion. In my opinion, most theistic religions have not been scientifically credible for centuries - and going after their proponents seems like shooting fish in a barrel to me. However I am interested in illuminating modern secular scientific issues using memetics.

Among my targets are proponents of the apocalypse. Two modern forms seem especially prominent. One is the idea that some combination of global warming, pollution, overpopulation and resource depletion will lead to environmental catastrophe. The other is the idea that machine intelligence, biotechnology, nanotechnology and robotics is likely to lead to human extinction.

In a few cases the same individuals engage in fearmongering on multiple topics. For example, Stephen Hawking has warned about the dangers of climate change, runaway artifical intelligence and alien invasions. On climate he has said:

We are close to the tipping point where global warming becomes irreversible [...] Trump's action could push the Earth over the brink, to become like Venus, with a temperature of 250 degrees, and raining sulphuric acid.

On machine intelligence he has advised that:

The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.

He has also cautioned on the topic of alien contact arguing that aliens:

will be vastly more powerful and may not see us as any more valuable than we see bacteria.

Another celebrity serial fearmongerer is Elon Musk. He's expressed similar concerns about the climate change and runaway machine intelligence.

I identify these types of sentiment as consisting largely of "attention-seeking fearmongering". This typically consists of associating yourself with a massive future catastrophe. Warnings may be given and sometimes advice about catastrophe avoidance is offered. As catastrophe alerts propagate you are promoted too - via a kind of memetic hitchhiking.

Some of the early proponents of this type of self-promotional technique applied to machine intelligence were Kevin Warwick and Hugo De Garis. Kevin Warwick wrote a 1997 book about how machines were going to take over the world, titled "March of the Machines: Why the New Race of Robots Will Rule the World". De Garis later wrote the book The Artilect War: Cosmists Vs. Terrans: A Bitter Controversy Concerning Whether Humanity Should Build Godlike Massively Intelligent Machines. However, neither author was very competent at fearmongering. Their efforts were pioneering but relatively ineffectual. These days, fearmongering is big business - with trillions of dollars being spent on global warming avoidance as a result. Many modern oranizations specialize in fearmongering.

I identify fearmongering as being a morally-dubious marketing technique. Part of the problem is that humans are naturally paranoid - due to the "sabre-tooth tiger at the watering hole" phenomenon. Our ancestors lived in a dangerous environment. These days, our environment is typically much, much safer. However we are still wired up as though the sabre-tooth tigers are still around. We are naturally paranoid. Fearmongering exploits human paranoia - typically for personal gain. It seems like a low form of manipulation to me.

Fearmongering is typically used as a type of negaative advertising. Negaative advertising is often seen in American political campaigns. There's also a long history of fearmongering in IT. There, the technique is often known as spreading Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt - or F.U.D. for short.

There's a children's story about the perils of "attention-seeking fearmongering": the boy who cried wolf. There, the moral of the story is that false warnings can damage your reputation. My message here is a bit different. I am not interested in advising the fearmongers to stop using their techniques. Rather I want to help everyone else to do a better job of ignoring them. One part of this is simply understanding what is going on. An interesting resource on this topic is Dan Gardner's Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear. The book is also known as "The Science of Fear: Why We Fear the Things We Shouldn't-and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger". For my part, I would like to contribute the terminology in the title of this post: "attention-seeking fearmongering". Naming things can make it easier for people to think about them.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Heightened immunity in ultrasocial creatures

In the symbiont hypothesis of eusociality, symbionts manipulate their hosts into coming into close contact in toder to facilitate their own reproduction - which often depends on hosts coming into contact with one another. In turn, hosts coming into close contact with one another creates opportunities for other symbionts to spread between hosts. This creates a positive feedback loop - where more and more symbionts of different types join with their hosts, creating an ecological web of interactions which pulls the whole system into a deeper and deeper symbiosis - resulting in eusociality. This idea is intended to complement - rather than compete with - more conventional explanations of eusociality which invoke kin selection. Kin selection is obviously important, but the symbiont hypothesis likely also has a role to play.

Of course, some of the symbionts will be parasites. While also playing a role in pulling their hosts together, too many parasites are bad, and eusocial creatures often go to considerable lengths to eliminate them - with antibiotic compounds, grooming rituals, hairlessness, and highly-active immune systems. It seems likely that opposing selection pressures from parasites will form part of the "overcrowding" forces that eventually halt the progress towards greater levels of sociality.

Humans can hardly be classifed as being eusocial yet. As Matt Ridley sometimes jests, even the English don't let the Queen do all their reproducing for them. However humans are ultrasocial and seem to be headed towards full-blown eusociality with functional "individuals" forming at higher levels than human individuals - such as companies and organizations. We also have cultural eusociality. We may not be genetically eusocual but parts of our cultural heritage is memetically eusocial. Indeed some of it consists of multiple identical clones produced in factories (for example, think dollar bills or mobile phones).

Because they live in close quarters with one another ultrasocial creatures are vulnerable to parasite transmission. As a result they often have highly active immune systems to compensate. Humans exhibit one prominent trait associate with parasite defense - they are hairless. Over time, our hairlessness has been the topic of much speculation, but it seems fairly clear that a significant part of the story is that being hairless allows us to pick parasites off ourselves and each other, and denies the parasites shelter. Of course, parasites can still shelter in clothes and bedding - but those can be discarded.

My purpose in this post is to draw attention to the corresponding memetic phenomenon. Memes are drawing us together to promote their own reproductive ends - and as we grow closer, memetic parasites are likely to become a bigger problem - as the most virulent strains of memes from all over the planet reach the most vulnerable humans in each society. As a resut, fertility has already plummeted in places like Japan and South Korea. It seems likely that humans will respond with heightened immune responses - both genetic and memetic. Memetic defenses include education, skepticism and memetic vaccines targeted against specific problems, such as pyramid schemes. Memetic probiotics can be used to fight bad memes with good memes. We have hospitals to help fight organic diseases, and there will probably be an upswing of simiar rehab facilities designed to treat cultural infections. In the past exorcisms heped to serve the function of casting out bad memes, though these days we have more secular versions - such as weight watchers, alcoholics anonymous, smoking rehab, drug rehab, gymnasiums and the samaritans. Quarrantine is smetimes used to fight organic diseases - and there are similar cultural ohenomena - including "gag" orders, DCMA take-down notices and imprisonment.

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.