Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Memes as software

In The Laughing Genes - A Scientific Perspective on Ethics and Morality Evan Louis Sheehan has a great analogy for meme-gene coevolution. He says:
This is analogous to the way in which the hardware and the software of computer systems have co-evolved, always remaining compatible with each other, yet each taking advantage of the other’s growing capabilities.
Memetic creatures are like software - and genetic creatures are like hardware. The memes-as-software theme is also prominent in:Dennett talks about running the English Virtual Machine on your "necktop" - by analogy with running the Java Virtual Machine on your laptop - which is neat.

I think that the memes-as-software perspective is a fertile metaphor that illuminates - and is illuminated by - issues such as the relative significance of memes and genes, the role of memes in adapting to unfamiliar environments, the relative rates of memetic and genetic evolution.

The idea of memes-as-software has also been represented in the movies - in particular in The Matrix:

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Daniel Dennett: On preaching and teaching

Interviewed by Roger Bingham in 2007. Mostly about religion, but some memes around 26 minutes in. Original video is from here. I've included two players - since each has some disadvantages.

Another video of Daniel from the same gig is here:

The GAG Quartet: Le Internet Medley

With 7 million hits in 3 weeks, this looks like one of the most popular internet meme songs ever. It has more hits that Weezer's Pork And Beans.

It's from "The GAG Quartet" and it's called "Le Internet Medley":

I've added it to my list of meme songs.

YouTube's Keyword Suggestion Tool

YouTube's "Keyword Suggestion Tool" offers some interesting (if poorly formatted) data regarding YouTube related searches and search volumes.

I put in "meme" and "memes" and got back this list:

rebecca black friday1242200
nyan cat1165800
get down633700
chuck testa415100
numa numa386300
youtube poop356700
double rainbow238100
bed intruder218400
chocolate rain211800
me gusta203100
rick roll194900
keyboard cat132200
i like turtles120800
this is sparta117000
leroy jenkins96400
over 900091400
falcon punch84200
star wars kid80900
leeroy jenkins74200
techno viking58700
shoop da whoop48500
trolling saruman47200
forever alone45800
its over 900042400
40 memes24200
know your meme23500
keyboard cat original20900
brawl taunts18100
40 memes song15500
deal with it14800
meme song14000
internet memes12500
yo dawg10800
100 memes9200
meme cat6400
metal gear online6200
internet meme6100
dickfigures memes5700
over 40 memes5500
100 internet memes3700

Selective recombination

In the organic world, there's a phenomenon called "assortative mating" - in which fit organisms choose to mate with fit organisms of the opposite sex - in the hope of making some super-fit babies.

After taking memetics into account it turns out that this is a specific manifestation of a more general phenomenon - in which fit heritable information finds ways to associate with other fit heritable information during recombination.

Fit memes find ways to associate with other fit memes in mashups, image macros, and mix-tapes. The phenomenon takes place with music, videos, literature, science, technology, code, fashion, and so on.

Looking back at the organic world from this new perspective we can see a similar thing happening in other areas. Gamete selection sometimes involves filtering out bad genes. Females often make sperm run an obstacle course, so only the best swimmers make it to the egg. In genetic engineering, genes are selectively recombined to form novel organisms, with the best genes from both parents.

I don't think it would be legitimate to refer to making a mix-tape as being a case of "assortative mating".

"Selective recombination" seems to be a better, more general term for this kind of phenomenon.

Monday, 28 November 2011


Retroviruses are viruses which copy themselves into working cells, hijack the transcription machinery and use it to generate many copies of the virus.

Some memes behave in a similar way. They are sometimes called "retromemes". The idea of a retromeme is an old concept in memetics.

Image macros will be used to illustrate the effect here. Some image macro text behaves in a similar way to a retrovirus.

For example, here's "OH NOES!":

...and here's "O RLY?":

Does a "retromeme" necessarily need to be deleterious to its host? I would say "no". It is true that the deleterious connotations of virus are there, but there are some beneficial viruses. The concept doesn't just apply to deleterious symbionts, but - as often heppens - epidemiology has the best terminology - so it makes reasonable sense to use it.

What is the difference between retromemes and memetic hitchhiking? Certainly retromemes illustrate memetic hitchhiking. A retromeme is very similar to the payload in memetic hitchhiking. However, there do seem to be a few differences. Sometimes the payload and the delivery mechanism used in memetic hitchhiking have a strong association with each other. Since the payload is typically a deleterious meme, it sometimes remains attached to the delivery mechanism - and is not found elsewhere. With a retromeme, it seems reasonable to expect that the payload will have attached itself to multiple different hosts - otherwise it is not behaving in a virus-like manner - and spreading horizontally between hosts.

Of course 'retromeme' is also sometimes used to refer to certain kinds of "steampunk" memes - but this post is not about that usage.

The examples above are of words, but there are other kinds of retromemes. For example, “Miley Cyrus twerks” has become a visual retromeme:

Whither ontomemy?

I've looked at the "evo-devo" literature. Developmental processes in cultural evolution are conspicuous by their absence. However, culture has developmental processes too - it says so in the Memetics FAQ.

Ontomemy mirrors ontogeny. However, few study ontomemy - and the field has a pretty dismal literature. People look at particular cultural developmental processes. So for example there's the study of cooking - which looks at how recipes are translated into edible food. However, practically nobody seems to be looking at the field as a whole. We do know that ontomemy doesn't necessarily recapitulate phylomemy - but many other issues are still wide open.

One of the problems with ontogeny is that developmental processes tend to be idiosyncratic and unique - and the field has been relatively resistant to the process of finding general principles.

Ontomemy goes a bit beyond the scope of this blog, but - in case anyone is interested - there's a whole area of science out there that practically nobody seems to be working on.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Meme etymology

Most of the criticisms of memetics come from people who don't have a clue what they are talking about.

However, some criticisms have been voiced by those who actually do know what they are talking about.

One example is L. L. Cavalii-Sforza. He is certainly an expert - though I don't mean to imply that his criticism here is any good. Here he is with his co-authors, writing in "Genes, culture, and human evolution: a synthesis":

The term cultural “idea” as used here is similar to what many others, following Richard Dawkins, call a “meme.” We prefer to avoid that term, however, because, as Dawkins originally defined it and as many others continue to use it, a meme is a unit of imitation only, which excludes transmission through teaching.
What did Dawkins actually say? He said this:
We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. `Mimeme' comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like `gene'. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to `memory', or to the French word même.
What he says is: "cultural transmission" OR "imitation".

For me that sounds rather like saying the "metre" is a unit of mesuring distances or circumferences - and Cavalii-Sforza's objection is like claiming that a unit of measuring circumferences is no use for measuring human height.

Since 1976, the implications of "imitation" have dropped out of the term "meme" almost everywhere. Most dictionary definitions of the term no longer mention imitation. The main proponent of the idea is Susan Blackmore, and - as far as I can tell, she has not been very influential in this respect.

An imitation-based definition of memes would be possible, but it seems unlikely that it was ever what Dawkins intended. It doesn't make all that much sense - because then we would still need a theory of non-imitative social learning - and that theory would be very, very similar to rge theory that covers imitation. Although much the same argument suggests that we should expand the theory to include all environmental inheritance - cultural or not - that twists the traditional meaning of the word considerably, while only gaining a little.

However, the fact that the traditional "Dawkins" definition of "meme" says "imitation" rather than something like "social learning" is a llittle bit of an embarassment for memetics. It is little consolation that Boyd and Richerson (1985) made the same mistake.

I remember when I first read The Selfish Gene, when I encountered the word "meme" - I though "neat: memory-genes". When I went on to read how Dawkins thought that the term came from the Greek word for "imitation", I was horrified and disappointed - and then somewhat appeased when I read about his "consolation" - that:

it could alternatively be thought of as being related to `memory'
There is a problem with Dawkins' "consolation", though. It is true that there is some historical support for promoting the idea of memes being "memory-genes": Semon's original "mneme" - from 1904 was a general unit of inheritance - and Semon was a expert on human memory. He christened the mneme after the Greek goddess, Mneme, the muse of memory.

Semon's "mnemes" represented an excellent and important concept - but it was quickly eclipsed by the now-dominant term "gene", which - alas - gradually came to lack the connotations associated with 'memory' and 'learning'. Alas, "mnemes" is practically a dead term today.

The term "mnemes" covered social learning, individual learning and genetic "learning". The term "meme" - by long convention - only covers social learning. If we expand its meaning to refer to the unit of inheritance in universal Darwinism, we will be fighting against the dictionary and decades of common usage. Also, the term "gene" has a better claim on that role. At least it has firmer etymological foundations. The etymological foundations of the term "meme" have crumbled.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

How evolutionary psychology became popular

So far, evolutionary psychology - despite its modern popularity - has been a pretty messed up attempt to apply Darwinism to humans because of its omissions: it only studies human universals and so fails miserably to properly account for the evolution of human culture. Since cultural evolution has been the dominant force on the planet for a long time, this approach fails to illuminate the modern era, and so makes a complete mess of accounting for the evolution of humans.

As a result, today, we have articles like: "There is only one human culture" - claiming that "evolutionary psychologists have shown that all human cultures are essentially the same" and "The human culture is a product of our genes, just like our hands and pancreas are." This seems like quite an embarassment for science. In fact there are many human cultures - and this fact explains why our ancestors managed to colonise jungles, arid deserts, coral atols and the arctic circle. Claiming otherwise will just give evolutionary theory a bad name.

Laland and Brown, in "Sense and Nonsense" (2004) propose one reason for the popularity of evolutionary psychology: despite its shortcomings, at least it isn't racist. With no attention being paid to differences between humans, evolutionary psychology had the virtue of avoiding being tarred by the brushes that had previously hampered sociobiology and social Darwinism - the charge of racism.

Though perhaps a political triumph, this was something of a scientific tragedy. The more ambitious competing field of gene-culture coevolution - which had the virtue of having much better science on its side - has remained relatively neglected for a long time - and has yet to fully recover.

An interesting recent article: "Was evolutionary psychology inevitable?" tracks the history of what it presents as the battle between evolutionary psychology and gene-culture coevolution. It claims that Cavalli-Sforza dropping out of the field of gene-culture coevolution doomed it - and that evolutionary psychology proceeded to win by default. The author also asks: "Can evolutionary psychology evolve?" - and proposes some ways forwards:"Whither evolutionary psychology". Prominent among these is embracing cultural evolution.

Incidentally, the same site also brought us the 6 part series:"The evolution of Cavalli-Sforza". Part 5 will probably be the one of most interest to subscribers here.

Amusing memetic diagram

How do you model problem solving with memetics? That's the subject of this paper [PDF].

Alas, I can't resit sharing its final diagram:

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Where do human values come from?

A common idea in memetics is that humans are the product of genes and memes - and so that human values come from genes and memes.

My analysis of the situation follows:

Values do seem to come primarily from genes and memes - however, they are not necessarily the genes and memes of the person in question.

Other entities attempt to manipulate us. Sometimes, they negotiate with us, or manipulate our sense data - rather than attempting to affect our values. However, sometimes they attempt to "hijack our brains" - and redirect our values towards their own ends, or those of their makers.

The biggest influences come from other humans, symbionts, pathogens and memes. Basically most acquired goal directedness comes from other living, goal-directed systems.

The next biggest source of human values probably comes from the theory of self-organising systems. The brain is probably the most important self-organising system involved. It mostly has desires that arise by virtue of it being a large reinforcement learning system. Essentially, the brain can act as though it wants its own reward signals - and it sometimes fulfills that desire by taking rewarding drugs. The brain was made by genes - but this kind of "wireheading" behaviour is not exactly what the genes want, but rather is an unwanted side-effect of using a reinforcement learning system.

The next-most significant effect on human values is probably mistakes (e.g. sub-optimal adaptations).

Many humans delight in seeking out noble sources of value - probably for signalling reasons. They do not like hearing that genes and memes are primarily responsible for what they hold most dear - and the next biggest influences are probably wireheading and mistakes. These ideas seems to me to be a substantial source of "memetics resistance".

Monday, 21 November 2011

More regular terminology for memetics and genetics

Much of the terminology of biology was invented without consideration of the possibility of cultural inheritance. One of the biggest strengths of memetics is that it provides concise and neat terminology for cultural evolution. However, largely because of the lack of planning by biologists, there are places where things are not so neat.

Probably the biggest issue is what to call the elements of general inheritance (genes/mnemes), cultural inheritance (memes), organic inheritance (genes?!?) environmental inheritance (?) - but let's skip over that issue for today.

I have previously identified some of the more irregular terminology. Today, here are some of my proposals for tidying things up:

Irregular terms

MemeticGeneticProposed fix
MemeplexGene complexStart using the term "geneplex"
Memetic junkJunk DNAStart using the terms "junk memes" and "junk genes"
AllomemeAlleleDitch "alleles" entirely; use the terms "meme" and "gene" instead; use the term "locus" more
VaccimeVaccineStart using the terms "memetic vaccine" and "genetic vaccine"
PhemotypePhenotypeStart using the terms "meme product" and "gene product"
PhemomePhenomeStart using the terms "meme product group" and "gene product group"
Memune systemImmune systemStart using the terms "memetic immunity" and "genetic immunity"
Meme warfareBiological warfareStart using the terms "memetic warfare" and "genetic warfare"
Population memeticsPopulation geneticsStart using the terms "meme frequency analysis" and "gene frequency analysis"
-CladisticsDitch in favour of phylomemeticsand phylogenetics
-CladogramsDitch in favour of phylomemetic trees and phylogenetic trees
Library / DatabaseGene bankNo proposal at this time
IdeosphereBiosphereNo proposal at this time

I'll explain more about the problem with "population genetics" in due course.

You will see that one theme is to give up trying to fit memetics around the irregualr terminology of biology - and to fix the problem at its source.

It is painful to lose the "pheme-" prefix - but I think it has got to go.

Another pretty major terminology isssue impacting on memetics is "fixing" the terminology of symbiosis. Currently that borrows heavily from epidemiology, which has all the best terminology. However, using the terminology of epidemiology and parasites for mutualists can quickly get confusing - and the whole area seems to be in need of major terminology surgery. My initial approach to this issue is here.

Memetic and organic bait

Deleterious memes typically use what is known as "bait" to attract new hosts.

For example, chocolate commercials used sex appeal in the famous "flake girl" series of advertisements.

However, many organic viruses strike at their hosts without bothering with bait.

How does the phenomenon of "bait" fit into the analogy bewtween deleterious memes and organic viruses? This post explores that issue.

Organic viruses do use bait

Many organic viruses do use "bait" to attract new hosts. For example:
  • The cucumber mosaic virus makes infected plants smell sweet to aphids - which are attracted, feast and then spread the virus to uninfected plants.
  • The virus responsible for glandular fever also uses bait to spread. It tempts uninfected hosts via a kiss, and then spreads via host saliva.
  • Genital warts spread by using a similar form of bait - this time through sexual contact.

Memetic viruses do not always use bait

It is, I confess, harder to think of memes that don't use bait at all. Some organic viruses spread through the air and don't require the host to do much except breathe - but not very many memes work like that.

Bus stations and waiting rooms are confined spaces where airborne organic viruses like to spread. Advertising memes in this kind of environment often have a captive audience and don't need to use bait so much in order to attract attention. Visual memes often do need to work to attract and keep attention - but some audible memes don't have to bother so much in this area. Radio advertisements have a captive audience, and so bait is not so important there. However, I think that probably the best example of deleterious memes without bait is probably subliminal advertising. Again, this is another case of having a captive audience.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Meme FUD in the "Dual inheritance theory" article on Wikipedia

The "Dual inheritance theory" article on Wikipedia contains quite a lot of FUD in its section about memetics. I've looked at this article previously - but here I will here responses to all its points:
Memetics, which comes from the meme idea described in Dawkins's The Selfish Gene, is similar to DIT in that it treats culture as an evolutionary process that is distinct from genetic transmission. However, there are some philosophical differences between memetics and DIT.
True so far.
One difference is that memetics' focus is on the selection potential of discrete replicators (memes), where DIT allows for transmission of both non-replicators and non-discrete cultural variants.
Both Dual inheritance theory and memetics focus on small pieces of cultural information. The "cultural variants" of Boyd and Richerson are the same thing as the "memes and memeplexes" of memetics. They are not "more discrete", nor do they differ in their degree of replicatability - they are different terms for the same idea. If there is a difference it is that memetics draws a distinction between "memes" and "memeplexes", while the "cultural variants" terminology which Boyd and Richerson prefer bundles these two concepts together. That difference is surely not a big deal.

DIT does not assume that replicators are necessary for cumulative adaptive evolution.
That is not a difference. High-fidelity information transfer is necessary for cumulative adaptive evolution. High fidelity transmission in the underlying channel is not (because of error correction). This is just basic information theory. For more details see the essay here.
DIT also more strongly emphasizes the role of genetic inheritance in shaping the capacity for cultural evolution.
Quite a bit has been written about "memetic immunity". The 1992 book "Coevolution: Genes, Culture, and Human Diversity" is saturated with both memes and all kinds of interactions with genetic inheritance. It seems obvious that culture is supported by adaptations - for example speech and breath control. This is widely recognised. So: differences in this area seem to be of rather minor significance.
But perhaps the biggest difference is a difference in academic lineage. Memetics as a label is more influential in popular culture than in academia.
Those bits are both true.
Critics of memetics argue that it is lacking in empirical support or is conceptually ill-founded, and question whether there is hope for the memetic research program succeeding.
Right - but one doesn't judge a research program by what its critics say about it!
Proponents point out that many cultural traits are discrete, and that many existing models of cultural inheritance assume discrete cultural units, and hence involve memes.
Actually most proponents I am aware of think that this material about memetics not including "non-discrete culture" is a bunch of nonsense. Memetics is no different from dual inheritance theory in this regard. This proponent does not defend memetics in that way at all.

The reference provided in support of this sentence is the entire book "Sense and Nonsense" (2002). I've read that book - and it doesn't defend memetics in that way either. Not that Laland and Brown are big sympathisers towards memetics in the first place.

Culture exists in analog forms. Such forms have a heritable basis, and so are composed of memes. This really is not a problem.

If in doubt, see the definitions of the term "meme" in dictionaries. Nowhere does it say that memes are discrete entities which can't represent analog forms or blending inheritance.
Update 2016-08-16. A more detailed reference has been added to the Wikipedia article giving a page number. The pages in question still provides no support for the thesis.

Reaction faces

I haven't delved into the contents of the 2011 internet meme explosion too much on this site - partly since so much of it is dross, and partly since others are already exploring and documenting it very effectively.

However: reaction faces have been one of the biggest internet meme developments this year.

Rage comics went mainstream, and the number of people using references to reaction faces - rather than emoticons - seems to have exploded.

Reaction faces are commonly used to visually illustrate your reaction to someone's comment. They work best on image-capable boards.


These are derived from rage comics:


Here's a short rage comics video - featuring many well-known reaction faces "in real life".


Thursday, 17 November 2011

Susan Blackmore: Genes, Memes and Temes

36 minutes of Susan talking about memes - and their future. She lays out the case for her proposed "genes / memes / temes" classification scheme.

Blurb: Are ideas, like the genes in our DNA, battling it out in a survival-of-the-fittest evolutionary race? Psychologist Susan Blackmore explores the science of ideas, and what it might mean if technology were able to replicate ideas, 'temes', outside of human control.

Susan was speaking at the How The Light Gets In festivall at Hay (Wales, UK) in 2011. Sue discusses drugs in another video.

Susan Blackmore: Darwin's Meme: On the origin of culture by means of natural selection

Here is an hour's worth of video of Susan Blackmore talking in 2007 about memetics:

Susan Blackmore: Darwin's Meme: On the origin of culture by means of natural selection.

This was a "Darwin Day Lecture" - given at the University of Central Lancashire. The content is similar in places to her TED talk - but much longer.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Ted Cloak: Perception Control Theory and the Evolution of Culture

The first time on YouTube for Ted Cloak's narrated presentation: Perception Control Theory and the Evolution of Culture:

Ted Cloak is a pioneer in the field. He published "Is a cultural ethology possible?" and "Cultural Darwinism: Natural Selection of the Spoked Wood Wheel" in 1968. He was among the researchers cited by Dawkins (1976). He has continued pursuing the evolution of culture over the decades since then.

In this animated slideshow, Ted Cloak explains the fundamentals of Perception Control Theory (PCT), particularly emphasising the control of perception by hierarchies of control systems. For further information on PCT, see

Also see Ted Cloak's home page for the full video and further resources: The page has a list of his publications - and more detials about the presentation above.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Proposed constraints on cumulative cultural evolution

Alex Mesoudi recently wrote a paper about the possibility of a ceiling on cumulative cultural evolution. The abstract says, in part:
Yet previous analyses of cumulative cultural change have failed to consider the possibility that as cultural complexity accumulates, it becomes increasingly costly for each new generation to acquire from the previous generation. In principle this may result in an upper limit on the cultural complexity that can be accumulated, at which point accumulated knowledge is so costly and time-consuming to acquire that further innovation is not possible. In this paper I first review existing empirical analyses of the history of science and technology that support the possibility that cultural acquisition costs may constrain cumulative cultural evolution. I then present macroscopic and individual-based models of cumulative cultural evolution that explore the consequences of this assumption of variable cultural acquisition costs, showing that making acquisition costs vary with cultural complexity causes the latter to reach an upper limit above which no further innovation can occur.
Some brief feedback: The argument is based on the idea that:
Assuming that people have a limited, finite amount of time in their lives to devote to acquiring previously accumulated knowledge, there would theoretically come a point at which so much has to be learned that there is no time remaining for innovation, and accumulation will cease.
I don't think Mesoudi is making enough of an effort to consider the effects of technological development. Machines and computers have potentially unlimited lifespans, very large memories and are widely expected to exhibit impressive cognitive capacities in the non-too-distant future. Their symbiosis with humans seems likely to essentially demolish the constraints that Mesoudi discusses. Which is not to suggest that innovation will continue forever, just that the human lifespan seems unlikely to constrain it.

Rivals to gene-based terminology

In my memetics book, I propose that we use the term "gene" for the heritable elements in evolution - and ignore or discard the numerous dictionaries and textbooks that claim that genes are "molecular units of heredity" - or that they have anything to do with DNA or RNA.

There have been some other proposals for terms that convey this meaning:
  • Mneme. Richard Semon (1904) wrote:

    Instead of speaking of a factor of memory, a factor of habit, or a factor of heredity and attempting to identify one with another, I have preferred to consider these as manifestations of a common principal, which I shall call the mnemic principal.
  • Meme. In his book The Mocking Memes - A Basis for Automated Intelligence, Evan Louis Sheehan writes:
    I define memes to include every sort of pattern that serves as a template for its own replication.
  • Replicator. David Hull (1988b) proposed replicators fill the role of the carriers of heredity in evolving systems.
Deploying Richard Semon's term "mneme" in the modern era seems rather impractical.

Evan Louis Sheehan's "meme" tries to hijack an existing term. "Meme" has an established meaning which does not obviously need to change. I think the attempt fails.

The proposals of David Hull and Evan Louis Sheehan also suffer from a technical problem - since they only include copyable heredity information, and not all heritable information is capable of being copied.

How do genes differ from ordinary information? In other words, what is an example of information that is not inherited? Conventionally, there is no inheritance without some living thing being involved. Also, information that is destroyed is not inherited. Other forms of information could potentially be inherited by some living thing or another.

So: "gene" still seems to be better overall. Of course, this raises the issuse of what name should we give to small chunks of nucleic acid. Im my book, I wrote:

Those are "genes" too, of course, and can normally simply be referred to as such - but if a term is really wanted to refer specifically to nucleic acid chunks while excluding other forms of inheritance - they could be called "organic genes", "cellular genes", "nuclear genes" or "DNA genes" - depending on exactly what you actually meant.
What about snappy abbreviations?

"Denes" is my pick for "DNA genes" - with "denetics" referring to their study.

"Nenes" is my pick for "nuclear genes" - with "nenetics" referring to their study.

Update 2013-05-19: Dawkins said:

Completely unknown to me when I coined "meme" in 1976, the German biologist Richard Semon wrote a book called Die Mneme (English translation The Mneme (London, Allen & Unwln, 1921)) in which he adopted the "mneme" coined in 1870 by the Austrian physiologist Ewald Hering.

Uncopyable heredity

One of the deepest classification divisions in the science that studies heredity is the split between things that can be copied, and things that can't be copied.

Everyone is familiar with heritable elements that can be copied. DNA genes and memes fit this description. However, there are also things that persist across the generations that can't be copied. Ming vases, for example, are inherited down the generations - but attempts to copy them create items which are worthless. Brains are another item which persists across multiple generations (for example, my grandmother's brain still exists) - but cannot yet be fully copied. Fingerprints can't be fully copied either and nor can retinal vein patterns. Nor can I copy my mother. There are numerous other examples.

Uncopyable heredity is the less interesting kind. Heredity without copying is less common and it doesn't result in cumulative adaptations. However, it is essential for properly understanding evolution.

The division between copyable and uncopyable heredity elements is not necessarily a fixed one. Once we could not copy music very well - and now we can. Progress results in more things becoming copyable.

However, split between things that can be copied, and things that can't be copied still seems to be pretty deep and fundamental. I think we need terminology to describe copyable and uncopyable heredity elements.

Dawkins proposed the term "replicator" for heritable elements that can be copied. In his 1982 book, "The Extended Phenotype" he defined the term, as follows:
I define a replicator as anything in the universe of which copies are made.
Blackmore (1999, p.5) endorses this definition, saying:
A replicator is anything of which copies are made
However, the term seems to have led to much confusion among scientists, and we have multiple rebuttal papers claiming that replication is not necessary - for example, this one: Why replicators are not necessary for cultural evolution.

On one hand this seems to be obviously a misunderstanding - the critics are not paying attention to the definition that Dawkins is using - but on the other hand, the terminology Dawkins proposes does invite this kind of misunderstanding.

As I have explained in my video/essay Against Replicator Terminology - and also in my book - the replicator terminology has some serious issues - and should probably be abandoned.

However, this would leave a terminological void. What we really need is replacement terminology to refer to copyable and uncopyable heredity elements.

There is the term "reproducer". This is the solution proposed by Griesemer (2000a, 2000b) That term is rather overloaded - but it seems to be one of the best terms we currently have for copyable heredity elements.


Monday, 7 November 2011

Limor Shifman's proposed book on internet memes

Limor Shifman is working on a book on internet memes.

It is to be published by MIT press - according to a recent blog post by her.

It looks as though it may have something to do with YouTube videos - if a recent paper by her is anything to go by.

Limor appears to be something of an an expert in jokes and humor.

Here is her home page.

Update 2013-05-12: Amazon page for the book: Memes: In Digital Culture

Update 2014-09-13: A review / promotional page about the book.

Video: Cyber-Humour: The End of Humour as We Know It?

Meme-related interview:

Friday, 4 November 2011

Image macros meet social networks

Facebook newsfeeds have recently become overrun with image macros. In other words, things rather like this:

This recent "Slate" article analyses the trend.

It attributes it partly to a change in Facebook's algorithm for selecting stories, partly to a change that shows larger album photographs in newsfeeds and partly to the rise of image-macro generation sites.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Riley Crane - resources

Riley Crane is a crowdsourcing researcher.

He helped managed the team that won the DARPA red balloon challenge. Some videos:

Riley Crane: Crowdsource win

Riley Crane: "Rethinking Communication"

Riley Crane: Extracting knowledge from collective trends

Riley Crane's home page is here:

Which evolutionary paradigm is gaining?

Numerous paradigms embracing evolutionary theory and human society compete with one another for mindshare in an epic memetic battle.

This graph illustrates the progress of some of them over time:

Google's Ngrams paints a sllightly different picture - with "cultural evolution" apparently doing better:

Memetics is still doing badly.

Cultural evolution is still doing about as badly as memetics in search volume - but better in books.

Evolutionary psychology has considerable volume, but it is also in decline. Also, evolutionary psychology is mostly concerned with the nuclear basis of human universals - most practitioners have little understanding of the evolution of culture.

Sociobiology is also in decline. Evolutionary psychology is sociobiology in drag - so the decline of sociobiology may represent migration.

Niche construction - Laland's beautiful-but-dubiously-named theory has made little progress.

Epigenetics appears to be the winner. It has the most volume overall and it is increasing in popularity.

The new epigenetics scores poorly with this author - though Waddington's original meaning of "epigenetics" was just fine. SInce epigenetics has been a much-used term for a while, perhaps some of its popularity is due to Waddington's usage.

Epigenetic inheritance is an oxymoron because genetics is the science of inheritance, heredity and variation in biological systems. You can't have "epigenetic" inheritance - inheritance is "genetic" - by definition. They mean: epi-nuclear inheritance, or something llike that - but their terminology is awful.

Perhaps even worse, if you look at the epigenetics literature, few understand that culture evolves. It is all methylation this and histone that. Cultural inheritance is the usually-unmentioned elephant in the room. Some (e.g. Jablonka) recognise the existence of cultural inheritance - but most epigenetics authors just don't seem to understand their own subject. The Wikipedia article on the topic is typical in this respect.

Epigenetics may be popular, but in its modern form, it is severely screwed-up. I think it would be helpful to future generations of scientists if the new epigenetics curled up and died.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Genetic and memetic adaptations

One of the hallmarks of interesting evolutionary processes is cumulative adaptations.

Many have observed that there is a deep correspondence between genetic and memetic adaptations.

For example, Dennett famously compared a beaver dam to the Hoover dam and a Spider's web to the World wide web.

Here's a list of some of the similarities:

Genetic adaptationMemetic adaptation
LeafSolar cell
Tree trunkGirder
Portuguese Man o' WarShip
Gecko feetVelcro

Many classes of adaptation don't fit neatly into the table - because the same names are used in both domains:


There are also some memetic phenomene with no genetic equivalent:

Atom bomb

...and some genetic phenomena with no precise memetic equivalent:

Human brain
Spider silk

Animal culture on video

Here is a brief collection of videos illustrating cultural-transmission in the rest of the animal kingdom.

Chimpanzee Culture and Medicine Usage

Shows chimpanzees engaging in learned termite hunting, bone picks for digging out bone marrow, sponges, herbal medicine, kissing, saluting/shaking hands, and leaf-tearing to signal others for grooming.

From the National Geographic documentary "New Chimpanzees" (1995).

Monkey Culture: Japanese snow monkeys washing potatoes

Chimp culture

Chimpanzee Culture and Learning

Another experiment by Victoria Horner illustrating that different groups of chimpanzees have culture and learning abilities unique to each group. Two chimpanzees are taught two different methods of acquiring a treat, and then sent back to teach their groups and pass the information on.

To put it in context, note that the documentary follows the host travelling to various regions to examine various ape studies, and putting forth the idea that "chimpanzees are people" to gauge opinions and reactions to this notion.

A clip from the BBC Horizon documentary, "Chimps are People, Too".

Killer Whale Culture - by David Attenborough

What makes some killer whales savage mammals while others are happy to play and show off? David Attenborough explores the culture of the killer whale.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Richard Dawkins on risks from rapid cultural evolution

Cultutal evolution content starts at around 01:00. It talks about "a new kind of evolution" a "takeover by onboard computers" and the risks of rapid cultural evolution.

He says cultural evolution is "superficiallly similar" to genetic evolution. Weasel words!

Part 1 is here.