Monday, 24 March 2014

Meatspace memetics in Forbes

Forbes have an article on "meatspace memetics". It covers the use of social media tags as graffiti.

For me, the article is notable for using the term "meatspace memetics". Meatspace - as opposed to cyberspace - is a relatively old term, but it is one that works well with the "meme" term - contrasting "meatspace memes" with "internet memes".

A number of other terms from memetics seem to me to have the potential to go viral - and become much more popular. "Memetic hitchhiking" is an extremely important concept that should be mentioned in practically every marketing article ever written. However, the term is currently not getting those mentions, and as a result, the whole concept is under-used and under-appreciated. I think we should all be hearing much more about "memetic engineering", "memetic hijacking" and "meme warfare", "meme therapy" and "memetic linkage" too.

Essentially, I blame foot-dragging by social scientists - who don't understand memetics - for its poor update to date. The memophobes have been a drag on the field for far too long for my taste.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Molecular memetics

Molecular genetics was part of the 20th century revolution in our understanding of DNA genes - starting with the work of Watson and Crick relating to the structure of DNA in the 1950s.

Could there be a corresponding revolution in memetics? Many have looked forwards to this. For example, here is Robert Aunger, Writing in The Electric Meme.

It's time for a new scientific revolution, for the beginning of a “molecular memetics” to mirror the revolution in biology that occurred with the identification of physical genes.

Here's Johnnie Hughes, writing on how the lack of observable memes inside brains is a problem:

We don't know what a meme looks like.`That doesn't necessarily mean that we should dismiss their existence—the existence of Mendel's genes was mere speculation for a century before Watson and Crick “saw” them for the first time with an X-ray diffractor - but it certainly presents a barrier to widespread acceptance.
It is probably true that a greater understanding of how ideas are represented in brains would be a boost for memetics - and lead to new discoveries in the area. However, there will probably not be a "molecular memetics" for a long time. According to our current understanding of how the brain works, memories are stored in synaptic strengths - which are more electro-chemical than molecular. It seems likely that we will understand how the brain works as a neural network long before we go down to the level of molecules. Indeed, we have had the basics of this understanding since the 1980s - when the "Parallel Distributed Processing" works of Rumelhart and McClelland were published. These contained convincing computer simulations that illustrated the basics of how information was stored and processed in the brain. These simulations exhibited similar failure modes to their organic counterparts.

Furthermore, we don't need to understand the details of how brains work to be able to have a strong science of memetics. Genetics was doing pretty well before the 1950s - with population genetics. If memetics could get to where genetics was in the 1930s, that would represent dramatic progress in the field.

Although we can't really measure meme frequencies inside brains yet, memes need to pass out of the human brain in order to reproduce - and then we can measure their frequencies much more easily. This is particularly true of memes that travel through electronic networks. Then, the anatomy of the meme is often exposed and is easily visible to scientists.

By focusing on these digital representations of memes, memetics should now be able to make good progress. That doesn't necessarily mean treating the brain entirely as a black box. We can still use inductive inference to explore hypotheses about the workings of the brain - based on its inputs and outputs - as is routinely done by psychologists. However, we don't need to wait for neuroscience to produce a "Watson and Crick" moment before we can get on with the business of studying memes scientifically.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Unwanted dogmas from the modern synthesis

The modern synthesis of the 1930s and 1940s famously fused the thinking from Darwin, Mendel and population geneticists - resulting in a popular consensus relating to how evolution worked.

Evolution and genetics have been married ever since. However, Universal Darwinism really represents a divorce of evolutionary thinking from many of the ideas it acquired from genetics around that time.

In universal Darwinism, the main ideas from genetics and population genetics that Darwinism acquired in the modern synthesis - in particular that mutations are undirected and that mutation biases are not significant - are now seen as domain-specific - and not features of evolutionary processes in general.

Signs that a split between evolutionary theory and these ideas from genetics was going to be necessary were present early on, but things really started to go sour in the 1970s, starting with Lewontin (1970). Lewontin wrote:

Darwin's scheme embodies three principles (Lewontin 1):

  1. Different individuals in a population have different morphologies, physiologies, and behaviors (phenotypic variation).
  2. Different phenotypes have different rates of survival and reproduction in different environments (differential fitness).
  3. There is a correlation between parents and offspring in the contribution of each to future generations (fitness is heritable).
These three principles embody the principle of evolution by natural selection. While they hold, a population will undergo evolutionary change. It is important to note a certain generality in the principles. No particular mechanism of inheritance is specified, but only a correlation in fitness between parent and offspring. The population would evolve whether the correlation between parent and offspring arose from Mendelian, cytoplasmic, or cultural inheritance.

He pointed out the substrate neutrality of evolutionary theory, and explicitly invokes cultural inheritance as an example.

Evolutionary theory isn't dependent on DNA genes. In fact it is inclined to fool around with memetics - and other forms of inheritance not mediated by DNA. In these other domains, the dogmas about mutations being undirected and unbiased are unwanted baggage.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Progress in understanding Darwinism

In my experience, people's understanding of Darwinism usually starts off in the organic realm, expands to cover culture, then expands further to cover brain processes - and eventually extends to cover many other fields. This is more-or-less the course of my own understanding of Darwinism - and others have reported going through a similar progression.

Not everyone seems to penetrate through to the later stages. Many people seem to get stuck before the first stage - not even understanding organic evolution. The next-largest group understands organic evolution, but doesn't appreciate cultural evolution. Then there are those who understand cultural evolution - but don't grasp within-brain Darwinism.

Specialists in evolution generally need to understand the stage beyond their own. If you understand organic evolution without understanding cultural evolution, you won't have the concept of gene-meme coevolution, which is pretty fundamental to understanding how the gene pool of many species evolve. Similarly, those who understand cultural evolution without understanding within-brain evolution generally seem to have all kinds of misconceptions about how cultural evolution works. They often wax lyrical about how different cultural variation and transmission are from their organic counterparts, not realizing that the "intelligent design" processes they see in cultural evolution are themselves the product of Darwinian evolution - acting within brains.

Steven Pinker eloquently expresses the conceptual problem:

It's not that analogues of natural selection have nothing to add to our understanding of cultural change. But unlike the case of genetic evolution, where selection assumes the full burden of generating adaptation from the vast space of genetic possibilities, most of the work done in exploring the space of logically possible ideas must be attributed to the organization of the brain.

This is a fine start: acknowledging that selectionist frameworks are necessary to understanding cultural evolution is the first stage of developing a modern understanding the topic. However, one should not stop with the Darwinism when introducing the human brain! If you examine how the brain works, you will find copying with variation and selection plays a prominent role. The brain itself is a Darwin machine. Signals are copied whenever an axon splits. They are extinguished whenever a neuron fails to pass on their signal. When you invoke the brain, that isn't an alternative to natural selection and Darwinism. The brain includes copying and selective processes at many levels.

Rather curiously, the typical progression of understanding of Darwinism is different from the order in which the evolutionary processes developed historically. Understanding usually goes: Organic -> Culture -> Brains. History went: Organic -> Brains -> Culture. Humans seem to understand how culture works more easily than they understand how their own brains work.


Saturday, 15 March 2014

Is cultural evolution different because it is constructive?

Dan Sperber has long argued for various disanalogies between organic and cultural evolution. Here he is with (Nicolas Claidiere) in a recent 2014 paper:

While some cultural items may indeed be propagated by imitation and other forms of copying, it is clear that a large number are not. In particular, many are also (re-)constructed. For example, a student taking notes in a lecture does not simply copy any spelling error that the lecturer happens to write down, but will in fact, in her own notes, correct the error and in doing so re-construct the correct spelling. As such, cultural propagation is partly preservative, but also partly (re-)constructive, to different degrees in each particular case. As such, it is not only a matter of inheritance, as is gener- ally the case for biology, but also of reconstruction. Whichever of these is more important in any given case is an empirical question, but either way, the direct analogy with biological evolution is considerably weakened by this fact.
Correcting spelling mistakes is rather a lot like the error correction involved in DNA copying mechanisms. So, this seems like a bad example of an alleged disanalogy - it's a clear case where there are similar error correction mechanisms in both domains.

The authors go on to say:

The mechanisms involved in cultural transmission (with rare exceptions such as rote learning) have, in various degrees and forms, both preservative and constructive functions. This is quite unlike the biological case, in which the proper function of the copying mechanism (replication) is preservative alone.

It is true that memes are "constructively" modified inside human brains.

However, genes are "constructively" modified inside human bodies too. For example viral genes may undergo adaptation to their human host, which may facilitate transfer to their human relatives. Or bacterial genes may develop resistance to anti-bacterial herbs that their host consumes.

In both cases, adaptive evolution takes place inside the host before being transmitted to a new host.

To argue that cultural transmission of memes between hosts is "constructive" - while organic transmission of viral genes between hosts is not - one has to consider selective processes in the cultural case, while screening them out of the biological case. The result is then not a fair comparison.

Sperber is just ignoring selective processes that take place inside brains during learning in odder to make his point. If you don't consider the evolution of memes within brains, then meme evolution seems to involve amazing intelligent-design processes not present in the organic case. However, once you understand that selection and evolution take place within brains during learning, meme evolution and gene evolution start to look much more similar to one another again.

The paper gets at least one thing right. It says:

How deep is the analogy between biological and cultural evolution? Memetics assumes that it is deep indeed; that the main relevant details of the biological case have direct equivalents in the cultural case, such that there is, for example, a cultural phenotype, which achieves a certain level of (inclusive) fitness, which will in turn determine the phenotype’s relative success in the population.

I endorse this description. Inclusive fitness and kin selection apply to memes - in cultural kin selection. Also, the phenotype/genotype split is useful in the case of culture - probably most useful if "genotype" refers to heritable information and "phenotype" refers to its products.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Jason Silva - meme video remixed

We've covered Jason Silva's ventures into memetics before. Recently, he remade one of his meme-related videos - as part of one of his "Shots of Awe" series. Here it is:

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Collective intelligence meets universal Darwinism

There's a substantial community of machine intelligence researchers which are oriented around the concepts of "collective intelligence" and "swarm intelligence". Memetic algorithm enthusiasts have been trying to spread the word about memes to these folk for a long time. We've already had four International Conferences on "Swarm, Evolutionary, and Memetic Computing", for example.

Memetic algorithms are, by their nature, parallel, distributed systems - based on a population of interacting agents - the whole field is based on the concepts of collective intelligence and collective wisdom.

What I want to say in this post, is that the opposite is also true. Part of the reason why the concepts of "collective intelligence" and "swarm intelligence" are interesting is because they involve a sprinkling of cultural transmission - which sets up a behavioural evolutionary process. The ants in ant colony optimisation are copying the behaviour of other ants - via selectively-laid pheremone trails. The birds in a flock are selectively copying the behaviour of other birds. This kind of selective behavioural copying is also the basis of memetics. That is no accident, the fields have the same basic foundation - in universal Darwinism.

Behavioural Darwinism isn't the only reason why collective intelligence exists. Part of the effect involved arises through sheer aggregation. When a hundred agents guess at the number of beans in a jar, the average of their guesses is better than the opinion of any individual. There are some different effects involved there.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Couch potato memes

Humans judge memes, in part by the success, health and fitness of those that bear them. That makes some sense. However, the modern world allows some memes to disguise their bearers. Information obtained via the internet or television may be transmitted by a collection of individuals, many of whom are unseen. This allows one of our bad meme detection systems to be subverted. What appears to be coming from a beloved celebrity might actually be the product of a an acne-ridden script-writer.

As Marion Blute (2005) put it:

Assuming you care more about your biology than your culture (which is not necessarily the case - ‘you’ after all are a combination of both), practical lessons, particularly for teenagers, emerge from memetics. Listen more to mommy and daddy and less to your friends! Beware more of fads and fashions which can infect you multiply than of whole social identities like ethnic, religious and occupational identities. One of these latter normally precludes another and hence may be willing to leave something of your biology for itself to live on tomorrow! And finally, trust information conveyed personally rather than via mass media which, like insect-borne diseases, can get to you even when you are down and unable to circulate!
The comparison between mass media and malaria-like insect-borne diseases - which can be transmitted even from bed-ridden victims - is an interesting one.

Now that the internet has enabled practically anyone to become a meme producer, we might see more internet culture that results in couch potatoes who stay permanently glued to their computers - to better emit their stream of memes.

In the past, most memes have required their owners to socialise and engage in direct relationships with other humans. However, now it is no longer necessary for memes to leave their hosts in a mobile state. Humans can infect each other via the internet while they are bed-ridden - just as happens with malaria.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Can cultural evolution explain the lack of theory in the social sciences?

In 2003, Agner Fog offered the following hypothesis regarding the negative attitude towards theory within the social sciences:

I will now venture the hypothesis that the traditions of social science have moved away from the principles of natural science as a result of a cultural selection process. This can be explained as follows. Social phenomena are so complex that every rule has exceptions. Whenever somebody proposes a theory of cause and effect in a social system, somebody else will find an exception that falsifies the theory. In other sciences, an apparent inconsistency most often leads to a refinement of the theory rather than rejection (Lakatos 1974). But in social science, rejection has often been easier than refinement. Throughout the years, this selection mechanism has slowly depleted large sectors of the social science tradition of falsifiable theories. What is left is idiographic descriptions, definitions, categorizations, and interpretations.
I think this may have some truth to it. Why would rejection of theories be more common in social science than in other sciences? I think this is due to perfectionism. Social scientists deal with an important topic: human society. Having a theory in this domain that is wrong can potentially result in serious negative consequences - euthenasia, slavery, racism, Thatcherism - and so on. So: social scientists are more trigger-happy when it comes to "incorrect" theories than scientists in many other fields.

While this whole idea is an interesting possibility, it could be criticized as being a "just so" story. However, no doubt many theories start out their lives in this state.

Probably other factors also contributed. One famous one is the anti-theoretical approach of historians. Historians at some point acquired the meme that observation was theory-laden - and to make objective observations, you had to clear your mind of existing preconceptions. Franz Boas imported this idea into cultural anthropology. This might not seem to be so terrible an idea - but the consequences turned out pretty badly for both disciplines.

I still think it is important to understand where so many social scientists went so far off the rails with the scientific method - and with Darwinism. If you don't recognize and understand your mistakes, you will be more prone to repeating them.

Cultural r/K selection

r/K selection is the conventional classification scheme for the well-known phenomenon in which some organisms produce large numbers of offspring, while others devote their resources to producing a smaller number.

While r-selection produces organisms that produces many offspring, K-selection produces organisms that produce only a few. There's also the possibility of facultative variation along this spectrum - producing many offspring in one environment and few offspring in other environments. This type of facultative variation is seen in humans. Humans in war-stricken countries produce many offspring, while humans in affluent, meme-rich countries - such as Japan - produce only a few.

The whole of r/K selection theory can be applied on the level of genes, organisms or groups. It is also equally applicable to genetic and cultural variation - as has long been observed by students of memetics.

Memes are often compared to viruses. Small size and r-selection are closely associated. On these grounds, you might expect to see that most memes were r-selected - emphasizing the production of large numbers of offspring over most other factors. There is a considerable quantity of truth to this picture - but not all memes are r-selected. Large complex collections of genes that exhibit parental care are those that are most likely to be K-selected. The same is true of large complex collections of memes. For example, some types of religion take many years to be transmitted from one generation to the next. Many religions are evangelical - but not all are. Judaism, for example mostly keeps itself to itself - and you rarely see adherents knocking on doors or passing out leaflets. Instead it spreads via birth and marriage. Regal memes - those associated with being king and queen - are another example of failure of horizontal transmission.

Most of the examples of K-selected memes given above involve memes that are transmitted in a pattern related to the genes of their hosts. However, not all K-selected memes need to be transmitted in this way. For example, a trade secret of a company might spend most of its time in a safe - and reproduce only when the company opens another factory. In such a case, genes and memes might well have quite separate transmission pathways.

Since most r-selected memes are transmitted "horizontally" between human hosts within a single human generation they typically do not follow the transmission pathways of the host's DNA genes. This results in much greater scope for meme-gene conflicts over resources to arise. Such r-selected memes can behave like pathogens. In extreme cases, necrotrophic memes are seen. The hosts of these memes are just resources to be burned through - from the perspective of the memes.

In the future, humans seem likely to become increasingly subjected to r-selected memes - as more humans get online and transmission of memes between humans becomes ever easier - due to improved networking technologies. That may well mean more cases of meme-gene conflict.

This coming situation is part of the reason why human scientists need to get to grips with memetics now. It is uniquely equipped to model this type of dynamical system.


The MEMEnomics book

This 2013 book is titled "MEMEnomics: The Next Generation Economic System" (Amazon, Google books). It is by Said Dawlabani. The blurb reads:

Books about subjects like economics are rarely written from the perspective of human or cultural evolution. Seldom, if ever, does a reader come across a narrative with pioneering methods that reframe a specialized discipline through a wide-cultural whole systems approach. This is precisely what Said E. Dawlabani does in this revolutionary book, Memenomics: The Next-Generation Economic System. This is a book that reframes the issues of competing economic and political ideologies and places them into an evolutionary new paradigm. This is a book about change done right.

The author has a web site: The MEMEnomics Group.

There's a video, some podcasts here and here. There's a Wikipedia page about the book.