re: new review of memetics/sociobiology/EP

From: Chris Taylor (
Date: Thu 02 Feb 2006 - 14:23:34 GMT

  • Next message: Robin Faichney: "Re: new review of memetics/sociobiology/EP"

    Thoughts on the paper (which I thoroughly enjoyed and would make for a nice 'proper' Horizon programme).

    Some general thoughts:

    I think too little consideration is given in the nascent memetics and especially EP to what is sometimes called
    'Life-dinner selection' for one, and neutral theory for another. The first states that it is not the _fittest_ that survive but the _fit enough_. This has important implications for selection and evolution in humans as we are now firmly in the mode of evolving by selection cropping the least fit rather than rewarding the fittest, leaving plenty of latitude to acommodate the needs and whims of our cultural parasites. Neutral theory is also very relevant in arguing that change that has no practical effect on fitness can just occur at a constant rate (this includes 'nearly-neutral' if selection is not too aggressive). One idea (or component of an idea) swaps in for another, nobody cares; completely unfettered by selection (and note that these are not spandrels either, actually that's another one to consider anyway though, not that I like the idea very much as to me it smacks of the same argumentation as clinging to the idea that quantum events _must_ be random cos we don't see the cause).

    Mutualism/commensalism versus parasitism; evolution of symbioses. I'd argue that memes obey the same rule as most other infectious diseases of changing over time to be less of a fitness burden on the host. This could be studied; how adapted is the meme pool to take account of some of the needs of the human-mind-mosaic environment? Inclusive fitness is an important one when discounting suicide bombers etc.; maybe we could see the rise in payments to the family appearing, to mitigate the obvious downside for the individual making it almost a mutualism?

    Tragic the way Hamilton passed away -- I was gonna try for a postdoc with him once upon a time as he and I got on quite well at a conference not long before he died).

    And specific responses:

    Natural versus cultural selection; false dichotomy. Not one selector, or even two; actually a spectrum of selective influences applied in many ways and most often impossible to disentangle one from another. For instance what do we call the selection of wheat or dogs etc. -- cultural selection of non-human genes -- memes selecting for a benefit to the host based on bio criteria of food and so on -- rather complex).

    Cultural vs genetic; think of holey landscapes (Gavrilets) -- biology just prevents/prohibits some stuff for humans like flying, changing colour at will, imagining infinity, some more serious stuff, while promoting a few odds and ends (like learning to use your hands, maybe to recognise faces). The rest is culture off the leash. Overall, cultural determinism, within constraints, plus a few 'seed' ~memes.

    PET/CAT scans etc. Churchland (P) suggested several (seven or eight iirc?) levels between brain signalling and thought, each providing the stuff for the next level to organise (counters at the bottom, then game of life patterns, then ecologies of game of life patterns [with information processing ability], then
    'aware' self-contained ecologies of game of life patterns, then self-replicating von Neumann style aware self-contained ecologies of GoL patterns, etc etc)..

    Concur that 'meme frequencies' is not a useful concept for any but the most stereotyped memes, and that even then only the
    'phemes' are visible and comparable; internally they would always be different imho. Better for that purpose to think of a meme like a parasitic organism that might itself come from a variable population (although in actuality the variety comes mostly from how they are perceived and then reconstitutued in the next head); then think epidemiology or diffusion equations to get some maths in. This has more in common with the study of QTLs than 'older-school' genetics.

    The trait-individual issue: What about accumulating, deconstructing and averaging (to get/maturate generic low-level memes) for storage and recall; and then 'use it or lose it' for keeping specific generic memes distinct and 'alive')? Offers a compact way to satisfy the requirements that Lynch cannot with mnemons according to your analysis (which seems sensible given that Lynch apparently doesn't go for compression through averaging?).

    On explanatory power: I have yet to find a behaviour or cultural feature that my approach falls foul of (for example I would love to hear a more compact or convincing [to me...] explanation of the propagation of sexual and physical abuse of children). Although I agree completely that exactly describing the entities at play in a mind at the level of activation potentials is very hard so that's a real issue for everyone. We can't even 'read' the state of simple neural nets, as the encoding of 'algorithms' in the weights is too complex -- we have instead to rely on rationalising the output in terms of the inputs. If this simple system is beyond us we're really up the creek for now wrt the physiological correlates of memes (cf. Churchland again). Asimov amused me by having his robots managed by full-blown psychologists for robots, as that was the only way to get a handle on them.

    I like SET versus GET. Evolution does actually just mean 'coming out of' iirc, so the subdivisions are both valid and useful, and it almost seems more appropriate for the archaeologists (their narrow version).

    Horizontal versus vertical; blue tits and milk tops blah blah. The influence of trade and exploration should coincide with a take-off for certain ideas, linked to a drop in overall diversity (as for any sort of panmixis -- finding fitness peaks, getting the whole population to them and staying on them are done very well be a large population, moving off a local peak and exploring the space not done so well).

     From the endnotes:

    Liked the hidden hand and the put downs it promotes (not seen that quote from Big D before). Very funny, and off we go back to belief yet again (you do not have faith, heretic!)...

    LOL. Did Lynch really put sociobiologists and EPers in the same bag as the 'classic' cheesy sociology lecturer? (sorry for the completely unfounded generalisation all you wonderful sociology lecturers) I witnessed someone of this ilk up close -- he was an ethologist but the same principle applied -- in the end he was pushed out of the Uni in part after a particularly unsavoury field trip where he and his postdocs attempted to get off with large numbers of female undergraduates -- lots of his original research seemed to indicate [funnily enough] that we should all shag each other like bonobos).

    Shoelaces / gene arrays / lack of numbers / complexity; parallels to trying to analyse neural nets in some sense. But can these massively pleiotropic+epistatic complexities that weave a developed body stretch so far as to program behaviour? I.e. the genes for a behaviour are actually in the hundreds but each contributes somewhere between 0.0001 - 5.0% in a way far too complex to analyse? Kind of like the behaviour of a government being not only the product of the members, but also of the effect of the members on each other's contribution. How many removes from genes to brains, and from brain signalling to behaviour. Can our genetic complexity really shoot such a massively-high-dimensional trajectory with such accuracy? (No.) But they can shape the brain to an extent, and that affects what can be in that brain. An analogy:

    People make cities and cities make people; memes might not directly make brains per se (although tapping the rapid processing, disemination and adaptability offered by memes is a damned good reason to make a meme-friendly brain), but they are certainly affected by the brains they exist in (on a generic human-design EP-compatible [to an extent] level).

    Maybe alien architects (genes) like seeing people (memes), so make cities (brains) that suit those people; but the city affects the inhabitants and therefore the overall 'fitness' of the city. This means that the genes that make the sorts of brains that preferentially house adequately friendly (remember life dinner selection) memes for the genes' purposes tend to proliferate.

    Of course that's in the EAA to borrow a phrase. Now we really are I think in an age where biological selection really just trims the tail with the least fit in it.

    Now I have a backlog again. I need to look up the word succinct.

    Cheers, Chris.


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