Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Meme | Chaos & Complexity


For anyone looking for me and not the article, contact samuel.stathakos@hotmail.com

This is an epic article that relates chaos and complexity theory to the cultural evolution of memes. I will go into detail about a number of phenomena that these fields present us, and how they apply to memetics.

Quick Navigation:
1 Chaos Theory
1.1 Chaotic Systems
1.1.1 Sensitive Dependence (The Butterfly Effect)
1.1.2 Deterministic Behavior
1.1.3 Non-linearity
1.2 State space
1.3 Lorenz attractor

2 Complexity Theory
2.1 Complex adaptive systems
2.1.1 Dissipative System
2.1.2 Emergence
2.1.2.1 Cellular Automata
2.1.3 Self-Organization
2.1.3.1 Fractals
2.1.4 Neural Networks

3 Edge of Chaos

4 Final Remarks

Chaos theory describes the nature of systems that evolve over time – interestingly enough, memes and memeplexes fall under this category, so perhaps we may glean something from this field of study. First we need to understand what a chaotic system is. The three major qualities in the aforementioned are sensitive dependence, deterministic interactions, and non-linear dynamics.

The Butterfly Effect is a well-known folklore describing sensitive dependence in a chaotic system. The story goes that if a butterfly flaps its wings in Argentina, it could cause a tornado in Texas three weeks thereafter. In an identical universe without that flap it may not have occurred. The idea is that the significance of one event quickly becomes amplified; among any neighboring states in an initial system, the outcome trajectories will rapidly diverge. A meme, too, may ultimately result in a significantly altered system. For example, you are in an unfamiliar town looking to find a fireworks show on July 4th. You cannot find it, so you give up and sit down on the side of a hill. A family comes and sits on the hill as well, assuming that you are there because it is a vantage point to view the fireworks. Other people begin to come, imitating the behavior of others – passing on the meme as they all sit down along the hillside. The entire organization of the system depended on the initial condition that you sat down. In this way, memes can be seen to exhibit sensitive dependence if we take culture or memeplexes to be a system.

The term for deterministic events within a chaotic system is unique evolution. For any particular state in a system, the following sequence of events will always be the same. In many popular discussions of chaos, the unstable quality and sensitive dependence of such a system is often confused as being non-deterministic. There are, however, no truly indeterminate events involved. Chaos theory actually supports hard determinism. If we were to take the position that a meme is a selfish replicating entity interacting within a complex adaptive system (which I will explain later), it would be easy to imagine a deterministic world. A human mind will express memes as a direct result of physical stimuli, coupled with an internal state of mind. Memes themselves are simply information recorded in a physical medium (and they follow simple rules that lead to an evolutionary progression) – which means that they also possess unique evolution in the sense of a chaotic system.

The third quality of a chaotic system is non-linearity. A linear system is straightforward, in that if you adjust one variable, the other variables are affected by a fixed proportion. This is not the case with non-linear systems. The proportion by which any variable changes, is itself subject to change. This is effectively the kind of system that requires differential equations for a mathematical representation. Within a well-developed memeplexe, removing a particular meme from the system may have little to no affect – or it may severely decrease its memetic fitness. The effects of the alteration of one variable are not confined to a fixed proportionality.

State space is a mathematical three-dimensional model portraying possibilities within a system. Each point represents a possible situation. This model assumes the fidelity of the model to be high – and that it includes all the crucial elements involved. This is problematic, especially in the real-world application of chaos theory, due to its inherent sensitive nature. The picture below is shows a fitness landscape in state space.




In an evolutionary system, the peaks may represent effective or more complex states. Evolution tends to progress replicators towards a peak (hill-climbing), although not necessarily the highest peak – as there are often local maximums.

As an aside, some theoreticians like to throw in a fourth variable into the definition of chaos: aperiodic evolution. This essentially means that an evolving chaotic system never repeats values in a recognizable or regular manner. It may tend to progress towards or be attracted to a specific outcome, although the relations between microscopic agents never repeat themselves.

The Lorenz attractor is one example of a chaotic system, as seen below.

This is what originated the notion of the Butterfly Effect, as the shape of the attractor in state space resembles a butterfly. You will notice that this type of attractor (known as strange), has stretching and folding properties such that neighboring points in the initial state space dramatically diverge, while other points begin to converge. A sequence of existing states is represented by a particular trajectory. The system contains nested feedback loops. In other words, a perturbation in the system may be amplified and begin to alter the outcome in comparison to neighboring states. But the system is attracted and confined to the model above (so there are also trajectories that converge) because some other factors restrict such states. The system is limited by certain variables. A common example of a limiting factor is the S-curve.



This can be observed in bacterial cell growth. The population rapidly increases until they run out of space and food – a limiting factor.

Complexity theory is used to study systems as a whole, looking at how complex behavior emerges from individual components. A complex adaptive system is a term that describes a system which is dissipative, displays emergent properties on a macroscopic scale, and is self-organized.

A dissipative system has a flow of energy that runs through the system (it is an open system), while it maintains an organized structure. A memeplexe does not have a physical organized structure in the same way that a human body does. But as it evolves in an open system, it maintains its interconnections between individual memes. A memeplexe includes memes which are mutually beneficial to the entire system, which hold the memeplexe together.

When many individual components co-operate in a complex adaptive system, often there are emergent properties of the whole. The entities are connected on a microscopic scale and achieve this emergence by following a simple set of rules. This rule set leads to complex behavior in an evolving system. As they are all governed by simplistic reactions, there is no leader coordinating an effort; there is decentralized control. An emergent property, in the case of complex adaptive systems, is adaptation. The group becomes resilient to perturbation. This is also known as homeostasis – and it allows an evolving system the level of order required to maintain a dissipative system. This ties in with all replicators, because stability increases longevity, heredity, or inheritance. I will return to this notion of a balance between chaos and order later on.

I am going to talk, now, about a specific example of a complex system which displays emergent properties. It is called cellular automata. The idea is that you set up a grid, with each cell on the grid being able to have one of two conditions: on or off. All of the cells are subject to a simple set of rules, based on the parameters set by a user. Each cell has eight neighbors surrounding it. The computer simulation will count how many neighbors are around a cell, and the cell will either switch from off to on (in the next generation) if the number is between the minimum and maximum parameters, or it will switch off if it fails to meet the condition. If you were to look at this system from the perspective of an individual cell, you would note the simplicity of the rules: (1) count neighbors, (2) if neighbors meet parameter conditions turn on, and (3) if neighbors do not meet parameter conditions turn off. No single cell is intelligent, and yet complex patterns emerge as the system evolves. I have made computer software myself, in the form of a java applet, to allow adjustable parameters and change the initial conditions. The video below demonstrates cellular automata that begin with one cell activated, and parameters set to: min = 1, max = 2.



Cellular automata display a number of interesting properties relating to chaos and complexity theory – including sensitive dependence, unique evolution, various attractors, and emergence. Here is one more picture of an evolved system at generation 299 with the parameters: min = 1, max = 5



You will notice in the video, that the evolution of the system grows in a self-similar fashion – which leads me to self-organization. This is the attraction and repulsion by which an internal organization of an open system increases in complexity without guidance. As I said before, there is decentralized control. A complex adaptive system will often display self-similarity. This is because, through evolution, the most efficient method of growth is sought after. How could such simple initial conditions evolve into a complex whole? When you have a computation method that involves recursion, you can have the same code applicable at multiple levels of a system. Recursion allows efficiency. A fern is pictured below.




You can see that it takes the shape of a fractal – the pattern repeats itself on multiple levels. A fern is comprised of leaves which take that shape, and on each leaf there is again the same shape. Fractals are an interesting example of self-similarity – below is a video of a fractal zoom, showing the infinite recursive nature.





For good measure, I’ll throw in a picture of the Mandelbrot set as well.


Fractals are beyond the scope of this article, however, so I will move on to a quick example of a complex adaptive system.

A neural network satisfies all the conditions of the aforementioned complex adaptive system definition. It is a dissipative system that maintains its internal structure, while also adapting to its environment by rewiring neural connections. The brain is a complex of neurons that interact using deterministic, simple rules – out of which emerges consciousness. This is in line with the Epiphenomenalist view that a mental state emerges from the physical structure of the brain, and the mental state (being an emergent property of the whole) does not affect the physical structure.

The edge of chaos is ultimately where complex adaptive systems exist. This is a state in which there is a mix of chaos and order or complexity. If everything were ordered there would be no adaptive qualities, and yet you also need to bring order to the fray (chaos) enough to maintain the structure and complexity. Memetic systems are complex adaptive systems because they exhibit adaptation and complexity, as I mentioned. Lastly, let’s look at some more specific ways in which we can draw parallels between chaos, complexity, and memes.

Some memes reach the, “tipping point” – when a feedback loop initiates and the meme is amplified through feedback. The top websites on the internet, the best-selling novels, and the current fad in society – are all memes that reach a critical mass. Let’s say that a novel reaches best-selling status. Now people will recognize the authority of that meme, and accept it more easily. In turn, this increases the authority of the novel as more people buy it. And the loop continues.

Memes exist on multiple levels and are self-organized. On the smallest level, there are memes and their variations, followed by aggregations of memes that form memeplexes, followed by groups of memeplexes that form sub-cultures, followed by memeplexes that exist cross-culturally. Culture was not created by an intelligent agent; it is the product of individual agents (information), in the form of a physical medium (like the brain), that necessarily follows simple rules (otherwise they wouldn’t have successfully replicated), and formed a complex adaptive system (of its own accord).

Memeplexes sit on the edge of chaos. The chaos created by error-prone meme transmission becomes belittled when distributed through a population by mass representation such that it may do hill-climbing on the fitness landscape. If the effect of variation or chaos in memetic mutations on memeplexes was too great, it would not allow adaptation, or evolution. It would simply be a random walk (it would not progress in complexity). Yet, there is necessarily a chaotic factor in an evolutionary system. How would it adapt if there were only complete order?

Memetics is often described as the art of importing genetic studies to the social sciences. And I think that memetics has something to learn from chaos and complexity science. There are clearly many similarities between them; we stand to gain a better understanding of memes as a system through the perspective of chaos and complexity theory.

For more non-technical information, see Victor Macgill’s site on chaos and complexity theory, and for more information on memes see my other posts.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Meme--Gene Coevolution

Human evolution is a product of not one, but two replicators – the gene and the meme.

This post is about the effects of taking a new replicator into account regarding human evolution. Coevolution is a significantly more complex model, as opposed to evolution by genetic pressures alone. Memes interact with genes, and it is important to note that the rate of evolution amongst ideas, in the present, is greater than that of genetic evolution. Susan Blackmore suggests that this increased capacity for meme evolution is actually driving genetic evolution, in what she calls, “memetic drive.”

The following is an explanation of how cultural ideas drove the evolutionary process that created the disproportionately large brains in humans; there were three critical stages that led to this: (1) individuals that imitate and learn from other individuals, not just the environment are better at surviving, (2) the generalist imitators that have enhanced selection of memes are favoured because they can tell useful memes from harmful ones, and (3) preferential mating results in more offspring that have a genetic predisposition towards meme selection and capacity functions, favouring the expansion of the brain (if we assume that a bigger brain is better at holding and selecting memes). This argument, suggesting that memes actually play a large role in genetic pressures, may be generalized to say that any meme that acts as a signal of status, within society, causes sexual selection, and therefore has an influence on genetic pressure. The genes that are better for a particular meme exerting the force will appeal more to selection process.

Clearly, cultural units of replication can guide genetic evolution towards a shared goal – but what if they pursue opposed goals? Meme evolution has been accelerating because faster rates of evolution were selected as beneficial. Is there a struggle between memes and genes? The increased rate of memetic evolution, as I have said before, has the potential to be detrimental to the selfish genes. Genes originally adapted to allow the spread of ideas simply for the symbiotic relationship. And the genes had to keep a leash on memes by increasing the selective process involved in accepting or rejecting ideas. With this in mind, I’d like to turn to the research of Larry Bull, Owen Holland, and Susan Blackmore on the coevolution of these two replicators.

They created a computer simulation to test the effects of varied rates of evolution between two selfish replicators. The results are as follows: when there was a low interdependence between genes and memes, both replicators successfully evolved. That is, when the evolution of the latter had little influence over gene evolution and vice versa, both could evolve. When there was a slightly higher interdependence, however, the rates of evolution allowed enormous benefits to one, while the other, “degraded to a random walk” (meaning that it did not continue to tend towards enhanced survival as evolution would result in). It was also shown that for genes to continue to be successful in a coevolutionary model, genes had to have higher selective forces over which memes to adopt (selecting and restricting the memes that have detrimental effects on genes). Of course, this is what you would expect as you do not want maladaptive memes overtaking humans.

Even though memes have the potential to decrease genetic fitness, a meme will not necessarily endorse a mutation that has this effect. By decreasing genetic fitness, they indirectly decrease their own fitness, because the human mind is the physical medium upon which they depend. This is not unlike a virus that doesn’t want to kill the host -- because killing it would limit its own spread. The only cases in which memes will ignore this cost, is when the benefit of its own survival outweighs that of the negative influence on genes. The key to this is that memes are still dependant on humans as a medium of transmission – for now. Hold that thought.

Greater selection by genes upon cultural traits allows greater benefits to genes. This implies that as meme evolution continues to advance, genes need to increase their selective attributes to remain in control of memes. Memes experience benefits from increasing rates of evolution, until they are about 30 times faster at evolving in comparison to genes – at which point there are no benefits or negative effects of increasing the evolution rate. This, perhaps, is because they reach the edge where going any faster would lead to decreasing meme fitness, due to the interdependence between the two replicators.

Now, what if memes were not dependent upon genes? Ex. someone gets the idea to create a literally self-propagating physical system that evolves without genes. What if you could design a system that just rapidly increases its rate of evolution, exponentially increasing in complexity? The system would necessarily have to be designed to achieve something, otherwise it would have no algorithm to base selection upon – it has to select useful ideas for whatever its goal is. Humans could make a universal application machine which begins with whatever goal you want in mind, and evolves into a system for that purpose. Just a thought.

One more quick note on clarifying the nature of a meme. They do not actually make copies of themselves, so they are not replicators in that sense. They achieve replication, in that they are transmitted and copied whenever they are observed, as they leave an impression in the mind. This is what allows the inheritance factor of evolution to come into play. And a meme doesn’t always jump from brain to brain either – it may be a meme that affects the expression of other memes or itself though.

To recapitulate – memes and genes, which are in control? Both, as they both have a degree of dependence upon each other (currently). Meme-gene coevolution really is an interesting phenomenon.

Meme | Simple Introduction

This post is aimed at bringing the study of memetics to a broader audience. What is a meme? The idea began in 1976 with Richard Dawkins. A meme is, “that which is imitated.” It could be any cultural idea, any behavioural pattern or idea that has the potential to spread through a population. A rumor, for example, is an idea that is passed along through humans, it is changed a little every time it is told, and the carriers like to select which ideas to keep. Richard Dawkins was not the first to suspect that evolutionary principles may be applied to more than genes. Genes achieve evolution by having 3 properties: inheritance, variation, and selection.

When you have those 3 factors, evolution must occur. I’ll outline how genes evolve before applying it to memetics. Genes consist of information coded in nucleotides, on strands of DNA. This information is passed along through humans through reproduction. That is how genes obtain inheritance. Evolutionary biologists talk about genes being selfish, in the sense that they want to exist because what exists is good at existing. You might want to re-read that line.

Genes also have variation. There are random genetic mutations that occur rather infrequently (though enough to have an effect), and there is also sexual recombination that occurs during meiosis. Since genes have slight variations caused by these processes, they are one step closer to achieving evolution.

The final requirement is selection. The main selection process in genetic evolution is natural selection. This is what Darwin noticed back in the late 19th century. He realized that if some individuals had traits that were different (variation), and the trait was beneficial to the individual’s survival (selection), then the trait would more likely be passed on to another generation (inheritance). Let’s say that one individual, in a group, develops a better immune system. Since he is better at defending his body than his peers, he will survive better, allowing him to pass on this beneficial trait.

Now, memetics is the study that looks at the transmission of memes – cultural ideas that spread – and how they evolve. A meme is a replicator just as a gene is. The physical medium it occupies is the human mind. Memes are varied as well (there is a continuum between memes that are self-correcting, and memes that rapidly change). And lastly, there is the selection of memes. Humans do not allow just any old memes to be spread – only the best ideas, the most useful, the most desirable memes are accepted. Thus even though a meme is simply information, it achieves evolution, similar to that of genes.

Memetics is a field of study that is gaining a lot of scientific attention now. This is really only the surface of memetic theory. Memeticists look at all the variables involved in the transmission and evolution of memes, its relationship with genes as a replicator, and using these ideas in applications of real-world problems. Memetic theory has huge implications in explaining anatomical development, what it means to be human, and why certain cultures exist.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Memetics | Origins, Selfish Nature, Religion

“All life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities” – Richard Dawkins

I’d like to expand, in this post, on the beginning of cultural transmission, the selfish nature of memes, and the relationship of memes to religion. Memes began to spread tens of thousands of years ago. It started when humans began to imitate verbal sounds, giving rise to verbal communication. Over time, the imitation grew into language. There are other animals that spread memes, such as birds and birdsong, but only the humans have the medium of transmission that is high-level language.

After this development, ideas began to spread. They form symbiotic relationships with humans, which is why such transmission was favoured by evolution. Some memes are useful, like the idea of how to start a fire. Indeed, one Harvard scientist claims that fire capabilities are what enabled humans to dominate the environment. It allowed us to cook food – which means more energy in the food, less contamination by harmful biological entities, and it gave warmth to humans, which led to less hair. So ideas may be beneficial, and these memes are what make us dominate -- even though we aren’t the biggest, strongest, most physically fit creatures.

But memes aren’t concerned with the welfare of genetic replicators. They are simply information that is recorded through some physical medium. Memes only care about their own propagation, in the same sense that genes love to exist. There were eventually memes that increased the spread of memes. We later developed writing, television, radio, and now the internet. The internet now allows memes to spread as fast as light can travel. These are all ideas that increase the transmission ideas. Education, too, is an idea designed to strengthen meme installation. Cultural ideas are not necessarily true or useful though. Like I said, they are only worried about their own existence in some medium.

So humans developed capabilities to store memories; it is a medium in which to store the symbiotic memes that are useful to the genetic replicators’ survival. And we also had to develop some sort of filtering mechanism. We can’t just let any old meme inside – it may be dangerous. You certainly wouldn’t want a meme that says to commit suicide (there are ideas which infiltrate the mind such as this). The result of this necessity for distinction between utile and dangerous memes formed the critical faculty of humans. Every time a suggestion or meme is expressed in your environment, your critical faculty verifies its validity – either accepting or rejecting it. As I have mentioned in the previous post, coherence plays a large role in this selection process.

One question that arises as a result of memetic theory is whether or not we should allow memes to control us. If we are genetic replicators, should we not be in full control of memes? To this I reply that there is no distinction between memes and genes when we are discussing the self. Ideas have taken some control of the genetic replicators, but that does not mean we have to side with either one. Memes are integrated into the identity of the human form. What would we be without art, music, expression or other pieces of culture? Memetic theory raises all sorts of philosophical questions, leading even to a re-evaluation of the meaning of life.

As an aside, I’d like to mention the difficulty in identifying a memotype (the actual content or information of a meme). There are some fundamental differences between genes and memes, even though they both are governed by the overarching process of evolution. Memes are much more associational, or blended than genes ever were. How do you quantify the distance between ideas that constitutes divergence? Perhaps this is why ideas are so good at forming memeplexes (a complex of memes).

Ideas congregate into memeplexes for the same reason that genes form gene pools within an embodiment. They help each other exist. A school of thought, a belief system, or a subject like biology all contain ideas that are mutually compatible. But at this level of complexity, memeplexes of parasitic thought may overcome the selfish agenda of genes with the selfish agenda of dangerous memes. The largest example of this phenomenon is religion. I have argued previously about the uselessness of religion, and here I explain why it is ubiquitous despite its uselessness. If you continue reading this post, chances are you are secularist, agnostic, or are curious about what I have to say about religion and memetics.

Religion is a system of ideas that has evolved to invade even rational minds. Looking at my previous post, and the variables involved in the fitness of memes, we can draw parallels between the qualities of highly fit memes and religion. An idea that is perceived as being valuable to the genetic replicators is one initial meme that draws people in: the idea that when you die you will continue to live forever in the afterlife. Wishful thinking. Then there’s a measure of consolation in hard times: the idea that there is an invisible, all-powerful being watching over and guiding you. This, as Dawkins mentions, is about the closest thing to usefulness there is within religion. This is because even a false belief may be consoling until the moment of disillusionment. And disillusionment may be unimportant regarding the afterlife since it is effectively death.

Coherence, I have argued, is one of the most important factors in the selection process of accepting or rejecting memes. Religion solves this problem by creating an entirely fictional background upon which to agree with its ideas. I’m talking of course, about holy scripture. In the case of the bible, it was written in accordance with ‘revelation’, by over 40 authors (none of whom met Jesus); it was copied many times, and edited many times. Thus when confronted with an issue that someone rational has illustrated, there is an endless amount of material that may be referenced.

Authority and publicity are other variables involved in religion as a memeplexe. Religion exploits authority even before critical faculties have been developed. In children, there is less of a mechanism by which to filter ideas because this is the period when they should be rapidly absorbing memes from their parents. This is why the indoctrination of children is used by religion. You are brought up to believe all of the ideas before you can criticize its acceptance. Dawkins goes as far as saying that the indoctrination of children is child abuse. Publicity, as well, contributes to its acceptance – people tend to conform to the majority because society itself is a form of authority.

Self-justification and self-reinforcement are techniques used by religion. These ideas are specifically focused on mutually benefiting religion as a whole. The idea that spirituality and mysticism is something beyond what we can understand and it must be accepted without evidence; the idea of blind faith. This meme was designed to bypass our critical faculties – it essentially says, “don’t think about it, just accept it without evidence.” Then there’s the idea that it is rude to criticize someone’s faith. Laughable. This meme is designed to immediately undermine opposition. If I realize the phony guise of a memeplexe that religion is, I can’t argue because it’s rude! Sometimes I’ll tell someone that I’m an atheist, and I’ve had people reply, “oh, that’s great that you’re questioning faith for yourself, but one day, when you’re older, faith will come back to you.” Typical pestilential answers.

Anyways, self-reinforcement and intolerance (more memes that constitute religion): repetition, such as a Catholic rosary and prayers. This increases retention and therefore increases heredity for memes. Then there’s intolerance – a meme that eliminates or disfavours competing memes. There are countless examples of this in religion, such as committing apostasy on pain of death (you are killed for converting out of the Islam faith). And I’d like to look at a particular meme within Islam that combines some of the memes I’ve already talked about. Suicide bombers are led to believe, by regular practitioners of Islam, that it will not hurt when they die, that they are doing a great and noble thing, and that martyr paradise will be waiting for them. They are not evil men. They are just men who have been infiltrated by parasitic, dangerous memes.

A couple of religions even include the self-embedded command of “spread me”, like that of a computer virus. Mormons, for example, go around trying to convert people. It is obvious why this meme caught on: it is centered upon the transmission and existence of religion.

And so I’d like to leave you thinking that you should spread this meme, and my other memes – if it coheres to your thoughts and you agree.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Memetics | Cultural Evolution

Evolution requires 3 components:

Heredity, Variation, and Selection

Heredity: A unit of replication. Anything that passes information or complex organization through generations, or successive periods of time. An example of this would be genes that encode for phenotypes, or cultural ideas or information like stories, music, and art.

Variation: A mechanism or process that results in minor changes to the unit of replication. An example of this would be genetic mutations, infrequently caused by radiation, genetic drift in which allele frequencies drift due to the random resampling of genes taken from parents, or information that is passed along through verbal communication – a tale that changes a little every time it is told.

Selection: A mechanism or process that eliminates units of replication based on the expected value of the unit in terms of efficiency of survival (not necessarily favouring more complex units). Benefit (must be) > Cost
Example: natural selection, or the ideas which are better at being accepted by human minds.

The following is Richard Dawkins' green-beard effect: a gene may create phenotypes which enable recognition of itself in another entity and therefore benefit itself regardless of the vehicle. When this occurs a third variable comes into the equation: Benefit times the probability (of the copy of the gene actually being in the other organism and not just deception by another gene or misrecognition) must be greater than cost – so the varied unit will be favoured if:
Benefit X Probability > Cost

The gene-centric view of evolution (that genetic fitness is important and genes are a selfish unit of replication that experience evolution) explains the existence of morality in humans. It also explains why we have sexual drive to reproduce, why mothers are so protective, and why legacy becomes increasingly important in old age. It’s because the genes are passed on through children. It’s because genes are selfish.

When I say genes are selfish – that does not suggest that humans are selfish by nature – or that genes are really selfish. What I mean is that genes are concerned with their survival – only because what is good at existing exists more because it is good at existing. It’s that simple.

Evolution may occur at multiple levels. At the genetic level, the genes that encode for favourable phenotypes become prominent through natural selection. Then there is inter-species selection. The species that are best at surviving within the ecosystem are more likely to survive. (It was argued by Stephen Jay Gould that evolution consists of long periods of relative stability marked by shorter bursts of rapid evolution).

Daniel Dennet talks about 4 levels of genetic evolution: natural, unconscious, conscious, and engineered. At the unconscious level, humans favour the use of animals that are the best at doing what we use them for. At a later stage in history, the methodical breeding of animals towards better species was employed consciously. Then there is genetic engineering which cuts straight to the punch. Each level is increasingly quick at designing a superior entity.


What I suggest is that we take engineering to the next level. The beauty of evolution is that the designer needs not understand how to build something more complex or superior. If we harnessed today’s rapidly expanding technological capacity, to process data, we could use software – simulations of evolution – to rapidly develop improvements in ANYTHING. Run a simulation of 10 different entities, each with minor variations, select the one that comes closest to the desired outcome – take that best one, in the next generation make 10 more of them each with a minor variation, etc. The implications of this idea are huge! I have already seen one engineer use a computer simulation of evolution to develop an artificial species made of…wood – but we should generalize the process and use it to our advantage for everything. (Note: I have not researched thouroughly to check if anyone else is doing this).

Evolution only requires the 3 things mentioned above: inheritance, variation, and selection. Memetic theory, initiated by Richard Dawkins, is the idea that units of culture may evolve as well. An idea may be passed through culture, it may vary through its iterations, and humans may select which ideas to pass on. There are also various speeds at which evolution occurs, when one of the variables is changed as seen with Dennett’s four levels of evolution. It’s interesting to find, in memes, that there are some ideas which are self-correcting – which affects the variation variable. A completely self-correcting idea does not evolve because there is no variation and that limits the capabilities of selection. Such an idea could be one that – if any variation at all occurred – would lose its value it terms of selection. Therefore if a conflict arises in which there may only be one of either variation or selection – evolution does not occur because you need all three variables. There might be a continuum of rates of evolution created by differences in the three variables. Something that is self-correcting 60% of the time may just evolve at a slower rate. One example of a self-correcting meme, which Dawkins uses, is origami. When you pass the idea along, there couldn’t be variation because a poorly done piece of origami is then disfavoured by human selection.

Memes may also form bodies of ideas – like that of a gene pool in an organism. There are units which are favourable themselves, and there are also ones that are mutually beneficial within that specific entity. For example, with memes, a religion is a body of ideas. There are ideas which attract human attention – humans are the enablers of heredity – and the selection is processed through the critical faculties of the mind. The ideas which are best at infiltrating our minds are selected. So with religion there is an idea of immortality – a promise of eternal heredity – something very appealing to selfish genes. This idea of religion is good at passing the selective process by the human mind because of this appeal. And then there are ideas, within the body of religion, that are mutually beneficial to the system. In Islam – apostasy is dealt with on pain of death. Death is a hefty cost. If the cost is so great, it will certainly be avoided by the human mind – by continuing to believe in religion. Another example of a mutually beneficial idea within the body of religious ideas is the idea that you must accept faith without question. Skepticism is part of the selective process. If the selection by humans is minimized in the sense that it is easier to surpass, then it becomes easier to exist – and therefore it benefits religion as a whole. (The idea that it is wrong to speak against religion, rude and offensive to disprove, etc.)
Update: I expand more on religion as a memeplexe in the next post

New memes are created through the association of other memes and this allows variation and production of more memes. Memories record memes and they are used for trans-derivational search in the production of awareness. We developed the capability to rapidly rewire the brain because rapid environmental adaptation is important for survival. Genes have a symbiotic relationship with memes. The idea that a certain entity is dangerous (a tiger about to rip your jugular) is useful because we then are able to avoid that threat. But there are also dangerous memes, which take control of the genes. So we developed a critical faculty to filter good from bad. There is a complex interaction between memes within a mind. I suspect that memes that are most easily associated with other memes (ones that are in accord with many others) take on more heredity because they are then associated with all those other ideas, with variations to the entire meme in each idea.
Update: I talk more about the interactions between the two replicators in my post on coevolution

We spread what we believe to be symbiotic memes through social interaction – because if society as a whole does that then we gain equally symbiotic memes. This process has become increasingly easy with the advent of today’s communication systems. It is now possible for a larger range of people to publish memes through the internet.

This was just a fleeting thought I had relating sexual selection:
In courting, each male/female finds intelligence attractive because a male/female (opposite sex) that has a broader range of cross-referencing database ability is more likely to survive. Thus males/females themselves desire knowledge or intelligence and symbiotic memes to better woo the opposite sex and thus increase heredity. This leads to a non-zero sum game in which the species continually plays a win-win situation of gaining symbiotic memes. As an aside, we may be on the cusp of another revolution due to the aforementioned increase in communicability.

Variables involved in meme fitness
[Fitness is ratio of: copies at one generation / copies at last generation]
Factors that affect heredity:

Hosts: number of hosts at start of a generation (it is difficult to track generations of memes in a system because of the horizontal nature of transmission)

Expression: number of times of expression by each host (a beneficial meme in a memeplexe is one that gives the host the idea that transmission is necessary, good, or beneficial - like a virus encouraging copying)
Transmission: how good a meme is at being selected (a good meme will be good at infiltrating or bypassing the critical faculty)

Retention: capability of retention within individuals (something catchy, something pertinent, something valuable)

Variables that affect variation:

Self-correction: resistance to variation (origami on one end, rumours on the other)
Accuracy: fidelity during transmission (variation increases in proportion to distance from original source – a rumour is changed every time it is told in a line of friends – but it is much closer to the truth if every host obtains the idea from the original source.

Factors that affect selection:
Subjective factors:

Novelty: unique content attracts attention
Simplicity: how easily an idea is absorbed
Coherence: as mentioned above it must align with previous experience and belief
Utility: usefulness. In addition, if it is in practice it is more likely to be transmitted – and utility may be deceptive as religion is

Intersubjective factors:

Authority: reliability of source affects acceptance, retention
Formality: high-fidelity of copies spreads the idea without evolution
Publicity: people tend to conform to the majority, publicity is akin to expression

Meme-centered factors:

Self-justification: an idea may undermine opposition
Self-reinforcement: repetition affects retention
Intolerance: opposes rival memes (death for apostasy in Islam)
Spread Me Command: affects expression (Mormons)

The meme-centered selective force ‘intolerance’ is effectively the origin of the death spiral of negativity. With selfish replicators, outsiders are challenged to prevent the spread of rivals who use resources and are costly. It is more likely with communication ability for a symbiotic relationship. These are win-wins as opposed to loss-loss which is what intolerance creates. The problem with the death spiral of negativity is that individuals at risk don’t realize that if they formed a truce with an entity, and not destroy it, they may gain something - at least in some cases.

Say you go down to the basement and find a man armed with a gun. You pull out your revolver, and think, "I’d better shoot first because this guy is going to kill me." The burglar thinks to himself – ah! I bloody well don’t want to kill this guy – but he’s got a gun, I’d better shoot. And so the death spiral begins. (See Robert Wright on optimism for more)

While I’m on the subject I should mention a peculiar phenomenon in social interactions. The following partially explains why humans developed such tools as sarcasm and humour.

If I were to approach a girl that I really wanted to...replicate my genes with, there are a couple of options that I have.[removed portion] And thus in social interactions we often veil our meaning, even though it is still decipherable, for the sake of caution. That's not all that related to memetics though.

Transhumanism, Temes, and Evolution

Transhumanism is the idea that technological advancements will allow improvements to the human form.

I believe that there is a controversy over whether or not this integration is ethical, and what it means in terms of defining humans. But it’s a simple question to answer. Of course! Of course we should improve ourselves using technology if we may. And it doesn’t matter if anyone disagrees because it will happen – and the ‘genes’ that disagree will perish in the course of time – because the artificial advancement of the human form increases heredity – a factor of evolution. This essentially means that those who accept technological integration with human form will be favoured in terms of survival, and thus the humans that take on transhumanism will become better at existing. Susan Blackmore talks about temes or technomemes. These are essentially the third replicating unit, recently unleashed by humans. The gene is the first replicator that happened, then memes, and now there are temes. Blackmore argues that temes are selfish by nature (like all replicators in an evolving system) and that there are only two possibilities for the future: either the temes piggy-back on humans and get a free ride by surviving with us through integration, or (the more scary option), temes learn how to replicate themselves, rapidly evolve, and overcome humanity. The later situation is similar to the movie "I, Robot" with Will Smith.

I think that both will occur. Since genes are selfish they will attempt to merge with temes, and eventually the two will become inseparable. They are both just complexes of replicators, working together in mass, whereby no single entity contains consciousness or intelligence, yet out of the interaction results in emergent properties of consciousness. This sort of ties in with Epiphenomenalism, which is the idea that the physical state of the brain results in the emergence of a mental state, and the mental state doesn’t affect the physical state. Consciousness is rather interesting to look at in terms of systems. In is notable that the human, as a dissipative system, reacts to the environment, causing a change in the environment, causing a reaction by the human, and so on. Chicken or the egg? A feedback loop. I talk more about complexity theory later.

Anyways...transhumanism. We already have bionic eyes. It’s only a matter of time before the quality of a bionic eye becomes more accurate than a human eye, maybe even allowing a broadened range of the electromagnetic spectrum to be viewed. I’m sure that within my life time we will integrate with technology in some form, enhancing the human condition, advancing the original design by evolution.