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.

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