Monday, March 30, 2015

Red triangle on water


Memetics is Dead but What’s the Study of Cultural Evolution Otherwise About?

In the waning years of the previous century an online journal for serious work in cultural evolution was established: Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission. The first issue came out in 1997 and the last in 2005. The journal closed for lack of interest; it wasn’t getting enough high-quality submissions.

In the last issue one of the editors, Bruce Edmonds, published a short swansong, The revealed poverty of the gene-meme analogy – why memetics per se has failed to produce substantive results. Those remarks remain valid today, a decade later. Edmonds made a careful distinction
between what might be called the “broad” and the “narrow” approaches to memetics. The former, broad, approach involves modelling communication or other social phenomena using approaches which are evolutionary in structure. Work within this approach is often done without appealing to “memes” or "memetics" since it can be easily accommodated within other frameworks. In other words, it does not require an analogy with genetics. The later, narrow, sense involves a closer analogy between genes and memes – not necessarily 100% direct, but sufficiently direct so as to justify the epithet of “memetics”. What has failed is the narrow approach – that of memetics. Work continues within the broad approach, albeit under other names, and in other journals.
Work on culture that is broadly cultural in nature continues today and, with the proliferation of “big data” approaches to research in the social sciences and humanities will likely grow in the future. This work requires that we count and classify things but, as Edmonds has said, it doesn’t require that we conceptualize them as cultural genes. This work can in fact be empirical in nature with no particular theoretical commitments to specific causal models.

Edmonds goes on the point out that much of memetics is mere redescription: “The ability to think of some phenomena in a particular way (or describe it using a certain framework), does not mean that the phenomena has those properties in any significant sense.” He further notes that
The study of memetics has been characterised by theoretical discussion of extreme abstraction and over ambition. Thus for example, before any evidence is available or detailed causal models constructed, attempts have been made to “explain” some immensely complex phenomena such as religion in general or consciousness.
Frankly, memetics, both in its pop versions and more serious academic versions, has the feel of an intellectual get-rich quick scheme. Just get the definition right, stick to it, and untold intellectual riches will be ours.

I note, however, that the sense of breathless elation and wonderful revelation seemed refreshingly absent from the recent workshop that Daniel Dennett hosted at the Santa Fe Institute. I mention this because Dennett, who is a serious academic, has in the past been an enthusiastic booster of memetics, as has Susan Blackmore, who was also at the workshop. Dennett, after all, is one of those who saw memetics as an explanation for religion.

So What? Getting from There to Here

But why go over this territory once again? Mostly because I’m trying to figure out what, if anything, to do next. That in turn requires getting a sense of where we are now.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Friday Fotos: Flickr Picks

These are the photos that have been getting attention in the last day over at my Flickr site.





Thursday, March 26, 2015

Q: Why is the Dawkins Meme Idea so Popular?

I've been reading on cultural evolution, in particular, about Sperber's cultural attractors (which I've criticized in a comment at Replicated Typo) and getting disgusted with the whole business of accounting for cultural evolution at the micro-scale. Should I continue to criticize these folks or simply give up? One thing is clear to me: you can't get there from here. (See this decade-old article by Bruce Edmonds in the now-defunct Journal of Memetics) These people don't use serious examples and don't have any significant interest in mental mechanisms. It's all leveled to information or representation. So, while I'm treading water on this one, I thought I repost this piece from a couple of years ago.
Q: Why is the Dawkins Meme Idea so Popular? A: Because it is daft.

I believe there are two approaches to that question. For most people it’s convenient. That requires one explanation, which I’ll run through first.

For some people, however, memetics is more than convenient. Some, including Dawkins himself and his philosophical acolyte, Dan Dennett, use it as a way of explaining religion. In that role the meme idea is attractive because it is, or has evolved into, an egregiously bad idea, one almost as irrational as the religious ideas whose popularity it is supposed to explain away. By analogy to an argument Dawkins himself has made about religion, that makes memetics the perfect vehicle for the affirmation of materialist faith.

But I don’t want to go there yet. Let’s work into it.

Ordinary Memetics

When Dawkins first proposed the idea in The Selfish Gene (1976), it wasn’t a bad idea—nor even a new one. Ted Cloak, among others, got there first, but not with the catchy name. Having worked hard to conceptualize the gene as a replicator, Dawkins was looking for  another set of examples. and coined the term “meme” as a replicator for culture. The word, and the idea, caught on and soon talk of memes was flying all over the place.

I suspect that the spread of computer technology is partially responsible for the cultural climate in which the meme idea found a home. Computers ‘level’ everything into bits: words, pictures, videos, numbers, computer programs of all kinds, simulations of explosions, traffic flow, moon landings, everything becomes bits: bits, bits, and more bits. The meme concept simply ‘levels’ all of culture—songs, recipes, costumes, paintings, hazing rituals, etc.—into the uniform substance of memes.

What is culture? Memes.

Simple and useful. As long as you don’t try to push it very far.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

You say "tomato"...


Beyond the Nation State

Writing in the New York Review of Books, Jessica T. Matthews reviews current books by Henry Kissinger (World Order) and Bret Stephens (America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Social Disorder). The Stephens is a doubtful polemic while the Kissinger is more reflective. Both are inscribed within the international regime established by the Treaty of Westphalia that ended the Thirty Years War in 1648 and established the state as the sole broker of international relations. The final two paragraphs:
While the Westphalian system has shaped relations among states for three and a half centuries, and continues to do so, its reign has profoundly changed during just the past two to three decades. Borders, to put it simply, are not what they used to be. In 1648, nearly everything that mattered could be located within a fixed boundary—not so today. The trillions of dollars sloshing around in cyberspace, pollution, globalizing culture, international criminal networks, and the stressed global commons of oceans, air, and biodiversity are all changing the world profoundly. So are tightly knit but nongeographic communities of national diasporas, ethnic groups and violent jihadists, corporations largely unmoored from any one country, and the gigantic global financial market—now almost twice as large as the global GDP.

These limits on global resources, porous borders, a globalizing culture that both fragments and amalgamates, and growing requirements for states to work together for mutual well-being if not survival all mean that today’s world order, and certainly tomorrow’s, cannot be seen only as a matter of the distribution of state power or as a system in which only states matter. The Westphalian order is not going away, but it is no longer what it once was. It’s too soon to see what that system and the new forces will produce as they co-exist; but it’s safe to say it won’t look anything like the familiar past.
H/t 3QD.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Terrified: How Anti-Muslim Fringe Organizations Became Mainstream

This is new from Princeton University Press. I read it as a case study in cultural evolution:
Here's a paragraph from the opening chapter (which you can download at the link above)
The principal contribution of this book is a new theory that explains how cultural, social psychological, and structural processes combine to shape the evolution of shared understandings of so- cial problems in the wake of crises such as the September 11th attacks. Such events provide fringe organizations with the opportunity to exploit the emotional bias of the media. Media am- plification of emotional fringe organizations creates the misperception that such groups have substantial support and therefore deserve reprimand. Yet when mainstream organizations angrily denounce the fringe they only further increase the profile of these peripheral actors within the public sphere. This unintended consequence creates tension and splintering within the mainstream—but also gives fringe organizations the visibility necessary to routinize their shared emotions into networks with more powerful organizations that help them raise funds that consolidate their capacity to create cultural change. From this privileged position, these once obscure organizations can attack the legitimacy of the mainstream precisely as it begins to tear itself apart. With time, these countervailing forces reshape the cultural environment—or the total population of groups competing to shape public discourse about social problems—and fringe organizations “drift” into the mainstream.

The evolution of cultural environments is particularly powerful because it is largely invisible. None of the civil society organizations that inhabit the cultural environment can view it in its entirety because of its sheer size, complexity, and ever-shifting boundaries. Instead, they rely upon powerful institutions such as the media to communicate the contours of the cultural environment back to them. The inevitable distortion that occurs throughout this process sets in motion a chain of irreversible events in which mainstream organizations inadvertently transform their environment through their very attempts to prevent it from changing. Meanwhile, such distortion enables fringe organizations to disguise themselves as part of the mainstream until such deception becomes real—or until the irreversible cultural, structural, and social psychological pro- cesses just described transform the contours of the cultural environment outside the media as well. These broad shifts continue to shape the evolution of media discourse in turn, but also the ways in which policy makers and the broader public understand social problems—as later chapters of this book describe.

Kids These Days: Media Use and Parental Fear

My colleague Charlie Keil is worried that kids these days spend too much time with media of one sort or another (as detailed, e.g. in this report) – TV, computer, video games, whatever – and not enough time interacting directly with one another (in particular, not enough time engaging in music and dance). Meanwhile danah boyd has been researching teen media use and discovers that one reason they spend so much time online is that they can’t easily get together physically. Their lives are tightly scheduled and meeting places are few and far between.

So, is children’s media-use the result of adult micro-management? That is, kids aren’t over-using media because they’re so seductive, but because their parents won’t let them play out-doors and play together.

Meanwhile, there’s a growing movement in favor of so-called “free-range childhood”. As far as I can tell that means growing up like I did. As long as I was home for dinner, for bed, practiced my trumpet, and got my homework done, I could roam the neighborhood as I wished. And I could take public transportation wherever I needed to go. Of course, this was calibrated to my age. I had more freedom at ten than at five, and more at fifteen than at ten. Still, within fairly generously limits, I could wander at will.

Over the past several years I’ve been reading that this kind of childhood is disappearing in favor of one where kids are taken everywhere by their parents and are slotted into all kinds of activities where they are supervised by adults, having less time for free play among themselves.

I have no sense of how prevalent such restrictions are. Over at Free Range Kids I found this: “Today, only 13 percent of U.S. children walk to school. One study found that only 6 percent of kids age 9-13 play outside in a given week.” I haven’t tried to track down that first number, but following the link for the second didn’t get me to the source document. If true, it’s shocking.

Once in a while I see question like this on Facebook, "At what age is it safe to let your children play outside alone?" Without fail, many parents will answer, "After 13 years," and "After 15 years," and most alarmingly, "Never." You always see a few parents who disagree, but not many. The fact that the majority of parents on Facebook think that kids require adult supervision at all times, matches up with national statistics. Surveys collected by Christie Barnes, author of The Paranoid Parents Guide, found that the biggest worry among parents is kidnapping. Another study by pediatricians at the Mayo Clinic, showed that nearly 3/4 of parents said they are afraid that their children may be abducted. In fact, parents in the Mayo Clinic study were more worried about kidnapping than car accidents, sports injuries, or drug addiction. Many other surveys show that as many as half of American parents worry about kidnapping often, which in turn prevents these moms and dads from letting their kids go outside to play.
And that takes us back to danah boyd, who is concerned that exaggerated fears of online sexual predation distorts our sense of real dangers.

So, we keep kids indoors because we fear what will happen to them outdoors and, once we’ve driven them to media, we worry about what will happen to them there.

Meanwhile another bunch of folks are concerned about not getting enough contact with nature:
Although human beings have been urbanizing, and then moving indoors, since the invention of agriculture, social and technological changes in the past three decades have accelerated that change. Among the reasons: the proliferation of electronic communications; poor urban planning and disappearing open space; increased street traffic; diminished importance of the natural world in public and private education; and parental fear magnified by news and entertainment media. An expanding body of scientific evidence suggests that nature-deficit disorder contributes to a diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, conditions of obesity and overweight, and higher rates of emotional and physical illnesses. Research also suggests that the nature deficit weakens ecological literacy and stewardship of the natural world. These problems are linked more broadly to what health care experts call the “epidemic of inactivity,” as well as to a devaluing of independent play. Nonetheless, we believe that society’s nature-deficit disorder can be reversed.
What’s going on?

Common/mutual knowledge in the laboratory

I talked about mutual knowledge in my open letter to Steve Pinker (blog version HERE, PDF version with additional materials HERE). In the story about the emperor's new clothes, once the emperor stepped outside in his new finery, everyone could see that he was, in fact, naked. The finery was a scam. But it was only when the little boy blurted out "he's naked" that everyone knew that every other person also saw the emperor as naked. That's mutual knowledge.

Now Pinker, a Harvard graduate student, Kyle Thomas, and colleagues at two other schools, Peter DeScioli at Stony Brook University and Omar Haque at Harvard Medical School, have investigated mutual knowledge in the laboratory and reported the results in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Medical Express reports (note: common knowledge = mutual knowledge):
While the notion of common knowledge has existed for decades and has been applied to fields as varied as philosophy and computer science, studies that focused on the actual psychology of common knowledge have been few and far between, Thomas said. 
The chief reason, he said, is that "paying costs to benefit others poses obvious evolutionary puzzles that are not apparent when both people benefit. Because they do not present any evolutionary puzzles, the coordination problems of common knowledge are not nearly as obvious to researchers. The question is, how do we anticipate what our social partners will do, when what they do depends on what they expect us to do? This is a profound social cognition problem. How does one read the mind of a mind reader?"
The had subjects play an economic game where some played the role of a baker and other the role of a butcher. Would they cooperate by producing complementary products (e.g. hot dogs and buns) or would each go his or her own way? It depends on what they knew about one another's activities AND knowledge:
"What we found was that, for private knowledge, even if we varied the payouts, or the number of people involved, only about 15 percent of people cooperated," Thomas said. "With shared knowledge, we saw about 50 percent, and with common knowledge, it was 85 percent. It was just a whopping effect. That indicated to us that we are very sensitive to this previously unappreciated mental state. Our minds evolved to understand this important kind of social structure, and how different kinds of knowledge can impact it."

Monday, March 23, 2015

Dogs as actors

From a NYTimes article about White God, a prize-winning Hungarian film with a cast of 200+ dogs who have to act in sophisticated ways:
It took more than five months to prepare the dogs: training them and dismissing dominant ones from the pack.

Dozens of trainers took part, forming small packs to allow the animals to acclimate to one another, then increasing the size of the packs as the dogs grew friendlier with one another.

“It’s unheard-of in the typical modern-day film industry to take that much time to put this together instead of quickly just using special effects,” Ms. Miller said.

“A lot of the introverted or depressed dogs involved really found a sense of purpose,” she added. “You started to see their confidence built in having this routine. They had something to look forward to.” All the dogs were adopted after shooting was completed, according to the filmmakers, and Ms. Miller said the shift in their demeanor probably helped.

They like cabbage at my Flickr site

I'll say this much: It sure is green. LOL!



And wrinkled, wrinkled most wondrously.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Free range kids in New Zealand, and lessons from the Māori

Daniel Davies, blogger at Crooked Timber, is going around the world with his family for a year (he made a bit of money in investment banking). They've just spent a couple of months in New Zealand.
Part of the whole purpose of bringing the children round the world – god knows, it wasn’t the sheer joy of home-schooling – was to let them see that different ways of doing things are possible, and the way that children live in New Zealand really contrasted with how things were in London.

The kids have much more independence, and a much more outdoor lifestyle. When there isn’t so much traffic on the roads and there’s more empty space, they can play in it. My ten-year-old nephew was able to go out alone into the bush to look after his father’s possum traps (it’s considered civically responsible to take care of a few traps in the local bush, because possums and rats eat kiwi eggs). After school, kids would arrange to meet up, parent’s absent, and “jump off the wharf”. (Jumping off things is actually the national sport, as far as I can tell – it doesn’t get as much TV coverage as rugby, but has many more participants. In the course of a fifteen minute lift I gave to a hitch-hiker who had missed his bus back home from one of the higher local wharves, I was given a pretty comprehensive run down of all the tall objects with bodies of water beneath them in the surrounding district. There’s a sign on the bridge over the Whakatane River saying “Do not jump off this bridge”, but I don’t know why they bothered).

On enrolling our five-year old at her infants’ school we were pretty much immediately handed a piece of paper with details of the two-day camp that the tots would be going on. It’s a totally different world.
He also has some observations about the Māori:
How does a basically tribal society adapt to a modern industrial lifestyle? That, in my view, is a really important question for the world at the moment, as it’s the key to the Afghanistan conflict, among other things. The Pashtun tribes who make life so difficult for any and all occupiers of that territory are not stupid, and they are aware of what happened to the Khoi-San, the Native Americans, the Aborigines, and more or less any tribal society that has ever adopted any position other than one of strictly “no compromise, no retreat, nothing except trade in firearms and textiles” with respect to the modern world. Economic development in that region is more or less impossible if it has to be attempted in the context of a society which is basically the largest surviving tribal society in existence and wants to stay that way. For that reason, if no other, I think it’s a good idea for the rest of us to look at New Zealand and see if there’s anything to learn.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The economic value of slaves in antebellum America: 2nd most valuable capital asset

A startling statistic emerged in the 1970s, when economists taking a hardheaded look at slavery found that on the eve of the Civil War, enslaved black people, in the aggregate, formed the second most valuable capital asset in the United States. David Brion Davis sums up their findings: “In 1860, the value of Southern slaves was about three times the amount invested in manufacturing or railroads nationwide.” The only asset more valuable than the black people was the land itself. The formula Jefferson had stumbled upon became the engine not only of Monticello but of the entire slaveholding South and the Northern industries, shippers, banks, insurers and investors who weighed risk against returns and bet on slavery. The words Jefferson used—“their increase”—became magic words.

Why is there so little opposition to the hegemony of the super-rich?

What we have here is a failure of political memory and imagination.

In 2014, when Oxfam arrived in Davos, it came bearing the (then) shocking news that just 85 individuals controlled as much wealth as half of the world’s population combined. This January, that number went down to 80 individuals.
Fraser terms out current era the second Gilded Age. The first ran from the end of the Civil War through to the stock market crash of 1929. In that first Gilded Age:
American elites were threatened with more than embarrassing statistics. Rather, a “broad and multifaceted resistance” fought for and won substantially higher wages, better workplace conditions, progressive taxation and, ultimately, the modern welfare state (even as they dreamed of much more).
So far there is little popular resistance in the current Gilded Age. What's missing?
Fraser offers several explanations for the boldness of the post-Civil War wave of labor resistance, including, interestingly, the intellectual legacy of the abolition movement. The fight against slavery had loosened the tongues of capitalism’s critics, forging a radical critique of the market’s capacity for barbarism. With bonded labor now illegal, the target pivoted to factory “wage slavery.” This comparison sounds strange to contemporary ears, but as Fraser reminds us, for European peasants and artisans, as well as American homesteaders, the idea of selling one’s labor for money was profoundly alien.

This is key to Fraser’s thesis. What ­fueled the resistance to the first Gilded Age, he argues, was the fact that many Americans had a recent memory of a different kind of economic system, whether in America or back in Europe. Many at the forefront of the resistance were actively fighting to protect a way of life, whether it was the family farm that was being lost to predatory creditors or small-scale artisanal businesses being wiped out by industrial capitalism. Having known something different from their grim present, they were capable of imagining — and fighting for — a radically better future.

It is this imaginative capacity that is missing from our second Gilded Age, a theme to which Fraser returns again and again in the latter half of the book. The latest inequality chasm has opened up at a time when there is no popular memory — in the United States, at least — of another kind of economic system. Whereas the activists and agitators of the first Gilded Age straddled two worlds, we find ourselves fully within capitalism’s matrix. So while we can demand slight improvements to our current conditions, we have a great deal of trouble believing in something else entirely.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Where are the polymaths of days gone by? Who's going to make sense of it all?

Jonathan Haber dove whole-hog into online courses put up by major universities and worked his way through bachelor's worth of courses in a year, documenting his work online (@ As J. Peder Zane says in the Good Old Gray Lady (aka the NYTimes):
Mr. Haber’s project embodies a modern miracle: the ease with which anyone can learn almost anything. Our ancient ancestors built the towering Library of Alexandria to gather all of the world’s knowledge, but today, smartphones turn every palm into a knowledge palace.

And yet, even as the highbrow holy grail — the acquisition of complete knowledge — seems tantalizingly close, almost nobody speaks about the rebirth of the Renaissance man or woman. The genius label may be applied with reckless abandon, even to chefs, basketball players and hair stylists, but the true polymaths such as Leonardo da Vinci and Benjamin Franklin seem like mythic figures of a bygone age.
Well, of course not. The Renaissance is, you know, so quattrocento.

Friday Fotos: Some more or less circles