Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for December 24th, 2018

Trump tries strong-arming the stock market—gets thrown, hard.

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Kevin Drum’s column (source of the chart) should definitely be read.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 December 2018 at 1:39 pm

Dangerous Memes; or, What the Pandorans let loose

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Susan Blackmore’s contribution to Cosmos and Culture: Cultural Evolution in a Cosmic Context, as submitted (possibly later edited before publication):

Cultural evolution is a dangerous child for any species to let loose on its world. And the parent species, whatever it is like and wherever it arises, will have no insight into what it has done until its offspring is already grown and making its way in the world. By then it is too late to take it back. So I shall call this motherly species ‘Pandoran’, after the mythical first Greek woman whose box released all the evils of mankind. We humans are Earth’s Pandorans, and have let loose cultural evolution, but on other planets quite different creatures might be playing this role.

Opening such a box of tricks can even be lethal, and I suspect that there are several danger points. The first critical step occurs when one species becomes capable of behavioural imitation, or of some other process that makes copying with variation and selection possible. This creates a new replicator, making the evolution of culture inevitable. This is the first danger point, because the newly created culture – the spreading of copied behaviours and the competition to mix, match and make more – can get out of hand. Some of the behaviours may be so extravagant, or expensive, or dangerous, that they kill off their Pandorans and so obliterate themselves as well. This kind of waste is all part of how evolution works. Indeed natural selection might be called “design by death” because of all the billions of creations that have to die in spawning innovation and success for a few.

If this first danger point is passed, the Pandorans and their newly spawned culture may begin to adapt to each other, and coevolve towards a more symbiotic relationship, as diseases and their hosts sometimes do. If this succeeds, the result may be a stable mutualism that lasts indefinitely. Alternatively, with enough time, and under the right conditions, another step might be taken. That is, new mechanisms for copying, varying and selecting information could evolve outside of the Pandorans themselves, leading to a second danger point. For example, here on earth, humans invented printing, sound recording and photography, vast communication networks, broadcasting and the Internet. These are all methods of selective copying which means a new evolutionary step, and this creates a second danger point. As the copying increases, the thirst for innovation that’s unleashed can be a drain not only on the Pandorans who started it but on their whole environment as well. This is what has happened here on earth, with the consequent overpopulation and technological explosion threatening the health and climate of the entire planet.

This danger point could also be safely passed, or it might prove fatal. We don’t yet know what the outcome will be here on earth; it might go either way. However, our sample of one planet does at least allow us to think about the general picture and speculate about what might happen on other planets elsewhere in the cosmos.

I like to imagine a vast universe containing many planets which have conditions suitable for life to evolve. On some of those planets a species evolves that is capable of copying what others do, so unleashing this second evolutionary process. Among those planets, some survive the danger point and some do not, with the successful ones going on to spawn further evolutionary steps and face further danger points. On this picture, what should we expect to see around us? I would like to explore what might be out there on the basis of this memetic way of thinking about cultural evolution. I shall first explain a little about memes, meme theory and the importance of replicators, and then consider some of the possible fates of planets that give birth to multiple replicators as ours has done.

The science of memes

Memetics is rooted in universal Darwinism; that is the idea that natural selection is a general process of which earthly biology is just one example.

Working from his detailed observations of living things, Darwin saw what very few people had ever seen before, even though the process is always staring us right in the face. That is, if creatures vary, and if they have to compete for resources so that most of the variants die, and if the successful variants pass on to their offspring whatever it is that helped them survive, then the offspring must be better adapted to the environment in which all this happened than their parents were. Repeat that cycle of copying, varying and selecting, and design must appear out of nowhere.

My favourite word in that description is “must”. This “must” is what makes Darwin’s insight the most beautiful in all of science. You take a simple three step algorithm and find that the emergence of design for function is inevitable. Dan Dennett calls it “a scheme for creating Design out of Chaos without the aid of Mind” (Dennett 1995 p 50). This is “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” that the algorithmic level is the level that best accounts for the wonders of nature; that all the fantastic and beautiful creatures in the world are produced by lots and lots of tiny steps in a mindless and mechanical algorithm.

The whole process can look like magic – like getting something for nothing – but it isn’t. It is not possible to get matter out of nowhere, but it is possible to get information, or new patterns of matter, apparently out of nowhere by making copies. If the copies vary slightly and not all the copies survive, then the survivors must have something that helped them win the competition – using Darwin’s term they are more “fit”; they make a better fit to their environment. Then they pass on this advantage to the next generation of copies. And so it goes on.

This is the fundamental idea that Richard Dawkins explained in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. He emphasised the importance of thinking about evolution in terms of information rather than squishy living creatures, and he called the information that is copied the replicator. In fact “replicator” is not a very good name, implying that it is the thing that does the replicating rather than being the thing that is replicated (perhaps ‘replicatee’ would be better) but ‘replicator’ is what it is called and I will stick with that here; the concept is more important than the name.

For Dawkins it was a general law, “the law that all life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities.” (1989 p 192); a “view of life …that applies to living things everywhere in the universe. The fundamental unit, the prime mover of all life, is the replicator.” (1989 p 264)”. With this view he wanted “to claim almost limitless power for slightly inaccurate self-replicating entities, once they arise anywhere in the universe.” (1989 p 322).

From the perspective of this general law, genes are only one example of a replicator. So we might expect them to show both characteristics that are true of all replicators everywhere in the universe, and features that depend on the idiosyncrasies of evolution here on earth. Dawkins wanted to explore the general principles as well as the specifics. Indeed he became quite frustrated with the way his colleagues tended to think about evolution as though it were inevitably and always a matter of genes. So at the end of the book he asked his now famous question “do we have to go to distant worlds to find other kinds of replicator and other, consequent, kinds of evolution?” (1989 p 192). His answer was, of course, no. Staring us in the face, “still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup” (1989 p 192), is a new replicator; tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, fashions, and ways of making things are all spread from person to person by imitation. They vary and they are selected. These are the new replicators; the memes.

There is nothing mythical or hypothetical about memes, and this point is frequently misunderstood.  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 December 2018 at 12:34 pm

Declaration Grooming’s Unconditional Surrender

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Continuing my revisit of Declaration Grooming shaving soaps, this morning I used Unconditional Surrender, a very pleasant fragrance, and again it made a lovely lather with the WSP Prince.

My RazoRock Stealth, a superb slant, did a wonderfully easy job to produce a smooth face, which received a splash of the matching aftershave from Chatillon Lux. Christmas Eve is underway!

Written by LeisureGuy

24 December 2018 at 9:51 am

Posted in Shaving

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