13 November 2014

Cultural Intelligence

I would like to try and explore briefly the nature of intelligence from the point of view of memetics. Still today, we struggle to define intelligence. It is quite telling to see how short and vague the definition of intelligence is in Wikipedia for example. Maybe a memetic approach to this question could be enlightening.
See article below.
You may also read this article on its own at this address: Cultural Intelligence

Cultural intelligence and more
A short reflection on the nature of intelligence
By Sylvain Magne
  1. Introduction

I would like to try and explore briefly the nature of intelligence from the point of view of memetics. Still today, we struggle to define intelligence. It is quite telling to see how short and vague the definition of intelligence is in a popular place like Wikipedia for example. Maybe a memetic approach to this question could be enlightening.
Among the many proposed definitions of intelligence, my preference goes to intelligence defined as being the ability to solve problems. What I like about this definition is that it is broad, in the sense that it can apply to many organisms and then it makes intelligence somewhat quantifiable, with measurable problem solving goals. Indeed there are many kinds of problems to be solved and therefore there are many kinds of intelligence. Our intelligence, as with all living things, is a product of evolution, and through evolution we have acquired many problem solving abilities. Of all types of intelligence, humans have excelled at a particular one, cultural intelligence. I would like to show how culture is not just the product of our intelligence, but is also a creator of intelligence.
I am going to explore intelligence through a series of rather arbitrary types, but that I think relevant to my point.
  1. Biological intelligence

Our first type of intelligence, I would suggest, is physiological intelligence. It is in the ability of our bodies to run themselves, to solve the amazingly complex problems of building organs, communicating between organs, processing energy, breathing and eating, defending our bodies against viruses and bacteria, etc. In essence, these tasks are so complex that nobody can fully understand them. Yet we perform these every day, perfectly oblivious to their inner workings. Our most advanced organ is arguably our brain but it is also the organ that we understand the least. Considering this is the place where our commonly understood intelligence is coming from, no wonder we cannot fully understand intelligence yet. We share physiological intelligence with all living things on this planet, and all species have their own tricks and ways of solving specific problems. Physiological intelligence is intelligence indeed, and the fact that it is a common gift we all have does not make it less impressively efficient.
The second type of intelligence is behavioral intelligence. Our bodies are meant to move and interact with a complex three dimensional world. We have an inbuilt intelligence that allows us to quickly learn how to best move inside our world. Our brain is the main organ responsible for our ability to achieve this. Our brains analyse the world through our senses, sight, smell, hearing, touch, taste, and can act upon the world via our muscle power. Thanks to behavioral intelligence, we can hunt, we can fight or flee, we can explore, we can reach, we can manipulate objects. Again, we share comparable levels of behavioral intelligence with many animals on this planet, and again this intelligence is of a very high quality. Even though we don’t seem to apply any conscious intelligence to see with our eyes, our brains make use of incredible amounts of intelligence to allow us to see.
Our third type of intelligence is our social intelligence. Not only can we interact with our environment, but we can also interact with each other in many complex ways. This intelligence allows us to work as communities and coordinate social structures that can benefit most of its members. Thanks to our social, emotional and psychological intelligence we can communicate with each other, work together, help each other, build together, protect each other, mate and care for each other. Again many species on our planet share comparable social intelligence. We are more aware of this type of intelligence because we actively improve it through our lives and our brains let us be very aware of it. Yet many aspects of it, if not most of it, is still happening on a subconscious level, out of our conscious reach.
  1. Cultural intelligence

Our fourth type of intelligence is our cultural intelligence. Where we share most of the other types of intelligence with many other species, our cultural intelligence is comparatively vast and unique. Thanks to the development of our brains, we can learn complex languages and many other complex cultural traits and tricks. Thanks to our great memory capabilities, these cultural traits can be passed on through generations and can be accumulated to create very advanced cultural items. These cultural items have given humans so much intelligent power that humans could be said to be incomparably intelligent, on many levels. Humans can solve more problems than any other living species, but maybe even more importantly, whatever problems humans cannot solve now they may be able to solve at a later stage by evolving and improving their culture. Cultural intelligence evolves much faster than biological intelligence.
Biological evolution has made humans very intelligent and in many ways among the most intelligent species on the planet, but today, culture is really what makes humans superintelligent.
What is a human being without culture? No culture means no language, no know-how of any kind. An acultural human is doomed to be less intelligent than the average cultural human. That is because culture gives us many tools to solve many problems. The tools that we learn when growing up are the very thing that makes us significantly more intelligent. More than people may think. In fact, if a child has not had the opportunity to learn a language during the first two years of its life, the child will not be able to fully develop its cognitive powers. Biological evolution has given us means to develop a culture but if we don’t use this, we are nothing more than wild animals. By providing an education to children, by giving them cultural knowledge and understanding, we are literally developing their intelligence. Obviously, that is true only if the culture given is actually useful in that sense.
Culture is therefore not just something that humans created, it is also something that makes us what we are today. As generations succeed generations, culture evolves faster than our DNA can, much much faster. Our current evolution as human beings is driven more by our cultural evolution than anything else. As intelligent beings we change our culture, but through education, culture changes us. Culture outlives us, it is our legacy and it is the headmaster of our future minds.
The strange thing is that although we create culture, in many ways we understand it very little. We live and bathe in culture but we do not have a wide perspective on culture. The only promising model that we have today to understand culture is memetics. Memetics embodies our understanding that culture is a complex evolving system to which darwinian evolutionary theory applies. In order to truly understand culture we need to understand it in a darwinian context, and for that we need to develop memetics.
From the perspective of memetics, humans are the product of two replicators, the biological genes on one side and the cultural memes on the other. Where our genes build our bodies, memes build our cultural minds. Our brains come readily programmed with room for “cultural programming”. On one side one could look at the genetic brain as being both the hardware of our intelligence and the operating system for it. On the other side, culture writes programs inside our brains, the software. On one hand our brains come ready with pre-installed biological programs to learn by themselves about the environment through trial and error, and on the other hand culture comes with ready made tried and tested cultural programs that help us leap forward and acquire levels of intelligence one could not reach without it.
Today our brains are meme machines as much as they are gene machines. Every time we are exposed to memes they are sculpting our brains bit by bit. Our minds, the way we think, the things we know, the tricks we learned, the language we speak, the skills we perfected, all have been programmed by a mixture of experience and exposition to cultural memes. Without memes, you would not play or hear music, without memes, you would not speak, you would not read, there would be no movies to watch, no paintings, no art, no tools, no science, no history, no stories. Without memes, you wouldn’t know how to cook, you wouldn't know how to dance, you wouldn’t know how to take care of your health or your children, you wouldn’t know how to build a home. Without memes and culture to program our brains, we would be damn stupid.
  1. Technological intelligence

Now, evolution doesn’t stop there.
There is a fifth type of intelligence which is growing rapidly, and that is technological intelligence. Technological intelligence is the result of problem solving artefacts, also known as tools. Since we created tools, tools allowed us to solve more problems, such as how to build homes or hunt more efficiently, etc. For a long time, tools were guided directly by our brains, as a sort of extension of our bodies. But now tools have become much more sophisticated. Tools have grown brains of their own with which they can achieve things that are simply impossible for our brains and bodies. Thanks to technology we fly, we cure diseases, we make complex calculations, we see the infinitely small and the infinitely large, we communicate through space and time, we accomplish feats comparable to magic.
This fantastic technological intelligence is the direct product of cultural intelligence, and the way it is going, it is bound to surpass our own intelligence in every way.
Where technological intelligence has not already surpassed us, it is catching up with our biological intelligence at an amazing rate. All of the types of intelligence I mentioned above are steadily being acquired by technological intelligence. Their physiological intelligence, for example, still looks rough compared to how complex body cells are, but in many ways, machines have already many great features. Where cells can create tissues, these tissues are also fragile, whereas machines are comparatively extremely strong. But where cells can mend tissues and defend themselves, machines are still unable to even start doing that. Where cells are tiny and working at the molecular level, machines are very cumbersome and rough. This said the future technologies such as nanotechnologies are looking to do just that, and even if it takes some time to get there, it’s only a matter of time, and in biological time, it’s just round the corner.
Where behavioral intelligence is concerned, again there are things machines do far better than us, like moving at high speed, flying, carrying weights, etc, but then, as surprising as it may be, no machine can walk like a human can. After many years of research such seemingly simple behaviour is a real challenge for machines. But again progress is being made, we are seeing the first machines walking up stairs, or running in fields like a horse would do. Again, machines are picking up speed and catching up fast. Another great hurdle for machines is vision. In order to move well, machines need to see well. The complexity of this task is enormous but again every day sees new progress on this front, and where we only see a limited portion of the light spectrum, machines will see a lot more, in more detail, in many more dimensions.
Social intelligence is something still very new to technology. Social interactions between machines and humans is something we’re only just starting to explore. The most blatant progress is made by smartphones. These little techno pets that we carry around can hear us and “understand” our vocal instructions. They can also talk back, recognise our facial expressions and more. Machines, it could be said, are slowly becoming social machines, but there is much room for improvement still.
Finally, cultural intelligence in machines is practically inexistent. Humans are still today the main creators of cultural content and only on occasions are machines allowed to learn from each other, teach each other or exchange “techno cultural” items. Despite that, it is already in the air and work is being done in that direction. We are looking at creating machines which could learn on their own, pass that information onto other machines and come up with creative solutions to previously unknown problems. This is leading towards what we commonly call artificial intelligence.
As you can see, technological intelligence is growing fast, in all directions, and it may be relevant to try and anticipate the effects of such rapid growth.
  1. Conclusion

Intelligence in my view is the result of the evolution of problem solving capabilities. Through the ages, natural selection has allowed for many biological types of intelligence to emerge. Then something radically new happened and cultural intelligence emerged in humans. Culture evolved at a comparatively much faster rate, making us more intelligent but also giving rise today to yet another new type of intelligence which is technological intelligence. All of these types of intelligence are the byproducts of underlying evolutionary processes. Darwin’s theory of evolution has given us a tool to understand biological evolution and now we need a new tool to understand cultural and technological evolution. We need them because today things are moving and changing so fast that the problems that we will face now and in the future are coming to us faster and harder. We need, somehow, to see them coming. Our best chance at understanding the dynamics of cultural and technological changes is memetics.

6 November 2014

Memelab Autumn 2014

So I had the pleasure of joining the latest session of Susan Blackmore's Memelab which took place on the first and second of November 2014.

It was a fun, inspirational and enlightening experience. The idea of the Memelab is very simple. It is a rather informal gathering of people interested in discussing the subject of memetics. There were seven of us this time, coming from various backgrounds and different parts of the world. The only rule to this event was a schedule planned so that each participant had a chance to lead the discussion one way or another for an hour. 

This time, Memelab took place in Bristol:

Alan Winfield hosted this session in his own house and made everyone feel at home. It made for a charming weekend indeed.

We discussed many subjects during this session. Here are a few I can remember:
  • Martin was interested in understanding how advertising fatigue may occur and if we develop some kind of immunity to memes in advertising.
  • Rachel wanted to explore how simple drawings get affected by successive hand copying.
  • Susan, was asking what should be done to inform the world about the fast approaching reign of technology.
  • Alan introduced his work on ethical robots.
  • Andrew introduced us to his PHD work on memetics and religion.
  • And myself I tried to emphasise the fact that we find it hard, still today, to define memes.

I enormously enjoyed this event and very much look forward to renewing this experience.

Here is the list of participants:

Susan Blackmore

Alan Winfield

Martin Farncombe

Rachel Cohen

Andrew Atkinson

Marina Strinkovsky

Sylvain Magne

29 October 2014

Why memetics has to work.

In May 2014 a meeting took place at the Santa Fe Institute gathering some of the prominent scientists and philosophers on the subject of cultural evolution. It was organised by Daniel Dennett and aimed at discussing agreements and disagreements over the views and models of cultural evolution.

Each participant wrote a short note on their personal experience of this event, often focussing on areas of agreements and disagreements.
All notes can be read at this address: Santa Fe Workshop

As these sort of events are rare I was eager to hear how it went. I read all the articles and notes that followed the event and was left with a very strong feeling that the popularity of memetics is seriously on the decline, or that the people present were starting to turn their backs on memetics if they had not already buried the whole idea.

Here’s what Dan Sperber said in his summary:

  • "There have been great insights in Dawkins’ whole idea of memes even if it failed to spawn a successful scientific program."
Read Dan's full note here: Dan's thoughts

One can sense here that Dan Sperber really wants to put the final nail in the coffin of memetics, describing it, in a past tense, as a failure. Reading all participants’ notes, I felt like he was not the only one thinking that way and that even Daniel Dennett himself, usually a fervent advocate of the meme idea, seems to move away from memetics and embrace more the ideas offered by the other scientists. Now that Richard Dawkins himself is showing signs of being (as Tim Tyler would say) a reluctant apostle of the meme idea, it seems that Susan Blackmore is left pretty much alone to defend the meme's eye view on cultural evolution. Sue may be the last true memeticist standing.

Read Susan's thoughts on this event here: Susan's thoughts

I have to say that I feel sad and somewhat alarmed by this new trend and I wish more than ever to prevent the collapse of memetics. The reason I don't want us to give up on memetics is because there is a logical reason for which memetics ought to work. If we follow a logical chain of thoughts, it's not up to us to decide whether memetics is real or not, it happens that memetics just has to be true. If it turns out that memetics is not true then it may have some serious consequences for the theory of evolution itself. That is why we need to pay more attention to this issue, and not discard memetics as if it were just a fad. Let me explain further.

Memetics is part of a larger picture which is the theory of evolution. 

The theory is based on simple principles, which Susan Blackmore do well to remind us of regularly. These are heredity, variation and selection. Indeed, when we have those elements together we necessarily have evolution. This idea has been formalised a little further with the concept of the replicator. The existence of the replicator along with environmental conditions is what allows for evolution to take place.

The theory of evolution relies on these concepts to be true and universal, as Richard Dawkins himself has pointed out. That is actually the very reason why he looked for another replicator than the genes, in order to show the universality of the concept. He was right to chose culture as an example. Sure enough he didn't have much choice, but at least culture exhibits all the signs of evolution. In Fact the evidence for cultural evolution is so overwhelming it was actually used as an argument for biological evolution. So, undeniably, culture evolves.
If culture evolves, it can only mean one thing, it must obey the laws of darwinian evolution, and it means there has to be some replicators at the heart of cultural evolution. Not just a few loose replicators, no. The cultural replicators need to be the cornerstone of cultural evolution. At least that’s what the theory leads us to expect.

So what if those memes, those cultural replicators, were nowhere to be found? What if memeticists failed to make a convincing case for memetics? What would happen then? 

What I want to argue is that if it were the case we would have a bigger problem than we would like to think. It wouldn't be just a case of “oh well, memetics doesn't work, forget about it then”, no, if memetics were to fail then this simple fact could falsify the whole theory of evolution. In a ricochet effect, the problem would bounce back to the theory of evolution and force us to question Darwin’s own ideas. Why is that?

Let’s take an analogy to understand better what is at stake here. 
If one considers triangles, one may notice that the sum of all 3 angles of a triangle adds up to 180°. From this observation one would naturally extrapolate that probably this fact is true for all triangles. As a matter of fact it is true and this can be considered as a fundamental law for triangles. Now what would happen if someone, one day, were to find a particular triangle that does not obey the 180° rule?
One cannot just say, “Ah well, the rule applies to all triangle but not that one!”. That would be unsatisfactory because one would still need to account for the existence of that strange triangle, and it wouldn’t help us finding out whether there are other triangles that also violate the rule.
In fact, if this were the case, mathematicians would have no other choice but to reconsider the 180° rule itself. They would think that maybe the 180° rule is not complete and that, surely, it should be reviewed. In other words the 180° rule would be falsified, proven to be false.
That is exactly what is at stake here between memetics and the theory of evolution. If memetics cannot be proven to be true, then this questions the validity of the theory of evolution. It potentially falsifies darwinian evolution.

So at this point it can go one of two ways, either we work it out and show how memetics is a valid model for cultural evolution, or we go back to the drawing board of theoretical evolution and fix the problem there. Either scenarios are possible indeed. In fact even if we were to be forced to go back to the theory of evolution, it doesn't mean that it is entirely false but maybe only incomplete. Let me continue my analogy to explain this point.

There are actually some triangles that do not obey the 180° rule. Proving it is very simple. If you were to draw a triangle between let’s say London, Tokyo and Sydney, by drawing lines on the surface of the planet that join these cities, you would find that the sum of this triangle’s angles exceeds 180°. Now how’s that possible? The reason for this is that the surface of the earth is curved, non-planar. The 180° rule only applies to a Euclidean space, where lines are straight. The surface of the earth is a non-Euclidean space where the lines of the triangle are curved. In such spaces, the rule does not apply any more. So what we find here is that the 180° rule has to be completed in order to work. We need to add a condition to the rule which is that it only applies to a Euclidean space. Once this is understood, then the mystery is solved.

So, going back to the theory of evolution, it may be that we just haven’t found the right angle for memetics yet or it may be that we need to make some adjustments to the theory of evolution itself. I have my own opinion on what needs to be done, but I believe this is the very reason why we cannot give up on memetics. If we do give up on memetics, then we have a logical obligation to account for why it doesn't work and that means going back to the theoretical board of darwinian evolution.

As it stands, my own approach to memetics has led me to work on the concept of replicator. I find that as it is, it lacks definition in order to build a good model of memetics from it. I hope to show with my work that all of this can be done rigorously, and that memes are real indeed.

29 August 2014


Soon I will have the pleasure of joining Susan Blackmore's Memelab.

It consists in a small gathering of memeticists who enjoy discussing meme matters over a couple of days.
You will find more information about the Memelab on Susan's website:


I am honoured I will be able to take part this time and enjoy everyone's wisdom.
It should happen some time in October.
I will then try and let you know how it all went.