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Archive for the ‘Memetics’ Category

A second post in a series of posts about Information Theory/Learning based perspectives in Evolution, that started off from the last post.

Although the last post was mostly about a historical perspective, it had a section where the main motivation for some work in metabiology due to Chaitin (now published as a book) was reviewed. The starting point about that work was to view evolution solely through an information processing lens (and hence the use of Algorithmic Information Theory). Ofcourse this lens by itself is not a recent acquisition and goes back a few decades (although in hindsight the fact that it goes back just a few decades is very surprising to me at least). To illustrate this I wanted to share some analogies by John Maynard Smith (perhaps one of my favourite scientists), which I had found to be particularly incisive and clear. To avoid clutter, they are shared here instead (note that most of the stuff he talks about is something we study in high school, however the talk is quite good, especially because it tends to emphasize on the centrality of information throughout). I also want this post to act as a reference for some upcoming posts.

Coda:

Molecular Biology is all about Information. I want to be a little more general than that; the last century, the 19th century was a century in which Science discovered how energy could be transformed from one form to another […] This century will be seen […] where it became clear that information could be translated from one from to another.

[Other parts: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6]

Throughout this talk he gives wonderful analogies on how information translation underlies the so called Central Dogma of Molecular Biology, and how if the translation was one-way in some stages it could have implications (i.e how August Weismann noted that acquired characters are not inherited by giving a “Chinese telegram translation analogy”; since there was no mechanism to translate acquired traits (acquired information) into the organism so that it could be propagated).

However, the most important point from the talk: One could see evolution as being punctuated by about 6 or so major changes or shifts. Each of these events was marked by the way information was stored and processed in a different way. Some that he talks about are:

1. The origin of replicating molecules.

2. The Evolution of chromosomes: Chromosomes are just strings of the above replicating molecules. The property that they have is that when one of these molecules is replicated, the others have to be as well. The utility of this is the following: Since they are all separate genes, they might have different rates of replication and the gene that replicates fastest will soon outnumber all the others and all the information would be lost. Thus this transition underlies a kind of evolution of cooperation between replicating molecules or in other other words chromosomes are a way for forced cooperation between genes.

3. The Evolution of the Code: That information in the nucleic could be translated to sequences of amino acids i.e. proteins.

4. The Origin of Sex: The evolution of sex is considered an open question. However one argument goes that (details in next or next to next post) the fact that sexual reproduction hastens the acquisition from the environment (as compared to asexual reproduction) explains why it should evolve.

5. The Evolution of multicellular organisms: A large, complex signalling system had to evolve for these different kind of cells to function in an organism properly (like muscle cells or neurons to name some in Humans).

6. Transition from solitary individuals to societies: What made these societies of individuals (ants, humans) possible at all? Say if we stick to humans, this could have only happened only if there was a new way to transmit information from generation to generation – one such possible information transducing machine could be language! Thus giving an additional mechanism to transmit information from one generation to another other than the genetic mechanisms (he compares the genetic code and replication of nucleic acids and the passage of information by language). This momentous event (evolution of language ) itself dependent on genetics. With the evolution of language, other things came by:  Writing, Memes etc. Which might reproduce and self-replicate, mutate and pass on and accelerate the process of evolution. He ends by saying this stage of evolution could perhaps be as profound as the evolution of language itself.

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As a side comment: I highly recommend the following interview of John Maynard Smith as well. I rate it higher than the above lecture, although it is sort of unrelated to the topic.

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Interesting books to perhaps explore:

1. The Major Transitions in EvolutionJohn Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry.

2. The Evolution of Sex: John Maynard Smith (more on this theme in later blog posts, mostly related to learning and information theory).

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Disclaimer: This is not a post contrary to the nature of this blog. This is not a political post as some might think. My blog is basically about science and I mention I have an interest in people and minds, and this is what this particular post is about. No politics or political opinions in this post at all.

I think my job and aim (one of them) in life is to do good science and I think politics should be kept out of science. Scientists though entitled to have strong opinions on these matters should focus on their primary work and not take their opinions (unless very necessary) beyond general coffee break discussions.

Edit(1 Dec 2008): I realize that there could be a confusion by what I meant by the above paragraph, a clarification is issued in the comments here.

Introduction

Terrorism invokes a wide range of responses depending on the crowd one is looking at. One that is common from most societies goes along these lines – “Outrageous”, “Cowards”, “Retards”, “Beasts”, and  one could add to that a lot of censored words also. Which is almost immediately followed by diatribes on societies and religions either out in the open or in hushed tones.

There has been a major terrorist strike in the Indian city of Mumbai today morning, killing scores and more importantly aimed to destabilize a country growing in clout rapidly (eyewitness account on the attacks). Ofcourse the terrorists would never succeed in that for a multiplicity of reasons, however this is not the objective of my post. India has been under attack by terror for more than one and a half decade now, more than what any other country has faced in the world.

After such strikes there are a number of animated discussions with people thumping their desks and asking angrily: Where is security for the citizen? Where are the security forces? Where are the Intelligence and spy agencies? Where is the government? Is it sleeping? And a number of other totally understandable questions which are expected from and SHOULD come from any citizen who would get angry or upset after such incidences. A lot of people say: destroy terrorist hideouts, destroy terror networks, kill all terrorists etc. Fair enough. But the basic question that most people duck is what actually makes terrorists? What prompts a young man to hold a gun and indulge in suicidal behavior and kill innocent people indiscriminately, almost heartlessly?

I had been reading on this for some time now, for almost three four years, and also I have some gifts in terms of sound observational powers to do some people watching to understand and make sense of things. Over the past couple of years, books that have resonated with my own understanding of the situation which i don’t claim to be above that of a novice, but nonetheless that of a concerned world citizen have been:

1. A review by Freeman Dyson of Dan Dennett’s book “Breaking The Spell”. Dyson has become one  writer on science and human nature whose opinions I greatly respect. Though I don’t agree with a considerable chunk of his ideas, they are most thought provoking anyway. And in my opinion thought provoking ideas are the most important.

2. Daniel Dennett: Breaking the Spell;

3. Marc Sageman: Understanding Terror Networks;

4. Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney : Kamikaze Diaries – Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers;

A Memetics Based Social Prespective:

danielcdennett-breakingthespell-religionasanaturalphenomenon1

Daniel Dennett’s thesis is interesting, thought provoking and to a large extent true. I have written on this on a previous post. Since then there has been considerable refinement in my thoughts on it. And though I lost my patience in the post that time, I would largely still agree with Dennett’s idea. Taking some parts from that post with considerable editing (the quote below has also been taken from my previous post, this is a part of a presentation that Dan Dennett made at TED):

So you are out in the woods or this pasture, and you see this Ant crawling up this blade of grass. It climbs up to the top, and it climbs and it falls and it climbs and it falls and it climbs, trying to stay at the very top of this blade of grass. What is this Ant doing? What is it in aid of? What goals is this ant trying to achieve by climbing this blade of grass? What’s in it for the ant?

And the answer is NOTHING! There is nothing in it for the Ant. Well then, why is it doing this? Is it just a fluke? Yeah it is just a fluke.

It is a Lancet Fluke, it’s a little parasitic brain worm that has to get into the stomach of a sheep or a cow in order to continue its life cycle. So salmons, you know swim upstream to get to their spawning grounds and Lancet Flukes commandeer this passing Ant, crawl into its brain and drive it up a blade of grass like an all terrain vehicle. So there is nothing in it for the Ant, the Ant’s brain has been hijacked by a parasite that infects the brain inducing suicidal behavior.

An analogy to the above is seen in humans, For example terrorists can be seen in parallel to the “Ant” I mentioned above with their brain been hijacked by “virulent ideas” (parallel to the lancet fluke) inducing suicidal behavior. Such “ideas” are more or less embedded in their brains and removing these toxic ideas is rather difficult if not impossible. This “embedding” of “virulent” ideas is caused by a number of socio-economic factors like anger towards other cultures, trauma, ignorance, anger over repression, social injustice and probably also hate. Such embedding takes place culturally over a long period of time, after which it becomes a part and parcel of the vector (human) carrying it. If one hears stories of how the world has been cruel and unjust and how the world is out to destroy your own world from childhood, that person  will definitely be filled of hate. There are many other “ideas to die for”, like a lot of people have laid down their lives for Communism, Capitalism, Love can be said to be another brain parasite that can induce “abnormal” behavior. Others may be freedom, religion, etc.

Please Note: “Parasite” and “abnormal” are used in a neutral context. Let us say that an idea that alters behavior considerably is a “parasite” (treat it just as a word than a harmful word) and the resulting altered behavior is “abnormal”. Please do not take the literal meanings of these words used. I don’t mean to say that love is a “parasite” in the literal sense. ;-) . (Note ends).

Basically “Ideas” are like lancet flukes, entering the brains of their hosts and encouraging them to work for the continuance of the idea rather than the host or his/her progeny. On the other hand, some ideas (say like love) doubtless make their hosts more fit to survive and propagate, at least through this one mechanism, in a way they are similar to genes (that is why i mentioned that the basic scheme here is to apply evolutionary principles to how we think and behave).  And ofcourse ideas mutate – this leads to what is called the misinterpretation of the original idea by the masses.

This memetics based synthesis explains to some extent why terrorists are generally from poor, uneducated and sometimes extremely orthodox and fundamentalist backgrounds and societies. But Dennett’s treatment which speaks of virus like ideas propagating, getting mutated and propagating further, though nice and reasonable has some problems. It could be one part of the various reasons to what makes terrorists and terror networks, it (social unrest, brainwashing etc what I have covered above) though a necessary condition might not be a sufficient condition. One more reason could be what is explored and reviewed in the next part.

I was reading the review of Dennett’s book by Dyson which introduced me to two books, both extremely interesting. In most of the west and elsewhere too, the idea of looking at terrorists is looking at them as mad zombies, who are totally dehumanized, with their thought process driven by hate alone.

This view is challenged by the two books Dyson’s review introduced me to.

Kinship Amongst Cell Members:

understanding_terror_networks_sageman

Marc Sageman is a professor of psychiatry and ethnopolitical conflict at the University of Pennsylvania. Sageman was a foreign service and CIA officer and was posted in Pakistan in the late 80s at the time of the Soviet conflict in Afghanistan and had worked closely with the Mujahideen which made him intimately familiar with the working and structure of such networks. He in the book writes that as contrary to popular belief the bonds holding the people together in terror groups are more personal than political. Citing good evidence Sageman asserts that economic backwardness, ignorance, religious zealotry and the likes are not enough to attract the youth to terror organizations (as I mentioned at the end of the previous part), one of the prime reasons is to escape alienation. Quoting him:

Despite popular accounts of the 9/11 perpetrators in the press, in-group love rather than out group hate seems to be a better explanation for their behavior.

Such kinship gives rise to semi-independent cells and dispells the notion that recruitment in terror organizations is top-down as believed. Such comradeship also makes it difficult for intelligence agencies to track or find out information about secret operations. I will now talk about another interesting piece and then will return to Sageman’s work.

The image of the Kamikaze pilots at the end of the second world war in America was similar to what terrorists have today. The Kamikaze pilots were Japanese aviators involved in suicide missions against the allied shipping towards the end of the war, their aim being to destroy as many ships as possible.

uss_columbia_attacked_by_kamikaze[USS Columbia Attacked by a Kamikaze Suicide Mission: Wikipedia]

The book by Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, Kamikaze Diaries:Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers, contains extracts from diaries of Kamikaze pilots who knew they were going to die in suicide missions. As opposed to western ideas about the Kamikaze pilots, their diaries were absolutely clear in thought, free from illusions and astonishingly lucid. Some of the pilots who had had western education wrote down their tragic views of life in clear poetry. These were simple young men, neither brainwashed nor nationalistic bigots. Their diaries give a poignant point of view of the war from their frame of reference.

kamikazediaries

Now the connection that Dyson drew from the two books was extremely interesting and made perfect sense to me once it was mentioned, something of the sort: oh! why didn’t this occur to me! He goes on to elaborate, that though we don’t have first hand testimonies from many terrorists involved in suicide missions, and most probably these terrorists were not even hardly educated as well as the Kamikaze pilots, and were probably more influenced by religion and hate. However it can’t be said that they are zombies, but are fighters in a secret brotherhood that gives meaning and purpose to their lives. they are like good soldiers enlisted for an evil cause. Like the Kamikaze pilots they are motivated mostly by kinship to their comrades than by hate towards the enemy. Once the operation has been decided on by the ideologues (Dennett applies to these people very well. Not so much to the common person), it would have been unthinkable not to carry it out.

Though there are considerable differences between 1945 and 2001-08, both Sageman and Dyson write and I almost totally agree that there are a lot of similarities. The minds of the Kamikaze pilots could give clues to what goes on in the minds of terrorists on suicide missions. Thus to really prevent youth from being lured to such organizations we need to understand first what our enemies stand for and how they work.

I think the three probably unrelated references make a good case on what drives a young lad to become a terrorist. How can we prevent this from happening? This I think readers would have a better view. Also I am not trying to suggest that intelligence and other policing is to be reduced in any way.

Recommended Reads and References:

1. Review of “Breaking the Spell (link below)” By Freeman Dyson on NYRB.

2. Breaking the Spell: Religion as  Natural Phenomenon – Daniel Dennett.

3. Understanding Terror Networks – Marc Sageman.

4. Kamikaze Diaries: Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers – Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney.

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Many science fiction movies have featured a “good guy” whose mind has been hijacked by an evil mad scientist and he is induced into bizarre behavior beyond his control. A closer look at this “idea” reveals that such brain hijacking is relatively commonplace in nature. I have tried to look for such instances for a month or so and I intend to compile my list here.

I must admit that I actually started wondering of such “real” parasites after a FANTASTIC talk by Daniel Dennett at TED and not after some creepy movie, I saw the talk about a year ago and was especially fascinated by Dennett’s start to the talk. Later i read a book by him, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon that started on a similar note. This book is highly recommended, you must try to read it!  Ofcourse the idea that Dennett talks about is old and was originated by Richard Dawkins, however i liked how he talks about the same.

Here basically Dennett talks on terrorism and gives a memetics based perspective on it, which can be said to be IMHO an extension of the famous Richard Dawkins essay “Viruses of the Mind”. The basic objective of the talk is applying evolutionary thinking to thinking, ideas and their flow and propagation. Wonderful talk, however i might write about the same in later posts.

Dennett opens the talk with a deceptively simple example of an ant.The start goes as:

So you are out in the woods or this pasture, and you see this Ant crawling up this blade of grass. It climbs up to the top, and it climbs and it falls and it climbs and it falls and it climbs, trying to stay at the very top of this blade of grass. What is this Ant doing? What is it in aid of? What goals is this ant trying to achieve by climbing this blade of grass? What’s in it for the ant?

And the answer is NOTHING! There is nothing in it for the Ant. Well then, why is it doing this? Is it just a fluke? Yeah it is just a fluke.

It is a Lancet Fluke, it’s a little parasitic brain worm that has to get into the stomach of a sheep or a cow in order to continue its life cycle. So salmons, you know swim upstream to get to their spawning grounds and Lancet Flukes commandeer this passing Ant, crawl into its brain and drive it up a blade of grass like an all terrain vehicle. So there is nothing in it for the Ant, the Ant’s brain has been hijacked by a parasite that infects the brain inducing suicidal behavior.

An analogy to the above is seen in humans, For example terrorists can be seen in parallel to the “Ant” i mentioned above with their brain been hijacked by “virulent ideas” (parallel to the lancet fluke) inducing suicidal behavior. It is more or less embedded in their brains and removing these toxic ideas is rather difficult. There are many other “ideas to die for”, like a lot of people have laid down their lives for Communism, Capitalism, Love can be said to be another brain parasite that can induce “abnormal” behavior. Others may be freedom, religion, etc.

Edit ( .4 July 2008. ) – Please Note a Clarification before continuing to read further: The usage of “to die for” is not in a negative light at all. It is only in terms of an outcome. Not if the result would be negative or positive. Just in the sense that they would influence behavior significantly. Please also note that i am NOT trying to suggest that something like freedom, or communism, love or religion is a parasite in the literal (and hence negative) sense. I am only saying that somebody bound by an idea will work for its propagation and hence what is interesting is how his/her behavior is influenced if bound by such an idea ( and yes ideas also mutate, but let us for the time being not consider that). Please note again that it is not in a negative sense. Also if there are some who still think that it is still in a negative light then i would suggest please have a look at the video, it is a brief talk by Dan Dennett and he talks about it beautifully, I think he would clarify the misconception in terms of what i actually mean and what might be perceived by a certain class of readers. I am NOT making a statement on what communism is about or what religion is about BUT about how such ideas influence our behavior ONLY. And it is a neutral perspective that way.

Basically “Ideas” are like lancet flukes, entering the brains of their hosts and encouraging them to work for the continuance of the idea rather than the host or his/her progeny. On the other hand, some ideas doubtless make their hosts more fit to survive and propagate, at least through this one mechanism, in a way they are similar to genes (that is why i mentioned that the basic scheme here is to apply evolutionary principles to how we think and behave). Such ideas as we are aware of are called as memes. The term meme was coined by Richard Dawkins in the now famous The Selfish Gene. Again a must read for those who have not read it.

Anyway, I had been thinking of more such examples. Not of “ideas”, but of real parasites that can infect the brain and induce “abnormal” behavior. And i tried to make a short list.

1. Toxoplasma gondii: This is by far the most interesting of the lot as it can “infect” humans too. This is a single celled parasite that lives in the guts of Cats, and sheds eggs which can be picked up by rats or other animals that can be eaten by a cat. T. gondii forms cysts in the hosts body, including the brain. The host otherwise remains completely healthy! It can look as fit as the non infected ones, can compete for mates and forage for food. However the most interesting thing came up after some research on T. gondii infected rats and normal rats. And it was found that T.gondii infected rats had no fear at all of cat odour, something by which they are normally terrified. Scientists continue that it is most likely that this happens so that the parasite in the rat can reach the intestines of the cat! If that is not weird enough then these can also infect humans too.

[Life Cycle of T. gondii – Photo Source]

Click to Enlarge

Humans can be hosts to T.gondii as well. People can get infected by handling soil or kitty litter. For most people it causes no harm. It can only be dangerous in cases wherein the immune system of the person under consideration is very weak. Thus people with immunity deficiency related conditions such as AIDS, and also pregnant ladies are advised not to handle kitty litter. Anyhow, in most cases the parasite lives peacefully in the body (and the brain). Since human brains have a lot of similarities with rat brains. It must induce some change in behavior. It is obvious that humans are too big to be eaten by cats, however there can still be some alteration. Studies showed that it had different effects on women and men. It can make woman more outgoing and kind hearted and men more jealous and suspicious. For more read this wonderful article: The Return of the Puppet Masters by Carl Zimmer.

2. Lancet Fluke (Dicrocoelium lanceolatum): I already spoke about this parasite earlier. However this time i hope to look at it in more detail. The Terminal Hosts of Lancet Flukes are cows and sheeps and intermediate ones are snails. These reach the inside of a snail through the excreta of cows and sheeps, the snail leaves them in mucus trails. The ants are attracted to these because of the scent and in doing so they ingest the fluke. They grow in the abdomen of the ant and then reach the “brain”, okay there is nothing like a brain in an Ant, but something like a ganglion. This induces suicidal behavior in the ant and clamps it to a blade of grass so that the fluke can complete its life cycle in the intestine of a cow or a sheep.

[Photo Source]

3. Rabies: Rabies is different from the above two yet similar in many ways. Rabies induces violent  self destructive behavior in the host. Leading to biting and scratching. And obviously nothing can be more direct than that in spreading. Rabies is relatively well known than the above two, and rather different as it does not affect the brain directly so I would not write much in details about it.

4. Ampulex compressa: This one is macabre! Carl Zimmer again gives a graphic description of how it operates. But this one is like from the Science Fiction – Horror movies.

The wasp sits on the cockroach and slips its stinger through the exoskeleton into the brain. The wasp uses sensors to guide its way through the brain. It probes the brain till it reaches an area that controls the escape reflex, it then injects a venom there and the escape reflex disappears. The result from the outside is rather dramatic. The roach is not paralyzed, but it lifts its front legs and walks again albiet controlled by the wasp that uses its antennae to guides its movement. The roach crawls where the wasp leads it. Which is generally its burrow. The wasp then lays its eggs on the roach, the roach does not resist at all. The larvae then grows in the roach. Creepy!

5. Spinochordodes tellinii: This is another macabre example. Its larvae develop in insects such as grasshoppers and crickets. This parasite is able to influence its host’s behavior: once the parasite is grown, it causes its grasshopper host to seek out and jump into water, where the grasshopper will likely drown. The parasite then leaves its host; the adult worm lives and reproduces in water. Source

I will keep editing this post as and when i come across more such examples.

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