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We should all be thankful for authors like Gary Cziko who put their entire books online. Without Miracles is a great book applying the Darwinian selectionist paradigm to human thought and behaviour. It explains in clear language the theories of two of Cziko's collaborators: Donald T. Campbell and William T. Powers. Campbell coined the term "evolutionary epistemology" for Cziko has substituted the more marketable "selection theory". Powers invented perceptual control theory, the subject of two previous posts (here and here) to this blog. Cziko's chapter "Adapted Behavior as the Control of Perception" is an easily-digested summary of PCT. But I notice his latest, The Things We Do appears to be devoted in its entirety to a pct-like conception of human behaviour. Here's a more descriptive page about it.
submitted by Paul J Kelly on 2003-08-07T14:24 | Comment | Permalink

Compare this description of Perceptual Control Theory (PCT) with the predicament of the character in Tim Parks's book :

While the existence of control mechanisms and processes (such as feedback) in living systems is generally recognized, the implications of control organization go far beyond what is generally accepted. We believe that a fundamental characteristic of organisms is their ability to control; that they are, in fact, living control systems. To distinguish this approach from others using some version of control theory but forcing it to fit conventional approaches, we call ours Perceptual Control Theory, or PCT.

PCT requires a major shift in thinking from the traditional approach: that what is controlled is not behavior, but perception. Modeling behavior as a dependent variable, as a response to stimuli, provides no explanation for the phenomenon of achieving consistent ends through varying means, and requires an extensive use of statistics to achieve modest (to the point of meaningless) correlations. Attempts to model behavior as planned and computed output can be demonstrated to require levels of precise calculation that are unobtainable in a physical system, and impossible in a real environment that is changing from one moment to the next. The PCT model views behavior as the means by which a perceived state of affairs is brought to and maintained at a reference state. This approach provides a physically plausible explanation for the consistency of outcomes and the variability of means.

Finding this a little dense? I'll provide some relief in my next post about Gary Cziko's book.
submitted by on 2003-08-07T03:21 | Comment | Permalink

John Dewey's essay claims Darwin paved the way for philosophical modernism. It happened not because of the way Darwin challenged religious conviction--"There is not, I think, an instance of any large idea about the world being independently generated by religion"--but because he banished Aristotle's "final cause" from any philosophical conception of Nature.

Nature as a whole is a progressive realization of purpose strictly comparable to the realization of purpose in any single plant or animal. The conception of eidos, species, a fixed form and final cause, was the central principle of knowledge as well as of nature. Upon it rested the logic of science.

Aristotle's "species" was a general concept applied to "everything in the universe that observes order in flux and manifests constancy through change." Darwin's non-teleological explanation of change was a continuation of prior revolutions in astronomy, physics and chemistry. A modern mode of thinking could now be applied to life and living things.

Darwin was not, of course, the first to question the classic philosophy of nature and of knowledge. The beginnings of the revolution are in the physical science of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. When Galileo said: "It is my opinion that the earth is very noble and admirable by reason of so many and so different alterations and generations which are incessantly made therein," he expressed the changed temper that was coming over the world; the transfer of interest from the permanent to the changing. When Descartes said: "The nature of physical things is much more easily conceived when they are beheld coming gradually into existence, than when they are only considered as produced at once in a finished and perfect state," the modern world became self-conscious of the logic that was henceforth to control it, the logic of which Darwin's Origin of Species is the latest scientific achievement. Without the methods of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and their successors in astronomy, physics, and chemistry, Darwin would have been helpless in the organic sciences. But prior to Darwin the impact of the new scientific method upon life, mind, and politics, had been arrested, because between these ideal or moral interests and the inorganic world intervened the kingdom of plants and animals. The gates of the garden of life were barred to the new ideas; and only through this garden was there access to mind and politics. The influence of Darwin upon philosophy resides in his having conquered the phenomena of life for the principle of transition, and thereby freed the new logic for application to mind and morals and life. When he said of species what Galileo had said of the earth, e pur se mouve, he emancipated, once for all, genetic and experimental ideas as an organon of asking questions and looking for explanations.

Ernst Mayr concurs with Dewey:

During Darwin's lifetime, the concept of teleology, or the use of ultimate purpose as a means of explaining natural phenomena, was prevalent. In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant based his philosophy on Newton's laws. When he tried the same approach in a philosophy of living nature, he was totally unsuccessful. Newtonian laws didn't help him explain biological phenomena. So he invoked Aristotle's final cause in his Critique of Judgement. However, explaining evolution and biological phenomena with the idea of teleology was a total failure.

To make a long story short, Darwin showed very clearly that you don't need Aristotle's teleology because natural selection applied to bio-populations of unique phenomena can explain all the puzzling phenomena for which previously the mysterious process of teleology had been invoked.

The late philosopher, Willard Van Orman Quine, who was for many years probably America's most distinguished philosopher--you know him, he died last year--told me about a year before his death that as far as he was concerned, Darwin's greatest achievement was that he showed that Aristotle's idea of teleology, the so-called fourth cause, does not exist.

The Mayr interview is something I've blogged in the past.
submitted by on 2003-05-28T21:22 | Comment | Permalink

Flipping through Peter Munz's Philosophical Darwinism I came across two rather important quotations from Darwin's notebooks:

Plato says in Phaedo that our " imaginary ideas" arise from the preexistence of the soul, are not derivable from experience. Read monkeys for preexistence.
He who understands baboon would do more toward metaphysics than Locke
submitted by on 2003-05-28T02:29 | Comment | Permalink

I avoided blogging anything about Pinker's The Blank Slate since it struck me as less about science than politics. Too many straw-man attacks on leftist Humanities professors for me to take seriously. But H. Allen Orr's article in the New York Review is worth reading for what he says about over-confident evolutionary psychologists. The combination of Darwinian narrative structure on the one hand, and genetic and neurological research on the other, is too tempting for some. They will bridge the gap even if it means working back toward non-existent evidence:

And so the inversion occurs: the evolutionary story rings true; but evolution requires genes; therefore, it's genetic. This move is so easy and so seductive that evolutionary psychologists sometimes forget a hard truth: a Darwinian story is not Mendelian evidence. A Darwinian story is a story. And the accumulation of such stories has an important consequence. The slate may seem to get less and less blank in part because evolutionary psychologists keep scribbling more and more tales on it.


You might think that convincing evidence that a particular form of behavior is inherited usually leads to attempts to explain how and why it evolved. But often what happens is the reverse: the fact that we can conceive of an adaptive tale about why a behavior should evolve becomes the chief reason for suspecting it's genetic. Why, after all, does Pinker think human neonaticide might be genetic? Where are the twin studies, chromosome locations, and DNA sequences supporting such a claim? The answer is we don't have any.


In sum, evolutionary psychology suffers a methodological problem: it is at times surprisingly unrigorous. Too often, data are skimpy, alternative hypotheses are neglected, and the entire enterprise threatens to slip into undisciplined storytelling. (One of the worst examples comes from Pinker himself. His popular piece on two cases of middle-class neonaticide is a nearly data-free account that comes perilously close to parody.) Concerns about rigor are surely the leading worry about evolutionary psychology among working biologists. Ask a molecular geneticist who's skeptical of Darwinian psychology to explain why. You won't hear that the slate is blank; you'll hear about "soft science." In the end, evolutionary psychology wants to have it both ways. It longs after the prestige of hard science but hopes to be held to a lower standard of rigor than, say, molecular biology.

submitted by on 2003-04-05T04:58 | Comment | Permalink

Daniel Dennett takes on Richard Rorty in yet another attack on "postmodernism" in the press. He offers his own evolutionary epistemology:

Right now, as I speak, billions of organisms on this planet are engaged in a game of hide and seek. It is not just a game for them. It is a matter of life and death. Getting it right, not making mistakes, has been of paramount importance to every living thing on this planet for more than three billion years, and so these organisms have evolved thousands of different ways of finding out about the world they live in, discriminating friends from foes, meals from mates, and ignoring the rest for the most part. It matters to them that they not be misinformed about these matters--indeed nothing matters more-- but they don't, as a rule, appreciate this. They are the beneficiaries of equipment exquisitely designed to get what matters right but when their equipment malfunctions and gets matters wrong, they have no resources, as a rule, for noticing this, let alone deploring it. They soldier on, unwittingly. The difference between how things seem and how things really are is just as fatal a gap for them as it can be for us, but they are largely oblivious to it. The recognition of the difference between appearance and reality is a human discovery. A few other species--some primates, some cetaceans, maybe even some birds--shows signs of appreciating the phenomenon of "false belief"--getting it wrong. They exhibit sensitivity to the errors of others, and perhaps even some sensitivity to their own errors as errors, but they lack the capacity for the reflection required to dwell on this possibility, and so they cannot use this sensitivity in the deliberate design of repairs or improvements of their own seeking gear or hiding gear. That sort of bridging of the gap between appearance and reality is a wrinkle that we human beings alone have mastered.

Certainly, but for an organism "getting it right" means making ungrounded predictions of what its conditions for survival will be. These can change and the organism can suddenly be getting it wrong. The very phrase "getting it right", although catchy for Dennett's purposes, elides avoids the fact that natural selection does not produce optimal solutions. Sometimes getting it half right is good enough. It is also interesting that the first ones to get it right were the mistakes, the mutations, nature's great blunders. All told, if you really consider the epistemological implications of natural selection, you might be a little less certain of the truth than Dennett. You might even find Rorty's position more stimulating, even if you ultimately disagree with it.

submitted by on 2003-03-27T18:36 | Comment | Permalink

Simon Blackburn writes about Richard Rorty in yet another attack on "postmodernism" in the press. It doesn't strike me his critique is at all devastating, at least to my understanding of what Rorty is about. Blackburn offers a good background beginning with Hume and Kant: "Can we get off the unhappy seesaw of either staying with Hume and losing confidence that we represent the world correctly, or going with Kant and holding that we represent only a world which is in some sense constituted by us? " Rorty's critique of representationism, or "mirrorism", is ultimately influenced by Darwin:

We must scrap the idea that thought, and the language in which it is couched, is there to enable us to represent the world. Instead, Rorty takes from Darwin the idea that language is an adaptation and words are tools. Like his other heroes William James and John Dewey, the American pragmatists of the early 20th century, he thinks the essence of language is what we do with it. Thought is about knowing how, not knowing that; or, as Rorty likes to put it, for coping not copying. So he writes: "There is no way in which tools can take one out of touch with reality. No matter whether the tool is a hammer or a gun or a statement, tool-using is part of the interaction of the organism with its environment. To see the employment of words as the use of tools to deal with the environment, rather than as an attempt to represent the intrinsic nature of that environment, is to repudiate the question of whether human minds are in touch with reality... No organism, human or non- human, is ever more or less in touch with reality than any other organism."

Evolutionary epistemologists would agree with Rorty's criteria for perceptual tools (biological or technological) as essentially adaptive means to an end too embedded in an environment to ever adequately represent it. Natural selection implies, in the words of Donald T. Campbell, "no logical necessity, no absolute ground for certainty, but instead a most back-handed indirectness". Although Karl Popper insisted the difference between amoeba and Einstein was that "Einstein consciously seeks for error elimination" the purpose of his comparison is to stress that the methods of either have the same back-handed, uncertain basis. But that's only if you are concerned with subjective knowledge, which is all Blackburn's quarrel with Rorty takes into consideration. The notion that the organism's structure contains more knowledge than it has conscious access to is ignored. The notion that knowledge could be non-referential, like DNA, is not considered.

submitted by on 2003-03-26T20:54 | Comment | Permalink

Food for thought from the digital reductionist camp. This is as concise as it gets:

The genetic code is truly digital, in exactly the same sense as computer codes. This is not some vague analogy, it is the literal truth. Moreover, unlike computer codes, the genetic code is universal. Modern computers are built around a number of mutually incompatible machine languages, determined by their processor chips. The genetic code, on the other hand, with a few very minor exceptions, is identical in every living creature on this planet, from sulphur bacteria to giant redwood trees, from mushrooms to men. All living creatures, on this planet at least, are the same "make".

The consequences are amazing. It means that a software subroutine (thats exactly what a gene is) can be carried over into another species. This is why the famous "antifreeze" gene, originally evolved by Antarctic fish, can save a tomato from frost damage. In the same way, a Nasa programmer who wants a neat square-root routine for his rocket guidance system might import one from a financial spreadsheet. A square root is a square root is a square root. A program to compute it will serve as well in a space rocket as in a financial projection.

submitted by on 2003-02-16T17:07 | Comment | Permalink

From John Berger's Pig Earth, one of many great reads on my book list (see lower on the right of this page or try out the rss):

"I would like to know what life was like ten thousand years ago," Pepe was saying. "I think of it often. Nature would have been the same. The same trees, the same earth, the same clouds, the same snow falling in the same way on the grass and thawing in the spring. People exaggerate the changes in nature so as to make nature seem lighter." He was talking to a neighbour's son who was on leave from the army. "Nature resists change. If something changes, nature wants to see whether the change can continue, and, if it can't, it crushes it with all its weight! Ten thousand years ago the trout in the stream would have been exactly the same as today."

"The pigs wouldn't have been!"

"That's why I would like to go back! To see how the things we know today were first learnt. Take a chevreton. It's simple. Milk the goat, heat the milk, separate it and press the curds. Well, we saw it all being done before we could talk. But how did they once discover that the best way of separating the milk was to take a kid's stomach, blow it up like a balloon, dry it, soak it in acid, powder it and drop a few grains of this powder into the heated milk? I would like to know how the women discovered that!"

At the other end of the table the guests were listening to Meme who was telling a story. There were two cousins in a nearby village who lived side by side because they inherited the same property...

"That is what I would like to know if I was a crow on a tree watching!" Pepe was saying. "All the mistakes which had to be made! And step by step, slowly, the progress!"

submitted by on 2003-01-30T21:18 | Comment | Permalink

Jan Fagerberg has written a survey of the field of evolutionary economics beginning with Schumpeterian origins and ending with bounded rationality, "satisficing", path dependency, and "routine-guided, routine changing processes". His definition of the field is at once broader and more limited than the specific theoretical angle taken by Carsten Herrmann-Pillath . He says, "The dominant view among evolutionary economists now seems to be that the differences between biological evolution on the one hand and social and economic evolution on the other are too large to allow for the development of a common evolutionary theory applicable to both." The paper settles on a definition of economic evolution as "a process of qualitative, economic change taking place in historical time." This is far more cautious than Herrmann-Pillath's evolutionary epistemology which claims "evolution is the change of knowledge in a system. This corresponds to the original biological use of the term, where it is specified as change of the knowledge contained in the genetic material."

Here are some interesting quotations from Fagerberg's paper:

[According to Nelson and Winter] the world is too complex, the mass of information too large and the cognitive abilities of humans (and even large scale computers) too limited to allow for this type decision- making. What humans actually do, following this view, is to practice a simpler and less demanding type of decision-making called "bounded" or "procedural" rationality, a main form of which is so-called "satisficing" behaviour. "Satisficing" is based on the idea that actors will stick to a behavioural rule as long as it leads to a satisfactory outcome. Only when this is clearly not the case any longer the actor will start to search for alternatives. This will continue until he is satisfied, i.e., found a rule that complies with his (given) criteria.

This sounds like Perceptual Control Theory. For a PCT-inspired theory of purposeful behaviour, see Gary Cziko's Without Miracles.

The firms are assumed to follow decision rules (or "routines"), and it is these routines that are the "social equivalent of genes in biology. Routines determine behaviour (together with impulses form the environment), are heritable (as part of the "organizational memory" of the firm) and selectable (through the fate of the firms that apply them). However, despite the strong inertia emphasised by Nelson and Winter, routines may also change (the equivalent of mutation in biology). Following Cyert and March (1963) Nelson and Winter (1982) try to take this into account by introducing a hierarchy of routines, in which routines at a higher level govern the modification of routines at a lower level. Hence, in Nelson and Winters approach, the process that leads to routine change is also governed by routines. They use the term "search" for such "routine-guided, routine changing processes" (Nelson and Winter 1982, p. 18).

This nested hierarchy sounds like Donald T. Campbell's vicarious selectors, much related to his notion of downward causation. Finally, a nifty little quotation:

According to these contributions the heart of the evolutionary dynamics is the principle, known as Fishers theorem of natural selection, that "selection improves average fitness in the population, and that the rate of improvement in average fitness is equal to the variance of fitness" (Metcalfe 1998, p.61).

i.e. innovation is everything. Sounds like, well, Darwin.

submitted by on 2003-01-29T03:16 | Comment | Permalink

Carsten Herrmann-Pillath has just launched a great site touting his ambitious vision of an evolutionary economics. It's mostly an English glossary of his Grundrisse der Evolutionsokonomik. See the menu widget on the left nav bar. According to Herrmann-Pillath, EE is not just a branch of economics:

I think that there is an emerging consensus that evolutionary economics is the science of the evolution of knowledge embodied in economic systems, with the latter being tantamount to human societies. In my view, therefore, evolutionary economics is not simply a special field of economics (like theory of foreign trade or industrial economics). Evolutionary economics adopts a radically different view of "the economic problem": The traditional and most influential definition of economics is that economics analyzes the allocation of scarce resources to given ends: in contrast, I think that the fundamental economic problem is ignorance and how to use and create knowledge to guide human action. As we shall see, since knowledge is a very broad and encompassing concept, accordingly evolutionary economics is an emerging academic field integrating many different disciplines into a new paradigm like standard economics, biology, sociology or even parts of physics.
submitted by on 2003-01-29T03:22 | Comment | Permalink

"I wonder whether perhaps the human being as knower needs to be sheltered by wrong epistemological standpoints against an otherwise overwhelming feeling of absurdity of knowing."

"The point can be put into exact terms if one argues that perhaps the many deficiencies of the human conceptual apparatus have been selected positively precisely because they contribute to reproductive success. This amounts to a real challenge to evolutionary epistemology, and can be named 'the handicap principle of knowing.'"

"Humans as knowers will never be able to know the world in the sense of the correspondence theory of truth because we ourselves are the masters of the world who establish our power over the world by means of knowing: knowing is the creative transformation of the world. The world, in fact, is a moving target of knowing, which is moved by humanity itself. The epistemological gap is the result of an evolutionary process selecting in favor of the powerful transformative subject."

Herrmann-Pillath, Carsten. 1993. "New Knowledge as Creation: Notes When Reading Nietzsche on Evolution, Power and Knowledge." Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems 16(1): 25-44.

submitted by on 2003-01-29T15:58 | Comment | Permalink

The Boston Globe has an article on Chomsky, Hauser, and Fitch, who argue language is a spandrel which emerged from hominid culture. Recursion is the key, the capacity for which arose from the selective pressures of social complexity:

But where did this capacity come from? If recursion isn't specific to language, then it's possible that our brain's ability to use recursion did not first evolve in order to improve our ability to communicate. Perhaps, Chomsky and his coauthors say, it was initially used for navigating social relationships and was then co-opted by language. Chimpanzees have highly complicated social systems; so they must remember-without the help of language-who among them is dominant and who is not. Prelinguistic humans may have faced similar challenges and solved them with mental recursion. Chomksy, Hauser, and Fitch do not suggest when these abilities may have first come together to create language, but one popular theory suggests it may have been sometime in the last 50,000 to 100,000 years.
submitted by on 2003-01-08T04:27 | Comment | Permalink

Many recent articles on Popper--and there have been more than usual owing to his centenary and the publication of the popular Wittegenstein's Poker-- focus only on the early Popper of The Logic of Scientific Discovery and The Open Society and its Enemies . Not so many address his elaborations on the philosophy of knowledge and biology. Colin McGinn, at least, acknolwedges the consistency and wide application of Popper's three- stage model of knowledge proceeding from conjecture to criticism to refutation. In this schema, there is no ontological distinction between man and amoeba as knowers:

The difference between the amoeba and Einstein, Popper says, is that the latter organism uses the critical method: arguments are expressed in language and subjected to self- consciously critical scrutiny. Thus science is a rational enterprise, engaging an objective world of reasons, argument, and truth (what Popper calls "World 3"). But in basic structure the scientist is as much a trial- and-error learner as the amoeba; the three-stage model is a biological universal. Moreover, Popper argues, this model applies also to Darwin's theory of evolution. The species encounters a problem of adaptation as a result of a change in the environment; it needs to evolve genetically or become extinct. Mutations spontaneously occur, which in Popper's view function as possible solutions; most are fatal to the organism in question, which is then eliminated. But a mutation may prove resistant to elimination, and hence come to characterize the species until a new problem of adaptation comes along. A mutation is like a new conjecture that invites refutation; natural selection consists in the elimination of bad conjectures. Biological evolution is just more conjecture and refutation, bold stabs in the dark followed by summary ejection. But this seemingly negative process produces magnificent resultsjust as it does in science.

Even in politics Popper applies the same template. The "open society" is one that invites and encourages critical discussion: there are no inviolable ideologies, like Marxism, only a plurality of perspectives, each subject to critical evaluation. The essence of democracy is not "rule of the people" whereby government decisions reflect the collective will, but rather the possibility of (peacefully) removing a government that does not stand up to critical appraisalas it were, falsifying the policies pursued by the government. Hitler and Stalin were, among other things, dogmatic ideologues in the grip of theories they made no effort to falsify, and they produced governments in which criticism and peaceful replacement of a government were not tolerated.

I will deal with McGinn's "refutation" of Popper at a later date. I've been unable to locate any published responses from Popperians on the net. If you are interested, please let me know if you find any.

submitted by on 2002-12-17T20:26 | Comment | Permalink

Bernd Heinrich is a biologist who won the US National Championship 100-kilometer marathon at age forty-one. His book, Why We Run is one of many works out there discussing what makes us unique in the animal world. But his angle is surprising: over the long haul, we can outrun a deer or an antelope until they collapse in a heap. That we would have hunted like this long ago is significant he thinks:

We are psychologically evolved to pursue long-range goals because through millions of years that is what we on average had to do in order to eat. To us, even an old deer that had not yet been caught would have required a very long chase. It would have required strategy, knowledge, and persistence. Those hominids who didn't have the taste for the long hunt, as such, perhaps for its own sake, would very seldom have been successful. They left fewer descendants.

Our ancient type of hunting where we were superior relative to other predators required us to maintain long-term vision that both rewarded us by the chase itself and that held the prize in our imagination even when it was out of sight, smell, and hearing. It was not just sweat glands that made us premier endurance predators. It was also our minds fueled by passion. Our enthusiasm for the chase had to be like the migratory birds' passion to fly off on their great journeys, as if propelled by dreams....When [the hunter/runners] felt fatigue and pain, they did not stop, because their dream carried them still forward. They were our ancestors.

[This quote is in Elizabeth Marshall Thomas's review in the New York Review.]
submitted by on 2002-11-30T03:10 | Comment | Permalink

The human brain is costly, using up 20 to 25 per cent of a resting adult's energy. William R. Leonard talks about the calorie economics involved in human evolution:

'The energy dynamic between organisms and their environments--that is, energy expended in relation to energy acquired--has important adaptive consequences for survival and reproduction. These two components of Darwinian fitness are reflected in the way we divide up an animal's energy budget. Maintenance energy is what keeps an animal alive on a day-to-day basis. Productive energy, on the other hand, is associated with producing and raising offspring for the next generation. For mammals like ourselves, this must cover the increased costs that mothers incur during pregnancy and lactation.'

Brain maintenance could have resulted in an upward spiral:

'...the addition of modest amounts of animal foods to the menu, combined with the sharing of resources that is typical of hunter-gatherer groups, would have significantly increased the quality and stability of hominid diets. Improved dietary quality alone cannot explain why hominid brains grew, but it appears to have played a critical role in enabling that change. After the initial spurt in brain growth, diet and brain expansion probably interacted synergistically: bigger brains produced more complex social behavior, which led to further shifts in foraging tactics and improved diet, which in turn fostered additional brain evolution.'

submitted by on 2002-11-25T15:53 | Comment | Permalink

David P. Barash and Nanelle Barash want Darwin's name next to Derrida in the English departments:

'Several decades ago, the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky gave this title to a now-famous article he wrote for American Biology Teacher: "Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution." We suggest that Dobzhansky's dictum applies to literary criticism just as it does to biology, albeit with some softening. It may be that much literature makes sense in the light of the current warhorses of critical analysis: Marx, Freud, textualism, postmodernism, "queer theory," and so forth. But it is equally likely that a good deal of literature (just as life itself) makes more sense in the light of evolution.'

Their plea is missing two really important things: 1) a coherent theory of culture, as opposed to just human behaviour, deriving from biology and Darwin; 2) any mention of writers, such as Lawrence and Hughes, who addressed the Darwinian problem of species priority and individual fate. We won't see Darwinism cross over to the humanities until it wins respect as a whole philosophy. No scientist has yet made the case.

submitted by on 2002-11-25T16:06 | Comment | Permalink

Also from the Skeptic interview:

Skeptic: Dennett says he would love to ask you about this observation of his: "Gould's ultimate target is Darwin's dangerous idea itself; he is opposed to the very idea that evolution is, in the end, just an algorithmic process." Is natural selection your target? Are you opposed to evolution as an algorithmic process? How do you respond?
Gould: I'd be pretty amazed if Dennett really thinks evolution is nothing but an algorithmic process. There is an algorithm, which is how selection works through time, but it's never going to give you the details of what happens, which is where you need contingency. Darwin understood this perfectly well. The algorithm--the crane--doesn't give you the details, if that is what he is talking about, and there are repeated patterns in the details which you need to know about, which are not coming out of selection theory per se. In fact, Darwin smuggles his argument for progress through a separate back door of ecological argument--the biotic competition of a crowded world. When Darwin wants to explain a pattern he thinks exists, like progress in the fossil record (a pattern that, by the way, I don't think exists), he doesn't do it through the algorithmic route of natural selection. He does it through an ecological argument. That might be a different algorithm. You might even want to call that a skyhook for all I know. In fact, he probably would.

submitted by on 2002-10-15T15:26 | Comment | Permalink

Gould offers more on "hierarchical selection", and its relation to punctuated equilibrium and "important constraints coming from the internal structure of organisms", in this 1996 Skeptic interview with Michael Shermer:

'I think [Dawkins] just doesn't understand the importance of hierarchical selection theory. To require that evolutionary trends be understood as a sorting of selection of stable species, and not as the extrapolation of adaptational trends within lineages, is a very different view. You just don't have that without punctuated equilibrium because under the conventional model a large scale evolutionary trend is just selection scaled up. You may have branches, but the branches are not producing the trend. The branches are just iterating the adaptation to simple lines so that it is more stable. It doesn't get wiped out by the extinction event.

'Under punctuated equilibrium there is nothing about the history of species that is producing a trend because they are stable. A trend has to be produced by a higher-order sorting or selection upon speciation events. A trend is a result because some species speciate more frequently or because there is a preferred direction in speciation, because some species live longer than others. There is a whole different set of reasons for trends than you get in the old Darwinian paradigm. We've never argued that the single event of punctuation, which is just the scaling up of Mayr's parapatric speciation model, constitutes the radical content of the theory. The radical content of punctuated equilibrium is its explanation of trends. The theory has made contributions to both evolutionary theory and to paleontological practice. It was originally written as an article about paleontological practice. Its radical content there was merely to claim that the pattern is an expression of a biological reality. The radical content for evolutionary theory is its contribution to hierarchical selection models and the insertion of the species level of selection and the explantion of trends.'

submitted by on 2002-10-15T15:25 | Comment | Permalink

H. Allen Orr reviews Stephen Jay Gould's The Structure of Evolutionary Theory and explicates his "hierarchical selection", the idea that selection takes place at levels higher than the gene:

'But why, Gould asked, can't we extend the selectionist logic down or up the biological ladder, and talk about competition among genes, or cells, or populations, or species? The downward extension has, in fact, been achieved: William Hamilton, Richard Dawkins, and others argued that selection typically acts at the level of genes. Gould, though, was more interested in the up directionin the idea that selection can act at the level of species. According to this theory, some species split faster or go extinct more slowly than others, and therefore become more common through time. Imagine, for example, two plant species. One, a dandelion, disperses its seeds on the windseeds sail away to new locations. The other, a cocklebur, disperses its seeds by hooking them onto the fur of passing animals. Now, plants that disperse by wind might be more likely to speciate than those which disperse by animals: wind- dispersed seeds might be more likely to travel long distances and so found a new population on some distant shore. Such a populationliving in blissful isolation from the rest of the specieshas a good chance of someday evolving into a new species. If wind dispersers speciate faster than animal dispersers, the percentage of wind-dispersed species will increase over long stretches of time. Thus if we start out with one dandelion species and one cocklebur species, the fast-speciating dandelion will give rise to more "daughter" species, which, in turn, will give rise to more "granddaughter" species, and so on. After millions of years, the earth might well be enveloped by more dandelion-like than cocklebur-like species. This is species selection. The important point is that this process has nothing to do with Darwinian competition at the level of organisms. Wind-dispersed species aren't getting more common because a wind-dispersed organism outcompetes an animal-dispersed organism. They're getting more common because the wind-dispersed species form new species faster than the animal-dispersed ones. Note also that the critical quantity herespeciation rateis a property of whole species, not of individual organisms. You can't point to one petunia in your garden and ask if it has a higher speciation rate than another. But you can point to wind- dispersed species and ask if they have a higher speciation rate than animal-dispersed ones. Species selection thus involves a higher level of fitness than biologists are used to thinking aboutone that reflects the birth and death of species, not of organisms. Gould rounds out his picture of natural selection by arguing that it acts simultaneously at many levelson genes, on organisms, on species, and perhaps even on higher levels. What he calls "hierarchical selection" is the claim not that species selection is right and organismal selection is wrong but that both act at once.'

submitted by on 2002-10-15T15:19 | Comment | Permalink

I blogged a review of Robert Aunger's book below. The Introduction and first chapter are available online. His aim is to establish the existence of memes(!): 'By identifying what memes must be like and where they can be found, I hope to hasten an end to the continuing rounds of conjecture about memes. If the possibility of memes is confirmed, an era of "hard" findings in the new science of memetics could then be initiated.' You hear that all you left-brained, pseudo-scientific, objectivist geeks? Memes don't even exist.

submitted by on 2002-10-11T03:35 | Comment | Permalink

Edward Rothstein reviews Robert Aunger's The Electric Meme: A New Theory of How We Think and echoes what I've always suspected: the theory of memes has no explanatory power:

'The meme metaphor, though, really does distort more than it reveals. Yes, of course, ideas compete; they affect survival; they shape cultures; ideas can even "possess" a person. But why do some ideas become useful and others become irrelevant or even dangerous? How does culture evolve out of competing ideas and experiences? And why do some cultures succeed and others self- destruct? Memes don't have a clue.'

submitted by on 2002-09-26T02:36 | Comment | Permalink

Harvey Blume defends Stephen Jay Gould against his enemies (Dawkins, Dennet, Wright) whose reductionism is inspired by digitality:

'Gould's opponents advocate one form or another of a digital Darwinism. Their grand syntheses are unimaginable without the computer revolution. Their reductionist emphasis -- and their hopes for a single, internally coherent theory of everything from mitochondria to the human mind -- draws heavily on the tools, methods and examples of digitalization. Gould's views, on the other hand, owed next to nothing to computers. His Darwinism would have sounded much the same without computer code, artificial intelligence (AI) or the Internet.'

submitted by on 2002-09-21T04:53 | Comment | Permalink

'Popper tackled an immense range of subjects: among them the mind-body problem. He was a dualist and more, a pluralist. He defined a third reality beyond the material world and the world of mental events, a World 3 consisting of the products and creations of the human mind, abstract and no longer in human minds - ideas, theories, music and poetry, Shakespeare's plays and the English language, not located in space or time but real because of their ability via human minds to change the face of the material world. And in one of his last published works, using his propensity theory of probability, he tackled the perennial problem of free will - how we may steer and make sense of a course between the tyranny of determinism on the one hand and the lottery of pure chance on the other.'

submitted by on 2002-09-17T18:58 | Comment | Permalink

WG Runciman reviews Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained: The Human Instincts that Fashion Gods, Spirits and Ancestors: Natural selection is responsible for "for a kind and degree of imagination, and therefore credulity, which, over those many millennia, made those of our ancestors with theorybuilding minds more likely to pass on the relevant genes to their descendants than those without them. As a species, we are born not only to construct all sorts of beliefsystems out of what are sometimes the flimsiest materials, but also to retain whatever beliefs our local environment favours in the face of seemingly disconfirming evidence." But to account for specific beliefs (or non-beliefs), he says, we must look to the anthropologists, not the evolutionary psychologists.
submitted by on 2002-10-11T03:54 | Comment | Permalink

Wolpert: "I argue that the primary aim of human judgment is not accuracy but the avoidance of paralysing uncertainty... Might it not be that those with this disposition of thought survived better than those who did not have such beliefs? If that was the case, any genes linked with a propensity to believe would come to dominate in future generations.... such beliefs are our natural way of thinking and may be part of our genetic makeup because they are adaptive. We have a fundamental need to tell ourselves stories that make sense of our lives. We hate uncertainty and, for life and death issues, find it intolerable."
submitted by on 2002-09-17T18:01 | Comment | Permalink

E.O. Wilson: "The relative indifference to the environment springs, I believe, from deep within human nature. The human brain evidently evolved to commit itself emotionally only to a small piece of geography, a limited band of kinsmen, and two or three generations into the future. To look neither far ahead nor far afield is elemental in a Darwinian sense. We are innately inclined to ignore any distant possibility not yet requiring examination. It is, people say, just good common sense. Why do they think in this shortsighted way? The reason is simple: it is a hardwired part of our Paleolithic heritage. For hundreds of millennia, those who worked for short-term gain within a small circle of relatives and friends lived longer and left more offspring--even when their collective striving caused their chiefdoms and empires to crumble around them. The long view that might have saved their distant descendants required a vision and extended altruism instinctively difficult to marshal."
submitted by on 2002-09-17T17:34 | Comment | Permalink

Denis Dutton reviews Dean Keith Simonton's Origins of Genius: Darwinian Perspectives on Creativity, which is inspired by the evolutionary epistemology of Popper and Campbell:

'In asking how the brain creates, Simonton quotes Karl Popper's notion that our thought processes show the essential elements of [End Page 183] natural selection: "our knowledge consists at every moment of those hypotheses which have shown their (comparative) fitness by survival so far in their struggle for existence; a competitive struggle which eliminates those hypotheses which are unfit." This idea is best summarized for Simonton in the work of psychologist Donald T. Campbell. The creative mind generates vast variations of "ideational" content and continuously applies a consistent selection mechanism to these variants. Finally, just as in natural selection the best genes are retained through inheritance, so "the mental evolution that produces creative ideas requires a memory system, plus an ability to communicate the store ideas to others"--via writing for the printed page, composing for the symphony orchestra, etc. The controversial twist that Simonton insists on placing on this account is that the variational procedure, as with natural selection, becomes essentially blind: "Neither prior experiences nor current environmental circumstances will provide sufficient clues about how to restrict the range of [creative] choices, nor does there exist any rationale for assigning useful priorities to the various alternatives." The activity of creative genius is therefore "reduced to a basically trial-and-error procedure, whether through cognitive rumination or behavioral experimentation." What history decides are authentic acts and products of genius will only be known after the fact--which is the Kantian way of describing genius.

'Simonton provides some striking quotations to support this view, such as John Dryden on beginning to write a play "when it was only a confused mass of thoughts, tumbling over one another in the dark" or Poincare describing the initial stages of his discovery of Fuchsian functions: "Ideas rose in crowds; I felt them collide until pairs interlocked, so to speak, making stable combinations." This shows that the creative mind is capable of generating large numbers of variations, according to Simonton, and that these variations are not under cognitive control. He also recounts some substantial statistical work showing that with genius as with mutual funds, past performance is no guarantee of future returns: a year of rich production by an artist or composer may be followed by an artistic drought, and there's no way to tell what's coming next. Still, if this is something like luck, it's the fate of creative geniuses that they tend to have an awful lot of it.'


Also has its humourous moments:

'The frequently unhappy psychopathology of creative geniuses is accompanied by another unfortunate feature of their lives: they often experience severe adversity in childhood. According to Simonton, there is good statistical evidence that "the development of genius may sometimes be enhanced by traumatic or adverse experiences in childhood and adolescence." Many had chronic disabilities or illnesses in childhood, and a markedly disproportionate number lost a parent in childhood. One study of 699 eminent figures showed that 45% had lost a parent before age 21; another study indicated that one-third of creative geniuses had lost their father early in life. A quarter of eminent mathematicians had lost a parent before age ten. Another study of British Prime Ministers found that 63% had lost a parent, a number much higher than a comparable control group of English peers. Simonton gives three possible explanations for this, none of them compelling (achievement becomes an emotional compensation, a form of bereavement; adverse events produce a robust and persistent personality; a non-conventional career path is set by the loss of a parent). However the stats are to be explained, from the standpoint of some potential creative geniuses, Dylan Thomas was right to remark that the only thing worse than an unhappy childhood was "having a too-happy childhood." (Sad to think of today's moms and dads out there pumping extra oxygen and prenatal Mozart into the womb, or teaching calculus to their preschoolers. What the historical record shows is that parents who wish their tots to achieve greatness should beat them regularly, destroy their self- esteem, and cruelly deprive them of ordinary comforts, such as ice cream or mother's affection. It would be especially helpful for one of the parents, probably dad, to die before the onset of adolescence; suicide is fine for the purpose.)'

submitted by on 2002-11-27T03:08 | Comment | Permalink

Excerpts from an interview with Mayr by Jared Diamond:

'An individual either survives or doesn't, an individual either reproduces or doesn't, an individual either reproduces very successfully or it doesn't. The idea that a few people have about the gene being the target of selection is completely impractical; a gene is never visible to natural selection, and in the genotype, it is always in the context with other genes, and the interaction with those other genes make a particular gene either more favorable or less favorable. In fact, Dobzhanksy, for instance, worked quite a bit on so-called lethal chromosomes which are highly successful in one combination, and lethal in another. Therefore people like Dawkins in England who still think the gene is the target of selection are evidently wrong. In the 30's and 40's, it was widely accepted that genes were the target of selection, because that was the only way they could be made accessible to mathematics, but now we know that it is really the whole genotype of the individual, not the gene. Except for that slight revision, the basic Darwinian theory hasn't changed in the last 50 years.'


EDGE: I can imagine what you think about evolutionary psychology.

MAYR: Not necessarily! To tell the truth, I don't know much about it, but I have heard there's a field called evolutionary epistemology. They use a very simple Darwinian formula that can really be stated in a single sentence. If you have a lot of variation, more than you can cope with, only the most successful will remain. That is how things happen. In epistemology and countless other fields. Variation and elimination.

EDGE: Who's notable in that field?

MAYR: Quite a few people though I can't recall their names right now. Suffice it to say that there are many more evolutionary epistemologists in Germany and Austria than in this country. [Grrrrr. He should know better than that! The guy knew Popper and probably Lorenz, too, for crying out loud. Oh well, at least he acknowledges EE.--paul]


'If the individual were the only target of selection, this would indeed be an inevitable conclusion. However, small social groups that compete with each other, such as the groups of hunter-gatherers in our human ancestry, were as groups also targets of selection. Groups, the members of which actively cooperated with each other and showed much reciprocal helpfulness, had a higher chance for survival than groups that did not benefit from such cooperation and altruism. Any genetic tendency for altruism would therefore be selected in a species consisting of social groups. In a social group, altruism may add the to fitness. The founders of religions and philosophies erected their ethical system on this basis.'

submitted by on 2002-09-17T15:40 | Comment | Permalink

The environment in which a virus flourishes, cultural and natural: "HIV is a particularly vexing virus that plays to all our weaknesses," says Michael Gottlieb. "It plays to a weakness in our immune system and weaknesses in our behavior. It affects marginalized populations and plays to our inertia."
submitted by on 2002-03-08T03:54 | Comment | Permalink

Summarizes the debate over the evolutionary role of music. "Auditory cheesecake" or life-giving lullabyes?
submitted by on 2002-04-26T21:09 | Comment | Permalink

about this category

selection theory

Selection theory, aka evolutionary epistemology, holds that evolution is a knowledge process. Knowledge, whether in the form of biological adaptation or cultural innovation, proceeds by the Darwinian dynamic of trial and error, blind variation and selective retention, conjecture and refutation, etc.