TC Towers

Not to be confused with Fawlty Towers, because it just isn’t that funny. Though it could be with a little work, if you share my rather twisted outlook. . .

OK, here I am living in little Traverse City, where lately a couple of developers have been moving ahead with plans to build a couple of skyscrapers in the relatively neglected West Side of Front Street. One will actually break into three digits: One hundred feet tall!

Which, of course, isn’t all that big. But the very idea of a hundred foot tall building stirs up the crotchety local types (of all ages) and makes them talk about moving to the UP to get away from encroaching Babylon.

So it’s a pretty sensitive subject for those who’ve always imagined Traverse City to be a 50s television small town.

surprisingly enough, the plans have had pretty smooth sailing through the city commission and the planning process. Partly because, apparently, some powerful parties really want to get this done.

Michael Uzelac, one of the developers of the 100-foot project, hit a snag when the developer of a somewhat smaller project nearby, proposed a cheaper alternative to the parking deck he’s trying to get the city to finance as part of his project. The new proposal looks as if it can provide the same spaces for half the cost.

Why? Because Uzelac is planning on building some of his stuff ON TOP of the proposed city deck, and the deck therefore has to be built to a much higher standard to bear the load.

So why should the city be subsidizing that portion (the upper stories) of that project? Taxpayers, apparently don’t deserve answers for that question. In fact they don’t even deserve to know there’s an alternative, because city officials and one of our state representatives did everything they could to hush up the whole prospect of an alternative.

And now, Uzelac, who had such smooth sailing through the planning process before because his plans were well-designed to ease local concerns (no, the building won’t be big & ugly; no, there will be setbacks; no, we’ll be providing a LOT of public parking) is going back to the planners to revise all these concessions out of his plan now that he thinks he’s got an in.

Well, maybe he does: he and his associates have bought . . . um given more than $30,000 to our state senator, and he seems only too willing to use his influence to interfere in city decision making processes to make sure his sugar daddies . . . umm buddies get their way.

Which really begs the question: WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON HERE?

Cronyism? Influence peddling?

I think it’s about time someone just put the accusations out there: Jason Allen is for sale, and the entire city planning process is corrupt as the day is long, designed to railroad the projects of “friendlies” (i.e. political cronies, campaign contributors) through the process while the public isn’t looking.

Anyone care to refute? The facts so far seem to fit perfectly with what I know so far, so that’s how it looks. Is this what I am to think, or is there some other way to look at it?

So long as officials around here treat the public as if they are irrational idiots who have to be tricked and hoodwinked into allowing what’s best for them . . . well as long as they keep us in the dark, we’re free to think the worst.

And by the way, has anyone ever explained how the county contractor of this project got the contract in the first place? Cronyism? Kickbacks?

Turns out the thing collapsed, wasn’t built to the appropriate code, and was lacking in essential structural elements called for in the design.

The man who investigated the debacle just happens to be the man who saw to it that they got the contract in the first place. Conflict of interest? Keeping the investigation just this side of the actual award of the contract?

You decide, but don’t think you’ll be doing it in a well-informed manner, fellow mushrooms.

OPK

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TC Towers

Not to be confused with Fawlty Towers, because it just isn’t that funny. Though it could be with a little work, if you share my rather twisted outlook. . .

OK, here I am living in little Traverse City, where lately a couple of developers have been moving ahead with plans to build a couple of skyscrapers in the relatively neglected West Side of Front Street. One will actually break into three digits: One hundred feet tall!

Which, of course, isn’t all that big. But the very idea of a hundred foot tall building stirs up the crotchety local types (of all ages) and makes them talk about moving to the UP to get away from encroaching Babylon.

So it’s a pretty sensitive subject for those who’ve always imagined Traverse City to be a 50s television small town.

surprisingly enough, the plans have had pretty smooth sailing through the city commission and the planning process. Partly because, apparently, some powerful parties really want to get this done.

Michael Uzelac, one of the developers of the 100-foot project, hit a snag when the developer of a somewhat smaller project nearby, proposed a cheaper alternative to the parking deck he’s trying to get the city to finance as part of his project. The new proposal looks as if it can provide the same spaces for half the cost.

Why? Because Uzelac is planning on building some of his stuff ON TOP of the proposed city deck, and the deck therefore has to be built to a much higher standard to bear the load.

So why should the city be subsidizing that portion (the upper stories) of that project? Taxpayers, apparently don’t deserve answers for that question. In fact they don’t even deserve to know there’s an alternative, because city officials and one of our state representatives did everything they could to hush up the whole prospect of an alternative.

And now, Uzelac, who had such smooth sailing through the planning process before because his plans were well-designed to ease local concerns (no, the building won’t be big & ugly; no, there will be setbacks; no, we’ll be providing a LOT of public parking) is going back to the planners to revise all these concessions out of his plan now that he thinks he’s got an in.

Well, maybe he does: he and his associates have bought . . . um given more than $30,000 to our state senator, and he seems only too willing to use his influence to interfere in city decision making processes to make sure his sugar daddies . . . umm buddies get their way.

Which really begs the question: WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON HERE?

Cronyism? Influence peddling?

I think it’s about time someone just put the accusations out there: Jason Allen is for sale, and the entire city planning process is corrupt as the day is long, designed to railroad the projects of “friendlies” (i.e. political cronies, campaign contributors) through the process while the public isn’t looking.

Anyone care to refute? The facts so far seem to fit perfectly with what I know so far, so that’s how it looks. Is this what I am to think, or is there some other way to look at it?

So long as officials around here treat the public as if they are irrational idiots who have to be tricked and hoodwinked into allowing what’s best for them . . . well as long as they keep us in the dark, we’re free to think the worst.

And by the way, has anyone ever explained how the county contractor of this project got the contract in the first place? Cronyism? Kickbacks?

Turns out the thing collapsed, wasn’t built to the appropriate code, and was lacking in essential structural elements called for in the design.

The man who investigated the debacle just happens to be the man who saw to it that they got the contract in the first place. Conflict of interest? Keeping the investigation just this side of the actual award of the contract?

You decide, but don’t think you’ll be doing it in a well-informed manner, fellow mushrooms.

OPK

Kelley on Pinker on Dawkins

[Note: this post got big quick, so this is necessarily rather sketchy at points. I’ll be trying to further elucidate in the next few days. I’ll also be happy to respond to counter-arguments and questions.]

I’ve reposted the entire Times excerpt of Steve Pinker’s discussion of Richard Dawkins’s Selfish Gene below.

Dawkins’s book was, of course, a landmark in the history of evolutionary science. With this very readable book and its more specialized companion The Extended Phenotype Dawkins scored a rare feat in the realm of science writing: explicating and popularizing a new way of looking at evolution among both popular and professional audiences.

Dawkins book encouraged its readers to look at evolution with a “gene’s eye” view. Thinking less about the competition between animals or bacteria, and more about the competition between different sequences of DNA. Such a view made it much easier to explain things like altuistic behavior, for instance: a brother might sacrifice his own life for his sibling and still be assured that much of his genome would get passed on to future generations. Looking at the matter this way, we can more easily see how a gene encouraging such altuistic behavior might be selected for. An entire family with this gene might survive and propagate more successfully than others over the long run, thus assuring the continued presence of the self-sacrifice gene.

While recognizing Dawkins’s achievement, I many have felt that Dawkins has also had a tendency to state his claims a bit too dramatically and to push the explanatory power of his ideas a bit too far. When called out on this tendency, Dawkins has often clarified and nuanced his claims. I am someone who has been a bit skeptical of the Dawkins line of evolutionary storytelling, but I have always seen him as a very interesting and reasonable thinker with a lot to tell us about how life came to be as it is.

Steven Pinker, and cognitive scientist at Harvard and perhaps Dawkins greatest rival as a scientific popularizer, may also be Dawkins’s biggest stateside comrade-in-arms. But he does not share Dawkins preference for reasonableness over drama in the final instance. Much like the postmodern theorists he has publicly deplored, Pinker often seems to prefer the romance of taking and defending an extreme position to being right.

Not that there’s much danger in Pinker’s posturing: like the great postmodern firebrands, he’s got tenure. And his positions are not that extreme, socially. (I’d argue that they’re farther from the truth that from the political mainstream.) And they’re certainly not extreme enough to stem the flow of congratulation from his many fans.

The article below provides a fine example of Pinker at his worst. Aside from giving Dawkins his due praise on the 30th anniversary of The Selfish Gene, Pinker, characteristically, is also concerned to extend his thinking to new areas and new extremes:

Another shared theme in life and mind made prominent in Dawkins’s writings is the use of mentalistic concepts (ie, the explanation of behaviour in terms of beliefs and desires) in biology, most boldly in his title The Selfish Gene. The expression evoked a certain amount of abuse, most notoriously in the philosopher Mary Midgley’s pronouncement that “genes cannot be selfish or unselfish, any more than atoms can be jealous, elephants abstract or biscuits teleological”(a throwback to the era in which philosophers thought that their contribution to science was to educate scientists on elementary errors of logic encouraged by their sloppy use of language). Dawkins’s main point was that one can understand the logic of natural selection by imagining that the genes are agents executing strategies to make more copies of themselves. . . .

The proper domain of mentalistic language, one might think, is the human mind, but its application there has not been without controversy either. . . .

I sometimes wonder, though, whether caveats about the use of mentalistic vocabulary in biology are stronger than they need to be–whether there is an abstract sense in which we can literally say that genes are selfish, that they try to replicate, that they know about their past environments, and so on. Now of course we have no reason to believe that genes have conscious experience, but a dirty secret of modern science is that we have no way of explaining the fact that humans have conscious experience either (conscious experience in the sense of raw first-person subjective awareness –the distinction between conscious and unconscious processes, and the nature of self-consciousness, are entirely tractable scientific topics). No one has really explained why it feels like something to be a hunk of neural tissue processing information in certain complex patterns. So even in the case of humans, our use of mentalistic terms does not depend on a commitment on how to explain the subjective aspects of the relevant states, but only on their functional role within a chain of computations.

Mary Midgley aside, one has to wonder after reading this why philosophers ever stopped trying to “educate scientists on elementary errors of logic encouraged by their sloppy use of language.” Perhaps it was despair.

Pinker’s justification for using “mentalistic language” [wants, desires, knowledge] in relation to “hunks of matter” other than people and some of our animal friends is that psychology has so far failed to properly account for our sense of consciousness. So when we say an electron “wants” and a person “wants” we are referring to equally undefined phenomena.

The behaviorists responded to this by throwing mentalistic language overboard altogether. Which seems rather silly until Pinker comes up with his counterproposal: apply mentalistic language universally.

Why bother?, we might well wonder. Why not just continue to apply mentalistic language to those things that seem to us to merit such consideration, and not apply it to to things we know fairly well do not experience consciousness? Pinker himself points out several “confusions” arising out of the arbitrarily specialized use of mentalistic terms, why not just stop using them?

Speaking of cognitive psychology, Pinker tells us that mentalistic language “allows [CP] to tap into the world of folk psychology” and I think it is here that we find the true motivation behind Pinker’s project here. Pinker is less concerned with overall project of understand how evolution works than he is with trying to make evolutionary storytelling attain the sort of intuitive appeal of creation myths. Pinker’s project is more or less the creation of a “Wedge Strategy” on behalf of science. Much as religious belief presents itself as scientific inquiry through the work of the Discovery Institute, so Pinker’s science would present itself as a story to a public much more familiar with Spielberg than with the workings of systems.

The problems here are manifold: first, this representation of how science works is contrafactual. In fact, I’d say it runs counter to the epistemological underpinnings of the scientific worldview itself. Attempts to make scientific explanations of the world appealing narratives (be they sentimental or anti-sentimental) are lies, plain and simple. [But this is too big a point to discuss completely here.]

Second, it won’t work. Intelligent Design is lousy science, but it works reasonably well as a political ploy because most people can’t tell the difference. Real science often makes lousy stories, and any schmo can recognize a lousy story. From the perspective of making direct appeals to the populace at large, science is in a tough spot: the only way science can be made more appealing is to make it less “real.”

And that would be a bad deal, because the cultural capital of science is not going to be made by providing new grand narratives for society. Science will live or die by delivering results (where it has done fairly well) and being a reliable source of information for public decision-making (where it has done less well).

The truth of science is that there are no selfish genes. There are just different kinds of genes, some of which lead to organisms with a greater capacity to survive and propagate than others in particular environments. What lives, what dies, what propagates–these are all happenstance: the results of an extremely complex process arising out of a host of natural tendencies working in concert, with no intention behind it and no goal to achieve.

Not a heartwarming story. Not a story with great life lessons about competition and tough-mindedness. But the fundamental truth of science. Tough as it is, that’s the stroy that has to be sold to converts. The public at large, though, merely has to tolerate science (and pay, of course), they don’t have to practice it or even cheer from the sidelines.

OPK

Pinker on Dawkins

The Times March 04, 2006

Centrepiece

Yes, genes can be selfish

Review by Prof. Steven Pinker

To mark the 30th anniversary of Richard Dawkins’s book, OUP is to issue a collection of essays about his work. Here, professor of psychology at Harvard University, wonders if Dawkins’s big idea has not gone far enough

The SELFISH GENE

by Richard Dawkins,

OUP £14.99, 384pp;

US television talk-show host Jay Leno, interviewing a passer-by: How do you think Mount Rushmore was formed?

Passerby: Erosion?

Leno: Well, how do you think the rain knew to not only pick four presidents — but four of our greatest presidents? How did the rain know to put the beard on Lincoln and not on Jefferson?

Passerby: Oh, just luck, I guess.

I AM A COGNITIVE SCIENTIST, someone who studies the nature of intelligence and the workings of the mind. Yet one of my most profound scientific influences has been Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist. The influence runs deeper than the fact that the mind is a product of the brain and the brain a product of evolution; such an influence could apply to someone who studies any organ of any organism. The significance of Dawkins’s ideas, for me and many others, runs to his characterisation of the very nature of life and to a theme that runs throughout his writings: the possibility of deep commonalities between life and mind.

Dawkins’s ideas repay close reflection and re-examination, not because he is a guru issuing enigmatic pronouncements for others to ponder, but because he continually engages the deepest problems in biology, problems that continue to challenge our understanding.

When I first read Dawkins I was immediately gripped by concerns in his writings on life that were richer versions of ones that guided my thinking on the mind. The parallels concerned both the content and the practice of the relevant sciences.

A major theme in Dawkins’s writings on life that has important parallels in the understanding of the mind is a focus on information. In The Blind Watchmaker Dawkins wrote: “If you want to understand life, don’t think about vibrant, throbbing gels and oozes, think about information technology.” Dawkins has tirelessly emphasised the centrality of information in biology — the storage of genetic information in DNA, the computations embodied in transcription and translation, and the cybernetic feedback loop that constitutes the central mechanism of natural selection itself, in which seemingly goal-oriented behavior results from the directed adjustment of some process by its recent consequences. The centrality of information was captured in the metaphor in Dawkins’s book title River Out of Eden, the river being a flow of information in the generation-to-generation copying of genetic material since the origin of complex life. It figured into his Blind Watchmaker simulations of the evolutionary process, an early example of the burgeoning field of artificial life. Dawkins’s emphasis on the ethereal commodity called “information” in an age of biology dominated by the concrete molecular mechanisms is another courageous stance. There is no contradiction, of course, between a system being understood in terms of its information content and it being understood in terms of its material substrate. But when it comes down to the deepest understanding of what life is, how it works, and what forms it is likely to take elsewhere in the universe, Dawkins implies that it is abstract conceptions of information, computation, and feedback, and not nucleic acids, sugars, lipids, and proteins, that will lie at the root of the explanation.

All this has clear parallels in the understanding of the mind. The “cognitive revolution” of the 1950s, which connected psychology with the nascent fields of information theory, computer science, generative linguistics and artificial intelligence, had as its central premise the idea that knowledge is a form of information, thinking a form of computation, and organised behaviour a product of feedback and other control processes. This gave birth to a new science of cognition that continues to dominate psychology today, embracing computer simulations of cognition as a fundamental theoretical tool, and the framing of hypotheses about computational architecture (serial versus parallel processing, analogue versus digital computation, graphical versus list-like representations, etc) as a fundamental source of experimental predictions.

Another shared theme in life and mind made prominent in Dawkins’s writings is the use of mentalistic concepts (ie, the explanation of behaviour in terms of beliefs and desires) in biology, most boldly in his title The Selfish Gene. The expression evoked a certain amount of abuse, most notoriously in the philosopher Mary Midgley’s pronouncement that “genes cannot be selfish or unselfish, any more than atoms can be jealous, elephants abstract or biscuits teleological” (a throwback to the era in which philosophers thought that their contribution to science was to educate scientists on elementary errors of logic encouraged by their sloppy use of language). Dawkins’s main point was that one can understand the logic of natural selection by imagining that the genes are agents executing strategies to make more copies of themselves. This is very different from imaging natural selection as a process that works toward the survival of the group or species or the harmony of the ecosystem or planet. Indeed, as Dawkins argued in The Extended Phenotype, the selfish-gene stance in many ways offers a more perspicuous and less distorting lens with which to view natural selection than the logically equivalent alternative in which natural selection is seen as maximising the inclusive fitness of individuals. Dawkins’s use of intentional, mentalistic expression was extended in later writings in which he alluded to animals ’ knowing or remembering the past environments of their lineage, as when a camouflaged animal could be said to display a knowledge of its ancestors’ environments on its skin.

The proper domain of mentalistic language, one might think, is the human mind, but its application there has not been without controversy either. During the reign of behaviourism in psychology in the middle decades of the 20th century, it was considered as erroneous to attribute beliefs, desires, and emotions to humans as it would be to genes, atoms, elephants or biscuits. Mentalistic concepts, being unobservable and subjective, were considered as unscientific as ghosts and fairies and were to be eschewed in favour of explaining behaviour directly in terms of an organism’s current stimulus situation and its past history of associations among stimuli and rewards. Since the cognitive revolution, this taboo has been lifted, and psychology profitably explains intelligent behaviour in terms of beliefs and desires. This allows it to tap into the world of folk psychology (which still has more predictive power when it comes to day-to-day behaviour than any body of scientific psychology) while still grounding it in the mechanistic explanation of computational theory.

In defending his use of mentalistic language in biological explanation, Dawkins has been meticulous in explaining that he does not impute conscious intent to genes, nor does he attribute to them the kind of foresight and flexible cleverness we are accustomed to in humans. His definitions of “selfishness”, “altruism”, “spite”, and other traits ordinarily used for humans is entirely behaviouristic, he notes, and no harm will come if one remembers that these terms are mnemonics for technical concepts rather than direct attributions of the human traits.

I sometimes wonder, though, whether caveats about the use of mentalistic vocabulary in biology are stronger than they need to be — whether there is an abstract sense in which we can literally say that genes are selfish, that they try to replicate, that they know about their past environments, and so on. Now of course we have no reason to believe that genes have conscious experience, but a dirty secret of modern science is that we have no way of explaining the fact that humans have conscious experience either (conscious experience in the sense of raw first-person subjective awareness — the distinction between conscious and unconscious processes, and the nature of self-consciousness, are entirely tractable scientific topics). No one has really explained why it feels like something to be a hunk of neural tissue processing information in certain complex patterns. So even in the case of humans, our use of mentalistic terms does not depend on a commitment on how to explain the subjective aspects of the relevant states, but only on their functional role within a chain of computations.

Taking this to its logical conclusion, it seems to me that if information-processing gives us a good explanation for the states of knowing and wanting that are embodied in the hunk of matter called a human brain, there is no principled reason to avoid attributing states of knowing and wanting to other hunks of matter. To be specific, nothing prevents us from seeking a generic characterisation of “knowing” (in terms of the storage of usable information) that would embrace both the way in which people know things (in their case, in the patterns of synaptic connectivity in brain tissue) and the ways in which the genes know things (presumably in the sequence of bases in their DNA). Similarly, we could frame an abstract characterisation of “trying” in terms of negative feedback loops, that is, a causal nexus consisting of repeated or continuous operations, a mechanism that is sensitive to the effects of those operations on some state of the environment, and an adjustment process that alters the operation on the next iteration in a direction, thereby increasing the chance that that aspect of the environment will be caused to be in a given state. In the case of the human mind, the actions would be muscle movements, the effects would be detected by the senses, and the adjustments would be made by neural circuitry programming the next iteration of the movement. In the case of the evolution of genes, the actions would be extended phenotypes, the effects would be sensed as differential mortality and fecundity, and the adjustment would be made in terms of the number of descendants resulting in the next generation.

This characterisation of beliefs and desires in terms of information rather than physical incarnation may overarch not only life and mind but other intelligent systems such as machines and societies. By the same token it would embrace the various forms of intelligence implicit in the bodies of animals and plants, which we would not want to attribute either to fully human cogitation nor to the monomaniacal agenda of replication characterising the genes. When the coloration of a viceroy butterfly fools the butterfly’s predators by mimicking that of a more noxious monarch butterfly, there is a kind of intelligence being manifest. But its immediate goal is to fool the predator rather than replicate the genes, and its proximate mechanism is the overall developmental plan of the organism rather than the transcription of a single gene.

In other words the attribution of mentalistic states such as knowing and trying can be hierarchical. The genes, in order to effect their goal of making copies of themselves, can help to build an organ whose goal is to fool a predator. The human mind is another intelligent mechanism built as part of the intelligent agenda of the genes, and it is the seat of a third (and the most familiar) level of intelligence: the internal simulation of possible behaviours and their anticipated consequences that makes our intelligence more flexible and powerful than the limited forms implicit in the genes or in the bodies of plants and animals. Inside the mind, too, we find a hierarchy of sub-goals (to make a cup of coffee, put coffee grounds in the coffeemaker; to get coffee grounds, grind the beans; to get the beans, find the package; if there is no package, go to the store; and so on).

Computer scientists often visualise hierarchies of goals as a stack, in which a program designed to achieve some goal often has to accomplish a sub-goal as a means to its end, whereupon it “pushes down” to an appropriate sub-routine, and then “pops” back up when the sub-routine has accomplished the sub-goal. The sub-routine, in turn, can call a sub-routine of its own to accomplish an even smaller and more specialised sub-goal. (The stack image comes from a memory structure that keeps track of which sub-routine called which other sub-routine, and works like a spring-loaded stack of cafeteria trays.) In this image, the best laid plans of mice and men are the bottom layers of the stack, and above them is the intelligence implicit in their bodies and genes, with the topmost goal being the replication of genes that makes up the core of natural selection.

It would take a good philosopher to forge bulletproof characterisations of “intelligence”, “goal”, “want”, “try”, “know”, “selfish”, “think”, and so on, that would embrace minds, robots, living bodies, genes and other intelligent systems. (It would take an even better one to figure out how to reintroduce subjective experience into this picture when it comes to human and animal minds.) But the promise that such a characterisation is possible — that we can sensibly apply mentalistic terms to biology without shudder quotes — is one of Dawkins’s legacies. If so, we would have a deep explanation of our own minds, in which parochial activities like our own thinking and wanting would be seen as manifestations of more general and abstract phenomena.

The idea that life and mind are in some ways manifestations of a common set of principles can enrich the understanding of both. But it also mandates not confusing the two manifestations — not forgetting what it is (a gene? an entire organism? the mind of a person?) that knows something or wants something, or acts selfishly. I suspect that the biggest impediment to accepting the insights of evolutionary biology in understanding the human mind is in people’s tendency to confuse the various entities to which a given mentalistic explanation may be applied. One example is the common tendency to assume that Dawkins’s portrayal of “selfish genes” implies that organisms in general, and people in particular, are ruthlessly egoistic and self-serving. In fact nothing in the selfish-gene view predicts that this should be so. Selfish genes are perfectly compatible with selfless organisms, since the genes’ goal of selfishly replicating themselves can be implemented via the sub-goal of building organisms that are wired to do unselfish things such as being nice to relatives, extending favors in certain circumstances, flaunting their generosity in other circum- stances, and so on. (Indeed much of The Selfish Gene consists of explanations of how the altruism of organisms is a consequence of the selfishness of genes.) Another example of this confusion is the claim that socio-biology is refuted by the many things people do that don’t help to spread their genes, such as adopting children or using contraception. In this case the confusion is between the motive of genes to replicate themselves (which does exist) and the motive of people to spread their genes (which doesn’t). Genes effect their goal of replication via the sub-goal of wiring people with goals of their own, but replication per se need not be among those sub-sub-goals: it’s sufficient for people to seek sex and to nurture their children. In the environment in which our ancestors were selected, people pursuing those goals automatically helped the relevant genes to pursue theirs (since sex tended to lead to babies), but when the environment changed (such as when we invented contraception) the causal chains that used to make sub-goals bring about superordinate goals were no longer in operation.

Edited extract from Richard Dawkins: How a Scientist Changed the Way We Think edited by Alan Grafen and Mark Ridley, published on March 16 by OUP, £12.99, offer £11.69 (in p&p)

Kelley on Pinker on Dawkins

[Note: this post got big quick, so this is necessarily rather sketchy at points. I’ll be trying to further elucidate in the next few days. I’ll also be happy to respond to counter-arguments and questions.]

I’ve reposted the entire Times excerpt of Steve Pinker’s discussion of Richard Dawkins’s Selfish Gene below.

Dawkins’s book was, of course, a landmark in the history of evolutionary science. With this very readable book and its more specialized companion The Extended Phenotype Dawkins scored a rare feat in the realm of science writing: explicating and popularizing a new way of looking at evolution among both popular and professional audiences.

Dawkins book encouraged its readers to look at evolution with a “gene’s eye” view. Thinking less about the competition between animals or bacteria, and more about the competition between different sequences of DNA. Such a view made it much easier to explain things like altuistic behavior, for instance: a brother might sacrifice his own life for his sibling and still be assured that much of his genome would get passed on to future generations. Looking at the matter this way, we can more easily see how a gene encouraging such altuistic behavior might be selected for. An entire family with this gene might survive and propagate more successfully than others over the long run, thus assuring the continued presence of the self-sacrifice gene.

While recognizing Dawkins’s achievement, I many have felt that Dawkins has also had a tendency to state his claims a bit too dramatically and to push the explanatory power of his ideas a bit too far. When called out on this tendency, Dawkins has often clarified and nuanced his claims. I am someone who has been a bit skeptical of the Dawkins line of evolutionary storytelling, but I have always seen him as a very interesting and reasonable thinker with a lot to tell us about how life came to be as it is.

Steven Pinker, and cognitive scientist at Harvard and perhaps Dawkins greatest rival as a scientific popularizer, may also be Dawkins’s biggest stateside comrade-in-arms. But he does not share Dawkins preference for reasonableness over drama in the final instance. Much like the postmodern theorists he has publicly deplored, Pinker often seems to prefer the romance of taking and defending an extreme position to being right.

Not that there’s much danger in Pinker’s posturing: like the great postmodern firebrands, he’s got tenure. And his positions are not that extreme, socially. (I’d argue that they’re farther from the truth that from the political mainstream.) And they’re certainly not extreme enough to stem the flow of congratulation from his many fans.

The article below provides a fine example of Pinker at his worst. Aside from giving Dawkins his due praise on the 30th anniversary of The Selfish Gene, Pinker, characteristically, is also concerned to extend his thinking to new areas and new extremes:

Another shared theme in life and mind made prominent in Dawkins’s writings is the use of mentalistic concepts (ie, the explanation of behaviour in terms of beliefs and desires) in biology, most boldly in his title The Selfish Gene. The expression evoked a certain amount of abuse, most notoriously in the philosopher Mary Midgley’s pronouncement that “genes cannot be selfish or unselfish, any more than atoms can be jealous, elephants abstract or biscuits teleological”(a throwback to the era in which philosophers thought that their contribution to science was to educate scientists on elementary errors of logic encouraged by their sloppy use of language). Dawkins’s main point was that one can understand the logic of natural selection by imagining that the genes are agents executing strategies to make more copies of themselves. . . .

The proper domain of mentalistic language, one might think, is the human mind, but its application there has not been without controversy either. . . .

I sometimes wonder, though, whether caveats about the use of mentalistic vocabulary in biology are stronger than they need to be–whether there is an abstract sense in which we can literally say that genes are selfish, that they try to replicate, that they know about their past environments, and so on. Now of course we have no reason to believe that genes have conscious experience, but a dirty secret of modern science is that we have no way of explaining the fact that humans have conscious experience either (conscious experience in the sense of raw first-person subjective awareness –the distinction between conscious and unconscious processes, and the nature of self-consciousness, are entirely tractable scientific topics). No one has really explained why it feels like something to be a hunk of neural tissue processing information in certain complex patterns. So even in the case of humans, our use of mentalistic terms does not depend on a commitment on how to explain the subjective aspects of the relevant states, but only on their functional role within a chain of computations.

Mary Midgley aside, one has to wonder after reading this why philosophers ever stopped trying to “educate scientists on elementary errors of logic encouraged by their sloppy use of language.” Perhaps it was despair.

Pinker’s justification for using “mentalistic language” [wants, desires, knowledge] in relation to “hunks of matter” other than people and some of our animal friends is that psychology has so far failed to properly account for our sense of consciousness. So when we say an electron “wants” and a person “wants” we are referring to equally undefined phenomena.

The behaviorists responded to this by throwing mentalistic language overboard altogether. Which seems rather silly until Pinker comes up with his counterproposal: apply mentalistic language universally.

Why bother?, we might well wonder. Why not just continue to apply mentalistic language to those things that seem to us to merit such consideration, and not apply it to to things we know fairly well do not experience consciousness? Pinker himself points out several “confusions” arising out of the arbitrarily specialized use of mentalistic terms, why not just stop using them?

Speaking of cognitive psychology, Pinker tells us that mentalistic language “allows [CP] to tap into the world of folk psychology” and I think it is here that we find the true motivation behind Pinker’s project here. Pinker is less concerned with overall project of understand how evolution works than he is with trying to make evolutionary storytelling attain the sort of intuitive appeal of creation myths. Pinker’s project is more or less the creation of a “Wedge Strategy” on behalf of science. Much as religious belief presents itself as scientific inquiry through the work of the Discovery Institute, so Pinker’s science would present itself as a story to a public much more familiar with Spielberg than with the workings of systems.

The problems here are manifold: first, this representation of how science works is contrafactual. In fact, I’d say it runs counter to the epistemological underpinnings of the scientific worldview itself. Attempts to make scientific explanations of the world appealing narratives (be they sentimental or anti-sentimental) are lies, plain and simple. [But this is too big a point to discuss completely here.]

Second, it won’t work. Intelligent Design is lousy science, but it works reasonably well as a political ploy because most people can’t tell the difference. Real science often makes lousy stories, and any schmo can recognize a lousy story. From the perspective of making direct appeals to the populace at large, science is in a tough spot: the only way science can be made more appealing is to make it less “real.”

And that would be a bad deal, because the cultural capital of science is not going to be made by providing new grand narratives for society. Science will live or die by delivering results (where it has done fairly well) and being a reliable source of information for public decision-making (where it has done less well).

The truth of science is that there are no selfish genes. There are just different kinds of genes, some of which lead to organisms with a greater capacity to survive and propagate than others in particular environments. What lives, what dies, what propagates–these are all happenstance: the results of an extremely complex process arising out of a host of natural tendencies working in concert, with no intention behind it and no goal to achieve.

Not a heartwarming story. Not a story with great life lessons about competition and tough-mindedness. But the fundamental truth of science. Tough as it is, that’s the stroy that has to be sold to converts. The public at large, though, merely has to tolerate science (and pay, of course), they don’t have to practice it or even cheer from the sidelines.

OPK

Pinker on Dawkins

The Times March 04, 2006

Centrepiece

Yes, genes can be selfish

Review by Prof. Steven Pinker

To mark the 30th anniversary of Richard Dawkins’s book, OUP is to issue a collection of essays about his work. Here, professor of psychology at Harvard University, wonders if Dawkins’s big idea has not gone far enough

The SELFISH GENE

by Richard Dawkins,

OUP £14.99, 384pp;

US television talk-show host Jay Leno, interviewing a passer-by: How do you think Mount Rushmore was formed?

Passerby: Erosion?

Leno: Well, how do you think the rain knew to not only pick four presidents — but four of our greatest presidents? How did the rain know to put the beard on Lincoln and not on Jefferson?

Passerby: Oh, just luck, I guess.

I AM A COGNITIVE SCIENTIST, someone who studies the nature of intelligence and the workings of the mind. Yet one of my most profound scientific influences has been Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist. The influence runs deeper than the fact that the mind is a product of the brain and the brain a product of evolution; such an influence could apply to someone who studies any organ of any organism. The significance of Dawkins’s ideas, for me and many others, runs to his characterisation of the very nature of life and to a theme that runs throughout his writings: the possibility of deep commonalities between life and mind.

Dawkins’s ideas repay close reflection and re-examination, not because he is a guru issuing enigmatic pronouncements for others to ponder, but because he continually engages the deepest problems in biology, problems that continue to challenge our understanding.

When I first read Dawkins I was immediately gripped by concerns in his writings on life that were richer versions of ones that guided my thinking on the mind. The parallels concerned both the content and the practice of the relevant sciences.

A major theme in Dawkins’s writings on life that has important parallels in the understanding of the mind is a focus on information. In The Blind Watchmaker Dawkins wrote: “If you want to understand life, don’t think about vibrant, throbbing gels and oozes, think about information technology.” Dawkins has tirelessly emphasised the centrality of information in biology — the storage of genetic information in DNA, the computations embodied in transcription and translation, and the cybernetic feedback loop that constitutes the central mechanism of natural selection itself, in which seemingly goal-oriented behavior results from the directed adjustment of some process by its recent consequences. The centrality of information was captured in the metaphor in Dawkins’s book title River Out of Eden, the river being a flow of information in the generation-to-generation copying of genetic material since the origin of complex life. It figured into his Blind Watchmaker simulations of the evolutionary process, an early example of the burgeoning field of artificial life. Dawkins’s emphasis on the ethereal commodity called “information” in an age of biology dominated by the concrete molecular mechanisms is another courageous stance. There is no contradiction, of course, between a system being understood in terms of its information content and it being understood in terms of its material substrate. But when it comes down to the deepest understanding of what life is, how it works, and what forms it is likely to take elsewhere in the universe, Dawkins implies that it is abstract conceptions of information, computation, and feedback, and not nucleic acids, sugars, lipids, and proteins, that will lie at the root of the explanation.

All this has clear parallels in the understanding of the mind. The “cognitive revolution” of the 1950s, which connected psychology with the nascent fields of information theory, computer science, generative linguistics and artificial intelligence, had as its central premise the idea that knowledge is a form of information, thinking a form of computation, and organised behaviour a product of feedback and other control processes. This gave birth to a new science of cognition that continues to dominate psychology today, embracing computer simulations of cognition as a fundamental theoretical tool, and the framing of hypotheses about computational architecture (serial versus parallel processing, analogue versus digital computation, graphical versus list-like representations, etc) as a fundamental source of experimental predictions.

Another shared theme in life and mind made prominent in Dawkins’s writings is the use of mentalistic concepts (ie, the explanation of behaviour in terms of beliefs and desires) in biology, most boldly in his title The Selfish Gene. The expression evoked a certain amount of abuse, most notoriously in the philosopher Mary Midgley’s pronouncement that “genes cannot be selfish or unselfish, any more than atoms can be jealous, elephants abstract or biscuits teleological” (a throwback to the era in which philosophers thought that their contribution to science was to educate scientists on elementary errors of logic encouraged by their sloppy use of language). Dawkins’s main point was that one can understand the logic of natural selection by imagining that the genes are agents executing strategies to make more copies of themselves. This is very different from imaging natural selection as a process that works toward the survival of the group or species or the harmony of the ecosystem or planet. Indeed, as Dawkins argued in The Extended Phenotype, the selfish-gene stance in many ways offers a more perspicuous and less distorting lens with which to view natural selection than the logically equivalent alternative in which natural selection is seen as maximising the inclusive fitness of individuals. Dawkins’s use of intentional, mentalistic expression was extended in later writings in which he alluded to animals ’ knowing or remembering the past environments of their lineage, as when a camouflaged animal could be said to display a knowledge of its ancestors’ environments on its skin.

The proper domain of mentalistic language, one might think, is the human mind, but its application there has not been without controversy either. During the reign of behaviourism in psychology in the middle decades of the 20th century, it was considered as erroneous to attribute beliefs, desires, and emotions to humans as it would be to genes, atoms, elephants or biscuits. Mentalistic concepts, being unobservable and subjective, were considered as unscientific as ghosts and fairies and were to be eschewed in favour of explaining behaviour directly in terms of an organism’s current stimulus situation and its past history of associations among stimuli and rewards. Since the cognitive revolution, this taboo has been lifted, and psychology profitably explains intelligent behaviour in terms of beliefs and desires. This allows it to tap into the world of folk psychology (which still has more predictive power when it comes to day-to-day behaviour than any body of scientific psychology) while still grounding it in the mechanistic explanation of computational theory.

In defending his use of mentalistic language in biological explanation, Dawkins has been meticulous in explaining that he does not impute conscious intent to genes, nor does he attribute to them the kind of foresight and flexible cleverness we are accustomed to in humans. His definitions of “selfishness”, “altruism”, “spite”, and other traits ordinarily used for humans is entirely behaviouristic, he notes, and no harm will come if one remembers that these terms are mnemonics for technical concepts rather than direct attributions of the human traits.

I sometimes wonder, though, whether caveats about the use of mentalistic vocabulary in biology are stronger than they need to be — whether there is an abstract sense in which we can literally say that genes are selfish, that they try to replicate, that they know about their past environments, and so on. Now of course we have no reason to believe that genes have conscious experience, but a dirty secret of modern science is that we have no way of explaining the fact that humans have conscious experience either (conscious experience in the sense of raw first-person subjective awareness — the distinction between conscious and unconscious processes, and the nature of self-consciousness, are entirely tractable scientific topics). No one has really explained why it feels like something to be a hunk of neural tissue processing information in certain complex patterns. So even in the case of humans, our use of mentalistic terms does not depend on a commitment on how to explain the subjective aspects of the relevant states, but only on their functional role within a chain of computations.

Taking this to its logical conclusion, it seems to me that if information-processing gives us a good explanation for the states of knowing and wanting that are embodied in the hunk of matter called a human brain, there is no principled reason to avoid attributing states of knowing and wanting to other hunks of matter. To be specific, nothing prevents us from seeking a generic characterisation of “knowing” (in terms of the storage of usable information) that would embrace both the way in which people know things (in their case, in the patterns of synaptic connectivity in brain tissue) and the ways in which the genes know things (presumably in the sequence of bases in their DNA). Similarly, we could frame an abstract characterisation of “trying” in terms of negative feedback loops, that is, a causal nexus consisting of repeated or continuous operations, a mechanism that is sensitive to the effects of those operations on some state of the environment, and an adjustment process that alters the operation on the next iteration in a direction, thereby increasing the chance that that aspect of the environment will be caused to be in a given state. In the case of the human mind, the actions would be muscle movements, the effects would be detected by the senses, and the adjustments would be made by neural circuitry programming the next iteration of the movement. In the case of the evolution of genes, the actions would be extended phenotypes, the effects would be sensed as differential mortality and fecundity, and the adjustment would be made in terms of the number of descendants resulting in the next generation.

This characterisation of beliefs and desires in terms of information rather than physical incarnation may overarch not only life and mind but other intelligent systems such as machines and societies. By the same token it would embrace the various forms of intelligence implicit in the bodies of animals and plants, which we would not want to attribute either to fully human cogitation nor to the monomaniacal agenda of replication characterising the genes. When the coloration of a viceroy butterfly fools the butterfly’s predators by mimicking that of a more noxious monarch butterfly, there is a kind of intelligence being manifest. But its immediate goal is to fool the predator rather than replicate the genes, and its proximate mechanism is the overall developmental plan of the organism rather than the transcription of a single gene.

In other words the attribution of mentalistic states such as knowing and trying can be hierarchical. The genes, in order to effect their goal of making copies of themselves, can help to build an organ whose goal is to fool a predator. The human mind is another intelligent mechanism built as part of the intelligent agenda of the genes, and it is the seat of a third (and the most familiar) level of intelligence: the internal simulation of possible behaviours and their anticipated consequences that makes our intelligence more flexible and powerful than the limited forms implicit in the genes or in the bodies of plants and animals. Inside the mind, too, we find a hierarchy of sub-goals (to make a cup of coffee, put coffee grounds in the coffeemaker; to get coffee grounds, grind the beans; to get the beans, find the package; if there is no package, go to the store; and so on).

Computer scientists often visualise hierarchies of goals as a stack, in which a program designed to achieve some goal often has to accomplish a sub-goal as a means to its end, whereupon it “pushes down” to an appropriate sub-routine, and then “pops” back up when the sub-routine has accomplished the sub-goal. The sub-routine, in turn, can call a sub-routine of its own to accomplish an even smaller and more specialised sub-goal. (The stack image comes from a memory structure that keeps track of which sub-routine called which other sub-routine, and works like a spring-loaded stack of cafeteria trays.) In this image, the best laid plans of mice and men are the bottom layers of the stack, and above them is the intelligence implicit in their bodies and genes, with the topmost goal being the replication of genes that makes up the core of natural selection.

It would take a good philosopher to forge bulletproof characterisations of “intelligence”, “goal”, “want”, “try”, “know”, “selfish”, “think”, and so on, that would embrace minds, robots, living bodies, genes and other intelligent systems. (It would take an even better one to figure out how to reintroduce subjective experience into this picture when it comes to human and animal minds.) But the promise that such a characterisation is possible — that we can sensibly apply mentalistic terms to biology without shudder quotes — is one of Dawkins’s legacies. If so, we would have a deep explanation of our own minds, in which parochial activities like our own thinking and wanting would be seen as manifestations of more general and abstract phenomena.

The idea that life and mind are in some ways manifestations of a common set of principles can enrich the understanding of both. But it also mandates not confusing the two manifestations — not forgetting what it is (a gene? an entire organism? the mind of a person?) that knows something or wants something, or acts selfishly. I suspect that the biggest impediment to accepting the insights of evolutionary biology in understanding the human mind is in people’s tendency to confuse the various entities to which a given mentalistic explanation may be applied. One example is the common tendency to assume that Dawkins’s portrayal of “selfish genes” implies that organisms in general, and people in particular, are ruthlessly egoistic and self-serving. In fact nothing in the selfish-gene view predicts that this should be so. Selfish genes are perfectly compatible with selfless organisms, since the genes’ goal of selfishly replicating themselves can be implemented via the sub-goal of building organisms that are wired to do unselfish things such as being nice to relatives, extending favors in certain circumstances, flaunting their generosity in other circum- stances, and so on. (Indeed much of The Selfish Gene consists of explanations of how the altruism of organisms is a consequence of the selfishness of genes.) Another example of this confusion is the claim that socio-biology is refuted by the many things people do that don’t help to spread their genes, such as adopting children or using contraception. In this case the confusion is between the motive of genes to replicate themselves (which does exist) and the motive of people to spread their genes (which doesn’t). Genes effect their goal of replication via the sub-goal of wiring people with goals of their own, but replication per se need not be among those sub-sub-goals: it’s sufficient for people to seek sex and to nurture their children. In the environment in which our ancestors were selected, people pursuing those goals automatically helped the relevant genes to pursue theirs (since sex tended to lead to babies), but when the environment changed (such as when we invented contraception) the causal chains that used to make sub-goals bring about superordinate goals were no longer in operation.

Edited extract from Richard Dawkins: How a Scientist Changed the Way We Think edited by Alan Grafen and Mark Ridley, published on March 16 by OUP, £12.99, offer £11.69 (in p&p)

Couple of cool science blogs

Was directed to the hpb, etc. blog, which I really enjoyed and highly recommend to the scientifically literate. There’s even a recommended reading list along the right-hand column if you want (as I do!) to improve your state of scinetific literacy. The blog deals with the very interesting interface of philosophy and biology. And I now find I’ve got lots of reading to do!

The site that recommended hpb to me is also worth checking out: Gene Expression is a less formal blog dealing with many of the same issues, with contemporary social events and religion often cropping up as well.

OPK

Couple of cool science blogs

Was directed to the hpb, etc. blog, which I really enjoyed and highly recommend to the scientifically literate. There’s even a recommended reading list along the right-hand column if you want (as I do!) to improve your state of scinetific literacy. The blog deals with the very interesting interface of philosophy and biology. And I now find I’ve got lots of reading to do!

The site that recommended hpb to me is also worth checking out: Gene Expression is a less formal blog dealing with many of the same issues, with contemporary social events and religion often cropping up as well.

OPK