biology

And They have the guns!

Friday, March 25th, 2011

From Discover Magazine:

Moral Realism

Thursday, March 24th, 2011

Sean Carroll has taken issue with Richard Carrier over the latter's position on Moral Realism.

On reading Carrier  I think that his real point is (or should be) that realism and relativism are not in conflict. Moral values, like the economic value of diamonds, may be relative but are real nonetheless. The existence of absolute moral values on the other hand is not supported by anything in his argument.

Carrier is probably correct in asserting  the existence of such things as “moral facts” that are “true independent of your opinion or culture” in the sense that our moral sense probably does include principles that are the same in all human cultures, and that we may sometimes be mistaken in our judgement of what action will subsequently give us the greatest moral satisfaction. But he provides nothing to support the idea that such principles are mutually consistent or that their "value" has any meaning outside the context of human culture.

I would add that Carrier shares with Sam Harris the blunder of referring to things like “the consequences you would want most”(assuming blah blah blah) without understanding that there is probably no single real variable which measures our level of “total satisfaction” at even a single instant (let alone integrated over time).

Algorithmic Babies and the Chinese Room

Thursday, February 24th, 2011

I commented at Stephen Downes' website on Patricia Kuhl's TED talk about "The Linguistic Genius of Babies". My quibble was less with the content than with the sentimentalized headline, because, although the babies' brains do appear to implement a sophisticated statistical algorithm (to identify the phonemes of relevance to the language of their community), there is of course no serious suggestion that they actually understand the process any more than our immune system understands the "algorithms" by which it operates or  snowflakes and other crystals understands the symmetry groups which govern the way they construct themselves. ...more »

Defining Evolution

Monday, February 21st, 2011

When I read the title of this piece (Theologians Lobby Successfully to Change Definition of Evolution | Cosmic Variance | Discover Magazine)I was prepared to get angry. But instead I am embarrassed on behalf of those who are complaining about the change (which happened more than ten years ago).

Apparently the US National Association of Biology Teachers was persuaded to delete the word "unsupervised" from the following statement:

The diversity of life on earth is the result of evolution: an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable and natural process of temporal descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments.

Now apart from its awfulness as a bit of language this is indeed wrong on several counts.

Perhaps most importantly, it appears to deny the predictive capacity that is essential for a "scientific" theory. In fact, the theory of evolution does have some predictive capability (though albeit of a stochastic nature). So the unqualified use of  "unpredictable" must be inappropriate.

Also, although it does not require supervision or purpose, the theory of evolution makes no statement regarding their absence. So to include the word "unsupervised" was indeed just plain wrong. ...more »

"The Belief Instinct"

Monday, February 21st, 2011

Jesse Bering's "The Belief Instinct" is described as an exploration of possible sources of religion in cognitive tendencies towards a sense of being observed even when we have no evidence for it. To support this idea he reportedly both cites experimental evidence and postulates evolutionary explanations - which lead him to identify "adaptive illusion" as being behind the development of religion in our species (but I suspect what he means is  that it is just a susceptibility to  illusions of being monitored rather than any specific illusion itself that may be innate).

Apostate Theocon Damon Linker, writing in The New Republic, finds all this "marvelously informative and endlessly infuriating". He says he does not like the mix of  "experimental data about modern civilized human beings and groundless speculation about our evolutionary ancestors", but what he is most upset about is his belief that if we accept Bering's thesis then a "possible consequence is that we will take his arguments to heart and seek to live truthfully, without illusions—which in this case is to say, without shame." And by the end of the review has worked himself up into quite a state of angry confusion and despair. But I think he misunderstands the implications. Giving up and/or resisting the illusion of oversight by an external god-like being does not mean giving up the moral values that entity is presumed to enforce (or the fear of incurring our own self-disapproval and/or of having bad behaviour noted and reported to our peers). So there is no reason to believe that we must either "begin shamelessly shitting on ourselves in public" or be subject to "sustained, ongoing, irredeemable self-deception". There really is an honourable and moral alternative.

Mythical Myths #3 - The Concept of Race

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

Oh damn! I had no particular wish to address this until browsing led me by chance to RACE - The Power of an Illusion at PBS where a bunch of well intentioned people are discrediting anti-racism by associating it with a poorly argued denial that a meaningful concept of race even exists.

It is indeed popular these days among those who don't like the way that it has been used to assert that the concept of race does not correspond to anything scientifically definable and so is a "myth", but this is really just wishful thinking and the idea that race is a myth is itself a myth, which makes race another example of what I identify as "Mythical Myths" (ie attempts to identify as myths things which really are real).

It is true that the concept of race may have little utility in human affairs, and whatever utility it does have may be more negative than positive, but it is silly to deny that it has any meaning at all. Whether desirable or not, it is a fact that most people can quickly and correctly identify the ancestral continent (and maybe even a much more specific territory) of a significant fraction of those they meet. This is because isolated populations over many generations do develop observable differences in appearance (and perhaps other factors as well). The fact that the classification of people into races is not complete or 100% reliable does not make it meaningless or undefinable. For example (just to make the point and without expectation that it will be useful for any other purpose) the following might be a reasonable "scientific" definition:

A race of strength s is a human population which has been sufficiently isolated for sufficiently long that (through either just random genetic drift or perhaps sexual selection or evolution in response to local environment) its members differ in their mean value of some computable combination of measurable characteristics from the global mean of non-members by more than 2s standard deviations.

(So if we use the criterion of guessing that a person is of a particular race of strength s if that person's measurement of the relevant parameter is within s standard deviations of the racial mean, then for a race of strength 2, assuming normal distribution of the parameter, a randomly chosen non-member has only a 2.5% chance of being misidentified as a member of the race, and similarly for strength 1 the chance of misidentification of a non-member is about 16%).

Of course not everyone will have an identifiable race, and with reduced isolation it can be expected that the "strengths" of all races will decline over time, but I am sure that it will take at least several more generations before it is impossible to say with confidence of at least half of the people we meet that they have at least one ancestor within the past twenty generations who lived in Africa, Asia, or Europe. And it will be a very long time before we cannot identify for at least some individuals much more specific ancestral histories just on the basis of a quick visual inspection. In the meantime it may be socially harmful to pay much attention to these possibilities but it is foolish to deny that something is possible just because we don't want people to do it.

[1] The above-linked PBS site attempts to justify the claim that "Race has no genetic basis" with the explanation "Not one characteristic, trait, or gene distinguishes all members of one so-called race from all members of another so-called race." That this second statement is probably true does imply that no race is defined by the presence or absence of a single gene, but that is not the only possible genetic basis for a classification scheme. It may well be that our identification of a person's race (when possible) is by reference to a combination of several characteristics - each of which may result from the activation of a multitude of genes and indeed the suggestion that a characteristic not linked definitively to a specific gene "has no genetic basis" is so simplistically wrong as to completely discredit its proponent.

[2] A "quiz" associated with the site includes the question "Which of the following is likely to be your ancestor?: (A)Nefertiti, (B)Julius Caesar, (C)Qin Shi Huang - first emperor of China, (D)All of the above, (E)None of the above." with the answer given as (D) on the basis of a silly argument about numbers of ancestors which neglects the effect of isolation of populations.

The Chinese Room

Thursday, December 9th, 2010

Stephen Downes links to this notice about three free Philosophy courses from John Searle who is famous for his Chinese Room thought experiment.  Now Searle may be a great teacher, and the 'Chinese Room' may be a useful paedagogical device, but I'm afraid I have difficulty respecting any dsicipline which ever in modern times treated it as anything more than that.
...more »

The Inheritors of What?

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

A new book by Eric Kaufmann entitled Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?: Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century is reviewed by Phillip Longman in 'Big Questions Online'. An open question, I guess, is whether or not there is an inheritable tendency towards religiosity and, if so, how it is related to fertility within a particular society. But a bigger related question may be:  if the over-breeders can't be stopped, then what kind of earth will there be for them to inherit?

Data Sharing Speeds Research

Monday, August 16th, 2010

An article in the NYTimes (coming to me via Michael Geist) reports progress in Alzheimer's research coming as a result of researchers adopting the principle of open data. ...more »

Selfish Altruism

Sunday, June 13th, 2010

'Psychological Altruism' is just a special case of 'Biological Altruism' and the "gene" for either is the most selfish of all.

Of course the concept of genes for actual characteristics all being in one-to-one correspondence with discrete sequences of DNA is simplistic, and the "gene" for something as complicated as a behaviour pattern may involve those for many different proteins along with related expression-controlling sequences, but no matter how it works, any hereditary tendency towards "altruistic" behaviour is one which is prepared to sacrifice the rest of its host's genome in order to enhance the number of its own duplicates that are carried forward by co-specifics of the sacrificed host (even ones who are outside its host's immediate family so less likely to share other parts of the host's genome).

Not only this, but the wily and misnamed "altruistic gene" has often also evolved links to behaviours (manifest in humans in concepts like "morality", "fairness" and "religion") which ensure that the benefits of the altruistic gene actually are *not* shared with co-specifics of the host who lack that particular "gene"! (Such hosts may take risks with their own lives and relatives for the benefit of their non-related "moral peers" and/or to punish the "immoral" - possibly even including members of their own family)

Psychological vs. Biological Altruism is the latest topic at PholosophyTalk.

[Note added Aug 10: Tim Dean at 'Ockham's Beard' makes an interesting connection between the genetics of morality and of the immune system.]

Brain Scans as Lie Detectors

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

BBC News - Brain scans being misused as lie detectors, experts say.

And of course those who claim to interpret the scans will also call themselves experts. (Which leads us off to another conversation entirely)

I am troubled by the confounding of privacy and accuracy concerns here. Frankly if lie detection were actually possible I'd be strongly in favour of it and "privacy" be damned! And I suspect that some of the scepticism is exaggerated by those who just don't like the idea and so want it not to work. But I am also pretty confident that for now they are right and that it will be a long time before any method of lie detection is ever proved to be reliable enough to use as evidence in court.

We do of course need to be sceptical but is there any more need to legislate against the practice than against the use of chicken entrails to evaluate a job candidate? In both cases perhaps the technology shouldn't be forbidden but until evidence is provided that it actually does work any evidence of its use should be taken as valid grounds for a civil suit re unfair practices.

Getting Smarter

Monday, July 20th, 2009

This article shares some of my own reaction to the "internet is making us dumber" nonsense, as well as commenting on other possible sources of increasing global intelligence.

Is Mental Causation a Problem?

Monday, May 11th, 2009

Stephen Downes points to this review by Sara Worley in NotreDame Philosophical Review of the book 'Mental Causation' by Anthony Dardis, and he (Stephen) concludes with this:
"The main takeaway? This nice neat picture of 'A causes B' is deeply mistaken."

Now I'm no philosopher, and I haven't read the book, but I have to agree with Stephen on this. It has long seemed to me that even in the purely physical world the whole idea of cause and effect is just baby-talk. i.e. superstitious nonsense that has no real meaning beyond the question "What is a minimal subset of actual antecedents of B from which the eventual occurrence of B could have been deduced? (indefinite article intended since solution not necessarily unique)."

...more »

I Google, therefore I Don't Think

Monday, June 30th, 2008

My friend Gerry Pareja sent this article by John Naughton from The Observer, responding (I think very well) to Nicholas Carr's 'Is Google Making Us Stupid?' in The Atlantic, but I can't say that its arrival is what distracted me from my previous line of thought. In fact I was just tired, but feeling my need for sleep as a sign of lack of commitment-to-task prompted me to start also on my own intended response to Carr - and others who decry the influence of the web and other technology on our mental capacities. ...more »

Hedonic Man

Monday, June 30th, 2008

Hedonic Man is the title of a review by Alan Wolfe of two books on the "new economics". Like Wolfe (and probably countless others) I am sure that the science of economics is sorely lacking, but also like him I am more than skeptical of the ideas of these revolutionaries (which I must admit I have not read directly but have come across in various contexts). However my objections are often different than Wolfe's and in fact I think his review misses the point in a number of key respects.

To start with the second of the authors being reviewed, it was a discussion elsewhere (in Scientific American if I recall correctly) of some of the experiments described by Dan Ariely which irritated me so much that I have been meaning for some time to look it up again and write a response. Wolfe's review now gives me that opportunity.

But in the unlikely event that I actually have a reader for any of this, I am afraid you will have to wait until tomorrow (since my attention span has just expired).

Gates on Watson on Race

Thursday, June 26th, 2008

The Science of Racism is an odd title for an article in which Henry Louis Gates identifies James Watson's view as something he calls "racialist" and distinct from "racist". ...more »

The Hyberbolic Crochet Coral Reef Project

Wednesday, March 5th, 2008

"Holding theorems in their hands" is a blog post about the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef Project. It's a wonderful story about collaboration on many levels and across many interest groups - and with beautiful images to boot. I saw it via Stephen Downes.

Eggheads - The Boston Globe

Tuesday, September 18th, 2007

Eggheads - The Boston Globe

Ravens and octopi both give me hope for the future of intelligence on this planet.

Leaning Tower Illusion

Sunday, August 12th, 2007

My friend Gerry Pareja forwarded a link to this story from 'Improbable Research' about the first prize winner in the Neural Correlate Society's 2007 Illusion of the Year contest.

The image certainly is pretty cool. But to test the explanation I tried covering each image in turn and the effect was still there! I wondered if there was a perceptual delay effect in that our memory of one picture affects our interpretation of the other but then I also noticed that the effect changes depending on where the picture is in our field of view. If I position myself facing the right hand edge of the monitor, then the right hand tower seems more vertical and the left one almost seems to lean left or backwards. So the illusion may be more (or at least partly) due to the fact that in the absense of other visual cues in the picture we tend to interpret as if viewed from the direction at which we are looking at the picture - ie we interpret the picture edge as a window frame.

Bonobo Swingers?

Friday, July 27th, 2007

Arts&Letters Daily pointed to this fine essay by Ian Parker in The New Yorker. It really is an interesting and entertaining blend of anecdote, history, and good science reporting.