March 22, 2006

"Absurd" belief

It seems the blogosphere is awash in "absurd" beliefs. Not one to miss a bandwagon, I'll confess one (of probably many) of mine. It's actual a "contentious" belief combined with an "absurd" just-so story of sorts:
The Self is nothing more than a story we tell ourselves about our beliefs, desires, and actions. Moreover, this story-telling is tied in to the way we store memories, make plans, and interact with others. This narrative capability co-evolved as a Self-describing and Other-describing capability in proto-human societies.
Rather than leave the belief to wallow in it's own absurdity, I feel compelled to tell the just-so story of how I think this happened. As Daniel Dennett describes, the Intentional Stance is an approach to modeling the world where cause and effect are under-girded by beliefs, desires, and intentions. It, like the physical and design strategies, has utility in describing (and predicting) the behavior of many types of agents (humans, animals, even mechanistic controllers like thermostats) in certain circumstances. My belief (or so I tell myself) is that humans developed a proto-ability to tell these kinds of intentionality stories, most likely about predators and prey (it's thirsty so will go to water, it's hungry so will try to eat me), to help plan and reason about daily situations common to hunter-gatherers.

And then something happened. This ability turned out to be just as useful in describing and predicting the behavior of the other members of the tribe. And it turned out to be pretty good at modeling their own behavior too. And then a virtuous cycle was set up: the more individuals acted as if they had beliefs, desires, and intentions the better the other members of their tribe could predict their behavior and effectively cooperate. (Or, for you cynics, better dissemble and free-load off of the others).

So a race between tribes began as to who could most thoroughly internalize the new model.... and eventually the Self was born. Humans became expert at attributing beliefs and divining intentions. Belief and desire drove decision and action, and decision and action gave witness to belief and desire.

And eventually humans actually did believe and intend, because they acted indistinguishably from agents with beliefs and intentions.

And through these attributions and divinations, these decisions and actions, humans created values and most importantly become the architects of their own identities.

In the end, the advantage conveyed by adopting this stance became so overwhelming, both to the individual and the group, that incredibly complicated – even outrageous – mechanisms evolved to maintain the illusion and consistency of the Self. Our story-telling capability was upgraded to allow us to tell ourselves whoppers that kept the narrative flow going and made our (and others') beliefs and desires appear consistent.

And that's how Man gained his Self and became the Architect of his Identity. Pretty absurd, eh?

Posted by richard at March 22, 2006 10:50 AM


I'll buy that. Don't know if it's a Just-So Story entirely. There's certainly an evolution/selection dimension — unless you're able to use generalities to make predictions (I've seen a crocodile like that before, and it ate somebody), you're going to get eaten. And unless you yourself choose to play the game and make yourself predictable, your unpredictability will make you a danger to the tribe and get you ostracized or killed.

Interesting now, though, that the Self seems to have freed itSelf from its moorings. If, as you postulated, the Self emerged as part and parcel of a group dynamic — and to enable people to coalesce into manageable groups (which sounds right to me) — then Self definition would of necessity serve in a subordinate capacity to the the needs of the group. As seems fair, because no one was getting by alone in the period you described. At some point, though, an ideology emerged that defined the Self in opposition to the group.

We see a lot of tension these days between those who advocate for individual and group rights, group rights being the flipside of racism — and racism being in turn a method of predictive generalizing when groups become larger, and individual Selves aren't specifically known to everyone in the society. So one has to rely on certain cheats of generalizing that may or may not be accurate, but whenever they're applied, they offend the Self of the object, who's like "Hey — I've got this great story to tell. Are you listening?"

Which brings me to modernity: what happens to the Self when society grows so vast and populous that you can't possibly communicate or express one's identity completely to everyone you want? Oh, wait — I know — you go out and set up a MySpace account.

Posted by: Phutatorius at March 24, 2006 10:15 AM

I share a similar absurd belief as someone from that thread:

"I believe that within a generation or so, the theory of evolution will be discredited (or more politely, superseded) on purely scientific grounds.

Not that it will be replaced by "scientific creationism" or anything else religious -- but the contradictions between the theory's predictions and facts from the fossil and other sources will eventually become to substantial to be ignored.

This sounds so absurd to most people that I feel he need to post this under my pseudonym to protect my future employability."

I'd just add the reason it will be refuted it is that evolution is a meaningless tautology.

rv, i think your belief is more complex and philosophical than "aburd."

- you know who

Posted by: pseudonymious at March 24, 2006 07:41 PM

I know who,

I will just reiterate my claim, made during previous discussions with you, that your insistence that evolution is a meaningless tautology shows nothing more than your incomprehension of what evolution actually says.

People who get hung up on the tautology part usually have latched on to the "survival of the fittest" sound bite and can't get past the colloquial definitions of the terms.

The problem with that tact is that most critics of evolution (even Intelligent Designers) are critics of macro-evolution (i.e. speciation) and not micro-evolution (which we see every day) – but survival of the fittest is implicated at both levels. It's hard to explain away drug-resistent Staphylococcus, for instance, without admitting that survival of the fittest has some objective (or at least instrumental, lest we get into an epistemelogical debate) meaning.

Some people are just philosophically uncomfortable with the idea of macro-evolution, so they cling to outdated shibboleths of the anti-evolution crowd, reciting the "fact" that evolution can't explain X (e.g. the peacock's tail, non-kinship cooperation, etc.). But if they stopped reciting and started reading studies, they'd see that scientists have actually answered a lot of the famous criticisms of Darwin's original theory.

So, apologies, but I will continue to consider your belief absurd.

Posted by: richard at March 25, 2006 03:18 AM

I think the distinction between micro- and macro-evolution is quite helpful.

I believe in genetics: it spells out disconfirmable hypotheses about how genes are passed from one generation to the next. It has both good explanation of how such a process operates, and substantial evidence in tests in a variety of laboratory and observational setting that could but don't disconfirm it. Not so, in my opinion for macro-evolution, which I certainly don't find an obvious extension to genetics.

So in that spirit, please give me some examples of evidence that would disconfirm evolution. I suppose you are saying that the Staphylococcus is such an example, but maybe you spell out a little more precisely what the null hypothesis is that we reject based on the evidence.

Also, any pointers to studies that address famous criticisms (speciezation, etc.) would be appreciated. I'm not proud of my absurd belief, but I'm still unpersuaded by what I understand of the "theory of evolution.

Posted by: pseudonymious at March 25, 2006 01:16 PM

Staph was intended as an example that shows that "survival of the fittest" has instrumental meaning at the micro-evolution level. Resistant bacteria are bred for, and eventually dominate the ecological niche, due to the selective power of antibiotics. Their resistance is their fitness in the environment of a hospital and so they survive – and the population changes.

There are countless examples of natural and artificial selection at this level (finches, dog-breeding, crops, moth color). None show any hint of the tautology.

Perhaps you had a different reason why evolution is an inherently circular and empty theory? Or are you backing off the claim of tautology and just claiming that macro-evolution is problematic. Tell me more what your issue is, and I'd have a chance of setting you straight.

Posted by: richard at March 25, 2006 03:52 PM

Let me correct a critical typo: "what the null hypothesis is that we *MIGHT* reject based on the evidence." Sorry.

Posted by: pseudonymious at March 25, 2006 05:01 PM

My problem is going from micro- to macro-evolutionary theory.

In the Staph example, the null hypothesis is that bacteria resistent Staph are no more likely than other strains of Staph to persist. The null hypothesis can then be rejected.

But how did we come up with this hypothesis? We'll we observed that bacteria was killing certain strains of Staph. The problem with extrapolating from this micro-evolutionary example is that there is no way to define "fittest" independently. So you can't generalize to other micro-examples, like the moths. Each micro-theory cherry picks the hypothesis where we observe that the creature in question survived.

So we round and round we go: Who survives? The fittest. And who are the fittest? They are ones that survive.

Please set me straight.

Posted by: pseudonymious at March 25, 2006 05:44 PM

I get the sense that you want the theory of evolution to do something it's not designed to do, i.e. tell us where we're going. You're asking for a teleological theory of evolution – but that's not what modern evolutionary theory is. You're looking for some external, objective definition of "fittest" so we can know what we're shooting for. But fitness is contingent and historical and dependent on the specifics of the situation, and the theory was never supposed to tell us what fitness means.

You're confused because you're taking the everyday English words that are often used to describe the theory and taking them at face value, using their colloquial meaning. But the theory is not the sound bite.

The modern theory of evolution is a synthesis of Darwin's theory of common descent and natural selection and Mendelian genetic heredity. It deals with populations, genetic variation within those populations, and the change in that variation over time.

There are many mechanisms that act to change the genetic variation in a population, e.g. mutation, genetic drift, natural selection (including sexual selection), gene flow and transfer, recombination, etc. – some introduce new variation, some change the frequencies of existing alleles in the population.

These mechanisms go way beyond the throw-away line that you're reciting. Yes, "survival of the fittest" is part of it – alleles that code for adaptive phenotypes increase in frequency in comparison to alleles that don't. But there are many other effects predicted by the theory that are just as important (e.g. the founder's effect, allele linkage, stochastic drift towards homozygosity, etc.)

The mechanisms are mathematically tractable and can be modeled – the theory as a whole has been incredibly successful in it's predictions and explanatory power.

So my question would be, what would you replace it with? What other theory can shed light on topics as diverse as bacterial resistance, sickle-cell anemia frequencies in human populations, transitional species in the fossil record, and the number of chromosomes in different species of mustard plant? What are you looking for a theory to tell us that evolution doesn't?

Posted by: richard at March 25, 2006 11:59 PM

Teleological theory of evolution? Please don't present that straw man as my argument. There is a wide gap between that and the very limited question that I ask: name a single specific prediction that macro-evolution makes that can be disconfirmed (even potentially)?

Now the genetics stuff is a different ball of wax. I conceded before that these micro-evolutionary hypotheses are proper science. (Although I will say that coming up with a general argument why these micro-theories hang together under a common umbrella "evolution" is a different ball game.)

To answer your question: what would replace it? Nothing. A wrong theory should just be thrown out. Or perhaps you could say that there are a bunch of separate scientific theories that as of yet haven't been shown to be connected or generalize outside of their original domains.

When you say that the modern theory is "not the sound byte," can I take that as your way of conceding that "survival of the fittest" is misleading? (or perhaps even taulological?) And your statement: "But fitness is contingent and historical and dependent on the specifics of the situation, and the theory was never supposed to tell us what fitness means." sounds like you are throwing in the towel. What kind of theory has a different explanation for every time or situation?

If you are willing to give up on "survival on the fittest," then perhaps you share my "absurd" belief.

Posted by: pseudonymious at March 26, 2006 01:00 AM

No, I'm not throwing in the towel on "survival of the fittest" it's just not the whole theory. Just as "apples fall down" is not the whole theory of gravitation. Doesn't mean it's not a true and generally useful description of the phenomena, just not anywhere close to what the modern science actually says.

"Survival of the fittest" means what I said it means: in populations, frequencies of alleles that code for adaptive phenotypes will increase over time. This is an important mechanism, along with the others I listed, that drives evolution.

When I said that fitness was historical and contingent, I meant that it depends on the environment that the population lives in – it isn't some constant thing. As the environment changes, traits that are adaptive change, the fitness of an organism will change. That's not a different explanation every time, it's just a different outcome.

And evolution has made plenty of falsifiable predictions that have turned out to be true. Not every prediction has turned out true (any more than Newton's did) so the theory was updated (just like Newton's was) and it's modern form is still the best explanation for the observations.

An example of the kind of prediction it can make is that the genetic age (calculated from degeneration rates of orthologous genes) of a cladogenetic lineage split should match the radiometric age of fossils bearing morphological evidence of the branching. In other words, in certain cases we can date a speciation event genetically by looking at the amount cumulative mutation of gene sequences that were once shared (especially if they are now deactivated in one or both species). We can then compare that date to the fossil record of the divergence of the species and see if they are the same within the margin of error.

Another is that despite the fact that humans can't synthesize vitamin C, we are descended from animals that can, so it was highly likely that we lost that ability through mutation. Sure enough, we found a gene similar to the ones in other mammals that produces Vitamin C, but it is deactivated in humans.

Another is the number of harmful mutations that will be found in a specific species' genome (once it is sequenced). Evolution predicts that harmful mutations are unlikely to persist in a population if they decrease the odds of reproduction by a factor related to 1/N (where N is population size). So the number of harmful mutations seen should be proportional to historical population sizes (and it turns out that it is for mice, chimps, and dogs).

But let me ask an important question before I waste time listing more predictions, so I know what I'm arguing. Are you questioning common descent, i.e. that species evolve over time and share common ancestry? Or are you just questioning whether modern evolutionary theory can explain that descent and resulting diversity? Or are you just trying to make some seemingly clever philosophy of science argument about (nave) falsifiability?

Posted by: richard at March 26, 2006 01:56 PM

I'm glad that you asked, since my real question is none of the alternatives that you mentioned. I think I was pretty clear in my last post, but I'll reiterate it: how would you disconfirm the macro-evolutionary claim of "survival of the fittest?"

What I'm really stuck on is how any of these particular statements helps prove anything about the validity of "survival of the fittest." I mean look at the 1/N example. Cool theory. But what if it were 1/N^2? Would that support or disconfirm macro-evolution? What if it were completely unrelated to N, at least in some species some of the time?

Let's say I develop a theory that says that large, colorful, ornamental feathers reduce fitness because it makes a bird easier prey. But then I observe that the larger, more colorful feathers are positively associated with the surviveability of peacocks. Does that disconfirm evolution? No, sexual selection of course! In the end, we can "explain" any observed real world phenomenon with evolution, so great is our (dare I say religious?) commitment to the idea. (I hate to bring up sexual selection, because it is a common ruse to make the tautology more complicated to trace.)

To return to the interesting point that you make: "When I said that fitness was historical and contingent, I meant that it depends on the environment that the population lives in it isn't some constant thing. As the environment changes, traits that are adaptive change, the fitness of an organism will change. That's not a different explanation every time, it's just a different outcome."

I think a form of an answer to my question would be: how do we translate data about the environment and population (at a specific time and place) to generate a specific evolutionary claim?

Then, we can look at how the claims are made to see if they are falsifiable or tautological. And I'd be more persuaded about a claim having to do with a current population than an historical one, since then there's no danger of fitting the prediction to the outcome.

Posted by: pseudonymious at March 26, 2006 03:33 PM