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Ch. 3: Universal Acid 
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 Ch. 3: Universal Acid
Ch. 3: Universal Acid


Please use this thread to discuss the above listed chapter of "Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life" by Daniel Dennett.



Thu Feb 16, 2017 11:52 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 3: Universal Acid
I have a couple of questions I would like to throw out for discussion on this chapter.

First, Dennett says
Quote:
time and again, they have come up with truly interesting challenges - leaps and gaps and other marvels that do seem, at first, to need skyhooks. But then along have come the cranes, discovered in many cases by the very skeptics who were hoping to find a skyhook.

So, for philosophers it is no doubt useful to determine whether, in general, skyhook ("mind first") approaches fail while crane (loosely, subprocesses of an algorithmic design process which are themselves algorithmic) approaches prove sufficient and therefore preferable. But imagined skyhook processes, by Dennett's own account, generate interesting cases.

Are we looking at a variation on the holism/reductionism theme? Do skyhook notions allow a holistic view which thereby puts on display whatever anomalies there may be which need their own subprocesses to address?

In my academic career I observed a difference between those who "believed in" deductive approaches, who tended to be aggressive police for analytical rigor, and those who "believed in" inductive approaches, who generated all the interesting observations but generally remained silent on methodology because their comparative advantage relied on processes held in disrepute. Is there a bias in the academic world against questions which do not fit neatly in the paradigm already in use?

Second, I think I have a quibble about his presentation on sex, which may illustrate the point I was just gnawing on. Dennett says that sex is useful in the long run, but "too expensive" in the short run, thus requiring a careful examination to justify (this examination is promised for later in the book). But "too expensive" turns out to mean "fails to pass on 50% of the genes of an organism." In fact, that is not an account of "expense" in Darwinian terms. The shortcut of assuming that genes operate with a "goal" of "passing themselves on" is not a careful or rigorous account at all of the selection process.

Expense, in Darwinian terms, must mean a burden on the ability of the organism to reproduce. So a more complete account says something like, "asexual reproduction permits a dramatic advantage to the better adapted individuals, so that they can, over the course of many generations, numerically dominate those who are less well adapted." The shortcut of assuming genes guide the process for the sake of their "goal" is not an actual mechanism.

And, just to flag a future point, there is an analogy to be drawn between the advantage of asexual reproduction and the advantage of polygamous sexual arrangements. In the latter, the most fit males reproduce much more than the less fit males. So there is an interesting question why monogamy ever caught on.



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Post Re: Ch. 3: Universal Acid
Separate issue. I like the account of the Baldwin Effect. It is useful to consider the way "plasticity" of adaptedness comes to carry an advantage.

It might sound obvious that flexibility of adaptedness is better than inflexibility, but as I think about it, the opposite seems true. Ecological niches may not be terrifically stable, but they do manage to persist over long periods of time. So, with the obvious exception of some ability to react to local variations, such as the ability of animals to move around over the landscape (or seascape), it looks like most kinds of flexibility are likely to be "too expensive" in terms of providing adaptation to rare and thus mainly irrelevant threats.

Probably an organism has to be somewhat omnivorous, and possibly carnivorous, to make general flexibility of adaptedness into an advantage rather than a costly extravagance. Thus it may have co-evolved with emergence of fruit-bearing trees, or some such "general" innovation in the environment which provides a variety of high quality food sources, and thus some benefit to plasticity.



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Post Re: Ch. 3: Universal Acid
Harry Marks wrote:
Separate issue. I like the account of the Baldwin Effect. It is useful to consider the way "plasticity" of adaptedness comes to carry an advantage.

It might sound obvious that flexibility of adaptedness is better than inflexibility, but as I think about it, the opposite seems true. Ecological niches may not be terrifically stable, but they do manage to persist over long periods of time. So, with the obvious exception of some ability to react to local variations, such as the ability of animals to move around over the landscape (or seascape), it looks like most kinds of flexibility are likely to be "too expensive" in terms of providing adaptation to rare and thus mainly irrelevant threats.

Probably an organism has to be somewhat omnivorous, and possibly carnivorous, to make general flexibility of adaptedness into an advantage rather than a costly extravagance. Thus it may have co-evolved with emergence of fruit-bearing trees, or some such "general" innovation in the environment which provides a variety of high quality food sources, and thus some benefit to plasticity.

Glad you mentioned the Baldwin effect. Would you be able to summarize the point Dennett is making there? I'm just not sure I'm picking up the significance.



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Post Re: Ch. 3: Universal Acid
Harry Marks wrote:
Second, I think I have a quibble about his presentation on sex, which may illustrate the point I was just gnawing on. Dennett says that sex is useful in the long run, but "too expensive" in the short run, thus requiring a careful examination to justify (this examination is promised for later in the book). But "too expensive" turns out to mean "fails to pass on 50% of the genes of an organism." In fact, that is not an account of "expense" in Darwinian terms. The shortcut of assuming that genes operate with a "goal" of "passing themselves on" is not a careful or rigorous account at all of the selection process.


I think you're taking "goal" too literally. I think a gene "trying" to be reproduced just means that a process that allows it to be passed on will tend to be selected for. So a process that leads to only a 50% pass rate will be costly in that sense, and the cost could also be in resources spent that could be used otherwise. There would need to be a major advantage to offset these costs.



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Post Re: Ch. 3: Universal Acid
DWill wrote:
Harry Marks wrote:
I like the account of the Baldwin Effect. It is useful to consider the way "plasticity" of adaptedness comes to carry an advantage.

It might sound obvious that flexibility of adaptedness is better than inflexibility, but as I think about it, the opposite seems true. Ecological niches may not be terrifically stable, but they do manage to persist over long periods of time. So, with the obvious exception of some ability to react to local variations, such as the ability of animals to move around over the landscape (or seascape), it looks like most kinds of flexibility are likely to be "too expensive" in terms of providing adaptation to rare and thus mainly irrelevant threats.

Glad you mentioned the Baldwin effect. Would you be able to summarize the point Dennett is making there? I'm just not sure I'm picking up the significance.

Dennett has several balls in the air on this one, so it is possible that I am (or even he is) distorting the main issue. But let me take a stab. He wants to demonstrate how people motivated by the perception of a skyhook process (let's say, since he doesn't, that this is a belief that mind will "generate mind" in the evolutionary process by rewarding the flexibility to recognize a variety of opportunities in the ecological niche) might end up, indeed have ended up, discovering crane processes (special subprocesses of natural selection which can account for results challenging to the most simplistic version of the theory).

So Baldwin looked at the comparative rarity of truly advantageous opportunities ("Good Tricks") in "fitness space". Evidently a fourth surface on molars is one of those Good Tricks, but it won't work here. I might propose beavers building dams as a "Good Trick". (Dennett could use examples of his conceptual examples - evidently for a philosopher a "case" of academic work is a good example, but concepts are not the easiest blocks to build with for most of us.)

Baldwin noted that an exact adaptation (let's say, an instinct for building dams on streams) is a fairly difficult adaptation to hit spot on with genetic variation, but if the genotype includes adaptability in response to environment then any adaptation that is close (let's say, flat tails for swimming in streams) makes it more likely that the Good Trick will be discovered and built into the behavioral repertoire.

The bottom line point appears to be that the capability of response to environment has a "crane" for getting it past the expense of generating such flexibility, in that one need not start out so close to the Good Trick in adaptation space in order to get the ultimate benefit of it.

I have filled in some connections he left out, but I think I have fairly portrayed the point and that it is an interesting one.



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Post Re: Ch. 3: Universal Acid
Dexter wrote:
I think you're taking "goal" too literally. I think a gene "trying" to be reproduced just means that a process that allows it to be passed on will tend to be selected for. So a process that leads to only a 50% pass rate will be costly in that sense, and the cost could also be in resources spent that could be used otherwise. There would need to be a major advantage to offset these costs.

I expect you are right about me taking it too literally, but the point of the book is "telos" and how teleological thinking is supposed to work. So I am trying to be very careful around any talk of "goals". In your rewrite of the point, for example, it needs to be said that the 50% pass rate only matters for advantageous genes, so, for example, all the neutral mutations used for the genetic clock are neutral on whether the pass rate should be high or low.



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Post Re: Ch. 3: Universal Acid
An interesting interview in the Financial Times. Dennett's take on some interesting topics, like AI, gets a quick once-over.

https://www.ft.com/content/96187a7a-fce ... 00c5664d30



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Post Re: Ch. 3: Universal Acid
Harry Marks wrote:
. . . Second, I think I have a quibble about his presentation on sex, which may illustrate the point I was just gnawing on. Dennett says that sex is useful in the long run, but "too expensive" in the short run, thus requiring a careful examination to justify (this examination is promised for later in the book). But "too expensive" turns out to mean "fails to pass on 50% of the genes of an organism." In fact, that is not an account of "expense" in Darwinian terms. The shortcut of assuming that genes operate with a "goal" of "passing themselves on" is not a careful or rigorous account at all of the selection process.

Expense, in Darwinian terms, must mean a burden on the ability of the organism to reproduce. So a more complete account says something like, "asexual reproduction permits a dramatic advantage to the better adapted individuals, so that they can, over the course of many generations, numerically dominate those who are less well adapted." The shortcut of assuming genes guide the process for the sake of their "goal" is not an actual mechanism.

And, just to flag a future point, there is an analogy to be drawn between the advantage of asexual reproduction and the advantage of polygamous sexual arrangements. In the latter, the most fit males reproduce much more than the less fit males. So there is an interesting question why monogamy ever caught on.

Good points, Harry. For humans specifically, sex is the constant carrot dangling on the proverbial stick. So it drives us, sometimes makes us do crazy, stupid things. And, yet, it must not be too expensive in Darwinian terms, otherwise we wouldn't be here.


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Post Re: Ch. 3: Universal Acid
In the prologue, Dennett says: "Evolutionary thinking is all very well if you’re explaining the efficient wing of the albatross or the elegant nest of the weaverbird, but keep your dirty Darwinian hands off my “Ode to a Nightingale.”

He elaborates on this idea in Chapter 3:
Quote:
Much of the controversy and anxiety that has enveloped Darwin’s idea ever since can be understood as a series of failed campaigns in the struggle to contain Darwin’s idea within some acceptably “safe” and merely partial revolution. Cede some or all of modern biology to Darwin, perhaps, but hold the line there! Keep Darwinian thinking out of cosmology, out of psychology, out of human culture, out of ethics, politics, and religion! In these campaigns, many battles have been won by the forces of containment: flawed applications of Darwin’s idea have been exposed and discredited, beaten back by the champions of the pre-Darwinian tradition. But new waves of Darwinian thinking keep coming. They seem to be improved versions, not vulnerable to the refutations that defeated their predecessors, but are they sound extensions of the unquestionably sound Darwinian core idea, or might they, too, be perversions of it, and even more virulent, more dangerous, than the abuses of Darwin already refuted?


Dennett mentions Stephen Jay Gould's concept of "nonoverlapping magisteria" but I was thinking of more recent begrudging acceptance of micro-evolution in creationist circles. They have redrawn the line there and it must have happened in recent years. But speciation or macroevolution continues to be denied at all costs. Keep Darwin's dirty ape hands off of that!

I like Dennett's sense of placing the modern synthesis of evolutionary theory in the context of pre-Darwinian thinking. In studying Shakespeare, I always like to refer to the great chain of being, which demonstrates a strict, religious hierarchical structure of all matter and life that was predominant from the Greeks to the Elizabethan era. Darwin literally changed everything. And it's always a struggle for us in modern times to truly grasp of how it was before.


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Post Re: Ch. 3: Universal Acid
I can't help bringing up another place in the book where Dennett talks about Shakespeare. It doesn't have much relevance to Dennett's point about Darwinism's spreading applicability, but it's interesting. To tell the truth at this point, when something jumps out at me in this book, I'm happy for it. Dennett is a brilliant guy who chases many rabbits down many holes, it seems to me. I get lost trying to follow him. I'm soldiering on with the book.

Quote:
Nicholas Humphrey (1987) makes the question vivid by posing a more
drastic version: if you were forced to "consign to oblivion" one of the
following masterpieces, which would you choose: Newton's Principia,
Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Mozart's "Don Giovanni," or Eiffel's Tower?

Quote:
"If the choice were forced," Humphrey answers,
I'd have litde doubt which it should be: the Principia would have to go.
How so? Because, of all those works, Newton's was the only one that was
replaceable. Quite simply: if Newton had not written it, then someone else
would—probably within the space of a few years... The Principia was a
glorious monument to human intellect, the Eiffel Tower was a relatively
minor feat of romantic engineering; yet the fact is that while Eiffel did it his
way, Newton merely did it God's way.

Newton and Leibniz famously quarreled over who got to the calculus first,
and one can readily imagine Newton having another quarrel with a
contemporary over who should get priority on discovering the laws of
gravitation. But had Shakespeare never lived, for example, no one else would
ever have written his plays and poems. "C P. Snow, in the Two Cultures,
extolled the great discoveries of science as 'scientific Shakespeare'. But in
one way he was fundamentally mistaken. Shakespeare's plays were
Shakespeare's plays and no one else's. Scientific discoveries, by contrast,
belong—ultimately—to no one in particular" (Humphrey 1987). Intuitively,
the difference is the difference between discovery and creation, but we now
have a better way of seeing it. On the one hand, there is design work that
homes in on a best move or forced move which can be seen (in retrospect, at
least) to be a uniquely favored location in Design Space accessible from
many starting points by many different paths; on the other hand, there is
design work the excellence of which is much more dependent on exploiting (
and amplifying) the many contingencies of history that shape its trajectory, a
trajectory about which the bus company's slogan is an understatement:
getting there is much more than half the fun. Pp. 139-140

I tend to go along with Humphrey's judgment. It's the particularity of not only literature but of everything else about culture that interests us and is irreplaceable if lost. When we try to figure out what system or laws might apply to the creation and transmission of culture, as was tried with meme theory, I become skeptical that we've come up with anything we can or want to use. Culture evolves, kaleidoscopically, as I suppose life does, too, over a much longer haul. It's the ever-changing patterns that have value for themselves, rather than for laws they may yet be shown to demonstrate.



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Post Re: Ch. 3: Universal Acid
DWill wrote:
To tell the truth at this point, when something jumps out at me in this book, I'm happy for it. Dennett is a brilliant guy who chases many rabbits down many holes, it seems to me. I get lost trying to follow him. I'm soldiering on with the book.

I have the same feeling often with this book. Interestingly, I sort of read right past the part that leapt out at you, and yet as you bring it up, I realize it is a key issue. Too much soldiering needed, really.

Quote:
Nicholas Humphrey (1987) of all those works, Newton's was the only one that was replaceable. Quite simply: if Newton had not written it, then someone else would

And yet, almost no one can read Chaucer, and it borrows heavily from the Decameron, nor is it particularly good literature as we judge literature today. So it's main interest is historical: it marks a certain point in the development of English literature, and, as a quality work at that point, maps out landmarks in the relation between literature and society. The Principia is of interest for much the same reason: Newton's awkward choices of terminology and notation, and the other tracks of the process by which he reached his milestone conclusions, are monumental landmarks in philosophy of science.

Quote:
the fact is that while Eiffel did it his way, Newton merely did it God's way.

This is the same observation that we have with "convergent evolution." An old version that I love is the SciFi story Omnilingual, about encountering relics of an alien race on some planet, and realizing that the periodic table was being presented in some alien form, which provided the key to translating the alien language.

The question often seems to be discussed as "contingency." Which of the specifics of a species' genotype are contingent, in that they would be different if some arbitrary event had happened differently, and which are inevitable?
DWill wrote:
Quote:
Intuitively, the difference is the difference between discovery and creation, but we now have a better way of seeing it. On the one hand, there is design work that homes in on a best move or forced move which can be seen (in retrospect, at least) to be a uniquely favored location in Design Space accessible from many starting points by many different paths; on the other hand, there is design work the excellence of which is much more dependent on exploiting (and amplifying) the many contingencies of history that shape its trajectory, a trajectory about which the bus company's slogan is an understatement: getting there is much more than half the fun. Pp. 139-140

I tend to go along with Humphrey's judgment. It's the particularity of not only literature but of everything else about culture that interests us and is irreplaceable if lost.

It has been argued that the difference between poetry and prose is that you cannot replace any word in poetry with a synonym without changing the work. This is particularity as significance. It is not "for want of a nail" contingency, but "the road less taken" contingency.
DWill wrote:
When we try to figure out what system or laws might apply to the creation and transmission of culture, as was tried with meme theory, I become skeptical that we've come up with anything we can or want to use. Culture evolves, kaleidoscopically, as I suppose life does, too, over a much longer haul. It's the ever-changing patterns that have value for themselves, rather than for laws they may yet be shown to demonstrate.
The "meme" notion operates at the grossest level of analysis. Umberto Eco and semiotics might be a better place to look for a system of understanding culture. Why Don Giovanni? It captures a certain sense in the air at the time that the aristocracy was not only accountable but vulnerable. (The Barber of Seville even more so, or so I am told - I tend to shun opera.)
Yet "value for themselves" is a bottom-line criterion of works of the imagination. Just because we can trace connecting links does not mean we would end up with the same message or the same work if we set out to make something beautiful with only those links which we claim, in hindsight, reveal the significance of the work.
Contingency and particularity are therefore vital to the whole business of "meaning" which Dennett is supposedly going to illuminate.
The way this was presented to me in my school days was a colleague explaining that she detested "Jonathan Livingston Seagull." Why? I asked. "It reads like 'Here is a symbol. Now the symbol will symbolize. Now you will be asked to think about what is symbolized, as the symbol expands its symbolic role'." When particularity is lost, meaning is murdered, its lifeblood drained out to leave only meat.



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Post Re: Ch. 3: Universal Acid
geo wrote:
In the prologue, Dennett says: "Evolutionary thinking is all very well if you’re explaining the efficient wing of the albatross or the elegant nest of the weaverbird, but keep your dirty Darwinian hands off my “Ode to a Nightingale.”

Well, indeed, keep them off. Dennett wants to argue (he is interested in AI, remember) that mechanism gradually intrudes its explanatory hands into the realms we had assigned to mind. As if "sufficient complexity" is the only matter of interest. Very shallow.

What is missing is the sense of aspiration which forges such an "Ode to a Nightingale." Explaining that aspiration as a result, say, of biological forces pushing males to compete for the attention of females externalizes it: it removes the drama of living within the aspiration itself. To think that the poet "just wanted to get the girl" is so reductionist as to impoverish life (not to mention its implications for poetry by women.) An interesting point, a piece of our understanding of mechanism, but never to be mistaken for an account of the reality being analyzed.



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Post Re: Ch. 3: Universal Acid
Quote:
The way this was presented to me in my school days was a colleague explaining that she detested "Jonathan Livingston Seagull." Why? I asked. "It reads like 'Here is a symbol. Now the symbol will symbolize. Now you will be asked to think about what is symbolized, as the symbol expands its symbolic role'." When particularity is lost, meaning is murdered, its lifeblood drained out to leave only meat.

There is a whole lot to comment on in what you've said! Having just a couple of minutes now, I'll refer to the universality idea in literature, whereby the writer has appealed across time and culture to human beings who would appear not be be living the same lives as the writer did. But the connection is made, and often (usually, always?) in a seeming paradox the reason is that the writer has nailed down some particularity, showing perhaps that the particular will always (?) be the road to the universal. Or maybe this is not a good generalization. I think of Shakespeare's sonnet "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day," which though anthologized everywhere is certainly less particularized than "The expense of spirit in a waste of shame," one less popular due to its savage rawness, and one that does not necessarily make a reader say, "Me, too." Yet is the latter poem not the higher achievement of art, precisely because it does seem to issue from a personality and be entirely genuine and frank?

Symbolism would seem to have force only if flesh and blood are laid as the foundation. That might explain the failure of JLS. Your friend put the whole matter very well.



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Post Re: Ch. 3: Universal Acid
DWill wrote:
. . . I'll refer to the universality idea in literature, whereby the writer has appealed across time and culture to human beings who would appear not be be living the same lives as the writer did. But the connection is made, and often (usually, always?) in a seeming paradox the reason is that the writer has nailed down some particularity, showing perhaps that the particular will always (?) be the road to the universal.

I think this is the power of literature, that it connects us as human beings, sometimes over many centuries. Such is the case with someone like Shakespeare, who still resonates with us four hundred years later, although even he is showing the tint of age. I really enjoyed Humphrey's passage because it highlights the crucial difference between objective knowledge, illuminated by science, and subjective meaning, provided by the arts. Shakespeare touches on the human condition and helps us explore common human values that transcend culture, which is why the Bard still resonates with us, and connects us emotionally as human beings.

Now, if Darwin had never come along, someone else would have connected the dots of evolution—as Alfred Russel Wallace did—and to some extent Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus. But there's a certain magnificence in how splendidly Darwin did connect those dots. As such, we pay homage to the philosophers, scientists, and artists of yesteryear because those are the shoulders our current philosophers, scientists, and artists are standing on. As Harry says, we might not choose to read Chaucer much these days, but we still owe a debt of gratitude to him and others, who remain beacons of light through the murkiness of time.


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