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III: Inside the Survival Machine (Steven Pinker) 
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 III: Inside the Survival Machine (Steven Pinker)
Books do Furnish a Life: An electrifying celebration of science writing

By Richard Dawkins


III: Inside the Survival Machine: Exploring Humanity
In conversation with Steven Pinker



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Post Re: III: Inside the Survival Machine (Steven Pinker)
I absolutely loved Steven Pinker's 'Better Angels of our Nature' :)



Wed Jun 09, 2021 8:11 am
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Post Re: III: Inside the Survival Machine (Steven Pinker)
I never finished that one... But will someday.

I loved the Stuff of Thought tho. I'll need to reread that one too. Was so long ago.


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Post Re: III: Inside the Survival Machine (Steven Pinker)
The book that Dawkins goes into right after the Pinker interview is one on my list. A Thousand Brains. Interesting hypothesis. And an interesting story about the startup that Hawkins founded.


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Wed Jun 09, 2021 9:37 pm
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Post Re: III: Inside the Survival Machine (Steven Pinker)
I haven't read this interview yet, but during the discussion of scientism I thought of Pinker's thesis in "Better Angels" that the world has become less and less violent, as shown by statistics. This doesn't match the way people generally feel, though. So are they wrong to see frequent mass shootings as indicating a more violent society, or is there something that Pinker's scientific approach simply misses?



Thu Jun 10, 2021 11:57 am
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Post Re: III: Inside the Survival Machine (Steven Pinker)
If I remember, Pinker also mentioned that we have more and more immediate access to news about violence, which can make it seem as if there is more violence than in the past.

Also, looking at the type of violence and the scope...less wholesale pillage and invasion and such, compared to random acts of minor violence, that also contributes to the notion of less violent times.

But my memory is foggy on the book.

I'm not necessarily arguing for his thesis, but the access to news at the speed with which it is available is an interesting point. Would we have heard of <or been immersed in) a school shooting story in Colorado in the early 20th century to the extent we are today? Would every police incident be fed to us instantly back in 1860?

I may need to re read that book now. I stopped halfway through back when it first came out.


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 Re: III: Inside the Survival Machine (Steven Pinker)
Mr. P wrote:
If I remember, Pinker also mentioned that we have more and more immediate access to news about violence, which can make it seem as if there is more violence than in the past.

Also, looking at the type of violence and the scope...less wholesale pillage and invasion and such, compared to random acts of minor violence, that also contributes to the notion of less violent times.

But my memory is foggy on the book.

I'm not necessarily arguing for his thesis, but the access to news at the speed with which it is available is an interesting point. Would we have heard of <or been immersed in) a school shooting story in Colorado in the early 20th century to the extent we are today? Would every police incident be fed to us instantly back in 1860?

I may need to re read that book now. I stopped halfway through back when it first came out.

I also recall him making that point: that our perception of the degree of violence is influenced largely by what we're able to learn of violent acts, even in distant places. In fact, having access to news from around the world, is there any way we would not form a judgment of an increasingly violent world? It doesn't take many incidents reported to put this idea in our heads. I admit I don't know what to make of Pinkers's meliorism. Should we have a good, rather than bad, feeling about future trends, because contrary to our faulty senses humans are getting more civilized? What stares me in the face is that even if our behavior toward each other is better, our abuse of the earth is in a sense a type of violence, and that violence is without doubt ever increasing. So an overall optimism toward the future is really hard to arrive at.

I didn't finish Pinker's book, either. It might be a book whose thesis is laid out early and doesn't develop much after that, except with more data piled on.



Last edited by DWill on Sat Jun 12, 2021 8:16 am, edited 1 time in total.



Sat Jun 12, 2021 8:15 am
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Post Re: III: Inside the Survival Machine (Steven Pinker)
I tend to put more emphasis on the overcoming of poverty than the overcoming of violence, though granted the two are closely related.

I seem not to have mastered the copying of images into BT, but Wikipedia has some good perspective on world poverty rates.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extreme_poverty

We have reached a point of diminishing returns, at which the rate will not fall as fast as it did between 1990 and 2010, but the lifting of 20 to 40 percent of humanity out of extreme poverty is an impressive accomplishment.



Sat Jun 12, 2021 8:48 am
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Post Re: III: Inside the Survival Machine (Steven Pinker)
Harry Marks wrote:
I tend to put more emphasis on the overcoming of poverty than the overcoming of violence, though granted the two are closely related.

I seem not to have mastered the copying of images into BT, but Wikipedia has some good perspective on world poverty rates.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extreme_poverty

We have reached a point of diminishing returns, at which the rate will not fall as fast as it did between 1990 and 2010, but the lifting of 20 to 40 percent of humanity out of extreme poverty is an impressive accomplishment.

It's impressive and I hope sustainable. I wonder whether access to electricity is part of the living standard to which this 20 to 40 percent has been raised (why such a vague estimate?). Bill Gates, in his climate change book, makes much of the need to bring electricity to poor people, obviously adding to the challenge of reaching net zero. Electricity and the many ways that it's used means that economic growth is a mandate, though people like me want to believe that zero or negative growth is necessary to save the planet.



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Post Re: III: Inside the Survival Machine (Steven Pinker)
DWill wrote:
It's impressive and I hope sustainable. I wonder whether access to electricity is part of the living standard to which this 20 to 40 percent has been raised (why such a vague estimate?).
The estimate is that vague for several interacting reasons.

One is that humanity's income distribution, like almost every income distribution with a large sample, is skewed heavily to the right and bunches people at the left (the poor end). As a result the number of people near any minimum income threshold is always going to be a large share of the total.

A second is that comparisons between countries are even more inexact than statistics within countries. The Purchasing Power Parity correction for affordability has decades of work behind it, but no one is very confident that we have accurate comparisons between quality of a house in rural India and quality of a house on an island in Greece, to use a random example. Last I read about it, (20 years ago?), comparisons of actual expenditure at the low income end of the scale tended to show less inequality between countries than money income does (probably indicating cousins sharing subsistence crops and other such ways of coping with times of low income).

And third the line for "extreme poverty" is a little arbitrary. Even so, if you want to use the numbers to claim that 40% of humanity has left extreme poverty between 1990 and 2010 (or 2020, but the trend slowed way down in the 2010s) you can find justification (but need to remember that a large portion of those people are still close to the line) and if you want to be conservative you still pretty much have to admit that at least 20 percent left extreme poverty in that time.

DWill wrote:
Bill Gates, in his climate change book, makes much of the need to bring electricity to poor people, obviously adding to the challenge of reaching net zero. Electricity and the many ways that it's used means that economic growth is a mandate, though people like me want to believe that zero or negative growth is necessary to save the planet.
I have seen solar projects in rural West Africa that made a real difference in people's lives and were much appreciated, but still were not transformational by themselves. Easier to refrigerate medicines, easier to get entertainment, etc., but the crops still needed to be tilled and harvested. The transformation needed to bring a healthy standard of living in Africa south of the Sahara is mainly about improving the productivity of workers. Its impact on GHG emissions could easily be offset by more attention to insulation in the richer countries. Its delay mainly prolongs the problem of high population growth, which in turn increases the challenge of overcoming poverty without destroying the environment.

Pinker's optimism would seem to be justified by steady material progress. But the "market failures" that need to be addressed by serious and determined public efforts are not, so far, really being mastered. It's possible we will come close to winning the race and still lose it.



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Post Re: III: Inside the Survival Machine (Steven Pinker)
I thoroughly enjoyed the last chapter in part 3. Dawkins does what scientists do...he spoke out against what the majority agrees was a wrong turn by one of the most respected in his field: EO Wilson.

I have nothing against Wilson mind you, it was just refreshing to read a critique of someone Dawkins admits to being an inspiration in his field. A proof that science always makes an effort to self regulate and stay on a path of fact finding and verification.

I have heard arguments to the contrary. It's not the norm, but the exception.


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Post Re: III: Inside the Survival Machine (Steven Pinker)
Harry Marks wrote:
DWill wrote:
It's impressive and I hope sustainable. I wonder whether access to electricity is part of the living standard to which this 20 to 40 percent has been raised (why such a vague estimate?).
The estimate is that vague for several interacting reasons.

One is that humanity's income distribution, like almost every income distribution with a large sample, is skewed heavily to the right and bunches people at the left (the poor end). As a result the number of people near any minimum income threshold is always going to be a large share of the total.

A second is that comparisons between countries are even more inexact than statistics within countries. The Purchasing Power Parity correction for affordability has decades of work behind it, but no one is very confident that we have accurate comparisons between quality of a house in rural India and quality of a house on an island in Greece, to use a random example. Last I read about it, (20 years ago?), comparisons of actual expenditure at the low income end of the scale tended to show less inequality between countries than money income does (probably indicating cousins sharing subsistence crops and other such ways of coping with times of low income).

And third the line for "extreme poverty" is a little arbitrary. Even so, if you want to use the numbers to claim that 40% of humanity has left extreme poverty between 1990 and 2010 (or 2020, but the trend slowed way down in the 2010s) you can find justification (but need to remember that a large portion of those people are still close to the line) and if you want to be conservative you still pretty much have to admit that at least 20 percent left extreme poverty in that time.

Sometimes a "thanked post" doesn't seem like enough, so thanks for a truly informative reply.

Quote:
I have seen solar projects in rural West Africa that made a real difference in people's lives and were much appreciated, but still were not transformational by themselves. Easier to refrigerate medicines, easier to get entertainment, etc., but the crops still needed to be tilled and harvested. The transformation needed to bring a healthy standard f living in Africa south of the Sahara is mainly about improving the productivity of workers. Its impact on GHG emissions could easily be offset by more attention to insulation in the richer countries. Its delay mainly prolongs the problem of high population growth, which in turn increases the challenge of overcoming poverty without destroying the environment.

Pinker's optimism would seem to be justified by steady material progress. But the "market failures" that need to be addressed by serious and determined public efforts are not, so far, really being mastered. It's possible we will come close to winning the race and still lose it.

It's encouraging that both cell phone technology and solar energy have brought within reach of people living in impoverished areas some of the benefits we wealthy have long enjoyed through more elaborate and expensive infrastructure. I hear about these efforts that, relatively speaking, are merely tweaks, but they encourage me. I hear about Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies consuming as much energy as some sizeable countries, and I head toward despair. "Market failures" seem to encompass not only the market not being interested in addressing problems of the commons, but succeeding in ways that gobble up so many resources that could be used to solve commons problems. I may be thinking in zero-sum terms, but I do think that we must, at times.



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Post Re: III: Inside the Survival Machine (Steven Pinker)
We come to the "exploring humanity" section of the book in Part III. The review of Jeff Hawkins's book, A Thousands Brains had an interesting point or two. The Review is titled "Old Brain, New Brain." Hawkins is a computer scientist who analogizes the brain to computers, as many computer scientists are wont to do. Since he isn't a neuroscientist, I wonder first of all how valid his dichotomy is. Does neuroscience see separation between brain functions such that we can even claim there is an old and a new brain? Dawkins puts it that our selfish genes pulling from the primitive areas of the brain strive for things that our neocortex should push back against. That is really in his view the hopeful scenario, "seeing" that what we want is not what we necessarily need, and that obeying all of our wants will be harmful socially.

Of course, we probably need to recognize that the old brain also is responsible for emotions that we not only value as what makes us human, but that we couldn't survive without. So, give a lot of love to the old brain?

I really liked Hawkins' dismissal of the commonly expressed fears that AI would lead to machines with designs on us, that our machines would become our overlords. Hawkins asks what point there would be in creating machines that mimic our old brain in its desire to aggress and dominate. It's unlikely that such a "motive" would "occur" to any machine we create in order to extend the capabilities of our own rational, new brain. I wonder about making friendly AI, though; that will almost certainly happen, and it seems like no great leap to do it. People already have warm feelings toward the helpful and pleasant Siri, but it's not that Siri has any feelings or that her successors will need to have them. We'll fill all that in, which I suppose could lead to people really believing their tech is sentient.



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Post Re: III: Inside the Survival Machine (Steven Pinker)
I mentioned Dawkins' review of E.O. Wilson's The Social Conquest of Earth (in the wrong thread). This is a great piece, even if Dawkins does employ his poison pen against Wilson (as he has done in the past with Stephen Jay Gould). Indeed, Dawkins may be at his best when he's in attack mode. It's important for the layperson to understand the important caveat that Dawkins' has an ego and it sometimes rears its head, albeit usually in an entertaining and informative way.

I'm obviously not knowledgable enough to have an opinion on the subject of kin selection versus group selection, but it's interesting to see Dawkins' appeal to authority in this review of Wilson's book, saying that all the big names in evolutionary science are fairly supportive of kin selection theory. And Wilson is not, so he's the odd man out.

David Sloan Wilson (no relation to E.O as far as I know) has a slightly different take on this feud. He says both Dawkins and E.O. Wilson are a bit out of touch with the scientific consensus.

Quote:
Hamilton’s original formulation remained useful for calculating what evolves in the total population, even if it didn’t partition selection into within- and between-group components along the way. The choice of which framework to use became largely a matter of preference, with any given result from one framework translatable into the other framework.

Thus was born the era of pluralism and equivalence in sociobiology. It has become part of the zone of consensus of the many, but Wilson and Dawkins are not among them. Both fail to recognize that the era of “kin selection vs. group selection” has passed. Most of the important questions can be asked within either framework and can be translated between frameworks.

And . . .

Quote:
Curiously, while the many have spoken against Wilson’s outdated views about kin selection, they remain largely silent on Dawkins’ outdated views about group selection.

All interesting stuff. Read David Sloan Wilson's piece here:

https://thisviewoflife.com/richard-dawk ... -the-many/


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