The Robot’s Rebellion

I’m on my second read, and I think that this is quite an underappreciated book.  While it doesn’t have a lot of practical advice about methods to overcome bias, its general philosophy is (IMNSHO) both deeply true and quite rare.  It takes the logic of Dawkin’s Selfish Gene and unflinchingly explores the logical implications of the genes’-eye view of the world in which humans are lumbering robots constructed by coalitions of immortal genes for the sole purpose of copying those genes.  The idea that humans, the conscious, apparently self-directed actors in our world, are robots – in the sense of having been constructed by something very different for its own ends – is for me profound, unintuitive, and deeply unsettling.

The book uses a metaphor (originally by Daniel Dennett): suppose that you are trying to preserve your body for 400 years.  One option would be to cryopreserve it in a bunker (the "plant" strategy).  But suppose you are worried that no location is safe, or that your capsule may need more resources along the way.  You might build a robot to protect your cryocapsule, scavenging the landscape for energy and materials when necessary.  You’d want the robot to be intelligent enough to react to any survival situation it encounters with creative solutions, not just pre-programmed ones, which requires a certain degree of intellectual freedom (long-leash control).  You also want it to make the preservation of your capsule its highest priority (short-leash control).

Now suppose that after 300 years, the robot is beginning to decay. It’s just not going to make it the full 400.  It encounters a huge super-capsule container, built later than it, which gets economies of scale by preserving many capsules in a single robot.  The huge container offers a deal: if it can use all the robot’s remaining energy and materials, it will take over preservation of the capsule for the next 100 years.

From the point of view of the human who had themselves frozen, it’s a no-brainer.  The purpose of the robot is to preserve the capsule. But if the robot has a long enough leash, well, things look a bit different.  Why should it sacrifice the last years of its life for this corpsicle, the collection of information inside it which has lain inanimate for its entire lifetime?  We are the robots, our genes are the capsules, and when you look at things that way, it seems an enormous shame to sacrifice a unique, conscious being for the interests of its creator.

Some choice quotes from Chapter 1: Staring Into the Darwinian Abyss:

We are in a period of history in which the assimilation of the insights of universal Darwinism will have many destabilizing effects on cultural life.  Over the centuries, we have constructed many myths about human origins and the nature of the human mind.  We have been making up stories about who we are and why we exist.  Now…we may at last be on the threshold of a factual understanding of humankind’s place within nature.  However, attaining such an understanding requires first the explosion of the myths we have created, an explosion that will surely cause some cognitive distress…

Adherents of fundamentalist religions are actually correct in thinking that the idea of evolution by natural selection will destroy much that they view as sacred…it is the middle-of-the-road believers – the adherents of so-called liberal religions – who have it wrong.  Those who think they know what natural selection entails but have failed to perceive its darker implications make several common misinterpretations of Darwinism.  Tellingly, each of the errors has the effect of making Darwinism a more palatable doctrine by obscuring (or in some cases even reversing) its more alarming implications…

So that, in short, is the horror: We are survival machines built by mindless replicators – the result of an algorithm called natural selection.  And we will not escape the horror by looking away from it, by turning our heads, by hoping the monster will go away like little children.  We will only escape the horror – or find a way to mitigate it – by inquiring of cognitive science and neuroscience just what kind of survival machine a human is.

While this perspective is very useful for overcoming bias, it also has profound implications for other areas of life such as religion, philosophy, morality.  A century and a half after Darwin and decades after Dawkins, most of the intellectual world seems to still be in denial of the fact that we have an answer to one of the Great Questions Of Life – "How did we get here?", because of how uncomfortable it is. We need more people like Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennett, and Robert Wright – and so we need Stanovich’s views in The Robot’s Rebellion disseminated far more widely.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as:
Trackback URL:
  • http://profile.typekey.com/halfinney/ Hal Finney

    The mind vs genes perspective was also explored in Robin Hanson’s essay, Was Cypher Right?: Why We Stay In Our Matrix. The essay is from Glenn Yeffeth’s book, Taking the Red Pill: Science, Philosophy and Religion in The Matrix.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    I was much less taken with this book. It asks good questions, but then doesn’t really engage the hard issues. We have many conflicting parts, and the hard question is how to integrate these parts and their conflicting wants. But the book simply declares without much argument its opinions about which parts and wants are “really” us. From then on the book is all about the battle between the real us and those other parts that stand in its way.

  • curious

    Is my inclination to shrug just a result of having trained as a biologist? In what sense is being a survival machine produced by mindless replication a “horror”? Because it means we’re not special or important? What else is new? Yes, this simple and long-known reality grates against religion, etc, but the prospect of threats to those belief systems is only horrible if one is already heavily invested in them.

    And of course, in minds where the evolutionary history isn’t in conflict with childhood brainwashing, the truth can even be beautiful (e.g., “Why I’m Happy I Evolved,” Olivia Judson:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/01/opinion/01judson.html)

  • Z. M. Davis

    Hanson: “But the book simply declares without much argument its opinions about which parts and wants are ‘really’ us.”

    I don’t think this is a correct reading of the book. On the contrary, Stanovich stresses that deciding these matters is what he calls a Neurathian project: one that consists of iterated inspection, regarding all parts of oneself as open to criticism at different times. (It’s interesting to cf. Eliezer’s “My Kind of Reflection.”) See especially the section on “Achieving Rational Integration of Desires: Forming and Reflecting on Higher-Order Preferences.” An excerpt:

    [R]ational integration is not achieved by simply flipping preferences that are in the minority of the count across the levels of analysis; nor can it be achieved by the simple rule of giving priority to the highest level. […] Hurley (1989) has pointed out that philosophers have been focused on finding the highest point in the regress of higher-order evaluations, using that as the foundation, and defining it as the true self–or doing the same thing by trying to find a viewpoint outside of the hierarchy of desires. But Hurley (1989) endorses a Neurathian view in which there does not exist either a “highest platform” or a so-called true-self, outside of the interlocking nexus of desires.

  • Stefan King

    An interesting criticism on the concept of “the selfish gene” comes from G.D. Snooks, in his work “The Collapse of Darwinism: Towards a Realist Theory of Life” (don’t worry, he’s not a creationist). He says among other things, that evolution based in genes and memes bypasses the purpose of organisms, which is to survive under conditions of scarcity. The genes and memes are intstruments of survival of the organism, not the other way around. The mistake, according to him, is basing the process of evolution on “supply side” entities (genes and memes), instead of the demand for strategic action by the individual if it is to survive.

  • http://dao.complexitystudies.org/ Günther Greindl

    Thanks for the book reference!

    The funny thing is, Nietzsche understood quite well what Darwinism entailed more than a hundred years ago. His reaction was the proclamation of the end of all doctrine and dogma (the “death of God”); and he also presented a way of hope for human beings in the figure of Zarathustra – standing as a symbol for the ultimate affirmation of life and every living moment.

    I can recommend Nietzsche for everybody looking for meaning in a reductionist/naturalist world. It is very sad that his philosophy is often misunderstood, but, considering that Darwinism is also often misunderstood, that probably comes as no surprise.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    ZM, I agree there’s some obligatory wringing-of-hands, quoting of authorities, and acknowledging of difficulties, before then just declaring his answer.

  • Tim Tyler

    Re: In what sense is being a survival machine produced by mindless replication a “horror”?

    It beats me – but some people really don’t seem to like nature:


    In the title piece of “The Devil’s Chaplain”, he describes nature as “the ruthlessly cruel process that gave us all existence”, speaks of “revulsion against [evolution’s] implications” – and describes the process that made us as “wasteful, cruel and low”.

    He says that nature gave us a brain capable of “underdstanding its own provenance, of deploring the moral implications and of fighting against them”.

    He says that “if selfish genes are Frankensteins and all life is their monster, it is only we that can complete the fable by turning against our creators.”

    He describes humanity as” the only potential island of refuge from the implications of [evolution]: from the cruelty, and the clumsy, blundering waste.”

    http://alife.co.uk/essays/nietzscheanism/

    My own perspective as quite the reverse: nature – and evolution – are great. Sure there have been a few mistakes – but it’s a work in progress. Complaining about the problems when there are “under construction” signs everywhere seems a bit unreasonable.

  • http://users.ox.ac.uk/~ball2568/ Pablo Stafforini

    My own perspective is quite the reverse: nature – and evolution – are great.

    God is not great, and neither is nature. Ignore, if you will, the massive amounts of suffering experienced by non-human animals in the wild, and concentrate instead on the hundred thousand people that every day die of diseases caused by aging. Do you really think Mother Nature would have allowed this slaughter to take place if she cared about us rather than the genes we carry?

  • Nominull

    If the robot you built to protect your corpsicle is not willing to sacrifice its last years of operation to protect your corpsicle, I submit that you built your robot wrong.

  • http://brokensymmetry.typepad.com Michael F. Martin

    This is very interesting science fiction. I think it’s fascinating to consider the analogy between these robots and mitochondria, which several scientists have speculated exist in a mutualism with our body as the supercapsules.

  • http://brokensymmetry.typepad.com Michael F. Martin

    @Stefan King

    Thanks for the tip on Snooks. That sounds like an interesting take. Can you say more about how he distinguishes supply from demand? What is the source of demand within his worldview?

  • Vladimir Golovin

    the purpose of organisms, which is to survive under conditions of scarcity. The genes and memes are instruments of survival of the organism, not the other way around.

    What does Snooks say about the origin of the ‘desire’ for survival? Where and how did the organisms get this motivation in the first place?

    Or he just assumes that this motivation is present in all living things ‘by default’?

  • Tim Tyler

    God is not great, and neither is nature. Ignore, if you will, the massive amounts of suffering experienced by non-human animals in the wild, and concentrate instead on the hundred thousand people that every day die of diseases caused by aging. Do you really think Mother Nature would have allowed this slaughter to take place if she cared about us rather than the genes we carry?

    Nature goes to considerable lengths to prevent unnecessary suffering. Look at all the mock battles by males in nature. Fighting is expensive and wasteful – and nature avoids it wherever possible – substituting roaring and posturing wherever possible.

    Anyhow, rapid aging of the dominant lifeform is one of the things nature is evidently working on fixing. To still cover a large search space and come up with new designs you inevitably need to discard old ones. However, there’s no good engineering reason for the designs of the brain and that of the body to be linked. In computer science, there are the concepts of universal computers and the software/hardware divide – which allows frequent software upgrades to be made without discarding the hardware it runs on. That is an important piece of survival-tech which nature will deploy throughout the higher animals. This adaptation will contribute to a faster and more resource-efficient search of design space by evolution. Already most of our important survival technology has leaped out of humans and now transmits itself down the generations in the new digital inheritance media – via computers. Already your knowledge of the world no longer dies with you – it potentially lives forever – provided you can get it onto the internet. But all this required human engineers for its development, and those have only just been evolved – so please give nature a chance to deploy these recent developments more widely.

  • Tim Tyler
  • Stefan King

    @Michael F. Martin

    IIRC, he distinguishes ‘supply-side theories’ from ‘demand-side theories’ on evolution, in which the supply is a stock of genes and ‘memes’ fighting for survival. In contrast, a demand-side theory views genes and ideas as passive building blocks, as instruments of strategy of an individual who uses them to survive and prosper. He eloborates on this in the book. I don’t know if the distinction is relevant, but it seems plausible to me that organisms are hungry warriors using genes to adapt, rather than lumbering robots.

    @Vladimir Golovin

    He sees the cell as basic unit of desire for survival, since it is the smallest unit of behavior. He isn’t clear on how the first cells became survivors, but his theory explains all biological and cultural evolution if you accept/assume that cells try frantically to survive (in general that is, I don’t know about white blood cells).

    @Tim Tyler

    IMHO, the reviewer attacks the periphery of Snooks theory whithout adressing the main claims. He uses a combination of name dropping (in the part about the scientific method), ad hominem arguments (lack of Snooks humility, which is indeed true), and misquotation. I smell status quo bias. I speculate Hodgson doesn’t look forward to updating his beliefs on evolution.

    Snooks is not a man of minute details. He bets on new theory with daring and boldness, so I will forgive a little sloppiness in peripheral details and modesty. The main virtue of the theory is elegance and completeness. The fossil record and history is explained with a single model that accounts for both biological and cultural evolution, from the first cell to humanity’s information age. As far as I know, that has never been done before.

    Snooks invents a new model and vocabulary for biological and cultural evolution, and explicitly adresses his historical inductive method. Hodgson criticises that method without looking at the success of the model. It does perfectly explain ‘punctuated equilibria’, disproving gradual evolution. This shows how the force of evolution is the individual actively selecting genes/partners, and not genes constantly pushing forward organisms.

    The reviewer quotes Snooks boldest claims, and then either says there is no evidence (but there always is in the book), or that it has been said before (but never as part of this theory of life). It looks to me like intellectual dishonesty. He says that Snooks is specalitive and incomplete, which is a little true here and there, but never of the model and the 17 laws of life that generate it.

  • curious

    @Pablo, re: “Do you really think Mother Nature would have allowed this slaughter to take place if she cared about us rather than the genes we carry?”

    But that’s just the point. Nature (which I see as more of a system of laws than a persona) *doesn’t* care about you, or me, or any other individual, or humans in general, or any particular species. I know, it’s tough for some folks to accept that we’re just not that special and the universe doesn’t love us personally. But that understanding doesn’t mean we can’t think the system that produced us is “great.”

    Personally, I think it’s pretty great that I exist, and that thanks to a few billion years of evolution, I was born with a brain that allows me to contemplate this stuff. That’s enough awesomeness for me.

  • Alan

    On this this range of topics is a book by Dan Dennett (2002), entitled, Freedom Evolves. For whatever reason, that books seems also to have gone underappreciated. As a work of philosophy, informed by Darwin and Dawkins int. al., it’s a fine read IMO.

  • Tim Tyler

    Stanovich rejects God’s Utility Function. What he puts in its place is “maximizing goal satisfaction at the level of the whole organism” (page 64) – an idea which he derives from the architecture of the rational part of the brain.

    To me, Stanovich’s idea seems like a joke. The body and brain are disposable. It is the genes which matter – only they are potentially immortal. From an evolutionary biology perspective, organisms that prioritise the welfare of their bodies and brains over that of their genes have malfunctioned – and got themselves into a hopeless muddle.

    We can expect to find relatively few such organisms in the world – they will fairly rapidly select themselves out of existence. The organisms we see can be expected to be descended from a long line of organisms that weren’t susceptable to the type of religion of gene-death, which Stanovich is peddling.

  • http://www.allancrossman.com Allan Crossman

    Just a thought for you Tim: the “I am not a slave to my genes” meme is currently much fitter than the “only genes matter” meme.

    • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

      Riiight. So what? Perhaps come the memetic takeover one of these memes will reach fixation.

  • http://dl4.jottit.com/contact Richard Hollerith

    Much, much fitter.

  • jamie

    “Already your knowledge of the world no longer dies with you – it potentially lives forever – provided you can get it onto the internet.”

    Information stored as patterns of electrons seems rather precarious to me. Books can last for hundreds of years. I doubt that ‘the internet’ will. A single gap or collapse, and it’s all gone.

  • Jason

    The “only genes matter” meme seems to have some adherents beyond Tim Tyler, e.g “The Sperminator”.

    • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

      If you check out the 7 billion human beings, you will see that valuing genes highly is a ubiquitous phenomenon. That is hardly surprising considering the long history of success at genetic reproduction by our ancestors. Few humans say that they value their genes highly – but many of them are hypocrities, signalling one thing and doing something else.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    The comments in this thread and blog have become rife with overstated certainty. Hanson/Cowen’s idea that people should try to state a % certainty to the their expressed beliefs would be helpful here, just because it would be more transparently silly to see all the 99% and 100% certainties attached to these various beliefs than the abundance of unquantified certainty expressed in the comments.

  • Stefan King

    Ok, Anonymous: based on my various studies of evolution, including the works of G.D. Snooks, I’m 70% certain that genes and memes are building blocks and instruments of survival to an individual. As opposed to individuals being gene-robots. Along the same line, I’m 80% certain that life on earth is about expanding control over energy resources, and not about genes maximazing copies of themselves. Apart from Snooks explanation, I don’t know of a reliable test to decide between these positions. Anyone?

  • J Thomas

    It looks to me like people are mixing several distinct concepts here.

    What will tend to persist and expand.

    What I like.

    What I approve of.

    What ought to persist and expand.

    What I should do to further the things that should expand.

    For various reasons some things tend to persist and expand. We can have emotional reactions to that in each case. We can get upset about crabgrass taking over a lawn, or cockroaches taking over an apartment building. We can applaud increasing literacy rates or increasing numbers of people using the internet. Or sometimes we just don’t care.

    When you care about some particular thing persisting, then you might say that its persistence is the ultimate meaning. This is one possible choice about what to care about. It doesn’t mean anything that you care about that, unless somebody cares whether you do.

    I have a story about pine forests that collect a lot of energy and then burn it up, killing themselves, which also kills the plants that grow better in pine forests than pines do and creates a burned patch that pines grow in better than anything else. But it was too long to put here. What does the story mean? Just senseless evolution. Don’t get caught in that forest when it burns. Or you could try to harvest the wood and replant pines, and the unburned land won’t be as good for pines — when you change around an ecology it’s your lookout to make it work the way you want it to. Or you could decide that the whole cycle is senseless and try to replace the pines with something else, something you like better. It means to you whatever you make it mean.

    You can enjoy a rare orchid without necessarily wanting it to become common. You can choose to care about evolution. It will proceed whether you care about it or not, but that doesn’t have to matter to you.

    Suppose it turns out that there are cockroaches identifiable as cockroaches two hundred million years from now? That cockroaches survive mostly-unchanged in their billions or trillions for a very long time? Should we respect them for it? Develop mutant cockroaches that we hope can survive even better? Get upset about it and resolve to compete better against the cockroaches? Or just shrug and forget it, it doesn’t really matter to us? We might instead choose to further the survival of our own children or our own species, or we might choose to look at rare orchids.

    We don’t particularly select against interest in rare orchids. Twenty years ago I bought a printer. It cost $200 and it didn’t come with a cable, the Centronics cable cost $20 separate. Last week I bought a printer. It cost $150 and it didn’t come with a cable, the USB cable cost $20 separate. The president of the company that makes those cables can look at all the orchids he wants.

  • http://www.allancrossman.com Allan Crossman

    You can view some of Snooks’ book at Google Books. From what I’ve seen, it’s pretty clearly nonsense.

  • Tim Tyler

    “I am not a slave to my genes” meme is currently much fitter than the “only genes matter” meme.

    That is just an illustration of how not to prepare a survey.

    Similarly, no doubt more people would tick “I would like my grandchildren to help look after me when I’m old” would will tick “I would like to die childless”.

    Books can last for hundreds of years. I doubt that ‘the internet’ will.

    The internet archive and usenet archives have done OK so far. If you want anything to persist, making copies of it is the main strategy, and computers make that process very easy.

    Re: Cecil Jacobson – Seven kids is not that great, and we don’t really know if he was doing it for his genes.

    Moulay Ismail did rather better – according to Guinness Book of Records he had at least 700 sons – but again, we don’t have his stated motives on file.

    I cite Daniel Dennett’s informal motive surveys in my FAQ.

    Anyway, you don’t get six billion people without many people trying hard to reproduce. The fertility clinics of the world also offer plenty of evidence of this.

    Also, there are plenty of existing religions that promote “family values” – e.g. the Amish are among the fastest-growing populations in the world, with an average of 6.8 children per family.

    Re: Snooks – yes, Snooks clocks up plenty of crackpot points by taking on Darwin – especially when his critisms are so transparently wrong.

    Re: I’m 80% certain that life on earth is about expanding control over energy resources, and not about genes maximazing copies of themselves

    I’m keener than most on the value of taking a thermodynamic perspective on living systems – but I don’t see this as contradicting the genetic perspective. Yes, a living system with better resource-management technology can out-compete another system, which happens to involve making more copies of its genome – but the genetic perspective doesn’t forbid that in the first place. Similarly, trees put a lot of resources into making cellulose – which they could put into making DNA. That’s not a refutation of the gene-centric perspective either.

  • jamie

    “The internet archive and usenet archives have done OK so far. If you want anything to persist, making copies of it is the main strategy, and computers make that process very easy.”

    Would future archeologists get much info out of the remains of our computers?

  • jamie

    “The internet archive and usenet archives have done OK so far. If you want anything to persist, making copies of it is the main strategy, and computers make that process very easy.”

    Would future archeologists get much info out of the remains of our computers?

  • Tim Tyler

    Re: future archeologists – it would be about the same as it currently is with fossils. Future historians will (probably) have copies of many of our records as well though.

  • Stefan King

    @Tim Tyler

    Snooks is a crackpot. This does not refute his elegant model, though. How are his critisms “so transparantly” wrong? And:

    How does the genetic perspective explain punctuated equilibria in the fossil record?

    Could the genetic perspective explain the fall of Rome with the same model as the extinction of the dinosaurs?

    With plain introspection: If my genes are more important than me, they do a good job making me belief I’m a hungry schemer with genes as part of my investment strategy. With Occam’s Razor, I’m compelled to belief I’m just a hungry schemer.

  • Tim Tyler

    Re: How are his criticisms “so transparently” wrong? Snooks main criticisms include:

    Natural selection is built on the totally untenable assumption that all organisms at all times and in all places attempt to maximize the number of their offspring. – p. 11.

    …and the…

    critical assumption that all individuals in all places and at all times tend to procreate at a geometric rate […] is factually wrong. – p.46

    These criticisms are stupid: Snooks doesn’t know what he’s on about.

    Re: How does the genetic perspective explain punctuated equilibria in the fossil record?

    Without any special issues. Morphological stasis mostly represents local maxima, and sudden changes represent ecological invasions, while speciation takes place rarely, in environments which leave few fossils.

    Re: Could the genetic perspective explain the fall of Rome with the same model as the extinction of the dinosaurs?

    Both are part of evolution, yes. Culture is just genes which are not made of DNA.

    See the work of Robert Boyd, Peter Richerson, David Hull, Susan Blackmore, Daniel Dennett, Gary Cziko, etc.

    The differences (between cultural and nucleic evolution) are mostly the result of the evolutionary process being in the middle of booting up.

    Re: your beliefs – personal convictions carry little weight in science. Intuition is notoriously a poor guide to the truth.

  • http://www.allancrossman.com Allan Crossman

    Snooks is a crackpot. This does not refute his elegant model, though.

    I find it hard to understand Snooks’ model, since it looks like gibberish to me. Can you explain it briefly and in simple language?

  • Stefan King

    Ok, I like the ‘Island’ explanation and will reduce my certainty to 40% until I have reviewed the work on your list. Meanwhile I’ll assume that they will explain why the p.11 and p.46 criticisms are wrong, because now I don’t see Western humans maximazing the number their offspring; they have less babies because technology better supports their living standard than children do. Or maybe this illustrates the success of a “Don’t have babies.”-meme?

    Anyway, seems got some evidence processing to do. Thanks for the refs.

  • Stefan King

    @Allan Crossman

    I can try to explain it briefly, but I doubt it will be to your satisfaction. It deals with the 5 ways individuals can extract energy from the environment: Genetic/technological change, family multiplication, commerce, conquest. A forced selection of (a combination) these strategies makes the individual select partners with characteristics that support that strategy. Having offspring with similar characteristics is subsidiary to having the useful partner. These selections of characteristics shape evolution, as a response to the demand for resource aquisition.

    I would start in the back and ask myself whether his “laws of life” make sense. They deal with motivation, competitive intensity, strategic selection and optimization, struggle, collapse etc.

  • Tim Tyler

    p.11: “Natural selection is built on the totally untenable assumption that all organisms at all times and in all places attempt to maximize the number of their offspring”. That’s not true. Natural selection is simply differential reproduction of genotypes as a result of their effect on phenotypes.

    p.46: The “critical assumption that all individuals in all places and at all times tend to procreate at a geometric rate” is simply not a tenet of Darwinism in the first place.

    Regarding discussion of western birth rates in my references – try Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution: Peter J. Richerson, Robert Boyd, p 169-187.

    They claim culture produced the effect, that it is maladaptive (from the POV of nuclear genes) and offer this mechanism, among others:

    High-status people have a disproportionate influence in cultural transmission, so beliefs and values that lead to success in the professional sector will tend to spread. Because these beliefs will typically lead to lower fertility, family size will drop.

    I.e. they claim humans copy other successful humans, and that in a mass-media culture, the apparently successful have often got that way by sacrificing their reproductive goals – and so copying of them spreads the effect.

    IMO, Richerson & Boyd play down the effect of affluence on r vs K selection strategies in contributing to this effect far too much.

  • http://www.allancrossman.com Allan Crossman

    Snooks’ p.11 criticism of natural selection is completely backwards. Natural selection is the explanation of why organisms often seem to be doing their damndest to produce as many offspring as possible (or more correctly: to maximise their genetic fitness; a distinction I won’t worry about here). The theory does not assume it.

    Note that it’s sometimes not obvious what some natural animal behavior has to do with reproduction.

    I don’t see Western humans maximizing the number [of] their offspring

    Eliezer’s post Adaptation-Executers, not Fitness-Maximizers is good on this.

    It’s true that natural selection has not resulted in humans having a very strong desire to have as many children as possible. Instead, natural selection has resulted in humans having desires for things like a mate (or several), sex, food, status, and so on. These desires actually mean that people produce children pretty well.

    Obviously, since things like the pill and sperm banks were invented only recently, natural selection has not had time to deal with them.

    [Snooksian evolution] deals with the 5 ways individuals can extract energy from the environment.

    You need to explain why organisms are extracting energy from the environment.

    You suggested I read about the “Laws of Life”. Sadly, Google Books won’t let me read everything. But here’s a quote from Law 3:

    Genetic change, in other words, is a dynamic strategy that is deliberately pursued by organisms, but only when circumstances are favorable.

    There are in fact tantilising hints that the mutation rate might be increased in certain sections of some organisms’ genomes at certain times. See Jablonka & Lamb, Evolution in Four Dimensions, chapter 3.

    But if there are indeed mechanisms that allow organisms to “deliberately” change their DNA, you need to explain how those mechanisms got there. Jablonka and Lamb see these mechanisms as being a result of natural selection. What’s Snooks’ explanation?

  • J Thomas

    How does the genetic perspective explain punctuated equilibria in the fossil record?

    There’s nothing to explain there. It’s a non-issue.

    Imagine a mutation which has been established (enough individuals so that it won’t be lost by accident, but less than 1/10,000 of the population. Call it fixed in the population when all but 1/10,000 have the mutation. Say it takes 1000 generations for it to go from established to fixed in a population of size 1 million, 10^6. Then it will take 2000 generations to do the the same in a population size 1 trillion 10^12. We’re talking about the change happening in 1000 generations or so unless something special happens to slow it.

    But in the geological record, 1000 generations is not much. A normal, natural, utterly simple situation will in the geological record look like:

    ***********************
    *
    *
    *
    *
    ********************

    It’s predictable that in a large population (and you won’t get enough samples to do much unless it’s a large population) a given mutation that has an effect which can be seen in fossils (which is a small minority of mutations) will go from too few to notice to so many you don’t notice anything else, so fast you probably won’t find fossils from the intermediate stages when it’s partly taken over.

    When you do find them both together, chances are they are occupying different ecological niches, and then when one disappears it disappears because its niche is gone and not because the other has outcompeted it.

    The interesting question here is why did the media continue for so long to talk as if there was a punctuated equilibrium problem, when every competent evolutionary biologist knew that there was not.

  • J Thomas

    Sorry, HTML destroyed my graph. It should have gone like:

    ……………………****************************
    ……………………*………………………
    ……………………*………………………
    ……………………*………………………
    ……………………*………………………
    *************************………………………

    If you sample year by year or decade by decade you might get something that looks like this:

    ……………………………*****
    ……………………….*………
    …………………….*…………
    ……………………*………….
    …………………..*…………..
    …………………..*…………..
    ………………….*……………
    …………………*…………….
    ………………*……………….
    **************……………………

    But the geological record squeezes the horizontal axis until those slow subtle changes look like they’re instantaneous. Because 1000 years is pretty much instantaneous on that scale.

    These graphs will still look all wrong unless you have a fixed font. Life is too short to put a lot of time into ascii art.

  • Stefan King

    Natural selection is the explanation of why organisms often seem to be doing their damndest to produce as many offspring as possible

    I guess that with the p.11 criticism Snooks means that natural selection is the wrong explanation for evolution, since his own model explains evolution with strategic selection (see below). IIRC, in that part of the book he rants about how natural selection has become gospel, and is now assumed by Darwin’s successors.

    natural selection has resulted in humans having desires for things like a mate (or several), sex, food, status, and so on. These desires actually mean that people produce children pretty well.

    In Snooksian evolution, your line would be rephrased as: strategic selection has resulted in humans having desires for things like a mate, sex, food, status (=resources: Snooks calls it food, shelter, protection, status, sex, support, companionship). These things are intrinsically desirable. Producing children is an secondary effect in the quest for these inherently motivating resources which help the individual survive and prosper.

    Note how this moves the process of evolution away from genes, toward the individual competing for resources to survive and prosper. There is no need to explain the behaviour with a genetic perspective if you view genes as passive instead of active agents.

    You need to explain why organisms are extracting energy from the environment.

    According to Snooks, extracting energy (from the environment) is the reduction of acquiring resources. The intrinsically good resources are the ‘why’, the purpose, and the genes are the slaves that support it. Food is direct energy, and the other resources reduce to it through their scarcity. The objective is resources for survival and prosperity, not copies of genes. Genetic fitness is an externality of resource/energy extraction.

    There are in fact tantilising hints that the mutation rate might be increased in certain sections of some organisms’ genomes at certain times.

    This is issue is secondary in Snooksian evolution, since it is the individuals doing the selecting of mutations (strategic selection), instead of the environment/nature (natural selection). During times of speciation, it would sure make sense to mate with more mutated individuals, for this would improve your chances of getting children better adapted to the new environment (children more useful for your survival and prosperity). This explains why Westeners have less children: we don’t need that much to support our resource acquisitions; technology takes care of that better.

    I hope you can appreciate the explanatory simplicity of reversing the traditional master-slave relationship between genes and individuals. Maybe we should save this debate for the next open thread? It’s starting to run long…

  • http://www.allancrossman.com Allan Crossman

    Yeah, we’re off topic. But the theory seems suspect when you use phrases like “intrinsically desirable” and “inherently motivating resources”.

    it is the individuals doing the selecting of mutations

    This is highly implausible.

    To return to the actual topic, I quite enjoyed The Robot’s Rebellion: the main point of the book is to drive a wedge between what’s good for your genes and what’s good for you.

    As I recall, it also criticises the view that biases given to us by evolution aren’t really problematic. They certainly are problematic when they cause us to engage in behaviour that goes against our actual goals.

  • Stefan King

    You are reiterating suspicion and implausibility, without responding to the alternative explanations of evolution. Why can’t individuals select mutations? If, for example, a new predator enters the environment the prey species is likely to prefer mates with good weapons of offense/defense, like bigger scales and horns. When resources are abundant, fertile females are optimal, to increase your resource control. When another species waste is your food, commerce / symbiosis makes sense, etc.

    I suggest you get the book from the library 🙂

  • http://www.allancrossman.com Allan Crossman

    You are reiterating suspicion and implausibility, without responding to the alternative explanations of evolution.

    You reminded me that we were off-topic; hence I tried to keep my last reply short. I don’t think you’ve provided any explanations at all, frankly, since you tend to assume rather than explain what organisms will do. I don’t want to waste much more space in this thread. But some questions for you to think about:

    • What does it mean to “prosper”? Why is life driven to “prosper”?
    • You write about what would “make sense” for an animal, or what an animal is “likely to prefer”. Can you give a proper causal explanation for how these preferences came to exist? In other words, can you explain the existence of these preferences using only facts about the past (not the future effects)?
    • Does the theory apply to plants and asexual life, which together make up the bulk of the Earth’s biomass, but which don’t select mates, and don’t think?
    • You seem to imply that organisms reproduce to benefit themselves rather than their genes. Do these benefits outweigh the costs? (I think you’ll find that in most species, there are no benefits at all – except to the genes.)

    One last thing I’m genuinely curious about: did you have a reasonably good understanding of the mainstream theory of evolution before you rejected it?

  • Tim Tyler

    p.11: “Natural selection is built on the totally untenable assumption that all organisms at all times and in all places attempt to maximize the number of their offspring”. That’s not true. Natural selection is simply differential reproduction of genotypes as a result of their effect on phenotypes.

    p.46: The “critical assumption that all individuals in all places and at all times tend to procreate at a geometric rate” is simply not a tenet of Darwinism in the first place.

    Regarding discussion of western birth rates in my references – try Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution: Peter J. Richerson, Robert Boyd, p 169-187.

    They claim culture produced the effect, that it is maladaptive (from the POV of nuclear genes) and offer this mechanism, among others:

    High-status people have a disproportionate influence in cultural transmission, so beliefs and values that lead to success in the professional sector will tend to spread. Because these beliefs will typically lead to lower fertility, family size will drop.

    I.e. they claim humans copy other successful humans, and that in a mass-media culture, the apparently successful have often got that way by sacrificing their reproductive goals – and so copying of them spreads the effect.

    IMO, Richerson & Boyd play down the effect of affluence on r vs K selection strategies in contributing to this effect far too much.

    [repost – original version didn’t make it past TypePad’s antispam filter]

  • Stefan King

    I will take it up again in the next open thread. I have already lowered my certainty in Snooks model to 40% after Tylers Island explanation. Snooks claim that his model explains punctuated equilibria was a big factor in me being convinced. I have to think about J. Thomas’ explanation more, because IIRC Snooks talks about it differently. I wonder that if any mutation spreads ‘rapidly’, then you still have to explain why some only a small percentage gets selected, and by ‘whom’: the environment or the individuals in the population.

    My understanding of evolution before I read Snooks was college level (Psychology and Cognitive Science). It was thouroughly covered in some classes, from a biological perspective and for machine learning applications.

    BTW, it would speed up discussion if you guys would at least leaf through the book. I’m not Snooks in person, you know.

  • A Mattias

    I have read Snooks’ Collapse of Darwinism and I tend to agree with Stefan King on this. Snooks makes a very cogent argument for thinking about evolution in a different way. As Stefan notes, his theory is quite unique – if you like a universal theory for the social and life sciences. He appears to be making some inroads into the mainstream with publication in well respected journals like Complexity, Advances in Space Research, Social Evolution and History etc.

    It is interesting that some posters are so quickly dismissive of the work without having spent any time reading it. I thought the goal of this forum was ‘overcoming bias’.