User:Woozle/Darwin's Dangerous Idea

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Notes for eventual organization into coherent critique

The book is in many ways about "saving" the mystical/divine/? from the "ravages" of Darwin's "universal acid" – without resorting to the skyhook of a "first mover", "creator", or "designer" – i.e. something intelligent that existed before anything else.

One answer to "everything in the universe is so clever that it looks designed" isn't "Well, then, if must have been designed!" but rather "Ah, then there must be some pervasive process which gives rise to things which look, to our eyes, as if they had been consciously designed." This doesn't exclude God, but doesn't unnecessarily presume God either. Leaving out the alternatives to God, as an explanation for the appearance of "intelligent-seeming design", is perhaps some variant of a false dilemma ("stacking the deck"? "palming a card"?).

  • p.82 greedy reductionism vs. "good reductionism"
    • " could increased understanding diminish their value in our eyes?"
  • p.83 "...more reasonable and realistic fear is that the greedy abuse of Darwinian reasoning might lead us to deny the existence of real levels, real complexities..."
    • Darwin's idea doesn't so much prove there is no God as it proves that God is not necessary in order to explain (life, whatever).


Many people are uncomfortable with the theory of evolution by natural selection and would prefer that it be proved wrong.

Notes to self -- add to appropriate issuepedia pages:

This book is about why Darwin's ToEbNS is powerful and why the manner in which it "put(s) our most cherished visions of life on a new foundation" is not a bad thing

Chapter 1

People see Darwin as "spoiling" a simple, innocent, purposeful vision of life, seeming to challenge it. Darwin = nihilism

The book is not about examining flaws in creationism.

Compare to change in worldview of geocentrismheliocentrism (Copernicus, 1543)

Darwin had his own doubts, partly because of not knowing about the gene. Basic genetics was discovered by Mendel in 1865 but languished in obscurity until 1900 or so.

Darwin's perspective affects answers to key questions like "why?"

p.22 - overview by chapter
p.23 - Aristotle's 4 "causes"
p.25 - why the universe exists
p.26 - Before Darwin, it was assumed that only nothing could come from nothing, and mind had to come from mind (Locke).
p.28 - Dawn of modern science = 17th century
"Science created a new and competitive standard of evidence for all belief"
Early attempts to reconcile science and religion -- to "scientifically prove" the existence of God by argument from design -- Hume's Dialogues
God as a slow but immortal mechanic (anthropomorphic rendition of natural selection?
Too many alternatives to the "God hypothesis" for it to seem likely (Hume)
p.31-33 - At least two examples of almost Darwinian philosophical anticipation of Darwin

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

  • degrees/levels of possibility/actuality:
    • logically possible
    • physically possible
    • biologically (or engineeringly) possible (same as "practically possible"?)
    • historically possible
    • actual
  • Library of Mendel (based on Borges's Library of Babel)... Vastness with a capital V
  • p.112 footnote: mutations accumulate at the rate of ~100 per genome per generation in humans
  • p.116 misunderstanding / misinterpretation of the "gene" concept
    • relates to what's possible within design space
    • many things may be "possible" while still being "can't get there from here" (practically impossible) from wherever you happen to be in design space... you'd have to go back "downhill" before you could start getting "closer" to "there"
  • p.122-3 the QWERTY phenomenon, i.e. historical accident

Chapter 6

  • p.125 in the absence of natural selection, the natural "drift" is "downward" – towards more randomness and less "design"
  • p.126 natural selection actually slows evolution, but paradoxically makes it possible... proving, perhaps, that you can't make progress without some kind of culling of mistakes
  • p.128 forced moves
  • p.133 evolution breaks up the "intelligence" in intelligent design into a zillion small pieces, making tiny improvements and three-steps-forwards-two-steps-backwards increments over huge spans of time. Just as computers can sometimes seem intelligent (even sentient, "awake") until you figure out what they're really doing, so does nature seem "intelligently designed" until you understand natural selection.
  • p.136 similar imperfections argues for copying of an imperfect design ("homology") – just as mapmakers carefully insert minor errors into their maps in order to catch plagiarists, we can trace lines of evolution by spotting these "plagiarized" imperfections in species' genetic makeup
  • p.137 reconstruction of the works of Plato from fragments of Nth-generational copies

Chapter 7

  • p.149 "That all life on earth has been produced by such a branching process of generation is now established beyond any reasonable doubt. It is as secure an example of a scientific fact as the roundness of the earth."
  • p.147 "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution."
  • p.154 Examining the claim that religion is beyond reason:
    • If so, then what are the rules of religion?
    • Is faith a path to the truth, or just a way of finding comfort?
    • If faith (or the need for comfort) is to be allowed to overrule reason ever, where is the line? How do you decide when it's okay to let non-reason overrule reason? If there is disagreement between what rationality finds and what faith finds, what process do you use to determine which one is right?
    • A question: how do "people of faith" think/assume humanity has progressed from the point where things like hangings, inquisitions, etc. were acceptable to where we are now? (George W. Bush's America aside...)
  • p.156 Extrapolating from Darwin to explain the origin of life
  • The seeming anthropocentricity (or at least biocentricity) of the basic universal constants
  • p.165 ambiguity of the word must, as commonly used, leads to misunderstanding of Darwin
  • p.167 the game of life
    • p.173 shows how complicated something has to be in order to reproduce
    • scale of reproducing Game of Life organism is about the same as real-world organisms
    • p.176 God: lawgiver, lawfinder?
    • p.177 differential reproduction of universes
    • p.180 The Great Coin-Tossing Contest
      • all of these are variants of the basic "why are things the way they are" question, of which the simplest and most basic is "why is there something rather than nothing?"
      • relates to historical accident
  • p.181 science destroys metaphysical answers and doesn't replace them
  • p.182 Nietzche argued that Darwinism allowed for no purpose to have been given to life, and therefore it could have none (OSLT)
  • p.190-191 viruses "travel" design space in "clouds"
  • p.195 "the AIDS virus has undergone so much mutation in the last decade that its history over that period exhibits more genetic diversity – measured in codon revisions – than is to be found in the entire history of primate evolution."
  • p.196-7
    • every organism (or functioning structure, even) carries implicit information about its working environment
    • genes require the proper environment in order to be "decoded"
  • p.199 QWERY phenomenon also called a frozen accident by Crick (1968) – classic example in footnote
  • p.201-2 "essence", and how it doesn't really work with organisms
  • p.208-211 probable earliest example of artificial evolution
  • p.212 reverse-engineering
  • p.221 chaotic self-organization was proposed as an alternative to Darwinism, but actually it supports it
    • chapter ends with more about forced moves – i.e. trying to achieve X results in frequent occurrences of Y, which turns out to be the best (or only) way to achieve X
  • p.234 predictive models
  • p.238 adaptationism
  • p.239 Haldane's three theorems of bad scientific argument
  • p.240 discomfort with adaptationism (as a common symptom among prominent thinkers)
  • p.242 "backlash" against Just So Stories
  • p.243 "aquatic ape" theory
  • p.245 ...and other unproven or disproven adaptationist theories
    • point: just because a story fits the facts doesn't make it true – even if it seems "obviously" so
  • p.247 adaptationism rules of thumb
  • p.249 overwhelming acceptance of adaptationism
  • p.250 does meteorology "beg the question" that hurricanes form via physical laws even though "nobody is actually there"? ...and even though we don't understand every detail yet?
  • p.252 game theory in adaptationism
    • (p.253) how they came together - the basic principles that guide each agent will succeed or fail regardless of how deliberately or mindlessly they were chosen
    • prisoner's dilemma
  • p.256 evolutionary enforceability determines whether mutually beneficial arrangements can evolve
    • however, Darwinian nastiness does not necessarily prevail
    • book's main theme, perhaps, is that Darwinism is not really a threat to the idea of having a positive/moral/meaningful outlook on life
  • p.265 myths about Gould's effects on Darwinism
  • p.268 spandrels
  • p.277 conflating {exclusivity of natural selection as an agent of evolutionary change} and {viewing all features of organisms as adaptations}
  • p.277-8 "Bauplan"
  • p.279 how Gould's criticisms make anti-Darwinians think they have scored
  • p.280 exaptation and preadaptation
  • p.282 punctuated equilibrium
  • p.290 "constant speedism" would seem to be the essence of Gold's challenge -- i.e. most of the time, evolution is at a dead stop. However, Darwin himself agrees that this is the case, so it's not really a challenge.
    • ...or maybe he is arguing that no mechanism has actually been proposed for why this is the case
    • Succeeding pages attempt to figure out just what Gold is actually arguing for, and answer each possible argument.
  • p.305 "radical contingency"?
  • p.308 (this has come up before) "We" can be the result of an algorithmic process, even if that was not a process intended to produce "us". In other words, an algorithm may produce particular results which weren't in its design specifications.
  • p.310 science and religion
  • p.317 "wings could not evolve in one fell swoop"
  • p.318 The hypothetical "can't get there from here" organism (sounds like Behe's irreducible complexity): can we even imagine what such a creature would be like? How would you know that you couldn't come up with a Darwinian explanation?
  • p.320 Why did the church declare as heresy a sincere attempt to reconcile religion and Darwinism? (...even though it betrayed the whole point of evolution...)
  • p.321 Lamarckism
  • p.323 not to be confused with the Baldwin effect
  • p.324 fodder for Issuepedia page on misquotations
  • p.325-327 "gene-centrism"
  • p.328 fear that gene-centrism undercuts us somehow - this is addressed in the next chapter
  • p.329 Salmon spawning is an example of gene-centrism
  • p.329-330 How is it that human goals can be non-gene-centric? (And why do religions seem so gene-centric, when this is Darwinian -- which they are so often against?)

Chapter 12

  • p.336 successful attacks on Darwinism deepen our understanding of it (this is true for science in general, yes?) (see Issuepedia:Reinforcement by Contradiction)
  • p.336 We are more closely related to chimpanzees than chimpanzees are to the other apes
    • Some people get carried away in their condemnation of this idea.
  • p.338 questionable claim that we can't have evolved significantly since some arbitrary date/event, e.g. the time of Plato -- how many generations of fruit fly does it take?
  • p.339 questionable claim about the inherent value of sleep
  • p.343 some exploration of memes
    • list of sufficient conditions for the occurrence of evolution
    • (observation: memes are different from genes in one way: memes have a much fuzzier line between "able to reproduce" and "unable to reproduce" than genes do)
  • p.345 meme evolution is not merely analogous to biological/genetic evolution, but a phenomenon that obeys the same law (natural selection). (Dawkins says.)
  • p.346 need to counteract the negative imagery that memetics inspires.
    • Just as there are "good" (pleasant) and "bad" (icky) organisms (e.g. flowers vs. parasitic wasps), there are good and bad ideas - and some people clearly do get infected by the "bad" ones.
    • This doesn't negate the "purposefulness of existence" any more than the existence of parasitic wasps negates the beauty of a butterfly.
    • The parasitic wasp religions want you to believe that it does, because the idea of memes makes it easier to see their parasitic-wasp ugliness -- so they don't want people using memetics.
  • p.349 memetics predicts:
    • conspiracy theory memes will exist independently of their truth
    • the "meme for faith" exhibits "frequency-dependent fitness", and flourishes in the company of rationalistic memes
      • suggests possible approaches for minimizing population of "faith" meme
  • p.352 "a science of memetics?"
    • another difference: genetics requires extremely accurate copying of very large data
      • ...but this is only because we now understand the mechanism, long after the theory was devised
      • Dennett points out that the (real) "data" is at the "intentional" level (which maybe brings memetics and genetics closer together, as far as bandwidth requirements?)
  • p.357 Sperber objects to the idea of "abstract, intentional objects" as the main subject of a scientific project (what about math?)
  • p.358 Dennett replies:
    • Sperber prefers to think of cultural transmission as epidemiology rather than genetics:
      • How do they not both apply?
      • How are they substantially different in approach, when applied to cultural transmission?
        • Dennett says much the same: the direction of his theory is very much the same as Dawkins' -- to the point of near-indistinguishability
  • p.361 Dawkins' qualifications of memetics
  • p.362 "Advantageous to iteself" -- somehow this kind of epitomizes the idea of survival-trait thinking necessary to understand genetics and memetics
    • for evolution page: the fact that diseases ultimately need to spread, and this is why only "newbie" diseases tend to be quickly fatal
  • p.363 Is it perhaps the essence of the gene/meme-based view that there is a discoupling between {what benefits the gene/meme} and {what benefits the host}? (Maybe this explains it more clearly than "advantageous to itself") While there is always a relationship, it is often inderect and counter-intuitive
  • p.363-4:
    • "good" ideas spread because they are true or beautiful
    • successful memes spread because they are good at spreading ("good replicators")
    • just as gene-centered view can explain features that aren't "good for the organism", so memetics can explain the popularity of bad ideas (memes that aren't good for the host)
  • p.366 memetics vs. autonomy
    • a thought: isn't all of science "reductionism"? At least in the non-greedy sense
    • footnote: LR&K claim that memes presuppose a "Cartesian" view of the mind; Dennett says that memes are a key ingredient of the best alternatives to this
  • p.376 "researchers unhesitatingly and uncontroversially rank species in terms of how intelligent they are." Is there a Master Species Intelligence Ranking somewhere? Does JERS have any comment on the Skinnerian failure to prove that pigeons are non-Popperian?
  • p.378-9 some semi-hard-wired concepts
  • p.383 "levels of (in)comprehension", perhaps? (this would seem to relate to the plausibility of God's motives being "beyond our comprehension")
    • can respond with a correct answer
    • can respond with a wrong but reasonable answer
    • can't answer, but can understand the question
    • can't answer and can't understand the correct answer (not sure about understanding the question)
    • can't understand the question (e.g. paraphrase it), but can understand where it gets lost (understands at least some of the premises)
    • can't even begin to understand -- doesn't understand the underlying concepts, or doesn't know where it gets lost in trying to understand the question (failure to even break the question down into its component assumptions?)
  • p.383 footnote relates to AI as a controversial issue
  • p.386 Noam Chomsky's peculiar philosophical position:
    • in favor of algorithmic analysis of language
    • against... not sure exactly what Chomsky is against, but it's something that seems to appeal to mystical/romantic humanists; see p.381, maybe?
    • against AI ("unwaveringly hostile" p.386)
    • anti-"crane", p.397: "he has vigorously discouraged us from thinking of it as a crane"
    • against the idea that the "language organ" (or language ability) could be a product of natural selection
  • p.388 the supposed "effortlessness" of learning to speak, even for "slow" children - but what about nonverbal autistic kids?
  • p.390 it's not at all clear, at least from the text quoted by Dennett, just how Chomsky thinks language ability came to exist
    • definitely built-in (hard-wired?) rather than being learned/deduced from first principles
    • but not evolved either
  • p.391 " of selection for other abilities or as a consequence of as-yet unknown laws of growth and form...": this seems rather like "God moves in mysterious ways" -- ignoring the explanations pointed to by the evidence and asserting instead that "whatever it is, we don't have the knowledge to understand it yet".
  • p.392 list of bizarre assertions at MIT language meeting; failure to correct a statement attributed to you is a "dog that hasn't barked"
  • p.393
    • social darwinism is "an odious misapplication of Darwinian thinking in defense of political doctrines that range from callous to heinous."
    • the question arises of whether intellectuals are responsible for the applications and likely misapplications of their work; Gould and Chomsky say yes.
  • p.394 "difference between reductionism and greedy reductionism" comes up again
  • p.395 Spencerianism, anti-Spencerianism, Skinner's behaviorism, empiricism... "Skinner was a greedy reductionist"
  • p.398 Searle says automata don't have "real" intentionality
    • What defines the difference between "real" and "as-if" intentionality?
    • Does a robot have to swear eternal vengeance upon those who thwart its intentions before the Searle mindset would take those intentions seriously? Is it some other mere anthropomorphic cue (such as vengefulness) which makes it difficult for Searle to accept "real" intentionality in an algorithmic machine?
    • Chomsky: the language organ has an algorithmic structure, but we can't ever understand it
    • Searle: the language organ works in mysterious ways; attempting to describe it algorithmically is just plain wrong
  • p.399 Searle basically argues that intended functionality is the only "real" functionality; nothing that is not designed has a real "function" (sounds like he wants to believe in intelligent design -- otherwise humans have no "function"; also sounds a bit like argument by definition)
  • p.404 some thought-experiments about intentionality...
    • p.404-407: The Two-Bitser
    • p.409-410: Schmorses
    • p.412-420: The Two Black Boxes of Factuality
    • p.422-426: Corpsicle Robot
      • Oretske's intuition (footnote): Once the artifact had "acquired" original intentionality, what happens if you make a copy? Is the copy's intentionality solely "derived" from the original's? Could it, too, acquire "original" intentionality? How would you tell the difference? If you can't tell the difference between original and copy just after copying, how can it be said that one copy's intentionality is original and one's is derived? How can you tell the difference between "original" and "derived" intentionality? Are these terms descriptive of detectable attributes, or merely of an entity's history?
        • me: ...and why the hell does it matter??
      • Isn't S&F's objection to "strong AI" -- essentially, that there is some non-detectable (hidden) state which determines the difference between apparent intentionality and genuine intentionality -- essentially the same as metaphysical claims of the existence of a soul which in no way affects one's behavior? And how is this different from the arguments used to justify slavery on the basis of claimed non-personhood of the "slave races"?
  • p.428 Turing quote: an infallible machine can't be intelligent, but who says machines have to be infallible?
    • in other words, intelligence is (or perhaps must be) imperfect. (hmm... similar to god of the gaps?)
    • Chapter 15 investigates the "hidden attribute" question
  • p.432 Descartes anticipates the Turing Test
  • p.436 starts to get into criticisms of Penrose (The Emperor's New Mind)
  • p.438-440 the confusion between being intended for some purpose and being good at that purpose (without necessarily having been intended for it) - confusion enhanced by the way we often use "good for" and "good at" synonymously.
  • p.447 Penrose 1990 seems to be unaware of the field of genetic algorithms (ok, Dennett mentions this in the next paragraph)
  • p.450 "you are always wise to shield your brain from such competitors"
    • not if you are playing the optimal strategy in the Prisoner's Dilemma. Wasn't that the whole point -- that sometimes cooperation (and openness) is the optimal strategy?
  • p.454 "Morality is an emergent product of a major innovation in perspective..." which came about as a result of the invention of language.
  • p.456 The "veil of ignorance" where your decision about your preferred form of society must be made without knowing what your place in it will be
    • sort of a Solomonian solution to society design
    • didn't Brin say something about this?
  • p.457 "Multicellular organisms have solved the problem of group solidarity. One never hears tales of a person's thumbs rising up in civil war against the neighboring fingers..." Did they work out that cancer is basically a viral mutation (?) that makes cells go renegade and start behaving selfishly while reproducing wildly? (And of course there are disease microorganisms, but Dennett mentions this.) (mentions cancer p459)
  • p.459 Does the "wasteful tragedy" of the redwoods offer any insight about how a post-scarcity society might best distribute wealth? Some sort of aesthetic competition, or set of competitions, forming the basis for most economic activity? (Set up in a way that rewards aesthetic achievement much more reliably than does our present system, anyway...) This comment needs to be updated in light of thinking I have done since first taking these notes... --Woozle 14:58, 11 June 2009 (UTC)
    • formation of sex cells as an analogue to the "veil of ignorance"
  • p.461 Some Nietzsche details relating to Darwin, Hobbes, Herbert Spencer (social Darwinist)
  • p.462 more on social Darwinism; comparison to religious fundamentalism
  • p.462 Nietzsche tells his tales in reverse order, starting in the middle, which confuses many readers. (Who knew?)
  • p.463 The way Nietzsche talks about the emergence of social memory, responsibility -- makes me think that "social credit" (leading eventually to the concept of money) might be a hard-wired concept. (Related: fairness/justice, revenge/ retribution/ punishment/ reward/ appreciation/ gratitude...) "Buying and selling, together with their psychological appurtenances, are older even than the beginnings of any kind of social forms of organization and alliances" -- Nietzsche
  • p.464 Spencer's twisting of Darwin's idea was pretty bad, but Nietzsche's ideas get mangled far worse by Nazis and other, similar "fans"
  • p.465 Political correctness = "eumemics", i.e. an attempt to impose myopically-derived standards of safety and goodness on the bounty of nature. "Few today - but there are a few - would brand all genetic counseling, all genetic policies..." as eugenics.
  • p.468 Skinner is "in my estimation the world champion greedy reductionist of all time."
    • "To make a value judgment by calling something good or bad is to classify it in terms of its reinforcing effects." -- Skinner
    • This would be a philosophy "of the devil" to, say, a Catholic
  • p.469 quote seems deeply related to JERS views on, e.g., religion - Spencerian Darwinism applied to cultural "survival of the fittest"
    • need to find/write a clear rebuttal to social Darwinism. "We are really much more complicated than pigeons."
  • p.469 E.O. Wilson (inventor of the word sociobiology) also has a go at deriving a system of ethics, but this too is flawed
  • p.470 All of these arguments seem to be based on the idea that cooperation somehow "isn't really" to our benefit but merely that of our genes. Game theory has shown otherwise... and surely, on a more intuitive level, a little thought-experimentation would confirm/reinforce this?
  • p.473 the Hutterites
  • p.474 relates to genetic predispositions of human nature
  • p.476 "secular humanism"
  • p.477 as applied to US founding principles
    • breeding for niceness: find info on Russian fox experiment
  • p.478 rate of same-species killing is several thousand times higher in mammalian species than in any American city (blatantly contradicting the popular idea that humans are bloodthirsty killers and nature is

basically peaceful); should be in human nature and possibly popular myths?

  • p.479 proto-morality - quid pro quo is a primordial form of promise-keeping
  • p.480 tragedy of the commons leads to both depleted fish stocks and forests of tall trees (see "redwoods" above)
    • TotC also described as "multi-person prisoner's dilemma" -- not 100% sure how this works (what are the rules?)
  • p.484 adaptationism "predicted" the naked mole rat
  • p.485 siege mentality leading to reduced criticism, which is bad for science
  • p.486 "showing that a particular type of human behavior is ubiquitous or nearly ubiquitous goes no way at all towards showing that there is a genetic predisposition for that particular behavior" because it may be a "forced move" or a "good trick". (/me is skeptical; surely demonstrating ubiquity would at least be a requirement for showing genetic predisposition? And then all that would remain, in order to complete the proof-beyond-reasonable-doubt, would be to eliminate the possibility of it being a forced move / good trick.)
  • p.487 "territoriality" as an example
  • p.488 evolutionary psychology
    • example of logical problems at which we do badly unless the problem is given in terms of "patrolling a social contract" (try the original problem again as "D is only safe if it has a 3")
  • p.490 Darwin did overlook the possibility of mass extinctions because he was trying to avoid catastrophism (Noah's Flood scenarios)
    • the Standard Social Science Model vs. the newer Darwinian model of the mind
  • p.492 sexually "deviant" practices in other species: "lesbian" seagulls, "homosexual" worms, seal "harems"
  • p.495 Darwin & John Stuart Mill
  • p.496 JSM on expediency as applied to moral decision-making; moral first aid
  • p.497 "Practical moral philosophy can never be as rigorous as, say, astronomy -- because the world is a much less orderly thing", Dennett seems to be saying
  • p.498 The Three Mile Island effect -- bad events might be good (in the long run) if they make us more aware of the risk without doing the worst possible damage.
    • The implication (that we might therefore decide e.g. that the reduced safety levels at TMI were acceptable because they led to this supposedly very valuable but non-fatal lesson -- or that anyone who was found to be responsible for the accident should not be penalized because it turned out ok in the end (which it didn't really, but that's another issue)) seems fallacious to me. A bad event is bad, to be avoided, even if it has some good effect, although the bad event it may have prevented is still bad. (1) we can't know in advance whether any given bad event will be "the worst" or "a helpful wake-up call / lesson"; (2) there should be other, less harmful ways of achieving the "good" effect (lesson/wakeup).
    • recent progress in game theory may shed some light on the overall problem
  • p.502-3 decision-making process: possibly use as basis for designing internet-based decision-making process (might also be used to refine Issuepedia:Wiki Issue Exploration Structure)
  • p.515 "Darwin's Dangerous Idea helps to create a condition in the memosphere..."
  • p.526 unacceptable memes