Tag Archives: Evolution

#58 On the conditions of knowledge

Dear Jamie,

Years ago I heard a story (possibly apocryphal) that after the space race the Russian and American space agencies made things unnecessarily complicated and expensive for themselves when they first had to dock their ships with each other. Docking ships was a solved problem, one had a shaft and the other had a shaft-hole. Vulgar but reliable. Of course, after the manly biff that was the space race the victorious USA wasn’t going to let a beaten foe penetrate one of theirs, and the Russians obviously weren’t keen on a follow up humiliation. At great expense the two collaborated to develop a complicated female-female docking mechanism and from that day forward they’ve symmetrically rutted.

Your lock/key metaphor took a couple of reads to understand but I think I get it. I was saying adaptations reflect truths, which is to say they somehow represent (I was saying “encode”) some truth. Instead you say it’s more a “hack”, something that exploits the world without awareness certainly but also even without reflecting any truth. This is most obvious if you manipulate the environment so that the hack fails.

The idea a hack is informationless and so the knowledge lies externally is just the reverse of the more commonly held extreme that all the knowledge is in the genes and the world is inert. I’m convinced the answer is between these two extremes. Deutsch and Dennett explain the well-known problem of memes and genes both not being valuable by themselves. In each case you need a gene reader (a creature) and meme reader (a person with shared knowledge) which has its own knowledge/hacks. So I’ll argue that the theory/hack/trait ruts against reality and does reflect it.

Just where knowledge resides depends of course on what knowledge is and neither of us are sure of that. If we were to start using the word “hack” to mean extreme complete uninsightful behaviour and “truth” the precise opposite of this, total omniscient fundamental insight, then I define knowledge as whatever’s in between these extremes and connects, like a ramp, one to the other. We don’t need a correspondence theory of truth for this. To avoid it completely we can define knowledge as anything more insightful than a hack, and that there are degrees of insightfulness with either no end point truth or an endpoint so far away it doesn’t matter.

The other thing about knowledge is that it’s only determinable against a matching “problem situation”. Problem situations are fair tests analogous to your locks. The peck contains knowledge when tested against the problem situation of its natural upbringing, but it lacks knowledge when humans manipulate it in an experiment. If you ignore problem situations you’ll find yourself presuming a total lack of knowledge embedded in a Saturn V rocket because it fails to launch from inside an active volcano. There are only a few hundred square meters on planet Earth (actually in the entire cosmos) where a Saturn V rocket can function, now that’s an impotent pecker.

Evolutionary science is a search for problem situations that explain animal traits. A successful explanation like this is a “discovery” in the sense that humans are now aware of the missing half that dis-covered the full nature of the exploitation that was always functioning. In evolution the trait’s “reader” is some genuine “selection pressure”. So long as creatures are always “on the edge of extinction” (as Dennett says all creatures are) then the random mutations of the selected genes make real adaptive progress. What Popper calls a “tradition of scientific criticism” is required to make sure theories are “on the edge of extinction”, hence selected theories really get better at explaining the world.* These two things are more than analogies.

Hacks do not exist, they are illusions brought about from an ignorance of the problem situation. It is extremely hard to tell the difference between a trait whose selection pressure is yet to be discovered and a random unpressured mutation. It’s exactly the epistemological mechanism that limits our awareness of the knowledge in our theories without a valid problem situation to explain or to test them against.

Theories/traits must reflect their problem situation, otherwise the latter would be irrelevant when considering the formers’ utilisable knowledge. As theories and traits reflect their problem situation, and because problem situations can exist at any scale and any level of emergence, real knowledge can be achieved at any level of abstraction. Pecking reflects the reality of the function of “red dots” the way a Saturn V reflects the reality of the function of a “launch pad” the way Newtonian physics reflects the reality of the function of “the force of gravity” the way that general relativity reflects the reality of “curved space time”.** Knowledge is contextual, hence your lock and key metaphor – one needs the other. But the key matches the contours of the lock and both of these are aspects of reality.***

Mat

 

* I CANNOT let this letter end without killing the suggestion that I think science is thrown out and updated every 20 years. No that’s Kuhnnian rubbish. Most pop science books are wrong though, that’s just Sturgeon’s law.

** The correspondence theory of truth is kind of greedy reductionism applied to truth.

*** Evolution is a little more complicated. The birds evolved to peck at red dots in reality. But the red dots themselves evolved to be pecked. Sometimes reality ruts back.

Perlustrating Asseverations: Evolution

The theory of evolution isn’t complete, what about missing links?

Creationists and advocates of the theory of intelligent design (also known as “ID” or “creationism”) claim that scientists can’t account for the missing links between species and their ancestors. Researchers keep discovering new, intermediate species, but creationists point out that there is then a gap between the original species and the new intermediate.

The problem is that sceptics want to see the evolutionary sequence without any gaps. Well, it’s theoretically possible, although practically difficult to satisfy them. To provide watertight evidence of an unbroken chain of evolution from, say the earliest mammal to Homo sapiens, one needs to observe all the steps and because evolution occurs by random mutation, one really needs to be there for all the steps, from each generation to the next.

So we simply need to arrange for a procession of every single mating pair of the relevant organisms to pass in chronological sequence, before the eye — at the point of insemination — of the creationist in question. Only by observing the ejaculate events of all copulating pairs in the 39 million generation lineage from the earliest mammal to the first Homo sapiens, will the creationist’s heavy burden of proof be relieved.

But to truly guarantee that these inseminations are the ones that precipitate the birth of the ensuing offspring, one need also observe the actual birth, but thankfully not the lengthy gestation in between. This could be achieved, but only with excellent organisation in what amounts to a veritable Noah’s Ark of sex. After a mating pair was brought in front of the observer, pre-fitted with an intravaginal endoscopy, they would be rotated behind, the spent male discarded and the female kept in captivity for weeks or months, until she starts crowning, only to be brought back in front of the discerning creationist to look upon the disgorging of the foetus in a final verification of the genetic legacy from one generation to another.

Because 39 million generations of even brisk orgasms and parturitions will take some time, a truly dedicated Christian voyeur will be required. Assuming a stalwart protestant work ethic yielding 14 hours a day of non-stop observance of mating and crowning mammals (subtracting one seventh of their adult life because it would be anathema to watch thousands of animals coming on the sabbath), it’s possible to fit all this in 92.89 years.

 

The complicating factor will be that once the organisms being watched approach something resembling a human (say, the emergence of the genus, Homo about 2.5 million years ago), the devout Christian may encounter a scriptural injunction: “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:28). As such the only way to continue to watch the carnal acts of proto-human women without damning one’s soul beyond redemption would be to cast away the offending eye. This would lead, in the final stages of the process, to legions of blinded creationists, unless of course they procured bionic eyes: a technological infeasibility and, until the medium term future, highly expensive.

Accordingly our model shows that it is best to observe the acts in a chronological manner, delaying the observation of the Homo genus until a time where the sin can be offset by bionic eyes that have become effectively free in the post-scarcity world, saving $11.5 billion.  However, as part of the observed lineage yourself, you might consider paying the $11.5 billion lest the final image to burn across the photosensitive electrodes of your cyborg eye be the shuddering head of your own father’s penis.

Q.E.D

The spreadsheet for calculations in this article can be found at: http://goo.gl/Mt848