we know what we are

Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini propound the following analogy in their letter to the TLS Editor:

Our difficulty with Darwin is very like our difficulty with our stockbroker. He says the way to succeed on the market is to buy low and sell high, and we believe him. But since he won’t tell us how to buy low and sell high, his advice does us no good. Likewise, Darwin thinks that the traits that are selected-for are the ones that cause fitness; but he doesn’t say how the kinds of variables that his theory envisages as selectors could interact with phenotypes in ways that distinguish causes of fitness from their confounds. This problem can’t be solved by just stipulating that the traits that are selected for are the fitness-enhancing traits; that, as one said in the 1960s, isn’t the solution; it’s the problem.

Matthew Cobb, a contributor to the evolutionist advocacy blog owned and operated by Jerry A. Coyne, Ph.D and a Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, fancies himself to have made short work of this argument. But misunderstanding the analogy between evolving through natural selection and succeeding on the market by buying low and selling high is a clear symptom of being out of one’s mind in the following, precisely defined sense:

  1. Natural selection is said to be responsible for evolving all functions of living organisms.
  2. The mind counts among the functions of some living organisms.
  3. The mind of some living organisms is capable of making intensional distinctions such as the one between being renate and being cordate, or the one between being an even prime number and being equal to the positive square root of four.
  4. Natural selection is incapable of making intensional distinctions.
  5. Natural selection cannot evolve the capacity to make intensional distinctions.
  6. Some minds have functions that cannot have evolved through natural selection.
  7. Some functions of living organisms cannot have evolved through natural selection.

At this point, to echo Sir Winston Churchill, we know exactly what you are as a living organism; we are just haggling about something that determines your price.

Crossposted to [info]larvatus, [info]philosophy, and [info]real_philosophy.

6 thoughts on “we know what we are”

  1. Natural selection is incapable of making intensional distinctions.

    How do you know that ?

    So far as I understand, sociobiology maintains that ability to understand motivations of one’s peer group may increase fitness

    1. To elaborate, upon reading the discussion in , I think that “Natural selection is incapable of making intensional distinctions” does not imply “Natural selection is incapable of favoring minds capable of intensional distinctions”

      1. Natural selection cannot evolve any capacity that it cannot distinguish from every other capacity. That is a direct consequence of the principle of sufficient reason.

        1. “Natural selection cannot evolve any capacity that it cannot distinguish from every other capacity.”

          But the only way it has to distinguish a capacity of genes, is by whether it increases the gene frequency.

          It does not have to be very smart to do that.

          So, do smarter bacteria reproduce better than dumber bacteria? Maybe. E Coli grows in intestines, and grows better if it can stay in the intestines and not get expelled — though the surplus population must continually be expelled and take it’s chances to find somebody else’s intestines. E coli can swim through thick viscous liquid, or it can swim through thinner liquid. It has no senses to tell which it is dealing with, so it apparently switches from one to the other at random at low frequency.

          E coli swims toward higher concentrations of hydrophilic amino acids and away from lower concentrations. It swims toward its preferred pH and away from less-preferred pH. It swims toward increasing sugar and away from decreasing sugar. Etc. But it has no senses to tell it which direction the good things are increasing, and it is probably too small to detect a difference in concentration. So what they do, is they swim in a random direction and they notice how much things are getting better. The faster things get better, the longer they keep swimming in that direction. After awhile they stop and turn for awhile, and then they start again in a new random direction. If things are getting worse they stop quickly.

          So with very few senses they perform complicated judgements that result in their improving their situation on average. The choices are built into their genes, and evolution could have created all this while itself using no judgement beyond noting which bacteria survived better.

          Evolution can produce things that it cannot detect except by their effect on gene frequencies. This can work for anything affected by genes. But it might not work the way people would expect. Do smart women have more surviving children? Maybe. Sometimes. Which women have more surviving children than they would choose to have, given their desire to be reasonably comfortable? A smart woman who cares about evolution might still choose to stop at two. A woman who’s smart about some things might increase her genes in the population if she keeps having children until she is too busy taking care of them to have sex. Who is favored by evolution? A cultured woman who gets an extensive education and carefully uses planned parenthood? Or a skank ho who quickly becomes a milf?

          The answer is plain — evolution has created us to be no smarter than we ought to be.

        2. Natural selection cannot evolve any capacity that it cannot distinguish from every other capacity.

          Why natural selection can’t evolve improved ability to understand other minds ?

          Also, sexual selection can favour features that confer no survival advantage, like peacock’s tail.

          I seem to remember, that you used to favour Penrose’s argument based on Godel’s theorem. What is its status ? I began to read Pinker’s “How the Mind Works”, where he claims that it is “debunked”. Bennet’s book “Why evolution is true” seemed to me more thoughtful, but he, too, seems to me too enthusiastic about “Strong AI”. One would think that the continuing failure of AI research to produce something with the “intellect” of a common household cockroach ought to have given him a pause…

  2. Evolution

    Theory of evolution unfortunately does not give advice about how to avoid going extinct, just as “Buy low sell high” is not advice about picking stocks.

    Evolutionary theorists have found a collection of rules of thumb that could help at avoiding extinction. One rule of thumb for animals is to be individually small. Large animals have a harder time maintaining large numbers. A given biome can support fewer of them, so they are likely to survive in smaller numbers, and smaller populations are in general less able to respond to natural selection. Human beings are among the largest animals in existence. If you look at the number of species that on average grow larger versus the number of species that on average is smaller, there are few larger animals. Long generation times is also a problem. The slower you reproduce the slower you adapt, and again we are among the slowest. However, in the short run we have managed to create a tremendous population considering our size and metabolic requirements — we are doing very very well … in the short run.

    Another rule of thumb is to divide a large population into smaller subpopulations with limited genetic exchange among them. A lot of species do this, though for some if them it may be a constraint imposed by their environment. There are various theoretical reasons why this could be good. For one, populations can afford it. In large populations with random mating, it takes only twice as long for a favorable mutation to approach fixation in a population of a trillion as in a population of a million. So reduced exchange between subpopulations won’t slow things down too drasticly. But also, there are potential problems with segregation distorters. If a gene can arrange to be present in all of a female’s offspring instead of half, that’s a giant selective advantage — enough to overcome a hefty disadvantage in survival. Imagine a gene like that which is lethal when homozygous — in a large population it spreads fast and then when it is very commen it causes a population crash. Ouch! Better it gets the chance to do that to a single subpopulation before it spreads.

    A gene is selected when its frequency in the population increases relative to alternative genes. But just like “buy low sell high” is not the only way to win at the stock market …. (Some buy bankrupt companies for far less than book value and then sell the remnants at a hefty profit after the legalities are settled. Some buy stock that produces large tax-free dividends for them. Etc etc.) A gene is not necessarily selected by improving the survival or fecundity of individuals that carry it. It can increase for other reasons. Evolution is not necessarily progressive. It appears that some species are better than others at making their evolution work for them. Perhaps insects are so wildly successful on land because they are good at evolving into new species that fit new ecological niches, while others that perhaps start with a better body plan are simply not as adaptible.

    And as we see with some invasive species introduced to new environments, it is not enough to spread easily in the new environment. To win a species must also be able to survive well in the environment it creates by its initial success. The Black Death adapted to new rodent hosts and from there to human hosts. Each succeeding epidemic wave individually evolved to spread by breath instead of requiring fleas to transmit it. But each succeeding wave probably left no survivors from the germs of the epidemic. The plague which was endemic in some rodent populations reseeded from scratch for each epidemic. After all the sound and fury, nobody won that evolutionary race.

    Evolution can in fact force species into evolutionary dead ends and into extinction. That’s just something to live with. Or to go extinct with.

    Evolutionary theory can describe what happens in evolution at some level of abstraction. Similarly, statistical mechanics can describe what happens in a gas, at a level of abstraction. It would be nice if evolution theory could tell you how to maximise your reproductive success just as it would be nice if your stockbroker could and would tell you how to make millions of dollars. But it does not work that way. And yet it can have some value.

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