Tagged: evolution

A Critique of Pure Randomness

Random MemeThe notion of randomness brings about many interesting considerations. For statisticians, randomness is a series of events with chances that are governed by a distribution function. In everyday parlance, equally-likely means random, while an even more common semantics is based on both how unlikely and how unmotivated an event might be (“That was soooo random!”) In physics, there are only certain physical phenomena that can be said to be truly random, including the probability of a given nucleus decomposing into other nuclei via fission. The exact position of a quantum thingy is equally random when it’s momentum is nailed down, and vice-versa. Vacuums have a certain chance of spontaneously creating matter, too, and that chance appears to be perfectly random. In algorithmic information theory, a random sequence of bits is a sequence that can’t be represented by a smaller descriptive algorithm–it is incompressible. Strangely enough, we simulate random number generators using a compact algorithm that has a complicated series of steps that lead to an almost impossible to follow trajectory through a deterministic space of possibilities; it’s acceptible to be random enough that the algorithm parameters can’t be easily reverse engineered and the next “random” number guessed.

One area where we often speak of randomness is in biological evolution. Random mutations lead to change and to deleterious effects like dead-end evolutionary experiments. Or so we hypothesized. The exact mechanism of the transmission of inheritance and of mutations were unknown to Darwin, but soon in the evolutionary synthesis notions like random genetic drift and the role of ionizing radiation and other external factors became exciting candidates for the explanation of the variation required for evolution to function. Amusingly, arguing largely from a stance that might be called a fallacy of incredulity, creationists have often seized on a logical disconnect they perceive between the appearance of purpose both in our lives and in the mechanisms of biological existence, and the assumption of underlying randomness and non-directedness as evidence for the paucity of arguments from randomness.

I give you Stephen Talbott in The New Atlantis, Evolution and the Illusion of Randomness, wherein he unpacks the mounting evidence and the philosophical implications of jumping genes, self-modifying genetic regulatory frameworks, transposons, and the likelihood that randomness in the strong sense of cosmic ray trajectories bouncing around in cellular nuclei are simply wrong. Randomness is at best a minor contribution to evolutionary processes. We are not just purposeful at the social, personal, systemic, cellular, and sub-cellular levels, we are also purposeful through time around the transmission of genetic information and the modification thereof.

This opens a wildly new avenue for considering the certain normative claims that anti-evolutionists bring to the table, such as that a mechanistic universe devoid of central leadership is meaningless and allows for any behavior to be equally acceptable. This hoary chestnut is ripe to the point of rot, of course, but the response to it should be much more vibrant than the usual retorts. The evolution of social and moral outcomes can be every bit as inevitable as if they were designed because co-existence and greater group success (yes, I wrote it) is a potential well on the fitness landscape. And, equally, we need to stop being so reticent to claim that there is a purposefulness to life, a teleology, but simply make sure that we are according the proper mechanistic feel to that teleology. Fine, call it teleonomy, or even an urge to existence. A little poetry might actually help here.

Artistic Fitness

Following on Wirt’s 1991 treatise, On the Role of Males, that suggests that sexual caste is a meta-trait that operates at a level above simple, beanbag “selfish genetics” by supporting eliminating genetic defects through Y chromosomes (unmasked heterozygous alleles) combined with combative behavior, we can easily ask what other traits elevate female choices for mammals because, by being selective, female choice accelerates evolution even more. And, for humankind, we can ask the most interesting question: what drives women to desire men?

From Geoffrey Miller’s Aesthetic fitness: How sexual selection shaped artistic virtuosity as a fitness indicator and aesthetic preferences as mate choice criteria:

From 1871 until the turn of the 20th century, Darwinian aesthetics was an active area of theorizing.  Darwin (1871) himself viewed the human visual arts as an outgrowth of an instinct for body ornamentation.  He pointed out that males in most cultures indulge in much more self-adornment than females, as predicted by his sexual selection theory. (He understood that men of his own culture ornamented themselves with country estates and colonial treasures rather than tattoos and penis sheaths).  Herbert Spencer argued that sexual selection produced most of the beauty in nature and culture, while Max Nordau posited a neurophysiological link between reproductive urges and artistic creativity, which Sigmund Freud appropriated in this theory of art as sublimated sexuality.   Friedrich Nietzsche developed an especially intriguing and little-appreciated biological aesthetics in The Will to Power, in the section titled ‘The will to power as art’. Nietzsche (1883-1888/1968, p. 421) also accepted a sexual display function for the visual arts, writing “Artists, if they are any good, are (physically as well) strong, full of surplus energy, powerful animals, sensual; without a certain overheating of the sexual system a Raphael is unthinkable.”

Art becomes a fitness indicator and aesthetics becomes an epiphenomena of evolutionary psychology. Creativity is a selection criterion as the crying girls worshipping the Beatles or Justin Biber demonstrate.  In much the same way that the elaborateness of mockingbird songs signal fitness, the invested effort at artistic achievement transforms into a motivator of desire:

An art-work’s beauty reveals an artist’s virtuosity.  This is an old-fashioned view of aesthetics, but that does not make it wrong.  Throughout most of human history, the perceived beauty of an object has depended very much on its cost in terms of time, energy, skill, or resources.


Evolution, Rationality, and Artificial Intelligence

We now know that our cognitive facilities are not perfectly rational. Indeed, our cultural memory has regularly reflected that fact. But we often thought we might be getting a handle on what it means to be rational by developing models for what good thinking might be like and using it in political, philosophical, and scientific discourse. The models were based on nascent ideas like the logical coherence of arguments, internal consistency, few tautologies, and the consistency with empirical data.

But an interesting and quite basic question is why should we be able to formulate logical rules and create increasingly impressive systems of theory and observations given a complex evolutionary history. We have big brains, sure, but they evolved to manage social relationships and find resources–not to understand the algebraic topology of prime numbers or the statistical oddities of quantum mechanics–yet they seem well suited for these newer and more abstract tasks.

Alvin Plantinga, a theist and modern philosopher whose work has touched everything from epistemology to philosophy of religion, formulated his Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EANN) as a kind of complaint that the likelihood of rationality arising from evolutionary processes is very low (really he is most concerned with the probability of “reliability,” by which means that most conclusions and observations are true, but I am substituting rationality for this with an additional Bayesian overlay).

Plantinga mostly wants to advocate that maybe our faculties are rational because God made them rather than a natural process. The response to this from an evolutionary perspective is fairly simple: evolution is an adaptive process and adaptation to a series of niche signals involves not getting those signals wrong. There are technical issues that arise here concerning how specific adaptation can result in more general rational facilities but we can, at least in principle, imagine (and investigate) bridge rules that extend out from complex socialization to encompass the deep complexities of modern morality and the Leviathan state, and the extension of optimizing spear throwing to shooting rockets into orbit.

I’ve always held that Good Old Fashioned AI that tries to use decision trees created by specification is falling into a similar trap as Plantinga. By expecting the procedures of mind to be largely rational they result in a brittle response to the world that is as impotent as Plantinga’s “hyperbolic doubt” about naturalism. If so, though, it leads to the possibility that the only path to the kind of behavioral plasticity and careful balance of rationality and irrationality that we see as uniquely human is through simulating a significant portion of our entire evolutionary history. This might be formulated as an Evolutionary Argument Against AI (EAAAI), but I don’t think of it as a defeater like that, but as something more like an Evolutionary Argument for the Complexity of AI (and I’ll stop playing with the acronyms now).