Evolving Thoughts

Evolution, culture, philosophy and chocolate! John Wilkins' continuing struggle to come to terms with impermanence... "Humanus sum, nihil humanum a me alienum puto" - Terence

Friday, June 11, 2004

The evolution of thinking

Before we continue with William Cooper's ideas on logic being founded on evolution, I would like to make a couple of observations that set the scene.

In the 1970s, a movement arose that went by the title "evolutionary epistemology", involving of course, Karl Popper, but in fact based mostly on the work of Konrad Lorenz and Donald W. Campbell. Campbell in particular generalised evolution into what he called BVSR - Blind Variation and Selective Retention. Thinking was, he said, a BVSR process, just like natural selection, and the capacities we have to think are themselves the results of BVSR in our biological evolution.

A problem with evolutionary epistemology, it was soon pointed out, is that just because we evolved in order to do something that maximises our genetic fitness, is no reason to think that we are able to know the way things actually are. Evolution does not guarantee that we or any other organism works the best possible way; evolution (in this case selection) is a "near enough is good enough" producer. It's rather like the British (or Australian) Civil Service. So long as there are no great cockups, the better alternative will, on average, win out.

That is a lot of qualifiers - on average, better than the other options, near enough. It hardly inspires confidence, and certainly not the confidence we might require to found logic, knowledge or empiricism on. And of course, we do indeed find that ordinary reason. ordinary language, ordinary taxonomy and "common sense" are frequently wrong. An entire discipline based on this assumption has been founded, under the rubric "evolutionary psychology". The assumption of this movement is that we adapted, if we did (they, too, are pretty well panadaptationist), to what they call the "environment of evolutionary adaptedness" (EEA).

Now the EEA they are interested in, is that of the "founder population" of modern Homo sapiens, sometime in the Pleistocene. It is assumed, with a fair degree of warrant, that this was an environment not unlike the one faced by the Plains Indians of north America - savannah with large animals, large predators, woodlands, and so on. Among other things, we adapted to assess risks in such an EEA. We are lousy at assessing risks today, though. What else are we lousy at doing, that was good enough in the EEA?

So we really ought to be more careful in extending evolution thusly. Why is it that nobody observes that a lot of evolution is based on sampling error when they do these sorts of things?

That said, I think the fundamental thesis is correct. Evolution, or rather the generalised aspects of the dynamics of evolution, are indeed the substrate of logic. To think otherwise is to think that logic exists in a Platonic heaven or is some kind of happenstance. Neither will really work - the one because of the baroque ontology it imposes, based, so far as we can tell, on our acceptance of Plato's post hoc justification for thinking his ideas are somehow in direct connection with the real world; the other based on the assumption that we "just have these concepts".

So next post, we'll look at Cooper's Reducibility Thesis. He grounds it on the logic of life-strategies. I have a difficulty with this, too. Of course. You may have noticed I am a rather perverse and contrary bastard...