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

Saturday, April 08, 2006

On disbelief

This week I am an Eighth Day Agnostic, as recent reformers in my irreligion have decided that we also don't know what a week is. My sermon for today begins with a question: When did it become possible to be an atheist?

On Friday I attended an interesting PhD confirmation seminar on the Marquis de Sade. Apart from a nice dirty graphic used as the backdrop, rather distractingly, for the PowerPoint presentation, there was little or no actual sex or sadism. Mostly the discussion centred on what it was that de Sade intended to be doing with his libertine ways. The suggestion the candidate is following up is that he intended to be seen as an Enlightenment thinker like Diderot or Voltaire, and as a public atheist.

Over a number of beers, the discussion turned to the question when it became possible to be an atheist. De Sade lived at a time when public atheism was just beginning its run. Prior to that, it was hard, if not impossible, to be an atheist, largely because the very idea of denying all gods hadn't yet come up. This set me thinking. Well, that and the beer.

Previously, to be an atheist was to deny a particular theology; that of the ruling establishment. Socrates, for example, in Plato's Apology is tried and convicted for atheism, despite his denials that he does accept the existence of gods, and The God, only not the pantheon of Athens. In the middle ages, when Christian theology was taken aback by the Islamic philosophers, debates began on how to prove the existence of [the Christian] God, and so a tradition began. Over time, these arguments were seen to be weaker and weaker, until Kant delivered the final coup de grace for the Ontological Argument after the time of the Enlightenment. But Kant was still a theist. The Enlightenment atheists were a new phenomenon.

These arguments and their failure led to the raising of the possibility of there being no God. Hume famously was known as a skeptic, and called an atheist, but it's hard to tell if he was. Nevertheless, the possibility had been raised. Why? One answer is given by Foucault - there is an episteme defined by the social structure and so on of the time. What Foucault, so I understand, doesn't address is how the episteme changes over time. I want to suggest that there is an evolutionary account for this.

Not a biological evolutionary account, although biology clearly influences and possibly sets the limitations for conceptual change, but a cultural evolutionary account. I take as my text, Forms of Explanation by Alan Garfinkel (1981), in which the following account of explanation in the social sciences is offered (although similar accounts have been given by Bas van Fraassen, Frederick Suppe, and Peter Gärdenfors most recently; I read Garfinkel first and his is the most vivid).

Garfinkel tells this story (which is apocryphal): A priest goes to visit the bank robber Willie Sutton in prison. "Why do you rob banks, Willie" asks the cleric. "Because that's where the money is," replies Willie. Garfinkel notes that the priest had a particular contrast in mind, perhaps as opposed to living virtuously. Willie, more pragmatically (because he was interested in the cash value, see?) contrasts it with other places to rob, like liquor stores or service stations (if they had them back then). His answer explains why, of a set of contrasts, it was banks he robbed. That is the explanation offered, albeit unsatisfactory to the priest.

An explanation reduces the contrast space down to a particular state. In science, one explains why the outcome observed was that one, and not some other outcome permitted by the laws in operation. One does this by offering a deductive or probabilistic argument from those laws and the initial states. In short, it makes likely the outcome. So, too, are commitments of belief or propositional attitudes. Not that one is explaining, though if asked for reasons that is what one tries to do, but the assertion of one out of a number of possible concepts as being true or the best thing to commit to.

So we might say that the episteme is the set of all the active contrasts in a social or cultural locale. How does it change? Social functionalists think that we are determined in our beliefs by the economic or social structures of our time. This is probably often true, but they usually overlook the fact that an individual can exceed or even change the contrasts accepted as the basis for social discourse. But it seems very likely that one cannot exceed it too far. There has to be a kind of "reach" so that one can communicate to the rest and even convince them.

It is very like the accumulation of mutations in a population, and the effect they have on the mean fitness of the population. A few mutations don't make it impossible to interbreed with the rest of the population, and a novel mutation might even increase the mean fitness by being fitter. But if you have too many mutations, the structure of the genome will mean that no sharing is possible, because the genome of the mutant is not a good "fit" with that of the ordinary member of the species. In short, it can't spread.

Conceptual change is very like this. Too many novelties mean the innovator is incomprehensible, or worse, taken to be a heretic. So some views are either ignored or punished, like Socrates', until the milieu is suitable for it to be accepted. Science fiction often deals with this in time travel - the "advanced" time traveller can't make himself understood, and lacks the prior technologies to introduce their own ideas. I might be able to tell Edison how to make a light bulb. I'm fairly sure I couldn't tell Babbage how to make an electronic computer.

Now, I'm not saying that some new ideas aren't revolutionary. Einstein's rejection of absolute frames of reference made a whole new advance in physics possible, even if he didn't like some of them. But the change in contrasts was not, in itself, all that great (and Mach had made that before him). At some point it became conceivable that space and time might not be absolute. And at some time it became possible to be an atheist, and not merely a critic of the prevailing religion.

Even today there are folk who canot conceive of someone not being of their religion unless they are atheists, no matter whether they are religious in another tradition. Conceptual change occurs unevenly between places, times, and cultures. And traditions have a particular role to play in stabilising conceptual change. For example (and sorry if I bother anyone here), the idea that God is triune in the orthodox Christian tradition, despite the conceptual tangle it causes, is unlikely to change over the bulk of the tradition because it is a "solution" to the divinity of Jesus and the unity of God (the one against the idea that Jesus was just a man, or even a spirit using the form of a man, and the other against the polytheism of Roman, Greek and pagan religions). No matter what problems the Trinitarian view causes, it is so core a belief that it is beyond a likely revision. Unitarians seem to lack the fire that defending a faintly absurd doctrine causes. [And it's likely that holding something a disinterested observer can't fathom is a way to strengthen community bonds, for if they think you are mad, then you only have fellow believers to talk to; which may explain people believing Mormonism and Scientology.]

So to summarise today's sermon, let us wonder what we might think in the future, and not be too cocky about our own views, for they may just be the best we can come up with before a new contrast is added to our conceptual field. Except for mine, of course. I am right on everything of import...

Prescription versus description in the right wing mindset

There has been a lot of chat recently about a talk given by University of Texas ecologist Eric Pianka. Pianka said what many ecologists think, that it is inevitable, given our density of population, that there will be a major pandemic of some kind, because we have set up the preconditions for it, and that as much as 90% of the human species will be killed as a result.

I'm not able to assess Pianka's prediction - it seems to me that he misunderstands the nature of pandemics and the immunological response of a species to a new pathogen, but let's assume this is correct. What I find very interesting here is that the right wing reaction has been to accuse Pianka of a Nazi-style plan for a holocaust, and one particular creationist, Forrest Mims, has sicced the Heimatssicherheitabteilung (known in the US as the Department of Homeland Security) and the FBI onto Pianka, and threatens to sue his critics. Moreover, he intimates that Special Forces personnel are looking to exact retribution on him. Given the way the right wing in the US treats those who dissent from the official line of the Bush White House or the prevailing religion of their home state, Pinaka ought to be watching his back. You can follow the links here.

Now Mims is an interesting nutcase in his won right - claiming that he was denied a staff position at Scientific American because of his creationist views, and his claim to scientific fame is that he is the author of Radio Shack texts on electronics. But what is most interesting is the way it shows how the right wing in the US confuse description and prediction with prescription. This is also the reason why claims are made that Darwinism, whatever that means in their special idiolect, prescribes social Darwinism, whatever that might be.

Pianka is warning us of the future, and saying that if we do not take steps to prevent it, the natural world will inevitably cause a major depopulation due to the way diseases work. Darwin is saying that the way things are, competition for resources will select some variants of a species out of the gene pool (Darwin, of course, didn't use the term "gene pool" as that was a 20thC invention). Neither are saying this is something to be encouraged or actively promoted. They are saying this is the way things are. Deal with it.

Likewise the global warming problem. Whether it suits the political, economic, or religious agendas of the ruling elite, science tells us this is going to happen. In the Pianka case, he is saying that we have given pathogens a chance to evolve that will kill us until we reach an equilibrium of some kind. In Darwin's case, he is saying that we reach equilibria based on the elimination, in fact, not policy, of those varieties that are less competitive. Neither are saying that there is some moral or political implication here. Neither want this to happen - it's just happening. And the right wing do not want to hear this. When they get a message from science that they don't like the outcomes of, the only way they have to address it is to blame the messenger. Call the guy a Nazi; that'll work. Don't actually try to adapt to the way of the world, though.

So they "quote mine" the individual to spin what is said into what supports that attack. Mike Dunford, at The Questionable Authority documents how the Seguin Gazette-Enterprise, for which Mims writes, did this systematically to make Pianka sound like he was endorsing the death of billions. It's not coincidental that the paper took down some of its articles recently. If I were Pianka, I'd be suing them for defamation.

If you can't tell the difference between a moral prescription, and a prediction based on knowledge (or claimed to be), then you really shouldn't be in the public arena.

Late Edit. The paper didn't mean to take down the articles. Follow the link.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Jobs turns to the Dark Side

Like Luke, he was tempted, but he did in the end give in to his baser instincts. Steve Jobs has allowed Apple to release a way to boot Windows on an Intel Mac, called Boot Camp (to be a standard component of the next release, Leopard. Sigh.

What I hoped they'd do was write code to replace Windows system calls in OS X itself, so that you could run a Windows program natively under OS X. I suppose there were problems with that. But it would have been so cool to have some good piece of Windows software running as an OS X app, with all the benefits.

Also, what surprises me is that they haven't (yet) made it possible to run Windows in a memory partition separately from OS X, so you can hot swap between them. With a dual CPU, that could have been cool. We'll see what Apple come up with. Ever since they announced they'd been running an Intel program since the inception of OS X, I have suspected they had some things up their sleeves.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Monty and the DHS

Die Heimatssicherheitabteilung strikes again!

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Yet another reason why Macs are better than Windows

I'm a day late with this one, but it's important. In a major advance in computing, Atomic Bird has released CrashBlocker Pro, a tool which prevent your Mac OS X from crashing. The release says this:

(April 1 2006) Atomic Bird announces CrashBlocker Pro, a groundbreaking new Mac OS X utility.

CrashBlocker Pro makes you more productive and reduces stress by preventing applications from crashing, and by preventing Mac OS X itself from crashing!

How is this possible? It isn't! Most application crashes are caused by "bad" electrons in the application, usually the result of cosmic rays or possibly cost-cutting measures on the part of your electricity supplier. CrashBlocker Pro uses advanced quantum theory combined with a Reality Distortion Field to detect "bad" electrons in applications. These electrons are replaced with "good" electrons, keeping the application running smoothly. It's just like changing the oil in your car! While driving. Or something like that. Bad electrons are then transferred over the internet to a maximum-security prison, where they are tortured for their misdeeds until Bono holds a benefit concert for their freedom.

As a result, you have a warm fuzzy feeling of security, even though nothing is happening!

The process involves a patent-pending infinite improbability engine, implemented in software, in order to accomplish system stability well beyond the limits of the laws of physics.

Best of all, CrashBlocker Pro is free!

CrashBlocker Pro requires Mac OS X 10.4. Or maybe it doesn't. Who knows?

Of course, there are sure to be upgrades, which will no doubt prevent Microsoft Office from crashing or doing really stupid things to bullet lists and spelling. Look for it the same time next year. Word is, though, that you may have to pay for this one.

The essence of a species

I've been rereading some of Hugh Paterson's writings on species lately, as well as revisiting Alan Templeton's more recent cluster concept. Each of these use what might be termed a "positive" conception of (sexual) species, rather than the "negative" ones of Mayr and Dobzhansky that preceded them.

In Paterson's view, a (sexual) species is a group of organisms that share a common reproductive system. In Templeton's view, a species is a group of organisms whose genetic structure is maintained by selective pressures. The older "reproductive isolation" views, in contrast, are based on what species can't do - that is, interbreed.

The difference is interesting. If a species is something that happens to occur through incidental processes, then there is no essence of a species. But if it happens through processes that actually make it a species, such as coadaptation of signalling systems (Paterson) or of gene complexes (Templeton), then species do have an essence. That is they have a "what-it-is-to-be". And what that is, I think, is the intrinsic selection for reproductive compatibility. A species is formed by the fitness of those who can reproduce. That is their essence.

Taking this tack removes some of the confusions found in the species concept literature. While the genetic composition of the population may change for reason that have nothing to do with reproductive isolation or the lack of it with the parental species, it does have something to do with the compatibility of each organism to reproduce with the other organisms in its poopulation. Moreover, if it were the case that ecological adaptations led to a diverging phenotype in the population, and hybrids were less fit, it is still selection that causes the new species that form to be species.

The allopatric consensus of the older evolutionary views was based on solid evidence and good theory, but the definition of a species as being reproductively isolated is what is called a "privative" definition: defining something in terms of what it is not. But rocks cannot interbreed with birds - that doesn't make rocks a species. To work, the isolationist definition has to assume a lot, and some of what it assumes is that species are fit to interbreed. Simply calling a population a species because it can't interbreed with other populations is to overlook that fact that organisms within the population can. And it is that which makes the species. Put another way, if all possible mating groups for a species went extinct today, the species would still be a species tomorrow.

This leads me to my next claim: asexual populations, which do not interbreed because they can't, are still species too. Consider the favourite example of this kind of thing - the whiptail lizards. Most of them are sexual, but a number of groups appear to have evolved asexuality (possibly via hybridisation). If the isolationist view were correct, then there would be nonspecies of these lizards in a clade of species. This seems odd. But if a species is a selectively maintained group, the asexuals will be species because those that vary by mutation too far from their adaptive peak (which includes developmental mechanisms) will die out. Selection maintains them at the phenotype that constitutes them. In single celled asexuals, and viruses, this is called a "quasispecies", a cluster of genotypes about a fitness peak. If the fitness peak splits, then the species will split as some of the popuation adapts to the new exigencies (for example, if the virus infects a new host successfully). But what constitutes that species remains that which is preventing the smearing out of the genotype and the phenotype.

So we might say that the notion of a quasispecies is basic to being a species. The main difference is that with an asexual species the adaptation is both intrinsic (between mating partners) and extrinsic (to ecological conditions), while for asexuals it is only extrinsic. And this means that a species does have an essence - whatever it is the population is adapting to that keeps it cohesive.

But this is not the essence feared and hated by Mayr and those others who argued against essenetialism in the Received View. It is not a definitional, a priori, essence we have here. It is entirely contingent and a posteriori. How might we accommodate this philosophically? There are two candidate views. One is by Paul Griffiths, whose essay "Squaring the Circle" argues that species have a historical essence. A species' essence is a kind of developmental essence, inherited and modified from the speciation event. It is the essence of having had a history. This is compatible with the view I'm espousing here, but it doesn't account for being a species the way this view does.

The other is more directly relevant. Richard Boyd has argued for a "homeostatic property cluster" view of natural kinds, and species are an example of this. In Boyd's view, a natural kind is maintained in the ensemble of properties it has by mechanisms that keep it coherent. This is exactly the view I propose. Selection maintains species' properties. A third view, that of Kevin de Queiroz, is that species are metapopulations (collections of connected populations) that form lineages. This is also consistent with my view, but not sufficient to account for species. It is insufficient because not all lineages form species even at the population level, and because there are subordinate metapopulations in many species that are not the whole species.

This view necessitates the conclusion that "species" is not an absolute rank. I think this is true of all taxonomic objects. An objection to asexual species often relies on the fact that there is no distinct organisational level in those organisms that could be called species. But I argue tht there is none in sexual organisms either. Reproductive compatibility is a post hoc property. And even that is insufficient to identify species, since there is introgressive breeding across species lines, for example, in many plants, corals, and even animals. The thing that makes it a species is the fitness of those who breed, due to selection against deviation from extrinsic or intrinsic fitness peaks.

So let's see if we can define species in a general way. A species is whatever group of organisms are selected for a given genetic or phenotypic fitness peak, through ecological or sexual adaptation. They form lineages, which are homeostatic, but that is not enough. They have historical essences, but that is not enough, either. Let's see how that flies...

Boyd, R. 1999. Homeostasis, species, and higher taxa. In Species, New interdisciplinary essays, edited by R. Wilson. Cambridge, MA: Bradford/MIT Press.

de Queiroz, Kevin. 2005. Ernst Mayr and the modern concept of species. PNAS 102 (Supp. 1):6600-6607.
———. 1999. The general lineage concept of species and the defining properties of the species category. In Species, New interdisciplinary essays, edited by R. A. Wilson. Cambridge, MA: Bradford/MIT Press.
———. 1998. The general lineage concept of species, species criteria, and the process of speciation. In Endless forms: species and speciation, edited by D. J. Howard and S. H. Berlocher. New York: Oxford University Press.

Griffiths, Paul E. 1999. Squaring the circle: Natural kinds with historical essences. In Species, New interdisciplinary essays, edited by R. A. Wilson. Cambridge, MA: Bradford/MIT Press.