The preview for the X-Men movie has a voice-over saying: “In every human being . . . there is the genetic code . . . for mutation.” Apparently you can acquire all sorts of neat abilities by mutation. The mutant Storm, for example, has the ability to throw lightning bolts.
I beg you, dear reader, to consider the biological machinery necessary to generate electricity; the biological adaptations necessary to avoid being harmed by electricity; and the cognitive circuitry required for finely tuned control of lightning bolts. If we actually observed any organism acquiring these abilities in one generation, as the result of mutation, it would outright falsify the neo-Darwinian model of natural selection. It would be worse than finding rabbit fossils in the pre-Cambrian. If evolutionary theory could actually stretch to cover Storm, it would be able to explain anything, and we all know what that would imply.
The X-Men comics use terms like “evolution,” “mutation,” and “genetic code,” purely to place themselves in what they conceive to be the literary genre of science. The part that scares me is wondering how many people, especially in the media, understand science only as a literary genre.
I encounter people who very definitely believe in evolution, who sneer at the folly of creationists. And yet they have no idea of what the theory of evolutionary biology permits and prohibits. They’ll talk about “the next step in the evolution of humanity,” as if natural selection got here by following a plan. Or even worse, they’ll talk about something completely outside the domain of evolutionary biology, like an improved design for computer chips, or corporations splitting, or humans uploading themselves into computers, and they’ll call that “evolution.” If evolutionary biology could cover that, it could cover anything.
Probably an actual majority of the people who believe in evolution use the phrase “because of evolution” because they want to be part of the scientific in-crowd—belief as scientific attire, like wearing a lab coat. If the scientific in-crowd instead used the phrase “because of intelligent design,” they would just as cheerfully use that instead—it would make no difference to their anticipation-controllers. Saying “because of evolution” instead of “because of intelligent design” does not, for them, prohibit Storm. Its only purpose, for them, is to identify with a tribe.
I encounter people who are quite willing to entertain the notion of dumber-than-human artificial intelligence, or even mildly smarter-than-human artificial intelligence. Introduce the notion of strongly superhuman artificial intelligence, and they’ll suddenly decide it’s “pseudoscience.” It’s not that they think they have a theory of intelligence which lets them calculate a theoretical upper bound on the power of an optimization process. Rather, they associate strongly superhuman AI to the literary genre of apocalyptic literature; whereas an AI running a small corporation associates to the literary genre of Wired magazine. They aren’t speaking from within a model of cognition. They don’t realize they need a model. They don’t realize that science is about models. Their devastating critiques consist purely of comparisons to apocalyptic literature, rather than, say, known laws which prohibit such an outcome. They understand science only as a literary genre, or in-group to belong to. The attire doesn’t look to them like a lab coat; this isn’t the football team they’re cheering for.
Is there any idea in science that you are proud of believing, though you do not use the belief professionally? You had best ask yourself which future experiences your belief prohibits from happening to you. That is the sum of what you have assimilated and made a true part of yourself. Anything else is probably passwords or attire.
Even if biological evolution would allow one-generation mutation for "Storm abilities", it would not equal that evolution doesn't explain anything. Even if everything "is possible" in evolution, there can still be different probabilities for different outcomes. The probability for "Storm ability mutation" is non-zero.
The probability for anything is non-zero. But when we see something to which our hypothesis assigns a sufficiently infinitesimal probability, we call it falsified - because even maximum entropy does better.
I expect the problem is not that you are wrong (that's more or less open), but that there has been similar discussion in many places (one is here) on this site and building another tree with pretty much the same starting point doesn't really make sense.
I'd be willing to assign zero probability to mathematical falsehoods, such as "2+2=5".
Apparently, a lot of people really don't understand biological evolution.
(Many people don't really understand what a physicist means by a "wave", either, but they tend to be familiar with examples.)
I'd be adverse to assigning zero probability even to mathematical falsehoods :)
(Edit: Okay, finally checked the math. A zero probability means "I absolutely refuse to update this belief regardless of the evidence." I can see situations where I can't imagine ever running in to evidence against, but not anything where I'd refuse to update my belief even in light of evidence...)
I find it amusing that you responded to a comment from August 2007 by linking to a post from September 2007.
If only Doug_S. had bothered to read that post before making that comment, there wouldn't have been any confusion!
Eliezer said: "I encounter people who are quite willing to entertain the notion of dumber-than-human Artificial Intelligence, or even mildly smarter-than-human Artificial Intelligence. Introduce the notion of strongly superhuman Artificial Intelligence, and they'll suddenly decide it's "pseudoscience"."
It may be that the notion of strongly superhuman AI runs into people's preconceptions they aren't willing to give up (possibly of religious origins). But I wonder if the 'Singularians' aren't suffering from a bias of their own. Our cu... (read more)
A small caveat: the word 'evolution' doesn't have to refer to the scientific theory of biological evolution. The word existed long before the theory; otherwise, the theory would have become attached to a different word. Since the word itself means "incremental change over time," then it is perfectly appropriate to refer to a new computer chip design, or a corporate reorganization as evolution. Make your own guesses about whether something totally different, such as uploading a personality, can be called "evolution."
i can't help but see a few interesting ironies in this post.
the "mutants" in the world of the x-men are people who all have one and only one common "genetic" mutation. and that mutation is the ability to mutate, as you put it, "in one generation". that is itself the essential mutation that is common to all "mutants". the fact that they can move from normal human to super powered mutant in the space of one generation (their own lifetime) is exactly the point.
in other words, "control over lightning" is not th... (read more)
"I'd be willing to assign zero probability to mathematical falsehoods, such as "2+2=5"."
You might be willing to, Doug S., but that doesn't mean that it's optimally rational for you to do so. I don't know as much about bayesian reasoning as I'd like to, but my understanding is that would not be bayesian of you.
Gray Area, the objections you list are objections from within a model. This is right and proper. A lot of people don't reason the same way you do, though. Quick replies: (1) We know from sheerly physical considerations that you can build a brain at least a million times as fast as a human brain, which gives us many interesting results of itself. (2, 3) Barring a specific model of cognitive science one cannot disprove a magical upper bound which lies exactly above human intelligence, even though raw evolution encountered no apparent difficulty in accidentally building humans out of chimps using only a threefold increase in brain and a sixfold increase in prefrontal cortex. But the principle of mediocrity weighs heavily against such an arbitrary presumption, as well as the general notion that evolution doesn't build optimal systems, plus all the known flaws we talk about on Overcoming Bias. Furthermore my own, specific model of cognitive science is already suggesting that we can go beyond human purely on the basis of writing better software, but this is too complex to justify in detail here - the common sense of this should be apparent, though.
Doug, it may help to think in t... (read more)
belief as scientific attire, like wearing a lab coat. Science (unlike religion) has proved its myths - by putting men on the moon, mobile phones in people's pockets, and curing diseases. It's payed its dues to reliability. So unless I am willing to look into it myself, I should, as a default, believe most things scientists claim. And, unless I'm willing to study the press extensively, I should defer to uncontradicted press stories about scientific claims, especially if they're repeated. This makes science into a litterary genre, but it's the only real opti... (read more)
Science (unlike religion) has proved its myths
See, this is exactly the sort of thing I have a problem with. Science is not just magic that works. People are learning science as though it were merely a true religion: passwords, attire, professions, and all.
The press has reports with things like "scientists attack creationist teachings", but I've never seen "scientists attack common misconceptions about evolutionary theory".
Press selectivity. Trust me, they do.
I'd add... speech, empathy... superior social skills to the list
I wasn't aware that speech, empathy, and social skills were functions of the kidneys rather than the brain.
"I wasn't aware that speech, empathy, and social skills were functions of the kidneys rather than the brain. "
We know empathy and social skills don't require general intelligence; plenty of mammals show empathy and social skills. If the definition of "intelligence" is "whatever occurs in the brain", then a 4004 CPU shows "intelligence" every time it adds two hex digits.
I have noticed that since using the word "progress" has become unseemly, many use "evolution" in its stead. Quite often in the sense of "incremental change", sometimes in the slightly biology-analogous sense of "the effect of broad trial and error learning" - but hiding the teleological assumption progress was at least open about.
It has been scientifically proven that people use science attire to make their views sound more plausible :-) Throw in some neuroscience, statistics or a claim by a Ph.D. in anything and you... (read more)
I second Stuart's awful sentence. I'm not seconding the opinion that it is awful, just that it resembles my thoughts.
Unfortunately, you picked the only member of the x-men who turned out to be a goddess and not a mutant (can't remember what story arc). How disturbing.
I think people should be more careful about the word "science." Here are some meanings I see attached to it:
I feel compelled to add that what I mean by "the scientific method" is that observation should drive belief and that we can put effort into obtaining useful observations (experiments, stamp collecting). Also, it may be useful to distinguish between institutio... (read more)
Unfortunately, you picked the only member of the x-men who turned out to be a goddess and not a mutant
Ha! I knew someone was going to say that! (Because I looked up the Wikipedia entry, thank you very much.) That's why I invoked the movie version of Storm, who is a mutant! So there!
(http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/evolution general: a gradual process of development biology: change in the genetic composition of a population over time)
It seems that when we talk about "evolution by natural selection" as opposed to "Lamarckian evolution," evolution is the explanandum, and evolutionary theory attempts to provide the explanans.
"I encounter people who very definitely believe in evolution, who sneer at the folly of creationists. And yet they have no idea of what the theory of evolutionary biology permits and p... (read more)
The general sense of the word 'evolution' outside of biology is established in English, and some of the people who use it to describe phenomena like 'the evolution of technology' do understand evolutionary theory.
Okay, but there's also people who say, "Corporations split - therefore they reproduce - therefore they evolve." These are the people I'm talking about.
Eliezer, are you unaware of the fact that biological evolution is only a subset from general evolution?
Science (unlike religion) has proved its myths See, this is exactly the sort of thing I have a problem with. Science is not just magic that works. People are learning science as though it were merely a true religion: passwords, attire, professions, and all.
And I agree, that's terrible. Maybe I wasn't clear in my post: it's a disaster for people to learn science as magic. But for people who won't learn it, for whatever reason, then "science as magic that works" is a sensible view that gives them a cheap tool to assess scientific claims.
But even fo... (read more)
Damn the double post! Sorry for that; my incompetence is to blame.
"Science (unlike religion) has proved its myths - by putting men on the moon, mobile phones in people's pockets, and curing diseases. It's payed its dues to reliability. So unless I am willing to look into it myself, I should, as a default, believe most things scientists claim." Stuart, this in my opinion is an awful sentence, and I'm surprised to read it by an overcomingbias contributor.
It lacks something of the pithiness of "Veni, vedi, Vinci", I'll admit. But I stand by what I was trying to say; hopefully my more recent post articulates it better.
"Corporations split - therefore they reproduce - therefore they evolve."
Okay, now those guys have issues.
anonymous, I think we have good empirical evidence that Eliezer is not "unaware of the fact that biological evolution is only a subset from general evolution".
Eliezer and Kyle, name names of serious or influential people who posit in a mockworthy "Corporations split - therefore they reproduce - therefore they evolve."
If you're just throwing up a foil so we have a smug sense of in-groupedness, are you wasting our time on an overcomingbias blog?
There is no "general evolution". There is biological evolution. Period. Saying "small incremental changes over time" is not a causal model, it is a surface effect to be explained. If you are talking about the realm of causal forces, of underlying processes, then biological evolution is all there is in science. Natural selection IS NOT a special case of some deeper principle that also explains change in toaster ovens any more than gravity is a special case of a deeper principle that also makes the stock market "fall".
HA: Not that I have anything against the guy, but, Kevin Kelly.
Eliezer, you seem to be making a science vs. engineering distinction. You're obviously aware of how evolution is used in engineering (as described in the wikipedia entry on evolution).
Took a look at Kevin Kelly's site. Instead of occasional foilicious potshots, how about a serious critique of the error of these ideas. Let's not manufacture a dialectic, I think that's going to get in the way of building the best models of reality.
HA, I don't remember where all the fallacies I encounter come from. I have a difficult enough time remembering someone's name after speaking to them for four hours. But before you accuse me of manufacturing strawmen, spend eleven years in my shoes putting up with the likes of this:
Eliezer, I understand the need to contest the wrong-but-influential, but not the wrong-but-insignificant. Kevin Kelly is definitely influential. I just think you have real, worthy opponents (the ultimate one, our apparently pending mortality), I don't like to see limited energy get sucked up on hack, performed disagreements. I'd rather you get your representational privilege the most useful way to us --solving the hard problems we face, as quickly as possible, not performing 1/2 of various dialectics.
HA, most influential folks are far beyond persuading. It is the hearts and minds of the unconvinced, who are often novices, for which I fight.
Influential usually implies higher status. Status makes people effectively stupid, as it makes it harder for them to update their public positions without feeling that they are loosing face.
Why this? "because they want to be part of the scientific in-crowd"
Why would everybody want to be part of the "scientific" in-crowd? That wouldn't leave much for the rest of the world.
That seems unfair. Do they mean evolutionary biology when they say evolution? What if they just mean heredity, variation, and selection? I use "evolution" to describe how technologies spread throughout culture, because i... (read more)
I hate how movies promote fake 'science' like that and then completely disregard actual science that can be used in an exciting movie. For example: we had the awful, fancy-looking cryptographic thinger in Skyfall that leaked its own key! What?! It leaked its own key!! Meanwhile, an action/heist movie based around Shamir's secret sharing basically writes itself! There are k shares and we must travel around the world to collect them! That masked man is running away with one of them, chase him! Oh wait, it fell into the river and then exploded! Now we must journey into the mountains to find the other one! But then we shoot this dying man as he is saying there were really k+1 shares! Dramatic ending!
Actually, now that I think about it, that's exactly what Voldemort did.
Many people can’t judge the difference between plausible and implausible scientific explanations, for them it’s just ‘science’
Science as a new authority to explain things (similar to religion)
Much deeper than attire, it's folk religion. "Science" is to our time what the One Church Catholic and Universal was to the fourteenth century — the source of cosmology, explainer of existence, consoler for mortality, generator of culture. The people you cite are analogous to those buying saints' amulets, genuflecting in church on Sundays, hanging a cross over their bed, reflexively repeating the prayers. They do not have the profound understanding of the "theologians" -- the scientists. (How many peasants do you think could explain transubstantiation?) In fact, they have all kinds of wild and superstitious misunderstandings.
In general, when I first read the question about the abilities of the storm, I was so distracted by the fact that I had no idea how it was physically possible that I did not pay attention to the actual mutations and the impossibility from the point of view of the theory of evolution, for me it sounded like Access to Magic and The Atlantean Genetic Marker, which no longer looked so implausible to me.