"A curious aspect of the theory of evolution," said Jacques Monod, "is that everybody thinks he understands it."
A human being, looking at the natural world, sees a thousand times purpose. A rabbit's legs, built and articulated for running; a fox's jaws, built and articulated for tearing. But what you see is not exactly what is there...
In the days before Darwin, the cause of all this apparent purposefulness was a very great puzzle unto science. The Goddists said "God did it", because you get 50 bonus points each time you use the word "God" in a sentence. Yet perhaps I'm being unfair. In the days before Darwin, it seemed like a much more reasonable hypothesis. Find a watch in the desert, said William Paley, and you can infer the existence of a watchmaker.
But when you look at all the apparent purposefulness in Nature, rather than picking and choosing your examples, you start to notice things that don't fit the Judeo-Christian concept of one benevolent God. Foxes seem well-designed to catch rabbits. Rabbits seem well-designed to evade foxes. Was the Creator having trouble making up Its mind?
When I design a toaster oven, I don't design one part that tries to get electricity to the coils and a second part that tries to prevent electricity from getting to the coils. It would be a waste of effort. Who designed the ecosystem, with its predators and prey, viruses and bacteria? Even the cactus plant, which you might think well-designed to provide water fruit to desert animals, is covered with inconvenient spines.
The ecosystem would make much more sense if it wasn't designed by a unitary Who, but, rather, created by a horde of deities—say from the Hindu or Shinto religions. This handily explains both the ubiquitous purposefulnesses, and the ubiquitous conflicts: More than one deity acted, often at cross-purposes. The fox and rabbit were both designed, but by distinct competing deities. I wonder if anyone ever remarked on the seemingly excellent evidence thus provided for Hinduism over Christianity. Probably not.
Similarly, the Judeo-Christian God is alleged to be benevolent—well, sort of. And yet much of nature's purposefulness seems downright cruel. Darwin suspected a non-standard Creator for studying Ichneumon wasps, whose paralyzing stings preserve its prey to be eaten alive by its larvae: "I cannot persuade myself," wrote Darwin, "that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice." I wonder if any earlier thinker remarked on the excellent evidence thus provided for Manichaen religions over monotheistic ones.
By now we all know the punchline: You just say "evolution".
I worry that's how some people are absorbing the "scientific" explanation, as a magical purposefulness factory in Nature. I've previously discussed the case of Storm from the movie X-Men, who in one mutation gets the ability to throw lightning bolts. Why? Well, there's this thing called "evolution" that somehow pumps a lot of purposefulness into Nature, and the changes happen through "mutations". So if Storm gets a really large mutation, she can be redesigned to throw lightning bolts. Radioactivity is a popular super origin: radiation causes mutations, so more powerful radiation causes more powerful mutations. That's logic.
But evolution doesn't allow just any kind of purposefulness to leak into Nature. That's what makes evolution a success as an empirical hypothesis. If evolutionary biology could explain a toaster oven, not just a tree, it would be worthless. There's a lot more to evolutionary theory than pointing at Nature and saying, "Now purpose is allowed," or "Evolution did it!" The strength of a theory is not what it allows, but what it prohibits; if you can invent an equally persuasive explanation for any outcome, you have zero knowledge.
"Many non-biologists," observed George Williams, "think that it is for their benefit that rattles grow on rattlesnake tails." Bzzzt! This kind of purposefulness is not allowed. Evolution doesn't work by letting flashes of purposefulness creep in at random—reshaping one species for the benefit of a random recipient.
Evolution is powered by a systematic correlation between the different ways that different genes construct organisms, and how many copies of those genes make it into the next generation. For rattles to grow on rattlesnake tails, rattle-growing genes must become more and more frequent in each successive generation. (Actually genes for incrementally more complex rattles, but if I start describing all the fillips and caveats to evolutionary biology, we really will be here all day.)
There isn't an Evolution Fairy that looks over the current state of Nature, decides what would be a "good idea", and chooses to increase the frequency of rattle-constructing genes.
I suspect this is where a lot of people get stuck, in evolutionary biology. They understand that "helpful" genes become more common, but "helpful" lets any sort of purpose leak in. They don't think there's an Evolution Fairy, yet they ask which genes will be "helpful" as if a rattlesnake gene could "help" non-rattlesnakes.
The key realization is that there is no Evolution Fairy. There's no outside force deciding which genes ought to be promoted. Whatever happens, happens because of the genes themselves.
Genes for constructing (incrementally better) rattles, must have somehow ended up more frequent in the rattlesnake gene pool, because of the rattle. In this case it's probably because rattlesnakes with better rattles survive more often—rather than mating more successfully, or having brothers that reproduce more successfully, etc.
Maybe predators are wary of rattles and don't step on the snake. Or maybe the rattle diverts attention from the snake's head. (As George Williams suggests, "The outcome of a fight between a dog and a viper would depend very much on whether the dog initially seized the reptile by the head or by the tail.")
But that's just a snake's rattle. There are much more complicated ways that a gene can cause copies of itself to become more frequent in the next generation. Your brother or sister shares half your genes. A gene that sacrifices one unit of resources to bestow three units of resource on a brother, may promote some copies of itself by sacrificing one of its constructed organisms. (If you really want to know all the details and caveats, buy a book on evolutionary biology; there is no royal road.)
The main point is that the gene's effect must cause copies of that gene to become more frequent in the next generation. There's no Evolution Fairy that reaches in from outside. There's nothing which decides that some genes are "helpful" and should, therefore, increase in frequency. It's just cause and effect, starting from the genes themselves.
This explains the strange conflicting purposefulness of Nature, and its frequent cruelty. It explains even better than a horde of Shinto deities.
Why is so much of Nature at war with other parts of Nature? Because there isn't one Evolution directing the whole process. There's as many different "evolutions" as reproducing populations. Rabbit genes are becoming more or less frequent in rabbit populations. Fox genes are becoming more or less frequent in fox populations. Fox genes which construct foxes that catch rabbits, insert more copies of themselves in the next generation. Rabbit genes which construct rabbits that evade foxes are naturally more common in the next generation of rabbits. Hence the phrase "natural selection".
Why is Nature cruel? You, a human, can look at an Ichneumon wasp, and decide that it's cruel to eat your prey alive. You can decide that if you're going to eat your prey alive, you can at least have the decency to stop it from hurting. It would scarcely cost the wasp anything to anesthetize its prey as well as paralyze it. Or what about old elephants, who die of starvation when their last set of teeth fall out? These elephants aren't going to reproduce anyway. What would it cost evolution—the evolution of elephants, rather—to ensure that the elephant dies right away, instead of slowly and in agony? What would it cost evolution to anesthetize the elephant, or give it pleasant dreams before it dies? Nothing; that elephant won't reproduce more or less either way.
If you were talking to a fellow human, trying to resolve a conflict of interest, you would be in a good negotiating position—would have an easy job of persuasion. It would cost so little to anesthetize the prey, to let the elephant die without agony! Oh please, won't you do it, kindly... um...
There's no one to argue with.
Human beings fake their justifications, figure out what they want using one method, and then justify it using another method. There's no Evolution of Elephants Fairy that's trying to (a) figure out what's best for elephants, and then (b) figure out how to justify it to the Evolutionary Overseer, who (c) doesn't want to see reproductive fitness decreased, but is (d) willing to go along with the painless-death idea, so long as it doesn't actually harm any genes.
There's no advocate for the elephants anywhere in the system.
Humans, who are often deeply concerned for the well-being of animals, can be very persuasive in arguing how various kindnesses wouldn't harm reproductive fitness at all. Sadly, the evolution of elephants doesn't use a similar algorithm; it doesn't select nice genes that can plausibly be argued to help reproductive fitness. Simply: genes that replicate more often become more frequent in the next generation. Like water flowing downhill, and equally benevolent.
A human, looking over Nature, starts thinking of all the ways we would design organisms. And then we tend to start rationalizing reasons why our design improvements would increase reproductive fitness—a political instinct, trying to sell your own preferred option as matching the boss's favored justification.
And so, amateur evolutionary biologists end up making all sorts of wonderful and completely mistaken predictions. Because the amateur biologists are drawing their bottom line—and more importantly, locating their prediction in hypothesis-space—using a different algorithm than evolutions use to draw their bottom lines.
A human engineer would have designed human taste buds to measure how much of each nutrient we had, and how much we needed. When fat was scarce, almonds or cheeseburgers would taste delicious. But if you started to become obese, or if vitamins were lacking, lettuce would taste delicious. But there is no Evolution of Humans Fairy, which intelligently planned ahead and designed a general system for every contingency. It was a reliable invariant of humans' ancestral environment that calories were scarce. So genes whose organisms loved calories, became more frequent. Like water flowing downhill.
We are simply the embodied history of which organisms did in fact survive and reproduce, not which organisms ought prudentially to have survived and reproduced.
The human retina is constructed backward: The light-sensitive cells are at the back, and the nerves emerge from the front and go back through the retina into the brain. Hence the blind spot. To a human engineer, this looks simply stupid—and other organisms have independently evolved retinas the right way around. Why not redesign the retina?
The problem is that no single mutation will reroute the whole retina simultaneously. A human engineer can redesign multiple parts simultaneously, or plan ahead for future changes. But if a single mutation breaks some vital part of the organism, it doesn't matter what wonderful things a Fairy could build on top of it—the organism dies and the genes decreases in frequency.
If you turn around the retina's cells without also reprogramming the nerves and optic cable, the system as a whole won't work. It doesn't matter that, to a Fairy or a human engineer, this is one step forward in redesigning the retina. The organism is blind. Evolution has no foresight, it is simply the frozen history of which organisms did in fact reproduce. Evolution is as blind as a halfway-redesigned retina.
Find a watch in a desert, said William Paley, and you can infer the watchmaker. There were once those who denied this, who thought that life "just happened" without need of an optimization process, mice being spontaneously generated from straw and dirty shirts.
If we ask who was more correct—the theologians who argued for a Creator-God, or the intellectually unfulfilled atheists who argued that mice spontaneously generated—then the theologians must be declared the victors: evolution is not God, but it is closer to God than it is to pure random entropy. Mutation is random, but selection is non-random. This doesn't mean an intelligent Fairy is reaching in and selecting. It means there's a non-zero statistical correlation between the gene and how often the organism reproduces. Over a few million years, that non-zero statistical correlation adds up to something very powerful. It's not a god, but it's more closely akin to a god than it is to snow on a television screen.
In a lot of ways, evolution is like unto theology. "Gods are ontologically distinct from creatures," said Damien Broderick, "or they're not worth the paper they're written on." And indeed, the Shaper of Life is not itself a creature. Evolution is bodiless, like the Judeo-Christian deity. Omnipresent in Nature, immanent in the fall of every leaf. Vast as a planet's surface. Billions of years old. Itself unmade, arising naturally from the structure of physics. Doesn't that all sound like something that might have been said about God?
And yet the Maker has no mind, as well as no body. In some ways, its handiwork is incredibly poor design by human standards. It is internally divided. Most of all, it isn't nice.
In a way, Darwin discovered God—a God that failed to match the preconceptions of theology, and so passed unheralded. If Darwin had discovered that life was created by an intelligent agent—a bodiless mind that loves us, and will smite us with lightning if we dare say otherwise—people would have said "My gosh! That's God!"
But instead Darwin discovered a strange alien God—not comfortably "ineffable", but really genuinely different from us. Evolution is not a God, but if it were, it wouldn't be Jehovah. It would be H. P. Lovecraft's Azathoth, the blind idiot God burbling chaotically at the center of everything, surrounded by the thin monotonous piping of flutes.
Which you might have predicted, if you had really looked at Nature.
So much for the claim some religionists make, that they believe in a vague deity with a correspondingly high probability. Anyone who really believed in a vague deity, would have recognized their strange inhuman creator when Darwin said "Aha!"
So much for the claim some religionists make, that they are waiting innocently curious for Science to discover God. Science has already discovered the sort-of-godlike maker of humans—but it wasn't what the religionists wanted to hear. They were waiting for the discovery of their God, the highly specific God they want to be there. They shall wait forever, for the great discovery has already taken place, and the winner is Azathoth.
Well, more power to us humans. I like having a Creator I can outwit. Beats being a pet. I'm glad it was Azathoth and not Odin.
I wonder if anyone ever remarked on the seemingly excellent evidence thus provided for Hinduism over Christianity. Probably not.
Well, David Hume did. In the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Although not with a totally straight face.
The best book-long treatise about your points is probably Dawkins' The Selfish Gene. But you probably know that.
Maybe predators are wary of rattles and don't step on the snake. Or maybe the rattle diverts attention from the snake's head.
The point of a rattle, as I understand it, is that it's metabolically expensive, and time consuming, to produce poison. A snake that can chase off a dozen threats a day by wagging its tail is much better off probability-of-producing-offspring-wise than one that can only bite and poison three threats before being left defenseless for a few days.
It does leave me wondering what benefits the intermediate mutations provide though, since going from a normal snake tail to a rattle seems like it would take more than one step.
I have observed that more ordinary snakes that have not developed a rattle often vibrate their tail in a similar manner, which often makes a warning buzz that is merely somewhat quieter than a rattlesnake's rattle. So incremental improvements to this rattling mechanism, which started with a regular tail, would just slowly increase the loudness, and thus warning ability, of a snake's tail.
All of these sound like a posteriori justifications than a priori predictions. Good ones. But still.
That's kind of the point of this article. Evolution doesn't "choose" something, it just has changes happen, and if, like a rattle happening to scare off threats or reduce lethal damage, it aids survival, then it increases in the population.
I'm not convinced that evolution is closer to "god" than to pure entropy. Really, the Tegmark big universe seems much closer to both "god" and pure entropy than evolution does, and may be a necessary creator for life as well, though it's still possible the evolution can do the whole job itself. Evolution has this whole "embedded in time" schtick going on that definitely makes it more like "gods" than like "god", as you observed.
You say: "if you can invent an equally persuasive explanation for any outcome, you have zero knowledge."
You'll want to read Quine on this. Quine thought that for nearly any sufficiently large data set there were an infinite number of theories that could accurately explain it. Now, granted, some theories are better than others, but many theories are harder to compare with others. Here are some examples:
Suppose you have three theoretical values: simplicity, coherence, and accommodation of the data. Different parts of a given scientific comm... (read more)
Jannia, the poison-delivery-method is pretty complex, too. It's amazing they didn't develop a stinger, or legs, as well. They had to have a gland to produce the poison, a sac to store it, and the hypodermic needle-like teeth to inject it.
I can't imagine any of them serving a function alone.
Perhaps the rattles started appearing, and snakes started shaking them. Or perhaps they started using a shaking tail to distract predators and prey, and then those wierd mutant rattles came in handy.
We still see genetic mutations, and should one of them prove more useful... (read more)
"This leads me to assume that each organelle in every living cell had to have an intelligent designer."
but each organ within an organism didn't? What's the difference?
Gotta love that watchmaker analogy. Turns out the human circadian (sleep-wake) rhythm is a little bit over 24 hours long - more like 24:11, so your body is always pushing you to go to sleep 11 minutes later every day. (Thankfully it tends to synchronize with light and darkness, so it doesn't get too far off schedule.) That's some nice watchmaking there, God.
It really bothers you that a mindless, unthinking process is smarter than you, doesn't it.
I wouldn't go that far! But I do think you bias towards Faith in Flawlessness and against anything that involves randomness.
Foxes seem well-designed to catch rabbits. Rabbits seem well-designed to evade foxes... When I design a toaster oven, I don't design one part that tries to get electricity to the coils and a second part that tries to prevent electricity from getting to the coils.
Toasters are designed for simpler problems. When you need to survive overwhelming complexity/unknown unknowns/fog of war, designs relying on Feedback/Checks and Balances often survive where designs without it fail spectacularly. Examples: US founding father's design for a government; various engineering control systems; successful economic systems; protocol about feedback in science.
Human beings fake their justifications, figure out what they want using one method, and then justify it using another method.
When I design a toaster oven, I don't design one part that tries to get electricity to the coils and a second part that tries to prevent electricity from getting to the coils.
Er, yes you do. There is a latch to hold the contact closed, there is a thermostatic switch to dislodge the latch. It is such with many designed control mechanisms.
If you look at the ecosystem as a designed work of art rather than a designed mechanism to accomplish a purpose, rabbits and foxes competing isn't so much of a problem. Still, it's not very plausible; while there is beauty (as humans see beauty) in nature, as a whole there's not much of a consistent aesthetic.
Selfreferencing, I'm a Bayesian. I assign probabilities, not "believe". I penalize hypotheses by their unshared complexity and update based on evidence. If probabilities come out even, then I don't "suspend judgment", I judge that the probabilities are even, and plan accordingly. It's just as much a belief as anything else, and just as mandatory or prohibited based on a given body of evidence.
Celeriac: Sigh. Gating the flow of electricity and the function of the toaster, is not the same as having two parts at flow with each other. When I open the latch, the power circuits don't try to reroute electricity to the coils, or fuse the latch...
Recovering: Don't know where you're getting the "faith in flawlessness" part. Did you read the part about the retina?
Eliezer_Yudkowsky: Did you see the recent "What's the most important[or whatever] idea?" thing on edge.org? Richard_Dawkins's answer was Darwin's theory of natural selection, and he justified that on the grounds that the metric for a good theory is:
"what it explains, over what it needs to explain"
and then pointed out how it "explains" billions of species.
Now, he may just be using different labels for the same point you made in your post, even so, that's a remarkably confusing way of describing the appropriate way to judge a theory. That would suggest that you can't blame popular confusion on errant usenet Darwinists, that the confusion comes from the most credible biologists.
To actually explain an outcome, you must only be able to make-up-a-plausible-sounding-explanation-for that outcome, and not make-up-a-plausible-sounding-explanation-for zillions of other possible outcomes. Evolution does this, successfully, for millions of species, which is good.
The more actual outcomes a scientific theory explains, the better; the more potential outcomes it could have explained just as plausibly, the worse.
Sorry if this wasn't clear.
For an avowed admirer of Orwell's famous essay on English, I am surprised to see you resort to distinctions without differences. Whatever you call it (n.b. the euphemism "judge" in the last sentence quoted above), you draw a line between some claims yo... (read more)
Recovering: Don't know where you're getting the "faith in flawlessness" part.
A little from you saying you believe in flawlessness. That's an old post, but if I was a bias in your head I wouldn't hang around long at the conscious level to get squished. I'd get some strong allies and hide.
To me, you do seem to, but maybe I'm overseeing what fits my belief. If so, my apologies, I didn't mean to offend.
Did you read the part about the retina?
Yes, it's a good and valid example of how dumb and messy evolution is, but it doesn't answer my earlier comment... (read more)
I aspire to perfectionism, but you can't go from there to my thinking that any given system is already perfect. Especially not evolution!
As for black swans, you need more cognitive complexity, not less, to handle them; Gaussian randomness is easy by comparison. Noise doesn't help with black swans; a random key does not fit a random lock. Evolution in particular does very poorly with black swans. All this will be one or more separate posts at some point.
Rooney, the difference is between a qualitative view and a quantitative view. If you assign a 90% pr... (read more)
Eliezer, out of curiousity did you include the Azathoth references because of my earlier comments here or were you already thinking of it?
Mencius Moldbug has also used the idea of an alien's perspective on earth in order to break out of conventional wisdom. In his case it was named Beatrice. I think it was a good idea (I suggested something like it earlier) that he executed poorly.
douglas, I don't think you understand transitional fossils all that well. No Darwinist thinks there's any problem or unexpected gap in the record. Also, some quick googling and w... (read more)
Shameless nitpick: There's nothing wrong with the logic that "radiation causes mutations, so more powerful radiation causes more powerful mutations." If you expose yourself to a thousand rads, you will get a heck of a lot of mutations. The logic breaks down when you expect these mutations to give you super powers, rather than a big mess. It sounds like you've got the superhero logic backwards: people did not look at evolutionary theory, understand it incorrectly, and then hypothesize that superheroes should be an expected outcome. They first made up the superheroes, and then looked for anything which might plausibly explain them.
Jacob Stein: Oy Vey, since you insist, here's some evolved watches: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mcAq9bmCeR0 (it's about ten minutes long, btw, and a bit slow at the start. But if evolved watches you must have, evolved watches you will get.)
I aspire to perfectionism, but you can't go from there to my thinking that any given system is already perfect. Especially not evolution!
I didn't think you thought evolution was perfect, quite the opposite. I thought you disliked it partly because of its random element.
As for black swans, you need more cognitive complexity, not less, to handle them
Of course, all else equal. That's like saying don't spend cash on a smoke alarm because if you're the victim of a house fire you need more money, not less.
I'm saying a little feedback might be worth the cost to p... (read more)
Eliezer, I grasp the obvious utility of probability -- I pay for a variety of insurance policies, after all. But there are many claims (many of which you share with us on a daily basis) that you treat as having a probability of 1. About those claims, I find your assertion that you do not "believe" them to be a purely verbal distinction.
Well, in a lot of senses I treat them as having a probability of ~1. But not literally 1, because when you assign a probability of 1 to something, you can't change your mind about it, ever.
There's also the whole distinction of viewing "belief" as a primitive, rather than viewing it as a derived behavior of a system that happens to be assigning probabilities close to 1.
But then my brain doesn't actually work by Bayesian probabilities, so, yes, I believe gravity, and that if I don't eat I'll die of starvation, and many similar things whose opposites I don't bother to consider.
tggp-1) google--tuberculosis strain w evolution of 2) down the page go to the amazon book review of "Quantum Evolution" by Johnjoe Mcfadden. This will call up a page that includes the most relevent info. I realize that the info on this is not well advertised. Of course when a theory that is promoted for so long as the explanation of everything (See Dennett's "Darwin's Dangerous Idea") predicts a cure and produces an incureable disease with an ever increasing pile of dead bodies-- This is a real life example of the problem and dangers of bias.
I was nodding in agreement up until the end there. "Evolution is bodiless"? "Evolution" describes certain features of a physical process, a chemical process specifically, stretching from the beginning of life until the present day. The entire ecosystem of the Earth is, at any given moment, a time slice of this single chemical process. It isn't abstract in the least. Various sorts of selection are abstract but only in the sense that they describe aspects of this chemical process at a high level.
Douglas, you've said more than once now that evolutionary biology, when applied to tuberculosis, "predicts a cure and produces an incurable disease". Maybe I'm being dim, but this seems to me to be absolute rubbish.
Antibiotics did and do cure a whole lot of TB, and have saved an enormous number of lives by doing so.
Evolutionary biology, so far as I know, didn't have anything to do with the development of antibiotics as TB treatments nor with the way in which they were used.
So far as I'm aware, orthodox evolutionary biology doesn't make any
Great stuff, Eliezer. I'm really looking forward to you compiling your writings in a book.
douglas, I googled tuberculosis strain w evolution of and it didn't give me the result you were thinking of for quite a number of pages, so then I just searched amazon for "Quantum Evolution", which revealed a number of titles other than the one by Johnjoe McFadden. There still wasn't that much information there, so please give a web address (you did not in fact give me one before, I should be able to click on it or copy-paste it into the url bar of my browser). To me right now "quantum" is just serving as a magic word, I'd like a (likely simplified) explanation as to how quantum mechanics patches a hole in evolutionary theory and what that hole is in the first place.
"In microbiology, genetics, cell biology and molecular biology, competence is the ability of a cell to take up extracellular ("naked") DNA from its environment."
I don't see what problem this causes for evolution.
You have not explained how anything to do with tuberculosis poses any difficulties for orthodox evolutionary biology. Gesticulating vaguely at a book that, on the face of it, looks mildly crankish is not an explanation. Repeatedly saying "Google for tuberculosis strain w" is not an explanation. I may quite possibly be being dim, but you aren't showing any sign of actual willingness to help correct my dimness.
When Dennett uses the term "universal acid" (not "universal solvent", IIRC) he is not claiming that evolutio
Most of the essay is thoughtful and interesting as usual - good points about laypeople uttering "evolution" with the same semantic force with which others utter "god". But why bring up that god stuff at the end? Doesn't it just create confusion to stretch metaphors this way? You have only to look at how religionists have seized on Einstein's and Hawking's metaphorical use of the word "god" to suit their purposes.
Evolution isn't "god", it's just what happens when you have competition between replicators. Trying to use... (read more)
Eliezer- Your point about Darwin having found God --just not the one anybody was hoping for-- is brilliant. The problems evolution poses for religion are obvious, but thats the first time I've seen it framed that way. Great post.
Though one nitpick I would offer: (which might be helpful if you're planning on referencing this post in the future?) Saying your sister shares half your genes is a bit off. If your sister shares only half your genes that would make her something closer to an earth worm or perhaps a house plant (I forget exactly how the commona... (read more)
Douglas, what's the relevance of the fact that you're an independent research and consider your methods not-ordinary to what Pete, TGGP, and I have said to you?
You are extraordinarily reluctant to be specific about either your evidence or your conclusions from that evidence. You say that you want Eliezer to "update [his] thinking re: evolution", but any time you're asked specific questions about what sort of position you think preferable you clam up and offer only vague references to other people's work.
So far, you've offered a pointer to one sou... (read more)
(Oops: "an independent researcher", of course, not "an independent research". I don't think it's likely that you're someone's pet AI project :-).)
g- What I'm trying to say about evolution is not outside the scientific consensus. That is that the way these bacteria evolve is not well explained by the neo-darwin model of evolution. I've supplied at least one link that should make that clear. (pnas.org/cgi/content/full/96/6/2591, for example) I'm sorry that my links/ hints to find this simple fact have not been more helpful. My comments about my methods are a means of begging some indulgence-- if I google 'competent cells' or 'tuberculosis strain w' I'll find something that makes my point in a few m... (read more)
Douglas, you already know what your main point is, and you already believe it, whatever it is, so you have two advantages over us in looking at a random Google hit and turning it into perceived evidential support for your points. The reason why others haven't been impressed by your saying "google tuberculosis strain w" isn't that we're too lazy to type that into Google (though, speaking only for myself, once you've clearly already done that and found what seems to you a good page, it seems odd that you're so reluctant to say what it actually is).... (read more)
g- Oh, the probability that the appearance of human life postdating the appearance of other life by more the a week is 99.9999999...% (I understand the question now) I am not reluctant to say where I get information. I am more than happy to. I appologize for not making it easier-- The information on tuberculosis can be found in Molecular Microbiology 33 pages 982-993. The best summary of the information can be found in "Quantum Evolution" by Johnjoe McFadden. You can read the relevant pages at http://books.google.com/books?id=eQbZE0oWqMwC&am... (read more)
Allow me to clarify douglas a bit if I can. Correct me if I'm wrong.
What douglas is (I think) invoking here is a phenomenon called the evolution of evolvability. Essentially the idea is that evolution is not quite as blind or random as pure classical Darwinism would have it, but that it evolves. Evolution evolves, recursively. Lineages that do a better job exploring fitness landscape space do a better job surviving, and so therefore their genes tend to do a better job surviving as well. Evolution therefore favors the emergence of genetic systems that aid e... (read more)
“It would be H. P. Lovecraft's Azathoth, the blind idiot God burbling chaotically at the center of everything, surrounded by the thin monotonous piping of flutes.”
Certainly you have read Dawkins’ “The blind watchmaker”. If somebody else has pointed this out already, sorry, I haven’t read all contributions.
Is yours a form of new (old) mystical philosophy utilizing evolution and ‘alien’ gods? Kind of ambiguous text. Everything IS. As we are these curious, never satisfied living entities, we want to know, why. Good for us. It seems that the ones with their monotheistic cultural backgrounds want more, they want to recreate or redesign or even reinvent life. A form of perverted anthropomorphism. First we create a god in our image who supposedly has created us in his, and then we imitate this invented god by creating new lives that will possibly supercede us hum... (read more)
Douglas, your ideas are reasonable but unproven.
It certainly makes sense that new proteins with new functions should arise by recombination among old proteins with old functions. Start with functional groups that do things -- hold a calcium ion, hold a magnesium ion, fit to a lactam group, etc -- and fit them together in just the geometry that gets a result, and then fiddle with the details to change that geometry slightly. Sure, that makes sense.
And to get brand new protein structures you need to evolve them special -- to get selected starting with a prot... (read more)
"Intelligent Design, the clever Trojan Horse designed expressly as a method to get creationism past the constitutional principal of the separation of church and state, focuses very narrowly on the alleged ‘intelligence’ the theist sees in nature. They target rather benign examples which they believe are designed by the unnamed creator (though a single question will divulge its identity) such as the human eye or the bacterial flagellum. Very wisely, they completely avoid implicating design in pathogenic organisms in public discourse, or even amongst ... (read more)
I agree with everything you said except this, "It's not a god, but it's more closely akin to a god than it is to snow on a television screen."
Snow in a tv screen is not random, but in fact a fractal image made up of multiple intruding signals, the strongest ones having the most to do with the seemingly random image. So that seems a lot like evolution to me.
Fell free to correct me if I'm wrong, just throwing out my two cents.
The evolutionary process is poorly characterised as being blind or idiotic:
"It really bothers you that a mindless, unthinking process is smarter than you, doesn't it." Up: Caledonian
Taken into effect that the "blind watchmaker" has been working on every organism on earth for billions of years, the complexity and diversity of the same environment, it is no surprise that humans would want to take the quick and easy path. The outcome will probably be disastrous which is kind of amusing.
good essay. i especially like the bit about Azathoth.
Venger As'Nas Satanis
Cult of Cthulhu High Priest
So basically you're saying that evolution follows the idea of "a million chimps in a room will eventually write Shakespeare"? That its a matter of the number of times a new structure appears in each generation, rather than the quality of the structure itself? I agree with the idea of randomness being the source of creation. Being an artist there often seems to be no correlation with my ideas and the act of actually thinking them into being, they just sort of aggregate into a whole concept. In fact more often then not a bad idea usually occurs whe... (read more)
You'd think this would be uncontroversial, but I often have great difficulty explaining what it means for evolution to not have a purpose. "But if it's just random, then how does it work?"
"The main point is that the gene's effect must cause copies of that gene to become more frequent in the next generation. " Pah! I disagree. The gene's effect must not cause copies of that gene to become less frequent in the next generation is the very best you can hope for. More accurate still is that in conflict and cooperation with other genes in the organism the genes effect must not afford less of a chance of being given a free ride.
Isn't the vast majority of DNA just genes that don't do any harm? Evolution is not the thrusting, carving, shaping force depicted so often, it is (as usual) the work of a small (say 20% (a guess)) of genes and the rest just don't compete so get a free ride.
did you seriously delete my comment? weird.
I'm not sure you can assume that Odin isn't around. He was relatively hands off in the legends, so no evidence for him is not proof that he doesn't exist. It could be a fitting end to a life struggling against blindly cruel Nature where upon death, you go to Valhalla if you die in battle; otherwise you go to hell.
one has to keep in mind that evolution has no goal. it is inherently neither positive nor negative. it simply occurs, for better or worse, until death do us part
Some of the biggest jaw dropping comments I hear have to do with taking something that is an obvious flaw and bending over backwards to come up with a reason that it isn't flawed. Instead of saying that old elephants starving is cruel and a flaw* they say that there is a deeper purpose or design that can explain away the cruelty.
Instead of calling out a nasty thing for being a nasty thing they try to claim that our understanding is flawed. and the nasty really isn't all that nasty. This is fuzzy enough on topics like retinas and dying elephants to trick people who don't know much about retinas or dying elephants. But what happens if I point at something like Cerebral Palsy and say, "Explain that!"
The typical next step is to add an intelligent Super Nasty that ruined the perfectly nice world. If we keep pushing Explain we delve ... (read more)
If people find the rabbit and fox analogy not close to home, they should look at modern evidence on psychopathy. If true, it seems to indicate that significant (2-3 %) part of human population has absolutely no compassion for others. This trait also appears genetic. We are rabbits, they - foxes.
Haha, genes follow UDT!
This post is awesome in so many ways. Needs more up-votes.
As an actually related point, you mention that if evolution could explain toaster ovens as well as trees, it would be worthless. And I've read enough of your work to understand why that is.
Well... I worry we may already be there. On one site I've seen someone respond to a typical creationist nonsense - that the mouse trap is irreducibly complex and until scientists show it isn't, the ID points stands - by linking to a step-by-step visualization of a mousetrap evolving from some wire - of course with... (read more)
To me the biggest problem with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is that they do not seem to provide one clear answer as to why God created the universe in the first place. Given this, I have no way of changing probabilities when the world seems cruel or contradicting, since they do not claim the world as perfect. This of course doesn't depend on what my prior is.
For evolution, I find a weakness (I am not an expert on the subject) that related to being able to explain all outcomes equally. If an animal feature seems in perfection with survival, this is due... (read more)
This is rarely true, you share 50% of your genes with your mother an father each, but you can theoretically share anything from 0%-100% (Probably normal distribution curve), since your mother/father has 46 (23 pairs) chromosomes and you receive a single random chromosome from each pair (total 23 singles), that are then paired with 23 singles from your father/mother.
Note that I have not taken Chromosomal crossover into account.
This isn't entirely accurate - there are advantages to having the retina at the back, because the nerve improves visual precision. I don't recall exactly how this works, but I read about it in Life Ascending by Nick Lane if anyone wants to verify it.
Well wrote, many quotes from mindful people from past history.. I still feel a strong rhetorical question here... Why? I think the question will remain unanswered for many years to come. But I agree with what you say, I rather be in spirit of knowledge, then ignorance in bliss :). As far as a deity goes, my family and I still believe with diminishing returns. All I know is life is a trip. I ask the author is this, are you children on bored with this idea??
I understand your point and your examples, but it is wrong to infer that conflicting subsystems are evidence of poor design or no des... (read more)
TLDR: We describe evolution as the collective pressures that cause creation of new species, similar to gravity and water carving out various canyons. It is incorrect to react to canyons in the following way: "Canyons are they way they are for no reason?! ha! I know that they are the way they are because the goddess Erosia likes them in that shape."
So basically the bottom line I'm getting from this a kind of variant of Occam's Razor: Evolution is unlikely to produce solutions that include complexity or considerations it doesn't need.
Or more specifically, and with an example, there are probably a lot more ways to get to taste buds that give good results in environments and contexts the organism is likely to encounter than ways to get to taste buds that give good results in both environments and contexts that the organism is likely and unlikely to encounter.
When someone tells me, 'Nature is cruel and controversial - look how foxes devour hares', I think that the problem is not the particular case of X eating Y, but that everyone eats something. Where is any controversy, if it is in fact the rule?
Also, while I agree with your general idea, you are too gentle in execution. The idea that 'Nature' is really, horribly accidental doesn't come through clearly. You say only the genes matter, and it is just another reduction of the case. People will suspect that if something alive lives in some medium, than the mediu... (read more)
This essay is wonderful. It is the first coherent and plausible defense of polytheism I've ever read. It is a much more intellectually satisfying version of creationism than monotheism.
And all just as an aside too, off the cuff. Kudos Mr. Yudkowsky. It really is a pleasure to read your work.
I really enjoyed this article. Well written as always.
These watch- and machine-analogies floating around are quite amusing. I remembered this video I watched when I was 15. It gives some good examples of why toasters and watches don´t evolve by themselves in our environment.
But it can, if you consider a toaster to be an embodied meme. Of course, the evolution that applies to toasters is more Lamarckian than Darwinian, but it's still evolution. Toaster designs that have higher utility to human beings lead to higher rates of reproduction, indirectly by human beings. The basic elements of evolution, namely mutation and reproduction, are all there.
What's interesting is that while natural evolution of biological organisms easily gets ... (read more)
There was an early Christian named Marcion who said that the creator god was a cruel nutcase who shouldn't be worshipped.
Today, there's a subculture of Christianity that believes in "process theology", that the universe is not governed by a god of love, but we are part of the process of making it that way.
Calling evolution uninteligent is foolish egocentrism. This is a process that has produces a world of nanotech-based creatures of astronomical complexity, using the entire surface of the Earth as a giant quantum computer. The simplest element of biological creation--the behavior of a single protein--requires computation at or beyond the limit of humanity's computing capability. It's staggering to me that all the structured computation and creative outpouring of evolution gets called "uninteligent" despite producing creatures of complexi... (read more)
To strongman a counter to the fox-rabbit-toaster argument: when you make a toaster, you do make a part to prevent electricity from getting to the coils. In fact, you make several of them. First, you make a timer to shut the toaster off when it's done. You also make a fuse, an some over-heating shut-off switch. These prevent a run-away situation that would cause the toaster to burn down your house. So an advocate of a god who makes both rabbits and foxes could point out that foxes and rabbits make a self-regulating population control system, and that would follow the same sort of engineering logic as putting a fuse on a toaster.
Well, to be fair, if I want to design an image classifier, I might very well make one part that tries hard to categorize photos and another part that tries hard to miscategorize them.
"Anyone who really believed in a vague deity, would have recognized their strange inhuman creator when Darwin said "Aha!" - too strong a statement. Inability to recognize something you believe in is not improbable. Suppose I believe Harry Potter mages infiltrate Earth and suppose they really do. If I see a guy waving their wand should I actually believe it's a real Harry Potter mage not someone who pretends to be? No, since even if Harry Potter mages are real it is much more likely to see a Muggle pretender than a real breaker of the Statute of Secrecy. For similar reasons they may wait for "cause beyond the cause" - judging (wrongly) that evolution does not suffice.
On the other hand, there was a fleeting time (after this post) when generative adversarial networks were the king of some domains. And more fairly as counterpoints go, the body is subject to a single selective pressure (as opposed to the pressures for two rival species), and yet our brains and immune systems are riddled with systems whose whole purpose is to selectively suppress each ... (read more)
This provides an argument in favor to theological atheism as well: the belief that God exists, but he does not want us to believe in him. God created evidence to prove that the universe, earth, and life came into existence and developed slowly by natural processes, without any apparent divine intervention. He left this evidence everywhere for us to discover — in the rocks, in fossils, in the DNA of all living things, and in outer space. Since God chose to hide his divine creative powers by using only natural processes that make him redundant, we can conclude he wants to remain invisible and not be acknowledged or worshipped. What do you think about it?
“Whatever happens, happens because of the genes themselves.”
I agree, but isn't there much more to it than that?
In other words, the behavior of genes themselves will dominate, until and unless a meteor crashes into the planet, thereby introducing massive evolutionary chaos and entropy due to a cocktail of forces that destroy some species while placing immense evolutionary pressure on all. This would be accompanied by immense radiation that acts as both an accelerant and randomizer that injects both leapfrogging and gaps in otherwise linear genetic evolution... (read more)