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Week Six (Tues, 2/22): The Evolution of Meanings


"Many fruitless trials made: And a slow, but continued improvement carried on during infinite ages of world-making" (Hume, via Dennett, via alexandrakg).

I. coursekeeping
today we move into Part III of Daniel Dennett's book,
Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life

for next Tuesday you should finish Part III,
Chapters 15-18 (pp. 428-521)=the book!

you should also be thinking now about your
second webpaper, on some aspect of the
story of evolution beyond the context of biology
which will be due next Friday, Mar. 4,

II. exploring the forum
a few avatars still emerging....

(from skindeep and ashley)

We also have an interesting range of responses to this week's question-->"how useful is the story of evolution beyond the context of biology?"

It's provided/reminded (@ least 1) of us
with a useful way to think about her life -->

Lethologica: I left class on Tuesday puzzling over the thought, the possibility, that evolution is driven not by any invisible plan, or even competition and fitness, but by opportunity and exploration.  After finally coming to terms with the idea that there might not be any goal that evolution is trying to reach, that there is no true purpose, and finding that I rather liked it, I slowly began to realize... that this idea is popular in general culture.... a journey with no destination... I have decided that this shall be my belief: Life, evolution, and everything is about the journey, and not the destination. Who cares where you end up, as long as life happens along the way. 

It's provided another of us with a useful way to
think about political processes/regime change -->

I skipped class on Thursday to attend the Teach-In about the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia.... I got to thinking about the evolutionary paradigm as it applied to the revolutions taking place in the Arab world. Much of the language used to describe the path these revolutions have taken has been organic, with words such as "spread" and "grown" used to describe the way in which the events in one state have had a ripple effect throughout the neighborhood.... the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia ... are a testament to the usefulness of the evolutionary paradigm outside an explicitly biological context as well as to the dangers to an entity of not evolving when evolutionary pressures are acting upon it. By not responding to ... the basic needs of their citizens... the governments of these two states have become "extinct"; their stagnation led to their downfall. Perhaps this is why the word "revolution is 90% "evolution"?

There was a particular interest in what it might mean-- for life in general, and for us in particular-- be to understood as "algorithic processes"

hlehman: “Life on Earth has been generated over billions of years in a single branching tree- the Tree of Life- by one algorithmic process or another” (Dennett 51). Over the past few weeks I have spent a lot of time in my other biology classes discussing evolution and phylogenetic trees/ how humans evolved.... I’ve never thought of life in such mathematical terms before and now I’m starting to (again) think in a new direction.... I am now thinking algorithm as a universal term and significant process to describe life actually makes sense.... an algorithmic process is about something simple giving rise to something more complex, a set of simple instructions that can be followed without ambiguity to yield a particular outcome.

ib4walrus: In Tuesday's discussion, we talked about the difference between computers and humans.  I think it might be safe to say that most people believe the difference to be our concept of free will and the confinement that computers experience because they run accordingly to their program coding.  The computer outputs whatever the coding of its program tells it to.  However, what if we stretch this idea of a program in a broader sense?  What guides us is... a code of ethics due to influences from out respective cultures, parents and other institutions (educational system, religion, etc).  In a way, we have been programmed by these influences to act and behave a certain way... some of us who rebel against what they were brought up with which can be compared to rogue programs.... we ourselves don't exactly know how the human consciousness "works".

There was also an interest in the degree to which we might intervene in and affect the outcomes in this process:

hannahgisele: a classmate of mine voiced the point that recessive genes do not disappear entirely... they lie dormant until they are joined with other recessive genes... people carrying such recessive genes may not be expressing their traits phenotypically, but they are carrying them... we still have the opportunity to select our mates and therefore, to influence the appearance of our offspring.... exercising the opportunity to further certain traits within our species.... a biologically driven will to enhance the probability of certain more desirable genes in our offspring to come.

cr88 upped this observation to another level: We talked last week about how the IBM supercomputer Watson ...managed to surpass the intelligence of its own creators to win Jeopardy! ...have we, like Watson, evolved past the level of needing a creator? ...after a certain point, the notion of Creation is simply a set of emotional training wheels; it comforts us to believe that our lives have a purpose and that someone put us on other for a reason. Like Watson, maybe we're smart enough to do without any outside help.

But others of us are balking @ the parallels Dennett draws between biological and cultural evolution,
questioning the usefulness of the "transfer,"
the accuracy of the analogy:

ewashburn: Daniel Dennett's discussion of the "meme" as a cultural equivalent to the "gene" is supposed to be geared towards applying the theory of evolution to ... the development of culture. But the problem I see in this model is the conflict between the inherent idea of randomness in evolution, and what seems to me to be an inherent element of design in culture and in cultural memes.

One of the primary ideas that we've stressed, and that Dennett stresses, about evolution is the fact that it is random. There is no designer, no selector, no higher purpose, no "goal of progress." But ... when it comes to ... which memes are "worth saving--or stealing or replicating," human beings become the both the designer and selector. It is a person, a trendsetter, who creates a meme, and other human beings actively judge that meme and deem it to be hip, practical, flattering.... Other human beings also decide when a meme has become tacky, impractical, unnecessary... until a couple of decades later, when another human being decides it's hip again and reinstates it in the public view.

If there is an active figure of generation and active figures of selection, where is the randomness involved? ... I hope our discussions in the next couple of weeks will help me answer these questions, because it seems to me like the case he's trying to prove is turning on him.

This is a really important question: what happens to the process of evolution, once model-builders and story-tellers enter the picture?...once designers are participating in the story of "no design"???

Some of us want to reserve agency for us, not for what we have created! (or: there was some strong resistance to Dennett's use of "memes"):

I feel like Dennet took this meme thing a little too far... comparing a simple idea, like the idea of free speech, to a microbe of some sort that actively tries to reproduce and further its "species". I found this to be a little too far out there.... I find it pretty ridiculous to give minds and will to something that we created.... it just felt too silly for me to take it seriously at all.

Is Dennett's story itself too "designing," too controlled?

AnnaP:  this week we talked more specifically about evolution as an algorithm—which seemed to make evolutionary thinking all about limitations and rules, rather than moving beyond them. At first, I thought that Dennett too was excited about the possibilities of evolutionary thinking… Now I just think that maybe he is reducing everything to a single equation.

Dennett insists that a proper reductionist explanation of our culture’s meaning and purpose would leave them “still standing, but just demystified, unified, placed on more secure foundations.” I’m not so sure though, and I wonder if the metaphor of the algorithm will give us a more dynamic understanding of our world, or if it will merely become a new dogmatic foundational story.

Several of us have some serious questions
about the details of how all this works:

KT: Here’s my complicated problem: if we are to say that there is randomness in the universe and that unpredictability and endless possibilities (variations) are the norm, then does the extinction of one idea make anything easier? As with biological extinction, the loss of one variety [of idea] could just pave the way for more diversity to grow in the surviving varieties. Does adding complication really make things easier? I would just say that it makes things more interesting. I invite my classmates to find the holes in this argument and make the conversation more interesting.

ckosarek:  I'm not sure that "addition" is the right way to look at a "complication." In Dennet's algorithms, the more a process is broken down into its components, the easier it is to yield a certain result (because there's less room for interpretation). But what KT seems to be arguing is that addition equals more room for interpretation. Given that Dennet focuses on algorithms and their numerous components... I would think that he ... means to define complication as a deficit or a taking away; when something is taken out of the equation, I think there's more room to mess up the algorithm, more room to interpret, more room to "complicate" an ever-changing process.

So, Paul: want to mess up these algorithms?