Last night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture featuring philosopher and cognitive scientist Dr Daniel Dennett of Tufts University. Dr Dennett's talk touched upon topics covered by his new book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds.
Dr Dennett opened his lecture by displaying the beautiful Evogeneao Tree of Life diagram. He noted that one major 'explosion' in evolutionary process was the endosymbiotic origin of the eukaryotic cell. After more than one billion years of evolution during which life was restricted to the prokaryotes, bacteria and archaea, the eukaryotic cell arose from symbiotic relationships among prokaryotes and the Cambrian explosion, during which a lot of new forms of life emerged and other forms of live went extinct, occurred. Dr Dennett indicated that a new 'explosion' is occurring in the present- noting that humans are a recent development, having shared a common ancestor with the chimpanzees a mere six million years ago.
Dr Dennett likened evolution to Research and Development, to engineering... evolution exploits information to create, maintain, and improve 'designs'. Research and Development is an expensive process, it requires time and energy. Evolution occurs by two processes: natural selection and human design. These processes differ in fundamental ways- evolution by natural selection is purposeless, foresightless, and extremely costly... there are lot of 'rejects', organisms which die without reproducing, and it is slow. Evolution by human design is purposeful, somewhat foresighted, and constrained by cost considerations. It is many orders of magnitude faster than evolution by natural selection.
Evolution by natural selection is slow and costly, but brilliant- Dr Dennett invoked Orgel's second rule, which can be summed up as “Evolution is cleverer than you are”. Evolution by natural selection is a mindless, purposeless, thoughtless process capable of brilliance and ingenuity. With the development of genetic engineering, 'intelligent design' now exists, and is becoming more common.
Dr Dennett contrasted evolution by natural selection and evolution by human design by comparing a termite mound to Gaudí's Sagrada Familia church. While the structures have a superficial similarity, they are products of hugely different processes. The termites are mindless while Gaudí was a charismatic genius. While the processes of design are polar opposites, the results are similar. In the case of the termites, the design process is bottom-up, while Gaudí's design process was top-down. A large mound-building termite colony consists of approximately seventy-million clueless termites, while a human brain consists of eighty-six billion clueless neurons. How does one get a Gaudí mind from a termite colony brain? Each individual neuron is less savvy than a termite. Dr Dennett noted that one cannot do much carpentry with bare hands, and one cannot do much thinking with a bare brain. The human brain is well-equipped, while the termite brain is unequipped. Dr Dennett then displayed a quote by Freeman Dyson: "Technology is a gift of God. After the gift of life it is perhaps the greatest of God's gifts. It is the mother of civilizations, of arts and of sciences." He pooh-poohed the first sentence, then noted that technology is cultural evolution- the brain has 'thinking tools' that impose novel structures on the brain. These virtual machines can be likened to apps that we download into our necktops. These 'apps' are new competences, we don't have 'bare brains'.
Dr Dennett then displayed a quote by Robert Beverly MacKenzie, an early critic of Darwin:
In the theory with which we have to deal, Absolute Ignorance is the artificer; so that we may enunciate as the fundamental principle of the whole system, that, in order to make a perfect and beautiful machine, it is not requisite to know how to make it. This proposition will be found, on careful examination, to express, in condensed form, the essential purport of the Theory, and to express in a few words all Mr. Darwin's meaning; who, by a strange inversion of reasoning, seems to think Absolute Ignorance fully qualified to take the place of Absolute Wisdom in all the achievements of creative skill.
Dr Dennett quipped that this 'strange inversion' is just what Darwin demonstrated. He then discussed Alan Turing's 'strange inversion' (here is an article by Dr Dennett on this subject for readers who want to go into this in more depth), which can be summed up as: "In order to be a perfect and beautiful computing machine, it is not requisite to know what arithmetic is."
In the case of evolution by natural selection and machine computing, competence can be achieved without comprehension. While rote learning is often looked down upon, comprehension comes after competence. Bacteria and termites are competent without comprehension. Beavers are competent, and while more intelligent than bacteria or termites, lack the comprehension possessed by the engineers who designed the Hoover Dam. Humans are the first intelligent designers in the tree of life, other animals are not intelligent like we are. We are endowed with competences that have a different evolutionary basis than those of other animals.
Dr Dennett then brought up the topic of the MacCready explosion (PDF), articulated by aircraft designer Paul MacCready: ten thousand years ago, at the dawn of human agriculture, humans and their 'pets' would have made up 0.1% of terrestrial vertebrate biomass, today they make up 98%. Dr Dennett likened this to engulfing the planet with a great technology transfer. In the eukaryote revolution, which lead to the Cambrian Explosion, the earth was swamped with eukaryotic life. This second great explosion was enabled by the invasion of the human brain by symbiotic thinking tools, the memes that Richard Dawkins proposed. Dr Dennett quipped that the current usage of the word 'meme' has turned Dawkins' symbiotic thinking tools into ignoble things.
Unlike genes, memes are not inherited. The two sources of human competence are our genes and our memes. We have thousands of memes, each a way of thinking... how to alphabetize a list, how to perform long division. These 'apps' are the source of our power. Until recently, memes were produced by natural selection acting on culture, they were not designed. For instance, a fraction of one-percent of words were 'designed' by a person- e.g. 'meme' was designed by Richard Dawkins. These memes represent an explosive amplification of competence without comprehension which allowed a transition to competence with comprehension.
Dr Dennett noted that organisms do things for reasons- trees, fungi, the entire biotic world is saturated with reasons, from the molecular level on up- these reasons don't originate in any 'mind', there are free-floating rationales behind various adaptations. Dr Dennett reiterated: "Evolution is cleverer than you are." With humans, though, problems are solved culturally.
Dr Dennett then posed the question, how does one get a Bach mind from a termite colony brain? Before answering the question, he digressed to discuss the usefulness of memes. He specified the meme which results in religious belief. Having been asked, "Every human society has developed religion, what is it good for?" He answered, "Every human society has experienced the common cold, what is it good for?" He noted that certain memes are useful, certain memes aren't. Certain viruses are good, certain are bad, certain are indifferent. He noted that humans harbor trillions of viruses- symbiotic visitors which thrive, even if they aren't alive, in the body. He joked that viruses are 'strings of nucleic acid with attitude', not alive but capable of entering cells and using them for reproductive purposes. Dr Dennett then posed the question, how does one get a Bach mind from a termite colony brain? Before answering the question, he digressed to discuss the usefulness of memes. He specified the meme which results in religious belief. Having been asked, "Every human society has developed religion, what is it good for?" He answered, "Every human society has experienced the common cold, what is it good for?" He noted that certain memes are useful, certain memes aren't. He characterized the invasion of the brain by memes as the 'second great endosymbiotic revolution' and quipped that we are 'apes with infected brains'. He further joked that memes are what make a person a francophone guitarist who loves the Iberian peninsula.
Dr Dennett described cultural evolution in comical terms- cultural evolution begins with a lot of doofuses, but some of the doofusry provides benefits. The process of cultural evolution develops to the point where deliberate design takes place. This deliberate design rests on a backstory of unintelligent design, memes selected by natural selection. Dr Dennett displayed a quote from Picasso: "Je ne cherche pas je trouve." "I do not search, I find." Editors note: Despite what you've heard, Pablo Picasso was an asshole. Dr Dennett then described Bach as an ideal of creative intelligence that even Picasso couldn't meet. He noted that Bach was an exemplary intelligent designer- he had a deep comprehension, he was well-versed in trial and error methods, he was well equipped with thinking tools (in this case, music theory), and he possessed a wealth of technocratic know-how.
Dr Dennett then displayed a picture of an Acheulean handaxe next to a computer mouse. He noted that the handaxe wasn't really invented by any one individual and that the design was in use for about a million years without change. The computer mouse was invented by Douglas Engelbart in the 1960s, and it is almost extinct. Dr Dennett noted that chimpanzees have culture- their nut-cracking and termite-fishing techniques constitute the rudiments of culture. Homo sapiens, though, is the only animal with voluminous, recursive cultural evolution. In the case of language, words started out as synanthropic memes, like bedbugs and rats, words thrived in the human environment, but we didn't own them, they weren't domesticated. The first words were 'picked up like fleas'. Eventually, humans domesticated words, we exerted control over their reproduction. Coined words are like genetically modified organisms, their creation was engineered, but some of them don't fly. Certain words begin as technical terms, some as internet 'memes'. Replication is the future of a word, with internet memes being a reductio ad absurdum... Dr Dennett noted that an 'intelligently designed meme' is a contradiction in terms, like a splitable atom. Regarding the development of memes, Dr Dennett quoted Émile Chartier on the topic of boats:
Every boat is copied from another boat... Let’s reason as follows in the manner of Darwin. It is clear that a very badly made boat will end up at the bottom after one or two voyages, and thus never be copied... One could then say, with complete rigor, that it is the sea herself who fashions the boats, choosing those which function and destroying the others.
Once again, Dr Dennett reiterated, "Evolution is cleverer than you." Cultural evolution can be described with an economic model- good things are reproduced. Cultural evolution is increasingly top-down and self-comprehending, it's increasingly resembling genetic engineering rather than evolution by natural selection. Now, with the advent of deep learning, we see the development of 'thinking' machines that work, but do not know. Noam Chomsky recognized a distinction between mysteries and problems- problems can be solved, but not mysteries. Such issues as free will and consciousness are mysteries. Dr Dennett indicated that artificial intelligence should be likened to a Nautilus machine for the mind- a tool, not a colleague.
Dr Dennett characterized Einstein and Feynman as being 'good at using thinking tools', with Feynman being particularly good at teaching others how to use these 'apps'. If the 'apps' weren't true, then we wouldn't be where we are, they represent an accumulation of good design. Eagle eyes are optimized for the needs of eagles, they are highly developed truth-finding apparatuses. Humans have developed microscopes and telescopes which have generated mountains of truth, not just random crap. Dr Dennett likened evolution to plagiarism- if something works, just copy it.
The lecture was followed by a Q&A session. The bastard wasn't able to get a question in, what with the standing room only crowd and all. While micturating, the bastard missed a question, but the tail end of the answer was funny- Dr Dennett stated that he doesn't trust the word 'emergent', traffic jams are emergent but they don't cause 'Zen' moments. To a question about the difference between human and chimpanzee brains, Dr Dennett noted that there is a huge difference between human and chimp 'hardware'- thousands of chimpanzees have lived in close proximity to humans and human language, but they don't pay attention to language. If some factor could be changed in chimp cognition, everything could change. Regarding immortality, Dr Dennett opined that one could be 'immortal' if the information in one's brain could be stored and uploaded into another brain- one's personality wouldn't appreciably change, it would be a case of 'Whoa, here I am back again.'
Dr Dennett delivered an entertaining lecture, a thought-provoking philosophical odyssey leavened with wit and humor. It's no wonder that the man is a celebrity. Personally, I prefer the nuts-and-bolts stuff, but it is important to get a dose of 'big picture' thinking periodically. Kudos to Dr Dennett, Margaret and Dorian, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House. For a taste of the Secret Science Club experience, pop open a tasty beverage and check out this video, which covers a lot of the topics covered last night:
At about the midpoint, Dr Dennett displays some Decker cube diagrams that I omitted because I couldn't find representations of them on the t00bz. Without the pictures, the concepts were a bit wonky to encapsulate verbally.