Saturday, March 11, 2006

Steven Pinker writes on the work of Richard Dawkins

Two guys whose work I admire a lot. How could I not comment on this?

Yes, genes can be selfish

Oxford University Press is publishing a 30th aniversity edition of Dawkins' The Selfish Gene. Nearly simultaneously they're publishing a book of essays on Dawkins' oeuvre by Alan Grafen and Mark Ridley: Richard Dawkins: How a Scientist Changed the Way We Think.

An extract from Pinker's essay in that volume is what is linked to here at the top. Commenting on it in the detail it deserves would amount to writing another essay like those in the Grafen and Ridley book. So I'll just note a few things.

Pinker is a cognitive scientist while Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist. But Pinker was struck by similarities in the ways the two of them approach their respective specialties.
When I first read Dawkins I was immediately gripped by concerns in his writings on life that were richer versions of ones that guided my thinking on the mind. The parallels concerned both the content and the practice of the relevant sciences.

A major theme in Dawkins’s writings on life that has important parallels in the understanding of the mind is a focus on information. In The Blind Watchmaker Dawkins wrote: “If you want to understand life, don’t think about vibrant, throbbing gels and oozes, think about information technology.” Dawkins has tirelessly emphasised the centrality of information in biology — the storage of genetic information in DNA, the computations embodied in transcription and translation, and the cybernetic feedback loop that constitutes the central mechanism of natural selection itself, in which seemingly goal-oriented behavior results from the directed adjustment of some process by its recent consequences.

The rest of the essay (at least the part in the extract here) goes on to elaborate on this theme. Regarding the similarities between Dawkins' thinking and cognitive science, we have:
[W]hen it comes down to the deepest understanding of what life is, how it works, and what forms it is likely to take elsewhere in the universe, Dawkins implies that it is abstract conceptions of information, computation, and feedback, and not nucleic acids, sugars, lipids, and proteins, that will lie at the root of the explanation.

All this has clear parallels in the understanding of the mind. The “cognitive revolution” of the 1950s, which connected psychology with the nascent fields of information theory, computer science, generative linguistics and artificial intelligence, had as its central premise the idea that knowledge is a form of information, thinking a form of computation, and organised behaviour a product of feedback and other control processes. This gave birth to a new science of cognition that continues to dominate psychology today, embracing computer simulations of cognition as a fundamental theoretical tool, and the framing of hypotheses about computational architecture (serial versus parallel processing, analogue versus digital computation, graphical versus list-like representations, etc) as a fundamental source of experimental predictions.

Another notable feature of Dawkins work is his use of mentalistic metaphors (such as "selfish") to shed light on the evolution of genes and organisms. This way of describing evolution is often misunderstood (perhaps willfully at times) by Dawkins' critics.

Mentalism itself has a checkered career in the history of understanding organisms, especially humans, but in recent decades it has been rehabilitated, when properly understood. Contrary to the ideas of behaviorism, it's now considered proper to discuss the behavior of animals (and humans) in terms (loosely) of what goes on in their minds.
Another shared theme in life and mind made prominent in Dawkins’s writings is the use of mentalistic concepts (ie, the explanation of behaviour in terms of beliefs and desires) in biology.

I mention this in particular because I had ideas like this myself many years ago -- most likely not original, though I'm not aware of specifically what influenced me. For example, there is the idea that it may be possible to "explain" an individual's personality partly in terms of explicit beliefs the individual holds. E. g., a person may be domineering out of a firm conviction that people are either leaders or followers, and that he is especially suited because of status and ability to direct the activities of others. The conventional thinking, I surmise, would be that causality runs in the opposite direction -- that somehow a person's physical makeup or life experiences disposes him to be domineering, and hence to rationalize certain beliefs. This sort of view leads to trying to explain social, political, or ideological beliefs in terms of some presumed underlying personality. But it would be interesting to figure out the extent that reality is the other way around.

Perhaps there is a collection of algorithms that a person's brain habitually uses in order to understand and deal with the surrounding reality. Perhaps these algorithms are bundled with beliefs about how the world is structured and how it works, to constitute a model in a person's mind of the external world. In addition to algorithms, the model incorporates data strucures that make up an ontology of what kinds of things the world contains and how they are related. As a whole, it leads the individual to form expectations of how the world will respond to particular behaviors of the individual, which in turn guides the individual's chosen behavior in a given situation. And in this way, algorithms and models -- which are simply types of information, and more commonly referred to as "beliefs" in traditional psychology -- have a lot of influence over actual behavior. If "personality" is simply the typical kinds of behavior that an individual exhibits, then it's not so far-fetched to say that beliefs shape personality at least as much as the other way around. And in particular, "personality" is not simply an inevitable outcome of the physical makeup of a person's brain, nor of his or her genetic heritage.

Well, those are my half-baked ideas, but Pinker says here something similar:
This characterisation of beliefs and desires in terms of information rather than physical incarnation may overarch not only life and mind but other intelligent systems such as machines and societies.

It's interesting to note that this somewhat goes against the grain of Pinker's well-known contention (elaborated in a whole book) that no person starts out as a completely blank slate, with no genetic predispositions at all. Yet it's not inconsistent with that either, because there most likely are algorithms and models of the world that were selected through the process of evolution, carried along as information in human DNA, and wired into our physical thinking apparatus. For instance, in the way we seem "instinctively" to have a fear of the dark, of creatures like snakes and spiders, and of the unfamiliar and unknown.

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Blogger themonsterinyourparasol said...

I think Dawkin's writing is considerably better - more concise and enthralling. Thanks for sharing your thoughts...

3/20/2006 10:29:00 PM  

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