The Selfish Gene, 2nd Edition, p 95

Dec 22, 2015

“To extend the actuarial analogy, individuals can be thought of as life-insurance underwriters. An individual can be expected to invest or risk a certain proportion of his own assets in the life of another individual. He takes into account his relatedness to the other individual, and also whether the individual is a ‘good risk’ in terms of his life expectancy compared with the insurer’s own. Strictly we should say ‘reproduction expectancy’ rather than ‘life expectancy’, or to be even more strict, ‘general capacity to benefit own genes in the future expectancy’. Then in order for altruistic behaviour to evolve, the net risk to the altruist must be less than the net benefit to the recipient multiplied by the relatedness. Risks and benefits have to be calculated in the complex actuarial way I have outlined.

But what a complicated calculation to expect a poor survival machine to do, especially in a hurry! Even the great mathematical biologist J. B. S. Haldane (in a paper of 1955 in which he anticipated Hamilton by postulating the spread of a gene for saving close relatives from drowning) remarked: ‘. . . on the two occasions when I have pulled possibly drowning people out of the water (at an infinitesimal risk to myself) I had no time to make such calculations.’ Fortunately, however, as Haldane well knew, it is not necessary to assume that survival machines do the sums consciously in their heads. Just as we may use a slide rule without appreciating that we are, in effect, using logarithms, so an animal may be pre-programmed in such a way that it behaves as if it had made a complicated calculation.

This is not so difficult to imagine as it appears. When a man throws a ball high in the air and catches it again, he behaves as if he had solved a set of differential equations in predicting the trajectory of the ball. He may neither know nor care what a differential equation is, but this does not affect his skill with the ball. At some subconscious level, something functionally equivalent to the mathematical calculations is going on. Similarly, when a man takes a difficult decision, after weighing up all the pros and cons, and all the consequences of the decision that he can imagine, he is doing the functional equivalent of a large ‘weighted sum’ calculation, such as a computer might perform.”

-Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 2nd Edition, p 95


Discuss!

52 comments on “The Selfish Gene, 2nd Edition, p 95

  • I think that there are 3 levels of altruism; first and strongest is the altruism of parents towards offspring (Lifetime investment). Second is the social investment in others of the tribe/family in order to achieve something; e.g. the hunt, harvesting etc. (Survival) Third is emotional empathy of which only socially evolved species are capable of (E.g. whales, elephants, humans). I don’t have to think about catching somebody who falls; I just do it because I can anticipate the pain for that person.
    As an example; african tribes have been observed to be champions in cooperation and care for others in the tribe, but can be totally sadistic and cruel to non-members of the tribe. This may partially have to do with (scarce) food resources, and general mistrust/xenophobia.



    Report abuse

  • @OP – Strictly we should say ‘reproduction expectancy’ rather than ‘life expectancy’, or to be even more strict, ‘general capacity to benefit own genes in the future expectancy’. Then in order for altruistic behaviour to evolve, the net risk to the altruist must be less than the net benefit to the recipient multiplied by the relatedness.

    Here we have kin selection https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kin_selection#Mechanisms and the sacrifice of genes for the benefit of identical copies of those genes in related bodies.



    Report abuse

  • Logarithms and differential equations instantly solved by the brain? I think not.

    Do our brains actually solve logarithms and differential equations or does this ‘ability’ belong to our perceptual, sensory system?

    Formulation = memory + logic. Memory first, logic second.

    Contrary to the computers on our desks… the universe that computes us, must create memory first. Computation is therefore necessarily downstream of memory.

    We are first and foremost perceptual in nature… and this is in fact what physics has discovered.
    Memory is created/computed at the very least at the speed of light squared. (Einstein)

    GL



    Report abuse

  • Guy
    Dec 23, 2015 at 1:45 pm

    Do our brains actually solve logarithms and differential equations or is this ‘ability’ belong to our perceptual, sensory system?

    Our sensory perception systems (sight, hearing, smell, touch) simply feed impulses into the brain where the processing takes place.

    We are first and foremost perceptual in nature… and this is in fact what physics has discovered.

    I’m not sure what you mean by this. Perception is in the rather woolly area of psychology, and in the increasingly accurate subject of neuroscience.

    Memory is created/computed at the very least at the speed of light squared. (Einstein)

    E=MC² is the formula of the relationship between matter and energy in nuclear physics – and radioactive decay or fusion reactions.

    Human memory and thought are certainly not based on these.
    They work on the biochemical diffusion of neurotransmitters which definitely do not function in relation to light speed.

    http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/synapse.html



    Report abuse

  • Re Paul:

    Paul, you’ve got it right: E=MC² has nothing to do with this discussion:
    There is simply NO supernatural object: None. Period. Never. And never will be.

    And therefore there’s no God or any synonym for that fiction: None. Period.

    End of discussion. Any proof to the contrary? NOPE! So why do these discussions go on?

    A waste of every intelligent person’s time, obviously.

    Let’s move on: the ancient Religious nonsense has been totally disproven by lack of proof: let’s get on with our lives: looking forward is the only hope for our future: there is a total lack of hope for backward looking nonsense.



    Report abuse

  • 3 levels of altruism

    I reckon there is a 4th. You are altruistic to persons in power. Shaman. Chiefs. Priests. This evolutionary trait gave your genes an improved chance of survival. You fed the Chief and he protected you and your genes.

    Today this very same evolutionary trait can be found in most offices. It’s now called Sucking up to the Boss.



    Report abuse

  • …in order to achieve something.

    …and he protected you and your genes.

    I think what you describe here, David, is essentially equivalent to @Paul’s second level, as our workplace is just an extension of the “tribe”, and your boss a “tribal leader”.

    I’m not sure I agree with some of these statements, however. According to Merriam-Webster, altruism is:

    1 – unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others
    2 – behavior by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but that benefits others of its species

    I don’t see “sucking up to the boss” as an example of altruistic behavior, because its intended purpose is clearly to benefit the suck-up. It would be better described as subservient behavior.



    Report abuse

  • But what a complicated calculation to expect a poor survival machine to do, especially in a hurry!

    I almost don’t blame anyone for thinking that sentence above. I remember when I would have said the same thing. That was before I started to become aware of the amazing number of complex calculations that our brains must be performing every minute of every day and night. If we try to explain the structure of the brain and the immense number of neurons and their combined activity, It must sound unbelievable to a person who has limited knowledge of anatomy and especially neurology and the related subjects. In addition there is the phenomenon that we take so much of what our brains do for granted and much of its activity takes place below our level of consciousness, that sadly, sometimes we can’t have a real idea of the power and efficiency of our brain processes until we or someone we know suffers a catastrophic event like a stroke or severe head injury. Then we get a view of the processes that were ongoing, without our knowledge that have now been disrupted and cause a frightening disability or even death.

    I had a realization of my own simplistic analysis of the function of the eye and it’s associated area of the brain that processes the stimuli that comes in through it. My book group had chosen a book by Robert Kurson titled Crashing Through, A True Story of Risk, Adventure, and the Man Who Dared to See. It’s the true story of a guy, Mike May, who was blinded in an accident at age three. Then, as an adult in 1999, his vision was restored by stem cell transplant surgery. This is a rare event and the description of his recovery is what taught me how overwhelmingly complex the task of processing visual stimuli from the eye really is. Here is a section of that book that describes Mike May out for a walk after recovering his sight. He took Josh, his seeing eye dog with him because he just couldn’t trust his brain to correctly interpret the new stimuli coming in via his eyes. Page 171:

    Early in the walk, Josh hesitated for a moment to indicate a step up. May saw no curb or step in front of them, just a smooth surface, so he disregarded Josh’s signal and kept walking. A moment later his foot bashed into the curb, nearly sending him sprawling. He looked down. To his eye, the curb still appeared flat, the same color as the street.

    A few minutes later, Josh hesitated to indicate stairs. May looked in front of him and saw only a series horizontal lines painted on the street. He slowed and then, taking baby steps, approached the painted lines. When his foot fell off the first line, he knew that Josh had been right again.

    This example is not about genetics but when I read this book I realized that Mike May’s brain had not been programmed to do the complex analyses required, all in a split second, to interpret the barrage of stimuli coming into his brain the way mine has been. Now I can certainly appreciate the the quote from Selfish Gene above and why someone would think that it must make sense. But when I think of the information that is processed by the visual cortex, I really don’t think there’s so much difficulty in making these calculations of kinship that people find to be unbelievable.



    Report abuse

  • Could not a weighted sum calculation and precomputed data decide for us if we will help our fellow member from a species, be a part of the selfish gene or rather the brain that got constructed from the blueprint in the gene?

    It took the British army the better part of the first world war to develop the precomputed data that could be used to aim and fire a gun accurately without any computers to aid them. Today it is not a major task to calculate this data in matter of minutes taking into account all the different factors from the simple distance to the more complex atmospheric conditions with an excel sheet.

    Then again how can a human do a similar calculation without any thought every time he or she decides to throw a ball with a specific target in mind? Could it be that we have an extensive library of data in our brain that helps us in executing a subconscious weighted calculation? This would mean that the act to save a fellow being’s life is no longer a pure calculation but a calculation made from preconceived datasets and experiences. It would shorten and speed up the decision and formulation processes enormously for an action plan without any aware thinking. The differences in beings and their datasets would also leave room for different conclusions ranging from “I need to save this beings life so that he can help me survive” to “One competitor less” depending on experiences and fixed data in the rescuers brain thus opening up the different survival strategies of a species and their possibility of survival.

    This could explain why humans can, depending on their experiences, be sorted into groups that would help and those who are less likely to help a person in an accident. The experiences are collected in the rescuers brain and has its influences from previous involvements, other factors like age and gender of the victim and the amount of time available to the rescuer also play a role. Fixed data like the human inability to fly without aid, should it be a necessary ability for the rescue, is also taken into account. With all this data a full risk calculation is very hard to do but with a flow sheet we could zip through the data in no time to formulate our decision barring conflicting data of course.

    So if the British army needed 4 years to learn how to throw a ball with accuracy at the enemy how
    long did our pre-human ancestor get to learn the same thing and even if his aim was bad I am sure
    that had some throwing-help from his rescued colleague all while ensuring that the species produced further offspring.

    Stefan S



    Report abuse

  • Diving down rabbit burrows looking for definitions again.

    I refer to altruism used in the context of evolution.

    If you didn’t hand over two chickens and a sack of grain the chief, he killed you. The genes that got past on in tribal times had a predisposition to sacrifice stuff to powerful people. Sucking up to the boss is that evolutionary trait surviving till today, just like lots of other evolutionary traits hard wired into our brains.



    Report abuse

  • No supernatural object.

    I am not a theist, but I’d like to play a devil’s advocate, as it were, and remind you that the God you are certain does not exist need not – indeed cannot – be an object.
    Moreover, what you call natural might some day come to include what most people regard today as supernatural.
    Perhaps God is natural.
    What is not conceivable to you is not necessarily not possible.
    No evidence for the existence of God. I agree. I personally hate religion, detest it, regard it as a scourge – but many of you sound a bit – shall I say – shrill on this issue. Thou doth protest too much, perhaps.
    Remember what Freud said: atheism can be a mask for religiosity. This is analogous to, say, homophobia.
    Alan, Doug is right: your use of the word altruism vis-à-vis the employer was incorrect.



    Report abuse

  • Dan
    Dec 26, 2015 at 4:00 am

    Alan, Doug is right: your use of the word altruism vis-à-vis the employer was incorrect.

    I think you are attributing David R Allen’s, comment to me, but as David points out, “altruism” has a specific meaning (as explained in detail in “The Selfish Gene”, when used in evolutionary biology to describe mutual benefit of genes or gene copies.

    https://www.richarddawkins.net/2015/12/selfish-gene-2nd-edition-p-95/#li-comment-193591



    Report abuse

  • Stefan
    Dec 25, 2015 at 8:37 pm

    Then again how can a human do a similar calculation without any thought every time he or she decides to throw a ball with a specific target in mind? Could it be that we have an extensive library of data in our brain that helps us in executing a subconscious weighted calculation? This would mean that the act to save a fellow being’s life is no longer a pure calculation but a calculation made from preconceived datasets and experiences. It would shorten and speed up the decision and formulation processes enormously for an action plan without any aware thinking.

    I think this view would be supported by observations of learned behaviour of monkeys leaping from tree to tree and estimating the distance, position, and strength, of the chosen landing! They also throw twigs or coconuts fairly accurately at predators.



    Report abuse

  • bonnie
    Dec 26, 2015 at 7:59 am

    @ your link – Professor Dominic Johnson argues that fear of punishment is a key element in all religions, even dating back to ancient Rome and Greece (a statue of Zeus with his thunderbolt is pictured), and pagan religions where gods were often appeased. He said this may be because it is a key product of our evolution as a species.

    This describes his starting point!
    I think evolution of religious memes goes back a lot further than the Romans or Greeks!

    The in-group co-operation and out-group tribalistic persecution, would certainly spread the more aggressive religions, as they did during the crusades and inquisition, and are doing in the middle-east and Africa today.



    Report abuse

  • I refer to altruism used in the context of evolution.

    Here, it would be helpful to cite a source for and perhaps a quote from a definition that supports your comments.

    If you didn’t hand over two chickens and a sack of grain [to] the chief, he killed you. The genes that got pas[sed] on in tribal times had a predisposition to sacrifice stuff to powerful people.

    None of this conforms to any definition of (evolutionary) altruism I’ve read. When force or threat of deadly violence is involved, we are not talking about altruism. This is simple survival.

    Actually, in this scenario, the genes more likely passed on (in greater numbers) are the chief’s (and his close kin).

    When the chief has a potlatch, now we’re talking altruism (among other things).

    http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Potlatch



    Report abuse

  • I have my copy of Selfish Gene here and have read through the chapter that our paragraph of the week comes from. I’m realizing I need to read the whole book again since it’s been quite some time since I read it the first time and I think there’s value in re-reading it after all these years because I will find some sections to be more meaningful when viewed in the context of other books I’ve read in the time that has elapsed.

    What I want to share with those who have not read the book or who don’t have a copy handy at this time is a section that Richard wrote in the notes section for our paragraph of the week. I include it because I want to see how Richard would respond to these ideas himself and because I actually thought this was very amusing in a Sheldon-like way. I will add initials to the ends of the paragraph to help us keep track of who is saying what. I’m afraid that if I plop quote paragraphs down here out of context then some may not follow who is saying what.

    Note on page 96 But what a complicated calculation…

    RD The fallacy that the theory of kin selection demands unrealistic feats of calculation by animals is revived without abatement by successive generations of students. Not just young students, either. The Use and Abuse of Biology, by the distinguished social anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, could be left in decent obscurity had it not been hailed as a ‘withering attack’ on ‘Sociobiology’. The following quotation, in the context of whether kin selection could work in humans, is almost too good to be true:

    MS In passing it needs to be remarked that the epistemological problem presented by a lack of linguistic support for calculating r coefficients of relationship, amount to a serious defect in the theory of kin selection. Fractions are of very rare occurrence in the world’s languages, appearing in Indo-European and in the archaic civilizations of the Near and Far East, but they are generally lacking among the so-called primitive peoples. Hunters an gatherers generally do not have counting systems beyond one, two, and three. I refrain from comment on the even greater problem of how animals are supposed to figure out how that r [ego, first cousins] = 1/8.

    RD This is not the first time I have quoted this highly revealing passage, and I may as well quote my own rather uncharitable reply to it, from ‘Twelve Misunderstandings of Kin Selection’:

    RD A pity, for Sahlins, that he succumbed to the temptation to ‘refrain from comment’ on how animals are supposed to ‘figure out’ r . The very absurdity of the idea he tried to ridicule should have set mental alarm bells ringing. A snail shell is an exquisite logarithmic spiral, but where does the snail keep its log tables; how indeed does it read them, since the lens in its eye lacks ‘linguistic support’ for calculating m, the coefficient of refraction? How do green plants ‘figure out’ the formula of chlorophyll?

    The paragraph that follows this is also of value here but I’m off to the Museum of Fine Arts with my nephew for the day and will see about adding it later.



    Report abuse

  • I was responding to David’s point that “sucking up to the boss” is a form of altruism.
    I appreciate your point, however, that altruism has a special meaning in this context. I stand corrected (I think).



    Report abuse

  • My book group

    You’re in a book group? That’s cute!

    -Dan

    P.S. Read On Vision and Color (Schopenhauer, 1813)

    Letter from Schopenhauer to someone named Eastlake. Alan, Phil, read this.

    …if, bearing in mind the numerical fractions, (of the activity of the Retina) by which I express the 6 chief colours, you contemplate these colours singly, then you will find that only by this, and by no other theory on earth, you will come to understand the peculiar sensation, which every colour produces in your eye, and thereby get an insight into the very essence of every colour, and of colour in general. Likewise my theory alone gives the true sense in which the notion of complementary colours is to be taken, viz: as having no reference to light, but to the Retina, and not being a redintegration [restoration] of white light, but of the full action of the Retina, which by every colour undergoes a bipartition either in yellow (3/4) and violet (1/4) or in orange (2/3) and blue (1/3) or in red (1/2) and green (1/2). This is in short the great mystery.

    P.P.S. He wrote that letter in English. (I didn’t know he knew English.) He influenced Freud and Darwin. Why does everyone on this site look down on S?



    Report abuse

  • In layman’s terms, and he is forgiven because he wrote this prior to are actually understanding of the process, we only see the three primary colours, Red, Green and Blue. This is done by the Cones(?) The Rods in our retina record grayscale. Light and dark. We know since dogs only have Rods, they see in Black and White.

    thereby get an insight into the very essence of every colour,

    This is why I fail at philosophy. Colours don’t have essence. They’re just a particular frequency on the electromagnetic spectrum.



    Report abuse

  • David R Allen
    Dec 27, 2015 at 3:31 am

    Red, Green and Blue. This is done by the Cones(?) The Rods in our retina record grayscale.

    Combined with the neurological switching of the signals in the brain.

    This is why I fail at philosophy. Colours don’t have essence. They’re just a particular frequency on the electromagnetic spectrum.

    It’s no so much that YOU fail, but rather that you recognise the struggle the ancient philosophers had in trying to understand the subject without access to scientific data.

    @Dan – Likewise my theory alone gives the “true sense (??)” in which the notion of complementary colours is to be taken,

    The physics of additive colours in light sources (spectral analysis of groups of wavelengths), and the subtractive (absorption) features of pigmented surfaces, are well understood. – As are refraction and diffraction.

    viz: as having no reference to light, but to the Retina,

    The rods and cones of the retina only function when triggered by light. They are wavelength and intensity triggered switches. The brain interprets the combination of switches triggered as colour mixtures or blends.



    Report abuse

  • Hi Stefan,

    Could not a weighted sum calculation and precomputed data decide for us if we will help our fellow member from [our] species, be a part of … the brain that got constructed from the blueprint in the gene?

    Yes, the OP makes this clear: ” … as Haldane well knew, it is not necessary to assume that survival machines do the sums consciously in their heads.”

    However the specific idea of weighted sums and pre-computed data (a.k.a. Data Tables) seems to me to be extremely unlikely. The reason this seems so unlikely is cost. Any machine built for survival in a changing environment needs to have a blueprint that is efficient – specifically, one that builds a survival machine that turns food into the most useful machine for survival in the shortest possible time with the lowest possible running costs (the food consumed over the lifetime of the machine). The costs of calculating Data Tables at a molecular level, over several generations, and storing the results would surely be exceptionally high for a rather meagre return (i.e. the number of times a brain would actually use the Data Tables).

    There is also the problem of how a brain would evolve to make the calculations. What simple environmental pressures would drive the evolution of a brain that could do such calculations and store the results at a molecular level for transmission to, and modification by, future generations of brains? Also, such a scenario suggests that an incomplete table would be revised by future generations, but there is no clear mechanism for such a systematic adaptation.

    This seems to be a fantastic scenario unworthy of our further study.

    Today it is not a major task to calculate this data in matter of minutes taking into account all the different factors from the simple distance to the more complex atmospheric conditions with an excel sheet.

    A matter of minutes seems a very long time in the context of a drowning relative.

    … how can a human do a similar calculation without any thought every time he or she decides to throw a ball with a specific target in mind?

    By proxy; using approximation, learning and skill.

    A single approximation is rough-and-ready, but serial approximation can help us to home in on a target to a surprising degree of accuracy. It seems to me, with this model in mind, that natural selection will tend to provide two results.

    The first is that good initial approximations will survive and reproduce – meaning that good senses and co-ordination (particularly hand-eye) will tend to be selected.

    The second is that those able to learn quickly by learning from the errors in approximation and adjusting their approach. In other words; if your ancestors were good learners and could adjust their approximations using that learning process their accuracy at throwing could become phenomenally accurate – without necessarily having genes for accuracy to pass on. The learning tendency will tend to be selected and passed to you.

    If we watch humans we see the expected results.

    Go to a picnic area on a Summer weekend. There you will see people playing Volleyball, Softball and Frisbee games. The range of skills will be broad, particularly in the pre-lunch period. But by the late afternoon most people will have re-learned old skills, or learned new skills, and the field will be much more even.

    Professionals at accurate throwing, like darts and pool players, usually practice for long hours in the hope of, at least, maintain their skills.

    Humans gain accuracy largely through genes that favor rapid learning of physical skills, and by building on there innate abilities, including their skill at approximation.

    Peace.



    Report abuse

  • The instinctive behaviour of all creatures, humans included, can be represented as a variation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Evolution over billions of years has provided life with a process which we can call the ‘Hierarchy of Survival’. It operates in the following way.

    Survival of the individual (1)
    Survival of progeny (2)
    Survival of the clan (3)
    Survival of the race (4)
    Survival of the species (5)

    The power of the effect on any individual decreases from 1 – 5 above.

    You will notice that the survival of ideas does not feature in the hierarchy. That is because evolution has no need for such a preservation, coupled to the fact that ideas evolve and change totally, externally to the evolutionary process. In any case, ideas once held as immutable truths have subsequently been shown to be erroneous and there is little doubt that some of the ideas of today may well suffer the same fate in times to come. Added to which, the possession of an ‘ideas set’ has no practical influence on the march of evolution. Nature doesn’t care what the dinosaurs believed, doesn’t care what the ancient Egyptians believed and, as sure as eggs is eggs, doesn’t give a hoot what we believe. Evolution will continue whether we believe it or not. Our only sensible contribution is to admire it, stand in awe of it and, in our own small way, try to understand it.



    Report abuse

  • Dear Alan and David,
    That was just part of a letter. So it’s not fair to dismiss S’s color theory in its entirety. I am willing (since I am a man of reason, or try to be) to acknowledge that my hero’s theory might be flawed.
    I wish you would read his chief work The world as Will and Representation. You might be surprised.
    Order it on Amazon. EFJ Payne Translation. It’s in two volumes. You can read vol. 1 or vol. 2 (supplementary essays) or both.



    Report abuse

  • Three things occur when seeing an apparent reason for something.

    During the evolution of creatures, the ones to survive were the ones who were able to avoid being predated. As evolution progressed, creatures with the ability to anticipate possible events were more likely to survive than those who didn’t. Humans evolved with the increasing ability to anticipate events and although there is an apparent complex calculation involved in, say, catching a moving or falling ball, the actuality is that the catcher has an evolved ability to anticipate the likely position and thus the ability to catch it without the previous complex mathematical calculation. It only appears that such a calculation has been made.

    The second issue is the evolved need to explain why a thing happens. It is only natural to allocate any particular event to the evolved selfish gene’s desire to survive. Combined with sentience, the obvious question that arises in the mind of the gene carrier is ‘Why?’ Some answers are clear – the predator needs to survive and to do so he needs to eat me. Others are not so clear – why has that volcano erupted and destroyed my habitat? With no other explanation, the sentient mind invents a reason and that usually results in the invention of an angry invisible being who has the ability to create catastrophic mayhem at will. Rituals are thus invented to appease the invisible being and occasionally, purely by chance, the ritual works. Thus evolves the system of beliefs and rituals designed to satisfy the god(s) created as above. Because they sometimes seem to work, better to carry out the rituals than not (see Rene Descartes’ idea of the best gamble relating to the belief in god).

    The final issue is the almost–impossible consideration of a sentient being that there must be something after death. The final frontier of objective reality. It’s an easy extension of the above god idea that he/she presides over another life that can only be attained after physical death. Enter the charlatans who prey on the weak and gullible to offer that desired result of which they have no direct knowledge or evidence and soon find a way to demonstrate the truth of their false idea by writings that they say emanate from the god itself. But they only have their own words for it, and as the Queen of Hearts says in Lewis Carroll’s famous book, ‘What I say three times is true.”



    Report abuse

  • Dan.

    There was a time when I was determined to lift my knowledge of philosophy. I started reading Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. While I could follow and understand some of it, I was starting to glaze over so gave up.

    We humans all have talents and likes. Philosophy might rock your boat, but I was becalmed. I’d rather rat around in astronomy, quantum weirdness or evolution. So I am unlikely to advance the share price of Amazon any time soon.



    Report abuse

  • Fair enough, David – but if Russell was the only philosopher out there I’d be an anti-philosopher. I don’t like him.

    “Put aside Schopenhauer’s metaphysics for a moment and the reader will note that his theory is quite similar to Darwin’s. Schopenhauer emphasized that individual organisms were not important in the grand scheme of life. What was important, from his perspective, was the underlying substrate, the will. From Darwin’s point of view, organisms were not important. What was important was the underlying substrate of inheritance—which Darwin eventually called “gemmules.” Today, we would say that what is important is the gene, which is the unit of replication (Dawkins, The selfish gene, 1976). Schopenhauer used his insight that individual organisms were irrelevant to explain the power of sexual love…”
    -Author unknown, from the Evolutionary Studies Consortium
    https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/schopenhauer/arthur/essays/chapter10.html



    Report abuse

  • 29
    maria melo says:

    There really was incomphrension about the whole idea of the book,” the methaphoric use of the term “the selfish gene”, because methaporic language is of incovenient for science and genes alone aren´t up for anything, not even for selfishness” (I am quoting anthropology professor) and I quote more to underline rela incomprhreension that happens sometinmes to be ridiculous too, I am afraid I am familiar with the ridiculous incomphreension it caused, and I think must be over by now? “Some animals don´t expect gain for their altruistic behaviour at all” (quoting Marc Bekoff) , I guess there must still be some incompreheenson about the “calculation” (Marc Bekoff is not in the catgory of ridiculous however)) but, it could be that that altruism works out as hardwired behaviour with misuse in case of altruism across different species.
    Even so, the young Prof Dawkins still has the guts to explain better in this nice vídeo https://youtu.be/I71mjZefg8g (And I am afraid I really enjoy watching more than reading now, because of the looser sensation it gives me to read at night, to read at all, when my eyes used to be so sharped that once for a while when I was teenager shooting guns as fa loved shooting guns so much as I had such an accurate vision that I reached a small target at a reasonable distance for the first time I shooted a gun in my life), no, I never was a briliant maths student I am afraid.



    Report abuse

  • And just to confirm that our brains in some cases work with preconceived datasets, Chomsky theory was just confirmed by NYU. Chomsky theory was that the human brain has an internal sorting mechanism to understand grammar and the context of a text. This makes it possible for us to recognize a sort of sense from a number of words even if the words in a text are in disorder. See the links.

    First a very short text on about the universal grammar on Chomskys website
    https://chomsky.info/2001____-2/

    And what the research found with the help of magnetoencephalography .
    http://www.nyu.edu/about/news-publications/news/2015/12/07/chomsky-was-right-nyu-researchers-find-we-do-have-a-grammar-in-our-head.html



    Report abuse

  • And magnetoencephalography has just confirmed that we are using an internal sorting for words so which basically proves that Chomskys teori was correct. Chomsky argued that our brains has an internal grammar mechanism that makes it possible for the brain to understand sentences even if the words are in disorder. This can only work if our brains work with datasets in which the words are sorted and later analyzed. See links,

    Chomskys theory:
    https://chomsky.info/2001____-2/

    Article of the latest research
    http://www.nyu.edu/about/news-publications/news/2015/12/07/chomsky-was-right-nyu-researchers-find-we-do-have-a-grammar-in-our-head.html

    Lets wait and see if this gets theory gets confirmed. Perhaps we will se more work on how a human brain works from these types of scans.



    Report abuse

  • Hi Stefan,

    Thank you for the link to the NYU study, fascinating stuff.

    Could you please break down for me how you equated your “preconceived datasets” with the NYU’s “abstract, hierarchical, grammar-based structure” as those two descriptions seem to me to be diametric opposites.

    Peace.



    Report abuse

  • That article (and I love Chomsky) is highly contestable.

    If there is a grammar in our heads then surely there is a God in the sky!!

    Crack open someone’s skull (as Wittgenstein often says) and see if you can find Mr. Grammar. And no, I am not trying to be funny.



    Report abuse

  • Of course we parse language. How else could it work.

    The question is not that we do it but how specific the mental attributes that allow us to parse language are. Chomsky sensibly moved away from Universal Grammar to a minimalist position of least transformations, like “merging” in the creation of verb phrases and noun phrases that allow the generation of rich speech.

    The question is, are these transformations only for speech or are they as general as Hebbian learning and represent transformations that can be used with non verbal conceptions? Are they simply part of the general hippocampal meta data generation and tagging before memorising or are they an attribute of our associative corteces (the mooted engine for our metaphorical minds) grown substantially in the period between birth and eighteen months and uniquely human?

    These data could signal support for many others’ theories also, now that Chomsky has moved to the more credible position with his Minimalist Program. They are not indicators of a Universal Grammar.



    Report abuse

  • Dan,

    You’re in a book group?

    Actually, I belong to two book groups. One is all women and we read and discuss mostly fiction. I joined this because if left to my own devices, I tend to go straight for the nonfiction department. Now I am forced by peer pressure to read at least one fiction book per month. The second book group is all science with roughly 50-50 male-female mix. Both groups have a strong social element as well as discussion of the reading material.

    I have expressed my desire for this website to have a dedicated book discussion thread straight up on the home page. This site’s raison d’etre having to do with education, I thought, ok, let’s talk about books! Articles are all well and good but they aren’t the same as reading a book. The millennials are accused of being shallow in their reading habits – they draw large conclusions from scanning over internet headlines, so say many of the older generation – I might be one of those 😉 so I think we should really push the whole book reading thing with everyone.

    I haven’t yet had my way with the book discussion thread which is neither here nor there but I’m interested to see what will happen with this paragraph of the week idea.



    Report abuse

  • I tend to go straight for the nonfiction department.

    Hi, Laurie!

    I suggested having an ongoing “open thread” where members can engage in “chit-chat.” Great theories can be generated by “chit-chat.” I also think it would be good to have an open thread because it’ll allow members to just talk, mix it up, tell a few jokes, get to know each other, without feeling constrained.

    This isn’t Facebook, but it’s frustrating to me that we can’t just talk. One ongoing open thread is a great idea. My suggestion fell through the cracks, as did yours. Not clear, however, how your idea about a book thread would work.

    Laurie, continue reading fiction! Fiction is great! Here’s a suggestion: don’t make too much of a distinction in your mind between fiction and non-fiction. Fiction can be as enlightening and instructive and informative as non-fiction, if not more.

    The almost super-human writer Jack London wrote a novel called Before Adam. Here’s a brief description (from wikipedia). Get this book. That’s an order.

    “Before Adam is a novel by Jack London, serialized in 1906 and 1907 in Everybody’s Magazine. It is the story of a man who dreams he lives the life of an early hominid Australopithecine. The story offers an early view of human evolution.”

    Have a fulfilling and healthy new year, my dear e-friend. —DR



    Report abuse

  • Alright Dan, I’ll give it a try. I might actually like that one! And I should say that an open thread strikes fear in me because I was here before there were moderators. It was the wild, wild west, I’m telling you! Be careful what you wish for! There were some features here previously that allowed socializing behind the scenes. That was interesting. Once when I was getting my ass kicked some regular commenters sent me messages of support and said to keep arguing back against so and so. I liked it because sometimes it seems like we are making a case completely alone but there are others who agree and remain silent, apparently! I miss that feature. We could socialize behind the scenes. The opportunities for manipulation were endless. There could be the official conversation proceeding overtly and the messages behind the scene covertly. So amusing.



    Report abuse

  • LaurieBumblebee
    Dec 29, 2015 at 9:07 pm

    An open thread with moderators. No abuse should be tolerated – but I am a strong ‘believer’ in chit-chat, even on the Dawkins site . . . Especially on the Dawkins site. An open chit-chat thread. Great idea.

    It would be nice if people had a a way of exchanging emails, by some process where mutual consent was established.

    I have to be honest; I have read almost all of london but have not yet read Before Adam. He is a consummate writer and this one deals with a subject that interests you – so I recommended it. It has to be good. If he can get inside the head of a dog (and he did that brilliantly) I am sure he can get into the head of this australopithecus or Cro-Magnon (or whatever it is; I don’t think London knew for sure). I will read it too. We can compare impressions at some point, if we can find a place to do it.

    Socializing behind the scenes? I joined too late!

    How do you post a smiley face?



    Report abuse

  • Moderator message

    We understand that a number of developments are in planning for the site over the coming year, including a kind of online book club. We don’t yet have any further details, so please just watch this space.

    On the subject of chat, please understand that a website like this takes a great deal of resource, in terms of both time and cost. The reason the Foundation invests that resource is to provide a forum for focused, intelligent, civil, thoughtful discussion of the topics of the thread, where users can exercise the discipline involved in the pursuit of reason. We would ask all users please to respect that. There are plenty of other forums for informal chat. Here it is merely a distraction from our purposes in providing the site. We will continue to remove it, but since removed posts are an irritation to both users and moderators, we would ask you – again – not to indulge in it here, please.

    Further comments relevant to the topic of this thread are welcome, further off-topic comments – including replies to this message – will be removed.

    The moderators



    Report abuse

  • 41
    maria melo says:

    Laurie B quoted a typical point of cultural anthropologist, a french mathematician I am aware because read a short news, decided to be near tribal natives, and yes, he came up with the same conclusions the anthropologist quoted by Laurie B quoted, that seemed to sound “ridiculous” in the context he quoted, but the result for Chomsky Universal Grammar would be the same: we may have inhereted skill for grammar (as long as the chimp Panzi had too when creating a new composed term for Sawn- as a Water Bird, as long she knew the word bird only, and when saw a swan came up with”water-bird), but in fact, although this apptitude for language maybe biological(universal), not to all peoples apply the same rules as stated for Chomsky for a universal grammar, proving that nevertheless humans may have biological apptitudes for language, they depends on cultural aquisitions too-may even deficient cognitive structures if not being provided with necessary stimui for learning, loosing skills for ever-.
    I am never prejudiced against a scientist that searches to know the real world, only that altruism may not come for calculating bennefits only, but from other reasoning than “selfisness,” may be true too, and a would trust a competent ethologist like Marc Bekoff.



    Report abuse

  • 42
    maria melo says:

    I apolologize for being such a person in hurry for lunch in a worktime break that I don´t even revise my text full of bad grammar constructions, the name of the chimp is Washoe, not Panzi. (not revising again, I think I mentioned Panzi).



    Report abuse

  • How to get ahead with grooming. Genes involved? Intelligence? Imaginative? Crafty? Ruthless? etc….

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OYFRICCVK4M

    Saw a documentary in which a low ranking snow monkey was not allowed into the hot springs with her baby. After a lot of trying, she managed to groom the head female and gained a place in the pool where her son shot up the ranks as a consequence. This would suggest that the lineage is not so direct but the strongest (?) survives. Empires have fallen where lineage is the only factor.



    Report abuse

  • 44
    maria melo says:

    well, at this point I remind that I´ve been taught profissionally by colleagues never to be subservient, rather we should be eficient.
    I think some person whom I know might think it as creating “political aliances” instead or rather than “altruism “, but working in public office reminds me that my personal interest is related interests of others, as is not fair the opposite. Well, perhaps I am not entirely unhappy at my workplace as I realize now.



    Report abuse

  • 45
    maria melo says:

    I have decided to post an image as appetizer for the discussion once I have mentioned a professor of anthropology

    and 2 links calling attention for the useful use of metaphore in science, (but as far as perhaps the discussion is about science and biology, not linguistics), it turns out to better link to these, which I will re-read, as far as I might re-read the Selfish Gene.

    link: http://triplov.com/sacarrao/metafora.html

    link: http://triplov.com/sacarrao/biografia.html



    Report abuse

  • You are absolutely right that having readymade solutions stored in our brain would be a waste of energy and space but having a start of a dataset is a bit more likely. Let’s say we need to learn why we should save our colleague in distress, how and when do we learn this? On the other hand, we do need to learn how to swim but the knowledge that we can swim can easily be stored in our datasets. So now we have the following, a bit of dataset that we never had to learn and a piece of information that we can add to our dataset and all this could help our subconscious to make a fast decision.



    Report abuse

  • phil rimmer
    Grammar.

    Phil,

    I sent my friend Paul (who you are already acquainted with) that article about grammar and the brain. Let me know what you think of his reply. (He said I could post it here.) I’d like to remind you that he is a late-Wittgensteinian (and a distinguished professor). I think you have an affinity for W, no? Here’s what Paul said:

    A worthless study. People have jobs, there are grants, the twain shall meet. That’s how it goes.

    This is phony:

    “Their results showed that the subjects’ brains distinctly tracked three components of the phrases they heard, reflecting a hierarchy in our neural processing of linguistic structures: words, phrases, and then sentences—at the same time.”

    The internal tracking, of “aspects” of sound-streams, was that separate from hearing and reacting? Or the same thing?

    Wasn’t it rather that all subjects had experienced words, phrases, sentences, and reacted accordingly?

    Why “hierarchy” (above)?

    In language games 1-4, does SLAB mean bring me the slab, or just, “slab!”? Is that a word, or a phrase? If a person hears two words as one (another W example), but otherwise understands perfectly (in a language game), is their understanding different?

    P h o n y.

    Paul



    Report abuse

  • 48
    maria melo says:

    I am Reading “Looking for Spinoza”, and interestigly Damasio mentions that even if the ameeba doesn´t have brains it seems to avoid danger seemingly preserving life, while animals with brains perhaps don´t, in warfare for instances, well I don´t quite know what to think about, but an herarchy such as kin first, tribe secondly etc (as seen here on some comment). seems to put biology at risk of being considered ideology, and that´s when I give the bennefit of considering Lewontin (and others) worth of consideration, even for those who think we are “machines” (like the one winner of the prize the question of the week here on RDF), but not aware of phylosophical and ethical implications of considering a methaphor as realilty and surpressing free thought of others to think differently ?.



    Report abuse

  • Absolutely; organised religion dates back to about 15,000 BC. This was a consequence of agricultural communities that flourished from east-Turkey to the coastal region of Iraq (The valley of the Tigris and Euphrates) where a wild strain of edible grain was discovered. Because of the dependency on the wheather (Rain, shine, drought, temperature) sky gods were invented who would protect these harvests. At a cost, obviously 🙂 from which the priest community grew rich. From day 1 of religion, this was/is a business model.



    Report abuse

  • Paul
    Jan 2, 2016 at 1:55 pm

    At a cost, obviously 🙂 from which the priest community grew rich. From day 1 of religion, this was/is a business model.

    They were already building massive architectural structures by 11,600 years ago!

    http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/06/gobekli-tepe/mann-text
    Indeed, Göbekli Tepe is the oldest known example of monumental architecture—the first structure human beings put together that was bigger and more complicated than a hut. When these pillars were erected, so far as we know, nothing of comparable scale existed in the world.



    Report abuse

  • Indeed, the Sumerians were one of the oldest civilizations that eventually reached awesome architecture and military organisations. Gilgamesh is one of those famous individuals written about. (At the time writing was evolving as well, rather than just counting alone)



    Report abuse

Leave a Reply

View our comment policy.