Thursday, May 12, 2011

To the victor belong the spoils

Recently I was reading an old article, The Croonian Lecture 1991 about Genostasis and the Limits to Evolution , and I realized that the fact that evolutionary biology is a historical science (in the general sense of the word) colors how some of the reasoning about it. In this article, A. D Bradshaw remind us that even though the current natural world is the result of the different evolutionary processes, we have to remember that it only represents the species of organisms that survived, and that the majority of the species in the history of the planet are actually dead.
One of the main logical errors that people commit when considering the theory of evolution is to ascribe a teleological function to it. That is, that the evolutionary process is a "force", that guides "purposefully"  the organisms to be better adapted to their environment. This goes against the concept of genostasis, and against most of what we know about evolution per se. It is very hard to conceive that the directionality of the evolutionary results is due to the fact that the results that were not compatible with the environment simply died off. They disappeared.  Therefore the one remaining, the one that we are able to see, seems to have received the effect of the "force" of evolution. To this species belong the spoils.
How does the concept of genostasis illustrates this fallacy's errors? Well, A.D. Bradshaw shows it very nicely, with several examples taken from real environments. Some of the environments described have very tough conditions for the organisms (extreme salinity, copper toxicity, etc), and even though the organisms around have had all the time in the world (literally) to adapt to those conditions, they haven't. Because evolution is not purposefully trying to push the organism to adapt to that particular condition. If the organism has a mutation that gives it a differential reproductive advantage over others when it is placed in the tough environment, well, then it will survive. But if it doesn't (and most of the times we could say they don't), then simply the organism will die off, or just never go into that environment, even thought the resources in that environment could help the organism to thrive.
 If there was a teleological purpose behind evolution, we would expect that it would be pushing the organisms to evolve towards a better optimization with the environment. What happens in real life is completely different. In a real environment, the organisms may or may not adapt to a change in the condition. It all depends on preexisting variations, or in newly formed mutations that give place to new variation. But as A. D. Bradshaw shows, in a lot of organisms, this variation never happens, either because it is too hard to evolve the characteristic, because it never had enough time to evolve it, or because the variability for that characteristic implies a worsening in other life sustaining features, therefore making it harmful (at least in the short run) to evolve in that direction. And when they are not able to
So while we do have to marvel to all the "power" of evolution in our planet, we  also  have to remember that evolution always hides its failures under a mantle of dirt.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Einstellung effect or why are you doing that in autopilot?

I am again reading through the excellent The Edge series of answers to What important tool should you have in your cognitive toolkit? . This is one of the most important series or articles/post that I've ever read online or offline. Not only because they found legions of really smart people, which gives you, predictably, lots of good answers, but because you can contrast what is important to each one of them, and how one tool interacts with the other.
At this time, I just finished reading Evgeny Morozov post, about the Einstellung effect. To summarize, this is the realization that as pattern recognizing machines, we always have the tendency to try to solve a problem with the tools that have worked on previous seemingly similar problems, without stopping to think if the problems are actually the same.
After reading his contribution, I realized that this is actually a meta-cognitive tool, that you have to use on top of the other ones. And it is very important because it has to counteract so many of our natural tendencies. It has to fight against cognitive dissonance (we used this solution before for something that looks just like this, so if I use another one I will look stupid, therefore I have to use the old solution), against confirmation bias (yeah, this old solution worked great for that problem...what? it didn't? Nah, that must be wrong) and so many other cognitive biases.
And I also realized that it is very hard to use, unless you do it on a systematic way, as it will always add extra time to your thinking, and it may not give you any benefit (you may actually be right in selecting the old answer). Therefore in our never ending battle for efficiency, we may be confronted to the hard decision to either use this tool and expend more resources than expected, or ignore it to our own peril.
Then just after this last paragraph I realized the most important realization brought to me by Mr. Morozov post, which is that due to the bound nature of our rationality, we may need to ignore in some cases some cognitive tools. Which ones and when? Well, that's why we have Science and Philosophy. And that is why these two disciplines are always liked to have other people criticize you, because their bounded rationality may have used the tool that you missed, and discovered the hole in your reasoning.