All posts by Psybertron

Attended the Newcastle (North East Humanists) Darwin Day event last night. Durham University Research Fellow in Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, Dr Thom Scott-Phillips asking the question “How Darwinian is Cultural Evolution?”

For someone whose strongest reading recommendation was “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” by (my hero) Dan Dennett, in support of the idea of memes and memetic evolution, I didn’t totally warm (*) to Scott-Phillips and his thesis that cultural evolution isn’t Darwinian.

And again to his credit, he emphasised the is-not-ought distinction between science and ethical choices – the seemingly slippery slope from “Social Darwinism” to Eugenics, the Nazis and such like – but I still felt his science was on the autistic side.

Sure not all cultural evolution is strictly Darwinian – not literally the same on the Variation – Selection – Reproduction “process” test as presented. And yes, “memes” can be hard to pin down objectively. But then neither are genes and biological evolution always entirely objective and Darwinian – (don’t believe that?) There are wide spectra and many levels for each of those three process components between individuals and populations, between literal physical “copying” in reproduction (say of stories and jokes) and communication of their essential messages. The memes are in the semantics (meaning), not any particular level of syntax (physical encoding), reproduction can be at any (physical or rhetorical) level between these. Irony matters.

The “cultural” (ie non-biological) messages are both communicated and evolved. It’s a matter of degree which processes are most significant on the Darwinian scale. We need the concepts of fidelity, fecundity and fertility applied to the right objects and populations. (Points made by a couple of good questioners, who challenged Scott-Phillips’s thesis on the night. Fidelity – how accurately each copy is made, syntactically or semantically, and Fecundity – how many copies in each “generation” – but also how distributed in populations in space and time, and Fertility, – biologically, reproducability depends on the “fertility” of the offspring generation of the “species”. Another minefield for over-simplified science.)

It’s central to my own agenda, and nothing personal, but Scott-Phillips is typical of a vocal class of scientists that pay lip-service to keeping is distinct from ought – focussing on the objective science they know best, whilst having the (human) right to hold ethical opinions. Having a “moral compass” arrived at with (human) society at large, that can nevertheless somehow be based on that same (independent) objective rationality underlying their science. (The brief sojourn into “trolleyology” towards the end of the evening only served to show how inadequate such reasoning really is. Science is simply incoherent when it comes to rational morality – too greedy-reductionist to coin a Dennett phrase. Humanism is a lot more than science.)

Some very good stuff on folk-physics and folk-psychology but nothing on how common “templates” emerge whether evolution is strictly Darwinian or more chaotically driven to “strange attractors” in the “problem space”. Essentially common stories, common causal folk explanations, common practices (like blood-letting) arising independently in different populations at different times without any apparent “communication” possible between them. Too dismissive of “intuition” – not allowed to inform the debate on the relation between folk knowledge and some apparently more “objective” rationality in the scientific method.

Not to mention the whole nature-nurture debate. Not to mention Scott-Phillips own history and inspiration from the first BHA Darwin Day top his current career. Not to mention … a good deal more in my notes.

In summary, some very good good content, allowed me to learn a few ways to better organise my own thinking, and inherently interesting. A good event.



(*) Not the best evening for extraneous reasons:

  • Light, sound, staging, visuals, speaker refreshment, audience mikes not really up to the event. Organising and stewarding provided well by NE Humanists, but the whole in-theatre experience handled single-handedly by BHA’s @Ian_M_Scott (Again, full-marks for enthusiastic commitment, but the boy needs help; A first attempt for such an out-of-London event, so teething troubles hopefully.)
  • And sad to hear Richard Dawkins had suffered a minor stroke so was unable to participate as chair, but full marks to Matt Ridley for stepping in. He has a sufficiently commanding presence and assured knowledge that he could provide his own suggestion to the tough audience questions Scott-Phillips made clear really didn’t want to address, and to managing the audience participation generally. (Matt’s the man, after Dennett and Pinker maybe, to go to for nature-nurture arguments in non-biological evolution.)

Interesting piece. Anyone who sees this as significant “news” is however missing what race and species really are and the fact that they’re not really very well defined objects. A species exists only if and so long as it cannot successfully interbreed with another, and the experience of a line of individuals is something quite different to the average statistical patterns of a population.

The branching and re-merging picture of the “muddy delta” from the article is about genetic distributions:

The branching-only tree view only applies to things we choose to call species, with hindsight and with some presumed good reason.

But, genetic material in DNA mixes with breeding – that’s a network of relations individually and population-wise over time – and only a small part of the genetic payload is significant in determining what might lead us to name a race or species. The vast majority of that payload is simply dispersed through the breeding networks. A second small proportion may be important to features of the individuals even if not the initial tiny portion that determines a race or species, but both are small compared to the genetic baggage that comes along for the ride.

I’ve claimed “Evolutionary Psychology” as my topic since I started this blog. Dominant schools of thought have evolved with the human mind, something that’s true for any “belief system” including modern “rational” science. I don’t use the term “Evo-Psych” too much since, like so many ideas named and hijacked by one flavour at one period of time, it’s become a meme for a “bad” way of looking at things, even though “evolution” has become the “standard model” for practically anything and everything. Even at intergalactic scales cosmologists talk in terms of its evolution since the big bang(s).

Two threads crossed whilst I was listening to BBC Radio 4’s “Start the Week” Mind and Body this morning.

Evan  opens referring to “our clinical science driven culture” and the place of psychology where scepticism relegates subjective mind, consciousness, perceived qualia and will etc. to a bucket called “hard problems” if not outright denial where “hard-core science-driven rationalists” fail to satisfactorily explain.

Jo Marchant – Cure – keen to point out she’s a real PhD academic when it comes to her work on psychology in medicine. So much of what we perceive medically IS psychological. Pain, relief and recovery, so much more than just placebo. All about the quality of life and care.

Anthony Grayling on the ancient mind-body topic. Paternalism, bed-side manner, tone and kindness in medical care, long before it became dominated by the science of specific treatment and drugs. With Dr John Dee rational thought and magic (the psychology of stage magic) went hand in hand before Descartes severed them.

Jane McGonigal – Turning threat (negative) into challenge (positive) response. The power of mental activity on physical and psychological outcomes. Using gaming mental activity to achieve total immersion and engagement – Flow state (after Csikszentmihalyi) [Imaginary game is a safe space – no real threats, all mental challenges.]

Simon McBurney – conceptions of time, space-time, time and space inseparable, subjective body and objective environment also inseparable. Locating consciousness more generally. Problems in “over-separation” of things, problematic analytic reductionism – inherent in language. What we understand of reality is filtered through the model we hold mentally and share in language.

The accepted physical model in physical science is a Catch-22, a self-fulfilling prophecy that inevitably excludes the mind effects it is unable to explain in its adopted language. Science so needs philosophy, and a philosophical view that hasn’t already been forced into an accepted scientific straitjacket. Fascinating episode.

The threads crossed when listening to the above, a conversatioin started on a link posted by Sabine Hossenfelder to a new paper on long-running debates around the cosmological constant, where one possible constraint is effectively a feature of an Anthropic Principle – whereby what is modelled is inevitably filtered by our “place” in the cosmos.


Post Note – And putting the body back into the picture (ht to @kenanmalik). I have an information view of fundamental reality, but I’m not a greedy reductionist. Gestalt says that organised layers have their own lives and existence, that cannot be reduced to their parts, whether we’re talking body or mind.

Just a brief holding post for later elaboration. It’s been bouncing around recently that The Grauniad is planning to shut off its commenting capability on articles posted on controversial topics. Especially ironic given their “Comment is Free” heritage and tag-line.

I actually agree with their move.

It’s long been an issue since the days of “flame-wars” on bulletin boards and discussion forums, that complex and emotive topics need active (*) mediation, even to the point of campaigns banning public commenting on some otherwise public channels. The Grauniad is simply catching up. Open comments always turn into polarised shouting matches, with a little trolling, ego-stroking and virtue-signalling thrown in.

Also doubly ironic to tie this move into the current “safe spaces” meta-debates. It’s more complicated that 140 chars will allow. (*) It’s no coincidence that old media “readers letters” come pre-vetted by an editor for their constructive value. It’s no coincidence that civilised debating platforms come with skilled facilitators. Freedom of expression comes with rules.

Three recent twitter & facebook items via “Bee” (Sabine Hossenfelder @skdh) that need joining up, together with an older link left hanging – unanswered.

(1) The Gravitational Waves story – the betting that we are about to get the announcement that they have actually been detected – subsequent to Larry Krauss’ tweets. Everyone likes to be proven right (as Bee responded to my comment), but science (unlike the rest of life) is distinctively about testing to destruction; (technology and engineering are about exploiting the bits that don’t break). My pooh-poohing the story is really saying – OK, it’s an exciting confirmation inside physics, particularly given how hard they have proven to be to detect – but not in any wider sense is it earth-shatteringly newsworthy. Basically confirming common sense.

(2) The Cosmological “non-Constant non-Story” – the fact that long-running controversy over how close to either side of zero – or how large – it must be, is overshadowed by the fact that as a model it is proving to be a useless predictor of expected relationships to quantum effects. This must surely ring alarm bells that something might be significantly wrong with the models underlying so much of fundamental physics on so many scales? Time to look for new ideas, not simply test the existing ones for confirmation. Such creativity is – has always been – a big part of science, but science has no monopoly on creativity. Isn’t that infinitely more important and exciting to the wider public as well as exciting, even scary, for science itself? [Interestingly, the new constraint from the Ashfordi & Nelson paper is a version of the Anthropic Principle. Is anyone listening?]

(3) The public communication of science being two-way – scientists need to listen to their public too.

(4) On the topic of listening to your public, here’s a question I left hanging on free-will. There are alternative conclusions.

Thanks for taking the time Sabine, so …

You say “any change that happens in nature is to our best knowledge a mixture of being pre-determined and being fundamentally random”

(a) the “best of your knowledge” may be inaccurate / incomplete?

(b) that best knowledge as stated already presumes there is no kind of free-will that contradicts that kind of determinism in nature. This logic is flawed already?

Then you say “That statement can be made without ever using the term free will.”

(c) So how can you then honestly conclude (on the basis of a & b) that something called free will doesn’t exist?

That’s the “gaffe” Gabe refers to in your own previous paper. The right conclusion is your knowledge is incomplete. No?

(5) But I’ve suggested listen to your – non-scientist – friends before too. On (2) above coincidentally. Larry Krauss too.

Mentioned I was doing a good deal of retro-reading these days.

I’m currently reading Joe McCabe’s The New Science and the Story of Evolution. Joe was one of the big movers and shakers in the UK “Freethought Movement”.

This particular book is a 1931-ish combination of early woks and essays including The Story of Evolution written 20 years earlier. It’s basically chapters in evolutionary chronological order from cosmogeny to civilisation. Naturally many of the “facts” as asserted are out of date – lots of the knowledge in physics was very new in those 20 years – but the sweep of reasoning remains compelling. One recurring theme is that both evolution and relativity were pretty well covered in the thinking of many of the ancients, long before they became part of established “scientific theory”. In his thinking of the ancients, there is also much “of its time” language around savages and semi-humans, but he wouldn’t be the first to see alternative worldviews in the aboriginals of the new world that had been too easily dismissed by the dominion of accepted western rationality.

Like Sir Arthur Eddington in the UK, in the US Yale Professor F. S. (C.*) Northrop became known as an expert on interpreting and promoting Einstein to wider audiences, in Northrop’s case long before the seminal work for which he became much more famous.

McCabe references F. S. (E.*) Northrop on both his early expertise on relativity and his later Meeting of East and West – intuition and rationality – that postulated the “aesthetic continuum” as something more fundamental behind wave-particle duality and the rest – the aether reborn effectively. A “flow” medium somehow more fundamental than the “objects” on which modern scientific objectivity depends.

Fascinating when threads come together like this. Who knew UK “Freethought” also drew on the same influences as US “Pragmatism”? Northrop was the biggest influence on Pirsig.

[(*) It is the same Northrop – Yale, Harvard & US National Academy of Sciences – being referred to in both cases. McCabe simply has the initials in error.]

So as well as already having:

Joseph McCabe – The New Science and the Story of Evolution (1931), and
F. S. C. Northrop – The Meeting of East and West (1946),

We now have new references:

Joseph McCabe – The Evolution of Mind (1910), and
F. S. C. Northrop – The Logic of the Sciences and the Humanities (1947)




The idea that less / fewer road signs and markings make for better road safety is not new, and indeed has been part of the design of roads and junctions for some time.


The idea is to make drivers more situationally aware of their relationship to other drivers and hazards, not to make the driving more hazardous.

So, fewer instructions on rights of way, imperatives and priorities, and less information signs beyond the immediate situation, mean the driver must work out what is safe and appropriate in the immediate situation. ie each must check decisions with the behaviour other road users rather than take your own rights of way for granted as signposted.

Signs and layouts that help you see and better judge the road and other users are essential. Driving lights, hi-vis panels, cats-eyes, curves that increase lines of sight, clearance of visual obstructions, white carriageway lines (without instructions) all help visualise your situation.

Making roads more hazardous – making it harder for a driver to judge available safe space – will tend to slow down cautious drivers, but unless your objective was to increase travel times, the slower speed won’t reduce the hazard. It’s the increased hazard that is reducing the speed. How dumb is that?

Just a holding post …. I have a draft post in progress on how the echo-chamber ends up reinforcing very small differences between people who largely agree, one reason being that the groups you become part of are self-selecting for similarity. The differences that really matter are between groups.

Interesting contribution from an El Pais interview with Zygmunt Bauman.