I was fortunate to meet and hear Dan Dennett delivering Convergence: Information, Evolution, and Intelligent Design at The Royal Institution on Wednesday 25th March this week. I say fortunate because, despite being a huge fan of his as these pages will attest, and despite exchanging emails with him back in January when I noticed he was making an upcoming UK trip, I didn’t notice this event until Monday this week, when he appeared on BBCR4 on Start The Week. As a sell out, I only just squeezed in off the wait-list at the last moment on Wednesday.
As an “evolutionary philosopher” it’s easy to associate Dennett with biology and neuroscience, and indeed he is most closely associated with “Cog Sci” at his home institution of Tufts, but it’s important to recognise he is first and foremost a philosopher.
The “world’s greatest living philosopher”, according to the introduction by John Stein of Oxford University, from whom we discover that Dan was a close friend of the geneticists in the biology department back in the days he was studying philosophy at Oxford. A connection that later led to Dennett becoming allied with Dawkins, both as an ongoing major advocate of Dawkin’s “meme” concept, and a fellow “horseman” in the recently topical “God vs Science” wars. Dan I see as the antidote to the problem of scientists who shouldn’t be allowed out alone with opinions about existence and meaning. For those you need a philosopher. Dan Dennett preferably.
John’s admiration for Dan shares two points of reference with mine. Firstly, the body in a mine in Tulsa, connected to its brain in a vat in Texas posing the question “Where am I?” in the seminal Godel, Esher, Bach, co-written with Doug Hofstadter. And secondly John was brandishing a reprint pamphlet of the laws of computation chapter most recently published in Dan’s greatest hits “Intuition Pumps, and Other Tools for Thinking” – a lesson I’ve been recommending to anyone who’ll listen.
If you know Dan’s work, his title needs little introduction, although the particular text and material of the talk seemed an entirely original story in its telling. If you didn’t the logic emerges only in its telling. If it quacks like a duck, Dan is clear about using terms like designed and intelligent, reclaiming them effectively from those who attribute them to the supernatural. Rather than denial, the better approach is to explain how they really do arise in reality in nature.
Dan regularly uses his R&D and Engineering metaphors, because they do indeed reflect the reality of what it takes for new “applications” arise, where not just the problems and opportunities but the histories of time, efforts, cost -benefits and sequences of events matter in how solutions come about. Another key concept is that evolution at core is about information – genetic or memetic. And fundamentally so, in that the information created, modified and communicated is immaterial; independent of its living biological or even any inanimate physical embodiment.
So, the body of the talk, video recorded for later publication on the RI media channels, followed the major transitions and “inversions” in the history of evolution, with examples and key sources.
Without prior intelligence involved in the progress of evolution, the process is bottom-up and opportunistic. Where humans are concerned, where the evolution is predominantly memetic (cultural) we have elements of both bottom up and top down design with purpose in mind, those purposes themselves being evolved.
In cultural / memetic evolution space we need to think of the information not just as the raw material but also as configurations of thinking tools for using and manipulating further information. When looking at the difference between 70m clueless termites constructing a beautiful nest structure of cathedral proportions and Gaudi’s brain of 200bn clueless neurons designing and building the Familia Sagrada, the difference is not in the numbers but in the tools. You can’t do much carpentry (or stone-masonry) with your bare hands. It’s the flexible and independently-mobile arrangements of the information, not their bit count. Tools and technology are the result (and source) of cultural evolution of information. In intelligent hands, tools build tools. But “Cui Bono” still applies. Information tools can build new information and tools whose benefits are not necessarily those of the intelligent designer. Memes as culturally evolved thinking tools invading intelligent brains – symbiotically. Thinking of this as evolving intellectual capability it becomes clear why the fundamental nature of the computation model (above) is so important to understand. Turing meets Darwin.
In describing the Leonard Eisenberg version of the “tree of life” from the earliest single-celled life to the current world of the Familia Sagrada and seemingly never-ending technology advances, Dan used 3-dimensional evolutionary design-spaces – themselves evolving – to illustrate the transitions and inversions, and some of the intermediate species arising en-route. Too many to record here. Lynn Margulis work – against much denial – was recognised in establishing the eukaryotic revolution as the first such explosion in possibilities long after the formation of single-celled life itself. Eörs Szathmáry, John Maynard-Smith and Peter Godfrey-Smith all acknowledged as contributors to the story of transitions and inversions and Paul MacCready for the explosion of human dominance of the ecosphere in the last 10,000 years, with Frances Arnold as an archetype of those taking post-Darwinian evolution back into bio-engineering.
Internet memes appeared in one of the design spaces discussed. An example of a recent inversion, a reductio ad absurdum, the human creation of memes for the purpose of being spread – ie not a new species of meme but an entirely new category. [Aside – This kind of game-changing, where rules of the game become part of the game, and thereby evolve to another level – a new category – I’ve discussed examples in an actual game (football) context, but is also very much part of the Hofstadterian view of “creative slipping” in Tabletop, whereby some aspect “meta” to the original topic becomes a new topic, and hence entirely new category is innovated.]
Q&A – The question of gender differences in human brain function, I blogged a separate post here.
Q – Does Dennett support the concept of there being a “hard problem” of consciousness?
A- No. In fact in a recent Edge Question collection of answers, Dan’s choice was that the so-called hard problem should be thrown out.
Q – With the speed of development of computation power, with computation at the heart of evolution, does Dennett support the idea of the Singularity whereby AI overtakes humans?
A – No. It’s not about power in terms of the scale of processing – Moore’s law, etc – see the termites and neurons above – its also about the power and complexities of arrangement, and about the evolution of tools – software – that allow one level to transition to the next.
The greatest or not, Dan Denett is certainly my favourite on many levels. Not least his “avuncular” gentle-giant appearance and delivery reinforces the positive, common-sense direction of his arguments. An excellent lecture.