Evolutionary Psychology – Again?

Evolutionary psychology just is what happens to us.

“Evolutionary Psychology” as a self-identified political “ought” interpretation of evolutionary reality and the political reaction to brand it pejoratively as “EvoPsych” are just that – identitarian political movements, not to be confused with reality. I said as much just in the title of the first long piece I ever wrote in this space in 2005.

“It (Really) IS Evolutionary Psychology, Stupid”

As Kevin Mitchell has already explained in the previous 5 minutes (below), there is no way to address complex self-adaptive systems like humanity from anything other than an evolutionary perspective. Dan Dennett and I would agree wholeheartedly. What matters is the quality of explanations, not the fact that they are evolutionary and psychological, scientific or philosophical. Do not pass go.

Quite a tough interview to listen to thanks to the skeptical prejudices of Matt Brown and particularly Chris Kavanagh and the extra 5 minutes of inane chatter before they get going on the 10 minute longer audio version. As ever I admire Kevin’s patience and clarity.

Listen to Kevin Mitchell if you can.


Post Notes – rough notes from the 2 hours!

Appropriate – ie “right” – levels of description / abstraction. (Exactly, Sean Carroll is wrong in suggesting these are convenient fictions – “Poetic Naturalism” – and that reality is just physics.)

The story, quite rightly, gets metaphysical. Much more than epiphenomenal too – really is two-way / multi-way causation.

Determinism is wrong full stop (even within physics, classical as well as quantum / relativistic).

It’s informational!!!! – Present states under-determine future states. Constraint is creative of future states. Meaning and purpose, even in “simple” living systems.

“If” we wind the clock back … Jeez … is ONLY a thought experiment …. not even a possibility unless you pre-presume determinism. Jeez.
Drives me “bananas” too Kevin. (Disagree – again – with Kevin’s interpretation of Dennett’s “incoherent” compatibilism in the Caruso dialogue, but no matter.) In the end it’s about quality of explanation – we agree again.

Like Sun Tzu’s art of war – we don’t need to know the locations of every atom in the universe – to fight the battle – not even ever piece of flora and fauna on the battlefield.

[More inane prejudice – against Jordan Peterson – oh how we laughed. Proper dynamic balance – integrated thinking – between the spiritualists (Peterson) and the illusionists (Harris), in terms of self and free-will.] Well done again Kevin. “Systems can be Selves” – pattern persistence through time.

Jeez – we have to debunk Libet misinterpretations again – we have many-layered adaptive / supervisory / permissory systems.  Readiness potentials / Free-wont, etc. How hard can it be? “Let’s put the subjectivity aside!” Ha! Readiness doesn’t equal commitment to act. It’s the patterns, not the low level details. Much more “holistic” – Yay! (It’s mostly sub-conscious, but it’s all the self. Some of the things we are “thinking” subconsciously make us aware as feelings before conscious thoughts) Determinism by definition rules itself out of conscious self. Shannon entropy. [Maps of Meaning – oh how we laughed, again.] Biology runs on meaning and sense-making. We’re only interested in differences, borders, gradients, edges – patterns / topology.

Neuronal interconnections are non-linear / non-binary, weighted, proportional in number and intensity. Cognition is what it’s doing, that’s what it is, not an epiphenomenon. Perception is active – monitoring, comparing, inferring.

Consciousness as feeling. Hofstadter as a strange loop, thinking about thoughts. Sufficient levels (requisite variety) …. confidence is a feeling, before or after we might model it as a calculation …

[Nothing new under the sun. This is all such well established and understood stuff already. See Mark Solms. Onwards and upwards.]


Avalanche Party at Toft House

An upcoming band at a new venue. I mentioned a couple of posts ago, my meditative release from worldly intellectual and practical concerns includes loud, intense, visceral musical experience. The moral imperative is to give it your full attention. Last night was my latest fix.

The band are Avalanche Party and the venue was Toft House in Middlesbrough. That venue is the “club house” of Middlesbrough’s “Little Theatre” and it’s many decades since I visited the latter. Avalanche Party I’ve actually seen 2 or 3 times, previously at multi-venue, multi-band, short-set “showcase” events, but I’ve never mentioned them in the blog. (I have noted on Facebook seeing great reviews from Austin TX “SXSW”, and noted that their latest recordings were done at Joshua Tree CA. Not bad for a lil’ old band from Texas Castleton & Marske, NY – North Yorkshire that is).

It’s their local connection that brought them to my attention, partners of band members and latterly band members themselves, experiencing local pub and brewery gigs. Beer and live music, what’s not to like? AP even make their own vinyl product, with A- and P-sides, locally at “Press On Vinyl”. Creative, authentic stuff.

Last night was the first time I saw them headline their own gig. A night of three stonking drummers.

Support #1 were “Strong Lion Boys” – that Sleaford Mods / Benefits genre of angry socialist politics shouted over heavy rhythmic and drone backing: “We Still Hate Thatcher” with added “Up the Boro”. Three of the AP lads joined-in on that drone backing, bass, guitar and sax. Stonking drummer.

Support #2 were “Juku” – great young female lead on bass working well with another stonking drummer – put me in mind of QOTSA (as with AP themselves) driving but with staccato pauses and breaks – and two “gentlemen of a certain age” on stereotypically loud but otherwise unremarkable guitar. Guessing it’s her songs, her band, both of few words, and very promising vocals that would probably benefit from a better mix.

Avalanche Party, my only complaint would be the over-bright & busy, distracting lighting programmed from the mixing desk. The performance itself excellent again, and already recognising their crowd-pleasing numbers from previous gigs as well as a couple of new ones. A 5 piece with keyboard and sax as well as guitar, bass and drums providing lots of variety in pace, rhythm and dynamics. Very little “lead” instrumentation, not even riffs, mostly atmospheric but heavy drone backing to clear audible vocals and a wide range of backing / harmony vocals. Did I mention, stonking drum and bass again.

Proper team-work. Hard to fault.


50 Years of Systems and Pirsig

Ostensibly I’m re-reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in order to review the 50th Anniversary edition, but as usual I’m finding more significant note-worthy connections with my ongoing systems thinking work than there are pages in the original.

The read – the story – is of course very familiar, I’m reading it for the 4th or 5th time though it’s probably a decade since I last did, and yet even focussing on the review and resisting the urge to make personal notes for the whole of part 1 (the first 7 of 32 chapters) I since lapsed into adding post-it markers, significant to my own work, to almost every page. As well as the re-reads I have of course also looked-up references in it many times in the 25 years since I first read it. Whilst the story is very familiar, what really hits you is recognising the thoughts & concepts, words & phrases, used half a century ago in today’s 21st C context, mine and humanity’s predicament in general.

Review-wise, it’s the same book it was in 1974, with the author’s introduction, afterword and reader’s guide, all added to the 25th anniversary edition, plus the new foreword to the 50th anniversary edition by Matt Crawford “Why Zen Still Resonates Today”. As Crawford notes and quotes, the story has no Hollywood ending effectively leaving the reader filled with thoughts and questions. Perhaps that’s why despite many references to such projects since, it has still never been made into a definitive film. But as the climactic father-son reconciliation scene shows, the thoughtful open-ended-ness is explicitly hopeful for the future:

[Son, Chris,] understands for the first time on this whole trip that he has found his long-lost father again. “The tension is gone. They have won it. It’s going to get better now. You can sort of tell these things.”

That’s maybe why so many of us saw hope for the future in better, wider understanding of Pirsig’s messages. Over on the #ZMM50th pages of  the Robert Pirsig Association you will find more life-changing testimonials for our better futures. It would be easy to be frustrated and angry that the same things Pirsig was explaining to us in 1974 are the same things we still need to understand to make better decisions about our futures in 2024 – a time when so many issues facing humanity 50 years later appear both existential and urgent. Conversely as David Deutsch would say, the future is infinite and we’re only ever at the beginning of it. We humans have a great track record of solving problems, even ones we’ve created. Pirsig already explained why and how humans understanding and embodying systems, and not fearing the technology, are what will get us out of this mess, mental and physical, however long it takes.

Now, what about all those important notes and messages …


[Post Notes:

The connection between Pirsig and Cybernetics as human systems of governance, individual, organisation and/or social, goes back as far as 1995 and the fact that Principia Cybernetica curator Francis Heylighen invited Pirsig to deliver his “Subjects, Objects, Data and Values” paper to the “Einstein Meets Magritte” conference May 29 to June 3, 1995 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Free University of Brussels (VUB). Who says anniversary celebrations don’t matter? 🙂]

Do as I Say, Not as I Do?

There’s an assumed hypocrisy in saying one thing and doing another, but in reality, in complex situations, there is always some motivation. And as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, after Brunsson, there are good reasons, hypocrisy is an essential life skill anyway.

The other way round, “Do as I do, not as I say” there’s an easy / in-built presumption that it’s harder for me to articulate what is needed in a way that will help you, than it is for you to follow my example. And there may be many reasons for that from my intellectual & communications inadequacy to some tactical constraint or inconvenience.

The way cited in my title, “Do as I say, not as I do” it’s harder to justify, but no less real and complex.

The example memeing around my head at the moment arose from my interview / dialogue with Sevilla King. As a supporter of Pirsig’s 4-layer evolutionary metaphysics, I’m also an advocate of the “Eastern” world-view that says direct participation in, paying (moral) attention to, the immediate world is the source of all Quality. There is also, in any event, a learning from mental health experience – frustrations with the limitations of “the church of reason” – at the root of Pirsig’s work. Many such advocates engage in mindful, meditative practices, even retreats away from everyday life distractions. I never have, but appreciate those that do and the mental health value they achieve.

At least I never have by that kind of “mindful” name. I might justify my passion with intellectual elaboration of “good metaphysics” for the urgent benefit of wider human decision-making, as an excuse that I’m “too busy” with that project. But in fact my meditative time-outs are direct engagements with the world at two levels. Live music events are one, especially loud shared visceral experience with performers and audience. The other is hiking, whether coast or high-ground. I can sit staring out and listening to the sound of the sea for ages in the former, or laying face-up to the sky listening to the skylarks and curlew in the latter, thinking about nothing but the experience. In fact the header image here is me sitting in exactly that mode on a bench amidst gently steaming Yellowstone geysers.

Ironically, given the Pirsigian allusion to the Church of Reason in sharing the Feininger image – “Church of the Minorites II”, cathedrals are a good context too. Whether religious, artistic or even say a utilitarian bridge – sitting and taking in the atmosphere of a cathedral-sized human construct can be just as engaging.


Not Frightening the Horses

When dealing with science and engineering “STEM” and other numerate bean-counter accountant & management “MBA” types it’s funny what comes up in conversation.

In dialogue you might pick-up considerations like Love and Spirituality, but you won’t find those words in their spreadsheets or specifications. In sensible, real-world, day-job contexts where rubber meets the road it would confuse the team or “frighten the horses” to introduce such terminology. So

rather than Love,
I might say Care

rather than Spiritual,
I might say Humanistic

Few would argue that humans aren’t important to getting stuff done or that a job well done involves caring about the process & the outcomes, immediate & environmental, and our fellow humans too?

Remember I am an engineer and MBA type. I may give-up hanging onto the fact that Cybernetics was always intended to include the human psychological aspects of social governance. The term “governor” was attached metaphorically to steam engines long before cybernetics (governance) became synonymous with electro-mechanical control systems.

rather than Cybernetics,
I might say Systems Thinking (or Psybernetics?)

or a Systems Approach to Thinking, about anything, including thinking. Meta-thinking, to think before you think, to question how we think. Whatever words we use in the second place, let’s not lose sight of what we meant to mean in the first place.


This post prompted doubly, by a weekend conversation amongst such people happy to use the first word in each pair – in interpersonal dialogue – AND by Sam (Elizaphanian) posting this today. The poets have always written love songs, but for the love of what?


Against Criticism?

In my own rules of discourse, I’ve always emphasised creativity & increasing understanding over analytically destructive critique & debate. This is to counterbalance, by dynamic integration, the imbalance promoted by the “critical thinkers” who shout most effectively in the dysmemic sense. In fact, the destructiveness of Aristotle’s analytic knife features in my very first (2001) summary of my starting position. Pirsig too rejected the philosophology of the “Church of Reason”. Cycle through all things in moderation.

I’ve joined these thoughts up before with better understanding of behaviours supported left-right brain world-views after Iain McGilchrist, and noticed, but never been able to find a copy of, his earliest (1982) work “Against Criticism”.

The Great Right Brain Debate
Iain McGilchrist interviewed by Scott Barry Kaufman


This interview published as a transcript by IAI from a podcast interview with Scott Barry Kaufman is not only a great summary of Iain’s thesis in sound-bite-sized replies, but also great agreement over the reality of left-right-brain understanding from a sceptical starting position, and the relationship to his earlier “Against Criticism” work. Worth a read.

Still amazed not to find any copies of the latter for sale, must be due a paperback or kindle release?


Forgotten More Than I’ve Written?

24th year of blogging and, I’m repeating myself a lot as I’m marshalling main threads into (hopefully) book and/or thesis chapters. Cycling through the topics I’m finding stuff I said years ago is pretty good to go mostly unchanged. Kind of embarrassing that I didn’t pull it all together sooner. Contexts and content of current research changed over that period, but so many of the lessons and conclusions are reinforced, just with ever more topical examples.

Fascinating to be interviewed at the weekend by Sevilla King in her “Quality Chat” series, primarily about my Pirsig-related work, and she put up the resulting video yesterday.

As well as kindly describing me as a “unifying and organising force” around the work of Pirsig – The Robert Pirsig Association – she also points out various “gems” I’d written and sufficiently forgotten that she had to remind me I’d written them and where – “very good, if I say so myself”. Anyway it was a fun hour and Sevilla had done her homework.

Very large parts of my agenda covered, even where not obvious that they do still hang very nicely off Pirsig’s evolutionary framework of values, his Metaphysics of Quality, even where the content has evolved well beyond what we might pick-up from Pirsig directly. The evolution is built-in, as apparently I’ve said before 🙂

First came across Sevilla when she introduced me to Karen Wong in “This Little Corner” of the web. First interview with Karen was a little tougher, fading light and brain running out of stamina after around 40 minutes in a full 90 minute evening session. Just realised I never did share that one, but adding here for completeness. Not as good, but still some “gems” in there,

Lots of Vervaeke follow-up for me from that one in two earlier posts.


50th Anniversary Edition of ZMM has Arrived

The publisher very kindly let me have 3 copies of the 50th anniversary edition of ZMM published Tuesday last week.

I can confirm that as well as the new Foreword from Matt Crawford, this edition contains both the Author’s Introduction, the Afterword referring to Chris’s death and the Readers’s Guide, that were added at the 25th anniversary edition.

[Post Note: Posted a review of sorts here. And, I can confirm that the publisher HarperCollins page has links for purchase of the original US & Canada, English Language version, of the 50th Anniversary Edition, anywhere in the world.