From: Keith Henson (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: Tue 03 Feb 2004 - 06:38:06 GMT
At 12:18 PM 03/02/04 +1100, you wrote:
>Proposing memes as an analogy of genes is doubly deficient. First it
>suffers from all the problems of explanation via analogy.
July 28, 2003
Marvin Minsky, MIT professor and AI's founding father, says today's
artificial-intelligence methods are fine for gluing together two or a few
knowledge domains but still miss the "big" AI problem. Indeed, according to
Minsky, the missing element is something so big that we can't see it:
"To me the problem is how to get common sense into computers," said Minsky.
"And part of that, it seems to me, is not how to solve any particular problem but how to quickly think of a new way to solve it-perhaps through a change in emotional state-when the usual method doesn't work."
In his forthcoming book, The Emotion Machine, Minsky shares his accumulated
knowledge on how people make use of common sense in the context of
discovering that missing cognitive glue. For instance, "scripting,"
according to Minsky, lets people reuse procedural knowledge in different
contexts by tweaking its parameters. Parking your car in an unfamiliar spot
is an example: You adapt on the fly using the knowledge base gained in
previous parking experiences.
But "the big feature of human-level intelligence is not what it does when
it works but what it does when it's stuck," Minsky said. When faced with
novelty, Minsky claims, human intelligence applies "reasoning by analogy"
to make the most direct tap into the cognitive glue that fuses knowledge
Reasoning by analogy is a way of adapting old knowledge, which almost never
perfectly matches the present situation, by following a recipe of detecting
differences and tweaking parameters. It all happens so quickly that no
"thinking" seems to be involved.
>Has there ever been a scientific breakthrough, even a minor one, resulting
>from an analogy assumed to hold in a different realm of organised life?
>Did Darwin argue by analogy in any significant way? What if he had said:
>'Let's start with chemistry as the basis for an explanation of all life
>and look in biological life for something analgous to molecules'? Would he
>have got anywhere?
Reasoning by analogy takes off from applying (in a sloppy way) something
you already know to something you don't understand. Historically
chemistry, particularly organic chemistry was not advanced enough to
provide insights. It was about 20 years after Darwin figured out natural
selection and 7 years after he and Wallace published before Friedrich von
Stradonitz realizes that benzene was a ring structure.
It is not "organized life" but in 1861 Maxwell used a mechanical analogy to
derive electromagnetism--which was a major scientific breakthrough
http://maxwell.byu.edu/~spencerr/phys442/node4.html More recently quantum
chromodynamics was developed by analogies from electrodynamics. (And no, I
can't claim more than vague, hand waving understanding of either.)
>Second the view of genes (as 'selfish') which gave rise to the analogy is
"Selfish" as you properly put in quotes is a shorthand for a
tautology. Genes that do well (mostly by building better survival machines
around them) become more common as time goes on. That's all "selfish"
means where it is used as a shorthand in evolutionary studies. Hamilton's
big contribution of "inclusive fitness" was to show that "selfish" genes
could be expected to build animals, humans even, who were so altruistic
that they would die to save copies of their genes in relatives. (Like bees
do when they sting intruders and die.)
>Genes are not the core phenomenon of biological life, they are one feature
>of it. Dawkins himself half indicated why when he wrote about
>'Rediscovering the Organism' in The Extended Phenotype. What chance has
>the notion of memes got of explaining social life when it is an analogy of
>something in biological life of such questionable significance?
If you go back and read Dawkins on memes:
"What's so special about genes? The answer is that they are
replicators. (page 191, 2nd ed)
"The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new
So the analogy made here is to genes and memes both being
replicators. That means that some of them (genes and memes) will become
more common over time due to replication and selection and the ones that do
are in this metaphorical and technical sense "selfish." But it's just an
outcome of Darwinian evolution expressed in a way that you can't take in
the literal sense.
> No more chance, I would suggest, than the notion that social life is
> like an organism (this silly analogy has been proposed by more than a few
> sociologists, most notably by Durkheim).
I have to agree with you that it does sound silly.
>The point is, social life is not like anything else - no more so than
>biological life is like anything else.
Again I agree on both of these points.
But just because biological life is unlike anything else does not keep us
from understand it all the way down to the bottom and all the way back in
time. At the bottom biology is vast numbers of molecular machines running
in a energy soup of ATP. We have a rough count on the different kinds of
machines in our bodies (about 30,000) from the human genome
project. Reconstructing the genetic record we know a lot about when these
various classes of these machines first came about and a lot about how they
came about (typically duplication and branched evolution). A bunch of
them, the hox genes for example, go back to the last common ancestor
between worms and crustaceans roughly 550-600 million years ago.
We have hints that allow us to do *some* reconstruction of past social
life. First, hominids were social. Second we are fairly sure that
hominids started carrying rocks around (manuports) because rocks good for
throwing are found way out from natural sources in strata where early
hominid fossils are also found. I think this was about 3.5 to 4 million
years ago. A bit later:
Late Pliocene hominids began manufacturing and utilizing flaked stones c.
2·6 Ma, and the Gona localities provide the earliest evidence of a high
density of stone artefacts from laterally-extensive deposits exposed east
and west of the Kada Gona river.
The beginning of the use of modified stones was a major technological
breakthrough which opened windows of opportunities for efective
exploitation of available food resources including high nutrient meat and
bone marrow from animals. The cut-mark and bone fracture evidence from
Bouri provides strong evidence for the incorporation of meat in the diet of
Late Pliocene hominids as early as 2·5 Ma. The sudden appearance of
thousands of well-flaked artefacts documented from several localities in
this time interval is intriguing.
It may mean that the beginning of the manufacture and use of flaked-stones
was a novel adaptive strategy which appeared abruptly c. 2·6 Ma and spread
through populations quickly. On the other hand, there is a possibility of
finding modified stones/and or bones
from older deposits if the manufacture and use of flaked stones evolved
gradually. Thus far, the evidence is strongly in favour of an abrupt
appearance of modified stones in the archaeological record between 2·5–2·6
Ma or probably a bit earlier.
After this burst of rock chipping progress was miserably slow. Without
looking it up, I think the next major advance was projectile water hole
hunting with "killer Frisbees" that starting about a million years
ago. Then we have fire at something like 500,000 years ago. After about
100,000 years ago modern humans started to come on line and things got
going a lot faster.
One of the main things to keep in mind is that human (tribal) culture and
the human genome *co evolved,* at least up to about 10,000 years ago when
people started farming. After that culture moved faster than the genome
could keep up. There are a few exceptions; ending periodic starvation
about 300 years ago seems to have changed the gene pool by killing off a
lot of the carriers of "thrifty" genes.
It's late, so I am not going to make push this out, but our society and
culture are every bit as much a lineal descendant of those African rock
knappers 2.6 million years ago as our hox genes are of the Urbilateria 550
million years ago.
PS. If you have not read William Calvin's books on the subject of human
evolution, particularly the expansion of the brain, I strongly recommend
them. You can find them on the web with his name.
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