Evolution as a black box

This is a reply to a discussion between @RafalMista and me; RM and JW.  The last JW: is a bit long for Twitter, so I’ve blogged it.

JW: Trying to account for the evolution  of “state policy” is like trying to account for the evolution of the biome of the African continent. Best start with the evolution of a tilapia species, or the holes in violins

RM: But if you’re interested in the explanation of sociotechnical systems evolution now, then it’s natural that you’ll start with a theory which uses coarse-grained concepts and leaves places for future explanations of lower-level mechanisms (“black boxes”). I agree with you that it’s important to find the basic mechanism of cultural evolution and it shouldn’t be abandoned. But the offer of rejection all theories which blackbox it, is like the offer of stopping medicine until we can deduce treatments from molecular level mechanisms.  Especially that there is no guarantee that you can find the passage from basic operations to explanations of complex systems (like a micro-macro link), that this passage will be as useful as we assume, and that it will be done in a finite, human time horizon.

JW:  OK, let’s start with “the explanation of sociotechnical systems evolution now”. This might be better phrased “the explanation of the evolution of sociotechnical systems now”.  The inclusion of “now” at the end of the phrase suggests you mean at this moment; that is to say sociotechnical systems merely seen as the last frame of a freeze frame movie; that is to say, with the time dimension removed.

Whereas you cannot remove the time dimension from evolution.  Evolution is a continual process, a succession of very small changes that moves in a certain direction.  So to attempt to explain a freeze-frame of a sociotechnical system without relation to its history is unwise.

“You’ll start with a theory which uses coarse-grained concepts” sure, but one should check to make sure they are not erroneous, magical, or nonexistent.

I am surprised that you call evolution, that is replication, variation, selection by external factors, “lower-level mechanisms (“black boxes”)”.   Darwinian evolution is not a black box, it is entirely open to examination.  This does not mean that the complexities of Darwinian evolution have been resolved and accounted for at every scale, it just means that at a certain level of probability and coherence it is the best model of what is the case.  This is true of all science.

But of course Darwinian evolution can be used as a black box.  The mechanism of a black box, as I understand it, is thus: information inblack box (process that is not examined or not understood) → information out.  If one is explaining to a child “how the giraffe got its long neck” it’s not a good idea to try to explain the whole theory of evolution first, and in this case you would put most of it in a black box.  Nonetheless you yourself would have recourse to the theory, you might explain that there were long ago animals like giraffes but with shorter necks… and tell the story of differential survival in simple terms and with a narrative skill that would keep the child’s attention.  You wouldn’t say God gave them long necks when he created all the animals in the Garden of Eden, or tell them a Just So Story.  Here the genetic and sex bit would be the black box.  Likewise, we use black boxes all the time in evolutionary, and all, science, just for economy.  As Dawkins says, we even use teleology as a black box in natural discussion because it’s more economical.  But we do tacitly acknowledge the rigorous non-teleological theory which the teleological statement represents.

The Derex et al. experiment https://psyarxiv.com/nm5sh/ produced an interesting black box.  The assumption was that the progress along the transmission chain towards the optimum configuration of the apparatus could be explained by the weakly defined tropes “cultural transmission” or “social learning” or “the cognitive niche hypothesis” or any combination of the three.  The experiment demonstrated that none of these tropes, even in their literary indeterminateness, could be applied.  This led to the black box : information in (the experiment, apparatus and procedure)  → black boxinformation out (progress towards optimum configuration) .  I imagine that what actually happens in the black box has a fairly straightforward explanation which fits a Darwinian theory of the evolution of hominin culture, but cannot be explained by the non-existent, or as you put it “coarse-grained”, CES hypothesis.

I suggest that the CES model is not a black box in the scientific sense, since the information in and out is always homologous, no actual work has been done on it, no information has been added.  It is more of a magic cabinet, where statistical procedures do the magic (I’m not denying the utility of Bayesian procedures, obviously, but it is improper to use them as a Harry Potter type wand).  The information out cannot therefore be anything but the product of magical thinking and, to come full circle, to expect “the explanation of sociotechnical systems evolution now” without a lot of “lower order” (not lower order at all) hard work of the empirical kind that Darwin, Huxley, Watson and Crick, Dawkins and many others did over decades is to expect a magical solution.

So how did this unfortunate situation come about?  If you actually accept Darwinian evolution as an account of what is the case, of Homo sapiens as much as of the first life or the first eukaryote, then this evolution will account for the emergence of the CES.  The consensual dogma of the CES looks from the outside like any other evolved religion, with its own institutions, rituals, bureaucracy, hierarchy and economic infrastructure.  In principal it is not unlike (though rather less salient) than the congress of priests who sometime round the 6thC BCE (I’m going from memory here) edited from much more ancient texts a narrative of what it was to be a descendent of King David, one that was very supportive of the wellbeing of said priests; or the Congress of Nicaea, in (still guessing here) about the 4thC CE which thrashed out from many versions exactly what it was that Christians believed, much to the benefit of the Roman State.

And, I suggest, the consensual dogma of the CES is no more an account of what is empirically the case than the Nicene creed.

Your suggestion, “But the offer of rejection all theories which blackbox it, is like the offer of stopping medicine until we can deduce treatments from molecular level mechanisms” is, I suggest, the opposite of the case.  Medicine, like all other hominin culture, evolved by a process of replication, variation and selection.  Some of it worked, some of it didn’t, between the limits of curing people and killing them.  That is still the case today, but we now have theories, very complex theories, as to how medicine works.  These are all derived from the evolution of material culture, medicines, apparatus and instruments, pharmaceuticals, models of cells down to the molecular level.  It has never been an either or situation.  The process of medicine has been one of a recognition of what works (with other factors, like the appropriation and monopolisation of that part of the hominin extended phenotype which produces the acquisition of more extended phenotype or its monetary —also extended phenotype— equivalent).

I am very aware of how easy it is for me to say these things.  Apart from through my laptop I have no relationship at all with the CES hegemony.  But if I wanted to make a career, or worse still had a successful career, in Cultural Evolution, then I would have no alternative but to buckle down and follow the consensual dogma.  In which case, say I was an up and coming PhD, I think I would look for a more long-term secure niche, like linguistics or musicology.  The evolution of music is already an area with a good literature (whereas nothing in cultural evolution between Pitt Rivers and Buckley and Boudot) and it is relatively uncomplicated, though beware trying to do a cladistic analysis of the phylogeny of the Baltic Psaltery [Veloz et al. 2012].  Even if something is ever more than the sum of its parts, which I doubt, it is absolutely necessary to study the parts first. And there again we come back to the, I think, intractable problem of trying to divine an explanation of ahistorical “socicotechnical systems”.

Finally, “Especially that there is no guarantee that you can find the passage from basic operations to explanations of complex systems (like a micro-macro link)”.  Imagine that that pessimistic mantra had been accepted by people coming after Darwin; we would be lost in a world of magical thinking, merely because a group of religious reactionaries had dictated that things should be that way. Evolution is better than that.

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