Reply to Igor Nikolic

This is proximately addressed to Igor Nikolic,  @ComplexEvo

You have no comments section on your blog Thoughts on co-evolution of technology and society  so I’ll blog this.  These are just initial observations to a piece which covers a huge amount of ground.

I am not a big fan of cognitive evolution, and this is why.  In his abstract (the article is behind a paywall and I don’t read stuff behind paywalls unless I really, really need to) Steven Pinker writes,

‘One is that intelligence is an adaptation to a knowledge-using, socially interdependent lifestyle, the “cognitive niche”.’ The cognitive niche: Coevolution of intelligence, sociality, and language

This comes from the Rationalist, ahistorical tradition.  It makes no sense in evolutionary terms, since it suggests that there was an already established “knowledge-using, socially interdependent lifestyle” that intelligence, also apparently a priori, adapted to.  Steven Pinker is manifestly an intelligent human being, he wrote the cogent demolition job .  So this seems so nonsensical that it cannot be what Pinker actually writes, and yet it self-evidently is.

In my evolutionary perspective, intelligence is not a sufficiently coherent concept to be described in evolutionary terms, it is rather a (nominal) general descriptor of the human (Homo organism/technosphere obligate symbiosis) ability to operate that symbiosis optimally. So from an evolutionary point of view anything based on Pinker’s notions is a non-starter.

I have always understood ‘emergent’ to refer to situations with so many often but not necessarily opaque variables that the outcome, though empirically that outcome is manifestly the case, is incomputable.  You seem to use emergent to mean very complex.  As I said to Rafal, if we had used complexity as an excuse to sink into magical thinking then biology would still be back with Aristotle.  My aim is to rescue the evolution of human beings from just such a fate.

I was struck by the phrase “Culture (through social learning etc.) emerges [from?] technology, as a way to increase its own fitness.”  Personifying culture as an agent with foresight and purpose that emerges from an a priori Technology ( a technology that can not therefore be part of culture) is very far removed from any possible evolutionary account., much closer to the Pentateuch (or Torah) in its phylogeny.

I would rather leave Chris Buckley to comment on your discussion of his work should he feel inclined to, but I’ll just mention your “My (and probably authors) assumption here is that a weaver also knows how to make a loom”.  As I read it, Buckley goes to some pains to emphasise that the opposite is the case.  It is even possible, though I’d like to ask him about this, that the pattern-drums evolve into a level of complexity that makes a developed multi-pattern drum completely opaque, and if one is destroyed it cannot be recreated.  However, the structure of an empty pattern drum can be copied and some, very knowledgeable, weavers will understand its function and, within the evolutionary space of actually weaving patterned material, guide the recording of patterns onto the drum to accumulate, solely in the drum, the information that it, the drum, can transmit to the rest of  the proximate symbiont, Homo and loom.  It is by the control of that information that the precise complexities of warp and weft are, literally, realised.

Finally, I have to admit that nothing you say diminishes my confidence in the evolutionary model.  However I do share you deep concern with sustainability.  We are not overlords of the world and the heavens as the Abrahamic myth suggests, we are members of a collective, the obligate symbiosis of technosphere and Homo organism.  As such, we have brought about the Anthropocene, and the proliferating technosphere may well bring about the extinction the symbiont.  Our approach cannot be evolutionary, that is a category error for very obvious reasons that I won’t get into now.  It must be empirical and pragmatic, and it is to guide those bits of the technosphere (fossil fuels, plastics, industrial agriculture &c, Bitcoin, Google, Amazon) towards extinction while enthusiastically encouraging those bits of the technosphere (all the derivatives of instantaneous conversion of solar energy, horticulture, economy of replication of information) through which we can retain a much modified but pleasant and fulfilling quality of life.  The evolutionary model suggests that we will be incapable of doing this purposefully but it allows a scintilla of hope, that it might happen anyway, in evolutionary ways that we symbionts are incapable of foreseeing.


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