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Jun
1st
Sat
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“Only the understanding of evolution offers a chance to get a real understanding of the human species. We are determined by the interplay between individual and group selection where individual selection is responsible for much of what we call sin, while group selection is responsible for the greater part of virtue. We’re all in constant conflict between self-sacrifice for the group on the one hand and egoism and selfishness on the other. I go so far as to say that all the subjects of humanities, from law to the creative arts are based upon this play of individual versus group selection. (…) And it is very creative and probably the source of our striving, our inventiveness and imagination. It’s that eternal conflict that makes us unique. (…)

Q: (…) [W]ill we reach a higher state of humanity?

Do we really want to improve ourselves? Humans are a very young species, in geologic terms, and that’s probably why we’re such a mess. We’re still living with all this aggression and ability to go to war. But do we really want to change ourselves? We’re right on the edge of an era of being able to actually alter the human genome. But do we want that? Do we want to create a race that’s more rational and free of many of these emotions? My response is no, because the only thing that distinguishes us from super-intelligent robots are our imperfect, sloppy, maybe even dangerous emotions. They are what makes us human.” “

Edward O. Wilson, American biologist, researcher (sociobiologybiodiversity), theorist (consiliencebiophilia), naturalist (conservationist) and author, Interview with Edward O. Wilson: The Origin of Morals, originally in P. Bethge, J. Grolle, Wir sind ein Schlamassel, Der Spiegel, 8/2013. (Photo: Edward O. Wilson in Puerto Rico, NYT)

See also: ☞ E. O. Wilson on human evolution, altruism and a ‘new Enlightenment’, Lapidarium notes

Sep
23rd
Sun
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S. J. Gould, F. Drake, L. Nimoy, J. Cage, A. Hammer on the Meaning of Life

“The first thing I look at each morning is a picture of Albert Einstein I keep on the table right beside my bed. The personal inscription reads “A person first starts to live when he can live outside of himself.” In other words, when he can have as much regard for his fellow man as he does for himself. I believe we are here to do good. It is the responsibility, of every human being to aspire to do something worthwhile, to make this world a better place than the one he found. Life is a gift, and if we agree to accept it, we must contribute in return. When we fail to contribute, we fail to adequately answer why we are here.” 

Armand Hammer, American business manager and owner, physician (1898-1990)  

“I find the question “Why are we here?” typically human. I’d suggest “Are we here?” would be the more logical choice.”

Leonard Nimoy, American actor, film director, poet, musician and photographer  

“Observations of distant galaxies have produced provocative evidence for a startling idea: Our universe was just one bubble in a great fountain of bubble universes springing from the Big Bang that created all reality. Given billions of years of evolution, sophisticated living structures have developed, including creatures conscious of their universe, able to manipulate it in massive ways. There is no doubt that life will have developed in many places in our universe. Our own significance, our ultimate potential and our ensemble of possible destinies will be understood by finding and studying the other intelligent creatures of space. Thus a prime task is to seek out other intelligent civilizations and to share knowledge with them.”

Frank Drake, American astronomer and astrophysicist  

“No why. Just here.”

John Cage, American composer, music theorist and writer (1912-1992)

“The human species has inhabited this planet for only 250,000 years or so-roughly.0015 percent of the history of life, the last inch of the cosmic mile. The world fared perfectly well without us for all but the last moment of earthly time–and this fact makes our appearance look more like an accidental afterthought than the culmination of a prefigured plan.

Moreover, the pathways that have led to our evolution are quirky, improbable, unrepeatable and utterly unpredictable. Human evolution is not random; it makes sense and can be explained after the fact. But wind back life’s tape to the dawn of time and let it play again–and you will never get humans a second time.

We are here because one odd group of fishes had a peculiar fin anatomy that could transform into legs for terrestrial creatures; because the earth never froze entirely during an ice age; because a small and tenuous species, arising in Africa a quarter of a million years ago, has managed, so far, to survive by hook and by crook. We may yearn for a ‘higher’ answer — but none exists. This explanation, though superficially troubling, if not terrifying, is ultimately liberating and exhilarating. We cannot read the meaning of life passively in the facts of nature. We must construct these answers ourselves — from our own wisdom and ethical sense. There is no other way.”

 Stephen Jay Gould, American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science (1941-2002)

The meaning of Life, LIFE Magazine, Dec 1988. (Illustrations: 1, 2)
See also: ☞ What is the meaning of life?, Quora answers
Life tag on Lapidarium
Jun
22nd
Fri
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What Darwin’s theory of evolution teaches us about Alan Turing and artificial intelligence

Alan Turing created a new world of science and technology, setting the stage for solving one of the most baffling puzzles remaining to science, the mind-body problem, with an even shorter declarative sentence in the middle of his 1936 paper on computable numbers: "It is possible to invent a single machine which can be used to compute any computable sequence." (…)

A good way of understanding Turing’s revolutionary idea about computation is to put it in juxtaposition with Darwin's about evolution. (…) What Darwin and Turing had both discovered, in their different ways, was the existence of competence without comprehension. (…)

Turing, like Darwin, broke down the mystery of intelligence (or Intelligent Design) into what we might call atomic steps of dumb happenstance, which, when accumulated by the millions, added up to a sort of pseudo-intelligence. (…)

We still haven’t arrived at “real” understanding in robots, but we are getting closer. That, at least, is the conviction of those of us inspired by Turing’s insight. The trickle-down theorists are sure in their bones that no amount of further building will ever get us to the real thing. They think that a Cartesian res cogitans, a thinking thing, cannot be constructed out of Turing’s building blocks. And creationists are similarly sure in their bones that no amount of Darwinian shuffling and copying and selecting could ever arrive at (real) living things. They are wrong, but one can appreciate the discomfort that motivates their conviction.

Turing’s strange inversion of reason, like Darwin’s, goes against the grain of millennia of earlier thought. If the history of resistance to Darwinian thinking is a good measure, we can expect that long into the future, long after every triumph of human thought has been matched or surpassed by “mere machines,” there will still be thinkers who insist that the human mind works in mysterious ways that no science can comprehend.” “
Daniel C. Dennett, American philosopher, writer and cognitive scientist, professor and co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, 'A Perfect and Beautiful Machine': What Darwin's Theory of Evolution Reveals About Artificial Intelligence, The Atlantic, June 22, 2012.
May
24th
Thu
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" "We are the descendants of those who were most successful at finding patterns. This process is called association learning and is fundamental to all animal behavior, from C. elegans to H. sapiens. I call this process patternicity, or the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise.”
Michael Shermer, American science writer, historian of science, founder of The Skeptics Society, The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies — How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths, New York: Times Books, 2011. (tnx Wildcat)
May
12th
Sat
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" “Mythmaking could never discover the origin and meaning of humanity” — and contemporary philosophy is also irrelevant, having “long ago abandoned the foundational questions about human existence.” The proper approach to answering these deep questions is the application of the methods of science, including archaeology, neuroscience and evolutionary biology. Also, we should study insects." "
Edward O. Wilson, American biologist, researcher in sociobiology, biodiversity, theorist, naturalist and author, paraphrased by Paul Bloom in The Original Colonists, The New York Times, May 11, 2012.
Jan
22nd
Sun
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What people haven’t seemed to notice is that on earth, of all the billions of species that have evolved, only one has developed intelligence to the level of producing technology. Which means that kind of intelligence is really not very useful. It’s not actually, in the general case, of much evolutionary value. We tend to think, because we love to think of ourselves, human beings, as the top of the evolutionary ladder, that the intelligence we have, that makes us human beings, is the thing that all of evolution is striving toward. But what we know is that that’s not true.

Obviously it doesn’t matter that much if you’re a beetle, that you be really smart. If it were, evolution would have produced much more intelligent beetles. We have no empirical data to suggest that there’s a high probability that evolution on another planet would lead to technological intelligence.
Tim Maudlin, (B.A. Yale, Physics and Philosophy; Ph.D. Pittsburgh, History and Philosophy of Science), ☞ What Happened Before the Big Bang? The New Philosophy of Cosmology, The Atlantic, Jan 2012.
Dec
29th
Thu
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Evolution is no linear family tree, but change in the single multidimensional being that has grown to cover the entire surface of Earth.
Lynn Margulis, American biologist and University Professor in the Department of Geosciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst (1938-2011), What Is Life?, University of California Press, 2000.
Nov
7th
Mon
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" "Maybe we should be open-minded about the obverse possibility – that we hit the buffers because our brains don’t have enough conceptual grasp. (…) Einstein averred that “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible. He was right to be astonished. Our minds, evolved to cope with the life of our remote ancestors on the African savannah. It’s amazing these minds can comprehend so much of the counterintuitive microworld of atoms, and phenomena billions of lightyears away. (…)

To survive this century, we’ll need the idealistic and effective efforts of natural scientists, environmentalists, social scientists and humanists. They must be guided by the best evidence, but inspired by values from beyond the limits of science.” “
Lord Rees, British cosmologist and astrophysicist, former President of the Royal Society, Lord Rees explores ‘limits of science’ in Romanes Lecture, University of Oxford, Nov 3, 2011. See also: ☞ video of full lecture (transcript (pdf)).
Oct
4th
Tue
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Human Evolution: No Easy Fix


We may be doomed as a species precisely because of the way in which our complexity arose. (…)

So, it seems, complexity is not really naturally selected, but instead arises as a short-term fix to the effects of selection inefficiency. At first reading, this assertion seems counterintuitive, but the root of the paradox is simply our dogmatic way of thinking, where complex traits are expected to be an outcome of natural selection.” “
Ariel Fernandez, Argentinian-American physical chemist who held the Karl F. Hasselmann Professorship of Bioengineering at Rice University, Human Evolution: No Easy Fix, Project Syndicate, 3 Oct 2011
Sep
16th
Fri
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Robert Bellah on human evolution, culture and religion

"“Nothing is ever lost” means that what we are now goes all the way back through natural history. We are biological organisms and not simply computerized brains. By focusing totally on the present, thinking only about science and computers, and forgetting four billion years of life on this planet, we are losing perspective on who and what we are. We’re running great risks of doing things that will not be good for us. The cost can be very high indeed if we reach the point where we can’t adapt to our own increasingly rapid adaptations. We run the risk of early extinction. So this certainly isn’t a triumphalist story, but it is trying to get at what, in the very long run, leads to the amazing creatures that we are. (…)

I discovered the cognitive neuroscientist Merlin Donald’s notion that human culture, in evolutionary terms, moves from episodic, to mimetic, to mythic, to theoretic—that made all kinds of sense. To some extent, ontogeny repeats phylogeny, because children go through something like the same thing. So it’s a deeply interdisciplinary study. I’m drawing on biologists, evolutionary psychologists, and child-development researchers all in order to understand the deep roots of what would ultimately become religion.”

Robert Bellah, American sociologist, now the Elliott Professor of Sociology, Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, interviewed by Nathan SchneiderNothing is ever lost: an interview with Robert Bellah, The Immanent Frame, Sept 14th, 2011
Sep
14th
Wed
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What is the significance of the Internet and today’s communications revolution for the evolution of the mind?

Steven Pinker: “Probably not much. (…) In terms of strict biological evolution, it’s impossible to know where, if anywhere, our species is going. Natural selection generally takes hundreds of thousands of years to do anything interesting, and we don’t know what our situation will be like in ten thousand or even one thousand years. Also, selection adapts organism to a niche, usually a local environment, and the human species moves all over the place and lurches from life style to life style with dizzying speed on the evolutionary timetable. Revolutions in human life like the agricultural, industrial, and information revolutions occur so quickly that no one can predict whether the change they will have on our makeup, or even whether there will be a change.

The Internet does create a kind of supra-human intelligence, in which everyone on the planet can exchange information rapidly, a bit like the way different parts of a single brain can exchange information. This is not a new process; it’s been happening since we evolved language. Even non-industrial hunter-gatherer tribes pool information by the use of language. (…)

That has given them remarkable local technologies—ways of trapping animals, using poisons, chemically treating plant foods to remove the bitter toxins, and so on. That is also a collective intelligence that comes from accumulating discoveries over generations, and pooling them amongst a group of people living at one time. Everything that’s happened since, such as writing, the printing press, and now the Internet, are ways of magnifying something that our species already knew how to do, which is to pool expertise by communication. Language was the real innovation in our biological evolution; everything since has just made our words travel farther or last longer.” “
Steven Pinker, Canadian-American experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist and linguist, ☞ Organs of Computation, Edge, January 11, 1997
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Steven Pinker: ‘The mind doesn’t work by fluid under pressure or by flows of energy; it works by information’

“Most of the assumptions about the mind that underlie current discussions are many decades out of date. Take the hydraulic model of Freud, in which psychic pressure builds up in the mind and can burst out unless it’s channeled into appropriate pathways. That’s just false. The mind doesn’t work by fluid under pressure or by flows of energy; it works by information.

[L]ook at the commentaries on human affairs by pundits and social critics. They say we’re “conditioned” to do this, or “brainwashed” to do that, or “socialized” to believe such and such. Where do these ideas come from? From the behaviorism of the 1920’s, from bad cold war movies from the 1950’s, from folklore about the effects of family upbringing that behavior genetics has shown to be false. The basic understanding that the human mind is a remarkably complex processor of information, an “organ of extreme perfection and complication,” to use Darwin’s phrase, has not made it into the mainstream of intellectual life. (…)

You can’t understand the mind only by looking directly at the brain. (…) The difference comes from the ways in which hundreds of millions of neurons are wired together to process information. I see the brain as a kind of computer—not like any commercial computer made of silicon, obviously, but as a device that achieves intelligence for some of the same reasons that a computer achieves intelligence, namely processing of information. (…)

I also believe that the mind is not made of Spam—it has a complex, heterogeneous structure. It is composed of mental organs that are specialized to do different things, like seeing, controlling hands and feet, reasoning, language, social interaction, and social emotions. Just as the body is divided into physical organs, the mind is divided into mental organs.” “
Steven Pinker, Canadian-American experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist and linguist, ☞ Organs of Computation, Edge, January 11, 1997
Sep
8th
Thu
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Subtle rearrangements along its tiny, ancient [DNA] spiral will produce the majesty of a strolling sauropod 20 meters high, and also the delicate gem of an iridescent green dragonfly, and the frozen immaculacy of a white orchid petal, and of course the intricacies of the human mind. All from such a tiny semi-crystal.
Kevin Kelly, writer, the founding executive editor of Wired magazine, and a former editor/publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog, What Technology Wants, New York: Viking, The Penguin Group, 2010 See also: ☞ Kevin Kelly on Technology, or the Evolution of Evolution
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Kevin Kelly: Homo sapiens is a tendency, not an entity. Humanity is a process

A Thousand Years of Helmet Evolution

"As fast as we remake our tools, we remake ourselves. We are co-evolving with our technology, and so we have become deeply dependent on it. (…)

Our human nature itself is a malleable crop that we planted 50,000 years ago and continue to garden even today. (…)

Homo sapiens is a tendency, not an entity. Humanity is a process. Always was, always will be. Every living organism is on its way to becoming. (…) The technium and its constituent technologies are more like a grand process than a grand artifact. Nothing is complete, all is in flux, and the only thing that counts is the direction of movement. (…)

Technologies are like organisms that require a sequence of developments to reach a particular stage. Inventions follow this uniform developmental sequence in every civilization and society, independent of human genius. You can’t effectively jump ahead when you want to. But when the web of supporting technological species are in place, an invention will erupt with such urgency that it will occur to many people at once. The progression of inventions is in many ways the march toward forms dictated by physics and chemistry in a sequence determined by the rules of complexity. We might call this technology’s imperative.”

Kevin Kelly, writer, the founding executive editor of Wired magazine, and a former editor/publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog, What Technology Wants, New York: Viking, The Penguin Group, 2010. More in ☞ Kevin Kelly on Technology, or the Evolution of Evolution