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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

Mar
27th
Wed
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The generic human need to make and listen to music, for instance, might be explained at the level of evolutionary psychology, but the emergence of the classical symphony certainly cannot. In fact, the insistence on finding explanations of cultural difference in terms of biological evolution exactly misses the point of the great evolutionary innovation represented by Homo sapiens, the massive development of non-genetic learning.
Bernard Williams, English moral philosopher, described by The Times as the “most brilliant and most important British moral philosopher of his time.” (1929-2003), Truth and Truthfulness, Princeton University Press, 2002, p. 28.
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.
Mar
19th
Mon
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What if we’re not, in fact, meant to have language and music? (…) The reason we have such a head for language and music is not that we evolved for them, but, rather, that language and music evolved—culturally evolved over millennia—for us. Our brains aren’t shaped for these pinnacles of humankind. (…) These pinnacles of humankind are shaped to be good for our brains. (…)

They’d have to possess the auditory structure of…nature. That is, we have auditory systems which have evolved to be brilliantly capable at processing the sounds from nature, and language and music would need to mimic those sorts of sounds in order to harness—to “nature-harness,” as I call it—our brain. (…) Human speech sounds like solid objects events, and music sounds like human behavior. (…)

Being human today is quite a different thing than being the original Homo sapiens. (…) Unlike Homo sapiens, we’re grown in a radically different petri dish. Our habitat is filled with cultural artifacts—the two heavyweights being language and music—designed to harness our brains’ ancient capabilities and transform them into new ones.

Humans are more than Homo sapiens. Humans are Homo sapiens who have been nature-harnessed into an altogether novel creature, one designed in part via natural selection, but also in part via cultural evolution.
Mar
5th
Mon
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The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences.
Ruth Benedict, American anthropologist, cultural relativist, and folklorist (1887-1948)
Dec
25th
Sun
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Social evolution may have sculpted us not to be innovators and creators as much as to be copiers


“If we think that humans have evolved as social learners, we might be surprised to find out that being social learners has made us less intelligent than we might like to think we are. And here’s the reason why. (…) I can choose among the best of those ideas, without having to go through the process of innovation myself. So, for example, if I’m trying to make a better spear, I really have no idea how to make that better spear. But if I notice that somebody else in my society has made a very good spear, I can simply copy him without having to understand why. (…) We like to think we’re a highly inventive, innovative species. But social learning means that most of us can make use of what other people do, and not have to invest the time and energy in innovation ourselves. (…)

As our societies get larger and larger, there’s no need, in fact, there’s even less of a need for any one of us to be an innovator, whereas there is a great advantage for most of us to be copiers, or followers. (…) If we imagine that there’s some small probability that someone is a creator or an innovator, and the rest of us are followers, we can see that one or two people in a band is enough for the rest of us to copy, and so we can get on fine. And, because social learning is so efficient and so rapid, we don’t need all to be innovators. We can copy the best innovations, and all of us benefit from those. (…)

I want to go further, and suggest that our mechanism for generating ideas maybe couldn’t even be much better than random itself. And this really gives us a different view of ourselves as intelligent organisms. Rather than thinking that we know the answers to everything, could it be the case that the mechanism that our brain uses for coming up with new ideas is a little bit like the mechanism that our genes use for coming up with new genetic variance, which is to randomly mutate ideas that we have, or to randomly mutate genes that we have. (…)

We think of ourselves as so intelligent. But when we really ask ourselves about the nature of any evolutionary process, we have to ask ourselves whether it could be any better than random, because in fact, random might be the best strategy. (…)

We know they’re random in the genetic case. We think they’re random in the case of neurons exploring connections in our brain. And I want to suggest that our own creative process might be pretty close to random itself. And that our brains might be whirring around at a subconscious level, creating ideas over and over and over again, and part of our subconscious mind is testing those ideas. And the ones that leak into our consciousness might feel like they’re well-formed, but they might have sorted through literally a random array of ideas before they got to our consciousness. (…)

Maybe curiosity means trying out all sorts of ideas in your mind. Maybe curiosity is a passion for trying out ideas. Maybe Einstein’s ideas were just as random as everybody else’s, but he kept persisting at them. (…) We might even wonder if the people in our history and in our lives that we say are the great innovators really are more innovative, or are just lucky.” “
Mark Pagel, Professor of Evolutionary Biology, Reading University, England and The Santa Fe Institute, ☞ Infinite Stupidity. Social evolution may have sculpted us not to be innovators and creators as much as to be copiers, Edge, Dec 16, 2011
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
20th
Tue
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Steven Pinker: ‘Today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species’ time on Earth’

“Drawing on the work of the archaeologist Lawrence Keeley, Steven Pinker recently concluded that the chance of our ancient hunter-gatherer ancestors meeting a bloody end was somewhere between 15% and 60%. In the 20th century, which included two world wars and the mass killers Stalin and Hitler, the likelihood of a European or American dying a violent death was less than 1%.

Pinker shows that, with notable exceptions, the long-term trend for murder and violence has been going down since humans first developed agriculture 10,000 years ago. And it has dropped steeply since the Middle Ages. It may come as a surprise to fans of Inspector Morse but Oxford in the 1300s, Pinker tells us, was 110 times more murderous than it is today. With a nod to the German sociologist Norbert Elias, Pinker calls this movement away from killing the “civilising process”.”
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
Sep
8th
Thu
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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
May
27th
Fri
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Luciano Floridi on The Digital Revolution as a Fourth Revolution

(Illustration: Tom Jellett, source: The Australian)

“Oversimplifying, science has two fundamental ways of changing our understanding: one extrovert, or about the world, and the other introvert, or about ourselves. Three scientific revolutions have had great impact both extrovertly and introvertly. In changing our understanding of the external world they also modified our internal conception of who we are. After Copernicus, the heliocentric cosmology displaced the Earth and hence humanity from the centre of the universe. Darwin showed that all species of life have evolved over time from common ancestors through natural selection, thus displacing humanity from the centre of the biological kingdom. And following Freud, we acknowledge nowadays that the mind is also unconscious and subject to the defence mechanism of repression. So we are not immobile, at the centre of the universe (Copernican revolution), we are not unnaturally separate and diverse from the rest of the animal kingdom (Darwinian revolution), and we are very far from being purely rational minds entirely transparent to ourselves (Freudian revolution).

Freud was the first to interpret these three revolutions as part of a single process of reassessment of human nature, and his perspective was blatantly self-serving. But replace Freud with neuroscience, and we can still find the framework useful to explain the widespread intuition that something very significant and profound has recently happened to our self-understanding. Since the fifties, computer science and ICTs have exercised both an extrovert and an introvert influence, fundamentally changing not only our interactions with the world, but also our essential views about who we are. We no longer interpret ourselves as standalone entities, but rather as interconnected informational organisms or inforgs, sharing with biological, artificial and hybrid agents and engineered artefacts a global environment, ultimately made of information, the infosphere. (…)

The digital revolution is therefore best understood as a fourth revolution, in the process of dislocation and reassessment of our fundamental nature and role in the universe. As far as we know, we are the only semantic engines in the universe. We were born to be inforgs and we have been pursuing our informational agenda relentlessly at least since the Bronze Age, the era that marks the invention of writing in Mesopotamia and other regions of the world (4th millennium BC). (…)

The digital revolution is updating our everyday perspective on ourselves and on the ultimate nature of reality, that is, our metaphysics, from a materialist one, in which physical objects and processes play a key role, to an informational one. Objects and processes are increasingly seen as de-physicalised, in the sense that they tend to be treated as support-independent (consider a music file). They are typified, in the sense that an instance of an object (my copy of a music file) is as good as its type (the music file of which my copy is an instance). And they are assumed to be perfectly clonable by default, in the sense that my copy and your original become interchangeable. Less stress on the physical nature of objects and processes means that the right of use is perceived to be at least as important as the right to own. P2P does not mean Pirate to Pirate but Platonist to Platonist, for it is the immaterial nature of things that underpins the phenomenon. Finally, the criterion for existence – what it means for something to exist – is no longer being actually immutable (the Greeks thought that only that which does not change can be said to exist fully), or being potentially subject to perception (modern philosophy insisted on something being perceivable by the five senses in order to qualify as existing), but being potentially subject to interaction, even if intangible. To be is to be interactable, even if the interaction is only virtual. (…)

During the last decade or so, we have become accustomed to conceptualising our life online as a mixture between an evolutionary adaptation of human agents to a digital environment, and a form of post-modern, neo-colonization of that space by us. Yet the truth is that the digital revolution is as much changing our world as it is creating new realities. The threshold between here (analogue, carbon-based, off-line) and there (digital, silicon-based, online) is fast becoming blurred, but this is as much to the advantage of the latter as it is of the former.

The digital is spilling over into the analogue and merging with it. This increasing informatization of artefacts, identities and of whole (social) environments and life activities suggests that soon it will be difficult to understand what life was like in pre-digital times and, in the near future, the very distinction between online and offline will disappear.

To put it dramatically, the infosphere is progressively absorbing any other space. We live “onlife” and your Nike and iPod have been talking to each other for some time. (…)

Our view of the world (our metaphysics) is still modern or Newtonian: it is made of “dead” cars, buildings, furniture, clothes, fridges, which are non-interactive, irresponsive and incapable of communicating, learning, or recording. But in advanced information societies, what we still experience as the world offline is bound to become a fully interactive and more responsive environment of wireless, pervasive, distributed, a2a (anything to anything) information processes, that works a4a (anywhere for anytime), in real time. As a consequence, we shall be living in an infosphere that will become increasingly synchronized (time), delocalised (space) and correlated (interactions). This will first gently invite us to understand the world as something “a- live” (artificially live). Things are increasingly less inanimate, yet their new “souls” are digital. This digital animation of the world will then, paradoxically, make our outlook closer to that of pre-technological cultures, which interpreted all aspects of nature as inhabited by forces. Only Odysseus could string his mythical bow. Today, only a user wearing a special ring with a unique matching code can unlock the trigger of an iGun™. (…)

The best way of tackling the new ethical challenges posed by the digital revolution is probably from an environmental approach, yet not one that privileges the natural or untouched, but one that treats as authentic and genuine all forms of existence and behaviour, even those based on synthetic and engineered artefacts. This sort of synthetic e-nvironmentalism requires a change in our perspective about the relationship between physis (nature, reality) and techne (practical science and its applications). (…)

The digital revolution can help us in our fight against the destruction, impoverishment, vandalism and waste of both natural and human resources, including historical and cultural ones. We should resist any Greek tendency to treat techne as the Cinderella of science; any absolutist inclination to accept no moral balancing between some unavoidable evil and more goodness; and any modern, reactionary, metaphysical temptation to drive a wedge between naturalism and constructionism, by privileging the former as the only authentic dimension of human life. The challenge is to reconcile our roles as informational organisms and agents within nature, and as stewards of nature.” “
Luciano Floridi, MPhil. and PhD, MA University of Oxford, currently holds the Research Chair in philosophy of information and the UNESCO Chair in Information and Computer Ethics, both at the University of Hertfordshire, Department of Philosophy, The Digital Revolution as a Fourth Revolution (pdf)
See also: ☞  Luciano Floridi on the future development of the information society
TEDxMaastricht talk – Luciano Floridi
Mar
27th
Sun
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Poetry is an anthropological thing, like counting. We’re programmed this way.
Hans Magnus Enzensberger, German author, poet, translator, and editor cited in Writers’ Festival: German poet morally centered, The Prague Post, June 16, 2010.
Mar
25th
Fri
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Mark Changizi: The path to enhancing our brains is not to change or add to it, but to harness it in altogether novel fashions

“As I recently discussed in a “manifesto” of sorts, the key to our future human development will be technology that harnesses our brain’s evolved functional powers. That’s how we got to be the humans we take ourselves to be today, so radically different from our essentially genetically identical Homo sapiens ancestors. Chief among those differences are writing, speech, and music (arguably the pinnacle of the arts) – I argue in my research and books that cultural selection has acted over time to shape these core artifacts to fit our brains like a glove, redirecting brilliant ancestral powers into modern ones. We read, for example, not because we evolved by natural selection to read, but because writing culturally evolved to be shaped like the fundamental contour combinations found in natural scenes (I call it nature-harnessing), just what our visual system is optimized to process.

This “harnessing humans” vision is an intrinsically humanistic one, and is in stark contrast to the “sci-fi” flavor of the artificial-brains prognosticators. In fact, rather than sci-fi, my viewpoint is best illustrated by another genre of fiction: fantasy, and, in particular, the magic found within it. (…)

The biologically innate powers hundreds of millions of years of evolution gave us are like magic. They are ancient, inscrutable and potent, and should be studied, safeguarded and revered. And just as you can’t beat magic with human invention, we cannot hope to out-engineer our brains and bodies.

The human condition has been granted a finite number of “magical powers,” and the best route to moving forward is to exploit those powers in new ways. The path to enhancing our brains is not to change or add to it, but to harness it in altogether novel fashions.

In my “manifesto” I suggested that via understanding how culture harnessed us we are in a better position to intentionally harness our brains more effectively, with the hope of tapping into powers far beyond that which any artificial brain is likely to wield for a long, long time." "
Mark Changizi (evolutionary neurobiologist, cognitive scientist, aiming to grasp the ultimate foundations underlying why we think, feel and see as we do), Harnessing Humans, Forbes, March 25, 2011. See also: Mark Changizi on Humans, Version 3.0
Feb
26th
Sat
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We are so used to the notion of our own inevitability as life’s dominant species that it is hard to grasp that we are here only because of timely extraterrestrial bangs and other random flukes. The one thing we have in common with all other living things is that for nearly four billions years our ancestors have managed to slip through a series of closing doors every time we needed them to.
Feb
23rd
Wed
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Mark Changizi on Humans, Version 3.0.


The next giant leap in human evolution may not come from new fields like genetic engineering or artificial intelligence, but rather from appreciating our ancient brains.

“It is this unheralded mechanism that will usher in the next stage of human, giving future people exquisite powers we do not currently possess, powers worthy of natural selection itself. And, importantly, it doesn’t require us to transform into cyborgs or bio-engineered lab rats. It merely relies on our natural bodies and brains functioning as they have for millions of years.

This mystery mechanism of human transformation is neuronal recycling, coined by neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene, wherein the brain’s innate capabilities are harnessed for altogether novel functions.

This view of the future of humankind is grounded in an appreciation of the biologically innate powers bestowed upon us by hundreds of millions of years of evolution. This deep respect for our powers is sometimes lacking in the sciences, where many are taught to believe that our brains and bodies are taped-together, far-from-optimal kluges. (…)

These and other inborn capabilities we take for granted are not kluges, they’re not “good enough,” and they’re more than merely smart. They’re astronomically brilliant in comparison to anything humans are likely to invent for millennia. (…)

Like all animal brains, human brains are not general-purpose universal learning machines, but, instead, are intricately structured suites of instincts optimized for the environments in which they evolved. To harness our brains, we want to let the brain’s brilliant mechanisms run as intended—i.e., not to be twisted. Rather, the strategy is to twist Y into a shape that the brain does know how to process. (…)

There is a very good reason to be optimistic that the next stage of human will come via the form of adaptive harnessing, rather than direct technological enhancement: It has already happened.

We have already been transformed via harnessing beyond what we once were. We’re already Human 2.0, not the Human 1.0, or Homo sapiens, that natural selection made us. We Human 2.0’s have, among many powers, three that are central to who we take ourselves to be today: writing, speech, and music (the latter perhaps being the pinnacle of the arts). Yet these three capabilities, despite having all the hallmarks of design, were not a result of natural selection, nor were they the result of genetic engineering or cybernetic enhancement to our brains. Instead, and as I argue in both The Vision Revolution and my forthcoming Harnessed, these are powers we acquired by virtue of harnessing, or neuronal recycling. (…)

After all, the change from Human 1.0 to 2.0 is nothing short of universe-rattling: It transformed a clever ape into a world-ruling technological philosopher.

Although the step from Human 1.0 to 2.0 was via cultural selection, not via explicit human designers, does the transformation to Human 3.0 need to be entirely due to a process like cultural evolution, or might we have any hope of purposely guiding our transformation? (…)

The point is, most science fiction gets all this wrong. While the future may be radically “futuristic,” with our descendants having breathtaking powers we cannot fathom, it probably won’t be because they evolved into something new, or were genetically modified, or had AI-chip enhancements. Those powerful beings will simply be humans, like you and I. But they’ll have been nature-harnessed in ways we cannot anticipate, the magic latent within each of us used for new, brilliant Human 3.0 capabilities.” “
Mark Changizi (cognitive scientist, author), Humans, Version 3.0., SEED.com, Feb 23, 2011 See also: Prof. Stanislas Dehaene, "How do humans acquire novel cultural skills? The neuronal recycling model", LSE Institute | Nicod, (Picture source: Rzeczpospolita)