Saturday, 15 February 2014

The Evolution of Intelligence and the Nye-Ham debate

Like many other people I have seen the debate “Is creation a viable model of origins in today's modern, scientific era? between Bill Nye and Ken Ham and I have my opinions about the views expressed. As a scientist and an atheist my views on the scientifically deduced origins of the universe, of life, and the scientific tools that have been developed to tell us about them are similar to Bill Nye and I agreed with the views he put forward. Every time Ken Ham used the Bible to support his view that everything was created by some supernatural being in six days about 6000 years ago I felt like laughing about how anyone could be so stupid.

I have read many reviews of the debate which take a similar point of view and which dismiss Ken Ham, and the Creation Museum which he runs as a fraud. They ridicule his plans to build an arc to model the one Noah is said to have built at the time of the alleged Biblical flood, and his interpretation of the "kinds" of animal that he wants to put into it. However there are Creationists who think that Bill Nye is totally wrong because he did not recognise the obvious truth as revealed by the Bible.

But who is right? As a human I obviously back Bill Nye, because one of the limitation of the human brain is the tendency to confirmation bias, and Bill and I have many common views about the issue so his views reinforce mine. But I am also a scientist, and as Bill was promoting the scientific view of the world surely I must support him. Perhaps? But scientists are supposed to be objective and should not prejudge an issue but stand back and look at what was going on in the debate in a dispassionate manner. And as a scientist who is interested in the evolution of the brain I am aware that such extreme differences in viewpoint are not confined to the debating floor, but that wars have been fought between people whose views of the world differ violently. But we all have the same brain - so how can we differ so vehemently?

Let us take a simple less contentious example.

I have lived most of my life in England and I know a robin when I see one on my bird table. I have a nest box which they have used, and I love to see the newly fledged young birds being feed by their parents every summer. I know what a robin is and can recognise them anywhere.

I have also worked in Australia and the Australians are fine upstanding people who can always be trusted - because they know what a robin is. You only have to look at an Australian robin to immediately recognise it. It is the right shape and size and moves around in the vegetation in exactly the way one might expect. Of course it doesn't have a red breast - they actually come in a variety of different colours - but of course the colour of the feathers is only a superficial matter.

I have also visited North America and the people who live there must all be idiots. They think this bird is a robin when any fool can immediately recognise it as a species of thrush. I find it hard to imagine how anyone who knows anything about anything could make such an obvious mistake. The only similarity is that it has a red breast and as I have already pointed out (it doesn't seem how many time have you to say something  some people just don't want to listen) the colour of the feathers is only superficial.

So now you know why I trust Australians and think Americans are fools. ...

But wait a minute. I am being inconsistent. When listening to the Nye/Ham debate I trusted Bill Nye to tell the truth - AND HE IS AN AMERICAN, and I thought Ken Ham was a fool - AND HE IS AN AUSTRALIAN! What has gone wrong?

What is happening in the brain? We don't all have an identical dedicated spot in our head to store a concept labelled "Robin." Each of us will have an amorphous network of memories which will include the memory of the word "Robin." One of my earliest memories may well have been the children's poem "Who killed Cock Robin" and my mental images may have been shaped by the fact that when I was at boarding school I often walked in the woods where David Lack had done the pioneering work described in "The Life of the Robin." While we may agree on the word "Robin" and use it in similar contexts our individual mental networks will be unique and may not have a lot in common. An Australian robin is compatible with my personal mental image of a robin, while a North American robin is not.

And if Bill Nye and Ken Ham have virtually identical biologically evolved brains we need to ask why the way they view the world they share with us in such different and logically incompatible ways. Again a personal example helps to pinpoint the problem.

The concept of mirror neurons suggests that the same parts of our brain's neural network may be involved when we perceive or do something, and when we think of it, but the way this happens can vary from person to person. When we think of something as being "blue" are our brains interpreting the world in the same way?. This was brought home to me after the death of one of my daughters and my doctor recommended counselling sessions to help with the post traumatic stress. There was no problem in agreeing with the therapist as to which items were coloured blue. The difficulty arose when she suggested that when I was having difficulty in getting to sleep I should try to think that everything was bathed in waves of blue light. Of course it didn't work. The therapist was working on the assumption that when I was thinking about the concept "blue" this was activating parts of the neural network concerned with vision. However when I tried to follow her advice it was as if a crowd of people were subliminally whispering the "word" blue in my ear, which was not so conductive to sleep.

Clearly Bill Nye's internal brain model of the bible is totally different to Ken's. In Bill's mental model it is just one of a number of very different historical stories, written by people, with no understanding of modern science, in an attempt to explain their origins and history. However Ken and his followers appear to have a mental model in which The Bible is a fundamental truth as important as the truth of “2 + 2 = 4” is to Bill and me.

If we stop paying politics by asking the question “Who is right?” or “Who won the debate?” we are left with the more interesting question “How does does our understanding of the evolution of human intelligence explain why different people have such incompatible views of the world we live in?” If Bill could have played this card – by using our understanding of how the brain has evolved over the last few million years to explain why Ken believed such unrealistic views - he would have a killer argument.

But of course he cannot use such a card because there is a black hole in brain research. There is a vast mountain of knowledge which gives clues as to how the brain works – in many disciplines from neuroscience to philosophy – but you can search the scientific literature in vain for an evolutionary model which explains how activity at the neuron level can lead to activities such as the Nye/Ham debate. And of course a model based on the stored program computer is dangerous as programs require a designer to create them ... playing into the hands of those who argue that “God did it. God was the designer.

May I suggest that the reason why we are having so much trouble in understanding the evolution of intelligence is that we are looking for a modern version of the Philosopher's Stone, and are putting our intelligence on a pedestal as something very special. In contrast we don't say that a super computer is more intelligent that a tiny personal computer – because we know that while one is supercharged with much more and faster memory any intelligence lies in the way they are programmed. May I suggest that our brain, at the neural code level, is no more than a supercharged animal brain, using the same logical mechanisms. We can learn more about how the brain works by looking at the serious limitations of our brains (selective learning, confirmation bias, the unreliability of long term memory, the ability to hold contradictory views, accepting the views of charismatic leaders without question, etc.) than by studying in depth the “very clever” things we do. Only once we understand how an animal brain make decisions, with such potential serious inbuilt limitations when scaled up, should we start to look at how evolution helped the human brain to bootstrap itself up to support minds such a those of scientists such as Bill Nye and creationists such as Ken Ham.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

The War against a powerful enemy - the Climate

We have a powerful enemy who is attacking us with water bombs and has already damaged thousands of houses, disrupted transport, damaged our food supply, and done perhaps billions of pounds damage. Our leaders appear unafraid
Think action can just be delayed
     Yet we see climate change
     Means the weather is strange
And the future, of course, is betrayed
 A year ago the same enemy attacked Australia with heat bombs while the United States has been attacked by wind bombs and more recently ice bombs. What is worse is that the enemy has a paymaster who is providing the means to construct even more powerful weapons. In fact this enemy already has enough resources to continue even more powerful attacks for maybe a hundred years or more.

If this was a human enemy we would have already declared war, and blockaded the paymaster.  But it is not a human enemy. The enemy is the climate, and we are the paymaster by using more and more fossil fuel!

While there may be public relation style sound bytes from our leaders their response to the dangers remind me of Lloyd George's conclusions about the outbreak of the First World War. He wrote:
"The nations slithered over the brink into the boiling cauldron of war without any trace of apprehension or dismay."
The problem is that we are all trapped in boxes which restrict our options. Most obviously we cannot run away from the Earth to some other heavenly body. And while there is talk about the problem at the International and national levels what is actually done shows that our leaders have no real understanding of the seriousness of the emergency but, like Nero, fiddle away playing their own factional tunes.

At the grass roots level we are (nearly all) addicted to paying the paymaster, while those we elect to rule us are addicted to the ballot box, and pander to the strident calls of those who have not yet suffered in the attacks. Few are capable of demonstrating competence in science and appear to have learnt their leadership skills from the Duke of Plaza-Toro who In enterprise of martial kind, When there was any fighting, He led his regiment from behind (He found it less exciting).

This means that they will kowtow to those who have suffered, rather than organize a planned retreat to a defensible position. It will be interesting to see the long term (= up to next election) reactions to the current floods. If I buy a shop and then go out of business because a new supermarket is built nearby nobody pays me compensation. People who have bet on a looser, even if it looked to be a dead cert, are loosers. That is a fact of life. If someone buys a house on a flood plain because they like to be near a river and changes in the flow of the river make it it uninhabitable in the long term that should be their hard luck. Of course money needs to be spent on fighting the enemy, but this can only be done if we draw suitable battle lines, as would be done if we were fighting a "real war" with human enemies. If some areas along the coast and along our river banks have to become no mans land it will avoid us pouring good money after bad.

We must also stop spending billions preparing to fight the last war, with billions being spent on Trident - and new aircraft carries when we are getting on quite well at present without one. Plans to build more airports (which are efficient ways of paying the climates paymaster) need to be reconsidered. Silly ideas of building one on tidal flats should be laughed out of court. If in the First World War someone had proposed building an airfield in no mans land they would probably have been shot for treason - but perhaps not as Lloyd George's quote really illustrates that the idea of having incompetent leaders is nothing new.

We also have to stop paying the paymaster as individuals. In 1990 I flew To Australia in a Box. The purpose of the journey was to provide a system which would hold and index scientific information on issues relating to climate change and on the way I wrote an article relating to the impact my journey was having on the environment. However my journey was wasted as the project was cancelled as being unnecessary, apparently because our leaders considered that it would never happen.

If we are ever to win the battle against an increasingly unpredictable and unfriendly climate we need real leaders at the helm - and not ones who are unable to put the common good against narrow sectional interests.

Some Hope ...

Saturday, 8 February 2014

During the 1970s I didn't know I was being mansplained!

Mansplain- delighting in condescending, inaccurate explanations delivered with rock solid confidence of rightness and that slimy certainty that of course he is right, because he is the man in this conversation……. To explain in a patronizing manner, assuming total ignorance on the part of those listening. The mansplainer is often shocked and hurt when their mansplanation is not taken as absolute fact, criticized or even rejected altogether (Urban Dictionary, 2013).
Of course one of the reasons I didn't know is the word hadn't been invented - and I had never heard of it until I read a post on Paige West's blog entitled My Year in Mansplaining. Both the definition, and Paige's post are highly sexist in that they suggest that it mansplaining involves a man putting down a woman that they disagree with. If Paige had been a coloured man I am sure the complaint would have been about racism. It is very easy to assume that if you are in a minority (sex and sexual orintation, race, nationality, disability, etc) the reason that someone put you down is automatically because of your membership of a minority.

In fact the approach is one used by many "experts" who encounter people who have ideas which do not fit into the expert's personal knowledge and beliefs. Experts frequenlty encounter many people whose ideas are based on shaky foundations and for example a professor of physics may not be able to spare much time on explaining, yet again, why perpetual motion machines are impossible. Some will use a pretty unpleasant brush off approach because they do not have the time or inclination to think outside their personal mental box. I run a web site which gives specialist advice on family history and I face a similar problem when people who have never read an elementary guide to genealogy ask a trivial question which they could have found the answer online themselves in seconds if only they had read "the ****ing manual". I try and be polite, helpful  and not condescending, without spending time I cannot really afford, but some of them might well feel I was simply brushing them off.

As a result I have commented on Paige's post, giving details of my own experience as followed:
While sexism may well be part of the problem in some cases my own experience (as a male research scientist) is that the approach is used by many high status academics (and others) to crush new ideas which do not conform to their expectations. It may not be deliberate in that they may be suffering from extreme confirmation bias and have difficulty in understanding “awkward” ideas and it is easier to reject rather than spend time creative thinking.
An example is appropriate relating to the “Artificial Intelligence” research I was doing in the 1970s. The A. I. establishment were researching games with a closed set of well defined rules such chess, and formal logic problems using sophisticated mathematical techniques. I was looking at computer intelligence from a completely different starting point. My research started after I looked at a working commercial system involving about 250,000 customers and 5,000 products, where the problems were a poor human-computer interface, and the fact that real world marketing involves customer contracts, products, government imposed regulations and competitors activities which were continually changing. I set up a prototype system to test out my idea, and much to my surprise I found it was very good at solving many of the formal logic problems one could find in contemporary A. I. Publications.
But could I publish? Of course not! Any papers had to get passed  establishment peer reviewers. Papers which included the result of computer simulations of perhaps a dozen recognised A. I. problems were returned “too theoretical, will never work.” I also got many verbal put downs along the lines that “A.I. is a very specialist field and people with a commercial computer background could not possibly understand it” and “You can't expect us to understand what you are doing because all competent A.I. Software is written in the pop2 computer language.” In desperation I sent a paper to the top U.S. Journal and got a rejection with four anonymous reviews. Two were vicious mansplaining rejections, one reviewer admitted he did not understand it, and one liked it. I was so dispirited that I abandoned any more research in this direction. It was only years later that I found the covering letter and read it right to the end. The editor would have known who the reviewers were, and perhaps their willingness to accept new ideas, and he actually urged me to continue as there was almost certainly something in what I was doing to annoy people so much!

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

More evidence for the braided human evolutionary tree

New DNA studies are being published all the time and the latest have been highlighted in the press - with the journalists looking for short term headlines and missing the main lesson.  The headline relates to the identification of Neanderthal DNA in non-African humans - and the fact that it appears to be related to Chrone's disease, diabetes, etc. Perhaps the best popular account is by the BBC.

Some accounts briefly mention the fact that the genes that have been retained are not randomly distributed but are mainly related to the skin and hair. These are areas which could be connected with living in a colder climate, helping the sapiens newcomers from Africa to more rapidly adapt to the colder European climate.

What none of the popular accounts say is that this represents an important piece of evidence about human evolution. It demonstrates that when two human sub-species interbreed evolution among the offspring can select the most useful features of both species. And if it has been proved to happen once it probably happened many times. There is already evidence of interbreeding with the Denisovans and other as yet unidentified subspecies (at least as fossil remain have been located). I suspect more relevant papers will appear in the not too distant future.

If we consider the environmental changes over the last 3-4 million years there have been numerous changes in the environment in Africa, which means changes affecting both large scale and small scale environmental niches. There will also have been a number of "shock and awe" environmental disasters caused by super volcanoes disrupting the food chain. Faced with such challenges a species with a degree of intelligence and a simple but effective culture which includes primitive tool making is likely to split into groups which move into different ecological niches. Some might be pursuit hunters of larger animals, some might trap fish in rivers, while others subsist on shell fish in the sea. Some may make more use of tools while others might make more use of vocal calls to communicate while hunting. The case of Darwin's finches - where one species has split into a number which exploit different food sources is well known. Something similar seems to be happening with the orca - where different pods around the world use very different hunting techniques, which are undoubtedly culturally related in what is clearly a very intelligent species.

If the "tribes" of early hominins remain separated for long enough each will start to evolve changes which suit their chosen niche, and the most successful will survive. When interbreeding occurs the "hybrid" next generation will combine features from both parents, and over the following generations the best combination of features will be selected - as we now know happened when modern man met up with Neanderthals. Such splitting and recombining would allow different features to develop in parallel - and also provide a test bed where some features,  present in some fossil species, could be tried out and found wanting.

If we assume that human subspecies can still interbreed with some success after being separated an average of a quarter of a million years this allows a dozen iterations in the last three million years, with Homo sapiens being a particularly successful hybrid about 200,000 years ago.

Monday, 3 February 2014

What do human and chimp genes tell us about the brain?

Adam Benton has recently posted Chimps have undergone more positive selection than humans which includes the following diagram showing the changes in genes between chimps and humans.
Where the positively selected genes are expressed in both chimps and humans
Where the positively selected genes are expressed in both chimps and humans
I have posted the following comment:
What is really interesting is that there is no major peak relating to the brain – which suggests that there have been no significant changes to how the brain works – although I suspect that the peak for “immature” is because there have been major changes on this front to allow humans infants to have more time to “load” their brain with learning.
I am working on a model of the brain’s neural code protocol which suggests that it is highly resistant to evolutionary change – and the work so far suggests that the difference between humans and apes is basically one of rate of learning. When cultural know-how of a group reaches a critical level it becomes advantageous to concentrate on copying ones parents and other adults. However trail and error copying is slow, and things would speed up with just a simple language where the adult can explain how to use tools, and not just imitate. And language is just a tool – so if you can talk about better tools language can also bootstrap itself to higher levels over the generations.
To speed up the process even more, it the infant brain uncritically accepts language as the main tool, and language starts to use abstract terms, learning is greatly accelerated. (i.e. if you can tell a child what characterizes a mammal he does not have to learn about lots of different mammals.).
My works suggesting possibly three explosive changes leading to our current levels of intelligence – none of which mean any significant change in the neural code mechanism. (1) simple language allows better tools (2) language expands to allow abstract terms – allowing more information to be packed into less learning time (3) people specialize so that it is not longer necessary for everyone to learn the complete cultural package. The first two would lead to pressure to evolve a bigger brain to hold more cultural information. The third actually frees some of the brain’s capacity to diversify into imaginative tasks such as music and the arts which may have no obvious evolutionary advantages (apart from selection of a sexual partner).
There is a side issue relating to some of the clever Chimps in captivity – as if the big difference between humans and chimps (apart form brain size) relates to the way the adults train the children, it would seem possible that chimps which have been taught by humans will lean more effectively that chimps brought up by their chimp parents.
So do you agree that the results you give suggest that the main differences between human and human brains are the capacity and they why information is conveyed between generations.
Adam replied:
I have written about some research that indicates in many ways the human brain is a scaled up chimp brain, so I can see how not a lot of genetic change would be needed to produce our noggin. So in essence I agree with you, although I hadn’t really considered the way information is conveyed. Now you bring it up though it does seem kinda obvious

Humans are good at uncritically accepting what they are told!

I have just been reading a discussion post by Maxi-Pad entitled

Science channels, If they show it, It must be true

in which he says:
I have been having a very interesting (by interesting meaning mostly ridiculous) conversation with a coworker who believes in the bible literally and that the universe is 6,000 years old. We can get pass the "don't even talk to people like her, it is pointless." However, as we kept conversating, she proceeded to tell me that she does believe in ghosts. When I asked her why she simply replied "well, don't you? They have all these shows in National Geographic and all the science channels, If they say it, it has to be true. Thats what the channels are about." I was shocked. I proceeded to tell her that just because something is shown on TV, it doesn't mean its true. She was very surprised to hear that and proceeded to ask me how is that possible. That is the moment I realized that there actually are people out there that believe everything they see on TV just because the channels claim to be science channels.
This is obviously impacting the science community with almost no effort it feels. I would like to know any thoughts or ideas about this, or even what can we do to make people like this woman who was never properly taught from a young age to just learn to question.
I replied:

Lets be honest. Most things that most people "know" is taken on trust from what other people (including books, TV, etc) tell them.
If we think about the evolution of the brain the critical factor relating to the size of the brain is learning time. There is a limit to what you can learn by simple trial and error copying. Once a species can support a culture which provides better survival prospects the faster it can learn from other members of the species the better. So once language started it provided a very quick route to absorb cultural information. Evolution meant that the human brain responded by providing an express learning route - if someone tells you something learn it without question - because (on average) it is far better than anything you can learn by personal trial and error experiments.
My work on the brain's neural code suggests that the brain's basic mechanism is automatically slanted towards what psychologists call confirmation bias. Put the two things together and the human brain is prone to "follow my leader" and be strongly influenced by the first things it learns - which acts as a filter to only accept things which it has know are "true" for a long time. And because a child's brain is optimized to suck in new information at speed there is no checking real checking that information from different sources is logically consistent.
Our brain is not, at the biological level, optimized to understanding sophisticated mathematical logic. If a child is repeatedly told, at a receptive age, that anything which disagrees with the bible is illogical, and that everything that supports the idea that the world was created a few thousand years is true we should not assume that the resulting adult is stupid - we should blame the education system that primed their brain with such ideas.