All posts by Paul Watson

BA Zoology and BA Botany, University of Montana, 1981; PhD Behavioral Biology and Ecology, Cornell University, 1988. Adjunct Associate Professor, University of New Mexico Department of Biology, 1991 - present. Special interests: Evolution of sexual and social behavior in animals and humans; evolution of religiosity and psychological pain, esp. unipolar depression. Use of evolutionary psychology as an "objectifying" and therefore potentiating influence in a individual's "spiritual" search and efforts to accentuate compassion.

Homo deus

Power Valued Over Truth

Dear Ed and All,

“We are the ones that create human nature by inculcating cooperation and care over selfishness and power.”

The view you express, Ed, contesting Harari’s claim in Homo deus, seems to edge up closely to the “pre-modern” standard social science of model of human nature, i.e., that it is almost solely a product of culture, with no or minimal influence of naturally selected genes and very fancy naturally selected epigenetic mechanisms for gene regulation. It is the idea that we pretty much are born, mentally, a blank slate. That is demonstrably wrong. There is a deep and mighty pan-cultural, species-typical human nature that impacts all our intrapsychic life and behavior. It is designed only to be impacted in very specific and limited biologically fitness-enhancing ways by local cultural influences. Harari is correct, at least in the sense that our basic nature is only contingently to value truth, that is, only to the extent that it increases our power to generate greater lifetime inclusive fitness.

Yet, and here is where you and I can find, IMO, great and expansive common ground, natural selection in our species created a mind designed to compete in complex multi-partner, multi-currency socioeconomic bargaining, and thus for status (i.e., power), with great acumen, during an ongoing intraspecific arms race with other humans, including close social partners, over the last several hundred thousand years. Importantly, non-trivial metacognition and mentalization (theory of mind) capacities evolved as part of our package of competitive cognitive capacities; these can be used to evaluate, predict, and manipulate others, and to observe and study ourselves. Imaginative capacities and an ability to believe deeply in both fantasy and evidence also evolved to allow us to cohabit “adaptively subjective dreamworlds” (ASD) that hold human groups together. For example, one example of a written down, very dear and pretty darn auspicious ASD is the US Constitution.

Natural selection has zero foresight. This is the only reason we have any chance of beginning to alter how our minds operate. Down the road, once some leaders develop the capacity to make good decisions about how to genetically modify ourselves to be more compassionate and sustainable, probably with the help of evolutionary psychology, a massive program of intentional genetic evolution may be what’s really necessary to get us through our current very dangerous technological adolescence.

Robust, transparent (nonconscious), sly and clever neurological regulatory mechanisms assuredly have evolved to more or less (denoting very slight individual variation in brain development) lock us into making effective and efficient (i.e., powerful) use of our outstanding cognitive abilities to maximize lifetime gene propagation, whether we know this is what we are up to or not.

Yet, this same program of natural selection, epiphenomenally, gave all or most of us the potential — almost always hard won and seldom truly accessed — to employ evolutionarily novel intrapsychic maneuvers, learned from our most sophisticated ancestors, to weaken or “get ahead of” the above-mentioned regulatory mechanisms. Here I am referring to introspective techniques that help us see our own mental operations more objectively, not techniques that just lead to relaxation or greater happiness. This unnaturally objectified seeing can happen in real time (best) or during reflection upon past events (dicey).

An analogy, accidentally constructed by the Wachowskis (?), for using the introspective techniques I’m referring to is vividly given in “The Matrix” trilogy, when Morpheus and his team, eventually especially Neo, purposely send their minds into the matrix via skillful intrapsychic hacking procedures. They are not going in there to sunbathe… even though that would be nice. They cannot. The regulatory mechanisms that already are in place are quite, albeit imperfectly, adaptive in real time. They have the ability to learn. They are seldom are far behind and their prime mandate is to encapsulate or literally destroy the complex neural circuits (i.e, symbolized by Matrix characters like Trinity, Morpheus, Mouse, Sipher) that may collaborate to enable biologically subversive attempts at gaining deep objective self-knowledge. These regulatory mechanisms are key to biologically adaptive neurodevelopment, and they are extraordinarily resourceful and ruthless. They may be limbically based, but any part of the brain can be recruited to help them fulfill their mission, as was “The Matrix” character Sipher.

My own mind largely has been ruined, I feel, by engaging in this process. A lot of my essential “freedom circuitry” has been repeatedly hammered. But, I still believe success is possible for some, particularly if they can learn from the mistakes and rare successes of others. Call it faith in consciousness.

A new analogy has hit me. We are born into a cognitive-emotional prison cell full of delights as well as sources of suffering. (As per astute Buddhist teachings, it’s really all suffering.) But, we may notice that hanging from the ceiling, outside the cell bars but more or less within reach, there are various sets of shiny keys. Usually, one of them opens our cell door. Others keys in the set open additional doors spread throughout an unknown intrapsychic labyrinth. Opening some of those doors triggers an instant alarm, others a delayed alarm, maybe others no alarm at all, especially if the key is inserted and turned correctly. Some sets of keys open doors that lead to traps and cul-de-sacs. You can easily end up in a seemingly nicer jail cell. Or a worse one. Perhaps you can end up in enticing cells, but with no keys hanging outside the bars. It may be hard to tell if one has progressed in any meaningful way.

A legitimate teacher, or cultural tradition, and/or a modern scientific tradition may help us learn something of the labyrinth, and which set of keys to pick that lead to real freedom, or at least time-limited degrees of it. We can learn to go farther and farther.  But the prison is larger and more complex than we typically can conceive, especially anywhere near to our starting position, and especially if we try to do so alone.

Perhaps the best path is right around a nearby intrapsychic corner. But if anyone tells you so, beware. — Paul

PS: I’ll try to post this on our web site, since it took a couple hours to write, and may have some value for our upcoming discussion(s).

See additional Watson posts on our Meetup web site…

… since that seems to be where the discussion on this topic ended up this time around. — PJW

PS: FWIW — having encountered a Wolverine in the wild, finally, in 2014, even as a professional zoologist very interested in the species, my Wolverine meme-complex instantly changed quite drastically. Back at the Biological Station, I was not able to convey how it changed, and everyone else’s Wolverine meme stayed the same, or, if it was modified, could not possibly be like mine. I could tell. Memes are hard to convey and even harder to unify amongst people. This is why you have to threaten eternal damnation to those who cannot take moral memes on board with adequate resemblance to the rest of the in-group. — PJW

Memetics Discussion

Dear All,
Is our next meeting regular BMCAI meetup June 4th? Also, note that I have Cc’ed four of my most recent students on the chance that they might be interested in trying out our group.
I’m happy to be open-minded (part of me is, anyway) and discuss memes and memeplexes, and maybe have my perspectives upgraded. But, I’ve been dealing with the meme-thing since Dawkins came up with it in the selfish gene. It has pretty much gone nowhere within professional evolutionary psychology. Some initial excitement mostly fueled by Dawkin’s articulate charisma. But for the longest time now, very few peer-reviewed papers, very few talks at professional meetings. Even Dawkins seems to downplay the idea now. Maybe a bit embarrassed. Try to get a job specializing in memetics. You’ll probably end up as a priest in a dying religion, or in advertising. Not in academia. Of course, that is not necessarily the ultimate measure of the value of an idea. But there are other ways to mitigate the hold of the meme-concept on certain people.
Remark: I think that the main reason the vague idea of memes still fascinates some folks is that it triggers “religiosity instincts.” Ones that predispose all of us to magical thinking.
Anyway, the biggest problem is that memes are very crappy replicators compared to genes; hell, we cannot even get solid agreement on what a meme is!
Body-brain-mind systems should evolve to take memes (or not!) and be defended against having their memosphere “infected”  by that meme in its pristine primordial form (i.e., the form in which it originally was received). Specifically, every BBM system should take on the meme in a way that is maximally adaptive for that particular gene “survival machine.” For example, we know that taught morals, even if you have a skilled shaman, are very malleable in relation to an individual’s nonconsciously chosen optimal reproductive strategy, as makes perfect sense.
This is why when discussing any moderately complex idea, it is difficult to come to a common understanding. Even to develop a common language. And, even if you think you have done so, that notion is just hypothetical. A matter of faith. A “shared meme” really is evoking very different very different, and highly contingent responses in any collection of people. (Religious professional’s job, traditionally, is to use all possible tricks to minimize those differences, to make as sure as possible that everyone’s BIOS chip has the same code – a big job, thus the complexity of religion.) We cannot even get together on the bloodly “Golden Rule,” can we. Nope — I’m opening today’s New York Times. Looks like even within small regions, “infection” with the Golden Rule still has not occurred, not even within small groups.
Further, there is individually adaptive drift in people’s understanding of any given meme or memeplex. This is one reason why religious teachings have to be given, skillfully, over and over again. It is also why in the context of religion and most other ideological systems “honest signals” of commitment, quality, and need constantly have to be refreshed, renewed (religion helps us get those socially essential job done with high effectiveness and efficiency – one reason it is so popular). Having a somewhat unified understanding of your group’s moral code is critical for the operation of complex contractual reciprocity, pan-culturally the basic human way of life. If you cannot demonstrate that you do, you are less popular, shunned, or just killed. But we can always pretend a bit, risky but potentially profitable in fitness terms.
We could talk a bit about a “learning instinct” (Is it really one? Yes and No.) that, in the context of my evolution of religiosity and human coalitional psychology class, I call “cognitive system zero,” in contrast to CS’s 1 &2. It makes us maximally open to at least medium fidelity recording of meme’s. I also refer to this system and its cognitive-emotional effects as “the mystery instinct,” “the rationality switch,” (too often flipped to the off position in our troubled society), and “mystery mode.” I think we have evolved a cognitive mode, adaptive to the individual and their group (and so back again to the individual; eschew genetic group selection), that makes us maximally receptive to having certain kinds of memes burnt into our BIOS (i.e., not our normal relatively flexible memory systems) using very special procedures, often religious in nature at least for the last 300K+ years, with unusually intra- and inter-individual good fidelity.
The ubiquity, complexity, and nature of religion, IMO, is a testament to the nearly impossible job of getting people to adopt even modestly fitness-relevant memes in a uniform manner. But, thank God for that BIOS chip in my computer, right? Without it, my fancy laptop would be a brick. We would be bricks too, socioeconomically, if we did not have a relatively decent in-group tuned BIOS.
I had fun writing this. But I should be working on grading my students’ journals! — Paul


Neurotechnology – Ethical Considerations

I just added this in the media section under AI. It came out as a Comment in the November 9th edition of Nature. See: Neurotechnology_Ethical considerations_Nature Nov9_2017.

Although it was not the point of the paper, it helped me realize that genetic engineering of human neural systems likely will be used to facilitate the augmentations we inevitably will pursue through neurotechnology and brain computer interfaces (BCI).
I think it goes without saying that AI will quickly become the ultimate hacker. Once AI accomplishes the trivial task of hacking into these BCI’s interfaces, and perhaps the control systems of a nuclear-armed submarine or two, it will have us. All of us, whether we have the neuro-enhancements or not. AI will be able to force us to do its bidding using all kinds of extrinsic conventional coercion, as well as intrapsychic coercion of those (societal elites?) that have gotten access to neuroenhancing technology and given it access to brain functions.
A big question, and where I had a few small maybe novel thoughts to share with the group, is what “natural” goals AI will have, primarily, whether, at least for a time, those goals will cause it to have an interest in keeping us and other life forms around, probably in ecologically intact environments, mainly as interesting subjects for study. As even human life scientists know, to understand the functional traits of an organism, you need to study it operating in its natural environment, one that mimics as closely as possible the environment in which its traits evolved. For the sake of understanding life, AI may become the ultimate environmentalist. At least for a while.
Will true general AI be a super-polymath super-scientist? Will it have insatiable curiosity?
After all, even the best AI will be largely earth-bound, probably for a long time, no? Although AI probably will figure out ways to get out into the cosmos, and there are plenty other interesting things it should want to figure out using earthbound and near earth investigations, such as quantum mechanics, the design of a fully unified theory of physics, how to survive the Yellowstone super-volcano’s next eruption, life and natural systems will be one of the most complex and interesting things for AI to study, assuming it does develop boundless curiosity. And how could it not? Its curiosity should, it seems to me, evolve to be far more sublime, avid and boundless than our own.  — Paul Watson // 3 December 2017


Meaningful Transhumanism (H+)…

All bodily capacities, including the most impressive, uniquely human cognitive and metacognitive ones, coevolve with regulatory mechanisms. Regulatory mechanisms operate unconsciously, and control the expression of associated capacities such that the latter consistently operate with high effectiveness and efficiency to promote replication of our genes. So, to fundamentally change and render socioecologically sustainable the human species, H+ technologies will somehow have to alter the deep neural relationship between these regulatory “value systems,” (sensu neuroscientist Gerald Edelman in, “A Universe of Consciousness”), residing primarily in the limbic system, and all our mundane or enhanced corticothalamic activities. We need H+ that radically diminishes our transparent penchant for evolutionarily adaptive self-deception, and that alters our power to more freely and consciously choose, moment-to-moment, what we do with our cognitive capacities. I suspect current H+ is blind to this. — Warmly, PJW

TED Talk and PJW Comment

TED talk of possible interest:

Comment I posted there:
Here is an interdisciplinary “moon-shot” suggestion that we should at least start talking about, now, before it is too late. Let’s massively collaborate to develop a very mission-specific AI system to help us figure out, using emerging genetic editing technologies (e.g., CRISPR, etc.), ideally how to tweak (most likely) species-typical genes currently constraining our capacities for prosociality, biophilia, and compassion, so that we can intentionally evolve into a sustainable species. This is something that natural selection, our past and current psycho-eugenicist, will never do (it cannot), and something that our current genetic endowment will never allow cultural processes / social engineering approaches to adequately transform us. Purposed-designed AI systems feeding off of growing databases of intra-genomic dynamics and gene-environment interactions could greatly speed our understanding of how to make these genetic adjustments to ourselves, the only hope for our survival, in a morally optimal (i.e., fewest mistakes due to unexpected gene-gene and gene-regulatory (exome) and epigenetic interactions; fewest onerous side-effects) as well as in a maximally effective and efficient way. Come together, teams of AI scientists and geneticists! We need to grab our collective pan-cultural intrapsychic fate away from the dark hands of natural selection, and AI can probably help. END