Category Archives: biology

The agency of objects

An interesting take on the agency of artifacts in light of the discussion of memes and temes. From Sinha, S. (2015). “Language and other artifacts: Socio-cultural dynamics of niche construction.” Frontiers in Psychology.

“If (as I have argued) symbolic cognitive artifacts have the effect of changing both world and mind, is it enough to think of them as mere ‘tools’ for the realization of human deliberative intention, or are they themselves agents? This question would be effectively precluded by some definitions of agency […] In emphasizing the distinction, and contrasting agents with artifacts, it fails to engage with the complex network of mediation of distinctly human, social agency by artifactual means. It is precisely the importance of this network for both cognitive and social theory that Latour highlights by introducing the concept of ‘interobjectivity.’ […] Symbolic cognitive artifacts are not just repositories, the are also agents of change. […] We can argue that the agency is (at least until now) ultimately dependent on human agency, without which artifactual agency would neither exist nor have effect. But it would be wrong to think of artifactual agency as merely derivative.”

Test determines approximate year of death

Age-at-death forecasting – A new test predicts when a person will die. It’s currently accurate within a few years and is getting more accurate. What psychological impacts might knowing your approximate (± 6 months) death time mean for otherwise healthy people? Does existing research with terminally ill or very old persons shed light on this? What would the social and political implications be? What if a ‘death-clock’ reading became required for certain jobs (elected positions, astronauts, roles requiring expensive training and education, etc.) or decisions (whom to marry or parent children with, whether to adopt, whether to relocate, how to invest and manage one’s finances, etc.)?

The origins and evolutionary effects of consciousness

From the Evolution Institute.

“How consciousness evolved and how consciousness has come to affect evolutionary processes are related issues. This is because biological consciousness–the only form of consciousness of which we are aware–is entailed by a particular, fairly sophisticated form of animal cognition, an open-ended ability to learn by association or, as we call it, ‘unlimited associative learning’ (UAL). Animals with UAL can assign value to novel, composite stimuli and action-sequences, remember them, and use what has been learned for subsequent (future), second-order, learning. In our work we argue that UAL is the evolutionary marker of minimal consciousness (of subjective experiencing) because if we reverse-engineer from this learning ability to the underlying system enabling it, this enabling system has all the properties and capacities that characterize consciousness. These include…” 

See the link for more.

The Third Way of evolutionary biology

Interesting website on this innovative exploration of the field. From the link:

“The vast majority of people believe that there are only two alternative ways to explain the origins of biological diversity. One way is Creationism that depends upon intervention by a divine Creator. That is clearly unscientific because it brings an arbitrary supernatural force into the evolution process. The commonly accepted alternative is Neo-Darwinism, which is clearly naturalistic science but ignores much contemporary molecular evidence and invokes a set of unsupported assumptions about the accidental nature of hereditary variation. Neo-Darwinism ignores important rapid evolutionary processes such as symbiogenesis, horizontal DNA transfer, action of mobile DNA and epigenetic modifications. Moreover, some Neo-Darwinists have elevated Natural Selection into a unique creative force that solves all the difficult evolutionary problems without a real empirical basis. Many scientists today see the need for a deeper and more complete exploration of all aspects of the evolutionary process.”

Lent responds to Harari

Lent makes many of the points we had in our discussion of Harari’s book Homo Deus. Lent said:

“Apparently unwittingly, Harari himself perpetuates unacknowledged fictions that he relies on as foundations for his own version of reality. Given his enormous sway as a public intellectual, Harari risks causing considerable harm by perpetuating these fictions. Like the traditional religious dogmas that he mocks, his own implicit stories wield great influence over the global power elite as long as they remain unacknowledged. I invite Harari to examine them here. By recognizing them as the myths they actually are, he could potentially transform his own ability to help shape humanity’s future.”

I will only list the bullet point fictions below. See the link for the details:

1. Nature is a machine.
2. There is no alternative.
3. Life is meaningless so it’s best to do nothing.
4. Humanity’s future is a spectator sport.

Vibration: A new theory of consciousness

Article in Scientific American. One point. The article sees energetic fields underlying matter as if they are separate things, one the cause of the other. Whereas a naturalistic, postmetaphysical view might be that they mutually entail and co-generate each other within an ecological frame. The cause/effect frame still clings to a form of dualism.

From ecology to brain development

The above is the title to a new, free Frontiers book subtitled “Bridging separate evolutionary paradigms.” I thought it would be of interest to this group. I can be found here, then scrolling down. From the Introduction:

“The nervous system is the product of biological evolution and is shaped by the interplay between extrinsic factors determining the ecology of animals, and by intrinsic processes that dictate the developmental rules that give rise to adult functional structures. This special topic is oriented to develop an integrative view from behavior and ecology to neurodevelopmental processes. We address questions such as how do sensory systems evolve according to ecological conditions? How do neural networks organize to generate adaptive behavior? How does cognition and brain connectivity evolve? What are the developmental mechanisms that give rise to functional adaptation? Accordingly, the book is divided in three sections, (i) Evolution of sensorimotor systems; (ii) Cognitive computations and neural circuits, and (iii) Development and brain evolution. We hope that this initiative will support an interdisciplinary program that addresses the nervous system as a unified organ, subject to both functional and developmental constraints, where the final outcome results of a compromise between different parameters rather than being the result of several single variables acting independently of each other.”

Neural Correlates of Post-Conventional Moral Reasoning

The abstract from this article:

“Going back to Kohlberg, moral development research affirms that people progress through different stages of moral reasoning as cognitive abilities mature. Individuals at a lower level of moral reasoning judge moral issues mainly based on self-interest (personal interests schema) or based on adherence to laws and rules (maintaining norms schema), whereas individuals at the post-conventional level judge moral issues based on deeper principles and shared ideals. However, the extent to which moral development is reflected in structural brain architecture remains unknown. To investigate this question, we used voxel-based morphometry and examined the brain structure in a sample of 67 Master of Business Administration (MBA) students. Subjects completed the Defining Issues Test (DIT-2) which measures moral development in terms of cognitive schema preference. Results demonstrate that subjects at the post-conventional level of moral reasoning were characterized by increased gray matter volume in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and subgenual anterior cingulate cortex, compared with subjects at a lower level of moral reasoning. Our findings support an important role for both cognitive and emotional processes in moral reasoning and provide first evidence for individual differences in brain structure according to the stages of moral reasoning first proposed by Kohlberg decades ago.”

The death of the invisible hand (job)

Speaking of metaphors, article by David Sloan Wilson. Some excerpts:

“[Adam] Smith was critical of Mandeville and presented a more nuanced view of human nature in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), but modern economic and political discourse is not about nuance. Rational choice theory takes the invisible hand metaphor literally by trying to explain the length and breadth of human behavior on the basis of individual utility maximization, which is fancy talk for the narrow pursuit of self-interest.”

“The collapse of our economy for lack of regulation was preceded by the collapse of rational choice theory. It became clear that the single minimalistic principle of self-interest could not explain the length and breadth of human behavior. Economists started to conduct experiments to discover the actual preferences that drive human behavior.  […] Actual human preferences are all about regulation. […] Once the capacity for regulation is provided in the form of rewards and punishments that can be implemented at low cost, cooperation rises to high levels.”

“Functioning as large cooperative groups is not natural. Large human groups scarcely existed until the advent of agriculture a mere 10 thousand years ago. This means that new cultural constructions are required that interface with our genetically evolved psychology for human society to function adaptively at a large scale.”

“Theories and metaphors are the cultural equivalent of genes. They influence our behaviors, which have consequences in the real world. Mother nature practices tough love. When a theory or a metaphor leads to inappropriate behaviors, we suffer the consequences at scales small and large. To change our behaviors, we need to change our theories and metaphors.”

“New theories are not good enough, however. We also need to change the metaphors that guide behavior in everyday life to avoid the disastrous consequences of our current metaphor-guided behaviors. That is why the metaphor of the invisible hand should be declared dead. Let there be no more talk of unfettered competition as a moral virtue. Cooperative social life requires regulation. Regulation comes naturally for small human groups but must be constructed for large human groups. Some forms of regulation will work well and others will work poorly. We can argue at length about smart vs. dumb regulation but the concept of no regulation should be forever laid to rest.”