Category Archives: genetics

Winter 2020 discussion prompts

  • What is humanity’s situation with respect to surviving long-term with a good quality of life? (Frame the core opportunities and obstacles.)
  • What attributes of our evolved, experientially programmed brains contribute to this situation? (What are the potential leverage points for positive change within our body-brain-mind system?)
  • What courses of research and action (including currently available systems, tools, and practices and current and possible lines of R&D) have the potential to improve our (and the planetary life system’s) near- and long-term prospects?

Following is a list of (only some!) of the resources some of us have consumed and discussed online, in emails, or face-to-face in 2019. Sample a few to jog your thoughts and provoke deeper dives. Please add your own additional references in the comments below this post. For each, give a short (one line is fine) description, if possible.

Consciousness in Humanoid Robots

New ebook from Frontiers in Science. The blurb:

Building a conscious robot is a grand scientific and technological challenge. Debates about the possibility of conscious robots and the related positive outcomes and hazards for human beings are today no more confined to philosophical circles. Robot consciousness is a research field aimed to a unified view of approaches as cognitive robotics, epigenetic and affective robotics, situated and embodied robotics, developmental robotics, anticipatory systems, biomimetic robotics. Scholars agree that a conscious robot would completely change the current views on technology: it would not be an “intelligent companion” but a complete novel kind of artifact. Notably, many neuroscientists involved in the study of consciousness do not exclude this possibility. Moreover, facing the problem of consciousness in robots may be a major move on the study of consciousness in humans and animals.

The Frontiers Research Topic on consciousness in humanoid robots concerns the theoretical studies, the models and the case studies of consciousness in humanoid robots. Topics related to this argument are:
– the needs of a body for robot consciousness;
– robot self-consciousness;
– the capability of a robot to reason about itself, its body and skills;
– the episodic memory in a robot, i.e., the ability to take into account its operational life;
– design strategies versus developmental approaches in assessing consciousness in a robot;
– robot architectures candidates for consciousness;
– symbolic versus neural networks representations in robot consciousness;
– consciousness, theory of mind and emotions in a humanoid robot;
– measurements and assessments of consciousness and self-consciousness in a robot;
– ethical and trust issues in a conscious humanoid robot.

Cultural and genetic evolution

From this article:

“The idea that humans have cognitive instincts is a cornerstone of evolutionary psychology, pioneered by Leda Cosmides, John Tooby and Steven Pinker in the 1990s. […] This all seems plausible and intuitive, doesn’t it? The trouble is, the evidence behind it is dubious. In fact, if we look closely, it’s apparent that evolutionary psychology is due for an overhaul. Rather than hard-wired cognitive instincts, our heads are much more likely to be populated by cognitive gadgets, tinkered and toyed with over successive generations. Culture is responsible not just for the grist of the mind – what we do and make – but for fabricating its mills, the very way the mind works.”

“The evidence for cognitive instincts is now so weak that we need a whole new way of capturing what’s distinctive about the human mind. The founders of evolutionary psychology were right when they said that the secret of our success is computational mechanisms – thinking machines – specialised for particular tasks. But these devices, including imitation, mind-reading, language and many others, are not hard-wired. Nor were they designed by genetic evolution. Rather, humans’ thinking machines are built in childhood through social interaction, and were fashioned by cultural, not genetic, evolution. What makes our minds unique are not cognitive instincts but cognitive gadgets.”

“The mind of a newborn human baby is not a blank slate. Like other animals, we are born with – we genetically inherit – a huge range of abilities and assumptions about the world. We’re endowed with capacities to memorise sequences, to control our impulses, to learn associations between events, and to hold several things in mind while we work on them. […] These skills and beliefs are part of the ‘genetic starter kit’ for mature human cognition. They are crucial because they direct our attention to other people, and act as cranes in the construction of new thinking machines. But they are not blueprints for Big Special cognitive mechanisms such as imitation, mind-reading and language.”

“To be fair, evolutionary psychology did something crucially important. It showed that viewing the mind as a kind of software running on the brain’s hardware can advance our understanding of the origins of human cognition. Now it’s time to take a further step: to recognise that our distinctively human apps have been created by cultural, not genetic, evolution.”

‘Neurosexism’ debated

Neuroscientist Larry Cahill takes issue with a Feb 2019 Nature favorable book review of Gina Rippon’s The Gendered Brain: The New Neuroscience That Shatters The Myth Of The Female Brain.

Cahill’s response prompted an interview by Medium Neuroscience writer Meghan Daum.

Scientific findings have a way of upsetting apple carts, especially when we consider our oft-demonstrated human capacity to bend science to advantage some power-coveting groups over others.

Valid research amply shows there are real differences in male and female neuroanatomy and functions. Honest science must follow the evidence where it leads. Clearly, any discovered differences cannot be allowed to justify unequal social or economic opportunities or treatment. Cahill compares the situation to genetics. That people differ genetically in a vast number of ways cannot be taken as cause to misstate scientific findings or preclude further learning about genetics.

There are times and circumstances in which certain research approaches must be blocked for humane or other reasons but that is a different argument than denying the findings of a body of research because they are uncomfortable or inconvenient.

Thoughts?

Ideas of Stuart Kauffman

If you are familiar with complex systems theorist Dr. Stuart Kauffman’s ideas you know he covers a broad range of disciplines and concepts, many in considerable depth, and with a keen eye for isomorphic and integrative principles. If you peruse some of his writings and other communications, please share with us how you see Kauffman’s ideas informing our focal interests: brain, mind, intelligence (organic and inorganic), and self-aware consciousness.

Do you find Kauffman’s ideas well supported by empirical research? Which are more scientific and which, if any, more philosophical? What intrigues, provokes, or inspires you? Do any of his perspectives or claims help you better orient or understand your own interests in our focal topics?

Following are a few reference links to get the conversation going. Please add your own in the comments to this post. If you are a member and have a lot to say on a related topic, please create a new post, tag it with ‘Stuart Kauffman,’ and create a link to your post in the comments to this post.

the evolution of synergy

Good quick summary of some of Deacon’s ideas. Deacon: “We need to stop thinking about hierarchic evolution in simple Darwinian terms. We need to think about it both in terms of selection and the loss of selection or the reduction of selection. And that maybe it’s the reduction of selection that’s responsible for the most interesting features” (9:40).

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 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.”

Why did consciousness evolve?

From David Barash, evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at University of Washington.

“Brief explanatory excursion: it is a useful exercise to ask what brains are for. From an evolutionary perspective, brains evolved not simply to give us a more accurate view of the world, or merely to orchestrate our internal organs or coordinate our movements, or even our thoughts. Rather, brains exist because they maximise the reproductive success of the genes that helped create them and of the bodies in which they reside. To be adaptive, consciousness must be like that. Insofar as it has evolved via natural selection, consciousness must exist because brains that produced consciousness were evolutionarily favoured over those that did not. But why? One possibility is that consciousness gave its possessors the capacity to overrule the tyranny of pleasure and pain.”

“Even more intriguing than its use as a facilitator of impulse control is the possibility that consciousness evolved in the context of our social lives. Human societies privilege a kind of Machiavellian intelligence whereby success in competition and co-operation depends on our evolved ability to imagine another’s situation no less than our own. That isn’t so much out of intended benevolence (although this, too, could be the case) but because such leaps of the imagination allow us to maximise our own interests in the very complex landscape of human societies. Thus, consciousness is not only an unfolding story that we tell ourselves, moment by moment, about what we are doing, feeling and thinking. It also includes our efforts to interpret what other individuals are doing, feeling and thinking, as well as how those others are likely to perceive us in return.[…] The more conscious our ancestors were, according to this argument, the more able they were to modify — to their own benefit — others’ impressions of them and, hence, their evolutionary success.”

“It therefore appears at present that human beings, although probably not unique in possessing Theory of Mind, are nonetheless unusual in the degree of its sophistication, specifically in the extent to which they can accurately model the minds of others. It seems highly likely that those who possessed an accurate Theory of Mind enjoyed an advantage when it came to modelling the intentions of others, an advantage that continues to this day, and was an active ingredient in the evolution of human consciousness. And it is at least possible that the more conscious you are, the more accurate is your Theory of Mind, since cognitive modellers should be more effective if they know, cognitively and self-consciously, not only what they are modelling, but that they are doing so.”