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Evolutionary epistemology

By suspendedreason
    2021-03-15 19:02:10.612Z

    Figure this is extremely @crispy's shit.

    Recently, biologists and philosophers have been much attracted by an evolutionary view of knowledge, so-called evolutionary epistemology. Developing this insight, the present paper argues that our cognitive abilities are the outcome of organic evolution, and that, conversely, evolution itself may be described as a cognition process. Furthermore, it is argued that the key to an adequate evolutionary epistemology lies in a system-theoretical approach to evolution which grows from, but goes beyond, Darwin's theory of natural selection (Sci-Hub link)

    Popper is big in this literature, and I have an essay of his from Life Is Problem-Solving cued up that I'll try to read today and excerpt notes from.

    • 14 replies

    There are 14 replies. Estimated reading time: 25 minutes

    1. suspendedreason
        2021-03-16 16:48:52.875Z2021-03-17 13:52:02.123Z

        Here's what I've learned so far, from Wuketits '86:

        1. "Evolutionary epistemology" was coined by Donald T. Campbell, of Campbell's law
        2. The first foundation of EE is that "evolution—even in its biological aspects—is a knowledge process, and that the natural-selection paradigm for such knowledge increments can be generalized to other epistemic activities such as learning, thought, and science"
        3. The second foundation is that this gained information is "stored (via reproduction and selection) in the genome... in a way akin to memory"
        4. EE presupposes "hypothetical realism"—"the world which surrounds us really exists," but also, that its structures are meaningfully knowable.

        Consider, for example, a leopard hunting for antelopes. A thousand and one leopards have, again, and again, experienced catching an antelope. Necessarily, therefore, any member of this species has truly a realistic perception of its prey. Otherwise, the species would not have survived.

        Clear connections here to pragmatism—Peirce's "making beliefs pay rent," Wright & Holmes's "bettabilitarianism,"—as well as predictive processing and theory theory.

        What works, survives, and what doesn't is rejected; our culture, and individuals building knowledge within our culture, accumulates functionally-true-enough working knowledge over its lifespan; inheritance ensures transmission among generations. In other words, "evolutionary epistemology" is the larger phenomenon that makes "cultural evolution" work.

        1. Ssnav
            2021-03-16 17:37:37.919Z

            "evolution—even in its biological aspects—is a knowledge process..."

            This immediately makes me ask "who is the knower?"

            this gained information is "stored (via reproduction and selection) in the genome... in a way akin to memory"

            Ok, the knower is the genome. So, to be clear, what we're doing here is defining a "knower" at the level of a species, which is effectively "immortal" so long as it continues to exist. This stance reminds me of Arendt's depiction of the Ancient Greeks' view on mortality (The Human Condition pp. 18-19):

            The Greeks' concern with immortality grew out of their experience of an immortal nature and immortal gods which together surrounded the individual lives of mortal men. Imbedded in a cosmos where everything was immortal, mortality became the hallmark of human existence. Men are "the mortals," the only mortal things in existence, because unlike animals they do not exist only as members of a species whose immortal life is guaranteed through procreation. The mortality of men lies in the fact that individual life, with a recognizable life-story from birth to death, rises out of biological life. This individual life is distinguished from all other things by the rectilinear course of its movement, which, so to speak, cuts through the circular movement of biological life. This is mortality: to move along a rectilinear line in a universe where everything, if it moves at all, moves in a cyclical order.

            Thus when considering the distinction between "genetic knowledge" and "individual knowledge" we must keep in mind the key distinction: the former knower is immortal, accumulating its own sort of knowledge over generations, but the latter is finite and can only come to know so much until it dies. I would like to understand the theological implications of this.

            The other distinction I want to raise relates to the following:

            stored (via reproduction and selection) in the genome... in a way akin to memory

            I am skeptical that this is the case. It is true in one sense, that both genetic and human memory exist as "traces" of the interaction between knower and world. But the distinction is that human memory is able to symbolize itself directly, and thus to create knowledge from a "fantasy world" as well as in relation to the physical world. Perhaps one could argue that the genome is simply at a "lower level" so far, and hasn't yet learned to modify itself directly (unlike the more rich capacity of individual human knowledge), but the thrust of the piece seems to be that "genetic knowledge" should act as a basis for generalizing to human knowledge, and not the other way around.

            1. In reply tosuspendedreason:
                2021-03-16 18:16:02.227Z

                @snav I think that's a fair distinction between genetic and individual knowledge, but Wuketits points out: species go extinct all the time. The average lifespan of land-based mammals is 50,000 years. If every species has a different "way of knowing" and perceiving, a different slice of reality it has access to (umwelt), then this species knowledge is dying out all the time.

                I haven't quite finished the paper, but re: your last point, yeah, I think the idea is that there's this tested genetic fitness certain things have—the monkey's visual perception of branches is "real" knowledge in a meaningful sense because if it wasn't, it would fall from the tree and die, and wouldn't reproduce its genes, making its visual perception system "real, learned knowledge" in a meaningful sense. And that this is true also of human cultural knowledge, individual human knowledge—that what works survives. A very Popperian view of science.

                1. crispy
                    2021-03-18 07:21:04.059Z

                    just to echo this, I agree with @snav that we should be suspicious about imposing our assumptions of memory on this "species wide" memory, but we also have cultural memory which is very much a process of evolution and much more obviously constructed from the finitudes of mere mortal inviduals.

                2. In reply tosuspendedreason:
                    2021-03-16 20:17:57.614Z2021-03-17 13:54:20.697Z

                    Great quote from ethology pioneer Konrad Lorenz:

                    [The] central nervous apparatus does not prescribe the laws of nature any more than the hoof of the horse prescribes the form of the ground. Just as the hoof of the horse, this central nervous apparatus stumbles over unforeseen changes in its task. But just as the hoof of the horse is adapted to the ground of the steppe which it copes with, so our central nervous apparatus for organizing the image of the world is adapted to the real world with which man has to cope. Just like any organ, this apparatus has attained ts expedient species-preserving form through this coping of real with the real during its genealogical evolution, lasting many eons

                    Wuketits on how organisms and environments co-create one another:

                    We must be aware of the fact that organism and environment never can be separated form each other so that, as Lewontin (1982, p. 160) points out, "It is impossible to describe an environment except by reference to organisms that interact with it and define it."

                    1. crispy
                        2021-03-19 06:44:22.050Z

                        evolution is just cope, when you think about it.

                        what's with this second quote, though? why can't we describe the moon, on which there is no life as far as we know? Is it because we're perceiving it within our own umwelt? What's your take?

                        1. suspendedreason
                            2021-03-19 14:16:44.436Z

                            My take is you're forgetting indexicality! He is talking about environments on earth, and edge cases only confirm the implicit edgecase set

                        2. In reply tosuspendedreason:
                            2021-03-16 20:20:31.296Z2021-03-17 13:54:48.174Z

                            Anyways, all this stuff is bouncing around the abstract concept of "fit," which I've used to talk about fashion before, and Christopher Alexander has described as the basis of beauty, and which, arguably, is synonymous with "indexicality"—the correspondence between a thing and its context (everything not-thing and local, i.e. in the ecological huddle). Developing good operational understandings of context, boundaries, & abduction seem key to this process.

                            1. In reply tosuspendedreason:
                                2021-03-17 13:39:00.077Z2021-03-17 13:54:56.954Z

                                I wanna post one more excerpt from Wuketits '86 before I move on to other authors, because it's a good example of the specific dynamics by which genetic features learn & encode their environment:

                                The sensitivity of the retina coincides both with the "optical window" of the earth's atmosphere and with the area where the radiation of the sun has its maximum intensity. Normal objects reflect sunlight and thus can be seen, caught, or avoided.

                                Different wavelengths are interpreted as different colours. Objects are recognized and distinguished more easily and reliably.

                                A superposition of all wavelengths is not interpreted as a colourful medley, but rather as colourless (white) light. Normal daylight does not carry information; only deviations from the normal distribution are informative and worthy of perception.

                                This is all obvious stuff, but a little mindblowing still because we always take a different perspective—first-person instead of third—so we get the real causal order mixed up. What strikes me most is the way an "average" of our environment is implicitly coded by what we do not notice: "normal daylight does not carry information"; if the light is harsher, we will feel that there is "glare" or we are "blinded," but if we then lived among blinding glare for 100,000 years, it would be "normal daylight" and the conditions we think of as typical would seem "dim-lighted." Now what's that about room temperature air?

                                1. suspendedreason
                                    2021-03-17 21:52:28.373Z

                                    Note to self: look more into background/foreground perception theories. Default assumptions, and informationless "normals," don't really get our attention, go unnoticed. Surprisal is one of the best ways of understanding our implicit schema or (in Popper's words) "unconscious knowledge.")

                                    1. crispy
                                        2021-03-19 06:48:03.923Z

                                        yeah this is a place I really want to bring in information theory which, among other things, basically implies that the only way to think about information is through the differences in things. Information Theory has always been used with a fixed coding schema, but I wonder if there's something interesting for us to say about situations in which saliency changes as so the meanings of symbols pick-up new connotations. This would give a kind of two-level system where symbols that were originally honed to fit a certain situation, had to adjust to another situation and an implicit code that redefines the interpretation of the original symbols would help us expose the underlying "fit to environment" that everything is constantly undergoing.

                                    2. In reply tosuspendedreason:
                                        2021-03-17 13:48:07.199Z2021-03-17 13:55:17.566Z

                                        David MacIver sent out a newsletter today on "Intellectual DIY." He talks about how his dad expressed admiration for his breadth of knowledge, and felt that his (dad's) own DIY know-how was a different beast.

                                        He objected that this was not at all the same thing - he just figured things out as he went and refined his skills over time in the course of doing them. He didn't necessarily remember all these things, he just started with the problems he was trying to solve, had the confidence to try things out and see if they worked, and practiced them until he got the knack of it, and then builds on that prior experience for future problems.

                                        “Well yes”, I said. “How do you think I do it?”

                                        MacIver goes on to talk about engineering vs. science—how British crop breeding advances preceded Darwinian evolution, and how functional steel had been around a thousand years before we understood the science:

                                        One thing this helps make sense of is why engineering often seems to precede science rather than the other way around as is commonly supposed. One of my favourite examples of this is the argument that Charles Darwin figured out his theory of natural selection because the British agricultural revolution had already figured out how to do selective breeding and worked backwards from there (cf. British agricultural revolution gave us evolution by natural selection).

                                        Why would we expect this to happen given this distinction? Well because it's much easier to accidentally stumble upon something that works and then figure out how it works later than vice versa. You can see this, for example, in the gradual refinement of our material science. We were using steel for thousands of years before we ever knew what was going on (cf. The Entire History of Steel).

                                        Of course, modern steel is much better than historical steel, and a lot of that is that we did science to the problem. We now know much more about chemistry in general and carbon and iron in particular, and this informed the invention of the Bessemer process

                                        Evolution and engineering are the same process of trial and error, with a "range of possibles" (what Bourdieu has called a "space of possibles") at any moment which is based on the previous generation of tinkering:

                                        In “Where Good Ideas Come From”, by Steven Johnson, he explores this analogy in great depth, drawing on Stewart Kauffman's idea of “The Adjacent Possible” of an evolutionary system - the set of things that can be generated from what is currently available. In biology, this is the range of possible next generations. In science, it is the set of things that can be discovered based on what we already know. In engineering, the set of things you can build.

                                        Evolution proceeds by drawing from the adjacent possible, retaining what works, and discarding what does not. This is true for biological evolution, and it's just as true for ideas - science and engineering included.

                                        And finally, up @snav's alley, there's a discussion of Levi-Strauss's "bricolage" concept, bricolage being an ends-oriented process of make-do with existing modules: "A bricoleur doesn’t care about the purity or stability or ‘truth’ of a system he or she uses, but rather uses what’s there to get a particular job done." It reminds me a lot of Viznut's "The resource leak bug of our civilization", as cited in Sarah Perry's "Gardens Need Walls" in an exploration of tiling structures and modularity.

                                        Tell a bunch of average software developers to design a sailship. They will do a web search for available modules. They will pick a wind power module and an electric engine module, which will be attached to some kind of a floating module. When someone mentions aero- or hydrodynamics, the group will respond by saying that elementary physics is a far too specialized area, and it is cheaper and more straight-forward to just combine pre-existing modules and pray that the combination will work sufficiently well.

                                        1. Ssnav
                                            2021-03-17 14:18:24.744Z

                                            Loool I had to write an essay about "bricolage" during college in the one humanities class I took (Roots of Rock and Roll). Wonder if I still have it somewhere...

                                          • In reply tosuspendedreason:
                                              2021-03-17 21:32:15.481Z

                                              Surprisingly, Popper doesn't have a ton that's novel to say about evolutionary epistemology, either in "Towards an Evolutionary Theory of Knowledge" or "All Life Is Problem Solving." The pieces are interesting, but the ideas are broadly familiar to any reading this thread, or who follow pragmatism. (It's not for nothing Popper said one of his great regrets was not discovering CS Peirce's "fallibilism," which holds nearly identical tenets to Popper's critical rationalism:

                                              1. No beliefs can be conclusively justified.
                                              2. Knowledge does not require certainty.
                                              3. Almost no basic (that is, non-inferred) beliefs are certain or conclusively justified.

                                              From "ALiPS," whose most interesting contribution relevant to the context-at-hand is to point out that technologies are a form of embodied knowledge, subject to the good regulator theorem just as organisms are:

                                              All life is problem solving. All organisms are inventors and technicians, good or not so good, successful or not so successful, in solving technical problems.

                                              And from "TaEToK," I'll excerpt from the Metonyms Megathread comment:

                                              Plants, Popper says in "Towards An Evolutionary Theory of Knowledge," know things about their environment. "Trees know that they may find much-needed water by pushing their roots into deeper layers of the earth... Flowering plants know that warmer days are about to arrive, and they know how and when to open their flowers, and to close them—according to sensed changes in radiation intensity or in temperature."

                                              In other words, knowledge is about fitness, and appropriateness: it is about measuring the environment in some way and producing voluntary acts which help further one's goals in light of the environmental constraints and affordances. An organism must be a model of its environment ("good regulator theorem") if it can weather the dangers, and capitalize on the opportunities, of its environment—an environment which, quite prominently, includes other organisms.

                                              Elsewhere, Popper also draws on the evolutionary concept of homology (since we share ancestors, our noses are homologous to dog noses) to argue (somewhat radically) that animals have a real form of knowledge homologous to our own. And he pushes for a view of experience and surprise directly in line with predictive hermeneutics, and Hurley/Dennett's theory of jokes (tagging @veryragged):

                                              Our own unconscious knowledge has often the character of unconscious expectations, and sometimes we may become conscious of having had an expectation of this kind when it turns out to have been mistaken.