Saturday, August 02, 2008

The Brain is a Kluge

I just finished watching the documentary Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus by marine biologist and filmmaker Randy Olson. As it turns out, less than 50% of Americans believe in evolution. The most vocal opponents come from the Intelligent Design camp, organized chiefly by the Discovery Institute, who basically believe in a modernized form of the old teleological argument for the existence of God (aka, the "argument from design"), only slightly modified by omitting the identity of the "Designer." There is, of course, lots to say about the conflict between these two camps and the cultural--not to mention educational--significance it has had over the last decade or so. Anyone who has ever stood on the authoritative side of a classroom is surely familiar with the perils of discussing evolution and creation, but these perils are not limited to the classroom. Last fall, we even saw this "debate" show itself in the Republican Presidential primaries. (I wrote about Mitt Romney's version of creationism on this blog in a post entitled The Trouble With Fossils.) My general impression is that the educated among us, largely, dismiss Intelligent Design as manifestly unscientific and driven by a religious/cultural/political agenda that is less concerned with truth and accuracy than it is with preserving the integrity of a particular cosmology.

However, lest we jump too quickly to the conclusion that Intelligent Design has cornered the market on "dodos," we may want to consider that some scientific evolutionists secretly adhere to their own version of rather reductive beliefs. In his new book Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind, developmental cognitive neuroscientist Gary Marcus argues against an overly-simplistic form of evolutionary adaptionism, which supposes that any trait of an organism must be doing something useful or else it wouldn't be there. In defiance of both the Intelligent Design lobby and the cheerleaders of evolution, Marcus proposes that the human mind is a "kluge" (a term he borrows from engineering, which refers to "a clumsy or inelegant--yet surprisingly effective--solution to a problem"). If natural selection does, in fact, tend toward the selection of "superlatively well-engineered functional designs" (in the words of John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, founders of evolutionary psychology), then Marcus asks: why are our memories so bad? why is our language so ambiguous and vague? why are our wills so weak? why are we so gullible?

Because, according to Marcus, evolution does not tend toward perfection. The mind's fragility is most convincingly demonstrated by mental illness, which has no "adaptive" purpose. Although we humans certainly have developed higher mental functions, like the capacity to reason, the truth is that the lizard-parts of our brain still dominate. So it seems as if the human mind, far from being a "superlatively well-engineered functional design," is rather more like a McGyver-esque kluge that has enabled us to solve a few problems, but only at the expense of doing a lot of the mind's supposed work (like reasoning, communicating, remembering, and emoting) pretty badly.

What I appreciate about Marcus' argument is that it reveals the extent to which both evolutionists and believers in Intelligent Design share a common teleology. For both, the telos is "perfection." Whether that perfection is defined in terms of adaptive functionality or divine purpose, it still drives a kind of teleological thinking that needs to overlook the imperfections that we cannot explain.

For your amusement, here's a montage from the television series "Friends," in which (archeologist) Ross and (dim-witted blonde) Phoebe "debate" evolution.


christophresh said...

A more defensible way to think of natural selection is not 'survival of the fittest', as the shorthand has it, but rather, 'survival of any damn thing which is just this side of suicide'. Think about how easy it is to reproduce: any time this happens, absolutely any time, a full set of genes ('useful' and otherwise) has been passed down.
Well, two half sets, I think, but you know.
Any set of genes that doesn't kill you dead on arrival (before mating season) gets sloughed off onto the next generation:

Bryan said...

Your last sentence reminds me of Daniel Quinn's argument that both evolution and creationism share a human brain superiority myth from his book "Ishmael".

jon said...

Leave it up to a couple of psychologists to think that evolution somehow leads to perfection. Fans of natural history, and obviously Gary Marcus, understand such is not the case. Inherited features that are functional and give advantage in survivability and/or reproducibility are selected by nature, and these are rarely “perfect” because the features generally originate from some other features with a completely different functions. It's like making a bong out of a coke can and part of a cigarette pack. Look, it works, so it’s used. The selection of small advantages over time is why a human eye can be constructed backwards, with the retina facing away from the light source and the nerve fibers in FRONT of the receptor cells impeding the light. Thus, it should be obvious that our brain is far from “perfect”, but functional when it comes to getting food, avoiding predators and having sex. The rest is superfluous -- we're just fortunate that we can construct bongs from what we find in the floorboard of our car.

emma b said...

Actually, having taught a really successful course on "matter" last semester, I'm convinced that the more philosophically substantial objection to Darwinism (and ancient atomism, actually) is an argument about the substantiality of form. Leibniz was struggling with this, convinced that scholastic commitments to form were necessary to any fundamental ontology. I'd like to see philosophical debates about evolution shift over to these terms rather than moribund stuff about some silly old "designer."

Does form require a notion of perfection? Without a notion of form, how can we separate one "thing" from another? An organism from its environment? And what about flows and intensities - can they account better for phenomena than ye olde form vs. chance??

Oh the little questions.


Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

Good point, Emma.

For a long time now, I've been thinking about writing a paper called "Platonism After Darwin," which begins with the (rather obvious, but often overlooked) point that an intelligent designer of forms would be unimaginable for Plato, Aristotle or any other Greek. Which points to what I think is the most interesting question (rather than objection) for Darwin: what happens to forms when they are radically temporalized.

I'll offend all orthodox philosophers of science by suggesting that Heidegger and Derrida have provided the best answer to that question...

Anonymous said...

I was listening to the BookTV Cspan channel from my porch, while doing my yoga, today. The author of "Kluge", Gary Marcus was in a bookstore talking about his book.

Basically, his book is making the argument that the brain does not have an intelligent design to it, touching on what he calls evolution.

Please tell me that there are others who made note of all of his illogical comments with which he is basing his argument on.

'And to top it off, he actually has the argument against his book right in his discussion. For example, he argues that our brain doesn't have a certain memory trait, but then demonstrates that we can exercise it to do just what he says that we can't. Please.

I can imagine that his next book might argue the opposite of this book, as though it's just an exercise in the ability to argue any side to a topic.

Without naming off all of his contradictory statements, I'd just like to say that, generally, his posit is based on the idea that an intelligent design would be that which a robot encompasses.

I don't know of any intelligent design proponent who has argued that being designed as robots was what our creator had intended.

'Beware of "experts" who's forte is debate.