Sunday, 27 February 2011

(Almost) Perfect Brains

"Turing's original insight is as singular as Darwin's idea about natural selection, and like all great ideas, its simplicity hides its depth.


It has been said about Darwin's theory of evolution that it's the ultimate tautology - the survivors survive. This faux complaint presents a powerful feature of evolution; whatever works to keep you alive and get your genes into the next generation is just fine, no matter how weird the reasons or the results. But there is another feature of survival that is often not emphasized so much - survival is hard, desperately hard. Darwin understood this clearly and emphasized it in his title to Chapter 3 in The Origin of Species - "The Struggle for Existence." Mere persistence from one moment to the next is a struggle. So the augmented tautology becomes "The survivors survive but their life is desperate."

... all early humans can be seen as quite desperate, living a hard life with the threat of starvation as a constant motivator. Hunting and gathering is simply not very efficient, and until agriculture was discovered, early humans were always just one major mistake away from starving to death. This point is hard to overemphasize. Life is unforgiving, and so life's mechanisms had a constant pressure to be efficient - to capture, store, and process energy efficiently. And when we look at the components of life, cells, they are literal wonders of efficient energy-handling.

Out of the pressure comes efficiency. We all know that we become much more efficient and creative when we are desperate - when circumstances dictate that we absolutely must find some solution to a problem even though and money have almost run out. Desperation is indeed the mother of invention. Plato called it necessity, but he really meant desperation. Life itself responds the same way: The tougher the times, the more crafty and efficient the solution; such is the power of evolution" [italics mine]

- Read Montague, computational neuroscientist, Your Brain is (Almost) Perfect

Cognitive neuroscience, computational theory of the mind and evolutionary understanding are indeed strange bedfellows that have come together to realize the potential of understanding human consciousness in the coming century.

And the italicized points are precisely, to me at least, why evolutionary thinking cannot be taken lightly. Detractors may dismiss it because of its tarnished past (brought on by determinists or extremist right-wingers with moral motives) or its whimsical present (pop books and magazines wielding evolutionary reasoning for sex and attraction and just-so stories), but its underlying logic still presents us a vital window to understanding why our brain is simply so efficient. And evolutionary psychology has still a lot more to offer insofar as the brain continues being a decision-making information processor. Computational theory of the mind (CTOM) combines to bridge the gap between 'machinery' and consciousness, and there we will find answers in the future as to how what we have always regarded as the mind - spiritual matter, consciousness, ideas, thoughts, etc - can be produced by a warm mass of tissue and neurons.

It really doesn't hurt at all that its not just the evolutionary psychologists who are touting or at least acknowledging the reasoning power of evolution with regards to studying the human mind. Read Montague is one such case. Regardless of whether we have to skirt the terminology of evolution which bears the baggage of misunderstanding and misinterpretation, we will continue to find the logic and terms of adaptation and functionality in future studies of the mind if we are to understand consciousness in a scientific manner at all.

Will be eagerly devouring the book in the next week or so. CTOM holds immense promise.


shootscoresmile said...

A great read.


comfort silence said...

I love this so much.
In regards to tautology within one of Darwin's main theories...
I would have to say that it's a bit of a desperate struggle for finding fault in a genius' work.
Good argument :)

Jose said...

Thanks for dropping by. Yes, the ingenuity is simply in the elegance. While many have gone at great length to show how evolution couldn't have done this or did that, its logic can hardly be faulted. You're here because you've got parents. Your parents had parents. Tree of descent.