Tag Archives: science

Book Review: Daniel Lieberman’s The Story of the Human Body

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In The Story of the Human Body Daniel Lieberman builds a strong case that making fully informed decisions about diet and lifestyle is only possible through the lens of evolutionary history. If you want to know where your body comes from, you need to understand its evolutionary history. Why do humans stand and walk on two legs? Why are we weak compared to other primates of comparable size? Why are our legs and feet shaped the way they are, with springy tendons and arched feet? Why does our spine have a special S-curve? The answer to these questions lies in the the evolutionary history of our species.

Now ask, why do people in modern societies suffer from “diseases of affluence” like obesity, type-2 diabetes, tooth decay, metabolic syndrome, flat feet, nearsightedness, lower back pain, and sleep disorders? Daniel Lieberman argues that these questions can only be fully answered by understanding the evolutionary history of our species. Lieberman argues these diseases are examples of “mismatch diseases” i.e. a disease that is primarily caused by our bodies not being sufficiently adapted to novel gene-environment contexts. We know they’re mismatch diseases primarily because they used to be rare, are largely preventable, and are almost unheard of in hunter-gatherer populations.

Lieberman argues that all of these diseases are in some sense a result of cultural evolution speeding ahead of natural evolution with the result that have humans manufactured a psychologically comfy and satisfying environment that is paradoxically unhealthy without fundamentally affecting our reproductive fitness. Lieberman calls this this paradoxical unhealthiness “dysevolution”. It turns out that surrounding ourselves with unlimited sources of cheap junk food is a bad idea because humans are genetically wired to crave food with dense amounts of fat, sugar, starch, and salt.

Lieberman is no luddite, and certainly doesn’t advocate a return to the caves and giving up on modern science and technology. His position is more nuanced than many of the extreme black and white positions out there, as befitting the complexity of gene-environment interaction. In many senses, the agricultural and industrial revolutions have propelled humans to new heights of health and longevity, with modern science curing diseases and fixing people better than ever before. At the same time, we are living longer but spending many of those years suffering from chronic, preventable diseases. The paradox of the modern world is reduced mortality but greater morbidity i.e. living longer, but spending more of those extra years with an illness of some sort. Lieberman argues that too often the incentives of modern medicine aim at fixing symptoms but not the underlying structural causes: the toxically comfortable environments we built for ourselves.

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Book Report 2013 – What I’ve Read This Year

The following is a list of all the books I’ve read from front to cover in 2013, starting from the most recently finished. The books in bold are ones that were most influential to my thinking, or particularly fascinating.

  1. The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals – Thomas Suddendorf
  2. The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
  3. A Manual for Creating Atheists –  Boghossian, Peter 
  4. Simulation and Similarity: Using Models to Understand the World – Weisberg, Michael
  5. The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History – Gould, Stephen Jay
  6. Brain Imaging: What It Can (and Cannot) Tell Us about Consciousness – Shulman, R G
  7. Consciousness and the Social Brain – Graziano, Michael S A
  8. Wired for God?: The Biology of Spiritual Experience – Foster, Charles
  9. Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman – Gleick, James
  10. The Unpredictable Species – Lieberman, Philip
  11. The God Argument: The Case against Religion and for Humanism – Grayling, A.C.
  12. Stumbling on Happiness – Gilbert, Daniel
  13. The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently… and Why – Nisbett, Richard E.
  14. Civilization and Its Discontents – Freud, Sigmund
  15. The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature – Miller, Geoffrey
  16. Radicalizing Enactivism: Basic Minds Without Content – Hutto, Daniel D.
  17. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength – Baumeister, Roy F.
  18. Beyond Good and Evil – Nietzsche, Friedrich
  19. Marriage Confidential: The Post-Romantic Age of Workhorse Wives, Royal Children, Undersexed Spouses, and Rebel Couples Who Are Rewriting the Rules – Haag, Pamela
  20. Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking – Hofstadter, Douglas R.
  21. The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home – Ariely, Dan
  22. The Future of an Illusion – Freud, Sigmund
  23. Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets – Taleb, Nassim Nicholas 
  24. How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed – Kurzweil, Ray
  25. On the Genealogy of Morality: A Polemic – Nietzsche, Friedrich
  26. The Mind-Body Problem – Goldstein, Rebecca Newberger
  27. The Marvelous Learning Animal: What Makes Human Behavior Unique – Staats, Arthur W.
  28. Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order – Strogatz, Steven H.
  29. The Cultural Animal: Human Nature, Meaning, and Social Life – Baumeister, Roy F.
  30. Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False – Nagel, Thomas
  31. The Social Construction of What? – Hacking, Ian
  32. 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction – Goldstein, Rebecca Newberger
  33. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers – Roach, Mary
  34. Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety – Smith, Daniel B.
  35. The Minds of the Bible: Speculations on the Cultural Evolution of Human Consciousness – Cohn, James
  36. Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness – Cahalan, Susannah
  37. What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses – Chamovitz, Daniel
  38. Reconstruction in Philosophy – Dewey, John
  39. Against All Gods: Six Polemics on Religion and an Essay on Kindness – Grayling, A.C.
  40. The Logic Of Modern Physics – Bridgman, Percy W.
  41. The End of Christianity – Loftus, John W.
  42. Inventing Temperature: Measurement and Scientific Progress – Chang, Hasok
  43. The New Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes in a Complex World – Goldberg, Elkhonon
  44. Thomas Jefferson: Author of America – Hitchens, Christopher
  45. Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Belief – Barrett, Justin L.
  46. Brains: How They Seem to Work – Purves, Dale
  47. A Man Without Words – Schaller, Susan
  48. Beyond Morality – Garner, Richard
  49. Hallucinations – Sacks, Oliver
  50. The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – But Some Don’t – Silver, Nate
  51. Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder – Taleb, Nassim Nicholas 
  52. The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood – Gleick, James
  53. Ubik – Dick, Philip K.
  54. The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution – Dutton, Denis

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Quote for the Day – Einstein’s Louse and the Limits of Scientific Understanding

Nature is showing us only the tail of the lion, but I have no doubt that the lion belongs to it even though, because of its large size, it cannot totally reveal itself all at once. We can see it only the way a louse that is sitting on it would.

 ~Albert Einstein to Heinrich Zangger, quoted in Clifford Pickover, Archimedes to Hawking

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Quote for the Day – Newton the Magician

“Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than ten thousand years ago…[Newton saw] the whole universe and all that is in it as a riddle, as a secret which could be read by applying pure thought to certain evidence, certain mystic clues which God had laid about the world to allow a sort of philosopher’s treasure hunt…He regarded the universe as a cryptogram set by the Almighty…”

~ John Maynard Keynes, ‘Newton, the Man”, quoted in Clifford Pickover, Archimedes to Hawking

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Book notice: Stephen J. Gould’s The Panda’s Thumb

A used copy of Stephen J. Gould’s book The Panda’s Thumb (1980) has been sitting on my shelf for a while, and I’m kicking myself for not reading it sooner. What a delightful little book of science essays! Each essay is an edited version of one of his monthly columns at Natural History magazine. Subsequently, the essays are intelligible to the general intelligent reader, but Gould does not thereby sacrifice an appreciation for hard facts and subtle reasoning. Gould makes science come alive with his anecdotes, wry humor, and gentle argumentation about topics ranging from the panda’s thumb to hopeful monsters and everything in between. Nothing is too big or small for Gould to think worthy of writing about. All in all, I highly recommend this book for any student of biology or lover of science.

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Quote for the Day – The Attention Schema Theory of Consciousness

One way to approach the theory is through social perception. If you notice Harry paying attention to the coffee stain on this shirt, when you see the direction of Harry’s gaze, the expression on his face, and his gestures as he touches the stain, and when you put all those clues into context your brain does something quite specific: it attributes awareness to Harry. Harry is aware of the stain on his shirt. Machinery in your brain, in the circuitry that participates in social perception, is expert at this task of attributing awareness to other people. It sees another brain-controlled creature focusing its computing resources on an item and generates the construct that person Y is aware of thing X. In the theory proposed in this book, the same machinery is engaged in attributing awareness to yourself-computing that you are aware of thing X.

~Michael Graziano, Consciousness and the Social Brain

I’m planning on doing a write up on this book soon. I could not put the book down and read it in a few days. Compared to most books on consciousness, Graziano’s central thesis is clearly stated, suitably modest in ambition, neurologically plausible, and theoretically compelling.  I was impressed that Graziano applied his theory to explain “weird” aspects of human experience like out-of-body experiences, Mesmerism, religion, etc. I predict Graziano is going to be a big player in the consciousness debates from here on out. That I am really drawn to the theory is not surprising given its affinities with some things Julian Jaynes said e.g. “It is thus a possibility that before an individual man had an interior self, he unconsciously first posited it in others, particularly contradictory strangers, as the thing that caused their different and bewildering behavior…We may first unconsciously (sic) suppose other consciousnesses, and then infer our own by generalization” (Origin, p. 217) Jaynes also explicitly proposed that some features of consciousness are analogs (models) of sensory attention, which is at the heart of Graziano’s theory, albeit not as worked out rigorously.

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Quote for the Day – The Fractal Nature of Scientific Knowledge

I believe that scientific knowledge has fractal properties; that no matter how much we learn; whatever is left, however small it may seem, is just as infinitely complex as the whole was to start with. That, I think, is the secret of the Universe.

~Isaac Asimov, I, Asimov: A Memoir

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A Quick and Dirty Argument for Behaviorism

1. All the evidence we have as scientific psychologists is publically observable behavioral evidence.

2. The safest epistemic strategy is to limit as much as possible going “beyond” the evidence, an inevitably risky gambit.

3. “Subjectivity”, “mental states”, “cognition”, “representations”, “feelings”, “consciousness”, “awareness”, “experience”, etc. are not publically observable i.e. if you open up someone else’s skull you will not see cognitions or mental states, you will see a pulsating hunk of flesh.

3. If we value epistemic safety above all, we should never leap beyond behavioral evidence to talk about unobservable mental states, unless such talk is self-consciously understood to be an abbreviated paraphrase of a long conjunction of behavior reports. Therefore,

4. The safest epistemological stance in psychology is behaviorism.

But wait! Don’t scientists in other fields go “beyond” raw data by talking about “unobservable” theoretical entities like atoms and black holes? If it’s epistemically warranted for physicists to appeal to “unobservable” theoretical entities like atoms in order to explain the experimental data, then it should also be okay for psychologists to appeal to “unobservable” theoretical entities like “episodic memory” or “engrams” in order to explain the behavioral data.

Two things can be said in defense of behaviorism.

First, it’s an open question in the philosophy of science whether physicists are in fact epistemically warranted to go “beyond” the data. According to physicist-philosopher-of-science Duhem, theories are only supposed to be tidy and convenient summaries or compressed descriptions of experimental findings, not statements literally describing an unobserved metaphysical reality. On this view, we do not use theoretical entities and equations to explain the data but rather use equations and theories to help us cope with the large and unwieldy collection of facts gathered by experimenters. Duhem argues that if humans didn’t have such finite memories, scientists would not find it necessary to tidily represent messy experimental findings in terms of neat equations and law-like statements.

Consider this: If a theory about domain X is true, then all possible experimental findings relevant to domain X deductively follow from the theory and thus have the same truth-value as a long conjunction of descriptive reports of real scientific experiments. But once you have all the experimental findings on your head, what’s the need for the theory? The need is purely practical, a result of human finitude and our desire for convenience, simplicity, and genuine understanding.

Second, even if we grant physical scientists an epistemic license to go “beyond” the data and talk about theoretical entities, this practice only works well when there are widespread conventions in place for operationalizing theoretical terms (i.e. translating theory into real experimental operations) as well as standards for conducting and verifying results of experimental procedures (measurement verification procedures). It’s not clear to me that cognitive science has reached any widespread consensus on any of these issues.

Compared to “mature” sciences like thermometry with widespread industry standards, there seems to be little if any widespread consensus in the “mind sciences” about theoretical terminology let alone operational criteria for testing theoretical claims or even nailing down what exactly it is we are supposed to be studying in the first place.

Thus, the true problem with psychology is not that it talks about “unobservable” entities or employs theoretical jargon but rather there is no widespread consensus on how to define our concepts and operationalize our methods for getting access to the unobservable phenomena.

The problem facing psychology is two-fold: (1) a lack of consensus on how to pick out the phenomena due to a lack of theoretical consensus in understanding the ostensive definition of a psychological concept and, (2) a lack of consensus on how to interpret the evidence once we have collected it.

 Case in point: recent developments in the “science” of consciousness. First, there is there little to no consensus on where to even look for consciousness to begin the process of measuring it and studying it as a natural phenomena. Can any theorist answer this simple question: should we look for consciousness in insects?

Some theorists think if we looked for it in insects, we will find it because on their definition “consciousness” is not that fancy of a phenomena (e.g. enactivists and neo-panpsychists would both predict a consciousness-meter would register a small amount of consciousness in insects). According to other theorists, if you looked for consciousness in insects you will not find it because on their preferred definition “consciousness” is fancy and thus probably found only in “higher” animals like mammals. Who is right? No appeal to empirical facts will help in this debate because the problem is fundamentally about how to interpret the evidence given all we can go on as psychologists is behavior, which is of course neutral between rival theories of consciousness.

Some might object that I have picked an easy target and that the science of consciousness is a bad example of how psychology in general is done because it is the newest and most immature of the psychological sciences. But in my humble opinion, the science of consciousness is on no worse footing than most other subfields and niches of psychology, which are continually making progress “towards” various grand theories. However, insofar as another subfield of psychology is on firmer ground than consciousness studies, it will be because they have imitated the physical sciences by operationalizing their theoretical concepts in terms that can be directly measured by physical instruments. That is, a subfield of psychology is on firmer epistemic ground insofar as it sticks closer to physical, behavioral evidence, which is all any psychologist has to go on in the end. This is close enough to behaviorism for me.

I have much more to say on this topic, but I promised to be quick and dirty. Remaining questions include: how should we define the observable vs unobservable distinction?

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Quote for the Day – C.S. Peirce on How Philosophy Should Imitate the Sciences

Philosophy out to imitate the successful sciences in its methods, so far as to proceed only from tangible premisses which can be subjected to careful scrutiny, and to trust rather to the multitude and variety of its arguments than to the conclusiveness of any one. Its reasoning should not form a chain which is no stronger than its weakest link, but a cable whose fibres maybe ever so slender, provided they are sufficiently numerous and intimately connected.

~C.S. Peirce, “Some Consequences of Our Incapacities”, quoted in The Pragmatic Maxim, by Christopher Hookway

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Quote for the Day – We Live In a Dappled World

This book supposes that, as appearances suggest, we live in a dappled world, a world rich in different things, with different natures, behaving in different ways. The laws that describe this world are a patchwork, not a pyramid. They do not take after the simple, elegant and abstract structure of a system of axioms and theorems.  Rather they look like—and steadfastly stick to looking like—science as we know it: apportioned into disciplines, apparently arbitrarily grown up; governing different sets of properties at different levels of abstraction; pockets of great precision; large parcels of qualitative maxims resisting precise formulation; erratic overlaps; here and there, once in awhile, corners that line up, but mostly ragged edges; and always the cover of law just loosely attached to the jumbled world of material things.

~Nancy Cartwright, The Dappled World, p. 1

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