All posts tagged evolution

Book review: Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind, by Kevin N. Laland.

This book is a mostly good complement to Henrich’s The Secret of our Success. The two books provide different, but strongly overlapping, perspectives on how cultural transmission of information played a key role in the evolution of human intelligence.

The first half of the book describes the importance of copying behavior in many animals.

I was a bit surprised that animals as simple as fruit flies are able to copy some behaviors of other fruit flies. Laland provides good evidence that a wide variety of species have evolved some ability to copy behavior, and that ability is strongly connected to the benefits of acquiring knowledge from others and the costs of alternative ways of acquiring that knowledge.

Yet I was also surprised that the value of copying is strongly limited by the low reliability with which behavior is copied, except with humans. Laland makes plausible claims that the need for high-fidelity copying of behavior was an important driving force behind the evolution of bigger and more sophisticated brains.

Laland claims that humans have a unique ability to teach, and that teaching is an important adaptation. He means teaching in a much broader sense than we see in schooling – he includes basic stuff that could have preceded language, such as a parent directing a child’s attention to things that the child ought to learn. This seems like a good extension to Henrich’s ideas.

The most interesting chapter theorizes about the origin of human language. Laland’s theory that language evolved for teaching provides maybe a bit stronger selection pressure than other theories, but he doesn’t provide much reason to reject competing theories.

Laland presents seven criteria for a good explanation of the evolution of language. But these criteria look somewhat biased toward his theory.

Laland’s first two criteria are that language should have been initially honest and cooperative. He implies that it must have been more honest and cooperative than modern language use is, but he isn’t as clear about that as I would like. Those two criteria seem designed as arguments against the theory that language evolved to impress potential mates. The mate-selection theory involves plenty of competition, and presumably a fair amount of deception. But better communicators do convey important evidence about the quality of their genes, even if they’re engaging in some deception. That seems sufficient to drive the evolution of language via mate-selection pressures.

Laland’s theory seems to provide a somewhat better explanation of when language evolved than most other theories do, so I’m inclined to treat it as one of the top theories. But I don’t expect any consensus on this topic anytime soon.

The book’s final four chapters seemed much less interesting. I recommend skipping them.

Henrich’s book emphasized evidence that humans are pretty similar to other apes. Laland emphasizes ways in which humans are unique (language and teaching ability). I didn’t notice any cases where they directly contradicted each other, but it’s a bit disturbing that they left quite different impressions while saying mostly appropriate things.

Henrich claimed that increasing climate variability created increased rewards for the fast adaptation that culture enabled. Laland disagrees, saying that cultural change itself is a more plausible explanation for the kind of environmental change that incentivized faster adaptation. My intuition says that Laland’s conclusion is correct, but he seems a bit overconfident about it.

Overall, Laland’s book is less comprehensive and less impressive than Henrich’s book, but is still good enough to be in my top ten list of books on the evolution of intelligence.

Update on 2017-08-18: I just read another theory about the evolution of language which directly contradicts Laland’s claim that early language needed to be honest and cooperative. Wild Voices: Mimicry, Reversal, Metaphor, and the Emergence of Language claims that an important role of initial human vocal flexibility was to deceive other species.

Or, why I don’t fear the p-zombie apocalypse.

This post analyzes concerns about how evolution, in the absence of a powerful singleton, might, in the distant future, produce what Nick Bostrom calls a “Disneyland without children”. I.e. a future with many agents, whose existence we don’t value because they are missing some important human-like quality.

The most serious description of this concern is in Bostrom’s The Future of Human Evolution. Bostrom is cautious enough that it’s hard to disagree with anything he says.

Age of Em has prompted a batch of similar concerns. Scott Alexander at SlateStarCodex has one of the better discussions (see section IV of his review of Age of Em).

People sometimes sound like they want to use this worry as an excuse to oppose the age of em scenario, but it applies to just about any scenario with human-in-a-broad-sense actors. If uploading never happens, biological evolution could produce slower paths to the same problem(s) [1]. Even in the case of a singleton AI, the singleton will need to solve the tension between evolution and our desire to preserve our values, although in that scenario it’s more important to focus on how the singleton is designed.

These concerns often assume something like the age of em lasts forever. The scenario which Age of Em analyzes seems unstable, in that it’s likely to be altered by stranger-than-human intelligence. But concerns about evolution only depend on control being sufficiently decentralized that there’s doubt about whether a central government can strongly enforce rules. That situation seems sufficiently stable to be worth analyzing.

I’ll refer to this thing we care about as X (qualia? consciousness? fun?), but I expect people will disagree on what matters for quite some time. Some people will worry that X is lost in uploading, others will worry that some later optimization process will remove X from some future generation of ems.

I’ll first analyze scenarios in which X is a single feature (in the sense that it would be lost in a single step). Later, I’ll try to analyze the other extreme, where X is something that could be lost in millions of tiny steps. Neither extreme seems likely, but I expect that analyzing the extremes will illustrate the important principles.

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Book review: Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, by Peter Godfrey-Smith.

This book describes some interesting mysteries, but provides little help at solving them.

It provides some pieces of a long-term perspective on the evolution of intelligence.

Cephalopods’ most recent common ancestor with vertebrates lived way back before the Cambrian explosion. Nervous systems back then were primitive enough that minds didn’t need to react to other minds, and predation was a rare accident, not something animals prepared carefully to cause and avoid.

So cephalopod intelligence evolved rather independently from most of the minds we observe. We could learn something about alien minds by understanding them.

Intelligence may even have evolved more than once in cephalopods – nobody seems to know whether octopuses evolved intelligence separately from squids/cuttlefish.

An octopus has a much less centralized mind than vertebrates do. Does an octopus have a concept of self? The book presents evidence that octopuses sometimes seem to think of their arms as parts of their self, yet hints that their concept of self is a good deal weaker than in humans, and maybe the octopus treats its arms as semi-autonomous entities.


Does an octopus have color vision? Not via its photoreceptors the way many vertebrates do. Simple tests of octopuses’ ability to discriminate color also say no.

Yet octopuses clearly change color to camouflage themselves. They also change color in ways that suggest they’re communicating via a visual language. But to whom?

One speculative guess is that the color-producing parts act as color filters, with monochrome photoreceptors in the skin evaluating the color of the incoming light by how much the light is attenuated by the filters. So they “see” color with their skin, but not their eyes.

That would still leave plenty of mystery about what they’re communicating.


The author’s understanding of aging implies that few organisms die of aging in the wild. He sees evidence in Octopuses that conflicts with this prediction, yet that doesn’t alert him to the growing evidence of problems with the standard theories of aging.

He says octopuses are subject to much predation. Why doesn’t this cause them to be scared of humans? He has surprising anecdotes of octopuses treating humans as friends, e.g. grabbing one and leading him on a ten-minute “tour”.

He mentions possible REM sleep in cuttlefish. That would almost certainly have evolved independently from vertebrate REM sleep, which must indicate something important.

I found the book moderately entertaining, but I was underwhelmed by the author’s expertise. The subtitle’s reference to “the Deep Origins of Consciousness” led me to expect more than I got.

Book review: Aging is a Group-Selected Adaptation: Theory, Evidence, and Medical Implications, by Joshua Mitteldorf.

This provocative book argues that our genes program us to age because aging provided important benefits.

I’ll refer here to antagonistic pleiotropy (AP) and programmed aging (PA) as the two serious contending hypotheses of aging. (Mutation accumulation used to be a leading hypothesis, but it seems discredited now, due to the number of age-related deaths seen in a typical species, and due to evidence that aging is promoted by some ancient genes).

Here’s a dumbed down version of the debate:
<theorist>: Hamilton proved that all conceivable organisms age due to AP and/or mutation accumulation.
<critic>: But the PA theories better predict how many die from aging, the effects of telomeres, calorie restriction, etc. Also, here’s some organisms with zero or negative aging …
<theorist>: A few anomalies aren’t enough to overturn a well-established theory. The well-known PA theories are obviously wrong because selfish genes would outbreed the PA genes.
<critic>: Here are some new versions which might explain how aging could enhance a species’ fitness …
<theorist>: I’ve read enough bad group-selection theories that I’m not going to waste my time with more of them.

That kind of reaction from theorists might make sense if AP was well established. But AP seems to have been well established only in the Darwinian sense of being firmly entrenched in scientists’ minds. It got entrenched mainly by being the least wrong of a flawed set of theories, combined with some poor communication between theorists and naturalists. Wikipedia has a surprisingly good[1] page on the evolution of aging that says:

Antagonistic pleiotropy is a prevailing theory today, but this is largely by default, and not because the theory has been well verified.

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I’ve substantially reduced my anxiety over the past 5-10 years.

Many of the important steps along that path look easy in hindsight, yet the overall goal looked sufficiently hard prospectively that I usually assumed it wasn’t possible. I only ended up making progress by focusing on related goals.

In this post, I’ll mainly focus on problems related to general social anxiety among introverted nerds. It will probably be much less useful to others.

In particular, I expect it doesn’t apply very well to ADHD-related problems, and I have little idea how well it applies to the results of specific PTSD-type trauma.

It should be slightly useful for anxiety over politicians who are making America grate again. But you’re probably fooling yourself if you blame many of your problems on distant strangers.

Trump: Make America Grate Again!

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Book review: The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life, by Nick Lane.

This book describes a partial theory of how life initially evolved, followed by a more detailed theory of how eukaryotes evolved.

Lane claims the hardest step in evolving complex life was the development of complex eukaryotic cells. Many traits such as eyes and wings evolved multiple times. Yet eukaryotes have many traits which evolved exactly once (including mitochondria, sex, and nuclear membranes).

Eukaryotes apparently originated in a single act of an archaeon engulfing a bacterium. The result wasn’t very stable, and needed to quickly evolve (i.e. probably within a few million years) a sophisticated nucleus, plus sexual reproduction.

Only organisms that go through these steps will be able to evolve a more complex genome than bacteria do. This suggests that complex life is rare outside of earth, although simple life may be common.

The book talks a lot about mitochondrial DNA, and make some related claims about aging.

Cells have a threshold for apoptosis which responds to the effects of poor mitochondrial DNA, killing weak embryos before they can take up much parental resources. Lane sees evolution making important tradeoffs, with species that have intense energy demands (such as most birds) setting their thresholds high, and more ordinary species (e.g. rats) setting the threshold lower. This tradeoff causes less age-related damage in birds, at the cost of lower fertility.

Lane claims that the DNA needs to be close to the mitochondria in order to make quick decisions. I found this confusing until I checked Wikipedia and figured out it probably refers to the CoRR hypothesis. I’m still confused, but at least now I can attribute the confusion to the topic being hard. Aubrey de Grey’s criticism of CoRR suggests there’s a consensus that CoRR has problems, and the main confusion revolves around the credibility of competing hypotheses.

Lane is quite pessimistic about attempts to cure aging. Only a small part of that disagreement with Aubrey can be explained by the modest differences in their scientific hypotheses. Much of the difference seems to come from Lane’s focus on doing science, versus Aubrey’s focus on engineering. Lane keeps pointing out (correctly) that cells are really complex and finely tuned. Yet Lane is well aware that evolution makes many changes that affect aging in spite of the complexity. I suspect he’s too focused on the inadequacy of typical bioengineering to imagine really good engineering.

Some less relevant tidbits include:

  • why vibrant plumage in male birds may be due to females being heterogametic
  • why male mammals age faster than females

Many of Lane’s ideas are controversial, and only weakly supported by the evidence. But given the difficulty of getting good evidence on these topics, that still represents progress.

The book is pretty dense, and requires some knowledge of biochemistry. It has many ideas and evidence that were developed since I last looked into this subject. I expect to forget many of those ideas fairly quickly. The book is worth reading if you have enough free time, but understanding these topics does not feel vital.

Book review: Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, by Frans de Waal.

This book is primarily about discrediting false claims of human uniqueness, and showing how easy it is to screw up evaluations of a species’ cognitive abilities. It is best summarized by the cognitive ripple rule:

Every cognitive capacity that we discover is going to be older and more widespread than initially thought.

De Waal provides many anecdotes of carefully designed experiments detecting abilities that previously appeared to be absent. E.g. asian elephants failed mirror tests with small, distant mirrors. When experimenters dared to put large mirrors close enough for the elephants to touch, some of them passed the test.

Likewise, initial observations of behaviorist humans suggested they were rigidly fixated on explaining all behavior via operant conditioning. Yet one experimenter managed to trick a behaviorist into demonstrating more creativity, by harnessing the one motive that behaviorists prefer over their habit of advocating operant conditioning: their desire to accuse people of recklessly inferring complex cognition.

De Waal seems moderately biased toward overstating cognitive abilities of most species (with humans being one clear exception to that pattern).

At one point he gave me the impression that he was claiming elephants could predict where a thunderstorm would hit days in advance. I checked the reference, and what the elephants actually did was predict the arrival of the wet season, and respond with changes such as longer steps (but probably not with indications that they knew where thunderstorms would hit). After rereading de Waal’s wording, I decided it was ambiguous. But his claim that elephants “hear thunder and rainfall hundreds of miles away” exaggerates the original paper’s “detected … at distances greater than 100 km … perhaps as much as 300 km”.

But in the context of language, de Waal switches to downplaying reports of impressive abilities. I wonder how much of that is due to his desire to downplay claims that human minds are better, and how much of that is because his research isn’t well suited to studying language.

I agree with the book’s general claims. The book provides evidence that human brains embody only small, somewhat specialized improvements on the cognitive abilities of other species. But I found the book less convincing on that subject than some other books I’ve read recently. I suspect that’s mainly due to de Waal’s focus on anecdotes that emphasize what’s special about each species or individual. Whereas The Human Advantage rigorously quantifies important ways in which human brains are just a bigger primate brain (but primate brains are special!). Or The Secret of our Success (which doesn’t use particularly rigorous methods) provides a better perspective, by describing a model in which ape minds evolve to human minds via ordinary, gradual adaptations to mildly new environments.

In sum, this book is good at explaining the problems associated with research into animal cognition. It is merely ok at providing insights about how smart various species are.

Book review: Probably Approximately Correct: Nature’s Algorithms for Learning and Prospering in a Complex World, by Leslie Valiant.

This book provides some nonstandard perspectives on machine learning and evolution, but doesn’t convince me there’s much advantage to using those perspectives. I’m unsure how much of that is due to his mediocre writing style. He often seems close to saying something important, but never gets there.

He provides a rigorous meaning for the concept of learnability. I suppose that’s important for something, but I can’t recall what.

He does an ok job of explaining how evolution is a form of learning, but Eric Baum’s book What is Thought? explains that idea much better.

The last few chapters, where he drifts farther from his areas of expertise, are worse. Much of what he says there only seems half-right at best.

One example is his suggestion that AI researchers ought to put a lot of thought into how teaching materials are presented (similar to how schools are careful to order a curriculum, from simple to complex concepts). I doubt that that reflects a reasonable model of human learning: children develop an important fraction of their intelligence before school age, with little guidance for the order in which they should learn concepts (cf. Piaget’s theory of cognitive development); and unschooled children seem to choose their own curriculum.

My impression of recent AI progress suggests that a better organized “curriculum” is even farther from being cost-effective there – progress seems to be coming more from better ways of incorporating unsupervised learning.

I’m left wondering why anyone thinks the book is worth reading.

Book review: The Human Advantage: A New Understanding of How Our Brain Became Remarkable, by Suzana Herculano-Houzel.

I used to be uneasy about claims that the human brain was special because it is large for our body size: relative size just didn’t seem like it could be the best measure of whatever enabled intelligence.

At last, Herculano-Houzel has invented a replacement for that measure. Her impressive technique for measuring the number of neurons in a brain has revolutionized this area of science.

We can now see an important connection between the number of cortical neurons and cognitive ability. I’m glad that the book reports on research that compares the cognitive abilities of enough species to enable moderately objective tests of the relevant hypotheses (although the research still has much room for improvement).

We can also see that the primate brain is special, in a way that enables large primates to be smarter than similarly sized nonprimates. And that humans are not very special for a primate of our size, although energy constraints make it tricky for primates to reach our size.

I was able to read the book quite quickly. Much of it is arranged in an occasionally suspenseful story about how the research was done. It doesn’t have lots of information, but the information it does have seems very new (except for the last two chapters, where Herculano-Houzel gets farther from her area of expertise).

Added 2016-08-25:
Wikipedia has a List of animals by number of neurons which lists the long-finned pilot whale as having 37.2 billion cortical neurons, versus 21 billion for humans.

The paper reporting that result disagrees somewhat with Herculano-Houzel:

Our results underscore that correlations between cognitive performance and absolute neocortical neuron numbers across animal orders or classes are of limited value, and attempts to quantify the mental capacity of a dolphin for cross-species comparisons are bound to be controversial.

But I don’t see much of an argument against the correlation between intelligence and cortical neuron numbers. The lack of good evidence about long-finned pilot whale intelligence mainly implies we ought to be uncertain.

Book review: The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter, by Joseph Henrich.

This book provides a clear explanation of how an ability to learn cultural knowledge made humans evolve into something unique over the past few million years. It’s by far the best book I’ve read on human evolution.

Before reading this book, I thought human uniqueness depended on something somewhat arbitrary and mysterious which made sexual selection important for human evolution, and wondered whether human language abilities depended on some lucky mutation. Now I believe that the causes of human uniqueness were firmly in place 2-3 million years ago, and the remaining arbitrary events seem much farther back on the causal pathway (e.g. what was unique about apes? why did our ancestors descend from trees 4.4 million years ago? why did the climate become less stable 3 million years ago?)

Human language now seems like a natural byproduct of previous changes, and probably started sooner (and developed more gradually) than many researchers think.

I used to doubt that anyone could find good evidence of cultures that existed millions of years ago. But Henrich provides clear explanations of how features such as right-handedness and endurance running demonstrate important milestones in human abilities to generate culture.

Henrich’s most surprising claim is that there’s an important sense in which individual humans are no smarter than other apes. Our intellectual advantage over apes is mostly due to a somewhat special-purpose ability to combine our individual brains into a collective intelligence. His evidence on this point is weak, but it’s plausible enough to be interesting.

Henrich occasionally exaggerates a bit. The only place where that bothered me was where he claimed that heart attack patients who carefully adhered to taking placebos were half as likely to die as patients who failed to reliably take placebos. The author wants to believe that demonstrates the power of placebos. I say the patient failure to take placebos was just a symptom of an underlying health problem (dementia?).

I’m a bit surprised at how little Robin Hanson says about the Henrich’s main points. Henrich suggests that there’s cultural pressure to respect high-status people, for reasons that are somewhat at odds with Robin’s ally/coalition based reasons. Henrich argues that knowledge coming from high-status people, at least in hunter-gatherer societies, tended to be safer than knowledge from more directly measurable evidence. The cultural knowledge that accumulates over many generations aggregates information that could not be empirically acquired in a short time.

So Henrich implies it’s reasonable for people to be confused about whether evidence based medicine embodies more wisdom than eminence based medicine. Traditional culture has become less valuable recently due to the rapid changes in our environment (particularly the technology component of our environment), but cultures that abandoned traditions too readily were often hurt by consequences which take decades to observe.

I got more out of this book than a short review can describe (such as “How Altruism is like a Chili Pepper”). Here’s a good closing quote:

we are smart, but not because we stand on the shoulders of giants or are giants ourselves. We stand on the shoulders of a very large pyramid of hobbits.