Thursday, June 30, 2005

Ten Reasons to Prefer Burial


You might as well have a nice, plush pillow.

Ever seen an urn from the 15th century?

It’s like a womb,
Only in reverse.

Kids can make traceries of your tombstone.

You’ll be feeding the hungry
(worms, that is).

With any luck, you’ll become a vampire.

Or a zombie.

In the event of a Rapture,
It’s a lot easy for God to find you.

Today’s grave is tomorrow’s archaeology.

Think of it as doing your part
To help out productions of Hamlet.

Photo courtesy of Starbuck Powersurge

Ten Reasons to Prefer Cremation

Crematory Urn

For once in your existence, you get to be hot stuff.

It’s hard to scatter body parts to the wind.

You can hang out on the mantle
And freak out the grandkids.

You can take up deep sea diving.

You can have your ashes shot up into space.
(How cool is that?)

You can have your ashes encased in a paperweight.

Or a Frisbee.

In the event of Judgment Day,
It’s a lot harder for God to find you.

Ashes + urn + clumsy guest = comedy gold.

Think of it as giving the finger
To the Great Circle of Life.

Photo courtesy of Caro Wallis

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Real Pizza Delivery Stories

Like a lot of people, I once worked in the service sector. My own experiences including flipping burgers and doing tech support (burgers were easier). I've long had particular sympathy for pizza delivery. It's bad enough when the great (and sometimes literally) unwashed masses come to you; having to go to them seems like an especially cruel occupation for an underpaid kid to be put through.

It is, therefore, no wonder that pizza delivery people sometimes need to vent. Fortunately, Real Pizza Delivery Stories gives them a forum to do just that.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Science and Teleology, part V

Before I begin, I want to thank those who've had the patience to follow along. I am aware that this essay seems to have been going all over the place without appearing to approach anything like a conclusion. I am happy to say that we're almost there.

In the previous installment, I talked about learning as well as introducing the idea of certain biological constraints, both in terms of protein and neural space, which I called "budgets". I also argued that nature "prefers" to give creatures as much instinctual knowledge as possible and noted that learning, although common, tends to simply be filler for instinctual knowledge. This left of with the question of why some animals are born with large gaps in their knowledge of the world, which left us with the question of why this was the case. I ended with a question that suggested that the reason some animals more lack instinctual knowledge is because they aren't able to.

In order to understand this it is necessary to take one more (apparent) detour. In order to understand why some animals seem incapable of retaining more instinctual knowledge, we need to understand something about genetics.

Many people have the idea that our genes are like blueprints. It is supposed that if you could carefully examine a given person's genes, for instance, that you would, in principle, be able to precisely reconstruct her. This is a view that is reinforced by media articles that report the discovery of a gene for this or that (e.g., a "fat" gene) as well as popular fiction which has clones popping out of vats who not only look like the original but, in many cases, even has the memories of the individual! Even discounting pop media and pop fiction, one only has to look at a pair of identical twins in order to suppose that genes do, in fact, encode the exact biological details of one's body.

Looks can be deceiving, however. Identical twins do have a lot of similarities (the precise degree of similarity being the subject of some controversy) but a close examination will reveal differences. Twins do not, for instance, have matching fingerprints, retinal patterns or birthmarks. Likewise, if one could microscopically examine a pair of twin's circulatory system, lungs, etc, one would be able to catalog innumerable deviations from one another.

Rather than thinking of genes as blueprints a better analogy is to think of them as recipes.

Let us take a recipe for something like a cake. If you examine the recipe, you can probably get a good idea of what's going to be produced if you combine all of the ingredients and follow the instructions. You'll know that you'll have something sweet, fluffy and bread-like with a layer of even sweeter confection. If it's a fairly complicated cake you might have layers of food with different textures and tastes. However, if you were to extract a cubic centimeter of an actual cake and if you tried to map it back to a precise line of instruction, in most cases you'll find yourself frustrated.

When scientists say that a given gene is for a given trait, what they really mean is that the lack of the gene inhibits the trait from developing. It's like trying to reverse engineer a meal by selectively removing lines from a recipe book and seeing what the final product looks and tastes like.

If you've done any cooking, you know that the ingredients and the instructions are only part of the processes. There are any number of external factors that influence how a given dish will develop. Two different burners will likely produce different temperatures even when put on the same setting. Likewise, a frying pan with a copper bottom will distribute heat differently than a cast iron one. Whether I'm cooking at altitude or at sea-level will influence the final product.

The advantage of using recipes rather than blueprints is that recipes can withstand a fair amount of variation in these conditions. In fact, recipes are robust enough that they can often survive the omission of certain ingredients or the substitution or addition of other ingredients. True, the final product will taste different but, in many cases, it will be edible and, perhaps, even more enjoyable than the initial recipe. In fact, I suspect that one of the reasons that people have an intuitively difficult time accepting the idea that mutation is a factor in the Theory of Natural Selection is that they think of mutations as being changes to a blueprint. If I substitute one gear for another in a precision Swiss watch, it is unlikely that the watch will continue to function and almost wholly implausible that it will function better. On the other hand, if I substitute Swiss cheese for cheddar in my Denver omelet the end result will almost certainly be palatable and may well taste better.

Even when we cook a given recipe using the same equipment and conditions, we often find that cooking the same meal twice does not produce exactly the same result. Infinitesimal variations in cooking time, ingredient quality and quantities can make "identical" meals taste slightly different. In like manner, even if you do everything precisely the same, down to the millimeter, the microsecond, and the millionth of a degree centigrade, meals would still come out subtly different because the process of combining them is statistical. I can say, in very exact terms, stir the pot of sauce fifteen times counter-clockwise and such-and-such a speed with such-and-such a radius, but that will not produce an identical distribution of ingredients.

Genetics is a very, very indirect process. Enzymes (which are a kind of protein) interact with DNA to produce proteins (some of which are enzymes) which are used to build cells which (in certain cases) interact to form tissues which are "folded" into organs which a grouped into systems which, ultimately, comprise a body. It is not a bad analogy to think of DNA as being you body's "recipe", the proteins in your body as your "ingredients", your mother's wombs as being the oven that baked you, and your body as the meal that was produced (except that you continue to "cook" over the entire span of your life, a bit like an omelet still cooks for a few minutes after it has been removed from the stove).

Actually, DNA is more like a book of recipes than a single recipe. There are recipes for building lungs, for building skin and (foreshadowing alert!) building brains. Just as with real cookbooks, some recipes are more precise than others.

Consider a sandwich. Although I've made a point of distinguishing recipes from blueprints, making a sandwich is a lot more like following a blueprint than, say, blending a margarita. You could actually make a blueprint of a sandwich, rather than a recipe, and not lose anything essential (so long as certain components such as the mayonnaise or peanut butter had been prepared in advance). Some parts of our bodies are like that from a genetic standpoint.

When a body part needs to have a precise structure, our genes must contain enough information to specify its structure to the necessary degree of precision. That comes at a cost and that cost is informational. Genes are information. The more information you need to describe a given structure in a body, the longer the section of DNA you need to use to describe it. This is a finite resource.

You might wonder why an organism can't simply make longer DNA. The amount of DNA that an organism can have is limited by the size of its cells. Cellular sized among animals whose cells have a nucleus is limited by physical constraints. Each of your cells is essentially an non-independent organism. It eats, it metabolizes, and it excretes. It needs to do all of these operations through membranes (an inner and an outer set). Membranes constitute areas while the bulk of a cell's machinery occupies a volume. As you know, areas increase as a square while volumes increase as a cube. This if I have a cell with an area of 2 and a volume of two and I want to double its size, I now have a cell with an area of 4 and a volume of 8. This means that I have twice the area for doing such critical tasks as absorbing nutrients but that I am now supporting four times the volume of cellular machinery that needs to be fed. It is for this reason that all animals, from whales down to fleas, have approximately the same sized cells.

Much of the complexity of the body can be reduced to simple repetitive algorithms. Lungs, for instance, have millions of branching tubes. One might naïvely suppose that this means that millions of genetic instructions are required to "construct" lungs; however, the structure of lungs can be viewed as a simple set of instructions that says, "build a tube, then split the end of it in half and build two smaller tube; repeat until done."

There are different sort of cooks in the world. Some cooks slavishly follow a recipe exactly while others consider a recipe to be a general theme which is supposed to be improvised upon. The "recipes" in the DNA cookbook tell you (meaning the cellular machinery of your body) what sort of cook you need to be. Perhaps a bit confusingly, a single recipe can require different types of cooks for different parts of the recipe. Some elements of the circulatory system, such as the jugular vein, are not open to a great deal of improvisation while others, such as the capillaries, require extensive improvising.

Again, the determining factor is how much variation can be tolerated in a given part of the system. If you don't have an aorta, you're probably dead. As such, your genes need to provide enough information to ensure that there is going to be an aorta in your body. On the other hand, the precise layout of the capillaries in your big toe can withstand a lot of variation, so long as it gets enough blood, so your genes can get away with a fairly compressed set of "branch as appropriate" instructions.

Now let us consider the brain. As I've stated previously, many organisms don't have brains or have such miniscule brains that they might as well not have them (insects, for example, can live for extended periods after being decapitated, dying ultimately of starvation rather than for lack of their brains). In some respects brains really are like computers: if you don't have one and have gotten along fine, you probably don't need one, but once you get one and start to really use it, you quickly find that it becomes a necessity that you can't do with out.

Like computers, the more brainpower you have, the more advantage you get out of it. This is especially true if you find yourself in any sort of "arms race" with brainy competitor animals (including, potentially, members of your own species). However, like computers, the more powerful your brain, the more expensive it costs. In some cases, the expense is worth spending a sizable fraction of your protein budget on brain mass. However, also like a computer, a brain is as only good as its software and firmware. It doesn't do any good to have a beefy brain that doesn't have the necessary programming to cope with the problems of survival — you might as well be a tree!

As previously noted, from a survival perspective, instincts are good. The problem with learning is that if you have to learn something that is critical for your survival, you run the risk of either getting killed before you learn it or, just as bad, learning the wrong thing and getting killed by false knowledge. In this view, you want to have to learn as absolutely little as possible. It is better to be born wise than to have to attain enlightenment at a later date.

The problem with instincts is that the only way to pass instinctual information is through the genes. That means that every bit of knowledge you need to have must be encoded in your genes. That translates into physical space on the genes. The more complex your knowledge is, the more space is required. It is necessary to understand that when we are talking about instinctual knowledge, we are actually talking about physical structures in the brain. An instinct to be wary of predators is actually a three-dimensional labyrinth of neurons connected in a lattice that is structured to evoke a particular response (perhaps a release of adrenaline which, in turn, activates other neural clusters) when presented with certain stimuli. This means that in order to have that structure, the genes that control its development have to contain enough information to reliably "tell" the body how to create it. Some of that can be compressed into abstract recipe-like instructions that allow for compression but a fair amount will require more blueprint-like specifications.

Brains get complicated very fast. The human brain (which is a rather extraordinary example) has something like 10 billion neurons and, more importantly, 100 billion connections between those neurons. The human genome, by contrast, has about 100 thousand distinct genes.

An animal's genes can only specify so much information to allocate to a given brain. Once your brain grows past a certain size and complexity, your genes have no choice but to allow the body to improvise the actual structure. What this means is that your genes can't "anticipate" what brain you're actually going to end up with. They can pre-program in a certain amount of information but are helpless to program the rest.

In my last essay, a person with the handle of "Murky Thoughts" challenged my assertion that few animals need to learn how to walk. He noted that colts, by way of example, do walk on their first day but that they don't walk well. He also suggested that relatively few vertebrates are born knowing how to see (this is actually mainly true of avians and mammals, but regardless) and that they need to learn how do so. He's right; however, this is mainly due to the complexity of an animals overall nervous system rather than the complexity of its brain. The animals in question have sufficiently complex nervous systems that their genes can't "know" how, precisely, the nerves (from say their retinas) will connect to their brains. This inability to anticipate that requires a certain amount of learning, much as a rat needs to learn the maze of tunnels that it's born into. However, colts are born with the knowledge of how to walk once they figure out how their legs are connected to their brains. That information is inherited.

Human babies, by contrast, don't have the knowledge of how to walk buried in their neurology, waiting in anticipation of the time when their brains figure out which nerves connect to which muscles (and, or course, in anticipation of having muscles that are strong enough to do the job). Even after they work out their neural schemas, they still have to go through the tedium of actually learning how to walk. A fascinating contrast to this is the fact that infants are born knowing how to swim. If you drop a newborn into a tank of water (and under no circumstances am I suggestion that you do so!) she will not only know how to swim but will also know how to avoid breathing in water when she's submerged. Most curiously, they lose this ability within three days. In order to swim after that point, the child has to learn how.

In most animals, the genetic limitations of instinct translate into physical limits to the complexity of their brains. Even if they have the protein to spare towards the construction of bigger brains, doing so would be a waste of resources since they wouldn't have the necessary programming to take advantage of them and they lack the luxury of time and effort that would be required to develop programming for them after the fact. It takes a rather special set of circumstances to justify the complexity of a brain that doesn't come preinstalled with the majority of the software necessary to survive.

A handful of animals do have that luxury. This is the central feature that unifies lion cubs, elephant calves and human babies. Each of these creatures is born into a protective environment that allows them to have brains that are more complex than their genes. Not only do they have the safety of being protected at birth but they have the luxury to take their time in growing up.

So let us suppose we have that luxury. We have a turbo-charged brain which (by necessity) has blocks of computational space that aren't programmed from birth. How do our genes tell us to take advantage of it? After all, a surplus a free space doesn't do us any good if it just gets filled up with junk and noise. Even though our genes can't directly program it, it needs to be able to tell us how we ought to utilize it. This is accomplished through the insertion of meta-instincts.

Instead being born with the gift of knowledge, we are bequeathed with the knowledge of how to get knowledge. A kitten doesn't know how to catch mice, but it does have an instinctual desire to play with small, moving objects. Because the kitten can rely on its mother to feed it in the meanwhile, it can spend time developing those skills in a non-survival context. By the time the kitten reaches maturity, when it is critical for it to be able to feed itself, it has (we hope) learned everything that it needs to know to do so.

This is play. This is also the essential function of play.

There is, of course, more to the story. Let us consider the difference between calculators and computers. A calculator is a tool for performing mathematical manipulations. So, in essence, is a computer. The primary difference is that all of the functions of a calculator are preprogrammed. If your goal is simply to have a tool to perform those calculations, you really don't need anything more sophisticated and, indeed, for quite a long time people got along perfectly well with calculators. A computer, by contrast, isn't limited by its built in operations. You can build on those basic operations in a very flexible and open manner. The need for that flexibility is debatable but once you start to use it, it quickly becomes apparent that there are quite a few advantages to having that flexibility.

Although nature doesn't "like" having to rely on learning, once the requirement of flexible learning arises (and the necessary circumstances to support it) a vast amount of potential is unlocked. Being able to learn doesn't simply mean that you are forced to learn how to catch your dinner; it means that you have the potential of figuring out a better way to catch your dinner.

Of course that comes with its own set of risks. One of the ways to minimize that risk is to have a non-genetic channel for transmitting information. If you have the ability to compare notes with others (including peers as well as parents) you can minimize the risk of working from bad information. This is the root of culture, the rudiments of which we can see in such animals as chimps and (perhaps) dolphins.

Again, play is a useful meta-instinct; however, the instruction transforms from "figure out how to do X" to "figure out how those around you do X". An even more sophisticated version is when X is actually left as a free variable. Instead of a desire to interact with a specific purpose, our instinct becomes an abstract desire to simply interact with our peers and our parents with a generalized desire to learn from them without any particular goal.

It is instructive to watch human children at play. Some games seem very strongly connected to necessary skills. All children, everywhere, have games that involve the tossing and catching of objects. What is more interesting is that, past a certain age, children start to become obsessed with rules. In a certain sense, the rules become the game with a great deal of effort being spent on deciding what is "fair" and what is "cheating". My own feeling is that when you see children arguing about rules you are witnessing the development of our moral sense. I believe that it is on the playground, more than from our parents or from such institutions as church and school, that we learn (or fail to learn) how to be moral creatures.

At this point, we have our teleology. All that is left is for me to wrap this up into a conclusion. Since I've already been tardy twice in writing this, and since I expect the conclusion to be relatively short, I won't make you suffer another two week delay. The next installment will be next week.

Thursday, June 23, 2005


Helen of Troy

Late of Troy,

Sitting at her vanity
Besieged by time's armada

Hector dead
Paris dead

Dead, dismembered, and pyred

Lips cracked
Breasts heavy and sagging

Her eyes:
Eternal and defiant

Painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Unstructured Clouds

Image hosted by Photobucket.comAfter the eruption of Krakatoa, some observers noticed curious, luminous clouds, dubbed "noculent clouds", forming high in the sky. The clouds had a blue glow that persisted into the night.

Scientists, quite reasonably, assumed that they were somehow the product of volcanic ash; however, even after the ash had settled the clouds had remained and continue to remain something of mystery to this day. They are normally only found in northern latitudes but have been slowly creeping south over the years, perhaps as a consequence of global warming.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

The Computer Ate My Homework

Sorry guys, I know that you've been patiently waiting for the final installment of my essay on sience and teleology. Unfortunately, the file that I had it on go corrupted (which is to say that I accidentally saved another file over it -- d'oh!) so I'm going to have to rewrite it.

I'll have it for you next week, I promise.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Paper Cut

There is a paper cut
In your future,
As inevitable as time.

It knows you,
And it is patient
To keep its appointment
With you.

It is one of
The lesser agents
Of karma.

It is punishment
For all the small crimes
You thought
You got away with.

The sword of justice
Is sometimes thin.

this is an audio post - click to play

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Unsctructured Comix

Scott McCloud thinks a lot about comics. He's got an excuse given that this is how he makes his living; however, it the depth and creativity of his thoughts that make him stand apart. A while back, he wrote a book (in comic form) called Reinventing Comics in which he analyzed the art-form and then speculated on its future. He was one of the people who, early on, saw the potential for the web and advocated the idea that the web could allow comic artists to employ what he described as an infinite canvas.

When you look around at most online comics, most of them look a lot like traditional print comics. Very few people are really taking advantage of the new medium and, sadly, many of those who are trying to do so aren't, frankly, doing a very good job.

Scott McCloud is more than just a theorist. He's created some truly innovative comics and have them available for viewing on his site. My personal favorite is an autobiographical one called My Obsession with Chess. For sheer beauty of form, I would recommend Zot, which is a kind of superhero story. He uses the idea of a story trail to connect his panels which vary greatly in size per the needs of the story. It's worth taking a look at.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Off-site Essay: Life In Our Anti-Christian America

I, honestly, don't have a problem with the majority of Christians in my country. In my experience, most people, of whatever faith, Christian or otherwise, have a live and let live attitude that serves the plurality of our culture well. Generally, people only take up religious arms when a hand-full of hot-button issues come up leaving religion to private considerations at most other times.

Unfortunately, there are vocal minorities who make it their mission to rake muck, nor am I singling out Christian groups. Trust me, there are atheist organizations out there that make me feel just as queasy as any of the strident Christian groups. Never the less, there is one tactic that Christian groups often employ that does especially set my teeth on edge: the tactic of claiming that Christians are a persecuted minority in the United States.

The claim is absurd on the face of it. According to the CIA Factbook, Christians comprise a good 79% of the population (77% if you want to exclude Mormons, though I don't see the logic of doing so). Atheists and other non-religious groups make up a mere 10% of the population. In spite of these figures, there are groups that insist that Christians are being persecuted by atheists. One imagines a lion claiming to be persecuted by a mouse.

To highlight the absurdity of this, Rob Berry created a wonderful bit of satire called "Life In Our Anti-Christian America". It is a very ironic list of the ways that Chrstians are being subject to discrimination and marginalization. It includes such items as:

  • Nearly all of our elected public officials are atheists; they even have to swear on a copy of Darwin's "Origin of Species" in order to take office.
  • All of our money has the atheistic slogan "We do not trust in God" printed on it.
  • While atheists hold huge rallies in 25,000-seat amphitheatres, Christians are so few in number that they can only dream of holding such rallies.
  • Most gravestones in America are engraved with pentagrams; those few graves which are engraved with crosses usually end up being vandalized.
The list has 218 entries and would have had more if Rob hadn't stopped taking submissions. It's been a while since it's been updated so some of the items may seem a bit dated and there are no entries for such current controveries as the Shiavo case. Never the less, the list is a rather stinging rebuke to the supposition that Christians are, in any sense, at the mercy of the atheist minority.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Subatomic Spam

Lusty leptons!
Naughty neutrinos!

Erotic electrons!
Promiscuous protons!

Come see
Our transsexual

Queer quarks
Of every color!

Virgin nuclei
That have never
Been split!

You must have
A half life of 21 years
Or more to enter.

this is an audio post - click to play

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Go, Go Gravatar!

I have enabled the ability to use Gravatars when you post. A gravatar is a type of avatar (read: picture) that shows up when you post a comment to a blog. The cool thing about them is that if you create a Gravatar for yourself (see link), it will automatically show up on any Gravatar-enabled blog that you post comments to.

See the comments for this post to see what I'm talking about.

[Update: Since I upgraded to Blogger 2.0, Gravatars are no longer supported]

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Irrepreducible Fun

Science is a serious venture. Like all profoundly serious ventures, it is subject to some rather amazing silliness.

The mission of The Journal of Irrepreducible Results is to highlight research that either can not, or should not, be repeated. This culminates, every year, with the awarding of the Ignoble Prize to those whose researches most precisely capture this ideal.

Sometimes the awards are for pseudo-scientific research but the best ones are for real scientific studies that are just plain silly, such as a paper titled "An Analysis of the Forces Required to Drag Sheep over Various Surfaces" and another which explored and explained the dynamics of hula-hooping.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Science and Teleology part IV

This is the forth installment of an essay where I have been discussing the relationship between science and teleology. In the previous installment, I continued to explore why animals play. It was determined that play is a type of learning behavior but that this wasn't quite the teleological answer that we were looking for. I ended the installment by asking what the advantage of learning is. I also stated, somewhat cryptically, that this was the wrong question but for the right reason.

The question I asked is misleading. It is misleading because conflates learning and play. Although we have determined that some animals play to learn, it does not follow that all animals play to learn. In fact, the ability to learn, unlike the behavior of play, is fairly common. Mice, famously, can learn to navigate mazes. Pigeons can learn to play tic-tac-toe (or knots and crosses if you prefer) and can do a decent job of it. Even nematodes (simple worm-like creatures) can be trained to take a right hand path at an intersection so as to avoid a shock.

It is, however, the right question in the sense that we need to consider what advantage learning confers; however, we also need to understand what differentiates the sort of learning that happens during play and to determine what advantages are conferred there.

The advantages of learning may seem self-evident but we should bear in mind that the vast majority of organisms do not and cannot learn for the simple reason that most living beings on the planet don't have brains. This has not inhibited the success of bacteria, plants, fungi, various protozoa, various algae and slime molds, nor a number of animals such as sponges and star fish. In like manner, many animals that do have brains have such simple brains that they can not learn new behavior including arthropods (insects, spiders, crustaceans, etc), and the majority of mollusks (with octopi and squids being the notable exceptions).

We might suppose that the ability to learn is a good survival strategy when it comes to dealing with complex environments and this supposition would, in fact, be true; however it isn't the only strategy nor is it always the best one. Small creatures tend to adapt to shifting environments by simply breeding fast and copiously. Many larger organisms, such as trees, cope by assuming forms that are extremely durable. We should also be aware that not all environments are equally unstable. Many environments are very stable of long term periods which allows for survival strategies that "assume" that any given life will experience a given set of circumstances.

When it comes to thinking about animals it's often helpful to think in terms of something called a protein budget. A protein budget is simply the amount of raw material that you have to work with when creating a given organism. The "you" in question is nature and we can think of this in terms of natural selection or, if we are so incline, in terms of a god (it really doesn't matter in this case). Your one and only goal is to make creatures that can survive long enough to reproduce.

The main thing you need to understand is that you have a finite amount of material to work with. That's your protein budget. You can spend it on things like claws, or wings, or brains, or sophisticated eyes, and so forth and so on. Like any budget, you can only buy so much before you run out of funds, which means that you have to spend your allocation wisely.

Brains can be expensive and they aren't always the best deal. If your animal can manage to do without them, you should probably spend your funds on other things. Even if you opt to buy a brain, you can't always afford to get the best model. If your animal's brain is taking up so much of your budget that your animals can't successfully defend itself, you've made an unwise purchase. In the natural world, animals that have "budgeted" badly go extinct.

The reason that we find brains in the natural world is that they do come with quite a few advantages. While it is possible, in many circumstances, to get along without brains, having a brain does improve your interactions with the world. High-end brain models not only improve your interaction but allow you to modify your interactions over your lifetime so as to continually improve your survivability — if you can afford it.

Not all animals have an equal protein budget. Insects get a very small budget and have to be especially conservative in their spending. Larger animals, such as reptiles, have more latitude. They can afford to spend a big chunk of their budget of some relatively sophisticated brains. But even in big animals, there's always the question of trade-off. Do I benefit from having a bigger brain or by spending it on something more practical. Dinosaurs, famously, had a literally huge success by spending the bulk of their budget on bulk. Being bigger was more useful to them then being smarter (and make no mistake, dinosauria was an immensely successful order of animal).

So let us say that we have decided to budget for a brain and that we've opted for a learning model. We still have a critical question to ask: what sort of things do we want to learn. Here is where we really need to start thinking about the disadvantages of learning. Yes, disadvantages.

Creatures are born into a hostile world. There are an immense number of ways to die. You can fall off a cliff, you can be crush under a bolder, you can be eaten by a predator, you can be killed by a sexual rival (or a mate: just ask a praying mantis), you can succumb to disease, you can eat a poisonous plant, and so forth and so on. Although the ability to learn from mistakes can be useful (mustn't eat those particular berries again; they got me sick!) having to learn everything is a disadvantage.

Imagine being an antelope and having to learn that lions are predators. Your first lesson would probably kill you. If you are an antelope, it's a lot better if you know, from the start, that lions are dangerous. In other words, you're better served, in this case, by having an instinctual aversion to lions.

An instinct is nothing more than a pre-programmed set of behaviors that are hard-coded into the structure of the brain. They are, essentially, "memories" that you are born with.

We humans tend to disdain instincts. We consider them something primitive that has been superseded by our capacity to reason. We have every right to be proud of our rational abilities but our tendency to see them as being an natural advantage is a bit anthropocentric.

Again, we need to think in terms of budgets. This time, instead of a protein budget, we need to think about a neural budget. Any given brain will only have so much space. Any amount that we budget for learning is going to subtract away from the space that we can allocate from instinct (and vice versa).

If I am an animal that is being born into harsh circumstances it is typically to my advantage to come into the world with as many instincts as possible. Instincts tend to be necessities while learning tends to be a luxury. It is often a good idea to budget some space for the capacity to learn, of course. If I am a mouse, there's no way that instinct is going to prepare me for the particular configuration of tunnels that I'm going to have to traverse. Being able to learn tunnel layouts (or mazes) is a very useful trick, so I'll need to budget some brain space for that. As a rule, though, it's a very good idea to be born with as much survival gear as possible, which means a bias towards instinct over learning.

When most animals learn, what they learn are things that supplement their instincts. Few animals need to learn the basic elements of survival, such as how to walk. The only animals that can afford that are those who are shielded from those basic necessities.

Does this ring a bell?

In the previous installment we noticed that animals that engage in play tend to have long development times. I called this "developmental luxury". Those animals that are shielded from most of the dangers of their environment can afford the luxury of dispensing with some of their instincts. They can afford to take the time to learn how to do the things that other animals are born knowing how to do.

This still doesn't explain why they would "want" to. We are still left wondering what the advantage of learning how to do things that we could, in principle, be born knowing. Why not keep those as instincts?

We're still asking the wrong question. The right question is why can't we keep those as instincts. This question will be the subject of the next installment.

Thursday, June 02, 2005


We decided to build a god.

We built it out of wire, string and clay,
And some transcendent goo
That we found lying on the beach.

It flashed into luminescence
Brighter and more beautiful
Than the sum of a thousand days,
Filling our hearts with joys unnamed.

It proclaimed Itself our creator
And cursed thunder at our denials.

It told us that we were wretched
And unworthy of Its love,
Which was boundless,
And subject to impromptu revocation.

It proclaimed twelve Eternal Rules
And promptly commanded their violation
In Its name and for Its glory.

It finally shambled off into the sky
Shouting at us to keep our eyes
Cast firmly upon the ground
As a reminder of our lowly state.

We indulged it for a week
Before we took it apart.

this is an audio post - click to play

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