Brockman, This Explains Everything, 1

Key topics so far: Evolution by means of natural selection. How life is a digital code. Reflective equilibrium and the evolution of non-objective morality. How evolution explains the conflicts in human social life. And how levels of such “variation-selection processes” are everywhere.

Subtitled “Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works”
Harper Perennial, 2013, xx + 411pp, including 9-page index.

I’m reading through this book, which I’ve mentioned two or three times in the past couple weeks, bits at a time. Again, it’s an anthology of short nonfiction essays, nearly 200 of them over 400 pages, so it’s easy to read two or three at a time whenever an open 5 minutes shows up.

I wrote about the book and its first essay, by Susan Blackmore, back on February 9th.

Furthermore, as I mentioned, the entire contents of the book is at this link, albeit not in order of the actual table of contents. Still, to read any of the essays I’m discussing here in full, just go to that page and search for the author’s name.

So moving past Susan Blackmore and evolution by natural selection, the next essay is by Matt Ridley, with the nearly as fundamental discovery that life is digital.


Matt Ridley: “Life is a Digital Code”

About the discovery of the structure of DNA. Before that, everyone wondered, how did life copy itself?

This is the one scientific question where absolutely nobody came close to guessing the answer. …

All the explanations of life before 28 Feb 1953 are hand-waving waffle and might as well speak of protoplasm and vital sparks for all the insights they gave. …

Then came the double helix and the immediate understanding that, as Crick wrote to his son a few weeks later, “some sort of code”—digital, linear two-dimensional, combinatorially infinite and instantly self-replicating—was all the explanation you needed.


Richard Dawkins: “Redundancy Reduction and Pattern Recognition”

Deep, elegant, beautiful? Part of what makes a theory elegant is its power to explain much while assuming little. Here, Darwin’s natural selection wins hands down. The ratio of the huge amount that it explains (everything about life: its complexity, diversity and illusion of crafted design) divided by the little that it needs to postulate (non-random survival of randomly varying genes through geological time) is gigantic. Never in the field of human comprehension were so many facts explained by assuming so few. Elegant then, and deep—its depths hidden from everybody until as late as the nineteenth century. On the other hand, for some tastes natural selection is too destructive, too wasteful, too cruel to count as beautiful. In any case, coming late to the party as ever, I can count on somebody else choosing Darwin. I’ll take his great grandson instead, and come back to Darwin at the end.

So what is his choice? Basically, about how animals, including us, don’t perceive everything uniformly; it’s much more efficient to look for breaks in what otherwise appear to be patterns. Look for the edges.

Natural selection is an averaging computer, detecting redundancies—repeat patterns—in successive worlds (successive through millions of generations) in which the species has survived (averaged over all members of the sexually reproducing species). Could we take what Barlow did for neurones in sensory systems, and do a parallel analysis for genes in naturally selected gene pools? Now that would be deep, elegant and beautiful.


Scott Atran: The Power of Absurdity. By which he means the persistence of ideas of transcendence.

Religion and the sacred, banned so long from reasoned inquiry by ideological bias of all persuasions—perhaps because the subject is so close to who we want or don’t want to be—is still a vast, tangled and largely unexplored domain for science, however simple and elegant for most people everywhere in everyday life.

(I’m not mentioning every single one of these…)


Aubrey de Grey: The Overdue Demise Of Monogamy

(mentioned here)

The interesting point here isn’t about monogamy, as about the writer’s take on the evolution of morality, and why morality doesn’t have to be objectively based — just consistent (which might be hard to do without being reality based).

In 1971, John Rawls coined the term “reflective equilibrium” to denote “a state of balance or coherence among a set of beliefs arrived at by a process of deliberative mutual adjustment among general principles and particular judgments”. In practical terms, reflective equilibrium is about how we identify and resolve logical inconsistencies in our prevailing moral compass. Examples such as the rejection of slavery and of innumerable “isms” (sexism, ageism, etc.) are quite clear: the arguments that worked best were those highlighting the hypocrisy of maintaining acceptance of existing attitudes in the face of already-established contrasting attitudes in matters that were indisputably analogous.

Reflective equilibrium gets my vote for the most elegant and beautiful explanation, because of its immense breadth of applicability and also its lack of dependence on other controversial positions. Most importantly, it rises above the question of cognitivism: the debate over whether there is any such thing as objective morality. Cognitivists assert that certain acts are inherently good or bad irrespective of the society within which they do or do not occur, very much as the laws of physics are (generally believed to be…) independent of those observing their impact on events. Non-cognitivists claim, by contrast, that no moral position is universal, and that each (hypothetical) society makes its own moral rules unfettered, such that even acts that we would view as unequivocally immoral could be morally unobjectionable in some other culture. But when we make actual decisions concerning whether such-and-such a view is morally acceptable (or morally entailed), reflective equilibrium frees us from the need to take a view on the cognitivism question. In a nutshell, it explains why we don’t need to know whether morality is objective.

He goes on about monogamy, because that moral principle was once much more important than it might be taken today.

My prediction that monogamy’s end is extremely nigh arises from my reference to reproductive efficiency above. Every single society in history has seen a precipitous reduction in fertility following its achievement of a level of prosperity that allowed reasonable levels of female education and emancipation. Monogamy is virtually mandated when a woman spends her entire adult life with young children underfoot, because continuous financial support cannot otherwise be ensured. But when it is customary for those of both sexes to be financially independent, this logic collapses. This is especially so for the increasing proportion of men and women who are choosing to delay having any children until middle age (if then).

There’s more to his argument, but I don’t want to quote the whole thing…


Leonard Susskind on the second law of thermodynamics. Specifically, why entropy always increases; isn’t that sorta magical? The answer is that it’s not *guaranteed* to increase; it’s just vastly more likely that it will, statistically.


You gather as you read this book that editor Brockman doesn’t try to edit for consistency. He takes whatever his contributors say at face value. Thus we get psychiatrist Joel Gold claiming that Freud’s idea of the unconscious explains so much — without wondering exactly what the unconscious is or how it came to be. (He’s using obsolete terminology for what evolutionary psychology has been exploring in much more concrete terms in recent decades.) And you have the actor (and science TV host) Alan Alda, who thinks that the line “There are more things in heaven and earth…” is a profound ‘explanation.’ I’m going to skip relatively trivial entries like these.


Physicist Frank Wilczek: Simplicity, as a measure of how much complex seeming phenomena can be reduced without losing information. Another way of saying physics strives for a few simple principles that explain everything.


Physicist Sean Carroll: Einstein explaining why gravity is universal, because it’s not a force, it’s a feature of spacetime itself.


Steven Pinker: Evolutionary Genetics Explains The Conflicts of Human Social Life

Longish for this book – four full pages – but concise summary of the work of those evolutionary psychologists in recent decades to tease apart elements of human nature from the way natural selection works.

Complex life­ is a product of natural selection, which is driven by competition among replicators. The outcome depends on which replicators best mobilize the energy and materials necessary to copy themselves, and on how rapidly they can make copies which can replicate in turn. The first aspect of the competition may be called survival, metabolism, or somatic effort; the second replication or reproductive effort. Life at every scale, from RNA and DNA to whole organisms, implements features that execute—and constantly trade off­—these two functions.

He explains differential parental investment and competition between siblings and cousins, and from such basic principles deduces:

  • Conflict is part of the human condition, and always will be. [Interesting aside:]

    There are a small number of plots in the world’s fiction, and are defined by adversaries (often murderous), by tragedies of kinship or love, or both. In the real world, our life stories are largely stories of conflict: the hurts, guilts, and rivalries inflicted by friends, relatives, and competitors.

  • The main refuge from this conflict it the family;
  • Even families are not perfect havens from conflict, for those parental investment issues;
  • Sex is more than a pastime between consenting adults, again for parental investment reasons; thus jealousy, cuckoldry, desertion, and so on.
  • Love is not all you need, and does not make the world go round. Thus marital strife arising from infidelity, stepchildren, in-laws.

We are not robots enslaved by genes, but

What it does mean is that a large number of recurring forms of human conflict fall out of a small number of features of the process that made life possible.


Jonathan Gottschall on The Faurie-Raymond Hypothesis, which is the idea that left-handers have an advantage in violent interpersonal conflict (e.g. boxing), which is why, despite being associated with certain health risks, it hasn’t been trimmed away by natural selection. An intriguing idea, yet the data from violent societies is mixed! A revised hypothesis: left-handedness is an advantage not just in violent conflicts, but in play, i.e. athletics.


David G. Myers on Group Polarization. Group interaction tends to amplify people’s initial inclinations. Many people would say the same thing these days about finding social “bubbles” reinforces one’s views, because you never hear any counter views. Myers does in fact propose that increased self-segregation is polarizing American society, something which I’ve thought fairly obvious given social media of the past two decades.


Armand Marie Lerio on The Price Equation. Price is the guy who proposed it; it’s not about prices. The equation is about what Lerio calls “variation-selection processes.”

By this I mean any process that begins with many variants and in which most die (or are thrown in the waste-paper basket or dissipate or collapse) leaving only a few that are fit (or strong or appealing or stable) enough to survive. The production of organic forms by natural selection is, of course, the most famous example of such a process. It’s also now a commonplace that human culture is driven by an analogous process; but, as the above examples suggest, I think that variation-selection processes can be seen everywhere once we know what to look for.

Indeed, it’s been noted by many that natural selection applies not just to biology, but to virtually every natural phenomenon involving some kind of imperfect or hybrid reproduction and some kind of changing circumstances. (“Environmental filtering” is another term.) This is what I meant a few posts ago when I said that, once you understand natural selection, you’ll realize that it can’t *not* happen. The writer then goes on to explain how this equation allows for “multilevel selection,” a contentious issue still in various areas, e.g. ideas of holistic vs. reductionist stances. (Or, perhaps Wilson’s group vs. individual selection.) Alas, the writer doesn’t try to explain *how* the equation resolves these matters, perhaps unsure to what extent it does.


And we’re up to page 54 of a 400 some page book.


(Interesting to trace the chain of association that led me to be reading this book now, after having it for 10 years. The new Shermer book mentioned “third culture” books; that led to Brockman’s book of that title, and then to the many similar essay anthologies he’s done since; and then to this one, which struck me on being on the most fundamental topic.)

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