Dawkins…. On Purpose

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Dawkins gave a talk that could be criticized as not particularly new, in that his main idea is that human brains are too powerful and adaptable to continue to function primarily within an adaptive program serving as a proper adaptive organ. Instead, human brains think up all sorts of other, rather non-Darwinian things to do. This idea has been explored and talked about in many ways by many people. Kurt Vonegut Jr.’s character in Galapagos repeatedly, in a state of lament, quips “Thanks, Big Brain…” as evidence accumulates that our inevitable march towards extinction is primarily a function of that particular organ’s activities. People have talked about the brain as the outcome of runaway sexual selection. Evolutionary psychologists have talked about the evolution of strong preferences and desires, which in turn play out i a rather Frankensteinian fashion in a world where those desires can be met with ease instead of hard work and much time. Thus, we have evolved a yearning for rare nutrients such as salt and fat, and then we invented the ability to have unlimited access to salt and fat. So now, in a ‘civilized world’, it is the salt and fat that kills us incited of the predator or the con-specific competitor over access to some food or some sexual opportunity. (Thanks, Big Brain….)

But the talk was not old stuff. (See this important commentary by PZ Myers.) There was some important new stuff here as well. I had the sense that there was a fairly elaborate theory running below the surface and we were seeing bits and pieces of it, chosen for the audience and embedded in necessary contextual explanation which takes time to do. Thus, in an hours time, we got a taste which probably engorged the average intelligent audience member, but left the specialist chomping at the bit.

Dawkins made a number of points in his talk, and I’ll focus on what I see as the central thread. This thread addressed the concept of ‘purpose’ in relation to design, the differentiation of purpose into two types (archeo and neo, also potentially thought of as “natural” and “human-mad”), the potential complexity and (most importantly) adaptability of purpose-imbued systems, and the potential of subversion of this adaptability. This subversion is the crux of the talk, and it is unfortunate that this could not have been a two part talk where everything but subversion was covered in Part I, and the subversion question (which is really a major revision or extension of the memetic hypothesis, I think) in Part II.

As hinted above, subversion of adaptable purpose is, according to Dawkins, the expiation for the crazy stuff humans do, including things like skydiving and things like the rise of a Nazi state. Dawkins did not explore the ways in which this idea works (or not) differently at proximate (“how”) levels vs. ultimate (“why”) levels, but I’m sure he’d have some interesting things to say about it.

Purpose in relation to design was in part explicated by looking at both natural and artificial selection. He started with a very clear differentiation of where purpose can exist and not exist, where something like Ayers Rock, a lump of clay, or a rock may not really have a “purpose” while an adaptive function of a designed thing (like the culturally selected huge udder of a cow) may (to make a farmer rich). He used examples from both artificial selection and natural selection, as well as human engineering, and made clear the distinction between selection as a process (you’all know how that works) vs. intentional design or selection by humans. (But that distinction, while important, is not key to this thread, so we’ll leave that off).

Neo-purpose vs. archaeo-purpose (or maybe it’s “archeo-pupose”) are two terms that Dawkins introduced to differentiate between natural and human-engineered ‘purposeful’ things. Archaeo-purpose = adaptive functionality, maybe even non adaptive but naturalistic functionality, in nature. Neo-purpose is stuff humans make to do stuff, including artificial selection. The use of these terms in the talk seemed post-hoc and unnecessary, telling me that he’s got more to say about this but did not go into it at the time. (I mean, if you are going to design a couple of neologisms, they’ve got to have a purpose, right!?!??)

As an aside, with these terms we may have (primarily within the concept of archaeo-purpose) the possibility of a new way of talking about a definition of life. A living thing or feature of a living thing may have latent archaeo-purpose, but a non-living thing does not. However, abiotic action can have archaeo-purpose. Water (water just sitting there being observed) does not have “purpose.” But, the purpose of the falling of the water down a running stream or water fall can be described in thermodynamic terms, elemental bonding in partial physical or electromagnetic terms, etc. The purpose of the water is undefined or null, the purpose of the water fall is as a means of water answering the call of gravity. In nature, only life and verbs can have (archaeo) purpose. In a cultural context, anything can have (neo-) purpose. Like a rock. A rock in a sculpture garden can have the purpose of causing a visitor to the sculpture garden to wonder “what is the purpose of this rock…”

But I digresses…

A certain kind, category, subset, maybe level (not well described by Dawkins in the talk) of purpose can be complex and highly adaptive in how it plays out, like a guided missile which can adjust its trajectory to find its target, or a bat flying after an insect. The link between everything noted above about purpose and this complexity is accretetive. You’ve got to lay out the framework of purpose before you talk about the nature of purpose, but it is really the nature of purpose that we want to be talking about. If there is a link between the fundamentals of purpose and this property of complexity and/or adaptability, Dawkins did not explicate. But I suspect he is thinking about it.

Complex adaptive purpose (I’ll call it that for now, though I don’t really like the “complex” part … there can be adaptive purpose, and I can think of many examples can be and is often subverted. Dawkins gave some examples. This is particularly interesting to me, because I think a lot of important evolutoinary shifts have been exactly this, and indeed, almost all examples of co-evolution are just this, and everything is co-evolution.

But Dawkins point is simply that the brain is a complex adaptive system with a purpose that emerges from its developmental history, and if this developmental history is altered one way or another, you can get different syndromes of purpose. Thus Nazi’s, thus skydivers, thus people filing into a huge theatre to listen to some guy talk about purpose.

I have in mind a number of criticisms of the idea, but I can’t really be sure that they are valid criticisms because, as I suggest above, there are important parts of this idea that were not developed in the talk. thus, these critiques would be unfair and probably, even worse, misdirected. I would just be showing off my knowledge of things and possibly my vocabulary and writing abilities. Which is, of course, my primary adaptive methodology for obtaining food and sex. Which, at the moment, I have plenty of, so what would be the purpose of that!?!?!??

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22 thoughts on “Dawkins…. On Purpose

  1. “…the purpose of the water fall is as a means of water answering the call of gravity.”

    Oh my! Oh my!! Your digression or aside regarding possible “(archaeo) purpose” in the play of natural forces ventures into territory where not only the timid, but the wise fear to go. “Answering the call of gravity” is just instantiating physical law — period. If that’s an archaeo-purpose, then Ayers Rock certainly has the archaeo-purpose of casting shadows, affecting wind currents, and yes, answering the call of gravity. It’s advisable to restrict attribution of arcaeo-purpose to structures and processes that have emerged from a selective regime.

  2. bob: Exactly. And the baleen of the whale has the purpose of filtering krill in exactly the same way.

    You are a bit confused, though. I would not say that Ayers rock has the purpose of casting shadows. It has no such purpose. That is the point. There isn’t any purpose there. What I’m saying, and I think I’m pretty clear (you may have made presumptions while reading), is that the closest thing to natural or archaeo pupose is to be found in process, not things. So a desgined thing can have a latent purpose (the missile has the purpose of hitting a target) and selected things can have purpose (the bat’s echo-location/brain/flight adaptations have the purpose of closing in on and eating the flying insect) … but non-engineered and non-designed THINGS do not have purpose. But, in the abiotic natural world, process has a very similar property to latent purpose in the engineered or selected world.

    So no, I’m not saying that Ayers Rock has a purpose, or that the shadow has a purpose, or even the casting of a shadow has a purpose (indeed, the casting of a shadow impinges on the same sort of fallacy of the manipulation of “cold” as a force or object).

    You see, what you are missing is this: A thing adaptively selected and thus having archaeopurpose is simply a material manifestation of the process of selection. Most processes act/do/force, but then the process is done. Selection acts/does/selects, but then the final result in the imbuement of this ‘archaeopurpose’. I’m exploring the idea that various ‘forces’ (in the vernacular sense) of nature, such as entropic processes, particle interactions, etc. (including selection) are parallel to, very much like, or even the same as Dawkins’ purpose. Or at least, if Dawkins does not want them to be similar, he’ll have to provide some definition.

    Surely you understand the purpose of a rock placed in a sculpture garden, that can’t be what you are objecting to.

  3. I’d like to see the talk, but if things are as you suggest, it would be better to read an essay containing Dawkins’ fully developed and explained ideas on purposes. I don’t feel like I understand the ideas enough to say anything meaningful about them yet.

    Coincidentially, I’m working on a blog post about the purpose of existance, hypothetical and actual, objective and personal. It’s a rather broad topic; if the essay gets too long, I’ll split it into multiple posts. I plan on posting part or all today.

  4. While I’m not a member of the field, I wanted more depth on his purpose idea. That is my main criticism of the talk. I think he underestimated the intelligence of the audience. I appreciate the more indepth looks from the community. Thanks!

  5. Just to check if I get this correctly: archeo-purpose is a naturally developed purpose, and neo-purpose is designed purpose? Then what about assigned purpose? For instance, you find a rock and think its size and shape would make it a fine place to sit, so you assign the rock the purpose of a seat. Where does that fall? It didn’t have any intrinsic purpose before you found it, just a particular shape and size. You also didn’t design it to have a purpose. Or am I missing the point?

  6. I was at the Minneapolis talk last night. It appears that one way Dawkins develops the smooth readability of his books is by presenting some of his new ideas as speeches as he develops parts of the manuscript of a new book. There is a new idea there in the general framework of subversion of archi-purpose, with its most prominent manifestation found in human beings, with complex brains that can form many neo-purposes. I look forward to a new book-length treatment of this and other ideas.

    By the way, I thought Dawkins was very polite in dealing with a couple of questions from the audience that were either tedious or misinformed. The moderator noted that the Dawkins lecture is thought to be the best-attended student-organized event of this school year at the University of Minnesota, and it was impressive to see the crowd who came for the lecture and Q and A.

    Greg, were you at the pub night? I was in the room, arriving when Dawkins and PZ did.

  7. Greg – Right… I understand the purpose of a rock placed in a sculpture garden — it’s an aesthetic purpose. What I object to is the extension of purpose talk to things that lack a relevant history of selection. “Answering the call of gravity” isn’t something that’s ever been a “selection criterion,” for the simple reason that there’s no variability in this “trait” on which selection can act.

  8. “Greg, were you at the pub night? I was in the room, arriving when Dawkins and PZ did.”

    And I was there, too…and I had a beer ready for you, too…but didn’t see you or your lovely wife. Have a zero-hour class this morning?

    Sorry to have missed you at the reception. -RS

  9. Greg wrote

    A thing adaptively selected and thus having archaeopurpose is simply a material manifestation of the process of selection.

    That’s a great line. Thanks.

  10. Bob: Yes, I agree with your point, but as RBH is riffing on, I’m not sure I see the difference between two atoms sticking together because of the properties of those atoms vs. a genome changing because of selection.

    Beowulff: Maybe assigned purpose is engineering by lazy people.

    No, folks, I did not get to the beer fest. Amanda and I went straight home. Julia was home sick and it was a school night for all of us. I’m sorry we missed it, but we really had to go.

  11. I have a little story that may apply in the neo- archaeo- discussion. It describes a conversation that takes place in Nunavut between an Inuit elder and a Southerner (a Canadian from south of 60 degrees N latitude) who has lived in the north just long enough to think he knows something (and is about to learn something about the Inuit sense of humour).

    During the conversation, the elder asks if the southerner knows what the main use of seal skin is in the north. The southerner smiles and says “yes I do. They’re used for making kamiks (waterproof boots)”. The elder smiles and says “No, the main use is for holding the seal’s guts in while he swims around”.

    So the elder is more attuned to the archaeo-use, since he’s only a generation or 2 from bare subsistence. The southerner sees things from the neo-use end of things.

  12. I know social scientists hate this word, but I think you have to look at culture to understand why and how human brains (and therefore human beings) do things like performance art and pogroms and skydiving. Culture accumulates like residue (or a closet full of tools) over thousands of years, and we reuse and slowly adapt these cultural assets. So we can benefit in incredible ways from the efforts of millions of other people over millennia. That accumulated, reusable culture changes how we behave, individually, much more than we’re capable of adding to or changing that accumulated culture. And I don’t just mean technology, but cultural meaning – the reasons we do silly things like build airplanes and then jump out of them over and over.

  13. Just a quick clarification on the pre-fixes. He used “archi-” and “neo.” It was a great chat, and because I was cozy with PZ, I actually got to chat with him for a few minutes.

    After I asked him a few questions, he asked if I am an antropologist (reading your blog pays off!)

  14. Daniel Dennett is another person who’s written a lot on the idea that human goals are predicated upon the proto-goals of replicating molecules; things that could be called purposes only emerged after natural selection had been going for a while. Did Dawkins mention any of that?

  15. Musing about purpose can lead to interesting questions. For example, “What is the purpose of a virus?” Obviously its present purpose is to replicate the genes in it. But how did it originate? Was that its original purpose, or did virus particles fill another role before being co-opted?

    We see a modern case of wasps producing and injecting virus particles to deliver genes that do not include those necessary to produce more virus particles. In that case it seems pretty clear the virus was co-opted by the wasp into its own genome at a late date.

    I’m predicting that, if we look, we’ll find bacteria or archaea that invented phages for some practical purpose that went horribly wrong when the phages got hold of their own code. A bacterium that can recruit large numbers of members of random other lineages to produce environmental proteins, to order, has an advantage over those that must produce the proteins themselves. A bacterium that can make its rivals flood themselves with toxins has an advantage over one that must produce and eject its own toxins.

    I wonder if this is the reason for the prevalence of RNA viruses. If you want to recruit help to produce proteins, RNA is the right stuff to send out.

  16. Just a quick clarification on the pre-fixes. He used “archi-” and “neo.” It was a great chat, and because I was cozy with PZ, I actually got to chat with him for a few minutes.

    Agreed-thanks for chiming in. I was beginning to think my memory was faulty after so many “archeos” here…

    After I asked him a few questions, he asked if I am an antropologist (reading your blog pays off!)
    Posted by: Mike Haubrich, FCD | March 5, 2009 4:29 PM

    Dang, just when I’d mastered “myrmecologist!”

    (I know, I know! Just a typo! Don’t shoot me!)

  17. Indeed, your archaeo sounded more correct to me as well. A little Google on archi, tho, suggests he’s in fair bounds. It may even have connotations he likes that archaeo doesn’t:

    a combining form with the general sense â??first, principal,â? that is prefixed to nouns denoting things that are earliest, most basic, or bottommost (archiblast; archiphoneme; architrave); or denoting individuals who direct or have authority over others of their class, usually named by the base noun (archimandrite; architect).

    Also, especially before a vowel, arch-.
    Compare arch- 1 ,


    < Gk, comb. form akin to arch beginning, árchos leader, árchein to be the first, command Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2009. Cite This Source archi- or arch- pref. Chief; highest; most important: archiepiscopal. Earlier; primitive: archenteron. [French archi- and Italian arci-, both from Latin archi-, from Greek arkhi-, arkh-, from arkhein, to begin, rule.] The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition Copyright © 2006 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved. Cite This Source Archi- Ar"chi- [L., archi-, Gr. 'archi-, a prefix which is from the same root as 'a`rchein to be first, to begin; 'archh the first place, beginning; 'archo`s chief. Cf. AS. arce-, erce-, OHG. erzi-, G. erz-.] A prefix signifying chief, arch; as, architect, archiepiscopal. In Biol. and Anat. it usually means primitive, original, ancestral; as, archipterygium, the primitive fin or wing. Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, © 1996, 1998 MICRA, Inc. Cite This Source archi- or arch- or arche- pref. Earlier; primitive: archenteron. The American Heritage® Stedman's Medical Dictionary Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company.

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