Category Archives: Terms

Dennett Reductionism

Term

Dennett Reductionism refers to reducing a phenomena to its ‘bottom’ (as in ‘bottom-up’ design) explanation. It is the tendency of a social science to seek biological explanations, the biologist to seek chemical explanations, and the chemist to seek a physics explanation. Daniel Dennett would call it ‘using a crane’ to provide an account for existence.

This reductionist philosophy stands in stark contrast to those who reduce phenomena to a top-down explanation of its existence.  Dennett refers to this problematic approach as a ‘skyhook‘.

Explanation

“We must distinguish reductionism, which is in general a good thing, from greedy reductionism, which is not. The difference, in the context of Darwin’s theory, is simple: greedy reductionists think that everything can be explained without cranes; good reductionists think that everything can be explained without skyhooks.” (82, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea)

Source

Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett

Tangled Bank Theory

Term
Theory that offspring are more likely to survive if they are different than their parents. The assumption propping up this theory is that the local habitat a child is born into is often already saturated with genetically similar relatives and it therefore pays to be genetically different.
This theory has been charged with suffering from the ‘fallacy of affirming the consequent’. The counterargument here is that just because children happen to be more diverse does not mean that diversity occurred simply for the sake of setting children apart from their relatives. Diversity for the sake of genetic distinction is not aligned with how life typically behaves: life prefers to mutate as infrequently as possible. Mutation, and evolution, only when obstacles to life’s continuation arise. Indeed, the mathematical odds of a mutation proving beneficial in the offspring of two parents who have survived until that point within their local environment are outweighed by the odds of a mutation proving harmful. It would therefore be impractical for offspring to trend towards diversity merely to distinguish themselves from their parents; the risk far exceeds the reward.
Explanation
Articulation of Theory
“As [Michael Ghiselin] put it, ‘In a saturated economy, it pays to diversify.’ Ghiselin suggested that most creatures compete with their brothers and sisters, so if everybody is a little different from their brothers and sisters, then more can survive. The fact that your parents thrived doing one thing means that it will probably pay to do something else because the local habitat might well be full already with your parents’ friends or relatives doing their things.’
     Graham Bell has called this the ‘tangled bank’ theory, after the famous last paragraph of Charles Darwin Origin of Species: ‘It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.” (60, The Red Queen)
Fallacy of Affirming the Consequent Counterargument
 
“The trouble is, all these results are also predicted by rival theories just as plausibly. Williams wrote: ‘Fortune will be benevolent indeed if the inference from one theory contradicts that of another. This an especially acute problem in the debate. One scientist gives the analogy of somebody trying to decide what makes his driveway wet: rain, lawn sprinklers, or flooding from the local river. It is no good turning on the sprinkler and observing that it wets the drive or watching rain fall and seeing that it wets the drive. To conclude anything from such observations would be to fall into the trap that philosopher call ‘the fallacy of affirming the consequent.’ Because sprinklers can wet the drive does not prove that they did wet the drive. Because the tangled bank is consistent with the facts, does not prove it is the cause of the fact.” (61, The Red Queen)
The Lack of Drift Counterargument
 
“The tangled bank also conflicted with evidence from fossils. In the 1970s evolutionary biologists realized that species do not change much. They stay exactly the same for thousands of generations, to be suddenly replaced by other forms of life. The tangled bank is a gradualist idea. If the tangled banks were true, then species would gradually drift through the adaptive landscape, changing a little in every generation, instead of remaining true to type for millions of generations. A gradual drifting away of a species from its previous form happens on small islands or in tiny populations precisely because of effects somewhat analogous to Muller’s ratchet: the chance of extinction of some forms and the chance prosperity of other, mutated forms. In larger populations the process that hinders this is sex itself, for an innovations is donated to the rest of the species and quickly lost in the crowd. In island populations sex cannot do this precisely because the population is so inbred.” (62, The Red Queen)
Platonic Bias Counterargument
 
“It was Williams who first pointed out that a huge false assumption lay, and indeed still lies, at the core of most popular treatments of evolution. The old concept of the ladders of progress still lingers on in the form of teleology: Evolution is good for species, and so they strive to make it go faster. Yet is stasis, not change, that is the hallmark of evolution. Sex and gene repair and the sophisticated screening mechanisms of higher animals to ensure that only defect-free eggs and sperm contribute to the next generation – all these are ways of preventing change. The coelacanth, not the human, is the triumph of genetic systems because it has remained faithfully true to type for millions of generations despite endless assaults on the chemical that carry its heredity. The old ‘Vicar of Bray’ model of sex, in which sex is an aid to faster evolution,  implies that organisms would prefer to keep their mutation rate fairly high — since mutation is the source of all variety — and then do a good job of sieving out the bad ones. But, as Williams put it, there is no evidence yet found that any creature ever does anything other than try to keep its mutation rate a low as possible. It strives for a mutation rate of zero. Evolution depends on the fact that it fails.
     Tangled banks work mathematically only if there is a sufficient advantage to being odd. The gamble is that what paid off in one generation will not pay off in the next and that the longer the generation, the more this is so — which implies that conditions keep changing.” (63, The Red Queen)
Source
The Red Queen by Matt Ridley

Universal Acid

Term
A concept that undermines the legitimacy of belief systems, systems of thought, and previously held hypotheses.
Explanation of Evolution as Universal Acid
“If Nietzsche is the father of existentialism, then perhaps Darwin deserves the title of grandfather” (62, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea)
“Karl Marx was exultant: ‘Not only is a death blow dealt here for the first time to ‘Teleology’ in the natural sciences but their rational meaning is empirically explained’ (62, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea)
“Did you ever hear of universal acid? This fantasy used to amuse me and some of my schoolboy friends — I have no idea whether we invented or inherited, along with Spanish fly and saltpeter, as parts of underground youth culture. Universal acid is a liquid so corrosive that it will eat through anything!…Little did I realize that in a few years, I would encounter an idea — Darwin’s idea — bearing an unmistakable likeness to universal acid: it eats through just about every traditional concept, and leaves in its wake a revolutionized world-view, with most landmarks still recognizable, but  transformed in fundamental ways.
     Darwin’s idea had been born as an answer to questions in biology, but it threatened to leak out, offering answers — welcome or not — to questions of cosmology (going in one direction) and psychology (going in the other direction). If redesign could be a mindless, algorithmic process of evolution, why couldn’t the whole process itself be the product of evolution, and so forth, all the way down? And if mindless evolution could account for the breathtakingly clever artifacts of the biosphere, how could the products of our own ‘real’ minds be exempt from an evolutionary explanation? Darwin’s idea thus also threatened to spread all the way up, dissolving the illusion of our own authorship, our own spark of creativity and understanding.” (63, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea)
Source
Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Charles Darwin

Platonic Bias

Term
The inclination to give a phenomena a top-down explanation when the phenomena is in reality the result of a bottom-up process.
Explanation
Daniel Dennett discusses how the tradition of Plato’s Forms and Aristotle essences indoctrinated with a top-down manner of thinking: “The development of the science of geology and the discovery of fossils of manifestly extinct species gave the taxonomists further curiosities to confound them, but these curiosities were also the very pieces of the puzzle that enabled Darwin, working alongside hundreds of other scientists, to discover the key to its solution: species were not eternal and immutable; they had evolved over time. Unlike carbon atoms, which, for all one knew, had been around forever in exactly the form they now exhibited, species had births in time, could change over time, and could give birth to new species in turn. This idea itself was not new; many versions of it had been seriously discussed, going back to the ancient Greeks. But there was was a powerful Platonic bias against it: essences were unchanging and a thing couldn’t change its essence, and new essences couldn’t be born — except of course by God’s command in episodes of Special Creation….
The essentialist urge is still with us and not always for bad reasons. Science does aspire to carve nature at its joints, and it often does seem like we need essences, or something like essences, to do the job. On those point the two great kingdoms of philosophical thought, the Platonic and the Aristotelian, agree.  But the Darwinian mutation, which at first seemed to be a new way of thinking about kinds of biology, can spread to other phenomena and other disciplines (38-39, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea)
Source
Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett

Lamarckism

Term
The false belief that one’s actions can change the genes that one passes on to his or her children. No matter how an individual transforms himself or herself throughout life, his or her transformations will not affect the DNA that one’s children inherit.
Explanation
“It is a mistake that biologists used to make, too. They believed that evolution proceeded by accumulating the changes that individuals gathered during their lives. The idea was most clearly formulated by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, but Charles Darwin sometimes used it, too. The classic example is a blacksmith’s son supposedly inheriting his father’s acquired muscles at birth. We now know that Lamarckism cannot work because bodies are built from cakelike recipes, not architectural blueprints, and it is simply impossibly to feed information back into the recipe by change the cake. But the first coherent challenge to Lamarckism was the work of a German follower of Darwin named August Weismann, who began to publish his ideas in the 1880s. Weismann noticed something peculiar about the most sexual creatures: Their sex cell — eggs and sperm — remained segregated from the rest of the body from the moment of their birth. He wrote: ‘I believe that heredity depends upon the fact that a small portion of the effective substance of the germ, the germ-plasm, remains unchanged during the development of the ovum into an organism, and that this part of the germ-plasm serves as the foundation from which germ cells of the new organism are produced. There is, therefore, continuity of the germ-plasm from one generation to another.
     In other words, you are not descended from your mother but from her ovary. Nothing can happen to her body or her mind in her life that could affect your nature” (8, Red Queen)
Source
The Red Queen by Matt Ridley

Sexual Selection

Term
An aspect of natural selection that explains the role of sex in driving the selection process. It asserts that organisms who are most likely to pass on their genes are those who prioritize their own reproductive success over other motives. Consequently, the surviving organisms are those who’ve engaged in behavior that has ensured successful reproduction.
Explanation
“One of Charles Darwin’s more obscure ideas that animals’ mates can act like horse breeders, consistently selecting certain types and so changing the race. This theory, known as sexual selection, was ignored for many years after Darwin’s death and has only recently come back into vogue. Its principal insight is that the goal of an animal is not just to survive but to breed. Indeed, where breeding and survival come into conflict, it is breeding that takes precedence; for example, salmon starve to death while breeding. And breeding in sexual species, consists of finding an appropriate partner and persuading it to part with a package of genes. This goal is so central to life that it has influence design not only of the body but of the psyche. Simply put, anything that increases reproductive success will spread at the expense of anything that does not — even if it threaten survival” (20, The Red Queen)
Source
The Red Queen by Matt Ridley

Adjacent Possibility

Term
“This theory proposes that biological systems are able to morph into more complex systems by making incremental, relatively less energy consuming changes in their make up.” (Wired)
Explanation
 “ The scientist Stuart Kauffman has a suggestive name for the set of all those first-order combinations: ‘the adjacent possible.’ The phrase captures both the limits and the creative potential of change and innovation. In the case of prebiotic chemistry, the adjacent possible defines all those molecular reactions that were directly achievable in the primordial soup. Sunflowers and mosquitoes and brains exist outside that circle of possibility. The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.
The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore them. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations. Think of it as a house that magically expands with each door you open. You begin in a room with four doors, each leading to a new room that you haven’t visited yet. Once you open one of those doors and stroll into that room, three new doors appear, each leading to a brand-new room that you couldn’t have reached from your original starting point. Keep opening new doors and eventually you’ll have built a palace. “ (Wall Street Journal)
Source
Stuart Kauffman

Red Queen Theory

Term

Organisms must evolve not merely to combat static environmental circumstances but also as part of their perpetual arms race against competitors, disease, and parasites. This theory accounts for why sexual creatures outlast asexual creatures: it’s in the battle against competitors, disease , and parasites that the upside of genetic diversity begins to outweigh the downside.

Explanation

“Sex, according to the Red Queen theory, has nothing to do with adapting to the inanimate world – becoming bigger or better camouflaged or more tolerant of the cold or better at flying – but is all about combating the enemy that fights back.

Biologists have persistently overestimated the importance of physical causes of premature death rather than biological ones. In virtually any account of evolution, drought, frost, wind, or starvation looms large as the enemy of life. The great struggle, we are told, is to adapt to these conditions. Marvels of physical adaptation – the camel’s hump, the polar bear’s fur, the rotifer’s boil-resistant tun – are held to be among evolution’s greatest achievements. The first ecological theories of sex were all directed at explaining this adaptability to the physical environment. But with tangled bank, a different theme has begun to be heard, and in the Red Queen’s march it is the dominant tune. The things that kill animals or prevent them from reproducing are only rarely physical factors. Far more often other creatures are involved – parasites, predators, and competitors. A water flea that is starving in a crowded pond is the victim not of food shortage but of competition. Predators and parasites probably cause most of the world’s deaths, directly or indirectly. When a tree falls in the forest, it has usually been weakened by a fungus. When a herring meets its end, it is usually the mouth of a bigger fish or in a net. What killed your ancestors two centuries or more ago? Smallpox, tuberculosis, influenza, pneumonia, plague, scarlet fever, diarrhea. Starvation or accidents may have weakened people, but infection killed them” (65, The Red Queen)

Source

The Red Queen by Matt Ridley

Operating Leverage

Term

A measurement of how a company incurs costs as its sales grow. If a company’s costs are fixed, its profitability will increase with each additional sale.

3rd Party Definition

“Operating leverage is a measurement of the degree to which a firm or project incurs a combination of fixed and variable costs. A business that makes sales providing a very high gross margin and fewer fixed costs and variable costs has much leverage. The higher the degree of operating leverage, the greater the potential danger from forecasting risk, where a relatively small error in forecasting sales can be magnified into large errors in cash flow projections.” (Investopedia)

Explanation

“Specifically, I’m talking about what’s known as “operating leverage”: the greater your percentage of costs that are fixed, the more operating leverage you have, which means the greater return you earn on every additional sale. To take an extreme example, consider Stratechery: I have extreme operating leverage, because the vast majority of my costs (time spent writing, reading, and researching primarily) are fixed; were I to accurately measure the profitability of an individual subscriber I would need to account for the value of that time and spread it evenly across my subscriber base and subtract each subscriber’s share of that cost — along with (marginal) credit card fees — from the $10/month (or $8.33/month for annual subscribers) fee. My leverage comes from the fact that adding an additional subscriber doesn’t increase that fixed cost at all: instead, one more subscriber makes every other subscriber more profitable, because the fixed cost is spread more broadly.” (Stratechery)

Source

Stratechery by Ben Thompson

Vital Delusion

Term
A vital delusion is a belief that a person clings to as a manner of making their existence seem meaningful. It ‘vital’ in that when the delusion fails or is undermined, the individual immediately pursues another belief to take its place.
 
Explanation
“G.K. Chesterton said, when people stop believing in something, they don’t believe in nothing, they believe in anything. It cannot be a coincidence that the decline in Christian worship in Europe has been accompanied by the rise in all sorts of other superstitions and cults, including those of Freud, Marx, and Gaia” (269, The Evolution of Everythiing)
Source
The Evolution of Everything by Matt Ridley