The arrogant mitochondria? The lazy spermatozoa?

Steven Pinker here suggests a development that was all but inevitable at the nexus between cognitive science and evolutionary biology, that is the erosion of the distinction between “intentional” and “non-intentional” processes in organisms. Intentionality is usually attributed solely to the conscious operations of the human mind, or perhaps to a few other animals with large brains. Hence, emotions and intents are usually taken to be attributes solely of minds like that, and phrases like “the selfish gene” to be strictly metaphorical. But Pinker suggests that, since what we know scientifically of the mind suggests that it is merely a particularly elaborate mechanism of biological properties, there is no reason in principle to suppose that there is some fundamental division between the way that, for example, genetic coding works and the way that neurons in the brain function, and hence that one might be able to apply at least the concepts of intentionality and intelligence to the one in the same way (if not to the same degree) that we can to the other.

Obviously, we don’t know nearly enough about how the mind works to know whether it really is just a physical biological system like any other, or if there really is some distinctive “spiritual” property that gives it intentionality and intelligence that other organic systems do not possess. And it must be said that in a sense in order to study it scientists have to assume that it is essentially a physical system like any other, since that is what science studies. But it does represent a refreshing turn away from philosophers like Mary Midgley who announce a priori that “genes cannot be selfish or unselfish, any more than atoms can be jealous, elephants abstract or biscuits teleological” as if it were a simple category mistake. Those people are extremely irritating, because instead of questioning whether intelligence and intentionality are exclusive to human minds or whether they can manifest themselves in other forms they simply presuppose them to exclusively human mental qualities as part of the definition. Cognitive scientists like Pinker are at least questioning these boundaries. And although it is often assumed that intentionality can only arise from the mind as a whole, the idea that it might exist in individual components of an organism’s physiology receives indirect support from the recent work of the great Robert Trivers, who suggests that the genome does not always work as a harmonious whole, that genetic elements sometimes aggrandize themselves and increase their chances of reproduction at the expense of others. In other words, orgnanisms are perhaps not unitary and indivisible from an evolutionary perspective, so perhaps intelligence likewise does not arise from a a single cohesive source. Perhaps particular intentions arise from one of the many possibly conflicting biological sub-systems. In any case, it is pretty evident that elements even at the molecular rules conform to rational rules of behavior and accomplish rational goals, so whether or not we wish to attribute “mentalistic” attributes to them there seems to be a continuity in objective output between microscopic and macroscopic systems in organisms.

8 Responses to “The arrogant mitochondria? The lazy spermatozoa?”

  1. mock Says:

    David Stove, in his recently published Darwinian Fairytales levels a good deal of criticism against the grand pronouncements of Dawkins and the like that we are nothing more than vehicles serving the interests of genes.

    I can’t speak for Midgley, but Stove explicitly does not discount the possible intelligence of genes: “It is logically possible (as should go without saying) that the sociobiologists are right and I am wrong. There is nothing objectional a priori, or philosophically, about the proposition that genes are the most intelligent and capable things on earth. It is a question of fact, and nothing else, whether they are or not.”

    His main complaint with sociobiologists seems to be that they believe wholeheartedly that genes are in fact purposeful agents who conduct our every move; but it isn’t even clear how individual genes “benefit” at all from replication, much less probable that they are purposeful agents that would manipulate us to do so.

  2. Curt Says:

    His main complaint with sociobiologists seems to be that they believe wholeheartedly that genes are in fact purposeful agents who conduct our every move; but it isn’t even clear how individual genes “benefit? at all from replication, much less probable that they are purposeful agents that would manipulate us to do so.

    I don’t know of any of the major “sociobiologists” who ever claimed that they are “purposeful agents,” and the starting point of the article that I linked to is in fact Pinker’s questioning of their reluctance to do so. But it’s not necessary that reproductive success be a goal in some conscious, directed sense. It’s just an outcome of the mechanism of systems–some are destroyed, and the surviving ones come to predominate. You can observe the same process in any physical system, even with inanimate objects. The only difference is that inanimate objects do not reproduce and preserve trait information, so the process is more random and less efficient. The physicist Lee Smolin goes so far as to call the universe as a whole an evolutionary system, although this is obviously more just a way of looking at it than a distinct property (except insofar as time is a distinct property of the universe, which I would argue it isn’t, but that’s a separate issue). As for what the “benefit” of self-replication is, one must realize that, regardless of whether genes possess intelligence or intent in a normative, the word is used by biologists in a different way in this context. They don’t mean benefit with respect to happiness, well-being or the usual benefits we think of in ordinary life, but simply with respect to reproductive success. This might seem like a circular argument, but only if one is trying to justify the usage of the word according to the standard of ordinary language. One should rather look at it as almost a hypothetical: “If genes wanted to reproduce themselves, what would they do?” This is the point of the analogy, to clarify the main issue. And the main issue for evolutionary biologists is reproductive fitness. It’s not the only important issue, but it’s the one they focus on and try to understand, and the question of the relative equivalence to human minds does not have to be resolved to explain this sort of behavior. One final point: you say that you don’t see how genes “manipulate” your behavior. This is probably confusion arising from seeing genes as some outside force overriding your will. But if by manipulate you mean encode many of your basic traits, from your body form to emotional complexes to intelligence, it’s pretty clear that they control much of what you do not by virtue of constant God-like intervention but simply by establishing the parameters of your physiology and psychology.

  3. mock Says:

    E.O. Wilson: “an organism is only DNA’s way of making more DNA” (emphasis mine)

    Richard Dawkins: “we are . . . robot-vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.”

    Pinker: “Genes effect their goal of replication via the sub-goal of wiring people with goals of their own.”

    These people aren’t just saying that certain actions at the human level are beneficial to gene replication; they imply that these situations are brought about by the genes themselves. This doesn’t imbue genes with a sense of purposeful agency?

  4. Curt Says:

    Not necessarily. I don’t see why it is necessary to import such a concept to explain how long strains of amino acids replicate themselves and manufacture proteins. It is in fact one of the most mechanical processes imaginable. Of course one could claim that human behavior is a lot more complicated than that, which might be true, but the same basic process is at work in bacteria and protozoa, and I don’t know too many people that find it intuitively obvious in those cases that there is some sort of “purposeful agency” at work. As for the quotes you cite, I think Wilson, Dawkins and Pinker are all just using rhetorical exaggeration to convey more forcefully the point that if one evaluates the traits and organization of organisms solely from the viewpoint of the contribution they make to reproductive fitness, for the most part they make a lot of sense. But I am not really interested in defending evolutionary biologists; the real point is that the question of agency really does not make much of a difference in the evolutionary process. For that matter, I don’t think that that question really is just a “question of fact,” I think it’s more a matter of point of view. From the inside we seem to be conscious, lucid beings with sensitive emotions and intellects. From the outside we appear to be just particularly complex processes of resource acquisition and self-replication. Those viewpoints are not not necessarily incompatible, it just depends on the angle from which one is viewing.

  5. shonk Says:

    Maybe this is all just a long preliminary to Leibniz being hailed as a philosophical genius.

  6. Curt Says:

    I mean, he was, regardless of whether he was nuts or not. My modern philosophy professor argued that he stole the idea of dualism from Malebranche though.

  7. Dave Says:

    An older book The Red Queen by Matt Ridley explained it rather well. The Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland said that you always have to run faster just to stay where you are or some such thing. The genes “interest? is to replicate itself. This is suicidal if the supporting organism or species is destroyed. Thus other genes evolve to counteract the selfish genes. If this does not happen the organism is soon nonexistent. No will or cognition is involved. The book gives numerous stunning examples, usually involving insects and birds. Another key question is why do organisms exhibit sexuality, since simple asexual reproduction is far more efficient? Examples or selfish genes abound. Cancer is nothing but a combination of Darwin’s Law and Murphy’s Law. Cancer cells are superman cells that are immortal. They are also stupid as they thrive for a time but ultimately commit suicide. People evolve numerous proto- cancers all the time. To keep us all from dying of cancer before reproducing and raising our children there are numerous anti-cancer surveillance systems in the body. It would also explain why long lived organisms such as people are more resistant to cancer than rats. The imaginary “Zark? people didn’t evolve these defenses. They no longer exist. If you take these simple concepts and try to understand how they interact they really have strong explanatory powers, but could be abused and oversimplified by “Law of the jungle? ideologists like the ever unpopular Nazis. These concepts are unpopular among some thinkers because they aren’t easily compatible with any utopian world of equality,universal niceness and ease in the future. I predict that as the human population exceeds ten to twelve billion we will have to begin to think more about these things if we are to find a good way to deal with them.

  8. Curt Says:

    Well, as far as I’m concerned the people that don’t like evolutionary biological concepts because they think they “aren’t easily compatible with any utopian world of equality,universal niceness and ease in the future” are using and abusing the very same misunderstandings of the implications of the theory as the social Darwinists and Nazis. There is nothing therein that negates in principle the possiblity of a “utopian world of equality, universal niceness and ease” and in fact, by almost any standard of past eras, one would probably have to concede we’re living in such a world. The only thing the theory really does exclude is the possbility of people who are genuinely not self-interested, but anyone with any perspicacity would realize there is no empirical basis for that particular “ideal,” evolutionary biology or no evolutionary biology.

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