Parenting, 2011

December 17, 2011

Is innovation original thought or is it merely the process copying and refining an old idea.

Some would argue the history and success of our species has a lot to do with original thinking and breakthrough idea. Others now argue innovation is the result of tweaking already existing products and ideas.

Google offers us the opportunity to acquire vast amounts of information and knowledge but gives us no idea as to what to really do with knowledge. We improve bits and pieces but very few of us are innovators. Steve Jobs and Dean Kamen are the exception rather than the norm.  Technology isn’t the only arena in which new and innovative thinking is a rare commodity. The late Christopher Hitchens confounded many with writings, ideas and arguments. Why? Because he could not be easily slotted or categorized. In an age where identity is often defined by political affiliation, Hitchens was a true iconoclast. He espoused many positions, ideas and beliefs (or lack thereof) based on their merit and not based on what was a particular ideology.

Does access to information make us lazy? Do we stare at the screen for a few seconds and move on to the next barrage of bits and bytes as opposed to sitting in  field or in our chairs staring off into the distance and wondering, ‘What can I do to make this place a better world?’ Do we answer that question with ‘I’ll do whatever everyone else in my group says I should be doing’ or will answer with ‘I can build a better mousetrap. It may take a while but I can fix something that needs fixing’.

Innovative thinking is color blind and apolitical. Innovative and original thinking is grand and magnificent, transcending all our differences.

A tiny number of ideas can go a long way, as we’ve seen. And the Internet makes that more and more likely. What’s happening is that we might, in fact, be at a time in our history where we’re being domesticated by these great big societal things, such as Facebook and the Internet. We’re being domesticated by them, because fewer and fewer and fewer of us have to be innovators to get by. And so, in the cold calculus of evolution by natural selection, at no greater time in history than ever before, copiers are probably doing better than innovators. Because innovation is extraordinarily hard. My worry is that we could be moving in that direction, towards becoming more and more sort of docile copiers.

I’m an evolutionary biologist, and my work draws me to the big events that have shaped the history of the world. Some of these we agree upon, and others are right under our noses, and yet we take them for granted and we may not appreciate what a force they’ve been in our evolution. One of those is the human capacity for culture. It might easily be the most important event in the history of life.

It might be useful, with such a statement like that, to review some of these big events. Obviously one of the big events in our history was the origin of our planet, about 4.5 billion years ago. And what’s fascinating is that about 3.8 billion years ago, only about seven or eight hundred million years after the origin of our planet, life arose. That life was simple replicators, things that could make copies of themselves. And we think that life was a little bit like the bacteria we see on earth today. It would be the ancestors of the bacteria we see on earth today.

 That life ruled the world for 2 billion years, and then about 1.5 billion years ago, a new kind of life emerged. These were the eukaryotic cells. They were a little bit different kind of cell from bacteria. And actually the kind of cells we are made of. And again, these organisms that were eukaryotes were single-celled, so even 1.5 billion years ago, we still just had single-celled organisms on earth. But it was a new kind of life.

It was another 500 million years before we had anything like a multicellular organism, and it was another 500 million years after that before we had anything really very interesting. So, about 500 million years ago, the plants and the animals started to evolve. And I think everybody would agree that this was a major event in the history of the world, because, for the first time, we had complex organisms.

After about 500 million years ago, things like the plants evolved, the fish evolved, lizards and snakes, dinosaurs, birds, and eventually mammals. And then it was really just six or seven million years ago, within the mammals, that the lineage that we now call the hominins arose. And they would be direct descendants of us. And then, within that lineage that arose about six or seven million years ago, it was only about 200,000 years ago that humans finally evolved.

And so, this is really just 99.99 percent of the way through the history of this planet, humans finally arose. But in that 0.01 percent of life on earth, we’ve utterly changed the planet. And the reason is that, with the arrival of humans 200,000 years ago, a new kind of evolution was created. The old genetical evolution that had ruled for 3.8 billion years now had a competitor, and that new kind of evolution was ideas.

It was a true form of evolution, because now ideas could arise, and they could jump from mind to mind, without genes having to change. So, populations of humans could adapt at the level of ideas. Ideas could accumulate. We call this cumulative cultural adaptation. And so, cultural complexity could emerge and arise orders and orders of magnitude faster than genetic evolution.

Now, I think most of us take that utterly for granted, but it has completely rewritten the way life evolves on this planet because, with the arrival of our species, everything changed. Now, a single species, using its idea evolution, that could proceed apace independently of genes, was able to adapt to nearly every environment on earth, and spread around the world where no other species had done that. All other species are limited to places on earth that their genes adapt them to. But we were able to adapt at the level of our cultures to every place on earth.

A lot of that sounds familiar to us. But what’s hidden in there is this idea of idea evolution. And if it seems easy to us, it shouldn’t, because no other species on earth has been capable of doing it. And I’m including in this our recent ancestors.

If we go back in our lineage 2 million years or so, there was a species known as homo erectusHomo erectus is an upright ape that lived on the African savannah. It could make tools, but they were very limited tools, and those tools, the archaeological record tells us, didn’t change for about 1.5 million years. That is, until about the time they went extinct. That is, they made the same tools over and over and over again, without any real changes to them.

If we move forward in time a little bit, it’s not even clear that our very close cousins that we know are related to us 99.5 or 99.6 percent in the sequences of their genes, the Neanderthals, it’s not even clear that they had what we call idea evolution. Sure enough, their tools that they made were more complex than our tools. But the 300,000 or so years that they spent in Europe, their toolkit barely changed. So there’s very little evolution going on.

So there’s something really very special about this new species, humans, that arose and invented this new kind of evolution, based on ideas. And so it’s useful for us to ask, what is it about humans that distinguishes them? It must have been a tiny genetic difference between us and the Neanderthals because, as I said, we’re so closely related to them genetically, a tiny genetic difference that had a vast cultural potential.

That difference is something that anthropologists and archaeologists call social learning. It’s a very difficult concept to define, but when we talk about it, all of us humans know what it means. And it seems to be the case that only humans have the capacity to learn complex new or novel behaviors, simply by watching and imitating others. And there seems to be a second component to it, which is that we seem to be able to get inside the minds of other people who are doing things in front of us, and understand why it is they’re doing those things. These two things together, we call social learning.

Many people respond that, oh, of course the other animals can do social learning, because we know that the chimpanzees can imitate each other, and we see all sorts of learning in animals like dolphins and the other monkeys, and so on. But the key point about social learning is that this minor difference between us and the other species forms an unbridgeable gap between us and them. Because, whereas all of the other animals can pick up the odd behavior by having their attention called to something, only humans seem to be able to select, among a range of alternatives, the best one, and then to build on that alternative, and to adapt it, and to improve upon it. And so, our cultures cumulatively adapt, whereas all other animals seem to do the same thing over and over and over again.

Even though other animals can learn, and they can even learn in social situations, only humans seem to be able to put these things together and do real social learning. And that has led to this idea evolution. What’s a tiny difference between us genetically has opened up an unbridgeable gap, because only humans have been able to achieve this cumulative cultural adaptation.

One way to put this in perspective is to say that you can bring a chimpanzee home to your house, and you can teach it to wash dishes, but it will just as happily wash a clean dish as a dirty dish, because it’s washing dishes to be rewarded with a banana. Whereas, with humans, we understand why we’re washing dishes, and we would never wash a clean one. And that seems to be the difference. It unleashes this cumulative cultural adaptation in us.

I’m interested in this because I think this capacity for social learning, which we associate with our intelligence, has actually sculpted us in ways that we would have never anticipated. And I want to talk about two of those ways that I think it has sculpted us. One of the ways has to do with our creativity, and the other has to do with the nature of our intelligence as social animals.

One of the first things to be aware of when talking about social learning is that it plays the same role within our societies, acting on ideas, as natural selection plays within populations of genes. Natural selection is a way of sorting among a range of genetic alternatives, and finding the best one. Social learning is a way of sifting among a range of alternative options or ideas, and choosing the best one of those. And so, we see a direct comparison between social learning driving idea evolution, by selecting the best ideas –we copy people that we think are successful, we copy good ideas, and we try to improve upon them — and natural selection, driving genetic evolution within societies, or within populations.

I think this analogy needs to be taken very seriously, because just as natural selection has acted on genetic populations, and sculpted them, we’ll see how social learning has acted on human populations and sculpted them.

What do I mean by “sculpted them”? Well, I mean that it’s changed the way we are. And here’s one reason why. If we think that humans have evolved as social learners, we might be surprised to find out that being social learners has made us less intelligent than we might like to think we are. And here’s the reason why.

If I’m living in a population of people, and I can observe those people, and see what they’re doing, seeing what innovations they’re coming up with, I can choose among the best of those ideas, without having to go through the process of innovation myself. So, for example, if I’m trying to make a better spear, I really have no idea how to make that better spear. But if I notice that somebody else in my society has made a very good spear, I can simply copy him without having to understand why.

What this means is that social learning may have set up a situation in humans where, over the last 200,000 years or so, we have been selected to be very, very good at copying other people, rather than innovating on our own. We like to think we’re a highly inventive, innovative species. But social learning means that most of us can make use of what other people do, and not have to invest the time and energy in innovation ourselves…

Read it all.

The study of the human condition is complex. Psychology attempts to connect the mind to behavior (That is the really, really short version). Behaviorism espouses the belief that behavior, emotions and thinking itself are behaviors and can be influenced and changed with various types of conditioning only (Think BF Skinner, Pavlov, etc.)

Of course, human behavior cannot be reduced to a single dogma or school of thought. We are all different, we all respond to universal and unique stimuli. Still, we are all unique and while reinforcing behaviors have clear influence on us (nurture) there is no question we are each in possession of certain inborn characteristics (nature).

The article below examines the growth, evolution and limitations of Behaviorism and further examines and explores the nature/nurture discussion.

American Scientist:

Behaviorism as a philosophy of science began with an article by John B. Watson in 1913, and its several varieties inform different behavior-related disciplines. During the past 100 years, disciplinary developments have led to a clarified version of behaviorism informing a basic, separate natural science of behavior. This recently emerged independent discipline not only complements other natural sciences, but also shares in solving local and global problems by showing how to discover and effectively control the variables that unlock solutions to the common behavior-related components of these problems.

In 1963, B. F. Skinner published “Behaviorism at 50,” reviewing the varieties of behaviorism and the directions of natural behavior science. (The 1957 article reproduced nearby covers many of those topics.) By the 1960s common wisdom held that the experimentally discovered laws of behavior were largely irrelevant to normal human beings; instead, they were thought applicable mostly to treating psychotic individuals and to training animals. Skinner challenged that notion on scientific as well as philosophical grounds, and data accumulating over the next 50 years have validated his position that the natural laws governing behavior are relevant to all behavior of human beings and other animals. The 1960s were also a time when natural scientists of behavior were continuing their attempts to change psychology, the discipline in which many worked, into a natural science. Over the next 50 years, as recognition increased that resistance to those efforts was adamant, natural scientists of behavior gradually took their discipline outside psychology, founding a separate and independent natural science that some recognized formally in 1987 using the name behaviorology. That name is synonymous with “the natural science of behavior” and is conveniently shorter.

With behaviorism turning 100 in 2013, a review of those developments, and their implications for other natural sciences and today’s world, seems appropriate. The natural science of behavior can elevate the status of the natural sciences, lead to solving more human problems, reduce susceptibility to superstition and mysticism (both theological and secular), and improve human intellectuality, rationality and emotionality.

Naturalism, the general philosophy of science, can enable those outcomes. Natural scientists maintain a mutual respect for the natural functional history of events. This enables their analyses to be more complete and to track well across disciplinary lines. In contrast, ignoring that natural functional history often leads to unnecessary compromises between some natural sciences and nonscientific disciplines that make claims of mystical origination of events. For example, by respecting the natural history of events, physiology can provide additional details about how an energy transfer evokes a behavior (such as how light striking the retina from a close moving object evokes ducking the object). At the same time, chemistry can provide more details about that physiology, and physics can provide still further details about that chemistry. But if natural scientists instead allow claims that ducking is, or results from, the spontaneous, willful act of some putative inner agent, then an untraceable, untestable mystical account replaces the links in that natural history. When such compromises give undeserved status to mystical accounts, natural science loses ground, reducing its benefits. Maintaining respect for the natural functional history of events thus enables a more complete and consistent account of any phenomenon, including behavior.

Becoming more aware of the progress that scientists have made on behavioral fronts can reduce the risk that other natural scientists will resort to mystical agential accounts when they exceed the limits of their own disciplinary training. The aim here is to provide some highlights of that progress.

From 1963 Forward

During the second 50 years of behaviorism, developments continued in both the philosophical and experimental areas, but they also expanded into the applied sciences and organizational realms. In expanding naturalistic explanations toward a more complete scientific account of behavior, the question of consciousness attracts the most attention. Basically, this science accounts for behaviors of consciousness in terms of neural behaviors such as awareness, thinking, observation and comprehension. While muscle behavior is more familiar, as it intertwines both neural processes and enervated muscle contractions, the behaviors of consciousness manifest as pure neural processes. Behavior is a natural phenomenon that happens, and changes, because variables affect the particular body structures that mediate it. No mysterious inner self-agent does the behaving or instructs the body to behave. Instead, respondent and operant conditioning processes occur nearly continuously. Both involve energy transfers between the environment (internal and external) and the body in ways that alter neural structures and thereby produce a different body that mediates behavior differently on future occasions.

Those points emphasize one of the major developments bearing on the question of consciousness in the years since 1963, namely the greater appreciation of the valuable overlap between the separate yet complementary natural sciences of physiology and behaviorology. For example, to deal scientifically with emotion requires the different analytical levels of these two disciplines. Emotion refers to a release of chemicals into the bloodstream (an area of physiology) that external or internal stimuli elicit (an area of behaviorology). That changed body chemistry produces the reactions called feelings. Perhaps more importantly, that changed body chemistry produces effects on other responses. When a bear startles you, you run faster than you would under more ordinary circumstances. Or, excising the fictitious inner agent that the bear or the word “you” can mistakenly imply, the sudden appearance of a big brown bear from behind a boulder only a meter away evokes faster running—due to the elicited body-chemistry change—than more ordinary circumstances evoke.

Still, behaviorology is not a science of how a body mediates a behavior, for example, of how striated muscle contractions are a function of neural processes, which is part of physiology. Rather, behaviorology is a science ofwhy a body mediates a behavior, that is, of the functional relations between independent variables such as a boulder blocking a forest path, and the dependent variables of body-mediated behavior, such as the muscle contractions that the obstacle evokes which take the body around the boulder…

Read it all.

Do Israeli nuclear weapons in the Middle East exacerbate an already almost impossible situation? Does the potential of an Iranian nuclear weapons program change the geo-political reality in the region? For most everyone, the answer is yes. The Saudis want nuclear weapons and if they go down that path it is likely Egypt and other nations in the region will do the same. That is not conjecture. Both Syria and Iraq have attempted to initiate nuclear programs. The IAEA has publicly noted both Syria and Iran have misrepresented their nuclear ambitions and efforts.

Are the US and other western nations willing to offer these nations a defense pact treaty in exchange for abandoning their nuclear aims? What would that US guarantee look like? Will there be troops/advisers on the ground, an even greater and more sophisticated military presence in the region? How much intelligence will be shared and with whom?

Foreign Policy:

Last week, Prince Turki al-Faisal, formerly Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief and ambassador to the United States, raised blood pressure levels when he suggested that his country would consider becoming a nuclear weapons state if it found itself between a nuclear-armed Iran and Israel. Such an outcome would be a severe setback to the Obama administration’s vision of working toward a world without nuclear weapons. With Iran’s nuclear program proceeding apace, will more nuclear weapons, owned by either the United States or Saudi Arabia, be required to deter a future Iranian nuclear capability?

The annex of the latest International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iran discussed the program’s military dimensions and was the agency’s most alarming yet. International sanctions and suspected covert action (such as the Stuxnet computer worm, the assassination of a few Iranian nuclear scientists, and mysterious explosions at Iranian military sites) have slowed but not stopped Iran’s progress. Absent the arrival of some heretofore missing and persuasive sanction, the United States and its partners in the region face the prospect of eventually having to deter and contain a nuclear-capable Iran.

recent report from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) discussed the price of deterring Iran, which the authors asserted would be more costly than many have appreciated and would require much more preparation than the United States and its partners have made thus far.

Among the difficulties is the inherently subjective nature of deterrence — which requires persuading adversaries to not do certain things, by threatening measures that U.S. planners estimate these adversaries would not tolerate. But these calculations depend on imprecise cross-cultural estimates of costs and benefits, where there is much room for misperception and miscalculation. In addition, Iran has created a diffuse structure of governing authority. This opaque arrangement, combined with Iran’s expertise with irregular warfare and covert action, gives Tehran a method for taking hostile action while avoiding the responsibility for doing so.

Prince Turki seemed to suggest that Saudi Arabia requires its own nuclear force to, at a minimum, deter a classic and existential Cold War-style nuclear ballistic missile threat to the kingdom. The acquisition of a Saudi nuclear deterrent would be highly destabilizing. Very short missile flight times within the region, combined with fragile early-warning and command-and-control systems, would create an extremely dangerous hair-trigger posture on all sides. The Saudi acquisition of a nuclear deterrent would also be a crushing blow to the prestige of the United States as a military ally and to the diminishing role President Barack Obama has sought for nuclear weapons.

If, in the interests of stability, prestige, and nonproliferation, the United States wishes to dissuade Saudi Arabia from becoming a nuclear power, a U.S. security guarantee and adequate U.S. military forces in the region may be necessary. The AEI report noted that there has been little consideration of what military posture the United States might be required to maintain in the region to enforce deterrence and containment of a nuclear-capable Iran.

It would be a blow to the vision expressed in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) if the United States eventually found itself stationing nuclear weapons around the Persian Gulf, as it had to in Europe and the Western Pacific during the Cold War. The NPR discussed “a devastating conventional military response” as an alternative form of deterrence. But looming cuts to U.S. conventional forces and the cultural friction created when U.S. forces were previously stationed in Saudi Arabia greatly reduce the credibility of this alternative.

Prince Turki and perhaps others in the Saudi royal family apparently believe that nuclear weapons will be required to deter a future Iranian nuclear arsenal. U.S. officials have good reasons to prefer that such a nuclear deterrent not be owned and operated by Saudi Arabia. But that likely means the United States will have to substitute its own deterrent instead. That’s exactly the outcome the White House hoped to avoid…

Read it all.


December 17, 2011

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.

Newt Surges

December 17, 2011

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.


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