Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Tim Tyler: Stanovich, The Robot's Rebellion (review)


Hi! I'm Tim Tyler, this is a review of this book:

The Robot's Rebellion: Finding Meaning in the Age of Darwin - by Keith Stanovich.

The book is a manifesto expanding on Richard Dawkins' idea at the end of The Selfish Gene. Dawkins wrote:

We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism - something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world. We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.
Stanovich turns this into the central thesis of his book. His book is about a type of morality and ethics which is informed by evolutionary theory.

Stanovich comes from a long line of thinkers that views nature as immoral, or at best amoral. Thomas Henry Huxley, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and many other thinkers have painted nature as curel and indifferent - and evolution as bad and not to be imitated.

Stanovich - like Dawkins - proposes that humans rebel against selfish replicators - namely genes and memes - and instead promote their own interests: "the interests of the vehicle", as Stanovich calls them.

Most of the book is about why and how humans should rebel against their genes. He pictures humans as part-conscious and part-unconscious systems. He sides with the conscious component, or the ego, and characterises our unconscious minds as sub-human saboteurs, getting us to do things that make us miserable against our own best interests.

The whole topic is an interesting one, though the book is a bit on the dry and repetitive.

The book has a section on memes, which is quite good. Stanovich recognises memes as forming a second evolutionary system, and has a pretty good understanding of memetics. However, memes are just another type of selfish replicator to Stanovich. They no more have our interests at heart than our genes do. Indeed, he characterises many memes as being especially nasty - "nastier than genes even", as he puts it.

In the rest of this review, I will directly address Stanovich's main thesis. I should say at this point that I am not sympathetic towards it. The idea that evolution is bad has been opposed by thinkers such as Julian Huxley and Peter Kropotkin. Like them, I see in evolution's positive, cooperative side a guide about how to behave. The views of Huxley and Kropotkin have been mostly trampled on by subsequent thinkers, but their ideas about evolution and cooperation are essentially correct - even though they are not currently in vogue.

The idea of enlightened humans rebelling against the interests of sub-human replicating agents is an intriguing one, but I don't think it is founded in good science. The problem is that Stanovich's picture doesn't include all the copying processes that are taking place.

While Stanovich deserves credit for recognising both DNA genes and memes, he doesn't treat within-brain change as an evolutionary process. However the fact that individual learning also forms its own evolutionary process was recognised long ago by Skinner, Campbell, Calvin, Cziko, Dennett and others. Indeed, any non-trivial goal-directed system is going to have a fitness function and an evolutionary tree-pruning algorithm at its heart.

In rejecting genes and memes, Stanovich is just throwing has hat in with other evolving structures within the brain. Stanovich claims to be siding with "the vehicle", but, in practice this turns out to be something close to the ego, which itself is composed of a bunch of happiness-promoting replicating structures that Stanovich didn't consider. In short, all positions to this topic involve siding with some bunch of copying entities or other. Copying with variation and selection underlies every optimisation process. The issue is not whether to side with a bunch of copied entities, but rather which ones you side with. With this framing of the problem, much of Stanovich's rhetoric about the inhumanity of stupid mindless replicators falls flat.

There are indeed some reasons follow the dictates of your conscious mind - that part of you is often smart and forward thinking. However, the brain's analytic side is heavily dominated by the ego - which is rather like the brain's public relations department. A big part of its job is to convince everyone else how wonderful you are. Stanovich's proposal is rather like giving control over a company to its public relations department. Egoism is fairly common, but there's more to a human than their ego. Thinking of yourself as being your ego is an impoverished picture of yourself which ignores much of what makes you human. Egoism is partly a western disorder - those from non-western cultures are less likely to identify completely with their egos. So: I think Stanovich's idea takes things too far.

Since the ego is largely constructed by genes, we can expect most humans to not have rebellious egos - since those with a tendency to rebel against their genes would have left behind fewer children. So, one wonders what fraction of humanity Stanovich is preaching to.

Stanovich proposes redefining the word "rationality" to refer to actions that promote the interest of "the vehicle". This plan strikes me as being a hopeless one - that just isn't what the word "rationality" means. I think that idea that rationality consists of optimising the function that Stanovich recommends is a non-starter.

Stanovich's book can be regarded as an interesting example of an attempt at founding a secular religion based on science. Stanovich's memes do get cited from time to time and have found themselves an audience. There's a type of human that hopes that their ego will live forever - and isn't interested in reproducing - and some of them seem to approve of Stanovich's ideas.

However, my council is to consider Stanovich's book as another memeplex that wants you to divert your resources into propagating it - at the expense of your own genetic heritage. There are a lot of memes out there hoping that you will divert some of your reproductive resources towards their propagation. Stanovich promises you happiness - if you are prepared to get off the genetic train and - consign your genes to eternal oblivion. If you are normally OK with memes hijacking the goals that nature gave you, then, by all means, go for it. However, if you don't usually approve of that, then I recommend being as cautious of embracing Stanovich's memes as you are of any other ones.


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