Evolution for Everyone

Science as a Contact Sport

Thanks to the ScienceBlogs community for such a boisterous welcome. For those who object to my metaphor of science as a religion that worships truth as its god, I offer the metaphor of science as a contact sport. We try our best to throw each other to the mat and then good naturedly go out for a beer. In this spirit, I enjoyed the vigorous critique of my inaugural blog as much as the welcome.

I am most eager to engage the ScienceBlogs community on the subject of group selection, but I can’t resist responding to some of the aforementioned critiques. In my opinion, religion is most usefully studied as part of something larger than itself. The main focus should be on meaning systems and religions are a kind of meaning system.

What is a meaning system? It is a set of beliefs and practices that receives environmental information as input and results in human action as output. We are such a cultural species that everyone requires a meaning system to function on a daily basis. Emile Durkheim, who is beginning to look pretty good from a modern evolutionary perspective, put it this way: “in all its aspects and at every moment of history, [human] social life is only possible thanks to a vast symbolism.”


Recognizing the importance of meaning systems places cultural evolution at the center of what it means to be human. Genetic evolution is required to explain our capacity to create meaning systems, but our meaning systems, not our genes, are responsible for how we behave in the most proximate sense. A proper integration of genetic and cultural evolution in the study of humans is only starting to emerge, as reflected in books such as The Symbolic Species by Terrence Deacon and Not by Genes Alone, by Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd.

Once we focus on meaning systems as the main object of study, then we can study the elements associated with religion and science in the context of meaning systems. Studying religion as part of something larger than itself is an asset, not a liability, as suggested by some comments on my inaugural blog. We can begin to appreciate the diversity of religious meaning systems (e.g., liberal vs. conservative), in contrast to the rather narrow conceptions of religion displayed in other comments. We can see the irrational dimension of religion as a manifestation of a tradeoff between factual and practical realism, as I discuss in my Atheism as a Stealth Religion blogs and elsewhere. We can begin to understand why all cultures have a mode of thought that we can recognize as proto-scientific, which is limited to certain contexts. We can immediately see that science by itself is inadequate as a meaning system, because it merely tells us what’s out there (and this is always an approximation) and not what to do. Science must therefore function in the context of a larger meaning system that provides values. Finally, we can work toward constructing new meaning systems that respect the difference between values and facts more than ever before.

But that’s another story. Let’s focus our attention on group selection. If we can reach a consensus on this subject, we will have accomplished something very important indeed.

Comments

  1. #1 Matthew Sullivan
    October 23, 2009

    can’t religion and science both be kinds of meaning systems without being the same thing, or with there being significant differences that should always be teased out? “religion” is notoriously difficult to define, especially if you are considering it across cultures and through time. so simplifying the matter to this degree has the unfortunate effect of confounding everything even more. a philosophy or an ideology can also be a meaning system, so why not use one of those terms?

    or better, why not just write about science as “meaning system”? this would allow you to compare it to other systems (e.g. religion) without essentially equating the two to the point of collapsing significant differences that are essential to defining them.

  2. #2 Isis the Scientist
    October 23, 2009

    We try our best to throw each other to the mat and then good naturedly go out for a beer.

    That has always been my experience in science to, but I don’t think that it has translated to the blogosphere. Pointed criticism in these parts is all too freequently taken as a mortal insult.

  3. #3 Katharine
    October 23, 2009

    Y’know, Dr. Wilson, if you’re comparing science to religion, which science very much emphatically is not (it’s a toolbox), then you’ll get a lot of well-deserved flack around here.

    Science is about as much a religion as not collecting trains is a hobby.

  4. #4 Katharine
    October 23, 2009

    As in ‘it’s a set of tools we use to understand the world’.

    I’m an undergraduate biology student, and I’m planning to get my PhD in neurobiology and do neurogenetics research.

    Science is built, first and foremost, on skepticism. It must remain that way.

  5. #5 Ray Ingles
    October 23, 2009

    So, “religions are a kind of meaning system” and “science by itself is inadequate as a meaning system”. So… you’re admitting that science isn’t a religion?

  6. #6 Jeremy C.
    October 23, 2009

    I like the contact sport metaphor better than the religion one.

  7. #7 Michael Heath
    October 23, 2009

    My concern about the sloppy use of such metaphors is the fact that too many public school children in this country are not properly educated in science and particularly evolution. Many school board members see science and religion as competing world views where they have an ethical and moral obligation to the Christian faith to insure they suppress certain aspects of science and promote religion to public school children. I know, I was one of these students.

    I suggest Dr. Wilson read the Dover Trial transcripts or at least Laurie Lebo’s book on the Dover Trial. Perhaps he wouldn’t be so ready to provide ammunition to the very people who control many of the school boards throughout this country and one of only two political parties that rule our government. While it may be legal to teach evolution in the public schools, many schools continue to fall far short of adequately teaching it or encouraging and developing capable students to consider a career in the sciences.

  8. #8 Vole
    October 23, 2009

    I’m all for studying the nature of religions, but I find the general thrust of this piece to be some way off target. “Meaning system” appears to be a term designed to include religions without actually sounding religious. Science then “lacks” what it would need in order to fit into this new category i.e. “values”.

    Could I not, with at least equal validity, define “reality model” as a general term for systems such as science, and then criticise religions for lacking important attributes such as reliable data sources, rigour, falsifiability, and an error-correction mechanism?

    I’m still looking forward to the series on group selection.

  9. #9 DrugMonkey
    October 23, 2009

    We try our best to throw each other to the mat and then good naturedly go out for a beer.

    I agree.

    welcome aboard, dude!

  10. #10 Comrade PhysioProf
    October 23, 2009

    The difference between religion and science as symbolic meaning systems is that every single bit of evidence that has been amassed over the millenia of human experience indicates that the referents of religious symbols don’t exist, while every single bit of evidence that has been amassed over the millenia of human experience indicates that the referents of scientific symbols do exist. Seems like an important difference to me.

  11. #11 bob koepp
    October 23, 2009

    It would appear that science won’t have truth as its god. Perhaps science is its own god… Let’s not go there.

  12. #12 bilbo
    October 24, 2009

    I can see it’s not gonna take long for Dr. Wilson’s good name to be dragged through the mud by the NA trolls….

  13. #13 ivo
    October 24, 2009

    We can immediately see that science by itself is inadequate as a meaning system, because it merely tells us what’s out there (and this is always an approximation) and not what to do. Science must therefore function in the context of a larger meaning system that provides values.

    It seems very reasonable though, given the huge practical success of science, to elevate to the status of values those principles and practices that make science work: transparency, skepticism, openness, accountability, objectivity,…

    It is not only by chance that this same set of values lie also at the core modern liberal democracies. So, in this way at least, science can tell us what to do.

  14. #14 jimmiraybob
    October 24, 2009

    bilbo@12 – I can see it’s not gonna take long for Dr. Wilson’s good name to be dragged through the mud by the NA trolls….

    Your meaning system is lacking. Perform 10 Hail Marys and 3 Experiments (2 practical and 1 theoretical).

  15. #15 Jeff Knapp
    October 24, 2009

    Welcome Dr. Wilson. This is looking like fascinating stuff. This is the kind of “big picture” approach that is seriously needed in this field. I look forward to learning more.

  16. #16 Cheryl Rofer
    October 24, 2009

    Such a tiresomely male metaphor. And old, too. I recall it from at least a decade ago, male science managers grinning as they emphasized “a physical contact sport.”

  17. #17 daedalus2u
    October 24, 2009

    The problem with science as a contact sport is the problem of individual vs. group selection. If you only select for individuals, you select most strongly for gaming the selection system, for “cheaters”. You do not select for the most productivity over the sum of all groups.

    This was shown in chickens, where selecting individual chickens in a multi-hen henhouse based on individual productivity selected for mean chickens that sabotaged the productivity of other chickens and the total productivity declined. This is what brought Enron down. I suspect it strongly contributed to the financial meltdown.

  18. #18 Diane G.
    October 24, 2009

    Cheryl @ # 16, you beat me to it! Male, indeed.

    And why waste time with metaphors–with semantics in general? It was endless semantic tail-chasing that drove me screaming from the humanities; & to science.

  19. #19 abb3w
    October 26, 2009

    David Sloan Wilson: What is a meaning system? It is a set of beliefs and practices that receives environmental information as input and results in human action as output.

    I would argue “decision system” would be more conceptually accurate, so as to allow the term “meaning system” to be reserved for a system of communication of information representations between philosophical entities; in this sense, “meaning systems” would be a sub-components of “decision systems”.

    Details of my argument involve computability theory and other mathematics considered painful by most philosophers.

    David Sloan Wilson: We can immediately see that science by itself is inadequate as a meaning system, because it merely tells us what’s out there (and this is always an approximation) and not what to do.

    Correct. “What do to” is a question of ENGINEERING.

    Back in the days of Hans Reichenbach, science was considered divided into the “Context of Discovery” and the “Context of Justification”; the terms remain familiar in philosophy of science, even if they have fallen out of vogue. I have argued elsewhere at random points on the web that a better distinction is dividing science as philosophy into Contexts of Experience (of the universe), Inspiration (conjecturing pattens within experience), Formalization (making a hypothesis by using conjecture to represent experience), and Testing (of candidate hypotheses against one another for probability of correctness). In science as anthropological practice, with the process of experiment Science also enters into the Context of Design; this, however, I would consider the philosophical demarcation line to philosophy of Engineering rather than philosophy of Science. The selection of what experiment to perform and how to perform it is an engineering problem.

    The nature of Design ultimately ties to Hume’s Guillotine, and moving from description of the world as it is to the prescription of what one ought to do.

    I believe I have a bridge across that gap; however, I may be merely a kook.

    Vole: Could I not, with at least equal validity, define “reality model” as a general term for systems such as science, and then criticise religions for lacking important attributes such as reliable data sources, rigour, falsifiability, and an error-correction mechanism?

    Again, the problem of Hume’s Guillotine lies in the way: such criticism presumes that one OUGHT to have such that is lacking. You have to move from “is” to “ought” before having basis to your criticizing. (Not that I disagree that indeed one ought, generally speaking; but I have a particular bridge across that gap in mind.)

  20. #20 NoAstronomer
    October 26, 2009

    “We can immediately see that science by itself is inadequate as a meaning system, because it merely tells us what’s out there (and this is always an approximation) and not what to do.”

    Then I’m afraid I’, not sure I see the point of this post. Why introduce the concept of a ‘meaning system’ if you then proceed to state that science isn’t one?

    If science is related to ‘meaning systems’ at all it is because applying the process of science to ‘meaning systems’ is the only rational and reliable way to determine which ‘meaning systems’ work.

    Thanks for the airtime, I’ll go read the group selection posts now.

    Mike.

  21. #21 Vole
    October 26, 2009

    Thank you for your reply. Hume’s Guillotine is a new one on me, apparently from the field of meta-ethics, which is also a closed book to me. So I’m afraid I don’t understand the point you are making here – but it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the point I was trying to make (not very coherently I’m afraid).

    I was questioning the usefulness of the concept you were defining. Years ago Lakatos’ book “Proofs and Refutations” made an impression me. His point is that a definition can be good or bad. Good definitions yield useful theorems with short pithy statements. Bad definitions yield (at best) woffly theorems with lots of ifs and buts. So I was asking whether the concept of “meaning system” actually leads to any useful insights. The only thing I know about meaning systems so far is that religions qualify but science doesn’t.

    I am enjoying your series on group selection and look forward to being educated further. My own view of that subject is currently pretty naive.

  22. #22 piker
    October 26, 2009

    Hume basically argues that to assume something IS because it ought to be is wrong, but he was not arguing that something that ought not to be therefor cannot be. He does not therefor assert that an absence of “ought” requires the absence of “is.” There is no actual guillotine effect where if OUGHT cannot be severed from IS, then IS could not be severed from OUGHT. Because IS can be completely severed from OUGHT as a logical or consequential follower, even though OUGHT cannot be completely severed from any following IS.

  23. #23 piker
    October 26, 2009

    daedalus2u, the trouble with the mean chicken experiment was the assumption that if the results with real chickens emulated the results using their digitized models, then the assumption used in the models, that the meanness or selfishness was a fixed trait, was tangentially confirmed when live chickens acted in the same manner. Except that if the live chickens had already acquired the use of that behavioral habit through a previously designated spot in the pecking order, the continuation of that now ingrained strategy in a new group would not be a confirmation that the meanness was fixed from birth.
    The trait could therefor not be expected to persist in the next generation due to group selection pressures, if its heritability was not so assured.

  24. #24 abb3w
    October 27, 2009

    NoAstronomer: Why introduce the concept of a ‘meaning system’ if you then proceed to state that science isn’t one?

    Sigh. Introduction as a “necessary but not sufficient condition” seems an obvious potentiality from my (mathematically biased) vantage. (EG: from a philosophical vantage, you need “science” to do “engineering”.)

    piker: Hume basically argues [...]

    ***DISCLAIMER: IAmNotATrainedPhilosopher –abb3w***
    In Layman’s English: all statements of “ought” form apparently presuppose the nature of “ought”, which seems orthogonal from the nature of “is”.

    Check Wikipedia. Or picture a three-year-old repetitiously asking “Why…?” — how do you get from “because…” to/from “the universe IS that way”?

    My individual bridge between “ought” and “is” appears narrow, perilous, and (mayhaps worst) mathematical. As the alternative appears to be “nonexistent”, I consider it an engineering marvel. For what I mean by “engineering”, see prior comment, or resort to Google.

    Vole: His point is that a definition can be good or bad. Good definitions yield useful theorems with short pithy statements. Bad definitions yield (at best) woffly theorems with lots of ifs and buts. So I was asking whether the concept of “meaning system” actually leads to any useful insights.

    This looks to be vantaged from not merely a philosophically engineering framework, but an one of anthropological vantage.

    If you’re inclined to research, first look into how CompSci computation theory uses “effective”, “efficient”, “recognizable”, and “decidable”.

    If you have accomplished such research, or you’re so disinclined to researching as to prefer to jump in the deep end without preparation… what do you mean by “useful”? How is “useful” recognizable? (If it is???)

  25. #25 DNLee
    October 27, 2009

    hey, here’s the DSW I know.

  26. #26 Vole
    October 27, 2009

    abb3w@24 misses my point. I would be content simply to know what the “meaning system” concept is for. Why was this definition made? What did the original definer hope to achieve?

    Evidently to ask in what way it is actually useful is considered in poor taste. However, I offer, as an example of what I was getting at, “mass” as a more useful concept than “weight”, since many more physical laws can be expressed concisely in terms of mass than they can in terms of weight. It is not obvious that “meaning system” is a useful concept in this sense.

    The only “deep end” I can see on this blog is the one that lies ahead in the “group selection” topic, which I am enjoying.

  27. #27 daedalus2u
    October 27, 2009

    piker, they didn’t expect to select for mean chickens, that was their observation. They were trying to select for high egg laying productivity by selecting the individual hens that produced the most eggs in a henhouse. What they selected for were hens that produced the most eggs because they sabotaged the other hens. I have only seen the abstract and reviews of the paper, not the paper itself.

    http://www.greythumb.org/blog/index.php?/archives/80-Eugenics-doesnt-work.-Ask-why,-asshole..html

    What that says to me is that mean and anti-social behavior is a lot easier to evolve than is a physiology that supports greater egg laying. That is not a surprise to me. Gaming the system is likely to always be easier than succeeding by beating everyone else. It is certainly true in science. Scientific fraud is a lot easier than cutting edge real science. Trashing the science of your competitors is a lot easier than doing super-duper science yourself. Trashing super-duper science is a lot easier than doing super-super-duper science yourself.

    Unless your system of selecting metrics take into account gaming the system, gaming the system is likely what you will select for.

    To the extent that there is a “scientific culture”, that culture will move in the directions that the selection pressures push it. If the selection pressure selects for “mean scientists”, that is what you will get. If you want “mean scientists”, then unbridled competition between individuals will eventually get you there. If instead you want to maximize total scientific productivity, then you need to do group selection not individual selection. You need to incentivize individuals to cooperate with others not compete with them.

  28. #28 piker
    October 27, 2009

    daedalus2u,
    The point is that whatever you propose they were trying to select for (and of course you haven’t seen the initial paper), the results were nevertheless referred to as confirming the accuracy of models that did purport to show the same or statistically similar results. Thus appearing to be consistent with the premise built into the model that selfishness (or meanness as you have put it) was a strongly fixed genetic trait, and that it’s alternative was the fixed and heritable trait of altruism. Which ignored the alternate and distinct possibility that the live (as opposed to the digitized) chickens had acquired rather than inherited that trait.

  29. #29 daedalus2u
    October 27, 2009

    piker, I am not sure I understand you. They were trying to selectively breed high productivity chickens for egg production, something that chicken breeders have done for millennia. When they tried a particular style of selective breeding (selection based on individual relative performance in a group), they didn’t get highly productive chickens, what they got were chickens that sabotaged their chicken peers in the same henhouse, so-called “mean chickens”.

    They were not looking for altruism or selfishness, they were looking for high productivity egg layers. They didn’t have a model that they were trying to get data for, they had data they were trying to understand.

    It is my understanding that chickens under these circumstances are incubated, hatched and raised as a group. They are all the same age and are all raised under identical conditions without interactions with adults. The only way they could acquire a trait would be from the other chickens in their hatching cohort. I don’t think there was any assumption or demonstration that any traits or behaviors are “fixed” or that they fit to any type of mathematical model.

  30. #30 piker
    October 27, 2009

    daedalus2u, chickens form a pecking order, whether raised together, or raised separately and then placed together. Small variations in their physiological properties can be as important to where they end up in the order as will any behavioral predispositions or traits passed along genetically, and, don’t forget, epigenetically. All such traits will be to a greater or lesser extent malleable. A chicken at one level can arguably be tactically selfish with respect to one below it and at the same time use altruism as a tactic in dealing with others above it to gain favor. And they test a variety of tactics out on each other early on before they settle into an their order and ways to maintain it.
    But you might want to wait until Professor Wilson brings up this study later, and how some results compares to his models, before you make up your mind about the significance of the study as far as his theories are concerned.

  31. #31 daedalus2u
    October 28, 2009

    piker, don’t forget that the only reason there is any epigenetic programming of DNA is because the physiology to epigenetically program that DNA in those particular ways under those particular environmental influences evolved to do so. Similarly the only reason a trait is malleable and in which particular ways under what particular circumstances is because the trait evolved to be malleable in those particular ways.

    It is rather anthropomorphic to project that chickens tactically choose the behaviors of altruism or selfishness to manipulate the behavior of their peers. Is there any evidence of such choices? In any case, the ability of being able to tactically choose a behavior can only be an evolved trait.

    I will be happy to wait. I think this example is completely consistent with what Professor Wilson is saying.

  32. #32 piker
    October 28, 2009

    daedalus2u, Anthropomorphic? All instinctive behaviors consist of evolved tactics, whether they be human or chicken. Perhaps that’s why we call each other chicken on occasion. And is it your position that chickens don’t make choices but are born with their order in the flock hierarchy already assigned? I think you will find that when Dr. Wilson brings up chickens, he’s making a point about commonality of their evolved behaviors with humans in the bargain.
    The real question here is, do his chickens with altruistic genes have their putative selfish genes missing, or perhaps just turned off – or are these genes perhaps distributed randomly, a selfish one here and an altruistic one there? Or if each chicken has the full complement of genes for each hypothetical trait, why has it been proposed that there are genetic differences between the altruistic and the selfish? Or is it his proposal that the differences are simply one of degrees that were somehow fixed in advance before their random distribution in the population? Then subject of course to heritability of those differences? And with lines drawn in the chickenyard sand to differentiate the overtly altruistic from the overtly selfish (if of course these traits are to some degree shared in each chicken).

  33. #33 abb3w
    November 2, 2009

    Vole: Evidently to ask in what way it is actually useful is considered in poor taste.

    Merely a little sloppy in phrasing; more sloppy if you do so rhetorically to criticize, without having established basis for “useful” as being necessary/sufficient to be “good”.

    I share your curiosity as to potential application.

  34. #34 BaldApe
    November 9, 2009

    Cheryl @16 and Diane @ 18,

    For the record, I am a heterosexual male who despises sports. I object to the sexist assumption that as a male, I drool over huge flat-screened TVs and lose all higher brain functions in the presence of a bunch of presumed adults with their IQs on their shirts playing a children’s game for a living.

  35. #35 Marcel Kincaid
    February 27, 2012

    As I said in the previous thread, science is a methodological framework for epistemological accretion. The assertion that it’s a “meaning system” reflects the same level of intellectual examination as a typical pronouncement by Deepak Chopra, and leads to conclusions just as radically wrong.

  36. #36 afrika mangosu
    March 5, 2012

    I am a heterosexual male who despises sports. I object to the sexist assumption that as a male,

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