Dawkins gave a talk that could be criticized as not particularly new, in that his main idea is that human brains are too powerful and adaptable to continue to function primarily within an adaptive program serving as a proper adaptive organ. Instead, human brains think up all sorts of other, rather non-Darwinian things to do. This idea has been explored and talked about in many ways by many people. Kurt Vonegut Jr.’s character in Galapagos repeatedly, in a state of lament, quips “Thanks, Big Brain…” as evidence accumulates that our inevitable march towards extinction is primarily a function of that particular organ’s activities. People have talked about the brain as the outcome of runaway sexual selection. Evolutionary psychologists have talked about the evolution of strong preferences and desires, which in turn play out i a rather Frankensteinian fashion in a world where those desires can be met with ease instead of hard work and much time. Thus, we have evolved a yearning for rare nutrients such as salt and fat, and then we invented the ability to have unlimited access to salt and fat. So now, in a ‘civilized world’, it is the salt and fat that kills us incited of the predator or the con-specific competitor over access to some food or some sexual opportunity. (Thanks, Big Brain….)
But the talk was not old stuff. (See this important commentary by PZ Myers.) There was some important new stuff here as well. I had the sense that there was a fairly elaborate theory running below the surface and we were seeing bits and pieces of it, chosen for the audience and embedded in necessary contextual explanation which takes time to do. Thus, in an hours time, we got a taste which probably engorged the average intelligent audience member, but left the specialist chomping at the bit.
Dawkins made a number of points in his talk, and I’ll focus on what I see as the central thread. This thread addressed the concept of ‘purpose’ in relation to design, the differentiation of purpose into two types (archeo and neo, also potentially thought of as “natural” and “human-mad”), the potential complexity and (most importantly) adaptability of purpose-imbued systems, and the potential of subversion of this adaptability. This subversion is the crux of the talk, and it is unfortunate that this could not have been a two part talk where everything but subversion was covered in Part I, and the subversion question (which is really a major revision or extension of the memetic hypothesis, I think) in Part II.
As hinted above, subversion of adaptable purpose is, according to Dawkins, the expiation for the crazy stuff humans do, including things like skydiving and things like the rise of a Nazi state. Dawkins did not explore the ways in which this idea works (or not) differently at proximate (“how”) levels vs. ultimate (“why”) levels, but I’m sure he’d have some interesting things to say about it.
Purpose in relation to design was in part explicated by looking at both natural and artificial selection. He started with a very clear differentiation of where purpose can exist and not exist, where something like Ayers Rock, a lump of clay, or a rock may not really have a “purpose” while an adaptive function of a designed thing (like the culturally selected huge udder of a cow) may (to make a farmer rich). He used examples from both artificial selection and natural selection, as well as human engineering, and made clear the distinction between selection as a process (you’all know how that works) vs. intentional design or selection by humans. (But that distinction, while important, is not key to this thread, so we’ll leave that off).
Neo-purpose vs. archaeo-purpose (or maybe it’s “archeo-pupose”) are two terms that Dawkins introduced to differentiate between natural and human-engineered ‘purposeful’ things. Archaeo-purpose = adaptive functionality, maybe even non adaptive but naturalistic functionality, in nature. Neo-purpose is stuff humans make to do stuff, including artificial selection. The use of these terms in the talk seemed post-hoc and unnecessary, telling me that he’s got more to say about this but did not go into it at the time. (I mean, if you are going to design a couple of neologisms, they’ve got to have a purpose, right!?!??)
As an aside, with these terms we may have (primarily within the concept of archaeo-purpose) the possibility of a new way of talking about a definition of life. A living thing or feature of a living thing may have latent archaeo-purpose, but a non-living thing does not. However, abiotic action can have archaeo-purpose. Water (water just sitting there being observed) does not have “purpose.” But, the purpose of the falling of the water down a running stream or water fall can be described in thermodynamic terms, elemental bonding in partial physical or electromagnetic terms, etc. The purpose of the water is undefined or null, the purpose of the water fall is as a means of water answering the call of gravity. In nature, only life and verbs can have (archaeo) purpose. In a cultural context, anything can have (neo-) purpose. Like a rock. A rock in a sculpture garden can have the purpose of causing a visitor to the sculpture garden to wonder “what is the purpose of this rock…”
But I digresses…
A certain kind, category, subset, maybe level (not well described by Dawkins in the talk) of purpose can be complex and highly adaptive in how it plays out, like a guided missile which can adjust its trajectory to find its target, or a bat flying after an insect. The link between everything noted above about purpose and this complexity is accretetive. You’ve got to lay out the framework of purpose before you talk about the nature of purpose, but it is really the nature of purpose that we want to be talking about. If there is a link between the fundamentals of purpose and this property of complexity and/or adaptability, Dawkins did not explicate. But I suspect he is thinking about it.
Complex adaptive purpose (I’ll call it that for now, though I don’t really like the “complex” part … there can be adaptive purpose, and I can think of many examples can be and is often subverted. Dawkins gave some examples. This is particularly interesting to me, because I think a lot of important evolutoinary shifts have been exactly this, and indeed, almost all examples of co-evolution are just this, and everything is co-evolution.
But Dawkins point is simply that the brain is a complex adaptive system with a purpose that emerges from its developmental history, and if this developmental history is altered one way or another, you can get different syndromes of purpose. Thus Nazi’s, thus skydivers, thus people filing into a huge theatre to listen to some guy talk about purpose.
I have in mind a number of criticisms of the idea, but I can’t really be sure that they are valid criticisms because, as I suggest above, there are important parts of this idea that were not developed in the talk. thus, these critiques would be unfair and probably, even worse, misdirected. I would just be showing off my knowledge of things and possibly my vocabulary and writing abilities. Which is, of course, my primary adaptive methodology for obtaining food and sex. Which, at the moment, I have plenty of, so what would be the purpose of that!?!?!??