Archive for the ‘Evolution’ Category

I’ve argued there’s no imminent singularity, and I’ve thrown water on the idea that the web will become smart or self-aware. But am I just a wet blanket, or do I have a positive vision of our human future?

I have just written up a short “manifesto” of sorts about where we humans are headed, and it appeared in Seed Magazine. It serves not only as guidepost to our long-term future, but also one for how to create better technologies for our brains (part of the aim of the research institute, 2ai, I co-direct with colleague Tim Barber).


Mark Changizi is Director of Human Cognition at 2AI, and the author of The Vision Revolution (Benbella Books, 2009) and the upcoming book Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man (Benbella Books, 2011).

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I have yet to be bored watching the 27-and-a-half-hour extended versions of the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy with the kids. It is truly an awe-inspiring cinematic masterpiece.

There is, however, one persistently annoying aspect of the trilogy that I am petitioning the studio to change on the next release and for the prequels that will appear soon. What’s that one annoying thing about the Lord of the Rings? You know what it is…


I know, I know, hobbits are fairly integral to the plot, and especially so for the upcoming prequels (titled “The Hobbit,” Parts 1 and 2). We’re stuck with hobbits in these stories, and so the question is how they can be fixed.

In order to fix the hobbits, though, we must diagnose what exactly it is about them that makes us wish the Ringwraiths had finished them off in a bloody spectacle in the first part of the Lord of the Rings when they were foolishly cooking on that promontory.

The problem with the hobbits is not merely that the music shifts to weepy-give-me-a-hug music whenever Frodo and Sam get within two meters of one another. The main objection to the hobbits is, instead, a biological one…

Hobbits are lame. The hobbits in the movies are given the physical prowess of a regular human four-year-old with furry feet.

And that’s the problem.

Hobbits are small, yes. But that doesn’t mean that their only way of garnering respect from the other Middle Earth races is by cooking second breakfasts or getting completely wrecked and dancing on tables.

Small animals are not merely smaller, weaker, and slower versions of their larger-animal counterparts. Instead, small animals are more energetically active, sleep more, and possess many other consequences of scaling due to their smaller size. Small animals live their lives at a faster pace – they are quick, and practically impossible for much larger creatures to catch. In addition to being quick, small animals tend to be feisty, exhibiting morphological and behavioral specializations likely to rip, tear or stab something of importance on a larger animal’s body.

Have you ever tried to catch a tiny monkey? It’s practically impossible! Even chimpanzees can only do so with great tribal effort. And pity on you if you ever do manage to catch one; you’re likely to be licking your wounds a fraction of a second later. I’ll not even get into the inclination for smaller animals to defecate on bigger animals, something very relevant when trying to catch a monkey.

To illustrate the “quick and fierce” side of the small, take a look at the following two videos, the first showing a squirrel going for a deer’s jugular, and the second showing a bear deciding against tangling with a house cat.

We see, then, that small animals tend to be quick and feisty, and – unlike hobbits – decidedly NOT lame.

Imagine how much fun it would be to watch the Lord of the Rings movies, but with fleet, ferocious and blood-thirsty little hobbits replacing the plodding, pleading, thirsty little hobbits we have gotten to know and grudgingly love. (Please forward this to Peter Jackson.)

This first appeared on March 23, 2010, as a feature at ScientificBlogging.com.


Mark Changizi is a professor of cognitive science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the author of The Vision Revolution (Benbella Books).

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Several weeks back I wrote a piece for the Telegraph about how too few of us scientists stop to remind ourselves of the wonder of Darwin’s theory. “It should blow your mind,” I said. But it would be a shame if Darwin’s skeptics take comfort in scientists exhibiting awe for the complexity of nature. And it would also be a shame if Darwinists like me are deterred from communicating this awe with the worry that skeptics will somehow take comfort.

To see why no comfort should be taken, let’s step away from natural selection for a moment and consider the most complicated object in the known universe: your brain. Any neuroscientist will be happy to admit that we are still woefully ignorant about how the brain works. Our understanding of the brain’s mechanisms is moving forward quickly, and accelerating, but we have a very long way to go. And the idea that computationally meager neurons can, in large numbers and larger interconnectivity, underlie the mental life we cherish is, well, mind boggling.

But as boggled as neuroscientists might be about the brain’s mechanisms, consider what no neuroscientist is in the least confused about: that the brain is the mechanism underlying our mental life. The evidence that the brain, and not some other thing, is the mechanism underlying our thoughts is so overwhelming it is hardly worth discussing.

The difference here is one of “how” versus “that”. Discovering how the brain instantiates our minds is orders and orders of magnitude more difficult than discovering that the brain instantiates our minds. While this distinction is obvious for the brain, the point can often be overlooked for evolution. Comprehending exactly how the mechanism of natural selection underlies the diversity and complexity of life on Earth is an astronomically more difficult science problem than showing that natural selection is the mechanism. The “how” of natural selection is as difficult as the “how” for the brain, perhaps moreso. But the “that” of natural selection is another story, and is teeming with evidence.

Skeptics of evolution often aim at the “how”, and seem to believe that if scientists cannot fully answer the “how” question, then Darwin is all wet. But by that standard, neuroscientists should begin doubting that the brain underlies thoughts every time someone asks a difficult question about how the brain works.

[See also http://changizi.wordpress.com/category/evolution/ ]

Mark Changizi is the author of The Vision Revolution, and is a professor in the Department of Cognitive Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

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Darwin and Evolution

Darwin’s 200th anniversary has come and gone, and thousands of news stories have reflected upon it. One of the largest issues we still grapple with is why so many people still don’t believe in evolution, by which I mean, they don’t believe that natural selection suffices to explain all the wonderful life we find here on Earth. And that issue is, accordingly, one of the most commonly recurring issues in last year’s Darwin pieces. There is, however, a potentially more troubling issue lurking about, also related to understanding Darwin, and this issue emanates from within scientific circles, from among Darwinists themselves (and I’m one of them).

And the problem is this: Many proponents of evolution, having grown up with natural selection, have lost their ability to see just how amazingly counter-intuitive the idea is. As a professor of mine used to say, “One generation’s maelstrom is the next generation’s jacuzzi.”

It is not that “evolution” is counter-intuitive. There is no mystery in the idea that organisms can change, and can even do so in small steps in response to selection pressure, like moths changing color or bird beaks changing shape over generations. What is mind-boggling, and what many Darwinists forget is mind-boggling, is how these small changes can add up over millions of generations to create complex fancy machines. What is mind boggling is that this kind of local, short-term evolution that we can wrap our minds around can possibly explain the life on Earth.

Let me try to reconvey the wonder of natural selection by an example. Consider the Grand Canyon. We can comprehend how it got formed. We see the local, short-term erosive properties, and we can fairly well  fathom how, with enough erosion, the canyon gets deeper and deeper and wider and wider and branchier and branchier and so on. But imagine that I told you that, after all that erosion, the result wasn’t the Grand Canyon, but a modern football stadium, with seats, bathrooms, flat field, fake grass, box seats — the works.  That is, imagine after more and more blind activity, one gets a highly engineered complex structure that can do amazing things.  That’s what it should mentally feel like when one contemplates that, with a little selection pressure and extraordinarily long periods of time, one can get elm trees, octopus and humans out of goo. It should blow your mind. That’s why Darwin is worthy of remembering for 200 years, or for 200,000 years. Not because he pointed out that organisms can slowly change over time in response to selection forces, but that he suggested that that is enough to explain all the complexity of life.

This problem I am pointing out among scientists like me is also relevant for better convincing creationists. If a creationist has not been steeped in natural selection, they may actually have a better grip on how mind-boggling it is. If one hopes to unboggle the creationist’s mind, one must first recognize the reasons for it having become boggled.

[See these pieces for more about evolution.]

This first appeared on January 4, 2010, as a feature at the Telegraph.

Mark Changizi is a professor of cognitive science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the author of The Vision Revolution (Benbella Books).

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When aliens come to Earth to investigate life here, they don’t simply beam up a specimen and start probing. (And they’re also, by the way, not disproportionately interested in the anus.) Only a novice prober would do a simple beam-and-probe, and would surely get a quick rap on a proboscis from the instructor. The problem with abducting an animal of interest, all by itself, is that you can’t understand an animal without an appreciation of the environment the animal inhabits.

Aliens probing one of those mysterious humans

These alien probers, you see, have a motto, and it roughly translates as: “My eye is not a squirt gun even though it shoots blood when in zero gravity.” It emanates from the experiences of their first alien astronauts who, upon experiencing zero gravity for the first time, were surprised to find their eyes shooting blood on everything they looked upon. Live video of that debacle set back their space program for a decade, as you can imagine, but to the alien evolutionary biologists it was a great illustration of how animals are packed with quirks, or crazy things they do in unnatural circumstances. Their alien eyes did not evolve for zero gravity, because zero gravity situations just never came up (unless in free fall from, say, a high cliff, in which case blood-squirting-eyes only serve to make the stain on the ground more memorable).

What an experienced alien prober does is gather as much information about the animal’s habitat as possible. In fact, they beam up entire habitats so that they can study the animal in its home at their leisure. Alien Probe School graduates are consummate ecologists, understanding that organisms evolved to do stuff with their complex mechanisms, but that if you drop an organism into an environment for which it did not evolve, it will often do other stuff, and usually quite unsophisticated stuff. For example, had their alien eyes actually been selected to become eye squirt guns in zero gravity, they would surely have become much better than they are, e.g., not so pulsatile, and less excruciatingly painful.

By following their alien principles of good probing, they’ll have abducted what they need in order to some day, and with great effort, have a complete knowledge of the organism, from its genome to its “phenome.” The phenome is the set of things the animal can do, implemented ultimately via the genome and the way it acts within the evolutionary habitat. For example, your cell phone’s genome is the electronic circuitry (or perhaps the engineer’s drawings for the circuitry), whereas its phenome is the list of things it can do, often enumerated in the user’s manual, exactly the manual that is missing for the Earth organisms the alien probers want to unravel.

But something unexpected happened when they followed these wise principles on humans, abducting an entire primitive tribe of humans and the mountain they lived on. They already had abducted earlier hominids who had no language or music, and were interested to see what was new about these speaking and singing humans. To their surprise, the aliens could discern no difference between the non-speaking, non-musical hominids and the speaking and singing humans.

Their biology was indistinguishable, they concluded.

They were the same animal. Could the difference be due to a difference in habitat? No, they concluded, the earlier and newly abducted mountains appear to have no relevant differences. Same animal, same habitat, and yet the modern humans are a giant leap beyond, or at least distinct from, the more ancient Homo sapiens. They scratched their antennae. Why, the aliens wondered, did the modern humans behave so fundamentally different? Why did they have language and music? Why did the modern humans seem like something fundamentally different from the great apes, whereas the non-linguistic non-musical humans seemed to fit more within the apes, namely as a very bright great ape.

How could two identical creatures in identical habitats end up so different in sophistication that it seemed natural to deem them different species?

The modern humans clearly must have have *learned* language and music. But that only seemed to worsen the dilemma for the probers. How can you teach an animal a lesson so powerful that it practically becomes another species? Speech and music comprehension, the aliens knew, are astoundingly complex, complex in the way natural selection creates the complex. These modern humans, the aliens noted, were competent at language and music in the highly adapted way animals evolve to be capable at things. But from their alien experiences as ecologists, they knew that if an animal is not designed to accommodate that level of complex processing, then you can’t just force feed it. You can’t teach a deer to catch and eat mice. No course will get your dog to climb trees like a monkey. And you can’t train a human to comprehend fax machine sounds. You simply cannot teach old hominids new tricks worthy of natural selection. The human brain is not such a rich general purpose learning apparatus that it can learn tasks as richly complex as language and music. Yet there they were, the modern humans with brains highly honed for speech and music. The alien probers were stumped.

They reasoned: The humans don’t have language or music innately in the head. And it doesn’t come from their habitat. And they also don’t simply learn something that complicated. There must be selection of some kind underlying the human capability to do language and music, but what kind of selection could it be if it is neither natural selection nor learning?

One of the alien probers wondered whether there *might* be design, or selection, underlying the difference between modern humans and their non-linguistic and non-musical ancestors – not natural selection and not learning, but cultural selection. This is a selection process that selects not on biology, but on human artifacts that are used by biology. The human artifacts are animal-like, in the sense that they themselves have evolved over time, under selection pressure. These artifact-creatures (in the realm of “memes”), like naturally selected biological creatures, can be highly complex, with all the hallmarks of an engineering masterpiece.

“Aha!” the alien prober exclaimed. The modern humans are not merely learning language and music, they’re being raised in an environment with symbionts. Language and music are technological masterpieces that evolved to live with non-linguistic hominids and transform them into something beyond their biology. What makes these modern humans no longer the non-linguistic Homo sapiens apes they biologically are is not on the inside, and not in the ancestral environment. It is due to a novel variety of evolving entity the humans have been evolving with. Language and music are evolved organism-like artifacts that are symbiotic with these human apes. And like any symbiont, these artifact symbionts have evolved to possess shapes that fit the biology, namely our brains. As a metaphor with symbionts, these aliens could then begin digesting what we modern humans are.

What are we, then, in the eyes of alien probers? We are our biology, from the genes on up. But we are more than that, indicated by the fact that the probers don’t abduct just a human, but entire human habitats. We are our biology within its appropriate habitat. But that’s true about all animals on Earth. The special thing the aliens had to grapple with when they started probing humans was that biology and habitat are not enough. They needed to abduct the cultural artifact symbionts that were co-evolving with us. That’s not something any other animal can lay claim to. The pieces of what we are can be found in our wet biology, the habitat, but also in the artifactual symbionts we have been co-evolving with.

Our language, music and other highly culturally evolved technologies are, like our genes and our habitat, deeply part of the modern human recipe. The human code is not just the genome, and not just the genome and habitat. The human code is now found in the structures of language and other cultural artifacts.

Mark Changizi is a professor of cognitive science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the author of The Vision Revolution (Benbella Books).

This first appeared on January 26, 2010, as a feature at ScientificBlogging.com.

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This first appeared on November 23, 2009, as a feature at ScientificBlogging.com, coincidentally aligning with the 150th anniversary of The Origin of Species.

“Come on into the hot tub,” I told my three year old boy. But he wouldn’t budge. No way was he joining his older sister in there. “It’s warm, and it feels nice!” I urged, “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” But it was only when I turned off the jets that I could eventually coax him in.

“Why would my boy be so afraid of a hot tub?” I wondered. But as I reflected upon my panty-waist boy, I decided that perhaps I wasn’t being fair to him. In fact, in hindsight, I think he was behaving rationally. Hot tubs are frightening. They violently churn and bubble, as if they are actually boiling. I have spent so much time in hot tubs over the years that I now hardly notice the foam, the burning temperature, the Pseudomonas bacteria and the skin-ripping, high-pressure jets.

We get used to things, and not just to jacuzzis. My jacuzzification also happens for intellectual matters (a topic of an earlier piece, The Value of Being Aloof: Or, How Not to Get Absorbed in Someone Else’s Abdomen). One generation’s jacuzzi is another generation’s maelstrom.

In particular, we get used to evolution. We scientists, especially. We’re so accustomed to evolution that when we find skeptics of evolution, we think of them as poor, blind, close-minded saps who can’t see the most obvious truths.

Darwin's jacuzzi

But how obvious is evolution, really? And how close-minded are those who don’t yet accept evolution?

Let’s start with the obviousness of evolution. First and foremost…evolution ain’t obvious! Evolution is perhaps the craziest true theory ever!   “Let me get this straight: Add a teaspoon of heritable variation, a ton of eating one another, and epochs of time…get yourself a superzoo of fantastically engineered creatures. Yeah, that’s not crazy!”

The only reason most of us scientists don’t find evolution crazy is that we’re jacuzzified to a wrinkley pulp. And this level of comfort with the bizarre theory of evolution can be counterproductive when trying to explain evolution to the uninitiated. You won’t convince my three-year-old to get into the hot tub by suggesting that there is no bubbling or churning – he can see the bubbling and churning with his own eyes. (BTW, no intent to analogize evolution skeptics with three-year-olds! Just a useful analogy that popped up.) If you’re so jacuzzified that you fail to see the churning, you will be incapable of addressing the real worry: that the churning might hurt.

Similarly, if you’re so used to evolution that you fail to see how weird it is, you’ll be in a poor position to explain why it isn’t as crazy as it at first sounds. Better to say, “Yes, evolution is crazy, but there’s overwhelming evidence that it is, indeed, the mechanism underlying the emergence of life in all its glory.” (And you should also admit that, although we have mountains of evidence that evolution is the mechanism, we are very far from understanding how exactly it does it, just as we’re sure the brain underlies our thoughts but do not comprehend how the brain works. This was the topic of an earlier ScientificBlogging.com piece titled Is Evolution Fast Enough?’ How I Responded.

The fact that evolution wins the prize for “non-obviousishness” should already begin to change one’s view about the supposed close-mindedness of evolution’s skeptics. Evolution is extraordinary, and extraordinary theories take extraordinary evidence. Extraordinary evidence indeed exists, but you can’t communicate the evidence in a simple one-liner. (Much less in a one-liner addressing the other as a “close-minded sap”.)

Religious folk surely have their hang-ups (whereas I am utterly hang-up-less), but religious doctrine has come a long way over the centuries. Few still believe the Earth is at the center of the universe, for example, something that was once perhaps just as central to the religious world view as creation. But the evidence for the Earth not being at the center is overwhelming. And more important than being overwhelming, the idea that the Earth is not at the center of the universe is not nearly as crazy as evolution.

Religion can, then, be convinced of scientific discoveries it is initially opposed to. And, it is reasonable to expect that the more intrinsically implausible a theory sounds, the longer it will take for religion to become convinced. Evolution is the king of the implausible, and perhaps that’s why it is one of the last major scientific truths not having infiltrated all the corners of religion.

But evolution won’t infiltrate religion if we scientists can’t address the skeptic’s worries. And we won’t be able to address the worries if we’re so overcooked in evolution that we are incapable of seeing just how preposterous it seems.


There were some interesting comments at ScientificBlogging.com, which can be read here. One quote worth repeating here is a response of clarification of mine:

“For the Grand Canyon, I can see how more and more erosion, with self-organizing drainage networks, leads to deeper and deeper and wider and wider etc., etc., etc.

But imagine that I told you that, after all that erosion, the result wasn’t the Grand Canyon, but a modern football stadium, with seats, bathrooms, flat field, fake grass, box seats — the works.  That is, imagine after more and more blind activity, one gets a highly engineered complex structure that *does* amazing stuff.”

That’s what makes the hypothesis of natural selection so crazy. I’d go so far as saying that if you don’t appreciate how crazy it is, you don’t really get it.


Mark Changizi is a professor of cognitive science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the author of The Vision Revolution (Benbella Books).

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Originally a piece in ScientificBlogging, October 15, 2009…

I receive a lot of inquisitive emails from intelligent laymen, and today I received a nice one that asked, in so many words, “Is natural selection fast enough to explain the complex biology we find in our world?”

My knee-jerk response was to say, “Well, of course natural selection is fast enough, because here we are?” But I didn’t do that.

I also didn’t respond by taking out my Dawkins-certified religion-bludgeoning stick. I’m not partial to that pedagogical approach, and I figure it only got Dawkins uncomfortably familiar with Ms. Garrison of South Park.

Instead, I responded in what I think was a more helpful fashion, and my answer was not what the questioner expected. Here is what I wrote:


On how evolution could be fast enough to get things like us, one distinction worth mentioning is that one can be confident that X is the mechanism underlying some phenomenon B, without being clear about how exactly X in fact manages to do B.

An an example, consider the case where X is the brain and where B is our thinking. We are sure that the brain is the mechanism underlying our thinking, but we are still very mystified at how the brain can really engender all this thinking and experiencing we do.

In this light, now let X be evolution and B be the speed at which it can create fancy things like us. Just as we’re sure the brain underlies thinking, we can be sure that the (ugly, sloppy, lengthy) mechanism of evolution underlies the complex biological stuff we find on Earth. And despite being overwhelmingly convinced that this is the case, we can still be thrown for a loop as to how natural selection can do it in the time frames allowed.

I don’t mean to suggest that we don’t know a lot about how the mechanism of natural selection leads to the biology. We do know a lot. And we also know a lot about how the brain leads to our mental life. But in each case there are still huge tracts of unanswered questions. (I’m on the pessimistic side, actually; I believe we’re millennia away from understanding the brain and genes.)

For evolution, knowing the genome is only the first step. It may be hundreds of years or more before they can comprehend how it works together in a unified computational fashion. And with that understanding, they may better appreciate that the range of possible offspring is much much lower — and the survivability and functionality much much higher — than one would expect if genes were only flipping at the individual level.


The general point is that figuring out “that X is the mechanism for B” is a radically simpler problem than figuring out “how X works as a mechanism for B.” This is so obvious, and yet easy to overlook. For example, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to conclude that my computer is the mechanism that allows these letters I’m now typing to appear before me. But it does take a rocket (or computer) scientist to understand how my computer manages to make this happen. Showing that evolution is the mechanism of life has an astronomically lower bar than showing how evolution exactly does it.

What was unexpected about my response was my admission that we don’t completely understand how evolution can be fast enough. The reason this is unexpected is that we scientists are often unwilling to show any traces of uncertainty about evolution to intelligent-design folks, probably out of a fear that it “may only encourage them.” But we are, in fact, uncertain about some aspects, and if we claim otherwise and get called out, our credibility will be blown.

Instead, we scientists should be glad to display uncertainty about evolution. …but only in regards to how exactly it works in detail to achieve the complexity found on Earth. We should reserve our claims of certainty to where we truly have them, namely in the claim that evolution is the mechanism underlying life on Earth. …and we should emphasize that the bar for showing this is vastly lower than for showing how.


Here is something I wrote in response to some of the comments at ScientificBlogging…

To be clear, my main point is to distinguish between the difficulty in knowing how evolution produces the complexity of life, and the vastly simpler problem in coming to know that evolution is the mechanism that produces the complexity of life.

I did not begin to enumerate the mountains of evidence for the latter — and there are mountains of evidence.  The argument for the latter (i.e., “that” evolution is the mechanism) is not (merely) that one of the alternative mechanisms — God — is not viable.

Similarly, I did not mention any of the evidence for the conclusion that the brain underlies our thinking. The evidence for this, too, is utterly enormous. …and goes way beyond the argument that the alternatives — including, say, that something incorporeal underlies our thinking — are inconceivable.

For any skeptics of evolution out there, my point is that an argument of the form, “But scientists cannot explain how the mechanism of natural selection leads to the complexity we see in the world,” is a fantastically higher bar for scientists to have to fulfill if their goal is to merely show that evolution is the mechanism. By that standard, we should doubt that the brain underlies our thinking. …and we should doubt that livers underlie detoxification, for that matter. For most complex biological structures that do stuff, we scientists have a radically incomplete understanding of how the meat does it. …but that doesn’t make us doubt that the meat does indeed do it, because we have loads of evidence that it is the meat, and not something else, that is (somehow) responsible.

Mark Changizi is a professor of cognitive science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the author of The Vision Revolution (Benbella Books).

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