David Adam Edelstein (davadam) Mon 15 Sep 08 22:44
We're very pleased to Welcome Gary Marcus to the Inkwell. Gary Marcus is a scientist and a writer. As a scientist, he is director of the NYU Child Language Center, and a Professor of Psychology at New York University. As a writer, he is author of three books, including The Birth of the Mind, a book about genes and the origin of the brain, and Kluge, a book about evolution and the clumsiness of the human mind. Leading the conversation with Gary is our own Bruce Umbaugh. Bruce Umbaugh is a philosopher at Webster University, where he teaches in St. Louis, MO, and online. His work nowadays is mostly about the ethical and social consequences of technological choices, but he wrote a book about the British empiricist philosopher, George Berkeley, too. Back in the day, he wrote a dissertation about rationality that focused especially on the clumsiness of the human mind. Welcome, Gary and Bruce!
What is going to amuse our bouches now? (bumbaugh) Tue 16 Sep 08 07:00
Gary, it's great to have you here with us. Thanks for coming by. Your book, *Kluge*, takes us into an altogether fascinating domain. The subject of these human frailties first came to my attention in the literature on framing and choice, and on the limits of memory. It really changed my thinking about how we should understand human reason (and understanding). How did you find your way into the subject?
Gary Marcus (gary-marcus) Tue 16 Sep 08 15:08
Thanks for having me! I came to Kluge, and the ideas within it, from a longstanding interest in the development of the human mind. In a nutshell, my dissertation was on how children acquire language -- itself one of the most interesting mysteries in modern science -- and that led me to think about the Chomskian notion of innateness. What is it that is built into the human mind? And for that matter, how is *anything* built into the mind? Questions like that in turn lead me to a great deal of reading (and writing) about genetics and evolution, including a book called the Birth of the Mind, about how a relatively small number of genes gives rise to the complexity of the human mind. One of the things I realized in the course of writing that book is that evolution is (if you'll forgive the anthropomorphic metaphor) incredibly stingy: once it finds something that works, it tends to stick with solution, through thick and thin -- even if some other solution might work a lot better. So evolution inevitably winds up building what engineers call "kluges", clumsy or haphazard patchworks that get things done but really could be a lot better. Realizing this, it occurred to me that the basic idea of evolutionary psychology -- that the mind was superlatively well-adapted to the environments of our stone-age ancestors -- was probably a little bit off the mark. Kluge is, in essence, my attempt to answer the question of "if evolution is so good, how come the brain is so clumsy?"
What is going to amuse our bouches now? (bumbaugh) Wed 17 Sep 08 07:57
Clumsy, indeed. That evolutionary argument has always amazed me -- and some otherwise very smart folks have endorsed it quite explicitly. Can you explain why people find the argument so attractive? And what are some of the "clumsy" examples that put pressure on it?
Gary Marcus (gary-marcus) Wed 17 Sep 08 11:52
I'll save the examples of human clumsiness for later -- I'm in haste now -- but take your first question first. Why *does* anybody think that the mind is optimal? In my view, there are at least three separate reasons why different sets of people might at least want to believe that the mind is optimal: 1. Some people might be religious, and find it comforting to believe that we are built"perfect in His image". A similar inclination underlies many people's "belief in a just world". 2. Some people might gravitate towards a notion of mankind as optimal because they are mathematically-inclined, and find it appealing to envision humans as neatly captured by a set of elegant equations. (Hence Homo Economicus, or the "rational man" model popular in economics, and also something more recent, the idea of humans as "Bayesian" optimizers") 3. Others might be fans of biology that are so impressed with what evolution does well that they forgot that evolution has downs along with its ups...
Sharon Brogan (sbmontana) Wed 17 Sep 08 12:06
> Homo Economicus, or the "rational man" model popular in economics Gosh, this seems entirely correct, given the week's events...
Gail Williams (gail) Wed 17 Sep 08 12:06
> a relatively small number of genes gives rise to the complexity of > the human mind. That's fascinating. I've heard many times that humans are genetically similar to other primates, but I haven't heard what is almost the same information expressed this way, that only a few genes make all that difference. How can that be? Welcome! (By the way, for those reading along out on the net, you're invited to email any questions or comments to inkwell[at]well.com with the author's name in the subject line, and we'll pass them along to answer here. Or you can just sign up for The WELL and post it directly)
Gary Marcus (gary-marcus) Wed 17 Sep 08 16:21
In response to Gail, who writes "That's fascinating. I've heard many times that humans are genetically similar to other primates, but I haven't heard what is almost the same information expressed this way, that only a few genes make all that difference. How can that be?" Before I give you answer, let me start with a clarification: when people tell you that the human genome and the chimp genome are 98.5% similar, what it really means is that if you take a hundred human DNA nucleotides (A's, C's, G's, and T's) and compare them with their chimpanzee counterparts, on average 98.5% will be similar, not that 98.5% of our genes are identical to chimps genes. In other words, 1.5% of our 25,000 genes would be 375 genes, but what you find is not that humans have 375 genes with no chimpanzee counterpart, but rather that there are 1000's of genes with small differences. That said, the way I think about the genetic difference between chimps and humans is this: the genome is like an enormous library of what computer programmers call subroutines: recipes (or more technically, algorithms) that can be used and reused for different purposes. Once a programmer has written code for displaying a window on a screen, he (or she) can reuse that code many times, to display many different windows. In a similar way, once evolution stumbles on a set of genes that govern a basic function, say growing bones, it can reuse those genes over and over again, to build many different bones. In that light, even a relatively small number of changes could lead to hugely different consequences. Think for example about what the consequences might be for a gene that helped control how many times one's brain's cells divided. A slight change could conceivably yield a brain that is twice as big (or half as big). Much as recipe for a big cake might be virtually identical to a recipe for a small cake, a genome for a big brain might not need to be that different from the genome for a small brain. The whole power and elegance of the genome comes from the way in which old mechanisms can get combined in new ways. Then again, much of the clumsiness comes from the same place -- when most evolution comes from the mixing and matching of spare parts, sometimes you wind up with clumsy patchworks. But that's a story for a later.... Gary
Sharon Brogan (sbmontana) Wed 17 Sep 08 16:52
I'm enjoying your book very much. This may (or may not) be a tangent, but it's what's on my mind: The Power of Political Misinformation <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/09/14/AR200809140237 5_pf.html> "In a paper approaching publication, Nyhan, a PhD student at Duke University, and Reifler, at Georgia State University, suggest that Republicans might be especially prone to the backfire effect because conservatives may have more rigid views than liberals: Upon hearing a refutation, conservatives might "argue back" against the refutation in their minds, thereby strengthening their belief in the misinformation. Nyhan and Reifler did not see the same "backfire effect" when liberals were given misinformation and a refutation about the Bush administration's stance on stem cell research." I'd love to hear your perspective on this, especially the difference, if true, between 'liberal and conservative brains.'
Jennifer Simon (nomis-refinnej) Thu 18 Sep 08 01:26
This stuff makes so much sense...off to buy the book!
What is going to amuse our bouches now? (bumbaugh) Thu 18 Sep 08 08:52
Gary, that's a great explanation. Like sbmontana, I'm finding this a timely topic, since we're looking at the sorts of patterns you discuss writ large at the social level. Susceptibility to narrative over actual evidence in voting decisions, for example. Perhaps overconfidence in our own smarts leading to missing some obvious things (bond failures don't conform to the quants models because bond defaults aren't independent events!) in the case of AIG, for another. Can you help us understand what's going on with some of these patterns? And how we could do better? Or are we just out of luck and stuck with our clumsy endowments?
Sharon Brogan (sbmontana) Thu 18 Sep 08 12:20
Last night I read the 'Language' chapter (I'm a poet) which was a pleasure -- the next chapter. And today I'm back with another question. The common wisdom just now is that, given our economic crisis, Obama is in a stronger position than McCain, since the population wants change. But you observe that, in crisis, folks want the familiar. Does this mean that the Obama strategy of tying McCain to Bush might backfire, as Bush is the 'familiar'? Further, you note (on page 50): "... all people tend to become more negative toward minority groups in times of crisis ..." Still further indication that this situation might put Obama in a less favorable position?
Infradibulated Gratility (ssol) Thu 18 Sep 08 13:27
Sharon, sorry to interrupt the chain of this conversation, but I wanted to chime in with a few thoughts and questions to Gary for later response. I'm just digging into this excellent book and in the first chapter, on human memory, I was prompted to notice an interesting feedback loop that might exist between human and computational memory/logic. If I understand your theses correctly, and have some dim understanding of the pursuit of so-called "fuzzy logic" in computing machines, is it possible that our engineers and scientists are attempting in that now decades-long pursuit, to reverse engineer the useful but weirder abilities of the human mind? Provoking this question was, in part, a recent article in The NYT <http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/16/science/16angi.html?_r=1&oref=slogin> on the innante approximate numeracy of not just mammals, but species such as bird and reptiles whose brain and behavioural patterns preceeded ours in their origins. My next questions are the opposite, in a way of my first. Are we recently attempting to endow our machines with superior performance in calculating numbers with precision and in a big hurry that our own human minds cannot acheive? If so, will these two evolutionary vectors perhaps merge, one at our own direction? Btw, do take the time to check out the aprroximate number sense test embedded in the article ref'd above. http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2008/09/15/science/20080915_NUMBER_SENSE_GR APHIC.html . It's kind of spooky to have a peek inside of our ancient and unconscious "lower" mental faculties. Good clean scientific fun!
Gary Marcus (gary-marcus) Thu 18 Sep 08 19:39
Hi, Folks, Just a brief note to say that while a conjunction of banker's panic and travel has keep me from making my appointed rounds today, your questions all look fascinating. Keep on posting, as questions occurs to me, and I'll do my best to cathup by Sunday evening (if not sooner). Cheers, Gary
Sharon Brogan (sbmontana) Fri 19 Sep 08 15:15
Another study, recently released: "People who startle easily in response to threatening images or loud sounds seem to have a biological predisposition to adopt conservative political positions on many hot-button issues, according to unusual new research published yesterday. "The finding suggests that people who are particularly sensitive to signals of visual or auditory threats also tend to adopt a more defensive stance on political issues, such as immigration, gun control, defense spending and patriotism. People who are less sensitive to potential threats, by contrast, seem predisposed to hold more liberal positions on those issues . . . " <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/09/18/AR200809180226 5.html> I tend to be skeptical of this study and its conclusions, not only because it uses a very small sample, but because all the 'sensitive' types I know are liberals. But I'd be interested in other folks' reading.
Daniel Asimov (daz) Mon 22 Sep 08 12:47
By the way, one reason that the human mind can seem awfully clumsy is that the environment in which it spent most of its evolutionary history has (for most of us) changed abruptly in the last 50,000 years or so after the advent of civilization, and even more abruptly in the past several hundred years of the industrial age. (E.g., the tendency to fight with others may have been a good adaptation in a tribal world with limited resources, but in this era of international relations and WMD's, it could be, needless to say, very bad.)
Gary Marcus (gary-marcus) Mon 22 Sep 08 15:33
Hi, Folks, Sorry for the delay in returning to the Well. When I look at the elections -- obviously the topic of greatest interest here and in the country at large -- what strikes me the most is how little effect current events seem to have on the polls. By any objective measure, the United States is in far worse shape now, at the end of the Bush administration, than it was in 2000, at the end of the Clinton administration. Yet it looks fewer than 5% of voters will change their minds. What's going on? Four words: "confirmation bias" and "motivated reasoning". Confirmation bias means that people notice evidence that fits with their preconceived notions, "motivated reasoning" means they spend more energy in critiquing the flaws of their opponents than the flaws in their own side. Although we human beings possess a lot of fairly sophisticated mechanisms for "deliberative reasoning", those mechanisms are often in conflict with older, more reflexive systems, which work hard to protect our egos but rarely lend themselves to objectivity. In my view, the weakest link in democracy is the human mind. I absolutely believe in democracy in principle, and see no better alternative. But leaving things to the people almost guarantees that many decision will be made on grounds that are far from rational. Only with improved education -- and a serious recognition of human limitations -- are voters likely be able to learn to vote with their heads as well their hearts. I wish I had better news! Gary p.s I think that Sharon is very much right whether the country's general frightened state will lead people to hang on to the status quo; this is very much part of what happened in 2004, when fear of terrorism led many people to want to stick with Bush over Kerry.
Phillip Guddemi (pguddemi) Mon 22 Sep 08 19:35
I'm a cultural anthropologist with a background in the thought of Gregory Bateson and cybernetics. I have never believed that humans or organisms in general are optimally designed or behave to maximize things. Our "kluginess" is a major argument for evolution and fits with the general outlook of cybernetics and systems theory (as opposed to academic economics -- which is not exactly at one of its triumph moments -- and most varieties of sociobiology/ evolutionary psychology). I do have one politically correct comment to get out of the way. I have lived for long stretches of my life among isolated hunter- horticulturalists in the lowlands of Papua New Guinea. They impress me greatly. Luria's experiments where he found traditional people not to use syllogistic reasoning don't indicate anything to me except lack of formal education, i.e. a particular kind of context of knowing that the other person is testing your individual capacities. Testing and grading as we know it in school makes us aware of the kind of thing Luria was doing, but without that experience we would interpret his questions differently. Traditional knowledge of horticulture, hunting, gathering, and complex social organization is very rich and intellectually challenging, and I am sure I could find analogues to syllogism in the ways that people think about kinship, for example. Living among them is not like living among people who don't reason. OK, now I've said that. I'll tell a story from Bateson in my next post that bears on this. But in general I am excited by this book and its ideas.
Phillip Guddemi (pguddemi) Mon 22 Sep 08 19:47
Jennifer Simon (nomis-refinnej) Mon 22 Sep 08 20:27
Gary Marcus (gary-marcus) Tue 23 Sep 08 08:33
Phillip, Thanks for your post. In the passage that you're referring to, I certainly didn't mean to imply that non-literate people can't reason, only that they don't necessarily reason according to the laws of formal logic. Most of the time Westerners don't, either. That said, I'd be quite interested in hearing of examples among syllogistic-like reasoning in cultures where there is no formal education, especially since understanding how intuitive reasoning works can give a great deal of insight into questions about the origins of human thought, and what a relatively untutored frontal cortex can manage to accomplish. So bring on the examples! Cheers, Gary
Phillip Guddemi (pguddemi) Wed 24 Sep 08 16:51
I appreciate the answer. I came down a little hard, I know. In hopes of rekindling the discussion I'd like to get back to the big themes of the book. It seems to me that there are a lot of different kinds of not-optimum our brain processes can be. We can have failures of memory or reasoning that anyone can see as disadvantageous to any purpose we may happen to have. We can also have "failures" to live up to cultural standards of rationality that are not necessarily good ways for people to live their lives. Some of the ideas of how to live a rational life that come out of corporate culture or academic economics might not in fact be models of the "good life" and some people have argued that some of our "imperfections" are actually aspects of our humanness that need not be seen as defects. I suppose "efficiency" is one concept that I tend to suspect when it is used as a high-level goal rather than an instrumental goal related to a specific purpose. Also, there are a lot of goods or desires out there, which may be incompatible with each other to some extent, and yet which we may wish to obtain or satisfy to some degree. Our brains may in many ways be "kludgy" just in general, but sometimes doesn't the "kludginess" come from evaluating them with respect to ideals that are inhumane to begin with? Should we not be trying to bring our ideals down to human scale and adapt them to human beings, rather than the opposite? Very hippie of me I know, but where better than the WELL to indulge such questions?
Gary Marcus (gary-marcus) Thu 25 Sep 08 06:50
On the subject of bankers and kluges, some of you might enjoy a piece I posted yesterday at the Huffington Post, a discussion of how the phenomenon known as anchoring is perhaps distorting the bailout debate. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gary-marcus/could-a-quirk-in-human-br_b_128776.h tml Onwards to Phillip's message in a bit.
Gail Williams (gail) Thu 25 Sep 08 09:47
That's very illuminating. The false choices and the numeric anchoring, both.
Jennifer Simon (nomis-refinnej) Thu 25 Sep 08 10:05
Alan Fletcher (af) Thu 25 Sep 08 10:38
> When Paulson tells us (as he said in yesterday's testimony) that his plan "is much better than the alternative," the only real alternative he is considering is having no bailout plan at all. But Anatole Kaletsky of The Times <http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/anatole_kaletsky/article48 20549.ece> thinks the current Paulson "plan" is still no plan. > The staggering incompetence of the US Treasury Secretary is now acknowledged - and is a disaster for George Bush .... > But as the cross-examination rolled on, and Mr Paulson just waffled - we will ask experts to advise us, we will get the best and brightest financiers to suggest ideas - the terrible truth dawned. There was no such thing as a Paulson plan. Not only did Mr Paulson not know what he was doing. He did not know what he was talking about.
Members: Enter the conference to participate