Having not much to do at work yesterday, and not having an internet connection, I started reading this paper on evolutionary psychology, that I had stored sometime back on my phone. It is an interesting and informative paper, which I intend to read again (I normally need 2-3 readings of a paper to really understand it), but there was one point in the paper where it stuck me that the authors were probably attacking a straw man. But first, we will see what is evolutionary psychology.
We are all products of evolution and have no problem in believing that our hands, eyes, ears were all sculpted by Natural Selection. So, when someone asks why we evolved eyes, we dont hesitate to say that we have eyes because it helps us find predators, so we can run away from them, find food to eat, find mates to mate and so on. But we hesitate to think that our behaviour too could be a result of evolution. Or at least, we dont attribute evolutionary purposes to our behaviour as readily as we assign such purpose to parts of our physical body. Evolutionary psychology addresses this gap. It studies our behaviour, psychology, by looking at what pressures in our ancient past would have driven us to the way we behave today. The problem today with evolutionary psychology, it appears, is that many scientists are putting forward theories that are not really testable, or at least not have been tested. Read this post from Jerry Coyne to get an idea of the issue.
Now coming back to that paper I referred to in the first sentence. It is a good paper that covers the issues in evolutionary psychology and explains them clearly, but the following question posed stood out for me.
Don’t people just solve problems using rationality? Wouldn’t one domain-general rationality mechanism be more parsimonious than postulating many domain-specific mechanisms?
In human readable English, the question means this. Dont people always use their brains and rationally think about the consequences when faced with a particular question in hand and then behave in a manner best for them? Or are there circuits in our brain that are specific to the situations we are in, which means we react immediately without any logical thought process? The authors point this out and give the following example to explain why domain general rationality does not seem to be how our brains behave.
Domain-general theories of rationality imply a deliberate calculation of ends and a sample space of means to achieve those ends. Performing the computations needed to sift through that sample space requires more time than is available for solving many adaptive problems, which must be solved in real time. Consider a man coming home from work early and discovering his wife in bed with another man. This circumstance typically leads to immediate jealousy, rage, violence, and sometimes murder (Buss, 2000; Daly & Wilson, 1988). Are men pausing to rationally deliberate over whether this act jeopardizes their paternity in future offspring and ultimate reproductive fitness, and then becoming enraged as a consequenceof this rational deliberation? The predictability and rapidity of men’s jealousy in response to cues of threats to paternity points to a specialized psychological circuit rather than a response caused by deliberative domain-general rational thought. Dedicated psychological adaptations, because they are activated in response to cues to their corresponding adaptive problems, operate more efficiently and effectively for many adaptive problems. A domain-general mechanism “must evaluate all alternatives it can define. Permutations being what they are, alternatives increase exponentially as the problem complexity increases” (Cosmides & Tooby, 1994, p. 94). Consequently, combinatorial explosion paralyzes a truly domain-general mechanism (Frankenhuis & Ploeger, 2007).
I have written an article earlier on the gene’s eye view for the New Indian Express on how it is because there is a genetic advantage in loving children that we ended up being so nice to our progeny and ended it with the following paragraph.
This does not mean that every time parents tend for children, they do calculations in their heads, or that they do it for selfish reasons without genuine love. It only means that evolution has come up with emotions like love and empathy as a mechanism for the genes to achieve their goals.
So I never thought that we were always doing a rational analysis of the situation before we react to something. Our brains definitely seem to be wired for some quick reactions (imagine your son who is about to fall down and hurt himself seriously. Would you calculate how much of your genes he has got before trying to save him?) We obviously have some context specific wirings in our head. So it is hard to see why anyone would believe in such patently wrong ideas. I, obviously, do not know the history of this field and there might have been people who have argued that way, but today it seems to be impossible that there could be people who support this theory.
Assuming some one does believe in domain general rationality (assuming the straw man is not just a straw man but a real person), the author’s point of there existing too many permutations for us (men) to evaluate and to react, when we see our spouse in bed with another man, though correct, is a round about way of countering the argument. An easier way to argue against domain general rationality is that if that were true, then this man who sees his bed in wife with another man though initially gets jealous and angry (because, if his wife becomes pregnant now, he cannot be sure if he is the father) must immediately calm down if he sees that this other man was wearing a condom (which means he couldnt have impregnated his wife). I am sure those supporters of the rationality theory will also agree that this scenario will never happen? So, what are they supporting then?
My parents are here with me in the US, helping Prabha and me manage our two children. While it is very good to have them around, there are some inconveniences too, like when yesterday I had the highly nauseating experience of sitting through a Telugu movie that Prabha played for them. It is one of those regular mindless movies where the hero single handedly takes on an ex-CM, beating up ever increasing number of people every 20 mins that the villain sends to rough him up.
While that alone is enough to put me off the movie, what made me move to a different room was the way the hero preaches the heroine on how women should behave. Remember that for a considerable part of the time the movie played, Aman was testing the limits of his voice box by shouting into my ear, while Akash was trying to stand up tugging at my shorts to raise him up and so I could not really focus on the movie. But in a scene where the heroine is downing a beer, the hero preaches to her on how a woman should be. How she should not be drinking, how she must be soft, shy, wear makeup and so on. He goes on to explain how guys dont fall for extraordinary women (as the heroine, playing the role of a journalist, describes herself in the earlier parts of the movie), and that they like only ordinary women.
This kind of sexism never fails to rile me up (why else would I write about it at 3.30 AM). It makes me stinking mad. As a male myself, I don’t think I am completely free of such prejudice. I am sure that there are cases where even my privilege as a male shows. But I am working on it and when pointed out, I am ready to correct myself.
Another reason, why it makes me so uneasy is probably because it reminds me of the time (more than a decade ago) when I thought I liked Rajinikanth’s movies. His movies too are full of such utter nonsense against women (take any movie). It makes me feel sick about what my own thoughts were, when I was in school and college. Needless to say, I am today ashamed to say that I liked his movies at one point.
You might say I am fretting too much about something that is very common. But what concerns me is precisely, that such tripe is so common and that it is not talked about as much as it should be. My worry is that such movies, with big stars, are so popular that people are brainwashed into thinking that the role of women is just to play second fiddle to the men in their lives, and that any kind of assertion of women’s rights becomes something that a woman should never do. When someone does that, she is seen as being not an “ordinary” woman. Those who know not the first thing about feminism, start criticising it. I am not saying that the moment the movie is over, the men go about beating their wives and sisters. But this kind of movie making reinforces the already deeply entrenched idea in our culture, that women are second class beings.
What worries me further is that ideas like these are held my women themselves in our country, and such movies ensure they never get out of such a thought process. Women themselves think that their role is to help men succeed in their lives (as my mom does). I wonder if there are no women on the sets of the movie who will raise their voices against this. But I realise that those women who get to work as technicians in the movie do not get enough control over the process, to assert their views, but what about the heroines themselves? Is Tamanna ok with her journalist character being told that her not wearing make up, her swearing, her beer drinking are all something a woman should not do? I guess so. After all she does not mind being objectified as a mere prop in movie after movie where she gets screen time only because our movie format has five songs as an indispensable component. I can understand men being MCPs (though that does not justify it), but why are women playing along? That should give us an idea of how deep seated such prejudices are.
To get the problem into perspective, imagine a movie, where the hero tells a person, citing her caste, that ordinary people belonging to her caste, should not study in college and that they must act only as a servant of the upper castes and that if she goes to college and gets a degree, that would mean she would not be liked by the members of the upper caste? That would have raised voices from so many people asking for the movie to be banned since it promotes casteism. But, the movies that degrade women are exactly similar, and I would argue, are worse. After all, there is no caste that constitutes 50% of the population. But women who make up almost 50% (slightly less, I know) of our people are stereotyped day in and day out in the movies, and no one seems to care. Why does the censor board let such films through? Why is it not legally a problem to make sexist movies, but casteist movies are a strict no-no? I don’t have an answer, but I know it is wrong, unfair and prejudicial.
What is even more odd about the whole thing is that the women in the movie stars’ families, regularly do things that the movie star himself derides in the movie. Why is it that Rajinikanth does movies like Mannan, while his one daughter is a producer and the other a director? Cant people see the double standards?
I wonder what would happen if some filed a PIL against an obviously sexist movie asking for it to be banned? Would that raise our consciousness? The case might fail, considering that a majority of the judges too might go with the public sentiment that sexism is too common to be banned. I am personally not for banning a movie for being sexist, but I would like to see everyone associated with the movie boycotted and ostracised voluntarily by the rest of the media and people. At least the women in the media and the entire population of women. That would be very nice, but I am not very hopeful of seeing something like that happen in my own lifetime.
Sometime back I promised to give you one more reason why my children remind me about the universe. But, thanks to them, I could not get around to writing about it till today. That is the problem with children, you do not get time for much else. Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying parenthood is without its moments. The other day, I was carrying Aman around in a store, while my wife was looking admiringly at all the tablets that were on display. I was talking to him and in a bout of fatherly affection, I hugged him tight, and all of a sudden I felt a certain warmth envelop my heart. The problem with these moments are they are very fleeting. This time it ended with my wife telling me that the warmth was not from the inside, but because, Aman threw up some of the formula he just drank, onto my shirt. I digress.
Do you remember the term Entropy? I remember it from my Chemistry text book being defined as “Entropy is the measure of randomness in a system” accompanied by a diagram having two boxes, one in which small circles are arranged closely together on one side of the box, and the other box having these circles evenly spread out. The first one is supposed to have low entropy, because it is more ordered, while the second one has higher entropy, as there is less order in it. As with rest of Chemistry, I had no clue what it meant. I vaguely remember wondering, why this is even considered an important concept, but was practical enough to memorise it since it was an easy definition, and could earn me a couple of marks if it came up in my examination.
A few years back when I actually learnt what entropy meant I was blown away. In many places, entropy is defined in terms of orderliness. The higher the orderliness, the lower the entropy . A common example is that of a room neatly arranged, with all the things in their places. If you do not take any effort towards the room for some time, it will soon end up in an unordered state, what with your leaving a bowl here, a book there, a shirt on the couch, a drinking cup elsewhere and so on. Another example given is on the lines of dropping a little bit of ink into a glass of water. Initially the ink is focussed at the spot where it was dropped, but slowly it spreads out turning the entire water blue. In both these cases, the room, or the glass full of water, initially there is low entropy (high orderliness), then the entropy slowly increases (orderliness decreases). (I know that this definition of entropy is confusing, so I will try to use orderliness more frequently in the rest of this post, occasionally translating it into entropy.)
The examples are given to explain one of the fundamental laws of physics: second law of thermodynamics, which is that the entropy of a closed system will never decrease. By closed, they mean a system that does not interact with any other object outside the system. And the examples of the room and a glass of water, is meant to tell you that a room never gets organised on its own (unless you put in some effort), and though you will see ink spreading out in water uniformly, you will never see all those ink molecules come together as one blob in any part of the glass of water. But these examples are merely analogies. Not really an example of entropy. For, if you really did nothing to the room, say you locked your house and went on a vacation, the room would be as it is when you return. The example of ink in water, can be turned around with the example of oil in water. If you drop some oil into water, stir it well, the oil will spread. But once you stop stirring, the oil will accumulate on the surface of the water.
Further, this definition of orderliness stuck somewhat odd to me. After all, who decides what orderly is. If I think a spilt cup of milk on my couch is an integral feature of an orderly room, then surely orderliness can increase. So, this was never really convincing to me. Thankfully, there is a better definition.
Imagine this. You heat some water in a bowl, and you see steam coming out of it. The steam is hot. And so is the water. Have you thought of heating some milk with this heat from the steam, and the heat of the bowl of water? After all, we were told that energy can be neither created nor destroyed. So we should be able to use that energy again. If you try, you will notice that you can achieve some heating of the milk, but not really much.
The question is, can energy be recycled? The problem is that there is useful energy and the not-so-useful energy. For energy to be useful, it has to be focused in a very small area. When you heat a bowl of water, you do not lose energy. Only that it becomes more spread out. As steam and as heat in the water. The more spread out it becomes, the less useful it becomes as an energy source.
Thus an easy way to think of Entropy is to think of the amount of useful energy in a system. The way this energy and orderliness can be coupled is this: If energy is arranged in an orderly fashion, it is useful energy. If it is spread out in a random manner, then nothing much can be done with it. So if you want to increase orderliness in a place A, say, to get all those atoms in a particular arrangement, then you need to spend some useful energy elsewhere drawn from a place B. And always, the quantum of orderliness gained in place A, is less than the orderliness you lost in place B. Which means, in the overall perspective orderliness always goes down. Going back to our confusing definition this means entropy will always go up.
What you see above are two orderly arrangements of a gazillion number of atoms (of course, so are you and me). These atoms could have been arranged in a gazillion to the power of gazillion number of other ways. But very few combinations will actually form a human being that can grow, eat and function purposefully. Thus this very high orderliness in my house should mean orderliness must have reduced somewhere else. Where did my children steal that orderliness from?
It comes from the sun. In fact all the orderliness on earth comes from the sun. It is the energy of the sun that gives us all our life. So it is the useful energy of the sun that we are converting into useless energy. The energy from the sun has high orderliness, low entropy. The energy that we release (as heat) has low orderliness, high entropy. And the closed system I am talking about is the entire universe. Our universe as a whole has a finite amount of useful energy. At some point in future, all that useful energy will be lost. So, even if we could be immortal, there is a point after which you cant eat to get energy, because there are no plants. No plants because there is no sunlight. No sunlight because, there are no stars. No stars because energy is not focused at any point any more anywhere in the universe. It is all spread out in such a manner, that the entire universe has one consistent, very cold, temperature. At that point, nothing can be done. No turning back. Life cannot exist any more.
I know it sounds all bleak, but that future is very far away. We have bigger worries like the sun dying out in the next 5 billion years. So, the universe ending up with maximum entropy need not keep you awake at night. But entropy is important because, it is one idea that seems to explain why time always flows from past to future and not the other way (more on it some other time). Another interesting aspect is that, if entropy always increases towards the future, then that means, our universe must have begun in the past with very low entropy. That is why we are able to have so much useful energy. It is as if the universe is like a clock that has been wound up, and is slowly unwinding. At some point it will unwind completely and all that is left is a clock that does nothing. So how did the big bang start off the universe with low entropy?
I really do not have an answer for that (though scientists know it). But what fascinates me is that it is this low entropy start that big bang gave to the universe making life possible in this universe. You can read a short story by Isaac Asimov on this topic here.
You must have heard about Savita Halappanavar, the Indian, who had a miscarriage but was refused abortion, because her foetus had a heartbeat. Now the Irish Bishops have released a statement. And what a load of bull shit it is.
PZ Myers covers the point of the arrogance of the bishops to give advice in an area they have absolutely no knowledge about. A doctor explains why their guidelines only expose their ignorance. So let me cover this point they make:
Some would claim that the unborn baby is less human or less deserving of life. Advances in genetics and technology make it clear that at fertilization a new, unique and genetically complete human being comes into existence. From that moment onwards each of us did not grow and develop into a human being, but grew and developed as a human being.
Let us play their game a bit.
First. If indeed a fertilised egg is equivalent to a human being, even without a heartbeat (heart beat begins 22 days after conception), is the “human being” considered to be alive during those 22 days?? After all, the doctor who treated Savita Halappanavar is quoted as saying they cant do an abortion because the foetus was alive.
Second. Going by their logic should an unfertilised egg or a sperm be treated equivalent to half a human being? Do they become half as important as a human being? Should we also be ensuring that no sperm or egg is wasted, because with advances in technology, every sperm and egg that you discard, you have killed what could have been a human being?
Look at the way they define a foetus “a new, unique and genetically complete human being”. Why is being genetically complete more important than complete in any other sense? I can call a corpse a physically complete human being (with all the organs in place). Will that be a human being (but that deserves far more respect than a fertilised egg)? Moreover, do they realise every cell in every human’s body is genetically complete, with all 46 chromosomes. It is only a matter of time before technology will let us extract a small drop of my blood and create my clone. At that point will these people say, blood should not be allowed to spill when you have a cut, hair should not be cut, nails should not be filed and that you should also not scratch yourself because you lose many cells (aka: genetically complete human beings) every time you scratch?
The truth is these idiots know nothing about genetics or medicine or ethics. They just have their own dogma, and try to suit every technological advance to their own narrow definition of what constitutes life. It is scary to think they hold so much control on public policy. I am not saying religion should not have any role in public policy, but just that they should not have it any more than a Rajinikanth fan club.
It has been more than 3 months since I wrote my last post. While I have never been a daily poster, this is way too much delay between posts even for me. The blame (you readers, might like to use the word “credit”) goes to my two children and insane work schedules at my workplace. Though I have not been writing much, I have not stopped thinking about it. And every time I see my children I am reminded of the wonders of the universe.
The last time it happened was when Aman was jumping standing on my tummy with me holding his hands for balance. It is almost impossible to believe that a year and a half ago, he did not even exist. A year ago, he was not more than the size of a peanut, he was not even a “he” then. But today, there they are, with all their body parts in perfect shape (more or less), the entire body working together well, growing up at an astounding pace, and slowly gaining intelligence. And that is what fills me with wonder. Let me explain.
I have talked multiple times about evolution, and how we all ended up here. Evolution by Natural Selection is fundamentally simple. Genes change randomly. And bodies change accordingly. The better suited bodies survive better, and naturally, the genes that made the better suited bodies survive too. That is the crux of evolution by natural selection. But that hides an awesomely complex phenomenon. When genes change, how do bodies change accordingly? Or, how do genes make bodies?
Darwin’s theory considers this to be a black box. It assumes that when genes change, bodies change too, which is true. But it does not talk about how that happens. It does not need to. But this area is called developmental biology. I have not read much on this, except for a single book “Endless Forms Most Beautiful” by Sean Carroll. But the feat achieved by the genes is impressive. From a single cell containing the DNA, it goes on to this 2 feet form jumping on my tummy.
Take for example the five fingers of one’s hand. Each of our fingers are different and cannot be substituted with one another. So, the body must know, that at one extreme there must be the thumb and at the other extreme there must be the little finger. And the rest of the fingers needs to be in order too. The extremes should not be mixed up either. Similarly, your hand must sprout from your shoulder and not from your hips. Every positioning has to be accurate with extremely narrow margins of error. Timing too has to be perfect. The cleft lip problem we see in children, is because of a timing issue in development. There must be a 4 dimensional map somehow, so that the body can be accurately built. How does it happen?
The entire development happens with the help of what are called switches, or from my programmer’s perspective, if-then clauses. Coming back to the example of the five fingers, there is a chemical, whose concentration varies along the entire breadth of the base of the hand (when the fingers are yet to be built). Where there is high concentration of that chemical, the genes start building a thumb, at slightly lower concentration, it builds a pointing finger, even less concentration, the middle finger, and so on till the little finger. This means, the genes that build the thumb, do their job, only if a certain amount of concentration of that chemical is achieved. If very high concentration, then thumb. If very low concentration, then little finger. It is this kind of logic that builds the entire body.
Let not this simple example of the hand, make you think, body building is a simple thing. For example, though concentration of a chemical explains the orientation of the fingers, what guarantees that this chemical does not appear near the knee or the elbow, or on the face? We will need to go one step back and then we will see, that this chemical is built by other genes, which are activated only at the base of the hands. That too is another switch.
If at the base of the hand, then release the chemical. ==> If chemical found, then build finger.
You can go one step back and ask how the body decides when a hand is built. And this questioning can continue backwards still you reach the egg. To be sure, these switches are almost never based on a single chemical. Typically they will depend on multiple circumstances. If-this-and-that-but-not-that-and-that,-then-do-this is the kind of logic we will get to see usually. These are influenced by external factors too, since what the mother eats and what she does, could lead to a change in chemical composition of the womb that could in turn affect development. That is why mothers are asked to have nutritious food and to avoid things like cigarettes, when pregnant.
The science of developmental biology is not as well known among the general public as other areas in biology, but it is interesting because it tells us how our astonishingly complex bodies that don’t miss a beat for 70-80 years, are built. I don’t have any illusions that I have explained much in that area in this post, but I hope to have evoked in you a sense of curiosity as to how indeed are bodies built from a single cell. In my next post, I will look at a different reason, this time at a cosmic level, why our very existence should be a source of wonder.
Since the time I read about the Apollo program in Andrew Chaikin’s A man on the moon, every time I looked at the moon I have always wondered what an incredible achievement landing on the moon was. That thought never failed to moist by eyes. Today it was announced that Neil Amstrong passed away. We are not sure when exactly it happened. Twitter is abuzz with people sharing links about him. I thought I can share with you some interesting articles I read. Here they are.
What did the then American president, Richard Nixon, plan to say if the Moon landing failed? Here is the prepared statement.
The statement from his family announcing his death.
A really interesting piece in the garb of advice to journalists on what photos should NOT be used in tomorrow’s newspapers.
Statement from Buzz Aldrin, the second person who landed on the moon, on Neil Armstrong’s passing away.
An obituary in The Economist.
The actual video of Neil Armstrong landing on the moon …
… and what the conversation at that time was.
Neil Armstrong’s last interviewwhich ends rather well. When asked about conspiracy theories of the moon landing being a hoax, he replies:
it was never a concern to me because I know one day, somebody is going to go fly back up there and pick up that camera I left.
To end this on a positive note, here is the New York Times article published the day after the landing.
Just so the enormity of the achievement is not lost on us, here is Neil Armstrong on the moon (from NASA’s picture gallery).
At the risk of sounding immodest, let me say I consider myself above average in mathematics. But when, sometime back, I heard of the Monty Hall problem, I was forced to reconsider the assessment of my skills. The problem kept me confused for a day. Then I forgot about it. I was reminded of the problem now because I am now reading Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape (Let me give you some envy saying I bought this for $1.5 at a local used goods store), where the author writes about this problem to illustrate how people tend to feel they are right, even when it is clearly proven to them they are wrong. Since he was so confident of the answer, I was intrigued and looked up the problem on wikipedia.
The Monty Hall problem is a probability puzzle loosely based on the American television game show Let’s Make a Deal and named after the show’s original host, Monty Hall.
Suppose you’re on a game show, and you’re given the choice of three doors: Behind one door is a car; behind the others, goats. You pick a door, say No. 1 [but the door is not opened], and the host, who knows what’s behind the doors, opens another door, say No. 3, which has a goat. He then says to you, “Do you want to pick door No. 2?” Is it to your advantage to switch your choice?
The puzzle is a very simple one. The twist lies in the fact that in your first attempt, you have 3 doors to choose from, while the second time you are allowed to choose, you have only two doors. It seems reasonable to argue that since you had already chosen one, and because you have only two options in the second attempt, there is really no point in switching, as either door will have a probability of 1/2 of having a car behind it.
But the correct answer is that you should always switch. One way to understand that answer is to think as follows: Imagine, that the first choice you made was indeed the door with the car. The probability for that is 1/3. The probability that the car is in one of the other two doors is 2/3. So, if you do not switch, you will get the car only in 1/3rd of your attempts, but if you switch, you will get the car in 2/3rds of your attempts. Therefore you should always switch.
Though I understood this, I was still not very satisfied. Let me make my confusion clear. The events in the current scenario are as follows:
- I choose a door.
- The host then opens a door with a goat.
- I get the option to switch, which effectively means I can choose to open one of the two remaining doors.
I wondered how different this is from the slightly different scenario given below:
- The host opens a door containing a goat.
- The host then allows me to choose one of the remaining two doors.
I felt that these two scenarios were the same and so the answer did not really convince me. Then it finally dawned. Step 1 in the first scenario and step 2 in the second scenario are not the same. They are different because, in Step2 of Scenario 1, the host chooses the door he wants to open from only two doors. While in step 1 of the second scenario, the host chooses the door from all the three doors. Therein lies the answer to my confusion.
When the host chooses from two doors, the possibilities before him are as follows (assuming the player chose Door 1):
- Both Door 2 and Door 3 have goats in which case he will open any one randomly.
- Door 2 has a car, in which case he opens Door 3
- Door 3 has a car, in whcih case he opens Door 2
So, in two of the three possibilities, he is correctly telling us which door has the car. Only in the first possibility is he misleading us (so to say). So trusting him to guide us to the right door, means we will get it right 2 out of 3 times. And so we should always switch.
But Sam Harris says in his book:
Even when people understand conceptually why they should switch doors, they can’t shake their initial intuition that each door represents a 1/2 chance of success.
I do not share that experience. Once I saw what was wrong with my initial thought process, I clearly see that we should always switch. My initial conclusion that switching makes no different to my chances of getting a car, clearly seems to be wrong now after all that analysis. What do you think? Do you still feel, even after looking at the answer, that switching does not help?