Saturday, 15 February 2014

The Evolution of Intelligence and the Nye-Ham debate

Like many other people I have seen the debate “Is creation a viable model of origins in today's modern, scientific era? between Bill Nye and Ken Ham and I have my opinions about the views expressed. As a scientist and an atheist my views on the scientifically deduced origins of the universe, of life, and the scientific tools that have been developed to tell us about them are similar to Bill Nye and I agreed with the views he put forward. Every time Ken Ham used the Bible to support his view that everything was created by some supernatural being in six days about 6000 years ago I felt like laughing about how anyone could be so stupid.

I have read many reviews of the debate which take a similar point of view and which dismiss Ken Ham, and the Creation Museum which he runs as a fraud. They ridicule his plans to build an arc to model the one Noah is said to have built at the time of the alleged Biblical flood, and his interpretation of the "kinds" of animal that he wants to put into it. However there are Creationists who think that Bill Nye is totally wrong because he did not recognise the obvious truth as revealed by the Bible.

But who is right? As a human I obviously back Bill Nye, because one of the limitation of the human brain is the tendency to confirmation bias, and Bill and I have many common views about the issue so his views reinforce mine. But I am also a scientist, and as Bill was promoting the scientific view of the world surely I must support him. Perhaps? But scientists are supposed to be objective and should not prejudge an issue but stand back and look at what was going on in the debate in a dispassionate manner. And as a scientist who is interested in the evolution of the brain I am aware that such extreme differences in viewpoint are not confined to the debating floor, but that wars have been fought between people whose views of the world differ violently. But we all have the same brain - so how can we differ so vehemently?

Let us take a simple less contentious example.

I have lived most of my life in England and I know a robin when I see one on my bird table. I have a nest box which they have used, and I love to see the newly fledged young birds being feed by their parents every summer. I know what a robin is and can recognise them anywhere.

I have also worked in Australia and the Australians are fine upstanding people who can always be trusted - because they know what a robin is. You only have to look at an Australian robin to immediately recognise it. It is the right shape and size and moves around in the vegetation in exactly the way one might expect. Of course it doesn't have a red breast - they actually come in a variety of different colours - but of course the colour of the feathers is only a superficial matter.

I have also visited North America and the people who live there must all be idiots. They think this bird is a robin when any fool can immediately recognise it as a species of thrush. I find it hard to imagine how anyone who knows anything about anything could make such an obvious mistake. The only similarity is that it has a red breast and as I have already pointed out (it doesn't seem how many time have you to say something  some people just don't want to listen) the colour of the feathers is only superficial.

So now you know why I trust Australians and think Americans are fools. ...

But wait a minute. I am being inconsistent. When listening to the Nye/Ham debate I trusted Bill Nye to tell the truth - AND HE IS AN AMERICAN, and I thought Ken Ham was a fool - AND HE IS AN AUSTRALIAN! What has gone wrong?

What is happening in the brain? We don't all have an identical dedicated spot in our head to store a concept labelled "Robin." Each of us will have an amorphous network of memories which will include the memory of the word "Robin." One of my earliest memories may well have been the children's poem "Who killed Cock Robin" and my mental images may have been shaped by the fact that when I was at boarding school I often walked in the woods where David Lack had done the pioneering work described in "The Life of the Robin." While we may agree on the word "Robin" and use it in similar contexts our individual mental networks will be unique and may not have a lot in common. An Australian robin is compatible with my personal mental image of a robin, while a North American robin is not.

And if Bill Nye and Ken Ham have virtually identical biologically evolved brains we need to ask why the way they view the world they share with us in such different and logically incompatible ways. Again a personal example helps to pinpoint the problem.

The concept of mirror neurons suggests that the same parts of our brain's neural network may be involved when we perceive or do something, and when we think of it, but the way this happens can vary from person to person. When we think of something as being "blue" are our brains interpreting the world in the same way?. This was brought home to me after the death of one of my daughters and my doctor recommended counselling sessions to help with the post traumatic stress. There was no problem in agreeing with the therapist as to which items were coloured blue. The difficulty arose when she suggested that when I was having difficulty in getting to sleep I should try to think that everything was bathed in waves of blue light. Of course it didn't work. The therapist was working on the assumption that when I was thinking about the concept "blue" this was activating parts of the neural network concerned with vision. However when I tried to follow her advice it was as if a crowd of people were subliminally whispering the "word" blue in my ear, which was not so conductive to sleep.

Clearly Bill Nye's internal brain model of the bible is totally different to Ken's. In Bill's mental model it is just one of a number of very different historical stories, written by people, with no understanding of modern science, in an attempt to explain their origins and history. However Ken and his followers appear to have a mental model in which The Bible is a fundamental truth as important as the truth of “2 + 2 = 4” is to Bill and me.

If we stop paying politics by asking the question “Who is right?” or “Who won the debate?” we are left with the more interesting question “How does does our understanding of the evolution of human intelligence explain why different people have such incompatible views of the world we live in?” If Bill could have played this card – by using our understanding of how the brain has evolved over the last few million years to explain why Ken believed such unrealistic views - he would have a killer argument.

But of course he cannot use such a card because there is a black hole in brain research. There is a vast mountain of knowledge which gives clues as to how the brain works – in many disciplines from neuroscience to philosophy – but you can search the scientific literature in vain for an evolutionary model which explains how activity at the neuron level can lead to activities such as the Nye/Ham debate. And of course a model based on the stored program computer is dangerous as programs require a designer to create them ... playing into the hands of those who argue that “God did it. God was the designer.

May I suggest that the reason why we are having so much trouble in understanding the evolution of intelligence is that we are looking for a modern version of the Philosopher's Stone, and are putting our intelligence on a pedestal as something very special. In contrast we don't say that a super computer is more intelligent that a tiny personal computer – because we know that while one is supercharged with much more and faster memory any intelligence lies in the way they are programmed. May I suggest that our brain, at the neural code level, is no more than a supercharged animal brain, using the same logical mechanisms. We can learn more about how the brain works by looking at the serious limitations of our brains (selective learning, confirmation bias, the unreliability of long term memory, the ability to hold contradictory views, accepting the views of charismatic leaders without question, etc.) than by studying in depth the “very clever” things we do. Only once we understand how an animal brain make decisions, with such potential serious inbuilt limitations when scaled up, should we start to look at how evolution helped the human brain to bootstrap itself up to support minds such a those of scientists such as Bill Nye and creationists such as Ken Ham.

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