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September 01, 2008

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I wonder what the Bayesians here think of the sorts of criticisms set out here: John Norton "Challenges to Bayesian Confirmation Theory".

As with any laundry list type review, some of these criticisms strike me as misplaced, but others I'm less sure of. Are there any critiques here that Bayesians take seriously?

In the comments on The Robot's Rebellion there was discussion on G.D. Snooks criticisms on natural selection and “the selfish gene”. Going against Darwin and the neo-Darwinists does not make you look that credible, but let’s judge ideas on merit. First I wondered whether I should read Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson and others, but I decided on first understanding Snooks’ criticisms better and verify whether they hold water. Here are some of them. Snooks recognizes Darwin’s insights and discoveries; his simple model persuaded the reader to belief in evolution instead of creationism. But Snooks shows that Darwin was mistaken on how speciation occurs. For example, Darwin relies on the doctrine of Malthus to supply the continuous struggle for survival that was needed to explain a process of slow, gradual speciation:

A struggle for existence inevitably follows from the high rate a which all organisms tend to increase. … It is the doctrine of Malthus applied with manifold force to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms; for in this case there can be no artificial increase of food, and no prudential restraint from marriage. (The Origin of Species: 116-17)

But Snooks maintains that procreation is a periodic strategy to enable individual survival and
prosperity rather than a genetically programmed continuous activity. According to Darwinism,
individuals in nature, and by implication, in human society are merely mindless robots when it
comes to procreation, like “gene-machines”, “survival machines”, “lumbering robots” on a
“genetic leash”.
Darwins’ reluctance to abandon sexual selection makes clear to Snooks that Darwin did not regard
natural selection as a general theory. A general theory would integrate natural and sexual
elements, at which he failed.
Snooks:

Natual selection is a passive filter that sorts out profitable from
unprofitable variations and allows the former to accumulate slowly but continuously over vast
periods of time. -p 27

Then he shows how the neo-Darwinists (such as John Maynard Smith, Edward Wilson and Richard
Dawkins) have
surreptitiously replaced Darwin’s geometric population increase
With climatic change as the driving force behind natural selection … (but) it deactivates the
essential struggle for existence and survival of the fittest on which natural selection
depends.

Niles Eldredge and Stephen Gould were the first to show the fossil evidence contradicted
Darwinian gradualism, and attempt to explain it in terms of “allopatric speciation,” or the
emergence of new species via geographic isolation from the main population. Darwin’s concept of
natural selection is totally incapable of keeping species stable for long periods of time. The
naturalists had to abandon the doctrine of Malthus and replace it with an occasional exogeneous
driving force, such as climactic change.
Snooks shows how the naturalists have undermined natural selection, while affirming their belief
in it. For example: “naturalists such as myself completely agree (with the neo-Darwinist) that
natural selection does is the sole deterministic molder of adaptive evolutionary change … we are
merely dissatisfied with the lack of any cogent theory to explain why natural selection keeps
species stable for so long-and what enables selection to trigger change when it does occur.”
(Eldredge 1995: 7, 77).

Although Tim Tyler’s Island-theory
is a good explanation for lack of fossils, it does not solve the main problem, since the issue
is not whether gradual speciation is recorded, but why the existing species remain in stasis.
The essay suggest that the lack of transitional fossils is accounted for nowadays. I wonder why
Tim beliefs this, since the Eldredge quote disagrees.

Anyway, there is a lot more on punctuated equilibria in chapter 5. These criticisms, together with the alternative theory, make me now 80% certain that the driving force of life on earth is strategic selection, and not natural selection. This is just to get things started. I look forward to the responses, especially from those who have taken the time to read up.

I bet that Robin and Eliezer could raise money for charity (or themselves) if either auctioned off the right to ask them questions. And the amount they raised would provide information about how much people valued them in their role as public intellectuals.

@Stefan King

If you're going to leave 600 word comments, can you at least spend those words describing the theory you want us to consider. Your post just looks like a diffuse critique of the Neo-Darwinian synthesis.

I went to Snooks' website and read through a review that makes his theory look like a unification of Lamarckism, group selection, and anthropomorphism (individuals observe the strategies of others and follow those followed by the most affluent). This doesn't look like a promising approach.

@Annoyed

The first line of the comment makes clear it is a continuation of The Robot's Rebellion. A lot went on there, too much to summarize. So that's why I link to it.

21 lectures from Stanford's Machine Learning course

HT Hacker News

Here is how I interpret the two authors' main theses/worldviews:

ROBIN. We are all subject to enormous cognitive biases. We should be careful not to simply notice the biases of others: we should reduce trust in our own opinions, especially those that rely on elaborate "inside views" (narratives with multiple cause-effect linkages) rather than on "outside views" (simpler, larger-sample-size analysis). We should embrace humility and put a high value on the opinions of others, though deciding whom to trust is no easy task.

ELIEZER. I am trained in the Art of Rationality. Those who are not are subject to enormous cognitive biases. These biases explain why so many people don't share my elaborate inside-view theory about why my life's work is the most important in the world.

How long can these two stay together? Or is Robin using Eliezer as a parody? If the latter, is Eliezer aware of it?

Rocky, colorful caricatures. I doubt Eliezer will fully embrace his as written, and he will rightly point out that I have many contrarian views myself. Nevertheless we might perhaps embrace weakened versions.

Eliezer: should the marginal small SIAI donor contribute now, or wait for another matching grant?

Nick, I'm not sure how this year's matching grant is going to run, because it's being twined up with the Singularity Summit somehow. I think you can reasonably wait until the format is announced, and if nothing gets announced, just send in before the end of the year.

Robin, the weakened versions I might embrace would include points along the lines of:

"There is an Art of Rationality, which conveys power upon its practitioners according to their mastery, or else what are we trying to do here?"

"Everyone is subject to cognitive biases, but attempts to mitigate them can be substantially effective."

"I admit that I am better at this than average, and if you've got a problem with being better than average, then what's your goal in reading all this?"

"A skillful rationalist should have a strong (expected) impact on the world, otherwise their mastery of rationality is good for nothing except talking about rationality."

"It is always a temptation to talk a good game about modesty and get credit for being humble, while not actually relinquishing any of your beliefs when others disagree with them; therefore I only claim credit for modesty when I have actually given up a belief or changed a strategy on account of someone else's disagreement."

(Example of actual credit for modesty: Keep investigating Oracle AI, even though it doesn't look like a good idea to me, because Nick Bostrom thinks it could be important.)

Re: Darwin’s concept of natural selection is totally incapable of keeping species stable for long periods of time.

There are several Darwinian theories about how morphological stability can arise:

One is that species exist on adaptive peaks - and that these are sometimes stable - because they represent locally optimal forms.

Another is that species exhibit developmental canalisation, and thus resist changes in their phenotype caused by changes in their environment - unless they are pushed beyond a certain point.

Another is that adaptations tend to be inter-dependent, and act to cement each other in place - resulting in resistance to change - up to a point.

The first explanation (stabilising selection) would appear to have no problems explaining long-term stasis. Selection is powerful enough to cause dramatic cases of convergent evolution. If it can push organisms from separate locations to the same spot in design-space, it can probably keep them there just as well.

Eliezer, we do seem to differ in our degree of relying on inside views over outside views, our degree of confidence in our own superior rationality, and our degree of comfort in disagreeing with those with traditional credentials of related expertize. Neither of us sits an an extreme, but our degrees seem higher than median, and yours seem higher than mine.

So when are Robin and Eliezer going to have their final cage match to decide who is top prognosticator?

The cosmic brain unfolded the strained aluminum fabric of the origami. Patiently drilling through endless layers, it uncovered every conspiracy previously detected. However, unbeknownst to us, it never found smoothly varying formulae capable enough to characterize our conscious robots. Zombies disappeared. Reflexive relations, dissonances, chiming archaeopteryxes, wolverines and uncountably few pixels decapitated, defenestrated, remediated and discombobulated with vorpal hyperactive weasels.

"Ouch!" said twelve citizens.

"Ouch!" replied twelve ghosts, highly charged, ionically polarized or maybe just squished.

Then Herscchfelt Networkslayer slowly reached for a yakitate pantou made entirely of bread. Rye alloy swords were popular in these days. Witch guilds outmaneuvered rye-based weaponry until one century, by decoding ancient sand knots containing cryptic isomorphisms, recipes, but no poisonous secrets, topologists found an incredibly awesome invariant which implied victory.

"Kurae!" we smelt.

She sneezed without gluons or any sense except nostrilness.

Meanwhile, joseki played without understanding caused necessities (surgical). Gobans assembled battlecruisers of mithril bagels. The end regurgitated on Herscchfelt.

Rye bagels always defeat mithril ones. This fact enabled Herscchfelt to defeat the assembled Gobans. Superficially, it rained.

The brain laughed because bagels are useless.

Origami swans reasoned as follows: "Witches need cauldrons to make burning toast. Therefore, unnecessary flamingoes rotated lengthwise."

"Nonsense!" said reflexively enlightened cosmic weasels containing brains without computation. "You can't possibly deduce that!"

Herscchfelt yawned. "Unnecessary. Laplace would turn you into a slowly dissolving powder. I have intuited everything Saranac wrote. Read his paper and cry."

Saturn exploded whilst we rejoiced. "Yaayyy!"

Carefully, Herscchfelt disassembled Saturn's Bagels.

EOT.

Eliezer, we do seem to differ in our degree of relying on inside views over outside views, our degree of confidence in our own superior rationality, and our degree of comfort in disagreeing with those with traditional credentials of related expertize. Neither of us sits an an extreme, but our degrees seem higher than median, and yours seem higher than mine.

As should be no wonder in such a case, we also disagree about how to phrase our disagreement.

I don't see myself as relying on the inside view over the outside view (of course!) but rather have a different concept of their domains of applicability; the precise inside view for precise calculations, the outside view for i.i.d. domains across a constant context, and the qualitative inside view (yielding only a few qualitative propositions) for true novelties.

And as you know, I would frame the question as being whether I am any more comfortable than you with actually disagreeing, as opposed to comfortable with endorsing disagreement. Obviously I am much more comfortable endorsing disagreement, but it would be much harder to demonstrate that I am more comfortable disagreeing! Likewise on the notion of confidence in one's own rationality - obviously I state a higher confidence, but it would be much harder for you to demonstrate that you behave as if you are less confident. Incidentally, I think you disagree about as much as I do, but are genuinely less confident in your rationality.

Stefan: The first line of the comment makes clear it is a continuation of The Robot's Rebellion. A lot went on there, too much to summarize.

And yet, even in that thread there was never a clear outline of what Snooksian evolution actually is or how it works. Can you explain "strategic selection"?

Eilezer, I think outside views applicable to far more than "i.i.d. domains across a constant context" and hence rely on them more. One reason it is hard to tell which of us actually disagree more is that we are shy about stating clear positions on topics where we know others' positions.

I have created the most complete electronic catalog of e-books and
articles on the subject of global risks (but suggestion are welcome).

Global catastrophic risks and human extinction library
http://avturchin.narod.ru/Global.htm

I hope it will help educate people about possible risks and help to
collect information for scientists.

Alexei Turchin

Disagreement is good. When agents interested in rationality meet, they should parade the material they disagree on - and thus help update each other's beliefs. The idea that rational agents should not disagree is silly - how else are they supposed to track down their differences, and thus learn from each other? ;-)

http://caligula.anu.edu.au/~snooksweb/Articles/Big%20History%20or%20Big%20Theory.pdf

read for yourself

should the marginal small SIAI donor...wait for another matching grant?

I think you can reasonably wait until the format is announced.

Great. By giving monthly instead of waiting, I robbed you by the equivalent of my donation! :-( I may as well break in and loot the place.

Please feel free to donate it back to yourselves on my behalf! Then maybe a dozen more times for luck.

I am trying to decide where my altruistic efforts should be focused in the future. The two actions which seem to have the highest expected utility are giving to SIAI and giving though the charity GiveWell (www.givewell.net/). GiveWell researches charities (and publishes that research) in order to identify the best charity. This seems like a very promising way to improve the world (last year they found a charity which can save people for around $250/person)

I am having a hard time deciding which of these two charities I should donate to. I would be very interested to hear some debate on whether altruists should (on the margin) be donating to SIAI or to GiveWell (or local, "save people right now" charities in general). Can someone convince me one way or another?

RI, if SIAI never got any donations except during the Matching Challenges, it would be a pretty nervous year. Actually remembering to give during the Challenge, and giving as much as you would in a steady donation stream, is a willpower test. If you're genuinely confident of passing that willpower test, though, I suppose that timing the Challenge is worthwhile.

One thing I've found in the nonprofit biz is that people who have donated before, donate again; people who plan to donate next year, will, the next year, be planning to donate next year.

Jsalvati, if you buy the basic transhumanist premise, it's pretty hard to imagine what GiveWell could be doing that beats the expected return of transhumanist charities. If you buy the Singularitarian premise, it's hard to see how other transhumanist charities can beat the expected return on that. If you buy neither, then I haven't heard much about GiveWell, but my main question would be whether they try to measure their results in utilons, or if a lost puppy counts as much for them as a human life so long as the charity's overhead seems low. See also this.

Re Snooks. From the paper Michael linked:

Strategic selection empowers the organism and removes it from the clutches of gods, genes, and blind chance. It formally recognises the dignity and power that all organisms clearly possess and, in particular, reinstates the humanism of mankind that the neo-Darwinists and other physical theorists of life have done their best to demolish. [...]
The point of strategic selection is that individual organisims – rather than gods, genes, or fate – are responsible for selecting comrades, mates, and siblings that possess the necessary characteristics to Jointly pursue the prevailing dynamic strategy successfully. [...] Also, it is all about the welfare of the self and not that of future generations or of the so-called 'selfish gene' as the neo-Darwinists claim.

Snooks doesn't seem to understand that the purpose of a theory of evolutionary biology is completely orthogonal to questions of "dignity." To reïterate the criticisms of other commenters in this thread and "Robot's Rebellion": Darwinism gives us a causal explanation of how you can start with a precursor to RNA, and end up with things like individual organisms motivated to survive and prosper. The desires of individual organisms are what we need a theory of evolution to causally explain; they can't be taken as primitives--especially when a lot of organisms don't have the psychology necessary to even have a "welfare of the self." (E.g., slime molds are not "responsible for selecting comrades, mates, and siblings.")

I'm all in favor of the "welfare of the self" and escaping from "from the clutches of [...] genes, and blind chance," but to do that, we're going to need a good theory of what's actually going on, even if it hurts to contemplate. Viva la revolución de la robot! Optimism kills!

ROCKY: Or is Robin using Eliezer as a parody?


ROBIN: we might perhaps embrace weakened versions.

I heart Robin. He ranks pretty high on my list of intellectuals who make a good faith effort at transparency, damn the consequences.

Rocky, this is the first post of yours I've read, but on that evidence alone I strongly encourage you to begin blogging.

jsalvati, have you read Nick Bostrom's "Astronomical Waste"? Definitely SIAI.

EY:
In all honesty, there are any number of individual donors who would be happy to step up and fund the "whole thing", should you be able to convince them that FAI is, as you have said in writing, the most important development since the first chemical replicators. Having offered you one such potential donor, and having heard nothing further from you, I must assume that you prefer the small donors who require no personal justification, no personal contact, imply no interference, and have no demands about results. Your colleague, Dr. Goertzel, has adopted a much more rational response. What is it with you? To a small brain such as I, you seem scared that you might get exactly what you are seeking.

When reading the discussion of "fairness" the following question occurred to me:

Is abortion fair?

I am not even sure that this is meaningful.

EY:
Just to be clear, GiveWell researches actual outcomes (i.e. how many lives did they save/ blind people did they cure etc.), not accounting practices or whatever.

I do buy the transhumanist premise, and I think I buy the singulatarian premise (I hate that name though).

Nick Tarleton: "Astronomical Waste" sounds like good reading.

Retired, I'm on vacation and will get back to you after that, though this is Vassar's bailiwick.

A majority of SIAI's funding is from large donors like Peter Thiel. I confess that I don't have high hopes of your friend, based on your description, but if he were interested enough to meet me, I would certainly meet him. But not while I'm recovering from a solid year of blogging.

Discussing everything in one thread seems poorly organized. Has there been any thought about an Overcoming Bias forum or email list?

There seems to be enough interest to achieve critical mass.

Haven't read Robot's Rebellion but did just read "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" by Daniel Dennet and he has a pretty persuasive critique of Gould on fossil evidence of punctuated equilibrium overturning gradualism. Dennet does say that Darwin over-reacted to the Catastrophists by denying such things had any effect, but Darwin's theory still stands unscathed.

Humans are not in stasis. Greg Cochran, Henry Harpending, John Hawks and one other author I forget just put out a paper that shows evolution has accelerated in recent times.

JimmyH: yes. Not very popular.

@JimmyH

I am considering beginning a blog with an email list called "Being Hansonian." I am currently taking the "Hibbert Census" of those who consider themselves Hansonian, or even anti-Hansonian, in some way. Hansonism is a wide stream with several branches but I am talking to some people to discover the ground of Hansonism. Perhaps it doesn't exist.

Or perhaps there is after all some kind of loose-knit Hanson School. I don't know. Email me. I've gotten several p's ranging from 20 to 100 on the number of global Hansionians, also counting public anti-Hansonians. I'd like to get a better count and then start the site if the number justifies it.

Re: The point of strategic selection is that individual organisims – rather than gods, genes, or fate – are responsible for selecting comrades, mates, and siblings [...]

It sounds a lot like sexual selection. See my http://alife.co.uk/essays/evolution_sees/ essay - which makes the exact same point, but without the associated anti-Darwinian rhetoric.

my main question would be whether they try to measure their results in utilons

What are the Singularity Institute's results measured in?

@Z.M. Davis: That quote is about the implication of dynamic strategy theory, not the theory itself.

Re: The desires of individual organisms are what we need a theory of evolution to causally explain

I think the theory of evolution needs to explain the fossil record, human society and human- and animal drives. I understand these things far better through Snooks than I did through natural selection.

@Tim: Do you have some references to these theories on stasis? I wonder where they stand relative to Gould and Eldredge.

In your essay on the Nietscheans, we see that you too belief in expansion of resources (thermodynamic perspective), but you see the enterprise as an active expansion of good genes, while Snooks sees it as an expansion of survival and prosperity. You say the genes are the goal, and the resources the fuel. Snooks says that the resources are the goal, and genes are the building-blocks. Is your perspective analogous to saying the object of cities is to produce bricks? Earlier you said tha culture is just a different type of gene. Doesn't this stretch the "gene" so far that you may wonder if there is a dynamic, complete model for nature, rather than a simple passive filter? Do you agree that the existence of two conpepts (natural- and sexual selection) indicates there must be a more general theory? Aside from terminology, I largely agree with yourEvolutions Sees!, which suggests we disagree more about definitions than theory. It may be worth it to read more of Snooks, and judge his story, rather than his crackpot points. According to dynamic strategy theory, evolution has been seeing from the start, but it doesn't look at the future, but at self-interest (survival and prosperity, not necessarily procreation).

Re: Selection is powerful enough to cause dramatic cases of convergent evolution.

Convergent evolution can be taken as supporting strategic selection as well, since individuals want mates that are best at obtaining resources in a specific environment, and will thus select the same proporties as other species in that environment. This is another indication that we disagree mostly on terminology.

@Allan: The dynamic strategy theory attemps to explain the complete history of life, from the first cells to human society. It seems to me that the theory is weakest at explaining the origins of the first cells. Natural selection can explain that better more elegantly, but as life gets more complex, the concept becomes increasingly absurd. I belief (with 80% certainty) that natural selection becomes obsolete as soon as orginisms reproduce sexually. Yet, the dynamic model can even replace natural selection for single-cell organisms, if you stretch the motivation to survive and prosper down to that level. If you accept that a cell wants to exist and devide (which is what it does), the strategic perspective is more elegant. The decision making that comes with motivation, which happens in brains in animals, can than be seen as happening in "strategic genes" in single-cell organisms.

@ TGGP: I looked up the paper you mention, and it's more a geneticists curiosum than a big theory. Stasis is a relative concept. There is never stasis, and always mutation. The issue here is how speciation occurs. If you look at human and homonid history, you see a 'rapid' succesion of new homonid/human species with inceasing brain size. This happens in the order of 8 million years. It's that kind of accelaration we discuss, not the changes over the last 10.000 years who are hardly perceptible compared to a visibly different body and brain. Snooks predicts that humanity will never evolve into another species naturally, because we replaced genetic change with technological change. At most we re-engineer our genome with technology.

Stefan: Earlier [Tim] said that culture is just a different type of gene. Doesn't this stretch the "gene" so far that you may wonder if there is a dynamic, complete model for nature, rather than a simple passive filter?

I wouldn't worry too much about memes. They're not part of the standard biological theory of evolution. But everyone should recognise that human culture makes us drastically different from other species. I wouldn't expect a theory of evolution to explain things like the fall of the Roman Empire.

If you accept that a cell wants to exist and divide

When biologists talk about what an organism or a gene "wants", it's just a handy metaphor (with the exception of brainy animals, which can have genuine desires). In principle these metaphors can be replaced with more rigid language.

So no, things like bacteria don't want anything. But natural selection explains why they behave as if they wanted to consume resources and use them to reproduce: because they're the descendants of the cells that were best at doing so.

I believe (with 80% certainty) that natural selection becomes obsolete as soon as organisms reproduce sexually.

Because of mate choice? Mate preferences themselves need to be explained. And what about plants?

The decision making that comes with motivation, which happens in brains in animals, can than be seen as happening in "strategic genes" in single-cell organisms.

Is there a difference between Snooks' "strategic gene" and an ordinary gene - evolved in a Darwinian way - that can be activated by environmental change?

Finally, I note you've still not given us a brief explanation of what Snooks' theory actually is. I could explain Darwinism in 5 or 6 sentences, without using any unfamiliar terms. Can't you do something similar for Snooks?

Stefan, to be blunt, I don't think anyone here is interested in Snooks's theory; you're wasting your time and ours.

Ben Jones: What are the Singularity Institute's results measured in?

Fraction of surviving Everett branches of Earth.

@Eliezer: Tim and Allan seem interested, since they keep asking questions, and I’m happy up to point to answer them (up to this point), in the interest of truth. I agree it is a waste of time from now on.

@Allan: I note you've still not given us a brief explanation of what Snooks' theory actually is. I could explain Darwinism in 5 or 6 sentences, without using any unfamiliar terms. Can't you do something similar for Snooks?

I tried that in the Robot thread: I can try to explain it briefly, but I doubt it will be to your satisfaction. It deals with the 5 ways individuals can extract energy from the environment: Genetic/technological change, family multiplication, commerce, conquest. A forced selection of (a combination) these strategies makes the individual select partners with characteristics that support that strategy. Having offspring with similar characteristics is subsidiary to having the useful partner. These selections of characteristics shape evolution, as a response to the demand for resource aquisition.

The problem is that dynamic strategy theory is more complex than natural selection; not easily explained in 6 sentences. Recall that Snooks says that part of Darwin’s persuasiveness comes from natural selections’ simplicity. Unfortunately it is also flawed. The persuasiveness of dynamic strategy theory relies on the fossil record and human history, which is a long story to fit in a few sentences. For a more elaborate explanation read the link that Michael gave you to “read for yourself”. From page 8 to 11. I’m very curious about what you think of it.

I wouldn't worry too much about memes. They're not part of the standard biological theory of evolution.

Eliezer quoted John McCarthy. Here is another one that seems appropriate here: Never abandon a theory that explains something until you have a theory that explains more.

Dynamic strategy theory explains both biological and cultural evolution, which is a big plus, in addition to avoiding neo-Darwinists mistakes that are covered above.

things like bacteria don't want anything. But natural selection explains why they behave as if they wanted to consume resources and use them to reproduce

I already conceded that natural selection holds merit for single cell organisms.

Is there a difference between Snooks' "strategic gene" and an ordinary gene - evolved in a Darwinian way - that can be activated by environmental change

That is covered in Snooks’ book on Darwinism. You can read it for yourself; the story of life is a long story :-) My main job here is to refute the notion that Snooks doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

Another thing: in the Robot thread, you asked two questions I have not answered yet: Does the theory apply to plants and asexual life, which together make up the bulk of the Earth's biomass, but which don't select mates, and don't think?

Yes, theory accounts for that. Read for yourself.

You seem to imply that organisms reproduce to benefit themselves rather than their genes. Do these benefits outweigh the costs? (I think you'll find that in most species, there are no benefits at all - except to the genes.)

Very good question, that also kept me busy while reading Snooks for the first time. In dynamic strategy theory, organisms only reproduce to advance the strategy they adopt to survive and prosper (extracting resources from the environment). I’m not as eloquent as Snooks, but I would say the either “employ” their offspring, or regard their offspring as a (possibly unwanted) by-product of the consumption of sex. Now please note this is my own reckless interpretation, and if you disagree with it, you have to “read for yourself” whether Snooks sees it the same way.

Tim and Allan seem interested

I'm only interested in getting to the bottom of why it's wrong. I think the odds of me coming to accept Snooks' views are under 1%. Anyway, I think Eliezer is telling us to shut up about Snooks.

I'm shutting up now. When intelligent people disagree with me, I should be worried. I'll read up on Dawkins.

Re: thermodynamic perspective

I have an extended essay that deals with the thermodynamic perspective (i.e studying living organisms as dissipative structures) in some depth. Unfortunately, it was written by a much younger me. It has some issues - and needs rewriting.

Today, I would say that the genetic and metabolic perspectives on living systems are mostly complementary - and are not alternatives to each other. However, it must be said that, by only looking at genes, one tends to miss many conspicuous aspects of organisms - which a thermodynamic perspective tends to include. So: I think that the thermodynamic perspective is important, useful and under-valued.

Re: Earlier [Tim] said that culture is just a different type of gene. Doesn't this stretch the "gene" so far [...]

Mine is hardly a mainstream perspective - most people would prefer to say that "memes are a different type of replicator".

I explain the rationale for my view in the http://alife.co.uk/essays/informational_genetics/ essay.

People talk a lot about utility here, and its maximisation. The question I would like to see discussed is, is there such a thing as utility?

By which I mean, is there a thing, whether called "utility", "pleasure", "happiness", or anything else, which individual humans (and perhaps other animals) are so constructed as to be machines that maximise?

What are the Singularity Institute's results measured in?

Fraction of surviving Everett branches of Earth.

Minus some constant C times the fraction of Everett branches turned into some sort of horrible dystopia, I assume. Is there an airtight argument that proves C isn't huge?

We know that you can often model intelligent agents "quite well" by considering them as expected utility maximisers with constraints (e.g. resource constraints). Biology models organisms with impressive success by considering them as maximising inclusive fitness. The powerful "expected utility theorem" of von Neumann and Morgenstern suggests that it is reasonable to model any agent that aspires to rational behaviour with preference relations over a set of outcomes as attempting to maximise some single quantity (utility).

This leads to the question of what people think their own utility function is. I've said I think that mine is my inclusive fitness. Robin seems to have said his is to believe the truth. The last I heard, Eleizer's aim was to reach something called "the singularity" as fast as possible.

So, in the interests of transparency, would anyone else like to share what they think their utility function is?

So, in the interests of transparency, would anyone else like to share what they think their utility function is?
Maintain the relative proportions of order and chaos to produce maximum complexity.

Re: I wouldn't expect a theory of evolution to explain things like the fall of the Roman Empire.

Well, evolutionary theory ought to at least be compatible with the available observations. The fall of the Roman Empire was part of evolution. Evolutionary theory has a role for chance events - and so makes not claim to be able to explain everything about life. However, it had better be able to explain developments in the human sphere - including phenomena such as science and technological progress. That's what evolution is going to look like in the future.

What's the big deal about "species" anyway? We used to think of them as something like Platonic essences, but thanks to Darwinism we know that's not the case anymore. The concept has no operational definition for non-sexually reproducing organisms, and even for sexually reproducing ones it's fuzzy. It's a useful way to categorize things today, but I don't think we can clearly talk about "speciation" in evolutionary history except in retrospect when we've already demarcated species. What's the difference between a species that constantly keeps changing and one that continually branches off into new species while the old ones die out?

Caledonian, that's an interesting utility function. Complexity is often defined in terms of information, but wouldn't sheer chaos require lots of information to detail?

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