System artifacts
Posted by aogThursday, 30 August 2007 at 09:35 TrackBack Ping URL

Gordon McCabe has a post on the evolution of the aesthetic sense. I can see the appeal of the claims, but I can also see how people could read it as another “just-so” story.

My main thought, though, is the apparent short shrift that seems to be given in the evolutionary psychology field to what we code slingers call “artifacts”. An artifact in a computer program is a behavior that wasn’t planned, wasn’t intended, but emerges from the interactions of the intended design. Artifacts can be good, bad, or neutral (career tip: never hestitate to claim good artifacts as intentional). It seems unquestionable to me that humans, both physically and mentally, are complex enough to have system artifacts as well. The problem for the evolutionary psychologist is that such artifacts, particularly neutral ones, have no evolutionary reason for being. There is no “explanation” for them. Personally, I think much of what we consider fundamentally human consists of such cognitive artifacts, foam on the evolutionary waves. I further think that the more specific the cognitive feature the more likely it is to be an artifact.

Basic drives like jealousy, greed, social standing — those are very likely evolutionarily selected traits. The kind of detailed aesthetic preference discussed in McCabe’s post, not so likely. Of course it can turn out that what was originally an artifact becomes evolutionary favored because of its advantages but if that’s the case it doesn’t have the inevitablility that seems implied in the post.

Because it’s me, I have to have a second thought, which is that we need to be careful to distinguish between a basic evolutionarily selected drive (“social standing”) and its specific manifestation (“being CEO of a successful Internet startup”). You can get in to a lot of trouble by conflating the two. Perhaps it’s just the popularization but that seems to be a problem in much writing on evolutionary psychology that I read1. There’s also the problem that an artifact may be favored because of the advantages of a specific manifestation

For instance, perhaps humans are intelligent because one manifestation of that is language, which was selected for. All of the other uses of that intelligence (tool building, complex societies, weblogs) would then be just artifacts that are evolutionarily neutral or even negative (as long as they’re not as negative as language is positive).

In the end, I suppose my problem here is that surety with which the theories are put forth in such a fraught with error and bad data environment. Kind of like the climate scientists.


1 For instance, pink for girls and blue for boys. It may be there is evolutionary pressure for differing color preferences between girls and boys, but not for the specific colors that are preferred. It would be the same as handedness — it’s good to be handed, and good for tool building animal groups to have consistent handedness, but there’s no good reason to prefer right handedness over left handedness.

Comments — Formatting by Textile
Peter Burnet Friday, 31 August 2007 at 04:36

As just-so stories go, this one is pretty lame. We connoisseurs would hope for something like: “When humans first began the great trek out of Africa, women selected the bravest and strongest hunters as mates to ensure the survival of their offspring. Unable to compete on the savanah and finding it almost impossible to get a date, the timid wimps who couldn’t shoot straight and fainted at the first sight of blood became lonely and tired of being mocked and pushed around by the best hunters and their dewey-eyed, gorgeous admirers. Seeking an adaptive strategy, they discovered that painting and poetry can really turn on the babes and so they evolved into the sensitive male and pacifist in order to ensure their own survival. This enraged the tough guys and put them under all kinds of pressures in turn, but they were too clumsy and stupid to compete with the aesthetes or even understand them, and they just reacted by discovering fermentation and hunting more and more frantically. Eventually, all the unnecessary hunting threatened the game and the hunters’ beer-guts made them undesirable mates in the eyes of the women. The most fertile and hottest women, seeing that their offspring were now threatened by over-hunting and alcohol abuse, began to select the delicate artsy types as superior mates and evolved into vegetarian animal rights activists. The hunters became totally confused and couldn’t adapt—their only coping strategy was to ask themselves over and over what exactly it was women wanted. Unable to find any more game or attract mates other than bimbos, the hunters eventually gave up hunting and evolved into football teams.”

erp Friday, 31 August 2007 at 06:00

… and females, tired of the childish antics of the males, evolved into controlling viragos.

Annoying Old Guy Friday, 31 August 2007 at 07:51

Mr. Burnet;

You mean something like this?

Peter Burnet Friday, 31 August 2007 at 10:03

Sorry AOG, I just hit a Blogline wall with that link.

Seriously, we all know by now what is going on here and the arguments for and against, but what does flummox me is how the modern mind can be completely comfortable believing both this theory and the principle that aesthetic judgment is individual, subjective and relative at the same time. In fact, it seems to yearn to. You see this a lot in modern Darwinism (Mayr, Dawkins, etc.). The movie is over so let’s party. And they make fun of religious folks for believing in mystery!

But I am grateful for one thing. My thirteen year old has been taunting me and my favourite music as uncool for some time now. Won’t listen to anything I say about taste, complexity, theme, etc. Last night I told him my preference for Beethoven gave me certain evolutionary survival advantages 50 Cent isn’t giving him. First sign of confusion and worry.

Annoying Old Guy Friday, 31 August 2007 at 11:24

Fixed the link.

I don’t think what you bring up is actually double-think, I think it’s more part of the confusion that I hit on in the original post. It’s all explained in the very important but I will never have the time to write post on my basic philosophical viewpoint.

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