Evolution and the Neocortex @ BYOB Party in Feb 2019 (Part 3)

Image result for why evolution is true

Samarth talked about a book that he had read a long time ago since he is hard-pressed for reading time these days. Why evolution is true by Jerry A. Coyne, an American biologist, is an important book in times like these, especially when the debate about creationism is commonplace. “What’s the need for such a book?” Samarth asked. “We don’t have a book on germ theory as it seems pretty self-evident except in some strange cases- like the Fox host who refused to wash his hands for ten years as he couldn’t see the germs or the terrorist organization that refutes the idea of evaporation since it is a western concept. But evolution is not like that. It has to be understood.”

Statistics show that evolution is not accepted by a large majority in the US. Many think that evolution should be bunched up with other alternate theories. Darwin wasn’t the first to postulate the theory but his research provided the evidence needed to firm up the theory of natural selection.

Abhaya rationalized that though many of the readers in the room believed in Darwinism, their views were not always backed by understanding. The debate turned completely scientific and we landed on many subjects from Lamarck’s behaviorism and Darwin’s Natural Selection to biomimicry and the God particle.

Incidentally, the name God particle has been much criticized for referring to the very idea of God that the scientific community has been trying to disprove.

Image result for straw dogs bookHarshit spoke about a book called Straw Dogs by the philosopher John Gray. Gray questions Western philosophy from Plato to Marx and argues against the superiority complex embedded in human DNA. What makes humans think they are any better than animals? You might find this interview with Gray interesting.

The conversation mutated and evolved into varying subtexts – the fundamental difference between humans and other species- the neocortex. Listen to what a neuroscientist has to say about the brain systems –reptilian, limbic and neocortex. Then the discussion veered to IQ ratios, the decline of motor skills, how digital devices influence memory, loss of handwriting and how the brain declutters by default.

One book that could lead to a better understanding about how the internet is rewiring the brain is The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr.

More books and eye-opening discussions in Part 4.



Short Book Review: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens by Yuval Noah HarariSBR: I once jokingly summarized Sapiens by saying that we fu**ed up wherever we went and we take ourselves too seriously. Or perhaps I wasn’t joking at all. That’s what it says. But the beauty of the book is that it is accessible and easy to read. The author has not tried to attempt writing in a way that will pass scholarly muster. And that may make you uncomfortable where he is talking about things you may have in-depth knowledge of (for example it wasn’t satisfying for patriarchy to be declared universal without even a mention of matriarchal societies we do know of and any attempt to understand why they were different). But one book can’t be everything to everybody. And what this book is, makes it worth a read. But beware. If you are devoted to the idea of a meaningful life, this book may annoy you, or in the worst case even depress you. Human life has no meaning, the book declares blithely (and I agree). The author still seems to find some solace in Buddhism (which I don’t!).
To read or not to read: Yes.

Article of the Week: We Are All Confident Idiots by David Dunning

The article I have selected for this week is by David Dunning, one of the pair after whom the Dunning-Kruger effect is named. For those who have not already searched wikipedia:

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias wherein relatively unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than is accurate.

Basically when idiots think they are the bosses!

The article explores similar and related phenomena focusing on ignorance.

What is ignorance? We tend to think of it as unawareness about something (the dictionary also says something like this). But if we do so, we don’t truly comprehend the dangers and impact of ignorance.

An ignorant mind is precisely not a spotless, empty vessel, but one that’s filled with the clutter of irrelevant or misleading life experiences, theories, facts, intuitions, strategies, algorithms, heuristics, metaphors, and hunches that regrettably have the look and feel of useful and accurate knowledge.

This can explain what to me is one of the biggest disappointments of the 20th century. That education doesn’t really work in fighting ignorance. If ignorance were absence of knowledge, education could have imparted knowledge and made people wiser. But since it is not the absence of knowledge  but misguided knowledge, all too often education ends up producing illusory confidence without disabusing people of their wrong ideas. The information that comes through education is bent to fit in with the sacrosanct beliefs people already hold, instead of challenging and changing it.

The article mentions an example, where people uninformed about nanotechnology were “educated” about it through a brief write-up. Before reading, their opinions on the impact of technology were unsure and all over the map. However, armed with education, their beliefs became more confident and also polarized. The polarization was guided by what they already believed in (details in the article).

There is another interesting mention of an experiment, where teaching people about evolution not only increased the percentage of people believing the right things about evolution, it also increased the percentage of those believing the wrong thing. They were confident about their wrong beliefs too!

The American author and aphorist William Feather once wrote that being educated means “being able to differentiate between what you know and what you don’t.” As it turns out, this simple ideal is extremely hard to achieve.

The article does end with some advice on how to manage ignorance-generated confidence. Those I think will only work, as in the case with most advice, if the idea has been internalized by you and you can clearly see the misguided confidence not just in others, but in yourself too. Knowing what is going on can definitely be a first step towards it.

By the way, if after reading it you find that you can see it happening only to others and not to you, you might be bending the information to fit the sacrosanct belief you hold about yourself – that you are smarter than everyone else!

Read the complete article on Pacific Standard.