Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Back to that selection thing....

If you've never read anything by Richard Dawkins, I suggest two books:

- The God Delusion
- The Selfish Gene

The latter book is what the author rose to fame for, it's a work of art really. I can't describe it in any other way. I'm reading this now and I cannot believe how much my view of the world has been changing because of it. Things seem clearer.

The other book was actually the first one I read. It's a powerful book, but there's so much anger in here. Dawkins is an avowed atheist and basically lambasts religion (he focuses on the Old Testament based faiths).

But I'm not writing this to discuss Dawkins' work per se. His book 'The Selfish Gene' (and I'm not even finished with it) got me thinking about something I hadn't thought about in a while, the nature of thought.

The process of Natural Selection works like this; You have many organisms that live, but only some can survive. Nature (or some selection mechanism) 'picks' those organisms that, by accident, are better fitted to survive (they get to breed). The others either breed less or die without breeding.

With any luck, I've defined that correctly, but what does that have to do with human thought or even consciousness? You see, the human brain (most other mammalian brains too) contains several hundred million neural connections. Neural impulses fire ad nauseum in a living person's brain.

Assume for a second that a thought can be broken down into a collection of neural impulses (we can assume that it's been stimulated by sensory input). How do we become aware of that thought? Well, assuming it's competing with several other thoughts, we may never be aware of it... unless it fires with more strength than the other thoughts. Then, it gets selected to become a conscious thought. The thought lives, perhaps spawns more thoughts, mutates, and then dies (well, moved off to the subconscious anyway).

In 'Cosmos', Carl Sagan mentions that, as genes are the units of human evolution, ideas are the units of cultural evolution. Dawkins calls this the 'meme', a cultural gene that is selected to continue or die. In human breeding, you have the slots in the chromosome that two alleles (genes) compete over. You have the same thing in culture. In a war, the two opposing sides would be the two genes competing for space on the cultural chromosome.

Here's a thought, what about religion. Could that not also be a meme? Could the idea of religion also be a unit of cultural evolution? Why not? How could it have arisen? Well, many thousands of years ago, we didn't have knowledge of germs, real causes of lightning, earthquakes, etc. So in an effort to answer the question, we created explanations (ideas). Many of them. The ones that stuck (i.e. were selected) were the ones that we could easily appreciate (or relate to). If you look at the old religious stories (or histories, take your pick), how many of them are about two competing ideas (alleles) fighting over mindshare?

I'm lucky in that respect I guess. I'm Hindu, which acknowledges that there may be no God, or perhaps there is. The best lines I can think of that describes it are:
Who knows for certain? Who shall here declare it?
Whence was it born, and whence came this creation?
The gods were born after this world's creation:
Then who can konw from whence it has arisen?

None knoweth whence creation has arisen;
And whether he has or has not produced it:
He who surveys it in the highest heaven,
He only knows, or haply he may know not.

Back to human thought. Could internalized natural selection be how we think? How we reason? It sounds like it should be. This would explain why people are seen as 'creative'. Why? Because the selection mechanism that picks the resulting thought(s) that pop into their minds when solving a problem are different from what others might use.

All this sounds great on paper, I have no proof of this I realise. But it is something to think about, isn't it? How many phenomena could we describe accurately with the aid of natural selction (the process)?