Thoughts on the Evolution of Evolvability

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It is early February. The other day, I observed some fresh buds on a tree. When I lived back east, I remember seeing buds on bare trees in the snowy dead of winter. I used to wonder if these trees are “preparing” for the first days of spring by starting the growth of their buds. Trees, like most plants, can adapt to variations of weather. All organisms, in fact, exhibit behaviors that appear resourceful, reactive, adaptive, even “intelligent”.

We sometimes talk about animals and plants in terms of their goals and intentions. We even use intentional language in relation to computers or mechanical machines. Even though we know a machine isn’t alive, we use this kind of language as a form of shorthand.

But there may be something more than just verbal shorthand going on here.

The Intentional Stance

Daniel Dennett proposed the concept of the Intentional Stance. When I first learned about this idea, I felt a new sense of how our own human intelligence is just a special case of the adaptive and goal-directed nature of all life on the planet.

When I saw those buds on the tree the other day, I realized that there is so much goal-directed behavior happening all over the place – in plants, animals, and even in ecological systems. Are humans any more adaptive or “intentional” than any other organism?

The Evolution of Self and the Intentional Stance

Could it be that our human brains have simply…

…wrapped a fully-evolved self around our intentions?

…that we are really no more goal-directed or intentional than any other organism…except that we reflect on it with a higher level of consciousness, and apply a fully-formed language to that intentionality?

The Evolution of Evolvability

I first learned of the evolution of evolvability from a paper by Richard Dawkins. It’s a powerful idea, and it helps to make evolution seem less magical and perhaps easier to imagine. Not only have organisms continued to evolve, but their ability to evolve has improved. An example is the evolution of sexual reproduction, which created a huge advantage in a species’ ability to exploit genetic variation over evolutionary time.

A recent article titled “Intelligent design without a creator? Why evolution may be smarter than we thought” makes reference to the Evolution of Evolvability. It helps to cast the notion of intelligence and learning as prolific and pervasive in the natural world.

It would appear that the ability to evolve better ways to evolve predates humans. (It might even predate biology).

Of course we humans have found even better ways to evolve – including ways that overtake or sidestep our own human biology. This constitutes a new era in the evolution of life on earth – an era in which technology, culture, and ideas (memes) become the primary evolving agents of our species (and possibly the whole planet – assuming we humans make the planet so sick that we have to fabricate artificial immune systems in order to keep the planet (and thus ourselves) healthy.

While many people will cast this Singularity-like idea in a negative light, I see it as a new protective organ that is forming around our planet. Biology is not going away. It is just one regime in a progression of many emergent regimes. Biology has given birth to the next regime (via Dennett’s crane), which then reaches down to regulate, modulate, and protect the regime which created it.

Evolvability is the higher-level emergent system over evolution. It is a higher-order derivative. When seen in this way, biology comes out looking like just one step in a long process.

(Thanks to Stephen Brown for editorial assistance)

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The Miracle of My Hippocampus – and other Situated Mental Organs

I’m not very good at organizing.

pilesThe pile of papers, files, receipts, and other stuff and shit accumulating on my desk at home has grown to huge proportions. So today I decided to put it all into several boxes and bring it to the co-working space – where I could spend the afternoon going through it and pulling the items apart. I’m in the middle of doing that now. Here’s a picture of my progress. I’m feeling fairly productive, actually.

10457290-Six-different-piles-of-various-types-of-nuts-used-in-the-making-of-mixed-nuts--Stock-PhotoSome items go into the trash bin; some go to recycling; most of them get separated into piles where they will be stashed away into a file cabinet after I get home. At the moment, I have a substantial number of mini-piles. These accumulate as I sift through the boxes and decide where to put the items.

Here’s the amazing thing: when I pull an item out of the box, say, a bill from Verizon, I am supposed to put that bill onto the Verizon pile, along with the other Verizon bills that I have pulled out. When this happens, my eye and mind automatically gravitate towards the area on the table where I have been putting the Verizon bills. I’m not entirely conscious of this gravitation to that area.

Gravity Fields in my Brain

What causes this gravitation? What is happening in my brain that causes me to look over to that area of the table? It seems that my brain is building a spatial map of categories for the various things I’m pulling out of the box. I am not aware of it, and this is amazing to me – I just instinctively look over to the area on the table with the pile of Verizon bills, and…et voilà – there it is.

Other things happen too. As this map takes shape in my mind (and on the table), priorities line up in my subconscious. New connections get made and old connects get revived. Rummaging through this box has a therapeutic effect.

The fact that my eye and mind know where to look on the table is really not such a miracle, actually. It’s just my brain doing its job. The brain has many maps – spatial, temporal, etc. – that help connect and organize domains of information. One part of the brain – the hippocampus – is associated with spatial memory.

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User Interface Design, The Brain, Space, and Time

I could easily collect numerous examples of software user interfaces that do a poor job of tapping the innate power of our spatial brains. These problematic user interfaces invoke the classic bouts of confusion, frustration, undiscoverability, and steep learning curves that we bitch about when comparing software interfaces.

This is why I am a strong proponent of Body Language (see my article about body language in web site design) as a paradigm for user interaction design. Similar to the body language that we produce naturally when we are communicating face-to-face, user interfaces should be designed with the understanding that information is communicated in space and in time (situated in the world). There is great benefit for designers to have some understanding of this aspect of natural language.

Okay, back to my pile of papers: I am fascinated with my unconscious ability to locate these piles as I sift through my stuff. It reminds me of why I like to use the fingers of my hand to “store” a handful of information pieces. I can recall these items later once they have been stored in my fingers (the thumb is usually saved for the most important item).

Body Maps, Brain, and Memory

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Screen Shot 2016-02-07 at 9.03.46 PMLast night I was walking with my friend Eddie (a fellow graduate of the MIT Media Lab, where the late Marvin Minsky taught). Eddie told me that he once heard Marvin telling people how he liked to remember the topics of an upcoming lecture: he would place the various topics onto his body parts.

…similar to the way the ancient Greeks learned to remember stuff.

During the lecture, Marvin would shift his focus to his left shoulder, his hand, his right index finger, etc., in order to recall various topics or concepts. Marvin was tapping the innate spatial organs in his brain to remember the key topics in his lecture.

My Extended BodyMap

18lta79g5tsytjpgMy body. My home town. My bed. My shoes. My wife. My community. The piles in my home office. These things in my life all occupy a place in the world. And these places are mapped in my brain to events that have happened in the past – or that happen on a regular basis. My brain is the product of countless generations of Darwinian iteration over billions of years.

All of this happened in space and time – in ecologies, animal communities, among collaborative workspaces.

Even the things that have no implicit place and time (as the many virtualized aspects of our lives on the internet)… even these things occupy a place and time in my mind.

Intelligence has a body. Information is situated.

Hail to Thee Oh Hippocampus. And all the venerated bodymaps. For you keep our flitting minds tethered to the world.

You offer guidance to bewildered designers – who seek the way – the way that has been forged over billions of years of intertwingled DNA formation…resulting in our spatially and temporally-situated brains.

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bodymapping.com.au

We must not let the no-place, no-time, any-place, any-time quality of the internet deplete us of our natural spacetime mapping abilities. In the future, this might be seen as one of the greatest challenges of our current digital age.

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