You must address what a device does before aiming to comprehend how it does it." As obvious as this is for everyday devices, it is not well-appreciated within the biological and brain sciences. We must build the "teleome," which refers to an organism's entire suite of powers. Only then will we be able to crack the mysteries of the human brain and build artificial brains.
What's it do?
Imagine that you find some mysterious device under your bed. What's your next thought? It's to wonder what the device does. Could it be a hand vacuum, a kid toy? ...a bomb? Notice that your first thought does not concern how the device works. It's premature to get to the "how it works" without having figured out the "what it does".
In much of the biological and brain sciences, however, there appears to be something of an inversion to this. In many scientific circles questions about "what it does" are deemed intrinsically unscientific or meaningless, and explanations in that domain are necessarily "just so" stories rather than science. Only questions concerning the biological mechanisms -- i.e., concerning "how it works" -- are truly kosher. And this attitude is reflected in funding priorities: "how" funding dominates the "what it's for" funding by a mile.
Yes, it's all bass-ackward in the biological and brain sciences! As a community, it's the fellow that sees the device under the bed and says, "Never mind what it does, I'm going to figure out how it works!" Good luck with that.
But, you might ask, isn't there an obvious difference? Devices do things because people made them to do things; they have purpose imbued upon them by human engineers. Organisms, on the other hand, evolved, and there is no purpose -- no design.
It's not true, however, that evolution doesn't design. On the contrary, it is a fantastic designer! It also happens to be quite unintelligent, and super-glacially slow. But the mechanistic process of evolution amounts to an algorithm of sorts, one that, despite its unthinkingness, leads to brilliant designs.
If you don't "get" this, then you don't "get" biology. If you're unable to utter the words, "Eyes are for seeing," then you've argued yourself into some far-away philosophical corner for the birds.
Before we can understand "how it does it," then, we need to grasp "what it does."
We need a "teleome," the ultimate catalog of an animal's what-it-does-es. The teleome is something along the lines of the set of all the capabilities our brains and bodies were selected to carry out. It is our set of powers, or the set of things we can do, or our function list.
The Terminator's teleome sits somewhere back in the lab, and somewhere within his teleome it describes his power to ride motorcycles and mimic human voices.
Where's our human teleome? Or the teleome for any organism, for that matter?
There are ideas that are seemingly similar to the teleome. Ethologists catalog behavioral repertoires for animals. But the entries in such lists are not the sort of thing we imagine in the Terminator’s list, nor in real function lists in the instruction manuals of devices we might buy. The behaviors in ethology are descriptions of (usually whole-body) behaviors, not capabilities. A stapler-behavior might be “being squeezed onto a pack of papers,” but the stapler function is “for fastening papers together.”
Another close candidate is the “phenome,” which refers to the set of phenotypes of an organism. The behaviors of ethologists might plausibly be part of a phenome, although the phenome is more general, referring to all sorts of traits. But traits aren’t quite the same thing as functions, capabilities, or powers. The teleome is unapologetically heavy on teleology, or purpose.
I don't want to give the impression that there aren't biologists who appreciate the "what it does." The adaptive, functional powers of animals has a long and continuing history among the more naturalist variety of biology. Some snakes are capable of spitting venom at predators. Certain fish have the power to blow up like a balloon and become difficult to eat. Hummingbird beaks are for reaching deep into flowers. And work continues, such as recent work by Marc Egeth showing that headless flies behaviorally respond to light, and work by Anders Garm and colleagues demonstrating that jellyfish can see up and out of the water for navigation.
But this naturalist sort of biology has waned, and we need to re-engage it with gusto.
It is not enough to grasp just one or several salient powers of an animal -- the powers an encyclopedia might mention. Organisms are teeming with powers, and most of them are entirely unknown to us (and, thus, also unknown are how they implement those powers).
Why is the teleome important?
Do we really need a teleome? Really? Yes, and here's why...
First, and most importantly, a teleome is important because science should be aiming to comprehend the full catalog of powers of each sort of organism. That is, we should be doing it for its own sake!
Second, and something I have already talked about above, one cannot make sense of mechanisms without knowing what they are for -- mechanisms are for implementing certain capabilities. For example, if natives were to find a stapler, then without knowing it is for fastening paper together, they may spend years examining the specific mechanisms underlying its ability to be used as nunchucks. Their resultant insights into the nunchuck-swinging mechanisms would, however, be incidental to the actual device.
Third, the teleome is crucial for grasping how animals mesh with their natural habitat. If you don’t know why an organism is the way it is, then you won’t know which aspects of natural habitats are important for it. If it ends up in a habitat that’s not its own, it may go extinct, or, in time, changed by natural selection into something else.
Finally, the teleome is needed for advances in artificial intelligence. The principal aim of AI is not to mimic the mechanisms of human brains. Rather, it is to mimic or surpass the power of human brains. And most researchers wouldn’t mind if they could achieve it via an utterly different implementation. (See also this piece about Kurzweil and AI.)
Building the teleome will be difficult
There are tremendous challenges ahead in building the teleome.
To begin with, it is not yet clear what it would even look like. Surely it would not simply be a list. Instead, it would probably be a hierarchically tiered structure of some kind, with powers built out of sub-powers, and so on.
One of the difficulties is that uncovering the teleome requires comprehending not just organisms, but how they plug into the habitats they belong in. …it requires being a consummate ethologist as well as a biologist or neuroscientist. Unlike the genome, we won't be able to pour an organism into a vat and get a teleome print-out on the other side. To get the teleome, the organism along with its entire habitat would have to be placed within a very very large petri dish.
[Another difficulty comes from the famous undecidability results of the 20th century. For any computable function (think: biological capability), it is not generally possible to determine if some specific program (think: biological mechanism) actually computes that function (think: implements that capability).]
I do believe there is hope. Through my own experiences as a theorist, I have found that the ecological regularities governing nature tend to be relatively simple, and that once I have wrapped my head around them, I can make sense of our powers and answer why we are as we are in some particular respect, whether illusions and optic flow, forward-facing eyes and cluttered habitats, color vision and hemoglobin, writing shapes and opaque objects in 3D space, speech sounds and solid-object physical events, music and the sounds of humans behaving, or pruney fingers and grip in the rain [coming soon]).
This is a cause for both optimism and pessimism. There's optimism because it suggests it may be possible to incrementally build the teleome. But it suggests pessimism too, because even supposing my research mentioned above is all true, it took me a decade and lots of luck to do it, and it would only serve to fill out half a dozen spots in a teleome that must have, in total, tens of thousands or more entries.
But there are stumbling blocks besides the theoretical and conceptual ones. They are sociological, and I hinted at them earlier. There is a strong streak of anti-adaptationism in certain swathes of the biological sciences, where they have gotten the impression that it is somehow not scientific to address questions of “what it’s for.” There have certainly been poor arguments within this domain, but one can find large numbers of embarrassing "how it works" arguments as well. Like any area of science, hypotheses about capabilities and powers must make testable predictions, and will acquire credibility to the extent they acquire empirical support. This “anti-adaptationist” streak has, in my opinion, been particularly detrimental to the advance of the neurosciences, where understanding function, design, and fit with the natural ecology will be most important in making theoretical advances.
Building the teleome will be difficult, much more difficult than building the genome. But there is no alternative. ...not if we wish to make sense of organisms, what they do, how they do it, and how we might artificially do it.
(Original published in Forbes, 2011.)
As a young physics math guy, religions to me were just another silly cultural thing we humans do. Makes one prone to ignorance of science, evolution. Like Dawkins, I was dismissive and haughty about it.
I viewed it as two opposing hypotheses about the world. Rational Bayesian reasoning left no doubt: religious claims are false. Really really false! End of issue.
But through my own research in cognitive science and the origins of language and music, I slowly transformed to possess a new respect for religion. Why?
First, by “respect” I mean it here in the way you have respect for a lion when you encounter her in the wild. Whether you like her is irrelevant. Whether she’s good is irrelevant.
You respect her in the sense that you appreciate that she is a highly engineered thing, worthy of much study to understand her. And she is also powerful.
My change toward respect of religion started in the early 2000s when I became interested in whether writing, language and the arts have culturally shaped themselves to be a good fit for our brains. The answer was, Yes.
For writing, it occurred to me that we read too well — almost as if we have a reading instinct. See this piece: Pinker’s Instincts on Language.
I wondered if writing over history has culturally evolved to look “like nature”. I provided evidence for this in two papers — first and second — and also in my earlier book, VISION rEVOLUTION.
Writing culturally evolved to harness our ancient instincts for object recognition. No reading instinct was needed.
A few years later I examined whether the sounds of speech might also harness us, by sounding like natural events. Here too I found strong evidence for what I call “nature harnessing.”
On the controversial issue of whether we have a language instinct, the answer is No. Spoken language harnesses already existing natural-event-recognition mechanisms.
Although, there is, in another sense, a language instinct: We are really born with an innate proclivity for our languages.
But not because we evolved for language, but, rather, because our languages evolved to fit us.
The nature-harnessing origins of speech was the topic of my most recent book, HARNESSED. (And that book also makes the case that music may have culturally evolved to sound like something we already had ancient auditory mechanisms for: the sounds of human movement.)
What did these research directions have to do with religion?
Well, language — writing and speech — are central to who we take ourselves to be.
But, on the view I am suggesting, they aren’t human per se. They are cultural inventions. Really really sophisticated ones.
In this light, rather than being a reservoir of silly things we humans happen to do, culture is a brilliant (blind) engineer giving us highly honed artifacts that change us into a kind of Human 2.0
I had acquired at this point a whole new respect for culture.
But, if cultural artifacts we take for granted can have, hidden inside them, tremendous design, why not religion?
As a theorist, I like letters and phonemes and relatively simple stimuli, because I just might be able to wrap my head around them.
Religion is not the kind of cultural animal I prefer studying. Too complicated for the sorts of elegant hypotheses, and tests, I hope to have.
So, I have not studied religions in this “harnessing” paradigm. And I don’t plan on doing so. There are minds much better equipped for that, like Pascal Boyer.
But, once one sees the secret wisdom of seemingly simple cultural artifacts like writing, one would have to close one’s mind to not see that much-more-complex religions might be teeming with design, and tap into lots of our innate mechanisms, transforming us. ...in some way.
That religion’s truth claims are false is so missing the point.
Again, whether religion is good for us, or for society, is another issue.
Respect here just means realizing that religions might well be well-oiled machines plugging into human brains, and that one should be prepared to get one’s feet wet in trying to pick them apart and reverse engineer them.
We need less haughtiness and hostility from us atheist scientists. More humility on religion.
Originally published as a Twitter thread, 2018, at @markchangizi
I find myself wondering more about the extent to which we’re innately biased against seeing great intelligence in non-human species.
Plenty of reasons to worry, including our proclivity for doing so even for minor ethnic differences, and even purely for outgroups.
I like to imagine I am fairly self aware of these biases, having written about them, including this...
But I suspect that this is just the tip of the Bias Berg.
Two avenues of research have pushed my view considerably in this regard.
(1) The first shows that crows and parrots have qualitative levels of intelligence of apes, and
(2) The second is my own “nature-harnessed” research arguing that language (and arts like music) are not part of our biology, but, rather, cultural artifacts harnessing ancient instincts.
Together, these suggest that we’re much closer in biological intelligence to apes — and even corvids&parrots — than our unaided intuition would suggest.
I have found myself wondering about the following thought experiment:
Supposing one particular species of, say, bird were biologically the same qualitative level of intelligence as humans, how difficult would it be for us to truly realize it?
For starters, let’s add some sci-fi and make it starker:
Imagine human brains in utero are transplanted into the body of some crows.
(And somehow they function as crows, etc. Don’t think too deep about this counterfactual or it won’t make sense.)
Would it be obvious to people that these crows are...
~ smarter than other crows?
~ as smart as people?
~ basically people, in crow bodies?
My bet is that it would be totally not obvious.
...that it would be practically impossible to tell.
...and that there are hosts of distinct reasons — biases from humans observing them, and necessary behavioral consequences to these “crow-people” by virtue of being raised in crow bodies — that would mask the truth.
But if THAT is the case, then we should be deeply worried that we might be radically underestimating the intelligence of many animal species, especially so the more phylogenetically distant they are from us.
Not that intelligence is the only factor in moral-worth / personhood / rights of animals. But it’s one big one.
I personally killed half a dozen hornet-sized bumblebees this weekend. They were making a home, and scaring the crap out of guests. (Even though docile.)
Surely nowhere near the level of mammals and birds. (Right?)
But, probably also surely much — an order of magnitude? — more intelligent / aware than I may historically have been presuming.
This changes how one looks upon every non-human animal.
As a theoretical biologist I have always appreciated the mind boggling complexity and design.
But even though I’m also a cognitive scientist, my human biases have, I think, prevented me from seeing the truth about all the other minds out there.
The veil is slowly lifting.
This first appeared as a Twitter thread in 2018 at @markchangizi
We lost Oliver Sacks not too long ago, while I was away from social media, and so I never got around to discussing my experiences of him.
Toward that, here’s a review I wrote about one of his books, although it’s a bit of a review of Oliver himself.
In The Mind's Eye, the neurologist explores case histories of people with visual disturbances - including his own
WHAT would it be like to occupy the brain of a non-human being? This is a question that has inspired writers (Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis), philosophers (Thomas Nagel's "What is it like to be a bat?") and just about every curious human being. It is this curiosity about different forms of being that helps explain our fascination with the writings of Oliver Sacks.
Although Sacks's books generally deal with altered states, this new one on visual experience brings it home more clearly because, for the sighted among us, "what it's like to be" tends to get fleshed out visually. The Mind's Eye takes up stories of individuals who have lost visual capabilities, such as object recognition, face recognition, reading and stereoscopic depth.
The book excels in its descriptions of "altered states", to be sure, but there are other, more obvious, reasons why we like Sacks's writing about neurological disorders. First is that they illustrate how the everyday tasks we carry out are in fact fantastically complex and rely on equally complex brain mechanisms. A close, and related, second is that his stories indicate our brain's specialisations, leading us to respond, "Woah, I didn't even know I had brain regions for that!"
A more emotional attraction to Sacks is that his stories are simply great stories - he even got my neurologist wife and I teary as she read to me on a road trip the case of Patricia H.'s loss of language and her use of gestures to partially compensate. These are stories about the human spirit attempting to overcome a piercing blow to what it means to be human.
The appeal of Sacks's style isn't just that it is neurobiologically illuminating and poignant. It's also grist for the philosopher in us. Wondering what it's like to be an alien, dog or bat can be entertaining, but any answers found are likely fiction. Sacks's stories, on the other hand, get us into the heads of beings who experience a truly alternative form of being and are able to communicate what it's like.
The fact that these alternative forms of being are accidental cases may make it all the more interesting. The space of possible ways of being is vast compared with the space of ways of being that may plausibly be selected for in evolution. For those with an itch for altered states, seamless psychological design and fit with a given habitat can be beside the point.
Among the "accidental ways of being" described in The Mind's Eye, one stands out: Sacks's own struggle with vision loss due to ocular melanoma, including its consequences for visual neglect, stereoscopy and the perception of one's own limbs, including visual phantom limbs.
One only hopes Sacks's personal tour into altered states is at its end.
Originally published 2010 in New Scientist