I wanted to return to the topic I broached in my series on “God Does Exist, After All” last month. That mini-series didn’t really go down well (so much so I didn’t complete part 4, I felt the wheels came off on the debate about uniqueness). And I’ve been trying to work out why. One, very good, possibility is that the whole idea sucks. Possible, but I find it very difficult to accept, though I’ve been trying. Then I read Dawkins again this weekend, and found some solace…
Dawkins wrote two great books on evolutionary biology: The Selfish Gene, and The Extended Phenotype. The Selfish Gene has become phenomenally successful. The Extended Phenotype not so much. On the back of my copy of The Extended Phenotype, Dawkins encourages bookstore browsers: “it doesn’t matter if you never read anything else of mine, please at least read this”.
In high-school biology I was taught that natural selection operates on the level of the individual. Individuals compete for resources, individuals get to reproduce or not. Individuals are the units of evolution.
The Selfish Gene challenges that. It breaks apart the individual to find mini-individuals within. Different, of course, from the whole. The units of replication and evolution are the genes. The individual is significant primarily because it locks a bunch of genes together in a firm way (at least for one generation).
The Extended Phenotype also challenges the view that individuals are the units of evolution. It looks beyond the individual to find meta-individuals without. Different, again, from their constituent creatures. If the genes are the units of replication, then it makes sense to look at larger groupings where genes are locked together. Not locked as tightly as an individual, but connected nonetheless.
Why is the Selfish Gene a bestselling book, while the Extended Phenotype has sold a fraction of its units? Why, when Dawkins himself, seems more proud of the conclusions and implications of the latter model?
Let’s talk about the mind. It is simplest to associate one mind with one brain (I’m ignoring the fruitless suggestion that minds aren’t just what the brain does – if you want the spiritual debate, hit the comments). That’s basic biology, psychology and common sense.
But we’re also used to thinking about minds as smaller units: the unconscious mind; the mind of the left-brain and the mind of the right; our work-mind and our family-mind. From Freud to Marvin Minsky, a serious amount of ink has been spilled on the minds within our mind. Sabio, for example, at Triangulations, has done an excellent job of developing a mini-mind model of religious belief.
To me it seems clear that the smallest units capable of thinking are smaller than our brain. The mind we perceive, is made up of lots of these thinkers bolted together.
The analogy should be clear. If a group of thinking units grouped together becomes a mind, then why stop at those thinkers that are most tightly bound? Thinkers distributed over multiple people have as much claim to be a mind as genes distributed over multiple individuals have of giving rise to a phenotype. Those thinking units may have slower communication links (via language rather than direct electrical stimulation, say), but does that matter? I don’t think so.
I’m not terribly excited about the mini-minds. But I do think the meta-minds are fascinating. Fascinating and under-considered. Like their evolutionary analogues, meta-minds suffer from our natural tendency to reductionism: to looking for smaller components, rather than larger scale effects.
James Lovelock put forward the idea that one can think of the whole earth as a living organism, which he named Gaia: it is autopoietic, homeostatic (within bounds), and potentially self-reproducing. A certain group of people, with a particular predisposition, decided that the meta-organism Gaia was worthy of worship. Lovelock’s academic reputation has largely been muddied by the credulous spiritualization of this group.
Its a salutary lesson, I think. For the purpose of being clear, I don’t have any desire to worship or have anyone else worship the meta-mind.