Adonis Diaries

Talking about Darwin’s strange inversion of reasoning

Posted on: January 15, 2018

 

Talking about Darwin’s strange inversion of reasoning

Dan Dennett. Philosopher, cognitive scientist
Dennett argues that human consciousness and free will are the result of physical processes. His latest book is “Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking,” Full bio
I’m going around the world giving talks about Darwin, and usually what I’m talking about is Darwin’s strange inversion of reasoning. Now that title, that phrase, comes from a critic, an early critic, and this is a passage that I just love, and would like to read for you.

0:28 “In the theory with which we have to deal, Absolute Ignorance is the artificer; so that we may enunciate as the fundamental principle of the whole system, that, in order to make a perfect and beautiful machine, it is not requisite to know how to make it. This proposition will be found on careful examination to express, in condensed form, the essential purport of the Theory, and to express in a few words all Mr. Darwin’s meaning; who, by a strange inversion of reasoning, seems to think Absolute Ignorance fully qualified to take the place of Absolute Wisdom in the achievements of creative skill.”

Exactly. And it is a strange inversion. A creationist pamphlet has this wonderful page in it: “Test Two: Do you know of any building that didn’t have a builder? Yes/No. Do you know of any painting that didn’t have a painter? Yes/No. Do you know of any car that didn’t have a maker? Yes/No. If you answered ‘Yes’ for any of the above, give details.”

I mean, it really is a strange inversion of reasoning. You would have thought it stands to reason that design requires an intelligent designer. But Darwin shows that it’s just false.

Today, though, I’m going to talk about Darwin’s other strange inversion, which is equally puzzling at first, but in some ways just as important.

It stands to reason that we love chocolate cake because it is sweet. Guys go for girls like this because they are sexy. We adore babies because they’re so cute. And, of course, we are amused by jokes because they are funny.

This is all backwards. It is.

And Darwin shows us why. Let’s start with sweet. Our sweet tooth is basically an evolved sugar detector, because sugar is high energy, and it’s just been

It wasn’t designed for chocolate cake. Chocolate cake is a supernormal stimulus. The term is owed to Niko Tinbergen, who did his famous experiments with gulls, where he found that that orange spot on the gull’s beak — if he made a bigger, oranger spot the gull chicks would peck at it even harder.

It was a hyperstimulus for them, and they loved it. What we see with, say, chocolate cake is it’s a supernormal stimulus to tweak our design wiring. And there are lots of supernormal stimuli; chocolate cake is one. There’s lots of supernormal stimuli for sexiness.

And there’s even supernormal stimuli for cuteness.

Here’s a pretty good example. It’s important that we love babies, and that we not be put off by, say, messy diapers. So babies have to attract our affection and our nurturing, and they do.

And, by the way, a recent study shows that mothers prefer the smell of the dirty diapers of their own baby. So nature works on many levels here. But now, if babies didn’t look the way they do — if babies looked like this, that’s what we would find adorable, that’s what we would find — we would think, oh my goodness, do I ever want to hug that. This is the strange inversion.

Finally what about funny.

My answer is, it’s the same story.  This is the hard one, the one that isn’t obvious. That’s why I leave it to the end. And I won’t be able to say too much about it. But you have to think evolutionary, you have to think, what hard job that has to be done — it’s dirty work, somebody’s got to do it — is so important to give us such a powerful, inbuilt reward for it when we succeed.

Now, I think we’ve found the answer — I and a few of my colleagues. It’s a neural system that’s wired up to reward the brain for doing a grubby clerical job.

Our bumper sticker for this view is that this is the joy of debugging.

Now I’m not going to have time to spell it all out, but I’ll just say that only some kinds of debugging get the reward.

And what we’re doing is we’re using humor as a sort of neuroscientific probe by switching humor on and off, by turning the knob on a joke — now it’s not funny … oh, now it’s funnier … now we’ll turn a little bit more … now it’s not funny — in this way, we can actually learn something about the architecture of the brain, the functional architecture of the brain.

Matthew Hurley is the first author of this. We call it the Hurley Model. He’s a computer scientist, Reginald Adams a psychologist, and there I am, and we’re putting this together into a book.

Why are babies cute? Why is cake sweet? Philosopher Dan Dennett has answers you wouldn’t expect, as he shares evolution’s counterintuitive reasoning on cute, sweet and sexy things (plus a new theory from Matthew Hurley on why jokes are funny).

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