Book Review: The Belief Instinct by Jesse Bering

The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is not about the existence/nonexistence of god. Bering believes this is a trivial question! His main interest is why most societies throughout history have believed in some sort of god or supernatural being. He scrutinises beliefs through an evolutionary psychological lens.

I think this a good no-nonsense intro into evolutionary psychology of religion. I learned about some compelling ideas in this book, such as the absolute importance of a theory of mind when it comes to belief in god.

This is a rather short book, but if you ask me, it could have been made even shorter. There are many personal anecdotes and case studies which definitely make the book more enjoyable to read, but are not essential to understand the subject.

While reading, I highlighted some key quotes on my kindle. I would like to reproduce a few of the more thoughtful ones here. More excerpts from the book could be found on this pdf
"Perceiving the supernatural isn’t magic, but something patently organic: a function of the brain."
The quote below pretty much sums up the theory of mind:
"Success for our human ancestors must have depended on being able to get inside the minds of those they lived with, second-guess them, anticipate where they were going, help them if they needed it, challenge them, or manipulate them. To do this they had to develop brains that would deliver a story about what it's like to be another person from the inside."
And this one, explains why a hyperactive theory of mind is the real reason behind the belief in god.
"So it would appear that having a theory of mind was so useful for our ancestors in explaining and predicting other people's behaviours that it has completely flooded our evolved social brains. As a result, today we overshoot our mental-state attributions to things that are, in reality, completely mindless. And all of this leads us, rather inevitably, to a very important question: What if I were to tell you that God's mental states, too, were all in your mind? That God, like a tiny speck floating at the edge of your cornea producing the image of a hazy, out-of-reach orb accompanying your every turn, was in fact a psychological illusion, a sort of evolved blemish etched onto the core cognitive substrate of your brain? It may feel as if there is something grander out there . . . watching, knowing, caring. Perhaps even judging. But, in fact, that's just your overactive theory of mind. In reality, there is only the air you breathe."
I particularly loved the following statement on the question of fairness of ones life. It's astonishing that even people who are scientifically-minded don't can't easily escape this trap.
"Life isn't fair. But it isn't unfair either. It just is. The very asking of the question, "why do bad things happen to good people? presupposes an intelligent, morally concerned agent, or at least a mindful instigator, behind the scenes."
This one is actually from Paul Bloom, as quoted by Jesse Bering in the book:
"The driving force behind natural selection is survival and reproduction, not truth."
All in all, Bering thinks belief in god has been an adaptive illusion in the evolution of our species; an illusion which is no longer relevant but it is hard to get rid of.

Book Review: The Age of Spiritual Machines by Ray Kurzweil

The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence by Ray Kurzweil
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Age of Spiritual Machines, is an attention-grabbing and misleading title given to a decent futuristic book. I have long wanted to read a book by Ray Kurzweil. He is one of the most prolific futurist writers. The news of him becoming the Director of Engineering at Google, re-sparked my interest in him.

I enjoyed the book, and found it quite accessible. Almost too accessible! Considering the complex nature of the subject-matter, technicalities are kept to a minimum. This is a good thing or a bad thing depending on how well-versed you are on the subject. A wide range of topics are covered in this book, including the human brain, neural nets, future of AI, simulated realities, nanobots, transhumanism, technological singularity and self-replicating machines. I'm probably not going to read other titles by Kurzweil anytime soon, not because I have not enjoyed this one, but since the same material is likely to have been covered in them.

As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from the book.

  1. Can intelligence create another intelligence more intelligent than itself? [Everything pretty much boils down to this question.]
  2. Once a computer achieves a human level of intelligence, it will necessarily roar past it.
  3. The system designers don’t directly program a solution; rather, they let one emerge through an iterative process of simulated competition and improvement. [Evolutionary algorithms rock!]
  4.  Inevitably, there must be planets out there that are covered with a vast sea of self-replicating nanobots. [Even if there's a small error in the coding for self-replication of few nanobots, it can, in principle, go on ad infinitum. Scary stuff!]
  5. The feedback is used by the neural net to adjust the strengths of each interneuronal connection. Connections that were consistent with the right answer are made stronger. Over time the neural net organizes itself to provide the correct answers without coaching.
  6. Well before the twenty-first century is completed, people will port their entire mind file to the new thinking technology. There will be nostalgia for our humble carbon-based roots, but there is nostalgia for vinyl records also.
  7. Life on Earth has mastered the ultimate goal of nanotechnology, which is self- replication.
  8. $1000 of computing in 2060 will have the computational capacity of a trillion human brains.
  9. The human brainʹs density of computation is about 2 cpspcmm (calculations per second per cubic micrometer). That is not very high‐ nanotube circuitry, which has already been demonstrated, is potentially more than a trillion times higher.
  10. Like the mammalian brains on which it is loosely modeled, a neural net starts out ignorant. The neural net's teacher- a human or a computer program rewards the neural net when it generates the right output and punishes it when it does not. This feedback is in turn used by the neural net to adjust the strengths of each interneuronal connection. Connections that were consistent with the right answer are made stronger.

Book Review: The History of Life by Michael J. Benton

The History of Life: A Very Short IntroductionThe History of Life: A Very Short Introduction by Michael J. Benton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book reminded me a little bit of The Ancestors Tale, albeit the latter traces the history of life in reverse chronological order. The author of this title in the OUP's A Very Short Introduction series, is Michael J. Benton. He is a distinguished professor of vertebrate palaeontology at the University of Bristol.

The book starts off with the basics and builds up, chapter by chapter, on top of the previously covered topics. The introduction is a good summary of cladistics, phylogenetics, and the concepts of synapomorphy and evolutionary trees. I'm going to write a brief summary of each chapter in order to solidify my knowledge, and also to give an overall impression of the book for the prospective reader.

The first chapter is on the Origin of life. It begins with the search for the earliest discovered evidence of life on earth, and deals with the particular difficulties of dating the oldest rocks. Of course, there would be no discussion about the origin of life without mentioning of the Miller-Urey Experiment. This is followed by the evaluation of different theories such as hyperthermophilic theory, RNA world hypothesis and their likely role in the primitive self-replicating vesicles. It continues with the rise of the first fossils: basically microfossils and stromatolites. There is a long gap between the 3.4 billion-year-old stromatolites and microfossils and the next occurring fossils in the geological record.

Chapter 2 deals with the origin of sex. The British evolutionary thinker John Maynard Smith has talked about the two-fold cost of sex. In sexual organisms only one of the sexes can bear offspring, and half of ones offspring's genome is shared/combined with another member of the population with opposite sex (contributing only half the genome halves the fitness).

Next, the aurhors asks the question; which came first, Eukaryotes or Prokaryotes? The answer seems simple enough; prokaryotes. The main evidence for this comes from the endosymbiosis theory that proposes eukaryotes originated when large prokaryote cells engulfed smaller prokaryotes. This chapter goes on into some details of great oxygenation event in about 2.3 BYA which made all the subsequent evolutionary innovations possible.

The origin of multicellularity is another topic explored in this chapter. The benefits of multicellularity include; better feeding, predation, locomotion, and infinite morphological possibilities lacking in unicellular life. Thereupon, the author scrutinizes the Neoproterozoic snowball-Earth hypothesis which states the earth was once completely frozen over. This chapter ends with an apt description of the wonderful Ediacaran fauna found in Ediacara Hills by Reg Sprigg. I can’t believe I have spent the last couple of years so close to this outstanding discovery in South Australia! :-)

Chapter 3 is all about the Cambrian explosion. I especially liked the depth in which the author goes into explaining the origin of the hard body parts and skeletons when they first evolved here. In the part on trilobite evolution, he mentions how paleontologists have been able to dissect the trilobite’s eye (the lens is a calcite crystal that survives unaltered by fossilization), and they have look through them to see the world as a trilobite might have seen the world 500 million years ago. On the Brachiopod evolution, Benton concludes that even though they have survived until today, they were much more prominent in the Palaeozoic era.

The evolutionary arms race between predator and prey must have been a major selective force driving the magnificent radiation of the early sea creatures. The apparent mismatch between molecular data and the fossil evidence of metazoans is discussed later in the chapter. The term 'phylogenetic fuse' is used to describe such a state, where a major group (here metazoans) diverges, as it’s indicated by the molecular data, but the fossil record appears much later in time.

Chapter 4 is all about the origin of life on land. All life on land came from the sea, including land plants which colonized the land in the late Ordovician. It is an interesting fact that before this date there was no soil on land! The land plants transformed the surface of the planet forever. The main challenges of the terrestrial environments for the first colonizers were desiccation, support, and upright growth against a strong force of gravity. The origin of tetrapods is next. Tiktaalik is a fish which fits the bill as a transitional fossil in sea-to-land evolution. It is fascinating to observe that Pentadactyly (having five digits) was not a fixed feature in the early tetrapod evolution. As it’s put in the book, “There is nothing fundamental about five digits, and indeed modern work in developmental biology shows that this is true.”

Chapter 5 is focused on the evolution of forests and giant flying insects in the Carboniferous. The chapter end with a discussion of the amniotic egg which was an evolutionary invention that allowed the first reptiles to colonize the land more effectively that previous radiations.

The last three chapters are devoted to different theories of causes of mass extinctions, paleoclimatology, modern ecosystems and last bot least, human evolution. On human evolution, the author rightly points out that the occurrence of the genus homo has not been the goal of evolution. Cockroaches are as much the pinnacle of evolution as are we. Evolution is not teleological, and odes not have any predetermined plans. If you could rewind the tape of life and replay it, it is extremely unlikely that humanoids would have risen again.

Book Review: The Story of the Human Body by Daniel E. Lieberman

The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It should be stated from the outset that this is not a 'self-help' book, but it definitely does raise awareness of some aspects of our modern lives which are silently and steadily harming us. Lieberman recognized the root of many of the common chronic non-infectious diseases to be evolutionary in nature, specifically ‘evolutionary mismatches’. He persuasively argues that our bodies which are molded and shaped by the adaptive force of natural selection over millions of years are no match for the abrupt changes brought about by our rapid cultural evolution.

Think of reading these very words. Evolutionary speaking, it is really weird that a bipedal primate spends hours upon hours seating on a chair, and fixating her eyes on a monotonous black and white pattern. This is just one of many examples of how so much of our mundane activities are in fact quite bizarre, given what we know about human evolution. Undoubtedly, the propensity for adaptive behaviour is one of the hallmarks of our species. It has given us a tremendous selective edge to be creative and resourceful in manipulating our environment to our benefit. Lieberman doesn’t deny this fact. However, he believes the extent of which we have changed our environment over just few centuries, or indeed the last few decades is unprecedented by any prior technological innovation. In other words, even though we are a highly resilient and adaptable species, maybe this time, the changes are just too much.

What’s the solution? Throwing away all the comfy technological advances and returning back to the good ol' hunting and gathering? Certainly not! That would be foolish. But, also treating our bodies as if they have changed profoundly since the time we were hunter gatherers is foolish. To be sure, we have changed since then, as it’s evident in some local populations that can break down lactose right into adulthood. Unfortunately, evolution has not had enough time to deal with many accelerated novel cultural changes. Think of the copious amount of sugar, abundant processed foods, comfortable sneakers, eyeglasses, elevators, cars, chairs, air conditioning, and super markets. We are living our lives in an unnaturally prolonged positive energy balance. Meaning, we eat more, while doing less.

The author is nothing if not unambitious! Even after we are armed with all these knowledge, we still want that damn donut, don’t we?! Experiments repeatedly reveal that children and adults instinctively prefer foods that we evolved to crave (sweet, starchy, salty and fatty). Also, factors like advertising and peer pressure strongly affect our decisions. The last chapter’s focus is on this problem. What do we do with this knowledge? How do we change things for the better? The author recommends changing the environment itself as the most effectual solution. Humans sometimes need to be encouraged and even obliged to act in their own best interest. Take, for example, smoking. Of course adults have free will, but in the recent decades we have finally recognized it as a public health issue. For example, we have regulations prohibiting sale to minors. The same kind of logic can be applied to the food industry and maybe even to physical education.

In the end, we can’t eliminate all the risk factors and live completely tuned in to our evolutionary heritage. Even if we did, evolution’s job is not to keep us in maximum health anyway. We probably should find a middle ground between living an austere simple life of our ancestors, and a soft indulgent technically enhanced life.

Book Review: Philosophy of Science by Samir Okasha

Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I finished reading the book about a month ago, but I’m reviewing it now. As most Oxford Short Introduction Series books go, this is an easy-to-read, concise guide to the field. Philosophy of science is a very broad subject, so inevitably some corners are cut when you have to fit everything in 144 pages.

The book has 7 chapters. The first chapter deals with the question of ‘What science is’. The author gives some illuminating examples from the history of science, mostly from physics and biology. Then, he expounds on the concepts of pseudoscience and Popper’s demarcation criterion. Thereupon, he uses Marx and Freud’s theories as examples of un-falsifiable, pseudo-scientific claims.

Chapter 2 starts with defining induction/deduction. Subsequently, he delves into Hume’s problem of induction. When dealing with the problem, he brings about all the answers from different perspectives. Not a single answer is treated as the one true solution to the problem. I guess the reader must make their own mind up. I also liked the discussion on different interpretations of probability. Unfortunately, it’s all too common to equate probabilities with proportions. For example, if you read that the probability of an Australian living to 100 years of age is 1 in 10, then you assume that this is equivalent of saying one-tenth of Australians live to the age of 100. No, they don’t!

Chapter 3 goes into more technical stuff like Hempel’s covering law, which states that scientific questions are usually ‘explanation-seeking why questions’. Apparently, the concept of ‘explanation’ in science is not as simple as it may seem. The concept of causality just adds up to problem. I need to read more on these problems.

The next chapter is about realism/anti-realism debate among philosophers of science. I’m more inclined towards realism. Even though I always thought this is an obvious fact, when you look more closely, it gets messy and complicated. Still, I think realism is the way to go.

Chapter 5 is all about Kuhn, paradigms and scientific revolutions. I may not agree with the extreme interpretations of these ideas, but they sure make you more humble! I suppose understanding the psychological and social underpinnings of science can lead to a less idealistic and simplistic view of how science works. They should not however undermine the value of science. Notwithstanding all its limitations, science is still the best thing we have. Go science!

Chapter 6 is comprised of three case studies from physics, biology and psychology. They were all very interesting, but quite limited, and they left me with many unanswered questions. Likewise, the last chapter held much promise, but again was too brief to cover many intriguing ideas about the future of science. I give the book 4/5 stars. I recommend it for those who want a basic introduction to philosophy of science.