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Darwin's Intellectual Legacy to the 21st Century

Conversation:
[9.7.09]
Topic:

From the Program Notes: "Our intention is to illuminate and discuss how Darwinian thought influenced the disciplines that focus on the study the individuals (biology, neuroscience, psychology); the individual within their social interactions (anthropology, sociology, economy, political science); and how these concepts pertain, in general, to a moral philosophy.

We wish to explore how, from Darwinian thought, there emerges a vision of what it is to be a human being. And that this vision is fundamental and coherent with the entire body of accumulated scientific knowledge. With reverence for the details of their application, it is the impact of Darwin's ideas that is the reason we are celebrating Darwin's anniversary."

 

WE ARE AS GODS AND HAVE TO GET GOOD AT IT

Conversation:
[8.18.09]
Topic:

"What I'm saying now is we are as gods and have to get good at it. Necessity comes from climate change, potentially disastrous for civilization. The planet will be okay, life will be okay. We will lose vast quantities of species, probably lose the rain forests if the climate keeps heating up. So it's a global issue, a global phenomenon. It doesn't happen in just one area. The planetary perspective now is not just aesthetic. It's not just perspective. It's actually a world-sized problem that will take world sized solutions that involves forms of governance we don't have yet. It involves technologies we are just glimpsing. It involves what ecologists call ecosystem engineering. Beavers do it, earthworms do it. They don't usually do it at a planetary scale. We have to do it at a planetary scale. A lot of sentiments and aesthetics of the environmental movement stand in the way of that."

 

AMAZING BABIES

Conversation:
[8.11.09]
Topic:

"We've known for a long time that human children are the best learning machines in the universe. But it has always been like the mystery of the humming birds. We know that they fly, but we don't know how they can possibly do it. We could say that babies learn, but we didn't know how."

 

THE EVOLUTION OF COOKING

Conversation:
[8.8.09]
Topic:

"One of the great thrusts of behavioral biology for the last three or four decades has been that if you change the conditions that an animal is in, then you change the kind of behavior that is elicited. What the genetic control of behavior means is not that instincts inevitably pop out regardless of circumstances; instead, it is that we are created with a series of emotions that are appropriate for a range of circumstances. The particular set of emotions that pop out will vary within species, but they will also vary with context, and once you know them better, then you can arrange the context.... It's much better to anticipate these things, recognize the problem, and design in advance to protect."

 

MAPPING THE NEANDERTHAL GENOME

Conversation:
[7.4.09]
Topic:

"When I started out in '84/'85, intent on studying the genomes of ancient civilizations, I was, as is often the case in this kind of situation, driven by delusions of grandeur. I thought that I would be able to easily study the ancient genomes. I dreamt of addressing questions in Egyptology. For example, how do historico-political events that we read about impact the population? When Alexander the Great comes to Egypt, what is the influence on the population? Is it just a political change? The Arab Conquest: does that mean that a large part of the population is replaced? Or is it mainly a cultural change? There's no way we can answer this question from historical records. But my dream was to address questions like this. Then, after some initial success, I realized the real limitations on what I wanted to do."

 

THE PHYSICS THAT WE KNOW

Conversation:
[6.27.09]
Topic:

"We have decided, as a scientific endeavor, to extrapolate as much as we can from our knowledge of the individual processes that we can measure: evaporation from the ocean, the formation of a cloud, rainfall coming from a cloud, changes in wind patterns as a function of the pressure field, changes in the jet stream. What we have tried to do is encapsulate those small-scale processes, put them together, and see if we can predict the emerging properties of that fundamental complex system."

 

THE SIMPLIFIER

Conversation:
[6.15.09]
Topic:

"We discovered a new vein of research — the relation between physical and social or psychological concepts — that we came to by taking evolutionary principles seriously and applying them to psychology. We weren't using evolutionary psychology, which has largely been focused on mating and reproduction. Our focus, rather, was in terms of evolutionary biology and the basic principles of natural selection: and that field makes clear that humans must have had these kinds of mechanisms or these processes to guide our behavior prior to evolution or emergence of consciousness."

 

CHIMERAS OF EXPERIENCE

Conversation:
[5.21.09]
Topic:

"The paradox of modern neuroscience is that the one reality you can't describe as it is presently conceived is the only reality we'll ever know, which is the subjective first person view of things. Even if you can find the circuit of cells that gives rise to that, and you can construct a good causal demonstration that you knock out these circuit of cells, and you create a zombie; even if you do that... and I know Dennett could dismantle this argument very, very quickly ... there's still a mystery that persists, and this is the old brain-body, mind-body problem, and we don't simply feel like three pounds of meat."

 

LORD OF THE CLOUD

Conversation:
[4.23.09]
Topic:

"The central idea we were working on was this idea of de-localized information — information for which I didn't care what computer it was stored on. It didn't depend on any particular computer. I didn't know the identities of other computers in the ensemble that I was working on. I just knew myself and the cybersphere, or sometimes we called it the tuplesphere, or just a bunch of information floating around. We used the analogy — we talked about helium balloons. We used a million ways to try and explain this idea."
 

 

PRESSING QUESTIONS FOR OUR CENTURY

Conversation:
[4.14.09]
Topic:

"Science is the greatest achievement of human history so far. I say that as a huge admirer of the Renaissance and Renaissance art, music and literature, but the world-transforming power of science and the tremendous insights that we've gained show that this is an enterprise, a wonderful collective enterprise, that is a great achievement of humanity. How are we going to make more people party to that? That's a pressing question for our century."

 

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