Creationism Exam Question Scrapped

The BBC reports that a question on creationism in the GCSE biology examination has been scrapped following complaints. Here's an extract from the news article:

An exam board has scrapped a GCSE biology question about creationism after admitting it could be misleading. The Assessment and Qualifications Alliance paper asked pupils how the Bible's theory of creation seeks to explain the origins of life. AQA stressed that pupils taking its biology GCSE were not required to study creationism as a scientific theory. But it admitted that describing it as a "theory" could be misleading, and said it would review the wording of papers.

The article also notes that "candidates were expected to have some understanding of [creationism]". Indeed, how are evolutionary theories to be fully appreciated if they are not contrasted against something? (Ideally, they would be contrasted against each other, but that's too advanced a topic for high school students).

But there's a grave error here that isn't covered by the BBC article: talk about "the Bible's theory of creation" is entirely misleading, since the book of Genesis provides an account of creation, not a theory. Most Christians interpret the opening chapters of Genesis allegorically. It is creation scientists (i.e. Young Earth Creationists) who deploy scripture as the foundation for their theory (i.e. explanatory principle), first proposed in the 1960s, although of course natural theology goes back far further.

As a current affairs subject, I contend that the topic of creationism (and in particular, the clash between proponents of this view and staunch defenders of evolutionary theories) is relevant in the science classroom, although only as a minor side topic. Furthermore, it makes more sense here than in a high school religious studies class, which may cover origin beliefs but not the creation science movement, which is a science or philosophy topic.

I continue to support Professor Reese's claim that teachers should be allowed to (briefly) discuss creationism when a student comes from a family which holds these beliefs. Shouldn't we be encouraging debate in our classrooms, rather than stiffling it by asserting dogmatic claims as to the boundaries of science?


Myths of Evolution

This serial ran from January 15th to February 26th 2009, in six parts. Originally written as a throwaway Focus essay, it rapidly became apparent that it would work better as a serial. The purpose of the exercise was to identify specific stories that have been used to present various evolutionary theories in the popular media of the last 150 years. Most of these stories are metaphysical in nature, and for each such "myth", an alternative spin is offered to show that while science is in principle neutral, the way it is presented is rarely free of bias. Each of the parts ends with a link to the next one, so to read the entire serial, simply click on part one, below, and then follow the "next" links to read on.

Here are the six parts:

  1. Scientific Metaphysics
  2. The Ladder of Progress
  3. Only the Strong Survive
  4. The Selfish Gene
  5. Kin Selection
  6. Survival of the Fittest

This serial commemorates the bicentennial of Darwin's birth, and the 150 year anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. It is dedicated to the memory of Stephen Jay Gould.

A new book, The Mythology of Evolution, inspired by this serial is due from Zer0 Books in 2012.


Myths of Evolution (6): Survival of the Fittest

Dropletworld Finally, perhaps the most famous myth about evolution: “survival of the fittest”. This is often taken to mean that “only the strong survive”, which I discussed previously, but this radically understates the mechanics of the processes of natural selection. It is often pointed out that this phrase – “survival of the fittest” – is a tautology, and indeed, this criticism is correct. Since “fittest” means “best adapted to survive”, this claim is entirely circular. This isn't an argument against the various theories of evolution, per se, since these do not rely upon this tautology, but it invalidates a lot of lay thinking on the matter.

All of the previous myths I have examined relate in some manner to this central myth of “survival of the fittest”: the idea that “only the strong survive” is directly related, erroneously equating 'strength' with 'fitness'. The ladder of progress (incorrectly) assumes the winnowing of the simpler forms on the mistaken belief that 'more advanced' equates to 'fitter'. The “selfish gene” applies the “survival of the fittest” myth to genetics, arguably obscuring what is valuable in the gene-centric view. Kin selection correctly observes that co-operation is an advantage, but tries to shoehorn this into the “survival of the fittest” paradigm, mangling its meaning. All these various myths can be arguably traced back to the application of Darwin's ideas to economics by Herbert Spencer, who first coined the phrase “survival of the fittest”, a view that had been distorted by his prior metaphysical belief in the primacy of progress.

The myth “survival of the fittest” seems to  say: survival is a game and it is won by those who are best at playing it (the “fittest”). But this is supposed to be a story which encapsulates what evolutionary theories teach us about natural history, and in this role it is remarkably ill chosen. Competition for resources and the struggle for survival are part of natural history, and one of the driving forces in natural selection, but theories of evolution demonstrate that competition for mates is just as important as competition for survival in driving the selection process (Shall we dub this “propagation of the sexiest”?). In many social animals the ability to co-operate to protect the young is more important than intra-species competition in terms of the continuation of the species - does “survival of the fittest” really encourage us to consider co-operative behaviours as advantageous? On a wider geological scale, punctuated equilibrium shows that when the conditions change what once was  “fittest” becomes extinct - an aspect of lottery entirely elided in the idea of “survival of the fittest”. Except in the tautological sense that “fittest” means “best adapted” this myth is rather empty of applicable meaning.

In recasting this core myth into a new form, we can draw upon the new stories I have been suggesting. The chain of inheritance (replacing the ladder of progress) stresses the idea that every living species is connected to the beginning of life by an imaginary tether along which various beneficial abilities are inherited, since advantages persist (replacing the selfish gene). Those animals which live today are here in part by luck (or fate, for those whose metaphysics lie in this direction), and in part because of highly adaptable ancestors that thrived when other species became extinct during times of extreme upheaval: this is the survival of the adaptable (replacing the idea that only the strong survive). Finally, for those many species fortunate enough to have inherited a trust mechanism from their ancestors – and this appears to be all mammals and birds, as well as many reptiles, fish and even (in a very different manner) some insects – future survival depends in part upon co-operation, since trust is an advantage (replacing kin selection).

These new myths don't suggest a story in which “survival of the fittest” would be the apposite adage. They rather suggest that the history of life on our planet reflects a refinement of possibilities. This is not to deny that competition for resources or the background struggle for survival are a key part of natural history, nor that natural selection can be a harsh process, but focussing solely on these aspects of the history of life risks radically curtailing the scope of our understanding seeing only the warp of the tapestry of life, and missing the weft. The fox preys upon the rabbit, but in doing so the possibilities inherent in rabbits become refined and in reacting to these refinements, the possibilities of the fox are also gradually refined.

From the raw experiments born of the exuberance of life come new possibilities – such as the potential of the eurkaryotic cell created from the co-operation of single-celled bacteria (endosymbiotic theory) , or the dramatic potential of cell differentiation this created (the likely cause of the Cambrian explosion). Life has sprung into diverse existence, and been savagely curtailed by disasters and extinctions, but throughout the unfathomable duration of geological history it is clear that evolution has created new possibilities, new and amazing forms of life, as well as novel ways for these creatures to interact, such as the potential for co-operation on a cellular level (endosymbiosis) and a macroscopic level (trust). Seen through this lens, our evolutionary history tells the story of the gradual refinement of the possibilities of life – from which process emerges all the many living things of our planet, including you and I, and everything to follow.

Alternative myth: Refinement of Possibilities

A new serial begins in April.


Deconstructing Temperament

Continuing on from my attempts to devise a hypothetical underpinning for Flow, I now present the equivalent speculations for Temperament Theory.

Roots

This post will mean nothing to you unless you are familiar with either Temperament Theory or Myers-Briggs Typology. This post builds upon various previous pieces posted here, including:

This isn’t the first time I have attempted to tie Temperament Theory to neurology. If you are pretty clued up on the subject, you can read my amusing first attempt at speculating in this area, based solely on my understanding of the functions of digital neural networks.

Disclaimer

The idea that people type perfectly into fixed patterns is not something most psychologists who work with Temperament Theory uphold. Rather, we all express these different patterns at different times, and to different degrees. But we can usually pick out a greater influence of one or more patterns over the others in the case of individuals. In this piece, I suggest that these behavioural patterns can be linked to a neurobiological substructure.

Rational (NT)

The Rational temperament is the easiest of the four behavioural patterns to link to neurobiology, since it is relatively clear that the elements of this pattern – precise abstract thinking, interest in efficient operations, pragmatism, focus on structure, problem solving – correlate with the actions of the decision centre of the brain (the orbito-frontal cortex), at least as a hypothetical assertion.

Since it now seems that areas of the brain vary in size according to the degree that they are used, it should be possible to test this claim by comparing the size of the orbito-frontal cortex in those who type as NT/Rational, to those who type weakly in this area.

Guardian (SJ)

Again, this one is not too difficult to speculate at the neurological level. The Guardian pattern is associated with organisations and logistics, the maintenance of procedures and systems, duty and trust, and goal-orientation. This strongly suggests a neural system linking the association areas (hippocampus) with the pleasure centre (nucleus accumbens).

Indeed, the Judging axis of Myers-Briggs (which is an aspect of the Guardian pattern), which is associated with goal-orientation seems to strongly correlate with increased reward (increased release of dopamine) from the pleasure centre.

The affiliative aspect of the Guardian pattern (belonging to organisations and identities) presumably relates to the social centre (hypothalamus), but again, linked to memory via the association areas. In other words: your memory tells you who and what to trust (based on your prior experience), and your hypothalamus thus generates trust and a sense of safety (belonging) when you are with those people you identify with.

Thus in the Guardian pattern established norms (learned by the association areas) create goals involving the maintenance of systems and execution of logistics, and these goals release dopamine, thus reinforcing those behaviours.

Artisan (SP)

Here, I have to take something more of an intuitive leap, but I believe the Artisan pattern can be understood in part through the mechanics of Flow I described last week. Since the Artisan pattern is process-oriented (expressed by the Perceiving axis in Myers Briggs, which becomes subsumed in the Artisan pattern in Temperament Theory), it seems reasonable to suppose that this behavioural pattern relates to the steady release of dopamine in the pursuit of uncertain outcome in preference to the pursuit of the goal itself. In other words: for people in whom the Artisan pattern is more strongly expressed than Guardian, taking actions is marginally more compelling than achieving goals. Perhaps it will transpire that the differential between the dopamine released during the pursuit of uncertain goals and the dopamine released on achieving a goal is less pronounced in the Artisan pattern than in the Guardian pattern.

The pattern itself is associated with the desire to have an impact through freedom of action, a concrete pragmatism, spontaneous creativity, hedonism, impulsiveness and sometimes compulsiveness. A weaker relationship between association areas and the pleasure centre, coupled with an increased influence of the sensory cortices (with their associated power to release dopamine via curiosity) may be a factor here.

Artisan is rendered as SP (Sensing-Perceiving bias) in Myers-Briggs terminology, but note that unlike the other Sensing pattern (Guardian, which is SJ – Sensing-Judging bias) there is no obvious role for the hypothalamus here. The Artisan pattern thus veers towards independent behaviour, in common with the Rational pattern (thus suggesting the basis of their common link, a focus on the pragmatic over the affiliative).

Idealist (NF)

Finally, the Idealist pattern is associated with abstract language use (in common with the Rational temperament), a search for meaning and significance, and a focus on motivations, with an emphasis on empathy and unity.

Sharing in common with the Guardian pattern the affiliative bias, it is likely that the social centre (hypothalamus) plays a role in this pattern, but whereas for Guardian I suggested a link between this brain region and memory (i.e. with the association areas), for Idealist this doesn’t seem to be the case. An Idealist is likely to feel a sense of unity with almost any person, which may reflect the role of the hypothalamus when it is involved in rather different neural connections. It is difficult not to suggest the mirror neurons as an element in empathy, and the parietal lobe has been linked with both mirror neurons and empathy, suggesting its involvement with this pattern.

A likely additional element is the fusiform gyrus, a part of the temporal lobe about which there is still some dispute, but which has been linked to both language skills and abstraction (as well as face and body recognition and the processing of colour information). Informally, I have observed a greater interest in colour among people who express Idealist, which might serve as an additional supporting factor, however tenuous at this point.

Summary of Components

Modern Temperament Theory works on the basis of three axes of comparison: abstract versus concrete language skills, affiliative versus pragmatic actions, and structure versus motive focus. Each of the four Temperament patterns is distinguished by these three axes, even though in principle only two would be required to generate four patterns.

Based upon my hypothesis above, the following links between these axes of distinction and various areas of the brain would be suggested:

  • Abstract: either decision centre/orbito-frontal cortex (in Rational) or language centre/fusiform gyrus (in Idealist) or both with different degrees of emphasis.

  • Concrete: either the various sensory cortices, or the memory association areas/hippocampus, or both (in both Guardian and Artisan).

  • Affiliative: hypothalamus (in both Guardian and Idealist), coupled either with the memory association areas (in Guardian) or empathy regions i.e. mirror neurons/parietal lobe (in Idealist).

  • Pragmatic: probably the orbito-frontal cortex (in both Rational and Artisan), either in isolation (in Rational) or in concert with the memory association areas/hippocampus (in Artisan).

  • Structure: either decision centre/orbit-frontal cortex (in Rational) or the memory association areas/hippocampus (in Guardian), or possibly both with differing degree of emphasis.

  • Motive: either mirror neurons/parietal lobe (in Idealist), or anticipation of reward in the context of the pleasure centre/nucleus accumbens, possibly with an adjunct role for the orbito-frontal cortex (in Artisan).

Of course, some of these correlations begin to look somewhat forced if the hypothetical mechanisms can be validated, but this was always likely to be the case in such a coarse-grained system.

This in turn allows us to suggest the equivalent substitutions for the Myers-Briggs axes as follows:

  • Introvert/Extravert: currently not covered in this hypothesis.

  • Sensing/Intuitive: identical the Abstract versus Concrete distinction, above i.e. memory association areas/hippocampus and sensory cortices for Sensing versus decision centre/orbito-frontal cortex and/or language centre/fusiform gyrus.

  • Thinking/Feeling: compounded from Pragmatic-Structure versus Affiliative-Motive, above, that is, decision centre/orbito-frontal cortex versus hypothalamus and/or mirror neurons/parietal lobe.

  • Judging/Perceiving: pleasure centre/nucleus accumbens, in two modes: goal-oriented (i.e. seeking maximum dopamine) in Judging versus process-oriented (i.e. seeking continuous supply of dopamine during pursuit of uncertain reward) in Percieving.

Notice how the correlations for the Myers-Briggs axis have little in common with the axes of comparison in modern Temperament Theory, reflecting the different assumptions behind both systems.

Conclusion

According to the hypothesis presented here, the following components represent the underlying elements of the neurobiological systems which in turn generate common recurrent patterns of observable behaviour reported by both Myers-Briggs typology and modern Temperament Theory:

  • Pleasure centre (nucleus accumbens)

  • Decision centre (orbito-frontal cortex)

  • Language centre (fusiform gyrus)

  • Association areas (hippocampus)

  • Sensory cortices

  • Social centre (hypothalamus)

  • Mirror neurons (parietal lobe et al)

As a game designer and not a neurological researcher, I am not in a position to investigate this further, but a research team consisting of both psychologists and neurobiologists should be able to investigate these claims, should anyone be sufficiently motivated to do so.

That just about does it for the speculative neurobiology for now. I'll try and get some specific games-related pieces onto ihobo in the near future.


Myths of Evolution (5): Kin Selection

Cleaner wrasse As with “the selfish gene”, kin selection is a valid perspective which manages to become misleading by missing the point of what it is trying to explain. The idea behind it, developed by J.B.S. Haldane and W.D. Hamilton in the late 1950's and early 1960's, is simply that the behaviour of a great many organisms include the risk or sacrifice of the individual for the benefit of relatives – for instance, alarm calling in squirrels (which puts the caller at greater risk from predators), or sterile worker bees who will never breed. According to conventional Darwinian thinking, natural selection should (supposedly) eliminate such behaviours (at least when considered from the gene-centric view), so kin selection was introduced to explain the apparent anomaly.

But there is no anomaly to explain here: the assumption that natural selection cannot favour the risk or sacrifice of individuals rests on a chain of inferences linking behaviour to strict genetics, which as already discussed is a flimsy argument. When we think of “advantages persisting” instead of “selfish genes”, it becomes clearer that co-operation will not be eliminated by natural selection – it will in fact be selected for whenever it is advantageous. As Peter Kropotkin observed in the 1890s, co-operation and mutual aid contribute significantly to the survival of species, since a group of animals can achieve more than the individual members can on their own. The rise of humanity as a species appears to have been significantly facilitated by its capacity to act as a group.

The power of co-operation even extends into the world of plants: Allen Herre and Elizabeth Arnold discovered that plants defend themselves from fungal infection by hosting a population of symbiotic fungal lifeforms (known as endophytes). Throughout the natural world, examples of beneficial co-operation – symbiosis – can be found. In almost every environment, one can find examples of genetically distinct organisms which co-operate, and thus gain advantages in survival and reproduction.

Furthermore, as Lynn Margulis has explicated, all multi-cellular life operates as a consequence of symbiotic co-operation between micro-organisms which have become so reliant upon one another that we mistake their colonies for individual animals. This viewpoint, which is referred to as endosymbiotic theory, originates in the work of the Russian botanist Konstantin Mereschkowski, who in 1905 observed that cell division in chloroplasts mirrored that in free-living cyanobacteria.

You and I are the product of co-operation between billions of cells (closely related to bacteria) which came together to act as one – the mitochondria (cellular powerhouse) and other organelles in each of your cells descend from bacteria which began to work closely together between 1.6 and 2 billion years ago. This astonishing evolutionary development, along with other symbiotic adaptations, have had as great a role in the development of life on Earth as competition between species.

On the macroscopic scale in which we are more familiar, the existence of social animals who co-operate for mutual benefit is another overt sign of the benefits of co-operation. Although it is misleading to conflate biological mechanisms with behaviour, the hormone and neurotransmitter oxytocin appears to be the constitutive mechanism by which trust operates. Almost all vertebrate species possess a chemically similar protein, which appears to have originally been involved in water regulation. From amphibians onwards, however, there has been a trend of increasing capacity for trust between animals – something we are most familiar among mammals, who form packs and other groups for mutual benefit, but which is also found in the flocking of birds, and even in reptiles and fish. Oxytocin and other related proteins also seem to play a critical role in the formation of families (a large quantity of oxytocin is released during childbirth), one of the most important survival benefits found in the natural world.

The extent to which co-operation affords advantage is apparent in the prevalence of mutual aid in the ocean. Coral reefs, which are nature's cosmopolitan cities, contain species such as cleaner wrasse (pictured above) and cleaner shrimp which remove parasites and dead tissue, even from within the mouths of other fish who do not harm the cleaning animal. Recent observations have shown dozens of sea snakes co-operating not only with each other but also with goatfish and trevally in an astonishing display of multi-species collaboration, dramatically depicted in the recent Planet Earth nature documentary. This is not to deny that competition between and within species does not also occur, nor to claim that savage acts do not happen in the natural world, but there is no reason (other than a metaphysical commitment) to deny that symbiosis and other forms of co-operation are also a key part of the story of life.

All of which goes to demonstrate why co-operation is so well represented throughout biology: it is an advantage so powerful, whenever species stumble upon it, it tends to persist. Rather than trying to shoehorn this observation into older models (as with kin selection), perhaps we might consider a new story which captures the incredible role of co-operation in evolution. Simple lifeforms co-operate because it's in their mutual benefit, and advantages tend to persist, but more complex life (such as humans) co-operate not just because it is immediately advantageous but also because we have inherited a biological mechanism which facilitates the formation of trusting relationships – primarily with our relatives, but potentially with anyone. The story that trust is an advantage runs contrary to the usual mythologies of evolution, but it is just as valid, and far more optimistic.

Alternative myth: Trust is an Advantage

Next Week, the Final Part: Myth #5: Survival of the Fittest


Deconstructing Flow

What are the neurological underpinnings of the experience of Flow described by Csikszentmihalyi? Do we know enough about the brain to speculate?

Roots

This piece explores the concept of Flow, which I am assuming the reader is already familiar with, since the purpose of this piece is speculative discourse, not instruction. It is not about videogames – when I have finished this exploration, I have some specific points to make in that context, but that will come later. The following pieces may be essential to appreciating my train of thought:

  • Paragraph six of this piece on videogame difficulty (the paragraph accompanying the graph of flow) describes Flow in a nutshell.

  • The piece on Why You Play Games is also useful, particularly the brain diagram, and an appreciation for the reward system and the role of dopamine.

Disclaimer

This account necessarily takes a reductive view of behaviour. I don't believe that any account of behaviour solely in terms of parts of the brain, neurotransmitters or other reductive elements can ever be complete: one must also take account of the complete experience, and the context of that experience. However, since my express goal is to couple Csikszentmihalyi's psychological observations with a hypothetical neurobiological model, it is necessary to focus on the reductive elements to achieve this goal.

Neurotransmitters and Flow

The Flow channel draws upon three specific concepts: first, there is optimal experience (which is Flow itself) which corresponds with the Flow channel. Second, anxiety, which occurs when the challenges outstrips the skills of the subject. Finally, boredom, which occurs when the skills of the subject outstrip the degree of challenge.

What is the neurology of anxiety? This is easy – the neurotransmitter epinephrine (adrenaline) underlies both excitement and fear, with anxiety occurring when the fear centre (amygdala) perceives threat, loss of control or a similar problem.

What is the neurology of boredom? This is trickier – here we are not looking for the presence of particular neurotransmitters but their absence. Psychologists note that depression and boredom are related, which suggests boredom is related to serotonin, which is involved in maintaining a feeling of well-being. But I rather suspect boredom is simply the absence of epinephrine – which is to say, rather obviously, that boredom is the same as the absence of excitement.

If this is the case, then one dimension of the neurology of Flow is simply epinephrine, which is to say, excitement. This makes sense: if an aspect of Flow is engagement, then feeling a certain degree of excitement in a task is potentially a requirement for engagement. This degree of excitement may be very low, or it could be very high – observationally, we can distinguish between the the Flow of a test pilot or racing car driver, the Flow of a crossword puzzle, or the Flow of meditation – each is progressively less exiting than the other, but all are considered examples of Flow.

There must, therefore, be another element, and unsurprisingly the obvious candidate is the neurotransmitter dopamine, the “goal protein” released from the pleasure centre in the brain (nucleus accumbens), which as I discussed on the ihobo site last week seems to be involved in all enjoyable experience. Linking this with Flow is trivial: the very first condition of Flow that Csikszentmihalyi cites is “clear goals”.

Yet Flow is not goal-orientation, the striving to achieve (although it may include this) since many situations described as Flow are process-oriented – such as being in control of a vehicle, dancing, meditation etc. It seems to me from my observation of players that dopamine is not just released when a goal is achieved, it is also released when a goal is pursued. These smaller hits of dopamine serve to maintain interest in the long-term goal that is being chased. I didn't have any evidence of this until I found this paper by Peter Shizgal and Andreas Arvanitogiannis from the journal Science which describes this exact behaviour in gambling: “a gradual increase in the firing rate of midbrain dopamine neurons in anticipation of uncertain rewards.”

This, then, is my proposed neurological hypothesis for the Flow state: the individual experiences a degree of arousal proportional to the perception of challenge (i.e. excitement). The challenge itself holds out the prospect of reward (i.e. a big hit of dopamine) and this anticipation releases a small amount of dopamine in a continuous flow, helping to maintain interest in the ultimate goal. The achievement of the goal state is essentially anathematic to the Flow state (which is thus inherently process-oriented) it is the pursuit of the goal which produces a steady flow of dopamine and this would then be a candidate hypothesis for the neurology of optimal experience.

The Problem of Meditation

This is a great start, but of course there are problems. The principle concern I have is integrating yogic activities with the above model – since meditation in specific (and yoga in general) occur in the absence of excitement. They are, indeed, about reaching profoundly calm states. Why is this a problem? It is because the Flow model inherently requires that when the challenge outstrips the skills, anxiety results, and when the skills outstrip the challenge, boredom results. But in meditation, neither of these happen.

An amateur in meditation or yoga does not experience anxiety when they fail to successfully meditate. They are just unable to quiet their conscious mind and may, as a result, feel bored – the opposite of what Flow theory suggests. Similarly, a master yogi does not feel bored when they fail to reach states of deep meditation – this isn't the nature of the optimal experience of meditation, in which the participant simply reaches as deep a state of mental calm as they are able.

So why should it be that meditation violates the pattern of optimal experience?

A possible answer is that Flow incorrectly conflates different mechanisms into a single mechanism. A paper by Solberg, Holen Ekeberg, Isferud, Halvorsen and Sndvik shows the neurological effects of meditation, which involves two “well-being proteins”, serotonin and melatonin – very different neurology to that I proposed above. However, studies by Andrew Newberg on Tibetan meditators show that the frontal lobe of the brain (which includes the decision centre) is highly active during meditation, while the parietal lobe – which is involved in orienting us in time and space – is largely inactive. The activation of the frontal lobe is associated with concentration, which is a condition of Flow as described by Csikszentmihalyi.

But this isn't the whole story. Kjaer, Bertelsen, Piccini, Brooks, Alving, and Lou published a paper on neurolobiological responses during Yoga Nidra meditation which demonstrated that dopamine was linked to meditation (or at least, to this one kind of meditation): this is a strange result! People who were actively reducing their desire for action (disabling what is termed the executive function of the brain – the brain areas that mediate planning and execution) experienced increased release of dopamine. If this finding applies to all forms of meditation, then perhaps there is a common element to all optimal experiences: dopamine, the “goal protein”.

The Flow Checklist

Now is a prudent time to examine Csikszentmihalyi's list of nine elements associated with the Flow state. He states that not all elements need be present for an optimal experience to occur, but these are in general the hallmarks of the experience as he describes it. Here I associate each element with an aspect of the brain or the neurotransmitter system.

Firstly, activity in the frontal lobe, which links to Csikszentmihalyi's “concentrating and focusing”, “loss of the feeling of self-consciousness”, “distorted sense of time”, “sense of personal control” and “action awareness merging”. According to my hypothesis, all Flow states involve significant activation of the frontal lobe in some way, resulting in the state of intense focus.

Secondly, the dopamine reward system, which links to Csikszentmihalyi's “clear goals”, “direct and immediate feedback”, “balance between ability level and challenge” and “intrinsically rewarding”. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter associated with rewards, and furthermore the anticipation of uncertain reward produces small hits of dopamine. It is these small releases of dopamine which I contend are fundamental to optimal experience. In order for this to occur, the individual must always feel that the goal is achievable (which is how the “feedback” condition links to dopamine) but there also must be sufficient uncertainty that the outcome is not guaranteed (hence the “balance between ability level and challenge”). If the outcome is certain (the challenge is insufficient), boredom results – the anticipatory dopamine hits are cut off.

These two mechanisms I am contending are always involved in experience of Flow, although the relative activation of the frontal cortex versus the degree of dopamine released can be wildly different.

Finally, a third mechanism is required to explain the anxiety that occurs when the challenge outstrips ability, and this is presumably the “flight” of the fight or flight response (which I have discussed before in the context of rushgames), namely adrenalin (epinephrine) and the fear centre (amygdala) which is presumably triggered when the frontal cortex assesses the situation and concludes that the individual is out of their depth with respect to the degree of challenge. This causes the experience of anxiety. Furthermore, the experience of excitement acts to enhance the release of dopamine (which is to say, you experience more reward the more stress you were under prior to achieving the goal) thus creating a range of different Flow states according to the degree of stress associated with them.

I believe these three mechanisms are sufficient for an explanation of the neurological underpinnings of Csikszentmihalyi's Flow theory. All that remains is to validate this hypothesis experimentally which I shall not be doing since I am a game designer and not an experimental researcher.

Conclusion

It is my hypothesis that Csikszentmihalyi's Flow theory is explicable in terms of three neurobiological mechanisms: the frontal cortex, which mediates concentration; the pleasure centre (the nucleus accumbens), which releases dopamine in response to both the achievement of goals and the anticipation of such achievement under uncertain conditions; and the fight-or-flight mechanism, specifically the arousal produced by epinephrine (which enhances rewards) and the anxiety that results when the amygdala is activated when an individual feels out of their depth. Between these three mechanisms, all the many and various optimal experiences result.

I welcome discussion in the comments.


Myths of Evolution (4): The Selfish Gene

Anim_the-selfish-gene In 1976, Richard Dawkins published his book The Selfish Gene, which built upon George C. Williams ground-breaking idea that “adaptation” was too vague a term to build a scientific theory upon, and that evolution would be better understood as selection among genes or individuals. Dawkins helped develop this concept into what is now called the gene-centric view. This perspective (or model) provides a valuable view of the history of life and one cannot truly claim to have grasped modern theories of natural selection without some appreciation for how things seem when viewed from the perspective of genes.

However, as useful as this model can be it is rife with misconceptions. The mythologies attached to “the selfish gene” can be broken into two distinct camps: firstly, erroneous iconography created by the wording of this phrase when the individual does not understand the gene-centric viewpoint Dawkins was espousing, and secondly, an overly reductionist dogma among some scientists who mistake an explanatory principle for a fundamental law.

The problem with the idea of a “selfish gene” in popular culture is that what 'selfish' means to most people is utterly different to what 'selfish' means in the gene-centric view. This criticism is meticulously developed by the philosopher Elliott Sober in his essay What is Evolutionary Altruism? which demonstrates that the way “selfish” and “altruistic” are deployed by evolutionary biologists is radically different from the way these terms are used colloquially. He uses the example of giving someone a piano: this can be altruistic in the vernacular sense (depending upon the motive behind the gift), but in the sense used in evolutionary theory, the piano may distract you from having babies , thus reducing your “evolutionary fitness”.

Arguably more pernicious is the dogmatic belief in an ideology derived from the gene-centric view. Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins fought bitter public battles over their differing interpretations of evolutionary mythology, and Gould was especially scathing about Dawkins' obsession with genes, claiming that the gene-centric view was “a confusion of bookkeeping with causality”, providing an overly reductionist perspective which he characterised as “Darwinian fundamentalism”. Gould's criticisms in this regard arguably overstepped the mark, probably as a result of the anger and hostility engendered by the heated conflict between the two highly regarded scientists.

The problems with predicating the gene-centric view as a fundamental principle are multifarious, but a brief but key complaint is that genes do not generate behaviour in and of themselves, and much of Dawkins and others reasoning in this regard depends upon this connection. Genes are DNA code for proteins, and although these proteins are used to construct behavioural systems, such as elements of the brain, neurotransmitters and hormones, the gene is just a component of the template for the organism's biology. Just as a brick is used to construct a building but tells you little about what people do in buildings, a gene helps build a body but by itself tells you little about what that body does. Behaviour – even among simple animals – depends as much on environment and culture (or ecology for less complex lifeforms) as it does the biological capacities inherited via genetic transmission.

Rather than “the selfish gene” – which risks misrepresenting the natural history of life as driven solely by miserly competition (a myth exposed last week) – the gene-centric view can perhaps be better grasped in common parlance by the idea that advantages persist. This is indeed the essence of the gene-centric view: a gene that leads to advantages for an individual (and by extension, a species) is vastly more likely to persist, and this persistence of advantage is the ratcheting mechanism that drives, in another of Dawkins' metaphors, the ascent up the slopes of “mount improbable” - the landscape of all possible life.

Alternative myth: Advantages Persist

Next Week: Myth #4: Kin Selection


Myths of Evolution (3): Only the Strong Survive

Raja Only the strong survive? Tell that to the dinosaurs. The rajasaurus pictured here lived at the very end of the Cretaceous period and despite its power, it and dozens of other carnivorous therapods were destined for extinction.

The idea that strength is the most prevalent survival trait is not even remotely based upon scientific observations, and draws primarily from people's beliefs about competition. But even accepting the rather limited view that competition is the sole aspect worth focusing upon (mistaking ubiquity for quintessence), strength is just one of many competitive advantages that can help a species survive (or indeed, an individual succeed).

The mythology behind the idea that “only the strong survive” relates not so much to biology, but rather to sociological metaphysics. The idea is associated with social Darwinism, which represents a range of different ideologies with very little in common beyond the belief in competition as the driving force in cultural evolution. The term is quite misleading, as it refers to many things which were formulated before Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, including the ideas of the 18th century clergyman Thomas Malthus, as well as those of Darwin's cousin Francis Galton.

The trouble with social Darwinism is that it is entirely metaphysical – there is nothing testable in the idea of the primacy of competition, and it has lamentably been used to fuel all manner of abhorrent ideologies such as imperialism and racial supremacy. As we saw in the previous myth of evolution, luck has just as great a role in influencing biological evolution as strict competition, and the same is likely true in the social realm. Furthermore, it is readily apparent that even recognising numerous aspects of competition in society doesn't preclude a parallel recognition of the benefits of co-operation: if companies compete in the national marketplace, and nations compete in the international marketplace, it is important to remember that both the company and the nation represent examples of widespread co-operation. If this were not the case, all trade would be between individuals.

Returning to biology, and accepting the simplification briefly, we might say that the strongest (i.e. deadliest) species generally become top predator within a particular ecology – but survival for apex predators is extremely precarious. Animals in such a position depend upon the robustness of the entire food web they are embedded within for their survival. A fox may be stronger than a rabbit (in terms of the capacity to cause harm), but if something threatens the survival of the rabbit, the fox is equally threatened: predators (which we tend to think of as being “strongest”) inherit vulnerability from the species they prey upon when ecological equilibrium is lost. Rather than generating survival advantage, they actually suffer extreme disadvantages in survival during times of crisis, precisely because they are dependent upon the success of their prey species. Few predator species rack up more than a few tens of millions of years at the top before becoming extinct.

If you want to pick out in the abstract the trait most suited to long-term survival of a species (and even more so for a chain of successive species), it is not strength but adaptability. The bigger and stronger you are, the fossil record attests, the harder you fall. At the end of the reign of the dinosaurs, some 65 million years ago, it was the tiny yet adaptable mammals that gained the edge (roughly 10 of the 15 mammal families at the end of the Cretaceous survived), along with some of the smaller, more adaptable therapod dinosaurs, which diversified into modern birds. Being strong only gets you as far as the next cataclysm: being adaptable is a far safer long-term strategy.

Alternative myth: Survival of the Adaptable

Next Week: Myth #3: The Selfish Gene


Myths of Evolution (2): The Ladder of Progress

Haeckel tree We are all familiar with the iconography of the “march of progress”, epitomised by the line of apes evolving into (for some reason) a white business man, but as Stephen Jay Gould has criticised, this iconography erroneously equates evolution with progress – a mistake compounded repeatedly by science fiction, which forever makes strange claims such as finding “more evolved” life that offers a “window into our evolutionary future”. The myth here is that evolution equates to progress, an error inherited from Darwin's contemporary Herbert Spencer, who was using the word 'evolution' to support his metaphysical belief in universal progress. Darwin purposefully avoided using the term 'evolution' (preferring “descent with modification”) because of the risk of this misunderstanding.

Gould suggests that drawing a putative line of ancestors tells the wrong story about evolution. “Diversification and stability, the two principal themes of natural history are entirely suppressed,” he writes in Ladders and Cones: Constraining Evolution by Canonical Icons, “the tiny, parochial pathway leading to humans stands as a surrogate for the entire history of life.” He furthers his criticism by examining sequences of paintings intended to show the progress of life on Earth – but which cease to show invertebrates as soon as the fishes arrive on the scene. But of course, 98% of species on our planet are invertebrates – they didn't go away just because more complex life arrived. He bemoaned this state of affairs, exclaiming “I know no other subject so distorted by canonical icons.”

The theme of progress also appears in another icon used to express ideas about evolution: the cone of diversity. This is a less well known image, but it occurs often in textbooks on evolution which show the “tree of life” as proceeding from a single trunk (the common ancestor) and then expanding into more diverse forms as time progresses. Gould notes that while the horizontal axis represents the variation in forms (diversity), the vertical axis of this model is supposed to represent time – but instead tends to be used to represent some notion of anatomical progress.

Consider Ernst Haeckel “pedigree of man” (pictured above), which has man at the pinnacle of the tree, surrounded by diverse mammal groups, with more “primitive” life lower in the branches. Gould observes that Haeckel has fallen into the trap of believing that the vertical axis can show progress, while the horizontal spread shows diversity – so to fit the implied iconography of a cone of diversity, Haeckel takes mammals – a small group of 4,000 species – and makes fine distinctions into whales, carnivores, primates etc., while insects – representing almost a million species – must occupy a single unbranched twig (about halfway down on the left) because as more “primitive” life they have to be fitted into a lower level.

Gould suggested that rather than a tree of life, the fossil record rather suggests a bushier “plant” iconography. He offered an alternative diagram showing a massive spread of diversity a short distance up the trunk (representing the “Cambrian explosion”, when multi-cellular life appeared in myriad forms in the blink of a geological eye), with just a couple of the many stems depicted continuing on to the present, splitting into small branches on the way. He referred to this as an “icon of a grass field with most stems mowed and just a few flowering profusely”. Gould's models, of which the most famous is punctuated equilibrium (developed with Niles Eldredge), stress the role of contingency – luck, if you will – in the development of life. “All our canonical icons are based upon the opposite notion of progress and predictability,” he accuses. Of course, Gould's icon embeds his preferred mythology of evolution, but it is nonetheless prudent to appreciate his perspective in this regard if we are to move beyond the myths of progress.

Instead of thinking of a ladder of progress – which tricks people into imagining the process can be projected forward, when in fact it can only be selectively represented from the past – I suggest we could gainfully consider our evolutionary heritage in terms of a chain of inheritance, an anchor to the past from which we gain our biological gifts. What comes in the future depends upon the conditions that will come – and this can never be predicted – but embedded within all life are aspects of the species that came before, a sequence of connection that goes back even to the single-celled organisms that for two thirds of the history of our planet were the only life to be found on our planet.

Alternative myth: Chain of Inheritance

Next Week: Myth #2: Only the Strong Survive


Myths of Evolution (1): Scientific Metaphysics

March of progress No aspect of modern scientific thinking crosses so unnoticed into metaphysical territory as people's beliefs about evolution.

Metaphysics, the philosophical exploration of that which cannot be tested or proved, lies beyond the borders of science. I have used the term Popper's milestone to denote a boundary between science (methodical research) and metaphysics (the untestable), following the work of Karl Popper who felt that falsification – the capacity to prove something untrue – was a proper boundary for science. Others have disputed this claim, and with just cause, but as a demarcation of the limits of metaphysics Popper's idea remains salient.

Science never manages to be entirely free of metaphysics – the belief that it does, that there is a notion of “scientific truth” in some absolute sense, is itself a metaphysical belief. Indeed, one of the most prevalent confusions about science in modern times is that “scientific” should be taken to mean “proven true by science”, rather than “conducted in a spirit of formal investigation”. Thus, models that have been rejected, such as phlogiston or the ether, cannot be called “unscientific” without falling under the criticism raised by Thomas Kuhn:

If these out-of-date beliefs are to be called myths, then myths can be produced by the same sort of methods and held for the same sorts of reason that now lead to scientific knowledge. If, on the other hand, they are to be called science, then science has included bodies of belief quite incompatible with the ones we hold today. Given the alternatives, the historian must choose the latter. Out-of-date theories are not in principle unscientific because they have been discarded.

In a similar vein, when I talk about “myths of evolution” I am not accusing various ideas of being unscientific, I am talking about stories that are being spun out of the scientific theories in circulation. We are comfortable calling phlogiston a myth, because we presume that myths are not true, but this is not what I mean when I invoke the term 'myth'. When I, for instance, call “the selfish gene” a myth of evolution, I do not mean that the gene-centric view is not a valid scientific perspective, but rather that the idea of a “selfish gene” is an abstract embellishment that puts a particular spin onto an otherwise neutral concept. This is what I mean by 'myth' in this context: a metaphysical story that expresses a particular interpretative bias.

When dealing with the subject of evolution, myths abound. It is not Intelligent Design which is the chief culprit – most intellectuals can spot that this is a metaphysical belief about a scientific topic – but rather the various stories that are spun out of the numerous competing models developed for understanding the putative processes of natural selection. Because these models are all incomplete, speculative and by-and-large untestable, they accumulate a rich scientific mythology which is then mistaken for knowledge and (even more embarrassingly) used as the basis of teleological games largely indistinguishable from those conducted under a theistic paradigm.

In this short serial, I present five of these evolutionary myths, and offer for each an alternative story that is equally compatible with the current theories but entirely different in both meaning and implication. To begin with, I will discuss the iconography of the ladder of progress, depicted above in its most familiar form, and the reasons why this myth can be so misleading.

Next Week: Myth #1: The Ladder of Progress