The Edge.org Annual Question: Beautiful ExplanationsPublished 15 January, 2012
Every year since 2005, Edge.org has posed a question to a stable of scholars and artists, publishing their brief replies first on the Edge.org web site, and subsequently in a book. Last year’s question — what scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit? – drew 165 replies, and a similar number wrote responses to this year’s question: “What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?” The authors of replies included people from a wide range of areas, and included Steve Pinker, Freeman Dyson, and Alan Alda. (Full disclosure, I also contributed an answer, commenting on the Law of Unintended Consequences.)
Answers range from the predictable – evolution, Turing, the double helix – to esoteric – “Denumerable Infinities Are The Same Size,” “The Precession of the Simulacre” — to the poetic “The Beauty In A Sunrise,” and “A Sphere.” Replies to the Edge question, as usual, make for some good, if variable, grazing.
Evolution made a good showing, accounting, in various ways, for a good proportion of answers. A number of ideas in physics also appeared with a certain frequency.
One passage that caught my eye was Dan Dennett’s contribution, who wrote about sea turtles, but closed with this paragraph, which links to some remarks that I’ve made recently, and it’s a theme I’ve hit in prior posts. After talking about the explanation for why sea turtles travel so far to lay their eggs, Dennett adds this:
I have noticed that there is a pattern in the use of the “just-so story” charge: with almost no exceptions it is applied to hypotheses about human evolution. Nobody seems to object that we can’t know enough about the selective environment leading to whales or flowers for us to hold forth so confidently about how and why whales and flowers evolved as they did. So my rule of thumb is: if you see the “just-so story” epithet hurled, look for a political motive. You’ll almost always find one. While it is no doubt true that some evolutionary psychologists have advanced hypotheses about human evolution for which there is still only slender supporting evidence, and while it is also no doubt true that some evolutionary psychologists have been less than diligent in seeking further evidence to confirm or disconfirm their favorite hypotheses, this is at most a criticism of the thoroughness of some researchers in the field, not a condemnation of their method or their hypotheses. The same could be said about many other topics in evolutionary biology.
It’s not possible to cover all the replies here, but a few patterns caught my attention. I thought it was interesting that PZ Myers – whose attempt to do some evolutionary psychology I discussed in my last post – chose precisely the same beautiful idea chosen by developmental psychologist Paul Bloom, both of them settling on D’Arcy Thomson’s remark that “Everything Is The Way It Is Because It Got That Way.”
Interestingly, another idea that got double billing (Kleinberg, Seife) was the “pigeonhole principle.” The notion is that if you’re putting pigeons in trees, and there are fewer trees than pigeons, then you can know for sure that at least one tree has at least two pigeons. Apparently this idea tells us that 1) there are limits to how much you can compress files and 2) your parents’ most recent common ancestor is more recent than you might have guessed.
John Tooby put on a dazzling display of prose in his contribution, entitled, “Falling Into Place: Entropy, Galileo’s Frames of Reference, and the Desperate Ingenuity Of Life.” Here is a sample, setting up the argument that natural selection pulls organisms out of the vast pit of entropy:
The world given to us by physics is unrelievedly bleak. It blasts us when it is not burning us or invisibly grinding our cells and macromolecules until we are dead. It wipes out planets, habitats, labors, those we love, ourselves. Gamma ray bursts wipe out entire galactic regions; supernovae, asteroid impacts, supervolcanos, and ice ages devastate ecosystems and end species. Epidemics, strokes, blunt force trauma, oxidative damage, protein cross-linking, thermal noise-scrambled DNA—all are random movements away from the narrowly organized set of states that we value, into increasing disorder or greater entropy. The second law of thermodynamics is the recognition that physical systems tend to move toward more probable states, and in so doing, they tend to move away from less probable states (organization) on their blind toboggan ride toward maximum disorder.
Both Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier raised metarepresentations as their beautiful idea, Mercier more or less directly, Sperber with a bank shot, starting with the interesting story about how Eratosthenes measured the circumference of the planet. (It’s interesting to note that Sperber was not just a contributor, but an object of contribution: one of the beautiful ideas discussed was “Dan Sperber’s Explanation of Culture” (Shirky))
There are a number of contributions from other people whose names will be familiar to readers of this blog, including Randy Nesse, Simon Baron-Cohen, and many others. Read a few at a time for little intellectual snacks.
Postscript: I did some traveling during the break between the Fall and Spring semesters, which is why there was a bit of a hiatus between my last post and this one. During that time, there was a post at PLoS blogs that spent some time talking about evolutionary psychology in general (and some remarks that I’ve made in particular). I haven’t decided yet if I will write a reply, but thanks to those of you who called my attention to it.
Postscript the second: As you can tell, there was an update to the web site. One feature that we now have is the ability to subscribe to posts, so that you are notified when someone comments on an entry, which I had been asked about. If you have comments or questions about the new layout, please feel free to drop me a line.