In honor of Darwin Day: An interior page on natural selection in an unopened original of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society. Note that the octavos in the edition haven’t been cut accounting for the top of the page being curved in the picture (because of the attachment of the adjoining pages). Science changed dramatically that day.
How do we come up with ideas? How do we make decisions? And how can we do both better? Steven Johnson has explored this question and written a dozen books about it. In this playful, thoughtful episode, Steven has some fascinating stories, like how Darwin made the decision to get married — or how a defecating duck helped lead to the invention of the computer. Through their own stories, Steven and Alan Alda share their thoughts about the transformative nature of ideas and what sort of environments best give rise to creativity.
The commercial about Alda Communication Training makes me wonder if they recommend scientists and communicators have their own websites? In particular, I’m even more curious because of Johnson’s mention of his commonplace book and how he uses it in this episode. I suspect that scientists having a variety of interconnecting commonplaces (via Webmention) using basic IndieWeb or A Domain of One’s Own principles could better create slow hunches, create more links, increase creativity and diversity, and foster greater innovation. I’ll have to follow up on this idea. While some may do something slightly like this within other parts of social media, I don’t get the impression that it’s as useful a tool in those places (isn’t as searchable or permanent feeling, and is likely rarely reviewed over). Being able to own your digital commonplace as a regular tool certainly has more value as Johnson describes. Functionality like On This Day dramatically increases its value.
But there’s another point that we should make more often, I think, which is that one of the most robust findings in the social sciences and psychology over the last 20 years is that diverse groups are just collectively smarter and more original in the way that they think in, in both their way of dreaming up new ideas, but also in making complicated decisions, that they avoid all the problems of group think and homogeneity that you get when you have a group of like minded people together who are just amplifying each other’s beliefs.—Steven Johnson [00:09:59]
Think about a big decision in your life. Think about the age span of the people you’re talking to about that choice. Are they all your peers within three or four years? Are you talking somebody who’s a generation older and a generation younger?—Steven Johnson [00:13:24]
I was talking to Ramzi Hajj yesterday about having mentors (with a clear emphasis on that mentor being specifically older) and this quote is the same sentiment, just with a slightly different emphasis.
One of the things that is most predictive of a species, including most famously, humans, of their capacity for innovation and problem solving as an adult is how much they play as a newborn or as a child.—Steven Johnson [00:28:10]
Play is important for problem solving.
I think you boil this all down into the idea that if you want to know what the next big thing is, look for where people are having fun.—Alan Alda [00:31:35]
This is interesting because I notice that one of the binding (and even physically stated) principles of the IndieWeb is to have fun. Unconsciously, it’s one of the reasons I’ve always thought that what the group is doing is so important.
Ha! Alda has also been watching Shtisel recently [00:50:04].
These two historical references predate Claude Shannon’s mathematical formalization of information in A Mathematical Theory of Communication (The Bell System Technical Journal, 1948) and even Erwin Schrödinger‘s lecture (1943) and subsequent book What is Life (1944).
For those interested in reading more on this historical tidbit, I’ve dug up a copy of the primary Forsdyke reference which first appeared on arXiv (prior to its ultimate publication in History of Psychiatry [.pdf]):
🔖 [1406.1391] ‘A Vehicle of Symbols and Nothing More.’ George Romanes, Theory of Mind, Information, and Samuel Butler by Donald R. Forsdyke 
Submitted on 4 Jun 2014 (v1), last revised 13 Nov 2014 (this version, v2)
Abstract: Today’s ‘theory of mind’ (ToM) concept is rooted in the distinction of nineteenth century philosopher William Clifford between ‘objects’ that can be directly perceived, and ‘ejects,’ such as the mind of another person, which are inferred from one’s subjective knowledge of one’s own mind. A founder, with Charles Darwin, of the discipline of comparative psychology, George Romanes considered the minds of animals as ejects, an idea that could be generalized to ‘society as eject’ and, ultimately, ‘the world as an eject’ – mind in the universe. Yet, Romanes and Clifford only vaguely connected mind with the abstraction we call ‘information,’ which needs ‘a vehicle of symbols’ – a material transporting medium. However, Samuel Butler was able to address, in informational terms depleted of theological trappings, both organic evolution and mind in the universe. This view harmonizes with insights arising from modern DNA research, the relative immortality of ‘selfish’ genes, and some startling recent developments in brain research.
Comments: Accepted for publication in History of Psychiatry. 31 pages including 3 footnotes. Based on a lecture given at Santa Clara University, February 28th 2014, at a Bannan Institute Symposium on ‘Science and Seeking: Rethinking the God Question in the Lab, Cosmos, and Classroom.’
The original arXiv article also referenced two lectures which are appended below:
[Original Draft of this was written on December 14, 2015.]
This effort does seem to make a more high-minded and noble attempt than what I would call the “Brian Greene method” in which an academic seemingly gives up on serious science to publish multiple texts on a popular topic to cash in on public interest in that topic through sales of books. In this respect Chaitin is closer to Neil deGrasse Tyson in his effort to expound an interesting theory to the broader public and improve the public discourse, though I would admit he’s probably a bit more (self-) interested in pushing his own theory and selling books (or giving him the benefit of the doubt, perhaps the publisher has pushed him to this).
Though there is a reasonable stab at providing some philosophical background to fit the topic into the broader fabric of science and theory in the later chapters, most of it is rather poorly motivated and is covered far better in other non-technical works. While it is nice to have some semblance of Chaitin’s philosophy and feelings, the inclusion of this type of material only tends to soften the blow of his theoretical work and makes the text read more like pseudo-science or simple base philosophy without any actual rigorous underpinning.
I’m assuming that his purpose in writing the book is to make the theories he’s come up with in his primary paper on the topic more accessible to the broader community of science as well as the public itself. It’s easy for a groundbreaking piece of work to be hidden in the broader scientific literature, but Chaitin seems to be taking his pedestal as a reasonably popular science writer to increase the visibility of his work here. He admittedly mentions that his effort stems from his hobby as his primary area is algorithmic information theory and computer science and not biology or evolution, though his meager references in the text do at least indicate some facility with some of the “right” sources in these latter areas.
Speaking from a broad public perspective, there is certainly interest in this general topic to warrant such a book, though based on the reviews of others via Amazon, Goodreads, etc. the book has sadly missed it’s mark. He unfortunately sticks too closely to the rule that inclusion of mathematical equations is detrimental to the sale of ones books. Sadly, his broader point is seemingly lost on the broader public as his ability to analogize his work isn’t as strong as that of Brian Greene with respect to theoretical physics (string theory).
From the a higher perspective of a researcher who does work in all of the relevant areas relating to the topic, I was even more underwhelmed with the present text aside from the single URL link to the original much more technical paper which Chaitin wrote in 2010. To me this was the most valuable part of the entire text though he did provide some small amount of reasonable detail in his appendix.
I can certainly appreciate Chaitin’s enthusiastic following of John von Neumann but I’m disappointed in his lack of acknowledgement of Norbert Weiner or Claude Shannon who all collaborated in the mid part of the 20th century. I’m sure Chaitin is more than well aware of the father of information theory, but I’ll be willing to bet that although he’s probably read his infamous master’s thesis and his highly influential Bell Labs article on “A/The Mathematical Theory of Communication”, he is, like most, shamefully and wholly unaware of Shannon’s MIT doctoral thesis.
Given Chaitin’s own personal aim to further the acceptance of his own theories and work and the goal of the publisher to sell more copies, I would mention a few recommendations for future potential editions:
The greater majority of his broader audience will have at least a passably reasonable understanding of biology and evolution, but very little, if any, understanding of algorithmic information theory. He would be better off expounding upon this subject to bring people up to speed to better understand his viewpoint and his subsequent proof. Though I understand the need to be relatively light in regard to the number of equations and technicalities included, Chaitin could follow some of his heroes of mathematical exposition and do a slightly better job of explaining what is going on here. He could also go a long way toward adding some significant material to the appendices to help the higher end general readers and the specifically the biologists understand more of the technicalities of algorithmic information theory to better follow his proof which should appear in intricate glory in the appendix as well. I might also recommend excising some of the more philosophical material which tends to undermine his scientific “weight.” Though I found it interesting that he gives a mathematical definition of “intelligent design”, I have a feeling its intricacies were lost on most of his readership — this point alone could go a long way towards solidifying the position of evolution amongst non-scientists, particularly in America, and win the support of heavyweights like Dawkins himself.
I’ll agree wholeheartedly with one reviewer who said that Chaitin tends to “state small ideas repeatedly, and every time at the same shallow level with astonishing amount of redundancy (mostly consisting of chit-chat and self congratulations)”. This certainly detracted from my enjoyment of the work. Chaitin also includes an awful lot of name dropping of significant scientific figures tangential to the subject at hand. This may have been more impressive if he included the results of his discussions with them about the subject, but I’m left with the impression that he simply said hello, shook their hands, and at best was simply inspired by his having met them. It’s nice that he’s had these experiences, but it doesn’t help me to believe or follow his own work.
For the technically interested reader, save yourself some time and simply skim through chapter five and a portion of the appendix relating to his proof and then move on to his actual paper. For the non-technical reader, I expect you’ll get more out of reading Richard Dawkins’ early work (The Selfish Gene) or possibly Werner R. Loewenstein’s The Touchstone of Life: Molecular Information, Cell Communication, and the Foundations of Life.
Though I would certainly agree that we could use a mathematical proof of evolution, and that Chaitin has made a reasonable theoretical stab, this book sadly wasn’t the best one to motivate broader interest in such an effort. I’ll give him five stars for effort, three for general content, but in the end, for most it will have to be at most a 2 star work overall.
This review was originally published on June 17, 2013.