Information and Meaning in Evolutionary Processes

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William Harms develops the conceptual foundations and tools for a science of knowledge through the application of evolutionary theory, thus allowing us to acknowledge the legacy of skepticism while denying its relativistic offspring. The most significant legacy of philosophical skepticism is the realization that our concepts, beliefs and theories are social constructs. This belief has led to epistemological relativism, or the thesis that, since there is no ultimate truth about the world, theory preferences are only a matter of opinion.

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"...this is a very enjoyable book...Harm's demonstration of the fecundity of his approach may persuade those sympathetic to naturalism that evolutionary epistemology has much to offer." —Joseph Millum, University of Toronto: Philosophy in Review
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Cambridge University Press
0521815142 - Information and Meaning in Evolutionary Processes - by William F. Harms



The nagging desire not only to gain knowledge but to understand the nature of knowledge itself arises in different ages for different reasons. The justification of religious truths and ethical precepts, the desire for certainty in an uncertain world - both have been effective at motivating inquiry into the fundamental nature of knowledge. In our era, a story can, perhaps, best illustrate the need. The story I have in mind involves a large rat trap. It also involves two young university professors, a celebrated theory war, about eight hundred undergraduate students, and a book by Thomas Kuhn. It is a true story, or at least it started out as a true story. This is how I remember it.

Young Professor B and young Professor S had been recruited from their respective departments, philosophy and German literature, to participate in an interdisciplinary extravaganza known as "Core Course." Core Course was the sort of politically correct Great Books program common to large universities. Drudge work for the eight hundred students (assignments, grading, one-on-one contact, and daily class time) was handled by twenty or thirty "teaching associates" (second-year graduate students), staff meetings once a week. Young Professors S and B were accorded starring roles in this production, giving primary content lectures to the eight hundred students in two shifts, the auditorium being limited to half that number. In their home departments, Professor B's job was to do something called "philosophy of physics," which involved a lot of mathematics, and to teach undergraduates things such as logic and critical thinking. Professor S's job was to interpret great works of German literature, to teach students about this, and to teach things such as post- modernism and deconstruction. Needless to say, Professors B and S disagreed about some very basic things. This was the winter quarter session, which included material on the history and philosophy (and sociology) of science.

The incident of interest occurred during the lectures on Kuhn's influential The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In case you've forgotten, this is the book that got everyone talking about "paradigm shifts" in the 1960s. Kuhn's basic thesis was that scientific progress cannot ever be the steady accumulation of truths over centuries that its proponents sometimes claim. Instead, science progresses through a series of lurching cycles driven by the acquisition of various bits of scientific infrastructure - concepts, measurement apparatuses, and model studies - followed by the discovery of the limits of that technology. This results in a cycle of crisis and revolution in which the old infrastructure is replaced by new, frequently accompanied by an actual loss in explanatory power for the discipline in question. Critics of science had a field day with this stuff, much to Kuhn's dismay, claiming that he had shown that scientific objectivity is a mere social and institutional fiction, science having no more inherent value than witchcraft or performance art. This is, of course, not what Kuhn had in mind, but that's a different story.

Professor S had first go at this material and took the opportunity to promote some of his favorite causes - that reality is a social construction, that political power drives the content of all belief systems, and that while the science folks seem to have been getting a lot of the attention (not to mention money) lately, what this means is simply that they have the power, no more. Lore is lore. The Upanishads and Newton's Principia are on a par in this respect.

Young Professor B could not take this lying down. So when his turn to lecture came, he showed up with the aforementioned rat trap, his intent being to challenge Professor B to a sort of practical duel of ideologies. The lethal efficiency of the rat trap was demonstrated - lethal to a pencil, anyway - and Professor S was offered the opportunity to demonstrate the much-vaunted social construction of reality. Surely, if Professor S truly believed reality to be a construction, then he should be quite happy to put his finger in the trap, secure in the knowledge that the trap could not really hurt him if he believed it would not. Quick on his feet, Professor S replied that he was sufficiently at the mercy of the way his own society constructs reality that he was quite sure that the trap would actually hurt him. But, he insisted, someone from a society which constructed reality in a sufficiently different way might not be harmed. With this impasse, it was time for the bell.

To anyone who is even marginally aware of what has been going on in the humanities at major U.S. universities during the last forty years, the theoretical conflict that lies behind this incident is familiar and, if anything, the incident itself was relatively free from the acrimony one often finds in less-public conversations on the matter. Analytic philosophers can be viciously critical of the "fuzzy-headed thinking" in so-called continental philosophy and of the destructive potential of unchecked relativism, historicism, and deconstruction. Continental philosophy, usually a bigger force in the humanities at large than in philosophy departments proper, views analytic philosophers as insufficiently aware of the social, historical, and political contexts in which humans live and of the effect these contexts have on how people understand themselves and their world. The left claims that the right is in denial about the constructedness of reality. The right claims that the left has given up its right to a place in an institution dedicated to the furtherance of human understanding.

As is usual in these kinds of disagreements, both sides have a point. On one hand, human knowledge is not discovered but constructed. The beliefs we have are constructed from the concepts available. Those concepts are in turn constructs, and while one might be able to argue that, for a given purpose, some set of concepts is optimal, there seems little reason to think that one set of concepts is optimal for all purposes of all species at all times. On the other hand, even accepting the constructedness of our conception of reality, one may reasonably insist that not all such constructions are on a par from a practical point of view and that human beings and the things they do are sufficiently similar that some worldviews might well be flat out better than others.

Ideally, one would think that this crucial philosophical question about the status of knowledge would be the proper subject matter of epistemologists and that epistemology as a discipline would step up to clarify these matters. This has not been the case. Outside of analytic philosophy many believe, as Rorty (1979) argued, that the death of foundationalism has left epistemology as an impossible and unnecessary discipline, given that epistemologists have traditionally attempted to discover some area of human belief that transcends the possibility of doubt. Meanwhile, epistemology itself seems to have become something that philosophers do "on the side" when epistemological issues arise in their areas of primary interest or something done by specialists who work on small areas of the large epistemological puzzle. Looming is the question of how, in the face of the constructedness of our knowledge of reality, to say anything non-question begging about the relationship between that conception and the world we want to believe it mirrors.


What, if our conception of reality is a construct, can epistemology possibly salvage? Two possibilities come to the fore. First, we ordinarily have a certain amount of confidence that the care we take in acquiring and evaluating beliefs is not a complete waste of time. It generally seems to us that beliefs have something to do with the reality "out there," and ordinary perception and common sense are largely to be trusted. What reason can we have to trust our senses, minds, and memories? What reason can we have to think that our cognitive and perceptual apparatus is reliable? Such questions suggest themselves for our consideration even if we accept that certainty is not to be had and even if we acknowledge that there is probably no such thing as the truth for all people at all times.

Second, "knowledge" itself is an evaluative, normatively loaded term, and our conception of knowledge is replete with a number of such concepts. Truth, justification, and meaning all demand explanations. The very concept of knowledge implies more than just that some mental states reliably and usefully track the world. It implies that there is such a thing as getting it right, that there are some sort of rules which apply to how we form and interpret beliefs that go beyond mere usefulness. Moreover, it is not only the rules regarding knowledge that we claim to know. We claim to know the difference between right and wrong, just and unjust. We claim that there is something to know about such matters, but what might ground such knowledge is more of a mystery than the basic question of how our concepts and beliefs relate to the world. At least in the latter case, we can ask how concepts relate to whatever is "out there" that makes things happen. In the case of the normative question, the various sorts of "oughts" or rules do not even seem to be a matter of what is going on with the "hidden springs and principles" of nature, to borrow Hume's phrase. The purported rules are a matter not of what is, but of how things ought to be.

Together, these two questions concerning reliability and normativity present the basic challenge for epistemology. In this book I try to show that, in both cases, the answers come from understanding evolutionary processes.

In the first case, the general solution is not so hard to see, nor is the suggestion particularly novel. Briefly, the only reason to think that our thoughts usefully and reliably mirror reality is that if they didn't at least get us coping fairly well with the world, it's not likely we would be here at all. The principle we are alluding to is natural selection, the driving force of biological evolution, and the school of thought that emphasizes the importance of natural selection for the understanding of knowledge is usually called evolutionary epistemology (Campbell 1974).

Evolutionary epistemology differs from other sorts of naturalistic epistemology in the extent to which it emphasizes the importance of natural selection. "Naturalistic" epistemologies in general eschew the traditional emphasis on introspection (as well as the traditional acceptance of at least the possibility that minds are more than mere matter) for the scientific point of view. For naturalists, human beings are material entities and anything that is of interest about them, including the phenomenon of knowledge itself, is to be studied empirically and scientifically. This in itself does not necessarily bring with it any commitment to the importance of evolution. On the contrary, classic naturalistic epistemologists such as Quine (1969) insisted that epistemology was to consist of observing actual physical processes involved in perception, cognition, and the like, and while he noted that evolutionary history was responsible for the similarity of our quality space to the quality space of the world, reasoning about evolutionary history in any detail did not seem to be part of his program for the new epistemology. Evolutionary epistemologists, while also naturalists in their insistence on the status of human beings as material entities, believe that we cannot fully understand knowledge purely in terms of the currently observable causal processes on which the physical sciences focus. This is not to say that one needs any more than an understanding of current causal structures and processes to understand how we learn about our world. But understanding why we are able to so learn requires some understanding of our evolutionary history. Moreover, given that epistemology must ultimately attempt to give a coherent account of its own nature, understanding the general principles of how evolution adapts cognitive systems to environments seems essential to understanding the nature of the relationship between thoughts and the world. Even for those of us who have given up on foundationalism, some way of standing back and thinking about the fit between our own concepts and the world, as well as a way of understanding comparisons between different worldviews, is desirable. If we can understand something about how much and what kind of optimization of cognitive fit is likely to emerge from evolutionary histories, we will be that much closer to a more adequate scientific understanding of knowledge and more able to answer some of the interesting comparative questions about knowledge that arise between cultures and between species. The general idea of an evolutionary epistemology has been around for some time. The pressing need at the current juncture is for the development of theory and, in particular, formal tools of analysis that will make the relationship between selection and mind-world coordination more tractable.

As for the second question, evolutionary epistemologists have, for the most part, adopted the naturalistic party line in abandoning the traditional normative concerns of epistemology, concerns with capitalized topics such as Truth, Justification, and Reason. Hume, possibly the first modern naturalistic philosopher, argued that judgments of moral propriety were simply the operation of certain sentiments. Early-twentieth-century naturalism resulted in the similar thesis of emotivism, according to which normative value judgments are merely the expression of emotions, devoid of the kind of referential content that might make them objectively true or false. In this case, what applies to morality applies to Truth, Justification, and Reason as well. Indeed, the current majority opinion seems to be that naturalism unavoidably brings with it the reanalysis of any and all normative judgments in terms of the proximal emotions that give rise to them. The sting of abandoning so much of the traditional concern of epistemology may be salved to some degree by the thought that, after all, it does no good to complain that the things people in fact do are not the things they ought to do. On the contrary, the more energy we spend on understanding both how and why people do what they do, the sooner we will be able to stop complaining and actually do something about human epistemic failings. Still, the most common reason for rejecting naturalistic epistemology is its alleged failure to accommodate the normative, and proponents of naturalistic epistemologies have had little to say in opposition (Kim, 1988). It would seem that either naturalism is incomplete or the normative is to be ignored along with the rest of the supernatural. In either case, one won't be able to get an ought from an is. The current philosophical consensus seems to be that if both is (facts) and ought (norms) are to be studied, they will be studied in fundamentally different ways, perhaps by very different disciplines. This consensus also maintains that all previous attempts to explain value on the basis of fact have failed. As a result, anyone attempting to account for the truth of normative judgments within a naturalistic framework has to contend not only with the inherent difficulty of the task, but also with the fact that everyone already knows it can't be done.

I argue that the problem with our current understanding of the gap between is and ought is that it is based on an outdated conception of the proper domain of scientific enquiry. Taking physics as the paradigm, we have conceived of science as concerned exclusively with occurrent causal processes. Like many such conceptions, this one has been subject to considerable erosion in the centuries since its emergence. Just as seventeenth-century mechanistic materialism was forced to broaden itself to accommodate "action at a distance," first in the form of gravity and then in the form of electromagnetism, so the empiricist insistence that contingent history is merely anecdotal is gradually giving way to the recognition of the central importance to biology of essentially historical relationships like kinship and adaptation. The increasing importance of historical relationships is in turn driven by the increasing status of biology as a genuine science and the concomitant change in our conception of what constitutes a genuine science. It turns out that these historical relationships pretty much make a shamble of the arguments of Hume and Moore, which seem to lie behind the common "knowledge" of the intractability of the is-ought gap.

Exactly how the historical subject matter of evolutionary biology changes the big picture will be the subject of the final section of this book. Roughly, I argue that a broad enough theory of meaning can account for the meaning and thus truth of both "is-statements" and "ought-statements," and in so doing, account for the difference between them. In the absence of traditional assumptions regarding abstract meaning-entities (e.g., propositions), we are forced to recognize that meaning is conventional, and conventions are historical entities. This focus on the ways in which meaning conventions emerge highlights facts about meaning that are usually overlooked. In the end, the general analysis of the emergence of meaning conventions shows indicative language to be a rather specialized sort of signaling system, and not the only one capable of correspondence truth. Normative utterances are more akin to warning cries than to statements of fact, untranslatable but not unanalyzable in our usual mode of descriptive speech.

Given the general consensus that this sort of project cannot work, it behooves me from the start to be completely clear about my own aspirations with respect to a theory of the normative. I argue that a full knowledge of the functional history of signaling systems of all sorts, including especially the system-stabilizing consequences of signaling behavior, is sufficient to establish the conventions governing meaning and truth for all sorts of signals, from hormonal secretions to scientific hypotheses to pronouncements of moral and epistemic justification. The point, however, is purely academic in that the sorts of historical facts relevant to determining meaning-conventions are so difficult to come by that we should not ever expect to see our own intuitions on such matters overridden by pronouncements of evolutionary science. There is, in addition, a purely theoretical reason why you cannot get an ought from an is, but we will be in position to actually explain this, rather than merely recognize it as we usually do. So, even if the possession of all the relevant facts allowed us to establish the meaning of normative utterances and thus tell us whether they are true, this is not quite the same as telling us what we ought to do. As a consequence, both according to the strict letter of the theory and because of the unavailability of pertinent facts, the theory I propose falls short of the traditional aspirations of epistemologists - to issue authoritative epistemic norms. I am enough of a naturalist that this doesn't bother me. What I do think is philosophically important is the way in which a defensible descriptive theory of the normative can counteract the relativism with respect to normative standards which has accompanied our materialistic worldview. If a theory can reassure us that, even in a purely material world, there may be standards of conduct and thought that are sufficiently general and objective to apply to all human beings, this is no small thing. Indeed, by my lights, we are far more in need of a theory which helps us make sense of the very possibility of objective norms than we are of one which tells us what they are.


The nine chapters of this book are organized into three parts. Parts I and II are concerned with furthering the general evolutionary epistemology project: Part I with ground clearing, Part II with the construction of formal tools for analyzing multilevel selection and information-transfer processes. Part III deals with the more contentious evolutionary take on meaning conventions for normative intuitions. The three parts can be read independently and may appeal to different interests and temperaments.

Part I

Evolutionary epistemology, at least in its more ambitious versions, requires a way of thinking about evolution that is broad enough to allow it to occur in culture as well as in the genetic lineage. The most common such conception is Dawkins's (1976) "meme," a self-replicating "informational entity." Dawkins, along with a number of others, is convinced that evolution by natural selection only happens to lineages of self-replicating entities; consequently, if evolutionary concepts are to apply to culture, then there must be some sort of self-replicating entity in culture.

In Chapter 1, I discuss at some length versions of the cultural replicator from Dawkins, Hull, and Dennett. I conclude that there are not one but three notions and that none is adequate for epistemological purposes. In Chapter 2, I broaden the critique to the nascent field of memetics in general, fielding alternatives and trying to set some standards for conceptual innovation. I argue that genes are not the only or even the best way of thinking about the tree of life - the lineage of dividing cells has a concrete identity over time that genetic "information" does not. Cells, moreover, may be the only thing that can truly be said to "self"-replicate, and the logic of that process is fission and regrowth rather than transcription. Consequently, looking for genelike entities as a prerequisite for cultural evolution is rather misguided. Nor does cultural transmission require an entity to be transmitted. On the contrary, communication and cultural transmission are easily understood as coordinated state change in closely related organisms. Finally, even if memetics is defended only as a way of looking at cultural evolution and transmission, there are limitations to its utility.

Part II

Chapter 3 begins my positive account, developing a general model of evolution derived from the formal models of population genetics and evolutionary game theory. The emphasis here is twofold: first, on extracting general evolutionary concepts such as selection, fitness, and variation from our best abstract mathematical understanding of evolution rather than proposing causal analogs to the actual physical process of biological evolution as the replicator approach does; and second, on generating a simplified formal model suited for computer modeling of both biological and cultural evolution. Chapter 4 explores the mathematical concept of mutual information for the purposes of epistemology and establishes some simple results regarding the utility of information. Chapter 5 puts the two together, establishing natural selection as an information transfer process. Chapter 6 develops a two-level selection and variation model interpreted as a model of bacterial navigation, with an eye to creating a formal model for the basic interdependencies between biological and cultural evolution. Chapter 7 develops a three-level model of bumblebee foraging, which accommodates the formation of preferences and measures information about the environment in these characteristically internal states. Because the information transfer-model in Chapter 7 is technically rather difficult, I try to explain its implications in simpler terms at the end.

Part III

To reiterate, even a purely descriptive account of normative intuitions and language can help constrain cultural relativism with respect to them. Chapter 8 develops a model of primitive meaning content, inspired by the teleosemantic theory of Millikan (1984) and a game theoretic model from Skyrms (1996). This general model is then applied to regulatory hierarchies, resulting in systems with multiple semantic maps which share many formerly puzzling features of human normative deliberation. Chapter 9 defends the plausibility of this primitive-content hypothesis against standard objections. In particular, I show that the "open question argument" of Moore and Hume's famous analysis of normative relationships do not apply to historical-functional semantic theories along with a baker's dozen (or so) other philosophical worries. The reason you can't get an ought from an is is explained.

Throughout, I try to keep focused on the theoretical objectives involved in an evolutionary theory of knowledge. This means resisting the temptation to delve into "hot" topics such as the nature of consciousness, group selection, the excesses of adaptationism, the marginalization of developmental biology, and the naturalization of ethics. I apologize in advance to readers who find this stinginess unsatisfying.


German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (whose most famous accomplishment may well be the invention of the differential calculus simultaneously with Newton in the closing years of the seventeenth century) argued that substances exist but do not interact, each separate thing sufficient in itself to determine its unfolding over time in the absence of causal interactions with other things. One consequence of this view was that our knowledge of things in the world cannot be the result of causal interactions with them, as we usually assume. Leibniz's solution to this epistemological difficulty was that God, in creating each thing ("monad"), had done so in such a way that the unfolding of each thing over time was mirrored by others. Thus, perception and knowledge are not the result of causal interaction but of a "preestablished harmony" between the movements of our minds and the movements of things in the world.

Scottish philosopher Hume, like Leibniz, called into question our ordinary notion of causality, but as an empiricist, both his method and his conclusions were different. Hume asked us to consider closely not conceptual analysis but the act of perceiving causal interactions. He simply pointed out that all we ever see are sequences of events, never the actual force of one object acting on another. Causal power is something we project onto interactions, rather than perceive in them, and the notion of causality itself, he speculated, was merely the generalization of our own expectant impulses. Despite or, perhaps, because of Hume's informality and reliance on common sense, his argument remains to this day the problem of causality, a large part of his not inconsiderable philosophical legacy. Along with the "problem of induction," his argument concerning causality cemented his reputation as one of the greatest skeptics and philosophical troublemakers of all time. What is usually disregarded is his own proffered solution to the difficulties he raised.

Hume argued that causal and inductive reasoning, along with moral judgment, are not the result of the rational perception of eternal laws of reason and standards of behavior but are in each case the result of instinct, habit, or sentiment. In contemporary terms, Hume believed that we are just "wired" to think the way we do and that rationalist notions of being able to perceive certain relationships as self-evident by the "light of nature" are just nonsense. This was not intended to undermine our reliance on causal or inductive reasoning nor our genuine belief in moral standards, however, but to pull the rug out from under rationalist pretensions that Reason was the final authority on all aspects of human thought and behavior. But how, without recourse to God or the power of Reason, were we to establish the propriety of causal and inductive inference?

© Cambridge University Press
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements; Introduction; Part I. Generalizing Evolutionary Theory: 1. Replicator theories; 2. Ontologies of evolution and cultural transmission; Part II. Modeling Information Flow in Evolutionary Processes: 3. Population dynamics; 4. Information theory; 5. Selection as an information-transfer process; 6. Multilevel information transfer; 7. Information in internal states; Part III. Meaning Conventions and Normativity: 8. Primitive content; 9. Is and ought; Epilogue: Paley's Watch and other stories; Notes; Appendix: proof of information gain under frequency-independent discrete replicator dynamics for population of n types; References; Index.

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