Science as Attire

The pre­view for the X-Men movie has a voice-over say­ing: “In ev­ery hu­man be­ing . . . there is the ge­netic code . . . for mu­ta­tion.” Ap­par­ently you can ac­quire all sorts of neat abil­ities by mu­ta­tion. The mu­tant Storm, for ex­am­ple, has the abil­ity to throw light­ning bolts.

I beg you, dear reader, to con­sider the biolog­i­cal ma­chin­ery nec­es­sary to gen­er­ate elec­tric­ity; the biolog­i­cal adap­ta­tions nec­es­sary to avoid be­ing harmed by elec­tric­ity; and the cog­ni­tive cir­cuitry re­quired for finely tuned con­trol of light­ning bolts. If we ac­tu­ally ob­served any or­ganism ac­quiring these abil­ities in one gen­er­a­tion, as the re­sult of mu­ta­tion, it would out­right falsify the neo-Dar­wi­nian model of nat­u­ral se­lec­tion. It would be worse than find­ing rab­bit fos­sils in the pre-Cam­brian. If evolu­tion­ary the­ory could ac­tu­ally stretch to cover Storm, it would be able to ex­plain any­thing, and we all know what that would im­ply.

The X-Men comics use terms like “evolu­tion,” “mu­ta­tion,” and “ge­netic code,” purely to place them­selves in what they con­ceive to be the liter­ary genre of sci­ence. The part that scares me is won­der­ing how many peo­ple, es­pe­cially in the me­dia, un­der­stand sci­ence only as a liter­ary genre.

I en­counter peo­ple who very definitely be­lieve in evolu­tion, who sneer at the folly of cre­ation­ists. And yet they have no idea of what the the­ory of evolu­tion­ary biol­ogy per­mits and pro­hibits. They’ll talk about “the next step in the evolu­tion of hu­man­ity,” as if nat­u­ral se­lec­tion got here by fol­low­ing a plan. Or even worse, they’ll talk about some­thing com­pletely out­side the do­main of evolu­tion­ary biol­ogy, like an im­proved de­sign for com­puter chips, or cor­po­ra­tions split­ting, or hu­mans up­load­ing them­selves into com­put­ers, and they’ll call that “evolu­tion.” If evolu­tion­ary biol­ogy could cover that, it could cover any­thing.

Prob­a­bly an ac­tual ma­jor­ity of the peo­ple who be­lieve in evolu­tion use the phrase “be­cause of evolu­tion” be­cause they want to be part of the sci­en­tific in-crowd—be­lief as sci­en­tific at­tire, like wear­ing a lab coat. If the sci­en­tific in-crowd in­stead used the phrase “be­cause of in­tel­li­gent de­sign,” they would just as cheer­fully use that in­stead—it would make no differ­ence to their an­ti­ci­pa­tion-con­trol­lers. Say­ing “be­cause of evolu­tion” in­stead of “be­cause of in­tel­li­gent de­sign” does not, for them, pro­hibit Storm. Its only pur­pose, for them, is to iden­tify with a tribe.

I en­counter peo­ple who are quite will­ing to en­ter­tain the no­tion of dumber-than-hu­man ar­tifi­cial in­tel­li­gence, or even mildly smarter-than-hu­man ar­tifi­cial in­tel­li­gence. In­tro­duce the no­tion of strongly su­per­hu­man ar­tifi­cial in­tel­li­gence, and they’ll sud­denly de­cide it’s “pseu­do­science.” It’s not that they think they have a the­ory of in­tel­li­gence which lets them calcu­late a the­o­ret­i­cal up­per bound on the power of an op­ti­miza­tion pro­cess. Rather, they as­so­ci­ate strongly su­per­hu­man AI to the liter­ary genre of apoc­a­lyp­tic liter­a­ture; whereas an AI run­ning a small cor­po­ra­tion as­so­ci­ates to the liter­ary genre of Wired mag­a­z­ine. They aren’t speak­ing from within a model of cog­ni­tion. They don’t re­al­ize they need a model. They don’t re­al­ize that sci­ence is about mod­els. Their dev­as­tat­ing cri­tiques con­sist purely of com­par­i­sons to apoc­a­lyp­tic liter­a­ture, rather than, say, known laws which pro­hibit such an out­come. They un­der­stand sci­ence only as a liter­ary genre, or in-group to be­long to. The at­tire doesn’t look to them like a lab coat; this isn’t the foot­ball team they’re cheer­ing for.

Is there any idea in sci­ence that you are proud of be­liev­ing, though you do not use the be­lief pro­fes­sion­ally? You had best ask your­self which fu­ture ex­pe­riences your be­lief pro­hibits from hap­pen­ing to you. That is the sum of what you have as­similated and made a true part of your­self. Any­thing else is prob­a­bly pass­words or at­tire.