Monday, May 05, 2003

Talking about "Consilience", I really enjoyed that book -- I read it a chapter at a time, reading other stuff in between. Wilson's basic idea is that the time has come to use the scientific method on the soft sciences: psychology, sociology, economics, religion. He has a lot of fun kicking deconstructionism around -- for instance, the Derida Paradox: if the reader can never know what the writer was trying to say, why should anyone read Derida? At the end, he talks about the possibility of the coming of the cybernetic singularity, and concludes that, if it happens, it wouldn't make us happy -- we are too much a product of 1 million years of monkey brain (or 250 million years of vertebrate brain). I have always liked Daniel Dennett ("Conscious Explained", "Darwin's Dangerous Idea") because he lambastes evolutionary biologists who insist that the human mind is "different" -- that there is a spark, a soul, something that couldn't be created by evolution. Wilson I don't think is taking that route, but it saddened me that he doesn't think we can leave a lot of that old crap behind us. Part of the point of moving to silicon would be to be able to rewrite our routines to get rid of the non-productive stuff. So, is the monkey brain stuff really necessary? In a fit of barroom brilliance, at one point I proclaimed that as long as you could write the code for a simulated hard-on, that would be enough to satisfy most people.

I read Wilson's "The Diversity of Life" a few years ago. I was really disappointed in this book, because I wanted it to give absolutely compelling arguments in favor of biodiversity as an absolute goal, and it didn't. Reasons for disappointment:

  1. At this point, they don't know the number of species on the planet to 2 orders of magnitude (a factor of 100). If you're not within 1/2 order of magnitude (a factor of 3), you are pretty much clueless of what the number is.
  2. Having varieties is healthy, re an example of where grafting a wild coffee strain into the commercial ones saved the crops from a blight, but, in the Andes, each mountain is its own biosphere and contains completely unique species. Do we really need all of them? No compelling argument.
No doubt about it, the die out is coming. Maybe the gene sequencing stuff can save some of the genomes before the species extincts -- a race against time.

BTW, I have been linking book references to Barnes & Noble because Amazon has pissed me off by: a) trying to do too much (the Microsoft syndrome); and b) losing my wishlist when they acquired cdnow.com.

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