EDGE 38 — April 15, 1998



The Pulitzer Prize in general non-fiction category was awarded yesterday to Jared Diamond for Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. See: "Why Did Human History Unfold Differently on Different Continents for the last 13,000 Years?"; A Talk by Jared Diamond and comments by Timothy Taylor, Marc D. Hauser, Kevin Kelly, George Dyson, Clifford Pickover, Pamela McCorduck, and Gregory Benford with a response by Jared Diamond.


Bill Gates on Jared Diamond

In today's emerging information society, the critical natural resources are human intelligence, skill and leadership. Every region of the world has these in abundance, which promises to make the next chapter of human history particularly interesting.

Patrick Bateson on "The Two Steves"

For many years I have amused myself by noting when one of my colleagues calls another a fool (usually behind his or her back). By degrees, I have assembled triangles or circles of these highly intelligent people (A calls B a fool, B calls C a fool and C calls A a fool). I react in somewhat the same way when two very clever people, as both Steves undoubtedly are, demonise each other, as both undoubtedly do. I reckon that it is possible to find ways of bridging their positions in ways that are likely to be highly productive scientifically and helpful socially.

Brian Rotman on Verena Huber-Dyson

The history of mathematics is impossible to tell except as an ongoing and highly complex interaction between writing (symbols, notations, diagrams, formalisms, ...) and thinking /imagining (ideas, concepts, intuitions, arguments, narratives, ...).

(4,784 words)

John Brockman, Editor and Publisher | Kip Parent, Webmaster


Bill Gates on Jared Diamond

From: Bill Gates
Submitted: 4.15.98

Laying A Foundation For Human History

When Columbus, Cortes, Pizarro and other European colonists arrived in the New World five centuries ago, why weren't they driven into the sea by thousands of native warriors on horseback brandishing guns and carrying epidemic diseases?

Why didn't rhino-mounted Bantu warriors swarm north to decimate horse-mounted Romans and create an empire that spanned Africa and Europe?

These and many other questions are answered persuasively in Jared Diamond's fascinating new book, Guns, Germs, and Steel (W.W. Norton, 1997). It's the first explanation of history I've seen that gets at the key question of why Europeans and Asians, came to control most of the world, rather than Africans, Native Americans or other people.

Diamond's primary thesis is that there's no inherent superiority among any racial or ethnic groups, and that the often-tragic failure of other races to resist expansion by other peoples was largely a matter of bad luck.

He marshals mountains of evidence to suggest that Europeans and Asians achieved dominance because they had an abundance of plants and animals suitable for domestication, and because the east-west orientation of the Eurasian landmass eased the transfer of animals, crops, and technology.

Eurasia had 32 of the 56 prize wild grasses that were candidates for cultivation; no other region had more than six. It was home to 13 of the 14 animals most important to humans.

The Fertile Crescent, an area of Southwest Asia occupying portions of what are now Iraq, Jordan, Syria and Turkey, had six of the eight "founder crops" and four of the five most important domesticated mammals—the cow, goat, pig and sheep.

It's no surprise that the Fertile Crescent produced prodigious amounts of food and that the earliest known examples of many kinds of human development began there about 11,000 B.C. People outside Eurasia, and especially outside the Fertile Crescent, were at a big disadvantage because there wasn't much for them to work with. Few of the world's 200,000 wild plant species have food value to humans. More than 80 percent of the modern world's crop tonnage comes from just 12 species: banana, barley, corn, manioc, potato, rice, sorghum, soybean, sugar beet , sugarcane, sweet potato and wheat.

"Our failure to domesticate even a single major new food plant in modern times suggests that ancient peoples really may have explored virtually all useful wild plants and domesticated all the ones worth domesticating," Diamond writes.

Domesticated animals furnished fertilizer, meat and milk. They pulled plows. They helped win wars. Whereas the Fertile Crescent had many, California had no important mammals to domesticate, despite sharing a similar climate.

In fact, North America had no large mammals suitable for domestication other than the llama, and it wasn't widespread. When human hunters arrived in the Americas via the Bering Strait about 13,000 years ago, they apparently killed most of the unwary mammals that would have been suited to domestication.

"About 15,000 years ago, the American West looked much as Africa's Serengeti Plains do today, with herds of elephants and horses pursued by lions and cheetahs, and joined by members of such exotic species as camels and giant sloths," Diamond writes. Soon these species were extinct.

In Europe and Asia, food surpluses allowed some people to specialize in science or art and others to focus their energies on being soldiers. Civilizations grew in the Fertile Crescent and spread to the east and west.

One reason a native cavalry didn't drive Columbus and other European colonialists back into the Atlantic was that there were no native horsemen. The Americas didn't have horses again until Europeans brought them, and the natives didn't get them until they escaped from Spanish explorers.

Rhino-mounted warriors didn't swarm into Europe from Africa because rhinos can't be domesticated. Nor can elephants, hippos, zebras or any of the other African animals that would otherwise make great allies in war. These animals can sometimes be tamed into submission, but their breeding—and hence their genetic characteristics—can't be controlled the way horses can.

Diamond illustrates the enormous competitive advantage enjoyed by societies with horses and guns by recounting how Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro used 62 horsemen and 106 foot soldiers to destroy thousands of Inca soldiers on Nov. 16, 1532. In a matter of hours, Pizarro's small band captured the Inca emperor Atahuallpa, leader of America's most advanced state, by panicking the emperor's 80,000 guards.

Disease was even more important than horses or guns in the European subjugation of the Americas and the rest of the world. Diamond estimates that European disease wiped out 95 percent of America's pre-Columbian population. Epidemics spread from tribe to tribe, often well in advance of the Europeans themselves.

Why, instead, didn't Indian epidemic diseases wipe out Europeans?

Epidemic diseases originated in domesticated animals. Measles, smallpox and tuberculosis came to humans from cattle, flu came from pigs and ducks, and pertussis (whooping cough) came from pigs and dogs.

Indians didn't have epidemic diseases or immunities because they didn't have the domesticated animals that gave rise to the diseases.

Besides having good grains, good animals and diseases on their side, Eurasians were blessed with a huge landmass that was oriented east-west rather than north-south like Africa and America.

People could take their crops and livestock long distances to the east or west, because climate tended not to change much along a given latitude. Trade routes eventually opened from Asia to Europe.

North-south migration tended to be vastly more difficult. Abrupt climate changes would render a crop useless, and mean the wrong forage and weather for livestock. African and American civilizations were isolated by mountains, deserts or rainforests and often unable to share in the advances of other cultures that might be as little as 1,000 miles to the north or south.

Natives of Australia, New Guinea and much of the rest of the Pacific suffered because of their isolation, too. Diamond makes a compelling case that traditional lifestyles in New Guinea and Australia, rather than showing a lack of "advancement," as defined by Europeans, were in fact intelligent adaptations to areas with difficult soils and climates and a lack of domesticable animals. A thousand years ago Asia was equal or ahead of Europe in many technologies.

Diamond argues that Europeans later pulled ahead of Asians because Japan and China became inward-looking and stopped trading ideas with other countries. The result, almost by default, was European domination of much of the world until after World War II.

Japan and now China have roared back as economic powers, and for Japan technological innovation has been a key to its enormous strides in recent decades. "Guns, Germs, and Steel" lays a foundation for understanding human history, which makes it fascinating in its own right. Because it brilliantly describes how chance advantages can lead to early success in a highly competitive environment, it also offers useful lessons for the business world and for people interested in why technologies succeed.

The book reminds me that innovation sustains success while complacency leads to stagnation and decline—a lesson I try to keep in mind every day.

In early human history, technological advantages were built on the availability of certain plants, animals and geographies.

In today's emerging information society, the critical natural resources are human intelligence, skill and leadership. Every region of the world has these in abundance, which promises to make the next chapter of human history particularly interesting.

(Copyright © 1997 by Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.)

BILL GATES, software developer, is CEO of Microsoft Corporation and author of The Road Ahead.

Patrick Bateson on "The Two Steves"

From: Patrick Bateson
Submitted: 4.1.98

Comment on the debate between Steve Pinker and Steve Rose

For many years I have amused myself by noting when one of my colleagues calls another a fool (usually behind his or her back). By degrees, I have assembled triangles or circles of these highly intelligent people (A calls B a fool, B calls C a fool and C calls A a fool). I react in somewhat the same way when two very clever people, as both Steves undoubtedly are, demonise each other, as both undoubtedly do. I reckon that it is possible to find ways of bridging their positions in ways that are likely to be highly productive scientifically and helpful socially.

Some of the advocates of evolutionary psychology seem to want to revert to the brand of old-style sociobiology which, in Ed Wilson's phrase, "decoupled" individual development from the project to link evolutionary biology and behavioural biology. It is quite plain, though, that Steve Pinker does not want to sink back into a nothing-but genes position. However, I am not sure quite where he stands on instinct. At least eight different ways of characterising it have been used over the years. These are: present at birth; a behavioural difference caused by a genetic difference; adapted over the course of evolution; unchanging throughout development; shared by all members of a species; present before the behaviour serves any function; not learned; and a distinctly organised system of behaviour driven from within the body. These are separate dimensions and they don't necessarily hang together. If we take a particular case, evidence for one of the characteristics of instinct shouldn't imply that evidence for all the others will be found. What is particularly important, when assessing the more extreme claims of evolutionary psychology, is that behaviour that was adapted to its present function during evolution may itself be learned in the course of individual development and highly labile when environmental conditions are changeable rather than stable when the behaviour evolved.

It seems to me that two agendas have to be disentangled. One is simply to have a language that describes the variety of ways in which a given pattern of behaviour may be characterised in terms of its origins and development. The other is to have ways of understanding the processes of change during development. The first agenda may be met provisionally by simply describing what is known about the characteristics of the behaviour in terms of the various ways in which instinct has been defined. The second requires hard thought about the orderly cooking processes of development. It is true that the many different approaches to the old instinct problem have helped such a program because they have shown how a great number of developmental processes combine in a profusion of ways.

Like many others who are interested in evolution, development, brains and behaviour, I do not see a great deal that is new in evolutionary psychology. It would be a great pity if the admirable project to bring different bodies of thought and knowledge together failed because excessive claims were made for the value of one of those bodies. A sense of proportion must be preserved about the value of a Darwinian approach to homicide, let us say. Sure, there are sex differences and age differences, but the differences between cultures account for much more of the overall variance. The old distinction between statistical significance and effect size needs to be brought into play.

So, I too have sensed what Steven Rose has detected, namely a messianic tendency among some of the would-be Darwinists. Nevertheless, I feel much more comfortable than he does about bringing together the four approaches to behaviour advocated by Niko Tinbergen, thereby bridging the gap between the why and the how questions. It is easy to make fun of those who spin plausible functional stories, but the half-lives of the majority of the stories are very short. They collapse in the face of the evidence — as undoubtedly would any of Steven's functional explanations for the preponderance of Stevens and Richards who are active in this debate. There are many good examples now of alternative functional explanations being run against each other with lethal consequences for most of the hypotheses. Indeed, one of the jewels in the crown of sociobiology, namely parent-offspring conflict theory made predictions about the course of relations between parent and offspring that turned out to be simply wrong. That being the case, the theory can't have been vacuous; if it had been, no test would have been possible.

If the functional and evolutionary approaches are to be helpful to those who work on mechanisms of behaviour, they must make it is easier for us to organise and understand the data which we have already available to us. In my own field of behavioural development, explanations in terms of current utility have helped to clear the decks by distinguishing between behaviour that meets the needs of the young and the precursors of adult behaviour. And attempts to uncover the adaptive regularities of learning have proved illuminating, even though nobody should underestimate the difficulties of doing this. It seems very likely that the initial rules for learning are themselves unlearned, universal and the product of Darwinian evolution. Does that mean all human behaviour is predictable? The answer is emphatically "No".

The point is made obvious by taking a rule-governed game like chess. It is not possible to predict the course of a chess game from an ability to distinguish between king, queen, rook, bishop, knight and pawn and knowledge of the game's rules. The players are constrained by the rules and the positions of the pieces, but they are also instrumental in generating the positions to which they must subsequently respond. The range of possible games is enormous and virtually impossible to predict. In other words, simple underlying rules can generate surface behaviour of enormous complexity. Inferring the underlying rules from watching a lot of instances is possible, but is much more intellectually demanding and much more open to equally plausible alternative proposals than say offering an adaptive explanation for a dark skin in a hot climate.

The development of behaviour in humans, which has a lot of the same characteristics as cooking, has yet another dimension. As in the kitchen of a large restaurant, many different dishes are being cooked at the same time. Sometimes the behavioural dishes are thrown together and something quite novel — and useful — is serendipitously produced. Humans, opportunistic as they are, and aware of at least some of the things they do, are perfectly capable of appreciating the value of these experiments. A combination of spoken language, which has obvious utility in its own right, and manual dexterity in fashioning tools, which also has its own utility, combined at a particular and recent moment in history to generate written language. The discovery of written language took place several times and in several forms in different parts of the world with ideas represented by pictures or spoken sounds represented by symbols. The techniques, once invented, were quickly copied and became crucial elements of modern civilisations. Attempts to factor out the role of evolution in this cooking process make no more sense than using those massively misleading heritability ratios. Analysing the precursors is not the same as understanding how the cooking works.

The impact of evolutionary thinking on human can be highly beneficial. Some of the apparent support for social injustice, seemingly provided by sociobiology, was based on a muddle about what happens in the course of individual development. As this was straightened out and genetic determinism fell away as a serious issue in the debates, I believe that the biological knowledge has helped the understanding of social issues by showing precisely how human potential is expressed in some conditions and not seen in others. However, what is needed in approaching such problems is constructive collaboration between biologists and social scientists and a proper respect for the insights that the different disciplines can provide. I suspect that, outside the debating chamber, both Steves would agree with that.

PATRICK BATESON is Professor of Ethology (the biological study of behaviour) at the University of Cambridge. He received his BA in Zoology from Cambridge in 1960 and his PhD in Animal Behaviour in 1963, also from Cambridge. He then spent two years at the Medical Centre of Stanford University in California. He was Director of the Sub-Department of Animal Behaviour at Cambridge for ten years. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1983 and became Provost of King's College, Cambridge in 1988. He co-authored Measuring Behaviour (1986, 1993) with Paul Martin and edited Mate Choice (1983) and The Development and Integration of Behaviour. (1991). He coedited Growing Points in Ethology (1976), The Domestic Cat (1988), Behavioural Mechanisms in Evolutionary Perspective (1992) and the series "Perspectives in Ethology". His 1997 report on the hunting of red deer was the first scientific study to have been conducted on the behavioural and physiological effects of hunting; it led to a ban of stag-hunting on National Trust land. He is currently writing a book with Paul Martin on the development of behaviour called Design for a Life.

Brian Rotman on Verena Huber-Dyson

From: Brian Rotman
Submitted: April 11, 1998

I'd like to respond to some of the points made by Verena Huber-Dyson in her Edge article "On the Nature of Mathematical Concepts". I greatly enjoyed her elegant and richly imagined exploration of Ramanujan's encounter with cubes, but some of her more general remarks about the nature of mathematical activity require comment.

"Much mathematical reasoning is done subconsciously just as we obey traffic rules ... . Symbolic notation is an 'artificial aid' ... But it is not mathematics. Mathematics can be done without symbols by a particularly 'gifted' individual, like e.g., Ramanujan."

Of course mathematical reasoning (like every other kind) has subconscious aspects to it, but what is the passage from this to the claim that notation is artificial and not mathematics? And even if someone like Ramanujan could do mathematics without symbols (a proposition that strikes me as absurd on more than one level), what does this tell us about how any of us might do mathematics?

Claiming symbols as artificial romanticizes mathematics as a mysterious and ineffable species of 'pure', i.e. linguistically untainted, thought; a claim that makes sense only if one is in thrall to a notion of language as a transparent and inert vehicle for the communication or transmission of 'thoughts' formed prior to or independently of it. If the debates in the humanities over the last thirty years have done anything at all (and to be on the 'edge' of thought but persist in a view of language untouched by them is surely odd) they've rendered such linguistic transparency untenable. In any event, the idea makes no sense for mathematics.

The history of mathematics is impossible to tell except as an ongoing and highly complex interaction between writing (symbols, notations, diagrams, formalisms, ...) and thinking /imagining (ideas, concepts, intuitions, arguments, narratives, ...). For every occasion when mathematics appears as thought-driven, where intuition or conceptualization is seen as prior to its symbolization, one can find an example of the reverse effect in which new mathematics is created out of a diagrammatically or symbolically presented situation; for example, the discovery/invention of irrational numbers from the 1:1: ÷2 right triangle, the notation-driven formulation of ÷ -1 as a solution to an equation, the conceptual facilitations of category theory diagrams, and so on. In mathematics, language far from being neutral or inert is always inseparable from and frequently constitutive of the very objects, abstractions and relations it (subsequently) is seen to be 'describing'.

Having "... a tendency to 'day dream', an ability to immerse oneself in contemplation ..." as an important requisite of successful mathematical activity. Absolutely. I think Verena Huber-Dyson has hit the nail on the head with total accuracy, though anecdotes of inspiration in dental chairs and bathtubs, delightful as theyw are, seem to undercut what is, I'd urge, not merely a requisite but the very armature of mathematical thought. For some years now, I've been arguing exactly that by using a semiotic model, based on the writings of Charles Pierce, which understands mathematical reasoning/persuasion as a certain kind of waking dream or thought experiment.

According to this, mathematical assertions of fact are predictions about the mathematician's encounters with signs. A prediction is justified, i.e. a statement is proved, when (a suitably idealized version of) the mathematician propels a surrogate or proxy of his/herself around an imagined mathematical world, observes the result, and comes to the desired conclusion about what would have happened had the imagined journey been a real one. To get the model off the ground requires examining the role of imperatives (draw X, enumerate Y, consider Z, etc) mathematicians use to describe and communicate their work. Portraying mathematical reasoning as a particular kind of symbol-controlled Gedadenkexperiment proves to be very useful. Thus, at the time, I used it to explain how each of the three major philosophical characterizations of mathematics — formalism, intuitionism, platonism — was both undeniably attractive and fatally inadequate. Since then, I have developed the model to provide a new discussion of what it means to count and to examine what sort of metaphysical apparatus is folded into the ideogram '...' when we write 1,2,3,... to signify that the sequence of so-called natural numbers extends infinitely far.

That such a re-examination of '...' is not before time is evident from Ralph Nunez's comment, in the forum on Stanislas Dehaene's book, to the effect that the 'etc' symbol hides "a very complex cognitive universe" and that writing '...' after 1,2,3 is an "extraordinary cognitive achievement". Indeed it is, and one which until now has been masked by the idea, so famously expressed by Kronecker, that (wherever the rest of mathematics comes from) the integers come from God. A stance that is not only obfuscatory and lacking explanatory worth, but turns out to be directly challengeable. Moreover, challenging it has interesting consequences, since it leads to a notion of number, counting and arithmetic quite different from, and if anything more 'natural' in the age of the computer, than the picture of endless continuation familiar to us all.

Best wishes,

Brian Rotman

BRIAN ROTMAN is a mathematician and writer who has lectured for many years about the nature of mathematics as a symbolic activity. His two most recent books are Signifying Nothing: the Semiotics of Zero and Ad Infinitum ... The Ghost in Turing's Machine. He recently published a popular account of his concept of non-Euclidean numbers in the magazine The Sciences. He is currently using robotics and ethology to construct a model of the psyche which would illuminate technology's ongoing re-structuring of human consciousness. In June he joins the faculty of Ohio State University, Columbus as a professor in the College of the Arts.

Copyright ©1998 by Edge Foundation, Inc.


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