Philosophers and the age of their influential contributions
Philosophers and the age of their influential contributions
Are You Totally Improbable Or Totally Inevitable?
“If we have never been amazed by the very fact that we exist, we are squandering the greatest fact of all.”
— Will Durant, American writer, historian, and philosopher (1885-1981)
“Not only have you been lucky enough to be attached since time immemorial to a favored evolutionary line, but you have also been extremely — make that miraculously — fortunate in your personal ancestry. Consider the fact that for 3.8 billion years, a period of time older than the Earth’s mountains and rivers and oceans, every one of your forebears on both sides has been attractive enough to find a mate, healthy enough to reproduce, and sufficiently blessed by fate and circumstances to live long enough to do so. Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stuck fast, untimely wounded or otherwise deflected from its life’s quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result — eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly — in you. (…)
The number of people on whose cooperative efforts your eventual existence depends has risen to approximately 1,000,000,000,000,000,000, which is several thousand times the total number of people who have ever lived. (…)
We are awfully lucky to be here-and by ‘we’ I mean every living thing. To attain any kind of life in this universe of ours appears to be quite an achievement. As humans we are doubly lucky, of course: We enjoy not only the privilege of existence but also the singular ability to appreciate it and even, in a multitude of ways, to make it better. It is a talent we have only barely begun to grasp.”
“Statistically, the probability of any one of us being here is so small that you’d think the mere fact of existing would keep us all in a contented dazzlement of surprise.”
“Life is one huge lottery where only the winning tickets are visible.”
“’We are the lucky ones for we shall die’, as there is an infinite number of possible forms of DNA all but a few billions of which will never burst into consciousness.”
“What are the odds that you exist, as you, today? Author Dr Ali Binazir attemps to quantify the probability that you came about and exist as you today, and reveals that the odds of you existing are almost zero.
Think about yourself.
You are here because…
Your dad met your mom.
Then your dad and mom conceived you.
So a particular egg in your mom
Joined a particular sperm from your dad
Which could only happen because not one of your direct ancestors, going all the way back to the beginning of life itself, died before passing on his or her genes…
So what are the chances of you happening?
Of you being here?
Author Ali Binazir did the calculations last spring and decided that the chances of anyone existing are one in 102,685,000. In other words (…) you are totally improbable.
— Robert Krulwich, Are You Totally Improbable Or Totally Inevitable?, NPR, Nov 21, 2011
“First, let’s talk about the probability of your parents meeting. If they met one new person of the opposite sex every day from age 15 to 40, that would be about 10,000 people. Let’s confine the pool of possible people they could meet to 1/10 of the world’s population twenty years go (one tenth of 4 billion = 400 million) so it considers not just the population of the US but that of the places they could have visited. Half of those people, or 200 million, will be of the opposite sex. So let’s say the probability of your parents meeting, ever, is 10,000 divided by 200 million:
104/2×108= 2×10-4, or one in 20,000.
Probability of boy meeting girl: 1 in 20,000.
So far, so unlikely.
Now let’s say the chances of them actually talking to one another is one in 10. And the chances of that turning into another meeting is about one in 10 also. And the chances of that turning into a long-term relationship is also one in 10. And the chances of that lasting long enough to result in offspring is one in 2. So the probability of your parents’ chance meeting resulting in kids is about 1 in 2000.
Probability of same boy knocking up same girl: 1 in 2000.
So the combined probability is already around 1 in 40 million — long but not insurmountable odds. Now things start getting interesting. Why? Because we’re about to deal with eggs and sperm, which come in large numbers.
Each sperm and each egg is genetically unique because of the process of meiosis; you are the result of the fusion of one particular egg with one particular sperm. A fertile woman has 100,000 viable eggs on average. A man will produce about 12 trillion sperm over the course of his reproductive lifetime. Let’s say a third of those (4 trillion) are relevant to our calculation, since the sperm created after your mom hits menopause don’t count. So the probability of that one sperm with half your name on it hitting that one egg with the other half of your name on it is
1/(100,000)(4 trillion)= 1/(105)(4×1012)= 1 in 4 x 1017, or one in 400 quadrillion.
Probability of right sperm meeting right egg: 1 in 400 quadrillion.
But we’re just getting started.
Because the existence of you here now on planet earth presupposes another supremely unlikely and utterly undeniable chain of events. Namely, that every one of your ancestors lived to reproductive age – going all the way back not just to the first Homo sapiens, first Homo erectus and Homo habilis, but all the way back to the first single-celled organism. You are a representative of an unbroken lineage of life going back 4 billion years.
Let’s not get carried away here; we’ll just deal with the human lineage. Say humans or humanoids have been around for about 3 million years, and that a generation is about 20 years. That’s 150,000 generations. Say that over the course of all human existence, the likelihood of any one human offspring to survive childhood and live to reproductive age and have at least one kid is 50:50 – 1 in 2. Then what would be the chance of your particular lineage to have remained unbroken for 150,000 generations?
Well then, that would be one in 2150,000 , which is about 1 in 1045,000– a number so staggeringly large that my head hurts just writing it down. That number is not just larger than all of the particles in the universe – it’s larger than all the particles in the universe if each particle were itself a universe.
Probability of every one of your ancestors reproducing successfully: 1 in 1045,000
But let’s think about this some more. Remember the sperm-meeting-egg argument for the creation of you, since each gamete is unique? Well, the right sperm also had to meet the right egg to create your grandparents. Otherwise they’d be different people, and so would their children, who would then have had children who were similar to you but not quite you. This is also true of your grandparents’ parents, and their grandparents, and so on till the beginning of time. If even once the wrong sperm met the wrong egg, you would not be sitting here noodling online reading fascinating articles like this one. It would be your cousin Jethro, and you never really liked him anyway.
That means in every step of your lineage, the probability of the right sperm meeting the right egg such that the exact right ancestor would be created that would end up creating you is one in 1200 trillion, which we’ll round down to 1000 trillion, or one quadrillion.
So now we must account for that for 150,000 generations by raising 400 quadrillion to the 150,000th power:
[4x1017]150,000 ≈ 102,640,000
That’s a ten followed by 2,640,000 zeroes, which would fill 11 volumes of a book the size of The Tao of Dating with zeroes.
To get the final answer, technically we need to multiply that by the 1045,000 , 2000 and 20,000 up there, but those numbers are so shrimpy in comparison that it almost doesn’t matter. For the sake of completeness:
(102,640,000)(1045,000)(2000)(20,000) = 4x 102,685,007 ≈ 102,685,000
Probability of your existing at all: 1 in 102,685,000
As a comparison, the number of atoms in the body of an average male (80kg, 175 lb) is 1027. The number of atoms making up the earth is about 1050. The number of atoms in the known universe is estimated at 1080.
So what’s the probability of your existing? It’s the probability of 2 million people getting together – about the population of San Diego – each to play a game of dice with trillion-sided dice. They each roll the dice, and they all come up the exact same number – say, 550,343,279,001.”
— Ali Binazir, What are the chances of your coming into being?, June 15, 2011
A lovely comment by PZ Myers, a biologist and associate professor at the University of Minnesota:
“You are a contingent product of many chance events, but so what? So is everything else in the universe. That number doesn’t make you any more special than a grain of sand on a beach, which also arrived at its precise shape, composition, and location by a series of chance events. (…)
You are one of 7 billion people, occupying an insignificant fraction of the volume of the universe, and you aren’t a numerical miracle at all — you’re actually rather negligible.”
— PZ Myers, A very silly calculation, Pharyngula, Nov 14, 2011
‘Life is one huge lottery where only the winning tickets are visible’
“Thirteen forty-nine,” was the first thing [he] said.
“The Black Death,” I replied. I had a pretty good knowledge of history, but I had no idea what the Black Death had to do with coincidences.
”Okay,” he said, and off he went. “You probably know that half Norway’s population was wiped out during that great plague. But there’s a connection here I haven’t told you about. Did you know that you had thousands of ancestors at that time?” he continued.
I shook my head in dispair. How could that possibly be?
”You have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, sixteen great-great grandparents — and so on. If you work it out, right back to 1349 — there are quite a lot.
“Then came the bubonic plague. Death spread from neighborhood to neighborhood, and the children were hit worst. Whole families died, sometimes one or two family members survived. A lot of your ancestors were children at this time, Hans Thomas. But none of them kicked the bucket.”
“How can you be so sure about that?” I asked on amazement.
He took a long drag on his cigarette and said, “Because you’re sitting here looking out over the Adriatic.
“The chances of of single ancestor of yours not dying while growing up is one in several billion. Because it isn’t just about the Black Death, you know. Actually all of your ancestors have grown up and had children — even during the worst natural disasters, even when the child mortality rate was enormous. Of course, a lot of them have suffered from illness, but they’ve always pulled through. In a way, you have been a millimeter from death billions of times, Hans Thomas.
Your life on this planet has been threatned by insects, wild animals, meteorites, lightning, sickness, war, flods, fires, poisoning, and attempted murders. In the battle of Stikelstad alone you were injured hundreds of times. Because you must have had ancestors on both sides — yes, really you were fighting against yourself and your chances of being born a thousand years later. You know, the same goes for the last world war. If Grandpa had been shot by good Norwegians during the occupation, then neither you nor I would have been born. The point is, this happened billions of times through history. Each time an arrow rained through the air, your chances of being born have been reduced to the minimum.”
He continued: “I am talking about one long chain of coincidences. In fact, that chain goes right back to the first living cell, which divided in two, and from there gave birth to everything growing and sprouting on this planet today. The chance of my chain not being broken at one time or another duirng three or four billion years is so little it is almost inconceivable. But I have pulled through, you know. Damned right, I have. In return, I appreciate how fantastically lucky I am to be able to experience this planet this planet together with you. I realize how lucky every single little crawling insect on this planet is.”
“What about the unlucky ones?” I asked.
”They don’t exist! They were never born. Life is one huge lottery where only the winning tickets are visible.”
☞ Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow, Lapidarium notes
The relativity of now
Noam Chomsky, an American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, and political activist. He is an Institute Professor and professor emeritus of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Infographic: Voxy, Apr 19, 2011
Evolution of Language tested with genetic analysis
Human Migration, National Geographic
Evolutionary Babel was in southern Africa
“Where did humanity utter its first words? A new linguistic analysis attempts to rewrite the story of Babel by borrowing from the methods of genetic analysis – and finds that modern language originated in sub-Saharan Africa and spread across the world with migrating human populations.
Quentin Atkinson of the University of Auckland in New Zealand designed a computer program to analyse the diversity of 504 languages. Specifically, the program focused on phonemes – the sounds that make up words, like “c”, “a”, and “tch” in the word “catch”.
Earlier research has shown that the more people speak a language, the higher its phonemic diversity. Large populations tend to draw on a more varied jumble of consonants, vowels and tones than smaller .
Africa turned out to have the greatest phonemic diversity – it is the only place in the world where languages incorporate clicks of the tongue into their vocabularies, for instance – while South America and Oceania have the smallest. Remarkably, this echoes genetic analyses showing that African populations have higher genetic diversity than European, Asian and American populations.
This is generally attributed to the “serial founder” effect: it’s thought that humans first lived in a large and genetically diverse population in Africa, from which smaller groups broke off and migrated to what is now Europe. Because each break-off group carried only a subset of the genetic diversity of its parent group, this migration was, in effect, written in the migrants’ genes.
Dr. Mark Pagel sees language as central to human expansion across the globe.
“Language was our secret weapon, and as soon we got language we became a really dangerous species,” he said.
— Nicholas Wade, Phonetic Clues Hint Language Is Africa-Born, NYT, Apr 14, 2011.
Atkinson argues that the process was mirrored in languages: as smaller populations broke off and spread across the world, human language lost some of its phonemic diversity, and sounds that humans first spoke in the African Babel were left behind.
To test this, Atkinson compared the phoneme content of languages around the world and used this analysis to determine the most likely origin of all language. He found that sub-Saharan Africa was a far better fit for the origin of modern language than any other location. (…)
“It’s a compelling idea,” says Sohini Ramachandran of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, who studies population genetics and human evolution. “Language is such an adaptive thing that it makes sense to have a single origin before the diaspora out of Africa. It’s also a nice confirmation of what we have seen in earlier genetic studies. The processes that shaped genetic variation of humans may also have shaped cultural traits.”
Out of Africa (Map source: The Mother of All Languages, WSJ.com, Apr 15, 2011)
Language universality idea tested with biology method
(The study challenges the idea that the “language centres” of our brains are the sole driver of language)
“A long-standing idea that human languages share universal features that are dictated by human brain structure has been cast into doubt.
A study reported in Nature has borrowed methods from evolutionary biology to trace the development of grammar in several language families.
The results suggest that features shared across language families evolved independently in each lineage.
The authors say cultural evolution, not the brain, drives language development.
At the heart of both studies is a method based on what are known as phylogenetic studies.
Lead author Michael Dunn, an evolutionary linguist at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands, said the approach is akin to the study of pea plants by Gregor Mendel, which ultimately led to the idea of heritability of traits. (…)
“He inferred the existence of some kind of information transfer just from knowing family trees and observing variation, and that’s exactly the same thing we’re doing.”
Modern phylogenetics studies look at variations in animals that are known to be related, and from those can work out when specific structures evolved.
For their studies, the team studied the characteristics of word order in four language families: Indo-European, Uto-Aztec, Bantu and Austronesian.
They considered whether what we call prepositions occur before or after a noun (“in the boat” versus “the boat in”) and how the word order of subject and object work out in either case (“I put the dog in the boat” versus “I the dog put the canoe in”).
The method starts by making use of well-established linguistic data on words and grammar within these language families, and building “family trees” of those languages.
“Once we have those trees we look at distribution of these different word order features over the descendant languages, and build evolutionary models for what’s most likely to produce the diversity that we observe in the world,” Dr Dunn said.
The models revealed that while different language structures in the family tree could be seen to evolve along the branches, just how and when they evolved depended on which branch they were on.
“We show that each of these language families evolves according to its own set of rules, not according to a universal set of rules,” Dr Dunn explained.
“That is inconsistent with the dominant ‘universality theories’ of grammar; it suggests rather that language is part of not a specialised module distinct from the rest of cognition, but more part of broad human cognitive skills.”
The paper asserts instead that “cultural evolution is the primary factor that determines linguistic structure, with the current state of a linguistic system shaping and constraining future states”.
However, co-author and evolutionary biologist Russell Gray of the University of Auckland stressed that the team was not pitting biology against culture in a mutually exclusive way.
“We’re not saying that biology is irrelevant - of course it’s not,” Professor Gray told BBC News.
“But the clumsy argument about an innate structure of the human mind imposing these kind of ‘universals’ that we’ve seen in cognitive science for such a long time just isn’t tenable.”
Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist at Harvard University, called the work “an important and welcome study”.
However, Professor Pinker told BBC News that the finer details of the method need bearing out in order to more fully support their hypothesis that cultural boundaries drive the development of language more than biological limitations do.
“The [authors] suggest that the human mind has a tendency to generalise orderings across phrases of different types, which would not occur if the mind generated every phrase type with a unique and isolated rule.
“The tendency may be partial, and it may be elaborated in different ways in differently language families, but it needs an explanation in terms of the working of the mind of language speakers.”
— Jason Palmer, Science and technology reporter, Language universality idea tested with biology method, BBC News, 14 April 2011.
Evolution of Language Takes Unexpected Turn
“The findings “do not support simple ideas of the mind as a computer, with a language processor plugged in. They support much-more complex ideas of how language arises.” (…)
One school of thought, pioneered by linguist Noam Chomsky, holds that language is a product of dedicated mechanisms in the human brain. These can be imagined as a series of switches, each corresponding to particular forms of grammar and syntax and structure.
Such a system would account for why, of the nearly infinite number of languages that are possible — imagine, for instance, a language in which verb conjugation changes randomly; it is possible — relatively few actually exist. Our brains have adapted to contain a limited, universal set of switches.
A limited set of linguistic universals is exactly what was described by the late, great comparative linguist Joseph Greenberg, who empirically tabulated features common to language. He made no claims as to neurological origin, but the essential claim overlapped with Chomsky’s: Language has universals.
If you speak a subject-verb-object language, one in which “I kick the ball,” then you likely use prepositions — “over the fence.” If you speak a subject-object-verb language, one in which “I the ball kicked,” then you almost certainly use postpositions — “the fence over.” And so on.
“What both these views predict is that languages should evolve according to the same set of rules,” said Dunn. “No matter what the language, no matter what the family, if there are two features of language that are somehow linked together structurally, they should be linked together the same way in all languages.”
That’s what Dunn, along with University of Auckland (New Zealand) computational linguist Russell Gray, set out to test.
Unlike earlier linguists, however, Dunn and Gray had access to powerful computational tools that, when set to work on sets of data, calculate the most likely relationships between the data. Such tools are well known in evolutionary biology, where they’re used to create trees of descent from genetic readings, but they can be applied to most anything that changes over time, including language.
In the new study, Dunn and Gray’s team created evolutionary trees for eight word-order features in humanity’s best-described language groups — Austronesian, Indo-European, Bantu and Uto-Aztecan. Together they contain more than one-third of humanity’s 7,000 languages, and span thousands of years. If there are universal trends, say Dunn and Gray, they should be visible, with each language family evolving along similar lines.
That’s not what they found.
“Each language family is evolving according to its own set of rules. Some were similar, but none were the same,” said Dunn. “There is much more diversity, in terms of evolutionary processes, than anybody ever expected.”
In one representative example of divergence (diagram above), both Austronesian and Indo-European languages that linked prepositions and object-verb structures (“over the fence, ball kicked) tended to evolve preposition and verb-object structures (“over the fence, kicked ball.”) That’s exactly what universalism would predict.
But when Austronesian and Indo-European languages both started from postposition, verb-object arrangements (“the fence over, kicked ball”), they ended up in different places. Austronesian tended towards preposition, verb-object (“over the fence, kicked ball”) but Indo-European tended towards postposition, object-verb (“the fence over, ball kicked.”)
Such differences might be eye-glazing to people unaccustomed to diagramming sentences, but the upshot is that the two language families took opposite trajectories. Many other comparisons followed suit. “The things specific to language families trumped any kind of universals we could look for,” said Dunn.
“We see that there isn’t any sort of rigid” progression of changes, said University of Reading (England) evolutionary linguist Mark Pagel, who wasn’t involved in the study. “There seems to be quite a lot of fluidity. That leads me to believe this isn’t something where you’re throwing a lot of parameter switches.”
Instead of a simple set of brain switches steering language evolution, cultural circumstance played a role. Changes were the product of chance, or perhaps fulfilled as-yet-unknown needs. For whatever reason, “the fence over, ball kicked” might have been especially useful to Indo-European speakers, but not Austronesians.
There is, however, still room for universals, said Pagel. After all, even if culture and circumstance shapes language evolution, it’s still working with a limited set of possibilities. Of the six possible combinations of subject, verb and object, for example, just two — “I kicked the ball” and “I the ball kicked” — are found in more than 90 percent of all languages, with Yoda-style “Kicked I the ball” exceedingly rare. People do seem to prefer some structures.
“What languages have in common is to be found at a much deeper level. They must emerge from more-general cognitive capacities,” said Dunn.
What those capacities may be is a new frontier for investigation. As for Dunn, his team next plans to conduct similar analyses on other features of language, searching for further evolutionary differences or those deeper levels of universality.”
“This can be applied to every level of language structure,” he said.
☞ Andis Kaulins, Principles of Historical Language Reconstruction, AABECIS, Feb 24, 2010.
☞ Researchers Synthesize Evolution of Language
☞ Evolution of Language Parallels Evolution of Species
☞ Gut Bacteria, Language Analysis Solve Pacific Migration Mystery
☞ Cultural Evolution Could Be Studied in Google Books Database
☞ Human-Chimp Gene Comparison Hints at Roots of Language
☞ Mark Changizi on how we read
☞ Mark Changizi, The Topography Of Language, Science 2.0, Sep 17, 2009.
☞ A brief history of writing
☞ Evolved structure of language shows lineage-specific trends in word-order universals, Word-Order Research, Basic Vocabulary Database
☞ The Tree of Life: Tangled Roots and Sexy Shoots. Tracing the genetic pathway from the first Eukaryotes to Homo sapiens.
☞ The Genographic Project ☞ A Landmark Study of the Human Journey
Language and Your Brain (infographic)
“For decades, research into the brain basis of language was limited to the study of the effects of neurological disease and brain lesions on human language processing and production. Nowadays, however, new techniques are allowing researchers to create a picture of a normal brain at work processing language - helping to shed light on the mysteries of language and the brain.”
— Language and Your Brain, Voxy Blog, Apr 5, 2011.
Revolutionary Measures. Challenges Facing Countries Across North Africa and the Middle East (charts)
Using Tunisia and Egypt as benchmarks, measures for other areas are colored if they meet or exceed those thresholds. (In the case of median age and level of democracy, lower numbers are colored.)
— Charles M. Blow, The Kindling of Change, NYT, February 4, 2011.
Challenges Facing Countries Across North Africa and the Middle East
In the wake of the overthrow of the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt, here is a look at challenges facing countries across the region.
— Challenges Facing Countries Across North Africa and the Middle East, NYT, Feb 17, 2011.
A chart with an array of indicators of potential instability made by Harvard Kennedy School
Society, Economy, Legitimacy and Accountability
— Graham Allison, Joseph Costa, The Arab World’s 1989? Who’s next?, Harvard Kennedy School, March 18, 2011.
Arab spring: an interactive timeline of Middle East protests
“Ever since a man in Tunisia burnt himself to death in December 2010 in protest at his treatment by police, pro-democracy rebellions have erupted across the Middle East.” To see interactive timeline traces key events click below image.
— Garry Blight and Sheila Pulham, Arab spring: an interactive timeline of Middle East protests, Guardian, 22 March 2011.
Genealogy of Science According to Scopus
“About 39,000,000 papers were published in scientific journals between 1817 and 2010. To map the explosion of research, technology analyst M’hamed el Aisati graphed unique publications based on information in Elsevier’s Scopus database”.
Image: M’hamed el Aisati/Academic and Government Products Group (Elsevier), Amsterdam; Katy Börner and Angela M. Zoss/Indiana University (high-resolution version)
— Genealogy of Science According to Scopus, Wired Magazine, March 8, 2011
The History of Science Fiction by Ward Shelley
“History of Science Fiction” is a graphic chronology that maps the literary genre from its nascent roots in mythology and fantastic stories to the somewhat calcified post-Star Wars space opera epics of today. The movement of years is from left to right, tracing the figure of a tentacled beast, derived from H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds Martians. Science Fiction is seen as the offspring of the collision of the Enlightenment (providing science) and Romanticism, which birthed gothic fiction, source of not only SciFi, but crime novels, horror, westerns, and fantasy (all of which can be seen exiting through wormholes to their own diagrams, elsewhere). Science fiction progressed through a number of distinct periods, which are charted, citing hundreds of the most important works and authors. Film and television are covered as well.” Source
See also: Interview with “History of Science Fiction” artist Ward Shelley, Slate, March 14, 2011
How Does the Brain Retain Information?
“The manner by which humans retain and retrieve information is an area widely explored and as of yet not completely understood. The human brain consists of about one billion neurons. Each neuron forms about 1,000 connections to other neurons, amounting to more than a trillion connections. This amounts to quite a large storage capacity. Here we examine how the brain retains all this information.”
Source: Baddeley, A.D. “Working Memory”, McGill University “Collective Memory”, Don H. Hockenbury “Psychology”, Helium.com, USC News, USA Today, Scientific American, IHMC
☞ The Human Hard Drive: Antonio Damasio and Ottavio Arancio on How We Make (And Lose) Memories
☞ Greg Miller on How Our Brains Make Memories
☞ Memory tag on Lapidarium notes