Thursday, June 18, 2015

Somethings you might enjoy

I read a blog managed by Massimo Pigliucci called Scientia Salon. He posts himself and carries interesting stuff on the current evo biology that I find informative.  At any rate he has recently posted two things that you might enjoy.

First, there is this piece on the Formal Darwinism Project. The aim seems to be to provide a rational basis for the kind of teleological/functional/good design thinking that evo theorists find so compelling (and, it appears given the paper, they find it so for some good reasons). Of course, such thinking is hardly foolproof and there are lots of times when it fails. The idea seems to be to ground it and see where it works and where not. Interestingly, part of the effort is to find those circumstances in which not knowing much about the genetics won't make much of a difference.  This is where the "phenotypic gambit" works. Here's the author:

In 1984, I coined the term ‘Phenotypic Gambit’ for the research strategy of studying organisms in ignorance of the actual genetic architecture of the trait in question … The Phenotypic Gambit articulates the assumption that is usually made implicitly in this work, and the formal darwinism project aims to understand better why and how the gambit works when it does, and also to identify and understand those cases in which the gambit fails.
Interestingly, it seems that much (indeed, it seems, most) work in evolutionary is done in complete and utter ignorance of the relevant genetics, on the assumption that in many cases "the genetic details, which aren't known, are unlikely to matter" (quote from paper post links to. It's behind a paywall, but many can get it through their university libraries). Here's another quote from Jarrold Hadfield (170):

If you exclude simple Mendelian traits…then we know very little about the genetic basis of most traits.
Why do I mention this? Well, there is a huge amount of skepticism regarding Darwin's Problem. Some of this stems from the fact that we know little about the genetics underlying language so that thinking about it is just so much hand waving. This was a theme at the Athens conference (in fact, I might have been the one person there who did not buy into this) and it was also a theme discussed on this blog here. However, if this article is right, then it seems that it is a problem way beyond anything having to do with DP as applied to FL. It is very very common in evo investigations. And if it is ok for people studying stuff in animals to make the Phenotypic Gambit (as a useful idealization and always ready to retreat when it proves wrong) then why not in the study of FL/UG as well.

In our case, the gambit amounts to assuming that a "simple" phenotypic description will translate into a simple genetic one. This may be wrong, but it seems to be widely adopted despite the obvious problems. In short, it seems that perhaps (see the hedging here) those interested in DP are doing exactly what the state of the evo art recommends: do the best you can given that we know little about the genetics of anything bigger than bacteria. At the very least, the phenotypic gambit, the assumption that the genetics, once understood, will not greatly distort the conclusions drawn from phenotypic reasoning, is both widespread in biology and useful. Of course, maybe these people aren't doing real biology either. Maybe.

Second, there is this provocative post by Pigliucci in funding for science research. He points out that the question of why society should fund pure science is one that needs to be seriously addressed. Moreover, the standard arguments seem to lack much serious empirical grounding once one gets beyond anecdote.  Linguists should think this question through given that more and more of our work is being supported by gvmt grants or foundations. Why should they fund it?  The argument that one day it will help us cure cancer is not that compelling. What is more compelling is that I actually no of virtually no interesting applied (aka translational) work that does not rely on huge amounts of work funded for less instrumental ends.  In other words, from the little I know, most translational research presupposes results gained from publicly funded efforts. The results are easy enough to spot all around us today. The  last breakthroughs are almost always based on gvmt sponsored work (think internet, iPhone, computer, most of current molecular biology etc.). As I noted sometime ago, the computer would not exist but for the work of logicians interested in the foundation of mathematics. The fact is that most of the wonders around us hail from curiosity driven research. And what is also clear is that the fruits of this work would have been virtually impossible to anticipate ex ante.

Pigliucci touches on one other theme that is noteworthy: the bullshittification of grant applications when the one needs to defend ones work in purely instrumental terms. His observations quoted here fit well with my own:
When I was submitting grant proposals to NSF, I was required to also fill out a section about the “broader impact” of my research (which was on genotype-environment interactions in a species of weedy plants). It was always an afterthought, a boilerplate that got copied from proposal to proposal. And so were those of most of my colleagues. The reason is that — even though I was actually studying something for which practical applications were not at all far fetched (e.g., weed control, invasive biology), that’s not why I was doing it. I was doing it because I had a genuine basic curiosity about the science involved. Indeed, had NSF really only funded basic research that had a direct link to applications I could have done pretty much the same thing on a different model system, say a weed or an invasive species with well demonstrated commercial effects. And mine was by far not even close to being the most narrowly focused and idiosyncratic piece of science carried out within my own department, let alone in the US at large.
At any rate, the piece raises important issues: why should anyone fund our work? Why should they care? Here we need to be able to elaborate what we do for a wider audience in terms that they can understand. I've discussed this before (here). Pigliucci's discussion pushes the question further. It is not unreasonable for people to ask why we should keep paying. One answer is that the problems we try to investigate are intrinsically interesting. I believe that this is right. And I have a spiel. Do you? If not, get one!


  1. "In other words, from the little I know, most translational research presupposes results gained from publicly funded efforts. The results are easy enough to spot all around us today. The last breakthroughs are almost always based on gvmt sponsored work (think internet, iPhone, computer, most of current molecular biology etc.)."

    The book 'The Entrepreneurial State' by Mariana Mazzucato is an extended argument from just such cases to the need for more gov't support of research, much of it funded by increased taxes on the corporations that use this research in creating their successful products. It came out in the UK in 2013, a revised US edition will be released in October of this year. Not surprisingly, there are those who disagree (e.g., "Forbes" mag., von Mises Institute . . .); by their enemies shall you know them.
    It's worth a read if this area is of interest.


  2. RC-- It's available free on the internet, btw. under a CC license.