Tuesday, December 08, 2009

I WON the game!

Weird things have been happening lately. In my entire life I have never won any kind of contest, lottery, or sweepstakes. Indeed, as I pointed out here, the only game that I have consistently played is one that I have consistently lost simply by remembering that I'm playing it (see here for more).

But now, this has happened:

AS GREAT AS it is for contemplating the future, science fiction is also valuable for reminding us that we are living in someone else's future.

This little truism came to mind when our last publisher, Ed Ferman, sent word that a winner from our 1980 contest has been decided a few months early. (If the contest doesn't sound familiar to you longtime readers, don't go searching through your back issues—the contest was conducted by mail as part of a subscription drive.)

In 1980, F&SF sponsored a 30th Anniversary Contest called "Win $2,010 in the year 2010." It asked readers to choose one science fiction concept which will have been realized by the year 2010 and which will have had the most significant impact (good or bad) on your life.

As promised, the approximately 2,700 entries were held securely and recently opened in order to select a winner. I read through all of them over several days, and here are some comments:

Only a tiny minority chose something bad, typically, "thermonuclear war; I'll be dead."

The vast majority chose concepts that seemed—in hindsight at least—wildly optimistic. Most frequent entries of this sort included:
- World government, world peace
- Colonies or factories in space
- Robots in the home
- Tourist travel in space

Most frequent of all: medical advances that would extend life span to 200 years or more.

So many entries projected a sense of confidence and hope that it was somewhat distressing to see how badly we fell short in realizing these predictions.

More realistic predictions occurred in two areas: genetic research and alternative sources of energy. But even here, the only concept we came across that has come close to being realized is the electric car.

The winner was chosen from a fairly large group who saw that computer technology and communication would have the greatest impact. In 1980 personal computers had only been available for a few years (Apple was founded in 1976), and wide use of the Internet was more than a decade in the future.

It was hard to select a winner from this group. What tipped Allen MacNeill's entry into the winner's circle was his prediction of hand-held computers, though he admits that he never thought they would be the size of a pack of cigarettes.

—Ed Ferman, former publisher, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction

On hearing the news, the contest winner, Allen MacNeill, sent a note that's worth reprinting in its entirety:
Greetings, Ed:

Please forgive my skepticism, but I receive about a hundred "phishing" invitations a day and so am very leery of the kind of notification contained in your email. However, it is indeed the case that I was a very loyal subscriber to F&SF from the 1970s through the late 1980s. As a senior lecturer in biology at Cornell, I eventually let my subscription lapse, mostly because I no longer had the luxury of spending time reading a lot of science fiction (more's the pity). I still glance through a copy now and then (usually in the library) and find it to still have the best short fiction in the genre.

Anyway, yes I did indeed enter the contest, and remember the premise well. I believe that I entered several times, with several predictions. I came up with the one about "home computer terminals with interactive access to other home, business and academic terminals, and including hand-held terminals" mostly because I had been using the PLATO terminals in Uris Hall at Cornell and wished very, very much that I could have one of my own (and especially one that I could carry around with me). Of course, the fact that you are reading this email on precisely the kind of "home computer terminal" that I originally predicted would come about is evidence that this prediction was pretty accurate.

However, I never would have predicted either spam or viruses/worms (although David Gerrold did in When HARLIE was One, which first appeared in Galaxy magazine, another sf mag I read with devotion in those days). I have owned at least one "home computer terminal" since 1982 (it was a Commodore 64), only two years after I made the prediction for your contest. My first real desktop (i.e. the fulfillment of the prediction) was an Epson QX-10, which I bought in 1983 when I landed a contract to write an introductory biology textbook for Prentice-Hall. When it died suddenly in 1987 I bought a Mac Plus, and have stuck with Macs ever since. Right now I have three 24" 2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo iMacs, running simultaneously as WIntel machines using Parallels, one at home and one in my office at Cornell, plus a 15" MacBook G-4 that is now starting to show its age (it's almost five years old, and so a virtual antique).

If pressed today, I would say that thirty years from now it is most likely that we will be using some version of a "cloudbook", for which most of the processing and hard memory/data storage will be located somewhere else. This will, of course, depend on the Moore's Law-enhanced capabilities of the descendants of today's cell phones, which I suspect will be incorporated into our clothing, with something like a virtually invisible BlueTooth earbud/jaw mike interface. I don't think we will have implants, however, as they would need to be surgically replaced too often as technology changes—fun as it was at the time, I certainly would not have wanted to have the equivalent of my old C-64 implanted in me!

Anyway, my very brief bio is this: In 1980 when I entered the contest I had just recently finished graduate school and begun teaching introductory biology at Cornell. I have been doing so ever since, with a brief sabbatical leave as Chief Academic Officer for a Web 1.0 startup in 1999-2000. I am about to be taped for a series of online lectures on evolution for Cornell's CyberTower "study rooms" and am currently writing several books and maintaining four active blogs. I couldn't do any of this without my trusty home computer terminals with interactive access to other home, business and academic terminals, and including hand-held terminals, and indeed cannot imagine what life today would be without them. Very different, and much less interesting in many ways.

By the way, I wish that back in 1980 you had bought $2,010 worth of Apple stock (or any kind of stock, for that matter) and held on to it for the winner of your contest. Now that I think of it, could I have my grand prize winnings in 1980 dollars? ;-)

My sincerest thanks for a terrific magazine, a terrific contest, and for making my day! Please let me know where the announcement of the contest and the fact that I am the grand prize winner will appear, so I can blog it!

Still in Ithaca/Utopia and still crazy after all these years, I remain…
As always.
—Allen MacNeill

So, congratulations to Allen MacNeill, and for anyone who is reading this editorial in the year 2040, I hope you're making the most of our future.
—Gordon Van Gelder, current publisher, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction

And, it gets weirder yet:

As of yesterday (Monday 7 December 2009), The Evolution List is currently #63 in the Top 100 Science Blogs list at Wikio.com. Furthermore, it is currently #12 among science blogs that regularly cover evolutionary biology:

1. Pharyngula
2. The Panda's Thumb
3. Greg Laden's Blog
4. Gene Expression
5. A Blog Around the Clock
6. Thoughts from Kansas
7. EvolutionBlog
8. Mike the Mad Biologist
9. Laelaps
10. Aetiology
11. The Evolving Mind
12. The Evolution List

What's next, I wonder?


As always, comments, criticisms, and suggestions are warmly welcomed!


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Monday, December 07, 2009

The Searchers

AUTHORS: William A. Dembski and Robert J. Marks II

SOURCE: Proceedings of the 2009 IEEE International Conference on Systems, Man, and Cybernetics. San Antonio, TX, USA – October 2009, pp. 2647-2652

COMMENTARY: Allen MacNeill

First, congratulations to Drs. Dembski & Marks! Publication is the life blood of all career academics and the living heart of the intellectual process. It takes courage and hard work (and a little bit of luck) to get your original work published, and more of the same to weather the criticism that inevitably ensues. But, just as one cannot have a fencing match without an opponent, real progress in any intellectual endeavor cannot come from consensus, but only from the clash of ideas and evidence.

And so, to specifics:

I have no quibble with most of the mathematical analysis presented. Indeed, given the assumptions upon which the authors' Conservation of Information (COI) theory is based (with which I do not necessarily agree, but which are clearly presented in their paper), the analysis presented is apparently not completely outside the domain of No Free Lunch (NFL) theorems in general.

However, the same cannot be said for the application of these ideas to biological evolution. To be specific, consider the following quote [Dembski & Marks (2009) pg. 2651, lines 2-5]:
"From the perspective of COI, these limited number of endpoints on which evolution converges constitute intrinsic targets, crafted in part by initial conditions and the environment." [emphasis added]

This is indeed the crux of the issue vis-a-vis biological evolution. While it is clearly the case that Simon Conway-Morris asserts that there is an apparently limited number of biological "endpoints", it is neither the case that Morris' viewpoint represents the core of evolutionary theory, nor that his point is relevant to the analysis of COI presented in Dr. Dembski and Marks' paper.

To be specific, the highlighted qualifier from the quote above – crafted in part by initial conditions and the environment – is precisely the issue under debate between evolutionary biologists and supports of intelligent design (ID).

Taken at face value, this qualifying simply phrase means that, given specific starting conditions and a specific time-varying environmental context, the various mechanisms of evolution (e.g. mutation, natural selection, genetic drift, inbreeding, etc.) tend to converge on a relatively limited set of genotypic and phenotypic "endstates" (i.e. what could be loosely referred to as "evolutionary adaptations").

This is simply another way of defining evolutionary convergence, and in no way constitutes evidence for intrinsic evolutionary teleology. On the contrary, it simply provides support for the hypothesis that, given similar conditions, similar outcomes result.

Furthermore, it assumes that virtually all characteristics of living organisms are adaptations (that is, genotypic/phenotypic characteristics that fulfill some necessary function in the lives of organisms). However, this is manifestly not the case, nor is it an absolutely necessary component of current evolutionary theory. On the contrary, many (perhaps the majority) of the characteristics of living organisms are not adaptive. This is certainly the case at the level of the genome, as evidenced by the neutral and nearly neutraltheories of molecular evolution.

Finally, Morris' (and, by extension, Dembski and Marks') position completely omits any role for historical contingency, which both the fossil and genomic record indicate are of extraordinary importance in macroevolution. As Dembski and Marks state, the "endpoints" (perhaps it would be more precise to refer to them as "way stations") of macroevolution depend fundamentally on initial conditions and the environment. But this is not fundamentally different from Darwin's position in the Origin of Species:
"The complex and little known laws governing variation are the same, as far as we can see, with the laws which have governed the production of so-called specific forms. In both cases physical conditions seem to have produced but little direct effect; yet when varieties enter any zone, they occasionally assume some of the characters of the species proper to that zone." [Darwin, C. (1859) Origin of Species, pg. 472, emphasis added]

Moreover, Dembski and Marks' analysis completely ignores the appearance (or non-appearance) of new genotypic and phenotypic variations, and on the accidental disappearance of such characteristics (via extinction), without regard to the adaptive value of such characteristics, or the lack thereof.

In other words, Dembski and Marks' analysis, while interesting from the standpoint of what could be called "abstract" search algorithms, completely fails to address the central issues of evolutionary biology: the source of evolutionary novelty (i.e. the "engines of variation"), the effects of changing environmental conditions on the actual forms and functions of living organisms, and the fundamental importance of historical contingency in the ongoing evolution of genotypes and phenotypes.


As always, comments, criticisms, and suggestions are warmly welcomed!


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