Zimmer Profiles Nowak

| 14 Comments

Today’s New York Times carries a profile of evolutionary theoretician, Martin Nowak, written by Carl Zimmer: In Games, an Insight Into the Rules of Evolution. Zimmer elaborates on the profile on his blog.

Nowak is the director of the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics at Harvard University. I first encountered his research in graduate school, when I was working on the evolution of language ability. In 2002, at the Evolution of Language: Fourth International Conference, I had the opportunity to have lunch with him.

He is an incredibly gifted scientist, and Zimmer’s article about him is well worth the read.

14 Comments

Nowak, a believer, wants us to buy that believing in god is the same as demonstrating a mathmatical theorem .Why? Because in each case no empirical evidence is used.

Silly, isn’t it? There still are very constitutive differences between mathematical demonstrations and theology, even if none is “empirical”

Who know how many other things Nowak thiks we should swallow just becuase it’s not an empirical topic. aaaaah well. He’s a genius, everything he says is as good as a a proven mathematical theorem.

I think this guy is just shameless. In general the evolutionary philosophy of this “genius” has less to do with biology and more with mathematics, economics, games and simplistic notions of genetic determinism. Pure cost-benefit thinking apllied to nature… Not very structural. To say the least. All the praise to this dude does not really convey to me exactly what are his models and explanations so good for. Are these just explanations? What predictions or inferences do they make that have been empirically confirmed? Why nobody emphasizes that?

I usually don’t agree with Sanders, especially when he kneejerk argues against Dawkins biology. But I believe I can understand some biologists distaste for traces of “genetic determinism” and the problems with testability in (Pinker’s) evolutionary psychology.

And yes, specifically the ending comparison between mathematical models and theological ‘models’ is ridiculous. Especially since some modern mathematicians sees math as not entirely without undecidable “random” elements and must be empirically explored because formal proofs aren’t enough. (IIRC, Chaitin who demonstrates such sectors of math calls math “semi-empirical” for exactly that reason.)

Also, mathematical results can be used in testable predictions while theology can’t. D’oh!

Dr. Nowak is collaborating with theologians there on a project called “The Evolution and Theology of Cooperation,” to help theologians address evolutionary biology in their own work.

Theology of cooperation??? Nowak is doing research on spontaneous emergence of cooperation using evolutionary and game theory methods, what makes God unnecessary in this process. The theologians can only add “God did it that way!”, or “It was God’s plan”, or other post-hoc vacuous statements.

“Like mathematics, many theological statements do not need scientific confirmation. Once you have the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem, it’s not like we have to wait for the scientists to tell us if it’s right. This is it.”

:))))) Tell us one theological statement with such proof!

Nowak, a believer, wants us to buy that believing in god is the same as demonstrating a mathmatical theorem .Why? Because in each case no empirical evidence is used.

Silly, isn’t it? There still are very constitutive differences between mathematical demonstrations and theology, even if none is “empirical”

The second paragraph is obviously true.

Maybe I didn’t read deeply enough, but do you have any quotes or references to support the first paragraph? Is it really a fair paraphrase of Nowak’s position? Did he somewhere propose a relatively exact analogy between believing in god and demonstrating a mathematical theorem (I agree that any analogy would be a strain, by the way)?

Incidentally, whether the paraphrase is fair or not, there’s no reason why any reply to this question would need to contain insulting language, make unjustified assumptions about my own personal characteristics, or otherwise represent an attempt to start a “flame war”. (For the record, it doesn’t make any difference to me what Nowak or anyone else believes personally, nor even what he “wants us to buy”, as long as he isn’t trying to use his private beliefs as an excuse to violate rights, push harmful public policy, or deceive the ignorant about objective, empirical science in a gross way. If any kind of bias, religious or equally any other, affects his actual scientific work, that’s for his editors and colleagues to correct; colleagues broadly defined could include lay people, if and only if they address themselves to the actual scientific work.)

Whether Nowak is “shameless”, and whether or not the value of his work is being “exaggerated” by Carl Zimmer and others, the issue of cooperation, particularly between cells, is a key one in biomedical science.

The evolution and maintenence of multicellularity, a key issue in biology, hinges on cooperation between individual cells (cells with essentially the same genome, of course, in most cases, excluding things like meiosis-produced gametes or hematocytes without genetic material, and not counting close symbiosis as multicellularity per se).

Most examples of what we call cancer are essentially, in the end, the result of a breakdown in cooperation between cells in a multicellular organism. The cancer cell lineage gains a transient selective advantage over the “normal” cells, to a large degree because they do not “cooperate” with regard to differentiation, respect of boundaries, and division. Although cancer cells, once established, initially outcompete and are relatively selected for, in most types of untreated cancer, they eventually destroy the organism, their environment, so to speak, and go “extinct”.

As much as I tire of the often pointless diatribes against religious notions which are relatively harmless add-ons to sop emotional needs, I’m with Sanders on this one. It’s very silly to say this:

“Like mathematics, many theological statements do not need scientific confirmation. Once you have the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem, it’s not like we have to wait for the scientists to tell us if it’s right. This is it.”

The proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem is not an existential claim. Theological statements typically are, no matter how smudged-over that aspect often is today.

For sure, there is enough ambiguities in the above quote that one could try to make Nowak out to be talking about some “beauty” in theology which is entirely contingent upon unevidenced postulates. Yes, but I wouldn’t let him off that easy, he (or NYT, who edited it) should say that it’s the logical structure alone that impresses him (and actually, theology, and quasi-theological structures like Plotinus and Heidegger made, can be interesting in the same way that non-applicable mathematics can be), not put an ambiguous statement out there that confuses people who think that “truth” in mathematics, and in theology, is the same as “truth” in science.

In a sense, yes, I do think the analogy between theology and science is apt. For despite the above Nowak quote, mathematical proofs are only applicable to science and to life when the proofs are based upon axioms and postulates which are empirically sound, at least in a defined area (for instance, Euclid’s fifth postulate works in our flat universe). Change the postulates (and mathematicians do), and you end up proving quite different things.

There is indeed beauty in logic, mathematics, and in fictional constructs with made-up rules—at least to a number of minds (some would say, to geeks). This doesn’t change the fact that “truth” in the vernacular (sensibly, the empirical) sense does not come from mathematics nor from theology alone, instead the two can only come to meaningful conclusions only insofar as they utilize sound axioms and postulates (and I wouldn’t say that all theologies could even then).

The fact that most people only know of applied mathematics, which is based upon empirically-sound axioms and postulates, means that Nowak used an illegitimate (in context) and confusing analogy between mathematics and science. If he had noted that scientifically inapplicable mathematics is reasonably analogous with the equally empirically-unfounded theology, then it would have been an just comparison.

I am not, of course, attacking Nowak for being religious, a matter which is up to him. Only his comparison of empirically-sound mathematics with empirically-unsound theology is in my sights within this post.

Glen D http://tinyurl.com/2kxyc7

Zimmer’s blog entry led me to browse some of Nowak’s work. He has an interesting take down of the “junk DNA is a language” silliness, published as a letter to Nature. It refers to a more elaborate rebuttal “in preparation”, but I couldn’t find such a publication in his list of PDF’s. Does anyone know if such an article was ever published?

It felt strange to see his publication credit in “Spiritual Information”, a Templeton Foundation festschrift. His contribution was on the evolution of altruism, but it has some odd bedfellows, according to the TOC (available at www.templetonpress.org/pdf/Spiritual_Information.pdf )

Glen D. -

“Like mathematics, many theological statements do not need scientific confirmation. Once you have the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem, it’s not like we have to wait for the scientists to tell us if it’s right. This is it.”

The fact that most people only know of applied mathematics, which is based upon empirically-sound axioms and postulates, means that Nowak used an illegitimate (in context) and confusing analogy between mathematics and science. If he had noted that scientifically inapplicable mathematics is reasonably analogous with the equally empirically-unfounded theology, then it would have been an just comparison.

I am not, of course, attacking Nowak for being religious, a matter which is up to him. Only his comparison of empirically-sound mathematics with empirically-unsound theology is in my sights within this post.

Alright, I have to agree. The paraphrase was a relatively fair one, with respect to this statement. In this quote, Nowak implies that there are theological statements that are convincing in the same way as a well-known mathematical proof. It’s obvious that this isn’t an apt analogy; if it were, whatever those theological statements are, they would have already convinced everyone who heard and understood them.

I’m guessing that Nowak meant to say that for him, some religious ideas are as intuitively or emotionally convincing as a mathematical proof is intellectually convincing. But that isn’t what he said.

Fortunately, this quote seems to be in the context of an informal interview or some such thing, rather than a scientific paper (correct me if I’m wrong). It looks as if Nowak has done a lot of interesting and valuable work, despite this indefensible analogy.

As much as I tire of the often pointless diatribes against religious notions which are relatively harmless add-ons to sop emotional needs

One could make an argument that much or all of conscious human experience and behavior is an add-on (to purely “rational” behavior, whatever that would be) to sop emotional needs.

Human motivation is consciously experienced as emotion to a large degree (when consciously experienced at all). “Reason” is employed in an effort to achieve what is perceived as a desirable emotional state, through manipulation of the environment.

Curiousity itself is an emotional state. Although science has benefited “humanity”, most scientists and mathemeticians do what they do because, relative to alternate behavioral choices, they “enjoy” it more.

Evolved emotional experiences, like curiousity or the satisfaction of creativity, drive the output of many “rational” human products like science, math, computer algorithms, and the like.

This is NOT, as you surely realize, an attempt to make some silly pomo-creationist “all beliefs are equal” argument. Nor an argument in favor of or against some given religious position, obviously. Nor am I suggesting that you probably don’t know this already :-). Just an observation.

I’ll just say this: game theory and population genetics are great for answering questions posed from the perpsective of games theory and population genetics. They have their phenomenological references, their “favorite situations” Look at Nowak’s publications, he has literally hundreds but most of them are about modeling parasites and viruses, over and over again.

Despite this intrinsic incompleteness, these mathematicians have always claimed some kind of hegemonical role in evolutionary explanation; with undeserved succes, if only because of claiming mathematical intellectual superiority.

Now evolution, of course, is much more than the questions that can be ratioalized through game theory. Other fields are mostly uninformative to Nowak’s way of thinking evolution. For instance, development, systematics, paleontology … in my opinion, these other fields provide hard data that is required for understanding how evolution works and simply cannot be ignored. Nowak’s approach seems to me incomplete, not hegemonical.

To me game theory often becomes kind of the “string theory” school of evolutionary biology. I don’t doubt that the people involved are very smart, mathematically gifted, and that they solve problems, and find coherences. But I think they have philosophical problems distinguishing between mental constructs and reality. I find it particularly interesting that game theory is not specific to evolution but can be applied to any questions that may be framed as a “game” with “rules”, whether it belongs to evolution or not. Is this the true logic of evolution? Are truly evolution’s most relevant questions about game theory?

In reality, it is more ligjke certain questions can be answered with game theory, whter they be evolutionary biology or not; and in no field does this make game theory the hegemonical approach. It is just a specific tool that is also perfectly useless to answer several other important questions.

For instance, that fact that paleontology is uninformative to Nowak’s way of thinking evolution ( the “immediate mechanisms” school) strikes me as perplexing as a physics that would not consider astronomy to be informative. Paleontology and systematics document actual facts of evolutionary history. Should’nt Nowak find a way to connect to that history? For instance, when explaining major changes in adaptation, where is the role of exaptation in these models? Exaptation is one of the clearest lessons from paleontology and systematics, with countless eloquent examples and a sound logic. Adaptation without exaptation is just not realistic. Also, where is epigenetic plasticity? Nowak has no papers about epigenesis that I could notice. This is important because altrustic behavior is greatly affected by epigenetic conditions. Altruism without the epigenetic context is not realistic. I think a darwinian game theory perspective glosses over these biological facts and is thus inadequate to deal with the evolution of altruism and cooperation.

I’m getting really tired of people willing to sell anything they can get away with: including religion, in this case.

Sanders -

I was going to agree with you that “mathematical” approaches tend to be overvalued and receive less criticism, relative to other scientific work, in a number of contexts.

I was even going to point out that creationists (and certain other pseudo-scientists) try to exploit this, from Dembski’s meaningless calculations to every troll’s (usually false) claim to be an “engineer” or “computer scientist”.

But I’m not sure I understand what you mean here -

I’m getting really tired of people willing to sell anything they can get away with: including religion, in this case.

Who’s trying to sell anything? How much are they trying to charge you?

The guy does some scientific work, you think it’s overpraised, you may be right.

He makes at least one illogical analogy between theology and mathematics that you (and I) disagree with.

He appears to have some kind of religious belief, which, one undeniably inappropriate analogy notwithstanding, is pretty much his own business. In fact, it would be his own business, and possibly quite irrelevant to his work in any direct way, even if it was all demonstrably false and illogical at the grossest level. He can talk about it all he wants, too. Free country.

I don’t see the slightest evidence that he’s trying to have his religion taught as “science” to everybody’s kids in taxpayer funded schools, using it to justify repellent social and political policies, or even selling cheesy books from a web site (not that you’d have to buy one).

If freely expressing his opinion is “selling”, just don’t “buy” if you don’t want to.

Glen Davidson Wrote:

The fact that most people only know of applied mathematics, which is based upon empirically-sound axioms and postulates, means that Nowak used an illegitimate (in context) and confusing analogy between mathematics and science. If he had noted that scientifically inapplicable mathematics is reasonably analogous with the equally empirically-unfounded theology, then it would have been an just comparison.

Hmm. I question the independence between what you so expressively call “empirically-sound” math and the rest. The methods are the same et cetera.

Yes, we can choose between different axiom systems, some which have no empirically realizable model. But is it independent and inconsistent? It isn’t exactly like anything goes “logic” universes.

Where is PZ when these theistic views are on nothing else but the New York times? Commited atheist my ass. He does not want to step on some toes. A chicken and a phonie, that’s all he is.

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This page contains a single entry by Reed A. Cartwright published on August 1, 2007 8:00 PM.

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