Monday, June 03, 2013

Why do Science?

I sat down to write a piece explaining why scientific research is essential to our societies and why we should invest in applied and basic science. Then I recalled I don’t believe in free will. This isn’t always easy... So I took out the “should” from the title because it’s not like we have a choice. Evidently, we do science! The question is why? And will we continue?

Natural selection, then and now

Developing accurate theories of nature that allow making predictions about the world are an evolutionary advantage. Understanding our environment and ourselves enables us to construct tools and shape nature to our needs. It makes thus sense that natural selection favors using brains to develop theories of nature.

As it is often the case though, natural selection favored traits that then extend beyond the ones immediately relevant for survival. And so the human brain has become very adept at constructing consistent explanations generally. If we encounter any inconsistency, we mentally chew on it and try to find a solution. This is why we cannot help but write thousands of papers on the black hole information paradox. This is why Dyson’s belief that inconsistencies between quantum mechanics and general relativity will forever remain outside experimental detection does not deter physicists from trying to resolve this inconsistency: It’s nature, not nurture.

In fact, our brain is so eager to create consistent theories that it sometimes does so by denying facts which won’t fit. This is why we are prone to confirmation bias, and in extreme cases paralyzed people deny they are not able to tie their shoes or lift an arm (examples from Ramachandran’s book “Phantoms in the Brain.”)

But leaving aside the inevitable overshooting, evolution has endowed us with a brain that is able and eager to develop consistent explanations. This is why we do science.

The question whether we will continue to do science, and what type of science, is more involved than asking whether scientific thinking has benefitted the reproduction of certain genes. The reason is that we have become so good at using nature to our needs that evolution no longer acts by just selecting the phenotypes best adapted to a given environment. Instead, we can make the environment fit to us.

Today, the major effort of societies is eradicating risks and diseases, optimizing crops and agricultural yields, and developing all kinds of technologies to minimize exposure to natural events. Natural selection of course still proceeds. It’s a process that acts on adaptive systems so generally and unavoidably that Lee Smolin famously uses it to explain the evolution of universes. But what does change is the mechanism that creates the mutations among which the “fittest” has an evolutionary advantage. Since we humans now create large changes on the environment in which we have to survive, the technologies that enable us to make these changes have become part of the random mutations among which selection acts. Backreaction can no longer be neglected.

In other words, natural selection can only act on expressions of genes and ideas together. The innovation provided by scientific progress is now part of the mutations that create species better adapted to the environment.

Applied and basic research

The purpose of scientific research is thus to act as an innovation machine. It enables humans to “fit” better to their environment. This is the case at least for applied research. So what then is the rationale to engage in basic research?

First note that what is usually referred to as “basic research” is rarely “non-applied,” but rather it’s “not immediately applied”. Basic research is commonly pursued on the rationale that it is the precursor of applications in the far future, a future so far that it isn’t yet possible to tell what the application might be. This basic research is necessary to sustain innovation in the long run.

Also note that what is commonly referred to as an “application” doesn’t cover the full scope of innovation that scientific research brings. Scientific insight, especially paradigm shifts, have the potential to entirely reshape the way we perceive of ourselves and our place in the world. This can have major cultural and social impacts that have nothing to do with the development of technologies.

Marxist thought for example has thrived on the belief that we differ only in the chances and opportunities given to us and not by heritable talents that lead to different performances, a fact now known to be scientifically fallacious. Planned economy seems like a good idea if you believe in a clockwork universe in which you can make accurate predictions, an idea that doesn’t seem so good if you know something about chaos theory. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” is based on the belief that self-organization is natural and leads to desirable outcomes, and we’re only slowly learning the problems in managing risk in complex and highly connected networks. The ongoing change in attitude towards religion is driven by science shining light on inconsistencies in religious storytelling. And many scientists seem to be afraid what it could do to society if people realized that they have no free will. All these are non-technological examples of innovation created by scientific knowledge.

Having said that, we are left to wonder about the scientific research that is neither applied (immediately or in the far future) nor has any other impact on our societies. There very possibly is such research. But we don’t know in advance whether or not a piece of research will become relevant in the future. I previously referred to this research as “knowledge for the sake of knowledge.” Now I am thinking that a better description would have been You-never-know-ledge.


Since we have to manage finite resources on this planet, there is always the question how much energy, time, money, and people to invest into any one human activity for the most beneficial outcome. This is a question which has to be addressed on a case-by-case basis and greatly depends on what is meant with “beneficial”, a word that would bring us back to opinions and “should”s. So the above considerations don’t tell us how much investment into science is enough. But they do tell us that we need continuous investment into scientific research, both applied and basic, to allow mankind to sustain and improve the Darwinian “fit” to the environment that we are changing and creating ourselves.


Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

Not believing in free will requires a comfort zone with destiny I don't think I'd ever be able to achieve and thus why my hope is that science enabled philosophy will have it eventually shown we need not be resigned to have uncertainty satisfy as being its replacement. This is to imply that although the pursuit of science may have commonality of method(s), doesn't mandate it necessary it have a singularity of purpose, nor expectation. So for me to simply have knowledge for the sake of knowledge is to misunderstand what the wish to know serves ultimately to provide, with that being a reason to hope it can aid us to be given more choices to make, rather than to be left unaware as to what they might have been. Thus I find the wish to know as certainly an act of will, with a wish to know more a demonstration it’s capable of being freed.

“Everywhere the human soul stands between a hemisphere of light and another of darkness; on the confines of the two everlasting empires, necessity and free will.”

-Thomas Carlyle, “Critical and Miscellaneous Essays”



Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Hi Phil,

That I don't believe in free will might have been the reason I addressed the question posed in this post, but the content doesn't depend on whether or not you believe in free will.

That having been said, as I explained here I agree with you that the increase in the number of choices seems a good optimization principle on the adaptive systems that we have created. Alas, it brings the problem that some of the additional choices can be choices that drastically reduce the possibilities for future choices, call it the Pandorra-Box problem ;) This problem is pretty much an unavoidable consequence of progress, but it has created the argument that more choices aren't necessarily a good thing. (Which of course just brings up the question what is meant with "good", etc etc). Best,


Arun said...

What does the presence of choices have to do with whether we have free will or not?

When there are choices, which choice is the most preferable/least objectionable makes the use of "should" appropriate.

Best wishes,

Arun said...

What I find more intriguing than why we might continue to invest in basic research (which is a much discussed topic) is the idea that our language, English at least, is not neutral in the question of free will, but loads the dice in favor of free will (therefore "should we do science?" presumes free will, and the "should" was banished). How did that come about?

Zephir said...

/* Developing accurate theories of nature that allow making predictions about the world are an evolutionary advantage */

Only at the case, we are researching the world in utilitarian way. The piling of insights into libraries will not help you to survive, such an approach it's just evasion for existence of scientists.

It's particularly apparent with ignorance of cold fusion, magnetic motors and another empirical findings of recent (actually not so recent) era, when physicists openly tend to dismiss these findings and their research. In another words, the scientists itself became the brake of the further research in certain areas and they did become a religious ignorant community in this way.

Zephir said...

This ignorant stance can be understood with natural conservatism of theretical physics (the learning of complex theories takes a lotta time and after then the physicists have no energy to switch their paradigm). But in recent time this trend became apparent even in younger generation and I provide an emergent model for its explanation based on dense aether model.

In this model the space-time appears like the water surface, which we are observing with its own ripples. At the proximity the ripples are spreading in chaotic and turbulent way, which corresponds the observable reality at the human observer scale. But with increasing distance the character of ripples becomes more regular and they do spread in regular circles.

From gnoseologic perspective it means, the more deterministic and low-dimensional model we will use for their description, the better prediction we get. This is the epoch of quantum mechanics and general relativity, which gained a well deserved success. In the observable universe analogy this scope corresponds the distance scale of spherically symmetric objects (atom nuclei and stars composed of atom nuclei).

But when the spreading of surface ripples continues even more, then the regular character of surface ripples will become scattered with underwater again and from this moment the application of deterministic models not only help the further predictions: it will become poorly conditioned, misleading and actually a brake of the further progress.

We are in this epoch right now, because the progress in technology has enabled us to observe more distant universe scale, than the low dimensional deterministic models can describe.

Zephir said...

So I can understand quite well, that the theorists like Bee feel an urgent need to defend the science right now (because their theories don't work so well, as expected) - but we should always distinguish such a rightful stance from morally unsubstantiated conservative defending of existing paradigms of thinking.

We can for example ask, if the scientists itself are best competent people to judge, what the science actually is? The situation, when some social group defines the rules of its own existence never bring anything good from long-term perspective because of positive feedback. Try to imagine for example the situation, when the politicians could itself freely define, what the "proper" politics is.

Zephir said...

/*.. “knowledge for the sake of knowledge.” Now I am thinking that a better description would have been You-never-know-ledge...*/

At the case when some finding provides apparent contribution for civilization from long term perspective, then it should always researched with higher priority, than the research where "you never know". These two approaches must remain balanced to say at least. Unfortunately the theorists tend to organize their research just in the way, such a research would never end, as R.Wilson, a former boss of the APS pregnantly noted before many years. Such an approach is indeed an parasitic approach and it hinders the progress instead of its support.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Dear Arun,

If we don't have free will, choice is an illusion. As I explained in my earlier post, a subsystem (a human) might not be able to predict which action (choice) will happen. In fact, no subsystem might be able to make that prediction. And so, in that sense, one could say that an agent "makes decisions" based on the information it has aggregated. It "makes a choice."

That this agent (or any other agent) might not be able to predict an action does however not change anything about the fact that it was predetermined. That's why I am saying they didn't really have a choice, they just had the illusion of choice because they didn't have complete information. Best,


L. Edgar Otto said...

S. H.

I am impressed by the clarity of this paper, issues and writing... I think it shows great promise for the future of these issues.

Having said this does not mean I agree with all carefully considered and stated but surely evolving thought.

As the acid test of philosophy is the issue of free will and determinism I have come to realize more and more it applies to this question of science.

In our day the application and the theory, of which if we are determined or limit in the sense only of what we can imagine, comes very rapidly at the foundations.

Chance, darkness and necessity and this seeming miracle of our existing both are realms where the shadow falls and we guide by thought the shadows (as "between the pen and paper falls K.G. in that style science like of the not seen and hidden awakening.)

How one feels about the issue is that paradox where the issue tends toward absolutes if not forever unresolved contradictions for feeling may apply to issues of determinism as we compare it to the complimentary modern physics.

The question mathematically is one of continuity and singularities, in particular between two infinities falls the razor edge, the mirror surface... so (Hey, I am only a layman and poet but am inspired in thought enough here to imagine you could reach the world also with popularization as science will progress and serve us) but is is difficult for us to get our head around these ideas of continuity in the light, in the Casmir gap between plates and forces, that it applies as well to our models of points.

What the commentators do not see here is that in our evolving wisdom a totally deterministic stance is part of its development. Anything less that resolving these issues certainly polarizes us to see either chance or necessity as freedom or in totality also a prison beyond what we do as a value in the world. This will pass to higher paradoxes, and the state of drama not boring and for now ever a new frontier of exploration.

In the wide landscape, plateau toward the infinite of dimensions the complexity of living things we can imagine it more of a prairie with nature's occasional wild

Is it useful for the all important little things- as a parent I too worried much in times of sickness for my children I (I did stay at home awhile as a Dad so I know how difficult to balance work and life for you and yours) But scientists as if I am I have great faith that for such little things theory can help us with deep cures and general quality of life- science the concern of us all.

I do not know what is taught, I know research, even art for arts sake is most important, nor your path but your schools must be top of the line in our chaotic world.

Thank You L. O.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Dear Arun,

Regarding the "should". I didn't mean to say it is a question that should (!) not be discussed. Even if I don't believe in free will, it is clear that we have to discuss it because we have to process information and exchange it.

What I meant to say is that, fundamentally, for me the interesting question is not how humans will in some particular historical instance make some decision (about funding some research or not), but what is the driving principle behind it.

See, whenever we talk about something that "should" be done, we are implicitly using a notion of a future that we want to be "good" in one way or the other. But what, fundamentally, is "good"? People often refer to happiness, but happiness is not an end unto itself. It's a derived, secondary criterion, a proximate goal, not an ultimate one. So, stripped of a notion of "good" or "desirable", what have we left to argue that science is necessary? That's what I was aiming at. In a one-line summary: Regardless of what you think is "good", science serves to improve human adaption to the environment. Best,


Zephir said...

/*. But what, fundamentally, is "good"? */

Why do you know, the science is "good" after then? Many research can bring the black holes or deadly viruses at Earth.

The players of strategic games like the "age of Empire", "Civilization" etc. already know, what the "good" science is. They know quite well, that it has no meaning the spend too much resources into research, if it advances the capability of given epoch to utilize its results. Most of research will become obsolete or simply forgotten before it can be used. Even the dense aether model developed with Oliver Lodge in 1904 has faced such a destiny.

It's evident, we need more scientific approach into privatization of research and effective spending of its resources. The scientists itself have no strategy developed for it - they're just using to ask another and another money, until they can get some.

Zephir said...

" into privatization of research" should be "prioritization of research"

Sabine Hossenfelder said...


"Why do you know, the science is "good" after then?"

I don't. Which is why I explicitly did *not* argue that science is good, if you'd care to read what I wrote before clogging this comment section. I would really appreciate if you would focus your thoughts before commenting and not in the process of it. Best,


Plato Hagel said...

Bee:Basic research is commonly pursued on the rationale that it is the precursor of applications in the far future, a future so far that it isn’t yet possible to tell what the application might be. This basic research is necessary to sustain innovation in the long run.

Do you have an example of such a process. I was thinking Parallel Postulate. Maybe you have something more modern day?

So you fast forward to the Now and what did this do for us?

Your example related, "In other words, natural selection can only act on expressions of genes and ideas together."

What do you see in the future? The seat of "conscious activity" is shaping the world to come?


Plato Hagel said...

Another example here Bee your link came to mind in Listen to Spacetime was presented so as to show, that this was the thinking of an explanation to MarkusM about evolution of WMAP and it's successive generations, as to imply, the future of.

Your Quantum Gravity on a Computer link as well.


Plato Hagel said...

A post is missing just after last one. Grrrr....Further correspondence on what I am taking from your post.

The Genetics of Spacetime.

MarkusM said...

Scientists are the "sex hormones of the universe". More, here:


Sabine Hossenfelder said...


This is interesting, I've never heard of Gardner before. Is the book worth reading? Best,


Uncle Al said...

The 21st century is furiously suicidal: religion (Enviro-whinerism, Big Pharma), national financial fraud, 17th century militarism, diversity, federally mandated charity, a managerial culture proudly ignorant of the employments it rules. Law defines and brutally enforces good, reverent, moral, clean, and upright while compassionately embracing their opposites. Student loans purchase slacker youth who cannot afford fatuous instruction that cannot render them productive, then installing Sovietism at the ballot box.

An iPad contains magic, allowing great mediocrities to gorge their members with astounding volumes of themselves. Snake handlers are gene-gineering’s sophists. Our streets are flooded with blood. When it clots, sewers will plug and all will drown. Science can fuel institutionalized stupidity into a first order transition to make Ozymandias and Rapa Nui proud. Punch it.

Eric said...

I think science is its own reward for the reason Einstein noted, i.e. it lifts our existance above the merely personal.

On the personal note though, are you sure you are not identifying lack of free will with individual coping stragies in the face of cognitive dissonance? It is well known that there is huge differences in peoples flexibility in response to cognitive dissonance. One person's lack of free will might just be a reflection of their stubborness in the face of a factual challenge to their preferred way of seeing things. Another person faced with the exact same upbringing and similar genetic makeup will exhibit free will and adapt to changing facts.

So to me viewing everyone as not having free will is an automatic inhibitor to ones own practice of good science. It lets you off the hook when things don't go your way.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...


I think you're misunderstanding me when I say we don't have free will. I mean that our actions are predetermined. Nobody can "exhibit" free will, depending on their upbringing, etc etc.

Regarding science being a reward. I agree with that on a personal level. But 'reward' isn't a meaningful end unto itself. It's an experience we have when engaging in scientific research (as well as other activities), but that doesn't tell us anything about why we came to experience something as rewarding to begin with, and whether it will remain so. Best,


MarkusM said...

Hi Sabine,

unfortunately I didn't have the time to read one of his books yet. I have heard the interview - see link - which I think nicely wraps up his ideas.

What I have read is Smolin's book "life and the cosmos" and I found his idea of spawning universes very fascinating. Gardner basically goes one step further in that he replaces the random formation process of baby universes by one intentionally carried out by a highly developed civilization. (That's why we need the scientists in the drama :-))

At least an interesting and thought provoking idea, I think.



Arun said...

Dear Bee,

Let me see if I get it by playing it back:

1. What are the driving principles behind humans doing science?

2. Since "good" or "desirable" are subjective things, we can only talk about the end results, such as "science serves to improve human adaption to the environment", without providing a value judgment.

Some comments:

1. Science actually seems to serve to adapt the environment to humans rather than the other way round.

From my point of view, some of that adaptation (such as getting rid of mosquitos rather than making us mosquito-tolerant) is good, and others (such as the common use of pesticides and herbicides for the convenience of a carpet-like lawn; or like clear-cutting Amazonian rainforest to create cropland) are bad.

Overall, our adaptions of the environment to suit our convenience are on such a scale as to threaten our existence (e.g., global climate change).

2. Without stating the goodness or desirability, there are many other driving principles for science.

a. The human need for a frontier for exploration.

b. Some humans' curiosity and love of knowledge.

c. Some humans' willingness to take risks for very unlikely pay-back.

A driving principle of another kind is that like a "meme", the activities of science by humans may create conditions - whether in the brain and psychology or in the society, culture and environment - that drive humans to continue to do science. This includes simply keeping up a tradition (human cultures have persisted for centuries based simply on upholding traditions).


Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Dear Arun,

Yes, as I wrote, we use science to change the environment. Natural selection still selects who is best adapted, but the process of adaption is now genetic modification together with our ability to make the environment fit to us. This is why I wrote that backreaction has become important: we're not adapting to a fixed background, we're changing the background as we go. And for that aspect of adaptation, we need scientific research.

Regarding your second comment. These are not driving principles in the sense that they are results rather than causes of evolution. They just beg for the questions: Why do humans have a need for exploration? Why are we curious? Why do we take risks and for what? These are the questions I tried to sidestep in my argument.



Christine said...

[Side comment] "or like clear-cutting Amazonian rainforest to create cropland) are bad"

Yes, very bad. Brazil is doing its best to decrease and eventually halt this. Contrary to the "1st world" countries, which have destroyed not only their own forests but also those which they have put their hands on while "colonizing" or invading elsewhere in the past centuries. Why don't refer to those facts when using examples but always the Amazon, as we were the most devil bandits. We know pretty well what we have, and we are doing the best we can, considering all the odds, even in face of having one of the most corrupt politics in the world. [end of side comment]

Phillip Helbig said...

Note that even though the wood and paper industries are quite important, the forested area in Sweden actually increases from year to year (more is planted than harvested). Of course, this is not directly comparable to a rainforest, but it does show that some countries do it correctly.

Christine said...

Some do, sure.

Arun said...

Dear Bee,

Science as we understand it today is perhaps 400 years old; you may make a case that it is 2500 years old. In any case that is insignificant compared to the length of human evolution, which is of the order of a million years; even if you take only the last 100,000 years to be significant, the period of science is tiny.

Moreover it is not clear that the increased survivors due to science (e.g., saved from infectious diseases) and the increased victims (due to more powerful weapons) has in any way significantly altered the genetic make-up of mankind.

Therefore human evolution as a driver of science or as having a response to science is far-fetched. What has changed for the most part is human non-genetic, cultural evolution - our learned behaviors. If you accept that, then human curiosity, risk-taking, etc., are potential drivers of science. T

Best wishes,

Robert L. Oldershaw said...

In this discussion it is good to differentiate pure and applied research.

Both evolved from our need to understand nature and manipulate our environment in order to survive.

Pure research has developed into a cross between an art form and detective work. We do it for the sheer pleasure of creativity and figuring things out.

Life without science would be like life without music and color.

Fish gotta swim,
Birds gotta fly,
Man gotta ask,
why, why, why.
K. V. (Cat's Cradle)

Did you see them Boston Bruins kick ass last night? Amazing!!!

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Dear Arun,

First, I didn't say that our brain evolved to do scientific research as we know it today, but to develop consistent theories if nature. And yes, I was thinking of maybe some 100,000 years or so during which this has proved beneficial. This, I said, is plausibly why we like doing science today and why we are reasonably good at it.

Second, that the increased survival rate might not have changed our genetic makeup (at least not yet) is exactly my point! I am saying: genetic mutation is no longer the sole mean of adaption.

Third, I did not say that human evolution is a driver of science: You said that. What I said is that science today is a driver of evolution, in the sense that it benefits our adaption to the environment (by allowing us to change the environment to fit to us). Curiosity, risk-taking, etc are merely traits that support this behavior.



Giotis said...

"It makes thus sense that natural selection favors using brains to develop theories of nature."

So only physicists will mate and all humans will end up being physicists? Well if nothing else it would be a very dull world:-)

Seriously, natural selection is not working any more for human race. The probability for a human to survive and mate (and pass her/his genes to next generation) is almost one for all people regardless of their individual genetic and other characteristics.

Also we shouldn't forget that people developing theories of Nature (not in the context of a religion) was an extremely localized phenomenon in time and space. Basically it started with the Greeks and flourished much later in the rest of Europe with Enlightenment. Many Historical, cultural and social factors had to be fine tuned to make this possible. I would say it was a coincidence.

Inventing and developing religions on the other hand seems to be favored by Nature, since it was a wide spread Universal phenomenon.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...


In the paragraph from which you quote, I was referring to the past, not to today or to the future. Natural selection is of course still working for the human race. What has changed, as I wrote, is the mechanism of "mutations", the process that produces changes among which natural selection selects the "fittest".

Besides this there is also some evidence that natural selction still acts on genes. Best,


Christine said...


That was based on data of villagers more than 150 years ago... I'm not sure that is still valid in (post-)modern societies...


Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Well, 150 years is basically today. I'm not sure though what timescale Giotis might have been referring to.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

More generally: Let us not forget that there are many diseases and disabilities that we cannot presently cure and that we can plausibly expect to decrease chances of reproduction. Giotis writes

"The probability for a human to survive and mate (and pass her/his genes to next generation) is almost one for all people regardless of their individual genetic and other characteristics."

I wish that was true, but I think this isn't (yet) reality, not for most people on the planet anyway. And let's not even touch on the issue of infertility.

Christine said...


I'm referring to now, and possibly now on, and with respect to modern societies, not villages in, say, current Africa.

How is natural selection still operating in non-rustic conditions? And (possibly) with genetic therapy?

Phillip Helbig said...

Those whose genetic material is very poor might be weeded out because they can't reproduce at all. However, classical natural selection, where the fittest produce more offspring, has essentially been turned off in many parts of the world due to birth control. Not that successful alpha males no longer have thousands of groupies, it's just that they no longer have thousands of children. Thus, any genetic component to their success won't be passed on more than that of typical males.

Phillip Helbig said...

Maybe this gives some idea what our future will be like. :-)

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Hi Christine,

"How is natural selection still operating in non-rustic conditions? And (possibly) with genetic therapy?"

As I explained in my post, natural selection always operates. The question is just what it selects for, ie what constitutes a good "adaption". In the long history (more than hundreds of thousands of years), an adaption has been a genetic mutation. There are good indications this has still happened tenthousand years ago, and weak indication it has still happened some hundred years ago.

One can have serious doubts though that genetic mutation is still the dominant adaption mechanism today (in developed countries). The argument I made in my post said that instead scientific research and the thereby developed technology that allows us to change the environment is the "mutation" that is now becoming important.

The possibility that we might alter our own genome (or select mutations by hand) adds an additional layer of complexity (in the sense of non-linear feedback), but just emphasizes the role of science for adaption.

Regardless of what changes are being considered, those modifications which are most beneficial to "reproduce" are the ones that have a "survival advantage". That is almost tautologically true as long as you have an adaptive system and a selective feedback. This is why I am saying natural selection always operates, though the process can be very complex if culture and society is taken into account.



Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Hi Phillip,

"However, classical natural selection, where the fittest produce more offspring, has essentially been turned off in many parts of the world due to birth control"

If by "classic natural selection" you mean selection of genes, I would agree. As I wrote though, there are now other aspects of "fitness" that are becoming relevant for survival, which is the very reason the "classical selection" is becoming less relevant. I'm not sure that birth control is as relevant as you say though. It would slow down the "classical selection" but not stop it. Best,


Phillip Helbig said...

Maybe at least sexual selection is still operating. :-)

"I'm not sure that birth control is as relevant as you say though. It would slow down the "classical selection" but not stop it."

Natural selection works because fit individuals have more fertile offspring which in turn also reproduce etc. As I said, natural selection can weed out genetic material which is so poor that there is no chance of reproduction at all, but what used to happen---a mutation gives an individual, and then a population, a trait which makes them more successful, and this is passed on because the successful individuals have more offspring---is put out of action by birth control since it is no longer the case that successful individuals express this through more offspring. (In many cases, they express it through less offspring.)

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Hi Phillip,

You don't need to have more offspring. You need to have more offspring that produces offspring. All offspring that fails to reach sexual maturity or fails to find a partner or fails to produce surviving offspring with that partner is not "fit" in the Darwinian sense. Putting a bound on the number of offspring doesn't remove this selective pressure. It just slows adaption down because it puts a bound on over-achievers. Best,


Phillip Helbig said...

Yes, but it slows it down substantially. Essentially, it changes a Gaussian (or some skewed version thereof) to a Heaviside distribution: As long as you have some minimal level of fitness, you're in, and if not, you're out, and all those who are in are on equal footing. So selection still weeds out those who are out, but there is no differential success among those who are in.

Arun said...

Natural selection operates only if there is selection pressure. When variations are selectively neutral, selection doesn't take place. I think modern industrial society has greatly reduced selection pressures on humans.

In any case, in the reasons for doing science, Darwinian natural selection is mostly irrelevant upto now. Whatever selection pressures favored humans developing the abilities to manipulate the environment and other humans had the selectively neutral side-effect of letting humans do abstract reasoning and mathematics. The performance of science itself started and stalled in various cultures until the modern efflorescence of science.

Further, science is not just an aid to adaption, but also to mal-adaption (such as in making nuclear weapons or biological weapons possible), so there is an argument from adaption of not doing any more science.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

As long as we live on a planet with finite resources and the human lifespan is finite there is selective pressure. Take one group of people who vaccinate their children, perform (scientific!) safety checks on their cars and come to the conclusion that seatbelts and airbags are a good idea and make them mandatory, use enhanced crops to adapt to climate change, build earthquake and tsunami warning systems, screen chemicals in commercial use for hazardous effects, etc. And another group of people... which doesn't. Are you going to tell me that there is no reproductive advantage for the first?

Christine said...


If one believes that we are all homo sapiens, then there are similar "distribution of intelligent levels", whatever that means, in a 1st world country as in a place somewhere in central Africa, say. So even though the nations in the latter case are probably doomed to failure if nothing is done, the former has no doubt a better chance to evolve, as a nation. That means knowledge, technology, medicine, so on and so forth.

However, that does not mean there is a direct improvement on the typical "distribution of intelligences" towards favoring the survival of the most intelligent, or the fittest (in whatever sense) as the overall population is favored equally (in a perfectly democratic nation, or something reasonable enough). That means, for instance, millions and millions of idiots, say in the US, propagating in the next generations, but having a better education level, tech, medicine, etc. This has no impact on natural selection of the fittest in whatever sense. Unless such societies decide it is time for some eugenics, in order to skew the distribution or move it at another mean value, we are just at the level of what makes a successful nation.

You may argue that what makes a successful nation in the very long term will favor in some selection sense a given human trait. However, by itself that is not at all obvious, at least not for me, as we had whole civilizations that flourished and doomed, and as far as I know, that had no impact in improving/evolving/changing our species at the genetic level.

Patrick Van Esch said...

"Since we have to manage finite resources on this planet, there is always the question how much energy, time, money, and people to invest into any one human activity for the most beneficial outcome. This is a question which has to be addressed on a case-by-case basis and greatly depends on what is meant with “beneficial”, a word that would bring us back to opinions and “should”s. So the above considerations don’t tell us how much investment into science is enough."

The science of choice in the face of scarcity is called "economics". Given that we are all individuals, with different and often opposing agendas (which are driven by different desires and different satisfactions) we know that there is only one single technique that "solves" the choice problem at the detriment of nobody: that is the free market.

Value is determined by confronting the sacrifice individuals want to make, on one hand to "provide" and on the other hand, to "obtain". At the market equilibrium, all the sacrifice is voluntary, and the trade is maximal. Shift away from that equilibrium, and some people are forced into sacrifice, or are not allowed to make a wanted sacrifice.

The problem with a thing such as fundamental science is that often, the "provider" doesn't make a sacrifice in providing science, and the obtainer doesn't obtain much he was willing to make a sacrifice for. So the provider wants to force the obtainer into making sacrifices for something he doesn't really care much about.

And then the argument comes in that the freely chosen contribution of the undemanding obtainer is too low because he's too stupid to look ahead, and so he should be FORCED in giving up stuff and making sacrifices by making him buy stuff he's not interested in, to trade it for your science you want to provide him with and for which he doesn't have the slightest bit of interest.

The baker is forced to bake bread for you to trade it for your publications he couldn't care less about. The plumber is forced to come and install you a bathroom for free, traded for publications he didn't ask for.

Essentially because the plumber and the baker are too stupid to see the grand picture and are hence pushed into well-deserved serfdom to serve the longer-term benefits of society...

That's what's public funding of fundamental science is about.

On the other hand, you can say that the baker and the plumber voted politicians in their seats, and as such, that their representatives have a mandate to dispose of their labor and belongings as it fits them. Point is that to be honest, a single bit of information every 4 years or so is not such a huge amount of control over your representative to justify their holding over all of your belongings and labor, to distribute it to people claiming that without their un-asked for products, the world will become a terrible place and they should get funded for that.