Monday, July 30, 2007

Contingency and Control in the Laboratory

The Comparative Psychology of Learning: the Selective Association Principle and Some Problems with "General" Laws of Learning. Bolles (ed) 1973.

"A rat on a treadmill learns i f it runs when it hears a beep it can avoid an electric shock. The rat can also learn to turn to avoid a shock. But rats cannot learn to rear up on their hind legs to avoid being shocked. The rat's brain cannot learn to avoid danger using a naturally exploratory behavior."

In the same vein, you also can't train animals to get a reward by moving away from a stimulus that predicts reward. Pavlovian conditioning trumps Skinnerian. (personal communication, Dr. Insel) Accepting the full import of this work entails abandoning general intelligence. Without general learning, we can question the adaptability of man to the modern social-technological milieu. It appears we can learn some things, but for others we will continue to make the same mistake over and over again.

...which reminds me of my current philosophy of science, expressed by E.O Wilson:

"Nature first, then theory. Or, better, Nature and theory closely intertwined while you throw all your intellectual capital at the subject. Love the organisms for themselves first, then strain for general explanations, and, with good fortune, discoveries will follow. If they don't the love and pleasure will have been enough."

The idiosyncrasies of evolutionary contingency make controlled experiments difficult to interpret, in the sense that it may be hard to extrapolate "logically" from one model (animal) or trait to another system. The general laws we attempt to find by working in simplified laboratory settings may not even exist, but if we don't "love the organism for itself" we may never know it. This is part of the reason I'm leaving laboratory science. Under this interpretation, contrary to current fashion (and dogma), the profligate wonders of Natural History become the supreme biological science.

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