Friday, 26 December 2008

Science and Chess - Was Charles Darwin a Chess Player

Charles Darwin (1809-1882):

Charles Darwin
was one of the greatest Scientists of all time. It is also quite well known that he was subject to melancholia and depression. Charles Darwin was recommended as a suitable naturalist for the unpaid position of gentleman’s companion to Robert FitzRoy, the captain of HMS Beagle in 1831. Captain Robert FitzRoy was also very prone to depression and black moods (modern medicine would probably have diagnosed him as having bipolar disorder). Robert Fitzroy would later (1865) commit suicide by slashing his wrists, as had his uncle.

This recent article discusses the selection of Charles Darwin for the HMS Beagle voyage in 1831 and also analyses further the life of Robert FitzRoy (full article here):
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The problem was that on these long ocean voyages, the Captain was disposed to great isolation and loneliness. In those times, it was unbecoming for the Captain to have any relations with the crew except as a commanding officer. The crew lived in their little world and the Captain in his. If the Captain wanted company, someone to talk to or play chess with, he had to make arrangements for such. Enter Charles Darwin, recommended by two of Captain FitzRoy's friends as a personable and agreeable young fellow. Darwin was named as a naturalist and expected to pay his own way. The Captain hoped, that with this interesting companion, he could avoid the "Black Dog" of depression. And it did seem to work out that way. Except for a few noted disagreements, Darwin and "Hot Coffee" got along well enough.
The above passage suggests that Charles Darwin may have been a chess player, spending many hours playing chess in the evenings with Captain FitzRoy. The evidence from Darwin's extensively documented correspondence, however, suggests that he was not a chess player. The definitive answer comes from correspondence between Charles Darwin and his cousin Francis Galton in November 1879 where Darwin answers a series of questions for Galton's future book, 'Inquiries into Human Faculty' (1883). Darwin claims to have never played chess (see question 16).
"MY DEAR GALTON, I have answered the questions as well as I could, but they are miserably answered, for I have never tried looking into my own mind. Unless others answer very much better than I can do, you will get no good from your queries. Do you not think you ought to have the age of the answerer? I think so, because I can call up faces of many schoolboys, not seen for sixty years, with much distinctness, but nowadays I may talk with a man for an hour, and see him several times consecutively, and, after a month, I am utterly unable to recollect what he is at all like. The picture is quite washed out."

The Life, Letters and Labours of Francis Galton, 4 vols
By Karl Pearson [Doctoral student of Galton]
Published by Cambridge University Press, London (1914)

Fitzroy: The Remarkable Story of Darwin's Captain and the Invention of the Weather Forecast (Hardcover)
By John Gribbin, Mary Gribbin
Headline Review (7 Jul 2003)
[Amazon review]

Chess - Philosophy and Psychology Rationality [PP-Rationality]

Rationality - Mr Spock An Impossible Reality:

Professor Alex Kacelnik, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford has recently written about rationality in animals. For the purposes of clarity he divides rationality into three categories, derived from his perception of the main uses in Philosophy and Psychology (PP-rationality), in Economics (E-rationality) and in Evolutionary Biology (B-rationality). In his discussions, he gives the example of how rationality may be compromised in human chess players.
The Oxford Companion to Philosophy’s entry for “Rationality”:
This is a feature of cognitive agents that they exhibit when they adopt beliefs on the basis of appropriate reasons […] Aristotle maintained that rationality is the key that distinguishes human beings from other animals. […] A stone or a tree is non-rational because it is not capable of carrying out rational assessment. A being who is capable of being rational but who regularly violates the principles of rational assessment is irrational. […] Rational beliefs have also been contrasted with beliefs arrived at through emotion, faith, authority or by an arbitrary choice. (Brown 1995, p. 744)
The difficulties with PP-rationality are not limited to research with non-human animals. Many processes that give rise to the beliefs held by human subjects are in fact inaccessible to the holders of these beliefs, making it very hard to determine whether a belief has been arrived at on the basis of appropriate reasons. The hundred or so possibilities that chess masters are aware of examining before each actual move are a small subset of the available legal moves (de Groot 1965; Simon and Schaeffer 1992). It is likely that this subset is determined by unconscious processes that delve into the 50000 or so positions chess masters remember, and that choices are often made under the irrational influence of emotional or aesthetic factors without the player being aware of their influence or of their access to her full knowledge base of chess positions. Thus, even if the whole process ends in the belief that a given move is best, and if the player feels that she has arrived at this conclusion by reasoning, the elements that entered into her reasoning process may have been influenced by the kinds of mechanism that the present definition would explicitly exclude from rationality. If, say, the player has acquired a Pavlovian aversion to a given position because she saw it while she had a toothache, then she will play so as to avoid it, and in doing so, she will be influenced irrationally by her knowledge base, though this influence and the active parts of her knowledge base may be unconscious.

Rational Animals? Matthew Nudds and Susan Hurley, editors; Oxford University Press (2006).
Chapter 2. Meanings of rationality
Alex Kacelnik, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford
[Amazon link]

The Queen 5x5 Puzzle - Albert Frank

On a chessboard 5x5, how to put five white queens and three black queens such as no queen can be taken in one move by an opposite colour queen?


According to Albert Frank there appears to be a poor correlation between chess playing strength and the ability to solve this problem. Among non chessplayers, at Glia Society level, Albert predicts about 50% would solve this puzzle.

This problem is also known as the non-dominating queens puzzle.

Personally I did not find this puzzle too difficult, but I don't think it is particularly testing practical chess playing ability. The puzzle seems to be more a test of spatial ability and logic. I have previously discussed the research study by
Waters, Gobet & Leyden (2002) "Visuospatial Abilities Of Chess Players" (here). In this study it was concluded that for adults " ... visual memory ability, and perhaps visuospatial intelligence, may be relatively unimportant factors in the long-term acquisition of chess skill." The lack of correlation between chess playing skill and the apparent ability to solve the above puzzle (as reported by Albert Frank) supports the results of the study by Waters et al (2002). I suspect the conclusions may be different, however, if young gifted chess players are studied (i.e. Frydman & Lynn, 1992).

Albert Frank is a retired Belgian Professor and a member of numerous high IQ societies, he is also a very keen chess player. In 1973 he was involved in a very instructive study looking at chess and academic aptitudes in Zaire school children. The control group students were taught mathematics for 7 hours per week. The experimental group students were taught
the same mathematics program in 5 hours per week with an additional 2 hours per week of chess tuition (by Albert Frank). The experimental group students showed significant improvements in arithmetic aptitude (p=0.05) and verbal logic (p=0.01). A summary of the study is published on Albert Frank's website here. The completed study was published in the book:
Albert Frank,
American Chess Foundation,
December 1978.

Frank, A., & D’Hondt, W. (1979).
Aptitudes et apprentissage du jeu d’échecs au Zaire [Aptitudes and learning of the game of chess in Zaire].
Psychopathologie Africaine, 15, 81-98.

Frydman, M. & Lynn, R. (1992).
The general intelligence and spatial abilities of gifted young Belgian chess players.
British Journal of Psychology, 83, 233-235.

Waters A.J, Gobet F, Leyden G. (2002)
Visuospatial abilities of chess players.
British Journal of Psychology, 93:(4), 557-565

If anyone would like the solution to the above puzzle I am happy to email this to you.