Silly Billy on Silly books

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In a recent article on UcD William “Billy” Dembski writes the following:

Bill Dembski Wrote:

George Levine has a new book, Darwin Loves You. The book is silly and superficial, and would not be worth notice except that it serves as Exhibit A for the fact that Darwinism has become a religion, or at least, a “comprehensive doctrine” in the sense of Rawls (John, not Lou), and hence NOT something that a liberal democracry ought to impose on its citizens by force, as is happening now.

For a preview of Chapter 1 of this ‘silly book’ see this pdf

So why would Bill call the book silly and superficial? Various plausible hypothesis come to mind:

1. Publisher Weekly mentions that “it’s a difficult read for non philosophers”

2. The book ranks higher than most of Dembski’s books

3. Amazon ranks the book with Dembski’s works under social Darwinism

Or perhaps Dembski is still upset that his book Pandas served as Exhibit A that ID was not scientific but rather religiously motivated.

Dembski Wrote:

it serves as Exhibit A for the fact that Darwinism has become a religion, or at least, a “comprehensive doctrine” in the sense of Rawls (John, not Lou), and hence NOT something that a liberal democracry ought to impose on its citizens by force, as is happening now.

I guess Dembski has at least come to peace with the Court’s decision in Dover. Imposing religion onto its citizens has no place in a liberal democracy. But it may have a place in an Discovery Institute vision of what a better world would look like. Nevertheless, the suggestion that the books shows that Darwinism is a religion or has become a religion or ‘comprehensive doctrine’, is quite amusing. Not only does Darwinism have a solid foundation in science, unlike ID for instance, but it also has support from atheists and relgious people alike.

Or perhaps Dembski used the word silly to indicate that the author does not mingle any words in showing the vacuity of Intelligent Design?

Or is it because the author shows how it is possible to be a Darwinist and believe that the world has meaning?

Janet Browne, author of “Charles Darwin: The Power of Place” : Darwin Loves You is the most interesting book I have read this year. It is wise, brave, and beautifully written. Levine’s reflections on the important issue of Darwinism as an ideology are bound to engage readers. He shows that Darwin’s science is not dehumanising or amoral and that it’s possible to be a Darwinist and still believe that the world has meaning.

Or because the author shows how a science is taken up and used for diverse cultural intents, far beyond the intention of the author and the content of the text?

Michael Ruse, author of “The Evolution-Creation Struggle” : Darwin Loves You is a very important work that deserves to be read by many people well outside the narrow circle of Darwin specialists. First, it is a brilliant account of how a science is taken up and used for diverse cultural ends, far beyond the intention of the author and the content of the text. Second, it is crucially relevant to the present day with the horrifying rise of fundamentalist religion in America and abroad. It shows how science gets misused and misunderstood in dangerous ways by fanatics. Third, and most important of all, it introduces us to a man who is deeply in love with his subject, wanting to engage the reader. One learns here truly why scholarship is such a joyful activity.

Time for a “Darwin loves you” Bumper Sticker

Or this blurb from the publisher

Jesus and Darwin do battle on car bumpers across America. Medallions of fish symbolizing Jesus are answered by ones of amphibians stamped “Darwin,” and stickers proclaiming “Jesus Loves You” are countered by “Darwin Loves You.” The bumper sticker debate might be trivial and the pronouncement that “Darwin Loves You” may seem merely ironic, but George Levine insists that the message contains an unintended truth. In fact, he argues, we can read it straight. Darwin, Levine shows, saw a world from which his theory had banished transcendence as still lovable and enchanted, and we can see it like that too–if we look at his writings and life in a new way.

Although Darwin could find sublimity even in ants or worms, the word “Darwinian” has largely been taken to signify a disenchanted world driven by chance and heartless competition. Countering the pervasive view that the facts of Darwin’s world must lead to a disenchanting vision of it, Levine shows that Darwin’s ideas and the language of his books offer an alternative form of enchantment, a world rich with meaning and value, and more wonderful and beautiful than ever before. Without minimizing or sentimentalizing the harsh qualities of life governed by natural selection, and without deifying Darwin, Levine makes a moving case for an enchanted secularism–a commitment to the value of the natural world and the human striving to understand it.

No wonder Dembski must consider the book to be silly, the alternative is just unthinkable.

56 Comments

From the Wedge Document: Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies. Bringing together leading scholars from the natural sciences and those from the humanities and social sciences, the Center explores how new developments in biology, physics and cognitive science raise serious doubts about scientific materialism and have re-opened the case for a broadly theistic understanding of nature. The Center awards fellowships for original research, holds conferences, and briefs policymakers about the opportunities for life after materialism.

Well, that settles it.

Darwin Loves You

Conversely:

Jesus doesn’t love you. He’s just using you for sex.

Not surprisingly, Dembski doesn’t understand Rawls (John) either. There is no way that any scientific theory, no matter how comprehensive or successful, would meet the criteria for what Rawls refers to as a comprehensive doctrine. Rawls was referring specifically to a set of moral principles that could be the basis for a polity. Now, 19th century Social Darwinism might meet Rawls’ criteria but certainly not modern evolutionary theory.

As Roger rightly comments:

There is no way that any scientific theory, no matter how comprehensive or successful, would meet the criteria for what Rawls refers to as a comprehensive doctrine. Rawls was referring specifically to a set of moral principles that could be the basis for a polity. Now, 19th century Social Darwinism might meet Rawls’ criteria but certainly not modern evolutionary theory.

But Dembski, Coulter, et al. do not acknowledge such “fine” differentiation. They will use Social Darwinism in its crudest forms (19th century or 21st) to supposedly discredit the scientific framework for research programs ranging from paleontology to immunology research.

An example of the kinds of nonsense available for anti-evolutionist to attack in this way is the “research” that was “carried out for men’s satellite TV channel Bravo” that’s been getting extensive coverage the last couple days, in which Oliver Curry predicts humans will evolve into 2 subspecies in the next thousand years.

This story has circulating globally. Jay Leno used it in his monologue last night (October 18), although he did not mention the “2 subspecies” idea.

You can expect the anti-evolution folks to attack this as an example of evolutionary science.

I don’t have time to write a proper blog article now. I’ll expand this to a blog article soon. But I wanted to go ahead now and share some links that I have posted at http://curricublog.wordpress.com/20[…]-subspecies/

Correction. I wrote that

… Oliver Curry predicts humans will evolve into 2 subspecies in the next thousand years.

From the BBC article, I now see that although some of his predictions are for the year 3000, his “research” apparently projects the species split for 100,000 years from now.

I don’t want to be guilty of imprecision in reporting on research like this!

If “Darwin Loves You” will be interesting at all, it will probably be provocative. Levine seems to lean heavily on “enchantment”. First it is introduced by defining “disenchantment”, as science and further naturalism removing meaning from the world. Then it is expanded by reference to Jane Bennett to a “kind of mood” provided by other sources than the natural world.

Already the mood of awe of nature is an addition to a discussion of science. Enchantment goes one step further to lose the correlation to observable nature that constrains the former and gives it meaning.

Levine also bases part of his discussion of disenchantment on Pinker. (BTW, that is Steven Pinker, not Stephen AFAIK.) Whatever one makes of Pinker and evolutionary psychology (which in my case isn’t much since I don’t know much of them), their use of domain-specific mechanisms seems problematic at my quick peek on languages:

“In conclusion, much evidence interpreted to support language-specific mechanisms may actually result from domain-general processes. … Perhaps the only “problem area” for such an account is the recently defined G-SLI disorder, but more research is needed before GSLI can be considered strong evidence for either perspective.

Therefore, no unequivocal evidence from any of these domains suggests specialized mechanisms must exist to account for language; instead, language appears to emerge as an interaction of powerful but domain-general mechanisms.” ( http://develintel.blogspot.com/2006[…]ity-and.html )

Not that it makes disenchantment less likely, just noting the problematic source in passing.

I’ve got to admit. If I didn’t read the book, and some of the critics posted here, but only the Amazon blurb from Publisher’s Weekly- which may well be only what Dembski read- I’d come away from it thinking the book describes the religion of Darwinism. In that, some descriptions of the book seem to create the idea that it is talking about ethics and the numinous as arising out of Darwin- as quite distinct from the theory of evolution. Some may come away from reading reviews of the book thinking that it describes religion. And some of those may not be able to differentiate possible religious elements (whether or not they are actually present) from the science itself. My point is that, while the book might be excellent, it’s press in partial might hurt our cause in causing some people to accept the idea that evolution is religion, or in causing people to combine in their minds a very small minority that actually makes a religion around evolution with evolution as a theory.

Just looking through the start of the online chapter makes it incredibly clear this is not some fuzzy-headed book, but one about philosophy, science, and psychology. In fact, the author deliberately notes that he bears in mind that there’s a danger in his work to make Darwin’s finding religious.

His worst mistake seems to be the goofy title. Dembski is literally judging a book by it’s cover.

I think the concern is that evolution could indeed become a religion, or part of a religion. Thus it would actually be an alternative religion, or perhaps already is (in part at least) a quasi-religion to a number of people, and might compete with traditional religions, with the added bonus of being scientific.

I do remember the magazine Omni predicting that evolution would be a fertile source of ideas for future religions. Could be.

Meanwhile, the theory itself is certainly not a religion (otherwise Collins would be blasphemous, yet Cordova is attempting to claim him today on UD), but is called one by the IDists. Or, evolution is faulted for being anything but religion, godless, soulless, materialistic (btw, what could be more materialistic than claiming that animals are designed (at least when reasonable definitions of design are used)?), etc. The criticisms aren’t coherent, of course, and it is impossible to know on any given day if evolution is so bad because it is so completely non-religious (or more commonly, “anti-religious”), or because it is supposed to be a competing religion.

The common bleat from IDists is that evolution makes us into mere accident or meaningless development. They rely upon this touchy question to damn us as anti-meaning, anti-spiritual, you know the spiel. But of course evolution, like science in general, has no statement to make regarding “meaning” overall, thus evolution could easily be incorporated into one’s belief system, and be understood by us both spiritually and scientifically. The imagination, when working through the development of sentience out of the mud, does tend toward the spiritual and the mystic, without (in my case, at least), making evolution into anything specifically spiritual.

Dembski and other evangelists don’t want anyone to realize how the world can be spiritualized (or not) without the intrusion of religion and of a putative God who must confer meaning and design from the outside. The world-internal spirituality of paganism, and sometimes of science (if one chooses, since such an attitude has no bearing on ideal scientific practice), denies their claims that meaning has to come from outside, even that understanding is based upon the God-intellect, and not upon our thinking (which is why “design” doesn’t have to fall into the regularities of known design—it’s left up to God’s mind, not our own (hence is absolutely outside of science)).

So there was no question that Dembski would jump to the conclusion that evolution is a religion, or at least a Rawlsian ‘comprehensive doctrine’, the moment that it was shown not to be an impediment to spirituality. Now one should note that science is indifferent to spiritualization or other universality, and the only universality it recognizes is the standard empirical approach. As his wont is, though, Dembski’s logic moves from the particular premise to the universal conclusion, and if anyone looks at the changes wrought during evolution through a spiritual point of view, then it’s the equivalent of a religion.

Meanwhile, apparently ID is science because it is comprehensive in its approach (“non-materialistic”), while evolution doesn’t consider gods or unknown aliens who design unlike we do, for its explanations. Evolution is thus too limited and too comprehensive all at once. It exists to deny religion, and it is a religion.

To conclude, what Dembski appears to dislike about Levine’s book is that it shows that evolution doesn’t fit into his binary world. Evolution is compatible with religious ideas (if perhaps not with many religious methods of deciding “truth”), and with atheism. He doesn’t like that, because if he can’t portray evolution as indubitably atheistic, he loses his congregation. But whenever he’s not saying that evolution is inherently atheistic, he has to claim that it is religious or a comprehensive worldview, even though he faults evolution for not being comprehensive enough to accept religious explanations (and we explicitly deny that science, let alone the evolutionary part of science, is the comprehensive arbiter of truth). His criticisms are thus unavoidably schizoid, as befits one whose view of an open system has to fit everything into his oppositional conception of the world and of its scientific theories.

Glen D http://tinyurl.com/b8ykm

His worst mistake seems to be the goofy title.

Authors don’t always have control over the titles of their books; and “Darwin Loves You” does have some pop to it.

But still, judging a book by its cover (and not having read the first chapter), I’d say the book is either

1) Religion-bashing, 2) Really fuzzy, 3) Or religious.

Judging a book by its cover would be the least of Dembski’s intellectual failings.

Good grief, since when have Dembski or any of his fanbois given a crap what John Rawls thinks? They hate liberalism with a passion. Trying to force a “comprehensive doctrine” on the citizenry is precisely what they’re all about.

Did you really mean to write “author does not mingle any words,” or did you mean “mince?”

I gotta admit, the prospect of a religion based on Darwinism terrifies the crap out of me.

Don’t get me wrong – I think that evolutionary theory in all of its myriad iterations is a fantastic thing, and I think that ID is a startlingly nihilistic philosophy (in addition to flat-out wrong). But evolution is just a description of a natural phenomenon, like plate tectonics or the process of volcano eruption. Scientifically, it seems pretty rock-solid, and it provides all sorts of interesting areas to explore. Philosophically, I think evolution is more problematic.

Most religions have some motivation towards altruism and pay a lot of lip service to goodness, kindness, generosity, and love. Evolution, as a description of a natural process, doesn’t have any of those. The philosophies that evolution inspires often actively oppose altruism and charity. There’s a reason Social Darwinism gets such a bad rap, and it’s not because the fundies hate puppies and sunshine.

Coming from a religious background (an “intellectual” church deeply supportive of the ID movement; we’ve had both William Dembski and Michael Behe speak there), I’ve noticed that this conflation of philosophy and theory is the source of a lot of the fear of evolution. Aside from removing the need for God, and making it possible to be an “intellectually fulfilled atheist”, is that it is completely amoral. People who base their actions on their status as men and women created in the image of God fear that those of us who accept evolution will base our actions on our status as the organisms most successful in our ecological niche.

Ironically, the actions we recognize as the most clearly aligned with the “philosophy” of evolution – war, genocide, clear in-group/out-group separation and competition for natural resources – are historically religious in nature. The most significant explicitly atheist movement possibly ever – communism – is based on a radical egalitarianism at odds with most people’s conception of “what evolution wants”.

I apologize if this is too far off-topic. I lurk here a lot, and this thread (most notably the comment by Glen Davidson) seemed interesting to me.

The achievements of contemporary evolutionary biology are, indeed, an important part of the world-picture held by many who post here. Certainly that is true of me. I cannot imagine a more exciting era in which to live in this regard as contemporary physics, astronomy, and cosmology cross-connect with evolutionary biology, paleontology, anthropology, archeology, and even cognitive neuroscience and evolutionary psychology to form a profound and increasingly complete world picture with true extension into deep time. The engine that drives the evolution of this picture (science) is a crowning achievement of an otherwise often troubled and dangerous age, and I for one don’t apologize for embracing that. Rather, I simply endeavor to inhabit and respond to my tiny bit of space and time within the natural world.

While religious ideas also can be a component of one’s world picture, it does not follow that the world picture I describe above, or the engine that drives it, is itself a religion. To insist upon that is tantamount to insisting that an automobile is a horse because automobiles serve the purpose once served by horses. Nor does it follow that one is attempting to “build a religion based upon Darwinism,” any more than one builds “horses based upon engines” on an automobile assembly line.

Steve Reuland asks (above)

since when have Dembski or any of his fanbois given a crap what John Rawls thinks? They hate liberalism with a passion.

Answer: since 1998. (Too bad I’m so immersed that I can answer such a question). Steve is right that Dembski & Co. are not liberals who can be heard to claim Rawls’ argument as their own. What they’re really doing with this is something different, as I describe (with the citations) at http://curricublog.wordpress.com/20[…]creationism/

imho, Most of the philosophies/religious ideas that have come off evolution have been fringe elements, radically misinterpreting evolutionary theory, like the awful Social Darwinism of the past. At the same time, if evolution is true (and we have no reason to doubt it scientifically), and a particular religious belief is true, then both should support each other, and help to explain each other. In particular, if both are true, then we should see some ways that evolution can help us understand both morality and metaphysics within that religious framework. A religion by definition is all-encompassing. Not that it can explain everything, but that it covers all of life. And evolution is part of life, to put it mildly. Therefore it should somehow fit and serve to explain some aspects of said religion.

Reciprocating Bill Wrote:

I cannot imagine a more exciting era in which to live in this regard as contemporary physics, astronomy, and cosmology cross-connect with evolutionary biology, paleontology, anthropology, archeology, and even cognitive neuroscience and evolutionary psychology to form a profound and increasingly complete world picture with true extension into deep time. The engine that drives the evolution of this picture (science) is a crowning achievement of an otherwise often troubled and dangerous age, and I for one don’t apologize for embracing that. Rather, I simply endeavor to inhabit and respond to my tiny bit of space and time within the natural world.

I agree with your sentiments 100% (the rest of your comment too, but it’s rude to cut and paste the whole thing!). I’m a big fan of science and scientific accomplishment, and I’d add to your list the absolutely incredible advances in technology that have happened with the last couple of decades, made possible by scientific research.

My hope in my last post was to articulate the fear that fundamentalist Christians have about evolution. It’s not simply that they’re afraid that their religion will be shown to be a delusion, though I think that’s part of it (an unnecessary fear in my opinion). Many of them, certainly some people whom I know and respect, do base their lives on the idea that we are special, that we are created, and can’t imagine what their lives would be like otherwise. The idea that someone can hold an opposing view and still be good, moral people is alien. It’s not that they fear what they themselves would do without this moral basis; it’s simply that their imaginations aren’t big enough to encompass a worldview turned completely upside down.

I’m certainly not immune to this. I’m skeptical, I approach things with a somewhat scientific mindset, and I don’t trust my brain or other people’s brains to intuit things properly. I operate under the assumption that while your senses may not be lying to you, they certainly aren’t telling you the whole story. For me, people who rely deeply on irrational beliefs – who trust their feelings on things instead of the research, who feel that modern medicine is quackery compared to homeopathy, who believe in reincarnation and ghosts and the suchlike – are difficult to understand. I fear this type of thought. I feel that it’s ungrounded and dangerous, because so much of my mindset and life philosophy is based on the idea that for something to be valid, it should be objectively measurable. But some of the most kind, gentle, and generous people that I know are the exact opposite of me, and part of the growing that I’m still doing is learning to accept that people can be good people without the Enlightenment devotion to reason and logic.

Jedidiah Palosaari Wrote:

At the same time, if evolution is true (and we have no reason to doubt it scientifically), and a particular religious belief is true, then both should support each other, and help to explain each other. In particular, if both are true, then we should see some ways that evolution can help us understand both morality and metaphysics within that religious framework.

I have to disagree strongly with this. There’s an underlying assumption here, and that is that we are the way we are for a specific, objective reason. That evolution occurs the way it does for a specific, objective reason. If the Christian religion is indeed true (which I very much doubt), and if evolution is true (as the evidence suggests), then yes, they would have something to say about each other, and something that’s not particularly flattering to either God or science.

But if evolution is true and the processes that resulted in the life we see around us were relatively unguided, then evolution has absolutely nothing to say about morality or ethics. Let me be clear about this: evolution is not morally neutral, it is amoral. Evolutionary theory does a bang-up job of explaining the diversity of life and providing a history or a narrative of its progression. What it doesn’t do is tell us how things ought to be. Like religion, this is entirely orthogonal to evolutionary theory.

The problem that we run into with evolution that we don’t with, say, plate tectonics, is that evolutionary theory is so tempting to apply to moral questions. It looks and tastes a lot like capitalism, which a lot of us like anyway (I distrust it, but capitalism has been very good to me), and we have an ingrained desire to treat the “natural” as if it were a morally superior state. It’s not. Tooth decay is natural, but we brush our teeth anyway.

The problem with applying evolution or any other scientific process to moral questions is that, 99% of the time, it just reinforces cultural biases. We’re not tempted to venerate heart diseases, but tell us that evolutionary theory suggests that the superior races need to out compete the inferior (neverminding that race is pretty genetically useless anyway), and we’re setting up eugenics programs in no time flat. Not because evolution has proved that eugenics is a good idea, but because our cultural biases are being reinforced.

Humans have a tendency to justify what they already believe. Evolution endangers religion because it can be manipulated to provide a strong rationale for some extremely twisted behavior.

Carl Rennie Wrote:

But if evolution is true and the processes that resulted in the life we see around us were relatively unguided, then evolution has absolutely nothing to say about morality or ethics. Let me be clear about this: evolution is not morally neutral, it is amoral. Evolutionary theory does a bang-up job of explaining the diversity of life and providing a history or a narrative of its progression. What it doesn’t do is tell us how things ought to be. Like religion, this is entirely orthogonal to evolutionary theory.

Actually, I’m not sure that I agree with this. If we take on Dawkins’ idea of the extended genome, and we consider that the historical truth of the Christian church is more of a social construct rather than a divine creation, we are lead to the conclusion that the “morals” of the church are nothing more than a social construct designed to help propogate genes. Think about the Catholic church’s complete abolition of birth control. Think about the whole idea of catechism - indoctrinating young children to hold the same beliefs - this propogates the memes of the church to the next generation, which, seeing as one of the church’s memes is “go forth and multiply” means that the genes will be propogated too. Think of the injunctions to live together peacefully (going to war/commiting murder reduces the gene pool.…)

I have often wondered what the result would be if we could actually run an entire simulation of the evolution of life on this planet. Would the development of intelligent life be inevitable? If yes, would the development of social structures such as the Catholic Church be inevitable? I think yes. These structures have been so successful in helping their followers to propogate their genes, that it is nearly certain that evolution would stumble on the idea at some point, and once having found the idea, it’s natural advantages for the propogation of genes would mean that it sticks.…

The most basic impact evolutionary theory would have on a philosophy/morality is the notion, antithetical to most philosophies and moralities, that “human nature”, whatever else we may think of that term, is not a fixed commodity, but is and will continue to change under whatever environmental pressures are present. This then would seem to add a level of pragmatism to any collective decisionmaking that will always ask “what sort of world will decision X create and what sort of people will that world create?”.

This then would seem to add a level of pragmatism to any collective decisionmaking that will always ask “what sort of world will decision X create and what sort of people will that world create?”.

If I understand this, then I don’t think so. The timescales are too different. Even if we presume that “human nature” (a pretty malleable commodity anyway) will evolve, any change significant enough to be measurable is going to take a whole lot more generations to happen than policy decision X is likely to influence. Social environments have changed enormously across time and space during the course of human recorded history, yet to my knowledge there’s no convincing evidence (I’ve never even seen the suggestion) that human nature has anywhere been any different. Human nature seems entirely comparable even across highly visible biological differences between geographic subpopulations.

Not to say that human nature (however defined) won’t change; only that by historical observation it isn’t going to change on the timescale where policy decision X makes a difference.

…would the development of social structures such as the Catholic Church be inevitable? I think yes. These structures have been so successful in helping their followers to propogate their genes, that it is nearly certain that evolution would stumble on the idea at some point…

Gotta hand it to the Pope of All Bacteria; that dude has nailed it bigtime!

My own subjective experience is, even at my advanced age sex continues to be a driving influence, women look good, I still chase my wife around shamelessly, and no church has ever been required to remind me of how urgent this all is. Now, whether an organization would arise among organisms of suitable intelligence (by which I mean not just a lot of it, but the right sort, not the porpoise sort) that attempts to leverage the sex drive for political purposes, that’s a different question. Which hinges on how we define the “right sort” of intelligence. Maybe, any intelligence that produces a political organization to leverage the sex drive for power and influence, is the right sort of intelligence to produce a political organization.…

Ah well, maybe it’s predestination.

Judging a book by its cover would be the least of Dembski’s intellectual failings.

I liked this previous post where he seems to be envious of the ‘look’ of Dawkins’ website and hopes one of his minions will revamp UD to have the same appeal?

Carl Rennie Wrote:

I gotta admit, the prospect of a religion based on Darwinism terrifies the crap out of me.

Mary Midgley Evolution as a Religion (Routledge, 1986) is about the tendency of certain people to make a peculiar religion out of evolution.

Carl Rennie Wrote:

Tooth decay is natural, but we brush our teeth anyway.

Tooth decay is for the most part not natural. It requires a highly artificial diet in the first place.

I have often wondered what the result would be if we could actually run an entire simulation of the evolution of life on this planet. Would the development of intelligent life be inevitable? If yes, would the development of social structures such as the Catholic Church be inevitable? I think yes. These structures have been so successful in helping their followers to propogate their genes, that it is nearly certain that evolution would stumble on the idea at some point, and once having found the idea, it’s natural advantages for the propogation of genes would mean that it sticks.…

You may be interested in David Sloan Wilson Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society (U Chicago, 2003). It is a serious, rather ponderous, attempt to analyze certain religions as successful examples of group selection.

demallien Wrote:

Actually, I’m not sure that I agree with this. If we take on Dawkins’ idea of the extended genome, and we consider that the historical truth of the Christian church is more of a social construct rather than a divine creation, we are lead to the conclusion that the “morals” of the church are nothing more than a social construct designed to help propogate genes. Think about the Catholic church’s complete abolition of birth control. Think about the whole idea of catechism - indoctrinating young children to hold the same beliefs - this propogates the memes of the church to the next generation, which, seeing as one of the church’s memes is “go forth and multiply” means that the genes will be propogated too.

Study of how ideas propagate, influenced by the study of biological evolution, is a valuable way of determining the source and history of things like morals, religion, ethics, etc. But once again, evolutionary theory (as applied to civilization) is amoral. It can tell how these ideas got here, but it cannot tell us what they ought to be. Evolution, like all science, is descriptive, NOT proscriptive.

This is the fundamental danger of applying science to ethics. People mistake an understanding of why things are the way though are with an understanding of how they ought to be.

There are moral principles that drive people to scientific research and discovery, such as a value placed on knowledge, integrity, honesty, and curiosity. It’s arguable that scientific study requires these values. However, these values are not scientifically determined, and the most that science can tell us about them is a) where they came from and b) what effect they have on the people/societies that hold them (or not). Whether these principles are good, desirable, or morally upright is something that cannot be determined scientifically.

The danger of believing that science can settle moral questions is that it MUST leave certain assumptions unquestioned. For example, I’ve said that a valuation placed on knowledge, integrity, honesty and curiosity are necessary for scientific progress. This doesn’t make them good unless you consider scientific progress to be an objective good. Is more knowledge always better than less? Why? Greater understanding of the universe and the things that inhabit it has done both a lot of good and a lot of harm; our understanding of the universe wouldn’t be possible without having huge impacts on it, both positive and negative (molecular biology would be close to impossible without a society capable of producing highly sophisticated machinery, with all the positive and negative social and environmental impacts that that entails).

I agree with Carl. Science can inform our ethical decisions, for example, knowledge of gravity and human physiology tells me what will happen if I shove my sister off a cliff. Knowing that this will kill her, I can make an ethical judgment about the morality of pushing her off. But my ethics is independent of the science. My ethics say killing her is wrong, science just tells me that this is a way of killing her.

Science, evolution included, allows us to judge the consequences of our actions, then we can make moral decisions about them. Science does not ever tell us what is moral.

Science tells us we are destroying the environment. Environmentalists call this bad and claim we should stop. Others don’t care and think we should push forward. Ethics are independent of the science. (Note, I’m not talking about the people who lie about the science here.)

The most basic impact evolutionary theory would have on a philosophy/morality is the notion, antithetical to most philosophies and moralities, that “human nature”, whatever else we may think of that term, is not a fixed commodity, but is and will continue to change under whatever environmental pressures are present.

My response to this is to say that it depends upon which end of the telescope one chooses. Relative to the the view of classical cultural anthropology (e.g. Clifford Geertz), which posits a culturally constructed and hence nearly infinitely malleable ‘human nature’ with few universals, evolutionary biology (and evolutionary psychology) urges that human psychology is grounded in evolutionary history, and hence displays many cross-culturally univeral and fixed features. However, you are correct in also identifying that in the context of evolutionary biology there are no permenantly fixed “essences” that characterize a species, including the human species.

That said: it is not evolutionary theory, “Darwinism,” etc. to which one is compelled to respond when fashioning a worldview - it is the reality of the natural world, and our embeddedness and continuity with the natural world (as traced most proximally by evolutionary biology) that demands a response.

I agree with Carl.

As do I. The scientific method simply cannot tell us whether or not murder is wrong.

Science is a method. It’s not a philosophy, not a worldview, not a system of ethics, not an ideology, and not a way of life. And those who try to turn it into one, are abusing and mis-using science just as much as the creationuts are. And for the same reasons.

Michael Suttkus II Wrote:

I agree with Carl. Science can inform our ethical decisions, for example, knowledge of gravity and human physiology tells me what will happen if I shove my sister off a cliff. Knowing that this will kill her, I can make an ethical judgment about the morality of pushing her off. But my ethics is independent of the science. My ethics say killing her is wrong, science just tells me that this is a way of killing her.

Science, evolution included, allows us to judge the consequences of our actions, then we can make moral decisions about them. Science does not ever tell us what is moral.

Yes, but step back a bit and ask yourself why your morals tell you that killing your sister is bad. My proosal was that your morals are like that because killing your sister obviously has a deleterious effect on your genes being propogated, as your sister shares over 50% of them. Note here that I am not saying that science is telling you not to kill your sister. All science says is that if you kill your sister, your genes are less likely to propogate. If Dawkins’ selfish gene theory is correct, such a result is obviously bad. So, to protect your genes, you have evolved an ethic that says that it is bad to kill one’s sister. Again, it is not science that is making the rules, but imply the fact that your genes really want to propogate, so you had better act accordingly.

Going to the more general case, I would suggest that living in large communities is what has permitted humans to rise above our animal cousins. No other large mammal has been able to do so. Living in a large community brings numerous advantages - it enables us to specialise economically, it enables easy communication of new ideas and new items, and let us not forget the advantages of a joint defence. But, living in a large community also brings frictions. Road rage anyone? Thieving, murder, and other crimes are much more prevalent in towns than in the countryside.

Our selfish genes want to take advantage of the benefits of a community, but without these disadvantages. What is the response? Using the concept of the extended genome, where the things we create are equally part of our phenotype, we create social constructs that inhibit these bad effects - we create churches, or schools of philosophy that say that it is bad to steal, that it is bad to kill. We create police forces so that if someone breaks those rules, they are punished. Now our genes can enjoy the benefits of living in a community, but with a much reduced effect from the bad consequences of such living arrangements.

As I have said, science has nothing to say about whether something is moral or not. Science doesn’t care if your genes reproduce or not. But your genes do, and if Dawkins’ theories of an extende genome and the selfish gene are correct, it seems to me to be more or less inevitable that we would end up with a system of morals that resembles a lot those that we have today.

My proposal was that your morals are like that because killing your sister obviously has a deleterious effect on your genes being propogated, as your sister shares over 50% of them…

Going to the more general case, I would suggest that living in large communities is what has permitted humans to rise above our animal cousins.

In a general sense your thoughts are on target, but in some instances you will need to jettison Dawkins as your mentor as you pursue them. In the first quote you are describing the well established phenomenon of kin selection, one of several mechanisms that may account for the selection of cooperative and prosocial behaviors, and affects, among human beings. Others are game-theoretical models such as reciprocal altruism, byproduct mutualism, and so on. Dawkins is down with all that.

But in the second quote you are describing models of group selection - in which groups rather than individuals become the unit of selection rather than individual organisms or even genes. Group selection was once anathema and remains controversial, but also has influential adherents, including S.J. Gould, who posited the operation of “evolutionary individuals” that include groups, species, and even entire clades that can become objects of selection (see also Sober and Wilson, etc.) Group selection can, under certain specific circumstances, select for prosocial behaviors among unrelated individuals. Because groups can always harbor cheaters, group selection (at both evolutionary and cultural levels) can also give rise to social controls (e.g. public disapproval) that “police” and punish cheaters and, ultimately, psychological characteristics, such as the capacity for guilt, for loving feelings, etc, that amplify the effectiveness and reduce the costs associated with such enforcement. These hypotheses certainly have direct bearing upon our understanding of the origins of the human capacity for moral strictures and even moral affects, although, as others have underscored, these models can never be morally prescriptive.

As I understand it, Dawkins would have none of this group selection stuff, as he is focused upon his selfish gene model, and these issues were among those that gave rise to such antipathy between Dawkins/Dennett on one hand and Gould on the other. These also, BTW, exemplify some of the genuine controversies that rage within the community of evolutionary science, contra the bogus controversies promulgated by ID.

Several here have pointed to the fact that science can never identify the moral rightness or wrongness of an action. However, the shoe that didn’t drop following these statements was something like, “morals are the domain of religion.” Religions certainly are not shy about telling us what is moral - but religions themselves may be human social/cultural inventions built upon the evolutionarily grounded capacities for prosocial feelings and enforcement I describe above, and ultimately have no more warrant to specify “moral absolutes” than does science. Finding ourselves bereft of a sense of “absolute” morals (not moral values themselves - but rather moral “absolutes”) may is a real consequence of contemporary science, IMHO. Again, however, this does not flow from a “philosophy/religion of Darwinism” in the sense of “oughts” that arise from this particular science. Rather, we are left bereft of such absolutes by the realities of our dawning understanding of the natural world and our place in it. This is not necessarily a happy discovery.

As I understand it, Dawkins would have none of this group selection stuff, as he is focused upon his selfish gene model, and these issues were among those that gave rise to such antipathy between Dawkins/Dennett on one hand and Gould on the other. These also, BTW, exemplify some of the genuine controversies that rage within the community of evolutionary science, contra the bogus controversies promulgated by ID.

I never have been able to understand what Dawkins’ problem was with Group Selection. It seems clear to me that once a genome becomes capable of creating social constructs, thanks to the extended phenotypes, that Group Selection becomes an obvious consequence. In other words, Dawkins’ own theory leads to the result. That said, I understand that Group Selection is still quite iffy if you want to apply it to say, rabbits. But in the case of humans, if you were to talk about the advantages of living in a group to an archaeologist, or even a historian, they would consider that as uncontroversial.

[sigh]. If only the Creationists wanted to talk about this real controversy in evolution. The debates would be far more interesting ( though probably less amusing.…)

demallien Wrote:

I never have been able to understand what Dawkins’ problem was with Group Selection. It seems clear to me that once a genome becomes capable of creating social constructs, thanks to the extended phenotypes, that Group Selection becomes an obvious consequence. In other words, Dawkins’ own theory leads to the result. That said, I understand that Group Selection is still quite iffy if you want to apply it to say, rabbits. But in the case of humans, if you were to talk about the advantages of living in a group to an archaeologist, or even a historian, they would consider that as uncontroversial.

The thing is, group selection isn’t about the advantage of living in a group–it’s about the advantage of serving a group, sacrificing your own fitness (including extended or delayed fitness via kin selection or reciprocal altruism) to help your fellows. Can there be traits that spread through a population because their owner’s group has a better chance of outcompeting other groups, but which don’t give their owner or hir kin a better chance of outbreeding other group members? That’s a difficult question to resolve.

Anton Mates Wrote:

The thing is, group selection isn’t about the advantage of living in a group—it’s about the advantage of serving a group, sacrificing your own fitness (including extended or delayed fitness via kin selection or reciprocal altruism) to help your fellows. Can there be traits that spread through a population because their owner’s group has a better chance of outcompeting other groups, but which don’t give their owner or hir kin a better chance of outbreeding other group members? That’s a difficult question to resolve.

As I said in my last post, I think that this question has been definatively answered in the affirmative for human beings. There have been a lot of studies done that try to understand why soldiers volunteer to go to war, and inevitably the response is that they are mostly trying to protect their loved ones back home. But there is also the whole “For God, Queen and Country” thing going on as well. The thing is that humans have selfish memes as well as selfish genes. And memes can be shared throughout a community. That is why people go to war over religion - to protect the religion’s memes. And that is why generations of young men sacrificed themselves last century in the two world wars - to protect the political memes of their respective countries ( at least this was the case in Australia - other countries, such as England, were probably more in the protection of genes mode, as their families wer directly manaced.

I have tried to put my bad experiences with PT and Dispatches from the Culture Wars behind me. I am going to get very unhappy when people on these blogs follow me to other blogs and try to harass me there.

I think it’s high time we reported your abusive behavior to your internet provider, Larry.

after all, it’s well documented everywhere you go.

Good grief!

Posted by Larry Fafarman on October 22, 2006 3:07 AM (e)

Hello-o-o-o! Guess what! It’s me again. Remember me? I’m b-a-a-a-c-k.

Now how did you manage that?

I was minding my own business on PZ Myers’ blog Pharyngula

Forgive me for doubting you.

when a lousy troll by the name of Ichthyic

Genuine comedy. Lol. Oh the irony.

I never have been able to understand what Dawkins’ problem was with Group Selection.

Can there be traits that spread through a population because their owner’s group has a better chance of outcompeting other groups, but which don’t give their owner or hir kin a better chance of outbreeding other group members?

As I said in my last post, I think that this question has been definitively answered in the affirmative for human beings.

The difficulty with group selection is that within-group selection, which favors individual fitness, will always eventually overwhelm between-group selection, regardless of the advantages group-selected traits confer upon the the average fitness of individuals within a group. That is because cheaters within a group, relative to cooperators, reap the benefits of cooperation and altruism without incurring the costs of cooperation. “It is only the relative size of the slice, not the absolute size of the pie, that determines what is favored by natural selection within groups” (from Sober and Wilson, “Unto Others.”)

The mathematics of group selection therefore require that groups form, disperse, and reform in the context of a larger population such that prosocial genes are periodically dispersed into that larger population. This prevents within-group selection of selfish traits from overwhelming between-group selection of altruistic traits, and results in group-selected traits descending through complex pathways.

Although the math works, it is not at all a settled matter whether human evolution actually met these criteria. There are tantalizing indications that it did, but this is FAR from a settled question.

Even if it does prove to be the case that group selection accounts for some human prosocial characteristics, particularly a capacity for altruism and even self-sacrifice, it does not follow that humanity can or should cohere into one large, peaceful family - into a single cooperating group. Were that to occur, the criteria for the maintenance of group-selected, prosocial traits (groups dispersing and reforming in the context of a larger population) may no longer obtain, and individual selection will again favor the reemergence of “selfish” characteristics. (But then a breakdown of the “family of man” follows, with the resurgence of competing groups and the resumption of group selection - and on and on it goes. Selfishness and cooperation are likely to remain in tension for a long time to come.)

Additional wild cards enter when we recognize that human group boundaries and cohesion are sustained and enforced by cultural means. Complex stuff.

“I was minding my own business on PZ Myers’ blog Pharyngula…”

Hmmmm…I never considered when I post on a blog that I am “minding my own business”. On the contrary, if I wanted to mind my own business, I’d stay off blogs that pertain to anything other than my current profession.

In the interest of setting things straight I feel that I should fill in the blanks here. (And no Larry, I haven’t followed you here - you can easily check my recent activity on PT.)

On a thread about Gogonasus we were discussing what the prediction where. Larry ignored the answers and misstated evolution and theory forming more hideously than usual, which prompted the frequent poster Ichthyic to make an impropriate, threatening but informative comment about Larry’s person. (It is complicated - in this case it lead to information concerning Larry and how one should behave with him, so it was perhaps necessary.)

“as usual, Larry, you are incorrect. several recent major finds WERE in fact predicted, both in kind and in placement.

go figure.

have you started taking your meds yet? I mean, I know your brother told us to go easy on you, but really, you do set yourself up constantly.

Posted by: Ichthyic | October 21, 2006 06:48 AM

…Don’t make me post that thread where your brother exposes your condition, Larry.

you wouldn’t like that.

Posted by: Ichthyic | October 21, 2006 06:51 AM”

(More info on what Ichthyic meant is on the thread; http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/[…]ndrewsae.php )

“Ichthyic said ( October 21, 2006 06:51 AM ) –

…Don’t make me post that thread where your brother exposes your condition, Larry. you wouldn’t like that.

Don’t start a flame war here, Ichthyic. PZ Myers wouldn’t like that. Because I can post comments here by means of anonymous proxies (this comment is posted by anonymous proxy), he can delete my comments but he cannot block them except by enabling universal comment moderation, which would be a great inconvenience to himself and to the readers. Without comment moderation, my nasty comments – as well as yours – could sit on this blog for some time before he finds and deletes them.

Posted by: Larry Fafarman | October 21, 2006 12:35 PM

Making threats to inconvenience me or my readers means you’re gone, bozo.

Posted by: PZ Myers | October 21, 2006 01:02 PM”

PZ seems to be the levelheaded person here. Contrary to what Larry says he was not blocked on the thread, PZ disemvoweled his comments as he does with other abusers.

Carl-

You said, “I have to disagree strongly with this. There’s an underlying assumption here, and that is that we are the way we are for a specific, objective reason. That evolution occurs the way it does for a specific, objective reason. If the Christian religion is indeed true (which I very much doubt), and if evolution is true (as the evidence suggests), then yes, they would have something to say about each other, and something that’s not particularly flattering to either God or science.”

(Sorry, don’t know how to box comments.) I agree with you- that is an underlying assumption in what I said, but also an underlying assumption of most religions. Not to say that evolution doesn’t occur entirely through natural selection, chance, et.al.- but the idea in most religions is that God/s is behind it, and there is a reason for events. Therefore, if both were true, then both have to support each other. If religion or a religion is not true, then of course, this doesn’t apply.

But to be clear- science should not influence the ethics. There are many ways to ethically interpret evolution, after all, often mutually contradictory. Nor can it be a proof for God/s. But if a particular religion is true, along with evolution being true, then we can understand both better through the other, as they have a common source, and, in the case of the religion, I can come closer to the heart of the belief through the study of evolution.

Back to the Rawls argument: The new White Paper from the Poynter Center at Indiana uses Rawls to argue against inclusion of ID (a position most would find more congenial to his thinking). See http://curricublog.wordpress.com/

But if a particular religion is true…

what does that even mean?

But if a particular religion is true…

what does that even mean?

But if a particular religion is true…

what does that even mean?

cleanup iniatiated…

Surprisingly, abeit inadvertently, Larry’s incontinence DOES contain a hint of something useful: this software is just terrible. We keep getting notifications that the server will be upgraded, but the symptoms haven’t changed:

1) Post a comment 2) Get a message that the server timed out and isn’t responding 3) Keep trying until the server returns 4) Examine the “recent comments” list in the main page. Nope, your comment isn’t there 5) Go to the thread where you just commented. Nope, your comment isn’t there 6) Either re-submit your comment, after which it shows up twice, or don’t re-submit, after which it never shows up at all.

This is the “medium difficulty” path, of course. The maximum difficulty path is for the browser itself to crash when trying to access that thread. Over and over, sometimes for hours. Other threads can be accessed without the crash.

This is irritating.

Flint:

Sometimes, when the server acts up like that and I am uncertain whether my comment was posted or not, I simply click “Preview”. Most often, when I check the comments below the preview, I find my comment duly posted.

Thanks. I’ll make a note to try that.

The maximum difficulty path is for the browser itself to crash when trying to access that thread.

I often get browser crashes when clicking on “go” links to specific comments, particularly on very long threads. Usually I am able to access the same thread w/o problems by clicking directly on the main title of the thread.

Mr. Rennie: Perhaps you should encourage your church to invite some historians as speakers, who could then remind your flock that the evil behavior some IDiots currently blame on “Darwinism” actually predates Darwin by THOUSANDS OF YEARS.

Also, your church may want ot invite speakers from other Christian churches (i.e., Catholic and/or Lutheran), to remind your flock that some Christian churches explicitly accept evolution and see no conflict between it and Christian doctrine.

No, Sleazy PZ is not level-headed — he went after me instead of going after the scumbag who started it by responding to a difference of opinion or a misunderstanding by threatening to post a link to an unrelated quarrel that I had on another blog.

In your case, Larry, that would have been a perfectly appropriate response, insofar as it would have illustrated your irrationality, lack of credibility, and…how can I put this gently?…your obvious mental illness and inability to deal with the real world. I’ve seen plenty of material ON YOUR OWN BLOG to prove all of that, in all its shameful, disgraceful glory; and if you don’t want to see it quoted to your detriment, then you shouldn’t have posted it in the first place.

PS: Have you apologized to Ed Brayton, your brother Dave, and Gods-know-who-else you’ve insulted by posting responses in their names?

Clean up successfully completed…

So now Larry is down to reposting the same “response” over and over? What a pathetic old sod.

My condolences and best wishes to his family – dealing with a sorry old crankcase like that can’t be easy for them.

It is not worth the waste of time to prepare a new response over and over.

That seems to be the working philosophy of the entire creationist movement. It’s certainly not worth their time to do any new research, or bring anything new to the grownups’ table.

More soap added

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This page contains a single entry by PvM published on October 18, 2006 11:50 PM.

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