3/09/2008

CELEBRITY DEATHMATCH, PART DEUX

Posted over at PZ's place:

A DISCLAIMER, OF SORTS

Well. In a sense I've been quote-mined, in a sense I haven't.

On the one hand, my brief on Phil Plait's gloss on an evolutionary account of humankind is accurately quoted:

In brief, I think that Phil's comments were intemperate and, taken literally, pretty much impossible to defend. He's on pretty solid ground when he's talking about the existence of dark matter and dark energy, but his brief on evolutionary biology runs far afield.

Vox neglected to share my second paragraph, though, which provides some context:

I would say that evolutionary biology provides a conceptual framework to evaluate the degree to which ethical principles/cultural mores etc. are consonant with or (more controversially) derived from our biology. It's a valid research program within evolutionary biology, but to claim that the reigning model in which the program is nested 'explains' ethical concepts in and of itself is a rhetorical overreach, likely prompted by his own beliefs.

Notice I didn't rule out the possibility that the research program is likely to yield testable claims, or that such claims could provide more evidence for an evolutionary account of human thought, including ethical systems. I am, in fact, inclined to believe that both are likely to occur. One of the commenters on Phil's site notes (correctly) that I am being a little picky, and that's true. It's just that I see that exaggerated claims in the general culture tend to be appropriated as weapons in the evo/creo wars, and I'm always at pains to let my students know where our models are well-supported, and where they are largely speculative. I'm very sympathetic to evolutionary psychology in general, but I'm often appalled by the cavalier way speculations within this field are presented. That doesn't mean, however, that I'm opposed to the program or that the program isn't science. I'm not, and it is.

Further, on the general topic of credentials to which many of the proceeding posts allude, it is rather comical of Vox to present me as some authority on evolutionary biology. I'm just a well-read high school science teacher with a passion for teaching evolution well who has had some spirited and civil exchanges with Vox in the past. I think I held up my end of that pretty well, but you folk can judge for yourself.

Anyway, if you're reading this, Vox, I want to make clear that people like PZ really do know their stuff where evolutionary theory is concerned. I happen to draw conclusions different from theirs in certain areas, but I don't do so for scientific reasons. I think PZ would say something similar about his personal beliefs, and if not, he can correct me. If you're scoring rhetorical points (which seems to be your aim), you're doing so against something other than science.

PS: Vox, here's a thought: why not come over to our side, where your intellect and unorthodox way of posing problems would be truly productive, rather than merely a way of amusing yourself and others?

29 comments:

Anonymous said...

PS: Vox, here's a thought: why not come over to our side, where your intellect and unorthodox way of posing problems would be truly productive, rather than merely a way of amusing yourself and others?


I would say the chance for that is next to zero. Most people, born w/ silver spoon soaked with honey in mouth, don't rock the boat. That would take strength of character quite beyond VD. He seems pretty clueless when it comes to evolution, and what he does learn will be devoted to nit picking potshots at it. Unfortunately, the same could be said of your friend Stan, though he at least seems to demonstrate a certain curiosity and spirit of discovery.

I don't mean to say I have all the answers; I'm not smug and superior; I'm a pretty modest person, but let's face it, evolution happened, and people like Behe, Johnson, etc., who devote good time and effort constructing obscurantist arguments against it are wasting everyone's time.

Religious people who don’t support evolution are just those that can’t imagine a God working through evolution, which is funny because if there’s anything in science that verges on the miraculous, it’s evolution. And if development of an entire corporeal body from a single fertilized egg, via some kind of voodoo process that we haven’t even begun to comprehend isn’t miracle I don’t know what is.

[Beelz]

Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

Call me a cockeyed optimist, but I would like to think that people like Vox and Stan have the potential to contribute to the scientific enterprise. I would say Vox and Stan's issue is not with whether evolution happened, but how they perceive the fact of evolution being interpreted in the popular culture. This and other misconceptions make it difficult for them to buy the entirety of what Darwin called 'one long argument.'

Stan said...

Scott, you are right on the money. The cultural impact of evolution makes it an important topic to get right, and one that cannot be ignored. It is being sold as fact, just as our friend Beelz has said that it is, when it is actually historical forensic science, not "fact".

That's why it is important to have a real, rational scaffold beneath it. This means, in empirical and material terms if you wish...evidence: incontrovertable and beyond speculation, which evolutionists do not currently possess.

Beelz your idea that "evolution happened", is without empirical proof; it is presumed by extrapolation and circumstantial evidence.

I am still searching for two things: First, an unquestionable instance of speciation; Second, a firm, detailed mechanism for evolving outside of a genome without mutation or introgression (using the environment if necessary). This doesn't seem to me to be too much to ask.

And again, skepticism: is it allowed in today's science? There are certain positions that are difficult to assail due to rigid scientists, not due to experimental data. As you no doubt are aware these include cosmology, evolution, brain-mind monism , global warming, each of which has a entrenched following of philosophical materialism closely attached in a parasitic relationship. To my mind, this is the issue, not the validity of the pursuit of science in general, nor the integrity of scientists in general.

Anonymous said...

I still don't really grasp your objection to the "materialistic" bent of science. It seems to have served fairly well up to now. Sure, scientists can be dogmatic, at least until evidence accumulates to the point where paradigm shift becomes unavoidable. The scientific establishment is a weighty construct with plenty of inertia involved. The real question is, is this more of a hindrance than benefit.


I am still searching for two things: First, an unquestionable instance of speciation;



As you know speciation is not something you can put under a microscope and take a picture of, but a process that can happen over thousands of square miles and hundreds of thousands of years. Any specific (so to speak) examples are going to consist of individual snapshots of evidence tied together with theory. When enough of that is collected we are safe in calling something fact. As Dennett has said, evolution isn't supported by a single chain that can be defeated by a weak link, but rather myriad threads that together are nearly unbreakable. Dobzhansky (a quite religious man) said nothing in biology makes sense without it. To overturn evolution would mean rewriting just about everything we know about that science.

Speciation is also a fairly nuanced concept, far more multifaceted than merely the ability to interbreed, though that will remain the basic definition. Are you familiar with ring species?:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ring_species

In that article the two gull species that exist in Europe where the cline meets would be considered a species split, interestingly caught like a snapshot before the two populations diverge. OR, the ring could collapse back into a single species. In my mind I visualize the concept like a blob of mercury that can be rolled around as a contiguous whole, but when it gets too stretched out might suddenly break into two smaller blobs, OR at the last moment, might reintegrate. However, once it does split, it cannot reintegrate. One or both may meet with extinction, but the split is irrevocable.

It turns out the relation “species,” while it may be reflexive, is not transitive. If A is in the same species as B, and B as C, strangely, A may not be species C, at least by the simple definition.


Second, a firm, detailed mechanism for evolving outside of a genome without mutation or introgression (using the environment if necessary).


Could you expand on what you mean by “outside of a genome”?

Anonymous said...

Anon was me,
[Beelz]

Stan said...

Beelz said:
"Any specific (so to speak) examples are going to consist of individual snapshots of evidence tied together with theory. When enough of that is collected we are safe in calling something fact."



Evolution is allowed to operate outside the normal process of logic just because its stories are called "compelling". Again why is skepticism of such unproven assertations met with such antipathy in the science community?

Dennett is not an unbiased proponent of objectivity. He is a faithful proponent of monism and Atheism, whatever the cost in terms of logic. And so it is in evolution.

I know that you "believe" that the evidence is there, but all I see is unrelated instances that are tied not by direct proof but by loose inference, one circumstantial piece to another. Intellectual rigor (i.e. proof) is sacrificed at the altar of the tidy story. This is intellectually reckless, in the same sense that unexamined religious belief is reckless, extrapolating beyond the evidence. Evolution is unexamined in the same sense: it cannot be examined for the reasons you outlined. By Popper's definition of falsifiability, then, evolution is a metaphysical tale, requiring faith.

The worst part is people who say that "it happened". or "it's a fact". It is not a fact. Only the stories say so, not evidence. Evolutionists have not been trained, it appears, to discern the difference between hard evidence and conjecture, and mistake the latter for the former.

BTW, you don't seem to be familiar with the functional difference between empiricism and materialism.

Empiricism voluntarily designates the limits of its investigations as the realm of space-time-mass, because that is what is measurable. Empiricism does NOT say that nothing else exists, that there is no other reality beyond these parameters.

Materialism is a philosophy, not a science, which declares that there is absolutely NO EXISTENCE beyond space-time-mass. Moreover it deliberately attaches itself to empiricism in a parasitic fashion in order to co-opt the intellectual respectability inherent in empiricism, which is not inherent in Materialist philosophy.

There is no possible way for Materialists to prove that there are no other realities, and this by itself falsifies it. But the sciences of brain and neural plasticity, and the quantum fabrics tying consciousness to matter also refute it, not to mention the necessity of the intuited First Principles.

Materialism is the attempt by Atheists to use empiricism in a fraudulent way to try to prove the non-existence of spirituality. It is psuedo-science used for a worldview crutch. It is false.

But empiricism, which is a process, not a philosophy, is a valid pursuit, despite the parasitism of Materialist philosophy.

Paleo-biology is not even empirical in the sense that it does not produce information experimentally. It is historical -forensic. So it cannot be expected to produce proof of empirical quality, and it then easily veers off into conjecture-land. This world of the loosy-goosy is difficult for a hard-data empiricist to swallow. Especially after the anthropological debacles of the Margaret Mead era of story telling.

I'm rambling...now I'll shut up and go to bed.

Stan said...

Oh yes, quickly, 'outside a genome'.

Here's how I understand Scott's explanation: individuals don't evolve, populations evolve.

This I take to mean that there is a cumulative genome that exists for a population, and which changes.

However, for a population to move outside that original cumulative genome, what must occur? Scott indicated that the environment was involved in causing certain selections to occur, presumably taking the cumulative genome where it had not previously been.

(evolution = cumulative genome in motion?)

But how is selection able to select that which is outside the existing cumulative genome?

The environment might cause the selection of the fittest within the genome, but not change the genome or the alleles. (That would be Lamarckian).

If mutation is ruled out as a modifier (the Grants did not do this), then what exactly, precisely, happened to the alleles to allow this "allelic extrapolation" to occur?

That is my question, looking for precision in answers, not generalities, please.

Now I'm outta here for today.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Stan,
I hope you ramble more often because that was interesting. You're right, I guess I have been blurring the distinction between empiricism and materialism. I would say then, that sciences should remain within the bounds of empiricism. I can hardly see where they would be much good elsewhere.

That being said, I might be able to offer something to resolve the problems you're having with evolution. I was recently reading in a book title "Intelligent Design." I'm not even going to try to google and find the authors since there are so many with the same title. I can find out if you're want to know. Anyway, it's a collected work and one of the essays is titled (somewhat contentiously) "Philip Johnson on trial." In it, the author makes a very pointed note about the scientific method: When Francis Bacon and others were first hammering out the scientific method, science was dominated by an observational/inductive process, whereby mass observation and data collection was summarized by induction into theory. Since science was in its infancy, this was really the only way to go. However, with increasing sophistication science has added another facet, equally useful, and it can be described as the hypothetical/deductive method. By this new method hypothesis is posited, then implications from it are deduced into predicted observation. If the enough prediction is verified, the hypothesis is confirmed, and graduated to theory.

I hate to say it Stan, but your mind is still in the 16th century! :-) (joking, sort of). The key point here is that though the inductive process is still very much alive, evolutionary theory is dependent on both the inductive AND hypothetico-deductive method. Darwin's great feat is that he was one of the first to use the full power of both methodologies.

Perhaps Scott can give some better examples of this, but here's my whack at it. We pose a hypothesis...speciation happens. Given that, what can be deduced as possible observation? Well, separated species that share morphology, genome similarity, etc. If this is confirmed enough, the hypothesis is verified or at least strengthened. Note that the hypothesis itself is not observable. Nevertheless it can be verified by implication. Specifically, it is verified by deduced observation, which is then confirmed in the real world. THIS is the point that so often eludes evolution critics. They are stuck on the idea that the hypothesis itself involves something removed from observation. In fact, I have the temerity to say that this is the point that you are stuck on, the very one. It’s the deductive process that takes hypothesis to predicted observation that you've dismissed as “story.”

I hasten to add that without this new method, many scientific disciplines would be inaccessible to us:

-cosmology
-geology
-plate tectonics
-climate science
-evolution

Is it pure coincidence that these happen to be the more controversial of sciences? I believe the hypothetico-deductive process within science is not fully appreciated by many.

One correction to my previous post about ring species:

I said “reflexive” and I meant “symmetric,” meaning if A is a species of B then B is a species of A. Ring species breaks the traditional notion of species because if you consider them a single species then it means that some individuals of the species can’t interbreed. And if you don’t consider them a species, where do you put the dividing line?

[Bez]

Anonymous said...


The environment might cause the selection of the fittest within the genome, but not change the genome or the alleles. (That would be Lamarckian).


I agree with you there. Perhaps this has something to do with what Dawkins termed the "extended phenotype." (?) I don't know. Perhaps Scott can elaborate.

Anonymous said...

Permit me to add one final point to the hypothetico-deductive process, and I'm so confident this is the source of today's controversy re: evolution I'm going to call it the coup de grĂ¢ce:

The hypotheses that win out in this process are regarded rather highly by scientists that advance them, since they're the ones who have spent years attempting to verify them. But look now what happens: Dissenters attempt to portray the process in reverse, that hypothesis was obtained to explain away observation by overzealous scientists. That truly would be shooting in the dark, but it's incorrect. The correct process (and it must be honestly done) is this: informed hypothesis -> deduced postulated observation -> confirmation. If at any point observation is FORCED to fit hypothesis, the process is invalidated utterly.

Basically, you'll know you're doing it right if MOST of the hypotheses are discarded.

Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

You, gentlemen, are having an interesting exchange of views. A few points:

Here's how I understand Scott's explanation: individuals don't evolve, populations evolve.

This is correct. It's my view. It's also the view held by all biologists.

This I take to mean that there is a cumulative genome that exists for a population, and which changes.

That is correct. For example, that is what we mean by 'The Human Genome Project'. The HGP involved the study of populations of genes and constitutes a 'parts list' for about 99.99 percent of all human genetic variation in all populations. (It's not complete, of course, but is still in the process of being refined) Recently Venter et al completely sequenced Venter's genome (at some expense), which is essentially a 'parts list' just for Craig Venter. They brag that before the decade is over they will have repeated this feat for a minimum of 10,000+ individuals. I wouldn't bet against him!

Anyway, in the near future you'll hear a lot of discussion about individual genomes. This technology will initially be available only to the affluent. It's important to keep in mind that if you do hear it in this sense, that these genomes will evolve in any meaningful sense, because they are the genomes of individuals, not populations. We probably need to coin a new word for individual genomes to avoid potential confusion.

However, for a population to move outside that original cumulative genome, what must occur? Scott indicated that the environment was involved in causing certain selections to occur, presumably taking the cumulative genome where it had not previously been.

(evolution = cumulative genome in motion?)


That's actually a cute little formulation. A biologist might express the above as 'the sum total of all changes in allele frequency within a population'. But of course evolution narrowly defined as genetic change in a population is not what tightens the panties of creationists.

Anyway, Stan, don't make the mistake of equating evolution with selection. Yes, the environment 'selects' for or against some alleles, but populations can also change for reasons other than natural selection. You can evolution with NS, you can have NS without evolution (stabilizing selection). And, in both cases, sometimes speciation is a result, sometimes it isn't.

But how is selection able to select that which is outside the existing cumulative genome?

!!!! Why would it need to? You seem to think an additional source of information is needed. There are multiple forces at work generating variation: sexual recombination, hybridization, 'crossing-over', point mutations, chromosomal-level mutation etc. There are also multiple forces at work pruning the variation: environmental change, genetic drift, interspecific competition, intraspecific competition, co-evolutionary relationships (symbiosis/commensalism), etc. etc.

Some of these inputs at both stages are random, some are not. Even mutation is not entirely random, since some spots in the chromosomes are more likely to mutate than others. Evolution is a stochastic process involving random and non-random inputs. The information you apparently are puzzling over is already there, Stan, in the complex interaction of all the inputs. You're chasing a phantom that's not required by the theory.

If mutation is ruled out as a modifier (the Grants did not do this), then what exactly, precisely, happened to the alleles to allow this "allelic extrapolation" to occur?

If you've gotten this far, hopefully you understand that I haven't ruled mutation out, I've just tried to help you understand that evolution doesn't turn entirely on the question of mutation. Not only are there are other mechanisms at work to generate variation, focusing exclusively on mutation overemphasizes the random inputs and ignores the non-random inputs, and feeds the misperception (rampant in the creationist literature) that evolution is a theory of randomness alone.

Here's a helpful hint. You're probably familiar with fractals such as the Julia set and the Mandelbrot set, and how these fractals can be beautifully visualized with computers. The eerie images produced generate self-similarity at increasingly-fine levels nested within one another. These patterns occur because fractals involve an interaction between one number which is discontinuously variable and non-random (such as a counting number), and one which is continuously variable and random (such as pi). In other words, fractals are stochastic. So it is with a host of natural processes. Consider a tree, the outline of a coastal formation viewed from the air, or a freeze-frame bolt of lightning. They, too, exhibit branching patterns of nested self-similarity, a combination of (from our point of view) random inputs that are then forced into existing channels dictated by the laws of physics.

Evolution is a more complex process than the above examples, but the basic idea of branching patterns of nested self-similarity is there, and is what we expect to find if in fact there are both random and non-random inputs.

Stan said...

anonymous (Beezl?)said:
"The correct process (and it must be honestly done) is this: informed hypothesis -> deduced postulated observation -> confirmation. If at any point observation is FORCED to fit hypothesis, the process is invalidated utterly.

Basically, you'll know you're doing it right if MOST of the hypotheses are discarded."


This is a good description of the empirical process. But it doesn't work for historical-forensics, because there is no possible way either to confirm or falsify the claims of paternity being made. DNA similarities don't work for that, because there is no paleo-DNA available. So "confirmation" is a presumed feature, not an actual one.

From an empirical perspective, historical-forensic projections are without tangible, material, evidentiary proof, and are therefore seen to be human speculations, not material fact.

Apparently those in the fields of historical-forensic pursuits don't feel that way, and are happy to declare these projections to be fact. This is the point where it becomes non-rational.

And anonymous said:
"If this is confirmed enough, the hypothesis is verified or at least strengthened. Note that the hypothesis itself is not observable. Nevertheless it can be verified by implication. Specifically, it is verified by deduced observation, which is then confirmed in the real world.

The "verification by implication" is where we part ways. Implication is human interpretation in the absence of connecting data. And the second part of your statement makes no sense to me because I don't know what a "deduced observation" is, and I don't believe that it is ever confirmed in the real world. At least not historical-forensics.

It is a mistake to conflate the valid nature of empirical conclusions with the presumed, projected nature of historical-forensics. I believe that this is a modern convention of convenience for propping up worldviews. Or at least it has the dangerous property of being useful for that.

Stan said...

Scott, again thanks for your patience with me and not going to a moderated forum...

You said:
but the basic idea of branching patterns of nested self-similarity is there, and is what we expect to find if in fact there are both random and non-random inputs.

This seems feasible and even plausible. I had thought that you were insisting that mutations were not a required feature, nor necessary to move a genome into a new area. And I acknowledge that some mutations might be more probable than others - gene doubling or dropping maybe. The fractal example has never clicked with me because in fractals, as I understand them, the pattern repeats forever, only in decreasing amplitude; it is not a way out to a new type of figure.

Be that as it may, I acknowledge that speciation in the sense of being unable to cross breed (Great Dane to chihauhua) can occur within a genome, and without moving the genome.

And given the proper mutations, that part of the population might move outside the original genome and then become unable to breed with the unmutated population still residing in the original genome.

Before getting off onto the necessity or not of mutations, the question was how cumulative positive changes could occur if mutations are not "stored up" awaiting the chance to be expressed as new features. The foray into whether mutations are even necessary diverted us from this question. Let's get back to it now.

This enters the "complexity" fray, with some saying that complexity doesn't exist, others saying that complexity emerges, apparently serendipitously and outside the maathematical realm of "the set is the sum of its parts" (and no more). To me, neither of these is a satisfying answer.

I expect to receive "Origins of Order" by Stuart Kauffman in the mail in a day or two...that should be interesting. In the meantime, comments please: what is the mechanism for moving a genome into a new, complex, feature set?

Stan said...

I should have included this thought above, but didn't.

Scott said:
There are multiple forces at work generating variation: sexual recombination, hybridization, 'crossing-over', point mutations, chromosomal-level mutation etc.

Cool! Now we have some mechanisms for moving outside the original genome (can we define that as adding new alleles from which to select?).

First, sexual recombination: I don't know what that means...

Second, hybridization: yes, new alleles being added.

Third, "crossing over": I don't know what that means either.

Fourth, point mutations: Yes, new alleles.

Fifth, chromosomal mutations: Yes, new alleles.

So if new alleles are made available, then the group genome can move beyond its original boundaries. Agreed.

Anonymous said...

"deduced observation" is shorthand for "deduced prediction of observation"

I think you gave my comment short shrift, perhaps the essay I cite would explain things better than me. I'll get the reference.

[beelz]

Stan said...

Didn't mean to short shrift it, I just didn't understand it. If I have come to more closely understand it now, I still can't agree with it.

So it is very possible that I still don't understand your meaning here, especially how these unobservable occurrances come to be confirmed in the real world...short of being presumed to be correct. If there is no way to avoid presumption by direct observation and measurement, then they cannot be known to be correct, only presumed.

Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

Stan:

I enjoy talking to you because you're not afraid to admit ignorance. It beats the colossal self-assuredness that many partisans in the evo/creo wars affect, and (frankly) it's one of the more reliable signs that an individual is confident and intelligent.

So, with that in mind, please don't be offended when I express my frank amazement that you don't know some of the mechanisms for generating variation other than point mutations. This just goes to show the depth of my own ignorance, I guess. There must be something fundamentally flawed with the way we biologists teach genetics, and it manifests itself here: else why would so many be convinced that evolution is entirely a matter of random mutations? I'm going to have to think about why that 'meme' is so prevalent. Anyway, a few comments...

First, sexual recombination: I don't know what that means...

Just this: half your genes are from mom, half your genes are from dad, but which half you get is a crap shoot, and (except in the case of identical twins) every individual zygote is a unique combination of genes. Since most traits are polygenic, this fact alone generates tremendous variation, without the need for any additional mutations.

Third, "crossing over": I don't know what that means either.

During the first part of meiosis (the special form of cell division used to produce gametes), the chromosomes duplicate and arrange themselves in groups of four called tetrads. The long arms of the chromosome pairs typically overlap, and it often happens that chunks of chromosome are swapped together. This phenomena, called 'crossing-over', not only generates even more variation within the population, it can also lead to entire chromosomal mutations.

Fourth, point mutations: Yes, new alleles.

Not necessarily. This is very minor nit-pick, but I thought as long as I was playing teacher... Many point mutations are 'sense mutations' that do not change the meaning of the original message and thus do not lead to new alleles. Others are 'missense' mutations that lead to a new meaning identical to that of a different allele already present in the population. They both constitute new sources of genetic variation and can lead to evolution, but not necessarily new alleles, at least not in a functional sense. Both of these wrinkles are possible because the genetic code is redundant. . .

Fifth, chromosomal mutations: Yes, new alleles.

Only if it involves swapping a chunk of chromosome in the middle of a functional sequence, in which case it's not likely to be a source of functional variation, at least not immediately. In other words, I don't think of chromosomal mutations so much in terms of new alleles, but in terms of wholesale reorganization of the alleles which are are already there. This is radical, and chromosomal mutations are often devastating in animals, while (curiously) often beneficial to plants due to differences in fertilization. Anyway, the most interesting chromosomal mutations are ones in which large chunks of chromosome are either deleted or duplicated, leading to a new chromosome number, and one which radically changes the overall organization of the genome. These must be among the rarest of mutations in mammals, but we know that these things have occurred. A classic example is a fusion event that occurred in the lineage from the common ancestor between humans and chimps: human chromosome #2 was essentially produced by fusing two chromosomes which are separate in chimps. As an aside, if I were going to abandon the scientific mindset, and deliberately search for events that might suggest supernatural fiddling with the genomes, this is the spot where I would look.

Stan said...

Scott,
Thanks, I did know the 50-50 split, don't know why I didn't reconize the term, sexual recombination.

"This phenomena, called 'crossing-over', not only generates even more variation within the population, it can also lead to entire chromosomal mutations."

I did not know that.

I have just gotten my copy of "The Origins of Order" by Stuart A. Kuaffman. This is a huge book, seemingly sparing no words; however, it does attempt to identify self-ordering systems. The book comes with high commendations from Gould and Lewontin, amongst other evolutionists.

A premise from the introduction called "Themes":

"None can doubt Darwin's main idea. If we are to consider the implications of spontaneous order, we must certainly do so in the context of natural selection, since biology without it is unthinkable"

He starts with a summation of evolutionary theory, the first paragraph I quote here:

"Since Darwin we have come to view selection as the overwhelming, even the sole, source of order in organisms. Natural selection operating on gratuitous random mutations is the sieve that retains order and lets chaos pass into oblivion. This phrase is no understatement of our worldview; it is its heart. No idea derivative from Darwin lies deeper in our minds than this: myriad mutations, selection sifting. Here rebels the "Creation Scientist", here cavil many, but here is the core." pg 11

Another quote:

"It is no accident that we have come to view organisms as historical accidents. Nor is this view due merely to the recent advent of the Neutral theory; rather, it is rooted in the utter blindness and gratuity of mutations, their arbitrary randomness with respect to prospective usefulness." pg 13

Has anyone else here read this book?

Anonymous said...

I haven't read that book, but the quotes you offer spur a couple thoughts.

We know by existence proof that we live in a universe where life is possible. This isn't a trivial point. Out off the myriad configurations of matter why should something such as "life" be possible? Is it a general property that will emerge out of any sufficient raw material?

There are so many questions that must be addressed before we can even tentatively proffer terms like "the miracle of life."

Perhaps I'm one of the few traditional atheists that take things like the anthropic prin. seriously. I well admit that we are merely on the threshold of understanding the origins and ultimate explanation for life.

It occurs to me that much of atheist ideology is reactionary in nature. We don't want to permit the retrograde of what we -- humanity -- have so arduously won, and we reach back to traditional vices to do it. All the while, we're attacked by the opposition, rightfully so, on the face of it. I just wish true intentions were known.

[Beelz]

Stan said...

Beelz, "true intentions"...interesting. Yours or mine?

As I interpret it, the fundamental difference is not intention, it is the premise of perfectability of the individual human.

Christianity says the human cannot be perfect, that life is a struggle in the attempt to simulate perfection as measured by the objective benchmark handed down to man.

Atheism (humanism) says that if all men would just be rational (version du jour), and all at the same time, then everyone could work for the benenfit and happiness of the whole, and then get his fair share.

So the Christian doesn't expect happiness, he expects a life of cycling self-discipline and failure.

The Atheist/humanist wants to assert his version of rationalism top-down. Otherwise it won't happen like he wants it to. So it has been necessary, historically speaking, to use what ever methods are necessary to get it done (humans are so chronically irrational and rebellious, you know). These methods were supposedly useful in creating the "New Man". So happiness happens when and how the guy at the top says it does.

These intentions are not mutually compatible. Which one is compatible with a free society? It is Christianity. But maybe a free society is passe'. (Russians don't seem to care a whit about free speech or free elections).

Now maybe your moral and ethical philosophy is more in line with Judeo-Christianity than it is with Humanism a la' Comte, Neitzsche, Lenin, Mussolini, et al. Or even ACLU. Then maybe you are not really a humanist. Or an Atheist, for that matter.

I found (after 40 years of Atheism) that basic, subaxiomatic skepticism induces the development of a rational process that results in rejecting even traditional skepticism. It now seems to me that truth is elusive only if you define it yourself.

Anonymous said...

That sounds like a pretty reasonable summary of the modern Christian view of human capability and human society. We need to be careful to view this through a historical lens. Christianity has had 2000 years to refine itself to human nature. People can be murderous, immoral, so why not give emphasis to a satanic influence, accentuate that we are "fallen" being, etc. You can concoct quite a story, given that length of time. Things are simply exacerbated by any concept of "heaven," for if we ever create a utopian heaven here in Earth, what need numinous heaven? Isn't the Christianity you describe (which is unfortunately accurate) a prescription for fatalism? If we are but fallen creatures, why bother trying to improve our lot, indeed, why not fight against it!?

The abject rejection of even the slightest possibility that we might strive for a utopic future is not a prescription for a bright tomorrow. This is one of my prime objections.

I for one, remain "faithful" that a utopia, or something close, remains possible.

[B]

Stan said...

Here are some issues for the Utopian:

How do you propose to achieve utopia? And what would it look like?

Utopia, how would you achieve it, given the failure of Christianity to produce Christs clones? It is this misunderstanding of Christianity that gives rise to the hatred for it. Christianity provides an unachievable ideal for behavior which is based on addressing every person's internal struggle. It is not fatalistic except for those who reject its premises; the internal struggle is real, and character refinement resolves from heat of the battle. It holds a promise of increased character, not fatalism. The point here is the admission of persistent fallibiity, even amongst the most devout.

Utopia denies that the internal battle exists, that the human is perfectible, but then claims that happiness derives from mindless servitude to the "whole".

Voluntary servitude to a governmental philosophy, one of denial of self for the good of the whole, is not a valid aspect of human nature, no matter how sentimental the concept of universal happiness. So such servitude requires either changing the human (ubermench), or making the servitude involutary. (Or both).

Happiness is not a right; pursuit of happiness is a right. It is always pursuit, because happiness is not a self-sustaining state; it evaporates quickly into disappointment and the need for more, and therefore a new pursuit. It frequently degenerates into greed (part of the internal struggle). For utopia to exist, this aspect of humanity must be eliminated.

How would you do that? Education? The most highly educated nations killed the most people in the last 100 years. Germany had the most outstanding scientists, artists, philosophers, engineers, etc. What it also had was greed for its lost national pride and for more.

So how do you propose to achieve utopia? And what would it look like?

Anonymous said...


Utopia denies that the internal battle exists, that the human is perfectible, but then claims that happiness derives from mindless servitude to the "whole".


There are several ways to approach this. As you say, one would be the "remake man" or "ubermench" social reengineering. I don't believe this is at all possible at the moment. We simply don't know enough about social dynamic. Futuristically, there's the possibility that we may literally REmake man through biotechnology, or we could drug them with a Soma-like narcotic. Both of these options are transparently unjust unless we could get a universal consensus to do so, and we won't.
Our best hope for utopia is to become so technologically advanced that all needs are met, without arduous labor, all disease is ridden, longevity is extended indefinitely, etc. The materialistic utopia. There is no reason to think this must be accompanied by either erasure of the individual or bored listlessness. It's illusion to think that suffering creates meaning, in fact it may be a contradiction. Living in harmony doesn't imply living in unity. The individual can survive the cessation of suffering.

Bez

Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

There is a tension within Christianity about the pursuit of utopia. On one side, you have those whose view of human nature is so depraved that they view human attempts to improve the world as an affront against God. These folk typically think that, without a God, morality is impossible.

On the other side, you have believers so committed to change in the here and now that they become quite intolerant of any one who doesn't share their vision. For them, if you don't follow God their way, you're immoral. As one wag once put it, perfection is the enemy of excellence.

I personally think that human beings are imperfect, and not perfectible in this world, but that does not relieve us from the obligation to make the world a better place. My belief in God motivates me to do what I can to reduce pain and suffering, but I don't think you need to believe in God to want to do something about that. We are imbued by our nature with a restlessness and a longing for what we don't know, and that is enough to propel us toward an appreciation of our own limits, and to begin appreciate others for what they can be, rather than what end they might serve.

Stan said...

From the Humanist Manifesto III:

Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals.

Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness.

The manifesto dances around the meanings fo these two premises, which are toned down from the earlier Manifestos, and appear to say similar things in less straightforward language.

Humanism is the predominant utopian thrust today, and after the fall of communism / socialism in East Europe, and finding the furnaces of Western Europe it decided to change its language to a more palatable one. But the meaning remains: individual service to the whole is what is necessary. The original had the premise that allinstitutions must be taken over and changed into the ethical institutions approved by the humanists. In the IIIrd Manifesto, it says this, buried in text:

"...we support a just distribution of nature’s resources and the fruits of human effort so that as many as possible can enjoy a good life."

They, of course, will be the ones to decide how many fruits it is "just" for me to enjoy. The overt totalitarianism is now hidden. But it is still a totalitarianism of the elitists who think they know better than any one else what is good for every one. It is no mistake that materialism and evolution are explicitly spelled out as driving philosophies, even in III.

Pursuing the betterment of man through science is fine and is noble, up to the point that the social impact of ignoring such attacks is ignored. We are all citizens, even scientists, and there are more beneficial things than science that can be lost to humanity.

Anonymous said...

They, of course, will be the ones to decide how many fruits it is "just" for me to enjoy.


Stan, this just sounds like a sound bite off right-wing radio. Egalitarianism would, of course, be any component of a utopia, or even a utopia-wannabe. Who is this "they" that you impose on the situation.

Suffused throughout conservative criticism of humanism is the paranoia that the individual will be forced into the whole. No, one of the tenet of humanism is that nobody will be able to lord it over another person, and perhaps this is the objection. In America in particular there's the feeling that not only are there no free lunches, but we should not PAY for free lunches. But what happens when all the lunches are free because "lunch" is so abundant that it no longer has any barterable value?

[Bez]

Stan said...

I don't listen to right wing radio. But I do read history. You might want to read up on Auguste Comte; Miceli's "Gods of Atheism" would be a good start. Then take a look at Nietzsche and his influence on Mussolini and the fascisti, the Nazis, Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin.

Universal free lunch is pretty much communism, to my mind, so yes I am to the right of that. "To each according to his need" had over three generations to work its way toward altruism. Even ivory tower leftists don't espouse that any more.

History, if you accept that as evidence, is very much in the corner of human nature including greed and fear, lust and need for control.

Many of the richest just want more. It has always been that way, even in democratic Athens. And Darwinian/Nietzschean morality will propel the most aggressive toward getting it. The one with the most, during this life, wins. There is no afterlife to consider in this equation.

If you have evidence beyond this which convinces you of the perfectibility of man, please share it, I'd like to consider it.

Stan said...

Free lunch would mean the demolition of the free market which works on incentives that are voluntarily derived from the private sector (investments).

Destruction of the the free market would mean top down control of economic resources.

Control of the economic resources would make for a power struggle.

Siezure of that power would make for a dictatorship.

It is little details like this that make free lunch...NOT Free. It is a nice sentiment, but it is not realizable with the current revision of humans. Perhaps with universal mandatory lobotomies we could all be happy with what we are given.

Anonymous said...

Since we're talking utopia, and since I've already opined that it's probably not possible given our current knowledge of social structure, I assume we're talking future-tense here. That opens the discussion to imaginative futurology. I don't think it's outlandish to suppose that in the future labor will be done by (non-conscious) robots, that production will be aided by nanotechnology, administration automated with computers, etc. (Note "nonconscious" on robots, else we're back to slavery.)
You're fond of posing questions. I'll pose one for you: What will society look like when there is no need to work, no need to strive, and, to a large extent, no need to suffer. Do you think these things are required for a fulfilled life? IF commodity is as abundant as air, does "market" have any utility? These are all hypothetical questions, contingent on whether these things come to pass.

[Bez]