Greg Laden has a big advantage over me


He was probably able to get home before midnight last night. You can now read his description of the social events around Dawkins’ visit, and a much more thorough account of the talk itself.

One other point that I should emphasize. This talk presented an overview of how we should look at the appearance of design in the universe, for a general public. While I heard some complaints that there was nothing new in it, that’s the way this had to be: it was a synthesis of a position.

Dawkins is often given a rap as one of those ultradarwinians who see every detail of life as the explicit product of carefully honed selection. For me, what was interesting in this talk was how clearly he repudiated that position. In several places, he contrasted what he called a “naive Darwinist” perspective with reality, and showed that the strawman didn’t hold up. A major point was also that features that may very well have evolved with a core that was selected for can have side-effects, and been subverted to non-adaptive purposes, and that these features may represent a significant element of the species’ character. He talked quite a bit about the flexibility of the human brain, a property that was the product of selection, yet that same flexibility means it can be reprogrammed into deleterious byways, such as religion or fanaticism or unthinking patriotism.

It was all stuff that I agreed with, and didn’t surprise me at all. Similarly, The God Delusion didn’t contain anything radical or new. The virtue of these kinds of talks and books is that they pull many commonly held ideas together into a coherent fusion that can be more readily absorbed by a larger number of people who haven’t yet taken in all of the underlying evidence.

Comments

  1. Siamang says

    “Dawkins is often given a rap as one of those ultradarwinians who see every detail of life as the explicit product of carefully honed selection. For me, what was interesting in this talk was how clearly he repudiated that position. ”

    And yet, he will still get that rap. Just as there are people who still say that “The Selfish Gene” was a book about how we’re genetically programmed to be me-first assholes, when in fact the book could have been easily entitled “The Genetic Basis for Altruism”.

    I like Dawkins’ phrasing of his rebuttal to those types. Something about them coming to their conclusions by reading the title and skipping the rather elaborate footnote of the book itself.

  2. says

    I have been a big Dawkins fan since reading the Selfish Gene in Zoology my freshman year of college, but during these “god delusion” years I think he adds fuel to an already explosive dialogue in the US. I admire his work and have the utmost respect for Darwin and the cascade of ideas that have emerged from his initial bravery, but I think it essential to keep a critical eye on him. Keeping a critical eye on people you admire most is essential in blazing your own path and avoiding the way of the sheep.
    http://www.tompainesghost.com/2009/03/founding-words.html

  3. RamblinDude says

    The virtue of these kinds of talks and books is that they pull many commonly held ideas together into a coherent fusion that can be more readily absorbed by a larger number of people who haven’t yet taken in all of the underlying evidence.

    Yes! And the more syntheses and fusions the better. Make it so that ordinary people (specifically Americans) can understand it. It has to be done.

  4. Valhar2000 says

    Dawkins is often given a rap as one of those ultradarwinians who see every detail of life as the explicit product of carefully honed selection.

    Larry Moran does this constantly and consistently. I still remember shaking my head one time when I read one such accusation in his blog, the morning after having read a chapter in “The Ancestor’s Tale” that made the opposite argument.

  5. says

    And as long as people continue to spout misinformation and such strawman attacks, we will continue to have the tireless job of correcting them. Somehow, it seems like inventing a new response each time they come up with the same old lies is somewhat ineffecient.

  6. Cary says

    I really liked Dawkins’ talk last night. I’ve always been sorta curious as to how humans’ seemingly non-Darwinian actions fit into the whole realm of natural selection.

    One thing that I think may be interesting to study is how humans pick their mates. What factors have changed how we select our mates? How do our standards of beauty and how those standards change relate to the passing on of our genetics?

  7. says

    I do wish he wouldn’t say that nature “appears designed.” The differences between designed things and living things, even in appearance, are very substantial, although there is some overlap. One has to assume that function equals purpose even to begin to think that things look designed, and that is not a legitimate assumption.

    Living things appear related, in fact, and this is what remains apparent throughout close scrutiny of life. Of course not only life, but all living parts, appear related, through ordinary mechanisms of inheritance (hint, miracles would not be expected to reproduce genetic processes). That is both the appearance and the reality.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/6mb592

  8. PGPWNIT says

    Saw a Mythbusters repeat last night where they had the Tennessee Fainting Goats. Now, let me ask you and your Darwin God ;)

    What evolutionary advantage is it to have your legs lock up when you’re startled.

    Seems that trait would have died out…unless it’s a man-made (bred) trait.

  9. Jay says

    PZ, I would like to see you, or a link to someone, that actually can vouch for the evolution of a social mind, in regards to your statement:

    “He talked quite a bit about the flexibility of the human brain, a property that was the product of selection, yet that same flexibility means it can be reprogrammed into deleterious byways, such as religion or fanaticism or unthinking patriotism.”

    Once you get away from looking at individuals as a product of evolution and look at the social/community aspect, differing viewpoints probably happen on a bell curve effect, with the radical edges bringing in new (and usually stupid) ideas and the rest of the social structure left to deal with those ideas.

  10. Africangenesis says

    Siamang,

    “Just as there are people who still say that “The Selfish Gene” was a book about how we’re genetically programmed to be me-first assholes, when in fact the book could have been easily entitled “The Genetic Basis for Altruism”.”

    That is an unfortunate reading of the title. It is important for people to be aware that these genes for “altruism” make us collective first fanatics, patriots and martyrs and “other” haters, demonizers and exterminaters.

    There is more to morality than just “altruism”, there is honesty, integrity (honor?), personal and familial responsibility, etc. valued across most human cultures.

  11. cedgray says

    Could you explain what you mean by ‘arrière pensĂ©e’ in this instance, Marshall? I don’t follow you…

  12. ennui says

    Do I detect a subtle hint of arriere-pensee?

    No, just more of Marshall’s derriere-parlee.

  13. chiggler says

    “Do I detect a subtle hint of arriere-pensee”. No, Marshall. Professor Dawkins had no mental reservations concerning a naive Darwinian position. He clearly repudiated it.

    Methinks Marshall batir des chateaux en Espagne.

  14. Africangenesis says

    Marshell Nelson#11,

    No, the core is essentially mathmatics, the mechanisms had to work mathmatically in the environments that modern humans evolved in, although it probably gets more complicated with rapid evolution occurring with the population explosion associated with agriculture.

  15. Africangenesis says

    myself#10,

    An important near universal aspect of morality not associated with the in-group “altruism” that I should have mentioned is female sexual purity and fidelity.

  16. says

    Indeed, my whole purpose in life, PZ, is to get home before you do so that I can beat you to the blogosphere. Sometimes it works, sometimes not…

    But seriously, you have nailed the essence: The virtue of these kinds of talks and books is that they pull many commonly held ideas together into a coherent fusion that can be more readily absorbed by a larger number of people .. in this case, over 4,000 of them.

  17. ctenotrish says

    Off topic:

    A while back, someone (I think it was here) referenced a primate population where an inversion (I think) or some other chromosome rearrangement was impacting reproductive success. I am having no luck tracking down the original lit. Does this ring a bell for anyone?? If so, can you please email me the reference info at my username at gmail? I’d appreciate it very much. Cheers, ctenotrish

    PS – I am painfully jealous of everyone who got to see Dawkins’ talk and hang out after. I hope I can make the next one!

  18. Siamang says

    “What evolutionary advantage is it to have your legs lock up when you’re startled.

    Seems that trait would have died out…unless it’s a man-made (bred) trait. ”

    So now I ask you a question…

    Are these wild goats?

    No.

    So how could it die out?

    Fainting wasn’t “bred for”. It was a random mutation. Natural selection probably would have ensured these mutants would have died out, but humans, being humans, probably liked goats that are easy to farm and catch, and kept breeding them.

  19. SteveN says

    There are, of course, a multitude of traits exhibited by domesticated animals and plants that would be fatal in the wild. If I recall correctly, bulldogs (bullbitches?) can no longer deliver pups naturally because of the size of the heads in comparison to the pelvis – they have to be delivered by caesarean section.

  20. Bruce Gee says

    “He talked quite a bit about the flexibility of the human brain, a property that was the product of selection, yet that same flexibility means it can be reprogrammed into deleterious byways, such as religion or fanaticism or unthinking patriotism.”

    I’d love to hear more about what he had to say on this subject. The passive voice “can be reprogrammed” entirely leaves out what he thinks is doing the reprogramming. Do we just reprogram ourselves somehow? Are we being reprogrammed by sinister cabals out to control the masses? Or what?

    I’m interested in memetics and just finished “The Meme Machine” by Susan Blackmore, both of which grew from an offhand comment Dawkins made in “The Selfish Gene.” What does he think about these theories derived from his work — namely, the idea that ideas or memes evolve as they are copied, with variation, from brain to brain, just as genes evolve, and that this memetic evolution now has far more influence on human history than biological evolution?

    Specifically, a memetic argument might be that religion or fanaticism or unthinking patriotism weren’t necessarily originally deleterious memes, or they wouldn’t have spread so widely. They probably gave cultures where they were widespread a competitive advantage against cultures that didn’t have them, which is why they are so common now. Of course, whether or not they still give cultures competitive advantages is more open to debate. Still, I’d be interested in what Dawkins and PZ have to say about this.

  21. Brian says

    At the moment there are one positive and seven negative reviews of the book. One states: “Ray apparently had everyone’s reviews of his book deleted, including mine. How dishonest can you be? I wrote this honest review in good faith after reading his book, and I will repost it again.”

    I loved this comment, from a review titled “I’m A Christian, And I Don’t Want Atheists To Read This Book”:

    I can only hope that few atheists will actually read this book, since Comfort seems to be trying to promote and encourage atheism by making Christians look like a bunch of arrogant imbeciles. I sometimes wonder whether Comfort is not in fact an atheist doing this intentionally to make Christianity look bad…

    Priceless!

  22. uppity cracka says

    You want to know how I know that evolution is “just a theory”? Because none of you nazi heathens can answer me this question: why do men have nipples? bam! god wins again.

  23. KA101 says

    Men have nipples because men are modified women, and though we don’t have the hardware to produce milk (to dispense via said nipples) there’s no real advantage to not having nipples. Conversely, there’s no real “cost” attached to having nipples. Thus we still have nipples because mutant non-nippled men have never really been better able to breed than regular ol’ nippled men.

    Then there’s the Aka tribe, where men use their nipples as pacifiers. Seems to work well enough; were it not for US cultural norms I’d suggest we adopt the practice here.

    (Oh–and I realize that my first paragraph contradicts Genesis. That’s because Genesis is highly inaccurate at best. More likely, it’s a crock.)

  24. eddie says

    This one’s obviously a poe. Even ray conmfort’s not that stupid.

    …Actually I think it may be rc himself.

  25. says

    Men have nipples because men are modified women… there’s no real advantage to not having nipples.

    Tell that to any male who’s gone boogie-boarding in the surf for more than an hour.

    Ouch.

    :)

  26. eddie says

    Re lockedGoats;

    There are many small prey animals that survive on their ability to be very still rather than by running away fast.

    Goats in the wild are selected for their running away ability but the staying still genes are not selected against in captivity.

  27. Bruce Gee says

    Uppity,

    If men have nipples because of the events described in Genesis, then why do male gorillas and chimps have nipples? Next garden over, or what? (bam)

  28. David Marjanović, OM says

    Male mice really do not have nipples.

    On the other hand, it occasionally happens that male mammals can give milk. A few human cases appear to be documented, and there’s a bat species where all males do that.

  29. says

    chiggler wrote

    Dawkins had no mental reservations concerning a naive Darwinian position. He clearly repudiated it.

    Actually no he hasn’t. What he has done is damn non-adaptive evolution with faint praise.

    Look at PZ words again,

    features that may very well have evolved with a core that was selected for can have side-effects, and been subverted to non-adaptive purposes, and that these features may represent a significant element of the species’ character. He talked quite a bit about the flexibility of the human brain, a property that was the product of selection, yet that same flexibility means it can be reprogrammed into deleterious byways. . .

    The core evolution is seletive, randon, non-selective evolution is a side effect. In other words, non-adaptive evolution is a side show, “nothing to see here folks move along to selection.”

    When Dawkins admits random, non-selected evolution is a major mechanism, rather than a side show, then he would have repudiated the naive dawinian position.

    Remember it was Dawkins that said “If evolution worked by chance, it obviously couldn’t work at all.” Now that is a naive darwinian position.

  30. Diane G. says

    Posted by: Jay | March 5, 2009 11:32 AM
    PZ, I would like to see you, or a link to someone, that actually can vouch for the evolution of a social mind, in regards to your statement:
    “He talked quite a bit about the flexibility of the human brain, a property that was the product of selection, yet that same flexibility means it can be reprogrammed into deleterious byways, such as religion or fanaticism or unthinking patriotism.”

    Dawkins listed a number of “archi-purposes,” traits we evolved with because they enhance survival…one of them being “filial loyalty”, as that (of course) promotes the persistence of a good number of your & your relatives’ common genes. It seemed to me that this was the main trait that he felt has often been subverted into religion, patriotism, etc. Doesn’t seem to require a social mind hypothesis, merely the propensity of our “on-board computer” (Dawkins’s term), flexible as it is, to subvert a traditionally adaptive behavior to similar seeming loyalties…

    Posted by: Glen Davidson | March 5, 2009 11:26 AM
    I do wish he wouldn’t say that nature “appears designed.” The differences between designed things and living things, even in appearance, are very substantial, although there is some overlap. One has to assume that function equals purpose even to begin to think that things look designed, and that is not a legitimate assumption.

    Along somewhat similar lines,I felt it was something of a calculated gamble to use the word “purpose,” given that evolutionarily it seems one tends to stress the opposite, that there’s no “purpose” in selection, just variable survival of existing variation…Of course I recognize the sense in which Dawkins was using it, but wonder if this might not become another semantic mine-field, easily misused by the creobots–along the lines of the scientific vs. popular use of “theory,” etc. I can just imagine this permission to use the word purpose turning into phraseology along the lines of “nature designed [X] in order to[Y],” etc.–bringing up the dread D word…

    (Not that scientists don’t speak like that all the time; but usually only when they think their listeners are astute enough to know that it’s just shorthand!)

    But if anyone can get away with it, Dawkins can, I suppose. “Purpose” is a much easier term for most people to understand than some of the phrases scientists devise to avoid it!

  31. Ray Mills says

    how long before we see this bit quotemined.
    The God Delusion didn’t contain anything radical or new
    Luskum et al are probably working it into a press release as we type.

  32. Africangenesis says

    Diane G,

    I wonder if given enough time in its new mass society environment, the filial loyalty gene complex could evolve protections against its subversion. But then many societies seem to agressively weed out those who don’t display proper collective loyalty, e.g., the PRC, the Soviet Union, N. Korea, Islam, etc. Artificial selection may have already begun on the human species.

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