A St Louis weekend

I’m going to be taking off for the Gateway to Reason conference this weekend, and will be speaking on Sunday morning. The title of my talk is “Evolution and Cooperation: A Historical Perspective”, and I kind of suspect that the audience, what few of them show up, will be either a) mildly bored, because too many atheists are uninterested in history and philosophy of science, or b) mildly pissed off, because I’m going to show them that the history of evolutionary theory isn’t as clean and tidy as they imagine, because it got hijacked by conservatives from day one.

My ‘villain’ is Herbert Spencer, a complicated Victorian proto-Libertarian, and my ‘hero’ is Peter Kropotkin, an idealistic Russian anarchist. I’ll tell you the end: Spencer wins. The version of evolution the general public holds is a very Spencerian one, and that’s a real shame. It goes without saying that I’m going to draw some comparisons between the scientific ideology of the late 19th/early 20th century and the modern atheist movement.

There! Now if you’re at the conference you can just sleep in on Sunday, because you know what I’m going to say, more or less. Cooperating to reduce the strain on my colleagues and friends is very Kropotkinesque.


  1. barbaz says

    Sounds very interesting. For those who can’t be there, can you recommend good sources on that topic?

    BTW: In the last week, I was discussing three times (with different people) who claimed that we had, if we went back in time (500, 10k, or 70M years), an advantage over the local population because we have evolved resistance to the diseases of the past. I argued that this is totally not how our immune system works and that you would die pretty quickly from disease if you traveled through time. Can anybody comment on that?

  2. jblumenfeld says

    Dammit, PZ – you’ve gotta come to the NYC area one of these days.

    Will this talk be on youtube?

  3. mst3kfan77 says

    I really hope this talk gets uploaded, ’cause there’s just no way to get to St. Louis. I actually found out about Peter Kropotkin’s work through Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin. I’m VERY interested/fascinated by this topic: The evolutionary roots of cooperative behavior. As a socialist, I was always very interested in the biological roots of cooperation in social species, should be a fascinating lecture.

  4. Athywren - Frustration Familiarity Panda says

    Do any of these talks of yours end up online for the sake of international non-jet-setter and otherwise-unable-to-attend-style-people consumption? Because that sounds interesting. I know very little about Kropotkin, but I know the name and have a generally positive emotional response toward that name… possibly because of the Russian anarchist thing – I’ve been reading a lot about 19th & 20th century anarchists/anarchism and revolutionary shit carousels for a thing that I’m doing a thing with thingily, so he’s probably come up through that… *WIKIQUEST!!* …yes, that would appear to be the truth of it.
    Anyway, if this ends up being a thing that otherwise-unable-to-attend-style-people might be able to consume with our ears, that would be quite interesting, useful, and also nice.

  5. Sastra says

    My ‘villain’ is Herbert Spencer, a complicated Victorian proto-Libertarian …


    Thank you. Almost 20 years ago, when I first got involved with the whole atheism-on-the-internet thingie, one of my respected personal ‘mentors was a huge fan of Spencer’s philosophy, calling it brilliant, insightful and derived from an scientific atheist perspective. But the more I looked into it, the more it looked and sounded like a Romantic, teleological, and vaguely supernatural spin on naturalism. Complicated indeed. It explained everything. Or tried to.

    We got into several discussions on the topic, but since I wasn’t much inclined to ‘read the book’ (I’m no longer sure which one he meant, something big with a lot of explanations of history) — and reading Spencer seemed like a more than fair request if I was going to criticize him — the issue gradually dropped. But now and then his name comes up in my readings … and it’s usually associated with Something Bad.

    Good topic. Go get him.

  6. says

    They often end up online. I don’t know if this one will. I’ll also be giving this talk in September, in Winnipeg.

    Yeah, Spencer is weird and annoying and very Rand Paul-like. He starts off advocating equality for women in his younger days, on principles of personal liberty…and then years later campaigns ferociously against suffrage. He’s one of the most popular philosophers of his day, identifying as an agnostic and saying a lot of things that modern atheists would appreciate…but he advocated a semi-mystical version of evolution before Darwin published that was more a product of the Naturphilosophen. And then he reduced evolution excessively to this popular meme of “survival of the fittest”, which jettisoned all the richness of the theory, but has had enduring popularity.

    People thought Spencer’s philosophy was “brilliant, insightful” while he was alive, but after his death, it completely fizzled out. Nobody reads Spencer anymore, except maybe that one person you knew 20 years ago. Most people haven’t even heard of him. All they know are those four words.

  7. says

    Although I like a lot of what Kropotkin wrote (read Mutual Aid! It’s on Project Gutenberg!), he was also this incredibly starry-eyed mystic. He believed that the state would eventually wither away if only we gave human decency a chance, and actively opposed the state communism of the USSR — it was too authoritarian. Yet the USSR treated him as a hero despite his heresy, because he was so widely loved. It also helped that he was born to the aristocracy and rejected it completely.

    Interestingly, Spencer also thought the state would wither away, because humanity would evolve to fit perfectly into a stateless society, and because capitalism.

  8. says

    I’d like to listen to your talk because I don’t know a thing about Spencer / Kropotkin, and it sounds very interesting. I can’t make St. Louis, but I hope I get to hear or read you on this subject some time or other. I hope you have a great time.

  9. says


    And then he reduced evolution excessively to this popular meme of “survival of the fittest”, which jettisoned all the richness of the theory, but has had enduring popularity.

    Ohhhhhhh. Yep, I know those four words alright.

  10. birgerjohansson says

    I read Kropotkin’s books as a lad, and it was a fascinating life.
    Herbert Spencer was not big in Germany, they had their own German-language pseudo-philosophers that had much the same views (and inspired Hitler).
    Going off on a tangent:

    Scientists make enzyme that could help explain origins of life. http://phys.org/news/2014-10-scientists-enzyme-life

    And: more creation (from Newsbiscuit) “God impregnates fish” http://www.newsbiscuit.com/2015/06/02/god-impregnates-fish/

  11. magistramarla says

    Enjoy St. Louis. I grew up on the Illinois side of the river and I know St, Louis well.
    If you want a relaxing drive, go over to the Illinois side and drive up the river road past Alton.
    See the Piasa Bird and perhaps take a walk in Marquette State Park.

  12. screechymonkey says

    I only know of Herbert Spencer because of the reference to him in Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ famous dissent in Lochner v. New York.

    For non-law nerds: Lochner was a 1905 case where the U.S. Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional a New York statute that set a maximum number of hours that bakers could work. It set off a whole era in which the Supreme Court routinely struck down economic regulations, including some early parts of the New Deal, before the Court changed course for reasons that are the subject of much historical discussion.

    Anyway, Holmes’s point was that the law may or may not have been sound policy, but that was within the state legislature’s power to decide and did not present a constitutional question: “The Fourteenth Amendment does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics.”

  13. ruthstl says

    If you are driving east, stop in at Cahokia Mounds, the largest remaining earth mounds from the Mississippian culture.

  14. reddiaperbaby1942 says

    “too many atheists are uninterested in history and philosophy of science.”
    P.Z., this seems an odd and even counter-intuitive claim. First all, what logical connection can there be between one’s attitude toward religion (by the way, I prefer to speak of myself as a secularist, rather than an atheist) and one’s interest in the history of science? Although if there is one, I would think being non-religious would tend to predispose one toward an interest in it.
    In any case, I’ve been concerned with the history and sociology of science (and to some extent its philosophy) throughout my professional life (I’m now 73 and retired). My focus in both research and teaching, as a historical discourse linguist, has been on the discourse of the natural sciences, more specifically the life sciences and natural history, in the 17th and 18th century. As what is called “thick description”, this has necessarily involved a great deal of attention to the character of the scientific community in question.
    So unless you have empirical data to support your claim, I hope you’ll reconsider.

  15. redwood says

    That’s funny, I’m visiting the US now in California and was vaguely tempted to fly to St. Louis this weekend to see my hometown (southern MO) and then on Sunday to watch the Cardinals in the afternoon and Pentatonix in the evening. If I could see PZ in the morning, what a day that would be! Nah, too much hassle to go there this late, though I wish I had known about your talk earlier, PZ. It sounds really interesting.

  16. screechymonkey says


    I think that there’s certainly a positive correlation between being an atheist and having an interest in science, full stop. It’s the “history and philosophy of” part that I think PZ was remarking upon.

    PZ has far more experience with the atheist movement, and infinitely more experience with lecturing on science, than I do, but even I’ve noticed that there’s a non-trivial segment of atheists for whom “philosophy of science” is a non-subject, or a silly subject because there’s an obvious right answer. “I believe in what the evidence shows. When the evidence shows something else, I update my beliefs. So should everyone else. End of subject.” To them, history of science is also little more than a curiosity. “Sure, scientists used to believe X. Then we got better data, so we now believe Y. In the future, depending on how the evidence turns out, we might believe Z. I’m interested in Y, and also in anticipating Z, but why should I care about X? X was wrong and is obsolete.”

  17. Kengi says

    Here’s a handy tip if you go up in the arch.

    When I was young, we took a family trip which went through St. Louis. Up in the arch, the windows on one side look toward the river, and on the other side toward the city. The city-side windows were perpetually filled. My mother, who wanted a look out those windows, said in a moderately loud voice while looking out the river-side “Oh. Look at that shark!”

    We, suddenly, had plenty of city-side windows to look through.

  18. Broken Things says

    I agree that it seems counter-intuitive. I don’t know a lot of atheists, despite being one. But placing modern-day beliefs about scientific discoveries in their cultural, historical and philosophical context, as PZ’s talk points out, can help to explain why there is so much misinterpretation of science by the general public. Anyone interested in countering public misinformation should find it useful.

  19. Sastra says

    reddiaperbaby 1942 #14 wrote:

    So unless you have empirical data to support your claim, I hope you’ll reconsider.

    The empirical data on this one is no problem at all.

    I mean, look at the claim:

    “too many atheists are uninterested in history and philosophy of science.”

    He didn’t say “most.” He didn’t say “a lot.” He didn’t say “many.” He said “TOO many.”

    According to whom? According to PZ, obviously. The claim involves a personal assessment. So the parameters are flexible according to taste, not a fixed standard.

    So if you’re a big enough fan of history and philosophy of science, then 90% of all atheists could be passionately interested in history and the philosophy of science and gob dang it, that remaining 10% is just too darn many. PZ can “support his claim” by trotting out a single atheist, technically speaking. “Do you really want to give up on Bob?”

  20. consciousness razor says

    Although if there is one, I would think being non-religious would tend to predispose one toward an interest in it.

    Well, speaking for myself, I am interested in those things, whatever the direction the causal arrow goes. I mean, maybe I’m disposed to thinking historically or philosophically (or various other ways), and that’s part of why I’m an atheist.

    However, like screechymonkey said, I do see positivist and instrumentalist influences from a lot of present-day atheists, which amounts to disregarding a whole lot of the history and philosophy of science. If you take this sort of cheap view that all you need to do is “refute” religious believers, or casually dismiss things for apparently lacking evidential support, that’s easy to do. You can get away with a whole lot of sophistry that way and “win the debate,” without understanding much of anything.

    Which sort of leads to what Broken Things said: some atheists do peddle some misinformation and confusion about the sciences, in the service of their narrow goals of defending atheism or attacking religion, which is the sort of cultural context that they find themselves in. To be very charitable, they’re so focused on that (as nice as that goal is), they get a sort of tunnel vision and start making really terrible and ridiculous arguments (which maybe they don’t even mean, if they thought about it for a bit). Things aren’t so simple if you’re more realistic and careful about how and why science gets done, the limits of what it tells us about the world, what other important things people do besides doing science, and so forth.

    And some really will straight-out tell you that they’ve already decided somehow that “philosophy” (which they’re apparently equating to theology or mysticism or something) is a waste of time, and won’t recognize when they’re engaging in actual philosophy themselves. The only possibility left then is that they really are that clueless. To some extent, it’s understandable these have been poisoned for them a bit, which they associate with religious believers making certain kinds of philosophical claims (or using “old” claims or thought processes which supposedly shouldn’t be trusted). Also, it doesn’t always paint a perfect picture of science by any reasonable standard anyway, which of course makes people uncomfortable if they think they’re defending science itself instead of defending their specific claims about theology or religion. It’s a human endeavor that’s sometimes very ill-motivated, very confused, and very mistaken about the real world. That just comes with the territory, and it’s something we all have to deal with. But the instant response I usually hear is some platitude that (somehow) “science is self-correcting,” as if that means it’s already been corrected so that our current views aren’t susceptible to such criticism, or any corrections will only affect other stuff. That may be so sometimes, but it’s not nearly as simple as some people make it out to be.

  21. Lady Mondegreen says

    Frans de Waal has written engagingly on the evolution of cooperation. I recommend his book, Good Natured (IIRC, he even mentions Kropotkin.)

    I’m going to show them that the history of evolutionary theory isn’t as clean and tidy as they imagine, because it got hijacked by conservatives from day one.

    Indeed. I’ve read that the textbook Scopes would have used was steeped in racism.

  22. robro says

    The current issue of Scientific American has an article by Curtis W. Marean titled, “How Homo sapiens Became the Ultimate Invasive Species,” in which he proposes that the success of modern humans over archaic humans was the result of the evolved cooperative behavior, and the development of micro points.

  23. Forrest Phelps says

    See you Sunday morning. Looking forward to the talk. When I took the Political Spectrum quiz many years ago, I ended up very near to Kropotkin.

  24. says

    “Sure, scientists used to believe X. Then we got better data, so we now believe Y. In the future, depending on how the evidence turns out, we might believe Z. I’m interested in Y, and also in anticipating Z, but why should I care about X? X was wrong and is obsolete.”

    Which is a sad situation if the actual answer is Q, but the “logical one”, based on the history of how we got to the current theory is Y **because** we started out with X, and will end up being Z, because we still don’t get where we are going wrong in assuming Y, because no one remembers how X happened to be the prior hypothesis. This, sadly, happens a lot – call it scientific inertia. A natural, sadly, human trait for *every* subject, not just the sciences, and which only “self corrects”, when enough momentum shifts to the new ideas that the old ones finally become sufficiently unfit to be abandoned (though, not swiftly, or without, sometimes, several generations of hold outs, insisting they are still sound, and must be clung to). A mild form of this might be the decidedly male centric (despite existing evidence that should have refuted such things) views in archeology, anthropology, sociology, and even zoology. More severe forms.. can be hard to tell apart from intentional denial, and misinformation, in direct rejection of the evidence, for purely personal bias and, probably perceived profit.