Weak tea in defense of Mary Midgley

Nick Matzke has taken exception to my criticism of Mary Midgley, and has posted a rebuttal. Well, maybe. Probably not.

Eh, I’ve read most of Midgley’s books and articles, I don’t think you [The Unpublishable Philosopher] or PZ getting her at all.

The short version of what she’s saying is that there is a lot more to life than simply scientifically assessing everything as if it was a hypothesis. The primary reason many people like their religion, despite its obvious problems from a scientific point of view, have to do with things like:

  • providing a sense of community

  • instilling values in children and in themselves

    (And whatever ranting and raving the New Atheists do about the evils in the Bible and the evils promoted by parts of modern religion, an actual fair, non-raving assessment simply has to acknowledge that a large part of religion throughout history, and especially in liberal democracies in the 20th century, has been about providing often-correct moral guidance to the parishioners. For every instance of child abuse or witch burning in history there are probably millions of instances of individuals finding good moral guidance in their religion. Of course there are a good number of cases of people finding poor moral guidance as well, but then you can say this about democracy, scientific leaders, atheist leaders, etc. as well. Religion works for many people much of the time.)

  • providing a hopeful view of their place in the grand scheme of things (the typical atheist alternative is pretty dour and depressing)

  • providing an organizational framework for social action, charity, and/or political action

In these and many other ways, there isn’t much that the atheists offer at the moment that can compare to what belonging to a church offers people. Some people feel fine without it, that’s great, but I wonder if it will ever become a common thing outside of certain professions like academia.

And pretending like these factors don’t exist and don’t matter and that it’s all just a simple matter of scientifically assessing religion based on the worst claims of its craziest proponents, or on the unsupported nature of some very fuzzy theological claims of moderates – which is basically what the atheist campaigners do – is a pretty silly thing to do. This is what Midgley is trying to point out.

The Unpublishable Philosopher and I were not providing a critique of the entirety of Midgley’s writings, but only of a specific article. It’s all well and good to claim that she’s written many smart and sensible things elsewhere, but what would convince me of that is if, say, someone actually cited something insightful from her. There seems to be an Ideal Mary Midgley floating somewhere in the æther that some of her privileged priesthood can reference, but which is inaccessible to the New Atheist rabble, who only get to see the Prosaic Mary Midgley, who is something of a twit.

True confession: Nick could be correct, because I have not read any of Midgley’s books. I’ve read many of her short articles, however, and from those I think it eminently reasonable to conclude that her longer works will be much more of the same, and not worth wasting time upon. I have also encountered many people who differ, though, and say that her books are excellent and interesting…curiously, none of them ever goes on to say why. It’s a very weird phenomenon.

Take a look at that list of thinks Nick says religion provides. How many of those require that we believe in space zombies, magic, or ghosts? Not one. Not one. Those are all social goods, and believe it or not, atheists recognize the reality of society and culture and community. In fact, you could even argue that one of the qualities of the New Atheism is that it provides greater emphasis on exactly the bullet points Nick has made. We’ve been working hard to reduce the stereotype of the atheist as the oddball loner who doesn’t get along well with others.

For an unintentionally amusing counterpoint, though, read this article by John Wilkins, about an atheist who was so annoyed by a Dawkins talk that he decided to call himself an agnostic. What did he discover when Richard Dawkins spoke that was so awful? Why, that these New Atheists were providing a sense of community, instilling values, and talking about beauty and truth in the natural world. He doesn’t cite the idea of providing a framework for social action, charity, and politics, but the Richard Dawkins Foundation is doing that, too. Damned if we do, damned if we don’t.

I’ll also disagree that religion has been about providing moral guidance. It certainly has not. Religion has been about the enforcement of social conformity, which is then conflated with morality. A framework for belief that actually gave instruction in morality would be reducible to a few simple non-supernatural principles — the familiar “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and I’d add “think for yourself” — which would be consistently practiced. Most religions seem to about providing theological loopholes to get around those pesky moral principles, or in some cases, even endorsing morally pernicious practices (for example, the Bible clearly endorses slavery and misogyny — this is one case where religion’s propensity for looking for loopholes actually worked to people’s benefit).

If religion actually were the source of moral thinking, then religions would always be at the forefront of virtuous social change, and we’d actually see some consistency. Look at the civil rights movement, the women’s liberation movement, and gay rights. You can find some people of faith working for the cause of justice, and unfortunately, too often using it as an advertisement for the value of religion — the civil rights movement, for instance, has been retroactively annointed as the workings of liberal religion, when the religious establishment was diligently opposing it at the time. But most often, the majority of religious leaders are out to kill any advances in equality under the banner of ‘morality’.

I do agree that religion works for many people much of the time. It is not because religion is any good, though — it’s because I optimistically believe that most people are good, and you can give them a book full of self-contradictory gibberish and they’d generally work out some way to get along with each other out of it. It’s just too bad that that book of Abrahamic gibberish is most easily interpreted to mean that our strategy for getting along is tribalism and hierarchies of control.

We might as well claim that smallpox is good, because most people survived it, and because it gave them greater immunity to the disease afterwards. Religion is like cultural smallpox — something that most people muddle through, doing as best they can, while a minority have their lives ruined. And of course, as many atheists will tell you, the surest way to become immune to religion is to actually think about what it is saying.

I’m a starry-eyed techno-utopian, and proud of it

Freeman Dyson (with whom I have many disagreements, so don’t take this as an unqualified endorsement), wrote an interesting article that predicted, in part, a coming new age of biology. I think he’s entirely right in that, and that we can expect amazing information and changes in this next century.

If the dominant science in the new Age of Wonder is biology, then the dominant art form should be the design of genomes to create new varieties of animals and plants. This art form, using the new biotechnology creatively to enhance the ancient skills of plant and animal breeders, is still struggling to be born. It must struggle against cultural barriers as well as technical difficulties, against the myth of Frankenstein as well as the reality of genetic defects and deformities.

Apparently, this freaks some people out. The so-called Crunchy Con, a knee-jerk Catholic nicely described as a “weird, humorless, smart, spooky, self-rightous, puritan wingnut”, is one of the people who takes particular exception to this optimistic view of the future. Rod Dreher wrote an egregiously ignorant whine about the possibilities, which I will proceed to puke upon.

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Mike Huckabee killed Maurice Clemmons

Clemmons was the Jesus-loving lunatic who murdered four police officers in Tacoma, and was shot and killed by the police. He was also the recipient of a pardon from Mike Huckabee, governor of Arkansas, egotistical god-walloping incompetent.

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m all for mercy, I reject the abuse of our penal system as a vehicle for vengeance, and I oppose the death penalty without reservation. A governor’s clemency can be a good thing, as when it should be used to correct miscarriages of justice (isn’t it odd, though, how the most Christian of governors avoid using it for that purpose?). But there are also cases where justice and mercy are best served by incarceration or mental care, not by turning killers and dangerous psychos loose on the streets.

Clemmons was a monster. He murdered people and he raped children. He was insane. He believed he was Jesus Christ. Yet Mike Huckabee pardoned him. Why? Because Huckabee did not care about the evidence. What he thought was sufficient was a profession of piety and the testimonials of religious men. Clemmons played him.

No doubt word spread among the prison population that the affable governor was vulnerable to appeals from convicts who claimed to be born again. Clemmons too was among those who benefited from Huckabee’s tendency to believe such pious testimonials. “I come from a very good Christian family and I was raised much better than my actions speak,” he explained in his clemency application in 2000. “I’m still ashamed to this day for the shame my stupid involvement in these crimes brought upon my family’s name … I have never done anything good for God, but I’ve prayed for him to grant me in his compassion the grace to make a start. Now, I’m humbly appealing to you for a brand new start.”

Mercy is not a wicked thing, and there are good people in prison who could turn their lives around if given an opportunity. There are also evil, damaged people in prison who would use freedom as an opportunity to do harm. What is necessary is the rational analysis of evidence to determine who deserves freedom in those cases, and Huckabee does not and cannot do that; his religiosity short-circuits his capacity for critical evaluation, and his ego makes the pardon a tool for feeding his own delusions of christ-hood. Tristero has an excellent summary.

First of all, it is Huckabee’s delusion that he is Jesus Christ, not genuine compassion, that spins the Clemmons case as a miscarriage of justice against a hapless juvenile. It is clear from the record that Clemmons was then, and continued to be, an extremely troubled person with a propensity for extreme violence. Huckabee ignored this, focusing – Christ-like – on an opportunity to show mercy towards a young sinner who showed what Huckabee misapprehended as signs of redemption. The issue is Huckabee’s lack of judgment.

If you argue that it is unfair to sentence a juvenile to life in prison for an armed robbery committed when he was 16, I won’t disagree with you. But that is not the issue here. The issue is Huckabee’s spectacularly bad judgment and his failure to take responsibilty for his behavior. The justice system, for all its incredible faults, has numerous mechanisms, including but not limited to commuting a sentence, for dealing with mitigating circumstances, like the age of an offender, signs of redemption, and an unfairly long sentence. Flawed they surely are, imperfect and inadequate no doubt, but they exist. Huckabee, imitating Christ, chose to deal with the Clemmons case in a very particular way, showing not mercy, but simply awful judgment that set into motion further tragedy.

The incredibly cruel, incredibly unjust way that juvenile offenders are treated in the United States has nothing to do with the fact that Huckabee behaved the way he did. It simply gave him an excuse to exercise his egomania, his delusions of grandeur, and his incompetence. As a result, innocent people died.

Huckabee wants to be our president. I wouldn’t trust him to be my dishwasher.

The Genius of Darwin

Whoa, Charlie Booker’s review of a new documentary on Darwin really makes me want to see it.

Darwin’s theory of evolution was simple, beautiful, majestic and awe-inspiring. But because it contradicts the allegorical babblings of a bunch of made-up old books, it’s been under attack since day one. That’s just tough luck for Darwin. If the Bible had contained a passage that claimed gravity is caused by God pulling objects toward the ground with magic invisible threads, we’d still be debating Newton with idiots too.

I think this might be the documentary he’s talking about, which has already made its way to youtube. Perhaps just as well, since I can’t imagine any television stations in the US clamoring to get it (and that is not a comment on its quality, but entirely about the absurd anti-intellectual propensity of too many Americans).

(Never mind, it seems this is a different documentary on Darwin. Still worth watching, though.)

Altenberg meeting next week: expect evolution to simply evolve slightly

Remember Suzan Mazur, the credulous reporter hyping a revolution in evolution? She’s at it again, publishing an e-book chapter by chapter on the “Altenberg 16”, this meeting that she thinks is all about radically revising evolutionary biology.

I can tell that Massimo Pigliucci — one of the 16 — is feeling a little exasperation at this nonsense, especially since some of the IDists have seized on it as vindication of their delusions about the “weakness” of evolutionary theory. He’s got an excellent post summarizing some of the motivation behind this meeting, which is actually part of a fairly routine process of occasional get-togethers by scientists with similar ideas to hash out the concepts. Here’s the actual subject of discussion at the Altenberg meeting.

The basic idea is that there have been some interesting empirical discoveries, as well as the articulation of some new concepts, subsequently to the Modern Synthesis, that one needs to explicitly integrate with the standard ideas about natural selection, common descent, population genetics and statistical genetics (nowadays known as evolutionary quantitative genetics). Some of these empirical discoveries include (but are not limited to) the existence of molecular buffering systems (like the so-called “heat shock response”) that may act as “capacitors” (i.e., facilitators) of bursts of phenotypic evolution, and the increasing evidence of the role of epigenetic (i.e., non-genetic) inheritance systems (this has nothing to do with Lamarckism, by the way). Some of the new concepts that have arisen since the MS include (but again are not limited to) the idea of “evolvability” (that different lineages have different propensities to evolve novel structures or functions), complexity theory (which opens the possibility of natural sources of organic complexity other than natural selection), and “accommodation” (a developmental process that may facilitate the coordinated appearance of complex traits in short evolutionary periods).

Now, did you see anything in the above that suggests that evolution is “a theory in crisis”? Did I say anything about intelligent designers, or the rejection of Darwinism, or any of the other nonsense that has filled the various uninformed and sometimes downright ridiculous commentaries that have appeared on the web about the Altenberg meeting? Didn’t think so. If next week’s workshop succeeds, what we will achieve is taking one more step in an ongoing discussion among scientists about how our theories account for biological phenomena, and how the discovery of new phenomena is to be matched by the elaboration of new theoretical constructs. This is how science works, folks, not a sign of “crisis.”

You cannot imagine how pleased I was to see this — not because I was at all concerned about this meeting, but because I’ve been scribbling down notes for the last few weeks on the subjects I want to discuss in my keynote at GECCO 2008, and that’s practically an outline of my plans. I was going to go over some of these concepts and define them and give examples; I didn’t have molecular buffers on my list (maybe I’ll have to add it), and I was going to say a bit about conservation/canalization vs. plasticity, but at least I’m reassured that I’m on the right track.

Hubris, gall, arrogance…inanity

Would you believe that Andy Schlafly, head kook at Conservapædia, wrote a letter to Richard Lenski, demanding release of his data to Schlafly and his crack team of home-schooled children? Schlafly is a creationist and ideologue of the worst sort; he has no qualifications in biology, and only wants the data because he doesn’t believe it, and would no doubt then use his vast powers of incomprehension to garble it.

That isn’t noteworthy, though. We expect creationists to act like indignant idiots when the facts are shown to them. What’s really cool is that Lenski wrote back.

Dear Mr. Schlafly:

I suggest you might want to read our paper itself, which is available for download at most university libraries and is also posted as publication #180 on my website. Here’s a brief summary that addresses your three points.

1) “… your claims, that E. Coli bacteria had an evolutionary beneficial mutation in your study.” We (my group and scientific collaborators) have already published several papers that document beneficial mutations in our long-term experiment. These papers provide exact details on the identity of the mutations, as well as genetic constructions where we have produced genotypes that differ by single mutations, then compete them, demonstrating that the mutations confer an advantage under the environmental conditions of the experiment. See papers # 122, 140, 155, 166, and 178 referenced on my website. In the latest paper, you will see that we make no claim to having identified the genetic basis of the mutations observed in this study. However, we have found a number of mutant clones that have heritable differences in behavior (growth on citrate), and which confer a clear advantage in the environment where they evolved, which contains citrate. Our future work will seek to identify the responsible mutations.

2. “Specifically, we wonder about the data supporting your claim that one of your colonies of E. Coli developed the ability to absorb citrate, something not found in wild E. Coli, at around 31,500 generations.” You will find all the relevant methods and data supporting this claim in our paper. We also establish in our paper, through various phenotypic and genetic markers, that the Cit+ mutant was indeed a descendant of the original strain used in our experiments.

3. “In addition, there is skepticism that 3 new and useful proteins appeared in the colony around generation 20,000.” We make no such claim anywhere in our paper, nor do I think it is correct. Proteins do not “appear out of the blue”, in any case. We do show that what we call a “potentiated” genotype had evolved by generation 20,000 that had a greater propensity to produce Cit+ mutants. We also show that the dynamics of appearance of Cit+ mutants in the potentiated genotypes are highly suggestive of the requirement for two additional mutations to yield the resulting Cit+ trait. Moreover, we found that Cit+ mutants, when they first appeared, were often rather weak at using citrate. At least the main Cit+ line that we studied underwent an additional mutation (or mutations) that refined that ability and led to a large improvement in growth on citrate. All these issues and the supporting methods and data are covered in our paper.


Richard Lenski

Wow. That was far more polite than they deserve, but good for Dr Lenski. Unfortunately, Schlafly will now use the reply as an opportunity to smugly regard himself as a serious player, and he will also ignore the substance to continue to deny that evolution occurred. But maybe, just maybe, someone in the collection of deprived children subjected to Schlafly’s tutelage will notice that real scientists can give substantial replies to his usual ignorant nonsense.


OK, I say uncle. Everyone’s been sending me the story of the hexapus, the six-armed octopus found in England. Sure, he’s cute…


…but I’m afraid it’s not that big a deal. It’s an ordinary sort of error — we know that cephalopod limbs develop from primordia that exhibit a pattern of fusion as it is, so an epigenetic error that causes either an excess of fusions or failure of arm buds to form isn’t a particularly dramatic event. Now, if they breed this octopus and find a heritable propensity for limb development failur, then I’ll be much more interested, since that means we’d be able to look at the mechanisms.

Now I have to get back to grading genetics exams…

Can we at least demand “Secular Communion”?

Here’s another provocative article from the New Humanist titled “Holy Communion”, a critique of two of the “New Atheists”. It has an incredibly offensive illustration to go with it, but the article isn’t quite that bad. It’s not that good, either.

First, I have to confess: I’m not a humanist. I’m just not that keen on defining myself by my species, and I’m not going to join a group that willfully excludes squid. Still, I sympathize with the aims of secular humanism and I’m willing to work alongside them, just as I’m willing to work with reasonable Christians and Muslims — I’m just not ever going to be one of them, and I’m not going to hold fire and abstain from criticizing them.

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Why people believe in bad ideas

There is a must-read article at Edge by Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg—it’s an attempt to explain why people resist scientific knowledge that takes a psychological view of the phenomenon. The premise is that our brains have in-built simplifications and assumptions about how the world works that often conflict with how it really works—there is, for instance, an intuitive physics and a real physics that are not entirely in agreement, and that we bring our understanding into alignment with reality through education and experience. The naive assumptions of the young brain contribute to ideas like dualism and creationism. For example:

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The Creation Museum


This week, the creationist Ken Ham and his organization, Answers in Genesis, are practicing the Big Lie. They have spent tens of millions of dollars to create a glossy simulacrum of a museum, a slick imitation of a scientific enterprise veneered over long disproved religious fables, and they are gathering crowds and world-wide attention to the grand opening of their edifice of deceit. You can now take a photographic tour of the exhibits and see for yourself—it’s not science at all, but merely a series of Bible stories dolled up in dioramas.

The blogosphere is also giving them some attention — almost none of it favorable. What I’ve done here is collect recent reactions from all over to the Creation Museum, and compile them down into a link and a short and (I hope) representative extract. Browse through this long, long list, and when you find some quote that tickles your interest, follow the link to find the complete article. The National Center for Science Education has also compiled reactions from journalists, educators, scientists, and scientific organizations for yet more reading on the subject.

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