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South Park trashes Dawkins!
Posted: 20 November 2006 09:58 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 31 ]
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[quote author=“George Benedik”]You’ve said before you never actually read The God Delusion and still you seemed competent enough to criticize it. And now also The Selfish Gene? Maybe this upcoming Friday when you visit your bookstore, you might actually want to buy some of Dawkins’s books instead of just scanning through them.

Yes, and I would suggest actually reading some Pinker and Dennett too.

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Posted: 20 November 2006 11:53 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 32 ]
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Selfish Genes….

Doug: The notion of the selfish gene is not bad science. The Eldredge quote you provide simply shows he misunderstood Dawkins’s position. Very few practicing biologists or philosophers of biology are quite as na憊e as Eldredge was in this quote, assuming that you have not taken it entirely out of context.

Sure, Doug.  Eldredge, Gould, Margulis, Pigliucci, DS Wilson, Mayr, etc, etc, etc are all naive and wrong.. but Dawkins, Pinker and Trivers (a real nut) are right.  Heck, even EO Wilson is now a strong componant of group selection over selfish gene theory!  DS Wilson makes it clear on a soon-to-be aired edition of ‘Equal Time for Freethought’ (to air on 12/3 and 12/10) just how vacuous “Dawkin’s theory” (actually stolen from Trivers, from what I’ve heard) is.

Doug: Evolutionary psychology is another field in which Dawkins, along with people like Carl Sagan, E.O. Wilson, Dan Dennett, Robert Trivers, Leda Cosmides, John Tooby and Steven Pinker have made strides against politicically motivated anti-science foes in the academy.

First of all, I would hardly put Sagan with that bunch (I do not know Cosmides or Tooby).  Also, it seems to me that MORE THAN ANY of the work within Darwinist circles, EP is the MOST politically motivated!

(Quoting John Lennon, ‘Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can. No need for greed or hunger, a brotherhood of man’) - “Incredible as it may seem, many of us used to believe this treacle ” If people are innately saddled with certain sins and flaws, like selfishness, prejudice, sort-sightedness, and self-deception, then political reform would seem to be a waste of time.”, Stephen Pinker

If this isn’t a Hobbesian, anti-progressive (not to mention, rude), clearly conservative or r-Libertarian politically-minded comment, than I do not want to see what is!

Doug: That EP is in a nascent stage, a sort of proto-science, nobody doubts. Many of the claims it makes are tentative. But that it is the proper way to look at the human mind and brain is simply not up for serious doubt. We are animals, and our minds are just as shaped by our evolutionary past as are the minds of our animal cousins.

I agree that humans are animals.. this is not what is being debated. These folks you admire do not seem to have convinced many other scientists on how the mind works.  Many more than Pinker seem to have done better from Edelman and the Churchlands to Honderich, Wegner, Crick, Chalmers, Flanigan and Ramachandran. 

Have you read the Jerry A. Fodor’s “The Mind Doesn’t Work That Way: The Scope and Limits of Computational Psychology”? 

No?  You should!

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Posted: 20 November 2006 12:16 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 33 ]
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Reading Dawkins, Pinker and Dennett

George Benedik wrote:
You’ve said before you never actually read The God Delusion and still you seemed competent enough to criticize it. And now also The Selfish Gene? Maybe this upcoming Friday when you visit your bookstore, you might actually want to buy some of Dawkins’s books instead of just scanning through them.

Doug: Yes, and I would suggest actually reading some Pinker and Dennett too.


George and Doug:  I read some time ago, and have referenced recently* “Selfish Gene.”  I also read reviews of the book, both good and bad, and I have spoken with (on the radio show or via email) many folks about selfish gene theory from Margulis and Pigluicci to DS Wilson. 

I have also read the book Eldredge’s quote came from, and I have read DS Wilson’s.  I have also read Pinker’s ‘Blank Slate’ (unfortunately) and parts of ‘How the Mind Works.’  We all know humans were not blank slates long before Pinker wrote his book! 

I have read Dawkin’s ‘Blind Watchmaker’ and much of ‘Unweaving the Rainbow,’ and liked them both.  He is indeed fun to read. 

I have attempted to read Dennett’s ‘Darwin’s Dangerous Idea’ and ‘Consciousness Explained’.. but after I got past all the fancy lingo and metaphors, I left both books aside wondering if Dennett actually said anything worth more than one essay in either of those books.  Since then, I have spoken with others who have read those books, and found I was not alone. As for Free Will, he is the most ambigious I have ever read on the subject!  At least one can actually know where Carrier, Searle, Blackmore and Honderich stand on the issue.

On the Mind/Brain, I’ve read Honderich, Blackmore, Edelman, Searle, Blackmore’s interviews with many in her book “Conversations on Counsciousness,” and many essays including those by neuroscientists like on Mirror Neurons and the like. 

I have had on my radio program Dawkins (2x), and Lyn Margulis (2x), Dennett (on Free Will), DS Wilson, Erst Mayr, Massimo Piluicci, Blackmore, Honderich (once on Free Will, once on politics), and other biologists+ (such as Les Garwood, James Prescott, Alfie Kohn and Joseph Graves).

PS:  I read enough of the God Delusion to know what the book is all about.

Have you two read the folks I have?

* “Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature.  Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish ” Therefore we must expect that when we go and look at the behavior of baboons, humans, and all other living creatures, we shall find it to be selfish. If we find that our expectation is wrong, if we observe that human behavior is truly altruistic, then we shall be faced with something puzzling, something that needs explaining.” - Richard Dawkins (Selfish Gene; 1976)

Wonderful…

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Posted: 20 November 2006 01:21 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 34 ]
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No, I haven’t read most of those books. :oops:  But I’ve read most of your posts, Barry, and I understand I am in no position to argue with you.

Nevertheless:

Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish ” Therefore we must expect that when we go and look at the behavior of baboons, humans, and all other living creatures, we shall find it to be selfish. If we find that our expectation is wrong, if we observe that human behavior is truly altruistic, then we shall be faced with something puzzling, something that needs explaining.” - Richard Dawkins (Selfish Gene; 1976)

So what? Baboons (and genes) behave selfishly because they don’t know any better. Our brains have evolved to understand that altruism might be the way to go; and we need Pinker, Hauser and others to tell us how this happened. Why is this a “bad science?”

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Posted: 20 November 2006 03:39 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 35 ]
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Selfish Genes… Selfish people

So what? Baboons (and genes) behave selfishly because they don’t know any better. Our brains have evolved to understand that altruism might be the way to go; and we need Pinker, Hauser and others to tell us how this happened. Why is this a “bad science?”

I’d have to get into the details of what Eldredge, Margulis and others say when talking about this…  but I don’t have time.  Actually, Margulis and Mayr talked a bit about it on my radio show.

112) 12/23/04: Lynn Margulis and Call-Ins
95) 07/25/04: Ernst Mayr - Evolutionary Biology
94) 07/18/04: Lynn Margulis, Evolutionary Biology

Also, listen on http://www.wbai.org on 12/3 and 12/10 when DS Wilson and Elliott Sober say a few things about this too.

I mainly use that Dawkins quote to show its’ political implications as much about its neo-Darwinism.  Humans are NOT primarily selfish.

Barry

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Posted: 20 November 2006 04:50 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 36 ]
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Re: Selfish Genes… Selfish people

I mainly use that Dawkins quote to show its’ political implications

And my grandma uses Dawkins’s quotes as a recipe to bake brownies and Hitler used Nietzsche and Wagner as an excuse to kill millions of people! You see politics, I see science.

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Posted: 21 November 2006 01:24 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 37 ]
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Re: Selfish Genes….

I am quite familiar with writers like Fodor, Gould, Wilson, Mayr, Sober, et al.; all of them argue with aspects of the selfish gene theory, just as Dawkins, Dennett and others argue with Gould and Eldredge’s theory of punctuated equilibrium. This does not show that the theory that the gene is the unit of selection is entirely wrong, just that it has certain issues that need clarification, refinement and elaboration. And that’s exactly what we should expect.

This is how science is done, Barry.

Further, all these scientists you quote (and others besides) may disagree with elements of Dawkins’s theory, but they hold him and his theories in quite high esteem. And it is in this regard that you have misrepresented the debate. Most believe that the selfish gene (that the gene is the unit of selection) is largely correct, but wish to modify the theory or add onto it issues of group selection. Indeed, even Dawkins himself has said that group selection is a possibility under certain circumstances.

(And BTW, I have no idea why you or anyone outside of evolutionary biology should get so exercised about group selection or the units of selection problem. Nevertheless to people within the field, it is universally agreed that publication of Dawkins’s Selfish Gene was a watershed event: it is a theory still debated to this day. And this is so even though Dawkins himself expressly says that the view came originally from eminent biologists like William Hamilton and George Williams ).

OTOH, people who, as you originally claimed, do “bad science” are simply ignored.

Further, the argument between evolutionists and computationalists in psychology is a tempest in a teapot. One is arguing about how the brain modules evolved and the other is arguing about how they are organized. These are two different and entirely compatible theories, Fodor notwithstanding. (Fodor’s real argument has nothing to do with the science and everything to do with his philosophical views on issues like reference ... which are both incorrect and scientifically irrelevant).

I find your continual reference to politics when discussing these scientific theories, including misconstrued or out-of-date quotes taken entirely out of context, to be telling. To anyone doing true science, the political implications are simply irrelevant. The chips of truth need to fall where they may. Political propagandists, OTOH, begin with the political beliefs they hold as faith, and either agree with or dismiss scientific theories depending on their perceived political consequences. This is precisely how you have been arguing on this forum from the very beginning, and how you are arguing right now. Barry, your entire argument against Dawkins, Pinker, et al., is based on your own political views. Nothing more.

But if you wish to be honest to the facts of the matter, the science must come first.

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Posted: 21 November 2006 06:48 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 38 ]
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science and politics

George Benedik - And my grandma uses Dawkins’s quotes as a recipe to bake brownies and Hitler used Nietzsche and Wagner as an excuse to kill millions of people! You see politics, I see science.

Your grandma must have made some pretty odd brownies LOL

Anyway, my points in the last email were twofold.  First was the science point re my mention of the other evolutionary biologists.  Second was the implication of the science.

Now, Hitler using a philosopher (Nietzsche, for instance) is a silly comparison because philosophy its not “science.”  Hitler and American southern racists also used BAD science (now called Social Darwinism, but then seen as part of Darwinism) to justify their deeds.  Of course, selfish gene theory has not fallen into the sort of hands Hitler owned, but I have seen it used to justify competitiveness, capitalism, selfish behavior and against anything socialistic.  My comment was meant to mean that once a “science,” that can be used to justify “evil,” is found to be lacking (certain interpretations of Darwinism, selfish gene theory), it needs to be pulled off the “theory” shelf and either remade as a hypothesis or dropped alltogether. 

Doing science means that when enough scientists prove a problem with a certain theory, that theory must be moved at least back to the hypothesis stage or even reformed completely ... this is the self-correcting mechanism of science we all talk about. 

If selfish gene theory were fully true, then of course science would come before politics.  But it isn’t, so it shouldn’t.

By the way, Dawkins is an ethologist (and Trivers a sociobiologist).

Margulis is a biologist and geo-biologist.
DS Wilson is a biologist.
Mayr was a biologist (and a Zoologist).
Gould was a biologist (and paleontologist).
Eldredge is a paleontologist.

I wonder what the critical thinking notion of ‘the appeal to expert authority’ would say about this?

dougsmith: I am quite familiar with writers like Fodor, Gould, Wilson, Mayr, Sober, et al.; all of them argue with aspects of the selfish gene theory, just as Dawkins, Dennett and others argue with Gould and Eldredge’s theory of punctuated equilibrium.

With all due respect, punctuated equilibrium is not the same thing as selfish gene theory.  For one, it is not considered as mistaken as the later, and for two ... whether or not species make evolutionary jumps (jerks) or evolve only gradually does not have the sociopolitical implications of the later, so its debate is not as urgent outside of evolution science circles.

DougSmith: Further, all these scientists you quote (and others besides) may disagree with elements of Dawkins’s theory, but they hold him and his theories in quite high esteem. And it is in this regard that you have misrepresented the debate. Most believe that the selfish gene (that the gene is the unit of selection) is largely correct, but wish to modify the theory or add onto it issues of group selection. Indeed, even Dawkins himself has said that group selection is a possibility under certain circumstances.

From what I’ve read or heard, they do not think as you say.  “Vacuous” is hardly a word I’d associate with “largely correct.” 

This is just Selfish-Gene apologetics or “spin.” 

And I never said these folks thought Dawkins was a no-nothing blowhard ... they clearly have respect for him (for various reasons each, I assume), and this is why they are so vocal about this theory of “his.”

Still, if you heard what hit the cutting room floor in the Margulis interviews re Dawkins, you would understand that such respect is not as widespread as you might think. 

Mayr, in fact, just called Dawkin’s theory nonsense. 

And again, it wasn’t originally Dawkins’ theory, but Trivers,’ and I hear Trivers is mighty pissed at Dawkins for stealing his hypothesis!

Doug: (And BTW, I have no idea why you or anyone outside of evolutionary biology should get so exercised about group selection or the units of selection problem. Nevertheless to people within the field, it is universally agreed that publication of Dawkins’s Selfish Gene was a watershed event: it is a theory still debated to this day. And this is so even though Dawkins himself expressly says that the view came originally from eminent biologists like William Hamilton and George Williams).

I do not know of Hamilton.  I see the connection with Williams, of course.. And DS Wilson talks about Williams in our interview.  But as I said, Trivers seems to be saying that he was the most responsible for this particular theory.

And I am getting so (well) “exercised” because science is still important enough (even in these times) that true theories tend to influence political behavior.  This is why evolution in general is such a politically charged topic for religionists, and why conservatives and capitalists love selfish gene theory and Pinker’s Hobbesian anti-liberalism.  In so far as these ideas influence bad politics - when these ideas are not even really accurate - I see enough reason to get vocal about them.

Doug: Further, the argument between evolutionists and computationalists in psychology is a tempest in a teapot. One is arguing about how the brain modules evolved and the other is arguing about how they are organized. These are two different and entirely compatible theories, Fodor notwithstanding. (Fodor’s real argument has nothing to do with the science and everything to do with his philosophical views on issues like reference ... which are both incorrect and scientifically irrelevant).

You must be an expert yourself to know that Fodor is so “incorrect and scientifically irrelevant.”  Massimo Pigliucci (an evolutionary biologist and philosopher) seems to think otherwise about Fodor as he was the one who first suggested I read Fodor’s book as an example of how Pinker has it wrong.

Doug: I find your continual reference to politics when discussing these scientific theories, including misconstrued or out-of-date quotes taken entirely out of context, to be telling. To anyone doing true science, the political implications are simply irrelevant. The chips of truth need to fall where they may.

Again, I agree - as I said above - that science must come first.  If a theory turns out to be accurate, than people have to deal with its political and social implications.  This is why the fact that humans are animals and not a ‘special creation’ has to be dealt with by those who don’t like the fact that we are primates.  But Selfish-Gene theory (in the most important ways) has been sufficiently debunked, and thus the sociopolitical implications argued for in its name should also become defunct.

Doug: Political propagandists, OTOH, begin with the political beliefs they hold as faith, and either agree with or dismiss scientific theories depending on their perceived political consequences.

Clearly I am not doing this.  I wonder if you really think Pinker - in attacking John Lennon’s song Imagine - was doing so based on science, or based on his own feelings which has lead him to do science as he sees fit?  Recall that science is objective, but scientists aren’t.  The fact that Pinker could be victim. to some degree. of confirmation bias seems not to have crossed your mind.  But regarding me, it has often crossed your mind. 

That so many other clearly qualified scientists and philosophers see the major flaws in what Pinker writes seems to show the self correctiveness of science at work.  Major portions of EP will have to be rethought, which means that Pinker might have to stop calling Imagine “treacle…”, stop backing an obviously flawed and cruel economic system (capitalism), and stop backing a Hobbesian notion of human nature.  Clearly the evidence is there that all three of these things are wrongheaded.

PS: Everything, Doug, is political.  This is a truism we all know.  Pure science is such until it becomes part of society, then it gets politicized.  This is the way humans do things.  It’s important then that deficient science (selfish gene theory, the science of Charles Davenport, Hobbesian forms of EP, etc.), be known as such.  After all, in your (and other’s) arguements against my particular politcal ideas, you all invoke “scientific” ideas about human nature all the time.  Whom are your scientific sources, and why?

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Posted: 21 November 2006 07:24 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 39 ]
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The emphasis in the “selfish gene” theory should be on the word “gene” I believe, not “selfish.” Dawkins himself said he could have called the book “The Altruistic Gene,” for example. (He probably should have, IMO, the word “selfish” is only doing it an unjustified harm.) And for that reason I really don’t understand why it should have ANY political implications at all. Dawkins’s (and other’s) revolutionary idea was that natural selection works on the level of a gene (as opposed to a kin or group). Nothing else.

Pure science is such until it becomes part of society, then it gets politicized. This is the way humans do things.

Well, if this is the way, it’s certainly the wrong way. These “humans” are always politicians who know nothing about science. :x

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Posted: 21 November 2006 07:53 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 40 ]
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Re: science and politics

[quote author=“Barry”]Major portions of EP will have to be rethought, which means that Pinker might have to stop calling Imagine “treacle…”, stop backing an obviously flawed and cruel economic system (capitalism), and stop backing a Hobbesian notion of human nature.  Clearly the evidence is there that all three of these things are wrongheaded.

PS: Everything, Doug, is political.  This is a truism we all know.

You just made my points for me, Barry.

So far, what’s the scorecard? You don’t like E.O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker and Robert Trivers (not to mention Sam Harris) for exclusively political reasons.

You used to like Dan Dennett, until I told you that he largely supported Dawkins on all the relevant points. Now you don’t like Dennett, once again for exclusively political reasons.

Who’s next on the scaffold?

BTW, what are the sociopolitical implications you see for selfish gene theory? The notion of the selfish gene does not imply that creatures must always behave selfishly. It is entirely consistent with the evolution of a moral sense via kin based selection and Trivers’s reciprocal altruism.

Another BTW, where is the Pinker quote from? What is its context? If the claim is that “no possessions, no greed, no hunger” is an unrealizable goal, then Pinker is clearly correct, at least on the first two out of three, based on the most up-to-date information from cognitive psychology and anthropology. Once again, the evidence shows that, in Pinker’s words, “people are innately saddled with certain sins and flaws, like selfishness, prejudice, sort-sightedness, and self-deception”. If your political views depend on this being wrong, I can understand why you are working overtime to discredit their views.

See also the Nobel Prize winning work by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky on innate biases and heuristics for more relevant data that Pinker relies upon to demonstrate that we are “saddled with flaws”. Here is a representative quote from The Blank Slate, truer to Pinker’s actual political views than the caricature you paint:

[quote author=“Pinker”]An important challenge to conservative political theory has come from behavioral economists ... who were influenced by the evolutionary cognitive psychology of Herbert Simon, Amos Tversky, Daniel Kahneman, Gerd Gigerenzer, and Paul Slovic. These psychologists have argued that human thinking and decision making are biological adaptations rather than engines of pure rationality. ... [I]f people do not always calculate what is best for themselves, they might be better off with the taxes and regulations that classical [i.e. conservative] economists find so perverse.

...

The economist Robert Frank has appealed to the evolutionary psychology of status to point out other shortcomings of the rational-actor theory and, by extension, laissez-faire economics. (pp. 302-3) (Etc.)

So another problem with your line of attack is that the evolutionary theory of mind is not the conservative boogeyman you are making it out to be.

Re. Pinker and Fodor, the issue is primarily about the explanatory relevance of evolution to the determination of the content of mental states. That is the sort of issue that exercises Fodor; in particular, to demonstrate that the mind is a “truth machine”. But this is a question of philosophical interpretation, and is totally orthogonal to the sorts of cognitive psychological and anthropological data that Pinker cites. This is what I mean when I say that the Fodor/Pinker debate is largely a tempest in a teapot and irrelevant to the scientific data at issue. Put another way, Fodor could be completely right and still we could be nonetheless “saddled with flaws” in Pinker’s terms. Further, just FYI, Pinker has a clear rebuttal of Fodor here .

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Posted: 21 November 2006 08:02 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 41 ]
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[quote author=“George Benedik”]The emphasis in the “selfish gene” theory should be on the word “gene” I believe, not “selfish.” Dawkins himself said he could have called the book “The Altruistic Gene,” for example. (He probably should have, IMO, the word “selfish” is only doing it an unjustified harm.) And for that reason I really don’t understand why it should have ANY political implications at all. Dawkins’s (and other’s) revolutionary idea was that natural selection works on the level of a gene (as opposed to a kin or group). Nothing else.

Yes, “selfish gene” is clearly a metaphor. The only problem is when you get people misconstruing the metaphor. The idea is simply that the gene, as replicator, is the correct unit of selection.

Although Dawkins didn’t invent the idea, he significantly expanded it and popularized it.

[quote author=“George Benedik”]

Pure science is such until it becomes part of society, then it gets politicized. This is the way humans do things.

Well, if this is the way, it’s certainly the wrong way. These “humans” are always politicians who know nothing about science. :x

Exactly. It’s the same with religious people arguing for intelligent design by picking and choosing their scientific controversies. Science is always distorted when one starts one’s investigation by deciding that some scientific results are “disallowed” for political or religious reasons.

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Posted: 21 November 2006 05:09 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 42 ]
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last words

George Benedik - The emphasis in the “selfish gene” theory should be on the word “gene” I believe, not “selfish.” Dawkins himself said he could have called the book “The Altruistic Gene,” for example.

I know, I read where he said that.  Some pretty neat backpedaling huh?  This is not what he means in the book, though.  I think you get a better idea of what Dawkins really thinks in his FI Op-Ed, “Atheists for Jesus?”

George: Dawkins’s (and other’s) revolutionary idea was that natural selection works on the level of a gene (as opposed to a kin or group). Nothing else.

There is no “opposed to” in real life, and I already said what others think about this “revolutionary idea.”  Again, it’s what Dawkins (and others like Pinker) say AROUND this idea that I am talking about - their ideas about human nature they have formed from their own scientific ideas

Barry Quote: Pure science is such until it becomes part of society, then it gets politicized. This is the way humans do things.

George: Well, if this is the way, it’s certainly the wrong way. These “humans” are always politicians who know nothing about science.


No, actually, I am not just talking about politicians, but society at large.  By politicized I mean that the objective (if it is pure science) findings of science, once discussed and applied in society, take on more subjective qualities which lead to our understanding of and promotion of certain ethical codes and ideas.  Anyone with an ethical code at all - if offering a scientific theory which might lead to bad results in society - must be very careful to explain this theory, especially since all theories in science are tentative anyway.  Dawkins and Pinker not only present dubious theories, they editorialize around them via ethically challanged dialogue.

dougsmith: So far, what’s the scorecard? You don’t like E.O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker and Robert Trivers (not to mention Sam Harris) for exclusively political reasons.


No.  I don’t KNOW these folks, so I cannot say I like or dislike THEM. 

I think EO Wilson’s idea of marrying his work with ants with that of human nature was wrongheaded.  I think those who tout sociobiology in political ways are both wrongheaded and dangerous. Wilson argued that the human mind was shaped as much by genetic inheritance as it was by culture (if not more)... the ‘if not more’ part is a problem because it is clearly wrong and leans toward biological determinism NO MATTER HOW MUCH HE AND OTHERS DENY THIS.

I think Dawkins’ “Selfish Gene” theory is vacuous (as DS Wilson says), that his means of promoting atheism are poor, and his conflating atheism with evolutionary biology is out of place.

I think Pinker is on an ego trip, sets up strawmen many times and then writes whole books to knock them down (Blank Slate), distorts what other scientists say (like he did to Lakoff recently -   - then attacks them for things they DID NOT say.  He is also, I think, imposing his neo-liberal, Hobbesian view of human nature and society on us under the cover of “science” - a “science” which is really not much of one according to many other scientists besides the sociobiologists you like. 

Trivers comes off as an arrogant misanthrope. I read his exhange with DS Wilson and E Sober, and it was sad .. hard to imagine that Trivers and Heuy Newton were best of pals once.. well, maybe not 8) 

Sam Harris, I think, is an overall good guy (I have chatted with him and so has my co-producer on ETFF), and one who can grow to become truely important to Freethought and even humanism once he stops “flaming” his inner frustrations about religion in book form.

Doug: You used to like Dan Dennett, until I told you that he largely supported Dawkins on all the relevant points. Now you don’t like Dennett, once again for exclusively political reasons

.

I don’t have any real opinion of Dennett.  If he agrees with Dawkins’ ideas of human nature, that would be unfortunate (I know they are pals), but his books are ridiculous to follow, and his comments on free will are ‘all over the place’ and no place at the same time (I think he likes to hear himself think on paper), and his new book on religion - while having some good interesting ideas - is more of the same… I cannot dislike his ideas because I am not sure what they are!

Doug: BTW, what are the sociopolitical implications you see for selfish gene theory? The notion of the selfish gene does not imply that creatures must always behave selfishly. It is entirely consistent with the evolution of a moral sense via kin based selection and Trivers’s reciprocal altruism.

Reciprocal altruism is not the only altruism ... but that is not my overall problem.  The problematic implications are severe competitiveness (see Kohn on this topic), dog-eat-dog view of human society, capitalism as good and natural to human nature, pure altruism as bullsh*t (as in Dawkins’ “Jesus” op-ed), selfishness and competition as more real and natural than selflessness or cooperation ... etc, etc, etc.

Doug: Another BTW, where is the Pinker quote from? What is its context? If the claim is that “no possessions, no greed, no hunger” is an unrealizable goal, then Pinker is clearly correct, at least on the first two out of three, based on the most up-to-date information from cognitive psychology and anthropology.

The quote was from “How the Mind Supposedly Works” (I think), and greed, for example, is not natural to humans living in healthy conditions.  In a capitalistic society - a very unhealthy condition indeed - greed seems natural ... Pinker seems to miss that “its the environment, stupid.”  But of course, he and EO Wilson and Dawkins take a severe nature over nurture view of humanity.  Tell me, do you think that Pinker would agree with FI’s misanthropic essayist, Tabor Machan, on human nature?

Doug: Once again, the evidence shows that, in Pinker’s words, “people are innately saddled with certain sins and flaws, like selfishness, prejudice, sort-sightedness, and self-deception”. If your political views depend on this being wrong, I can understand why you are working overtime to discredit their views.

My political and social views are indeed contrary to Pinker’s thoughts ... only these views are not pure ideology as they have many bases in science… as I have already said.  Its just that you put the scientists I have read in the loosing column of your “scoreboard.” 

PS: Add four more names to my list of scientists I think are/were correct - Ashley Montagu, Jane Goodall, Franz De Waal and Richard Lewontin.

PS: Flaws are sometimes natural, but more often environmental.

PSS:  I plan on emailing Fodor to see if he wants to be on my radio show one day.. I will pass along your thoughts.  And if Pinker has a response for Fodor, I am sure Fodor has a response to that response.

PSSS:  I think I said all I can about this issue, and unless someone posts something entirely new about it… I will reserve my posting time for other posts (new or old).

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Posted: 22 November 2006 01:33 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 43 ]
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Fair enough Barry. I think at any rate that nobody would deny the stuff on evolutionary psychology is very cutting edge, and early days yet. But it is clearly the correct path to follow: we are animals, our behavior is just as influenced by our biology as is animal behavior generally. That’s why zoology and ethology (the study of animal behavior) is so important to getting an idea of the human mind.

This does not, however, mean that the mind was shaped “more” by genes than by culture; indeed, Pinker in his Blank Slate talks about cases where 50% of the variance is genetically based being an extremely high number. So we are certainly talking about less than 50% variance being shaped by genes, in nearly all cases. This is not “biological determinism”, and all participants in this debate (Dawkins, Pinker and Dennett for starters) explicitly deny biological determinism in the sense you mentioned.

Re. Jerry Fodor, he is a fine philosopher, but speaking in the most general terms, he is wedded to an old fashioned rationalist picture of the mind as a mere computing device. He wrote his fist major book (Language of Thought) in the 1970s before all this new evidence came out from biology, cognitive psychology, etc., and has simply stuck to the same old theory he had before—it is as though he learned nothing but computer science in the last thirty years.

That said, he is a great writer, generally clear thinker and a formidable opponent; I agree with him much of the time, but not about issues of biology.

Anyhow I’ll take Dan Dennett and Colin McGinn (two equally excellent philosophers of the mind) on ‘our’ side about the importance of evolution to the mind, not to mention Kim Sterelny , Ruth Millikan and Peter Godfrey-Smith , philosophers who don’t spend as much time writing for the London Review of Books as the aforementioned, but who are nonetheless every bit their equals. Sterelny even has a book which I have not read but that looks very interesting called Dawkins vs. Gould.

Dawkins, like Gould and Sagan, is mostly a popularizer of science. Although all three have had their hand in certain important scientific breakthroughs, all are mostly famous for their willingness to get out in public and disseminate in easy language the scientific results they know well. All have said controversial and arguably even incorrect things, and all have their very firm detractors within the academy. But I don’t think we should be in the habit of “bashing” them, to use the term that sparked off this discussion. I am not convinced that any of them, or the newer people on the scene like Pinker, not to mention Trivers or Wilson, has ever allowed their political views to sway their view of what is scientifically correct. So let’s keep the eye on the data and let the political chips fall where they may.

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Posted: 24 November 2006 03:07 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 44 ]
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Last words on Pinker, EP, etc

I am not convinced that any of them, or the newer people on the scene like Pinker, not to mention Trivers or Wilson, has ever allowed their political views to sway their view of what is scientifically correct.


Hmmm.  Then you have not read between the lines…..

Trivers?  Though when I contacted him about being on the radio show or even speaking at an event he was less than nice in his terse and negative response, he seems to be a bit of a political enigma.  He has that selfish-gene, Hobbesian side to him as does Pinker, and to a degree Dawkins; but in the past, he paled around with Heuy Newton (hardly a conservative!). Today, he is every bit as upset at the Bushies as most of us on these forums are. 

There is certainly a fraternity of ideas between Hamilton, Trivers, Dawkins and Pinker, and perhaps EO Wilson, and this has been born, it seems, from their mutual work in sociobiology, EP, and selfish-gene theory.  Wilson, in his pleas for the environment, and Triver’s disdain for the Neo-Cons (I have no idea if he still sees his political self as a socialist or communist re Newton), may then see themselves as liberals of a sort - and perhaps they are on the left side of things in America - But they seem to fail to notice what some of their work leads to.  And again, I am not saying that much of Wilson’s sociobiology or Trivers selfish-gene ideas HAD TO BE come by (for them) because they BEGAN with a Hobbesian view of human nature and a competitive over cooperative view of humanity - though it is always interested to find out why different scientists chose certain studies in the first place.  I do not know for sure if either of them NOW HAVE such views because I have not read enough of their political writings outside of what SEEMS political in Wilson’s On Human Nature book an in the Trivers/DS Wilson debate online.  It may be that they really see their science as objective, and may not themselves be as Pinker and others SHOW the science to be… 

...IF WHAT THEY HAVE PROPOSED IS CORRECT, it certainly CAN lead to a conservative and capitalistic interpretation of human nature for the rest of us. The key being, I repeat, IF their ideas are correct… Many others in their field seem not to think so. At least, not at all the version of what they argue for.  Yet this is what matters.  Since any findings of science which have to do with humanity directly will lead to the rest of us interpreting it in ways which will lead to political action(s), the science needs to be correct.  Otherwise, like in the days of Eugenics, “bad” science can lead to bad policy.  So I am not suggesting we stop doing objective science (letting the political dice fall where they may), but when we do potentially politically charged science of this severe nature, we be careful to be sure we not only are sure enough about the science to write pop-books for general audiences about it, but we take social responsibility to describe what the political implications can be in such a meant-for-the-masses book. Surely Wilson knew when writing On Human Nature that his book - being about human behavior in society - would be by definition political ... no?  He seems not to have.  Naive or full of bees wax?

So, perhaps even after all my posts - including this one - I may not have made myself clear that it is not “pure and objective” science I am addressing when I talk about my sociopolitical concerns, it is what subjective is sewn into the fabric of said theories which matters most for humanity.  And, unlike the nuclear power discovery of Einstein and others, this science is not about technology which THEN can be used for good or bad, but Wilsons and Trivers science is about human nature itself, and if it tells us that humans are greedy, selfish, violent, severely competitive and inherently warlike.. then the powers than be can legitimize anything from capitalism and war to Lakoff’s “strick-father” model of child rearing and uber-hierarchal institutions. 

So we have to ask, is Wilson and Trivers right in these aspects?  Dawkins and Pinker seem to say that they are, and while Wilson and Trivers seem to be liberal in their take on many things, Dawkins and Pinker aren’t…. they are scientists who build from Trivers and Wilson and do so in overtly political ways.  We see this from many essays by Dawkins, to Pinkers books re his bashing of “Imagine” and of a distorted view of the work of George Lakoff, to what we find in ‘The Blank Slate.’* 

So when I find so much of these 4 guy’s work in this field to be critiqued and even debunked by evolutionary biologists, cognitive scientists and neuroscientists (another good person to read may be Daniel Goleman), then I wonder if Dawkins and Pinker are not wrong in their sociopolitical attitudes which are peppered throughout their writings… If their view on human nature, then, is wrong?

Science must keep being self-correcting for these very reasons.  I can not fault Dawkins or Pinker for seeing sociopolitical consequences of their scientific viewpoint - they are after all, human - but if the meat of the science they are doing is flawed (if that which they gleam from Wilson or Trivers is flawed as so many other scientists seem to think is the case), then the consequences Dawkins and Pinker cite are not only flawed, but even dangerous as Eldredge points out in that quote of his I posted.

PS: As noted before, Dawkins essay, Atheists for Jesus?, shows perfectly just where he is coming from.

PSS: As for Trivers friendship with Newton.. it is of course possible for folks to hold political opinions which differ from what they believe science tells them about human nature; but here is something to consider.  Trivers seems to fancy himself a revolutionary in science.  Newton was one in other ways.  Trivers hates the Bushies for many reasons not so dissimilar to why Pat Buchanan might hate the Bushies - the Neo-cons, after all, are not Libertarians or Conservatives, but radical revolutionaries of the Right (while as a Communist, Newton was such of the Left.)  Also, re Newton and communism/socialism ... we all know that the ideas about human nature in state-communism or socialism are often not very different from the authoritarianism of fascism and neo-conservativism ... only Left in stead of Right.  A truly Left politic would not be communism or socialism as we have seen for the most part in the last 100 years or so.  It would be interesting to find out on what Trivers and Newton actually agreed upon (besides equal rights for blacks).

*A few readers comments on Pinker’s Blank Slate:

“I have been an avid reader of Steven Pinker’s books but found this one nonscientific, political garbage. Instead of concentrating on the science, he seems to dedicate his efforts to bashing scientists who don’t share his (and his friends) opinions.”

“A thorough exposition of all the problems with this book is beyond the scope of this review. Pinker cherry picks those pieces of evidence that might seem to support his views and ignores the vast amount of that which contradicts it. His distortion of the current state of anthropological knowledge is particularly severe. And of course, he tops it all off with the obligatory strawman attacks on Richard Lewontin and company. The sheer intellectual arrogance of this man is amazing.”

“I don’t agree with the idea of the Blank Slate, which the book is set up to dispute, but neither do I find anything to hold on to in the idea of a human nature. I think both ideas are sprung from a wish to manipulate (more or less) with nature and human beings. They are called “explanations” but are in fact ways of belittling and alienating people. Shakespeare is much more true to “human nature” when he lets Hamlet hold out the flute to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (as a symbol of himself or mankind) asking them to play on it. They can’t of course. Noone can. But Pinker and other “scientists” think they can.

It is very strange, in fact unbelievable, that evolution or whatever created us, has mainstream American politics as a goal. But that is what Pinker arrives at when he puts his own words in the mouth of evolution (who never talked to anyone, by the way). In his view of gender, male behavior, childrearing, art etc he sounds like a crossbreed of Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan. And it seems he is not even aware of how utterly American his thoughts are!  He sees a lot of traits and ideas that thrive only in the US as part of human nature! To put it bluntly: I have never come across a more imperialistic book than this.”
==========
Here is one comment which I found very interesting.  This chap sees Pinker as coming from the Darwinian Right.  This is interesting.  It assumes there IS a Darwinian Right (or Left, for that matter).  What he calls Darwinian Right, he equally means as Rightist Evolutionary Psychology.  This seems to make more sense.  Darwin is Darwin.  Darwinism is Darwinism.  Whatever it tells us can be interpreted badly (as in Social Darwinism) or correctly as in the main work of most evolutionary biologists.  But EP CAN be talked about the way this guy does because it is not really a science.  I see EP as various hypotheses on human behavior trying to take evolution into account - while perhaps walking the sociobiology tight rope.  So, folks from EO Wilson, Pinker and Trivers can call their work (partly) EP just as DS Wilson, Gould and others can.  Scott Atran, by the way, thinks EP is mostly useless.  It may BE useless BECAUSE it means different things to different people… Not what a science should be about. 

This guys puts it this way:

“Evolutionary psychology like politics has its Right and Left.  Both society and human nature raise the question: what is established and natural—and what can and cannot be changed?

In politics, the Right privileges the status quo and the well worn while denying that society can radically reorganize for the better.

The Left celebrates our potential to advance, sees the past as oppressor, and liberation in what has yet to be.

Human nature has a similar conflict. The Darwinian Right sees human nature as already created when natural selection made our species. That evolutionary inheritance defines us - we cannot reorganize what is already laid down in the “status quo” of our genes.

For the Darwinian Left, our genes are ingredients which get “cooked” by culture - tomorrow that transformation will be different—and with it human nature.

The Darwinian Right has been looking for a manifesto, and that is what you get with ‘Blank Slate.’  I give this book five stars for quality as a manifesto and spin—but its science merits nil - for Blank Slate distorts science where it does not fit the Right’s storyline.

Space prevents listing all but one contortion—its evasion of the implications of neural plasticity. The visual cortex has evolved for over 100 million years for sight yet in those born blind it processes touch and hearing. Likewise sight processing can be experimentally induced in the somatosensory and auditory cortices. The existence of such ectopic - wrong placed - cognitions refutes the Darwinian Right—since these specialized cognitions exist in spite of lacking prior evolution. Why require evolution for our higher cognitions when neural plasticity can deliver them without its aid?

Pinker engages in spin by explaining away ad hoc the inconvenient reality of neural plasticity. He makes (page 85) the weak claim that such ectopic cognitions are “doing pretty much the same thing” across senses. He can give away that ground. But Pinker’s right-wing Darwinism needs evolution for the “modules” of higher cognition—if the same “doing pretty much the same thing” applies to syntax and semantics then the Darwinian Right is intellectually dead. It is dead.

The fatal sentence in the book occurs on page 93: “the plasticity discovered in primary sensory cortex [has been seen] as a metaphor for what happens elsewhere in the brain ... it is not a very good metaphor.”. Pinker brazenly lies here - he has to—to save his theory. It is however no metaphor—as the honest part of Pinker knows full well—higher cognitions can be ectopic (I pointed this out to him in an exchange, Pinker’s reply to which grew into chapter 5: The Slate’s Last Stand).

Brain tumors, for example, rarely cause higher cognitive problems since the functions of higher cortex areas they slowly destroy move onto neurons elsewhere. The recovery from brain injury and brain disorders likewise depends upon such flexibility. But most importantly, functional imaging now shows that syntax and semantics activate the visual cortex of the blind. This discovery of language-in-the-visual cortex pulls the ground away from Pinker and the Darwinian Right. Pinker has to lie.

If language cognitions can take up residence in the visual cortex, then evolution did not pack our brain with evolved higher cognition modules, full stop. Pinker, the Darwinian Right-winger is also guilty of ‘criminal’ irresponsibility. Dr. Anton Wernig fought the established idea that the broken spine could not learn to rewire itself through neural plasticity to let paralytics walk. That established idea stopped a generation relearning to walk - but its claim about spinal fixity was wrong: given intensive exercise, spinal neurons can pick up new walking skills. Pinker’s lie will makes it harder for researchers to get funding for innovative therapies to aid the brain injured if that exploits what according to him is mere “metaphor”.

This bestseller thus could condemn you to avoidable cognitive impairment in old age since key therapies (thanks to the Darwinian Right) will now go unexplored. That is a crime against us all.

So what is the alternative to Pinker—the Darwinian Left? The brain as palimpsest. Evolution might write, but culture can scrape and wash that writing off like an ancient scribe and write human nature anew. Evolution as the provider to the brain of a set of programming language procedures out of which culture can program complex, novel and exciting cognitions. The brain as rewireable with new symbol based cognitions that reuse earlier evolved ape ones.

Evolution as the provider of a neural “combustion engine” upon which culture is fitted like a varied chassis (car, light-aircraft, boat, machine tool, electrical power generator) that gets powered into widely different human natures - the Paleolithic hunter-gatherer, the Neolithic farmer, the Monk, the Aztec, the Mandarin, Bach, the mathematician, the bureaucrat, the Manhattan intellectual ... Culture not as something dumb but smart picking out evolved traits so we get extended in new ways.

Think here of architecture - evolution made us biped, thus architecture designs stairs - if we had the bodies of chimps, buildings would have climbing frames instead. Culture similarly fits itself around and extends the potentials of our evolved brains.

Human evolution that as Carl Sagan in Dragons of Eden observed shifted the propagation of information from genes to cultural transmission: “We have made a kind of bargain with nature: our children will be difficult to raise, but their capacity for new learning will greatly enhance the chances of survival of the human species”

Human evolution as evolution that divorced human nature from genes by selecting genes to aid the mind to get shaped extragenetically by culture. 

The author, by the way, is: John Skoyles (Up From Dragons : The Evolution of Human Intelligence)

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Posted: 25 November 2006 07:02 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 45 ]
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Once again, Barry, you are discussing your reconstructions of their political ideas and not the science itself.  At least you note that the people involved are not right-wingers in any important or universal sense, and that EP itself does not lead necessarily to conservative conclusions. At this point the discussion has gotten pretty silly. My feeling is that if you want to discuss politics start up another thread in the political folder. But please let’s stick with facts and not keep throwing around innuendo, e.g., taking quotes about pop songs out of context.

At any rate, tarring these people as lunatic reactionaries—which they clearly are not—is just rhetorically worn out. And it’s always been a bad argument anyhow, since the science stands or falls on the results, not the politics (as Pinker makes eminently clear in his treatment of politicized science in The Blank Slate).

And BTW I did read Lakoff awhile back in grad school with some (very liberal, FWIW) grad students and we all had the same opinion of him as Pinker does. His view of reality-as-metaphor is way too close to post-modernism to take seriously.

And also BTW, the Skoyles piece appears to have been written by a nut. Pinker talks about neural plasticity time and again, as does everyone in the field. Plasticity is no refutation of evolutionary psychology, and the claim that Pinker’s views are “criminal” because they would take money away from brain injury patients is so base as not to deserve response.

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