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Michael Shermer - Why Darwin Matters - 09/22/2006
Posted: 28 September 2006 01:57 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 16 ]
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Well, you can’t really use Darwinian “Natural Selection” to explain or analyze modern human society.  Social darwinism was Herbert Spencer’s animal, and there’s not much to be said for it.  Do the people “succeeding” in the world (i.e. the ones who make the most money, political leaders, etc) seem any more “fit” than the rest of us?  The leader of the free world’s a dimwit.  I would argue that we are the first species to evolve the intelligence necessary not only to exempt ourselves from many evolutionary pressures, but also to reverse them in many cases.  (Agriculture, economics, technology, etc make life much less about “survival” and competing for resources)  Because of all of these innovations, even the least ‘fit’ among us reproduce effectively (often TOO effectively, I might add)  While humans are still relatively bound by sexual and other evolutionary instincts, we are intelligent enough to form various forms of cultures and societies with varying values and degrees of selfishness, for example.

Therefore, human society has the ability to overcome Darwinian determinism and classical power hierarchies, if we choose to.  My view on socialism AND capitalism is that both systems rely on false presuppositions about human behavior - socialism on communalism, altruism and solidarity, and capitalism on consumer accountability, corporate responsibility, and the infamous “insvisible hand” of the market.

Sorry for distracting EVEN FURTHER from Shermer!

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Posted: 28 September 2006 07:00 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 17 ]
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Posted: 29 September 2006 04:27 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 18 ]
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[quote author=“HolyAvenger”]Well, you can’t really use Darwinian “Natural Selection” to explain or analyze modern human society.

Yes and no ... you are totally right that we can’t simply say that these particular people in control and with power are necessarily ‘fitter’ than those that are not in power. In a Darwinian sense, all that matters is reproductive success. A working family in Detroit with seven children is, therefore, more ‘successful’ than GWBush, since he only has two.

We also can’t say that individuals who are biologically fitter are in any other sense “better” than individuals who are less biologically fit. Traits that enhance fitness are those that lead to better reproductive success (i.e. more kids, grandkids, etc.), end of story.

But we can analyze society based on our understanding of mental characteristics that were selected for in our ancestral environment. We can say, for instance, that being high-status does enhance fitness generally, and that humans have highly tuned capacities for detecting high status, just as other primates, wolves, and social animals do. So we can analyze consumer behavior, for example, in light of this feature of Darwinian selection pressure. (I.e. people buy items that make them appear to have high status. They will pay extra for such items).

[quote author=“HolyAvenger”][H]uman society has the ability to overcome Darwinian determinism and classical power hierarchies, if we choose to.  My view on socialism AND capitalism is that both systems rely on false presuppositions about human behavior - socialism on communalism, altruism and solidarity, and capitalism on consumer accountability, corporate responsibility, and the infamous “insvisible hand” of the market.

Quite so, although I would not ever expect the majority of humans to act against what they are biologically attuned for doing. To take one example, from a purely rational point of view, any human death in the world is as important as any other. But from a biological point of view, we react emotionally with much more force to deaths of people who are in our kin group or in a group with which we are ‘reciprocally altruistic’ (in Robert Trivers’s phrase) ... that is, our friends and family. One may well say that our reason can help us overcome this bias, but I frankly don’t believe it. One will always be more impacted emotionally by deaths of family and friends than strangers.

Interestingly, Adam Smith was one of the first to become aware of this limitation on our reason, even though he was unaware of its clear biological roots:

[quote author=“Adam Smith”]Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connexion with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.

I should probably clarify here that Smith was not claiming that this reaction was somehow correct, ethical or rational. He wasn’t arguing that this is how people should react. He was just being a realist in pointing out that it is what would in fact happen in the vast majority of cases. He is arguing that, in Hume’s famous phrase, “Reason is a slave to the passions.” And in that, he is clearly right.

Re. corporate responsibility and the “invisible hand”, I agree with you. Much contemporary economics has been involved in discovering the limits to Smith’s “invisible hand”. In particular, for markets to function properly, among other things they depend on completely efficient dispersal of information and completely rational agents. Neither of these things happen in the actual world, where information is preferably given to certain and not others, and where people do not behave in their long-term best interests.

Work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky on human irrationality highlights ways that humans make irrational choices. (For this, their work won a Nobel in economics). Josef Lakonishok, Robert Vishny and Andrei Schleifer have worked on similar psychologically-based discrepencies in the so-called “efficient market”. If you read Paul Krugman’s writing on the “new Keynsians” you will see a lot of very good data and arguments why government regulation, intervention and monitoring of the economy and markets is essential, simply because the “invisible hand” is otherwise a fiction. Said otherwise, conservative “laissez-faire” economic policies are simply not tenable, and if pursued, result in disproportionate benefits to those in power who have greater access to information and analytical tools.

I was also wondering what you meant by “consumer accountability” ...

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Posted: 29 September 2006 06:48 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 19 ]
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Good post, Doug.  What I meant by “consumer accountability” was actually consumer responsibility, what I see as the myth of consumer choice.  This is the idea that consumers hold corporations and the market in general accountable and govern their actions through choice.  In other words, if Wal-Mart engages in unethical practices, people simply will take their business elsewhere.  Conservatives and libertarians use this argument, amazingly misguided as it is, to propose the elimination of federal controls on the market.

As you noted in your last post, Doug, not only do people fail to make rational choices as consumers, but we often make blatantly unethical choices as well - quite frankly, it doesn’t matter to 99% of us, who are just trying to buy what we need and not considering the health care benefits that the brand we’re purchasing provides to its workers are adequate or not.  Without regulation, unethical corporate practices (messing with the books, underpaying workers, ripping off consumers, skirting environmental regulations, the list goes on) provide a competitive advantage. 

And I would like to add at this point, how unfortunate it is that “consumer” is by far our biggest role in this life, at least in the US.  Before are were civic entities, brothers and sisters, etc, we are consumers, and our entire system relies on the continuance of that reality.  To bring Marx back into the picture (sorry guys!) I think his biggest fear was that consumerism would escalate farther and farther into a world of competing products and services, fueled by a completely business-oriented and profit-motivated populace and that we would consequently “lose our soul” as a species, in a sense.  Does anyone see some value in that fear, 150 years later?

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Posted: 29 September 2006 07:26 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 20 ]
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[quote author=“HolyAvenger”]As you noted in your last post, Doug, not only do people fail to make rational choices as consumers, but we often make blatantly unethical choices as well - quite frankly, it doesn’t matter to 99% of us, who are just trying to buy what we need and not considering the health care benefits that the brand we’re purchasing provides to its workers are adequate or not.  Without regulation, unethical corporate practices (messing with the books, underpaying workers, ripping off consumers, skirting environmental regulations, the list goes on) provide a competitive advantage. 

Quite so. The same is true about pharmaceutical advertisements, as I noted in a separate thread. The problem in each of these cases, as you say, is that without effective governmental oversight and regulation, any company that pursues them has a competitive advantage ... in a quasi-Darwinian sense, they become fitter by damaging things. And that is VERY BAD.

I think we discussed some of this above in the context of so-called “externalities” as they are called in economics. “Externalities” are effects on the environment that are “external” to the market, that is, they don’t show up in prices for goods or services. So, a company that gains production efficiencies by polluting, or by mistreating its employees, will make larger profits, at an apparent cost to society. But where does this cost show up? Not in the prices paid for their goods. It shows up elsewhere, in the society’s need to clean up the damage later on—maybe much later on. Without effective oversight, companies that “play nice” will end up at a competitive disadvantage, and eventually they will be forced to either stop playing nice or go out of business.

This stuff is fascinating and has been studied for awhile now ... IMO very important to get this all right.

[quote author=“HolyAvenger”]And I would like to add at this point, how unfortunate it is that “consumer” is by far our biggest role in this life, at least in the US.  Before are were civic entities, brothers and sisters, etc, we are consumers, and our entire system relies on the continuance of that reality.  To bring Marx back into the picture (sorry guys!) I think his biggest fear was that consumerism would escalate farther and farther into a world of competing products and services, fueled by a completely business-oriented and profit-motivated populace and that we would consequently “lose our soul” as a species, in a sense.  Does anyone see some value in that fear, 150 years later?

I don’t see consumerism in particular as wrong or evil. Waste is wrong. But not all consumerism is wasteful; it depends on the case. Competition, on the other hand, by which I mean free, open and fair competition is a fundamental good—it leads to better products, better services, more efficient production, etc. But in order for this competition to be free, open and fair, of course, it needs to be policed as well.

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Posted: 29 September 2006 02:22 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 21 ]
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Posted: 30 September 2006 04:59 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 22 ]
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I have some opinions on what is being discussed so far on this thread, but I would like to get back to the Shermer interview.
I like Shermer’s big-tent approach to believers. If we are basically in the same camp on real-world issues there isn’t good reason to alienate and seperate from them because they believe ethics and charity are infused by a god while I think they are human qualities. I also agree that when pressed beyond “God gives me guidance and joy in life”, most believers will end up saying the things that give life meaning are family, friends, work, recreation, charity, etc., depending on which is most important to them. Regardless of what path we imagine ourselves to be on through life we still encounter a lot of reality along the way.

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Posted: 30 September 2006 08:03 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 23 ]
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[quote author=“George Benedik”] I know I am now discussing metaphysics (or perhaps this is all nonsense), but has anybody ever considered the natural selection affecting the laws of physics? Could something as fundamental as arithmetics be also affected? Could there be different universes (or different parts of of our universe) where through some kind of natural selection 1+1 would equal, let’s say, three? I am probably loosing it…...

Yeah, I think you’re not discussing biological evolution anymore. For evolution to take place you have to have a reproductive element, like a gene, which gets copied from one generation to the next. The most potentially successful replicators are the ones that enhance fitness the most. Stars don’t ‘replicate’ in any similar sense. There is no copying mechanism.

As for the laws of physics, Darwinian evolution depends on those laws, it can’t break them or change them. The laws of physics give structure to the elements that make up biological organisms—like the atoms that make up a strand of DNA.

Logical and mathematical truths can’t be broken by anything. While it is possible that there are alternate universes with different physical laws, it is not possible that there are alternate universes with different mathematical or logical laws. A universe with one contradiction is a universe where literally everything is true; i.e. a universe about which one can say nothing meaningful.

dbh1264 brings up some interesting points about Shermer’s POV ... I sort of go hot and cold with it. Agreed that many moderate religious folk are quite reasonable 99.9% of the time, and we shouldn’t antagonize or alienate them for no reason. OTOH we should also be aware that there remains that other 0.1%, standardly called “faith” in the religions of the Book, that can become quite pernicious ... but what do others think?

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Posted: 30 September 2006 01:16 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 24 ]
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Personally, I have always struggled with the “big tent” approach in tolerating more moderate believers.  Shermer and others are correct in that seeking to include believers in more important social concerns (the central argument of E.O. Wilson’s “The Creation”) can be helpful and makes sense.  Liberal Christians and religious moderates are often very reasonable when it comes to most things, as Doug noted, and faith only comes into play on a personal level.  These are folks who support separation of church and state, oppose prostyletizing, and are often ecumenical in their worldview.

However, by tolerating and accepting this form of religiosity, I tend to feel that we are ignoring the “root” of the larger problem…  As Sam Harris argues, even though fundamentalists and extremists are the most pernicious threats to society, it is the implicit acceptance of faith in the first place, fueled by “mainstream” believers, that inhibits our criticism of religion.  In this sense, I have never been very tolerant of supernatural beliefs - I care about people’s unfounded beliefs even when they are not acted upon or socially consequential.  In other words, even if religion were merely an “opiate for the masses,” to use Marx’s phrase, I would still be very concerned by the prevalence of ‘happy ignorance.’

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Posted: 01 October 2006 04:07 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 25 ]
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For evolution to take place you have to have a reproductive element, like a gene, which gets copied from one generation to the next.

and

Stars don’t ‘replicate’ in any similar sense.

Today I bought Dawkins’s God Delusion where he says (inter alia, I’ve only read the preface): ““while natural selection itself is limited to explaining the living world, it raises our consciousness to the likelihood of comparable explanatory ‘cranes’ that may aid our understanding of the cosmos.

It does indeed raise my consciousness"I just don’t know what to do with it. Can we REALLY NOT look at politics (for example) and “natural selection” and try to make some sense of it?

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Posted: 02 October 2006 10:28 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 26 ]
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[quote author=“George Benedik”]It does indeed raise my consciousness"I just don’t know what to do with it. Can we REALLY NOT look at politics (for example) and “natural selection” and try to make some sense of it?

Well, as I say, we can look at how the mind might have been designed, and use that understanding to enlighten our view of humans as political animals.

We can use natural selection to look at politics in other ways too; I just caution we do so with some care. A lot of what gets called “Darwinism” in politics is pretty sketchy stuff, as HolyAvenger has said.

FYI, Dawkins’s notion of ‘memes’ is an attempt to broaden the notion of natural selection to look at how ideas propagate. As a matter of fact, Dawkins himself considers ‘meme’ talk to be basically metaphorical, and I don’t really think it’s much of an accurate metaphor either ... but if you want a pretty good intro into how Darwinian notions can be understood and expanded, Dawkins is a very good place to start.

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Posted: 02 January 2007 04:15 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 27 ]
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[quote author=“dougsmith”]For evolution to take place you have to have a reproductive element, like a gene, which gets copied from one generation to the next. The most potentially successful replicators are the ones that enhance fitness the most. Stars don’t ‘replicate’ in any similar sense. There is no copying mechanism.

I found this on Dawkins’s site:

The colour-density relation, that describes the relationship between the properties of a galaxy and its environment, was markedly different 7 billion years ago. The astronomers thus found that the galaxies’ luminosity, their initial genetic properties, and the environments they reside in have a profound impact on their evolution.

and

[Results of research] suggest that galaxies as we see them today are the product of their inherent genetic information, evolved over time, as well as complex interactions with their environments, such as mergers.

and

[The astronomers] conclude that the connection between galaxies’ colour, luminosity and their local environment is not merely a result of primordial conditions ‘imprinted’ during their formation - but just as for humans, galaxies’ relationship and interactions can have a profound impact on their evolution.

It seems that Darwinian evolution not only applies to us but to the whole universe. You can read more abouit it here .

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Posted: 03 January 2007 07:29 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 28 ]
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This looks to me like metaphor, again. There is no copying mechanism and no reproductive element like a gene (or even a meme) that I can see in his discussion.

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Posted: 03 January 2007 07:41 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 29 ]
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[quote author=“dougsmith”]This looks to me like metaphor, again. There is no copying mechanism and no reproductive element like a gene (or even a meme) that I can see in his discussion.

I wasn’t sure what to think of it myself. I’ll take your word for it, Doug. :D

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Posted: 03 January 2007 07:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 30 ]
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It’s kind of annoying, but IMO Dawkins did something similar with ‘memes’. He got so enamored of the idea of evolution that he tried to extend it into any and all fields ... rather like Thales ended up believing that everything was made of water, one sometimes gets the impression that Dawkins wants to believe that everything is a product of evolution.

Fortunately, most of the time Dawkins is a careful enough explicator that he makes clear the details of his assertions, and they are not particularly problematic. Only the metaphor may be a bit misconstrued.

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