And They have the guns!

Friday, March 25th, 2011

From Discover Magazine:

Defining Evolution

Monday, February 21st, 2011

When I read the title of this piece (Theologians Lobby Successfully to Change Definition of Evolution | Cosmic Variance | Discover Magazine)I was prepared to get angry. But instead I am embarrassed on behalf of those who are complaining about the change (which happened more than ten years ago).

Apparently the US National Association of Biology Teachers was persuaded to delete the word "unsupervised" from the following statement:

The diversity of life on earth is the result of evolution: an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable and natural process of temporal descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments.

Now apart from its awfulness as a bit of language this is indeed wrong on several counts.

Perhaps most importantly, it appears to deny the predictive capacity that is essential for a "scientific" theory. In fact, the theory of evolution does have some predictive capability (though albeit of a stochastic nature). So the unqualified use of  "unpredictable" must be inappropriate.

Also, although it does not require supervision or purpose, the theory of evolution makes no statement regarding their absence. So to include the word "unsupervised" was indeed just plain wrong. ...more »

"The Belief Instinct"

Monday, February 21st, 2011

Jesse Bering's "The Belief Instinct" is described as an exploration of possible sources of religion in cognitive tendencies towards a sense of being observed even when we have no evidence for it. To support this idea he reportedly both cites experimental evidence and postulates evolutionary explanations - which lead him to identify "adaptive illusion" as being behind the development of religion in our species (but I suspect what he means is  that it is just a susceptibility to  illusions of being monitored rather than any specific illusion itself that may be innate).

Apostate Theocon Damon Linker, writing in The New Republic, finds all this "marvelously informative and endlessly infuriating". He says he does not like the mix of  "experimental data about modern civilized human beings and groundless speculation about our evolutionary ancestors", but what he is most upset about is his belief that if we accept Bering's thesis then a "possible consequence is that we will take his arguments to heart and seek to live truthfully, without illusions—which in this case is to say, without shame." And by the end of the review has worked himself up into quite a state of angry confusion and despair. But I think he misunderstands the implications. Giving up and/or resisting the illusion of oversight by an external god-like being does not mean giving up the moral values that entity is presumed to enforce (or the fear of incurring our own self-disapproval and/or of having bad behaviour noted and reported to our peers). So there is no reason to believe that we must either "begin shamelessly shitting on ourselves in public" or be subject to "sustained, ongoing, irredeemable self-deception". There really is an honourable and moral alternative.

Selfish Altruism

Sunday, June 13th, 2010

'Psychological Altruism' is just a special case of 'Biological Altruism' and the "gene" for either is the most selfish of all.

Of course the concept of genes for actual characteristics all being in one-to-one correspondence with discrete sequences of DNA is simplistic, and the "gene" for something as complicated as a behaviour pattern may involve those for many different proteins along with related expression-controlling sequences, but no matter how it works, any hereditary tendency towards "altruistic" behaviour is one which is prepared to sacrifice the rest of its host's genome in order to enhance the number of its own duplicates that are carried forward by co-specifics of the sacrificed host (even ones who are outside its host's immediate family so less likely to share other parts of the host's genome).

Not only this, but the wily and misnamed "altruistic gene" has often also evolved links to behaviours (manifest in humans in concepts like "morality", "fairness" and "religion") which ensure that the benefits of the altruistic gene actually are *not* shared with co-specifics of the host who lack that particular "gene"! (Such hosts may take risks with their own lives and relatives for the benefit of their non-related "moral peers" and/or to punish the "immoral" - possibly even including members of their own family)

Psychological vs. Biological Altruism is the latest topic at PholosophyTalk.

[Note added Aug 10: Tim Dean at 'Ockham's Beard' makes an interesting connection between the genetics of morality and of the immune system.]