Skeptic: Examining Extraordinary Claims and Promoting Science Skeptic: Examining Extraordinary Claims and Promoting Science

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Wednesday, October 27th, 2010 | ISSN 1556-5696

eSkeptic: the email newsletter of the Skeptics Society

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Our Next lecture at Caltech

Kevin Kelly
What Technology Wants

with Kevin Kelly
Sunday, November 7, 2010 at 2 pm
Baxter Lecture Hall

KEVIN KELLY, THE EDITOR AND PUBLISHER of Whole Earth Review and one of the founders and editors of Wired magazine, explains why most of us have a love/hate relationship with new inventions, and why this conflict as inherent to all technology. But he also argues that technology is an extension of life — and an acceleration of the mind. Technology is not anti-nature, but rather the “seventh kingdom” of life: it now shares with life certain biases, urges, needs and tendencies. The system of technology that Kelly calls the “technium,” unconsciously “wants” to head in certain directions, just as do life and evolution. The technium functions as a living, natural system. Just as evolution has tendencies, urges, trajectories, established forms, and a direction, so too does the technium. Where is it headed? What is the true nature of its increasing presence in our society? And how do the goals of the technological agenda relate to humanity’s goals? Come to this lecture to find out from one of the true visionaries of our time!

Tickets are first come first served at the door. Seating is limited. $8 for Skeptics Society members and the JPL/Caltech community, $10 for nonmembers. Your admission fee is a donation that pays for our lecture expenses.


Follow Daniel Loxton on Twitter, Facebook, and Skepticblog.

NEW ON SKEPTICBLOG.ORG
Evolution Nominated
for Silver Birch® Award

Daniel Loxton announces that the Junior Skeptic-based book Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be is a 2011 nominee for the prestigious Silver Birch® Nonfiction Award! This is a tremendous honor (for which Loxton thanks his illustration collaborator Jim W. W. Smith, editor Valerie Wyatt at Kids Can Press, producer Pat Linse — and the Skeptics Society for making the project possible in the first place).

Order the book from Shop Skeptic and support the Skeptics Society in their continued educational outreach initiatives.

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Climbing Heinlein’s Hill

Daniel Loxton discusses the burden of proof that skeptics face when investigating extraordinary claims and the requisite evidence they must provide before stating conclusions. Loxton poses the question: “What, if anything, can intellectually honest skeptics say when no investigation is possible?

READ THE POST

FOLLOW DANIEL LOXTON ON TWITTERFACEBOOKSKEPTICBLOG

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The Amazing Story
of Quantum Mechanics

The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics (book cover)

click image to view related images

Professor James Kakalios, a mild-mannered physics professor at the University of Minnesota, has something in common with the characters he chronicled in his 2005 book The Physics of Superheroes — he has a super power. In fact, in his new book The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics: A Math-Free Exploration of the Science That Made Our World Kakalios reveals that all humans have a super power: our intelligence. With that power (and with a little help from quantum mechanics), we have created the greatest technologies the world has ever known.

This week on Skepticality, Swoopy talks with Kakalios (a science consultant on the 2009 Warner Brothers film Watchmen) about his latest book. Not only does he explain how quantum mechanics enables your Blu-ray player; he also explores the similarities between the young physicists who developed quantum theory and the pulp science fiction writers of the 1920s and 1930s — blending pop culture and hard science to reveal the physics behind our world. Check out the Publisher’s promotional video.


About this week’s eSkeptic

In this week’s eSkeptic, we present an explosive interview with one of the most controversial scientists of our generation: Richard Dawkins, on the triumphs, limitations, uses and abuses of Darwinism. This interview was first published in the sold out issue of Skeptic magazine volume 3, number 4 (1995).

Richard Dawkins, one of the leading thinkers in modern evolutionary biology, is also one of the best writers on the subject. The New York Times Book Review has hailed him as a writer who “understands the issues so clearly that he forces his reader to understand them too.” Check out our online store for many of Richard Dawkin’s books, lectures and DVDs.

His books The Selfish Gene, The Extended Phenotype, The Blind Watchmaker, and River Out of Eden in the Brockman Science Masters Series, have introduced the terms “Blind Watchmaker,” “Selfish Genes,” “Memes,” “Green Beards,” “Biomorphs,” “Arms Races, Sheriff Genes, and Outlaw Genes,” and “Mind Viruses” to both professional and popular audiences.

Recently, Dawkins lectured at Caltech as part of the Skeptics Society’s Distinguished Lecture Series. His lecture, now available on DVD, was based on his book The Greatest Show on Earth: the Evidence for Evolution.

Never one to shy away from controversy, here is what the man Wired magazine termed “the Bad Boy of Evolution” had to say to Skeptic (back in 1995) about Darwinism, extra-terrestrial life, religion as a virus of the mind, morality, politics, punctuated equilibrium, and the future of evolutionary biology.


Richard Dawkins

Darwin’s Dangerous Disciple
An Interview with Richard Dawkins

by Frank Miele

S keptic: In your latest book, River Out of Eden (lecture available on DVD), which is a best seller in the UK, you use deep-sea bacteria that metabolize sulfur (rather than oxygen) to illustrate how evolution takes place in a series of successive steps. Does the existence here on Earth of an alternative metabolic “fuel,” in some sense make it more probable that there could be life elsewhere in the universe, perhaps using a different base than carbon?

Dawkins: That’s surely got to be right, hasn’t it? You can speculate in a science fiction way about alternative bio-chemistries for life, but if you couldn’t find anything on Earth moving ever so slightly towards an alternative bio-chemistry, that would argue against the idea. But when you do find an alternative biochemistry for life here on Earth, that makes it more plausible that somewhere else in the universe there’s got to be an alternative form of life.

Skeptic: What then is the sine qua non of life? What raw materials and conditions are necessary for life to exist?

Dawkins: Well, you need raw materials that can self-replicate. I would have to be more of a chemist than I am to know how likely it is that you are going to get such molecules. I should very much like to direct chemists toward devising an alternative hypothetical chemistry that supports self-replication, a whole alternative system that could, in principle, give rise to life. The fundamental principle that will be required is self-replication. Chemists have begun to look at auto-catalytic functions in chemistry where at least some of the prerequisites are present. The sine qua non, as you say, is self-replication. I don’t know how difficult it would be to achieve that chemically.

Skeptic: How likely do you think it is that “intelligent” life exists somewhere else in the universe?

Dawkins: At first glance, one might think that the really difficult step is getting life at all. Then once natural selection has gotten going (since the origin of life is really the origin of natural selection), you can proceed by an orderly progressive sequence through the evolution of some kind of information processing apparatus on to intelligence. On the other hand, if you look at what’s actually happened on this planet, it probably took less than a billion years from the origin of the planet, under fairly unfavorable initial conditions, to produce life. But intelligence of a high order has only come about in the last couple of million years, perhaps. So it does seem that on this planet at least there has been a rather short interval from the origin of the planet to the origin of life and then a very, very long interval between the origin of life and the origin of intelligence.

Skeptic: Are you then saying that the origin of intelligence is the bigger step?

Dawkins: It’s not my inclination to say that, but this disparity in time scale is the only data we have. We only have one sample — life on this planet. But for that fact, my personal inclination would have been to suggest that the origin of intelligence is not that difficult once you’ve got life. I’m quite intrigued by the thought that maybe it’s the origin of life that’s not that difficult.

Skeptic: If so, what are the defining qualities of such “intelligence?” I’m thinking here of concepts such as Immanuel Kant’s list of apriori ideas — time and space, number, cause and effect. Could, for example, a form of life evolve in whose mental map time’s arrow went backwards, or in no specific direction?

Dawkins: As for what one means by intelligence, I haven’t really thought about that. You posed the hypothetical question, “Could there be a life form whose concept of time goes backward?” I can’t imagine what that would look like. But I haven’t thought about it enough.

Skeptic: Of other species we know about here on Earth, we’re very familiar with cats and dogs. I was always amazed (and delighted) how my dogs could coexist with me given that their set of sensory inputs was so different from mine — they see in black and white. They don’t have the level of stereoscopic vision that humans and apes do. They use scent and vision in approximately opposite proportions. Yet they can come up with an equivalent map of the world so that they can fetch the paper, protect us from intruders, comfort us in distress. What does this tell us about the evolutionary process and how it molds not only the bodies but the cognitive maps of different species?

Dawkins: That’s an intriguing point. One thing you could say about dogs is that they have been domesticated, and a good deal of the domestication has been an inadvertent selection for coexisting with humans. While their wild ancestors, the wolves, do have facial expressions and other gestures which they use to communicate with each other, it’s probable that domestic dogs have been selected to have more human feelings and facial expressions. So while dogs don’t smile, they do other things with their eyes that appeal to humans. Maybe they have been shaped to be a bit less wolf-like and a bit more human-like, not by deliberate artificial selection, but by artificial selection nonetheless.

Skeptic: In the 1930s, von Uexküll used the term Umwelt to describe the different “real worlds” that animals construct based upon their differing sensory systems. He even built mechanical devices to try and create their perceptual Weltanschauungen. He manufactured optical devices to simulate the compound eyes of insects to allow one to see “what they saw.” With virtual reality now a reality, we could certainly do such things at a more sophisticated level than von Uexküll did. Do you think this might be a potentially valuable line of research?

Dawkins: Von Uexküll used the concept of the Umwelt to explore the differences between the perceptual worlds of different animals. He tried to find a way to “think himself into” the Umwelt (the perceptual world) of a bee or a bat, for example, by seeing the polarization of light or by seeing into the ultraviolet range of the spectrum and thus probably not seeing images as we see images at all. I think it’s a very important thing to do that, partly as a metaphor for “getting outside yourself” and seeing another point of view. We have an immensely human-centered view of things such as ethics and morality. Even if we pay lip service to being evolutionists, many people still think according to the Judeo-Christian view that all things have been put on Earth for the benefit of humanity and that the only justification for scientific research is if it benefits humanity. I think it’s a salutary lesson to try to “think yourself into” the Umwelt of another species. But as I said in my talk last night before the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, I suspect that the perceptual world of other species possibly may not be as different from our own as you might think, even though they get their information through different physical media.

Skeptic: So then doesn’t natural selection force us to assume that time’s arrow flies in a certain direction? Doesn’t natural selection force us to operate on the basis of Kant’s a priori ideas and Piaget’s operations?

Dawkins: Yes, I agree with that.

Skeptic: In your speech the other night you said that the perceptual systems of animals represent the world as their near, or possibly even far, ancestors constructed them based upon natural selection. Can the world evolve faster than the sensory systems of the animals? Are many animals living today in a sensory world that no longer exists, as when the moth flies into the candle flame?

Dawkins: When a moth flies into a candle flame presumably it is responding to the candle flame as if were a celestial object at optical infinity and acting appropriately to that situation, not the one it is in fact currently facing. It frequently happens that the real world evolves faster than an animal’s cognitive map of it.

Skeptic: Does that ever happen to human beings?

Dawkins: Human beings are completely surrounded by the equivalent of “candle flames.” Notorious examples are our desire for sugar and fat — in nature the rule is, whenever you can get them, eat them. But when there’s a surplus of those substance, they become bad for you. Most of what we strive for in our modern life uses the apparatus of goal seeking that was originally set up to seek goals in the state of nature. But now the goal-seeking apparatus has been switched to different goals, like making money or hedonistic pleasures of one sort or another. Natural selection equips us with “Rules of Thumb,” which in a state of nature have the effect of promoting the survival of our selfish genes. The Rules of Thumb go on, even though in this world of “candle flames” they no longer promote our inclusive fitness.

Skeptic: Would you consider increasing population and war to be examples of candle flames?

Dawkins: Increasing population itself is not an individual behavior pattern. It’s a consequence of many things which are manifestations of individual behavior in a collective environment. To take a much simpler case, the dominance hierarchy is a manifestation of attacking and subservience between pairs of individuals, but the dominance hierarchy itself is not something that natural selection favors or disfavors. What natural selection favors or disfavors is the individual behavior of which the dominance hierarchy is a manifestation. I would put war and overpopulation in that category.

Skeptic: In River Out of Eden, you also say that, “Science shares with religion the claim that it answers deep questions about origins, the nature of life, and the cosmos. But there the resemblance ends. Scientific beliefs are supported by evidence, and they get results. Myths and faiths are not and do not” (p. 33). But doesn’t one first have to make the choice or decision to use pragmatism as the standard by which we judge? That is, we must first agree to base our decisions on what works, rather than on revelation or intuition. Isn’t the most we can ask of the religious crowd, “Either lay hands on flat tires and pray for the sick, rather than taking them to a mechanic or a doctor, or if you are not willing to be consistent, just shut up and go away?” Doesn’t the religious view amount to, “When we’re afraid, we seek God. When God doesn’t answer our prayers, blame it on the Devil?”

Dawkins: Yes, it’s a kind of pathetic, childish response to some failure.

Skeptic: Then could you say that the reason that evolutionism is resisted so strongly is that our minds evolved to think in terms of personalities and entities rather than in terms of processes?

Dawkins: Yes, it’s the idea that somebody has got to be responsible. It’s what children do — the petulant throwing the tennis racquet on the ground, blaming it for their bad shot. So is the reflex to sue somebody when you slip on the ice and sprain your ankle. Again, somebody has got to be blamed. It doesn’t occur to many people that nobody’s to blame, there’s just ice and it’s slippery and you fell down.

Skeptic: Along that line, you have the following passage in River Out of Eden: In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference (p.133). This sounds rather like physicist Steven Weinberg’s, “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless” (The First Three Minutes), or William Shakespeare’s “a tale told by an idiot, filled with sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Is that in fact your position?

Dawkins: Yes, at a sort of cosmic level, it is. But what I want to guard against is people therefore getting nihilistic in their personal lives. I don’t see any reason for that at all. You can have a very happy and fulfilled personal life even if you think that the universe at large is a tale told by an idiot. You can still set up goals and have a very worthwhile life and not be nihilistic about it at a personal level.

Skeptic: Well, if we don’t accept religion as a reasonable guide to “what is” or even a reasonable guide to “what ought to be,” does evolution give us such a guide? Can we turn to evolution to answer not what is, but what ought to be?

Dawkins: I’d rather not do that. I think Julian Huxley was the last person who attempted to. In my opinion, a society run along “evolutionary” lines would not be a very nice society in which to live. But further, there’s no logical reason why we should try to derive our normative standards from evolution. It’s perfectly consistent to say this is the way it is — natural selection is out there and it is a very unpleasant process. Nature is red in tooth and claw. But I don’t want to live in that kind of a world. I want to change the world in which I live in such a way that natural selection no longer applies.

Skeptic: But given the clay from which we are made, doesn’t natural selection make it relatively unlikely that some things will work? Doesn’t Darwinism undercut the great socialist hope, “Why, because we will it so!”?

Dawkins: Some goals may be unrealistic. But that doesn’t mean that we should turn around the other way and say therefore we should strive to make a Darwinian millennium come true.

Skeptic: But then isn’t what we ought to do (as David Hume argued long ago) just a matter of preference and choice, custom and habit?

Dawkins: I think that’s very likely true. But I don’t think that having conceded that point, I as an individual should then be asked to abandon my own ethical system or goals. I as an individual can adopt idealistic or socialistic or unrealistic or whatever sort of norms of charity and good will towards other people. They may be doomed if you take a strong Darwinian line on human nature, but it’s not obvious to me that they are.

Skeptic: I think that you are saying that many of the lessons of evolutionary biology about morality or ethics are contrary to what we might normally call morality or ethics in ordinary discourse. When we look back at the Old Testament and the New Testament, it seems there’s a lot about how to maximize one’s inclusive fitness. If that’s the case, do such religious views have anything to tell us?

Dawkins: If it is true that some of the morality of the Old Testament, say, maximizes somebody’s inclusive fitness, I don’t think that has anything to tell us about what we ought to do.

Skeptic: Then wouldn’t we be better to throw out all this half-baked religious mumbo jumbo and move on to something else?

Dawkins: Well yes, but that’s obvious!

Skeptic: Do you think that group fitness is a meaningful concept in evolutionary biology? If so, does it play a role in discussions of evolution and morality?

Dawkins: I think it’s logically meaningful, but I don’t think it plays a role in evolution in the wild and therefore it doesn’t play a role in anything else. I think it’s of no importance.

Skeptic: Can we use Darwinism and natural selection to analyze other events in history? To put it in its crudest form, if Hitler had won WWII would that have proved that his system was better (in a Darwinian sense) than that of the Allies? Or does the fact that the Soviet Bloc crumbled tell us anything about the relative fitness of market-based economies versus command economies. If might (or at least survival and reproduction) doesn’t make right (as well as everything else), what does?

Dawkins: I think it is not helpful to apply Darwinian language too widely. Conquest of nation by nation is too distant for Darwinian explanations to be helpful. Darwinism is the differential survival of self-replicating genes in a gene pool, usually as manifested by individual behavior, morphology, and phenotypes. Group selection of any kind is not Darwinism as Darwin understood it nor as I understand it. There is a very vague analogy between group selection and conquest of a nation by another nation, but I don’t think it’s a very helpful analogy. So I would prefer not to invoke Darwinian language for that kind of historical interpretation.

Skeptic: The publication of the controversial book, The Bell Curve, has set off yet another round in the seemingly never-ending nature-nurture (or heredity-environment) controversy. Is this in fact a false dichotomy? You had this passage in The Selfish Gene (1989, p. 37):

No one factor, genetic, or environmental, can be considered as the single ‘cause’ of any part of a baby. All parts of a baby have a near infinite number of antecedent causes. But a difference [original emphasis] between one baby and another, for example a difference in length of leg, might easily be traced to one or a few simple antecedent differences, either in environment or in genes. It is differences that matter in the competitive struggle to survive; and it is genetically-controlled differences that matter in evolution.

Doesn’t a passage like this indicate why E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology, The Bell Curve, and your own writings automatically set off a vehement, moralistic, and often hysterical reaction from a cadre of left-wing scientists?

Dawkins: On the face of it, I don’t know why you lump those three books together. When I was talking about genetic differences as being analyzable, that’s the position of any geneticist. All I was saying was that when you look at something like eye color in Drosophila (or indeed in humans), although there are hundreds of genes and environmental factors that enter into making an eye, nevertheless if there’s a one gene difference at a particular locus between two individuals, that can be the determining factor as to why that particular individual has a pink eye rather than a black eye. That is just straight genetics. You can’t get away from that. The reason why left-wing ideologues attack books like The Bell Curve has nothing to do with that. Those critics are concerned with issues like race and I never mention race. I don’t mind mentioning race, but it has nothing to do with what I was talking about.

Skeptic: But those same left-wing critics also attack your books.

Dawkins: But they don’t read them!

Skeptic: Well, you document examples of such attacks in the end notes to the 1989 edition of The Selfish Gene. Isn’t it just as ideological for Marxism to be brought in as an argument against genetic differences as it is to bring in Biblical fundamentalism as an argument against Darwinian evolution? Aren’t we dealing with religion, rather than science here?

Dawkins: I suspect that we may be. The reason I think so is that the criticisms in some cases just seem to be silly. They seem to be a hysterical reaction to a misunderstanding. It’s as though some people think that any mention of genes in the context of human behavior is somehow tainted with the tar of Social Darwinism and all the horrors that social scientists see in the history of their subject. So instead of just calmly and peacefully sitting down and thinking about what actually is the truth — “Are there genes that influence behavior?,” the immediate response is to flame up old fires of what once upon a time were important political issues. That kind of thing bores me rigid! I care about what’s actually true.

Skeptic: In a Darwinian sense, isn’t it somewhat meaningless to argue about any supposed displacement of “superior” beings by “inferior” beings, or that evolution “is going backwards.” Don’t such arguments turn Darwinism on its head?

Dawkins: Because whatever evolves is, by definition, superior? There’s nothing nonsensical about saying that what would evolve if Darwinian selection has its head is something that you don’t want to happen. And I could easily imagine trying to go against Darwinism. I don’t see why that’s inconsistent. I can easily imagine saying that in a Darwinian world, the fittest, by definition, are the ones that survive and the attributes that you need to survive in Darwinian sense are the attributes that I don’t want to see in the world. I can easily see myself fighting against the success of Darwinism prevailing in the world.

Skeptic: Shortly after publication of The Selfish Gene, you wrote a letter to the editor of Nature [the leading British science magazine, similar to Science here in the US], in which you stated that kin selection theory in no way provides a basis for understanding ethnocentrism. You said you made this statement, in part at least, to counter charges that were being made in the UK at that time by Marxist critics that Selfish Gene Theory was being used by the British National Front to support their Fascist ideology. In retrospect, do you think you went too far in trying to distance yourself from some would-be and very unwanted enthusiasts, or not far enough?

Dawkins: As to distancing myself from the National Front, that I did! The National Front was saying something like this, “kin selection provides the basis for favoring your own race as distinct from other races, as a kind of generalization of favoring your own close family as opposed to other individuals.” Kin selection doesn’t do that! Kin selection favors nepotism towards your own immediate close family. It does not favor a generalization of nepotism towards millions of other people who happen to be the same color as you. Even if it did, and this is a stronger point, I would oppose any suggestion from any group such as the National Front, that whatever occurs in natural selection is therefore morally good or desirable. We come back to this point over and over again. I’m definitely not one who thinks that “is” is the same as “ought.”

Skeptic: How do you evaluate the work of Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, J.P. Rushton, and Pierre van den Berghe, all of whom have argued that kin selection theory does help explain nationalism and patriotism?

Dawkins: One could invoke a kind “misfiring” of kin selection if you wanted to in such cases. Misfirings are common enough in evolution. For example, when a cuckoo host feeds a baby cuckoo, that is a misfiring of behavior which is naturally selected to be towards the host’s own young. There are plenty of opportunities for misfirings. I could imagine that racist feeling could be a misfiring, not of kin selection but of reproductive isolation mechanisms. At some point in our history there may have been two species of humans who were capable of mating together but who might have produced sterile hybrids (such as mules). If that were true, then there could have been selection in favor of a “horror” of mating with the other species. Now that could misfire in the same sort of way that the cuckoo host’s parental impulse misfires. The rule of thumb for that hypothetical avoiding of miscegenation could be “Avoid mating with anybody of a different color (or appearance) from you.” I’m happy for people to make speculations along those lines as long as they don’t again jump that is-ought divide and start saying, “therefore racism is a good thing.” I don’t think racism is a good thing. I think it’s a very bad thing. That is my moral position. I don’t see any justification in evolution either for or against racism. The study of evolution is not in the business of providing justifications for anything.

Skeptic: In The Extended Phenotype you talk about the Green Beard Effect, and last night Napoleon Chagnon, the President of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, actually dyed his beard green before introducing you. What is the Green Beard Effect and why do you mention it only to then dismiss it as being too improbable to be a factor in evolution?

Dawkins: I use The Green Beard Effect as a way of explaining kin selection. If you imagine a gene that has two pleiotropic effects that apparently have nothing to do with each other (and in practice that’s common enough), if one of its effects is to give somebody a label, such as the Green Beard, and the other is to give somebody a propensity to act altruistically towards individuals so labeled (that is, Green-Bearded individuals), then theoretically that gene will spread. The Green Beard Effect is a way in which a would-be selectively altruistic gene can recognize copies of itself in other individuals. That means that the gene can propagate itself by looking after copies of itself when it has the opportunity to do so. That’s relatively easy to understand. But as far as I know, in practice Green Beards don’t exist. But kinship is a kind of statistical Green Beard. Although your brother is not guaranteed to contain the gene that’s making you practice “fraternal” behavior towards him, the odds that he has that gene are statistically higher than the odds that a random member of the population has it. Kinship is therefore a statistically watered down version of the Green Beard Effect that actually works.

Skeptic: Could there be selection for a mechanism that would operate like this — “those who look like me, talk like me, act like me, are probably genetically close to me. Therefore, be nice, good, and altruistic to them. If not avoid them?” And could that mechanism later be programmed to say “be good to someone who wears the same baseball cap, the same Rugby colors, or whatever?” That is, could evolution have a produced a hardware mechanism that is software programmable?

Dawkins: I think that’s possible.

Skeptic: In his book, Complexity, Roger Lewin includes interviews with a number of evolutionary biologists. One of the topics they examine is progress. Is there a general tendency towards progress in terms of say, increasing neural complexity, increasing brain size, or increasing behavioral plasticity over the course of evolution? Or is this, as Stephen Jay Gould has termed it, a rather noxious concept that we should read out of evolutionary thinking?

Dawkins: I think that there has been an almost hysterical over-reaction against the concept of progress. I’ve been as against some mistaken interpretations of the concept of progress as anybody. I very, very strongly object to the idea that living creatures can be arranged on a ladder, a kind of phylogenetic scale, with humans at the top. Not only should we not treat humans as being on the top, we should not see the animal kingdom as being layered as we often do. All zoology textbooks present their chapters in the same order — you start with protozoa, then you move through the coelenterates, then the flatworms, then the round worms and so on. Certainly that interpretation of progress is just a logical error. Evolution is a branching tree and that’s all there is to it. However, it is another matter to say that there is no progressive evolution within one lineage as you go from the distant past, through the more recent descendants, up to the present. There very well could be such progress. To the extent that adaptation is to the a-biotic environment (such as the weather), you would expect no progress. Evolutionary change would simply track the weather. If it gets cold, you get a thick coat. If it gets hot, you shed your thick coat, and so on. To the extent that adaptations are to the biotic environment (that is, other organisms, rather than natural conditions), then it seems to me quite plausible that there is in fact a progressive arms race as I term it. The better a predator gets at running down prey, the more it pays the prey to shift resources into anti-predator adaptations and out of other aspects of life. There are always trade-offs in the economy of life. If the predators are getting really good at their job, it makes sense for the prey to shift resources (which admittedly could have been put into making more offspring), into making better legs for running or better sense organs for detecting the predators. The predators then shift their resources accordingly. Given the extraordinary elegance and beauty and complexity of the adaptations that we see all around us in living creatures, I think it’s ludicrous to deny that those are the result of progressive evolution. There has been progress.

Skeptic: In your most recent book, River Out of Eden, you try to clear up some misunderstandings about the First Mother and the First Father. Would you like to repeat them?

Dawkins: I refer to things like the belief that Mitochondrial Eve was, like the mythical Biblical Eve, the only woman on Earth. Nonsense, she could have been the member of a huge population. She’s simply the common ancestor of all living humans. Another error is to think that Mitochondrial Eve is our most recent common ancestor. She most certainly is not our most recent common ancestor. That distinction much more likely goes to a male. The reason for that is pure logic and it’s spelled out in River Out of Eden.

Skeptic: A few years ago, you and Stephen Jay Gould got in to a bit of an intellectual row about the question of punctuated equilibrium. By the time you wrote The Blind Watchmaker you seemed to say that more was made of the controversy by journalists than was warranted. What is your current position on this controversy?

Dawkins: I think that punctuated equilibrium is a minor wrinkle on Darwinism, of no great theoretical significance. It has been vastly oversold.

Skeptic: Why?

Dawkins: That’s a matter of individual psychology and motivation and not my province.

Skeptic: You also took a bit of flak for likening religion (I think specifically Catholicism) to a virus? Is that still your position?

Dawkins: Yes. I come to it through the analogy to computer viruses. We have two kinds of viruses that have a lot in common — namely real biological viruses and computer viruses. In both cases they are parasitic self-replicating codes which exploit the existence of machinery that was set up to copy and obey that kind of code. So I then ask the question, “What if there were a third kind of milieu in which a different kind of self-replicating code could become an effective parasite?” Human brains with their powerful communication systems seem to be a likely candidate. Then I ask, “What would it feel like if you were the victim of a mind virus?” Well, you would feel within your-self this deep conviction that seems to come from nowhere. It doesn’t result from any evidence, but you have a total conviction that you know what’s true about the world and the cosmos and life. You just know it and you’re even prepared to kill people who disagree with you. You go around proselytizing and persuading other people to accept your view. The more you write down the features that such a mind virus would have, the more it starts to look like religion. I do think that the Roman Catholic religion is a disease of the mind which has a particular epidemiology similar to that of a virus.

Skeptic: But couldn’t the Pope (or Evangelical Protestants for that matter), reply, “Look, we just have a terrific meme. It’s winning what you would describe as a Darwinian battle and you’re angry because you just don’t like it.”

Dawkins: Religion is a terrific meme. That’s right. But that doesn’t make it true and I care about what’s true. Smallpox virus is a terrific virus. It does its job magnificently well. That doesn’t mean that it’s a good thing. It doesn’t mean that I don’t want to see it stamped out.

Skeptic: So once again the discussion goes back to how do you determine whether something is good or not, other than by just your personal choice?

Dawkins: I don’t even try. You keep wanting to base morality on Darwinism. I don’t.

Skeptic: Given the number of popular and scientific controversies in which you have been involved, is there anything on which you have changed your mind, on which you’d like to correct the record, or which you see differently now than you did when you first became a household name?

Dawkins: Well, my second book, The Extended Phenotype, published in 1982 and summarized at the end of the second edition of The Selfish Gene, does downplay the role of the individual organism as the only vehicle of the genetic replicators. Previously, I rather blurred the distinction between vehicle and replicator. In The Extended Phenotype, I emphasize the distinction. I think I was right to say that fundamentally what is going on in natural selection is the differential survival of replicators. Replicators survive by virtue of their phenotypic effects upon the world. As it happens, it is a contingent fact that most of those phenotypic effects tend to be bound up in the vehicle (the particular individual body) in which the replicator (the gene) is housed. But that doesn’t have to be so. I use the didactic device of looking at animal artifacts like beaver dams, the effects of parasites on hosts, animal communications, and indeed all of the interactions in ecosystems as illustrations of the ways in which genes might in principle and sometimes in fact do insure their survival by exerting phenotypic effects outside of the body in which they reside. That’s a kind of change of mind. My original purpose in introducing the concept of memes really was not to produce a theory of culture, but rather to say that Darwinism doesn’t have to be tied to genes. It can work wherever you have a self-replicating code. We should actively be looking around for other examples of self-replicating codes which are “doing the Darwinian thing.” The important thing is not to get too hung up on genes when you’re doing your evolutionary biology.

Skeptic: What are the areas in biology into which Darwinism should be extended?

Dawkins: Sex is one that is being actively worked on. That is, the question of why it exists. Then there’s the embryological gap. In our Darwinism we postulate that there are genes for this and genes for that. We just leave the embryological causal link between genes and phenotype as a black box. We know that genes do, in fact, cause changes in phenotypes and that’s all we really need in order for Darwinism to work. But it would be nice to fill in the details of exactly what goes on inside the black box. To me, human consciousness is a deep, philosophically mysterious manifestation of brain activity and is in some sense a product of Darwinian evolution. But we don’t yet really have any idea how it evolved and where it fits into a Darwinian view of biology. I don’t know whether it will yield to a sudden flash of enlightenment, whether it will become one of those rather messy problems that never really get a proper solution, or whether it will eventually turn out that there never was a problem at all and that we were actually making up problems where there really weren’t any. From where I sit, it seems to be a deeply difficult problem that has always been a philosophical problem but which I think is ripe for a take-over by evolutionary biology once we think how to do it.

Skeptic: Thank you very much.

Glossary

ALLELE(S)
The alternative forms of a gene that can exist at a particular locus. Thus, A, B, and O are the alleles of the ABO blood group system; positive and negative are the alleles of the Rh system.
GREEN BEARD EFFECT
A term coined by Dawkins for the situation in which a gene has two effects (pleiotropy), one of which produces a recognizable phenotypic trait (the hypothetical Green Beard) and the other produces the tendency to manifest altruistic behavior toward others who also manifest that trait.
GROUP SELECTION (THEORY)
The theory that natural selection also operates at the level of the group and not just the individual organism.
INCLUSIVE FITNESS
The total reproductive success of an individual, including the proportionate success of his relatives based on the percentage of genes they share in common (100% for identical twins, 50% [on average] for siblings, parents, or offspring, 12.5% for first cousins, and so on).
KIN SELECTION (THEORY)
The selection of genes so as to cause individuals to favor their close genetic relatives as they are statistically likely to share genes in common. Often invoked to provide a neo-Darwinian explanation of behaviors such as altruism.
MEME(S)
A term coined by Dawkins for units of cultural inheritance, analogous to genes (the units of genetic transmission), which are acted upon by natural selection.
MITOCHONDRIA
The cell organelles that are the site of energy-releasing biochemical reactions. Mitochondria have their own DNA, which is passed through the female line only and thus is often used in tracing genetic lineages. MITOCHONDRIAL EVE, believed by some to be the common ancestor of all humans, was determined by analysis of mitochondrial DNA.
PHENOTYPE
The observed trait, morphological or behavioral, manifested by an organism. It is the product of the organism’s genotype and the environment in which the organism has developed.
PLEIOTROPY(-IC, -ISM)
The condition in which one gene produces two (or more) different phenotypic traits.
PUNCTUATED EQUILIBRIUM (THEORY OF)
The theory proposed by Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldridge that evolution can consist of long periods of stasis (no change), punctuated by short periods of rapid change (speciation events), rather than a steady series of small, incremental steps.

Editor’s note: The above interview, along with the John Hartung article on the evolution of in-group morality found in volume 3, number 4 (sold out), served as an introduction to volume 4, number 1 of Skeptic that featured a special section on the controversial field of evolutionary psychology in which human behavior — including and especially the human mind — is analyzed through a strict Darwinian paradigm. Proponents and critics spoke out on this and other controversies brewing in the general study of evolution.


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2 Comments »

2 Comments

  1. Rozmarija Grauds says:

    Re Do genes influence behavior? I wonder if Richard Dawkins has children! Having observed the diverse “moral compass” setting of my own siblings, and having had four children, very early in life one can observe whether a child has that perception of recognizing positive effects of community spirit, as it were. Sometimes, upon first meeting someone, there are visible signs of that person’s calculatng style, whether it is towards reciprosity and accountability, or if they sail under a pirate flag!

    • Dr Sidethink says:

      translation of above
      *********
      1. Dawkins seems to think that genes do not influeanc behavior.

      2. It is easy to see that blood relatives show diversity in social perception.

      3. Usually you can tell right away if someone is crafty but it is hard to tell whether that is a good or a bad way for them to be.
      ***********

      Dr Sidethink is not able to assemble this into a coherent message

      DUH???

      RJ P

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