Tag: Evolution

Dawkins’ Greatest Show on Earth

April 28, 2010 | By | Reply More
Dawkins’ Greatest Show on Earth

Richard Dawkins released The Greatest Show on Earth in November to really and truly assemble substantial amounts of understandable evidence in one place for those 40% of Americans who can’t stand to follow the evidence where it leads and for those of us who want the hordes to quit making excuses and to follow that evidence. I haven’t read Dawkins’ new book yet (though I own it), but Jerry Coyne has read it, and he reviewed it at The Nation.

Coyne begins his review by characterizing the absurdity of refusing to acknowledge evolution by natural selection. The situation is as bad as as this hypothetical:

Imagine for a moment that a large proportion of Americans–let’s say half–rejected the “germ theory” of infectious disease. Maladies like swine flu, malaria and AIDS aren’t caused by micro-organisms, they claim, but by the displeasure of gods, whom they propitiate by praying, consulting shamans and sacrificing goats. Now, you’d surely find this a national disgrace, for those people would be utterly, unequivocally wrong. Although it’s called germ theory, the idea that infections are spread by small creatures is also a fact, supported by mountains of evidence.

Coyne also describes Dawkins’ chapter setting forth powerful evidence illustrating that evolution is a tinkerer:

In a wonderful chapter called “History Written All Over Us,” Dawkins shows that animal anatomy is like a medieval palimpsest, carrying traces of our evolutionary ancestry. Human goose bumps, for instance, serve no function: they’re remnants of the muscles used by our mammalian ancestors–and our living relatives like cats–to erect their fur, making them warmer and giving enemies the illusion of greater size. Modern genome sequencing has also uncovered vestigial DNA: useless, broken genes that are functional in our relatives and presumably were too in our ancestors. Our own genome, for instance, harbors nonfunctional genes that, in our bird and reptile relatives, produce egg yolk. Embryology–the study of development–brings more proof to the table. The pharyngeal arches of the early, fishlike human embryo are derived directly from the gill arches of fish, though they go on to become, among other things, our larynx and eustachian tube.

Coyne has given us a well-written review. Now it’s time for me to go read Dawkins’ book itself, so I can speak first hand. BTW, Catch this excellent 3-minute video of Dawkins describing the purpose of writing The Greatest Show on Earth.


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Natural Selection does not pit science against religion

April 10, 2010 | By | 3 Replies More
Natural Selection does not pit science against religion

Michael Zimmerman is a biology professor at Butler University. In 2004, he decided that something needed to done about a big problem: Many well-funded politically-connected creationists were working hard to frame the evolution “controversy” in terms of “science versus religion,” in an attempt to pit all religions against all scientists. This is a false divide, however. It is an undeniable fact that many millions of religious people have concluded that evolution by natural selection is an enormously useful and elegant approach to understanding biology, including the study of human animals. This religious support of Darwin’s theory is clearly illustrated by stalwart scientists like Francis Collins and Kenneth Miller, who both happen to be religious.

Zimmerman founded the Clergy Letter Project to allow members of religious clergy to express their support for teaching evolution.

For too long, the misperception that science and religion are inevitably in conflict has created unnecessary division and confusion, especially concerning the teaching of evolution. I wanted to let the public know that numerous clergy from most denominations have tremendous respect for evolutionary theory and have embraced it as a core component of human knowledge, fully harmonious with religious faith.

How many members of the clergy have signed on as of today? More than 13,000.

There are actually three versions of the letter (Christian, Jewish and Unitarian Universalism). The Christian version declares that the “overwhelming majority” of Christians do not read the Bible “as they would a science textbook.” Therefore, for most Christians:

We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as “one theory among others” is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children. We believe that among God’s good gifts are human minds capable of critical thought and that the failure to fully employ this gift is a rejection of the will of our Creator. To argue that God’s loving plan of salvation for humanity precludes the full employment of the God-given faculty of reason is to attempt to limit God, an act of hubris. We urge school board members to preserve the integrity of the science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge. We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth.

At the Clergy Letter Project Website, you can even hear sermons in favor of Darwin.

At Huffpo, Michael Zimmerman uses this substantial religious support for the teaching of evolution by natural selection to combat claims by the Discovery Institute, and other creationists, that evolution supposedly pits science against religion:

I am completely opposed to them implying that all who are religious must agree with them. As I’ve said so often, the very existence of The Clergy Letter Project and the more than 13,000 clergy members who have affirmed that they are fully comfortable with both their faith and evolution makes a mockery of such ridiculous claims.

The next time you hear a creationist claiming that “God opposes evolution” or that “The Bible disproves evolution,” remind them that there are tens of thousands of sincere Christian clergy who treasure Darwin’s magnificent insights, and who serve as living proof that the fault-line of the controversy is not drawn between religion and science. Rather, the opposite sides of that fault-line are A) motivated ignorance and fear versus B) Well-informed, rigorous and skeptical scientific inquiry.


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Daniel Dennett: Why Darwin’s idea was the greatest ever

December 31, 2009 | By | Reply More
Daniel Dennett: Why Darwin’s idea was the greatest ever

In this terrifically engaging and accessible video interview, Daniel Dennett (talking with Richard Dawkins) explains his view that Darwin’s idea was the greatest idea ever. Dennett, who authored Darwin’s Dangerous Idea explains that natural selection unified the world of mechanism/material/physical and the world of meaning/purpose/goals which, until Darwin, seemed to be unbridgeable.

Many people feel that Darwin’s idea destroyed their sense of meaning, but Dennett argues that this “immaterial immortal soul” is a “crutch,” and that Darwin replaced that idea with that of a “material mortal soul.” Dennett describes our material souls as made of neurons. “They are blind little bio-robots . . . They don’t know; they don’t care; they are just doing their jobs.” If you put enough of these simple little bio-robots together, you end up with a soul. Out of these little bio-robots, you can assemble the control system of a complex organism. Simple little parts can self-organize into sentient being that can “look into the future . . . because we can imagine the world in a better way, and we can hold each other responsible for that.”

There’s no need to assume that a God implants any sort of soul. Rather, according to Dennett, a functional soul can “emerge” from soul-less little individual parts. The simple little parts don’t need to exhibit the functions and abilities of the assembled groups of parts, but this illusory jump is a huge stumbling block for many theists. They wonder how you can “make a living thing out of dead stuff,” but that is exactly what happens, “and that’s the wonder of it.” Science has also shown that you can also “make a conscious thing out of unconscious stuff.”

Over great periods of time, natural processes can constitute the design function that allows these incredible results we see in the world. It is not necessary that complex things need to be created by even more complex things. Darwin’s ideas destroyed this misconception and “this is a really stunning fact. Purpose can emerge from the bottom up.” The brain itself is a fast-paced evolutionary device; the learning process is a matter of generation and testing and pruning, over and over.

Dawkins asks Dennett to explain further how “cranes” (simple natural processes) can really account for the wonderful complexity of life in the absence of “sky-hooks” (supernatural beings). You could argue that our planet has grown a nervous system and it’s us. The above summarizes only the first ten minutes of the fifty-minute interview.

Numerous other topics are discussed in the video, including the following:

– Modern wars and strife constitute growing pains resulting from our being flooded with great amounts of information about each other. (15:00)

– Cultural evolution clearly exists. Languages and musical ideas evolve, for example, without anyone initially consciously “laying down the law.”

– Dennett’s recent brush with death (his aorta suddenly burst), resulting in many intriguing observations (21:00), including a deepened understanding of the phrase “thank goodness.” You can put goodness back into the world, “and you don’t need a middleman” (God). You can directly thank the doctors, nurses and medical journalists, the peer reviewers and the entire scientific enterprise that allows elaborate cures such as artificial aortas. According to Dennett, don’t bother thanking God, “go plant a tree, go try to teach somebody something . . . let’s make the world better for our children and our grandchildren.”

– Dennett elaborates on being part of this elaborate social and scientific fabric, this complex exploratory process. He finds this view much more inspiring that the idea that he is “a doll made by God . . . to pray to him.” (24:00)

– The scientific process is double-edged, exacerbated by the Internet. We can’t tightly control this information, and their effects might be detrimental. We need to think “epidemiologically” about this possibility, and to better prepare people to deal with the ideas gone awry to protect them. (26:00) Knowledge can be a “painful process,” yet we need to honor other people to make their own considered decisions.

– Darwin offers some consolation regarding our impending deaths: that they had the opportunity to walk on this planet “for awhile.” (29:00) Dawkins adds that it is a huge privilege to have been born, in that “you are lucky to have had anything at all . . . stop moaning.” Dennett adds that we are not aghast at the thought that there were many years that passed before we were born when we were also not alive . . . it shouldn’t bother us that we will someday again no longer be alive. Our grief at someone’s death is a measure of how wonderful someone was.

– The urge to thank someone for the many good things in one’s life is a great temptation for believing in God. (33:00). Dawkins argues that contemplating that amazing process that gave rise to you “is better than thanking because it is a thoughtful thing to do . . . You’re not just thanking your Sky-Daddy.” He argues that the urge to thank should be “sublimated” into the drive to understand how it all happened. Atheists, too, can feel the sense of “awe.” Dennett exclaims, “Hallelujah! It’s just spectacular. It’s so wonderful! The universe is fantastic!” Dawkins adds, “Hallelujah for the universe and for the fact that we . . . are working on understanding it.”

This June 2009 video is uncut; it is the full Dennett interview by Richard Dawkins. Parts of this interview were used in a British television documentary entitled “The Genius of Charles Darwin.”


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Gifts that tell good stories

December 25, 2009 | By | 1 Reply More
Gifts that tell good stories

Geoffrey Miller has written an extraordinary book, Spent, that challenges us to recognize that our ubiquitous efforts to decorate ourselves and others with goods and services are primarily to project image and status. (and see here and here) “Many products are signals first and material objects second.” The result is that we often engage in a vast orgy of spending mostly to look good in the eyes of others.

What does this have to do with Christmas? We humans are also creatures who are always looking for shortcuts. Many of us have deliberately chosen to work long hours as part of “career” choices in order to make more money. Most of us who have who have made extra money as a result of those long hours at the office would much rather burn off some of that money at a store than to spend our severely limited amounts of time creating goods or providing services. We’d like to believe that our gift-giving is a display of our good intentions and of who we are, but as Miller points out, the store-bought gifts so many of us buy serve only to display only a narrow range of qualities regarding who we are:

Buying new, real, branded, premium products at full price from chain-store retailers is the last refuge of the unimaginative consumer, and it should be your last option. It offers low narrative value–no stories to tell about interesting people, places, and events associated with the product’ design, provenance, acquisition, or use. It reveals nothing about you except your spending capacity and your gullibility, conformism, and unconsciousness as a consumer. It grows no physical, social or cultural roots into your local environment. It does not promote trust, reciprocity, or social capital. It does not expand your circle of friends and acquaintances. It does not lead you to learn more about the convention, manufacture, operation, or maintenance of the things around you.

Retail spending reveals such a narrow range of traits: the capacities to earn, steal, marry, or inherit wealth, and the perceptual memory and media access required to spend the wealth on whatever is advertised most avidly now.

(p. 271 ff). Those who procure gifts with a moment’s thought or two, and with the help of credit cards, often fail in their attempts to impress. Retail spending pointedly fails:

[a]s a costly, reliable signal of one’s dedication to a particular person (in the case of gifts), or to a particular acquisition (in the case of things bought for self display).

Miller reminds us that creating something yourself speaks much more loudly than a premade thing purchased at retail. The proof is that gifts which require personal time and creativity make much better “stories” to tell to family and friends.

I largely agree with Miller, though I think that retail spending can make a compelling story in some circumstances. For instance, what if someone has limited financial means, yet digs deeply in order to purchase a nonfrivolous gift that another person truly needs (e.g., assume that someone of limited means provided a student with books that were desperately needed for a coming semester).

During the Christmas season, however, Miller’s version of retail spending is a common occurrence. Most of us patronize retail stores in order to send out ready-made gifts. This much is not disputed. What can be disputed in an interesting way, is why . Many people would claim that we give gifts to each other because we “care about” or “love” each other. Miller’s writings dig several levels deeper, recognizing that we are human animals who have come equipped with deeply felt needs to display our traits to each other, and that we resort to retails gift giving to serve these deep urges. In other words, Miller resource to biology rather than folk psychology:

Biology offers an answer. Humans evolved in small social groups in which image and status were all important, not only for survival, but for attracting mates, impressing friends, and rearing children.

(p. 1). During this Christmas season, and at all other times of the year, it is fascinating to re-frame the widespread displays of gift-giving as anciently-honed and deeply-rooted biological impulses geared to ensure survival.

For more, consider this post, entitled “Shopping for Sex” and this post on The Church of Stop Shopping.


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Warning: Gravity is “Only a Theory”

October 13, 2009 | By | Reply More
Warning: Gravity is “Only a Theory”

This is a very funny satirical critique of the Theory of Gravity using many of the arguments that people will use to discount evolution. It was written by Ellery Schemp, the noted physicist who is also known as an activist for the separation of church and state.

From Wiki:

On November 26, 1956, Ellery staged a protest against the school requirement that each student read 10 Bible passages and the Lord’s Prayer each day during homeroom. Instead, Ellery brought a copy of the Qur’an and read from that. For this, he was sent to the Principal’s office. With the help of his father, Edward Schempp, and the American Civil Liberties Union, they sued the Abington School district over their policy of mandatory Bible readings.

One of the things I found especially interesting about this article is that I discovered it on an Evangelical Apologetics website in the Philosophy section!

Warning: Gravity is “Only a Theory”

The Universal Theory of Gravity is often taught in schools as a “fact,” when in fact it is not even a good theory.

First of all, no one has measured gravity for every atom and every star. It is simply a religious belief that it is “universal.” Secondly, school textbooks routinely make false statements. For example, “the moon goes around the earth.” If the theory of gravity were true, it would show that the sun’s gravitational force on the moon is much stronger than the earth’s gravitational force on the moon, so the moon would go around the sun. Anybody can look up at night and see the obvious gaps in gravity theory.

Read the rest of this article here.


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Scientist finds all missing links. Evolution proved. Churches scheduled to close.

October 13, 2009 | By | 7 Replies More
Scientist finds all missing links. Evolution proved. Churches scheduled to close.

Assimulated Press – Tempe, Arizona

In a discovery that not even the most optimistic scientist would ever have predicted, all of the transitional forms necessary to prove that evolution is indeed a fact have been found in one location. In a strange twist of fate, it was a Creationist scientist who found the fossils.

Uncovered over the course of several years at one extensive archeological dig in Arizona were all the so-called “missing links” needed to show that man has indeed evolved from simpler primate ancestors and that we are kin to all other primates, mammals and indeed every living thing on the planet.

At a press conference on Monday, chief archeologist Matthew Christiansen of the Creation Science Foundation stated, “I really didn’t expect to find these fossils. Genesis says that we were created separate from the animals but even I can’t deny this evidence. People can now stop saying that evolution is ‘only a theory’ because it isn’t. It’s a fact. We now have all the complete sets of fossilized transitional forms that we need. There are no gaps. This case is closed.”

The news has sent Jewish synagogues and Christian churches around the world into a frenzy. Rabbi Eli Weinstein of the Beth Shalom Israel synagogue in New York put it this way, “Those of us who accepted the traditional account of seven day creation as true are devastated. Proof of evolution means that Genesis is wrong which means that God doesn’t exist. I guess I’m out of a job!”

[More . . . ]


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David Sloan Wilson suggests truth and reconciliation process for the group selection combatants

October 7, 2009 | By | 2 Replies More
David Sloan Wilson suggests truth and reconciliation process for the group selection combatants

I’ve repeatedly posted on the concept of “group selection.” One of the biggest proponents of group selection,” David Sloan Wilson, doesn’t believe the concept has had a fair hearing by biologists. He’s got a point. Many of the discussions of group selection theory have been marked by name-calling rather than calm scientific discussion. D.S. Wilson has now taken the unusual step of publishing his defense of group selection in a series of posts at Huffington Post. In the first installment (published December 27, 2008), D.S. Wilson advocates for a “truth and reconciliation” process.

It is precisely because I am such an idealist about science that I am calling for a truth and reconciliation process for group selection. Something has to change. The controversy didn’t need to drag on for decades and it will continue for decades more unless something deliberate is done. The goal is to be constructive–to heal rather than aggravate old wounds. Yet, even healing can be painful, for scientific conflict no less than political conflict. Another reason to initiate a truth and reconciliation process is because group selection is arguably the single most important concept for understanding the nature of politics from an evolutionary perspective.

I learned of D.S.Wilson’s Huffpo series today while attending a lecture by Mark Borello, a historian of science who was giving a talk at Washington University. The title to his talk says it all: “Evolutionary Restraints: The Contentious History of Group Selection from Darwin to E.O. Wilson.” In the post-talk discussion, a general consensus was reached that the pro- and anti- group selection contingents have been talking past each other for decades, yet it is difficult to sort out why they argue so passionately. Don’t both groups have access to the same facts? The philosophers at today’s talk suspect that the problem is that the different camps come to the debate armed with different conceptions of causation. That seems correct to me too, but . . . still . . . why can’t we see eye to eye? Or, at least, why can’t we agree on what it is we disagree about?

What is the main difficulty with group selection? D.S.Wilson presents it in his second installment at Huffpo:

[C]onsider some standard examples of social adaptations: the good Samaritan, the soldier who heroically dies in battle, the honest person who cannot tell a lie. We admire these virtues and call them social adaptations because they are good for others and for society as a whole–but they are not locally advantageous. Charitable, heroic, and honest individuals do not necessarily survive and reproduce better than their immediate neighbors who are stingy, cowardly, and deceptive.

Do you see the problem? The individuals who exhibit altruism often don’t pass on their genes to the next generation. Their good works, which undoubtedly improve the prospects of the others in their group, often fail to benefit the altruistic individual, evolutionarily speaking.

Most behaviors that we call prosocial require time, energy, and risk on the part of the prosocial individual. Most behaviors that we call antisocial deliver an immediate benefit to the antisocial individual. If most antisocial behaviors are locally advantageous and most prosocial behaviors are locally disadvantageous, then we have an enormous problem explaining the nature of prosociality, including the nature of human morality, from an evolutionary perspective.

The above paragraphs are the background of group selection in a nutshell. The contentiousness of the issue suggests why D.S.Wilson is suggesting a “truth and reconciliation process” rather than a calm review of scientific facts. He has already published 14 installments at Huffpo (you can see the list of links here). Or, if you want to get a big dose all at once, consider reading “Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology,” by D.S. Wilson and E.O.Wilson (no relation). It was published in December 2007 by the Quarterly Review of Biology and it can be found online here. BTW, D.S. Wilson’s co-author, eminent entomologist E.O.Wilson, now 80-years old, has made a recent dramatic conversion to group selection, after being a group selection skeptic most of his life. Here is what E.O. Wilson said in an interview published by Discover Magazine:

EOW: I’m taking the idea of kin selection, and I’ve critiqued it. Kin selection is the idea that cooperation arises, especially in the eusocial insects—bees, wasps, ants, termites—because of individuals favoring collateral kin: not just Mom and Dad or your offspring but, just as important, brother, sister, cousin, and so on.

D: So you cooperate with close kin because it helps get some of your shared genetic heritage into future generations.

EOW: I found myself moving away from the position I’d taken 30 years ago, which has become the standard theory. What I’ve done is to say that maybe collateral kin selection is not so important. These ants and termites in the early stages of evolution—they can’t recognize kin like that. There’s very little evidence that they’re determining who’s a brother, a sister, a cousin, and so on. They’re not acting to favor collateral kin. The new view that I’m proposing is that it was group selection all along, an idea first roughly formulated by Darwin.

D: The notion of group selection is heresy, is it not, in the current thinking about evolution?

EOW: Yes. I’m being provocative again, because this is a radical departure.

To jump ahead, the general solution (according to D.S.Wilson and E.O.Wilson) was anticipated by Darwin, and it consists of a

return to the simplicity of the original problem and Darwin’s solution. As Ed Wilson and I put it in our recent review article titled “Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology”: Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.

This battle over the viability of group selection theory is heating up, just as it has been heating up for decades. This is a fascinating topic for the reasons D.S.Wilson suggests: group selection theory is potentially a powerful tool for understanding those two perenially hot topics: religion and politics.

I’ll be working my way through D.S.Wilson’s Huffpo articles and posting on them from time to time. From my reading of D.S. Wilson’s prior works (including Darwin’s Cathedral), he is a terrific writer and thinker. Even if he can’t hit the grand slam, I’m hoping that he can put his finger on exactly why the opposing camps disagree. That would be a good start, indeed.


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Daniel Dennet discusses “The Computational Perspective” to evolution

September 30, 2009 | By | 1 Reply More
Daniel Dennet discusses “The Computational Perspective” to evolution

Edge.org recently posted Daniel Dennett’s discussion of “The Computational Perspective.” At the linked site, you’ll find the video of Dennett’s lecture, along with Dennett’s PowerPoint slides. Dennett’s focus was whether things that are more complex can result from less complex things. Dennett assures us that the answer is yes, and that this is exactly what Darwin demonstrated. darwin-insight-we-dont-need-to-know-how-to-make-machines This same principle was demonstrated by Alan Turing: turing-insight The net result is “competency without comprehension.” For the second half of his talk, Dennett applied this same principle to the magnificent aspects of human culture, including the words of our languages, which have “tremendous replicative power.” culture Dennet concludes that humans are the effect of the purposes of life, not the causes. We tend to project our views back onto nature, and we have the capacity to “discover the reasons everywhere in the tree of life.” Looking forward, we are also “the first intelligent designers of the Tree of Life.” At the this same page at Edge.org, you can also view 45-minute lectures regarding evolution by Alvaro Fischer, Leda Cosmides, John Tooby, Steven Pinker, Matt Ridley, Helena Cronin, Nicholas Humhrey, Ian McEwan.


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Religious rituals are adaptive BECAUSE they are onerous

September 22, 2009 | By | 3 Replies More
Religious rituals are adaptive BECAUSE they are onerous

As evidenced by various posts at this site, I have long been intrigued by the idea that religious rituals are adaptive in that they constitute expensive displays of group loyalty. I recently found a 2004 article by anthropologist Richard Sosis, who has come to this same conclusion. His article, which was published in 2004 by American Scientist (Volume 92), is entitled “The Adaptive Value of Religious Ritual.” Sosis holds that “rituals promote group cohesion by requiring members to engage in behavior that is too costly to fake.” He thus argues that religious rituals are adaptive in an evolutionary sense.

Sosis begins his article by surveying various tedious or grueling religious rituals. His examples include ultraorthodox Jews who wear stiflingly hot clothing in the hot summer, but it also includes Moonies who shave their heads and “Jain monks of India [who] wear contraptions on their heads and feet to avoid killing insects.” The list also includes various types of surgical alteration including circumcision and Native American religious rituals that include icy baths, and one ritual that requires the person to lie motionless while being bitten by hordes of ants.

The questions raised by these rituals include A) why do people engage in such practices? and B) Is it “rational” to do such things to one’s self? Sosis relies upon the research done by “a new generation of anthropologists” in concluding that

The strangeness of religious practices and their inherent costs are actually the critical features that contribute to the success of religion as a universal cultural strategy . . . To understand this unexpected benefit we need to recognize the adaptive problem that ritual behavior solves.


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