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mercoledì 26 gennaio 2011

A propos of evolutionary psychology


[ I wrote this about a week ago, it could be updated regarding the specific discussion I'm referring to, this time, but the general points stand on their own, I think ]

I have always found very annoying all the evo-psy-bashing that typically goes on in any online community of mildly left-wing intellectuals.
It's typical, because anybody who is a liberal or a femminist, or both, has bought to some extent into the Stephen Jay Gould's bullshit about sociobiology being a right-wing conspiracy to keep the world going as it is in the interest of the white male capitalists...
Luckily for myself, I've never really been neither a liberal nor a femminist, and I've not broken with my ancient Marxist mode of thought only in order to accept some other ideology, thank you.
The amount of research that has been generated by the pro-sb/pro-ep scientists is so huge that it's really hard to sift through it. (A book like "Genes in Conflict" by Robert Trivers and Austin Burt, 2006, is a clear example). A certain amount of this research is obviously biased, or it could be just plain wrong; and there are always opportunists who are trying to build or enhance their own career with an apt use of sensationalism. But if you compare that research not simply with the "Dialectical Biologist" school of thought, but even with the rest of research into human behaviour, Evo-psy doesn't come out too badly.

As an outsider, and furthermore as someone who has approached it with extreme prejudice, surrounded by voices clamouring against it, I find it perversely fascinating to try and figure out why all this bru-ha-ha.

I'll try to address a couple of issues.

Why does it irk so much other evolutionists?
Why almost to a man (or a woman) its opponents have to resort to distortions to describe evo-psy?
How come some of the most brilliant minds around are favourable to it, if it so patently wrong, as its opponents claims?

The short answer to all three question is very unpleasant, but probably true: because evo-psy doesn't let anybody's pet left-wing ideology (or bias) untouched. If Darwin's theory can be regarded as the "universal acid" (Dennett) that upsets every teleological claim to mankind's special place in the universe; similarly, evo-psy undermines the whole complex of what it calls "SSSM", which includes the entire development of social sciences in the West for the past century and a half.

Not that you needed evo-psy for that, actually. Reality should be enough. Think of how much Freudianism has been discredited in recent decades; on a smaller scale, perhaps, think of the way Margaret Mead's resurrection of Rousseau's "noble savage" theories has been savaged recently. Not to mention the overwhelming crumbling of Marxism as a viable weltanschauung. There you have it: facts have torn apart some of the pillars of this mushy leftism ideology, which stands exposed as wishful thinking, at best, or at worst as a tool for the continuation of the long tradition of authorities stifling the search for knowledge. "Whatever is not in line with the lofty principles that we stand for, is to be suppressed". Just think of this: even fascism stood for lofty principles, IN ITS OWN UNDERSTANDING OF THINGS....
Nobody, really, claims to be in favour of bad and evil stuff. It's usually just "a necessary evil for the good of the cause".
And yes, I agree so much with Mead and Boas that one should have put a stop to the horrid racism that pervaded "anthropology" until then. Just like I agree with Freud and Jung that one has to go into the minds of human beings to try and understand how we function. And I even agree with Marx and Trotsky that there are working people who are "exploited" by those who own the banks and the factories, and that one should take the side of the oppressed against the oppressors.
But how much have these great people also contributed to prevent further studying and understanding, whenever this seemed to contradict their views?

Now, evo-psy (which is not just sociobiology under a different name, but certainly takes its starting point there) has done a number of extremely valuable things, precisely because it provides a methodology that puts to rest not only those theories which have already gone into the dust, but that also enables us to question any other ideology, including evo-psy itself, whenever it comes to that!

Take the question of the accumulated knowledge of mankind, not as it is written in changing textbooks and described in books about the history of philosophy and science, but rather as it has percolated through the ages orally, and is partially studied in books talking about Folkbiology, Folkphysics, and so on. The "Folk" prefix indicating that is knowledge transmitted from generation to generation by way of examples and tales.

One of the strongest points of evo-psy is precisely its way of putting the entire stretch of human existence on this planet (our human and non-human predecessors not excluded) as something that has crucially shaped who we are and what we are – not making an exception for our behaviours.

This is the heart of evo-psy. Every evolutionist who opposes it, every atheist who is at pains to find faults with it, leaving aside any personal additional bias, does it for one reason only: because evo-psy blows out of the water any semi-religious (or teleological) notion that humans are somehow "special", ie. so different and detached from the rest of the natural world that we can maintain a dualistic view of nature: human/non-human; spiritual/material; divine/bestial, and so on and so forth.

It's easy to retort that an atheist doesn't really hold a "dualistic view of nature", unlike, say, a believer in God or Allah or Jehovah – for them it's an undebatable "given". Yet, we have all been raised in societies where such religious views were dominant or prominent – but even if we grew up in a non-religious family or community, you bet they held on to some kind of teleological approach, say a strong belief in the role of the working class as an emancipating force for all mankind.

And truly, it's a sliding scale of dualistic views. None of these ideologies puts us in our real place in nature. Darwin's theory smashed open the big fortress – which is why all religionists either hate it or have to build some secondary wall to keep it at bay – and evo-psy simply shows you that there is no way for you to build any such wall unless you are prepared to recant Darwin or Newton or Galileo.

Arguments from authority are shunned in the scientific community. Then people call your attention to an important article by so-and-so... which you are supposed to read because it was written by so-and-so. (Can I say it's more often a ruse or a pretense than a real thing?)

But as I don't formally belong in the scientific community, I can put up my feet on the table and into the plate. To me Dawkins, Dennett and Pinker, or Trivers, Hamilton and Williams, or E.O. Wilson, Mayr and Dobzhansky were obscure names until I read their books, and then started seen them referencing one another, as well as other scientists. And one the nicest things I read was Mayr's trashing of Gould's objections to "adaptationism" in his "How to carry out the adaptationist program".
And, hey, it's hard to find many serious scientists in opposition to sociobiology. In fact, it boils down to Gould and his ideologically-motivated friends and fans. Read how Meyr, who actually liked Gould a lot (he was one of his best students ever, I gather), makes mincemeat of Gould's supposed strong points, while including in very diminished form Gould's contribution to Darwin's theory -- which Gould had initially put forward in the early 1970s as some kind of revolution that went beyond (or against?) Darwin -- and his creationist admirers jumped on this right away.
Wikipedia's entry on Dawkins includes this terse summary: "In a set of controversies over the mechanisms and interpretation of evolution (the so-called 'Darwin Wars'), one faction was often named after Dawkins and its rival after the American paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, reflecting the pre-eminence of each as a populariser of pertinent ideas. In particular, Dawkins and Gould have been prominent commentators in the controversy over sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, with Dawkins generally approving and Gould generally being critical. (...) Two other thinkers on the subject often considered to be allied to Dawkins are Steven Pinker and Daniel Dennett; Dennett has promoted a gene-centred view of evolution and defended reductionism in biology" (retrieved on 26-1-2011).
[ end of part one ]

sabato 8 gennaio 2011

THE MILLER/MORRIS DEBATE (1981) available on the net

This piece of info from the NCSE is very useful. In light of my project, it's noteworthy that Miller's religious approach is an obvious target. Not that one has to "convince" him of the falseness of his beliefs, but the way in which he shapes it, clearly allowing him to be such a fine defender of evolution against creationism, is the kind of "strong(er) argument for religion" that has to be fought against in order to prepare the ground for a world free from religion.
Obviously it has to be fought against in an intelligent way (as opposed to a "dicky way"!) not only because this man is an ally in another segment of the battle for reason, but also because doing so will mean that a deeper understanding of his motives must be attained. This is not a cop out, or an attempt to find a common ground with religious people in the spirit of NOMA or something like that, quite the contrary.
If Darwinism (here used as a shorthand for "skeptical way of thinking") is a "universal acid" that leaves nothing unscathed, no rational chemist would just splatter it all over the place at random. Its use must be thoughtful and well-timed, not to mention in the right place...

+++
A debate on evolution versus creationism at Brown University in 1981 was so popular that the event had to be held in the largest building on campus -- a hockey rink. There's no need for skates and sticks, though: the debate between Kenneth R. Miller and Henry M. Morris is now available from NCSE. A transcript is posted on NCSE's website, and the complete audio, with illustrations, is posted on NCSE's YouTube channel.

The debate was memorable for both participants. In a 2000 review of Miller's Finding Darwin's God (HarperCollins, 1999), Morris wrote, "He was clearly the most superficially convincing protagonist against creationism I ever encountered in my more than 30 creation/evolution debates," while Miller often -- as in the Brown alumni magazine in 2005 -- credits the debate with inspiring his passion for the creationism/evolution controversy.

NCSE is grateful to Kenneth R. Miller and Henry Morris III of the Institute for Creation Research for their permission to post the debate and the transcript, and to Robert L. Camp, Richard B. Hoppe III, Jason Rosenhouse, and Christopher Nedin for helping to transcribe the debate. At NCSE, Glenn Branch compiled and proofread the transcript, Robert Luhn processed the audio, and Steven Newton selected the YouTube illustrations.

For the transcript, visit:
http://ncse.com/creationism/general/miller-morris-debate-1981

For the audio version, visit:
http://www.youtube.com/user/NatCen4ScienceEd

For Morris's review of Miller's book, visit:
http://www.icr.org/article/finding-evolutionists-god/

For the story in the Brown alumni magazine, visit:
http://www.brownalumnimagazine.com/content/view/386/40/ 

domenica 2 gennaio 2011

A project for the New Year

A new year has begun and I have decided to commit myself to do a number of things.
An important project is to undertake a study of some of the most powerful defenses of religion that can be found nowadays, and collect the materials that skeptics, atheists and freethinkers have written to counter them.
I don't know why but I'm under the impression that something isn't quite right, I get the feeling that people in our camp have been addressing our weaker adversaries.
What do I mean by that?
Well, many people have taken up various arguments by ID proponents, and dismantled them bit by bit. A nicely done job, and some of it required a fair amount of knowledge of mathematics and physics, which is not widely available. But ID is basically a fake, a big bubble of creationism covered by a veneer of (pseudo)scientific jargon.
Richard Dawkins, probably the guy I look up to the most nowadays, has written "The God Delusion" and "The Greatest Show on Earth". He has also done a two-part TV program for British TV, "The Root of All Evil?"
Wonderful stuff, but he took on some of the worst and quirkiest religious nuts that America can offer today. And then he went after the IDers.
Sam Harris, who might very well be one of the smartest people around, has gone into the fight both with "The End of Faith" and "Letter to a Christian Nation", where he has underlined the need to avoid excessive tolerance toward religions and religious thought in general (where "excessive" really means "any")
Right, this is an approach which is crucial in this battle of ideas.
However, I think he was mainly addressing us non-theists, urging us not to be too conciliatory. And while I agree entirely with him, something seems missing.
Furthermore what has gone into action in this new century is a broad skeptical/atheist movement which is expanding rapidly, and which includes, thankfully, a large number of younger men and women* . This is very important, otherwise just by looking at the leading proponents of the so-called "New Atheism" (all men, average age over 60), the future would not look too bright.
Now this broader movement of younger people, whose experience is obviously relatively small, but which is eager to learn and move forward (and multiply...),  should arm itself theoretically with the materials that can prepare the ground to conduct this battle for a long time, and also for the future generations.
Concretely, I think that this requires essentially two things.
The first one is challenging all the established churches, and this is already happening with a wide range of option (up to and including Pastafarianism, for instance). 
The second one is to dissect the best arguments of our best opponents, and they are not the IDers or any religious fundamentalist sect/church, but rather the most leftist/liberal elements in the religious movement. Those very same people that are often our allies in fighting IDers and suchlike. In some cases, they are even part of this broader (skeptic, secular) movement, and my point is NOT that they should be driven away.
Clearly, this kind of educational discussion can't be done with blunted tools, or in an haphazard fashion, or behaving "like dicks".
We need to engage them in a serious and respectful discussion -- precisely because they are mainly sane and almost entirely rational people -- and what they do (or did) is/was providing a means to integrate elements of modernity into the ancient historic or middle-ages myths that are at the heart of every religion. 
While we may regard their approach as spurious or eclectic, they likely do not, and consider themselves simply as contemporary proponents of Christianity (or Judaism or even Islam). In particular, a thorough critique of Buddhism, especially in its most sophisticated forms, is absolutely necessary, as many intelligent people, who are otherwise quite free of dogmatic baggage, seem to take it seriously.
These people are those that we could consider pro-NOMA from within religion. I use this formulation, because while there are plenty of critiques of pro-NOMA scientists and intellectuals who happen to be atheists, I'm not sure that these "pro-NOMA religionists" have been even recognised as such, and probably have not been criticized.**  
As I am writing this with the intent to undertake a study of the field, it may very well be the case that I'm entirely wrong, that no such "progressive religious people" exist, or that whatever they have written it has already been dealt with. Or a combination of the two. 
I don't know, but I intend to find out.***

P.S.: Another project is to write the item announced a few weeks ago. See below in this blog. Hopefully this will be easier...

* The figures for the expansion of groups like the SSA, for instance, are quite significant. But in general there are new secular coalitions and initiatives all over the USA/North America and Europe/Australasia.
** Stephen J. Gould was the original proponent of this "Non-Overlapping MAgisteria" nonsense (the idea is quite older, though). Michael Ruse still pedlles it. Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins have been in the forefront of the polemics against this. The late Pope Woytila, no less, could be regarded as some kind of supporter of this view from within the religious system.
*** Here is the methodological rationale for this project. Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) was a prominent Italian Communist, who spent the last twelve years of his life in a fascist prison. During that time he wrote a large amount of guarded (at times cryptic) annotations, which have been published after the end of the war in Italy and elsewhere. 
When I used to be a Marxist I have never been particularly fond of Gramsci, for several reasons, and this has not changed lately.
However, in his critique of Bukharin he made a point which is quite valuable methodologically, and that can find applications outside of the concrete frame of reference that he addressed. As I can't find the exact quote, here is the gist of his critique of a book where Bukharin took upon himself the job of explaining the basics of Marxism, by polemicizing with his critics. Gramsci felt that Bukharin had severely undermined his own aims, by choosing to attack some of the weaker opponents, while he should have taken up the arguments of the strongest opponents; because only when the most powerful views countering yours have been dealt with, you can consider your job done.

venerdì 3 dicembre 2010

Yes, I am a mutant slime-snake-monkey-person!

If you take the opportunity to follow a few scientifically-minded and skeptical blogs, you'll find things that look and sound pretty strange.
Sounds terrifying, doesn't it?
Well, it makes reference to an “exchange” with one of those bizarre fundamentalist Christian creatures that inhabits vast parts of the United States.
Someone called “Robert Bowie Johnson Jr.”, besides claiming that the tales of the Bible are verified by ancient Greek art, decided to launch a policy of actually insulting “Darwinists”. The phrase he coined was "Slime-Snake-Monkey-People."
Pz Myers discussed this in 2007 in his lovely science blog Pharyngula, and it all makes for an interesting reading.
In conclusion, it was felt by most that a creationist had unwittingly said something true, and evolutionists could proudly use a formulation that recapitulates, albeit with some imprecisions, our genealogy as human beings.
Here it goes: we are obviously “mutant” (without change there can't be evolution), deriving from “slime” (some kind of primitive being, mid-way between mud and life), from “snake” (taking snakes as representatives of our reptilian ancestors), from “monkey” (again, using a generic category to capture our simian/ape ancestors) and, finally we are “people”, indeed that's what we all are nowadays – even though one can always raise doubts about how complete this step is, when referrring to fundies... 

lunedì 22 novembre 2010

Science and its methodology

"If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?"
 This quote from Albert Einstein sums up wonderfully the concrete meaning of the terms "scientific method". And, clearly, this goes in the opposite direction from a religious (or otherwise ideological) conception.
If you really understand what Einstein said, in actual fact, you realise that you can't put a stop to your research -- not only that, but you can't even guide and direct it. Obviously, if you undertake a certain study, you will choose a given path, and you will read certain books and essays, and tend to agree with some of them, and disagree with some others. But if you are really, really intent on learning, on expanding your own knowledge and understanding of the world around you, truly, you can't know in advance where you'll go.
At some level, you don't even know what you are doing -- not in the stupid and narrow meaning of not knowing what is it that you are doing, one step at a time -- but in the broader sense of being unable to figure out the limits of your activities.
What are the borders? What are the limits? Will you find out something that you don't like? Something that contradicts your line of research? Maybe, even your beliefs?
And, if (actually, when) that happens, what will you do?
Try to deny the truths staring at you in the face? Cover them up? Invoke some authority? Find refuge in some sacred texts?
Shouldn't you rather open your mind to the changes? See how much in your previously-held position should be jettisoned as ballast that prevents you from flying higher? Adjust your viewpoints to make them fit reality better?
Is there a danger in this?
Dennett wrote a book called "Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life".
And this is the crucial point: this approach is not dangerous, if you are prepared to have to come to terms with things unpleasant about yourself, your beliefs, the world around you, people around you, and so on. Obviously, that quite a big IF, and not everybody is prepared to handle this.
But you don't run the danger of "your brain falling off your open mind", provided you stick to the basic, crucial components of reality, and maintain an ability to think in a critical/skeptical manner about everything.
For many long years I had been reluctant to put under a severe critical scrutiny my strongest beliefs. Reality compelled me to do this. Facts were clearly stronger than the theories. The theories had to be junked. 
Dangerous? Yes! 
Painful? Oh yes! 
Rewarding? In an intellectual and intellectually ethical sense, priceless!!!