Tag Archives: natural selection

Time for philosophical honesty about Darwin


Credit: The Teaching Company

John S. Wilkins, at the Evolving Thoughts blog, has a nice short article, Why is Darwin’s theory so controversial?, on the so-called “controversies” around Darwin’s theories. I think he nails it. He shows that the usual tired old objections to Darwin’s ideas are just excuses.

The excuses

“Darwin thought species are mutable.” But:

“This was a widely held view by preachers, moralists, Aristotelians, naturalists, breeders, formalists, folk biology, and even biblical translators.”

“Darwin had racist ideas about humans.”

“He never did and the racism that is sometimes associated with his ideas preceded him by centuries (and were good Christian virtues) and were mediated by those who disagreed with him.”

“Darwin thought the age of the earth was large:”

“This preceded him also, and was settled in the late eighteenth century, although the present value wasn’t finalised until the 1960s.”

“Darwin’s claim humans are animals contradicted the Bible.” But:

“Linnaeus knew humans were animals a century earlier, and indeed the only issue was whether humans were animals with souls (or if all animals had souls), which Darwin never implied anything to the contrary.

Moreover, it was Christians who rejected the literal interpretation of the Bible, long before Darwin (beginning with the Alexandrian school in the second century), and those who realised that the global Flood was a myth (or an allegory) were Christian geologists a half century at least in advance of Darwin.”

The real controversy

John explains:

“No, the reason why Darwin was controversial is very, very simple. Darwin argued that complex designs could arise without a mind to guide it. In short, his controversial idea was natural selection (and sexual selection, but even that preceded Darwin). Almost from the day it was published, critics attacked the implication that the living world was not all that special, and that it lacked a Plan or Meaning. Theologians, moralists and even scientists objected to this, and while even most of the Catholic Church accepted common descent and modification of species, it was natural selection they hated.”

But instead of honestly confronting and debating the real issue they lie and slander:

“All the supposed “controversies” of Darwinism (or that phantom, “neo-Darwinism”) are post hoc attacks based on the prior objection to the lack of a guiding hand in biology. Don’t like natural selection? Attack Darwin by calling him a racist or blaming him for the Holocaust. Say he is antiessentialist. Say he is anti-religion. No matter how much evidence one puts forward that these are deliberate lies manufactured by those who hate Darwin for natural selection, it won’t stop the prevarication industry.”

A basic philosophical conflict

Wilkins says:

“Sensible philosophical critics of Darwin focus on selection for that reason. It undercuts our prior belief that We Are Special. Human mentation, cognition, language, morality, religion or economics is somehow privileged in the universe. Bullshit. We are an animal and we arose without the universe seeking us.”

But some philosophers will devote their energies to attacking this position while refusing to justify their alternative:

“The human exceptionalism which critics like Fodor, Fuller, Plantinga and the rest presume but do not argue for unfairly places the onus on Darwinians. It is time to stop taking them seriously.”

Amen to that.

But I want to add something to John’s analysis – and I do hope he doesn’t feel I misrepresent him.

Time for philosophical honesty

Darwin’s approach of looking to nature, and not to scripture, for the explanation of nature was simply being scientific. It extended the progress made by modern science in physics, astronomy, etc., into the understanding of life – including human life. Galileo in the early 17th Century argued our understanding of the world should be based on evidence from the world – not on fallible interpretation of scripture. Scientific knowledge, or natural philosophy in those day, should be based on evidence from reality and resulting ideas and theories tested and validated against that reality.

Today, sensible philosophers (even sensible philosophers of religion) accept this approach in the physical sciences. We no longer hear them talking about, or justifying, divine guidance in the movement of stars and planets, or the reaction of chemicals. Why should Fodor, Fuller and Plantinga so adamantly wish to sneak divine guidance into the biological world?

As they are so keen on divine guidance why not try to find and deliver some evidence for it instead of relying on logical possibility alone? That would be the scientific approach. And if they were really consistent they would also be arguing for, and producing evidence for, divine guidance in the physical world.

Now, that would put them in context.

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From evolution to belief

How reliable do you think your cognitive facilities are? Your eyes, ears, etc? Your brain,  memory and mental processes? According to philosopher of religion Alvin Plantinga, not very good. He asserts any belief you form using these facilities is as likely to be untrue as it is to be true. “A probability of 0.5″ he says – like a magician pulling a rabbit out of hat.

But it gets worse. For some reason he thinks your beliefs are formed randomly – so “If I have one thousand independent beliefs, for example, the probability (under these conditions) that three quarters or more of these beliefs are true will be less than 10–58.” When he considers only 100 independent beliefs “the probability that three-quarters of them are true, given that the probability of any one’s being true is one half, is very low, something like .000001.”

So, you wonder – how the hell do you get by? You are in the middle of the road, a bus is speeding towards you, but the chance of your cognitive facilities leading you to believe you are in danger is minuscule. You are just as likely to belief you are having a pleasant bath – or a gazillion other things.

Guided evolution

That doesn’t sound right, does it? Something is fishy here. Surely natural selection will have weeded out organisms which had such poor cognitive facilities millions of years ago. Well, according to Plantinga, no! Unless evolution was guided by his god! He just thinks that unguided evolution is incapable of producing reliable cognitive facilities. In fact, he claims evolutionary science supports him saying: “The scientific theory of evolution just as such is entirely compatible with the thought that God has guided and orchestrated the course of evolution, planned and directed it, in such a way as to achieve the ends he intends.”

He argues that unguided evolution is “prohibitively improbable.” Not surprising to see that he has a soft spot for Michael Behe‘s irreducible complexity argument against evolutionary science (and for “intelligent design”). Plantinga’s recent book ( Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism) is full of theological pretzel twisting, motivated logic, unsupported logical possibilities, probability assumptions, cherry-picked quotations, and bald statements supporting his claims. But, unhappily for many of this theological supporters, he is also very careful to include qualifications for almost all his claims and arguments. This gives him deniability, wriggle room, but makes it difficult for his supporters to find supporting evidence for his claims.

Here I will deal with just his claim that evolution via inherited variation and natural section is incapable of producing reliable cognitive facilities. Even here he claims he is not arguing: “that unguided evolution could not produce creatures with reliable belief-producing faculties; I very much doubt that it could, but that it couldn’t is neither a premise nor the conclusion of my argument.”

Still, that is exactly what he does argue. He says “it is improbable, given naturalism and evolution, that our cognitive faculties are reliable.” That his god “could have brought it about that our cognitive faculties evolve by natural selection, and evolve in such a way that it is natural for us to form beliefs about the supernatural in general and God himself in particular.” “that God has created us in such a way that we come to know him; and the function of the cognitive processes, whatever they are, that ordinarily produce belief in God in us is to provide us with true belief.” And “According to John Calvin, God has created us with a “sensus divinitatis,” a natural tendency to form belief in God.”

So you can see where he is going with this. Belief in a god seems to be an indicator that your cognitive system is working well, whereas non-belief shows its not! You atheists have something missing from your brain.

Naive survival argument

Plantinga’s argument centres on a naive interpretation of natural selection:

“We might think that our evolutionary origin guarantees or strongly supports the thought that our basic cognitive faculties are reliable: if they weren’t, how could we have survived and reproduced? But this is clearly an error,  . . . . . Natural selection is interested in adaptive behavior, behavior that conduces to survival and reproduction; it has no interest in our having true beliefs.”

And his followers see that as a key premise in his argument.

However, if a particular inheritable variation is selected because it aids survival or increases number of offspring this does not prevent that particular variation contributing to the life of the organism in other ways.  A cat’s paw enables it to move, to pursue prey and avoid predators but this in no way prevent cats from using their paws in grooming.

We can understand how selected variations in our ancestors perception organs, brains, and the rest of their body, would have had survival and reproduction values.  Tool-making abilities, a thickened pre-frontal cortex, language abilities, self-reflection and recall of memories would have contributed greatly to the natural selection of our ancestors.

But once selected, not only did our ancestors become more social, more able to communicate and more able to change their environment with the tools they created. They also were able to use their perception and cognitive faculties in a more advanced way. To formulate more detailed pictures of their environment and to check out the accuracy of those ideas or beliefs. And to pass on this knowledge to their offspring.

It is just overwhelmingly naive not to recognise the wider implications of variations selected by the evolutionary process beyond survival and reproduction. And it is dishonest to cherry-pick, as Plantinga does, quotes from evolutionary scientists and philosophers which stress the role of survival and reproduction in natural selection as if there were no other consequences for the evolution of the selected organisms.

Why is it so hard to see the natural selection of intelligence in our ancestors has lead to huge technological and cultural changes quite above and beyond its value for survival and reproduction? Why should Plantinga accept that unguided evolution can lead to intelligence for its value in survival and reproduction but drag in the concept of guided evolution by his god to explain the resulting cultural, technological and social changes?

Reliability of cognitive facilities – something more than chance.

I find weird Plantinga’s idea that guidance of evolution by his god is necessary for our cognitive faculties to produce reliable results. Even weirder that in the absence of such guidance natural selection would produce cognitive faculties which caused us to adopt beliefs completely randomly. Surely such faulty cognitive faculties would have been selected against? And those organisms whose cognitive faculties produced a sufficiently reliable picture of reality (or belief) to enable survival and reproduction would have been selected for.

Plantinga confuses his argument by steadfastly referring to “belief” and “true belief” whereas the day-to-day life of an organism requires (usually unconscious) perception or knowledge of its environment and reaction to what it perceives. In effect, the organism, and particularly a species like humans, is continually forming a mental image or model of its environment. The accuracy of this model relies on the abilities of the perception organs, the unconscious aggregation of perceptions and memories to form a mental image and the amount of conscious deliberation. We can be sure that this knowledge never amounts to a completely accurate model of reality. All sorts of practical assumptions are made for the sake of efficiency. And animals like us are just not able to perceive bacteria and molecules, let alone atoms or subatomic particles.

So our mental model of reality will always be imperfect. It can never be identified with Plantinga’s “true belief.” But it is good enough for what we are doing – surviving, reproducing, making tools, telling stories, formulating theories, etc. And we quite naturally pay special attention when we need to fill out details. Or we can resort to tools and instruments which aid our perceptions.

If natural selection working on genetic variation has produced animals capable of surviving and reproducing by using their perception organs, intelligence, memory and imagination why should it be impossible (as Plantinga claims) for such animals to form “belief”, or knowledge about reality, which, for all practical purposes, can be considered “true?” Why does he claim guidance by his god is necessary?

Theistic evolution?

When I hear this term “theistic evolution” used I never know what is intended. At one end it could just be that a person who claims to believe in theistic evolution is only saying they accept evolutionary science, while at the same time they are a Christian. Perhaps its just a way of avoiding criticism from their fellow church members. An assurance that their acceptance of evolutionary science does not signal rejection of their faith.

The adjective “theistic” is actually unnecessary – except for social purposes. One could equally say they believed in “theistic gravity,” “theistic chemical reactions,” etc. Sounds silly – but I guess social pressure produces silly conventions and scientifically meaningless terms.

At the other end of the spectrum I think the person is actually claiming a belief similar to Plantinga’s. That evolution is actually impossible without divine interference, specifically guidance from their god. They may imagine that their god actually fiddles with the atoms in an organism’s DNA, or aids selection with a flood, collision of an asteroid or a volcanic eruption or two. Even, as some of these people claim, the divine injection of determinism into quantum indeterminacy

Of course, people who claim such guidance is required for evolution to work just don’t accept the current scientific understanding of the evolutionary process which is very much unguided (except through the natural selection process). If adherents of “theistic evolution” mean this, something like Plantinga’s “evolution” then they don’t accept evolutionary science.

And that’s why I just don’t like the term “theistic evolution” and am always suspicious of people who describe themselves that way.

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Evolutionary cooperation

Kropotkin wrote about evolutionary cooperation*

Here’s a lecture on evolutionary cooperation by PZ Myers. Ok, it’s pretty long, but it’s worth downloading and watching (or even listening as the video doesn’t catch most of the slides).

Click on World Humanist Congress 2011 08/13/11 07:32AM.

Cooperation as an important component of evolution is often ignored while competition is stressed. Creationists will purposely ignore cooperation. Yet cooperation and conflict are really two sides of the same coin.

Myers illustrates his talk with examples of cooperation from nature and stresses the important evolutionary leaps made possible by cooperation. But he goes on to show that cooperation is also natural for humans.

PZ presented this talk at the 2011 World Humanist Congress in Oslo, Norway last August. Human cooperation, world peace and conflict prevention were important themes at the congress. The programme looks interesting, including sessions on:

  • The role of supra-national organizations
  • Lifestance and peace
  • Our emotional life and the role of ceremonies
  • Bit by bit and Peace by Piece

While Myers doesn’t deal in any detail with strategies for cooperation in modern human society and internationally it looks like some of the other presenters did. I will have to download more videos.


*See, for example:
Mutual Aid; a factor of evolution
Evolution and Environment (Collected Works of Peter Kropotkin)
Kropotkin: ‘The Conquest of Bread’ and Other Writings (Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought)

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A scientific consensus on human morality

There has been some local discussion of the scientific approach to morality. Unfortunately some of this has concentrated on only one source (a TED talk by Sam Harris – see Can science answer moral questions?). I believe Sam makes some interesting points and am eager to read his book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values which will be published next month. (I am planning to review it then). However, he is just one person, has tended to concentrate only on the problem presented by advocates of moral relativism, and has not actually done any significant research in this area.

I posted previously about the Edge Seminar last July on the science of morality (see The new science of morality and Is and ought). This brought together eight researchers, including Same Harris. (Well nine actually, but Marc Hauser’s contributions have been removed – that is another story; unfortunate but significant). The videos and transcripts of the conference are available at the Edge site and are well worth viewing.

Below I have reproduced the Consensus Statement made by the scientists at the seminar. It’s a useful summary of where the science of morality currently stands – at least in the minds of eight significant scientists working in the area. Its taken from Edge 327.


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Richard Dawkins in Auckland next March

This guy leads an extremely busy life. I know he is promoting his recently published books The Greatest Show on Earth and consequently gets into book tours. But his publishers certainly work him hard.

Next March (Wednesday 10th) he is speaking in Wellington during the Writers and Readers Week at the NZ International Arts Festival (see Richard Dawkins in Wellington next March). Just announced is an appearance in Auckland on Saturday 13th March. But on Sunday 14th March he will also be speaking at the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne!

I am a little bit younger than him but I couldn’t stand that pace.

Anyway, details of the Auckland appearance are:

Saturday 13th, march, 2010

The University of Auckland Fisher & Paykel Auditorium, Owen G Glenn Bldg, 12 Grafton Rd, Auckland

Richard Dawkins LIVE! The Greatest Show on Earth

The University of Auckland is pleased to present one of Britain’s foremost science writers Richard Dawkins in his only Auckland appearance.

Richard Dawkins will be introduced by Brian Boyd, The University of Auckland’s Distinguished Professor of English. He teaches a course in Literature and Science that includes Richard Dawkins’s The Blind Watchmaker.

About Richard Dawkins
Richard Dawkins will present evidence for his argument that evolution is an incontrovertible fact. In his new book The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, the renowned evolutionary biologist and outspoken atheist takes on creationists, including followers of “intelligent design” and all those who question evolution through natural selection.

Tickets will be available from iTicket (go to RICHARD DAWKINS LIVE! – iTICKET). The Auckland Alumni pre-sales have sold out but you can pre-register for sales to the general public starting November 30th.

I wonder where else in New Zealand he will speak?

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An Introduction to Evolution

Book Review: The Tangled Bank: An Introduction to Evolution by Carl Zimmer

Price: US$43:16
Hardcover: 394 pages
Publisher: Roberts and Company Publishers; 1 edition (October 15, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0981519474
ISBN-13: 978-0981519470

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This Tuesday is the 150th anniversary of the first publication of Charles Darwin’s bookOn the Origin of Species“. And earlier this year we celebrated the 200th anniversary of his birth.

These anniversaries have been marked by publication of books about Darwin’s life, his ideas and various aspects of evolutionary science. Most of these are aimed at the adult reader. But here is one which will appeal to school children and young adults – an important section of readers.

The Tangled Bank is an introductory text book. It will be ideal for introductory classes on evolution and biology. But it is also going to appeal to many adults, and especially to families.

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Empathy’s origins

Book Review: The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society by Frans de Waal

Price: US$17.15
Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: Harmony (September 22, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0307407764
ISBN-13: 978-0307407764

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This book might ruffle the feathers of the biblical literalists. They will find themselves challenged on two grounds:

  1. We can explain human feelings of empathy, sympathy and the like naturally, without resort to divine causes;
  2. Ideas of a special or divinely ordained character for humans, of human exceptionalism, are not supported by the evidence.

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Killing off Darwin?

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Book Review:

The End of Darwinism by Eugene G. Windchy
US$14.39
ISBN-10: 1436383684

Published May 12, 2009
Xlibris Corporation

logoiya

YoS2009 is an important year for science. It is the Year of Science, the International Year of Astronomy and the Darwin year. The latter because both the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth (February 12) and the 150th year of publication  of his major book The Origin of Species (November 24) occurs.

So there has been a whole host of events and publications devoted to Darwin, his life, his writings and his science. There has been discussion on how his ideas fit into society and philosophy, the affects on society, politics and religion, and their relevance to modern society. There are some great articles and videos accessible on the internet. And then there are the books on Darwin and evolutionary science which have been, or will be, published this year.

But, of course, there are also the naysayers. Those hostile to science in general or just evolutionary science in particular. Almost always religiously motivated, these people have also been mobilising this year. Although the results have been comparatively negligible.

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The facts of evolution – and jealousy

Craig Venter

Craig Venter

Some time ago (Evolution – a theory or a fact?) I made the observation:

“Our knowledge about evolution includes facts (e.g., fossil records, genetics, molecular biology of DNA), theories (e.g, natural selection, sexual selection, genetic drift) and speculation (e.g., much of evolutionary psychology). Just like any other body of scientific knowledge.”

We could add that although many ideas in evolutionary psychology are speculative, some of these are firming up. Steven Pinker does a good job of separating the more reliable ideas from the more speculative (see his books: The Blank SlateHow the Mind Worksand The Stuff of Thought). Similarly, some of the theories, such as natural selection, are now so well supported by factual evidence they are beginning to be accepted as facts in themselves. A bit like the laws of thermodynamics.

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Transitional fossils

Creationists have an obsession with, and tell a lot of lies about, transitional fossils. Like their claim that none have been found.

If you believe their story – have a look at the latest issue of “Evolution: Education and Outreach“. It’s a special issue on transitional fossils. It has 21 articles, including titles like:

Understanding Natural Selection: Essential Concepts and Common Misconceptions by T. Ryan Gregory
The Evolutionary Emergence of Vertebrates From Among Their Spineless Relatives by Philip C. J. Donoghue and Mark A. Purnell
The Fish–Tetrapod Transition: New Fossils and Interpretations by Jennifer A. Clack
Evolutionary Transitions Among Dinosaurs: Examples from the Jurassic of China by James M. Clark and Xing Xu
Downsized Dinosaurs: The Evolutionary Transition to Modern Birds by Luis M. Chiappe
From Land to Water: the Origin of Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises by J. G. M. Thewissen, Lisa Noelle Cooper, John C. George and Sunil Bajpai
Evolutionary Transitions in the Fossil Record of Terrestrial Hoofed Mammals by Donald R. Prothero

There should be enough evidence there for any thoughtful doubters.

Thanks to Why evolution is true

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