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Ch. 1: Finding Your Inner Fish 
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Robert, I am sorry I don't have the time right now to give your last post a full response. I am about to be late for work! I wonder if you might, step by step, walk me through an example of the evolution of a cultural trait, in the same way as Shubin does when explaining the evolution of the ear bones in humans? I think this would go a long way toward helping me understand how it is you understand evolution to occur in culture.
Thanks for your efforts in making this a very interesting discussion!

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Thu May 22, 2008 6:41 am
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DWill wrote:
Robert Tulip wrote:
I am pleased to get this response as it opens up a theme in which I believe there is a widely held error. You are saying that human culture is not subject to the forces of natural evolution, where the implication of the work of Shubin, Dawkins and Darwin is that we are subject to these forces.
No, I'm saying that human culture is not subject to the law of "descent with modification through natural selection." It may seem to you to be merely a technical point, but I think it is important to say. I don't know about Dawkins, but where do Shubin and Darwin say that nature selects which format of videocassette will dominate, which writer will be held as the best in a language, or whether women will be required to wear burkas?
Hi DWill, I think the VCR-Betamax videotape format war http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Videotape_format_war was a perfect example of cultural descent with modification through natural selection. The keys to adaptivity in this case included market dominance, recording time and price. We have since seen ongoing rapid technological evolution with emergence of DVDs, as the new '451' niche of home entertainment provides fertile soil for adaptation. My view on writers is that those held as best are able to tap a nerve or vein with deep insight into reality, and that this is how they are assessed as classics, so insight is the natural selecting factor. On burkas, that opens the issue of how the origins of Islam can be interpreted as an evolutionary event. My view is that European Christianity had corrupted the teachings of Christ by placing it in service to the successors of Roman imperialism, and Islam emerged as a natural reaction from the large adjacent part of the world where natural piety was a stronger factor than the swords of the crusaders. The context of Islam, with its medieval views on women and science, provides the cultural framework in which burkas have been imposed as an adaptive strategy to deal with the extreme misogynist violence besetting some Muslim countries.
Quote:
Quote:
I completely disagree with your comment that there is nothing like natural selection going on here. In the case of Australian or USA indigenous response to European invasion, my point is that some strategies are adaptive while others are not.
Don't you contradict yourself here? A strategy has to be in some way consciously chosen. It then couldn't be selected by nature. Not to sound like a broken record, but the fact that people adapt has nothing to do with how Darwin thought change in species came about.
No, a strategy does not have to be consciously chosen. Nihilistic despair is a force of its own, using alcohol, prison, violence and other destructive tools. The options here are whether to go with the maladaptive flow (a default strategy) or to consciously choose a superior alternative. Human reason is an adaptive mechanism which needs to be applied in order to save people from death and poverty. My view is that the short run cultural evolution which selects for adaptive traits is part of a much longer term evolutionary process in which adaptive traits out-compete the maladaptive.
Quote:
Quote:
You seem to be assuming the old Christian idea that there is a difference in kind between spirit and nature, with spirit somehow transcending the laws which govern nature.
I might have given you this idea, but I don't hold any beliefs about spirit and no firm ones about nature. (And yet, I don't feel I have a nihilistic bone in my body.)
This was in response to your comment that '
Quote:
the culture responds; it itself adopts a complex strategy as only humans could. There is certainly nothing like natural selection going on here (and I would also say that God is not controlling this). There is only a human product, culture, consisting of both the material and nonmaterial. To say that the culture responds to pressures, adapts, etc. is to say something true, but we shouldn't be fooled by the way this sounds--as if the agency is somehow external to the culture itself. It's all something that we do.
My reading of this comment is that your denial of external agency in the determination of cultural choice makes too high an assessment of rational freedom. "Something that we do" is not all consciously decided, but our mind/spirit operates within a broader determining context that can be called nature and god.
Quote:
Quote:
Following Spinoza's view that God is nature, I do think we can say nature is controlling what happens, as long as we extend our concept of nature to include human free will as a small determining factor. Culture is the agency, just in the same way procreation is the agency of natural selection
We have a basic difference here. I can't see at all that nature is controlling what happens in any culture-specific way. I would also enlarge the space you give to human free will in the pie chart. Thanks, it's nice to be able to discuss these points with you. DWill
I agree with you that nature does not control human decisions, but with the important qualification that if a group of people make a decision which proves maladaptive then we can assign nature a role in the subsequent demise of that strategy. Only adaptive strategies survive through natural selection. Our cultural decisions may be like fish hands which enable us to grapple the next rung on the ladder of evolution.



Fri May 23, 2008 4:49 pm
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DWill wrote:
Robert Tulip wrote:
I am pleased to get this response as it opens up a theme in which I believe there is a widely held error. You are saying that human culture is not subject to the forces of natural evolution, where the implication of the work of Shubin, Dawkins and Darwin is that we are subject to these forces.
No, I'm saying that human culture is not subject to the law of "descent with modification through natural selection." It may seem to you to be merely a technical point, but I think it is important to say. I don't know about Dawkins, but where do Shubin and Darwin say that nature selects which format of videocassette will dominate, which writer will be held as the best in a language, or whether women will be required to wear burkas?
Hi DWill, I think the VHS-Betamax videotape format war http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Videotape_format_war was a perfect example of cultural descent with modification through natural selection. The keys to adaptivity in this case included market dominance, recording time and price. We have since seen ongoing rapid technological evolution with emergence of DVDs, as the new '451' niche of home entertainment provides fertile soil for adaptation. My view on writers is that those held as best are able to tap a nerve or vein with deep insight into reality, and that this is how they are assessed as classics, so insight is the natural selecting factor. On burkas, that opens the issue of how the origins of Islam can be interpreted as an evolutionary event. My view is that European Christianity had corrupted the teachings of Christ by placing it in service to the successors of Roman imperialism, and Islam emerged as a natural reaction from the large adjacent part of the world where natural piety was a stronger factor than the swords of the crusaders. The context of Islam, with its medieval views on women and science, provides the cultural framework in which burkas have been imposed as an adaptive strategy to deal with the extreme misogynist violence besetting some Muslim countries.
Quote:
Quote:
I completely disagree with your comment that there is nothing like natural selection going on here. In the case of Australian or USA indigenous response to European invasion, my point is that some strategies are adaptive while others are not.
Don't you contradict yourself here? A strategy has to be in some way consciously chosen. It then couldn't be selected by nature. Not to sound like a broken record, but the fact that people adapt has nothing to do with how Darwin thought change in species came about.
No, a strategy does not have to be consciously chosen. Nihilistic despair is a force of its own, using alcohol, prison, violence and other destructive tools. The options here are whether to go with the maladaptive flow (a default strategy) or to consciously choose a superior alternative. Human reason is an adaptive mechanism which needs to be applied in order to save people from death and poverty. My view is that the short run cultural evolution which selects for adaptive traits is part of a much longer term evolutionary process in which adaptive traits out-compete the maladaptive.
Quote:
Quote:
You seem to be assuming the old Christian idea that there is a difference in kind between spirit and nature, with spirit somehow transcending the laws which govern nature.
I might have given you this idea, but I don't hold any beliefs about spirit and no firm ones about nature. (And yet, I don't feel I have a nihilistic bone in my body.)
This was in response to your comment that '
Quote:
the culture responds; it itself adopts a complex strategy as only humans could. There is certainly nothing like natural selection going on here (and I would also say that God is not controlling this). There is only a human product, culture, consisting of both the material and nonmaterial. To say that the culture responds to pressures, adapts, etc. is to say something true, but we shouldn't be fooled by the way this sounds--as if the agency is somehow external to the culture itself. It's all something that we do.
My reading of this comment is that your denial of external agency in the determination of cultural choice makes too high an assessment of rational freedom. "Something that we do" is not all consciously decided, but our mind/spirit operates within a broader determining context that can be called nature and god.
Quote:
Quote:
Following Spinoza's view that God is nature, I do think we can say nature is controlling what happens, as long as we extend our concept of nature to include human free will as a small determining factor. Culture is the agency, just in the same way procreation is the agency of natural selection
We have a basic difference here. I can't see at all that nature is controlling what happens in any culture-specific way. I would also enlarge the space you give to human free will in the pie chart. Thanks, it's nice to be able to discuss these points with you. DWill
I agree with you that nature does not control human decisions, but with the important qualification that if a group of people make a decision which proves maladaptive then we can assign nature a role in the subsequent demise of that strategy. Only adaptive strategies survive through natural selection. Our cultural decisions may be like fish hands which enable us to grapple the next rung on the ladder of evolution.



Fri May 23, 2008 4:50 pm
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Saffron wrote:
Robert, I am sorry I don't have the time right now to give your last post a full response. I am about to be late for work! I wonder if you might, step by step, walk me through an example of the evolution of a cultural trait, in the same way as Shubin does when explaining the evolution of the ear bones in humans? I think this would go a long way toward helping me understand how it is you understand evolution to occur in culture. Thanks for your efforts in making this a very interesting discussion! Saffron

An underlying question here is whether the tree of life as it appeared in Darwin's Origin of Species



Fri May 23, 2008 5:12 pm
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Robert Tulip wrote:
Quote:
Islam emerged as a natural reaction from the large adjacent part of the world where natural piety was a stronger factor than the swords of the crusaders. The context of Islam, with its medieval views on women and science, provides the cultural framework in which....


You use the phrase "natural reaction" to describe the emergence of Islam. There is nothing natural about the emergence of Islam. Couldn't some other flavor of religion have developed instead?

Quote:
....burkas have been imposed as an adaptive strategy to deal with the extreme misogynist violence besetting some Muslim countries.


Imposing burkas is misogynistic!!! The burka is a mechanism to control the lives and sexuality of women. Nothing adaptive about it. It is a pure and simple issue of who has power; men do and women do not.


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Fri May 23, 2008 8:14 pm
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Saffron wrote:
You use the phrase "natural reaction" to describe the emergence of Islam. There is nothing natural about the emergence of Islam. Couldn't some other flavor of religion have developed instead?
That Islam emerged is an accident of history, and that the Koran spread so rapidly showed how it met what I would call a natural human need - no less natural for the fact that the medium of its spread was human society and language and sword. People are after all part of nature.
Quote:
RT"....burkas have been imposed as an adaptive strategy to deal with the extreme misogynist violence besetting some Muslim countries." S:Imposing burkas is misogynistic!!! The burka is a mechanism to control the lives and sexuality of women. Nothing adaptive about it. It is a pure and simple issue of who has power; men do and women do not.
I agree with you, except that on principle anything that survives is ipso facto adaptive. I was suggesting the imposition of burkas had been enforced by Islamic men as part of a view of women as chattels. Hence the adaptive strategy is primarily decided by men who control women in a misogynist way - giving the women little chance to decide for themselves. Maybe burkas will become less adaptive in future.



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Robert Tulip wrote:
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I agree with you, except that on principle anything that survives is ipso facto adaptive. I was suggesting the imposition of burkas had been enforced by Islamic men as part of a view of women as chattels.


I think you are misusing the the terms adaptive and adaptation. When adaptive is used in the context of evolution the implication is that the new trait improves survival and hence increase the ability to procreate. Improvement in survival and increased progeny is the very criteria for how that trait was selected or another way to say this it, the mechanism for how the trait came to be prevalent in a population.

Burkas survive because men enforce them. I believe (I could be mistaken) that if the enforcement of burkas stopped today, most, if not all women would stop wearing them immediately. Is that really an evolutionary adaptation? What you have said in your quote is that burkas maintain the status quo. Maintaining the status quo is not adapting.


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Sat May 24, 2008 6:33 am
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Robert, you are well prepared to argue your position. I find that what is hanging me up is the possible conflation of natural and human in your reasoning. Yes, humans are part of nature, and that could make their actions natural in some sense, but to me this evacuates the discussion of much of its meaning. My view is that human actions, human history, are significantly beyond determination by nature or the environment. Not uninfluenced by by these, of course, but not reducible in the end to what we call natural or physical law. The VHS/Betamax battle turned out the way it did because of what emerged, and this could not have been predicted before events happened. But scientific laws give us the ability of prediction. This is why I, and I think Saffron, do not want to apply the scientific principle of neo-Darwinism to human society and history. It is a reductionism that I/we would like to avoid. It also seems to lead to a view of what happened as inevitable in some sense.


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Sat May 24, 2008 11:18 am
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This discussion opens what we mean by adaptation and nature. In these themes I am influenced by Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditations are a classic text of Stoicism. The stoic is fatalist, in the belief that everything that happens is caused by nature. Hence even human life is a part of nature. I agree with DWill that fate must be tempered by freedom, but the message I get from scientists such as Shubin is that we can learn much by exploring life through the lens of fate. The oxygen the plants put in the air created the opportunity for handy fish to move to land



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Maladaptive does not really exist in the biological sense. There are not organs or body parts of any creature that is maladaptive. My understanding of Darwinian evolution the changes come because a trait is more adaptive, not because a trait is or becomes maladaptive. I also feel safe in saying that in the world of biology, traits are not good or bad. They just are.

The fact that cultures/societies have aspects that are maladaptive and even destructive make it difficult, if not impossible to apply the principles of Darwinian evolution.


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There are traits that are biologically maladaptive. The human hernia is an example, where the benefits of being able to walk on two legs outweigh the maladaptive negative that our guts squish out from time to time. More broadly, maladaption occurs when a niche changes, so for example the Australian wombat was well adapted to a pre-human continent, but is somewhat maladapted to dealing with cars, cows and fences invading its habitat. American megafauna were maladapted to deal with the small creatures who crossed the Bering Strait in 13000 BC and ate them. In this sense, all extinction and endangerment of species can be classed as a maladaption, except that the power to change the niche generally rests with people, so there is little the maladapted entity can do. With the burka, the question whether it is adaptive or maladaptive is a function of whether its use is expanding, stable or declining, and of whether its negative effects outweigh the positive.



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We may judge that one part or another of an organism is "maladaptive", but it doesn't matter what we think about it. The organism is reproducing and surviving as a species despite any variations from the "ideal." Look at the structure of our backs, how much less than ideal this arrangement is from a design standpoint. Doesn't matter; our total package is what counts towards whether we reproduce and survive as a species.
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Excuse my pedantry, but I think it does matter what we think about adaptation. 'What we think about it' can be false or true, and it matters that we think things that are true, otherwise we are on a nihilist path. The point about maladaptation is that it is an objective indicator of a species failure to reproduce and survive - by definition. Knowledge about maladaption is important to see the similarities between human culture and the evolution of life. It would be true to say what we think doesn't make a difference to whether an organism is adaptive, but this is slightly different from your comment. There is a wiki at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maladaptation



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[quote="Robert Tulip"] The stoic is fatalist, in the belief that everything that happens is caused by nature. Hence even human life is a part of nature. I agree with DWill that fate must be tempered by freedom, but the message I get from scientists such as Shubin is that we can learn much by exploring life through the lens of fate. The oxygen the plants put in the air created the opportunity for handy fish to move to land


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Mon May 26, 2008 8:29 pm
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I finally got my copy of Your Inner Fish yesterday, together with my copy of Our Inner Ape, both mailed from the USA. I read YIF straight through. It is a wonderful book, full of intriguing factual implications about how we can better understand ourselves by understanding our natural origins. The excitement of scientific discovery shines through, as well as the sense that the science of evolutionary genetics is in its childhood, so we are invited along for the ride.

DWill, what you say about stoicism reflects common usage, but I was talking about the philosophy: as http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stoicism puts it, "The core doctrine of Stoicism concerns cosmic determinism and human freedom, and the belief that virtue is to maintain a will that is in accord with nature." This stoic theme of coordination of will and nature is deeply evolutionary in character.

I agree with you about the essential non-determinism in life, but the point is, going back to the stoics and Hegel, that freedom is the recognition of necessity. We are free to deny necessity, but the evolutionary standpoint holds that a freedom which understands nature and builds on it is a higher calling than a freedom which promotes basic errors (eg creationism). My view is that denial of necessity is in some respects a definition of evil, but of course who are we to divine the nature of necessity?

I don't agree with your description of emergence as unlawful. To me this hints at our earlier discussion on adaptation and evolution - in the sense that individuals adapt while species evolve. So an individual is free to break the law, adapting to circumstance, but a society needs to enforce laws, presenting a soft determinism - if you break the law you are likely to get caught. It is this collective law-like character of emergent nature where we can see a determinism, not hard in the sense that our decisions are pre-ordained, but soft in the sense that collective decisions are to some extent predictable and follow trends. A further point is that the further our free emergence departs from physical reality, the bigger the jolt in store when a natural correction inevitably occurs. We just don't know if our artificial human civilisation is attuned to nature or intrinsically alienated from it. If the latter then a big jolt is as inevitable as night following day.



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TolkienThe Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas AdamsAtlas Shrugged by Ayn RandThinking, Fast and Slow - by Daniel KahnemanThe Righteous Mind - by Jonathan HaidtWorld War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max BrooksMoby Dick: or, the Whale by Herman MelvilleA Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer EganLost Memory of Skin: A Novel by Russell BanksThe Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. KuhnHobbes: Leviathan by Thomas HobbesThe House of the Spirits - by Isabel AllendeArguably: Essays by Christopher HitchensThe Falls: A Novel (P.S.) by Joyce Carol OatesChrist in Egypt by D.M. MurdockThe Glass Bead Game: A Novel by Hermann HesseA Devil's Chaplain by Richard DawkinsThe Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph CampbellThe Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor DostoyevskyThe Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark TwainThe Moral Landscape by Sam HarrisThe Decameron by Giovanni BoccaccioThe Road by Cormac McCarthyThe Grand Design by Stephen HawkingThe Evolution of God by Robert WrightThe Tin Drum by Gunter GrassGood Omens by Neil GaimanPredictably Irrational by Dan ArielyThe Wind-Up Bird Chronicle: A Novel by Haruki MurakamiALONE: Orphaned on the Ocean by Richard Logan & Tere Duperrault FassbenderDon Quixote by Miguel De CervantesMusicophilia by Oliver SacksDiary of a Madman and Other Stories by Nikolai GogolThe Passion of the Western Mind by Richard TarnasThe Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le GuinThe Genius of the Beast by Howard BloomAlice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll Empire of Illusion by Chris HedgesThe Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner The Extended Phenotype by Richard DawkinsSmoke and Mirrors by Neil GaimanThe Selfish Gene by Richard DawkinsWhen Good Thinking Goes Bad by Todd C. RinioloHouse of Leaves by Mark Z. DanielewskiAmerican Gods: A Novel by Neil GaimanPrimates and Philosophers by Frans de WaalThe Enormous Room by E.E. CummingsThe Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar WildeGod Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher HitchensThe Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama Paradise Lost by John Milton Bad Money by Kevin PhillipsThe Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson BurnettGodless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists by Dan BarkerThe Things They Carried by Tim O'BrienThe Limits of Power by Andrew BacevichLolita by Vladimir NabokovOrlando by Virginia Woolf On Being Certain by Robert A. Burton50 reasons people give for believing in a god by Guy P. HarrisonWalden: Or, Life in the Woods by Henry David ThoreauExile and the Kingdom by Albert CamusOur Inner Ape by Frans de WaalYour Inner Fish by Neil ShubinNo Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthyThe Age of American Unreason by Susan JacobyTen Theories of Human Nature by Leslie Stevenson & David HabermanHeart of Darkness by Joseph ConradThe Stuff of Thought by Stephen PinkerA Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled HosseiniThe Lucifer Effect by Philip ZimbardoResponsibility and Judgment by Hannah ArendtInterventions by Noam ChomskyGodless in America by George A. RickerReligious Expression and the American Constitution by Franklyn S. HaimanDeep Economy by Phil McKibbenThe God Delusion by Richard DawkinsThe Third Chimpanzee by Jared DiamondThe Woman in the Dunes by Abe KoboEvolution vs. Creationism by Eugenie C. ScottThe Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael PollanI, Claudius by Robert GravesBreaking The Spell by Daniel C. DennettA Peace to End All Peace by David FromkinThe Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey NiffeneggerThe End of Faith by Sam HarrisEnder's Game by Orson Scott CardThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark HaddonValue and Virtue in a Godless Universe by Erik J. WielenbergThe March by E. L DoctorowThe Ethical Brain by Michael GazzanigaFreethinkers: A History of American Secularism by Susan JacobyCollapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared DiamondThe Battle for God by Karen ArmstrongThe Future of Life by Edward O. WilsonWhat is Good? by A. C. GraylingCivilization and Its Enemies by Lee HarrisPale Blue Dot by Carl SaganHow We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God by Michael ShermerLooking for Spinoza by Antonio DamasioLies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them by Al FrankenThe Red Queen by Matt RidleyThe Blank Slate by Stephen PinkerUnweaving the Rainbow by Richard DawkinsAtheism: A Reader edited by S.T. JoshiGlobal Brain by Howard BloomThe Lucifer Principle by Howard BloomGuns, Germs and Steel by Jared DiamondThe Demon-Haunted World by Carl SaganBury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee BrownFuture Shock by Alvin Toffler

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