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Ch. 1 - Why are people? 
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Post Ch. 1 - Why are people?
The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
Ch. 1 - Why are people?



Sun Aug 02, 2009 1:52 am
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Post Why are people?
A little girl asked this question. Why are people? Richard Dawkins quotes approvingly a comment that "all efforts to explain this before Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859 are worthless". His point is that explaining why people exist requires that we understand the profound philosophical significance of zoology. In opening the question of the scientific basis of selfishness and altruism, he says "'nature red in tooth and claw' sums up our modern understanding of natural selection admirably." The moral lesson he draws is that "if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature." The problem as he sees it is that "universal love and the welfare of the species as a whole are concepts which simply do not make evolutionary sense."

All this is on pages 1 to 3 of The Selfish Gene. I think Dawkins is basically correct in his analysis. However, I wonder if evolution of culture, as a specialised example of biological evolution, gives us the potential to move towards a situation where these universal ideals do make biological sense?



Fri Aug 28, 2009 2:28 am
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Can you explain what you mean by biological sense?



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From the Endnotes for Chapter One.

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I am familiar with them; save your stamp.


:laugh: I love this sort of sarcasm.

Quote:
There is such a thing as being just plain wrong, and that is what, before 1859, all answers to those questions were.


He isn't criticizing man's desire to find an answer to the question of "why are people?" But he is saying that we got it all wrong BD, or Before Darwin. Yeah, I just made the BD part up. Feel free to use it. :cool:



Fri Aug 28, 2009 9:53 am
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There are so many statements in this book that excite me that I don't even know what to say. :bow: But I will say that I LOVE Dawkins...in a completely heterosexual kind of way. :cool:



Fri Aug 28, 2009 10:55 am
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Post Re: Why are people?
Robert Tulip wrote:
All this is on pages 1 to 3 of The Selfish Gene. I think Dawkins is basically correct in his analysis. However, I wonder if evolution of culture, as a specialised example of biological evolution, gives us the potential to move towards a situation where these universal ideals do make biological sense?

I vote no to this, Robert. I recall from some time back that you and I have different views about the relation of culture change to evolution. I think that culture evolves only in a general way that is utterly unlike biological evolution. The two can be represented as analagous, but that's as far as it goes, IMO. We would have to create this culture in which universal ideals are put into practice, as opposed to the natural process of selection that applies in evolution.


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Fri Aug 28, 2009 10:23 pm
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Post Re: Why are people?
DWill wrote:
Robert Tulip wrote:
All this is on pages 1 to 3 of The Selfish Gene. I think Dawkins is basically correct in his analysis. However, I wonder if evolution of culture, as a specialised example of biological evolution, gives us the potential to move towards a situation where these universal ideals do make biological sense?

I vote no to this, Robert. I recall from some time back that you and I have different views about the relation of culture change to evolution. I think that culture evolves only in a general way that is utterly unlike biological evolution. The two can be represented as analagous, but that's as far as it goes, IMO. We would have to create this culture in which universal ideals are put into practice, as opposed to the natural process of selection that applies in evolution.


Chris OConnor wrote:
Can you explain what you mean by biological sense?


Hi guys, and thanks for the interesting responses.

The way I see it, the universe is deeply anthropic - it has to be just for humans to have evolved on the earth. We know very little about why people evolved, but we do know the universe gave us a sheltered and stable planet for four billion years. A reasonable postulate is therefore that the 'universal ideals' of morality are encoded into the anthropic nature of the universe, at least as manifest in our stable planet, and so make biological sense. Especially, the anthropic idea that the universe is somehow loving and forgiving can be a way to explain the Christian God as the presence of love in the universe. If the idea of God makes biological sense, then the universal ideals of morality are adaptive for our survival.

In the core Christian text of the Sermon on the Mount, we see this divine adaptivity defined in terms of the concept of blessedness. Jesus says the blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, the peacemakers, the pure in heart, the merciful, etc. This is a list of moral qualities which can be analysed from a Darwinian angle using the mathematical techniques that Dawkins explains in The Selfish Gene.

Further, the evolution of the human brain enabled a new agenda of biological evolution - using language to enable cooperative behaviour. Language is actually something of a veneer, sitting on top of our older genetic inheritance of non verbal cooperation and competition. Words change the evolutionary ball game, with ideas able to mobilise and regulate human activity on a large scale.



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Post Re: Why are people?
Robert Tulip wrote:
. . .The moral lesson he draws is that "if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature." The problem as he sees it is that "universal love and the welfare of the species as a whole are concepts which simply do not make evolutionary sense."

All this is on pages 1 to 3 of The Selfish Gene. I think Dawkins is basically correct in his analysis. However, I wonder if evolution of culture, as a specialised example of biological evolution, gives us the potential to move towards a situation where these universal ideals do make biological sense?


Forgive me if I'm misunderstanding you, Robert. But I think what Dawkins is saying is that the concepts of universal love and true altruism do not make evolutionary sense in respect to survival. But Dawkins has mentioned already in the introduction (to the 30th anniversary edition) that we are capable of rising above our instincts:

Quote:
Our brains have evolved to the point where we are capable of rebelling against our selfish genes. The fact that we can do so is made obvious by our use of contraceptives. The same principle can and should work on a wider scale. pg. xiv


This is why I think I think it's crucial for people to understand evolution because it gives us a chance to know ourselves (just as the Greeks said), understand our motives and make choices to override our primitive hardwiring.


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Last edited by geo on Sat Aug 29, 2009 11:18 pm, edited 1 time in total.



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Chris OConnor wrote:
Quote:
There is such a thing as being just plain wrong, and that is what, before 1859, all answers to those questions were.


He isn't criticizing man's desire to find an answer to the question of "why are people?" But he is saying that we got it all wrong BD, or Before Darwin. Yeah, I just made the BD part up. Feel free to use it.


Definitely like the BD. :D

In my 30th anniversary edition, there's an introduction to the 30th anniversary edition, a preface to the 2nd edition, foreward to the 1st edition, and preface to the 1st edition. Anyway, in one of these, Dawkins wrote that if extraterrestrials visited earth and they were interested in seeing how advanced we were as a species, all they would need to ask is this: have we discovered evolution yet? I don't think that's an exaggeration to how important evolution is.

Anyway, I've only read chapter one so far, but I'm stoked. I'm very glad I'm finally taking time to read this book.


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Yes, there are too many little prefaces here! But among the things I liked about the "Introduction to the 30th Anniversary Edition" is Dawkins' answer to those who said the book depressed them with its view of life as blind and purposeless. People are frequently saying things like this regarding scientific discoveries, starting right with Copernicus. But even scientists themselves can get into that reaction. Stephen Weinberg, the physicist, observed that the more we know about the universe, the more meaningless it appears. But that is his purely subjective judgment, which his expertise in physics makes him no more qualified to make than anyone else. There is no objective measurement for meaning. So Dawkins doesn't buy it when people say they wish they hadn't become enlightened by a truth, because it has destroyed their former sense of purpose. No matter what we may find out about the universe, there are no constraints at all placed upon our ability to conceive of purpose in our lives. Dawkins puts it much more eloquently:

"Presumably there is indeed no purpose in the ultimate fate of the cosmos, but do any of us really tie our life's hopes to the ultimate fate of the cosmos anyway? Of course we don't, not if we are sane. Our lives are ruled by all sorts of closer, warmer, human ambitions and perceptions. To accuse science of robbing life of the warmth that makes it worth living is so preposterously mistaken, so diametrically opposite to my own feelings and those of most working scientists, I am almost driven to the despair of which I am wrongly accused " (xiii).


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Joseph Conrad, The Heart of Darkness


Sat Aug 29, 2009 11:26 pm
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Post Re: Why are people?
geo wrote:
Forgive me if I'm misunderstanding you, Robert. But I think what Dawkins is saying is that the concepts of universal love and true altruism do not make evolutionary sense in respect to survival. But Dawkins has mentioned already in the introduction (to the 30th anniversary edition) that we are capable of rising above our instincts:
Quote:
Our brains have evolved to the point where we are capable of rebelling against our selfish genes. The fact that we can do so is made obvious by our use of contraceptives. The same principle can and should work on a wider scale. pg. xiv
This is why I think I think it's crucial for people to understand evolution because it gives us a chance to know ourselves (just as the Greeks said), understand our motives and make choices to override our primitive hardwiring.
The question of what makes ‘evolutionary sense’ is immensely complex, and has been radically changed by the evolution of human language. As I see it, if humanity does not work out how to cooperate on a planetary scale we are headed for extinction, and all our fine genes will be dead. Language has enabled us to transfer subterranean carbon into the air at a pace that will transform our planet into a dead Venus hothouse if unchecked. Language also gives us the capacity, as Dawkins notes in your quote, to rebel against instinct. The deep irony is that this rebellion goes well beyond his example of birth control, and picks up our ability to determine behaviour by reason. The irony is that it is precisely the concepts of universal love and true altruism, with their origins in the Christianity that he detests, that seem most needed to guide a planetary transformation. It is the inner instinctive ape within us that is destroying the planet by following irrational instincts to expand consumption. The key original human mutation, the emergence of a rational higher consciousness coded in words, is the only thing that will save us from our destructive animal genes.



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Robert Tulip wrote:
As I see it, if humanity does not work out how to cooperate on a planetary scale we are headed for extinction, and all our fine genes will be dead. Language has enabled us to transfer subterranean carbon into the air at a pace that will transform our planet into a dead Venus hothouse if unchecked. Language also gives us the capacity, as Dawkins notes in your quote, to rebel against instinct. The deep irony is that this rebellion goes well beyond his example of birth control, and picks up our ability to determine behaviour by reason. The irony is that it is precisely the concepts of universal love and true altruism, with their origins in the Christianity that he detests, that seem most needed to guide a planetary transformation. It is the inner instinctive ape within us that is destroying the planet by following irrational instincts to expand consumption. The key original human mutation, the emergence of a rational higher consciousness coded in words, is the only thing that will save us from our destructive animal genes.


I would say just the opposite, Robert. That our instinctual drive towards religion is precisely one of the things we should rebel against if we ever hope to get anywhere. If anything religion is an impediment to a more enlightened state of spirituality. It serves to divide us, not unite us.

But since you brought it up, what are these Christian concepts that would guide a planetary transformation?


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geo wrote:
our instinctual drive towards religion is precisely one of the things we should rebel against if we ever hope to get anywhere. If anything religion is an impediment to a more enlightened state of spirituality. It serves to divide us, not unite us. But since you brought it up, what are these Christian concepts that would guide a planetary transformation?


Hi Geo, your comment is an accurate critique of the low quality of most religious thought. Dawkins notes in a later chapter that religious faith often insists that people believe false claims despite evidence of their falsity. I agree with him that this attribute of religion is harmful for planetary survival. However, faith in true claims is also possible. Dawkins’ observation that faith often justifies error does not really perform the work he asks of it, namely to fully exclude faith as a legitimate motive.

The Selfish Gene invites us to consider how human evolution can be compared to the evolution of the social insects - bees, wasps, ants and termites. Considering human society as a social organism on the model of an insect colony, religion is a big part of the glue holding the organism together by supporting the shared values of the community. Religious beliefs are like the instincts that enable genetic cooperation among insects, with conventional rituals providing cohesion, rather like how bees tell each other where to find food. Like insect genes, many shared religious values support economic segmentation by caste and gender, and are pretty dubious, although the longevity of practices is an evolutionary indicator that they have met some real need.

The Selfish Gene assesses all behaviour against the remorseless logic of long term survival. Genes that survive are adaptive, while genes that go extinct are not adaptive. Whether religious practices are genetic or memetic, they can still be assessed against this Darwinian logic. You are right that religion is an impediment to a more enlightened state of spirituality, but this begs the question of whether a non-religious spirituality is possible. We can read religious texts as recognising this problem, and providing a critique of religious practices. For example the Biblical prophet Amos says God despises ritual sacrifice and seeks only pure justice, and the prophet Micah says that all God requires is justice, mercy and humility. These prophetic values seek a moral transformation of society to place those who are at the margin at the centre of importance. This emphasis on ethical values is sometimes disregarded by religious convention, but cannot really be ignored as a central part of Christian faith. The gospel concept of universal love is another example of a transformative value, suggesting that elites should be in solidarity with the poor and oppressed of the world.

The Selfish Gene asks how genetics can indicate a coherent way of living that can make the world a better place. Dawkins’ focus on evidence as the basis of opinion, the scientific method, is directly hostile to blind faith as a motive. Yet his suggestion that all faith is intrinsically blind – that the prophetic calls of the Bible lack vision – seems to me to be an invalid logical step that ignores visionary faith as a main theme in human life.



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Robert Tulip wrote:
Considering human society as a social organism on the model of an insect colony, religion is a big part of the glue holding the organism together by supporting the shared values of the community. Religious beliefs are like the instincts that enable genetic cooperation among insects, with conventional rituals providing cohesion, rather like how bees tell each other where to find food. Like insect genes, many shared religious values support economic segmentation by caste and gender, and are pretty dubious, although the longevity of practices is an evolutionary indicator that they have met some real need.


Robert -

Do you feel that religion is the only glue that can hold societies together? Why is religion considerred the default enabler of social values?

I understand Dawkins position that social values might not be embedded in our DNA, but they can be embedded in our society. Society wasn't born at a moment in time and it's members don't die at one time. Isn't it possible that social values evolve in society and then are passed down from generation to generation? It could be no different than scientific knowledge that is passed down (so to speak).

Each new scientist doesn't start at square one, he takes the known information that is taught to him and then builds on it. In the same way, each new citizen doesn't start from square one. He is taught the values that have succeeded in evolving society, and he builds on that.

Please correct me if I'm misunderstanding your position. I feel like a Yugo on a freeway full of Ferraris, I'm just trying to keep up. :?


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CWT36 wrote:
Robert Tulip wrote:
Considering human society as a social organism on the model of an insect colony, religion is a big part of the glue holding the organism together by supporting the shared values of the community. Religious beliefs are like the instincts that enable genetic cooperation among insects, with conventional rituals providing cohesion, rather like how bees tell each other where to find food. Like insect genes, many shared religious values support economic segmentation by caste and gender, and are pretty dubious, although the longevity of practices is an evolutionary indicator that they have met some real need.


Robert -

Do you feel that religion is the only glue that can hold societies together? Why is religion considerred the default enabler of social values?

I understand Dawkins position that social values might not be embedded in our DNA, but they can be embedded in our society. Society wasn't born at a moment in time and it's members don't die at one time. Isn't it possible that social values evolve in society and then are passed down from generation to generation? It could be no different than scientific knowledge that is passed down (so to speak).

Each new scientist doesn't start at square one, he takes the known information that is taught to him and then builds on it. In the same way, each new citizen doesn't start from square one. He is taught the values that have succeeded in evolving society, and he builds on that.

Please correct me if I'm misunderstanding your position. I feel like a Yugo on a freeway full of Ferraris, I'm just trying to keep up. :?


Hi Colin, good questions.

Religion means 're-binding' in the sense of connection to ultimate truth. However, it is pretty obvious that most religions believe myths that are not true. This is a paradox which Dawkins touches on later in The Selfish Gene where he discusses the meme for blind faith. This book invented the idea of the meme, which is what you are describing with your suggestion that social values evolve in society.

Religion has a default enabling status because it provides a meaningful explanation for life and death, or at least an explanation that people find meaningful. Dawkins points to an emptiness at the centre of religions, with the Christian dogmas of heaven and salvation exposed as false since the rise of science. But science has not yet provided a narrative to rival religion, and in my view will not do so until it addresses the deep 're-binding' agenda of religion.

I think social values are embedded in our DNA, operating at instinctive pre-conscious levels. Dawkins' example of how some bees instinctively remove diseased babies and some don't shows how automatic repugnance has a genetic base. Actual morality is only partly rational. Dawkins is arguing to tilt the playing field in favour of morality based on reason.



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