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Ch. 1: Science and Sensibility (A Devil's Chaplain) 
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Post Re: Ch. 1: Science and Sensibility (A Devil's Chaplain)
Robert Tulip wrote:
In The God Delusion Dawkins says (p197), in discussing how genes cooperate, "we have here something more like a free market than a planned economy... The invisible hand of natural selection fills the gap. That is different from having a central planner... the invisible hand will turn out to be central to our understanding of religious memes..."


Robert Tulip wrote:
Nobel Prize winner Friedrich Hayek used this Darwinian philosophy as the basis for his neoliberal thought, arguing that in society as in nature, a free market where individuals seek their own advantage will produce a superior outcome compared to a society where the state seeks to plan centrally...

Hayek observes that law that builds on precedent is evolutionary in nature, and suggests that all economic theory should seek to be evolutionary. In courts as in nature, law works through the evolutionary principle of cumulative adaptation.


I'm quite familiar with Hayek, but I think his and other economists' notions of evolutionary adaptation are really just an analogy to biological evolution, and Dawkins' use of "the invisible hand" seems to be analogy to Adam Smith's usage -- he is using it to describe the facts of evolution, including those of memes, not to make a normative claim. I see no logical reason, nor anything from Dawkins, for why an understanding of Darwinian evolution would preclude an argument for economic central planning (even though I think those economic arguments fail). I still think you're reading claims into Dawkins that aren't there -- I don't see him making any normative claims resulting from Darwinism, and he explicitly states his "anti-Darwinian" views.


Robert Tulip wrote:
Dawkins quotes TH Huxley:

Quote:
Let us understand, once for all, that the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it.


I disagree entirely with this claim. The idea that the cosmic process is hostile to life is refuted by the existence of life on earth.


I think you're reading Dawkins uncharitably here, I don't see how he would disagree with your observation that the universe and Earth in particular is hospitable to life and that this is quite fortunate for us -- he's talking about the struggle for survival among organisms, given these background conditions.



Last edited by Dexter on Sun May 08, 2011 7:23 am, edited 1 time in total.



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Post Re: Ch. 1: Science and Sensibility (A Devil's Chaplain)
Robert, I know you're more than up to the challenge, but you can see that Dexter and I don't agree with your tendency to shift Darwinian evolution, more or less unchanged, over to the cultural side. Even the inventor of memes, Dawkins, doesn't believe this should be done. There are parallels, opportunities for analogy, between a selection of genes that occurs when the environment favors some organisms over others, and the selection of cultural mental models that propels history, but the mundane fact that sex and death don't account for changes in culture appears to be a distinguishing, inconvenient truth.

Robert Tulip wrote:
Dawkins cites Darwin's claim that nature is cruel and indifferent, and suggests morality consists in human rejection of selectionist pressure towards cruelty. However, while this idea of the indifference of nature may be true in aggregate, considering how much of the universe is inhospitable to life, it is not true for our planet, which is apparently unique in its kindness towards life. By maintaining liquid water for four billion years, earth has enabled the spectacular flowering of life.

The indifference of nature is is felt, by organisms capable of this type of feeling, on the individual level. It is also on the individual level that humans would need to act in order to counter the indifference of nature for the individual. There is nothing in this statement to refute a "life is good" sentiment, and Dawkins often expresses that. We are capable of feeling that way toward both life and "our life" because of the evolved state of our brains. So we might feel the universe is indifferent and even hostile to us? We have evolved many good defenses against being overcome by that.

Robert Tulip wrote:
Dawkins then quotes TH's grandson Julian Huxley

Quote:
The Universe can live and work and plan, At last made God within the mind of man.

Dawkins prefaced his quotation of the poem by saying that it said some things he didn't want to say, and I'm pretty sure this would be one.


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Sun May 08, 2011 8:03 am
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Post Re: Ch. 1: Science and Sensibility (A Devil's Chaplain)
I was guessing that if you give Dawkins scope to talk about different things that interest him, you'd find a lot to think about, and I was right. I agree with his view in the second essay, "What is True?" Arguments about what we know, and how, tend to give me a headache, and I probably don't understand them well, either. So it was reassuring to hear him say that, essentially, that these arguments don't matter very much. Especially in the case of science, we have facts, results, we can rely on as not merely relative to some cultural outlook. Dawkins has little patience for relativism, though I think that one has to be a relativist to some degree in matters non-scientific.

In the next essay, I picked up on his use of the term "discontinuous mind." He must have discussed this at more length somewhere else. I'm not completely sure what he means by this, but judging by the context of how organisms speciate, I assume he's saying that our classifications are not to be taken as corresponding to a physical reality in which there are actually neat distinctions between organisms, as if the state in which we see them defines essentially what they are and have been. They should be seen as always emerging from something and sliding into something else. That's not how the discontinuous mind sees things, though, which explains in part the problem people have in believing that humans can be such near descendents of a common ancestor of chimpanzees. I also wonder if the discontinuous mind has a broader relevance to our habit of typing in all sorts of ways, but especially regarding people. We talk about psychological types and mental disorders as if they exist as discrete categories, when the other (i.e., continuous) view is that they are not, but just result from our habit of classifying phenomena that show difference. Everything is, more essentially, a variant of something else, the manic-depressive someone who simply has more of the neurochemistry that we all have, a Borderline Personality just somebody whose neediness has crossed over a line of social acceptability.


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Mon May 09, 2011 12:09 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 1: Science and Sensibility (A Devil's Chaplain)
DWill wrote:
. . . In the next essay, I picked up on his use of the term "discontinuous mind." He must have discussed this at more length somewhere else. I'm not completely sure what he means by this, but judging by the context of how organisms speciate, I assume he's saying that our classifications are not to be taken as corresponding to a physical reality in which there are actually neat distinctions between organisms, as if the state in which we see them defines essentially what they are and have been. They should be seen as always emerging from something and sliding into something else. That's not how the discontinuous mind sees things, though, which explains in part the problem people have in believing that humans can be such near descendents of a common ancestor of chimpanzees. I also wonder if the discontinuous mind has a broader relevance to our habit of typing in all sorts of ways, but especially regarding people. We talk about psychological types and mental disorders as if they exist as discrete categories, when the other (i.e., continuous) view is that they are not, but just result from our habit of classifying phenomena that show difference. Everything is, more essentially, a variant of something else, the manic-depressive someone who simply has more of the neurochemistry that we all have, a Borderline Personality just somebody whose neediness has crossed over a line of social acceptability.


Looks like we're on the same essay: (3.1–Gaps in the Mind). I'm very impressed with how presciently relevant my previous post about Jared Diamond's The Third Chimpanzee is to this essay. 8)

Regarding the "discontinuous mind," I would say it's our tendency to try to see the world in black-and-white when, in fact, it's grayscale (or even full spectrum color). Dawkins uses the example of courts in South Africa trying to adjudicate whether people of mixed parentage count as black or white or "coloured." We want to place arbitrary labels on everything to make it easier to think about them and/or to regiment them. As you say many human illnesses are points on a continuum, but our medical system is set up to make diagnoses and a patient who meets certain criteria can be diagnosed with such and such, but it's a somewhat subjective process. An illness can manifest itself very differently with different people. My wife has done some clinical work at a mental health clinic and she says they would rarely diagnose a child with bipolar disorder or borderline personality for many different reasons, primarily because such a diagnosis is a huge stigma and would stay with the child for the rest of his/her life. Also, such a diagnosis would make it impossible for the child to get health insurance which ultimately means the clinic won't get paid.

Interesting essay. I wasn't going to read this book right now, but now that I've started I might as well continue with it.


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Tue May 10, 2011 7:48 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 1: Science and Sensibility (A Devil's Chaplain)
Dexter wrote:
economists' notions of evolutionary adaptation are really just an analogy to biological evolution, and Dawkins' use of "the invisible hand" seems to be analogy to Adam Smith's usage -- he is using it to describe the facts of evolution, including those of memes, not to make a normative claim. I see no logical reason, nor anything from Dawkins, for why an understanding of Darwinian evolution would preclude an argument for economic central planning (even though I think those economic arguments fail). I still think you're reading claims into Dawkins that aren't there -- I don't see him making any normative claims resulting from Darwinism, and he explicitly states his "anti-Darwinian" views.
I disagree. Dawkins says evolution is a free market not a planned economy. This suggests that other replicative complex systems that grow and adapt to circumstances, reacting in the same way as genes, will be most attuned to nature if they also follow evolutionary principles.

Hayek suggested the role of government is to steer not row, to set the rules of the game and then allow competitive markets to let the most adaptive firms grow to their capacity, while less competitive firms will go bust. It aligns directly to Schumpeter's idea of creative destruction, that intervening to prevent market systems from operating entrenches stagnation.

There is very much a normative moral lesson here, that public policy should assume a default position that competitive markets are the best way to produce economic growth. Yes there are cases of market failure that justify state intervention, but these should be justified on the basis of rigorous cost benefit analysis, and the preferable form of state intervention is to shift the rules of the game to achieve explicit public objectives. If the state sets incentives that have consequences of promoting dependency, the overall impact is a smaller economy, with less profit to flow through the economy and lift incomes.

The World Bank has observed that growth is good for the poor, with evidence showing that incomes of the poorest rise in line with the overall economy. So by targeting growth, government can achieve sustainable reduction in poverty. By targeting equality of outcome, a non-evolutionary strategy, governments promote situations like Mao's iron rice bowl, where the Chinese people were equal in dire poverty.

Only when Deng Xiao Ping adopted the capitalist evolutionary road with his key policy statement 'to get rich is glorious' did China escape from the tyranny of socialist planning.

Economics is at the center of moral theory. Economic policy decisions impact the lives of everyone. Good decisions, aligned to evolutionary theory, on balance make things better for everyone, while bad decisions, ignoring evolutionary principles, create stagnation and entrench poverty.

The surplus generated by a free market enables social protection of the weak. This is the dialectic lesson of Matthew 25, where the apparently paradoxical ideas of the parable of the talents 'to those who have will be given' and the Last Judgment 'what you do to the least you do to Christ' are directly juxtaposed. The evolutionary reward for talent is the only sustainable way to provide the resources for works of mercy.



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Post Re: Ch. 1: Science and Sensibility (A Devil's Chaplain)
DWill wrote:
Robert Tulip wrote:
Dawkins then quotes TH's grandson Julian Huxley
Quote:
The Universe can live and work and plan, At last made God within the mind of man.
Dawkins prefaced his quotation of the poem by saying that it said some things he didn't want to say, and I'm pretty sure this would be one.

No. As I subsequently said, Dawkins presents a favorable analysis of this idea with his statement "We are blessed with brains which, if educated and allowed free rein, are capable of modelling the universe, with its physical laws in which the Darwinian algorithm is embedded." Huxley is using the term God in the same way as Einstein, which Dawkins accepts as a euphemism for nature. For Einstein (and Huxley) the idea of 'God within the mind of man' is precisely what Dawkins discusses as the human ability to model the Darwinian algorithm.



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Post Re: Ch. 1: Science and Sensibility (A Devil's Chaplain)
Robert Tulip wrote:
No. As I subsequently said, Dawkins presents a favorable analysis of this idea with his statement "We are blessed with brains which, if educated and allowed free rein, are capable of modelling the universe, with its physical laws in which the Darwinian algorithm is embedded." Huxley is using the term God in the same way as Einstein, which Dawkins accepts as a euphemism for nature. For Einstein (and Huxley) the idea of 'God within the mind of man' is precisely what Dawkins discusses as the human ability to model the Darwinian algorithm.

You may be right about Dawkins not objecting to the line quoted. There is something about the poem, though, that he doesn't endorse.

Robert, regarding your reply to Dexter, if you look at what Dawkins does to explain science, analogy is a main tool. He doesn't mean in any way natural selection of genes has a moral (or economic, same thing) significance for us--except that in his opinion natural selection should be a negative example for morality.


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Post Re: Ch. 1: Science and Sensibility (A Devil's Chaplain)
DWill wrote:
in his opinion natural selection should be a negative example for morality.


I really think you are distorting what Dawkins writes, and you have no real evidence for this comment. You cannot take the critique of simplistic readings of 'survival of the fittest' as a suggestion that humanity has evolved beyond nature. His comment in The Selfish Gene about humans having the capacity to transcend our biology is a recognition that we have evolved to require rational morality as a key tool of adaptation to our global environment. We can read this to say that traditional religion is mired in emotion, whereas science gives us the capacity to evolve into reason as a basis for life.

What about all his discussion of how altruism is grounded in kin selection? There is abundant evidence that morality has a basis in biology, that we have evolved to be moral, as seen in the moral attitudes of apes. The key question now for our planet is human capacity for moral evolution.



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Post Re: Ch. 1: Science and Sensibility (A Devil's Chaplain)
Robert Tulip wrote:
DWill wrote:
in his opinion natural selection should be a negative example for morality.


I really think you are distorting what Dawkins writes, and you have no real evidence for this comment. You cannot take the critique of simplistic readings of 'survival of the fittest' as a suggestion that humanity has evolved beyond nature. His comment in The Selfish Gene about humans having the capacity to transcend our biology is a recognition that we have evolved to require rational morality as a key tool of adaptation to our global environment. We can read this to say that traditional religion is mired in emotion, whereas science gives us the capacity to evolve into reason as a basis for life.

What about all his discussion of how altruism is grounded in kin selection? There is abundant evidence that morality has a basis in biology, that we have evolved to be moral, as seen in the moral attitudes of apes. The key question now for our planet is human capacity for moral evolution.

Dexter has already quoted Dawkins:
Quote:
I am a passionate anti-Darwinian when it comes to politics and how we should conduct our human affairs.

To be clear, Dawinism equals natural selection in Dawkins' statement. I think to get out of the bind we're in we'd have to define terms, because we're really not talking about the same things. Maybe we could start with what Dawkins means by natural selection and whether you mean the same thing he does.


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Post Re: Ch. 1: Science and Sensibility (A Devil's Chaplain)
DWill wrote:
Dexter has already quoted Dawkins:
Quote:
I am a passionate anti-Darwinian when it comes to politics and how we should conduct our human affairs.

To be clear, Dawinism equals natural selection in Dawkins' statement. I think to get out of the bind we're in we'd have to define terms, because we're really not talking about the same things. Maybe we could start with what Dawkins means by natural selection and whether you mean the same thing he does.


I agree, there must be some basic misunderstanding here. I'm perplexed as to what Robert is trying to say. Dawkins makes it abundantly clear that evolution cannot be used as a basis in which to conduct human affairs. In essay 1.4 he discusses ethics and is very clear that science cannot help us decide what is ethical behavior.

"I have already touched on some ethical issues. Science has no methods for deciding what is ethical. That is a matter for individuals and for society. But science can clarify the questions being asked, and can clear up obfuscating misunderstandings." (p.34)


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Post Re: Ch. 1: Science and Sensibility (A Devil's Chaplain)
In his essay on Science, Genetics and Ethics, Dawkins comments on the cultural and aesthetic value of science, saying "Science can be spiritual, even religious in a nonsupernatural sense of the word." My reading of Dawkins has focused on his impact as an ethical philosopher, with the strong subtext throughout his work that our values should be based on facts. Dawkins' main theme is that supernatural thinking is unethical because it is based on error.

Dawkins makes the point that all replicators are evolutionary. A gene is just a mathematical operator, like a square root - "genes really are watertight subroutines of digital software". In quoting Carl Sagan "I try not to think with my gut", Dawkins argues for values based on reason rather than emotion.

For example, science cannot define murder, which is a question of human values, but it can provide an evidentiary basis so that our values about murder are logically consistent. The ethical debate can take place on a factual platform. This raises the problem of 'scientists playing God' for example with genetic testing. I confess to a gut reaction here, that I am not sure Dawkins is sufficiently precautionary in his claim that a gene is just a gene (when moved from a fish to a tomato), or that a clone is exactly the same as the original.

Dawkins comments on the ethical treatment of scientific truth that evidence is essential for public claims. Deliberate falsifications and misrepresentations of scientific truth are unethical, so the converse argument is that rigorous scientific approaches are foundational to ethics.

Dawkins warns about how his comments are taken out of context. His statement "I am a passionate anti-Darwinian when it comes to politics" is a critique of immoral Nazi theories such as eugenics, and a refusal to be co-opted into a party political position. In no way does his comment extend to the claim that a morality that is compatible with evidence from natural selection may be inferior to a morality that is not compatible with evidence. His point is that evolution has made us into complex organisms who are only partly ethical, because our reason is in conflict with our instinct, especially regarding sexuality. His call for rebellion "against the tyranny of the selfish replicators" is precisely a call for the ethical evolution of humanity to base our moral sentiments on facts rather than fantasy and desire.



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Post Re: Ch. 1: Science and Sensibility (A Devil's Chaplain)
Surely if Dawkins were really talking about a group of social views that were labeled at one point as social Darwinism, he would make it clear that he was. But he's talking about the very theory of natural selection that he himself is so devoted to explaining to us laymen. It's just that we don't want to apply it to our ideas of how we should treat others and what we should most value. You, Robert, see in evolution something that encompasses us in its push toward a destined future for our species. I think Dawkins sees evolution as a description of the billions of life events that have resulted in the planetary history of life as we are able to observe it; but there is no overall meaning to evolution, or at least--and this is the main point--none that science could determine.

I recall your saying that you have difficulty with existentialism. While Dawkins doesn't put himself in any school of philosophy (I don't think he cares about philosophy, do you?), for me he fits well with existentialism. Neither God nor any notion such as evolutionary destiny determines humans essence. We are in charge of conceiving and determining our ethics and morality.


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Post Re: Ch. 1: Science and Sensibility (A Devil's Chaplain)
Our world has been transformed into a strange and unintuitive landscape, far afield from the savannas of Africa where our brains did much of their evolving. In many ways we are not well adapted to this modern labyrinth where intuition and instinct can no longer provide much guidance and, in fact, can often lead us astray. So by understanding the way our brains work and by developing critical thinking skills to address cognitive bias and other shortcomings, we can actually rise above our own primitive hardwiring. Similarly, Dawkins has argued that by understanding the nature of gene-centric evolution, we can rise above our selfish genes' relentless drive to replicate and survive across the generations. In other words, we can reassert the individual's power and perhaps influence our own destiny. He has mentioned our use of birth control as one example of asserting our will over our genes. I believe this is where Dawkins' passion for science (and dislike for organized religion) comes in because this self knowledge is very empowering to the individual. How better to know ourselves than to understand our basic animal (actually very human) impulses that drive our behavior?


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Post Re: Ch. 1: Science and Sensibility (A Devil's Chaplain)
DWill wrote:
Surely if Dawkins were really talking about a group of social views that were labeled at one point as social Darwinism, he would make it clear that he was. But he's talking about the very theory of natural selection that he himself is so devoted to explaining to us laymen. It's just that we don't want to apply it to our ideas of how we should treat others and what we should most value. You, Robert, see in evolution something that encompasses us in its push toward a destined future for our species. I think Dawkins sees evolution as a description of the billions of life events that have resulted in the planetary history of life as we are able to observe it; but there is no overall meaning to evolution, or at least--and this is the main point--none that science could determine.

I recall your saying that you have difficulty with existentialism. While Dawkins doesn't put himself in any school of philosophy (I don't think he cares about philosophy, do you?), for me he fits well with existentialism. Neither God nor any notion such as evolutionary destiny determines humans essence. We are in charge of conceiving and determining our ethics and morality.

Dawkin's point, in his quote from Darwin that gives the title A Devil's Chaplain, is that "natural selection can be expected to be clumsy, wasteful and blundering", but this universal algorithm of life is "certainly the only known force capable of producing the illusion of purpose", giving rise to all the elegance of nature.

Dawkins says "For good Darwinian reasons, evolution gave us a brain whose size increased to the point where it became capable of understanding its own provenance, of deploring the moral implications and of fighting against them." This invites us to ask how natural selection manifests in the modern world, seeing reason as just as natural as instinct. Humans have become dominant just because of our brains, which evolved by natural selection. So it does not make sense to say that rational action using our brains to ensure our survival is contrary to natural selection, rather, the human capacity for understanding and rational cooperation is just another stage of evolution.

Our brains enable us to evolve in far more efficient ways than life that lacks human intelligence, and have taken evolution to a new level, a difference of kind rather than degree. The difference is as significant as the Cambrian evolution of macrobial life, but no one says evolution stopped when things other than microbes first appeared 600 million years ago. To say otherwise is almost like suggesting that birds' use of wings to fly more efficiently is arbitrarily excluded from natural selection.

Thought has transformed the context of nature, but the optimal path for human life is still to adapt to our natural circumstances. Suggesting that evolutionary destiny is irrelevant to human essence falsely implies that humans are above nature. As Dawkins says, "the clumsy and cruel algorithm of natural selection has generated a machine capable of internalizing the algorithm, setting up a model of itself - and much more - in microcosm inside the human skull." Thought models nature. It is precisely this capacity that enables us to adapt to our circumstances. Ignoring natural consequences of actions is a recipe for disaster, for suffering the clumsy fate that nature dishes out to species that are no longer adaptive.

Dawkins' brilliance is his capacity to use zoology to articulate a coherent worldview. This is very much a philosophical and ethical agenda, a polemic against worldviews that are not compatible with zoology. Seeing humans as within nature, as Dawkins emphasises in his essay on our kinship with apes, does not give a licence for blundering waste, but rather suggests that we should use our main evolutionary resource, our brains, to ensure human survival and prosperity by understanding nature and adapting to it.

The apparent dichotomy between culture and nature is resolved by the recognition that culture is part of nature, that intelligence has evolved and will remain determinant for human prosperity within an evolving global ecosphere.

As a philosopher, Dawkins stands in the skeptical empirical tradition of David Hume and Karl Popper, emphasising observation and evidence as the basis of correct thought. This is why he is so caustic about wrong philosophy that ignores observation, such as postmodernism.

I didn't say I have difficulty with existentialism, in the sense that I disagree with it, but I did say I find it puzzling. I talked about this in relation to Dostoyevsky, saying that existentialism is a standing forth into ultimate reality, unwilling to accept lies, replacing delusory traditions with a faith in human reality. Where Dawkins differs from the existential tradition is his refusal to see human relation to an ultimate reality as an integrating theme for thought that opens new meaning in traditional ideas. Instead he stands with the liberal scientific view, the positivist tradition, that sees abstract ethical ideas as meaningless and dangerous. It would be nice to see more existential urgency in Dawkins, as his rejection of faith makes it hard for him to evangelise effectively for his message of reason.



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Post Re: Ch. 1: Science and Sensibility (A Devil's Chaplain)
Dawkins main theme in his public role as educator in science isn't really how right science is, but how much more satisfying, intriguing, surprising, and strange it is than the religious view of creation or of pseudo-scientific beliefs such as the power of crystals. Reading him, I admit to regret that my own education in science was not that good. Purely my own fault, by the way.

The last two essays in the section were rousing in different ways. The one on postmodern bullcrap was a great send-up of the worst aspect of academia. I didn't attend a graduate school that was very into the hot literary theories and ideologies of the time (thankfully, we still were forced to take courses in Chaucer and Milton), but I had some exposure to the fashionable "theories" of phenomenolgy, structuralism, and deconstructionism--enough to convince me I'd never utter a word of them to students of my own. In his introduction, Dawkins has a neat thing to say about the creation of needless difficulty to satisfy academic ambitions. "Dawkins' Law of the Conservation of difficulty states that obscurantism in an academic subject expands to fill the vacuum of its intrinsic simplicity" (p. 6). Perfect.

His essay on education attacks the equation of education with succeeding on standardized tests. The goal of school systems becomes to obtain numerical test data on students and to strive to make that data reflect increasing student achievement. In the U. S., we have No Child Left Behind (in case of rapture?) on the national level, and state standards such as Standards of Learning in Virginia. Both emphasize "rigorous testing" and force teachers to teach to tests. Dawkins' school, Oundle, sneered at that soul-sapping edu-cratese and still does. Dawkins makes it sound like a wonderful place of learning.


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