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II: Worlds Beyond Words (Adam Hart-Davis) 
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 II: Worlds Beyond Words (Adam Hart-Davis)
Books do Furnish a Life: An electrifying celebration of science writing

By Richard Dawkins


II: Worlds Beyond Words: Celebrating Nature
In conversation with Adam Hart-Davis



Thu May 06, 2021 7:45 am
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Post Re: II: Worlds Beyond Words (Adam Hart-Davis)
I hope it's ok with you all to skip ahead to the essay "Conserving Communities." Dawkins has a lot to say about communities, the most important of which play out in "the organs, the cells, the molecules, of individual creatures." But the organism also participates in a community, though it isn't so tight a one as the internal community. Where Dawkins goes toward the end of the essay is how, and even whether, to express regret over the loss of species diversity we're seeing now as humans continue their advance. He knows, for one thing, that when you make human beings, they must eat to survive, and they may find their food in ways that are harmful to species diversity. But what business do we well-fed, satisfied earthlings have in telling these people to stop? We're more moral only because of our full bellies.

This culling of species will open up new niches to be filled by other species, restoring diversity eventually, presumably, but humans may need to exit for that to happen. In a natural history view, what's happening isn't particularly unusual, just give it a few thousand years for adjustments to occur. Humans are a natural force, so we're not really doing anything to nature; we are nature itself in action. Dawkins doesn't succeed in taking this cold. pitiless view, though. He does regret the loss of any species, since it contains a unique evolutionary record. He mentions instrumental reasons for preserving species--because they may harbor secrets that will improve our own welfare--but calls this motive "crass." It is really, he says, the esthetic sense that rebels at the disappearance of organisms. It isn't that we can truly mourn over the deaths of unknown organisms, so maybe Dawkins is right. Is esthetics really the issue, though? Is this a place where 'spiritual' might be applied? We feel a spiritual injury when we witness the destruction of all the individuals of a type of organism, and think we have caused it. We feel diminished ourselves.



Last edited by DWill on Sun Jun 06, 2021 5:18 am, edited 1 time in total.



Sat Jun 05, 2021 10:21 pm
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Post Re: II: Worlds Beyond Words (Adam Hart-Davis)
DWill wrote:
Where Dawkins goes toward the end of the essay is how, and even whether, to express regret over the loss of species diversity we're seeing now as humans continue their advance. He knows, for one thing, that when you make human beings, they must eat to survive, and they may find their food in ways that are harmful to species diversity. But what business do we well-fed, satisfied earthlings have in telling these people to stop? We're more moral only because of our full bellies.
Always good to check our privilege, but the regret is real. The key to the privilege is to use it at our cost, rather than berating others to bear the cost. If this means buying up the Amazon forest to preserve it, well, that tells us something about the costs that we might otherwise be pressuring others to bear.

DWill wrote:
This culling of species will open up new niches to be filled by other species, restoring diversity eventually, presumably, but humans may need to exit for that to happen. In a natural history view, what's happening isn't particularly unusual, just give it a few thousand years for adjustments to occur. Humans are a natural force, so we're not really doing anything to nature; we are nature itself in action.
But the dispassionate view is only so helpful. Yes, if we end civilization with a nuclear winter or some such catastrophe, nature will recover. That doesn't change the regretability of a world we have made fit primarily for cockroaches and the things that feed on them.

DWill wrote:
Dawkins doesn't succeed in taking this cold. pitiless view, though. He does regret the loss of any species, since it contains a unique evolutionary record. He mentions instrumental reasons for preserving species--because they may harbor secrets that will improve our own welfare--but calls this motive "crass." It is really, he says, the esthetic sense that rebels at the disappearance of organisms.
There is more kinship between esthetic considerations and ethical considerations than we usually acknowledge. In the sense that Haidt investigates, our "raw" ethical judgments are very like our esthetic judgments. We also tend to process them through reason and the criterion of reciprocity, but those involve different brain functions: the rider is not the elephant.

So we should recognize that there is something disgusting about the image of the heedless humans trashing everything. Who wants to be part of that? At the very least it should lead us to question the legal doctrine of "right of first seizure" which says that whoever first finds a resource useful then "owns" it (regardless of effects on the wider public). There are limits on the efficacy of such a legal structure.

DWill wrote:
It isn't that we can truly mourn over the deaths of unknown organisms, so maybe Dawkins is right. Is esthetics really the issue, though? Is this a place where 'spiritual' might be applied? We feel a spiritual injury when we witness the destruction of all the individuals of a type of organism, and think we have caused it. We feel diminished ourselves.
I would agree with that. As we reflect on who we want to be, we do not usually arrive at "spendthrift" or "vandal" as our goal. We aspire to be more than that.



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Sat Jun 12, 2021 8:37 am
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Post Re: II: Worlds Beyond Words (Adam Hart-Davis)
DWill wrote:
I hope it's ok with you all to skip ahead to the essay "Conserving Communities." Dawkins has a lot to say about communities, the most important of which play out in "the organs, the cells, the molecules, of individual creatures." But the organism also participates in a community, though it isn't so tight a one as the internal community.

This book is something of a hodgepodge. It could easily be called Random Selections by Dawkins (except that there are also conversations with other authors). But there are some real gems here, including this one, "Conserving Communities." Dawkins returns to the idea of cooperative genes (which is also discussed at some length in his new foreward for the 30 year anniversary of The Selfish Gene). You get a good sense of Dawkins' Sagan-like sense of wonder with what he calls the "layer of life" on the planet earth. And contrary to his cantankerous reputation, I’d say he comes across as sympathetic and understanding of our tendency to see design in the world. This gentle side of Dawkins will of course not be noted by those who still refute evolution. And to Dawkins’ credit (as Mr. P has noted) this collection of writings seems not to descend to the condescending tone in say the title of The God Delusion.

Dawkins wrote:
The illusion of design is at its strongest in the tissues and organs, the cells and molecules, of individual creatures. The individuals of every species, without exception, show it powerfully, and it springs forth from every picture in this book.


Dawkins’ ability to see different levels of organization of life is rather illuminating for the layperson who wants to understand biology and evolution. Much like the rowers’ analogy he used in The Selfish Gene, he explains how cooperation (not selfishness) is really what makes life tick—these communities at the cell level, gene, and individual level and even in the ecosystem niches of our environment, in which life constantly shuffles and reorganizes itself.

Dawkins wrote:
Most animal cells are communities of hundreds or thousands of bacteria, which have become so comprehensively integrated into the smooth working of the cell that their bacterial origins have only recently become understood. Mitochondria, once free-living bacteria, are as essential to the workings of our cells as our cells are to them. Their genes have flourished in the presence of ours as ours have flourished in the presence of theirs.


This is fascinating stuff. The chapter “Life Within Life” is a great primer to understanding what Dawkins calls The Extended Phenotype.

In another gem coming up (“Pure Delight in a Godless Universe”), Dawkins shines in his discussion of the origins of religious belief, which I think is also done very tactfully.


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Sat Jun 19, 2021 6:10 pm
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Post Re: II: Worlds Beyond Words (Adam Hart-Davis)
geo wrote:
You get a good sense of Dawkins' Sagan-like sense of wonder with what he calls the "layer of life" on the planet earth. And contrary to his cantankerous reputation, I’d say he comes across as sympathetic and understanding of our tendency to see design in the world. This gentle side of Dawkins will of course not be noted by those who still refute evolution. And to Dawkins’ credit (as Mr. P has noted) this collection of writings seems not to descend to the condescending tone in say the title of The God Delusion.

He's had a long public career and prides himself on being outspoken, so I think naturally he's left a variety of impressions with people. To demand consistency over that length of time seems unreasonable--and that would even be boring, one thing he's definitely not. But many people, having formed an impression of him as intolerant and dogmatic, won't be swayed by the contrary evidence you mention. In this book, right from the start, he showed his different side. Tyson outshined him in that opening conversation, and Tyson even poked fun at his reputation as a misanthrope, but Dawkins still chose to include the exchange in the book. He's able to lay his ego aside.



Sat Jun 19, 2021 10:50 pm
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