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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.



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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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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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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.



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Post Re: II: Worlds Beyond Words (Adam Hart-Davis)
geo's right about the hodgepodge of this book, but I like the brevity of the entries and Dawkin's characteristic pithiness. In "Darwin on the Slab" he labels the physiological infrastructure of large animals a "beautifully honed mess," pointing to the queerly engineered laryngeal nerve of a giraffe as an example. I need to reread "Life within Life" to understand what he's saying about the role of the organism vs. that of the gene, but I noted that Dawkins takes a kind of delight in what many others, I included, have some trouble liking--parasites and other "eewy" members of the animal kingdom. But I don't doubt that he's onto something fundamental about the nature--if not the meaning--of life.

I much appreciate the insight of "Pure Delight in a Godless Universe." He says that science has provided "one of the joys of modernity"--the releasing of us from enthrallment to random, animistic forces. We do not have to live in fear of demons, spirits, or a vengeful God (although Dawkins says many still are in thrall to the last). We often debate whether, on balance, modernity has improved human life, and often the matter hinges on material advances or longer lives. But the mental freedom Dawkins identifies has to be a huge part of why we are better off, and I simply had not thought of it that way.

A good summary of the role of agency, explained in the terms of evolutionary psychology. The discussion led me to think about God-belief as now existing in two broad categories: God as having created the world, doing things in the human world, making things happen; and God as existing in some way, but not having made the world or changing things around in human affairs.



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Post Re: II: Worlds Beyond Words (Adam Hart-Davis)
DWill wrote:
We do not have to live in fear of demons, spirits, or a vengeful God (although Dawkins says many still are in thrall to the last). We often debate whether, on balance, modernity has improved human life, and often the matter hinges on material advances or longer lives. But the mental freedom Dawkins identifies has to be a huge part of why we are better off, and I simply had not thought of it that way.

Living in fear of spirits can be a good thing. In Africa a person who blatantly abuses others may have a curse put on them (children are punished severely for cursing someone, to train them not to abuse this practice). The result is that most people have more self-discipline about not running roughshod over their neighbors. You could think of it as "small claims court." Of course there are those who defy the power of others to curse them. Often those are either modern sector elites or dabblers in black magic.

Of course I do think it is better not to think about things in those terms. A more realistic appraisal says that a person should discipline their aggressive urges out of simple decency, and that "Karens" like the lady who threatened a man with calling the police because he was a person of color, over his request that she leash her dog, are "punished" by the arm's length distance other people keep them at. I sometimes lament the loss of ordinary politeness skills in our society, but I don't really think we are better off if obnoxious people are kept in check by unseen forces.

DWill wrote:
A good summary of the role of agency, explained in the terms of evolutionary psychology. The discussion led me to think about God-belief as now existing in two broad categories: God as having created the world, doing things in the human world, making things happen; and God as existing in some way, but not having made the world or changing things around in human affairs.
The first is inevitably capricious, at least in practical terms, because good and bad events arrive without regard to good and bad behavior. Some people believe in a secret "plan", somehow too complex for mere mortals to understand, and thereby make room for a benevolent controller that we can trust to have some good purpose even if we can't see or understand it. Apparently capricious, but not really. I am pretty put off by the sociology which results, in which those who have had mostly good luck in life are therefore considered to have essentially deserved it, by having a lot of faith or some such.

The second is the locus of the modernist theologian's god. Godly actions are some actions perceived to be such (i.e. we can recognize godliness in them) in real events, rather than interventions claimed from some "other realm." God acts "in" events, not "between" events, as Bultmann put it. Process theology sees this as a process in which the possibilities for a better life or better society exert a pull on people, leading them to be "co-creators" with the divine (and the divine is, essentially, the pull of those possibilities). In that sense God does "change things around."

I recently read a treatment in which predestination was explained in terms that recapitulate this division into two ways of seeing the divine. Some outside intelligence "elects" (chooses) people to play some role in events, and their way is "prepared" by divine providence. This is not election for salvation, in the classic Calvinist sense, but election for playing a role in the overall salvation of creation. Needless to say the evidence is mighty thin. An argument can be made that the result is salutary for human will to virtue, but an equally strong case can be made that people who see the world this way are very likely to fall into the error of judgmental condemnation of those who don't "play the same role" they do.

I tend to think the operation of divine agency, the effect of the Spirit of Caring, is through a "pay it forward" type process of grace. The reason for doing good is neither divine reward (in this world or the next) nor expectation of recompense from others, but rather to have a beneficent effect on the flow of causality. In an odd sense, this amounts to saying one should do good "because you can," but that is actually about right.



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Post Re: II: Worlds Beyond Words (Adam Hart-Davis)
Harry Marks wrote:
DWill wrote:
We do not have to live in fear of demons, spirits, or a vengeful God (although Dawkins says many still are in thrall to the last). We often debate whether, on balance, modernity has improved human life, and often the matter hinges on material advances or longer lives. But the mental freedom Dawkins identifies has to be a huge part of why we are better off, and I simply had not thought of it that way.

Living in fear of spirits can be a good thing. In Africa a person who blatantly abuses others may have a curse put on them (children are punished severely for cursing someone, to train them not to abuse this practice). The result is that most people have more self-discipline about not running roughshod over their neighbors. You could think of it as "small claims court." Of course there are those who defy the power of others to curse them. Often those are either modern sector elites or dabblers in black magic.

Of course I do think it is better not to think about things in those terms. A more realistic appraisal says that a person should discipline their aggressive urges out of simple decency, and that "Karens" like the lady who threatened a man with calling the police because he was a person of color, over his request that she leash her dog, are "punished" by the arm's length distance other people keep them at. I sometimes lament the loss of ordinary politeness skills in our society, but I don't really think we are better off if obnoxious people are kept in check by unseen forces.

But you're right that the reason spirits and gods were/are said to exist goes beyond needs to explain causation, e.g., that thunder isn't Odin shaking the ramparts of Valhalla. Dawkins and others use that simplified view, along with the view that religion only persuades us that we don't really die. It does more than that, and some of what it did in the very early days was transferred to the realm of civil authority, law, and culture. Santal Claus works with kids, a well-developed sense of guilt does it for adults. The superego was a fine substitute for God.
Harry Marks wrote:
DWill wrote:
A good summary of the role of agency, explained in the terms of evolutionary psychology. The discussion led me to think about God-belief as now existing in two broad categories: God as having created the world, doing things in the human world, making things happen; and God as existing in some way, but not having made the world or changing things around in human affairs.
The first is inevitably capricious, at least in practical terms, because good and bad events arrive without regard to good and bad behavior. Some people believe in a secret "plan", somehow too complex for mere mortals to understand, and thereby make room for a benevolent controller that we can trust to have some good purpose even if we can't see or understand it. Apparently capricious, but not really. I am pretty put off by the sociology which results, in which those who have had mostly good luck in life are therefore considered to have essentially deserved it, by having a lot of faith or some such.

And if their luck changes and they fall from grace, they may have no trouble blaming someone else's sinning for that fall. They also may instead learn something about how luck works.
Quote:
The second is the locus of the modernist theologian's god. Godly actions are some actions perceived to be such (i.e. we can recognize godliness in them) in real events, rather than interventions claimed from some "other realm." God acts "in" events, not "between" events, as Bultmann put it. Process theology sees this as a process in which the possibilities for a better life or better society exert a pull on people, leading them to be "co-creators" with the divine (and the divine is, essentially, the pull of those possibilities). In that sense God does "change things around."

Do you think this theology can be viewed as a means of preserving some of the valued heritage that went along with the older, externalized God, and perhaps, too, of avoiding the solipsism that might result if we denied anything was going on other than people finding it better to be nice to one another? Or maybe such a theology is simply a good thing to have around because we can't trust people to act for the overall welfare guided by their own lights. They do best with deep-seated, inculcated ideas in place about what the good life is. Law alone doesn't have the needed reach into minds.
Quote:
I tend to think the operation of divine agency, the effect of the Spirit of Caring, is through a "pay it forward" type process of grace. The reason for doing good is neither divine reward (in this world or the next) nor expectation of recompense from others, but rather to have a beneficent effect on the flow of causality. In an odd sense, this amounts to saying one should do good "because you can," but that is actually about right.

I think that Erikson's idea of generativity comes close to the spirit of what you so well said. Erikson thought of generativity as a stage older people reach (which I find to be true), but it can be taught to those of all ages. And maybe "taught" is the key word in all of this discussion. Yes, people have the capacity to be nice to one another "naturally," but a force multiplier is needed to keep more selfish and atavistic urges at bay. As a teacher, you wouldn't find that surprising, I'd guess.



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Post Re: II: Worlds Beyond Words (Adam Hart-Davis)
Although I didn't concentrate hard on all of Dawkins' arguments in "Travelling with Darwin," I perked up when he defended Dr. Doolittle against cancellation because of alleged racism. Dawkins says that the service that Hugh Lofting performed in countering 'speciesism' more than makes up for some backwardness regarding race. Dawkins, it's true, isn't a speciesist, which he demonstrates by a wide appreciation--I think liking--for all types of life, even parasites. That's a good way to be in this time of accelerated anthropogenic extinctions.

He is a great champion of Darwin, telling us that Darwin's shortcomings detract only a very little from his revolutionary brilliance. Always somewhat combative, Dawkins opines that two other 19th-Century giants that often join Darwin in a troika, don't belong. Marx's and Freud's contributions were parochial in comparison. A visitor from another civilization would have no reason to say 'aha!' to the theories of either of those figures important only to one species at one point in its history.



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Post Re: II: Worlds Beyond Words (Adam Hart-Davis)
DWill wrote:
But you're right that the reason spirits and gods were/are said to exist goes beyond needs to explain causation, e.g., that thunder isn't Odin shaking the ramparts of Valhalla. Dawkins and others use that simplified view, along with the view that religion only persuades us that we don't really die. It does more than that, and some of what it did in the very early days was transferred to the realm of civil authority, law, and culture. Santal Claus works with kids, a well-developed sense of guilt does it for adults. The superego was a fine substitute for God.
I consider the "causation myth" version of critiquing religion to be rather silly. Even if ancients believed those myths, the belief was likely to fall away quickly when they encountered the myths of other cultures. Rather we should recognize the values embodied in the stories.

The best example I know is the comparison between Hebrew creation stories (specifically the first of two in Genesis, in which God creates things in seven days and announces that each category of creation is "very good") and the Mesopotamian stories which they responded against. Since the Sumerian stories are quite violent, with deities chopping up other deities to bring life, for example, the Hebrew version amounts to an assertion that a benevolent deity created the cosmos for a benevolent purpose, rather than asserting that dramatic conflict between incomprehensible forces gave rise to a brutal world. I think it likely that the wise (and I don't just mean the scholarly) would have recognized these as the "meaning" of most of the "Just So" stories that told the origins of this or that.

And when the stories were all about fanciful explanation, they still had a "Tall Tale" element to them, reminiscent of notions like "Paul Bunyan dragged his axe and the result was the Grand Canyon." The point of re-telling such lightweight stories is amusement, with a subtext like "Paul Bunyan was really, really big." The Greek tales about Echo and perhaps Narcissus fall into this category, but in my view there are not many of that genre in the Greek list (or the Hebrew). Much more commonly they were about defining character more than explaining anything, as with Prometheus bringing fire, or his brother Epimetheus (with Pandora) bringing trouble into the world, or Atlas having to hold up the earth, or Persephone being foxed into spending six months of every year in the underworld as the explanation of Winter.

The problem with substituting the superego for God is that it is too easy to bracket off the issue as some kind of imposition by parents, lumping valuable internalization of social values with arbitrary dictates by confused parents. While it may be valuable to recognize the common source of those two, it glosses over the crucial difference. In other words it's another reductionist approach substituting description for prescription. Now, I took your meaning to be a reference to "the legitimate superego" or, more or less, "the conscience," (especially after referring to a well-developed sense of guilt.) But note that the language is descriptive and thus boxes out the important question as to what the superego "should" be telling us. Divining the actual will of a loving divinity is not very much different from deciding what the superego "should" be telling us.

Quote:
And if their luck changes and they fall from grace, they may have no trouble blaming someone else's sinning for that fall. They also may instead learn something about how luck works.
Good observation. This is actually a vital bit of anthropology. A minority of religious people will experience this disappointment as a call to be more serious about their ideas of God (not just their ideas about luck). David Brooks is treading close to this observation when he argues that most people who have found a calling to help others reach it (the "Second Mountain") after going through some kind of serious devastation, such as cancer or the loss of a child ("the valley"). I will trust him on that point - others have made similar claims.

Unfortunately such losses are more likely to cause a loss of faith. If people were mainly in it for the benefits, like my father believing that they gave to church to avoid needing insurance, then if things go badly they are left with no motivation.
DWill wrote:
Harry Marks wrote:
The second is the locus of the modernist theologian's god. Godly actions are some actions perceived to be such (i.e. we can recognize godliness in them) in real events, rather than interventions claimed from some "other realm." God acts "in" events, not "between" events, as Bultmann put it. Process theology sees this as a process in which the possibilities for a better life or better society exert a pull on people, leading them to be "co-creators" with the divine (and the divine is, essentially, the pull of those possibilities). In that sense God does "change things around."

Do you think this theology can be viewed as a means of preserving some of the valued heritage that went along with the older, externalized God, and perhaps, too, of avoiding the solipsism that might result if we denied anything was going on other than people finding it better to be nice to one another? Or maybe such a theology is simply a good thing to have around because we can't trust people to act for the overall welfare guided by their own lights. They do best with deep-seated, inculcated ideas in place about what the good life is. Law alone doesn't have the needed reach into minds.
There's a lot going on in those questions. I think the modern theology is Truth, (about values, not about factual issues,) and as such represents the kernel that was embodied in the primitive versions.

I am not sure I get what you mean about something going on "other than people finding it better to be nice to one another." Aren't we talking about learning to recognize that living for a worthy purpose is what makes life worthwhile (circular as those references might be)? The cultivation of a genuine sense of "telos" (purpose)? If you mean that it is more than just the fruit of experience with a range of essentially random strategies, I would agree with your statement.

There is also the issue of the "externalized" God. In my view God is both internal and external, both subjective and objective. Because values are experienced as social, ("what we stand for," "how we do things") there is inevitably a sense of external content to them. Because our living of those values is personal, requiring some depth of personal affirmation, there is inevitably a sense of of internal content to them. So God, as the process affirming those values, is not entirely internal.

I think we can learn a certain amount about the origins of such understandings by studying the roots of religion in deep time. The oldest Biblical stories, like Jacob and Esau or Abraham and Pharaoh, tend to have a strong element of underlining the struggle in life, the determination and resilience it takes to be in a position to make choices. If that looks remarkably like Heidegger's existentialist insight that caring is at the root of all understanding, I think there is good reason for that.

DWill wrote:
Harry Marks wrote:
I tend to think the operation of divine agency, the effect of the Spirit of Caring, is through a "pay it forward" type process of grace. The reason for doing good is neither divine reward (in this world or the next) nor expectation of recompense from others, but rather to have a beneficent effect on the flow of causality. In an odd sense, this amounts to saying one should do good "because you can," but that is actually about right.

I think that Erikson's idea of generativity comes close to the spirit of what you so well said. Erikson thought of generativity as a stage older people reach (which I find to be true), but it can be taught to those of all ages. And maybe "taught" is the key word in all of this discussion. Yes, people have the capacity to be nice to one another "naturally," but a force multiplier is needed to keep more selfish and atavistic urges at bay. As a teacher, you wouldn't find that surprising, I'd guess.
It's been a long time since I learned a bit about Erikson's ideas, but I have found myself referring to his generativity, and the requirement (sort of) that the person go through more primitive stages first, many times in my life. I'm not sure I believe in the role of the force multiplier - if not for the need to safeguard other people's access to education I believe I would reject the use of manipulation to develop student work ethic. Learning has its own rewards, and the experience of mastery is one of the strongest motivators that teachers have in their repertoire.

A lot of the process of keeping selfish and atavistic urges at bay is a reflection process, in which students come to appreciate both the right of other students to be free of the side effects of selfishness and the sense of competence (and self-mastery) that comes with overruling their own atavistic urges. Those go together, right? If I know I am helping others when I apply myself to work and resist the temptation to put my head down on my desk, then I get to feel good about actually managing to take some notes and stay connected. And of course I gradually recognize that I have accomplished something real by learning. There is a rudimentary form of generativity in that maturation.

DWill wrote:
He is a great champion of Darwin, telling us that Darwin's shortcomings detract only a very little from his revolutionary brilliance. Always somewhat combative, Dawkins opines that two other 19th-Century giants that often join Darwin in a troika, don't belong. Marx's and Freud's contributions were parochial in comparison. A visitor from another civilization would have no reason to say 'aha!' to the theories of either of those figures important only to one species at one point in its history.
Really? All these pantheon judgments are subjective, but I suspect that most of the great social science insights would have been inevitable observations on their way to practical understanding. Perhaps Marx's great observations could have been produced by conservative thinkers, maybe several of them, and perhaps Freud's insights could have come from a Nietzsche type or a Max Weber type, but I can't convince myself that those towering insights were parochial or limited in relevance. They may have been superseded by more complex and nuanced versions, but, in some sense, so has Darwin.

Doesn't the alienation of labor, and its connection to class conflict, represent a kind of inevitable "aha!" for a society with factory owners and workers? Doesn't the connection of superstructure, the web of social ideas and institutions, to the class interest of the dominant class tell us invaluable things about how any society needs to manage itself (and how a democratic society leads to a fractured and fractious version of superstructure)? Could any relatively advanced society fail to see these things and create a vocabulary for them? And Freud's insights about the tensions between id, superego and ego, as well as his recognition that symbolism in dreams operates very similarly to symbolism in culture, represent permanent advances in our ability to reflect effectively about our society.



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Post Re: II: Worlds Beyond Words (Adam Hart-Davis)
Harry Marks wrote:
DWill wrote:
He is a great champion of Darwin, telling us that Darwin's shortcomings detract only a very little from his revolutionary brilliance. Always somewhat combative, Dawkins opines that two other 19th-Century giants that often join Darwin in a troika, don't belong. Marx's and Freud's contributions were parochial in comparison. A visitor from another civilization would have no reason to say 'aha!' to the theories of either of those figures important only to one species at one point in its history.
Really? All these pantheon judgments are subjective, but I suspect that most of the great social science insights would have been inevitable observations on their way to practical understanding. Perhaps Marx's great observations could have been produced by conservative thinkers, maybe several of them, and perhaps Freud's insights could have come from a Nietzsche type or a Max Weber type, but I can't convince myself that those towering insights were parochial or limited in relevance. They may have been superseded by more complex and nuanced versions, but, in some sense, so has Darwin.

Doesn't the alienation of labor, and its connection to class conflict, represent a kind of inevitable "aha!" for a society with factory owners and workers? Doesn't the connection of superstructure, the web of social ideas and institutions, to the class interest of the dominant class tell us invaluable things about how any society needs to manage itself (and how a democratic society leads to a fractured and fractious version of superstructure)? Could any relatively advanced society fail to see these things and create a vocabulary for them? And Freud's insights about the tensions between id, superego and ego, as well as his recognition that symbolism in dreams operates very similarly to symbolism in culture, represent permanent advances in our ability to reflect effectively about our society.

I agree that 'pantheon judgments' are subjective, and I also suspect that Dawkins, being a primacy-of-science guy, might belittle the achievements of Marx and Freud (though he doesn't explicitly in the essay, and nor does he use the word 'parochial'). But I would grant that in the hypothetical he proposed, the discovery of evolution through natural selection would stand to this alien visitor as the most comprehensive, permanent, and substantively uncontroverted theory about us , that is, about life forms, that we've produced. Also, the theory has a fair chance of being confirmed by that other life form, unlike theories more particular to the development of human societies. This isn't to say that Marx and Freud didn't state important things pertaining to the social or cultural evolution of our species. The 'understanding ourselves' aspect of evolution operates on a different, I would say more comprehensive, level, and is indispensable no matter which of our societies we're talking about or which slice of history.



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Post Re: II: Worlds Beyond Words (Adam Hart-Davis)
DWill wrote:
I would grant that in the hypothetical he proposed, the discovery of evolution through natural selection would stand to this alien visitor as the most comprehensive, permanent, and substantively uncontroverted theory about us , that is, about life forms, that we've produced. Also, the theory has a fair chance of being confirmed by that other life form, unlike theories more particular to the development of human societies. This isn't to say that Marx and Freud didn't state important things pertaining to the social or cultural evolution of our species. The 'understanding ourselves' aspect of evolution operates on a different, I would say more comprehensive, level, and is indispensable no matter which of our societies we're talking about or which slice of history.
I think I am beginning to see the point. I might turn it around to say it a different way - that Marx and Freud may have been credited as "towering thinkers" because social science is given a rating of "more important" by those who typically originate these sorts of Fantasy League comparisons. I probably tend to see it that way myself, which might explain why I went on to study more social sciences.

But there is something to be said for the comprehensive importance of natural selection, the organizing principle of most of biological work, including in the social sciences. Psychology rarely strays far from the constraints created by recognizing evolutionary pressures, for example, and kinship relations tend to be a bedrock issue for anthropologists that brings in insights from evolution.

So, were Freud and Marx "towering thinkers"? I tend to think yes, but I would add that their insights have not turned out to provide the fundamental structure for the areas of thought they investigated. Psychology tends to look very different before Freud from after, and political economy (or sociology) to look very different before Marx from after, but in neither case has the profession continued to organize it's investigation based on their insights. Once I asked myself about the "comprehensiveness" of the issues they enunciated, I think I was able to grasp the point.

And of course an alien's perspective puts a premium on the fundamental nature of Darwin's insight. An old science fiction story, "Omnilingual" (by Henry Beam Piper, according to Wikipedia), proposes that the periodic table of the elements could function as a Rosetta Stone for understanding alien writing because it is so structured that any physicist or chemist would recognize a version of it. There is much to be said for the importance of any discovery that has such universality that any version of it would still be recognizable.



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Post Re: II: Worlds Beyond Words (Adam Hart-Davis)
DWill wrote:
God-belief as now existing in two broad categories: God as having created the world, doing things in the human world, making things happen; and God as existing in some way, but not having made the world or changing things around in human affairs.


A third approach that makes more evolutionary sense to me is God-belief as imaginary construction of features of the cosmos that support human flourishing. A God developed in this way can be presented to the general public as really existing, to combine the moral value of divine support for flourishing with the emotional comfort of the belief that God is a real personal being.


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Post Re: II: Worlds Beyond Words (Adam Hart-Davis)
Robert Tulip wrote:
DWill wrote:
God-belief as now existing in two broad categories: God as having created the world, doing things in the human world, making things happen; and God as existing in some way, but not having made the world or changing things around in human affairs.


A third approach that makes more evolutionary sense to me is God-belief as imaginary construction of features of the cosmos that support human flourishing. A God developed in this way can be presented to the general public as really existing, to combine the moral value of divine support for flourishing with the emotional comfort of the belief that God is a real personal being.

There are long-debated philosophical problems with the two God categories DWill mentions. 1) The Creator who is active in the human world but also allows evil to occur (children dying of cancer, etc. 2) the Watchmaker deity who sets things in motion, but remains uninvolved in his creation for the rest of eternity. None of these two options is very satisfying (to me at least).

The question of God's existence is forever beyond science anyway. "God" as such doesn't explain anything because we are always left to ponder the nature of God. And argue about what the word even means.

Dawkins wrote:
The point is that the designer himself, in order to be capable of designing, would have to be another complex entity of the kind that, in his turn, needs the same kind of explanation. It’s an evasion of responsibility because it invokes the very thing it is supposed to be explaining.

Dawkins would call these first two God-beliefs delusional, but in his "Pure Delight In A Godless Universe" essay he does show empathy for those who do see "design" in the laws of nature and in biological forms. It's interesting to note that this essay was published a few years after his book, "The God Delusion."

Robert brings up a third option, if you will. If humans are predisposed (or wired) to believe in a deity, the actual existence of said deity is somewhat irrelevant. I'd argue that "belief" here is more of an intuition—we have an innate sense of God and to many people God's existence is obvious and beyond debate. So does "God" mean our sense of God and not an actual deity? Maybe it says a lot about me that I persist in seeing this as a dichotomy. But it also seems we are always left struggling to define a word that means different things to different people. It must be like politics, something we can never agree on.

In evolutionary psychology, this God-sense does have some explanatory power. It helps us to understand the world (at least in a mythological sense) and it helped us to flourish at some point during our evolutionary history. But with the advent of science and knowledge the question to ask is does it still help us? Does it bring us together or serve to divide us? These questions definitely seem to be a part of our culture wars.


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Post Re: II: Worlds Beyond Words (Adam Hart-Davis)
geo wrote:
In evolutionary psychology, this God-sense does have some explanatory power. It helps us to understand the world (at least in a mythological sense) and it helped us to flourish at some point during our evolutionary history. But with the advent of science and knowledge the question to ask is does it still help us? Does it bring us together or serve to divide us? These questions definitely seem to be a part of our culture wars.

Especially when I hear about what seem to me non-theistic concepts of God, I wonder whether individuals have a simple need to have a coherent framework, a touchstone, a crystallized summary that describes and maybe prescribes certain values. Otherwise, people may experience an uncomfortable floundering, kind of tossed by the random events of life, with no way to make sense of them. There probably isn't any less need felt for that kind of security than was felt very long ago. It's been observed that the retreat of formal religion hasn't meant that people have stopped looking for other kinds of belief structures to hang on to.



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