evolution

“Science” vs. Science: The Case of Evolution, Race, and Intelligence

If you were to ask those people who marched for science if they believe in evolution, they would have answered with a resounding “yes”. Ask them if they believe that all branches of the human race evolved identically and you will be met with hostility. The problem, for them, is that an admission of the obvious — differential evolution, resulting in broad racial differences — leads to a fact that they don’t want to admit: there are broad racial differences in intelligence, differences that must have evolutionary origins.

“Science” — the cherished totem of left-wing ideologues — isn’t the same thing as science. The totemized version consists of whatever set of facts and hypotheses suit the left’s agenda. In the case of “climate change”, for example, the observation that in the late 1900s temperatures rose for a period of about 25 years coincident with a reported rise in the level of atmospheric CO2 occasioned the hypothesis that the generation of CO2 by humans causes temperatures to rise. This is a reasonable hypothesis, given the long-understood, positive relationship between temperature and so-called greenhouse gases. But it comes nowhere close to confirming what leftists seem bent on believing and “proving” with hand-tweaked models, which is that if humans continue to emit CO2, and do so at a higher rate than in the past, temperatures will rise to the point that life on Earth will become difficult if not impossible to sustain. There is ample evidence to support the null hypothesis (that “climate change” isn’t catastrophic) and the alternative view (that recent warming is natural and caused mainly by things other than human activity).

Leftists want to believe in catastrophic anthropogenic global warming because it suits the left’s puritanical agenda, as did Paul Ehrlich’s discredited thesis that population growth would outstrip the availability of food and resources, leading to mass starvation and greater poverty. Population control therefore became a leftist mantra, and remains one despite the generally rising prosperity of the human race and the diminution of scarcity (except where leftist governments, like Venezuela’s, create misery).

Why are leftists so eager to believe in problems that portend catastrophic consequences which “must” be averted through draconian measures, such as enforced population control, taxes on soft drinks above a certain size, the prohibition of smoking not only in government buildings but in all buildings, and decreed reductions in CO2-emitting activities (which would, in fact, help to impoverish humans)? The common denominator of such measures is control. And yet, by the process of psychological projection, leftists are always screaming “fascist” at libertarians and conservatives who resist control.

Returning to evolution, why are leftists so eager to eager to embrace it or, rather, what they choose to believe about it? My answers are that (a) it’s “science” (it’s only science when it’s spelled out in detail, uncertainties and all) and (b) it gives leftists (who usually are atheists) a stick with which to beat “creationists”.

But when it comes to race, leftists insist on denying what’s in front of their eyes: evolutionary disparities in such phenomena as skin color, hair texture, facial structure, running and jumping ability, cranial capacity, and intelligence.

Why? Because the urge to control others is of a piece with the superiority with which leftists believe they’re endowed because they are mainly white persons of European descent and above-average intelligence (just smart enough to be dangerous). Blacks and Hispanics who vote left do so mainly for the privileges it brings them. White leftists are their useful idiots.

Leftism, in other words, is a manifestation of “white privilege”, which white leftists feel compelled to overcome through paternalistic condescension toward blacks and other persons of color. (But not East Asians or the South Asians who have emigrated to the U.S., because the high intelligence of those groups is threatening to white leftists’ feelings of superiority.) What could be more condescending, and less scientific, than to deny what evolution has wrought in order to advance a political agenda?

Leftist race-denial, which has found its way into government policy, is akin to Stalin’s support of Lysenkoism, which its author cleverly aligned with Marxism. Lysenkoism

rejected Mendelian inheritance and the concept of the “gene”; it departed from Darwinian evolutionary theory by rejecting natural selection.

This brings me to Stephen Jay Gould, a leading neo-Lysenkoist and a fraudster of “science” who did much to deflect science from the question of race and intelligence:

[In The Mismeasure of Man] Gould took the work of a 19th century physical anthropologist named Samuel George Morton and made it ridiculous. In his telling, Morton was a fool and an unconscious racist — his project of measuring skull sizes of different ethnic groups conceived in racism and executed in same. Why, Morton clearly must have thought Caucasians had bigger brains than Africans, Indians, and Asians, and then subconsciously mismeasured the skulls to prove they were smarter.

The book then casts the entire project of measuring brain function — psychometrics — in the same light of primitivism.

Gould’s antiracist book was a hit with reviewers in the popular press, and many of its ideas about the morality and validity of testing intelligence became conventional wisdom, persisting today among the educated folks. If you’ve got some notion that IQ doesn’t measure anything but the ability to take IQ tests, that intelligence can’t be defined or may not be real at all, that multiple intelligences exist rather than a general intelligence, you can thank Gould….

Then, in 2011, a funny thing happened. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania went and measured old Morton’s skulls, which turned out to be just the size he had recorded. Gould, according to one of the co-authors, was nothing but a “charlatan.”

The study itself couldn’t matter, though, could it? Well, recent work using MRI technology has established that descendants of East Asia have slightly more cranial capacity than descendants of Europe, who in turn have a little more than descendants of Africa. Another meta-analysis finds a mild correlation between brain size and IQ performance.

You see where this is going, especially if you already know about the racial disparities in IQ testing, and you’d probably like to hit the brakes before anybody says… what, exactly? It sounds like we’re perilously close to invoking science to argue for genetic racial superiority.

Am I serious? Is this a joke?…

… The reason the joke feels dangerous is that it incorporates a fact that is rarely mentioned in public life. In America, white people on average score higher than black people on IQ tests, by a margin of 12-15 points. And there’s one man who has been made to pay the price for that fact — the scholar Charles Murray.

Murray didn’t come up with a hypothesis of racial disparity in intelligence testing. He simply co-wrote a book, The Bell Curve, that publicized a fact well known within the field of psychometrics, a fact that makes the rest of us feel tremendously uncomfortable.

Nobody bears more responsibility for the misunderstanding of Murray’s work than Gould, who reviewed The Bell Curve savagely in the New Yorker. The IQ tests couldn’t be explained away — here he is acknowledging the IQ gap in 1995 — but the validity of IQ testing could be challenged. That was no trouble for the old Marxist.

Gould should have known that he was dead wrong about his central claim — that general intelligence, or g, as psychologists call it, was unreal. In fact, “Psychologists generally agree that the greatest success of their field has been in intelligence testing,” biologist Bernard D. Davis wrote in the Public Interest in 1983, in a long excoriation of Gould’s strange ideas.

Psychologists have found that performance on almost any test of cognition will have some correlation to other tests of cognition, even in areas that might seem distant from pure logic, such as recognizing musical notes. The more demanding tests have a higher correlation, or a high g load, as they term it.

IQ is very closely related to this measure, and turns out to be extraordinarily predictive not just for how well one does on tests, but on all sorts of real-life outcomes.

Since the publication of The Bell Curve, the data have demonstrated not just those points, but that intelligence is highly heritable (around 50 to 80 percent, Murray says), and that there’s little that can be done to permanently change the part that’s dependent on the environment….

The liberal explainer website Vox took a swing at Murray earlier this year, publishing a rambling 3,300-word hit job on Murray that made zero references to the scientific literature….

Vox might have gotten the last word, but a new outlet called Quillette published a first-rate rebuttal this week, which sent me down a three-day rabbit hole. I came across some of the most troubling facts I’ve ever encountered — IQ scores by country — and then came across some more reassuring ones from Thomas Sowell, suggesting that environment could be the main or exclusive factor after all.

The classic analogy from the environment-only crowd is of two handfuls of genetically identical seed corn, one planted in Iowa and the other in the Mojave Desert. One group flourishes; the other is stunted. While all of the variation within one group will be due to genetics, its flourishing relative to the other group will be strictly due to environment.

Nobody doubts that the United States is richer soil than Equatorial Guinea, but the analogy doesn’t prove the case. The idea that there exists a mean for human intelligence and that all racial subgroups would share it given identical environments remains a metaphysical proposition. We may want this to be true quite desperately, but it’s not something we know to be true.

For all the lines of attack, all the brutal slander thrown Murray’s way, his real crime is having an opinion on this one key issue that’s open to debate. Is there a genetic influence on the IQ testing gap? Murray has written that it’s “likely” genetics explains “some” of the difference. For this, he’s been crucified….

Murray said [in a recent interview] that the assumption “that everyone is equal above the neck” is written into social policy, employment policy, academic policy and more.

He’s right, of course, especially as ideas like “disparate impact” come to be taken as proof of discrimination. There’s no scientifically valid reason to expect different ethnic groups to have a particular representation in this area or that. That much is utterly clear.

The universities, however, are going to keep hollering about institutional racism. They are not going to accept Murray’s views, no matter what develops. [Jon Cassidy, “Mau Mau Redux: Charles Murray Comes in for Abuse, Again“, The American Spectator, June 9, 2017]

And so it goes in the brave new world of alternative facts, most of which seem to come from the left. But the left, with its penchant for pseudo-intellectualism (“science” vs. science) calls it postmodernism:

Postmodernists … eschew any notion of objectivity, perceiving knowledge as a construct of power differentials rather than anything that could possibly be mutually agreed upon…. [S]cience therefore becomes an instrument of Western oppression; indeed, all discourse is a power struggle between oppressors and oppressed. In this scheme, there is no Western civilization to preserve—as the more powerful force in the world, it automatically takes on the role of oppressor and therefore any form of equity must consequently then involve the overthrow of Western “hegemony.” These folks form the current Far Left, including those who would be described as communists, socialists, anarchists, Antifa, as well as social justice warriors (SJWs). These are all very different groups, but they all share a postmodernist ethos. [Michael Aaron, “Evergreen State and the Battle for Modernity“, Quillette, June 8, 2017]


Other related reading (listed chronologically):

Molly Hensley-Clancy, “Asians With “Very Familiar Profiles”: How Princeton’s Admissions Officers Talk About Race“, BuzzFeed News, May 19, 2017

Warren Meyer, “Princeton Appears To Penalize Minority Candidates for Not Obsessing About Their Race“, Coyote Blog, May 24, 2017

B. Wineguard et al., “Getting Voxed: Charles Murray, Ideology, and the Science of IQ“, Quillette, June 2, 2017

James Thompson, “Genetics of Racial Differences in Intelligence: Updated“, The Unz Review: James Thompson Archive, June 5, 2017

Raymond Wolters, “We Are Living in a New Dark Age“, American Renaissance, June 5, 2017

F. Roger Devlin, “A Tactical Retreat for Race Denial“, American Renaissance, June 9, 2017

Scott Johnson, “Mugging Mr. Murray: Mr. Murray Speaks“, Power Line, June 9, 2017


Related posts:
Race and Reason: The Victims of Affirmative Action
Race and Reason: The Achievement Gap — Causes and Implications
“Conversing” about Race
Evolution and Race
“Wading” into Race, Culture, and IQ
Round Up the Usual Suspects
Evolution, Culture, and “Diversity”
The Harmful Myth of Inherent Equality
Let’s Have That “Conversation” about Race
Affirmative Action Comes Home to Roost
The IQ of Nations
Race and Social Engineering
Some Notes about Psychology and Intelligence

Not-So-Random Thoughts (XV)

Links to the other posts in this occasional series may be found at “Favorite Posts,” just below the list of topics.

*     *     *

Victor Davis Hanson writes:

This descent into the Dark Ages will not end well. It never has in the past. [“Building the New Dark-Age Mind,” Works and Days, June 8, 2015]

Hamson’s chronicle of political correctness and doublespeak echoes one theme of my post, “1963: The Year Zero.”

*     *     *

Timothy Taylor does the two-handed economist act:

It may be that the question of “does inequality slow down economic growth” is too broad and diffuse to be useful. Instead, those of us who care about both the rise in inequality and the slowdown in economic growth should be looking for policies to address both goals, without presuming that substantial overlap will always occur between them. [“Does Inequality Reduce Economic Growth: A Skeptical View,” The Conversible Economist, May 29, 2015]

The short answer to the question “Does inequality reduce growth?” is no. See my post “Income Inequality and Economic Growth.” Further, even if inequality does reduce growth, the idea of reducing inequality (through income redistribution, say) to foster growth is utilitarian and therefore morally egregious. (See “Utilitarianism vs. Liberty.”)

*     *     *

In “Diminishing Marginal Utility and the Redistributive Urge” I write:

[L]eftists who deign to offer an economic justification for redistribution usually fall back on the assumption of the diminishing marginal utility (DMU) of income and wealth. In doing so, they commit (at least) four errors.

The first error is the fallacy of misplaced concreteness which is found in the notion of utility. Have you ever been able to measure your own state of happiness? I mean measure it, not just say that you’re feeling happier today than you were when your pet dog died. It’s an impossible task, isn’t it? If you can’t measure your own happiness, how can you (or anyone) presume to measure and aggregate the happiness of millions or billions of individual human beings? It can’t be done.

Which brings me to the second error, which is an error of arrogance. Given the impossibility of measuring one person’s happiness, and the consequent impossibility of measuring and comparing the happiness of many persons, it is pure arrogance to insist that “society” would be better off if X amount of income or wealth were transferred from Group A to Group B….

The third error lies in the implicit assumption embedded in the idea of DMU. The assumption is that as one’s income or wealth rises one continues to consume the same goods and services, but more of them….

All of that notwithstanding, the committed believer in DMU will shrug and say that at some point DMU must set in. Which leads me to the fourth error, which is an error of introspection….  [If over the years] your real income has risen by a factor of two or three or more — and if you haven’t messed up your personal life (which is another matter) — you’re probably incalculably happier than when you were just able to pay your bills. And you’re especially happy if you put aside a good chunk of money for your retirement, the anticipation and enjoyment of which adds a degree of utility (such a prosaic word) that was probably beyond imagining when you were in your twenties, thirties, and forties.

Robert Murphy agrees:

[T]he problem comes in when people sometimes try to use the concept of DMU to justify government income redistribution. Specifically, the argument is that (say) the billionth dollar to Bill Gates has hardly any marginal utility, while the 10th dollar to a homeless man carries enormous marginal utility. So clearly–the argument goes–taking a dollar from Bill Gates and giving it to a homeless man raises “total social utility.”

There are several serious problems with this type of claim. Most obvious, even if we thought it made sense to attribute units of utility to individuals, there is no reason to suppose we could compare them across individuals. For example, even if we thought a rich man had units of utility–akin to the units of his body temperature–and that the units declined with more money, and likewise for a poor person, nonetheless we have no way of placing the two types of units on the same scale….

In any event, this is all a moot point regarding the original question of interpersonal utility comparisons. Even if we thought individuals had cardinal utilities, it wouldn’t follow that redistribution would raise total social utility.

Even if we retreat to the everyday usage of terms, it still doesn’t follow as a general rule that rich people get less happiness from a marginal dollar than a poor person. There are many people, especially in the financial sector, whose self-esteem is directly tied to their earnings. And as the photo indicates, Scrooge McDuck really seems to enjoy money. Taking gold coins from Scrooge and giving them to a poor monk would not necessarily increase happiness, even in the everyday psychological sense. [“Can We Compare People’s Utilities?,” Mises Canada, May 22, 2015]

See also David Henderson’s “Murphy on Interpersonal Utility Comparisons” (EconLog, May 22, 2015) and Henderson’s earlier posts on the subject, to which he links. Finally, see my comment on an earlier post by Henderson, in which he touches on the related issue of cost-benefit analysis.

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Here’s a slice of what Robert Tracinski has to say about “reform conservatism”:

The key premise of this non-reforming “reform conservatism” is the idea that it’s impossible to really touch the welfare state. We might be able to alter its incentives and improve its clanking machinery, but only if we loudly assure everyone that we love it and want to keep it forever.

And there’s the problem. Not only is this defeatist at its core, abandoning the cause of small government at the outset, but it fails to address the most important problem facing the country.

“Reform conservatism” is an answer to the question: how can we promote the goal of freedom and small government—without posing any outright challenge to the welfare state? The answer: you can’t. All you can do is tinker around the edges of Leviathan. And ultimately, it won’t make much difference, because it will all be overwelmed in the coming disaster. [“Reform Conservatism Is an Answer to the Wrong Question,” The Federalist, May 22, 2015]

Further, as I observe in “How to Eradicate the Welfare State, and How Not to Do It,” the offerings of “reform conservatives”

may seem like reasonable compromises with the left’s radical positions. But they are reasonable compromises only if you believe that the left wouldn’t strive vigorously to undo them and continue the nation’s march toward full-blown state socialism. That’s the way leftists work. They take what they’re given and then come back for more, lying and worse all the way.

See also Arnold Kling’s “Reason Roundtable on Reform Conservatism” (askblog, May 22, 2015) and follow the links therein.

*     *     *

I’ll end this installment with a look at science and the anti-scientific belief in catastrophic anthropogenic global warming.

Here’s Philip Ball in “The Trouble With Scientists“:

It’s likely that some researchers are consciously cherry-picking data to get their work published. And some of the problems surely lie with journal publication policies. But the problems of false findings often begin with researchers unwittingly fooling themselves: they fall prey to cognitive biases, common modes of thinking that lure us toward wrong but convenient or attractive conclusions. “Seeing the reproducibility rates in psychology and other empirical science, we can safely say that something is not working out the way it should,” says Susann Fiedler, a behavioral economist at the Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods in Bonn, Germany. “Cognitive biases might be one reason for that.”

Psychologist Brian Nosek of the University of Virginia says that the most common and problematic bias in science is “motivated reasoning”: We interpret observations to fit a particular idea. Psychologists have shown that “most of our reasoning is in fact rationalization,” he says. In other words, we have already made the decision about what to do or to think, and our “explanation” of our reasoning is really a justification for doing what we wanted to do—or to believe—anyway. Science is of course meant to be more objective and skeptical than everyday thought—but how much is it, really?

Whereas the falsification model of the scientific method championed by philosopher Karl Popper posits that the scientist looks for ways to test and falsify her theories—to ask “How am I wrong?”—Nosek says that scientists usually ask instead “How am I right?” (or equally, to ask “How are you wrong?”). When facts come up that suggest we might, in fact, not be right after all, we are inclined to dismiss them as irrelevant, if not indeed mistaken….

Given that science has uncovered a dizzying variety of cognitive biases, the relative neglect of their consequences within science itself is peculiar. “I was aware of biases in humans at large,” says [Chris] Hartgerink [of Tilburg University in the Netherlands], “but when I first ‘learned’ that they also apply to scientists, I was somewhat amazed, even though it is so obvious.”…

One of the reasons the science literature gets skewed is that journals are much more likely to publish positive than negative results: It’s easier to say something is true than to say it’s wrong. Journal referees might be inclined to reject negative results as too boring, and researchers currently get little credit or status, from funders or departments, from such findings. “If you do 20 experiments, one of them is likely to have a publishable result,” [Ivan] Oransky and [Adam] Marcus [who run the service Retraction Watch] write. “But only publishing that result doesn’t make your findings valid. In fact it’s quite the opposite.”9 [Nautilus, May 14, 2015]

Zoom to AGW. Robert Tracinski assesses the most recent bit of confirmation bias:

A lot of us having been pointing out one of the big problems with the global warming theory: a long plateau in global temperatures since about 1998. Most significantly, this leveling off was not predicted by the theory, and observed temperatures have been below the lowest end of the range predicted by all of the computerized climate models….

Why, change the data, of course!

Hence a blockbuster new report: a new analysis of temperature data since 1998 “adjusts” the numbers and magically finds that there was no plateau after all. The warming just continued….

How convenient.

It’s so convenient that they’re signaling for everyone else to get on board….

This is going to be the new party line. “Hiatus”? What hiatus? Who are you going to believe, our adjustments or your lying thermometers?…

The new adjustments are suspiciously convenient, of course. Anyone who is touting a theory that isn’t being borne out by the evidence and suddenly tells you he’s analyzed the data and by golly, what do you know, suddenly it does support his theory—well, he should be met with more than a little skepticism.

If we look, we find some big problems. The most important data adjustments by far are in ocean temperature measurements. But anyone who has been following this debate will notice something about the time period for which the adjustments were made. This is a time in which the measurement of ocean temperatures has vastly improved in coverage and accuracy as a whole new set of scientific buoys has come online. So why would this data need such drastic “correcting”?

As climatologist Judith Curry puts it:

The greatest changes in the new NOAA surface temperature analysis is to the ocean temperatures since 1998. This seems rather ironic, since this is the period where there is the greatest coverage of data with the highest quality of measurements–ARGO buoys and satellites don’t show a warming trend. Nevertheless, the NOAA team finds a substantial increase in the ocean surface temperature anomaly trend since 1998.

….

I realize the warmists are desperate, but they might not have thought through the overall effect of this new “adjustment” push. We’ve been told to take very, very seriously the objective data showing global warming is real and is happening—and then they announce that the data has been totally changed post hoc. This is meant to shore up the theory, but it actually calls the data into question….

All of this fits into a wider pattern: the global warming theory has been awful at making predictions about the data ahead of time. But it has been great at going backward, retroactively reinterpreting the data and retrofitting the theory to mesh with it. A line I saw from one commenter, I can’t remember where, has been rattling around in my head: “once again, the theory that predicts nothing explains everything.” [“Global Warming: The Theory That Predicts Nothing and Explains Everything,” The Federalist, June 8, 2015]

Howard Hyde also weighs in with “Climate Change: Where Is the Science?” (American Thinker, June 11, 2015).

Bill Nye, the so-called Science Guy, seems to epitomize the influence of ideology on “scientific knowledge.”  I defer to John Derbyshire:

Bill Nye the Science Guy gave a commencement speech at Rutgers on Sunday. Reading the speech left me thinking that if this is America’s designated Science Guy, I can be the nation’s designated swimsuit model….

What did the Science Guy have to say to the Rutgers graduates? Well, he warned them of the horrors of climate change, which he linked to global inequality.

We’re going to find a means to enable poor people to advance in their societies in countries around the world. Otherwise, the imbalance of wealth will lead to conflict and inefficiency in energy production, which will lead to more carbon pollution and a no-way-out overheated globe.

Uh, given that advanced countries use far more energy per capita than backward ones—the U.S.A. figure is thirty-four times Bangladesh’s—wouldn’t a better strategy be to keep poor countries poor? We could, for example, encourage all their smartest and most entrepreneurial people to emigrate to the First World … Oh, wait: we already do that.

The whole climate change business is now a zone of hysteria, generating far more noise—mostly of a shrieking kind—than its importance justifies. Opinions about climate change are, as Greg Cochran said, “a mark of tribal membership.” It is also the case, as Greg also said, that “the world is never going to do much about in any event, regardless of the facts.”…

When Ma Nature means business, stuff happens on a stupendously colossal scale.  And Bill Nye the Science Guy wants Rutgers graduates to worry about a 0.4ºC warming over thirty years? Feugh.

The Science Guy then passed on from the dubiously alarmist to the batshit barmy.

There really is no such thing as race. We are one species … We all come from Africa.

Where does one start with that? Perhaps by asserting that: “There is no such thing as states. We are one country.”

The climatological equivalent of saying there is no such thing as race would be saying that there is no such thing as weather. Of course there is such a thing as race. We can perceive race with at least three of our five senses, and read it off from the genome. We tick boxes for it on government forms: I ticked such a box for the ATF just this morning when buying a gun.

This is the Science Guy? The foundational text of modern biology bears the title On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life. Is biology not a science?

Darwin said that populations of a species long separated from each other will diverge in their biological characteristics, forming races. If the separation goes on long enough, any surviving races will diverge all the way to separate species. Was Ol’ Chuck wrong about that, Mr. Science Guy?

“We are one species”? Rottweilers and toy poodles are races within one species, a species much newer than ours; yet they differ mightily, not only in appearance but also—gasp!—in behavior, intelligence, and personality. [“Nye Lied, I Sighed,” Taki’s Magazine, May 21, 2015]

This has gone on long enough. Instead of quoting myself, I merely refer you to several related posts:

Demystifying Science
AGW: The Death Knell
Evolution and Race
The Limits of Science (II)
The Pretence of Knowledge
“The Science Is Settled”
The Limits of Science, Illustrated by Scientists
Rationalism, Empiricism, and Scientific Knowledge
AGW in Austin?

Signature

Not-So-Random Thoughts (XII)

Links to the other posts in this occasional series may be found at “Favorite Posts,” just below the list of topics.

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Intolerance as Illiberalism” by Kim R. Holmes (The Public Discourse, June 18, 2014) is yet another reminder, of innumerable reminders, that modern “liberalism” is a most intolerant creed. See my ironically titled “Tolerance on the Left” and its many links.

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Speaking of intolerance, it’s hard to top a strident atheist like Richard Dawkins. See John Gray’s “The Closed Mind of Richard Dawkins” (The New Republic, October 2, 2014). Among the several posts in which I challenge the facile atheism of Dawkins and his ilk are “Further Thoughts about Metaphysical Cosmology” and “Scientism, Evolution, and the Meaning of Life.”

*     *     *

Some atheists — Dawkins among them — find a justification for their non-belief in evolution. On that topic, Gertrude Himmelfarb writes:

The fallacy in the ethics of evolution is the equation of the “struggle for existence” with the “survival of the fittest,” and the assumption that “the fittest” is identical with “the best.” But that struggle may favor the worst rather than the best. [“Evolution and Ethics, Revisited,” The New Atlantis, Spring 2014]

As I say in “Some Thoughts about Evolution,”

Survival and reproduction depend on many traits. A particular trait, considered in isolation, may seem to be helpful to the survival and reproduction of a group. But that trait may not be among the particular collection of traits that is most conducive to the group’s survival and reproduction. If that is the case, the trait will become less prevalent. Alternatively, if the trait is an essential member of the collection that is conducive to survival and reproduction, it will survive. But its survival depends on the other traits. The fact that X is a “good trait” does not, in itself, ensure the proliferation of X. And X will become less prevalent if other traits become more important to survival and reproduction.

The same goes for “bad” traits. Evolution is no guarantor of ethical goodness.

*     *     *

It shouldn’t be necessary to remind anyone that men and women are different. But it is. Lewis Wolpert gives it another try in “Yes, It’s Official, Men Are from Mars and Women from Venus, and Here’s the Science to Prove It” (The Telegraph, September 14, 2014). One of my posts on the subject is “The Harmful Myth of Inherent Equality.” I’m talking about general tendencies, of course, not iron-clad rules about “men’s roles” and “women’s roles.” Aside from procreation, I can’t readily name “roles” that fall exclusively to men or women out of biological necessity. There’s no biological reason, for example, that an especially strong and agile woman can’t be a combat soldier. But it is folly to lower the bar just so that more women can qualify as combat soldiers. The same goes for intellectual occupations. Women shouldn’t be discouraged from pursuing graduate degrees and professional careers in math, engineering, and the hard sciences, but the qualifications for entry and advancement in those fields shouldn’t be watered down just for the sake of increasing the representation of women.

*     *     *

Edward Feser, writing in “Nudge Nudge, Wink Wink” at his eponymous blog (October 24, 2014), notes

[Michael] Levin’s claim … that liberal policies cannot, given our cultural circumstances, be neutral concerning homosexuality.  They will inevitably “send a message” of approval rather than mere neutrality or indifference.

Feser then quotes Levin:

[L]egislation “legalizing homosexuality” cannot be neutral because passing it would have an inexpungeable speech-act dimension.  Society cannot grant unaccustomed rights and privileges to homosexuals while remaining neutral about the value of homosexuality.

Levin, who wrote that 30 years ago, gets a 10 out 10 for prescience. Just read “Abortion, ‘Gay Rights’, and Liberty” for a taste of the illiberalism that accompanies “liberal” causes like same-sex “marriage.”

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“Liberalism” has evolved into hard-leftism. It’s main adherents are now an elite upper crust and their clients among the hoi polloi. Steve Sailer writes incisively about the socioeconomic divide in “A New Caste Society” (Taki’s Magazine, October 8, 2014). “‘Wading’ into Race, Culture, and IQ” offers a collection of links to related posts and articles.

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One of the upper crust’s recent initiatives is so-called libertarian paternalism. Steven Teles skewers it thoroughly in “Nudge or Shove?” (The American Interest, December 10, 2014), a review of Cass Sunstein’s Why Nudge? The Politics of Libertarian Paternalism. I have written numerous times about Sunstein and (faux) libertarian paternalism. The most recent entry, “The Sunstein Effect Is Alive and  Well in the White House,” ends with links to two dozen related posts. (See also Don Boudreaux, “Where Nudging Leads,” Cafe Hayek, January 24, 2015.)

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Maria Konnikova gives some space to Jonathan Haidt in “Is Social Psychology Biased against Republicans?” (The New Yorker, October 30, 2014). It’s no secret that most academic disciplines other than math and the hard sciences are biased against Republicans, conservatives, libertarians, free markets, and liberty. I have something to say about it in “The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament,” and in several of the posts listed here.

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Keith E. Stanovich makes some good points about the limitations of intelligence in “Rational and Irrational Thought: The Thinking that IQ Tests Miss” (Scientific American, January 1, 2015). Stanovich writes:

The idea that IQ tests do not measure all the key human faculties is not new; critics of intelligence tests have been making that point for years. Robert J. Sternberg of Cornell University and Howard Gardner of Harvard talk about practical intelligence, creative intelligence, interpersonal intelligence, bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, and the like. Yet appending the word “intelligence” to all these other mental, physical and social entities promotes the very assumption the critics want to attack. If you inflate the concept of intelligence, you will inflate its close associates as well. And after 100 years of testing, it is a simple historical fact that the closest associate of the term “intelligence” is “the IQ test part of intelligence.”

I make a similar point in “Intelligence as a Dirty Word,” though I don’t denigrate IQ, which is a rather reliable predictor of performance in a broad range of endeavors.

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Brian Caplan, whose pseudo-libertarianism rankles, tries to defend the concept of altruism in “The Evidence of Altruism” (EconLog, December 30, 2014). Caplan aids his case by using the loaded “selfishness” where he means “self-interest.” He also ignores empathy, which is a key ingredient of the Golden Rule. As for my view of altruism (as a concept), see “Egoism and Altruism.”

Some Thoughts about Evolution

I came across this in a post about a psychological trait known as affective empathy*:

[I]f affective empathy helps people to survive and reproduce, there will be more and more of it in succeeding generations. If not, there will be less and less.

I’ve run across similar assertions about other traits in my occasional reading about evolution. But is it true that if X helps people to survive and reproduce, X will proliferate?

Survival and reproduction depend on many traits. A particular trait, considered in isolation, may seem to be helpful to the survival and reproduction of a group. But that trait may not be among the particular collection of traits that is most conducive to the group’s survival and reproduction. If that is the case, the trait will become less prevalent.

Alternatively, if the trait is an essential member of the collection that is conducive to survival and reproduction, it will survive. But its survival depends on the other traits. The fact that X is a “good trait” does not, in itself, ensure the proliferation of X. And X will become less prevalent if other traits become more important to survival and reproduction.

In any event, it is my view that genetic fitness for survival has become almost irrelevant in places like the United States. The rise of technology and the “social safety net” (state-enforced pseudo-empathy) have enabled the survival and reproduction of traits that would have dwindled in times past.

I’m only making an observation. Eugenics is the province of the left.

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* Affective empathy is defined by the same writer as the

capacity not only to understand how another person feels but also to experience those feelings involuntarily and to respond appropriately.

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Related Posts:
Luck-Egalitarianism and Moral Luck
Empathy Is Overrated
IQ, Political Correctness, and America’s Present Condition
Evolution and Race
Alienation
Income Inequality and Economic Growth
Egoism and Altruism
Evolution, Culture, and “Diversity”
A Case for Redistribution, Not Made
Greed, Conscience, and Big Government
Ruminations on the Left in America
The Harmful Myth of Inherent Equality
Not-So-Random Thoughts (XI) (first entry)

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Evolution, Culture, and “Diversity”

The “satirical and opinionated,” but well-read, Fred Reed poses some questions about evolution. He wisely asks John Derbyshire to answer them. In the absence of a response from Derbyshire, I will venture some answers, and then offer some general observations about evolution and two closely related subjects: culture and “diversity.” (The “sneer quotes” mean that “diversity,” as used by leftists, really means favoritism toward their clientele — currently blacks and Hispanics, especially illegal immigrants).

Herewith, Reed’s questions (abridged, in italics) and my answers:

(1) In evolutionary principle, traits that lead to more surviving children proliferate. In practice, when people learn how to have fewer or no children, they do…. [W]hat selective pressures lead to a desire not to reproduce, and how does this fit into a Darwinian framework?

As life becomes less fraught for homo sapiens, reproduction becomes less necessary. First, the ability of the species (and families) to survive and thrive becomes less dependent on sheer numbers and more dependent on technological advances. Second (and consequently), more couples are able to  trade the time and expense of child-rearing for what would have been luxuries in times past (e.g., a nicer home, bigger cars, more luxurious vacations, a more comfortable retirement).

As suggested by the second point, human behavior isn’t determined solely by genes; it has a strong cultural component. There is an interplay between genes and culture, as I’ll discuss, but culture can (and does) influence evolution. An emergent aspect of culture is an inverse relationship between the number of children and social status. Social status is enhanced by the acquisition and display of goods made affordable by limiting family size.

(2) Morality. In evolution as I understand it, there are no absolute moral values: Morals evolved as traits allowing social cooperation, conducing to the survival of the group and therefore to the production of more surviving children….

Question: Why should I not indulge my hobby of torturing to death the severely genetically retarded? This would seem beneficial. We certainly don’t want them to reproduce, they use resources better invested in healthy children, and it makes no evolutionary difference whether they die quietly or screaming.

Here Reed clearly (if tacitly) acknowledges the role of culture as a (but not the) determinant of behavior. Morals may “evolve,” but not in the same way as physiological characteristics. Morals may nevertheless influence the survival of a species, as Reed suggests. Morals may also influence biological evolution to the extent that selective mating favors those who adhere to a beneficial morality, and yields offspring who are genetically predisposed toward that morality.

Religion — especially religion in the Judeo-Christian tradition — fosters beneficial morality. This is from David Sloan Wilson‘s “Beyond Demonic Memes: Why Richard Dawkins Is Wrong about Religion” (eSkeptic.com, July 4, 2007):

On average, religious believers are more prosocial than non-believers, feel better about themselves, use their time more constructively, and engage in long-term planning rather than gratifying their impulsive desires. On a moment-by-moment basis, they report being more happy, active, sociable, involved and excited. Some of these differences remain even when religious and non-religious believers are matched for their degree of prosociality. More fine-grained comparisons reveal fascinating differences between liberal vs. conservative protestant denominations, with more anxiety among the liberals and conservatives feeling better in the company of others than when alone…

In Darwin’s Cathedral, I initiated a survey of religions drawn at random from the 16-volume Encyclopedia of World Religions, edited by the great religious scholar Mircia Eliade. The results are described in an article titled “Testing Major Evolutionary Hypotheses about Religion with a Random Sample,” which was published in the journal Human Nature and is available on my website. The beauty of random sampling is that, barring a freak sampling accident, valid conclusions for the sample apply to all of the religions in the encyclopedia from which the sample was taken. By my assessment, the majority of religions in the sample are centered on practical concerns, especially the definition of social groups and the regulation of social interactions within and between groups. New religious movements usually form when a constituency is not being well served by current social organizations (religious or secular) in practical terms and is better served by the new movement. The seemingly irrational and otherworldly elements of religions in the sample usually make excellent practical sense when judged by the only gold standard that matters from an evolutionary perspective — what they cause the religious believers to do.

What religions do (on the whole) is to cause their adherents to live more positive and productive lives, as Wilson notes in the first part of the quotation.

Despite the decline of religious observance in the West, most Westerners are still strongly influenced by the moral tenets of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Why? Because the observance of those traditions fosters beneficial cooperation, and beneficial cooperation fosters happiness and prosperity. (For a detailed exposition of this point, see “Religion and Liberty” in “Facets of Liberty.”)

Therefore, one answer to Reed’s rhetorical question — “Why should I not indulge my hobby of torturing to death the severely genetically retarded?” — is that such behavior doesn’t comport with Judeo-Christian morality. A second answer is that empathy causes most people eschew actions that cause suffering in others (except in the defense of self, kin, and country), and empathy may be a genetic (i.e. evolutionary) trait.

(3) Abiogenesis. This is not going to be a fair question as there is no way anyone can know the answer, but I pose it anyway. The theory, which I cannot refute, is that a living, metabolizing, reproducing gadget formed accidentally in the ancient seas. Perhaps it did. I wasn’t there. It seems to me, though, that the more complex one postulates the First Critter to have been, the less likely, probably exponentially so, it would have been to form. The less complex one postulates it to have been, the harder to explain why biochemistry, which these days is highly sophisticated, cannot reproduce the event. Question: How many years would have to pass without replication of the event, if indeed it be not replicated, before one might begin to suspect that it didn’t happen?

How many years? 250 million to 1 billion. That’s roughly the length of time between the formation of Earth and the beginning of life, according to current estimates. (See the first paragraph of the Wikipedia article about abiogenesis.) That could be plenty of time for untold billions of random interactions of matter to have produced a life form that could, with further development, reproduce and become more complex. But who knows? And even if someone in a lab somewhere happens to produce such a “critter,” it may well be different than Reed’s First Critter.

I certainly hew to the possibility that seems to lurk in Reed’s mind; namely, that the First Critter was the handiwork of the Creator, or at least came to be because of the physical laws established by the Creator. (See “Existence and Creation,” possibility 5.)

(4) … Straight-line evolution, for example in which Eohippus gradually gets larger until it reaches Clydesdale, is plausible because each intervening step is a viable animal. In fact this is just selective breeding. Yet many evolutionary transformations seem to require intermediate stages that could not survive.

For example there are two-cycle bugs (insects, arachnids) that lay eggs that hatch into tiny replicas of the adults, which grow, lay eggs, and repeat the cycle. The four-cycle bugs go through egg, larva, pupa, adult. Question: What are the viable steps needed to evolve from one to the other? Or from anything to four-cycle? …

Lacking the technical wherewithal requisite to a specific answer, I fall back on time — the billions of years encompassed in evolution.

(5) … Mr. Derbyshire believes strongly in genetic determinism—that we are what we are and behave as we do because of genetic programming….

… A physical (to include chemical) system cannot make decisions. All subsequent states of a physical system are determined by the initial state. So, if one accepts the electrochemical premise (which, again, seems to be correct) it follows that we do not believe things because they are true, but because we are predestined to believe them. Question: Does not genetic determinism (with which I have no disagreement) lead to a  paradox: that the thoughts we think we are thinking we only think to be thoughts when they are really utterly predetermined by the inexorable working of physics and chemistry?

This smacks of Cartesian dualism, the view that “there are two fundamental kinds of substance: mental and material.” It seems to me easier to believe that the nervous system (with its focal point in the brain). It seems to me that experimental psychologists have amply document the links between brain activity (i.e., mental states) and behavior.

The real question is whether behavior is strictly determined by genes. The obvious answer is “no” because every instance of behavior is conditioned by immediate circumstances, which are not always (usually?) determined by the actor.

Further, free will is consistent with a purely physiological interpretation of behavioral decisions:

Suppose I think that I might want to eat some ice cream. I go to the freezer compartment and pull out an unopened half-gallon of vanilla ice cream and an unopened half-gallon of chocolate ice cream. I can’t decide between vanilla, chocolate, some of each, or none. I ask a friend to decide for me by using his random-number generator, according to rules of his creation. He chooses the following rules:

  • If the random number begins in an odd digit and ends in an odd digit, I will eat vanilla.
  • If the random number begins in an even digit and ends in an even digit, I will eat chocolate.
  • If the random number begins in an odd digit and ends in an even digit, I will eat some of each flavor.
  • If the random number begins in an even digit and ends in an odd digit, I will not eat ice cream.

Suppose that the number generated by my friend begins in an even digit and ends in an even digit: the choice is chocolate. I act accordingly.

I didn’t inevitably choose chocolate because of events that led to the present state of my body’s chemistry, which might otherwise have dictated my choice. That is, I broke any link between my past and my choice about a future action.

I call that free will.

I suspect that our brains are constructed in such a way as to produce the same kind of result in many situations, though certainly not in all situations. That is, we have within us the equivalent of an impartial friend and an (informed) decision-making routine, which together enable us to exercise something we can call free will.

My suspicion is well-founded. The brains of human beings are complex, and consist of many “centers” that perform different functions. That complexity enables self-awareness; a person may “stand back” from himself and view his actions critically. Human beings, in other words, aren’t simple machines that operate according hard-wired routines.

(6) … In principle, traits spread through a population because they lead to the having of greater numbers of children….

… Genes already exist in populations for extraordinary superiority of many sorts—for the intelligence of Stephen Hawking, the body of Mohammed Ali, for 20/5 vision, for the astonishing endurance in running of the Tarahumara Indians, and so on. To my unschooled understanding, these traits offer clear and substantial advantage in survival and reproduction, yet they do not become universal, or even common. The epicanthic fold does. Question: Why do seemingly trivial traits proliferate while clearly important ones do not?

First, survival depends on traits that are suited to the environment in which a group finds itself. Not all — or even most — challenges to survival demand the intelligence of a Hawking, the body of an Ali, etc. Further, cooperative groups find that acting together they possess high intelligence of a kind that’s suited to the group’s situation. Similarly, the strength of many is usually sufficient to overcome obstacles and meet challenges.

Second, mating isn’t driven entirely by a focus on particular traits — high intelligence, superior athletic ability, etc. Such traits therefore remain relatively rare unless they are essential to survival, which might explain the “astonishing endurance running of the Tarahumara Indians.”

(7) … Looking at the human body, I see many things that appear to have no relation to survival or more vigorous reproduction, and that indeed work against it, yet are universal in the species. For example, the kidneys contain the nervous tissue that makes kidney stones agonizingly painful, yet until recently the victim has been able to do nothing about them….

What is the reproductive advantage of crippling pain (migraines can be crippling) about which pre-recently, the sufferer could do nothing?

What is the reproductive advantage of Tay-Sachs disease, which is found disproportionately among Ashkenazi Jews? Here is a reasonable hypothesis:

Gregory Cochran proposes that the mutant alleles causing Tay–Sachs confer higher intelligence when present in carrier form, and provided a selective advantage in the historical period when Jews were restricted to intellectual occupations.[9][10] Peter Frost argues for a similar heterozygote advantage for mutant alleles being responsible for the prevalence of Tay Sachs disease in Eastern Quebec.[11]

In sum, the bad sometimes goes with the good. That’s just the way evolution is. In the case of migraines, it may be that those who are prone to them are also in some way attractive as mates. Who knows? But if every genetic disadvantage worked against survival, human beings would have become extinct long ago.

(8) Finally, the supernatural. Unfairly, as it turned out, in regard to religion I had expected Mr. Derbyshire to strike the standard “Look at me, I’m an atheist, how advanced I am” pose. I was wrong. In fact he says that he believes in a God. (Asked directly, he responded, “Yes, to my own satisfaction, though not necessarily to yours.”) His views are reasoned, intellectually modest, and, though I am not a believer, I see nothing with which to quarrel, though for present purposes this is neither here nor there. Question: If one believes in or suspects the existence of God or gods, how does one exclude the possibility that He, She, or It meddles in the universe—directing evolution, for example?

A belief in gods would seem to leave the door open to Intelligent Design, the belief that the intricacies of life came about not by accident but were crafted by Somebody or Something. The view, anathema in evolutionary circles, is usually regarded as emanating from Christianity, and usually does….

In the piece by Derbyshire to which Reed links, Derbyshire writes:

I belong to the 16 percent of Americans who, in the classification used for a recent survey, believe in a “Critical God.”… He is the Creator….

I am of the same persuasion, though Derbyshire and I may differ in our conception of God’s role in the Universe:

1. There is necessarily a creator of the universe [see this], which comprises all that exists in “nature.”

2. The creator is not part of nature; that is, he stands apart from his creation and is neither of its substance nor governed by its laws. (I use “he” as a term of convenience, not to suggest that the creator is some kind of human or animate being, as we know such beings.)

3. The creator designed the universe, if not in detail then in its parameters. The parameters are what we know as matter-energy (substance) and its various forms, motions, and combinations (the laws that govern the behavior of matter-energy).

4. The parameters determine everything that is possible in the universe. But they do not necessarily dictate precisely the unfolding of events in the universe. Randomness and free will are evidently part of the creator’s design.

5. The human mind and its ability to “do science” — to comprehend the laws of nature through observation and calculation — are artifacts of the creator’s design.

6. Two things probably cannot be known through science: the creator’s involvement in the unfolding of natural events; the essential character of the substance on which the laws of nature operate.

Points 3 and 4 say as much as I am willing to say about Intelligent Design.

I turn now to the interaction of culture and biological evolution, which figures in my answers to several of Reed’s questions. Consider this, from an article by evolutionary psychologist Joseph Henrich (“A Cultural Species: How Culture Drove Human Evolution,” Psychological Science Agenda, American Psychological Association, November 2011; citations omitted):

Once a species is sufficiently reliant on learning from others for at least some aspects of its behavioral repertoire, cultural evolutionary processes can arise, and these processes can alter the environment faced by natural selection acting on genes….

Models of cumulative cultural evolution suggest two important, and perhaps non-intuitive, features of our species. First, our ecological success, technology, and adaptation to diverse environments is not due to our intelligence. Alone and stripped of our culture, we are hopeless as a species. Cumulative cultural evolution has delivered both our fancy technologies as well as the subtle and unconscious ways that humans have adapted their behavior and thinking to tackle environmental challenges. The smartest among us could not in a single lifetime devise even a small fraction of the techniques and technologies that allow any foraging society to survive. Second, the available formal models make clear that the effectiveness of this cumulative cultural evolutionary process depends crucially on the size and interconnectedness of our populations and social networks. It’s the ability to freely exchange information that sparks and accelerates adaptive cultural evolution, and creates innovation…. Sustaining complex technologies depends on maintaining a large and well-interconnected population of minds.

…In the case of ethnic groups, for example, such models explore how genes and culture coevolve. This shows how cultural evolution will, under a wide range of conditions, create a landscape in which different social groups tend to share both similar behavioral expectations and similar arbitrary “ethnic markers” (like dialect or language). In the wake of this culturally constructed world, genes evolve to create minds that are inclined to preferentially interact with and imitate those who share their markers. This guarantees that individuals most effectively coordinate with those who share their culturally learned behavioral expectations (say about marriage or child rearing). These purely theoretical predictions were subsequently confirmed by experiments with both children and adults.

This approach also suggests that cultural evolution readily gives rise to social norms, as long as learners can culturally acquire the standards by which they judge others. Many models robustly demonstrate that cultural evolution can sustain almost any behavior or preference that is common in a population (including cooperation), if it is not too costly. This suggests that different groups will end up with different norms and begin to compete with each other. Competition among groups with different norms will favor those particular norms that lead to success in intergroup competition. My collaborators and I have argued that cultural group selection has shaped the cultural practices, institutions, beliefs and psychologies that are common in the world today, including those associated with anonymous markets, prosocial religions with big moralizing gods, and monogamous marriage. Each of these cultural packages, which have emerged relatively recently in human history, impacts our psychology and behavior. Priming “markets” and “God”, for example, increase trust and giving (respectively) in behavioral experiments, though “God primes” only work on theists. Such research avenues hold the promise of explaining, rather than merely documenting, the patterns of psychological variation observed across human populations.

The cultural evolution of norms over tens or hundreds of thousands of years, and their shaping by cultural group selection, may have driven genetic evolution to create a suite of cognitive adaptations we call norm psychology. This aspect of our evolved psychology emerged and coevolved in response to cultural evolution’s production of norms. This suite facilitates, among other things, our identification and learning of social norms, our expectation of sanctions for norm violations, and our ability to internalize normative behavior as motivations….

Biological evolution continues, and with it, cultural evolution. But there are some “constants” that seem to remain embedded in the norms of most cultural-genetic groups. Among them, moral codes that exclude gratuitous torture of innocent children, a belief in God, and status-consciousness (which, for example, reinforces a diminished need to reproduce for survival of the species).

Henrich hits upon one of the reasons — perhaps the main reason — why efforts to integrate various biological-cultural groups under the banner of “diversity” are doomed to failure:

[G]enes evolve to create minds that are inclined to preferentially interact with and imitate those who share their markers. This guarantees that individuals most effectively coordinate with those who share their culturally learned behavioral expectations (say about marriage or child rearing).

As I say here,

genetic kinship will always be a strong binding force, even where the kinship is primarily racial. Racial kinship boundaries, by the way, are not always and necessarily the broad ones suggested by the classic trichotomy of Caucasoid, Mongoloid, Negroid. (If you want to read for yourself about the long, convoluted, diffuse, and still controversial evolutionary chains that eventuated in the sub-species homo sapiens sapiens, to which all humans are assigned arbitrarily, without regard for their distinctive differences, begin here, here, here, and here.)

The obverse of of genetic kinship is “diversity,” which often is touted as a good thing by anti-tribalist social engineers. But “diversity” is not a good thing when it comes to social bonding.

At that point, I turn to an article by Michael Jonas about a study by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century“:

It has become increasingly popular to speak of racial and ethnic diversity as a civic strength. From multicultural festivals to pronouncements from political leaders, the message is the same: our differences make us stronger.

But a massive new study, based on detailed interviews of nearly 30,000 people across America, has concluded just the opposite. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam — famous for “Bowling Alone,” his 2000 book on declining civic engagement — has found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogenous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings….

…Putnam’s work adds to a growing body of research indicating that more diverse populations seem to extend themselves less on behalf of collective needs and goals….

(That’s from Jonas’s article, “The Downside of diversity,” The Boston Globe (boston.com), August 5, 2007. See this post for more about genetic kinship and “diversity.”)

In a later post, I add this:

Yes, human beings are social animals, but human beings are not “brothers under the skin,” and there is no use in pretending that we are. Trying to make us so, by governmental fiat, isn’t only futile but also wasteful and harmful. The futility of forced socialization is as true of the United States — a vast and varied collection of races, ethnicities, religions, and cultures — as it is of the world.

Despite the blatant reality of America’s irreconcilable diversity, American increasingly are being forced to lead their lives according to the dictates of the central government. Some apologists for this state of affairs will refer to the “common good,” which is a fiction that I address in [“Modern Utilitarianism,” “The Social Welfare Function,” and “Utilitarianism vs. Liberty”].

Human beings, for the most part, may be bigger, stronger, and healthier than ever, but their physical progress depends heavily on technology, and would be reversed by a cataclysm that disables technology. Further, technologically based prosperity masks moral squalor. Strip away that prosperity, and the West would look like the warring regions of Central and South America, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and South and Southeast Asia: racial and ethnic war without end. Much of urban and suburban America — outside affluent, well-guarded, and mostly “liberal” enclaves — would look like Ferguson.

Human beings are not “brothers under the skin,” and no amount of wishful thinking or forced integration can make us so. That is the lesson to be learned from biological and cultural evolution, which makes human beings different — perhaps irreconcilably so — but not necessarily better.

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Related posts:
Diversity
Crime, Explained
Society and the State
Race and Reason: The Victims of Affirmative Action
Race and Reason: The Achievement Gap — Causes and Implications
Liberty and Society
Tolerance on the Left
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
“Conversing” about Race
The Fallacy of Human Progress
“We the People” and Big Government
Evolution and Race
The Social Animal and the “Social Contract”
“Wading” into Race, Culture, and IQ
Poverty, Crime, and Big Government

Evolution and Race

UPDATED 11/24/13 AND 02/11/14

Have you read about Skull 5, a 1.8-million-year-old fossil? Well, it has been in the news lately. Here’s some of the coverage:

Scientists trying to unravel the origins of humanity mostly study scraps — some ancient teeth here, a damaged bone there. But now a lucky research team has uncovered a fossil superstar: the first complete skull of an early human adult from the distant past.

The 1.8-million-year-old fossil, known as Skull 5, is like nothing seen before. It has a small brain case and a heavy, jutting jaw, as did some of humanity’s older, more apelike ancestors. But other bones linked to Skull 5 show its owner had relatively short arms and long legs, as does our own species, Homo sapiens. Those who’ve studied Skull 5 say it also provides support for the provocative idea that, 1.8 million years ago, only one kind of early human held sway, rather than the throng of different species listed in today’s textbooks….

Paleoanthropologist Susan Antón of New York University, while praising the new analysis, says the Dmanisi team didn’t compare fossil features, such as the anatomy around the front teeth, that differ most starkly between two different species of early humans. So the Dmanisi team’s hypothesis that there was only one lineage is not totally convincing, she says… (Traci Watson, “Skull Discovery Sheds Light on Human Species,” USA Today, October 17, 2013)

Here’s more:

In the eastern European nation of Georgia, a group of researchers has excavated a 1.8 million-year-old skull of an ancient human relative, whose only name right now is Skull 5. They report their findings in the journal Science, and say it belongs to our genus, called Homo.

“This is most complete early Homo skull ever found in the world,” said lead study author David Lordkipanidze, researcher at the Georgian National Museum in Tbilisi….

The variation in physical features among the Dmanisi hominid specimens is comparable to the degree of diversity found in humans today, suggesting that they all belong to one species, Lordkipanidze said….

Now it gets more controversial: Lordkipanidze and colleagues also propose that these individuals are members of a single evolving Homo erectus species, examples of which have been found in Africa and Asia. The similarities between the new skull from Georgia and Homo erectus remains from Java, Indonesia, for example, may mean there was genetic “continuity across large geographic distances,” the study said.

What’s more, the researchers suggest that the fossil record of what have been considered different Homo species from this time period — such as Homo ergaster, Homo rudolfensis and Homo habilis — could actually be variations on a single species, Homo erectus. That defies the current understanding of how early human relatives should be classified….

The Dmanisi fossils are a great find, say anthropology researchers not involved with the excavation. But they’re not sold on the idea that this is the same Homo erectus from both Africa and Asia — or that individual Homo species from this time period are really all one species.

“The specimen is wonderful and an important contribution to the hominin record in a temporal period where there are woefully too few fossils,” said Lee Berger, paleoanthropologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, in an e-mail.

But the suggestion that these fossils prove an evolving lineage of Homo erectus in Asia and Africa, Berger said, is “taking the available evidence too far.”

…He criticized the authors of the new study for not comparing the fossils at Dmanisi to A. sediba or to more recent fossils found in East Africa…. (Elizabeth Landau, “Skull Sparks Human Evolution Controversy,” CNN, October 19, 2013)

I will go further and say this: Even if 1.8 million years ago there was a single species from which today’s human beings are descended, today’s human beings don’t necessarily belong to a single species or sub-species.

In fact, some reputable scientists have advanced a theory that is consistent with racial divergence:

Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending begin The 10,000 Year Explosion [link added] with a remark from the paleontologist Stephen J. Gould, who said that “there’s been no biological change in humans for 40,000 or 50,000 years.” They also cite the evolutionist Ernst Mayr, who agrees that “man’s evolution towards manness suddenly came to a halt” in the same epoch. Such claims capture the consensus in anthropology, too, which dates the emergence of “behaviorally modern humans” — beings who acted much more like us than like their predecessors — to about 45,000 years ago.

But is the timeline right? Did human evolution really stop? If not, our sense of who we are — and how we got this way — may be radically altered. Messrs. Cochran and Harpending, both scientists themselves, dismiss the standard view. Far from ending, they say, evolution has accelerated since humans left Africa 40,000 years ago and headed for Europe and Asia.

Evolution proceeds by changing the frequency of genetic variants, known as “alleles.” In the case of natural selection, alleles that enable their bearers to leave behind more offspring will become more common in the next generation. Messrs. Cochran and Harpending claim that the rate of change in the human genome has been increasing in recent millennia, to the point of turmoil. Literally hundreds or thousands of alleles, they say, are under selection, meaning that our social and physical environments are favoring them over other — usually older — alleles. These “new” variants are sweeping the globe and becoming more common.

But genomes don’t just speed up their evolution willy-nilly. So what happened, the authors ask, to keep human evolution going in the “recent” past? Two crucial events, they contend, had to do with food production. As humans learned the techniques of agriculture, they abandoned their diffuse hunter-gatherer ways and established cities and governments. The resulting population density made humans ripe for infectious diseases like smallpox and malaria. Alleles that helped protect against disease proved useful and won out.

The domestication of cattle for milk production also led to genetic change. Among people of northern European descent, lactose intolerance — the inability to digest milk in adulthood — is unusual today. But it was universal before a genetic mutation arose about 8,000 years ago that made lactose tolerance continue beyond childhood. Since you can get milk over and over from a cow, but can get meat from it only once, you can harvest a lot more calories over time for the same effort if you are lactose tolerant. Humans who had this attribute would have displaced those who didn’t, all else being equal. (If your opponent has guns and you don’t, drinking milk won’t save you.)

To make their case for evolution having continued longer than is usually claimed, Messrs. Cochran and Harpending remind us that dramatic changes in human culture appeared about 40,000 years ago, resulting in painting, sculpture, and better tools and weapons. A sudden change in the human genome, they suggest, made for more creative, inventive brains. But how could such a change come about? The authors propose that the humans of 40,000 years ago occasionally mated with Neanderthals living in Europe, before the Neanderthals became extinct. The result was an “introgression” of Neanderthal alleles into the human lineage. Some of those alleles may have improved brain function enough to give their bearers an advantage in the struggle for survival, thus becoming common.

In their final chapter, Messrs. Cochran and Harpending venture into recorded history by observing two interesting facts about Ashkenazi Jews (those who lived in Europe after leaving the Middle East): They are disproportionately found among intellectual high-achievers — Nobel Prize winners, world chess champions, people who score well on IQ tests — and they are victims of rare genetic diseases, like Gaucher’s and Tay-Sachs. The authors hypothesize that these two facts are connected by natural selection.

Just as sickle-cell anemia results from having two copies of an allele that protects you against malaria if you have just one, perhaps each Ashkenazi disease occurs when you have two copies of an allele that brings about something useful when you have just one. That useful thing, according to Messrs. Cochran and Harpending, is higher cognitive ability. They argue that the rare diseases are unfortunate side-effects of natural selection for intelligence, which Messrs. Cochran and Harpending think happened during the Middle Ages in Europe, when Jews rarely intermarried with other Europeans. (Christopher F. Chabris, “Last-Minute Changes,” The Wall Street Journal, February 12, 2009)

It is said that, despite the differences across races, all humans beings have in common 96 percent of their genes. Well, if I told you that humans and chimpanzees have about the same percentage of their genes in common, would you consider chimpanzees to be nothing more than superficially different human beings who belong to the same sub-species? Just remember this: The “species problem” remains unsolved.

So what if human beings belong to a variety of different sub-species? A candid scientific admission of that fact would put an end to the nonsense the “we’re all the same under the skin.” We”re not, and it’s long past time to own up to it, and to quit using the power of the state to strive for a kind of equality that is unattainable.

UPDATE (11/24/13):

And there are some who prefer to be sub-human.

UPDATE (02/11/14):

Although there are out-and-out disbelievers and cautious skeptics, some recent research in a field known as epigenetics suggests that behavioral conditioning can yield heritable traits. If true, it means that evolution is shaped by cultural influences, thus reinforcing positive traits (e.g., hard work and law-abidingness) among those people who possess and inculcate such traits, while also reinforcing negative traits (e.g., violence, shiftlessness) among those people who possess inculcate such traits.

*     *     *

Related reading:
Gregory Gorelik and Todd D. Shackleford, “A Review of Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending, The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution,” Evolutionary Psychology, 2010. 8(1): 113-118
Carl Zimmer, “Christening the Earliest Members of Our Genus,” The New York Times, October 24, 2013

Related posts:
Race and Reason: The Derbyshire Debacle
Race and Reason: The Victims of Affirmative Action
Race and Reason: The Achievement Gap — Causes and Implications

Spooky Numbers, Evolution, and Intelligent Design

“Spooky numbers” refers to Steven Landsburg’s position — expressed here in commenting on a post by Bob Murphy about intelligent design — that natural numbers just are. This encapsulates Landsburg’s thesis:

The natural numbers are irreducibly complex, moreso (by any reasonable definition) than anything in biology. But the natural numbers were not designed and did not evolve….

I previously addressed Landsburg’s claim about natural numbers, here; for example:

Why have humans, widely separated in time and space, agreed about numbers and the manipulation of numbers (mathematics)? Specifically, with respect to the natural numbers, why is there agreement that something called “one” or “un” or “ein” (and so on) is followed by something called “two” or “deux” or “zwei,” and so on? And why is there agreement that those numbers, when added, equal something called “three” or “trois” or “drei,” and so on? Is that evidence for the transcendent timelessness of numbers and mathematics, or is it nothing more than descriptive necessity?By descriptive necessity, I mean that numbering things is just another way of describing them. If there are some oranges on a table, I can say many things about them; for example, they are spheroids, they are orange-colored, they contain juice and (usually) seeds, and their skins are bitter-tasting.

Another thing that I can say about the oranges is that there are a certain number of them — let us say three, in this case. But I can say that only because, by convention, I can count them: one, two, three. And if someone adds an orange to the aggregation, I can count again: one, two, three, four. And, by convention, I can avoid counting a second time by simply adding one (the additional orange) to three (the number originally on the table). Arithmetic is simply a kind of counting, and other mathematical manipulations are, in one way or another, extensions of arithmetic. And they all have their roots in numbering and the manipulation of numbers, which are descriptive processes.

But my ability to count oranges and perform mathematical operations based on counting does not mean that numbers and mathematics are timeless and transcendent. It simply means that I have used some conventions — devised and perfected by other humans over the eons — which enable me to describe certain facets of physical reality.

Mathematics is merely a tool that can be useful in describing some aspects of the real world. Evolution and intelligent design, on the other hand, are theories about the real world. Though evolution and intelligent design are not complete theories of the real world, they are far more than mere mathematical descriptions of it.

To understand the distinction that I’m making, consider this: Some of the differences between apples and oranges can be described by resorting to the mathematics of color, taste, shape, and so on. But an apple or an orange — as an entity — is more than the sum of its various, partial descriptors. So, too, is the real world more than the sum of any number of mathematics or descriptors (physics, chemistry, biology, etc.) that have mathematical components. The real world encompasses love, hate, social customs, and religion — among many things that defy complete (or even partial) mathematical description.

Now, what about evolution and intelligent design? Are they reconcilable theories? Murphy implies that they are. He says that

Michael Behe–[a leading proponent of intelligent design] who (in)famously said that the bacterial flagellum exhibited too much design to have arisen through unguided evolution in the modern neo-Darwinian sense–does not have a problem with the idea that all of today’s cells share a common ancestor….

So yes, Behe is fine with the proposition that if we had a camera and a time machine, we could go observe the first cell on earth as it reproduced and yielded offspring. There would be nothing magical in these operations; they would obey the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology. The cells would further divide and so on, and then over billions of years there would be mutations and the environment would favor some of the mutants over their kin, such that natural selection over time would yield the bacterial flagellum and the human nervous system.

Yet Behe’s point is that when you look at what this process spits out at the end, you can’t deny that a guiding intelligence must be involved somehow.

The question-begging of that last sentence is what frustrates scientists. It says, in effect, that there must be a guiding intelligence, and the complexity of the products of evolution proves it.

No, it doesn’t prove it. God — as an entity apart from the material universe — cannot be shown to exist by pointing to particular aspects of the material universe, be they evolution or the Big Bang (to offer but two examples). God is a logical necessity, beyond empirical proof or disproof.

I greatly respect the sincerity of theists and the credence they give to sacred texts and accounts of visions and miracles. Their credence may be well-placed. But I am just too much of a doubting Thomas to rely on unfalsifiable, second-hand evidence about the nature of God and His role in the workings of the universe.

I will say this: Given the logical necessity of God, it follows that the universe operates in accordance with the “laws” that are inherent in His creation. Intelligent design, as an explanation for the forms taken by living creatures, is therefore something of a truism. But intelligent design cannot be proved by reference to products of evolution.

Related posts:
Atheism, Religion, and Science
The Limits of Science
Beware of Irrational Atheism
The Creation Model
The Thing about Science
Free Will: A Proof by Example?
A Theory of Everything, Occam’s Razor, and Baseball
Words of Caution for Scientific Dogmatists
Science, Evolution, Religion, and Liberty
Science, Logic, and God
Is “Nothing” Possible?
Debunking “Scientific Objectivity”
What Is Time?
Science’s Anti-Scientific Bent
The Tenth Dimension
The Big Bang and Atheism
Einstein, Science, and God
Atheism, Religion, and Science Redux
The Greatest Mystery
What Is Truth?
The Improbability of Us
A Digression about Probability and Existence
More about Probability and Existence
Existence and Creation
Probability, Existence, and Creation
The Atheism of the Gaps
Demystifying Science
Scientism, Evolution, and the Meaning of Life
Are the Natural Numbers Supernatural?
Not-So-Random Thoughts (II) (first item)
Mysteries: Sacred and Profane
Something from Nothing?
Something or Nothing
My Metaphysical Cosmology
Further Thoughts about Metaphysical Cosmology
Nothingness

Scientism, Evolution, and the Meaning of Life

Scientism is “the uncritical application of scientific or quasi-scientific methods to inappropriate fields of study or investigation.” When scientists proclaim truths outside the realm of their expertise, they are guilty of practicing scientism. Two notable scientistic scientists, of whom I have written several times (e.g., here and here), are Richard Dawkins and Peter Singer. It is unsurprising that Dawkins and Singer are practitioners of scientism. Both are strident atheists, and a strident atheists, as I have said,  “merely practice a ‘religion’ of their own. They have neither logic nor science nor evidence on their side — and eons of belief against them.”

Dawkins, Singer, and many other scientistic atheists share an especially “religious” view of evolution. In brief, they seem to believe that evolution rules out God. Evolution rules out nothing. Evolution may be true in outline but it does not bear close inspection. On that point, I turn to the late David Stove, a noted Australian philosopher and atheist. This is from his essay, “So You Think You Are a Darwinian?“:

Of course most educated people now are Darwinians, in the sense that they believe our species to have originated, not in a creative act of the Divine Will, but by evolution from other animals. But believing that proposition is not enough to make someone a Darwinian. It had been believed, as may be learnt from any history of biology, by very many people long before Darwinism, or Darwin, was born.

What is needed to make someone an adherent of a certain school of thought is belief in all or most of the propositions which are peculiar to that school, and are believed either by all of its adherents, or at least by the more thoroughgoing ones. In any large school of thought, there is always a minority who adhere more exclusively than most to the characteristic beliefs of the school: they are the ‘purists’ or ‘ultras’ of that school. What is needed and sufficient, then, to make a person a Darwinian, is belief in all or most of the propositions which are peculiar to Darwinians, and believed either by all of them, or at least by ultra-Darwinians.

I give below ten propositions which are all Darwinian beliefs in the sense just specified. Each of them is obviously false: either a direct falsity about our species or, where the proposition is a general one, obviously false in the case of our species, at least. Some of the ten propositions are quotations; all the others are paraphrases. The quotations are all from authors who are so well-known, at least in Darwinian circles, as spokesmen for Darwinism or ultra-Darwinism, that their names alone will be sufficient evidence that the proposition is a Darwinian one. Where the proposition is a paraphrase, I give quotations or other information which will, I think, suffice to establish its Darwinian credentials.

My ten propositions are nearly in reverse historical order. Thus, I start from the present day, and from the inferno-scene – like something by Hieronymus Bosch – which the ‘selfish gene’ theory makes of all life. Then I go back a bit to some of the falsities which, beginning in the 1960s, were contributed to Darwinism by the theory of ‘inclusive fitness’. And finally I get back to some of the falsities, more pedestrian though no less obvious, of the Darwinism of the 19th or early-20th century.

1. The truth is, ‘the total prostitution of all animal life, including Man and all his airs and graces, to the blind purposiveness of these minute virus-like substances’, genes.

This is a thumbnail-sketch, and an accurate one, of the contents of The Selfish Gene (1976) by Richard Dawkins….

2 ‘…it is, after all, to [a mother’s] advantage that her child should be adopted’ by another woman….

This quotation is from Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, p. 110.

Obviously false though this proposition is, from the point of view of Darwinism it is well-founded

3. All communication is ‘manipulation of signal-receiver by signal-sender.’

This profound communication, though it might easily have come from any used-car salesman reflecting on life, was actually sent by Dawkins, (in The Extended Phenotype, (1982), p. 57), to the readers whom he was at that point engaged in manipulating….

9. The more privileged people are the more prolific: if one class in a society is less exposed than another to the misery due to food-shortage, disease, and war, then the members of the more fortunate class will have (on the average) more children than the members of the other class.

That this proposition is false, or rather, is the exact reverse of the truth, is not just obvious. It is notorious, and even proverbial….

10. If variations which are useful to their possessors in the struggle for life ‘do occur, can we doubt (remembering that many more individuals are born than can possibly survive), that individuals having any advantage, however slight, over others, would have the best chance of surviving and of procreating their kind? On the other hand, we may feel sure that any variation in the least degree injurious would be rigidly destroyed.’

This is from The Origin of Species, pp. 80-81. Exactly the same words occur in all the editions….

Since this passage expresses the essential idea of natural selection, no further evidence is needed to show that proposition 10 is a Darwinian one. But is it true? In particular, may we really feel sure that every attribute in the least degree injurious to its possessors would be rigidly destroyed by natural selection?

On the contrary, the proposition is (saving Darwin’s reverence) ridiculous. Any educated person can easily think of a hundred characteristics, commonly occurring in our species, which are not only ‘in the least degree’ injurious to their possessors, but seriously or even extremely injurious to them, which have not been ‘rigidly destroyed’, and concerning which there is not the smallest evidence that they are in the process of being destroyed. Here are ten such characteristics, without even going past the first letter of the alphabet. Abortion; adoption; fondness for alcohol; altruism; anal intercourse; respect for ancestors; susceptibility to aneurism; the love of animals; the importance attached to art; asceticism, whether sexual, dietary, or whatever.

Each of these characteristics tends, more or less strongly, to shorten our lives, or to lessen the number of children we have, or both. All of them are of extreme antiquity. Some of them are probably older than our species itself. Adoption, for example is practised by some species of chimpanzees: another adult female taking over the care of a baby whose mother has died. Why has not this ancient and gross ‘biological error’ been rigidly destroyed?…

The cream of the jest, concerning proposition 10, is that Darwinians themselves do not really believe it. Ask a Darwinian whether he actually believes that the fondness for alcoholic drinks is being destroyed now, or that abortion is, or adoption – and watch his face. Well, of course he does not believe it! Why would he? There is not a particle of evidence in its favour, and there is a great mountain of evidence against it. Absolutely the only thing it has in its favour is that Darwinism says it must be so. But (as Descartes said in another connection) ‘this reasoning cannot be presented to infidels, who might consider that it proceeded in a circle’.

What becomes, then, of the terrifying giant named Natural Selection, which can never sleep, can never fail to detect an attribute which is, even in the least degree, injurious to its possessors in the struggle for life, and can never fail to punish such an attribute with rigid destruction? Why, just that, like so much else in Darwinism, it is an obvious fairytale, at least as far as our species is concerned.

A science cannot be wrong in so many important ways and yet be taken seriously as a God-substitute.

Frederick Turner has this to say in “Darwin and Design: The Evolution of a Flawed Debate“:

Does the theory of evolution make God unnecessary to the very existence of the world?…

The polemical evolutionists are right about the truth of evolution. But the rightness of their cause has been deeply compromised by their own version of the creationists’ sin. The evolutionists’ sin, as I see it, is even greater, because it is three sins rolled into one….

The third sin is … dishonesty. In many cases it is clear that the beautiful and hard-won theory of evolution, now proved beyond reasonable doubt, is being cynically used by some — who do not much care about it as such — to support an ulterior purpose: a program of atheist indoctrination, and an assault on the moral and spiritual goals of religion. A truth used for unworthy purposes is quite as bad as a lie used for ends believed to be worthy. If religion can be undermined in the hearts and minds of the people, then the only authority left will be the state, and, not coincidentally, the state’s well-paid academic, legal, therapeutic and caring professions. If creationists cannot be trusted to give a fair hearing to evidence and logic because of their prior commitment to religious doctrine, some evolutionary partisans cannot be trusted because they would use a general social acceptance of the truth of evolution as a way to set in place a system of helpless moral license in the population and an intellectual elite to take care of them.

And that is my issue, not only with the likes of Dawkins and Singer but also with any so-called scientist who believes that evolution — or, more broadly, scientific knowledge — somehow justifies atheism.

Science is only about the knowable, and much of life’s meaning lies where science cannot reach. Maverick Philosopher puts it this way in “Why Science Will Never Put Religion Out of Business“:

We suffer from a lack of existential meaning, a meaning that we cannot supply from our own resources since any subjective acts of meaning-positing are themselves (objectively) meaningless….

…[T]he salvation religion promises is not to be understood in some crass physical sense the way the typical superficial and benighted atheist-materialist would take it but as salvation from meaninglessness, anomie, spiritual desolation, Unheimlichkeit, existential insecurity, Angst, ignorance and delusion, false value-prioritizations, moral corruption irremediable by any human effort, failure to live up to ideals, the vanity and transience of our lives, meaningless sufferings and cravings and attachments, the ultimate pointlessness of all efforts at moral and intellectual improvement in the face of death . . . .

…[I]t is self-evident that there are no technological solutions to moral evil, moral ignorance, and the apparent absurdity of life.  Is a longer life a morally better life?  Can mere longevity confer meaning?The notion that present or future science can solve the problems that religion addresses is utterly chimerical.

Related posts:
Atheism, Religion, and Science
The Limits of Science
Three Perspectives on Life: A Parable
Beware of Irrational Atheism
The Creation Model
The Thing about Science
Evolution and Religion
Words of Caution for Scientific Dogmatists
Science, Evolution, Religion, and Liberty
The Legality of Teaching Intelligent Design
Science, Logic, and God
Capitalism, Liberty, and Christianity
Is “Nothing” Possible?
Debunking “Scientific Objectivity”
Science’s Anti-Scientific Bent
Science, Axioms, and Economics
The Big Bang and Atheism
The Universe . . . Four Possibilities
Einstein, Science, and God
Atheism, Religion, and Science Redux
Pascal’s Wager, Morality, and the State
Evolution as God?
The Greatest Mystery
What Is Truth?
The Improbability of Us
A Digression about Probability and Existence
More about Probability and Existence
Existence and Creation
Probability, Existence, and Creation
The Atheism of the Gaps
Demystifying Science

More Thoughts about Evolutionary Teleology

In “Evolution, Human Nature, and ‘Natural Rights’,” I address the proposition that humans have natural ends that have arisen through evolution and which imply the necessity of negative “natural rights.” My purpose here is not to revisit the proposition, which I firmly reject for the reasons given  in “Evolution, Human Nature, and ‘Natural Rights’,” but to focus on my reasons for rejecting the linchpin of the proposition: evolutionary teleology, or teleonomy. This is the

apparent purposefulness and of goal-directedness of structures and functions in living organisms that derive from their evolutionary history, adaptation for reproductive success, or generally, due to the operation of a program.

Francisco Ayala offers a specific example in his essay, “Teleology and Teleological Explanations,” at Evolutionary Biology:

The wings of birds call for teleological explanation: the genetic constitutions responsible for their configuration came about because wings serve to fly and flying contributes to the reproductive success of birds. But there was nothing in the constitution of the remote ancestors of birds that would necessitate the appearance of wings in their descendants. Wings came about as the consequence of a long sequence of events, where at each stage the most advantageous alternative was selected among those that happened to be available; but what alternatives were available at any one time depended, at least in part, on chance events.

In short, the end (survival of the species through reproductive success) dictates the means (the development of wings). Nonsense. “Contingent teleology” is nothing more than “what happened as a result of breeding, random mutation, geophysical processes, and survival of the fittest and/or luckiest, as the  case may be.” The usual shorthand for all of that is “natural selection.” But “selection” is inappropriate because — unless there is such a thing as Intelligent Design — no one (or no thing) is selecting anything.

Evolutionary zoologist John O. Reiss exposes the fallacy of teleology in Not by Design: Retiring Darwin’s Watchmaker. This is from the first chapter:

The general mode of thinking that I object to goes as follows: “character x plays a useful (‘adaptive’) role in the life of organism y; therefore, character x must have evolved by natural selection for this role.” The definitional equation of adaptations and past natural selection is fairly standard in evolutionary biology today: “a feature is an adaptation for a particular function if it has evolved by natural selection for that function” (Futuyma 2005, 265). When combined with the assumption that useful features or characters are in fact adaptations by this definition, a teleological role for natural selection results. In this role, natural selection is inferred to have directed evolution from an unimproved (poorly adapted) past state toward an improved (well-adapted) present state, merely on the basis that the present state exists and is well adapted….

While the best solution might be to do what Wallace suggested so long ago—to completely extirpate the term natural selection from the lexicon of evolutionary biology—the term is by now too well established to replace….

…I believe that the continued teleological use of the concept of natural selection, in spite of the obvious problems involved, is due primarily to the absence of another evolutionary principle that can be used to interpret patterns of macroevolutionary transformation. Fundamental to my restriction of the term natural selection will be the reintroduction of another principle, related to and often confused with that of natural selection. This principle is founded on the concept of the necessary conditions for an organism’s (or other evolutionary entity’s) continued existence; it states that (by definition) the existence of any organism is contingent on its satisfaction of these conditions.

Of particular relevance is Reiss’s observation that “natural selection is inferred to have directed evolution from an unimproved (poorly adapted) past state toward an improved (well-adapted) present state, merely on the basis that the present state exists and is well adapted.” That formulation of evolutionary teleology exposes it as an instance of the hypostatization fallacy:

Hypostatization (together with the closely related fallacy of reification) may be the most common of all fallacies. Whole systems of philosophy, politics, religion, science, and social theories are built on or supported by this fallacy.11

Examples:

“Nature’s purposes are always pure, therefore we should always accede to her.” Nature has no purposes.

“The only just laws are those that relieve a society’s suffering.” Laws do not “relieve” anything, and “societies,” do not suffer.

“Industry is a danger to both nature and society.” Here are three hypostatized abstractions, industry, nature, and society. Industry is not a “thing” that does anything, and neither nature or society are things to which anything is done. Some industries might do something that is harmful to some natural things or some persons in some society, but treating any of these as entities, even collective entities, is fallacious.

“What are personal considerations in the face of the needs of society, the fate of the nation, the preservation of culture?” Since, society has no needs, nations do not have fates, and there is no such thing as culture to preserve, personal considerations are all that are left.

“My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you: Ask what you can do for your country.” -(John F. Kennedy) Obviously rhetorical, and therefore, all the more subtle. Behind the rhetoric is the insidious concept that citizens exist for the sake of a country (state or government), the opposite of the intention of the American Constitutional, that government exists for the sake of the citizens.

Evolutionary teleology boils down to this: Species seek survival, therefore species acquire characteristics that improve their chances of surviving. In fact:

  • Species do not do anything as species; there is no such thing as species-consciousness.
  • Species do not acquire characteristics in the way that a person acquires a pair of glasses to improve his ability to see.
  • It is tautologous to say that something survives because it has “acquired” the wherewithal to survive.

The preceding analysis points to another, more subtle, fallacy in evolutionary teleology, a fallacy known as observation selection bias. Philosopher Nick Bostrom illustrates it, in “A Primer on the Anthropic Principle“:

[S]uppose you’re a young investor pondering whether to invest your retirement savings in bonds or equity. You are vaguely aware of some studies showing that over sufficiently lengthy periods of time, stocks have, in the past, substantially outperformed bonds (an observation which is often referred to as the “equity premium puzzle”). So you are tempted to put your money into equity. You might want to consider, though, that a selection effect might be at least partly responsible for the apparent superiority of stocks. While it is true that most of the readily available data does favor stocks, this data is mainly from the American and British stock exchanges, which both have continuous records of trading dating back over a century. But is it an accident that the best data comes from these exchanges? Both America and Britain have benefited during this period from stable political systems and steady economic growth. Other countries have not been so lucky. Wars, revolutions, and currency collapses have at times obliterated entire stock exchanges, which is precisely why continuous trading records are not available elsewhere. By looking at only the two greatest success stories, one would risk overestimating the historical performance of stocks. A careful investor would be wise to factor in this consideration when designing her portfolio….

The focus of evolutionary teleology is on evolutionary success. The ultimate success is survival, which — in a teleological explanation of evolution– is the ultimate purpose of a species, the end toward which it “acquires” characteristics. Does this imply that extinct species had the ultimate purpose of extinction, thus “acquiring” characteristics that ensured extinction?  More plausibly, some species happen to survive (and some to die out) because their characteristics — along with the “luck” of not being (or being) in the wrong places at the wrong times — help to ensure their survival (or extinction) in the face of threats beyond their control: geophysical changes (abrupt and gradual), predators, diseases.

The focus on success ignores the fact that extinct species evolved to some degree before meeting with threats that they could not surmount. It also assumes that success to date ensures success in the future. Imagine an adherent of evolutionary teleology who is transported to a time when dinosaurs roamed the earth. By his reckoning, dinosaurs would have “selected” their characteristics in order to ensure their survival. The same person, thrust a million years into the future, might conclude that cockroaches were destined to inherit the earth.

Landsburg Is Half-Right

*     *     *

God does not play dice with the universe. — Albert Einstein

Einstein, stop telling God what to do. — Niels Bohr

*     *     *

In a post at The Big Questions blog, Steven Landsburg writes:

Richard Dawkins . . . [has] got this God thing all wrong. Here’s some of his latest, from the Wall Street Journal:

Where does [Darwinian evolution] leave God? The kindest thing to say is that it leaves him with nothing to do, and no achievements that might attract our praise, our worship or our fear. Evolution is God’s redundancy notice, his pink slip. But we have to go further. A complex creative intelligence with nothing to do is not just redundant. A divine designer is all but ruled out by the consideration that he must be at least as complex as the entities he was wheeled out to explain. God is not dead. He was never alive in the first place.

But Darwinian evolution can’t replace God, because Darwinian evolution (at best) explains life, and explaining life was never the hard part. The Big Question is not: Why is there life? The Big Question is: Why is there anything?

So far, so good. But Landsburg doesn’t quit when he’s ahead:

Ah, says, Dawkins, but there’s no role for God there either:

Making the universe is the one thing no intelligence, however superhuman, could do, because an intelligence is complex—statistically improbable —and therefore had to emerge, by gradual degrees, from simpler beginnings

That, however, is just wrong. It is not true that all complex things emerge by gradual degrees from simpler beginnings. In fact, the most complex thing I’m aware of is the system of natural numbers (0,1,2,3, and all the rest of them) together with the laws of arithmetic. That system did not emerge, by gradual degrees, from simpler beginnings. . . .

Now I happen to agree with Professor Dawkins that God is unnecessary, but I think he’s got the reason precisely backward. God is unnecessary not because complex things require simple antecedents but because they don’t. That allows the natural numbers to exist with no antecedents at all. . . .

What breathtaking displays of arrogance. Dawkins presumes that the only kind of intelligence that can exist is the kind that comes about through evolution. Landsburg wishes us to believe that complex things can exist on their own, without antecedents, which is why there is no God. (He fudges by saying “God is unnecessary” but we know what he really believes, don’t we?)

Landsburg’s “proof” of the non-existence of God is the existence of natural numbers, a “system [that] did not emerge, by gradual degrees, from simpler beginnings.” Landsburg’s assertion about natural numbers (and the laws of arithmetic) is true only if numbers exist independently of human thought, that is, if they are ideal Platonic forms. But where do ideal Platonic forms come from? And if some complex things don’t require antecedents, how does that rule out the existence of God — who, by definition, embodies all complexity?

Related posts:
Same Old Story, Same Old Song and Dance
Atheism, Religion, and Science
The Limits of Science
Beware of Irrational Atheism
The Creation Model
Evolution and Religion
Science, Evolution, Religion, and Liberty
Science, Logic, and God
The Universe . . . . Four Possibilities
Einstein, Science, and God
Atheism, Religion, and Science Redux
A Non-Believer Defends Religion
Evolution as God?
The Greatest Mystery