I’m an atheist, BUT . . .

. . . I am still resentful that the world’s most famous atheist is such a tiresome old bore on the subject.

Richard Dawkins has recently been weighing in on the topic of atheism: it’s good; and religion: it’s bad.

And if that were all, I’d have nothing to say. I am pretty much agreed on both basic points. But the trouble is that, in his familiar way, Dawkins is so arrogant, so extreme sounding (he loves to be shocking the way that postmodernists love to be shocking) and so incurious about the subject at hand (religion) that I think he really gives us non-belivers a bad name.

Dawkins’s recent book (The God Delusion) has succeeded in getting some pretty interesting discussions rolling (see edge.org, for instance), but hardly anyone will see those, and the interesting bits of those discussions are mostly people offering correctives to Dawkins simplistic portrait of religion.

In a more recent defense of his position against fellow atheists who see his anti-religious crusade as too extreme, dawkins identifies five kinds of non-supportive. I’ll write some responses as we move through the five:

I’ve noticed five variants of I’m-an-atheist-buttery, and I’ll listthem in turn, in the hope that others will recognize them, be armed against them, and perhaps extend the list by contributing examples from their own experience.1. I’m an atheist, but religion is here to stay.
You think you can get rid of religion? Good luck to you! You want to
get rid of religion? What planet are you living on? Religion is a
fixture. Get over it!

I could bear any of these downers, if they were uttered in something approaching a tone of regret or concern. On the contrary. The tone of voice is almost always gleeful, and accompanied by a self-satisfied smirk. Anybody who opens with “I’m an atheist, BUT . . .” can be more or less guaranteed to be one of those religious fellow-travellers who, in Dan Dennett’s wickedly perceptive phrase, believes in belief.
They may not be religious themselves, but they love the idea that other
people are religious. This brings me to my second category of naysayers.

While I’m not of this particular “atheist, but” camp myself, I’m rather stupefied by Dawkins’s misreading of their self-satisfied smirks. That’s NOT the self-satisfaction arising out of pleasure that other people believe (a rather weird form of self-satisfaction, if you asked me). That’s the self satisfaction that arises when one encounters a person whose grasp of human nature seems to be rather guileless and misinformed. We thus get the satisfaction of congratulation ourselves on our superior knowledge and sophistication.

Do these people believe in belief? Sure. And so does Dawkins or he wouldn’t be going on at such great length trying to rid us of it.

But what these folks think is that religion probably serves some sort of purpose for the people who believe it. They do not, like Dawkins, believe that believers are merely mistaken. They don’t think that you can stamp out belief in God the same way that you can, say, stamp out belief in Iraqi WMDs or a flat earth: with facts and counter-arguments. (Come to think of it Iraqi WMDs may also be more on the religious faith side of things!)

They smirk because they see Dawkins’ idea that religion is a bag full of facts and explanations as deeply naive. Not because they love religion.

2. I’m an atheist, but people need religion. What are you going to put in its place? How are you going to comfort the bereaved? How are you going to fill the need? I dealt with this in the last chapter of The God Delusion, ‘A Much Needed Gap’ and also, at more length, in Unweaving the Rainbow. Here I’ll make one additional point. Did you notice the patronizing condescension in the quotations I just listed? You and I, of course, are much too intelligent and well educated to need religion. But ordinary people, hoi polloi, the Orwellian proles, the Huxleian Deltas and Epsilon semi-morons, need religion. Well, I want to cultivate more respect for people than that. I suspect that the only reason many cling to religion is that they have been let down by our educational system and don’t understand the options on offer. This is certainly true of most people who think they are creationists. They have simply not been taught the alternative. Probably the same is true of the belittling myth that people ‘need’ religion. On the contrary, I am tempted to say “I believe in people . . .” And this leads me to the next example.

One wonders how much Dawkins gets out. I’ve met creationists who know more about evolution than I do. It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t convince them. They only know what they know to argue with me and people like me. The facts are pretty much completely beside the point.

And who is being patronizing here, the person who says “I don’t believe it but the fact that people stick with it in the face of hundred of years (thousands! millions!) of contrary evidence seems to argue that religion has some other role in people’s lives that ‘the evidence’ doesn’t touch.” Or the person who argues, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that religious believers are merely ignorant?

The essential fact of the matter here is that people already believe in religion. Religion is not a movement founded by the people who have given The God Delusion a bad review. And many of those people who believe in religion have already had the benefit of better than average educational systems.

If Dawkins wants to argue for the radical improvement of education worldwide at the cost of multiple trillions, I say he should go for it. But drop the religion distraction and get on with the good work.

If we were to do such a thing, I would expect religious adherence to drop off. BUT not disappear. And I think that any reasonable observer of humanity would expect the same thing. Only for the relative few is religion a matter to be reasoned about.

3. I’m an atheist, but religion is one of the glories of human culture. At a conference in San Diego which I attended at the end of my book
tour, Sam Harris and I were attacked by two “I’m an atheist, but . . .”
merchants. One of these quoted Golda Meir when she was asked whether
she believed in God: “I believe in the Jewish people, and the Jewish
people believe in God.” Our smirking critic substituted his own
version: “I believe in people, and people believe in God.”

Religion, he presumably thought, is like a great work of art. Many
works of art, rather, because different religions are so varied. I was
reminded of Nicholas Humphrey’s devastating indictment of an extreme
version of this kind of thing, quoted in Chapter 9 of The God Delusion.

Dawkins then goes on to discuss Incan human sacrifice and the fact that it gets upheld as an example of spiritual commitment rather than, as he’d have it, and outrage committed in the name of superstition.

Personally, I’m more or less in Dawkins’ camp when it comes to how to respond to this particular situation morally. But I’m also puzzled as to why Dawkins thinks responding to an admittedly extreme version of the “religion as glory of culture argument” is sufficient. So this line of thinking can be taken too far? So what? What about the rather less extreme idea that religion has inspired and informed a great deal of what is admirable in our and other cultures? That Dawkins’ own sensibility owes quite a bit to religion?

Dawkins finishes this section up by contemptuously quoting someone from the San Diego conference as saying:

“I believe in people, and people believe in God.” I could have overlooked the patronizing condescension of his remark, if only he hadn’t sounded so smugly satisfied by this lamentable state of affairs.

But the trouble with Dawkins’ position here is that he seems so seldom willing to acknowledge religion as something that exists in the world, that has survived for millennia and which seems to serve a function for people. His explanations of why this is the case are simple-minded and grasping. I imagine the smugness Dawkins heard here was the smugness of someone who has identified a phenomenon one’s opponent obviously cannot explain.

The rest of Dawkins points are essentially political–arguments over strategy and tactics; arguments about how non-believers ought to present themselves in public. Here again, I agree with Dawkins in his explicit points, but I have to take him to task for not recognizing the pugnaciousness he has assumed in this argument. Not only is atheism out of the closet, but theism is to be contemned and those who quail from heaping scorn on the religious belief of others are also worthy of contempt.

I don’t think this attitude is either necessary or desirable.

More on this later.


Hello, all

I’ve had this blog over at blogger for quite a while and have decided to run a parallel blog here.

I’m attracted by some of the features in wordpress and hope that teh developers here will soon allow a bit more flexibility with templates to make me more or less completely happy!


On Pinker’s Blank Slate

Nor is a belief in the blank slate absent among prominent scientists. Richard Lewontin, Leon Kamin, and Steven Rose, in a book entitled Not in Our Genes, asserted that “the only sensible thing to say about human nature is that it is in that nature to construct its own history.” 8 Stephen Jay Gould wrote that the “brain [is] capable of a full range of behaviors and predisposed to none.”9 Anne Fausto-Sterling expressed a common view of the origin of sex differences: “The key biological fact is that boys and girls have different genitalia, and it is this biological difference that leads adults to interact differently with different babies whom we conveniently color-code in pink or blue to make it unnecessary to go peering into their diapers for information about gender.”10

This is a quote from a paper available here. It was published about a year-and-a-half ago in Daedalus. Just ran across it and was rather dumbfounded by Pinker’s sophmoric misquote of Gould.

Here, just for giggles, is the original context of the Gould quote:

Thus my criticism of Wilson does not invoke a nonbiological “environmentalism”; it merely posits the concept of biological potentiality–a brain capable of the full range of human behaviors and rigidly predisposed toward none–against his idea of biological determinism–specific genes for specific behavioral traits.

Others have noted Pinker’s tendency in The Blank Slate to distort opponents’ views and to do battle with straw men, but I don’t think I’ve seen as brazen an example of it as this rather bald misquotation.

In the nature/nurture debate, pretty much everyone accuses everyone else of mischaracterization and falsely dichotomizing. Here, though, is a fine example of outright distortion: first Pinker seems to think that that “rigidly” qualifies Gould’s statement far too much–he’d rather fight more simplistic enemies, so out that goes, without even an elipsis to hold its place. Second, it wouldn’t really do to have Gould positing this “biological potentiality” merely as a working hypothesis with which one can interpret the paltry (in 1976, when Gould was writing) scientific evidence in the nature/nurture matter. He is merely demonstrating that this assumption is at least as consistent with the facts as Wilson’s working hypothesis.

And Pinker has been going around everywhere citing this misquotation–it’s part of his little repertoire of “anti-scientific horrors from the past” (see here, for instance). He should really tell his research assistants to be a bit more careful.

Now, the “strong biology” side of this argument have been on a long offensive on this issue–protesting the mischaracterization of their own position and working hard at mischaracterizing the other side–and they’ve had some crucial help from supposedly neutral suck-ups like Ullica Segerstrale.

[Note that I think Segerstrale’s work is great: well-researched, readable, revealing. I am a better person for having read Defenders of the Truth and I suggest you read it, too. BUT Segerstrale strikes me as a long way from being unbiased in this case. She seems to like Wilson more than the other scientists involved in the controversies she covers (she’s met all the major protagonists). And she is deeply interested in establishing the sociological study of science on a non-confrontational basis vis-a-vis scientists, and the best way to accomplish this is to favor those that science as an institution seems to favor. And when the question is the power of science itself, we know which side that will be: the side that favors stronger, broader truth claims by science. In this case that’s Wilson & Dawkins. And lastly, she seems to have caught to anti-political-correctness bug and bought in rather naively (pace her attempts to deny it) to Wilson’s positioning of himself as a “victim” of political correctness. In short Segerstrale is a fine researcher and a good writer, but she IS NOT a neutral adjudicator in this scientific dispute as she is often held up as being.]

But the worm seems to be turning again. (See here for instance.) Molecular biology and associated sciences seems to be indicating that things are a great deal more complicated when it comes to gene expression than we might have thought in the 1970s. There are suggestions that low IQ numbers are a lot more dependent upon environment (see some of the recent work of James Flynn) than Gould’s enemies were willing to admit 30 years ago. And it is beginning to look more and more like we ought to be thinking of evolution and even particular lifeforms as complex systems rather than as quasi-mechanical ones–that is, that scientists like Dawkins and Wilson have indeed been overstepping the bounds of called-for reductionism. Especially in their calls for the application of their reductionist paradigms to other fields of study and to policy making. All of this very much as Gould was arguing.

None of this is to say that Gould was innocent of argumentative excesses himself. Surely he wasn’t. But at least he could read.

One begins to wonder with Pinker, though.

Kelley on Pinker on Dawkins

[Note: this post got big quick, so this is necessarily rather sketchy at points. I’ll be trying to further elucidate in the next few days. I’ll also be happy to respond to counter-arguments and questions.]

I’ve reposted the entire Times excerpt of Steve Pinker’s discussion of Richard Dawkins’s Selfish Gene below.

Dawkins’s book was, of course, a landmark in the history of evolutionary science. With this very readable book and its more specialized companion The Extended Phenotype Dawkins scored a rare feat in the realm of science writing: explicating and popularizing a new way of looking at evolution among both popular and professional audiences.

Dawkins book encouraged its readers to look at evolution with a “gene’s eye” view. Thinking less about the competition between animals or bacteria, and more about the competition between different sequences of DNA. Such a view made it much easier to explain things like altuistic behavior, for instance: a brother might sacrifice his own life for his sibling and still be assured that much of his genome would get passed on to future generations. Looking at the matter this way, we can more easily see how a gene encouraging such altuistic behavior might be selected for. An entire family with this gene might survive and propagate more successfully than others over the long run, thus assuring the continued presence of the self-sacrifice gene.

While recognizing Dawkins’s achievement, I many have felt that Dawkins has also had a tendency to state his claims a bit too dramatically and to push the explanatory power of his ideas a bit too far. When called out on this tendency, Dawkins has often clarified and nuanced his claims. I am someone who has been a bit skeptical of the Dawkins line of evolutionary storytelling, but I have always seen him as a very interesting and reasonable thinker with a lot to tell us about how life came to be as it is.

Steven Pinker, and cognitive scientist at Harvard and perhaps Dawkins greatest rival as a scientific popularizer, may also be Dawkins’s biggest stateside comrade-in-arms. But he does not share Dawkins preference for reasonableness over drama in the final instance. Much like the postmodern theorists he has publicly deplored, Pinker often seems to prefer the romance of taking and defending an extreme position to being right.

Not that there’s much danger in Pinker’s posturing: like the great postmodern firebrands, he’s got tenure. And his positions are not that extreme, socially. (I’d argue that they’re farther from the truth that from the political mainstream.) And they’re certainly not extreme enough to stem the flow of congratulation from his many fans.

The article below provides a fine example of Pinker at his worst. Aside from giving Dawkins his due praise on the 30th anniversary of The Selfish Gene, Pinker, characteristically, is also concerned to extend his thinking to new areas and new extremes:

Another shared theme in life and mind made prominent in Dawkins’s writings is the use of mentalistic concepts (ie, the explanation of behaviour in terms of beliefs and desires) in biology, most boldly in his title The Selfish Gene. The expression evoked a certain amount of abuse, most notoriously in the philosopher Mary Midgley’s pronouncement that “genes cannot be selfish or unselfish, any more than atoms can be jealous, elephants abstract or biscuits teleological”(a throwback to the era in which philosophers thought that their contribution to science was to educate scientists on elementary errors of logic encouraged by their sloppy use of language). Dawkins’s main point was that one can understand the logic of natural selection by imagining that the genes are agents executing strategies to make more copies of themselves. . . .

The proper domain of mentalistic language, one might think, is the human mind, but its application there has not been without controversy either. . . .

I sometimes wonder, though, whether caveats about the use of mentalistic vocabulary in biology are stronger than they need to be–whether there is an abstract sense in which we can literally say that genes are selfish, that they try to replicate, that they know about their past environments, and so on. Now of course we have no reason to believe that genes have conscious experience, but a dirty secret of modern science is that we have no way of explaining the fact that humans have conscious experience either (conscious experience in the sense of raw first-person subjective awareness –the distinction between conscious and unconscious processes, and the nature of self-consciousness, are entirely tractable scientific topics). No one has really explained why it feels like something to be a hunk of neural tissue processing information in certain complex patterns. So even in the case of humans, our use of mentalistic terms does not depend on a commitment on how to explain the subjective aspects of the relevant states, but only on their functional role within a chain of computations.

Mary Midgley aside, one has to wonder after reading this why philosophers ever stopped trying to “educate scientists on elementary errors of logic encouraged by their sloppy use of language.” Perhaps it was despair.

Pinker’s justification for using “mentalistic language” [wants, desires, knowledge] in relation to “hunks of matter” other than people and some of our animal friends is that psychology has so far failed to properly account for our sense of consciousness. So when we say an electron “wants” and a person “wants” we are referring to equally undefined phenomena.

The behaviorists responded to this by throwing mentalistic language overboard altogether. Which seems rather silly until Pinker comes up with his counterproposal: apply mentalistic language universally.

Why bother?, we might well wonder. Why not just continue to apply mentalistic language to those things that seem to us to merit such consideration, and not apply it to to things we know fairly well do not experience consciousness? Pinker himself points out several “confusions” arising out of the arbitrarily specialized use of mentalistic terms, why not just stop using them?

Speaking of cognitive psychology, Pinker tells us that mentalistic language “allows [CP] to tap into the world of folk psychology” and I think it is here that we find the true motivation behind Pinker’s project here. Pinker is less concerned with overall project of understand how evolution works than he is with trying to make evolutionary storytelling attain the sort of intuitive appeal of creation myths. Pinker’s project is more or less the creation of a “Wedge Strategy” on behalf of science. Much as religious belief presents itself as scientific inquiry through the work of the Discovery Institute, so Pinker’s science would present itself as a story to a public much more familiar with Spielberg than with the workings of systems.

The problems here are manifold: first, this representation of how science works is contrafactual. In fact, I’d say it runs counter to the epistemological underpinnings of the scientific worldview itself. Attempts to make scientific explanations of the world appealing narratives (be they sentimental or anti-sentimental) are lies, plain and simple. [But this is too big a point to discuss completely here.]

Second, it won’t work. Intelligent Design is lousy science, but it works reasonably well as a political ploy because most people can’t tell the difference. Real science often makes lousy stories, and any schmo can recognize a lousy story. From the perspective of making direct appeals to the populace at large, science is in a tough spot: the only way science can be made more appealing is to make it less “real.”

And that would be a bad deal, because the cultural capital of science is not going to be made by providing new grand narratives for society. Science will live or die by delivering results (where it has done fairly well) and being a reliable source of information for public decision-making (where it has done less well).

The truth of science is that there are no selfish genes. There are just different kinds of genes, some of which lead to organisms with a greater capacity to survive and propagate than others in particular environments. What lives, what dies, what propagates–these are all happenstance: the results of an extremely complex process arising out of a host of natural tendencies working in concert, with no intention behind it and no goal to achieve.

Not a heartwarming story. Not a story with great life lessons about competition and tough-mindedness. But the fundamental truth of science. Tough as it is, that’s the stroy that has to be sold to converts. The public at large, though, merely has to tolerate science (and pay, of course), they don’t have to practice it or even cheer from the sidelines.


Pinker on Dawkins

The Times March 04, 2006


Yes, genes can be selfish

Review by Prof. Steven Pinker

To mark the 30th anniversary of Richard Dawkins’s book, OUP is to issue a collection of essays about his work. Here, professor of psychology at Harvard University, wonders if Dawkins’s big idea has not gone far enough


by Richard Dawkins,

OUP £14.99, 384pp;

US television talk-show host Jay Leno, interviewing a passer-by: How do you think Mount Rushmore was formed?

Passerby: Erosion?

Leno: Well, how do you think the rain knew to not only pick four presidents — but four of our greatest presidents? How did the rain know to put the beard on Lincoln and not on Jefferson?

Passerby: Oh, just luck, I guess.

I AM A COGNITIVE SCIENTIST, someone who studies the nature of intelligence and the workings of the mind. Yet one of my most profound scientific influences has been Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist. The influence runs deeper than the fact that the mind is a product of the brain and the brain a product of evolution; such an influence could apply to someone who studies any organ of any organism. The significance of Dawkins’s ideas, for me and many others, runs to his characterisation of the very nature of life and to a theme that runs throughout his writings: the possibility of deep commonalities between life and mind.

Dawkins’s ideas repay close reflection and re-examination, not because he is a guru issuing enigmatic pronouncements for others to ponder, but because he continually engages the deepest problems in biology, problems that continue to challenge our understanding.

When I first read Dawkins I was immediately gripped by concerns in his writings on life that were richer versions of ones that guided my thinking on the mind. The parallels concerned both the content and the practice of the relevant sciences.

A major theme in Dawkins’s writings on life that has important parallels in the understanding of the mind is a focus on information. In The Blind Watchmaker Dawkins wrote: “If you want to understand life, don’t think about vibrant, throbbing gels and oozes, think about information technology.” Dawkins has tirelessly emphasised the centrality of information in biology — the storage of genetic information in DNA, the computations embodied in transcription and translation, and the cybernetic feedback loop that constitutes the central mechanism of natural selection itself, in which seemingly goal-oriented behavior results from the directed adjustment of some process by its recent consequences. The centrality of information was captured in the metaphor in Dawkins’s book title River Out of Eden, the river being a flow of information in the generation-to-generation copying of genetic material since the origin of complex life. It figured into his Blind Watchmaker simulations of the evolutionary process, an early example of the burgeoning field of artificial life. Dawkins’s emphasis on the ethereal commodity called “information” in an age of biology dominated by the concrete molecular mechanisms is another courageous stance. There is no contradiction, of course, between a system being understood in terms of its information content and it being understood in terms of its material substrate. But when it comes down to the deepest understanding of what life is, how it works, and what forms it is likely to take elsewhere in the universe, Dawkins implies that it is abstract conceptions of information, computation, and feedback, and not nucleic acids, sugars, lipids, and proteins, that will lie at the root of the explanation.

All this has clear parallels in the understanding of the mind. The “cognitive revolution” of the 1950s, which connected psychology with the nascent fields of information theory, computer science, generative linguistics and artificial intelligence, had as its central premise the idea that knowledge is a form of information, thinking a form of computation, and organised behaviour a product of feedback and other control processes. This gave birth to a new science of cognition that continues to dominate psychology today, embracing computer simulations of cognition as a fundamental theoretical tool, and the framing of hypotheses about computational architecture (serial versus parallel processing, analogue versus digital computation, graphical versus list-like representations, etc) as a fundamental source of experimental predictions.

Another shared theme in life and mind made prominent in Dawkins’s writings is the use of mentalistic concepts (ie, the explanation of behaviour in terms of beliefs and desires) in biology, most boldly in his title The Selfish Gene. The expression evoked a certain amount of abuse, most notoriously in the philosopher Mary Midgley’s pronouncement that “genes cannot be selfish or unselfish, any more than atoms can be jealous, elephants abstract or biscuits teleological” (a throwback to the era in which philosophers thought that their contribution to science was to educate scientists on elementary errors of logic encouraged by their sloppy use of language). Dawkins’s main point was that one can understand the logic of natural selection by imagining that the genes are agents executing strategies to make more copies of themselves. This is very different from imaging natural selection as a process that works toward the survival of the group or species or the harmony of the ecosystem or planet. Indeed, as Dawkins argued in The Extended Phenotype, the selfish-gene stance in many ways offers a more perspicuous and less distorting lens with which to view natural selection than the logically equivalent alternative in which natural selection is seen as maximising the inclusive fitness of individuals. Dawkins’s use of intentional, mentalistic expression was extended in later writings in which he alluded to animals ’ knowing or remembering the past environments of their lineage, as when a camouflaged animal could be said to display a knowledge of its ancestors’ environments on its skin.

The proper domain of mentalistic language, one might think, is the human mind, but its application there has not been without controversy either. During the reign of behaviourism in psychology in the middle decades of the 20th century, it was considered as erroneous to attribute beliefs, desires, and emotions to humans as it would be to genes, atoms, elephants or biscuits. Mentalistic concepts, being unobservable and subjective, were considered as unscientific as ghosts and fairies and were to be eschewed in favour of explaining behaviour directly in terms of an organism’s current stimulus situation and its past history of associations among stimuli and rewards. Since the cognitive revolution, this taboo has been lifted, and psychology profitably explains intelligent behaviour in terms of beliefs and desires. This allows it to tap into the world of folk psychology (which still has more predictive power when it comes to day-to-day behaviour than any body of scientific psychology) while still grounding it in the mechanistic explanation of computational theory.

In defending his use of mentalistic language in biological explanation, Dawkins has been meticulous in explaining that he does not impute conscious intent to genes, nor does he attribute to them the kind of foresight and flexible cleverness we are accustomed to in humans. His definitions of “selfishness”, “altruism”, “spite”, and other traits ordinarily used for humans is entirely behaviouristic, he notes, and no harm will come if one remembers that these terms are mnemonics for technical concepts rather than direct attributions of the human traits.

I sometimes wonder, though, whether caveats about the use of mentalistic vocabulary in biology are stronger than they need to be — whether there is an abstract sense in which we can literally say that genes are selfish, that they try to replicate, that they know about their past environments, and so on. Now of course we have no reason to believe that genes have conscious experience, but a dirty secret of modern science is that we have no way of explaining the fact that humans have conscious experience either (conscious experience in the sense of raw first-person subjective awareness — the distinction between conscious and unconscious processes, and the nature of self-consciousness, are entirely tractable scientific topics). No one has really explained why it feels like something to be a hunk of neural tissue processing information in certain complex patterns. So even in the case of humans, our use of mentalistic terms does not depend on a commitment on how to explain the subjective aspects of the relevant states, but only on their functional role within a chain of computations.

Taking this to its logical conclusion, it seems to me that if information-processing gives us a good explanation for the states of knowing and wanting that are embodied in the hunk of matter called a human brain, there is no principled reason to avoid attributing states of knowing and wanting to other hunks of matter. To be specific, nothing prevents us from seeking a generic characterisation of “knowing” (in terms of the storage of usable information) that would embrace both the way in which people know things (in their case, in the patterns of synaptic connectivity in brain tissue) and the ways in which the genes know things (presumably in the sequence of bases in their DNA). Similarly, we could frame an abstract characterisation of “trying” in terms of negative feedback loops, that is, a causal nexus consisting of repeated or continuous operations, a mechanism that is sensitive to the effects of those operations on some state of the environment, and an adjustment process that alters the operation on the next iteration in a direction, thereby increasing the chance that that aspect of the environment will be caused to be in a given state. In the case of the human mind, the actions would be muscle movements, the effects would be detected by the senses, and the adjustments would be made by neural circuitry programming the next iteration of the movement. In the case of the evolution of genes, the actions would be extended phenotypes, the effects would be sensed as differential mortality and fecundity, and the adjustment would be made in terms of the number of descendants resulting in the next generation.

This characterisation of beliefs and desires in terms of information rather than physical incarnation may overarch not only life and mind but other intelligent systems such as machines and societies. By the same token it would embrace the various forms of intelligence implicit in the bodies of animals and plants, which we would not want to attribute either to fully human cogitation nor to the monomaniacal agenda of replication characterising the genes. When the coloration of a viceroy butterfly fools the butterfly’s predators by mimicking that of a more noxious monarch butterfly, there is a kind of intelligence being manifest. But its immediate goal is to fool the predator rather than replicate the genes, and its proximate mechanism is the overall developmental plan of the organism rather than the transcription of a single gene.

In other words the attribution of mentalistic states such as knowing and trying can be hierarchical. The genes, in order to effect their goal of making copies of themselves, can help to build an organ whose goal is to fool a predator. The human mind is another intelligent mechanism built as part of the intelligent agenda of the genes, and it is the seat of a third (and the most familiar) level of intelligence: the internal simulation of possible behaviours and their anticipated consequences that makes our intelligence more flexible and powerful than the limited forms implicit in the genes or in the bodies of plants and animals. Inside the mind, too, we find a hierarchy of sub-goals (to make a cup of coffee, put coffee grounds in the coffeemaker; to get coffee grounds, grind the beans; to get the beans, find the package; if there is no package, go to the store; and so on).

Computer scientists often visualise hierarchies of goals as a stack, in which a program designed to achieve some goal often has to accomplish a sub-goal as a means to its end, whereupon it “pushes down” to an appropriate sub-routine, and then “pops” back up when the sub-routine has accomplished the sub-goal. The sub-routine, in turn, can call a sub-routine of its own to accomplish an even smaller and more specialised sub-goal. (The stack image comes from a memory structure that keeps track of which sub-routine called which other sub-routine, and works like a spring-loaded stack of cafeteria trays.) In this image, the best laid plans of mice and men are the bottom layers of the stack, and above them is the intelligence implicit in their bodies and genes, with the topmost goal being the replication of genes that makes up the core of natural selection.

It would take a good philosopher to forge bulletproof characterisations of “intelligence”, “goal”, “want”, “try”, “know”, “selfish”, “think”, and so on, that would embrace minds, robots, living bodies, genes and other intelligent systems. (It would take an even better one to figure out how to reintroduce subjective experience into this picture when it comes to human and animal minds.) But the promise that such a characterisation is possible — that we can sensibly apply mentalistic terms to biology without shudder quotes — is one of Dawkins’s legacies. If so, we would have a deep explanation of our own minds, in which parochial activities like our own thinking and wanting would be seen as manifestations of more general and abstract phenomena.

The idea that life and mind are in some ways manifestations of a common set of principles can enrich the understanding of both. But it also mandates not confusing the two manifestations — not forgetting what it is (a gene? an entire organism? the mind of a person?) that knows something or wants something, or acts selfishly. I suspect that the biggest impediment to accepting the insights of evolutionary biology in understanding the human mind is in people’s tendency to confuse the various entities to which a given mentalistic explanation may be applied. One example is the common tendency to assume that Dawkins’s portrayal of “selfish genes” implies that organisms in general, and people in particular, are ruthlessly egoistic and self-serving. In fact nothing in the selfish-gene view predicts that this should be so. Selfish genes are perfectly compatible with selfless organisms, since the genes’ goal of selfishly replicating themselves can be implemented via the sub-goal of building organisms that are wired to do unselfish things such as being nice to relatives, extending favors in certain circumstances, flaunting their generosity in other circum- stances, and so on. (Indeed much of The Selfish Gene consists of explanations of how the altruism of organisms is a consequence of the selfishness of genes.) Another example of this confusion is the claim that socio-biology is refuted by the many things people do that don’t help to spread their genes, such as adopting children or using contraception. In this case the confusion is between the motive of genes to replicate themselves (which does exist) and the motive of people to spread their genes (which doesn’t). Genes effect their goal of replication via the sub-goal of wiring people with goals of their own, but replication per se need not be among those sub-sub-goals: it’s sufficient for people to seek sex and to nurture their children. In the environment in which our ancestors were selected, people pursuing those goals automatically helped the relevant genes to pursue theirs (since sex tended to lead to babies), but when the environment changed (such as when we invented contraception) the causal chains that used to make sub-goals bring about superordinate goals were no longer in operation.

Edited extract from Richard Dawkins: How a Scientist Changed the Way We Think edited by Alan Grafen and Mark Ridley, published on March 16 by OUP, £12.99, offer £11.69 (in p&p)

Couple of cool science blogs

Was directed to the hpb, etc. blog, which I really enjoyed and highly recommend to the scientifically literate. There’s even a recommended reading list along the right-hand column if you want (as I do!) to improve your state of scinetific literacy. The blog deals with the very interesting interface of philosophy and biology. And I now find I’ve got lots of reading to do!

The site that recommended hpb to me is also worth checking out: Gene Expression is a less formal blog dealing with many of the same issues, with contemporary social events and religion often cropping up as well.


More on Seed

This, I thought, was very well-reasoned. Unfortunately, the Seed folks would never give it a moment’s thought because it comes from a quarter they regard as “politicized.”

Seeds of Doubt
by Brandon Keim

One of the more interesting publications to debut in recent years is SEED, a slickly produced magazine founded with the intention of exploring, in their words, the “trends and icons that are redefining science’s place in popular culture.” In practice, this means a determinedly edgy editorial aesthetic and lots of artsy black-and-white photographs of skinny models in designer jeans and tight shirts.

SEED’s editors certainly have a keen sensibility for the permeation of our lives by the products and ideas of science, and a knack for making them accessible to the 18 to 34 year old demographic upon whom the hopes of society’s marketers are bestowed, and whose tastes and views constitute the popular culture of our youth-driven society. It was thus a matter of particular interest when, in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the ‘discovery’ of DNA’s three-dimensional structure, James Watson made an appearance on the cover of SEED’s March/April edition.

In the photograph, Watson relaxes on a stool in front of a studio photographer’s screen, ostensibly in the moments before the shoot begins; he is attended by a fetching blonde makeup artist in leather pants, and on the floor before him is a sycophantic young man gazing reverentially upwards. The image is insightful. Watson is, and has almost always been, far less of a scientist than a proselytizer, a salesman — an icon. Unfortunately, one of SEED’s flaws is an unquestioning acceptance of the logic of celebrity, and the suspension of critical rigor towards those who have attained it. Readers are treated to a typically glowing account of Watson, one which focuses with some insight on the phenomenon of his celebrity and self-promotion, but leaves untouched both the origins of his sucess and the actual science upon which his career — and, simultaneously, modern genetics — was founded.

The standard mythology of Watson and Crick, repeated consistently during the anniversary coverage, venerates them as a pair of visionary micronauts, a Lewis and Clark of the cell. However, a number of their colleagues deserved just as much credit — most prominently, Rosalind Franklin, whose x-ray photographs of DNA defined the shape of the double helix,
and researchers at King’s College in London, who suggested that the strands of the helix ran in opposite directions. Without them, and without the repeated corrections of patient and forbearing colleagues, the efforts of Watson and Crick would have gone nowhere.

Of course, their ‘achievements’ would not have been rewarded with half a century of the highest honors our civilization offers without the disproportionate importance subsequently attributed to DNA — its endowment “with mystical powers like the narcotic soma of Hindu ritual”. So
wrote Richard Lewontin, a contributor to this issue, in a recent New York Review of Books commentary on Watson’s latest book.

These “narcotic” effects are efficiently summarized in SEED’s thematic centerpiece, a list of fifty DNA-based ideas “that have shaped our identity, our culture and the world as we know it.” The first item on the list, entitled “The New Soul”, explains that “‘Soul’ is being ousted from our lexicon by ‘DNA’ as the new and improved tag for that ethereal x-factor.” Following the dismissal of our spiritual self-conception is a wildly inaccurate description of prenatal genetic testing as a “crystal ball” of uncontested clarity; the claim that “understanding DNA may one day allow us to write our genetic future”; an assertion that an avant-garde portrait composed of DNA provides “instructions on how to remake the sitter”; and the bizarre statement that the “dominant alphabet” of the human race “is changing from 1s and 0s” of computer coding “to As, Ts, Cs and Gs”.

All in all, it’s a comprehensive review of genetic reductionism — what Stuart Newman, who in this issue discusses how the once-fertile area of systems biology was ignored because of our obsession with genes, calls “the twentieth century notion that genes represent a privileged level of explanation.” He is joined by the aforementioned Mr. Lewontin, who examines the underappreciated complexity of cellular machinery and delivers a stinging indictment of genetic manipulation’s failures. Taken together, and in conjunction with the critique of so-called DNA self-replication, put forward in our last issue by Barry Commoner, they are welcome counters to the scientific and popular misconceptions that have been repeated so frequently of late.

But while the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of DNA’s discovery are, like all such nniversaries, rituals of immediate focus, they also encourage us to contemplate the scope of history and time, especially in regard to science; and there is nothing so common in the history of science as universal theories which rise to prominence and are soon swept away, the contributions of their advocates placed in proper perspective. In another fifty years, perhaps, we will say the same of Watson and Crick, and the importance that is now ascribed to our contemporary notions of genetics.



Seed magazine & scienceblogs

Back to Seed Magazine. My comment about Seed “trying too hard to be hip” is actually a big caveat for me. This problem goes to the identity of the magazine.

The purpose of the magazine, it seems to me, is to help build a community of the scientifically literate.

But the effort seems destined to fail if they envision that happening through a magazine that one commenter called “a Maxim for science.”

Maxim is essentially a well-done magazine for male morons. What lessons is Seed supposed to draw from this quarter?

And it isn’t that the commentator who brought up Maxim is off-base. He has identified precisely what the problem with the magazine is: it’s trying to bring together an intellectual community with an anti-intellectual instrument. The contradiction is written all over the magazine.

The thing is that what they’re trying to pull off hasn’t been done before. To my knowledge, there has never been a widely accepted voice for/by/of the scientifically literate. What Maxim pulled off was easy by comparison: cut the claptrap and give ’em some cleavage. A time-honored formula that need only be updated.

How do you properly make science seem “cool and relevant and edgy?”

My first suggestion would be to not make ostentatious efforts to be cool and relevant and edgy. Go for simple, straightforward and minimalistic. Don’t overcommit to any particular field of study, group of people or style. Be true to the scientific spirit and experiment in an open-ended fashion. In other words: feel your way forward.

And, for God’s sake, don’t run long articles with big blocks of text faced by incredibly distracting graphics, or intersperse various textual elements randomly with graphics. Short attention spans may be something you have to live with, but you shouldn’t be in the business of enforcing them.

These are all lesson already learned by Wired. And Seed doesn’t have the luxury of repeating those mistakes. Wired had a lot of dumbass millenarianism behind it (remember cyber____, e____ and virtual ______ till you were ready to barf?).

Seed and science will have to show their relevance not just reap the rewards of irrational exuberance. So away with the trappings of pseudo-hipness and cut to the stories that will change the way people think about the world. Away with the Steven Pinker worship and let’s have let’s have some hard, critical looks at science.

Let the trappings grow up organically out of the core concerns of the magazine. You are building a culture not a clique.

Will Seed be able to pull it off? Maybe. But it’s going to take some truly daring modesty and caution.

Science itself has been hurt of late by some of the same tendencies toward shallowness and showiness Seed has displayed, and the troubles surrounding evolution are what we reap from this.

For instance, much evolutionary psychology is, quite simply, bad science, and it’s been long tolerated because it takes natural selection as a given. But it is long since past time that science stopped counting the display of appropriate allegiance as a scientific credential. Science should be, first and foremost, a highly self-critical endeavor. So far, Seed gives little reason to think that’ll happen in its pages.



Seed magazine–which you probably have never heard of, but should have a look at now that I’ve let you in on it–has launched a whole slew of science blogs.

Seed looks to be an outgrowth of the whole “Third Culture” movement (which you can check out at The Edge).

So far, the magazine has tried a bit too hard to be hip, and has been a bit too chummy and cogratulatory with the scientists the Edge folk have always been happy with (Stephen Pinker, for instance), and a bit too self-congratulatory it taking up its enlightened social position.

But the blogs may lead to something a bit more open, and quite a bit better, more later.