Thursday, December 22, 2005

Review of Fiorina book on culture war rhetoric

Fiorina: Culture War rhetoric arises from an ideologically polarized political class

Since I think it is relevant to the politics of the ID issue that I've been discussing today, I am copying the text of my Amazon review of Morris Fiorina's book on culture war in American to here. For example, Bill Dembski (an Intelligent Design author) frequently states that culture war is important to us and demands that ID be made a political issue. Fiorina's argument would make his motivation seem rather hollow and parochial.

Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America (Great Questions in Politics Series) by Morris P. FiorinaEdition: Paperback
Price: $14.00

Political class is polarized, but the rest of us can think!, November 16, 2004

This is a very brief and tightly argued book of enormous relevance to us in 2004. It makes the following remarkable points:

(1) On close inspection of individual opinions, the vast majority of the electorate in the U.S. are *moderate*, not radically polarized into liberals and conservatives. That is, most of us are, as we would like to believe, capable of thinking independently for ourselves rather than strictly along party ideological lines.

We are a _closely_divided_ nation, as reflected in the very close recent elections, however we are NOT a _*deeply*_divided_ nation. That is, we are not really a nation of two distinct warring camps and a couple of swing states as the media sometimes present it for dramatic purposes. Fiorina sugests that we are actually something close to an ambivalent nation which divides itself in poltitical matters because we have no choice when presented with highly divided options.

(2) The American public has *not* become dramatically polarized even over such hot topics as abortion. Rather, relatively small differences among us have been magnified by the rhetoric used to present the issues to us.

(3) The political choices we have are determined by a distinct class of politicians, party activists, and interest group leaders, who *have* become increasingly polarized over moral and religious ideology as well as economic ideology.

(4) A large part of the polarization of the political class has been the result of the realignment of the South, such that republicans aligned aggressive foreign policy with hostility to the welfare state, and democrats aligned antiwar sentiment with support of those at risk. This is represented particular well by the "gender gap" which widened at the same time this realignment or tuning of the ideologies of the parties was taking place.

Fiorina suggests that when Bill Clinton once said early in his presidency that he was Pro-Choice, but against abortion, most Americans knew what he meant, that most of us, liberal or conservative, do not want to legislate morality for others, even though we have a clear sense of what is right and wrong. Fiorina also points out for example that most 80% of us believe that abortion should be legal under some conditions (even if wrong), and illegal under others. The extremes at each end which promote unconditional rights for unborn babies or for mothers are roughly the 10% tail at either side of a normal curve.

Finally, he also provides data showing that the averaged opinions of self-identified liberals and conservatives regarding abortion differ only regarding under what specific conditions they think abortion should be legal, not the legality of abortion in general.

The result is that the supposed "culture war" is really a war between increasingly ideologically polarized political parties and their activists who arent really even aware of each others reasoning, with most of us in the middle getting hit by friendly fire from both sides, but being forced to choose between them.

The bottom line for Fiorina's argument here is that we are a nation currently creating unneccessary internal conflicts and indulging in "culture war" polarized issues like gay marriage or unconditional rights of various kinds that are really of concern to a relatively small and unrepresentative number of us. They are sold to us by political parties and the media because of their drama rather than their relative importance. It's hard for me to look at the political ads for either of the current candidates in 2004 without nodding agreement on this.

Our political system provides us with ideological extremism on both sides, and seems to have no desire or ability to change itself, whereas most of us caught in it would usually prefer pragmatic and non-ideological solutions to issues that address larger numbers of us.

I read this at the same time at Juergensmeyer's book "Terror in the Mind of God," and it is chilling how much the "culture war" among the political elites comes to resemble the "cosmic war" of good and evil that Juergensmeyer theorizes leads to real violence under some conditions.

If Fiorina is right, we may not really have a (popular) culture war at all, but we could create one if it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as we come to accept it uncritically. If Fiornia had a solution for this centrally important problem, this book would merit 6 or 7 stars. However, just by pointing it out so clearly, it merits the highest rating I can give it.

Please read this important and timely book.

BrainEthics: No ID theory in Penn classes
Santorum's Response to Dover is Reassuring (and I think honest)

I have to give Pa. Senator Rick Santorum a lot of credit. According to an article in today's Philadelphia Inquirer, when he read through the testimony of the Kitzmiller "Intelligent Design" case and recognized the degree to which the proponents were religiously motivated, he no longer said he was in support of the case.

That reinforces the feeling I got from reading his book, "It Takes a Family" that he is sincere in his conservative political beliefs in general and not a religious extremist willing to lie to promote a cause as some of the folks at the Discovery Institute truly appear to be. From reading the testimony and responses to the trial, I've gotten the sense that there are a variety of different strands among those folks, from reasonably honest scholars trying to promote what they think will someday become a real scientific movement (I suspect that Behe and possibly Dembski fall into that category), to others with almost no scholarly integrity who simply want to wage culture war on secular philosophies like scientific naturalism above all else.

It is good to see honest conservatives who respect the different traditions, both religious and secular, differing with the extremist groups and coming closer to exposing them for the divisive, culture-war-obsessed parochial thinkers that they are. (That's just my interpretation of course).

The Inquirer article makes a very big deal out of the significance of ID as a re-election issue for Santorum, how his opponents are quoting him to show how he has "flip-flopped" on the issue.

Right now, from the quotes, I don't see it. I see quotes being taken out of context. There is a consistent pattern in all of them that Santorum, like many conservatives believes that:

1. ID is a theory that is compatible with the notion of a Creator but is also at least potentially and legitimately scientific

2. If ID is legitimate science, it shouldn't be legislated into curricula because of religious and political motivations but accepted by scientists themselves for evidential reasons within the life sciences

3. Scientists and educators have been loathe to accept alternatives to orthodox neo-Darwinism.

Now, I disagree with (1) to some extent, however I agree it is possible in principle, I think that (2) is absolutely dead on right, and that (3) is regrettably true to some degree.

I think the only place where Santorum actually flip-flopped on this issue is that he changed his mind that (2) was a neccessary evil in order to push past the problems caused by (3). Conservatism within science, I think even most conservatives would agree in principle, is best met by the promotion of new research from within science rather than legislation from without. ID has consistently been misrepresented as being a movement within science, when it most certainly is not. The testimony made that fact so well known to some of us much more obvious to others, and Santorum is one of the people reacting to that evidence.

I admire that wisdom even though I still can't quite see how ID or any other form of dualism could somehow morph into a form compatible with scientific naturalism and testability. The underlying philosophy of science is really a minor point compared to the kinds of deception that have been perpetrated by extremists in the name of culture war.

If Santorum is sincere, and I think he is at this point, he was as misled as most people as to what the ID case was about from the Discovery Institute perspective. They are not interested in teaching controversy over evolution, which is already done in science when it is taught properly, but in undermining legitimate scientific theories and replacing them with religiously rooted alternatives that aren't seen as "materialistic" and therefore less compatible with orthodox religious tradition.

Maybe I'm naive, but I'd like to think Santorum honestly didn't realize who he was in bed with, metaphorically speaking, when he voiced his support of the ID movement because he honestly but mistakenly believed the culture war propaganda that science was taken over by some sort of anti-Christian liberal elite atheist conspiracy and was no longer basing its theories on the richness of empirical data and full scientific creativity. Those of us who have a real interest in biology know how vital and dynamic it really is, and how scientifically productive, and it's good that the message is starting to get out in drips and drabs among conservatives.

Like the verdict of the court trial, the Santorum article today was good news to most of us that wisdom and common sense still sometimes prevail over extremism and political partisanship.

kind regards,

Todd

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The verdict for the Dover School Board case on "Intelligent Design" is now in.

See: http://www2.ncseweb.org/wp/?p=98#more-98

The judge's opinion found (correctly, imo) that the case was essentially unsuccessful activism against the establishment clause of the 1st ammendment of the U.S. Constitution because ID is disguised religion being forced onto educators as part of the curriculum in science classes.

As I read the opinion:

1. ID is an untestable explanation which cannot be untangled from its religious creationist sources,

2. Weaknesses in evolutionary theory do not provide support for ID as an alternative scientific theory,

3. The ID proponents who may have sincere and bona fide scholarly intentions have however repeatedly lied about their motivations for supporting the movement and therefore place their loyalty to the movement above their integrity as scholars,

4. The bedrock claim by the ID proponents that evolutionary biology is antithetical to a belief in the existence of a supreme being and to religion in general is utterly false.

Therefore, on 1st ammendment grounds, the Dover School Board was permanently enjoined from maintaining the ID Policy in any school within the Dover Area School District, and from requiring teachers to denigrate or disparage the scientific theory of evolution, and from requiring teachers to refer to a religious, alternative theory known as ID.

My thoughts:

Not only is this ruling consistent with the establishment clause, but my feeling is that this should also be the common sense position of schools other than public schools where science is supposed to be taught competently. There should be no supreme being or intelligent designer entering into science classes, unless the consensus of scientists in that field is that the use such concepts is justified in their theories. As the testimony made clear, the ID proponents are a tiny and idiosyncratic minority of scientists who think in terms of a different tradition than other scientists and envision scientific theories differnently. Materialism is not given equal time in theology classes or catechism, theology should not be automatically given equal time in science classes just for the supposed sake of balance. You are no longer balancing yourself when you reach over to the person next to you for support. The interests of scholarly balance or charity do not require abandoning the core epistemic values of science and its distinct tradition of thinking.

I agree with the judge's opinion on all major points. For all of its variations in the different fields, science is conducted in accordance with a tradition that speaks with a single voice and a single set of epistemic values regarding inquiry into nature. This tradition is what is and should be the content of competently taught science classes, whether they are in public schools or not. ID is inconsistent with those epistemic values. Any role that research into "Intelligent Design," can play (explanations relying on something having planned nature itself, and explanations that rely on causes from outside of nature, violating physical causal closure of the scientific methodological naturalism) should be in other kinds of classes, not forced upon science classes by political or legal pressure as affirmative action alternatives. This is not just based on the abstract definition of science as physicalist, but on an observation of what scientists actually do and how they work. When they are speaking as ID proponents, professional technologists are not thinking as scientists in terms of constructing testable predictive hypotheses and testing them when they promote ID. They should certainly have the freedom to pursue those scholarly pursuits without prejudice, but scientists and educators in existing organizations are autonomous experts with their own ethical boards and have the right to decide on what is part of their own tradition and their own fields and what is not. Politicians should not be able to force alternate theories to be taught or to be able to interfere with topics of research in general unless the scientists are themselves doing something illegal.

The central ID argument that the naturalistic tradition of science is unfairly atheistic and therefore that religious explanations should be considered in the interest of religious tolerance is clever and unfortunately appears to be consistent with the way a lot of American conservatives think, but ultimately it is wrongheaded. Patriotism and religious faith are carried too far in emphasizing the moral criteria of loyalty over that of truth in this argument.

In my opinion, even apparently "non-religious" philosophical dualist arguments against materialism are ultimately inconsistent with the way science is and has been practiced for centuries and continues to be practiced, but the ultimate criteria should be their testability. I don't see how they could be tested, but I don't reject the possibility at some point. Notwithstanding, those arguments are not the basis for the ID movement as it now stands, nor do they seem to share the same motivations. They are another way in which some people have wrongly seen science as overly restrictive and want to expand it to be consistent with more intuitive ways of looking at nature.

To me, the reason science works as well as it does in certain domains of thinking is that it opposes our intuition in various ways, letting us get past it using other kinds of tools. That's why it is important that it remain autonomous as a domain of inquiry and not be pressured to conform with other traditions for social and political reasons.

By the same reasoning, neither do atheist radicals like Richard Dawkins who see no value whatsoever in religion speak for science. The constitution unambiguously protects freedom of the practice of religion. Science leaves little room for the operation of miracles, but it does not deny their possibility, nor the existence of a supreme being, nor is it a religious tradition or equivalent to religious traditions in any meaningful sense.


Saturday, April 16, 2005

A recent exchange on evolution and human nature between myself, Paul Armstrong, and others on Boston.Com boards ...

http://boards.boston.com/n/pfx/forum.aspx?msg=281.27&nav=messages&webtag=bc-news

TS editing note: I've intentionally eliminated some unhelpful responses from people. I also eliminated John Landon's ("nemonemini" -- http://eonix.8m.com/) responses although they have some value. I did this because they are a distraction more than a help to the threads I am most interested in. He sometimes makes good points, but he is so combative that constructive dialog with him is almost impossible. I think he essentially makes two points: (1) he supports a periodic ("Eonic") theory of cultural evolution which is entirely non-Darwinian, and (2) he argues that Darwinian mechanisms "cannot explain human evolution." This second point is problematic because of his systematic refusal to either distinguish biological from cultural evolution or to acknowledge even in principle what natural selection can potentially explain.
Treating his ideas fairly would require a whole separate discussion (and a more reasonable advocate to represent them!).

Here are the selected posts ...

News board
Folder: Ideas
Discussion: Understanding human nature

1 Mar-26 From: BostonDotCom To: ALL
In ''The evolutionary revolutionary,'' Drake Bennett profiles Robert Trivers, who wrote a series of papers in the 1970s that provided the intellectual basis for evolutionary psychology, a discipline which holds that human behaviors from rape to religion are inborn products of evolution. Does natural selection provide the key to understanding human nature? Or do such explanations neglect the importance of culture?


4 Mar-28 From: sabine To: BostonDotCom
Trivers, Pinker and their followers grossly undestimate the power of culture in their explanations of human behavior. Dawkins seems to be allowiing culture back into the picture in his most recent contribution. All three, however, rely heavily on anecdotal data when dealing with homo sapiens (as versus quantifiable evidence in other realms). Bio-reductionism has, I suppose, gained favor due to its association with "real" science and the abject failure of the social sciences to generate a satisfactory pardigm. S.J. Gould's untimely death silenced the most promising voice on these matters. He understood cultural evolution as well or more insightfully than the bulk of current anthropologists, and certainly better than his selectionist peer group.

5 Mar-28 From: jsb To: BostonDotCom
Some thoughts on the Robert Trivers article:

1 What a fascinating guy!

2 The objections I’ve had, as an amateur, to socio-biology, aren’t so much to the subject itself, but to the stupid popularizations, where it quickly becomes just a version of the “Playboy Philosophy”. As if it took Stephen Pinker to discover that tendencies towards adultery are part of human nature. I think Hank Williams discovered that a while ago, without going to Harvard....
An interesting project would be to try to tease out the evolutionary meaning of the very human project of trying to resist the all too human temptations to lie, cheat and steal, etc. In other words, where did this morality come from, that we can’t get away from? Hugh Heffner can just blame it on the Puritans, and say to hell with it, but that’s not really good enough. Puritans, and all other moralists, are products of evolution, too, in some sense, aren't we?

3 The self-deception project: great topic! Sartre wrote some brilliant stuff about it. Trivers’ early version, as presented in the article, isn’t very convincing. He says self-delusion helps you lie more effectively, but:

a. Liars in general aren’t notably self-deluded. The seducer doesn’t believe that he (or she) isn’t already married, and the con-artist doesn’t believe he or she is going to make you rich. The corrupt politician doesn’t believe anything at all. And yet they all lie and deceive pretty successfully.

b. Many self-delusions aren’t about things you lie about to other people. A classic case is when someone like me starts thinking “Hey, the grey hair looks rakish, and from some angles, you wouldn’t even notice the extra thirty (or forty) lbs: basically, I’m still the attractive guy I was twenty (or thirty) years ago. Only smarter.” This common kind of delusion isn’t something you can fool anybody else about, only yourself.

c. So, Trivers is (in the Ideas article, at least) only looking at a small corner of the large realm of self-deception, and a small corner of the large realm of deceiving others, and suggesting there may be interesting overlap in there. Well, maybe so. But there are still the large categories of cynical deceivers, and poor slobs who fool only themselves. So, there are a few more chapters to write in the book of deception. I’m looking forward to reading it.

17 Apr-4 From: toddstark To: BostonDotCom
Asking whether natural selection is "sufficient" or "the answer" to explaining human nature seems to involve a misunderstanding of the concept itself. Selection is a model for explaining the spread of variation. It seems to me that it should be logically obvious that explaining the spread of variation cannot by itself be a complete explanation of the nature of anything. However by the same token, failing to explain how some variation spreads through a population and other variation does not would make us blind to a big part of the picture.

Selection is most probably neccessary and almost certainly not sufficient for the most interesting explanatory tasks relevant to human nature. I think natural selection is an important and perhaps essential tool of analysis for both the genetically inherited aspects of our species, and the elements of culture that we transmit by other means.

Culture evolves just as genomes do, although by different mechanisms. Yet selection still plays a role. Inherited learning mechanisms of a variety of kinds play an important role in individual differences; while economics, cultural heritage, and selection all probably play more important roles in group differences. Sure, there is potentially much merit to periodic and linear theories of history as well, but they aren't neccessarily mutually exclusive with the explanatory power of selection theory and population mathematics.

Two recent thought-provoking books relevant to explaining human behavior in broad terms relevant to cultural or biological evolution ...

Richard Nisbett --> "The Geography of Thought" -- reviews experimental evidence that Nisbett believes shows how the way we live affects what we focus on, which affects the way we think and perceive things in a globally pervasive manner. Shows how the influence of geography, ecology, economics, and social structure influences cognitive processes in important ways not limited to the controversial effects of different languages on cognition. Culture and ecology do matter, and affect our thinking in a fundamental way that a universal model of human cognitive modules might not do justice to.

Boyd and Richerson --> "Not By Genes Alone" -- their model of gene-culture coevolution, showing why culture matters and how it is affected by selection in a different manner than the genome. Also how genes and culture influence each other in both directions. Roughly speaking, a more scientific and less narrow version of the "meme" idea. Again, culture does matter, but not in a way that makes human beings a blank slate.

kind regards,

Todd Stark


18 Apr-5 From: kristier To: BostonDotCom
Natural selection states that only those who are best adapted to their environment will survive and those who have less adapted are more likely to be eliminated. Humans naturally select groups based on characteristics that are similar. This group association is something that is in our nature, just like how we gravitate towards forming our own family groups and social networks. Humans form their own groups and tend to exclude others from their groups and sometimes develop preconcieved notions about these other groups. Group selection can be a good or bad thing, but it all depends on how ones groups treats others outside ones group. Groups that form preconcieved notions about other groups may consider themselves superior or inferior to certain groups. One example would be groups of conflicting ethnicities that will sometimes claim that one group is superior over the other, also known as Social Darwinism. Social Darwinism, which the Nazi's used in WWII, caused groups who believe they are superior to wipe out other groups they consider inferior. Natural Selection can not be prevented. As long as we associate ourselves with others by forming groups, this hierarchy can't be stopped.

19 Apr-5 From: Dr._Paul_Armstrong To: toddstark
Thank you Todd for your input.

If I may make a couple of comments.

I agree that there are other means of evolution, like drift. However, natural selection is a sufficient process by which evolutin can occur, i.e. sufficient, but not necessary. On the other hand, for adaptation and/or speciation, then natural selection is both necessary and sufficient.

Regarding, the origin of variation; it IS NOT natural selection. Natural selection decreases variation. Consider 2 alleles at a locus in a population. One allele is slightly advantageous over the other. Selection will eventually eliminate the less advantageous allele, i.e. decrease variation.

Culture DOES NOT evolve as genomes do. Cultural evolution evolves in a Lamarkian manner, i.e. the passing on of acquired characterisitics. This is precluded in biological evolution.

Finally, memes are in no way like genes (I know you did not claim this, but that is what the memeists contend). In fact, that are not real entities, and therefore are not amenable to scientific experimentation.

Thank you for the references, another is Dennet, Darwin's Dangerous Idea. However, I agree with Stepehn J. Gould's assessment, that cultural evolution is not evolution at all.

For more on the subject from Gould, see;

http://www.stephenjaygould.org/


22 Apr-10 From: peterkirk To: BostonDotCom
To explain religious preferences or acts of crime according to Bennett is to attribute such actions to Natural Selection. By doing so, Bennett's theory undermines and denies human free will. Embracing religion has certainly not been proven to lead to a genetic advantage. Likewise, one does not see single men raping woman out of a "natural selective" need to propagate. While there can be no dismissing the argument that genetic traits survive and are passed from one generation to the next, people still posses a mind, a conscience, and a soul. These factors allow humans to make decisions regarding a rejection of religion or commiting a crime like rape. To act out of reason, and not passion or instinct, is what separates humans from other animals. We are all born with a soul, and we all have a choice.

23 Apr-11 From: toddstark To: Dr._Paul_Armstrong
Paul,

Thank you very much for your comments.

Paul: I agree that there are other means of evolution, like drift. However, natural selection is a sufficient process by which evolutin can occur, i.e. sufficient, but not necessary. On the other hand, for adaptation and/or speciation, then natural selection is both necessary and sufficient.

Todd: I'm a little confused by this. By my understanding, natural selection is not a theory of speciation. This would seem to me to trivialize a lot of important work that has been done to model the reproductive isolation of populations, and a lot of work still to be done.


Paul: Regarding, the origin of variation; it IS NOT natural selection. Natural selection decreases variation. Consider 2 alleles at a locus in a population. One allele is slightly advantageous over the other. Selection will eventually eliminate the less advantageous allele, i.e. decrease variation.


Todd: Again, I agree insofar as natural selection is not a model of the origin of variation, it is a model for the spread of variation.


Paul: Culture DOES NOT evolve as genomes do. Cultural evolution evolves in a Lamarkian manner, i.e. the passing on of acquired characterisitics. This is precluded in biological evolution.


Todd: Certainly, but neither of these statements precludes the Darwinian evolution of culture. The Darwinian mechanism doesn't require a genome nor does it require Mendelian inheritance. Neither is Darwinian evolution precluded by Lamarckian inheritance. For extended discussions, see Boyd and Richerson (Not By Genes Alone), also Peter Corning (Nature's Magic), and Steve Gould's doorstop has much of value to say about the root of the Darwinian evolution vs. its branches. In addition, David Hull has a wonderful example of Darwinian processes in the cultural activity of science in "Science as a Process."

The root is simply that (1) variation arises in a population, (2) that the variation affects its own reproduction, and (3) that the total number of variants is limited in some way.


Paul: Finally, memes are in no way like genes (I know you did not claim this, but that is what the memeists contend). In fact, that are not real entities, and therefore are not amenable to scientific experimentation.

Todd: My opinion is that this isn't entirely true, that there are some cultural variants that are somewhat like genes, however the more important point I want to make is that population models make no assumption that variants must be strictly particulate. I also don't think that cultural variants are themselves replicators in the sense that genes are often considered to be, but this doesn't neccessarily break the natural selection model either.

What matters most, I hope you'll agree, is not whether other mechanisms happen to come into play, but the empirical question of whether selection affects the spread of cultural variants more than the "Lamarkian" guidance does. If so, then we are justified in using natural selection to model the spread of cultural variation, even though it is not the only mechanism in play. Why? ...

One main reason that I find it plausible that natural selection remains a viable factor in cultural evolution is that our cumulative achievements are so much greater than anything that anyone manages to achieve in a single generation. Henry Petroski has a series of books about engineering that point out how much cultural evolution is involved in something as simple as a paper clip or a pencil. We easily lose track of how much cultural variation has accumulated prior to the invention of something useful. The time frame over which useful cultural innovation actually happens is what makes it plausible to me that selection has an important effect.

As to whether cultural evolution is Darwinian, I admit that the jury is still out, but I insist that the idea should not be rejected out of hand just because simplistic versions of the idea have been abused or because cultural variants are very different from genes. The potential of applying population models to cultural innovation is great and the idea potentially quite testable.

kind regards,

Todd


24 Apr-11 From: toddstark To: peterkirk
I don't put much trust in sociobiological models that ignore the seemingly obvious fact that we often systematically do things that violate our own reproductive fitness. If genetic fitness were a good predictor of human behavior, we would be using it in a positive way as our behavioral science, rather than spending most of our time trying to explain the cases where it doesn't apply, like nationalism, moralistic punishment, suicide cults, and other phenomena that defy direct explanations based on the adaptation of small bands of hunter-gatherers to the Pleistocene environment. Trivers' reciprocal altruism concept works beautifully for small band reciprocal behavior, but fails completely for large group behavior where we cannot possibly track or manage the neccessary relationships for reciprocation.

That said, I don't agree with the "free will" argument either.

Mechanical models don't negate free will because they have nothing to do with free will, they are from a completely different tradition of reasoning. One is causal explanation, the other is folk psychology. It isn't adequate to say that because a mechanical model violates the intuitions of folk psychology that this proves that the mechanical model must be wrong. Of course formal causal models violate our folk psychological intuitions, that's exactly why they work so well (when they do). They allow us to predict things that our intuitions fail at. They provide us with deductive validity for our theories.

The folk psychological notion of free will is essentially an uncaused cause, whereas the scientific notion of cognitive choice is something closer a complex loop of causation. For example, so long as there is some way in which the frames and goals of reasoning can be influenced by information, there is no reason why "free will" cannot be represented in principle by information processing models. To say that mechanical explanations of human behavior are wrong simply because they don't allow for uncaused causes is circular reasoning in my opinion. The rejection of uncaused causes is quite deliberate and tremendously useful in science.

There is nothing about Darwinian explanation that requires all human behavior to directly serve the interests of our genes. Much of our behavior is demonstrably maladaptive from the perspective of reproductive fitness.

The tradeoffs involved in learning and performance probably prevent a powerful general purpose learning mechanism from evolving, or from being particularly useful to us even if it does evolve. However this doesn't prevent us from evolving information processing mechanisms and biases that serve what we now think of as our "free will."

The idea that we choose "freely" is rather more illusion than reality as it turns out. People rarely adopt a religion or political or social attitude that isn't predictable from their history and circumstances. Of course it makes sense to them, so they don't neccessarily view it as being coerced into that choice, and they say it is "freely made." Saying that people "freely" chose what we expect them to choose seems to me to beg the question of what "choosing freely" means. It appears that there is no substantive difference between the idea that our choices are the result of a complex deterministic causal model and the idea that they our choices are the result of "reasoning freely" from predictable conditions.

For the most part, it seems to me that criminal behavior can be explained in terms of impulsiveness of various kinds, leading us to violate the norms that normally constrain us by means of legal coercion, moral emotions, and moralistic punishment.

kind regards,

Todd

To explain religious preferences or acts of crime according to Bennett is to attribute such actions to Natural Selection. By doing so, Bennett's theory undermines and denies human free will. Embracing religion has certainly not been proven to lead to a genetic advantage. Likewise, one does not see single men raping woman out of a "natural selective" need to propagate. While there can be no dismissing the argument that genetic traits survive and are passed from one generation to the next, people still posses a mind, a conscience, and a soul. These factors allow humans to make decisions regarding a rejection of religion or commiting a crime like rape. To act out of reason, and not passion or instinct, is what separates humans from other animals. We are all born with a soul, and we all have a choice

25 Apr-12 From: Dr._Paul_Armstrong To: peterkirk
I presume you mean Dennett ("Darwin's Dangerous Idea") and not Bennett (Wayne Bennett from Rockland High School).

Many evolutionary biologists would agree with you. We are uncomfortable with the idea of an adaptive explanation for behavioral and cultural characteristics. We are not sure that they are testable, and therefore are not sure they are science.

An example of a good book that ends up being misleading to the educated lay person is Diamond's "The Third Chimp" where he induces these adaptive explanations for all sorts of human behavior, and I just cannot agrre with some of what he purports.

Regarding rape: if rape was a successful reproductive strategy, i.e. it would increase the fitness of the raper, then we would see more of it. For some number of reasons, it is not.

I don't agree with your last statements. How would one know that they're not acting insinctively. There's just no way to test that, nor the following statements about humans possessing a soul.

I'm a scientist, and evolutionary biology is a science, so I suggest we leave theology out of it.


26 Apr-12 From: Dr._Paul_Armstrong To: toddstark
Todd: I'm a little confused by this. By my understanding, natural selection is not a theory of speciation. This would seem to me to trivialize a lot of important work that has been done to model the reproductive isolation of populations, and a lot of work still to be done.

Paul: Natural selection is the process discovered by Darwin (and coincidentally, Wallace) by which the origin of species arise. So, in a Darwinian sense, it's not a theory of speciation, but the process by which speciation occurs. I.e., the source of biodiversity.

Todd: Again, I agree insofar as natural selection is not a model of the origin of variation, it is a model for the spread of variation.

Paul: If you're talking about the "spread" of biodiversity, then I now understand what you mean.

Todd: Certainly, but neither of these statements precludes the Darwinian evolution of culture. The Darwinian mechanism doesn't require a genome nor does it require Mendelian inheritance. Neither is Darwinian evolution precluded by Lamarckian inheritance. For extended discussions, see Boyd and Richerson (Not By Genes Alone), also Peter Corning (Nature's Magic), and Steve Gould's doorstop has much of value to say about the root of the Darwinian evolution vs. its branches. In addition, David Hull has a wonderful example of Darwinian processes in the cultural activity of science in "Science as a Process."

The root is simply that (1) variation arises in a population, (2) that the variation affects its own reproduction, and (3) that the total number of variants is limited in some way.

Paul: I think that, yes, it does. Darwinian evolution by natural selection requires 1) variation at a trait, 2) that trait to be heritable, 3) that more individuals are born than the environment can support so that natural selection can occur at that trait. Culture does not fall into this explanation (much like Lamarkianism) so it cannot be explained by evolutionary theory. I.e., culture does not evolve.

Regarding memes, I won't get into that discussion, since their existence is invented and their evolution is precluded by my explanation above. They are merely an analogy of genes, and a poor analogy at that.

Selection, in and of itself, is nothing without variation and heritability. Consider a population of mice living in and around a dump contaminated with a toxic substance that leaves 10% od the mice with no right back leg. This is a developmental defect and is not heritable. These mice are at a selective disadvantage but this selection is meaningless without heritability. Just so with culture. Cultural traits can change, be lost, be picked up again and not affect the lineages that have them, because they are not heritable, they are learned. So, without affect the lineages, the GENETIC LINEAGES, then, evolutionarily, they are blind.

Todd: One main reason that I find it plausible that natural selection remains a viable factor in cultural evolution is that our cumulative achievements are so much greater than anything that anyone manages to achieve in a single generation.

Paul: There is no endgame, no progression, in evolution. Progressin is an artefact, because we HAD to start out knowing less than we know today. Organismically, we had to start out simpler, as single cells, or the precursors to single cells. Therefore it LOOKS like life progresses from simpler to more complex, but that's an artefact of life's origins, independent of evolution.

Todd: As to whether cultural evolution is Darwinian, I admit that the jury is still out, but I insist that the idea should not be rejected out of hand...

Paul: I won't, because there is behavior that is testable, heritable, predictable and Darwinian. However, I will insist on any credible theory of cultural evolution or the evolution of cultural traits show how these traits have a genetic component, else, it's sociology and NOT evolutionary biology.

Todd, Thanks for your comments.


27 Apr-12 From: Dr._Paul_Armstrong To: toddstark
If I may intercede with some comments:

Todd: Trivers' reciprocal altruism concept works beautifully for small band reciprocal behavior, but fails completely for large group behavior where we cannot possibly track or manage the neccessary relationships for reciprocation.

Paul: This is true in today's society. But, what if these traits did not evolve in today's society. Have you heard of the 'ghosts of evolution past?' Perhaps, when these altruistic traits evolved, humans lived in small isolated bands of closely related individuals, with little migration between groups. Then, one could envision the evolution of altruism explained by inclusive fitness. This trait could have been retained even though our culture has changed. Consider how fast our cultures have changed relative to evolutionary time scales. We probably have many traits evolved during a time which, or a culture that is very different evolutionarily than the one we live in today.

29 12:06 PM From: toddstark To: Dr._Paul_Armstrong
Paul: However, I will insist on any credible theory of cultural evolution or the evolution of cultural traits show how these traits have a genetic component, else, it's sociology and NOT evolutionary biology.

Todd responds ...

A light dawns. Ok, this finally helps me make sense of why we have been going back and forth arguing over things we seem to agree about in principle.

Yes, a Darwinian theory of cultural evolution would indeed be a Darwinian sociology, not evolutionary biology. (Nor would it be a form of "Social Darwinism," since that was not a scientific theory but a political ideology based on competition between individuals or groups rather than culture). It would have to be consistent with evolutionary biology, but I agree that it would be confusing to say it was the same field because it is not based on genes, nor neccessarily any other discrete particulate unit of inheritance, it is Darwinian only in the sense that it is based upon the core principles of natural selection and therefore likely that some different form of population mathematics could potentially be useful in helping to model its spread.

Thank you very much for the help clarifying these points.

kind regards,

Todd


30 12:20 PM From: toddstark To: Dr._Paul_Armstrong
Todd: Trivers' reciprocal altruism concept works beautifully for small band reciprocal behavior, but fails completely for large group behavior where we cannot possibly track or manage the neccessary relationships for reciprocation.

Paul: This is true in today's society. But, what if these traits did not evolve in today's society. Have you heard of the 'ghosts of evolution past?' Perhaps, when these altruistic traits evolved, humans lived in small isolated bands of closely related individuals, with little migration between groups. Then, one could envision the evolution of altruism explained by inclusive fitness. This trait could have been retained even though our culture has changed. Consider how fast our cultures have changed relative to evolutionary time scales. We probably have many traits evolved during a time which, or a culture that is very different evolutionarily than the one we live in today.

I think one main reason that many evolutionary theorists assume that Pleistocene humans lived in small bands is that it seems to make at least some sense of our social nature, as you suggest. However, I just don't see how living in small bands could explain nationalism, the psychology of religion, or much of human social psychology. I suspect that various fundamental aspects of human social behavior, such as role-taking, mass "strong" reciprocity, and the massive alignments of social and political movements are difficult or even impossible to explain in terms of adaptations to life in small bands. The hypothesis that Pleistocene humans may have lived in linked tribal organizations of thousands, (similar to the Plains Indians) is probably equally consistent with the available evidence as is the small band hypothesis.

If our social behavior is an adaptation to life in tribes of thousands rather than small bands, additional mechanisms become plausible to explain some of the things like nationalism that currently make little sense (to me) as some extension of a "ghost" of small band behavior. If people adapted to distinguish one small band from another, why should they suddenly see themselves as members of the same nation or religion as enormous numbers of others and act on that identity?

Ignoring the social reality isn't the right choice for evolutionary biology, explaining it is the right choice, and that probably requires some form of co-evolutoonary theory between genes and culture, where the undeniable role of culture in our social behavior can be better understood.

kind regards,

Todd

A candidate for a "sign of the times ..." Posted by Hello

Friday, April 15, 2005

Review of "America's Crisis of Values," by Wayne Baker.

Thought-provoking and timely synthesis, April 15, 2005

The best thing about this book is that it raises a number of very profound and important questions in a way that makes you think deeply about them. If you have any interest at all in what insight scientific reasoning can bring into large scale human behavior, this book will truly make you think.

Rather than the usual political diatribe, this is: (1) an exceptional objective summary of what is special about the United States drawing from a wealth of previous work, (2) a wide-ranging and balanced analysis of the widespread American perception of waging an internal culture war at the turn of the millennia, and (3) a speculative and potentially somewhat testable (but largely untested) cyclical theory of cultural crises in general as a product of both endogenous and exogenous factors.

Baker finds no empirical support for the theory that American traditional values have diminished over time, and support for only a loose coupling of our polarized moral orientations (which he refers to as absolutism and relativism) and our religious beliefs and social attitudes. In this context, absolutism simply refers to the core idea that ultimate authority must come from a transcendental and perhaps eternal source, while relativism is the core idea that authority resides in the individual.

Baker finds that our political parties are highly and increasingly polarized but that when it comes to particular issues, Americans of all stripes tend to share more values and attitudes than they differ about, in spite of also being a mixture of absolutists and relativists. This is because he finds that our moral orientation is only loosely coupled to our religious beliefs and social attitudes. People can have the same religious beliefs yet differ in social attitudes, and vice versa, and similarly for our moral orientations and our religious beliefs. There are atheist absolutists and Christian relativists. Absolutists and relativists live and work and worship and debate side by side in the U.S. rather than representing a divided social structure.

When political pundits try to put every social issue in terms of the two sides of the culture war (usually Christians vs. Secularists), according to Baker's analysis they are making an unwarranted assumption that beliefs, attitudes, and moral orientations are much more tightly coupled than they really are. Thus they are exaggerating the polarization of the nation. The question is ... why do we do this, and why does it seem so compellingly true?

Baker's data shows besides an elevated sense of anxiety over the economy, what made the 1980's most distinctive was that across every demographic category, huge numbers of Americans went from being moral relativists to being moral absolutists. Prior to 1980, by far most Americans answered survey questions in a way that revealed them to be moral relativists, but by 1990 we were half relativists and half absolutists. This even division, according to Baker, emphasizes the contrast between these different moral orientations and the respective different guides they provide to conduct and the evaluation of goals. It is this even distribution of absolutism and relativism that Baker theorizes creates the impression of being a divided nation, even though our traditional values have during the same period remained entirely stable, we have remained remarkably independent of the secularization trend of the other modern nations, and we are actually converging over time rather than polarizing over social issues (with the notable exception of abortion).

So Baker does find a gap between the facts of American culture revealed by values surveys, and American'ss perception of their own values. However he does not dismiss the gap as a matter of mass hysteria or ignorance or simply political propaganda. The primary purpose of the book is to engage in a systematic analysis and understanding of the "adaptive" or "functional" reason for this gap. The assumption is that perceiving ourselves as waging a culture war is important for some reason and that our public rhetoric has adapted to that need. The adaptive reason that Baker comes up with is that America is unique in being a nation united by creed and ideology rather than by culture, and so as a result of our unique cultural heritage, traditional values have become the thing that make us Americans. Traditional values are on one end of one of Baker's well-validated values scales, the other end being secular-rational values. Secular-rational values are what the modernization and secularization theories expect us to see increasing as a nationĂ¢€™s wealth increases and as they shift from agriculture to industrial and service economies. We see that happen all over the world very consistently, except for the United States. The United States maintains its traditional value orientation over time because that is the source of its sense of identity as a nation and many Americans begin to feel threatened when they see evidence of encroaching secularization. In spite of highly visible legal conflicts over the interpretation of the establishment clause, we still share the same traditional values that unite us as Americans.

One of the main sources of confusion over American values can be seen in the second well-validated values scale that Baker uses: survival vs. self-expression values. Many discussions of values do not distinguish these two scales, yet factor analysis shows them to be reliably independent. Although Americans have retained their traditional values and have not moved increasingly toward secular-rational values as predicted by secularization theory and as seen in other nations, we have moved particularly far and quickly from survival values to self-expression values.

Self-expression values combine with traditional values to give the unique hybrid found in American culture, we internalize both traditional values and individualism, and these are actually different guides to conduct. The result is, according to Baker's theory, a uniquely motivated search for meaning among Americans in trying to reconcile their mixed traditional and self-expression values. This is an interesting and unexpected aspect of Baker's synthesis: he says that the contradictions created by traditional + self-expression values create a cognitive dissonance, leading to the feeling or perception of a crisis of values.

Baker gives just enough background to make his point and show its relevance to his argument, but never so much that I forgot the point he was trying to make. You'll be introduced to various theories of religious history and cultural evolution, various psychological theories of how beliefs and attitudes are related, several fascinating maps of the values of different nations and how they have changed in recent years, and a revealing look at how absolutism and relativism affect our thinking.

Friday, March 25, 2005

The Council for Secular Humanism recently posted an issue statement on the Terri Schiavo case. I disagreed with it somewhat because they tried to make a culture war issue out of it. I sent them a response. I'm including their statement and my response here.

The issue statement I responded to ...


Council for Secular Humanism Issues Statement on Schiavo Case



AMHERST, N.Y. (March 25, 2005)—Theresa "Terri" Schiavo, the Florida resident who has spent the last fifteen years in a persistent vegetative state, has spent recent weeks at the center of a political and legal maelstrom. The courts have consistently found that her husband, Michael Schiavo, is carrying out his wife’s wishes in trying to cease life-support measures; meanwhile, parents Robert and Mary Schindler, arguing that Terri would wish to live, have waged an unrelenting battle to keep her feeding tube inserted.




Spokespeople for the Council for Secular Humanism (CSH) say that, as heartrending as the case is, the courts have made the right decision. In a recent statement issued by the Council, David Koepsell, Executive Director of the CSH, says that "fundamentalist political ideologues have seized upon the Terri Schiavo case to make a bold, federal play against individual liberties." (The text of the statement is included below.)




"The Council for Secular Humanism praises the Florida and federal courts’ rulings to let Terri Schiavo's decision to die with dignity stand," Koepsell says, "and we hope that politicians who have interjected themselves into this personal decision, for cynical political gain, will think long and hard about what this means for liberty and justice."




Medical ethicist Richard Hull calls the situation a power grab by religious conservatives and a betrayal of the sanctity of marriage. "Americans will not stand for the burdens of having to defend family decisions, confirmed by state courts, before federal panels," he says. "They will decisively reject such meddlesome moralistic madness and beat back these assaults on reason and decency." Hull urges all Americans put their wishes in writing, such as with a living will: "Until the religious right rediscovers the Bill of Rights," he says, "we must all act to protect ourselves and presume no respect by others for our informal understandings with loved ones."


Meanwhile, other spokespeople caution that the choice might not always be left to the individual: "The public should be made aware that the Catholic Church owns about one third of all hospitals in the United States, many without the public's knowledge," warns Toni Van Pelt, Executive Director of CFI-Florida. "The Church does not recognize end-of-life directives."




While most Americans may think of secular humanists as a fringe group, the Council’s assessment of the Schiavo case is in accord with public opinion. Several recent polls (including one by CBS News and one by CNN, USA Today, and Gallup) show that a majority of Americans disapprove of lawmakers' intervention in the case. Senator Christopher Shays of Connecticut has described the situation by saying, "The Republican Party of Lincoln has become a party of theocracy."




The Hypocrisy of the "Culture of Life"


A Statement by the Council for Secular Humanism

The fundamentalist political ideologues have seized upon the Terri Schiavo case to make a bold, federal play against individual liberties. Once again, they have redefined and misconstrued the issues in the media in order to pursue a religious agenda. That agenda cares not at all about the dignity or quality of an individual life nor of the fundamental liberties we, as Americans and as human beings, are supposed to enjoy. Terry Schiavo expressed her desires when she was a conscious person. The proper venue for discovering her expressed desires was the courts, and the lengthy proceedings gave due process to Ms. Schiavo. The conclusion was that she never intended for her vegetative shell, with no medical possibility of recovery, to be kept "alive" through a feeding tube. The courts ruled that her express wishes, as discovered through numerous witnesses and lengthy hearings, should be respected. Yet this ruling, which is consistent with a respect for individual liberty, and the ability of a person to choose dignity in death, angered and mobilized those who view life as little more than the beating of a heart. Their religious motivations are clear. Their "culture of life" views life as nothing more than a vehicle for "souls," and the complex system of human attributes which make us persons, such as autonomy, creativity, emotions, and other essential elements of humanity, mean nothing. This is why so-called conservatives are supporting federal intervention now in the most personal of decisions. The hypocrisy of this stance couldn’t be more clear.


President Bush recently argued that we must "err on the side of life" whenever possible. This was the argument that some governors, including Illinois Governor George Ryan, have made in suspending death sentences until a full judicial review could be made. This decision was supported by the stark fact that a number of death-penalty cases have been reversed in light of new technology and new evidence, and so, it made sense to err on the side of life by having a full judicial review. In Texas, then Governor Bush never suspended a single capital sentence for further review, even when attorneys for convicts may have slept through some of their proceedings. There, he did not err on the side of life. Has he experienced a sudden change of heart? In the Schiavo case, the courts have reviewed and reviewed, and testimony has been taken, and appeals have been made surpassing the number and thoroughness of even a death-penalty review process. The conclusion has remained the same: Terry Schiavo did not want to have her body kept alive if her mind, that which makes her a person, was dead.


Now, these politically motivated religious ideologues, who wish to push their narrow view of "life" on the populace by act of law, would have you believe that Terry Schiavo is a piece of property, and that despite her wishes, her parents should be given the chance to "take her." Terry Schiavo is not a piece of property. She was a person who expressed her wishes, and neither her husband nor her parents can usurp her role in deciding the course of her death. This is the essence of being a free person, the ability to choose for oneself, and this is the essential justice of the courts’ decisions to respect her wishes, expressed by a free, autonomous, mature person.


The Council for Secular Humanism praises the Florida and federal courts’ rulings to let Terry Schiavo’s decision to die with dignity stand, and we hope that politicians who have interjected themselves into this personal decision, for cynical political gain, will think long and hard about what this means for liberty and justice.


Signed,




Paul Kurtz, Chair, Council for Secular Humanism




David Koepsell , Executive Director, Council for Secular Humanism




Tom Flynn, Editor, Free Inquiry


-----------------
Forwarded Message:
Subj: Re: Council for Secular Humanism Issues Statement on Schiavo Case
Date: 3/25/2005 9:04:51 P.M. Eastern Standard Time
From: ToddStark
To: notice-reply-w37bi8k2h7bwxbw@ga1.org
CC: ToddStark



I don't agree with the issues statement implication that the Schiavo case is important because it represents some sort of culture war issue that threatens secularism. I think the case was decided reasonably, the attempts to keep her alive were understandable, and the results have been just and fair so far. Except possibly for Terri Schiavo, whose wishes are not really known, and her family, who has unfortunately been rent apart.

I agree with the issue statement up to a point, in that it is of great importance that the wishes of individuals to die with dignity are respected. I disagree however that orthodox Christians and secularists are split over this issue and that either must be prevented from attempting "power grabs" to act on their values. That divisive interpretation is not supported by the evidence of opinion polls, nor is it supported by any other evidence I know of. American values are and always have been a mixed bag of intrinsically conflicting traditional and self-expression values, and both are important to our unique identity as a nation.

More specifically to the merits of the case, the wishes of Terri Schiavo were inferred by the court but the evidence was not all that strong. The best case for euthanasia is that her husband believes she would not have wanted to continue in her current state. From the documents I've read, he did not demonstrate that the couple discussed the issue sufficiently prior to her disability to be able to make that claim with such confidence. Hence the issue is not one of whether Terri Schiavo's wishes are being carried out in spite of religious extremism, but whether the judge properly interpreted her wishes based on the evidence, and made the right decision based on that interpretation. I am willing to trust tentatively that the judge knows more than I do about the evidence, so I am only mildly opposed to the Florida decision.

I think the only way in which conservative Christianity or secularism plays into this is that the former as a code of conduct leads people to assume that it is much better to choose life when we aren't sure what to do (or to choose life unconditionally in the case of extremists). The latter leads us to assume that the conditions of the family take precedence over the simple fact of life in lieu of any apparent personhood. That is the position that I assume the Council represents.

In this particular case, the conditions of the family are split. The parents are probably willing to care for Terri Schiavo in her current state, so it makes sense to many secularists as well as most Christians that the husband should attempt the option of relinquishing care of his wife to her parents rather than insist on her euthanasia. That is, even for secularist or progressive rather than traditional Christian values, given that in all honesty he probably does not know whether his wife would really want to be alive rather than dead, he should not be forcing the issue unless it is creating an enormous hardship for others. If her parents are willing to care for her, the argument that ongoing life is an enormous hardship is hard to support. The split between the husband and the parents seems to have been exacerbated by the attention brought onto the case and I see the kind of posturing represented by the Council statement as more of this same unnecessary and unwarranted attention making a sensible, rational solution less likely.

I agree strongly that the Federal court was right in not overturning the Florida decision, I mildly disagree with the Florida decision, and I strongly disagree with the resulting political posturing of extremists on various sides trying to turn this into a "culture war" issue for their own political influence at the expense of a rational solution. I think the best use of the Council's issue statements would be in support of secularist values, not opposition to traditional values, except where the two come into conflict. I believe that in this case the two are not in conflict.

kind regards,

Todd I. Stark