Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Science Avenger has an excellent post about evolution and social Darwinism and why, in reality, social Darwinism is anti-evolutionary. He makes several very good points, the first of which is that the phrase “survival of the fittest” is really a misnomer that often leads to muddled thinking:

It is simplistic and misleading to talk of “fittest”, because it implies that “fittest” is an absolute objective trait of a being that we can measure and use to predict survival. Fitness is completely dependent on the environment. For example, take dogs and wolves. By any objective, contextfree analysis, wolves are more fit than dogs: they are, on average, larger, faster, tougher, and smarter. Yet dogs greatly outnumber wolves, due in no small part to forming a semi-symbiotic relationship with the most dangerous species on the planet: us.


Second, that even if one were to take evolution as prescriptive rather than descriptive and decide that we need to help out natural selection with artificial selection, the result would actually make the species less likely to survive, not more:

There is also a more generic argument against social Darwinism. If we were able to successfully breed ourselves into some sort of supermen, we would reduce the genetic variation of the species. This would greatly increase our exposure to catastrophic events, such as disease. If there is any normative value from evolutionary theory, it is that heterogeneity is good.

Both very good arguments.

Comments

  1. #1 Robert
    May 10, 2007

    Does this post have anything to do with the thread involving Joshua Clayborn? Seems this would clear up any confusion he has about evolution dicatating not supporting homosexuals.

  2. #2 Will E.
    May 10, 2007

    Matt Ridley’s book Genome has a nice debunking of the connection as well.

  3. #3 Michael Suttkus, II
    May 10, 2007

    I’ve been using both arguments for years. I also like to point out that “social darwinism” is, fundamentally, a rejection of natural selection, and thus, everything we understand about evolution.

    Simply put, if those groups really were all that inferior, we wouldn’t need to cleanse them from the species; they’d be gone. The very fact that they continue to exist shows that they aren’t actually inferior at all. To think we need to wipe them out anyway is to reject natural selection.

    Understanding evolution promotes social darwinism the way understanding the environment promotes Bush’s “Healthy Forests Initiative”: Not at all.

    I also like to sneak in a point about how, even as late as the 70′s, most creationists complained that EVILution wasn’t racist enough. Yes, far from being a horrible philosophy that encouraged hatrid of our brother humans, it was a horrible philosophy that, gasp, proclaimed negroes and chinamen were equal to white men. This was obviously preposterous, of course. Of course, given that those subhumans have larger populations than good white-folk, it’s possible to argue they’re actually superior, if you accept that EVILutionist garbage! CAN YOU BELIEVE IT?

    It’s really a shame that our schools aren’t teaching good, old-fashioned, creationist values anymore. Atheist EVILution has much to answer for, clearly.

    (Sorry about all the markups, but I do get so excited!)

  4. #4 Joshua Claybourn
    May 10, 2007

    First, I think it’s possible to look at social darwinism from a selfish perspective. We can attempt – and plenty have tried – to advance a certain subset of humans without regard to others. See, for instance, the Nazis.

    If we were able to successfully breed ourselves into some sort of supermen, we would reduce the genetic variation of the species.

    I’m not sure this is an entirely fair argument. We regularly breed numerous animals – dogs and horses, for instance – all while maintaining plenty of genetic variation. Sometimes we fail to include enough variation, such as in the case of dalmations and certain dog breeds, but when we do it works out very well. In other words, I think it is possible to breed and genetically modify also certain subsets of humans toward certain traits we have deemed optimal. But we don’t, typically on moral and ethical grounds. So my question for those who do not subscribe to a religious belief which commands individual worth to all humans, is why don’t we do it?

  5. #5 Russell
    May 10, 2007

    No intellectual error is so significant or dire as the attempt to read morality from purely descriptive theories. It makes no more sense to use evolution as support for social Darwinism than it does to think the law of gravity implies that people should fling themselves from high places.

  6. #6 Robert
    May 10, 2007

    Joshua, your questin is akin to asking: if only christians go to heaven, why do we allow non-christians to breed? I mean, the chances of their child growing up as a non-christian and not accepting Jesus as their savior and keymaster into heaven are quite good. Aren’t we just condemning millions of children into hell? It wouldn’t be that cruel either, its for the spiritual good of the species. The heathens can live the rest of their lives, they just aren’t allowed children.

    Is this a statement you would agree with?

  7. #7 Joshua Claybourn
    May 10, 2007

    Huh? I’m not following what you’re asking or how it relates to my question. I’m asking that if we ignore any moral or ethical reasons for not doing so, why don’t we advocate more eugenics.

  8. #8 Robert
    May 10, 2007

    Also your question implies the reason that the religious don’t advocate for it (social darwinism) is that they find individual worth for all humans? Do you think that atheists don’t? I find that insinuation somewhat offensive. Besides, the belief in the individual worth and equality of all humans is really more of an enlightenment idea, not really so much of a historical christian one…

    So here’s a deal, I won’t hold the current believers in whatever religious beliefs you hold responsible for all the historical travesties that have been commited in the name of those beliefs, and why don’t you stop trying to link atheism and social darwinism. I think this deal really cuts more in your favor, since the weight of history is much larger then the tenuous links you’re grasping at.

  9. #9 Robert
    May 10, 2007

    Joshua, you’ve answered your own question. There are moral and ethical reasons for not doing so (yes, atheists can have morals and ethics).

    Also, as pointed out any attempt to weed out unfavorable traits could have just as many negative effects. This is of coourse a secondary consideration to the moral and ethical problems.

  10. #10 Joshua Claybourn
    May 10, 2007

    Robert, I think you’re reading too much into both my question and my personal beliefs. I am not a fundamentalist Christian and I believe that evolution is the best scientific model today for explaining how all life on Earth came to be. I am Christian, but I wouldn’t consider myself a fundamentalist Christian and would have significant disagreements with many who consider themselves evangelical Christian as well. So, let’s put aside any erroneous assumptions you had about me.

    You write:

    Also your question implies the reason that the religious don’t advocate for it (social darwinism) is that they find individual worth for all humans? Do you think that atheists don’t?

    I think many atheists do, but I’m not sure why. If I was atheist and did not believe God commanded me to find individual worth in all humans, it would be easy and, indeed logical, to breed out and genetically modify certain unwanted traits.

  11. #11 Nebogipfel
    May 10, 2007

    I think the question Joshua is actually asking is: Why do atheists value human life if they don’t believe in God?

  12. #12 Raging Bee
    May 10, 2007

    So my question for those who do not subscribe to a religious belief which commands individual worth to all humans…

    The wording of this question has built into it the false assumption; which is that only religious beliefs “command individual worth to all humans.”

    I’m no big fan of atheism myself, but I can tell you with absolute certainty, that most of the people I’ve heard to DENY individual worth to all humans, have been religious zealots threatening hideous punishments on individuals who don’t live according to their God’s rules. Atheists — those I’ve met anyway — don’t do that sort of thing. In fact, I’d venture to say that many of them, myself included, became atheists (temporary or permanent) precisely because of that anti-human religious mindset.

  13. #13 Joshua Claybourn
    May 10, 2007

    Also, as pointed out any attempt to weed out unfavorable traits could have just as many negative effects.

    I’m not convinced of this, and neither are the numerous scientists who advocate and practice eugenics. Nor would the countless animal breeders find this to be true. And anyway, even if it had negative effects, that doesn’t address the possibility of scientific advancements toward perfecting it.

  14. #14 Raging Bee
    May 10, 2007

    Nebogipfel: If that was Joshua’s question, than my answer would be: Because people in general, theist or atheist, tend to value their own lives, and the lives of those whose company they enjoy, and mentally project or generalize that value onto all other human lives. That’s how my guts decide on the value of human life, anyway…

  15. #15 Raging Bee
    May 10, 2007

    I’m not convinced of this, and neither are the numerous scientists who advocate and practice eugenics.

    Who and where are these “numerous scientists?” Or are you using the word “eugenics” to include individuals choosing not to have kids if they think they’d be passing on some genetic disease or defect?

  16. #16 Ed Brayton
    May 10, 2007

    Josh, you’ve asked two entirely different questions that betray a false premise. First you asked:

    So my question for those who do not subscribe to a religious belief which commands individual worth to all humans, is why don’t we do it?

    But the second time you used a very different phrase:

    I’m asking that if we ignore any moral or ethical reasons for not doing so, why don’t we advocate more eugenics.

    You’re using religion and morality or ethics interchangeably. I never really imagined that you were the sort of person who would claim that only someone who is religious can have a system of morality or ethics. Surely you must be aware of the many non-religious systems of ethical thinking. If you really think these two ideas are interchangeable then it can only be because you subscribe to what I call the Simon Says theory of ethics, that any system of moral reasoning that does not begin with the phrase “God says…” is, by definition, invalid. But that assumption, of course, presumes that there is a god who takes an interest in human affairs and concerns itself with what we do. In other words, it’s not really an argument for the existence of God, it’s an argument for why you want there to be a God, because you don’t believe we can have any morality without one. But we can, of course, and millions do.

    But it seems to me that you were asking a slightly different question here, at least initially. It seems to me that you were asking not why we subscribe to a particular moral claim but why humans think morally at all; perhaps you can correct me if I’m wrong. But if that was indeed what you really were asking, I think it’s been answered multiple times in the previous thread. The very fact that we have the ability to reason, an ability developed as a result of the evolution of the human brain, and we live in groups makes it inevitable that we engage in moral reasoning. Moral questions are inevitable when humans live in societies, and we have always lived in societies of one form or another. Morality is largely based upon reciprocity and compassion, the ability to project the pain we feel at being mistreated and therefore decide not to mistreat others so we don’t cause the same pain, and it’s hardly unreasonable to posit that both of those traits would be selected for because they provide a survival advantage. Societies in which people treat other members of the group with compassion and reciprocity are societies that are stable and therefore more conducive to reproduction and raising healthy offspring. There is also a great deal of work on the evolution of altruism that helps answer your question.

  17. #17 Joshua Claybourn
    May 10, 2007

    Raging Bee writes:

    Because people in general, theist or atheist, tend to value their own lives, and the lives of those whose company they enjoy, and mentally project or generalize that value onto all other human lives.

    This accounts for valuing some humans, but not all of them. Your position Raging Bee is a perfectly logical one as its relates to those close to you, but its seems highly illogical to me to “mentally project or generalize that value onto all other human lives.” That’s a great leap in generalization that seems to lack a foundation.

    Eugenics is far from being a widely accepted practice, of course, but it does have its adherents, even among some highly respected scientists. And it goes without saying that in recent history it has been widely advocated.

  18. #18 David Heddle
    May 10, 2007

    It seems to me there is a glaring inconsistency in this post. If artificial selection “would actually make the species less likely to survive, not more” then why is it exactly that “dogs greatly outnumber wolves?”

    And I don’t understand what is meant, precisely, by any “any objective, contextfree analysis, wolves are more fit than dogs” (what is contextfree? I hate pedantic crap like that, not to mention (on the avenger’s post) tossing in references to the Hume and the despicable Ayn Rand in a so-called science post.

    What would be wrong with the claim: dogs are fitter than wolves, which is why there are more of them. What is “context-unfree” about that?

    I have no opinion about whether evolution implies Social Darwinism. But it seems to me there is a tendency toward a simplistic shell game: let’s distance evolution from the phrase “survival of the fittest” to sidestep the charge. But evolution, no matter how it is repackaged, will always be “survival of the fittest”. The avenger claims it is a misleading term, but he fails to convince why. I don’t think he made a case that Social Darwinism is evolution-neutral let alone anti-evolutionary.

    Far from an excellent post, as Ed thought it was, I thought is said nothing of substance.

  19. #19 Robert
    May 10, 2007

    So basically when we boil everything down the question is: why be good without god?

    My response: Are you really being good if you’re just doing what you think god wants you to do? There’s alot more to it than that, but I don’t have the inclination to spell out all of atheistic morality to you.

    I’m afraid I just can’t seem to find any other way to take your comments and questions Joshua. The underlying current to everything you’ve asked is that without god you can’t understand why we (atheists) would do anything good. That is a pretty serious disconnect.

  20. #20 Jeff Hebert
    May 10, 2007

    Joshua “According to Ed I’m not a religious fanatic” Clayborn said:

    So my question for those who do not subscribe to a religious belief which commands individual worth to all humans, is why don’t we do it [genetically modify humans for certain traits]?

    Unlike Ed, I do not believe you are asking this question in good faith. From your previous writings, I believe that what you really mean by this and your other post is to imply that without religion, there is no possible way to guide ethical or moral behavior, and thus a world with genetic engineering ruled by atheists is doomed to a hell on earth. Clearly, the implication goes, atheists would have no problem engaging in eugenics JUST LIKE THE NAZIS! You are, in my opinion, nothing more than a concern troll. And yet, this is Ed’s home and he has made you welcome here, so I will attempt to answer both your unstated implication and the question you actually asked.

    As shocking as this may be, religion is not the only ethical or moral foundation from which it is possible to derive guidelines for behavior. There are a variety of philosophical, moral, and intellectual belief systems that do not rely on religion which could arrive at a whole range of answers to your question.

    Personally, since I am one of the Nazi baby-eating atheists you have queried, my short answer is that my guiding moral code begins with “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and I would approach the question of genetic engineering of humans from that starting point. (I imagine that a follow-up question from you would be “But without god why would you think the Golden Rule should be followed?” but that’s off-topic in my opinion.)

    Because I also believe adherence to the principle of individual liberty is the best way to ensure a healthy, growing, “good” world, I would support genetic engineering for those who wish it, provided it can be done in a safe manner. It’s your body, if you want to diddle with your genes, go for it. I would oppose forced genetic modification on anyone who does not wish it. Again, I wouldn’t want anyone doing that to me against my will, so I wouldn’t do it to anyone else, either.

    Furthermore, we have already established ethical guidelines on how to deal with changing our bodies in significant ways — vaccination, plastic surgery, mind-altering pharmaceuticals, steroids, etc. — and I don’t see genetic engineering as any different.

    There are, of course, dangers to all of these, and the greater the degree of tinkering, the greater the degree of danger. Our bodies are complex systems and our brains much moreso. Altering them is very risky, and should be undertaken with extreme caution as a matter of practical health and safety.

    Part of the problem with genetic engineering is that it’s hard to be sure what you’re going to get at the end of the day, as the Science Avenger points out. You might think you’re improving malarial resistance only to discover that you’ve also dramatically increased susceptibility to sickle cell anemia, for instance. Or you might come up with a “Super Health Regeneration” mod that works so well everyone uses it, and in fifty years a new virus comes along that wipes us all out because the same gene coded for resistance that would have saved those who had it.

    I absolutely reject your implication that only religion offers us a way to deal with genetic engineering without ending up in some nightmarish Nazi state, because clearly we’ve been doing exactly that from a secular philosophical standpoint for hundreds of years with regards to a whole raft of medical procedures. I don’t see why genetic engineering should be any different.

    I also absolutely reject your other implication, that somehow simply having a belief in a god means that genetic engineering would take place only in a manner you would consider moral or ethical. It is just as possible to arrive at a program of forced eugenics that would lead to what most of us would consider unspeakable evil starting from a religious standpoint as from an ethical one. If you don’t believe religious sentiment can motivate genocide, for instance, I would urge you to go back and re-read the history books.

  21. #21 Joshua Claybourn
    May 10, 2007

    Ed writes:

    I never really imagined that you were the sort of person who would claim that only someone who is religious can have a system of morality or ethics.

    There is absolutely no question in my mind that virtually everyone has a system of morality or ethics. You, for instance, no doubt have a strong one. But I’m asking why. Why have one? What is the purpose? You start to understand my question more here:

    It seems to me that you were asking not why we subscribe to a particular moral claim but why humans think morally at all…

    That is precisely my question. You attempt to answer it here:

    Morality is largely based upon reciprocity and compassion, the ability to project the pain we feel at being mistreated and therefore decide not to mistreat others so we don’t cause the same pain, and it’s hardly unreasonable to posit that both of those traits would be selected for because they provide a survival advantage. Societies in which people treat other members of the group with compassion and reciprocity are societies that are stable and therefore more conducive to reproduction and raising healthy offspring.

    Yes!! That’s it! And I agree. But that only accounts for morality within your society or group. As Raging Bee said, he has morality for those close to him/her, and then mentally projects that to others. I just don’t understand why. There seems to be no logical scientific basis for it.

  22. #22 Robert
    May 10, 2007

    David: the term survival of the fittest is indeed a large part of evolution. The term fittest is described as those best able to reproduce and pass on their genes. The problem arises when people who don’t understand evolution hear it and assume fittest means fastest or strongest or smartest, and assume they are superior because of whatever trait they think they possess in excess of the common person.

    That is why survival of the fittest is a misleading term, because it means something vastly different in biology than it does to most people.

    His example was trying to illustrate that point, wolves are bigger, meaner, and deadlier and therefore more fit (in the common understanding of fit) than dogs, yet dogs are more fit (in a biological sense) to survive because of their symbiosis with man.

  23. #23 Nebogipfel
    May 10, 2007

    Does it help to point out here that Hitler was not an atheist?

  24. #24 Jeff Hebert
    May 10, 2007

    Sorry, that second to last line should read “It is just as possible to arrive at a program of forced eugenics that would lead to what most of us would consider unspeakable evil starting from a religious standpoint as from an ATHEISTIC one.” Half an hour to write and still I make a mistake like that, pathetic.

    Anyway, I was writing that long comment above that while all of the other posts in this thread were going on, apologies for restating what Ed, Bee, and others have said. However, I see from Joshua’s replies that I was right, and that the real question he’s asking is “Without god, why would you behave ethically.” And he’s brought the Nazi’s up twice while relating them to atheists. Unreal.

    Ed, do you see now why Joshua’s writing drove me from “In the Agora” shortly after he became a poster there? He’s been engaging in this kind of slanted, intellectually dishonest, snide, subtly bigoted tripe from the beginning, and he’s only gotten worse over time. I know you disagreed with my assessment at the time, but I hope now you can understand that I wasn’t just being a reactionary, even if for some reason you still insist that he’s an intellectually honest writer.

  25. #25 David Heddle
    May 10, 2007

    Robert,

    His example was trying to illustrate that point, wolves are bigger, meaner, and deadlier and therefore more fit

    It makes no sense. It is not survival of the “biggest, meanest, and deadliest.” Witness that there are no T-Rex’s roaming the badlands. It’s survival of the fittest–and in a world where man is the dominant species, dogs are fitter than wolves.

  26. #26 jba
    May 10, 2007

    Joshua: “If I was atheist and did not believe God commanded me to find individual worth in all humans, it would be easy and, indeed logical, to breed out and genetically modify certain unwanted traits.”

    I honestly dont mean offense, since I really dont know you at all, but I would think this says more about you than about atheism or morals in general.

  27. #27 Joshua Claybourn
    May 10, 2007

    I think it’d help if someone defined “morals and ethics” and we all used the same definition. I’ll let Jeff Herbert define it.

  28. #28 Brandon
    May 10, 2007

    Our basic laws of morality (respect and compassion for others, etc.) go back to neanderthal times. But didn’t atheism start as a movement a few hundred years ago? I’ve never heard of a significant athiest population, say, in ancient Egypt. Obviously this is in part because athiests were regularly persecuted by whichever religion was in charge. But, is it perhaps possible that there was a time that humanity was so primitive that morality wasn’t possible without belief in a higher power? I’m not claiming one way or another, I’m just wondering if anybody’s discussed this before, and if so, do you have a link?

  29. #29 Joshua Claybourn
    May 10, 2007

    jba writes:

    I honestly dont mean offense, since I really dont know you at all, but I would think this says more about you than about atheism or morals in general.

    What does it say about me? That I would not value all life? Please explain to me why I should, because that’s my question.

  30. #30 kehrsam
    May 10, 2007

    Joshua said:

    But that only accounts for morality within your society or group. As Raging Bee said, he has morality for those close to him/her, and then mentally projects that to others. I just don’t understand why. There seems to be no logical scientific basis for it.

    Actually, reciprocity has been supported scientifically plenty of times. Consider a simple Prisoner’s Dilemma tournament such as Scientific American ran a few years back. The most successful entrants followed a simple strategy of cooperating until a given partner defected; they then defected the next time they faced the non-cooperative partner. Reciprocity is very well-supported.

    If that doesn’t convince you, try looking at basic ecologies. In each case there will be predators, yes, but if the system is to be stable, most actors will have to more or less cooperate. Science has quite a lot to say about morality, and the historical trend of human societies is toward broadening and generalizing the answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Occasionally, religion has managed not to get in the way of the process.

  31. #31 Brandon
    May 10, 2007

    Actually, forget my last post. Confucianism is a perfect example of morality without religion in ancient times.

    And guys, I really don’t think Joshua Claybourn meant to offend anybody here. He just asked a scientific question about morality and phrased it very poorly.

  32. #32 Joshua Claybourn
    May 10, 2007

    Thank you, kehrsam, for approaching this in the abstract, intellectual fashion that Jeff Herbert was unable to do. You write:

    Actually, reciprocity has been supported scientifically plenty of times. Consider a simple Prisoner’s Dilemma tournament such as Scientific American ran a few years back. The most successful entrants followed a simple strategy of cooperating until a given partner defected; they then defected the next time they faced the non-cooperative partner. Reciprocity is very well-supported.

    I’m aware of the Prisoner’s Delimma, and it was actually discussed in the article which prompted my questioning here: http://www.spectacle.org/1095/moral.html

    It’s an interesting article and repeats much of what Ed said. Check it out…I’m curious of y’alls thoughts.

  33. #33 Science Avenger
    May 10, 2007

    It sounds to me David that you agree with me, and you think the point I was making is so obvious as to not be worth making. I only wish that were the case.

    How is “context-free” pedantic? It’s the difference between a trait contributing to fitness per se, and only doing so in certain contexts. As for the references to Hume and Rand, since the topic involved a philosophical question of deriving the “ought” of Social Darwinisim from the “is” of evolutionary theory, it seemed appropriate to reference the most effective, and the most prolific and fervent, respectively, writers on the subject. If you have better candidates, I’m all ears.

  34. #34 David Heddle
    May 10, 2007

    As an aside, the debate, as it is trying to be couched by Jeff Herbert and others, in general, has always seemed a bit strange to me. That is: Christians telling atheists that they have no basis for their morality, and atheists arguing that they do–and they don’t need God or religion as their moral compass.

    I would say the Christian theological response is that both of these positions are wrong. We have, for example, the concept of common grace–that God has provided a sense of right or wrong for all people. So Christians who argue that atheists have no basis for moral behavior are, in effect denying common grace. And atheists who argue that they don’t need God to provide moral bearings don’t realize that he is providing it whether they want him to or not. (It should be obvious that I don’t expect atheists to agree, I’m just pointing out why I think this argument, from a Christian perspective, should never arise.)

    Science Avenger,

    I don’t understand the distinction between “contributing to fitness per se and only contributing in certain contexts.” An adaptation either makes the species more fit, or it doesn’t. What’s meant by “per se?” It sounds like Robert’s point that bigger and deadlier is fitter in some absolute sense. It’s not. If cows suddenly became meaner and deadlier, I suspect that before long there would be a lot fewer cows.

  35. #35 Robert
    May 10, 2007

    Wow, David: that was a perfect example of creationist quote mining.

    Your quote: “Robert,

    His example was trying to illustrate that point, wolves are bigger, meaner, and deadlier and therefore more fit”

    My actual quote: “His example was trying to illustrate that point, wolves are bigger, meaner, and deadlier and therefore more fit (in the common understanding of fit) than dogs, yet dogs are more fit (in a biological sense) to survive because of their symbiosis with man.”

    Read it again asshole.

  36. #36 Robert
    May 10, 2007

    I’m sorry about that last bit, I just get really upset when people misquote what I was saying to completly twist it into the opposite of what I was arguing.

  37. #37 David Heddle
    May 10, 2007

    Robert,

    I didn’t misquote you, nor did you make any substantive argument that I did, unless you consider prove by assertion to be rigorous. My point was meant to rebut exactly what you said, namely that fitter “in the common understanding of fit” is meaningless. It is fitter, or it’s not. If you had written in the common misunderstanding of it, then you might have a better argument, but then I would not have quoted you.

    I did not quote mine. By the way, the “creationist” charge makes your non-point and two-fer: an ad hominem non-point. Go back and re-read–and also go back and learn how to argue.

  38. #38 Ed Brayton
    May 10, 2007

    Ah, now I feel we are getting down to brass tacks, so to speak. Josh writes:

    Yes!! That’s it! And I agree. But that only accounts for morality within your society or group. As Raging Bee said, he has morality for those close to him/her, and then mentally projects that to others. I just don’t understand why. There seems to be no logical scientific basis for it.

    Okay, so Josh agrees that evolution can and likely does select for traits like compassion and recognition of reciprociy, which forms the foundation for all moral and ethical thinking. This is a good start. But he says that this applies only to one’s in-group, not to all human beings. But I think a brief look at human history will suggest why, over the last few hundred years, we have extended those things from our in-group to all human beings. The answers seem fairly obvious to me: travel and science.

    Up until just the last few hundred years, human ethical thinking was indeed limited to one’s own kinship or tribal connections; one was expected to behave a certain way toward members of their family/tribe/nationality/race but that thinking was generally suspended for members of other groups. It was okay to enslave or slaughter members of other groups because, well, they were Them and we are Us. But that has begun to break down, particularly in the last couple hundred years when we have made enormous progress (and yes, it is clearly progress) in extending those basic moral principles beyond our own groups and toward the idea of a common humanity. So what has changed in the last couple hundred years that might explain this progress? Two things: travel and science. As the cliche goes, the world has shrunk. Where only 500 years ago no European even knew of the existence of anyone living in North and South America, now they can fly there in a matter of hours. As all of the various tribes, races and ethnicities have mixed together and formed friendships, those old lines between Us and Them have begun to break down. Universal travel and instant communication (and even the ability to see another group we will never meet by way of video and satellite TV) has had an immense effect on our ability to see Them as Us. The more we see others, particularly the more we see that all human beings share a common set of problems, questions and ordeals, the more difficult it becomes to maintain those lines between the in-group and the out-group. This is a very healthy thing.

    Beyond that simple fact, science has further backed up this intuitive breaking down of such barriers by demonstrating time and again that all humans share a single identity. It was only a century ago that one could still find judges citing the inability of the negro and caucasian races to reproduce together as evidence in favor of miscegenation laws, and during that same time one can found allegedly educated people citing all sorts of ridiculous claims about black people being a different species. That is no longer possible due to the undeniable findings of science in this regard. The old assumptions about those of other groups turned out to be false and thus no longer act as a prop for those who seek division.

    We haven’t reached the point of universal moral thinking entirely, of course; just look at how casually we view “collateral damage” during a war (as long as that damage is on the other side, not ours). But the progress is quite remarkable and it will likely continue, despite much social pressure to keep the old ways of tribal thinking alive. Anyway, if we can agree that evolution provides the foundation of compassion and reciprocity that allows for human moral thinking, then the only thing we need to explain why our in-group morality is increasingly a universal “all human beings” morality is the “environmental” change over the last few hundred years that has allowed us to extend that limited thinking to a more universal premise.

    I want to thank Josh for starting this conversation, which I think is an interesting one. And I urge my readers once again not to react to Josh as though he was a Falwell follower. Josh is a really, really bright guy for whom I have immense respect and from whom I expect great things over the next few years as he moves in to his career in the law.

  39. #39 Raging Bee
    May 10, 2007

    This accounts for valuing some humans, but not all of them. Your position Raging Bee is a perfectly logical one as its relates to those close to you, but its seems highly illogical to me to “mentally project or generalize that value onto all other human lives.” That’s a great leap in generalization that seems to lack a foundation.

    There’s nothing “illogical” about recognizing that the people you don’t know and love could be very much like those you do, therefore they should be accorded the same rights and respect. Nor is it “illogical” to recognize that people you don’t know can still affect your life, willingly or not, and you can still affect theirs, therefore you should be a little more careful in your actions. (It’s not always easy to do this in practice, of course, but that’s the basic principle.)

    Eugenics is far from being a widely accepted practice, of course, but it does have its adherents, even among some highly respected scientists. And it goes without saying that in recent history it has been widely advocated.

    That doesn’t answer my question: who, and what proposed or actual policies, are you talking about?

    Yes!! That’s it! And I agree. But that only accounts for morality within your society or group. As Raging Bee said, he has morality for those close to him/her, and then mentally projects that to others. I just don’t understand why. There seems to be no logical scientific basis for it.

    It’s the same basis as you just accepted: because we can be harmed by other societies, therefore we do what we can under the circumstances to avoid unnecessary conflicts that lead to misunderstandings, intolerance and war. We want the dark-skinned strangers with the weird religion to respect us, therefore we at least try to show respect for them, thus (we hope) increasing the odds that they will treat us likewise. Why is that so hard to understand? For me, this is grade-school stuff.

  40. #40 Jeff Hebert
    May 10, 2007

    Joshua Clayborn wrote:

    Jeff Herbert

    It’s Hebert, not Herbert. And Raging Bee is a she, not a he.

    Your points have been addressed repeatedly in the other thread, and again in this one, Joshua. Furthermore, I don’t believe you’re engaging in a good faith discussion and so I decline the invitation to participate in it with you.

    David Heddle said:

    As an aside, the debate, as it is trying to be couched by Jeff Herbert [sic] and others, in general, has always seemed a bit strange to me. That is: Christians telling atheists that they have no basis for their morality, and atheists arguing that they do–and they don’t need God or religion as their moral compass.

    I would say the Christian theological response is that both of these positions are wrong. We have, for example, the concept of common grace–that God has provided a sense of right or wrong for all people. So Christians who argue that atheists have no basis for moral behavior are, in effect denying common grace. And atheists who argue that they don’t need God to provide moral bearings don’t realize that he is providing it whether they want him to or not. (It should be obvious that I don’t expect atheists to agree, I’m just pointing out why I think this argument, from a Christian perspective, should never arise.)

    I’d agree with that (while naturally feeling that the “common sense of right and wrong” is based on natural versus supernatural causes).

    It seems reasonable for a Christian to argue as you have, that atheists’ adherence to a non-theistic moral code is actually based on what God built, only they don’t realize it. There’s no way to refute such a position — a planned divinely-impelled natural source of morality is indistinguishable from a purely naturalistic one.

    As such, it seems pointless to argue about the underpinning for WHY we treat each other as we do, instead of arguing about HOW we treat each other. At the end of the day we both agree that there is an inherent sense of right and wrong which, when followed, leads to a better outcome for humanity, whether its ultimate cause is divine or mundane.

  41. #41 Science avenger
    May 10, 2007

    David Heddle asks: What’s meant by “per se?” It sounds like Robert’s point that bigger and deadlier is fitter in some absolute sense. It’s not.

    Believe it or not, there are creationists who make that very charge – that bigger and deadlier mean fitter in an absolute sense – and therefore (according to them) dogs outnumbering wolves disproves evolutionary theory. It was against this position I was arguing.

  42. #42 Skemono
    May 10, 2007

    But that only accounts for morality within your society or group.

    Um. You see, some of us can recognize that our “group” includes all humans, because there are no significant differences between us that would necessitate our treating them differently. We don’t even need a god to do that; indeed, sometimes it helps not to have a god to do that.

    Besides, even if you believe in a god, that doesn’t necessarily mean abandoning eugenics.

  43. #43 David Heddle
    May 10, 2007

    Jeff,

    As such, it seems pointless to argue about the underpinning for WHY we treat each other as we do, instead of arguing about HOW we treat each other. At the end of the day we both agree that there is an inherent sense of right and wrong which, when followed, leads to a better outcome for humanity, whether its ultimate cause is divine or mundane.

    Yep. I agree.

    Avenger

    Believe it or not, there are creationists who make that very charge – that bigger and deadlier mean fitter in an absolute sense – and therefore (according to them) dogs outnumbering wolves disproves evolutionary theory.

    Heh-I do believe it. And I made the opposite point and still got tagged, pejoratively, as a “creationist.” (Which I am, of course.)

  44. #44 Ed Brayton
    May 10, 2007

    Raging Bee is a she? I didn’t even know that. Don’t know why I ever presumed otherwise, though.

  45. #45 DuWayne
    May 10, 2007

    Joshua Claybourn -

    I think the answer to why atheists have any kind of morality is really rather simple. They do not believe that there is anything to expect after they die. Everything that they will experience, they will experience in this physical existence. With that in mind, they have every motivation to make this world, this society, the best society it can possibly be.

    Indeed, I had a very disfunctional sense of morality, when I was a young, fundamentalist Christian. It was not until I got away from my faith and took a very humanist perspective, that I began to truly understand the “golden rule” as it were. While I never embraced any real notion of atheism, indeed my journey has led me back to the faith of Jesus Christ, it was the humanist perspective that helped me see just how essential love (not eros), compassion and empathy are to functional relations with others.

    This is not to say that Christians or any other theists, cannot achieve this, indeed, as I said, I am a Christian myself. Nor would I claim that one need to embrace secular humanism to achieve this understanding. But I would claim that a humanist approach, whether secular or religious in nature, is essential to developing a personal ethical basis.

    Indeed, if the basis for one’s morality is entirely based on the fear of divine retribution, and not on a humanist perspective, it is inherently flawed. I liken it to child rearing, until they can understand the abstract consequences of their behaviour, such as the losing friends or causing emotional distress, they will do whatever they think they can get away with. This is no less true of theists. I think Ed’s post about the Orthadox Jews yesterday, illustrates this concept quite nicely. Indeed the host of religious “exceptions,” listed in the comments does as well. It is this pervasive notion of legality is simply how many theists express this notion of “what they can get away with,” i.e. following the letter of the law rather than the spirit of it.

  46. #46 Raging Bee
    May 10, 2007

    And Raging Bee is a she, not a he.

    Actually, I’m a he. Where do you get the impression I’m female? (If your guess is based on my writing ability, I’ll take it as a compliment.)

  47. #47 David Ratnasabapathy
    May 10, 2007

    Joshua Claybourn wrote,

    If I was atheist and did not believe God commanded me to find individual worth in all humans, it would be easy and, indeed logical, to breed out and genetically modify certain unwanted traits. [my emphasis]

    Um, Ashkenazi Jewish communities screen for Tay-Sach’s disease (a genetic disorder). Quote:

    Knowing the risks before conception, couples can decide to adopt or to conceive using artificial insemination techniques or a donated egg. Or they can take their chances (two carriers have a 25 percent chance of producing a baby with Tay-Sachs). For single individuals, the test can guide marriage or mating decisions. Some traditional Orthodox communities screen children and use the information when matching marriage partners.

    Adoption, conception using artificial insemination or donated eggs, matching marriage/mating partners to avoid the disease: looks like they are breeding out an unwanted trait. But these people aren’t atheists; perhaps their God doesn’t command them “to find individual worth in all humans”? Or perhaps your presumptions about atheists are false?

  48. #48 slavdude
    May 10, 2007

    David Heddle wrote:

    It seems to me there is a glaring inconsistency in this post. If artificial selection “would actually make the species less likely to survive, not more” then why is it exactly that “dogs greatly outnumber wolves?”
    [... Response to separate post...] Believe it or not, there are creationists who make that very charge – that bigger and deadlier mean fitter in an absolute sense – and therefore (according to them) dogs outnumbering wolves disproves evolutionary theory. Heh-I do believe it. And I made the opposite point and still got tagged, pejoratively, as a “creationist.” (Which I am, of course.)

    Have you ever had any experience with purebred dogs? I mean breeds that are, say, larger than a “standard” dog or that are smaller than “standard” or have flattened faces.

    These breeds were artificially selected for certain traits by humans over thousands of years for a variety of purposes–work, appearance, etc. Many of these traits, were they to appear in the wild, would actually select against the animal’s survival (e.g., the breathing problems that breeds such as pugs and bulldogs have due to the deformed nasal passages in their flattened skulls, or the common problems of hip dysplasia among large breeds such as Great Pyrenees). There are more dogs than wolves because dogs’ association with humans ensures an extremely high survival rate for the dogs’ offspring–I think it’s something like 98 percent as opposed to five percent for wolves born in the wild.

    I am sure much the same could be said for other domesticated species, especially those that are bred to emphasize what in nature would be defects.

  49. #49 slavdude
    May 10, 2007

    David Heddle wrote:

    It seems to me there is a glaring inconsistency in this post. If artificial selection “would actually make the species less likely to survive, not more” then why is it exactly that “dogs greatly outnumber wolves?”
    [... Response to separate post...] Believe it or not, there are creationists who make that very charge – that bigger and deadlier mean fitter in an absolute sense – and therefore (according to them) dogs outnumbering wolves disproves evolutionary theory. Heh-I do believe it. And I made the opposite point and still got tagged, pejoratively, as a “creationist.” (Which I am, of course.)

    Have you ever had any experience with purebred dogs? I mean breeds that are, say, larger than a “standard” dog or that are smaller than “standard” or have flattened faces.

    These breeds were artificially selected for certain traits by humans over thousands of years for a variety of purposes–work, appearance, etc. Many of these traits, were they to appear in the wild, would actually select against the animal’s survival (e.g., the breathing problems that breeds such as pugs and bulldogs have due to the deformed nasal passages in their flattened skulls, or the common problems of hip dysplasia among large breeds such as Great Pyrenees). There are more dogs than wolves because dogs’ association with humans ensures an extremely high survival rate for the dogs’ offspring–I think it’s something like 98 percent as opposed to five percent for wolves born in the wild.

    I am sure much the same could be said for other domesticated species, especially those that are bred to emphasize what in nature would be defects.

  50. #50 Ed Brayton
    May 10, 2007

    Oh good, so Jeff is the one confused, not me LOL

  51. #51 slavdude
    May 10, 2007

    David Heddle wrote:

    It seems to me there is a glaring inconsistency in this post. If artificial selection “would actually make the species less likely to survive, not more” then why is it exactly that “dogs greatly outnumber wolves?”
    [... Response to separate post...] Believe it or not, there are creationists who make that very charge – that bigger and deadlier mean fitter in an absolute sense – and therefore (according to them) dogs outnumbering wolves disproves evolutionary theory. Heh-I do believe it. And I made the opposite point and still got tagged, pejoratively, as a “creationist.” (Which I am, of course.)

    Have you ever had any experience with purebred dogs? I mean breeds that are, say, larger than a “standard” dog or that are smaller than “standard” or have flattened faces.

    These breeds were artificially selected for certain traits by humans over thousands of years for a variety of purposes–work, appearance, etc. Many of these traits, were they to appear in the wild, would actually select against the animal’s survival (e.g., the breathing problems that breeds such as pugs and bulldogs have due to the deformed nasal passages in their flattened skulls, or the common problems of hip dysplasia among large breeds such as Great Pyrenees). There are more dogs than wolves because dogs’ association with humans ensures an extremely high survival rate for the dogs’ offspring–I think it’s something like 98 percent as opposed to five percent for wolves born in the wild.

    I am sure much the same could be said for other domesticated species, especially those that are bred to emphasize what in nature would be defects.

  52. #52 slavdude
    May 10, 2007

    David Heddle wrote:

    It seems to me there is a glaring inconsistency in this post. If artificial selection “would actually make the species less likely to survive, not more” then why is it exactly that “dogs greatly outnumber wolves?”
    [... Response to separate post...] Believe it or not, there are creationists who make that very charge – that bigger and deadlier mean fitter in an absolute sense – and therefore (according to them) dogs outnumbering wolves disproves evolutionary theory. Heh-I do believe it. And I made the opposite point and still got tagged, pejoratively, as a “creationist.” (Which I am, of course.)

    Have you ever had any experience with purebred dogs? I mean breeds that are, say, larger than a “standard” dog or that are smaller than “standard” or have flattened faces.

    These breeds were artificially selected for certain traits by humans over thousands of years for a variety of purposes–work, appearance, etc. Many of these traits, were they to appear in the wild, would actually select against the animal’s survival (e.g., the breathing problems that breeds such as pugs and bulldogs have due to the deformed nasal passages in their flattened skulls, or the common problems of hip dysplasia among large breeds such as Great Pyrenees). There are more dogs than wolves because dogs’ association with humans ensures an extremely high survival rate for the dogs’ offspring–I think it’s something like 98 percent as opposed to five percent for wolves born in the wild.

    I am sure much the same could be said for other domesticated species, especially those that are bred to emphasize what in nature would be defects.

  53. #53 David Heddle
    May 10, 2007

    slavdude:

    I don’t see your point. Is it survival of the fittest in the wild (and how is that defined, scientifically, without artificially removing man from nature), or just survival of the fittest? Isn’t man part of nature? If certain canines had an adaptation (as I have heard theorized) that facilitated their domestication, doesn’t that mean that they were both fitter and at the same time less deadly?

    I think my point stands. In the present world, dogs are fitter than wolves, if numbers mean anything. Or maybe you can say they are equally fit (in the same sense that everything is equally fit) for the niche in which they find themselves. But I don’t see how anyone can make the claim, based on more than “common understanding” or “gut instinct” that wolves are fitter.

    If surviving “in the wild” is the important criterion, then of course modern man is not very fit either.

  54. #54 RoninGeographer
    May 10, 2007

    In case it is of interest, I included a more nuanced version of this argument in a post I put up last year, based on Bateson – old stuff but well worth revisiting. As I said then, I’m not sure how it fits into current understanding and scientific debates about evolution so I [still] welcome comments from anyone who can put it into the current context – and will be following this discussion. Here is the relevant excerpt from that post – as context, it was about the use of market-based mechanisms for protecting ecosystem services:

    …I suspect that the problem is not so much with markets as it is with an economic system that is based on principles reminiscent of an outdated concept of Social Darwinism that fails to recognize that natural selection acts on populations rather than on individuals. This has little to do with how scientists currently understand evolution, but seems to have retained a hold on popular beliefs and ways of thinking…. a bit more background.

    Gregory Bateson – an anthropologist by training, who certainly believed in the theory of evolution (his father was the founder of genetics), saw this particular way of thinking about evolution as an error of logic that has contributed to the present environmental predicament and to disastrous social dogmas because of the profound influence it has had on how the modern world is organized. The error of logic was to regard the “survival of the fittest” as a struggle among individuals instead of as a process of selection that acts on populations, in which diversity among individuals is necessary for populations to adapt to changing conditions. An important difference between individuals and classes or groups is that classes are defined by convergent characteristics for which there is some degree of statistical probability. Individuals instead have divergent characteristics and cannot be expected to behave according to aggregate characteristics, as is assumed in any kind of deterministic approach to analysis of human behavior. So Bateson also saw a similar but opposite error in the ideas of Marx, in which events were seen as unfolding in a predictable sequence as a result of class structures, regardless of which individual is credited with starting the trend. Consistent with this idea, he also held that evolutionary theory might be very different today had Wallace rather than Darwin been the primary influence, because Wallace saw evolution in cybernetic terms, as a self-correcting system. Instead, in the prevailing image, evolution is characterized as a linear process, a force of progress, and a cause of material change, that fails to account for ecosystem organization or to recognize interdependent relationships between organisms and their environment, and that has supported delusional aspirations of overcoming the limitations of nature. Bateson had a cybernetic view of evolution, as the outcome of a process of learning that reflects “the wider knowing that holds together the starfishes and sea anemones and redwood forests and human communities” in a great “pattern that connects” that also underlies aesthetic sensibilities.

  55. #55 RoninGeographer
    May 10, 2007

    In case it is of interest, I included a more nuanced version of this argument in a post I put up last year, based on Bateson – old stuff but well worth revisiting. As I said then, I’m not sure how it fits into current understanding and scientific debates about evolution so I [still] welcome comments from anyone who can put it into the current context – and will be following this discussion. Here is the relevant excerpt from that post – as context, it was about the use of market-based mechanisms for protecting ecosystem services:

    …I suspect that the problem is not so much with markets as it is with an economic system that is based on principles reminiscent of an outdated concept of Social Darwinism that fails to recognize that natural selection acts on populations rather than on individuals. This has little to do with how scientists currently understand evolution, but seems to have retained a hold on popular beliefs and ways of thinking…. a bit more background.

    Gregory Bateson – an anthropologist by training, who certainly believed in the theory of evolution (his father was the founder of genetics), saw this particular way of thinking about evolution as an error of logic that has contributed to the present environmental predicament and to disastrous social dogmas because of the profound influence it has had on how the modern world is organized. The error of logic was to regard the “survival of the fittest” as a struggle among individuals instead of as a process of selection that acts on populations, in which diversity among individuals is necessary for populations to adapt to changing conditions. An important difference between individuals and classes or groups is that classes are defined by convergent characteristics for which there is some degree of statistical probability. Individuals instead have divergent characteristics and cannot be expected to behave according to aggregate characteristics, as is assumed in any kind of deterministic approach to analysis of human behavior. So Bateson also saw a similar but opposite error in the ideas of Marx, in which events were seen as unfolding in a predictable sequence as a result of class structures, regardless of which individual is credited with starting the trend. Consistent with this idea, he also held that evolutionary theory might be very different today had Wallace rather than Darwin been the primary influence, because Wallace saw evolution in cybernetic terms, as a self-correcting system. Instead, in the prevailing image, evolution is characterized as a linear process, a force of progress, and a cause of material change, that fails to account for ecosystem organization or to recognize interdependent relationships between organisms and their environment, and that has supported delusional aspirations of overcoming the limitations of nature. Bateson had a cybernetic view of evolution, as the outcome of a process of learning that reflects “the wider knowing that holds together the starfishes and sea anemones and redwood forests and human communities” in a great “pattern that connects” that also underlies aesthetic sensibilities.

  56. #56 Robert
    May 10, 2007

    David If you can’t see how what you quoted out of my sentence was misleading then you are either self deluding or stupid.

    Fitter in the common understanding of fit is not meaningless. The fact the you think it is certainly says something.

    To wit, Dictionary.com for fit:

    1. adapted or suited; appropriate: This water isn’t fit for drinking. A long-necked giraffe is fit for browsing treetops.
    2. proper or becoming: fit behavior.
    3. qualified or competent, as for an office or function: a fit candidate.
    4. prepared or ready: crops fit for gathering.
    5. in good physical condition; in good health: He’s fit for the race.
    6. Biology. a. being adapted to the prevailing conditions and producing offspring that survive to reproductive age.
    b. contributing genetic information to the gene pool of the next generation.
    c. (of a population) maintaining or increasing the group’s numbers in the environment.

    Only one of those definitions applies to evolution, but most people don’t apply that definition. They apply one of the first five. Hence it can be misleading.

    Now, would you like me to hold your hand through any other basic concepts, or would you like to go on with more of your intellectually dishonest garbage.

    At least in the future if you are going to quote me, quote the whole fucking sentence.

  57. #57 RoninGeographer
    May 10, 2007

    In case it is of interest, I included a more nuanced version of this argument in a post I put up last year, based on Bateson – old stuff but well worth revisiting. As I said then, I’m not sure how it fits into current understanding and scientific debates about evolution so I [still] welcome comments from anyone who can put it into the current context – and will be following this discussion. Here is the relevant excerpt from that post – as context, it was about the use of market-based mechanisms for protecting ecosystem services:

    …I suspect that the problem is not so much with markets as it is with an economic system that is based on principles reminiscent of an outdated concept of Social Darwinism that fails to recognize that natural selection acts on populations rather than on individuals. This has little to do with how scientists currently understand evolution, but seems to have retained a hold on popular beliefs and ways of thinking…. a bit more background.

    Gregory Bateson – an anthropologist by training, who certainly believed in the theory of evolution (his father was the founder of genetics), saw this particular way of thinking about evolution as an error of logic that has contributed to the present environmental predicament and to disastrous social dogmas because of the profound influence it has had on how the modern world is organized. The error of logic was to regard the “survival of the fittest” as a struggle among individuals instead of as a process of selection that acts on populations, in which diversity among individuals is necessary for populations to adapt to changing conditions. An important difference between individuals and classes or groups is that classes are defined by convergent characteristics for which there is some degree of statistical probability. Individuals instead have divergent characteristics and cannot be expected to behave according to aggregate characteristics, as is assumed in any kind of deterministic approach to analysis of human behavior. So Bateson also saw a similar but opposite error in the ideas of Marx, in which events were seen as unfolding in a predictable sequence as a result of class structures, regardless of which individual is credited with starting the trend. Consistent with this idea, he also held that evolutionary theory might be very different today had Wallace rather than Darwin been the primary influence, because Wallace saw evolution in cybernetic terms, as a self-correcting system. Instead, in the prevailing image, evolution is characterized as a linear process, a force of progress, and a cause of material change, that fails to account for ecosystem organization or to recognize interdependent relationships between organisms and their environment, and that has supported delusional aspirations of overcoming the limitations of nature. Bateson had a cybernetic view of evolution, as the outcome of a process of learning that reflects “the wider knowing that holds together the starfishes and sea anemones and redwood forests and human communities” in a great “pattern that connects” that also underlies aesthetic sensibilities.

  58. #58 slavdude
    May 10, 2007

    David Heddle wrote:

    It seems to me there is a glaring inconsistency in this post. If artificial selection “would actually make the species less likely to survive, not more” then why is it exactly that “dogs greatly outnumber wolves?”
    [... Response to separate post...] Believe it or not, there are creationists who make that very charge – that bigger and deadlier mean fitter in an absolute sense – and therefore (according to them) dogs outnumbering wolves disproves evolutionary theory. Heh-I do believe it. And I made the opposite point and still got tagged, pejoratively, as a “creationist.” (Which I am, of course.)

    Have you ever had any experience with purebred dogs? I mean breeds that are, say, larger than a “standard” dog or that are smaller than “standard” or have flattened faces.

    These breeds were artificially selected for certain traits by humans over thousands of years for a variety of purposes–work, appearance, etc. Many of these traits, were they to appear in the wild, would actually select against the animal’s survival (e.g., the breathing problems that breeds such as pugs and bulldogs have due to the deformed nasal passages in their flattened skulls, or the common problems of hip dysplasia among large breeds such as Great Pyrenees). There are more dogs than wolves because dogs’ association with humans ensures an extremely high survival rate for the dogs’ offspring–I think it’s something like 98 percent as opposed to five percent for wolves born in the wild.

    I am sure much the same could be said for other domesticated species, especially those that are bred to emphasize what in nature would be defects.

  59. #59 David Heddle
    May 10, 2007

    Robert, you still haven’t demonstrated how I quote mined. Just saying “asshole” and using “f**king” does not constitute an argument.

    Did you not mean that there is a way, a “common understanding” that wolves are fitter? That is all I attributed to you.

    You could have, if you weren’t such a sissy about it, argued that I misrepresented you. You could have pointed out how I misrepresented you. But instead, you had no more to offer than to lob the cheap “creationist quote-miner!” bomb.

    Your argument now, it seems to me, is that we should look at dictionary definitions of “fit,” as if that makes your point. I’ll speculate that the science avenger meant fit in the evolutionary sense–more likely to survive and reproduce. Maybe I’m wrong.

  60. #60 dogscratcher
    May 10, 2007

    David,
    I don’t think you can separate any measure of “fitness” from the local environment. Simply put (and so circular), Lupines that are better adapted to human society (dogs) thrive there, whereas Lupines that are better adapted for “the wild” (wolves) thrive in that local environment.

  61. #61 David Heddle
    May 10, 2007

    dogscratcher,

    fair enough, but in that case is any surviving species fitter than any other? Don’t they all survive in their own local environment?

  62. #62 W. Kevin Vicklund
    May 10, 2007

    Let’s make it blunt enough for even David to understand the distinction:

    Common understanding of fitness:

    Going to the gym, working out, getting buff, etc.

    Biological fitness:

    Not being a eunuch, fucking like rabbits, dancing the horizontal tango, etc.

  63. #63 c.tower
    May 10, 2007

    As an athiest, I believe that MAN, not God, concieved of all the “morals” and “ethics” presented in those human-created texts we call “religon”. How does THAT affect this arguement?

  64. #64 Jeff Hebert
    May 10, 2007

    Raging Bee said:

    Actually, I’m a he. Where do you get the impression I’m female? (If your guess is based on my writing ability, I’ll take it as a compliment.)

    D’oh! Sorry Bee. Not that it’s an insult to be thought of as female, of course (ducks from the bottle thrown by his wife). I followed a link a long time ago to your blog and .. from there it gets hazy. Maybe I then followed a link on your site to another site where the author’s female, and got the two mixed up in my head? Apologies to you and the other readers for the mistake.

    I am SURE my last name is Hebert and not Herbert, though, so at least I have a small shred of dignity left!

    Ed said:

    Oh good, so Jeff is the one confused, not me LOL

    As usual!

  65. #65 Bored
    May 10, 2007

    Robert, you still haven’t demonstrated how I quote mined. Just saying “asshole” and using “f**king” does not constitute an argument.

    It may not be an argument, but it is an accurate assessment.

  66. #66 DuWayne
    May 10, 2007

    Jeff ????? -

    I am SURE my last name is Hebert and not Herbert, though, so at least I have a small shred of dignity left!

    Yeah, but can we really take your word on that?

  67. #67 Coin
    May 10, 2007

    dogscratcher,

    fair enough, but in that case is any surviving species fitter than any other? Don’t they all survive in their own local environment?

    The way I would look at it is that survival is the only way to measure fitness. The phrase “survival of the fittest” does more to define “fitness” than it does to predict “survival”.

    You’ll notice that this discussion in fact began with Science Avenger attempting to make the argument that “fitness” is a misleading, confusing and not very useful concept to be using in the first place. I think the fact you even perceived cause to ask these questions is a good demonstration of Science Avenger’s point.

    It’s also I think very much worth noting that the term “survival of the fittest” was not invented by biologists, but an economist…

  68. #68 JImV
    May 10, 2007

    I think it is possible to breed and genetically modify also certain subsets of humans toward certain traits we have deemed optimal. But we don’t, typically on moral and ethical grounds. So my question for those who do not subscribe to a religious belief which commands individual worth to all humans, is why don’t we do it?

    a) As pointed out above, in fact, it is being done, on an individual basis, both by religious and non-religious people.

    b) As to why it is not being done on a broader scale – first there would have to be broad scale agreement on what the optimum is. Taller people to make better basketball players, or smaller people to take up fewer resources?

    c) Secondly, religious and non-religious people who support tax cuts aren’t even willing to make sacrifices on behalf of their grandchildren – why would you think they would expend effort in some thousand-year genetics program which would only benefit future generations?

    Sorry, I don’t see the big moral or ethical dilemna here, so the question seems meaningless to me.

    As to why atheists see individual worth in (most) humans, that has been answered above, but the short answer is, we come from a long line of animals who found survival advantage in looking out for each other.

  69. #69 Monimonika
    May 10, 2007

    This has been implied in some of the comments above, but I’m not sure if it had been stated clearly.

    One reason I see that large-scale eugenics (“artificial selection by humans on humans”) would most likely fail to result in much of an improvement of the human species over natural selection is because of the limited ability of humans to intellectually know of the consequences of their choices.

    As has been mentioned about dog breeding, the human intent to artificially select for larger dogs, for instance, did succeed. However humans failed to also take into account other traits being unintentionally selected, thus resulting in breeds of large dogs that have hip dysplasia at unusually high rates (if I’m getting the dog facts wrong, feel free to point them out since I’m no expert in the field).

    Natural selection, on the other hand, has no “intent” that focuses on just a single (or even a few dozen) trait(s) while ignoring other traits and factors. It takes into account multiple, simultaneous factors (in fact, ALL factors) that humans are just not physically able to completely comprehend. The difference is illustrated nicely by the use of genetic algorithms.

    Genetic algorithms are being employed in some areas to come up with solutions to problems that are painfully difficult for human minds to figure out. See http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/genalg/genalg.html#examples for some examples. Basically, humans are just not intelligent enough to figure out how to do eugenics on a large-scale basis to get the “good” results. Unless the humans are REALLY lucky, of course. (Hmmm, it might be far better for humans to build an Improbability Drive before attempting eugenics. The results would be spectacular then.)

    And before some creationist/IDist starts to whine along the lines of “Genetic algorithms were ‘designed’ by humans, therefore the results of such algorithms are also ‘designed’ by the humans!”, let me just point out that the genetic algorithms are based on observed natural processes which were converted into (admittedly simplified/idealized) mathematical models. When something is “designed” in the IDist sense, it is usually implied that something “original” is created. Mimicry of natural processes that are already there is nowhere near “designing something original”.

  70. #70 windy
    May 10, 2007

    Josh is a really, really bright guy for whom I have immense respect and from whom I expect great things over the next few years as he moves in to his career in the law.

    “I intend to show this court that my client, as an atheist, was logically compelled to kill, and should be found not guilty.”

  71. #71 DuWayne
    May 10, 2007

    Monimonica -

    You know, I’ve always (at least since reading Adams) thought it is so very improbable that humans could build an improbability drive, that it is virtualy impossible that we won’t, entirely by accident. Therefore it is really, really impossible that we won’t, also by accident, create a superhuman race. Of course it is also likely that they will be so tiny that no one will know they exist – right up until tea-time, when they will set off a chain reaction that vaporizes the atmosphere of the earth in milliseconds. Of course this will happen so quickly that no one will acually know it happened – so it will all be for naught.

  72. #72 Mike Haubrich
    May 11, 2007

    David: the term survival of the fittest is indeed a large part of evolution. The term fittest is described as those best able to reproduce and pass on their genes. The problem arises when people who don’t understand evolution hear it and assume fittest means fastest or strongest or smartest, and assume they are superior because of whatever trait they think they possess in excess of the common person.

    That is why survival of the fittest is a misleading term, because it means something vastly different in biology than it does to most people.

    If we would like to have a new “frame” for this term, I suggest “Survival of the Fitter” or even shorter, “Survival of the Fit.” Species continue for as long as they can and then leave, and it is hardly conceivable that the 99% of all species that have ever lived now being extinct would suggest that they were never fit.

  73. #73 Boo
    May 11, 2007

    David, sorry but you totally quote mined him. Read the whole post, particularly the first two paragraphs:

    David: the term survival of the fittest is indeed a large part of evolution. The term fittest is described as those best able to reproduce and pass on their genes. The problem arises when people who don’t understand evolution hear it and assume fittest means fastest or strongest or smartest, and assume they are superior because of whatever trait they think they possess in excess of the common person.

    That is why survival of the fittest is a misleading term, because it means something vastly different in biology than it does to most people.

    His example was trying to illustrate that point, wolves are bigger, meaner, and deadlier and therefore more fit (in the common understanding of fit) than dogs, yet dogs are more fit (in a biological sense) to survive because of their symbiosis with man.

    Leaving out the first two paragraphs turns the meaning of the part you selectively quoted on its head. A cynical person might see you getting the vapors over someone including cuss words in their response as a cheap attempt to weasel out of the argument. I’d prefer not to be a cynical person, but you’re making it pretty hard here. You made a mistake. Just admit it.

  74. #74 David Heddle
    May 11, 2007

    Boo,

    I have reread the post. In responding to Robert’s post, which you quote above, I wrote:

    Robert,

    His example was trying to illustrate that point, wolves are bigger, meaner, and deadlier and therefore more fit

    It makes no sense. It is not survival of the “biggest, meanest, and deadliest.” Witness that there are no T-Rex’s roaming the badlands. It’s survival of the fittest–and in a world where man is the dominant species, dogs are fitter than wolves.

    And later I wrote,

    sounds like Robert’s point that bigger and deadlier is fitter in some absolute sense.

    I did indeed distort Robert’s position, making it sound as he advocated that view rather than he was just trying to point out a common misconception.

    I apologize to Robert.

  75. #75 Raging Bee
    May 11, 2007

    Monimonika wrote:

    Basically, humans are just not intelligent enough to figure out how to do eugenics on a large-scale basis to get the “good” results.

    Actually, it’s more a matter of motivation, and long-term concensus on what constitutes “best.” If a population find themselves beset by a genetic disease or defect, then they will try to encourage persons who carry that gene not to reproduce. And if a couple decide that they have too much chance of producing kids with a certain defect, they may decide, on their own steam, either to adopt or to remain childless. Beyond such short-term responses, however, a population will have a hard time agreeing on what traits they should artificially select, or why; and getting concensus for a legislative solution will be very unlikely, barring some less-than-rational gut-level driving force, such as greed, fear or racism — which, of course, will not lead to a rational “artificial selection” policy.

  76. #76 Chuck
    May 11, 2007

    One source of misunderstanding by creationists is the lack of appreciation for the immense geological timescales involved in evolution. They commonly set up a false distinction between microevolution, which they accept, and macroevolution, which they typically claim is the target of their skepticism about evolution. What they’re missing is that “macroevolution” is just microevolution over geological timescales, and with speciation as the logical consequence of populations becoming separated from one another and differentially adapting to the local environment as that environment changes. Over large enough timescales, the populations – which stopped interbreeding when they were separated – are recognizably different species. What’s so hard to grasp about that? Obviously you can’t carry out a physics-style experiment to “observe” speciation, but who cares? Fitness, to bring my comment back to the discussion, is what allows a population to survive in that local environment. The environment changes, fitness changes. Fitness is a function of environment and the genetic makeup of the species living in the environment. Dogs have fitness in human settlements, but if humans are wiped out, the environment will change, and dogs will not be fit. It’s not complicated, Dr. Heddle.

    On another point of contention in this discussion, human morality arises out of (1) reason, or the ability to deduce the consequences of various choices – if I kill someone, it is probable that I will either be hunted down by my victim’s family (in premodern times) or the state will find me and throw me in prison or kill me (in modern times), (2) moral emotions, which are observed in varying degrees not only in humans but other primates – and even nonprimates. It is logical that these emotions promote cohesiveness in social animals, and probably have some selective advantage. Other than that, the strong moral intuitions of human beings are probably a spandrel – emotions from the human psychological equipment working in tandem with reason to produce such concepts as love, empathy, etc. Figuring out the natural history of these intuitions is not the same thing as dismissing them, or removing them from a pedestal; understanding that they were not sent from magical invisible beings is not the same as questioning their validity or immense worth. In fact, the understanding that morality is to some degree innate and understanding the natural mechanisms by which it arises is a far firmer ground, arguably, for moral behavior than simply claiming that a personal god commands us to behave morally – and that’s because a personal God can also command us to behave immorally. Religious terrorists have described a sense of apprehension just before committing an atrocity which is the result of knowingly violating natural moral intutions – but this apprehension dissolves before their awe of Allah, or whatever other magical being they believe in.

    it really is stupid to pretend that the ability of human individuals equipped with the ability to do moral calculus and emotions and intuitions

  77. #77 David Heddle
    May 11, 2007

    Chick,
    Chuck,

    but if humans are wiped out, the environment will change, and dogs will not be fit. It’s not complicated, Dr. Heddle.

    Just out of curiosity, what I did I write that you think is in conflict with that statement?

  78. #78 DuWayne
    May 11, 2007

    As I have been thinking about this and after last nights bedtime stories with the five year old (in which we read When Whales Walked Into The Sea) it seems to me that fittest, fittness, fitter etal, is really a bad descriptive. Really, evolution is more about survival of the adaptable – indeed, evolution is adaptation.

    I just don’t understand how one can corralate fittness into the equation. It seems to me that fittlness has little to do with it. There are many creatures that are extremely “fit” that have never the less gone extinct, not because of some weakness, but through an inability to adapt, whether to climate change, the extinction of a primary food source or habitat loss.

  79. #79 DuWayne
    May 11, 2007

    As I have been thinking about this and after last nights bedtime stories with the five year old (in which we read When Whales Walked Into The Sea) it seems to me that fittest, fittness, fitter etal, is really a bad descriptive. Really, evolution is more about survival of the adaptable – indeed, evolution is adaptation.

    I just don’t understand how one can corralate fittness into the equation. It seems to me that fittlness has little to do with it. There are many creatures that are extremely “fit” that have never the less gone extinct, not because of some weakness, but through an inability to adapt, whether to climate change, the extinction of a primary food source or habitat loss.

  80. #80 David Heddle
    May 11, 2007

    Arrgh,

    The Chick, before the Chuck, in my previous comment was a pure typo.

  81. #81 Michael Ralston
    May 11, 2007

    DuWayne: Adapatability is not always selected for.

    When an environment remains relatively static for long enough, the organisms inhabiting that environment tend to genetically assimilate the “optimum” form of their adaptivity, and wind up losing the ability to adapt.

    After all, being adaptive generally has some sort of cost, and if the environment is static enough, being able to adapt in the short term is pretty well useless.

    And the creatures that were “fit” that went extinct did so because they became less fit when the environment changed on them.

  82. #82 DuWayne
    May 11, 2007

    Michael Ralston -

    I cannot claim any great knowledge of evolution, indeed much of my study of it, has been since my mother decided to read some creationist kids books to my five year old son (assuming, as I am a Christian, I wouldn’t mind). As we have delved into the origins of life, his questions have become increasingly complex. That said, I do want to respond to a couple of things I dissagree with.

    When an environment remains relatively static for long enough, the organisms inhabiting that environment tend to genetically assimilate the “optimum” form of their adaptivity, and wind up losing the ability to adapt.

    I get that, though I think your making nearly as sweeping a generalization as I, mistakenly was. The evolution of whales is a good example of an exception to that rule. They evolved in a rather static environment, yet had no real trouble adapting to serious environmental changes.

    After all, being adaptive generally has some sort of cost, and if the environment is static enough, being able to adapt in the short term is pretty well useless.

    Again, whales are an exception to this. They adapted to life in the water, because the water was a safer place to feed than land, where their were predators capable of feasting on them.

    And the creatures that were “fit” that went extinct did so because they became less fit when the environment changed on them.

    At risk of sounding like a pedantic ass, this just doesn’t make any sense to me. If fitness is a factor, their environment became less fit for them, not the other way around. The lack of adaptability, or change, caused their extinction, not some decrease in fitness. Creatures that could adapt to the changes, whether they be dietary or weather related, survived.

    Even in a static environment, evolution seems to be adaptation. Whether it’s plant eating dino’s growing to immense size, to make them too big to kill, or meat eaters moving on two legs to gain height on larger herbivores, it seems that the ability to adapt, is more an instrument of evolution than fitness. All told though, this seems more semantic than anything else.

  83. #83 Monimonika
    May 11, 2007

    Raging Bee,

    Even when motivated with a supposed clear, objective idea of what traits in humans are to be encouraged or discouraged, the eugenics project will still fail due to the inevitable lack of knowledge as to all the factors involved.

    Even the example you give about convincing people with known genetic diseases/defects to willingly choose not to pass on their genes does not take into account other traits that are also going to be unintentionally selected against. This is because you (and pretty much every other human, including me) are simplifying the person/group down to a few obvious traits and ignoring the rest of what the person/group consists of and the overall sum effect of all of the traits/factors combined in that person/group. Not to mention that there are also (changing) environmental/on-human factors that will affect the observed advantages/disadvantages for that person/group.

    Maybe some of those genetically defective people have other traits that make up for the defect. Maybe the defect would be found to be linked to another trait that would, in the future, prove to be advantageous. Maybe the people who have a supposedly very good trait will turn out to have a linked trait that would prove to be highly disadvantageous in the future. Maybe some disadvantageous traits will eventually combine into a unique, advantageous trait.

    And yet the fact remains that all of the “maybe”s I just listed are STILL overly simplistic and ignorant of complex reality. We could try coming up with calculations on what is likely to happen if we follow certain courses of actions, but then we’d probably end up with genetic algorithms (and we’re already being subjected to the real thing :P).

  84. #84 slavdude
    May 11, 2007

    David Heddle wrote:

    If surviving “in the wild” is the important criterion, then of course modern man is not very fit either.

    Precisely. We are not very strong physically, we have little innate protection against the elements, and we have a unique set of health problems relating to our anatomical makeup. The difference, of course, is our intelligence and all of the constructs that come with it (morality, culture, etc.) that we evolved to compensate for our natural weaknesses.

  85. #85 windy
    May 12, 2007

    Precisely. We are not very strong physically, we have little innate protection against the elements, and we have a unique set of health problems relating to our anatomical makeup. The difference, of course, is our intelligence and all of the constructs that come with it (morality, culture, etc.) that we evolved to compensate for our natural weaknesses.

    If we were that crappy without intelligence, then australopithecines would not have survived in the wild, either. (sure they had intelligence, morality and culture, but no more than chimps, and they should have had the health problems of an upright walker besides.)

    If traits like losing our hair, small teeth, etc. had considerably lowered our fitness in the wild, they would not have evolved in the first place. Either those traits were selected for, or they correlated with another trait: they predate advanced culture too much to be pure weaknesses that need to be compensated for.

  86. #86 Nebogipfel
    May 12, 2007

    If we would like to have a new “frame” for this term, I suggest “Survival of the Fitter” or even shorter, “Survival of the Fit.”

    I would propose “Survival of the Roundest Pegs”
    As in, you can’t fit a square peg in a round hole….

  87. #87 Nebogipfel
    May 12, 2007

    If fitness is a factor, their environment became less fit for them, not the other way around.
    The lack of adaptability, or change, caused their extinction, not some decrease in fitness.

    I think these are just two ways of saying the same thing. If you can survive long enough in a changed environment to reproduce, you are, from an evolutionary perspective, “fit” for that environment. “Apdaptability” is just another way of saying, “My environment has changed, but I’m still fit”.

  88. #88 Monimonika
    May 12, 2007

    Nebolgipfel,

    I think that last sentence should read,

    “My environment has changed, but I still fit (with the environment).”

The site is undergoing maintenance presently. Commenting has been disabled. Please check back later!