Evolving Thoughts

Congrats, and stuff

One of my two favourite ethicists has just got tenure. Now she can say what she really thinks. [I don’t know who started the canard that ethicists are unethical. The two I know are very ethical indeed. Probably a decision theorist.]

Language Log gives voice to the oft-repeated but (so far as I can tell, rarely supported) claim that humans are somehow smarter than other animals when children because they can hold a conversation. Still, they are right to be critical of journalistic tropes.

I nearly forgot to link to Kate Devitt’s latest blog entry on memory. Here she discusses how collaboration (social memory) can reduce false memory. Someone should have reminded me.

Rockefeller University has a site up with downloadable or online-viewable lectures from a symposium on evolution. I particularly like the one by Ford Doolittle.

David Barash, the evolutionary psychologist (that’s a caution!) discusses how honour evolved at the Chronicle of Higher Education. Personally I think honour arises out of social dominance, but that’s just me – everything is social dominance these days.

Inverse Square Blog has some critical, and I think correct, things to say about scientists like Dawkins who think good science writing can only be done by scientists; which is the inverse of the claim discussed by Pharyngula that only science communicators can write about science. Neither is correct. Let a thousand flowers blossom!

For those who like possible worlds, there’s a new entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Leibniz’s view of modality (which as literate readers know was caricatured by Voltaire in Candide as Dr Pangloss’ view that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds). As I’m trying to come to grips with two-dimensional semantics, in which intensions are the extension of a term in each possible world, I guess I ought to read this one.

And finally, I seem to have attracted a rare form of netloon: someone who has published in a legitimate forum, but who takes every opportunity to add some other argument by assertion. Yes, Mats Envall, I’m talking to you. Stop it or get banned. When and if I get the time to discuss your essay, then you can respond, and I expect you will in volumes. Until then you are just coming off as a nut. I don’t tolerate it in creationists and I won’t tolerate it in you.


  1. #1 Jason Rosenhouse
    May 23, 2008

    Where on Earth are you getting the idea that Dawkins thinks good science writing can only be done by scientists? The blog entry you linked to harps on Dawkins’ statetment that, “This is a collection of good science writing by professional scientists, not excursions into science by professional writers.” I see nothing snide or dismissive in that, and I’d be very surprised if Dawkins meant it to be taken that way. I saw a simple statement of fact about what sort of anthology he produced.

    When I first got a copy of the book I was surprised and annoyed that it contained nothing by Isaac Asimov. After reading the introduction I understood why Dawkins had left him out. It never even occurred to me to read anything more into the introduction than that.

  2. #2 Pubcat
    May 23, 2008

    Hrmm…As someone who has ‘done’, and would like to do more science, and is trying to study science communication, I am feeling less and less qualified to write about science…
    Or maybe its studying philosophy of science that is leading me astray.
    Which ever way you look at it, I think there can be such a thing as looking at a problem from too many points of view, in terms of productivity.

  3. #3 John S. Wilkins
    May 23, 2008

    Jason, perhaps it seems inadvertent, or that it just happened that scientific writers are all scientists in that book, but the mere fact that only scientists were chosen is, I think, telling. Only a few scientists are writers on the order of Ed Wilson or Frans de Waal. Most cannot write to save their lives. Generally, the best scientific writing is done by those who make their living that way – Carl Zimmer being the obvious local identity, but David Quammen is an equally good example.

    But maybe you are right and it is best not to make too much of it.

  4. #4 Wes
    May 24, 2008

    scientists like Dawkins who think good science writing can only be done by scientists

    So should we expect Dawkins to start telling Daniel Dennett not to write on evolution any more?

  5. #5 Sandgroper
    May 25, 2008

    Why do I think “fertilizing inputs” is a particularly apropropriate description?

  6. #6 Russell Blackford
    May 26, 2008

    You know, there’s a sense in which ethicists should be “unethical”, moral philosophers should be “immoral”, etc. Our role is not to conform to whatever conventional moral code our society has inherited, much less to support it. Our role is to investigate, attempt to understand, and and if necessary even debunk, the phenomenon of morality.

  7. #7 John S. Wilkins
    May 26, 2008

    I think I agree with you on that, Russell, but it is interesting how many ethicists end up supporting the conventional morality anyway. Or going as far in the other direction as they can.

  8. #8 Blake Stacey
    May 28, 2008

    Oh, for the love of. . . . I’ve got Dawkins’s anthology right on my desk. Here’s the paragraph, the full paragraph, whose first sentence has caused so much strife:

    This is a collection of good writing by professional scientists, not excursions into science by professional writers. Another difference from John Carey’s admirable Faber Book of Science is that we go back only one century. Within that century, no attempt was made to arrange the pieces chronologically. Instead, the selections fall roughly into four themes, although some of the entries could have fitted into more than one of those divisions. My biggest regret concerns the number of excellent scientists that I have had to leave out, for reasons of space. I would apologize to them, did I not suspect that my own pain at their omission is greater than theirs. The collection is limited to the English language and, with very few exceptions, I have omitted translations from books originally composed in other languages.

    Bold emphasis mine. If a book edited on different principles is, I quote, “admirable”, then what exactly is the problem?

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