Flattery is nice when you can get it

Andrew Brown is so kind: he calls me one of America’s most notorious atheists in an opinion piece on the wretched Archbishop Chimoio. He also makes an interesting game theoretic argument that, in purely pragmatic terms, the Catholic Church in Africa is simply following a winning strategy that maximizes the differential fitness of their group. It’s probably true, except that I think a rational secular strategy would work best of all … if anyone were playing that side of the game.


  1. #1 Blake Stacey
    September 28, 2007

    Of course, such a strategy presumes that (a) Catholics never ever ever get infected and never ever ever stray from the behavior codes demanded by doctrine. Also, (b) it neglects how an epidemic affects everybody, not just those it infects, through problems like rising healthcare costs and social unrest.

  2. #2 Brownian
    September 28, 2007

    Caledonian, can we at least agree that evolution is not our friend? There are multiple levels where that is true, surely you can find one that you agree with.

    As to viewing everything through the lens of human preference, well yeah, duh, I’m human. So are you.

    Sorry, but Caledonian’s spot on here. We can certainly make claims about our own human interest, but it makes no more sense to say that evolution is or is not our friend then it does to say that wind or water are/n’t our friends.

  3. #3 Brownian
    September 28, 2007

    #13, I don’t follow. Isn’t saying “evolution is indifferent to our interests” basically just a more moderated (but wordy) way of saying “evolution is not our friend”? (Which in turn is *not* the same as saying “evolution is our enemy”.)

    Maybe, but why wouldn’t you just say “evolution is indifferent to our interests” and avoid the risk of the unintended connotations of anthropomorphism?

    I mean, it’s true to say “evolution doesn’t like chocolate”, “evolution doesn’t think it’s fat”, or “evolution hasn’t called me just to say ‘hello’ in the last month”, but that doesn’t mean one should.

    We already live in a society in which the majority of its members don’t understand and are hostile to the theory of evolution. I don’t see how sloppy writing and speech is going to help that situation.

  4. #4 Brownian
    September 28, 2007

    C’mon, sailor, you’re just splitting hairs. I mean, they’re all black, aren’t they?

    Actually, good point. I wondered about the statistic, but I completely missed that he was talking about African-Americans, not Africans. The two groups, as most any African immigrant to the US will tell you, are no more alike than Africans and Vietnamese-Americans (well, other than skin colour and an affinity for hip-hop.)

  5. #5 Andrew Brown
    September 29, 2007

    K. Signal Eingang has nailed exactly what I was trying to say.

    Brownian, Sailor — what on earth has blackness got to do with the general argument that religion affects behaviour, and behaviour affects reproductive fitness?

    I’m not, of course, arguing that religion always or everywhere affects behaviour in the ways it claims to do, or even in the ways the believers suppose it does. But it doesn’t have to, to have an effect.

  6. #6 Arnosium Upinarum
    September 29, 2007

    Denis: i’m afraid Caledonian and Brownian are quite correct.

    I can appreciate what you are TRYING to say (I think) but in saying,

    “evolution is NOT our friend. It’s a mindless, horribly wasteful process. One that doesn’t care if humans as a species live or die”

    you unwittingly invest it with a behavior (antagonistically) linked to human interests.

    Yet its entirely possible to FAVORABLY IDENTIFY WITH nature (and natural processes like evolution) without the personification baggage. Your observation that anti-evolutionists charge scientists with “approving” rather than “accepting” evolution is well taken as far as it goes, but it implies that scientists find the process to be somehow unwholesome despite themselves. It may be “horribly wasteful” from selected points of view, but seen from an appropriately distant perspective, all that “waste” looks rather essential to the process. Efficiency has nothing to do with it. Yes, “it doesn’t care”. And it doesn’t care that it doesn’t care, ad infinitum. We’re the ones who do all the caring. So long as we do, we don’t need to worry that nature doesn’t. That’s the lesson that religionists find so difficult to assimilate.

    I certainly don’t feel any discomfort in having to “accept” what’s been abundantly demonstrated to be the reality, and I think most scientists share a sense of elation in the process by which nature produces complexity. Knowing a bit about how nature works helps us identify with a reality independent of ourselves. Its a beautiful thing. Not at all icky or dangerous.

    All this reminds me of a curious statement made by a “crazy, psalm-singing, skinny old maid”:

    “Nature, Mr. Alnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.”

    The quotes come from the characters played by Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn, respectively, in “The African Queen”.

    It boils down to this: either one likes what one sees, or one doesn’t. (One may guess where religionists and scientists come down on that pair of reactions). All the higher-order rest – approval, acceptance, identification, etc. – hinge on that basic human criterion: like it or not”.

    The idea that evolution (or nature) ‘isn’t our friend’ is easily rejectable. Its not only incomplete its potentially misleading. It may imply its our enemy. It may also mean its utterly indifferent. At its worst, it suggests that nature has an agenda with respect to us. It has nothing to do with friendship, good or bad, at all.

    Any way you look at it, the assertion only goes toe deep into the shallows and carries with it the complaint of getting wet…or that the ocean has gotten a bit drier.

  7. #7 Kausik Datta
    September 29, 2007

    ArchWay, what others (Caledonian, Blake Stacey and Brownian) have been trying to say here is that YOU may be kindly disposed towards evolution, for the benefits YOU think it has given YOU (capitalization for emphasis only). Evolution, the process, as well as the universe at large, does not give a damn either way. In anthropomorphic terms (just for the sake of understanding), evolution is neither a friend nor foe to anyone or anything. It is an inevitable process, whether you like the outcomes or not.

  8. #8 Brownian
    September 29, 2007

    Brownian, Sailor — what on earth has blackness got to do with the general argument that religion affects behaviour, and behaviour affects reproductive fitness?

    Nothing, I think. I’m glad to read that you don’t think there’s a relationship between the two either. Your use of a statistic about African-American males in a piece about Africans suggested that you might have thought otherwise.

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