Pharyngula

People who don’t understand modern evolutionary theory shouldn’t be writing books criticizing evolutionary theory. That sounds like rather pedestrian and obvious advice, but it’s astonishing how often it’s ignored — the entire creationist book publishing industry demands a steady supply of completely clueless authors who think their revulsion at the implications of Darwinian processes is sufficient to compensate for their ignorance. And now Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, a philosopher and a cognitive scientist, step up to the plate with their contribution to this genre of uninformed folly.

I haven’t read their book, What Darwin Got Wrong, and I don’t plan to; they’ve published a brief summary in New Scientist (a magazine that is evolving into a platform for sensationalistic evolution-deniers, sad to say), and that was enough. It’s breathtaking in its foolishness, and is sufficient to show the two authors are parading about quite nakedly unashamed of their lack of acquaintance with even the most rudimentary basics of modern evolutionary biology.

In our book, we argue in some detail that much the same [they are comparing evolution to Skinner's behaviorism] is true of Darwin’s treatment of evolution: it overestimates the contribution the environment makes in shaping the phenotype of a species and correspondingly underestimates the effects of endogenous variables. For Darwin, the only thing that organisms contribute to determining how next-generation phenotypes differ from parent-generation phenotypes is random variation. All the non-random variables come from the environment.

Suppose, however, that Darwin got this wrong and various internal factors account for the data. If that is so, there is inevitably less for environmental filtering to do.

I am entirely sympathetic with the argument that naive views of evolution that pretend that populations are infinite plastic and can respond to almost any environmental demand, given enough time, are wrong. I appreciate a good corrective to the excesses of adaptationism; evolution is much more interesting and diverse than the kind of simplistic whetstone it is too often reduced to, but we don’t need bad critiques that veer off into the lunacy of selection-denial. It’s also literally true that Darwin was completely wrong on the basic mechanisms of inheritance operating in organisms — he didn’t know about genes, postulated the existence of distributed information about the organization of tissues and organs that was encapsulated in unobserved mystery blobs called “gemmules” that migrated from the arm, for instance, to the gonads, to pass along instructions on how to build an arm to the gametes. Telling us that Darwin got the chain of information wrong is nothing new or interesting.

It also gets the problem backwards. Darwin’s proposed mechanism actually supported the idea of the inheritance of acquired characters, and as Fodor wants to argue, encouraged the idea that organisms were more responsive to environmental effects than they actually are. The neo-Darwinian synthesis melded the new science of genetics with evolutionary theory, and did make “various internal factors” much more important. They’re called genes.

What do you get when authors who know nothing about genetics and evolution write about genetics and evolution?

This is what makes Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini’s ideas so embarrassingly bad. They seem to know next to nothing about genetics, and so when they discover something that has been taken for granted by scientists for almost a century, they act surprised and see it as a death-stroke for Darwinism. It’s rather like reading about the saltationist/biometrician wars of the early 1900s, when Mendel was first rediscovered and some people argued that the binary nature of the ‘sports’ described in analyses of inheritance meant the incremental changes described by Darwin were impossible. The ‘problems’ were nonexistent, and were a product merely of our rudimentary understanding of genetics — it was resolved by eventually understanding that most characters of an organism were the product of many genes working together, and that some mutations do cause graded shifts in the phenotype.

Here, for instance, is one of their astonishing revelations about the nature of inheritance:

Darwinists say that evolution is explained by the selection of phenotypic traits by environmental filters. But the effects of endogenous structure can wreak havoc with this theory. Consider the following case: traits t1 and t2 are endogenously linked in such a way that if a creature has one, it has both. Now the core of natural selection is the claim that phenotypic traits are selected for their adaptivity, that is, for their effect on fitness. But it is perfectly possible that one of two linked traits is adaptive but the other isn’t; having one of them affects fitness but having the other one doesn’t. So one is selected for and the other “free-rides” on it.

That is so trivially true that it is a good point to make if you are addressing somebody who is biologically naive, and I think it is a valuable concept to emphasize to the public. But this is Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini chastising biologists with this awesome fact as if we’ve been neglecting it. It’s baffling. Linkage is a core concept in genetics; Alfred Sturtevant and Thomas Morgan worked it out in about 1913, and it’s still current. The genographic project, which is trying to map out the history of human populations, uses haplotype data — clusters of alleles tend to stay clumped together, only occasionally broken up by recombination, so their arrangements can be used as markers for geneology. The default assumption is that these sets of alleles are not the product of selection, but of chance and history!

They might also look up the concepts of linkage disequilibrium and epistasis. Are we already aware of “free-riding,” background effects, and interactions between genes? Yes, we are. Do we think every trait in every individual is the product of specific selection? You might be able to find a few weird outliers who insist that they are, and perhaps more who regard that as a reasonable default assumption to begin an analysis, but no, it’s obvious that it can’t be true.

It also should be obvious that a fact of genetics that has been known for almost a century and that was part of the neo-Darwinian synthesis from the very beginning isn’t going to suddenly become a disproof of the synthesis when belatedly noticed by a philosopher and neuroscientist in the 21st century.

This time it’s personal: abusing evo-devo

As bad as building an argument on the faulty premise of ignorance might be, there’s another approach that Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini take that is increasingly common, and personally annoying: the use of a growing synthesis of evolutionary ideas with developmental biology to claim that evolution is dead. This is rather like noting that the replacement of carburetors with electronic fuel injection systems means that internal combustion engines are about to be extinct — evo-devo is a refinement of certain aspects of biology that has, we think, significant implications for evolution, especially of multicellular organisms. It is not a new engine. People who claim it is understand neither development nor evolution.

Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini throw around a few buzzwords that tell me right away where they’re coming from: they’re jumping on that strange structuralist bandwagon, the one that shows some virtue when the likes of Brian Goodwin are arguing for it, but is also prone to appealing to crackpots like Pivar and Fleury and the ridiculous Suzan Mazur…and now, Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini.

The consensus view among neo-Darwinians continues to be that evolution is random variation plus structured environmental filtering, but it seems the consensus may be shifting. In our book we review a large and varied selection of non-environmental constraints on trait transmission. They include constraints imposed “from below” by physics and chemistry, that is, from molecular interactions upwards, through genes, chromosomes, cells, tissues and organisms. And constraints imposed “from above” by universal principles of phenotypic form and self-organisation — that is, through the minimum energy expenditure, shortest paths, optimal packing and so on, down to the morphology and structure of organisms.

It’s a shame, too, because there really is some beautiful work done by the structuralist pioneers — this is a field that combines art and mathematics, and has some truly elegant theoretical perspectives. I read the paragraph above and knew instantly what they are referring to — the work of D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson. This D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson:

For the harmony of the world is made manifest in Form and Number, and the heart and soul and all the poetry of Natural Philosophy are embodied in the concept of mathematical beauty.

Ah, but I love Thompson. He wrote the best developmental biology book ever, On Growth and Form, the one that will make you think the most if you can get past the flowery prose (or better yet, enjoy the flowery prose) and avoid throwing it against the wall with great force. It’s another hundred-year-old (almost) book, you see, and Thompson never quite grasped the idea of genes.

The summary I read doesn’t mention the name Thompson even once, but I can see him standing tall in the concepts Fodor is crowing over. My inference was confirmed in a review by Mary Midgley (who, it has rumored, has actually written some sensible philosophy…but every time I’ve read her remarks on biology, comes across as a notable pinhead).

Besides this — perhaps even more interestingly — the laws of physics and chemistry themselves take a hand in the developmental process. Matter itself behaves in characteristic ways which are distinctly non-random. Many natural patterns, such as the arrangement of buds on a stem, accord with the series of Fibonacci numbers, and Fibonacci spirals are also observed in spiral nebulae. There are, moreover, no flying pigs, on account of the way in which bones arrange themselves. I am pleased to see that Fodor and Piattelli Palmarini introduce these facts in a chapter headed “The Return of the Laws of Form” and connect them with the names of D’Arcy Thompson, Conrad Waddington and Ilya Prigogine. Though they don’t actually mention Goethe, that reference still rightly picks up an important, genuinely scientific strand of investigation which was for some time oddly eclipsed by neo-Darwinist fascination with the drama of randomness and the illusory seductions of simplicity.

Her whole review is like that; she clearly adores the fact that those biologists are getting taken down a peg or two, and thinks it delightful that poor long-dead Thompson is the stiletto used to take them out. I’ve got a few words for these clowns posturing on the evo-devo stage.

D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson was wrong.

Elegantly wrong, but still wrong. He just never grasped how much of genetics explained the mathematical beauty of biology, and it’s a real shame — if he were alive today, I’m sure he’d be busily applying network theory to genetic interactions.

Let’s consider that Fibonacci sequence much beloved by poseurs. It’s beautiful, it is so simple, it appears over and over again in nature, surely it must reflect some intrinsic, fundamentally mathematical ideal inherent in the universe, some wonderful cosmic law — it appears in the spiral of a nautilus shell as well as the distribution of seeds in the head of a sunflower, so it must be magic. Nope. In biology, it’s all genes and cellular interactions, explained perfectly well by the reductionism Midgley deplores.

The Fibonacci sequence (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8…each term generated by summing the previous two terms) has long had this kind of semi-mystical aura about it. It’s related to the Golden Ratio, phi, of 1.6180339887… because, as you divide each term by the previous term, the ratio tends towards the Golden Ratio as you carry the sequence out farther and farther. It also provides a neat way to generate logarithmic spirals, as we seen in sunflowers and nautiluses. And that’s where the genes sneak in.

There’s an easy way to generate a Fibonacci sequence graphically, using the method of whirling squares. Look at this diagram:

i-900b3f3feb71a113e1971a2082c4cd22-whirlingsquares.jpeg

Start with a single square on a piece of graph paper. Working counterclockwise in this example, draw a second square with sides of the same length next to it. Then a third square with the same dimensions on one side as the previous two squares. Then a fourth next to the previous squares…you get the idea. You can do this until you fill up the whole sheet of paper. Now look at the lengths of each side of the squares in the series — it’s the Fibonacci sequence, no surprise at all there.

You can also connect the corners with a smooth curve, and what emerges is a very pretty spiral — like a nautilus shell.

i-a8d33d00d30a407772e1bd40d786dc90-spiral.jpeg

It’s magic! Or, it’s mathematics, which sometimes seems like magic! But it’s also simple biology. I look at the whirling squares with the eyes of a developmental biologist, and what do I see? A simple sequential pattern of induction. A patch of cells uses molecules to signal an adjacent patch of cells to differentiate into a structure, and then together they induce a larger adjacent patch, and together they induce an even larger patch…the pattern is a consequence of a mathematical property of a series expressed on a 2-dimensional sheet, but the actual explanation for why it recurs in nature is because it’s what happens when patches of cells recruit adjacent cells in a temporal sequence. Abstract math won’t tell you the details of how it happens; for that, you need to ask what are the signaling molecules and what are the responding genes in the sunflower or the mollusc. That’s where Thompson and these new wankers of the pluralist wedge fail — they stop at the cool pictures and the mathematical formulae and regard the mechanics of implementation as non-essential details, when it’s precisely those molecular details that generate the emergent property that dazzles them.

Let’s consider another classic Thompson example. Thompson was well-known for his work on how different forms could be generated by allometric transformations, and here’s one of his illustrations showing the relationship between the shape of the pelvis in Archaeopteryx and Apatornis, a Cretaceous bird. He’s making the point that one seems to be a relatively simple geometric transformation of the other, that you could describe one in terms of the changes in a coordinate grid.

i-383bd3426972df521d021de413631e57-pelvis_matrix-thumb-400x156-41497.jpeg

By use of simple mathematical transforms, one can generate a whole range of intermediates, fitting perfectly with the Darwinian idea of incremental change over time. Again, this is where Thompson falls short; he’s so enamored with the ideal of a mathematical order that he doesn’t consider the implementation of the algorithm in real biology.

i-0282ef85a4b8cd614066fa17f2dfef7b-pelves.jpeg

That mechanism of making the transformation is the crucial step. Thompson can see it as a distortion of a coordinate grid, but there is no grid in the organism. What there are are populations of cells in the developing embryo that interact with each other through molecular signals and changes in gene expression; the form is the product of an internal network of genes regulating each other, not an external ideal. Ignore the artificial grid, and imagine instead a skein of genes in a complex regulatory network, changes in one gene propagating as changes in the pattern of expression of other genes. A mutation in one gene tugs on the whole skein, changing the outcome of development in a way that is, by the nature of the whole complex, going to involve shifts in the pattern of the whole regulated structure.

There is nothing in this concept that vitiates our modern understanding of evolutionary theory, the whole program of studying changes in genes and their propagation through populations. That’s the mechanism of evolutionary change. What evo-devo does is add another dimension to the issue: how does a mutation in one gene generate a ripple of alterations in the pattern of expression of other genes? How does a change in a sequence of DNA get translated into a change in form and physiology?

Those are interesting and important questions, and of course they have consequences on evolutionary outcomes…but they don’t argue against genetics, population genetics, speciation theory, mutation, selection, drift, or the whole danged edifice of modern evolutionary biology. To argue otherwise is like claiming the prettiness of a flower is evidence against the existence of a root.

We’re all pluralists now

We’re just not all willing to admit it, and some of us tend to overemphasize our own disciplines too much. I admit that I think the most interesting, key innovations in metazoan evolution all involve shifts in gene regulation — recombinations of genes, novel interactions between genes being more important than new genes themselves. Others will argue that those are changes in genes, and that focusing on regulation is not so much a dramatic revolution as a narrowing of interest to a subset of heritable change. I will say that evolutionary history is dominated by random chance, that all those “free-riders” that Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini sieze upon as arguments against evolution are actually the coolest aspects of evolution, and represent the bulk of the diversity and specializations that we see in the natural world. Others will argue that selection is the engine of functionality, the one process that produces useful adaptations.

We’re all arguing for the same core ideas, though, just emphasizing different aspects. Life on earth evolved. Selection is the process that produces more efficient matching of organism to the environment, chance is the process that produces greater diversity. We all study these processes through our own lenses, our own specialties, and complaining that Charles Darwin’s lens had defects is irrelevant and silly — we already knew that, just as we all know our own lenses are imperfect. That’s why we all work together and argue and argue and argue, testing our ideas, trying to work out clearer, closer approximations to the truth.

Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini are following on a grand tradition of noticing the fact that evolution is complex and uses a multiplicity of mechanisms to play one strand of science against another; that because one discipline emphasizes selection and another emphasizes diversity and another emphasizes regulation and another emphasizes coding sequences, the differences between each mean the whole tapestry must be wrong. It’s fallacious reasoning. (I must also add that arguing that just one strand is the important one is also the wrong way to address the problem.) All it demonstrates is that they are blind to the big picture of evolutionary biology.

It’s also embarrassing to a developmental biologist that they should try to ride our field as if it were a refutation of that big picture of evolutionary biology. They can talk about constraints and gene regulatory networks and developmental mechanics all they want, but don’t be fooled: neither Fodor nor Piattelli-Palmarini are developmental biologists. Their authority is that of the bystanding dilettante, and while they mouth the words, they don’t seem to grasp the meaning.

Comments

  1. #1 Sven DiMilo
    February 23, 2010

    Coyne links these guys:

    ?They do not have new data, new theory, close acquaintance with the everyday practice of evolutionary investigations, or any interest in supplying alternative explanations of evolutionary phenomena. Instead, they wield philosophical tools to locate a ?conceptual fault line? in contemporary Darwinism. Apparently unshaken by withering criticism of Fodor?s earlier writings about evolutionary theory, they write with complete assurance, confident that their limited understanding of biology suffices for their critical purpose. The resulting argument is doubly flawed: it is biologically irrelevant and philosophically confused

    pwn’d

  2. #2 Nerd of Redhead, OM
    February 23, 2010

    A nice take-down PZ. Good lunch reading.

  3. #3 Glen Davidson
    February 23, 2010

    Like the IDiots, these idiots don’t bother to explain anything that “Darwinism” explains, the limits, the constraints, the otherwise weird modifications of apparently unpromising organs (like terrestrial forelimbs) into exquisite structures (like bird wings).

    Isn’t whining about science enough? Why not throw out working science, when you have nothing workable with which to replace it, and a bunch of sorry objections to shit you don’t understand?

    There’s nothing wrong with philosophers critiquing science–provided that they trouble to learn it in the first place.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

  4. #4 Brownian, OM
    February 23, 2010

    Holy shit, PZ. You been taking Orac lessons?

    I can’t believe they just clued in to linked traits. They must have just finished their final exam in genetics 101.

    What purpose do creationists, like AGW-deniers, serve? Are they food?

    I’m going to start treating them as food.

  5. #5 broboxley
    February 23, 2010

    Their authority is that of the bystanding dilettante
    that makes them far ahead of me in the understanding of genes and hereditary.
    Since there is a lot of junk sequences or sequences we dont understand in dna is it possible that turning one of these hot due to some environmental pressure triggers mutations and evolution or is the enhancement further up the biological path?

  6. #6 Glen Davidson
    February 23, 2010
  7. #7 Jadehawk, OM
    February 23, 2010

    aaah, a good dose of biology and idiot-pwning, served with the first cup of coffee. the day is starting out well :-)

  8. #8 raven
    February 23, 2010

    Mordor:

    Consider the following case: traits t1 and t2 are endogenously linked in such a way that if a creature has one, it has both. Now the core of natural selection is the claim that phenotypic traits are selected for their adaptivity, that is, for their effect on fitness. But it is perfectly possible that one of two linked traits is adaptive but the other isn’t; having one of them affects fitness but having the other one doesn’t. So one is selected for and the other “free-rides” on it.

    This never happens for long. It is simply wrong, incorrect science.

    Recombination during meiosis takes care of linkage sooner or later. It is one recombination per megabase in humans. One can see recombination between different alleles in the same gene, intragenic recombination.

    This is basic biology and it was known in the early 20th century.

    Mordor just set up a strawperson. And then coldbloodly murdered it. Won’t someone think of the poor strawpeople?

  9. #9 nigelTheBold
    February 23, 2010

    What is it with the philosophical adoration of Plato and his Forms? The link between some galaxy shapes and nautilus shells via the Fibonacci sequence is not magical in any way. There’s no Fibonacci gnome going around making pretty shapes.

    I suppose next philosophers are going to realize if you have one galaxy, and then you get another galaxy, you have two galaxies. And the same thing with sand dollars! If you have one sand dollar, and someone gives you another, you have two sand dollars. Just like the galaxies!

    Oh my gosh! There must be a force at work for which we have not accounted!

    I shall call this fallacy Fibonacci’s Mask. This is cool, ’cause it’s related to the Masked Man Fallacy, but math is the tool used in the bait’n’switch.

    Why does this seem like an erudite version of the transcendental argument for god? Or am I just all confused? Or drunk.

  10. #10 Laffo
    February 23, 2010

    One does not simply WALK into Fordor!

  11. #11 raven
    February 23, 2010

    google captures:

    pseudoallele : DefinitionDefinition of pseudoallele. … that is wild-type recombinants can be recovered by intragenic recombination from heterozygotes containing two different …
    http://www.everythingbio.com/glos/definition.php?…pseudoallele – Cached – Similar

    pseudoallele definitionJul 26, 2004 … that is wild-type recombinants can be recovered by intragenic recombination from heterozygotes containing two different pseudoalleles. …
    http://www.biochem.northwestern.edu/…/Def-P/pseudoallele.html – Cached – Similar

    One can see recombination between alleles in the same gene. Called intragenic recombination. These alleles can be very close, hundreds or thousands of bases between them.

    Consider the following case: traits t1 and t2 are endogenously linked in such a way that if a creature has one, it has both.

    Mordor got the basic science completely wrong. His endogenously linked genes can and will be broken up and separated by recombination. Which means everything after that is just nonsense.

  12. #12 Lynna, OM
    February 23, 2010

    Thanks for this PZ (and a secondary thanks to Coyne as well). As PZ noted, we are all pluralists.

    I like Fibonacci sequences. They’re intellectually and artistically appealing. To draw an inaccurate conclusion from their existence in nature offends me. I feel personally insulted.

  13. #13 Matt Bright
    February 23, 2010

    To be fair to Midgely (there’s no being fair to these buffoons, by the sound of things), it’s worth mentioning that the Authors seem to be going at this over a worry about the sort of popular rhetoric around evolution that threatens to tip across into prescriptive morality

    This does need worrying about. Selfishness is a human-level behaviour that can’t be applied to genes. ‘Memes’ are an unhelpful, dangerously reductive concept. Matt Ridley is, when all is said and done, a bit of a cock.

    Midgely worries about this too, it’s just that she does it better (Science and Poetry is her classic for me), and hasn’t up to now tried to deny the science itself. It’s a shame here that she seems to be so delighted to have found allies of any sort that she hasn’t noticed the is-ought barrier ibeing violated the other way. Claiming that the morality invalidates the science is every bit as stupid as claiming that science tells you anything about morality.

  14. #14 joeyess
    February 23, 2010

    Being a layperson, I’m gonna make a wild assumption that if this were a term paper for one of your classes, you would probably, for a moment, question your teaching skills, then realize that the students that wrote the paper were just plain stupid and fail them?

    Then, after they received their grades, and looked at you with a bewildered longing, you would gently pat them on the back and say “I guess this ain’t your field, folks.”

  15. #15 Zeno
    February 23, 2010

    I’d say that I wish the mystics would leave math alone, except for the fact that a fair number of mathematicians have a mystical side of their own. We have perhaps pandered to those of a numerological bent when we allow the use of terms like “the golden ratio,” as if there’s something magical about it. The golden ratio and the Fibonacci sequence clearly model something that tends to crop up in the natural world. Given the recursive definition of the Fibonacci sequence, perhaps that’s not so amazing. And it’s certainly not a miraculously hidden message from God.

    That won’t stop people like Dan Brown, however, from making a hash of math and the golden ratio in his goofy books. And critics of science from getting their woo on.

  16. #16 Cuttlefish, OM
    February 23, 2010

    For what it is worth, they are wrong about Skinner’s Radical Behaviorism as well. Todd & Morris wrote “Case studies in the great power of steady misrepresentation” (title based on a quote of Darwin) to address precisely the misunderstandings in their dismissal of behaviorism.

    Shoddy.

  17. #17 tommorris
    February 23, 2010

    If you don’t want to read the book, you can always hear what Fodor has to say in this talk he gave at the University of Oslo:
    http://www.csmn.uio.no/podcast/Fodor2.html

  18. #18 Richard Smith
    February 23, 2010

    Their authority is that of the bystanding dilettante, and while they mouth the words, they don’t seem to grasp the meaning.

    They’re biology’s equivalent to inventors of perpetual motion machines or grand redefinitions of the laws of physics, who often didn’t get much of that thar fancy edumacation, but they sure know more than those arrogant scientists and their high-falutin’ book larnin’, ‘cuz it [i]just makes sense[/i].

    To paraphrase Mencken: Neat. Plausible(!?). Wrong.

  19. #19 Blake Stacey
    February 23, 2010

    Huzzah!

    The problem with “explaining” a biological phenomenon with pure and pretty mathematics is pretty simple: You could, for example, look at zebra stripes and butterfly wings and cook up some equations which yield those colouration patterns as solutions. When Turing did this, it was an eminently respectable achievement. However, you haven’t explained why each animal has the pattern it does, instead of another equally valid solution of the same equations. And, of course, the ingredients you postulate in your model (e.g., Turing morphogens) may or may not exist in the real living thing.

  20. #20 nigelTheBold
    February 23, 2010

    Selfishness is a human-level behaviour that can’t be applied to genes.

    Uhm… you do know that was an analogy, right? So it can, in fact, be applied to genes. The suitability of the analogy may be up for debate, but that is independent of the fact that selfishness is a human-level behavior.

  21. #21 PZ Myers
    February 23, 2010

    I have some wonderfully marvelous papers on theoretical modeling of pattern formation from the 1960s. I sometimes assign them as reading in my development course…just before I introduce them to the actual genetics of pattern formation in Drosophila, as figured out in the 80s.

    What? You mean each stripe is hardcoded by a genetic regulatory element, and not the product of elegant chemical oscillators?

  22. #22 kantalope
    February 23, 2010

    After ‘buzzwords’ there is a wrong right/write.

    Thompson and the Fibonacci problem is, I think, related to the difference between describing what is going on and what IS going on. The mathematical description and explanation, while interesting, accurate, and cool is NOT part of the reality it describes. Getting all tied up in knots with your own prose is never good editing.

    We should crowd source an article for New (un)Scientist on Philosophy and Cognition. But no one that has more than a passing acquaintance with either subject may contribute…maybe we can even get a book deal out of it. This can also be scientific in the sense that “The Car Guys” from NPR have a hypothesis that two or more people talking about something of which they have no knowledge actually know LESS than one person that does not know what they are talking about.

    Mordor is indeed a desolate and toxic place…even its ideas are corrupted.

    –And the Fibonacci sequence was featured on the chalkboard at my local Starbucks this morning. A place I have not been to in months. And yet there it was. I am pretty sure that when I stirred in my cream I detected a vortex which could be described using the Fibonacci sequence. Another cosmic coincidence proving Proving PROVING Darwin was wrong/racist/dead something…or not.

  23. #23 Eamon Knight
    February 23, 2010

    nigelTheBold @9 beats me to it: What is it with the philosophical adoration of Plato and his Forms?

    Word. The “top-down” descriptive habit dies hard. Like PZ says, it’s all built from the bottom up — the grand patterns arise from the interplay of the trivial pieces. Anyone who considers themselves a physical materialist should hold that firmly in mind, as a first principle. Anything else is mysterianism — you might as well give up now and join the Catholic Church.

  24. #24 Steve LaBonne
    February 23, 2010

    What? You mean each stripe is hardcoded by a genetic regulatory element, and not the product of elegant chemical oscillators?

    Ah, my very favorite (being an ex-Drosophila development guy) example of the dangers of “theoretical biology”.

  25. #25 Matt Bright
    February 23, 2010

    Sorry, I should probably expand, then. And say that ‘selfish’ is not a property that can usefully, or even meangfully, be applied to genes. And that whatever Dawkins’ original motavations were in doing so, the formulation opens the door to a catastrophic ‘scientizing’ of ethics and a concomitant and at least partially justified suspicion from the scientifically uninformed (including, it appears, Fodor) that maybe this evolution stuff is exactly as unpleasant as the preacher man says it is.

  26. #26 Steve LaBonne
    February 23, 2010

    And say that ‘selfish’ is not a property that can usefully, or even meangfully, be applied to genes.

    And I will firmly disagree with you. At the time of the eponymous book, it was a very illuminating metaphor that helped put paid to a lot of woolly group-selectionist nonsense. It’s a metaphor that is no doubt past its sell-by date by now, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t have an important role to play.

  27. #27 Matt Bright
    February 23, 2010

    Eamon Knight – I do think you have to acknowledge
    that there are non-physical levels of description (not -this is important – of being or thinking) required for the discussion of things like ethics and aesthetics. These things arise out of nothing other than human biology, sure, but they can only be properly discussed at the level of human experience.

    To forget this is to play right into the hands of the mystics and their enablers who mither on about science ‘crushing The human spirit’

  28. #28 Antiochus Epiphanes
    February 23, 2010

    PZ–Illuminating. Thanks. I had a discussion with some graduate students last night about the Fodor & Piatelli-Palmerini New Scientist article. The term “strawman” arose again and again. The picture that F&PP paint of modern evolutionary biology is absurd. Especially hilarious is the example offered about pigs with wings*. Sven posted this link yesterday pointing to F&PP’s new bunk-mates at the Discovery Institute. It’s really fun watching this all go down.

    *Darwinists (whoever they are) conclude that pigs are wingless because having wings is selectively disadvantageous.

  29. #29 Matt Bright
    February 23, 2010

    Eamon Knight – I do think you have to acknowledge
    that there are non-physical levels of description (not -this is important – of being or thinking) required for the discussion of things like ethics and aesthetics. These things arise out of nothing other than human biology, sure, but they can only be properly discussed at the level of human experience.

    To forget this is to play right into the hands of the mystics and their enablers who mither on about science ‘crushing The human spirit’

  30. #30 Blake Stacey
    February 23, 2010

    At the time of the eponymous book, it was a very illuminating metaphor that helped put paid to a lot of woolly group-selectionist nonsense. It’s a metaphor that is no doubt past its sell-by date by now, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t have an important role to play.

    Yes. This.

    Perhaps I have an excessively dim view of my own species, but I expect that there’s no possible way to explain evolutionary biology which won’t be misinterpreted or abused by somebody. Being misinformed is easier than being informed; ideological abuse of science sells better than the real thing.

    “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

  31. #31 nigelTheBold
    February 23, 2010

    @Matt —

    Gotcha. I had assumed that’s what you meant, as opposed to being a literalist. But I had to make sure.

    And then Steve LaBonne says what I would’ve said, only using far cooler phrases. “Put paid.” I need to use that more.

  32. #32 KOPD42
    February 23, 2010

    Linked traits? I learned about that in high school like 15 years ago. Maybe I should write a book, I’m obviously more qualified than these assclowns.

  33. #33 Peter H
    February 23, 2010

    “…Now the core of natural selection is the claim that phenotypic traits are selected for their adaptivity, that is, for their effect on fitness.”

    I’m no biologist, but this seems completely wrong. I would opine that fitness is not something to be acted upon as, say, hair color, wing shape or bone density, but is the environment’s tacit “judgment” after the fact as to whether a given trait is apt for that organism in that niche.

  34. #34 Eamon Knight
    February 23, 2010

    Re Matt Bright @29: Well, I’ll grant that I’m a reductionist by temperament, with an allergy to grand abstractions, and probably borderline Asperger (and I never did get esthetics ;-) ). Sure: you have to have higher-level descriptions, even if everything in the end is “really just” quantum electrodynamics. But that’s not what religions (and, from what I read here, F&PP) do: they reify these high-level descriptions into fundamental principles, not emergent properties.

  35. #35 broboxley
    February 23, 2010

    winged pigs? Get me some of those and I will open a BBQ joint

  36. #36 Kel, OM
    February 23, 2010

    One thing that makes me glad that books such as this is written is that biologists can write so eloquently these days that the nonsense put out there means rebuttals that further my understanding of the discipline.

  37. #37 nigelTheBold
    February 23, 2010

    winged pigs? Get me some of those and I will open a BBQ joint

    Call it “Hog Heaven.” There’s way too many levels of irony there to count.

  38. #38 Ibis3
    February 23, 2010

    Wow. I’m not even a scientist and I know how wrong these people are. I don’t think they’ve even read Darwin (let alone all the modern modifications of the theory). Darwin did not think that mutations were entirely random. He thought there were “laws of variation” that were poorly understood. Moreover, he was aware of what he called “correlations of growth” where mutations seem to travel together, only one of which might be beneficial:

    What can be more singular than the relation between blue eyes and deafness in cats, and the tortoise-shell colour with the female sex; the feathered feet and skin between the outer toes in pigeons, and the presence of more or less down on the young of birds when first hatched, with the future colour of their plumage?
    [...]
    I know of no case better adapted to show the importance of the laws of correlation in modifying important structures, independently of utility and, therefore, of natural selection, than that of the difference between the outer and inner flowers in some Compositous and Umbelliferous plants.”

    By the way, field jumping really bothers me, but I see it far more often from scientists who think they’re historians, anthropologists, or psychologists, than the other way around. Perhaps it comes from widespread denigration of “the humanities” among “hard science” types.

  39. #39 llewelly
    February 23, 2010

    People who don’t understand modern evolutionary theory shouldn’t be writing books criticizing evolutionary theory. That sounds like rather pedestrian and obvious advice, but it’s astonishing how often it’s ignored …

    I haven’t read their book, What Darwin Got Wrong, and I don’t plan to …

    <Lomborg_Shill_Mode>
    PZ, you you’re a giant hypocrite for not reading What Darwin Got Wrong. It disgusts me to see you so unwilling to actually read the book and think for yourself. Instead you’re letting an article in New Scientist think for you. Furthermore, you should stop using so many ad hominem attacks. You’ll never be convincing if can’t moderate your tone. If someone was to judge you by your own standards, they’d have no choice but to call you a liar, a poopyhead, and a paid shill for Richard Dawkins.
    </Lomborg_Shill_Mode>

  40. #40 Colin
    February 23, 2010

    broboxly #35:

    winged pigs? Get me some of those and I will open a BBQ joint

    I wonder if the wings will taste better than the ribs? Would you use traditional BBQ sauce, or would lemon be more appropriate?

    And what wine do you drink with that? (Always a problem with the other white meat).

  41. #41 RijkswaanVijanD
    February 23, 2010

    Yeah.. Mary Midgley.. I remember reading her work on The Origin Of Ethics as part of an ethics in biology class; NUTS!

  42. #42 JBlilie
    February 23, 2010

    Great stuff, PZ.

    You are the only one who has explained evo-devo such that I can understand the reason it has its own name.

  43. #43 stvs
    February 23, 2010

    Thompson can see it as a distortion of a coordinate grid, but there is no grid in the organism. … Ignore the artificial grid, and imagine instead a skein of genes in a complex regulatory network, changes in one gene propagating as changes in the pattern of expression of other genes.

    PZ, I believe your post misses two important and instructive areas why Thompson is wrong. Writing On growth and form in 1917, Thompson cannot be expected to be aware of the modern synthesis of genetics and evolution, in which Fisher showed how the “discrete” laws of Mendelian inheritance could manifest themselves in the continuous variation required by Darwinian evolution. Thompson’s confusion on this point is evident on page 275, where he offers his justification of the whole coordinate mapping idea you rightly criticize:

    The the ‘characters’ of Mendelian gentics, there is no fault to be found; tall and short, rough and smooth, plain or coloured are opposite tendencies with contrasting qualities. … The co-ordinate diagram the integral solidarity of the organism …

    So Thompson, writing in 1917, was not aware of the modern synthesis that began with Fisher in 1918 wasn’t really completed until the 1930s.

    But neither was Thompson aware of coordinate-free geometrical methods that really came into their own in the 1950s. (Have a look at Ricci and Levi-Civita’s 1900 classic Mthodes de calcul diffrentiel absolu et leurs applications to see how awful coordinate methods are.) Your blog post rightly tweaks the silly idea of relying on the unnecessary rectlinear coordinates, but this is not the mathematical content of Thompson’s incorrect ideas: the transformations Thompson uses to explain variations in body morphology do not depend on any particular choice of coordinates, and, as you point out, these continuous transformations are correctly understood in terms of the discrete genetics of evo-devo.

    Thompson, unaware of these future developments, didn’t get it right with the knowledge he did have.

  44. #44 Matt Bright
    February 23, 2010

    At the time of the eponymous book, it was a very illuminating metaphor that helped put paid to a lot of woolly group-selectionist nonsense.

    I’m not at all sure that the majority of readers of The Selfish Gene had any woolly group-selectionist nonsense to put paid to. It was read by an awful lot of non-biologists, most of whom (hopefully) thought what an interesting idea and then got something else out of the library.

    The equal and opposite poles of idiots who said (and keep saying) either Aha! My childish libertarianism is vindicated by biology itself! or Behold the moral bankruptcy of secular science! illustrate the problem of using sloppy metaphors in public.

  45. #45 Knockgoats
    February 23, 2010

    Like PZ says, it’s all built from the bottom up — the grand patterns arise from the interplay of the trivial pieces. Anyone who considers themselves a physical materialist should hold that firmly in mind, as a first principle. – Eamon Knight

    That’s a good first principle in most of biology, but not in the human/social sciences, where methodological individualism is fundamentally misconceived, since human individuals are as much, or indeed (now) more the product of the physical, cultural and institutional infrastructure they grow up than vice versa (most individuals’ effects on the latter, in a mass society, are small). In social sciences, emergence is still important, but is not anything like the whole story, because individuals and groups form ideas of how their society functions, and how it should function, and struggle with each other over these ideas. (Note to glibertarians: this means you too!) This remains, of course, completely consistent with physical materialism. Indeed, part of the reason methodological individualism is wrong is that to understand societies, we need to take account of the physical properties of the materials that our food, clothes, fuels, tools, buildings and artworks consist of.

  46. #46 Matt Bright
    February 23, 2010

    Well, I’ll grant that I’m a reductionist by temperament, with an allergy to grand abstractions

    Hardly grand abstractions. ‘How should I act?’ and ‘What do I think is pretty?’ are pretty everyday questions which can’t be answered by reference to scientific principles, for the simple reason that science pointedly (and with good reason) has no truck with personal experience, without which both questions are meaningless.

    But that’s not what religions (and, from what I read here, F&PP) do: they reify these high-level descriptions into fundamental principles, not emergent properties.

    Which, ironically, is the same sort of mistake mellow liberal theists rightly claim creationists make when they try to bend science around their personal beliefs. Good, innit?

  47. #47 Davidpj
    February 23, 2010

    I’ve only a moderate familiarity with the details of evolution and selection, and was unimpressed when I read their article in NS. In fact, I recall complaining to a housemate that their arguments against selection would be looked at by a biologist who’d reply: “Yeah… so? We know all of this. And it doesn’t mean what you are saying it means.”

    It’s as though they decided to read up on evolution, and discovered that (Presto!) it wasn’t as simple as they thought, so they just had to tell the world how wrong we’ve all got it.

  48. #48 amphiox
    February 23, 2010

    re raven #9,

    Hmm, but genetic linkage isn’t the only way two traits could be linked together, right? For example, the developmental process that produces Trait A also necessitates the appearance of Trait B. Or Traits A and B are the products of the action of the same gene acting in different circumstances.

    In either case, selective pressure favoring A could also increase the frequency of B, even if B were neutral or even mildly detrimental.

  49. #49 herr doktor bimler
    February 23, 2010

    There are, moreover, no flying pigs, on account of the way in which bones arrange themselves.

    They’re called “bats”.

  50. #50 RobertN
    February 23, 2010

    “Thompson can see it as a distortion of a coordinate grid, but there is no grid in the organism. ?”

    I’m a mathematician, not a biologist, so I’m probably completely wrong here, but I seem to remember that various aspects of development are controlled by gradients in the density of various signaling molecules. If bone (or whatever) only forms when molecule A has a certain density and molecule B has a certain density, these densities in essence define a (generally non rectangular) grid.

    Now it is immediately clear how one would get such grid transformations. Change the gradient (by adding extra sources, sinks, or obstructions through which the molecule cannot diffuse) and your grid will transform exactly as shown in the pictures.

    Why this would be a challenge for evolutionary theory baffles me though…

  51. #51 gregorycolby
    February 23, 2010

    By the way, field jumping really bothers me, but I see it far more often from scientists who think they’re historians, anthropologists, or psychologists, than the other way around. Perhaps it comes from widespread denigration of “the humanities” among “hard science” types.

    Hmm, I don’t think I agree. If I had a nickel for every self-described philosopher I’ve encountered who thinks that their training makes them immediate experts in any field that it pleases them to speculate upon…

    Anyway, the obvious lack of effort by these clowns to actually review the history of the scientific literature is appalling. They make a stab at strict adaptationist thinking (sounding very smug and pleased with themselves as they do so), apparently without an inkling of a notion that evolutionary biologists took a big step back from strict adaptationism on the order of 30 years ago! In fact, the worst adaptationists at present tend to be laypeople, and non-experts who make evolutionary arguments (evolutionary psychologists are infamous for telling just-so stories). The hardest of hardcore adaptationists with real expertise are people like Richard Dawkins, who doesn’t think what Fodor and Piatelli-Palmarini think he thinks.

    They seem afflicted with a problem that I’ve seen in smug undergraduate philosophy majors, but wouldn’t have expected in experienced professors (or grad students, for that matter): the belief that the cool idea that just occurred to them from a few minutes of thinking hard about a topic on which they are not experts might, just maybe, have occurred to somebody else at an earlier time. With philosophy undergrads, it’s generally ancient (generally obsolete) philosophical ideas, that would make Descartes or Plato yawn. The time scale here is a bit more truncated, but evolutionary biology and genetics are still disciplines with century long traditions, with thousands of incredibly smart people scattered throughout that history. The arrogance of these jag-offs is breath-taking. Isn’t the acquisition of a graduate degree supposed to be a humbling experience?

  52. #52 David Marjanovi?
    February 23, 2010

    Awesome. I’ll need to spend way too much of tomorrow to read this post. :-)

    So far, let me just indulge in SIWOTI nitpicking: that long oblique stick in the pelvis of Archaeopteryx was in fact vertical. It’s disarticulated in the first and, less obviously so, in the second specimen, so everyone got it wrong until 20 to 30 years ago, if not less.

    Since there is a lot of junk sequences or sequences we dont understand in dna

    Wrong. We understand almost all of it ? and most of that part consists of stuttering copy mistakes and retrovirus corpses in all stages of decay. It does happen that junk DNA acquires mutations that turn it into a protein-coding gene that makes something other than a retrovirus component, but that’s extremely rare; the antifreeze protein of icefishes is the only example I know of.

    I suppose next philosophers are going to realize if you have one galaxy, and then you get another galaxy, you have two galaxies. And the same thing with sand dollars! If you have one sand dollar, and someone gives you another, you have two sand dollars. Just like the galaxies!

    I smell a Molly nomination in your future.

    …just before I introduce them to the actual genetics of pattern formation in Drosophila, as figured out in the 80s.

    What? You mean each stripe is hardcoded by a genetic regulatory element, and not the product of elegant chemical oscillators?

    Pure awesome. What comment 24 says.

    I’m no biologist, but this seems completely wrong.

    It is, and you’re right.

  53. #53 David Marjanovi?
    February 23, 2010

    They’re called “bats”.

    Almost. The bats are slightly more closely related to the tapirs than to the pigs. :-)

  54. #54 Paul W.
    February 23, 2010

    Knockgoats@45,

    Have you read Ron McClamrock on methodological individualism?

    http://www.albany.edu/~ron/papers/methindi.html

    Interestingly, his thesis advisors were Jerry Fodor (who he’s disagreeing with in that paper) and Ned Block (who co-wrote the takedown of F&PP with Phil Kitcher).

  55. #55 raven
    February 23, 2010

    re raven #9,

    Hmm, but genetic linkage isn’t the only way two traits could be linked together, right? For example, the developmental process that produces Trait A also necessitates the appearance of Trait B. Or Traits A and B are the products of the action of the same gene acting in different circumstances.

    In either case, selective pressure favoring A could also increase the frequency of B, even if B were neutral or even mildly detrimental.

    Think you are referring to pleiotropy and/or epistasis.

    If traits A and B are caused by the same allele or gene, they will be hard to separate. Sickle cell anemia trait causes heterozygous malaria resistance and homozygous early death. You can’t separate the two phenotypes because they are caused by the same mutant hemoglobin.

    But so what? How common is this and how important is it in the grand scheme of evolution? We have c. 27,000 different genes and they are all separable by recombination.

    Not trivial but not hugely important either. It is also an example of what Fodor says doesn’t exist or explain anything. Natural selection. Sickle cell is a deleterious variant except in high malaria areas where it was selected for and persists despite the hit of young dying homozygous recessives.

    The fact that a gene or allele can be pleiotropic was known a century ago. That has had no bearing on whether natural selection works or whether and how evolution happens. It is simply irrelevant.

  56. #56 lykex
    February 23, 2010

    @ #33

    I agree insofar that fitness is not an inherent quality, but emerges as a result of the phenotype’s interaction with the environment. A phenotype does not have a fitness independent of the environment.

    The consensus view among neo-Darwinians…

    …morphology and structure of organisms

    Could someone maybe tell me what the argument is here? I’m having real trouble understanding their point. It sounds like they are saying that evolution is wrong because it doesn’t violate the laws of physics. Is that right?

  57. #57 SparrowFalls
    February 23, 2010

    Matt Bright #46

    ‘How should I act?’ and ‘What do I think is pretty?’ are pretty everyday questions which can’t be answered by reference to scientific principles, …

    These types of questions have historically been regarded as religious, philosophical, or artistic. But science is beginning to pick away at the questions and finding that naturalistic answers may be fully sufficient.

    I suspect this naturalism (seen as an attack on the nobility of the human spirit) is what lies at the root of so many priests and philosophers rejection of “Darwinism”. Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini are just another instance of ‘I don’t like the implications, therefore it can’t be true’.

    I’m not impressed.

  58. #58 raven
    February 23, 2010

    Fodor:

    Darwinists say that evolution is explained by the selection of phenotypic traits by environmental filters. But the effects of endogenous structure can wreak havoc with this theory. Consider the following case: traits t1 and t2 are endogenously linked in such a way that if a creature has one, it has both.

    It is a bit hard to critique Fodor’s book because it is mostly a collection of ignorant bafflegab. There are so many things wrong, you don’t know where to start.

    Here is an example.
    But the effects of endogenous structure can wreak havoc with this theory.

    This is an assertion without any proof or examples. It is also wrong. The vast majority of the genome is separable by meiosis and this is thought to be one of the key reasons why sex was even invented.

    In some cases genes show pleiotropy, effecting more than one trait. It is a constraint on evolution but not much of one. The genomes are so large, complicated, and plastic that the amount of variation and the possible results are ultimately huge. Our whole biosphere started with one genome that evolved and changed over 3.7 billion years. Everything living is one of our relatives even if they look like a conifer tree. The entire biosphere living and extinct is the lower boundary for what evolution is capable of.

  59. #59 Scott Hatfield, OM
    February 23, 2010

    This post is AWESOME. Some version of this should be in someone’s long-awaited book (HINT HINT).

    Admiringly….SH

  60. #60 herr doktor bimler
    February 23, 2010

    Consider the following case: traits t1 and t2 are endogenously linked in such a way that if a creature has one, it has both.

    If they’re inextricably linked, then they’re the SAME TRAIT. Why is this a problem?

  61. #61 FossilFishy
    February 23, 2010

    Screaming and leaping
    Teddy bear as predator
    Science self corrects

  62. #62 marcus
    February 23, 2010

    Beware the Fibonacci Gnome…

  63. #63 BA
    February 23, 2010

    Not that anyone here is likely to care but Fodor doesn’t understand Skinner’s Radical Behaviorism either. Neither did Chomsky (it’s clear that he either never read Verbal Behavior or constructed an argument based on the book cover; his commentary also contains intentional misinterpretation). For Skinner, natural selection prepares the organism and behavior to be altered by a dynamic environment. He states that ontogenic selection corrects the “fault” of natural selection of only preparing the organism for an environment that resembles the selecting past. Skinner also discusses the influence of socio-cultural selection (e.g., Dawkins’ memes). Then again you can read Skinner’s view for yourself in “Selection by Consequences” in Science (1981).

    We can probably all agree that Fodor exudes a special, pompous, insularity of thought.

  64. #64 cuco3
    February 23, 2010

    Every time I hear more about this book, I learn of more fundamental errors. And they’re not weird, obscure things but blindingly obvious. Things even a university drop-out like me can spot.

    Regarding pig wings, I don’t see a problem. After all, we do it with buffalo.

  65. #65 windy
    February 23, 2010

    Hmm, but genetic linkage isn’t the only way two traits could be linked together, right? For example, the developmental process that produces Trait A also necessitates the appearance of Trait B. Or Traits A and B are the products of the action of the same gene acting in different circumstances.

    Yes. One of the examples Fodor himself uses (in the Salon interview, and probably in the book as well) is the experiment where foxes were selected for tameness. As a result, doglike traits such as floppy ears, curly tails and white facial markings also appeared in the tame fox stock. Selection for tameness had pleiotropic effects on other traits.

    Since these traits are developmentally correlated, according to Fodor and P-P, there’s no way for selection to distinguish between them… so it should be impossible to breed a tame canine that lacks floppy ears, a curly tail and white facial markings.

    *facepalm*

  66. #66 https://me.yahoo.com/a/AhK6VzN7pIBqZlVkJfQVUKo32HmQ#1e3b2
    February 23, 2010

    Interesting parallel here:

    PZ said:

    “People who don’t understand modern evolutionary theory shouldn’t be writing books criticizing evolutionary theory. That sounds like rather pedestrian and obvious advice, but it’s astonishing how often it’s ignored”

    Substitute “research on intelligence (IQ)” for “evolutionary theory” and many examples of this exist in my field (ironically, the most popular one coming from an evolutionary biologist– Gould’s, Mismeasure of Man. Here, it seems like the tables are turned?!).

    It’s become trendy to ignore expert consensus in a sub-discipline of science and instead idolize “Mavericks” who bring their genius to areas they were not trained in. Symptoms include attacking straw man versions of the field, and presenting clever insights (often debunked decades ago), as if these issues never occurred to the poor dolts who?ve actually contributed peer-reviewed data and theory to the field. The media eat them up, and the real scientists retreat to their ivory towers. It?s a shame, as it distorts scientific truth.

    Unfortunately, my experience to date with scienceblogs epitomizes this (not so much PZ?s blog). Too many bloggers here assert expertise and authority in areas that they?re wholly ignorant of (as revealed by their comments). I think scienceblogs should consider renaming its website so as not to bastardize the brand (science).

    Sorry if this seems like a derail?though I?ve seen a few examples here where PZ is quick to discount intelligence research, even though he is not expert in this area. Wondering if PZ will take this as pedestrian advice for any future posts on the topic?

    Also, if you do read this, please seriously consider coming to Cleveland / Cleveland State University. We actually have some good beer brewed with Lake Erie water (we?ve cleaned it up a little bit since it caught on fire in the 1970s!).

  67. #67 https://me.yahoo.com/a/AhK6VzN7pIBqZlVkJfQVUKo32HmQ#1e3b2
    February 23, 2010

    Ooop, I have no idea how my user name got smegged in the previous post. Bpesta.

  68. #68 raven
    February 23, 2010

    Since these traits are developmentally correlated, according to Fodor and P-P, there’s no way for selection to distinguish between them… so it should be impossible to breed a tame canine that lacks floppy ears, a curly tail and white facial markings.

    I saw a black dog with pointed ears once. I guess it didn’t read Fodor’s book before being conceived.

    Sure pleiotropy exists. It is a constraint on evolution. So what? Lots of things constrain and limit evolution. We have yet to see organisms adapted to life in the vacuum of space.

    His fallacy is assuming that because things constrain evolution, that means it can’t happen or something. This is just stupid and wrong. Hasn’t he ever heard of the fossil record or seen a genomic DNA phylogeny?

    Here is another example of pleiotropy. The gene W produces white cats with blue eyes that are almost always deaf. It is considered deleterious to the point where it is recommended that people don’t breed their white deaf cats.

    So does this mean that white cats with blue eyes that aren’t deaf are impossible? No. Many other different genes can produce white cats and there are many other genes that code for blue eyes. It is easy to breed white cats with blue eyes that aren’t deaf and aren’t at risk of producing deaf kittens. Evolution just takes a different pathway to produce a similar result.

    There is a lot of complication, redundency, duplication, and plasticity in the large genomes of metazoans. While not everything can be evolved, the lower bound is the entire biosphere, past and present. At least 3 times, bats, pterosaurs, and birds, the forelimbs of tetrapods have evolved into wings. The constraints that Fodor imagines allow for a huge amount of diversity and variation, everything from bacteria to trees and people.

  69. #69 chicagomolly.myopenid.com
    February 23, 2010

    The thing that amazed me (without exactly surprising me) as I went through the book was that after all these years (decades!) Fodor is still morbidly obsessed with BF Skinner. What is billed as a book about Darwin’s mistakes spends almost as much ink on operant behaviorism as on natural selection. Over and over he assures us that Skinner is wrong wrong wrong, radical behaviorism is irrelevant at best and malignant at worst, and Darwinism is exactly the same thing, so Darwinism is bad, ‘nkay?

    I haven’t paid much attention to Fodor for quite a while so I didn’t know he still found time of a weekend to run down to the cemetery with the old pitchfork and flaming torch to jump up and down on Skinner’s grave. Complete waste of effort, of course, given the thousands of people, all round the world, carrying on very successful, rewarding careers in both the experimental and applied analysis of behavior. But Fodor is absolutely sure he’s right about all this, so he won’t do the fact checks that would show him how wrong he is about both Skinner and Darwin.

  70. #70 Matt Bright
    February 24, 2010

    SparrowFalls #57

    But science is beginning to pick away at the questions and finding that naturalistic answers may be fully sufficient.

    It isn’t, and they aren’t, and they never will be, regardless of how much some (bad) scientists want it or some (equally bad) philosophers worry about it. Understanding my biology can tell me in great detail how I’m likely to want to behave, but I can’t see how it tells me whether I should< \i> behave that way. Even the raw statement you should behave according to your biological impulses is a philosophical rather than a scientific one.

    My morality (among many other things) can only be decided by applying reason to my personal experience, and my understanding of the personal experience of others. There is no scientific way of encoding personal experience, only of carefully excluding it.

    This is really, really important in terms of the wider debate. Bogus claims of the total sufficiency of the scientific method, and the use of loaded rhetorical terms that treat experience and feeling as pointless excrescences of reality (‘the cold, hard facts’, ‘an uncaring universe’) needlessly fuel public suspicion of science.

  71. #71 madbull
    February 24, 2010

    I totally loved the explanation about the fibonacci sequence, though I must admit im more caught up with the beauty of the math and form than how the genes actually regulate the creation of such form.
    Blame my engineering education for it.
    Seriously though, made my day, gave me something to think about!

  72. #72 J. Goard
    February 24, 2010

    #69 chicagomolly:

    One reason they may be jumping on Skinner is that they’re afraid they’re losing linguistics, in which Chomsky’s nativist-generativist view is the old, heavily-assaulted paradigm, and more and more linguists who advocate an emergentist-adaptationist-dual-inheritance view of language (within linguistics itself) are pointing out how their own models are much more in line with the findings of biology.

    Fodor has a real stake here. The fruits of his poisoned tree (“poverty of the stimulus” argument, modularity of grammar, native “parameters” to explain language typology) are currently presented as the mainstream view in introductory linguistics texts.

    But it may not be much longer. With more linguists understanding EvoDevo, and more biologists getting involved in linguistics, their days of glory may be numbered.

    It would be nice if this book helped speed up that process.

  73. #73 Ichthyic
    February 24, 2010

    Understanding my biology can tell me in great detail how I’m likely to want to behave, but I can’t see how it tells me whether I should behave that way.

    rules determine how you “should” behave, your own personal, or general accepted, but rules nonetheless.

    those rules are predicated on experience.

    thus, yes, your behavior is predictable.

    I highly suggest you read up on Game Theory, and especially acquaint yourself with The Prisoner’s dilemma.

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/prisoner-dilemma/

    sorry, son, but YES, science can do that too, even unto explaining why you personally think you “should” behave in any specific way.

    your morality is both innate and generated by experience, but fully explainable nonetheless.

    Science is a far bigger world than you imagine, apparently.

  74. #74 Ichthyic
    February 24, 2010

    Bogus claims of the total sufficiency of the scientific method

    the only bogus claims here are yours, frankly.

    Because an hypothesis cannot be constructed currently to test any specific explanation for an observable (or theorized) event, does NOT mean that then it is impossible for the scientific method to do so.

    Have you ever read the story of Neutrinos, for example?

    http://science.jrank.org/pages/4629/Neutrino-History.html

    using your logic, you would have predicted in the 20’s then that science would never find such a particle.

    and you would have been wrong.

  75. #75 Ichthyic
    February 24, 2010

    Substitute “research on intelligence (IQ)” for “evolutionary theory” and many examples of this exist in my field (ironically, the most popular one coming from an evolutionary biologist– Gould’s, Mismeasure of Man. Here, it seems like the tables are turned?!).

    Frankly, I couldn’t agree with you more here, and although I had serious hero worship of Gould as a teen, by the time I finished my BA, his espousings on the roles of science and human behavior had me rejecting much of what he had to say, and siding more and more with Dawkins side of things (not that he had it all correct either, mind).

    example:

    NOMA is a singularly poor piece of logic, that any undergrad can easily dispose of after 10 minutes of thought.

    Gould regales against sociobiology often bordered on the hysterical, and he often employed strawmen in his fear that the ideas of sociobiology would be misused.

    *shrug*

    It’s become trendy to ignore expert consensus in a sub-discipline of science and instead idolize “Mavericks” who bring their genius to areas they were not trained in.

    I blame the media.

    oh, and before you start dragging PZ into this, know that he, like myself, has much admiration for Gould. Unlike myself, he didn’t reject much of what Gould had to say on the subject of the levels of selection, the “dangers” of sociobiology, and the like.

    I’m sure you will enjoy debating him on the subject, though.

  76. #76 Ichthyic
    February 24, 2010

    If they’re inextricably linked, then they’re the SAME TRAIT. Why is this a problem?

    actually, that isn’t correct.

    two traits can be genetically linked, but express entirely different phenotype groups.

    a gene for eye color can be linked to a gene for fur color, for example.

    here’s a sample paper tracing the evolution of two linked, but different, traits:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1460820/

    the point is, there can be selective forces acting in opposing directions on the linked traits, and according to Fodor, this would mask any effect of selection on allele frequency in the population.

    that this is nonsense should be clear if he knew:

    1. how rare such linked traits are.

    2. that selective forces change over time.

    3. that traits rarely stay linked for very long in sexually reproducing organisms.

  77. #77 Matt Bright
    February 24, 2010

    Because an hypothesis cannot be constructed currently to test any specific explanation for an observable (or theorized) event, does NOT mean that then it is impossible for the scientific method to do so.

    That’s not why it’s impossible for the scientific method to provide a working morality. The reason it’s impossible is that no amount of facts about how I’m going act can tell me how I ought to act.

    I’m well aware of the prisoner’s dilemma, thankyou. I’m not sure how it pertains here. Science can explain why I think I should behave in a certain way, but how does it explain how I chose whether or not to actually behave in that way? The only person who can ever do that is me, and there?s no way for me to be scientific about it because I can?t repeat the circumstances (I will, at the very least, know what I did last time).

    The cake is on the table. I can eat it because I’m hungry, or not eat it because my wife won’t like it if I get fat. You might know in advance what I’ll actually do, but my personal experience of making the decision (which is the only important thing here) comes down to how much I love my wife and/or cake.

  78. #78 FrankT
    February 24, 2010

    Matt wrote:

    Hardly grand abstractions. ‘How should I act?’ and ‘What do I think is pretty?’ are pretty everyday questions which can’t be answered by reference to scientific principles, for the simple reason that science pointedly (and with good reason) has no truck with personal experience, without which both questions are meaningless.

    How are those not scientifically investigatable questions? There is a lot of research on the uncanny valley, pleasing and displeasing levels of asymmetry, and so on and so forth. Computers can now predict with a fair amount of success whether people will n general regard a picture as pretty or not. Better than random chance anyway.

    Science isn’t particularly interested in whether you are more attracted to Kerry Washington or Katy Perry, but if it was, it’s not like we couldn’t conduct some tests and find out.

  79. #79 Ichthyic
    February 24, 2010

    That’s not why it’s impossible for the scientific method to provide a working morality

    It already has.

    fail.

    I’m well aware of the prisoner’s dilemma, thankyou. I’m not sure how it pertains here.

    moral decisions are based on rules, that’s why it applies here.

    but how does it explain how I chose whether or not to actually behave in that way?

    again, I suggest you actually READ it.

  80. #80 Matt Bright
    February 24, 2010

    Science already has, has it? I?m intrigued ? please point me to where there is a scientific method that can prescribe how I should (not, you?ll note, how I might, or even how I will) behave in every conceivable circumstance.

    Your link took me to pages and pages on what the most rational strategy is and how people are likely to behave in different circumstances. Rather less about neurology than I was expecting, but that?s by the by. Please quote where it says that it is morally right to behave in the way that the system anticipates I will.

    It appears that you consider ?what I should do? and ?what I ought to do? are completely equivalent to ?what some sort of external model suggests I?m likely to do?. Does my own internal< \i> sense of what?s right and wrong ? which is what I mean when I use these phrases, and which is built up from my understanding of my own mind and the minds of others ? have no validity for you?

    Thought experiment: I personally decide that modelling human behaviour using the Prisoner?s Dilemma is unethical and that I should do everything in my power to stop it. So I sign up to a psychological experiment of this type and decide that what I?m actually going to do is decide whether to co-operate or defect according to the toss of a coin. Furthermore, I (somehow) find out about everyone else in the experiment and manage to convince them to do the same. The experiment is ruined (illustrative bonus question: how do you decide whether it was wrong of me to make mischief with a poor scientist?s career in this way?), because I?ve made a personal moral choice about, rather than within, the system. And I?ll always in principle be able to do that.

  81. #81 SparrowFalls
    February 24, 2010

    Matt Bright, #80

    I infer that you are saying that your moral sense arises from somewhere other than your physical body (and within it the brain and the processes happening within it). Either that or you are saying that while your moral sense arises from your body (and brain etc.) it is the result of your subjective experience and therefore beyond science.

    In either case science cannot presently determine the reasons for your moral choices and may never be able to do so simply because the amount of knowledge about your physical being and past experiences is too great to be comprehended. Unknowable in practice, but maybe not unknowable in principle.

    What science is beginning to show is that humans tend to make similar ‘moral’ choices in similar circumstances. Science is also beginning to show that we, as individuals, are often unaware of the unthinking biases and unconscious motivations which drive our choices. We are certainly subjectively unaware of the neurological events which take place. My suspicion is that the conscious part of our thinking explains this hidden thought by building the illusion of an external or separate moral force of some sort.

    How can you tell if the ‘moral’ force really exists? I don’t think you (or I) can for we are trapped in our own subjective experience. But the methods of science probably can. Science is also beginning to explore the interworkings of social networks and how we are influenced by our friends, our friend’s friends, and our friend’s friend’s friends. Some of your moral sense may arise from your social network – but if so it would still be naturalistic.

    Now forgive me if I ask an impertinent question – do you say your moral sense is impenetrable by science because you believe it to be ‘supernatural’, or do you believe that your moral sense is ‘natural’ but fear the consequences of such a determination?

    Or some other concept entirely?

  82. #82 ConcernedJoe
    February 24, 2010

    Matt Bright:

    I am also curious “..do you say your moral sense is impenetrable by science because you believe it to be ‘supernatural’, or do you believe that your moral sense is ‘natural’ but fear the consequences of such a determination? ”

    and also

    what does your statement in the 2nd part of PZ’s post on this: “That inner life I?m talking about which certain of the more ideological scientists would rather we all ignored, but which is ultimately the only ?is? that matters in the arena of moral choices. ” mean?

  83. #83 ConcernedJoe
    February 24, 2010

    Matt Bright #77:

    “…my personal experience of making the decision (which is the only important thing here) comes down to how much I love my wife and/or cake.”

    Huh? You can love cake like you can love a wife? The balance or inequity of those two determine your action here?

    Pardon me but statements like your cake example make philosophy seem so vacuous. I am not a psychologist – hell at this point in my life I am about nothing but an ordinary Joe – but if I were I would be either laughing at the shallowness of such an analogy and/or angry that you with stroke of your pen ignored well documented complexity and analysis of reality.

    And if I were a philosopher I think I’d have a WTF look of shock on my face!

    I am not qualified to teach the whys and wherefores but even I know that whether you eat the cake or don’t eat ranges from the simple “I’m honestly and absolutely f’n starving and there is nothing else to eat” to eating it or not eating has very complex psychological reasons e.g., compulsions, aversions, aggressions, sublimation, wired behaviors, etc., etc..

    And to be pedestrian it could be an act to say “f you I don’t love you” – or it could also be a cry for help and love and attention or whatever. But it is science that helps us understand such things and not internalize things so much that we are constantly feeling personally offended when another acts outside of how we want them to act.

    Again – ANALYSIS of acts, facts, SCIENTIFIC research on what makes us tick, etc. would be in order if you had a cake problem. And if I had one I would not run to my friendly neighborhood philosopher especially one that thinks “it is all in my head” in a very – errr non-sciency way.

  84. #84 Anton Mates
    February 24, 2010

    Does my own internal sense of what?s right and wrong ? which is what I mean when I use these phrases, and which is built up from my understanding of my own mind and the minds of others ? have no validity for you?

    Why couldn’t we use external models to predict your internal sense of right and wrong?

    Here, I’ll do it. Using a very simplistic model of “guy what loves his wife,” I’ll predict that your internal moral sense says it would be horrible to slaughter and eat your wife instead of eating the cake. Did I get it right?

    Thought experiment: I personally decide that modelling human behaviour using the Prisoner?s Dilemma is unethical and that I should do everything in my power to stop it. So I sign up to a psychological experiment of this type and decide that what I?m actually going to do is decide whether to co-operate or defect according to the toss of a coin. Furthermore, I (somehow) find out about everyone else in the experiment and manage to convince them to do the same.

    Great. I, the researcher, observe you guys tossing your coins during the experiment and infer that you’re using them to decide. I compare this to a large body of previous research indicating that humans don’t usually make their decisions in such scenarios via coin tosses, and conclude that you’ve been trying to screw up this experiment for some reason. You may deny this, but I (since this is a thought experiment and I, like you, am as brilliant and powerful as I need to be to make it work) have taken enough data on your physiological responses to be pretty sure that you’re lying, plus I’ve been monitoring all my subjects’ communications so I have evidence of the conspiracy.

    Really, it’s not like psychologists haven’t heard of deceptive or uncooperative subjects before. Humans can study other humans just fine.

  85. #85 philosopher.animal
    February 24, 2010

    Fodor is the guy who thought (thinks) that somehow all possible human concepts are innate. Try to work out how *that* would work, genetically.

    I wonder about his co-author. Anyone know much about this person? (Why do I have the feeling it is going to be some suckered young scholar who will be tainted forever with this association …)

  86. #86 Naked Bunny with a Whip
    February 24, 2010

    Now I want to eat both cake and my wife.

  87. #87 Matt Bright
    February 24, 2010

    Either that or you are saying that while your moral sense arises from your body (and brain etc.) it is the result of your subjective experience and therefore beyond science.

    Bingo. Nothing supernatural involved. Are you, on the other hand, claiming that subjective experience is somehow accessible to scientific method?

    Now forgive me if I ask an impertinent question – do you say your moral sense is impenetrable by science because you believe it to be ‘supernatural’, or do you believe that your moral sense is ‘natural’ but fear the consequences of such a determination?

    The latter, but without the bit about fearing the consequences. What consequences do you believe there are there to fear? You can model my actions on a second-by-second basis and provide solid theoretical foundations for all of it but that won?t change my inner sense that I?m making moral decisions by considering my personal experience and my understanding of the likely personal experiences of others.

    When I decide what to do, it wouldn?t make sense for me to refer to the model first ? if I did, the act of looking would presumably have to go into the model as data, as would my reaction to the model, the way the model changes because of my reaction to the model, the way I react to the way the model changes and so on. I would become unable to make the decision at all.

    If you ask afterwards why I did what I did, then ?because the model said I would? would be neither an accurate nor a useful answer ? I didn?t look at the model and it doesn’t tell you anything about my moral choice anyway.

  88. #88 ConcernedJoe
    February 24, 2010

    #85 —

    Massimo is a mature and accomplished cognitive “expert” — for me – as he has my blood – I say che vergogna – about this

    #86 —

    Wow – I didn’t think about it that way but now that you mentioned it there are possibilities that would combine the two and mitigate – shall we say – a wife’s disdain for the gluttony

    Ahh — many “is’s” drive many “oughts” and since no ought can be right then none can be wrong! The World is full of possibilities ain’t it.

  89. #89 ConcernedJoe
    February 24, 2010

    Matt #87

    “I didn?t look at the model and it doesn’t tell you anything about my moral choice anyway. ”

    How are you so sure you did not in some way “look at the model” and why do you think the model the predictive version of the model tells you/us nothing about your choice?

    Here is my feeling – and I am just guessing – I have no expertise that is worthy – but you are throwing out (disregarding the field) a shit load of psychology when you make such a statement. that is my sense – and I also sense a model that rightly predicts that I would feel this way – right or wrong!

  90. #90 Matt Bright
    February 24, 2010

    I might not be as bright as you (some pun intended to be honest – it was just there to pluck) but what does “That inner life I?m talking about which certain of the more ideological scientists would rather we all ignored, but which is ultimately the only ?is? that matters in the arena of moral choices. “?

    Not like I?m not used to that particular bit of punning.

    What I mean is that the only factual information you have to make a moral choice is how you feel about the situation, and how (based on your own personal experience) you think others might feel about the situation. You might choose to include scientific facts as ‘input data’, but your choice as to how to relate your behaviour to those facts is always itself going to be subjective. Even the idea that the choice should be based on reason and logic is itself a subjective moral decision.

    Which, linking back to the OP, is the point that some people are ? I think justly ? worried that a certain kind of triumphalist scientism is missing. Or worse, attempting to deny by claiming that subjectivity is just a bit of superfluous awkwardness that can and should be ignored.

    The correct response is not dishonest attempts to debunk established science via a series of ill thought out straw men, but, as I say, you can see why in the face of such an unpleasant prospect people might start putting up over-hasty defences

  91. #91 Paul W.
    February 24, 2010

    Matt Bright:

    Either that or you are saying that while your moral sense arises from your body (and brain etc.) it is the result of your subjective experience and therefore beyond science.

    Bingo. Nothing supernatural involved. Are you, on the other hand, claiming that subjective experience is somehow accessible to scientific method?

    Why on earth would you think that subjective experience is inaccessible to the scientific method?

    I, for one, think that the mind is a basically computational process running in a parallel hybrid computer.

    Why would you think that the subjective experiences of such a computer are beyond science, and in what sense? Surely, modeling them scientifically isn’t the same thing as being the thing being modeled, but what difference does that make to, say, understanding morality scientifically?

    At least in principle, I think that we can figure out the basic, evolved, functional organization of the moral sense, and understand the “natural kind” (actual realistic category) of morality.

    And I think people are doing just that, and that it’s relevant to moral argument in philosophy.

    Moral argument in philosophy has always been reflective and experimental, and in a sense, quasi-scientific—people use thought experiments such as moral dilemmas to determine what unanalyzed moral intuitions are really about, unconsciously, and to consciously refine them. (E.g., to realize that some unanalyzed moral intuition is not fundamental, but derived from something more fundamental.)

    IMHO, moral philosophy ought to be continuous with moral cognitive psychology. Morality is a real thing in the world, which you can study scientifically, and learn more about what “ought” really means.

    Moral philosophy is not and should not be an autonomous discipline, independent of the cognitive psychology of morality. That makes no more sense than having philosophy of biology be independent of biology—and actually less.

    Moral philosophy and even normal moral development have always depended on cognitive experiments to tease out unanalyzed intuitions and fix problems with them.

    IMHO one of the perennial problems in moral philosophy is a too-common assumptions of (1) the autonomy of morality from the underlying cognitive processes, and (2) that there is a universal morality in a too-strong sense. These assumptions are roughly analogous to the assumptions in linguistics of (1) the autonomy of syntax, and (2) a universal grammar and deep structure.

    I do think that there are moral universals (or near-universals, excluding sociopaths) that provide a kind of cross-cultural deep structure to morality, but it’s bogus to simply assume that the deep structure is very simple, or very uniform. Moral argument in philosophy should ultimately be cashed out in terms of the psychology of morality—actual scientific facts about what people’s most fundamental moral intuitions actually are, for example, and whether and how they vary.

    Now forgive me if I ask an impertinent question – do you say your moral sense is impenetrable by science because you believe it to be ‘supernatural’, or do you believe that your moral sense is ‘natural’ but fear the consequences of such a determination?

    The latter, but without the bit about fearing the consequences. What consequences do you believe there are there to fear? You can model my actions on a second-by-second basis and provide solid theoretical foundations for all of it but that won?t change my inner sense that I?m making moral decisions by considering my personal experience and my understanding of the likely personal experiences of others.

    Huh? What’s the significance of that for whether these things are accessible to science? (And whether moral philosophizing should be grounded in scientific facts about morality, such as what an “ought” actually is—and whether oughts rationally converge to a single correct answer, cross-culturally, intraculturally, or even intrapersonally?.)

  92. #92 Matt Bright
    February 24, 2010

    Great. I, the researcher, observe you guys tossing your coins during the experiment and infer that you’re using them to decide.

    Oh very well then, I see your invisible force field and raise you invisible-force field-penetrating bullets.

    I have just started the Worldwide Movement for Confounding Reductionist Psychology. Its membership is everyone who might participate in any kind of psychological experiment. All members are instructed, before participating in any such experiment, to toss a coin to decide whether to co-operate with the experiment they join or confound it by randomizing their responses.

    But my main point here is not around whether they would successfully fool the researcher, but around the fact that anyone can make a subjective, moral decision to do so ? it?s always possible to step outside of the system being tested and base your decision to act about how you feel, subjectively, about that system.

    You ignored, I note, my other key question ? is it?wrong? to attempt to confound a good-faith experiment (or, indeed, to create a worldwide movement that destroys behavioural psychology as a profession) and if so why? (or if not, why not?)

  93. #93 Steve LaBonne
    February 24, 2010

    It’s a useful rule of thumb that anybody using “reductionist” as an insult may be safely ignored.

  94. #94 Paul W.
    February 24, 2010

    Matt Bright:

    What I mean is that the only factual information you have to make a moral choice is how you feel about the situation, and how (based on your own personal experience) you think others might feel about the situation. You might choose to include scientific facts as ‘input data’, but your choice as to how to relate your behaviour to those facts is always itself going to be subjective.

    I think you need to be very careful about the word “subjective”—it means a lot of different things—and especially careful about applying it to morality.

    A whole lot of moral differences are only subjective in the sense that people make moral judgments based on their current knowledge, limited reasoning about moral issues, etc.

    Many differences hinge on differences over matters of fact about morality. For example, many people believe in Divine Command Theory—that what God wants is good, by definition—or some functionally similar thing. They are simply, objectively, mistaken. That is not where morality comes from, or how it actually works. There is no morality-dictating God.

    Even the idea that the choice should be based on reason and logic is itself a subjective moral decision.

    I don’t think it is, in a strong sense. It is part of the normal operation of morality that people learn that they can make moral mistakes, and that they care about correcting the errors that lead to them. Anybody who doesn’t recognize that, or doesn’t care, is morally defective.

    Which, linking back to the OP, is the point that some people are ? I think justly ? worried that a certain kind of triumphalist scientism is missing. Or worse, attempting to deny by claiming that subjectivity is just a bit of superfluous awkwardness that can and should be ignored.

    I’d probably count as your typical “scientistic” triumphalist. I don’t think subjectivity is the kind of problem that you think it is for science.
    I don’t think that subjectivity is “just a bit of superfluous awkwardness,” though. I think it’s very, very scientifically interesting, as opposed to being the kind of thing that science is necessarily incapable of dealing with, and must be forever silent about.

    The correct response is not dishonest attempts to debunk established science via a series of ill thought out straw men, but, as I say, you can see why in the face of such an unpleasant prospect people might start putting up over-hasty defences

    Seems to me that what you label “scientism” does threaten established disciplinary boundaries, e.g., between moral philosophy and moral psychology—and it should.

    It also seems to me that you’re putting up some over-hasty defenses against “scientism” based on simplistic assumptions of irreducible subjectivity. There is a lot of science you’re ignoring about the things that you’re talking about, and there is no NOMA-like line where you seem to assume there is.

  95. #95 Paul W.
    February 24, 2010

    Matt,

    I’m a bit lost about the significance of your invisible force field-penetrating bullets.

    The fact that some people may sabotage experiments doesn’t make something beyond scientific study. It just makes it harder.

    Psychologists deal with that sort of thing all the time. They frequently misrepresent what kind of experiment is actually being done, so that people won’t know how to sabotage them. (Or how to be overly cooperative, telling the experimenters what they thing the experimenters.)

    The fact that various things can sometimes confound various other things doesn’t make something impossible to study scientifically. It just makes it harder. (But who ever though science would be easy?)

  96. #96 Stephen Wells
    February 24, 2010

    While Matt is declaring subjective experience off-limits to scientific enquiry, in the real world researchers can already distinguish, based on brain activity, whether or not a person is thinking about tennis; from observing the activity in the visual cortex they can distinguish what letter a person is seeing. Ultimately, since our minds are what our brain does and our brain activity is in principle observable, there’s no reason any mental phenomenon should be outside the purview of science.

  97. #97 broboxley
    February 24, 2010

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    Hobgoblin Ale
    Petes wicked ale
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  98. #98 ConcernedJoe
    February 24, 2010

    Matt thanks for the response #90

    Not sure we’d agree or disagree as I might not quite get it yet (very well my fault).

    Let me say for myself I believe our subjective is predicated on our “is” (which yes might be erroneously interpreted). So I agree it is ALL subjective – ALL relative — but some methods and these methods in the hands of skillful and honest practitioners hone in on the truth and facts of the situation and make decisions – well – more objectively in all that subjectivity. And there is a science that can predicate the general direction one takes pretty well – given adequate knowledge of the situation, etc. which is possible.

  99. #99 broboxley
    February 24, 2010

    Just finished the part of the thread about measuring decisions based on moral choices. Read the prisoners dilemma link. Scientists can measure what is observable.
    Using the wife and cake example what is measurable is binary eat/not eat and further measurements can be taken based on observable facts such as cake flavors, age of participants, weight and sexual capacity. As one measures large data sets predictabilty becomes easier. Science is not measuring morals, its measuring results.

    On morals, they are a social construct for getting along in groups, there is no absolute prerequisites for individuals.

  100. #100 Paul W.
    February 24, 2010

    Sorry, edit-o in #95.

    The last sentence of the second-to-last para should have said (Or how to be overly cooperative, telling the experimenters what they think the experimenters want to hear.)

  101. #101 Peter Ashby
    February 24, 2010

    @MattBright

    Ah but what makes something ‘good’ and other things ‘bad’? These things are just as much biological as they are moral and many of them are simple consequent on us being social great apes which is why they do not apply to tigers and intelligent tigers would have a different morality from us.

    This assumption that biology cannot tell us about morality is so wilfully ignorant it is funny. I commend to you Marc D Hauser’s Moral Minds: How nature designed our universal sense of right and wrong ISBN 978-0-349-11809-3

  102. #102 Matt Bright
    February 24, 2010

    Look, can I clear the decks here? I keep trying to point out that morality is a matter of subjective experience, and I keep getting answers that point out how terribly good we are now at modelling what my brain is doing and explaining why it?s doing it.

    Nobody has yet explained how any of that data tells me how I ought to behave. And I don?t mean ?How I am likely to behave in order to maximise some arbitrarily complex fitness function? or even ?how the mass of data suggests I will behave?, I mean good, old-fashioned right and wrong type morality.

    What is this universally applicable, fact-based method you all seem to think we?re approaching for deciding whether an action taken was good or bad? What form will it take? How do you imagine it will be applied?

    And, I think most importantly, why do you think it will be such an enormous improvement on a rationally based, secular ethical philosophy that takes subjectivity into account in a way that science by its very nature cannot?

  103. #103 SparrowFalls
    February 24, 2010

    I think there may be a way forward…

    Matt (#102) is quite reasonably concerned about how he knows how he ought to behave, rather than how the gubbins carries out its work.

    My suggestion is that humans have some inherent responses to bodily events, some learned responses (which often become habitual and hidden from conscious thought)- these are our automatic unmodulated responses. There is also some limited conscious capacity for second guessing the outcome of the first two processes, but this has little introspective ability into the mechanics. What seems to happen, as an example, is that when we see a stripy cable on the path ahead the first two processes generate emotions of (say) fear well before our conscious mind has had chance to react. Our conscious mind subsequently also receives the sensory impressions of a stripy object and also the feeling of the fear emotions. We may already have jumped back before our conscious mind has a chance to mull over everything and tell us that the stripy cable is not a snake but a vine.

    Some have said that the most significant environmental pressures on us as individuals are other people (they are who we mate with or contend for mates with). I suggest we have become evolutionarily predisposed by our inherent responses and the type of learned responses we are sensitive to to frame our interactions with other people in the troop/tribe/clan with particular behaviours.

    It is possible to see how practical questions about whether to keep food to ourselves or share it with others, or what behaviour will keep each of us in the alpha male’s good book have an impact on the success we have in passing on our genes.

    Similarly our species has developed a strong sense of self and the ability to infer what others behaviours will be. Our conscious mind reifies our automatic responses and the emotions they generate into more generalised feelings. The generalised feelings are good or bad feelings about proposed behaviours – and this is our moral sense.

    So the moral sense appears to reside in subjective experience (just like the feeling of happiness, or awareness, or even some suggest the sense of self) but is actually driven by naturalistic responses to sensory input.

    Science can in principle explain why you feel as you do. Science can explain why particular behaviours are more appropriate than others (because they enhance or secure your reproductive success), and why these behaviours become (semi)formalised in particular cultures. Science can even evoke particular feelings (through drugs or transcranial magnetic fields).

    Science can’t (yet) explain what it feels like to experience (say) moral disgust. It may never be able to do so. But it can (to an increasing degree) explain why you experience those feelings and the processes that produce that experience.

    Does that help?

  104. #104 Paul W.
    February 24, 2010

    Matt Bright:

    I think most importantly, why do you think it will be such an enormous improvement on a rationally based, secular ethical philosophy that takes subjectivity into account in a way that science by its very nature cannot?

    What does it mean to “take subjectivity into account,” in a way that “science by its very nature cannot”?

    BTW, I’m not saying that science can straighten out all moral muddles—just help with a lot of them.

    I’m also saying that science may help you

    (1) recognize what morality fundamentally is (e.g., it’s not the same thing as a regular merely aesthetic preference), and

    (2) get clear on a lot of issues that are relevant to moral evaluations. (E.g. is a fetus a person? Is homosexuality sinful?)

    One thing that science can’t do is make you care about morality and actually be moral, if you are just not so inclined.

    A sociopath may understand morality perfectly well, as something that other people have. Knowledge of morality is not the same thing as being motivated to apply that knowledge.

    Science can’t do that, but nothing else can either.

    So far as I can make any useful sense of “taking subjectivity into account,” at present, that would count—realizing that some people may have different basic moral intuitions or motivations.

    But I’m guessing that’s not what you’re getting at.

  105. #105 vincentfleury
    February 24, 2010

    Prof Myers

    you should really stop commenting this sort of work, when you write things like

    “Thompson can see it as a distortion of a coordinate grid, but there is no grid in the organism.”

    that shows how abysmal and empty your scientific knowledge is. You really are a naked emperor of some sort.

    It is really pathetic, you do not understand what a field theory is, especially, a tensorial theory of deformation.
    It is SO ridiculous.

  106. #106 broboxley
    February 24, 2010

    vincentfluery that particular theory doesnt apply to the subject at hand. If you think it does please counterpoint not assert via accusations. PZ gave a concrete example.

  107. #107 Matt Bright
    February 24, 2010

    Does that help?

    Sort of. You?ve nailed my key concern which is the ?ought? bit. But then look?

    Science can explain why particular behaviours are more appropriate than others (because they enhance or secure your reproductive success)

    This is absolutely what I?m saying that science cannot do. Science can tell me why I?ll be impelled to certain behaviours, but it can?t advise me on their appropriateness because it can?t tell me whether enhancing my reproductive success is appropriate behaviour in any given situation.. I?ve got to decide that for myself. Based, hopefully, on reason and logic and my understanding of the scientific facts of the matter where appropriate, but nonetheless it’s ultimately a subjective decision.

    And then this?

    Our conscious mind reifies our automatic responses and the emotions they generate into more generalised feelings.

    which is as good a one sentence illustration of the part of the process that I think is, in principle, inaccessible to science and, indeed, the reason for it. Up until this point, you?ve been impeccably materialist, but here you?re suddenly forced to adopt a kind of unstated dualism even to be able to frame the sentence properly.

    As a materialist myself, I can?t quite see how there can be neurally distinguishable activity of this sort. My ?general feelings?, what I think about my general feelings and their overall influence on my conscious behaviour aren?t just influenced by my conscious mind, they are my conscious mind, or must be if that term is to have any kind of meaning. My brain must be doing this sort of thing continuously.

    And even if I?m wrong, and you did somehow find and measure the reifying process, it still, of course, won?t tell me whether I ought to go with the feelings it generates

  108. #108 Nerd of Redhead, OM
    February 24, 2010

    VincentFleury, you have better things to do than to keep appearing like the crank/crackpot you are. I suggest you retire to your lab and get some actually scientific work done. You are wasting you time here, and you know it.

  109. #109 David Marjanovi?
    February 24, 2010

    Awesome. I’ll need to spend way too much of tomorrow to read this post. :-)

    Done. It’s still awesome. :-)

    irreducible subjectivity

    Win.

    It is really pathetic, you do not understand what a field theory is, especially, a tensorial theory of deformation.

    Et comment cela s’applique la gntique du dveloppement ?

    Ne soyez pas ridicule.

  110. #110 Matt Bright
    February 24, 2010

    #Paul W, 104

    Science can’t do that, but nothing else can either.

    And this is precisely what I?m talking about. There is something else that can motivate me to seek out and apply moral knowledge – a flawed, but by comparison to any scientific instrument incredibly subtle and reliable tool. It?s precisely the thing that I?m saying isn?t accessible to science.

    It?s called a ?self?. It?s an extraordinary machine, running entirely off the nervous system, taking in many inputs ? scientific fact, of course, as well as its feelings and my model of what those around it feels, based on the assumption that they have similar equipment. It outputs highly complex behaviour and opinions.

    It?s a bit of a black box, though ? it appears to use a combination of logical reasoning and various preset modules of which the device itself is only partially aware. It can?t be separated from its owner and examined for the simple reason that it is it’s owner.

    Are you claiming you don?t have one of these? Or that it functions so poorly that it should be replaced as soon as possible?

  111. #111 Nerd of Redhead, OM
    February 24, 2010

    Yawn. Self. Consciousness. It is being studied as we speak, and it is composed of descrete units made up of atoms, cells, and networks. Science may not be very advanced in this area at this point in time, but it will get there. This is usually a bit of sophistry for a god-of-gaps argument.

  112. #112 vincentfleury
    February 24, 2010

    @VincentFleury, I suggest you retire to your lab and get some actually scientific work done.

    http://pre.aps.org/abstract/PRE/v81/i2/e021920

  113. #113 Paul W.
    February 24, 2010

    Matt Bright:

    Science can’t do that, but nothing else can either.

    And this is precisely what I?m talking about. There is something else that can motivate me to seek out and apply moral knowledge – a flawed, but by comparison to any scientific instrument incredibly subtle and reliable tool. It?s precisely the thing that I?m saying isn?t accessible to science.

    What do you mean by saying it “isn’t accessible to science”?

    Seriously, stop repeating yourself and tell us what you’re talking about.

    It?s called a ?self?. [...] Are you claiming you don?t have one of these? Or that it functions so poorly that it should be replaced as soon as possible?

    WTF are you on about?

    Is anybody saying they don’t have a self? Certainly not me.

    I am certainly not saying selves should be replaced.

    BTW I agree that science can’t tell you whether right or wrong by virtue of its effects on your genes’ inclusive fitness. That is not what morality is about, even if that’s where it came from. Our moral goals cannot be reduced to evolution’s “goals.” If that was all I thought you were worried about, I’d just agree with you—that kind of greedy reductionism is ridiculous.

    What matters to what constitutes morality is the kind of meaning-making, goal-seeking meat machines we actually are, not what evolution “designed” us for.

  114. #114 Kel, OM
    February 24, 2010

    Recently I was watching a documentary where they were able to measure how much pleasure the subject was feeling while listening to music purely through watching his brain through a scanner. I’m not sure what that says to anyone else, but that combined with so many other experiments demonstrate that what goes on in the brain isn’t locked to the subjective.

    On the subject of moral experiments, I recently heard of one involving altruism among individuals. From memory the experiment went as follows: a man who was walking with a whole bunch of papers would trip and fall, scattering the papers everywhere in front of a stranger. Then they would measure to see whether the stranger would help. Turns out a stranger would help 10% of the time… except when they bribed the stranger beforehand with a dime. That is to say a group who had all “found” money before the event helped 90% of the time. And how much was that money? 10c. So 10c was the difference between 10% of people helping out a stranger and 90% of people helping out a stranger.

    When the way moral decisions happen in the brain can be mapped, science is measuring how people make decisions. This is not to say that’s how we OUGHT to behave, that that we can measure and make hypothesises out of it. Ethics without experiment is pretty silly, especially in this day and age.

  115. #115 ConcernedJoe
    February 24, 2010

    Matt Matt Matt — gotta love you.. and I know you have the best intentions – and even at this point in time may be right to cling to “.. neither can anything else.”

    But your argument or concern is nothing other than “There’s something about Mary”. And Dennett I believe pegs it right. Essentially it is a “god of the gaps” sort of thing.

    There are a lot of variables – “a lot” is a gross understatement. So we haven’t determined them all nor used them all.. so we have imperfect models. OOOOKKKKK.. so what!

    Our models are a work in progress. As they get more complete they draw us closer to understanding things we thought not understandable. We are refining the depth and breath about what we know about ourselves and OTHERS.

    I keep bringing you to psychology (not pop but real science and real practitioners). It often is used by skilled practitioners to enlighten a person about who THAT person really is and what they will do (and why). Enlighten that person in ways that seem magical.

    And more colloquially, haven’t you ever been surprised by how much a another knew about your feelings/acts before you realized you felt them/did them?

    As to morality – all man made RULES — nothing more! There are some rules that have universal appeal because evolution sort of wired us consistent to those rules (e.g. most of us Worldwide naturally want to protect babies, and woman who are “baby like” (it is a loose valid superficially said example don’t go into feminist tirades on me).

    Biology predicts we’d be so wired, and social sciences also predict were and why some cultures buck the biological inclinations and make contrary rules.

    Your morality is based on your wiring and rules you’ve been given to process. And there are skilled practitioners out there that probably would surprise you about how they know your every next move. Practitioners good and evil.

    Ever know any World class con artists?

    I (even if I was expert) cannot say with absolute certitude what your next move will be because of those pesky random variables situationally. But to the extent I (the fictitious expert) had the environment (variables) pegged I’d be cleaning the house out!

  116. #116 SparrowFalls
    February 24, 2010

    Matt, #110

    My expectation is that the processes are materialist all the way up. Perhaps I haven’t set out my thoughts clearly.

    My starting point is that much of our daily lives are run on automatic processes. I suspect a much greater proportion of our thoughts are automatic than we generally believe. Some of these processes are built in, and some are learned and made habitual and fade away from conscious awareness. Although I agree that language can be a problem, and I regard talk of ‘levels’ of thought or analogies with computers distracting, ‘sitting on top’ of our automatic processes is what we call our conscious awareness and conscious thoughts.

    Our conscious thoughts receive the emotions generated by by our unconscious processes (and a filtered set of sense data) and do their best to reify/reconcile/make into a narrative/integrate (I need a new verb for this bit!) the various strands. So your body and unconscious mind may be signalling “hunger emotion”, your eyes/nose/mouth may be signalling “putrid”, your conscious feeling is one of disgust. This is a very basic reaction which can easily be conscripted by learned habits into conscious feelings of “moral disgust” at the thought of eating food deemed to be unclean by your social network. Or whether or not you like Brussels Sprouts. Or whether someone else’s vomit makes you feel sick. Arguably no value systems have been invoked other than potentially protecting your own wellbeing. Spinoza had an interesting view about ‘conatus’ which you might find interesting.

    We have the mental flexibility and capability to elaborate our basic drives into quite complex socially aware behaviours. For instance most people think killing another person is wrong (arguably because such behaviour within the troop destabilises the troop and risks the life of your children and relatives children, plus you might get caught and punished). A basic just-so evolutionary tale. Yet many people find it easier to kill others if they are ‘authorised’ to do so (e.g. in the army) or 10,000 feet away (in the air force). But some people, regarded as criminals or insane by the rest of us, can kill immediate troop members easily.

    Now in the end I believe that all of this can be explained, in principle, by materialist means. No higher moral purpose or peculiarly conscious thought is required. I also believe that nature is pitilessly indifferent and there is no implicit moral sense or purpose in life, not even the ongoing replication of our genes, family, troop, or species.

    On the other hand I hope we have sufficient mental flexibility, including some small measure of rational thought, for the words ‘to choose what is right’ to have some practical merit. The merit may be merely quelling our hidden emotions and restoring our mental equilibrium.

    We can’t choose what we are… only choose to some extent what we do.

  117. #117 Matt Bright
    February 24, 2010

    Yawn. Self. Consciousness. It is being studied as we speak, and it is composed of descrete units made up of atoms, cells, and networks. Science may not be very advanced in this area at this point in time, but it will get there.

    And then, my friend, we will have WON!!!!!! Or something.

    This is usually a bit of sophistry for a god-of-gaps argument.

    Had you bothered to read the rest of my comments you will have noticed that I am a thoroughgoing materialist who has never denied that the self is made up of anything other than atoms, cells and networks. I know this perfectly well because that’s what I’m made up of, and I am my self. All of me. All the time. No gaps for god, the soul, or anything else.

    And I use all of that self, the whole damn thing, to make moral decisions. Take away any component of me and the decision I make will be different. Take away too much and I won’t be able to make the decision at all. You can’t take a reductionist, component-based approach to morality – or anything else that requires an integrated human response – for the same reason that you can’t point to the bit of a watch that tells you what the time is.

    Seriously, having reached your magical goal of finding out where all the pieces go, what do you believe it will tell you about how you should act in society, how society should be arranged or what activities that society should value?

  118. #118 ConcernedJoe
    February 24, 2010

    Matt – I never intended to be negative or condescending to you. So I am not now when I say you give mixed messages (I feel that way – and others seem to also).

    For instance PaulW #113 had problems reading you and asked you direct questions. Now maybe you answered them and I am too dense to recognize definitive unambiguous answers, but I am still confused.

    You say in your last response (that I read) that “no god of gaps” .. I long ago accepted you have no GOD in mind – but you have something as mysterious it seems.

    Now if you are saying only that your whole person is necessary to how you act and what you thing moral and act – well yeah. If your brain damaged quite possibly you’d be much different person. Or if you experienced a psychological trauma, or if the rules were changed and you were reprogrammed to accept the changes, or if you were fooled into thinking black is white. I accept that. Others accept that I am sure.

    Again it is a big – SO WHAT. Models have variables – variables are VARIABLE… algorithms change, constants need to be refined, etc. etc. It is a journey.

  119. #119 Matt Bright
    February 24, 2010

    If your brain damaged quite possibly you’d be much different person.

    Yes, exactly. Grammar breaks down at this point, but the key is that I wouldn’t be me.

    And furthermore, the people around me wouldn’t be the same people as they would have been pre-brain damage either. And the choices that I would have to make would be different. Not only can’t I separate any component of myself when making moral decisions, I can’t separate myself out of my situation either.*

    The question ‘how should I act morally?’ is shorthand for ‘how should all of me, in the exact state that I am now, knowing what I know, feeling what I feel , act morally in this particular moment?’

    I can’t see how you can make any kind of falsifiable statement, or repeatable test, on such a mutable and fuzzy process – or what kind of extra useful stuff about how to behave it would tell you if you did.

    And, to get back to where all this started, I can understand why people can get disturbed when people at claims that such a project is not merely possible but desirable, and the results of it will be somehow better than the everyday business of rational discourse about how you feel and behave as a human being.

    *Wee passing note: this, for me, is one of the biggest, wildest, maddest conclusions of materialism. If everything’s made of the same sort of stuff (which, don’t get me wrong, is the only logically coherent option) then there’s no non-arbitrary way to divide it up. Just as you can get down to the tiniest particles of matter, you could plausibly build up pictures that connect everything with everything else. Faced with that, the existence of the self as a coherent system (which isn’t of course ‘emergent’ – what would it be emerging from? – but simply ‘is’) is something of a comfy, mid-scale miracle.

  120. #120 Matt Bright
    February 24, 2010

    It’s been fun, and I’ve been refining my arguments as I go, but I really do need to get some kip.

    Maybe see some of you back here at some point tomorrow. Thanks for all of the considered rebuttals.

  121. #121 JohnAshburner
    February 24, 2010

    I mostly agree with the comments about the New Scientist article, but found those about D’Arcy Thompson’s ideas were a bit harsh. OK, some of what he wrote has since been proved very wrong, but refinements of his ideas on geometric transforms (with a little help from his friend, Poincare) are very useful in a number of fields (medical imaging is the example that springs to mind). He may not have considered the underlying biological mechanisms in his description of the emergent properties, but this seems to be a perfectly reasonable approach. When was the last time a biologist considered the underlying particle physics that underlies the biochemistry involved in their work? Some of Thompson’s ideas have been empirically successful, and that is good enough for me.

  122. #122 vincentfleury
    February 24, 2010

    @broboxley
    you cannot even imagine the magnitude of the effect it does on a serious scientist a sentence like the one of prof Myers (in italic!)

    “Thompson can see it as a distortion of a coordinate grid, but there is no grid in the organism”

    It is so incredibly non sensical, that there is strictly nothing to say, explain to, or discuss with Prof. Myers except that he should do something else than commenting this sort of work, esp. D’Arcy’s work, on a scientific blog.

    He has strictly no idea of what a physical constraint is, what a deformation field is, what a conservation law is etc. And he insults constantly people like myself, oh dear. So sad. We are used to this sort of yankee arrogance. It just triggers our sadness, and a bit of hatred, I must say. He should just think, a little bit.

  123. #123 ConcernedJoe
    February 24, 2010

    Matt have a good night —

    We may be violently agreeing – or not (yes I could be that dense and I’ve been doing 5 things at once lately – so I may just be missing it).

    But PZ, you, and others here have made me think about things I’ve filed away and new stuff too and that’s what it is all about isn’t it.

  124. #124 Anton Mates
    February 25, 2010

    Matt @92 (and onward),

    I have just started the Worldwide Movement for Confounding Reductionist Psychology. Its membership is everyone who might participate in any kind of psychological experiment. All members are instructed, before participating in any such experiment, to toss a coin to decide whether to co-operate with the experiment they join or confound it by randomizing their responses.

    So, basically, if you were a malevolent superhuman who used your vast power and intelligence to confound the science of psychology, then the science of psychology would be in trouble. Well, okay, sure. Happily, the real world doesn’t seem to contain such beings, so what’s the problem?

    But my main point here is not around whether they would successfully fool the researcher, but around the fact that anyone can make a subjective, moral decision to do so ? it?s always possible to step outside of the system being tested and base your decision to act about how you feel, subjectively, about that system.

    Sure. But researchers, in turn, can manipulate your knowledge about that system and the time and attention you can devote to planning your response. And since the researchers are the ones who can afford to spend their working lives designing and managing the system, and filtering and prepping potential subjects, they’re usually a little ahead of the game.

    It’s precisely because humans’ subjective moral decisions (and other decisions, for that matter) are predictable that this kind of research can be conducted successfully.

    You ignored, I note, my other key question ? is it?wrong? to attempt to confound a good-faith experiment (or, indeed, to create a worldwide movement that destroys behavioural psychology as a profession) and if so why? (or if not, why not?)

    Um, you called that an “illustrative bonus question” and stuck it in parentheses. Now it’s key?

    But okay. I would consider it wrong to do that, because behavioral psychology has the potential to make a lot of people happier and healthier and I consider that a good thing. I might change my mind if the particular psychologists you were trying to thwart were assholes or planning to use their data to build a mind-control ray or something.

    But that’s just how I feel about it. I’m not sure how you do.

    Look, can I clear the decks here? I keep trying to point out that morality is a matter of subjective experience, and I keep getting answers that point out how terribly good we are now at modelling what my brain is doing and explaining why it?s doing it.

    As far as I can see, that’s exactly the sort of answer your point should receive. You disagree, apparently because you reject the idea that we can model and explain subjective experience.

    But really, think about it. Pain is subjective, yet science studies pain and how to alleviate it. Science can tell you that if you dip your hand in sulfuric acid, it will hurt–not just that it will suffer physical damage and you’ll hop up and down X times a minute while screaming at frequency Y, but that it will hurt. Subjectively, in your mind, where the experience of pain happens. Science developed drugs and other methods to reduce pain; if you take a bunch of morphine and fentanyl, your hand will hurt less. Yay science, it made our subjective lives nicer.

    Emotions are subjective, yet science can treat phobias and depression. Memories are subjective, yet science can investigate amnesia and enhance or reduce your ability to recall memories. Sensory perception is subjective, yet science can study and mess with that. And so on.

    Psychologists and neurologists and clinical MDs are happily mucking about with all those bits of your sacrosanct internal self. And, yes, morality included.

    Nobody has yet explained how any of that data tells me how I ought to behave. And I don?t mean ?How I am likely to behave in order to maximise some arbitrarily complex fitness function? or even ?how the mass of data suggests I will behave?, I mean good, old-fashioned right and wrong type morality.

    Well, I’m an ethical subjectivist. I don’t know what “how I ought to behave” means, except in reference to some goal or value system. I can tell you how I feel you ought to behave, and (in principle, at least) I can scientifically determine how you feel you ought to behave, and I can predict how you ought to behave if you want to maximize a particular function or have some other goal. After that, what’s left to talk about?

    And if you told me that something is Truly Right or Truly Wrong, but you didn’t put that claim in relation to how I feel or how you feel or some other issue I might be interested in, why would I even care? That’s like saying “You know, tomatoes taste terrible. I’m not saying that you’ll dislike them or that I dislike them or that a gourmet dislikes them or that anyone in the world dislikes them, but it’s nonetheless true that they taste terrible.” I mean, what?

  125. #125 ConcernedJoe
    February 25, 2010

    Nicely done Anton. Thanks.

  126. #126 Paul W.
    February 25, 2010

    Anton Mates:

    Well, I’m an ethical subjectivist. I don’t know what “how I ought to behave” means, except in reference to some goal or value system. I can tell you how I feel you ought to behave, and (in principle, at least) I can scientifically determine how you feel you ought to behave, and I can predict how you ought to behave if you want to maximize a particular function or have some other goal. After that, what’s left to talk about?

    I don’t think that morality is as subjective (or relative) as all that. It’s not as subjective as, say, whether cilantro tastes good. (That’s coriander leaf, for non-Americans.)

    Morality is a particular kind of thing. It’s a distributed behavior control mechanism that addresses certain kinds of issues (having to do with conflict and cooperation) and not others (e.g., purely aesthetic preferences about Cilantro or the color red.)

    There’s considerable variation in specific moral systems, but considerable commonality as well. Many things simply don’t count as moral considerations.

    For example, if somebody thinks they “should” spread the Gospel of Jesus because it’ll save people from the torments of Hell, that’s a moral issue. (As well as hinging on a bunch of issues of fact about Jesus, Hell, and morality.)

    But if somebody thinks they “should” wander the world painting as many things red as possible just because they personally like the color red, that’s not a moral issue; it’s a bizarre aesthetic compulsion. If they call it a moral issue, because it’s what they value above all things, they’re simply wrong. It may be what they want, but it’s not a moral want. That’s not what morality is, or is about, and if they call it morality, they’re mistaken.

    If they obsessively inflict pain and suffering on whoever they can, just for the fun of inflicting suffering, that is a moral issue, but it’s not moral. It’s immoral. Even if they say that the suffering of others is their “highest” value, that just shows that they’re psychopathic, i.e., seriously morally defective.

    Morality isn’t just about subjective aesthetic preferences. It’s a natural phenomenon that works in some ways and not others; that constrains what can even count as morality at all, even if it doesn’t precisely specify a particular moral system. (And I don’t think it does.)

    The interesting question is how much moral systems rationally converge toward a shared morality once you remove all the misconceptions about the nature of morality and relevant non-moral facts about (nonexistent) souls, etc.

    (BTW, I second the earlier recommendation of his book Moral Minds. Required reading for anybody who’s seriously interested in morality.)

    A lot of people assume that moral preferences are subjective preferences par excellance, like feelings about cilantro or red. I don’t think they are.

  127. #127 broboxley
    February 25, 2010

    @vincentfluery 122
    “Thompson can see it as a distortion of a coordinate grid, but there is no grid in the organism”

    Lets peel apart that sentence

    Does Thompson see a distortion of a co-ordinate grid?
    The above part of the sentence. is it an accurate description of Thompson’s suppositions? I will assume so, please let me know if that is incorrect

    second part is a conclusion

    There is no grid in the organism.
    Please submit any supporting evidence that the case presented has grids and how they are used, defined.

    Pattern Matching is what makes humans very successful, its also a huge hindrance in some cases

  128. #128 'Tis Himself, OM
    February 25, 2010

    vincentfleury #122

    It is so incredibly non sensical, that there is strictly nothing to say, explain to, or discuss with Prof. Myers except that he should do something else than commenting this sort of work, esp. D’Arcy’s work, on a scientific blog.

    He has strictly no idea of what a physical constraint is, what a deformation field is, what a conservation law is etc. And he insults constantly people like myself, oh dear. So sad. We are used to this sort of yankee arrogance. It just triggers our sadness, and a bit of hatred, I must say. He should just think, a little bit.

    Dr. Fleury never has forgiven PZ for critiquing his paper.

  129. #129 ConcernedJoe
    February 25, 2010

    Paul W – nicely put – thanks.

    I don’t happen to agree though.

    Let’s take your “If they obsessively inflict pain and suffering on whoever they can, just for the fun of inflicting suffering, that is a moral issue, but it’s not moral. It’s immoral. Even if they say that the suffering of others is their “highest” value, that just shows that they’re psychopathic, i.e., seriously morally defective.”

    Although my gut is with you – my intellect says – that is is only my prejudices stemming from my up-bring, rules I chose to accept — whatever.

    It is the controlling environment that makes things immoral or moral. It was not immoral in the eyes of Nazis to do the ethnic cleansing they did. It was even unclear (to my horror) to many non-Nazis that that was really “evil” (“they have their reasons”, “something I’d wish I could do”, etc.).

    The ToE provides a framework how many and varied morality systems (diversity happens) can exist. It also can provide a framework that can guide us to more long-term strategies of interaction – that are generally more benign and cooperative (loins do not seek to kill all the gazelle!).

    And if someone says – but but there is a fundamental morality – well we all would say killing is wrong – but we honor our veterans! I am not arguing one way or the other for against war – nor vilifying veterans. I am stating I do not know of one MORAL decision that does not have a counterpoint – and isn’t subject to the controlling environment.

    People are judged insane because they seem incapable of following the rules! Not because they do crazy delusional stuff. Else every priest at mass with the cracker would be generally and publically deemed delusional.

  130. #130 ConcernedJoe
    February 25, 2010

    loins don’t and neither do lions (who like loins of gazelle BTW)

  131. #131 a_ray_in_dilbert_space
    February 25, 2010

    Concerned Joe says, “It is the controlling environment that makes things immoral or moral. It was not immoral in the eyes of Nazis to do the ethnic cleansing they did.”

    Sorry, Joe. Don’t buy it. They went to great lengths to keep what they did secret–and that alone suggests that they weren’t proud of it.

    In the Rwandan Genocide, they went to great lengths to keep out the press.

    I believe that humans as social animals do have an instinctive understanding of right and wrong. We do a lot worse with wrong and wronger.

  132. #132 ConcernedJoe
    February 25, 2010

    a_ray … agree a lot “.. humans as social animals do have an instinctive understanding of right and wrong”.

    But we were not talking about right and wrong!! We were talking about moral and immoral – and that is a much more subjective and contextual issue to me.

    I highly respect your comments in the blogs .. and I am explaining myself well enough to not seem sophist or playing semantic games. So I will try this: I suspect a lot more US people in 1830 felt slavery was “wrong” than thought the people with slaves or part of it in ordinary way were immoral – I mean people within the same Venn bubble.

  133. #133 ConcernedJoe
    February 25, 2010

    LOL – thinking to fingers pathways are like so bad … that was “and [I HOPE] I am explaining …”

    Obviously I leave a lot to be desired in the literary arts – among other areas

  134. #134 Paul W.
    February 25, 2010

    a_ray_in_dilbert_space:

    Concerned Joe says, “It is the controlling environment that makes things immoral or moral. It was not immoral in the eyes of Nazis to do the ethnic cleansing they did.”

    Sorry, Joe. Don’t buy it. They went to great lengths to keep what they did secret–and that alone suggests that they weren’t proud of it.

    Right, but even more revealing is the kind of propaganda that you see used to justify racist ethnocentric crap, e.g., talk about “stinking” foreigners and their “filthy” religions, and the pattern of vilification used to justify injustice.

    That is a revealing pattern. Treating people horribly generally requires justification, however thin the rationalizations are.

    That’s because there is a cross-cultural universal of morality that says don’t inflict suffering without good reason—that’s why people come up with “reasons,” e.g., calling Jews Christ-killers or masterminds of an exploitative global conspiracy.

    To override the cross-cultural default of don’t be an asshole, you have to come up with an excuse that makes it sound like your victims deserve it (they killed Jesus) or the end justifies the means (the world will be a better place when they’re removed from positions of power).

    The superficial differences in morality from culture to culture and from time to time actually point to deeper structural similarities.

    In particular, specific systems of morality generally define an in-group of “people like us” worthy of normal within-group moral consideration, and an out-group of Others who are inferior, or are A Problem, such that you can’t afford to treat them fairly.

    One of the most interesting facts about human moral psychology is that the intuition that you should treat “normal” people fairly is very robust—it survives all kinds of knowledge and reflection.

    The excuses for treating others shabbily generally do not. It’s generally based on factual errors and recognizable irrationality.

    So, for example, in justifying slavery people told stories about how black people didn’t feel injustice the way white people would, and it was evidently God’s will—even if it humanly seemed unfair—because God clearly condones slavery in both the Old and New Testaments. (One of Paul’s letters is a cover letter being sent to a slaveowner along with an escaped slave that Paul is sending back!)

    The scientific fact of the matter is that human beings everywhere are pretty much the same kind of beast. That undermines various xenophobic moral systems, which evolve to largely exclude Others from moral consideration and justify in-group exploitation of out-groups.

    That’s one of the things that gives me hope for humanistic morality. It appears natural, in light of science. Science tells us that most of the differences that cultures have exploited to justify exploitation are in fact not real, and that many of the differences in world views are often resolvable if we accept scientific truth.

    That’s also a reason I’m anti-religious. Religion generally co-evolves with social structures (e.g., class, caste, racism, xenophobia) to justify an exploitative status quo. The best antidote to that is truth—e.g., that higher-status cultures, castes, classes or races are not chosen by God or Karma for divine blessing, and outsiders are not doomed to suffer because of their evilness or inferiority.

    Interestingly, I think that’s an empirical truth about human morality, but it’s a contingent one. You could imagine that we evolved with hard-wired preferences for blood relatives, maybe based on an ability to tell degrees of genetic similarity fairly reliably by sense of smell, etc.

    If evolution had hard-wired us in a certain way to propagate our genes, we might be intrinsically expoitative assholes who cooperate only with relatively close relatives and are always happy to exploit others, and feel no guilt whatsoever about it.

    Luckily, it didn’t. We have a fairly flexible scheme of morality, in which we feel an obligation to treat others fairly if they are sufficiently like us, whether or not they’re blood relatives. And people all over the world are in fact very much like us, despite many evolved social structures and pressures that obscure the similarities and emphasize the differences. (And it’s not just humans. People increasingly recognize that other animals are like us in significant ways, and deserve moral consideration.)

    That realization is largely where social progress comes from—our basic moral intuitions do not go away in light of secular knowledge, or loss of religion, but many of our rationalizations of immorality do.

  135. #135 Barrett808
    February 25, 2010

    RobertN

    Now it is immediately clear how one would get such grid transformations. Change the gradient (by adding extra sources, sinks, or obstructions through which the molecule cannot diffuse) and your grid will transform exactly as shown in the pictures. Why this would be a challenge for evolutionary theory baffles me though…

    I have to echo Robert’s bafflement: I don’t understand why Thompson is “wrong.” Didn’t I just read that Thompson is very much alive and well? Yes:

    Simple math explains dramatic beak shape variation in Darwin’s finches

    Beak shape variation seems to be constrained by only three parameters: the depth of the length for the scaling transformation and the degree of shear. Brenner, Glover Professor of Applied Mathematics at SEAS, says he is “astonished” that so few variables can help explain such great diversity.

    “Shear transformation” == D’Arcy Thompson.

    Seems like a triumphant confirmation to me.

  136. #136 Paul W.
    February 25, 2010

    Matt Bright:

    The question ‘how should I act morally?’ is shorthand for ‘how should all of me, in the exact state that I am now, knowing what I know, feeling what I feel , act morally in this particular moment?’

    No, it isn’t. You seem to be conflating the issue of personal identity (and an odd sense of that) with issues of morality.

    What makes something a moral decision, or the particular moral decision that it is, does not depend on every aspect of your psyche.

    For example, whether you think that it’s okay to gas babies with Zyklon B probably has a whole lot more to do with what and how you think about race and/or religion than with, say, your favorite color or your (dis)like of cilantro, or your memory of mentally rotating a puzzle block, or any of millions of other things in your head.

    Not everything in your head affects everything else in your head all the time, in any significant way. If it did, you’d be having a massive and immediately fatal seizure. Fodor may not be right about extreme modularity or nativism, but the brain is not just a big holistic puddle of magic goo, either. It’s a machine with parts, even if some of the parts are distributed and some of the representations are both subtle and highly heuristic.

    I can’t see how you can make any kind of falsifiable statement, or repeatable test, on such a mutable and fuzzy process – or what kind of extra useful stuff about how to behave it would tell you if you did.

    I have no idea why you think it’s that mutable or that fuzzy a process. It sounds to me like you’re running everything together, rather like obsessing on the issue that everything in the universe affects everything else via gravitation… therefore it’s all just a big fuzzy mess, and science is impossible.

    You seem to be making some unclear but very strong claims about the nature of the mind, the self, and in particular the moral sense. I strongly suspect those claims are wrong, and have no idea where they’re coming from.

    What is your background for these assertions?

    And, to get back to where all this started, I can understand why people can get disturbed when people at claims that such a project is not merely possible but desirable, and the results of it will be somehow better than the everyday business of rational discourse about how you feel and behave as a human being.

    Maybe in light of some my recent posts you can get a clearer picture of where I’m coming from. It’s not about any simple reduction of morality to what evolution wants—a lot of it depends on contingent facts of what we actually are, and how morality actually works, which are caused by our evolutionary history but not reducible to simple evolutionary imperatives.

  137. #137 ConcernedJoe
    February 25, 2010

    Yes our inclinations toward behaviors that seem “moral” and “immoral” to us as modern democratic advanced 21st Century Countries after much try for fit – certainly seem to me to be consistent with what ToE would predict.

    But Right and Wrong are much more objective than Morality.

    Official “Morality/Immorality” is rules driven and can be very subjective, subject to compromises, and often arbitrary and worse mean and/or serving to the ruling class.

    To me the ToE predicts that humans will be both generous and self-serving; that a percent of us will be RWA and percent of us will not be RWA; that some of us will be psychopathic and most of us will not be; etc.. We have all this built in wiring.

    But “morality” (NOT right and wrong) is mostly a function of a political process – that yes propaganda and lies play in. Again I assert these for thought:

    I suspect a lot more US people in 1830 felt slavery was “wrong” than thought the people with slaves or part of it in ordinary way were immoral – I mean people within the same Venn bubble.

    or

    We all would say killing is wrong – but we honor our veterans! We (generally) do not say they are “immoral” for blowing away “the enemy” even if the enemy is some poor sap commandeered into Saddam’s army.

  138. #138 vincentfleury
    February 25, 2010

    The comments of PZ Myers about D’Arcy Thomson are so pitiful.

    For people who are not experts : Myers is saying somthing identical to : ah ah, meridian lines are irrelevant for planetary studies, because they are not actually drawn on the ground of the earth. So low.

    It is not a shame to be a stratospherically stupid person, what is a shame is to be so stupid, and in addition insult and defame constantly the others.

  139. #139 stevieinthecity
    February 25, 2010

    Ahahah. Oh for fuck’s sake Vinny. You are such a whinging douche.

  140. #140 vincentfleury
    February 25, 2010

    Your irony does not matter, what matters is that resonable people, especially students, see by themselves how low and absurd Myer’s posts are.

    His atheism is just a curtain of smoke, to mask a scientific worthelessness.

  141. #141 Rev. BigDumbChimp
    February 25, 2010

    I thought I heard a low whiney noise over here.

  142. #142 vincentfleury
    February 25, 2010

    Sure, the whiney noise made by the agony of Myer’s scientific reputation, which is rapidly fading away.

  143. #143 Rev. BigDumbChimp
    February 25, 2010

    No, it’s you.

    Care for some cheese with that?

  144. #144 Nerd of Redhead, OM
    February 25, 2010

    I see that the third rate physicist Fleury is back, showing exactly why he is a third rate physicist. First and second rate people would be so busy with their work, teaching, supervising grad studdents, doing research and presenting it to their fellow scientists, that they don’t have time to try to whine about their treatment on some scientific blog outside of their field. Only crackpots/cranks would do that. If the shoe fits, wear it…

  145. #145 vincentfleury
    February 25, 2010

    Informing readers that “Prof.” Myers is a nullity is not a waste of time, at least for them.

  146. #146 vincentfleury
    February 25, 2010

    I was back thanks to the first rate scientist PZ Myers, who spends his precious time again insulting people like myself on his blog, which he has so much spare time to fill with worthless pharyngulic stupidities.

  147. #147 Anton Mates
    February 25, 2010

    Paul W.,

    I don’t think that morality is as subjective (or relative) as all that. It’s not as subjective as, say, whether cilantro tastes good. (That’s coriander leaf, for non-Americans.)

    Well, I think you?re conflating ?subjective? in the sense of ?non-independent of one?s mind??which is how I?m using it?with ?subjective? in the sense of ?peculiar to a particular individual.?

    The taste of cilantro happens to be a subjective experience on which there?s no widespread agreement, but not all subjective experiences are like that. Almost all humans would agree that, say, sugar water tastes better than Windex. And if someone hated the taste of sugar and adored the taste of Windex, we would very reasonably hypothesize that something?s wrong?in a medical sense?with their sense of taste. They?re not matching the human norm.

    Similarly, pain is subjective; I may feel that a pinprick in the left shoulder blade is slightly less painful than you feel it is, and neither of us is more objectively ?right? about that. But if someone feels no pain when you hold their hand in a fire, or if they feel excruciating pain at the touch of a light breeze, we would rightly judge that their perception of pain is screwed up somehow. Their subjective reactions are outside the normal range for humans. That doesn?t mean that pain is the objectively correct thing to feel when your hand is burned?but it is what almost all humans feel, and we can understand why humans have evolved to feel that way, and if someone doesn?t feel that way we can infer that there?s something medically wrong with them.

    Now in the case of morality, you?re dealing with a system of values/desires that is mostly concerned with social behavior, which means there?s exceptionally strong external and internal pressure to conform. If I hate cilantro and you don?t, your eating it won?t leave a bad taste in my mouth. But if we have a moral disagreement, your behaving in a way I find immoral will trouble me, and I?m much more likely to either try to stop you, through persuasion or force, or to gradually remodel my own morality so that it doesn?t bother me any more.

    There’s considerable variation in specific moral systems, but considerable commonality as well. Many things simply don’t count as moral considerations.

    For example, if somebody thinks they “should” spread the Gospel of Jesus because it’ll save people from the torments of Hell, that’s a moral issue. (As well as hinging on a bunch of issues of fact about Jesus, Hell, and morality.)

    But if somebody thinks they “should” wander the world painting as many things red as possible just because they personally like the color red, that’s not a moral issue; it’s a bizarre aesthetic compulsion. If they call it a moral issue, because it’s what they value above all things, they’re simply wrong. It may be what they want, but it’s not a moral want.

    That?s quite true, but that doesn?t mean morality isn?t subjective?it just means that there are different kinds of subjective values and desires. Finding something pleasant-feeling or painful is different from finding it aesthetically pleasing or displeasing, which is different from finding it sexually arousing or unarousing, which is different from finding it soothing or frightening, which is different from finding it moral or immoral. You can find subjective experiences that occupy almost any combination of coordinates along these axes; for a conservative Christian with masochistic tendencies, say, being flogged might be painful and arousing and soothing and immoral.

    Personally, I distinguish moral values and desires from other sorts by the feelings they?re associated with. So, for instance, if someone is filled with great pride and satisfaction when they wander the world painting it red, and they?re filled with guilt and shame when they don?t do this, and they?re indignant when other people don?t paint things red and approving when other people do, then yes, it?s a moral issue for them. Very few people feel this way, of course, but as you say, humans are fairly similar beasts.

    The superficial differences in morality from culture to culture and from time to time actually point to deeper structural similarities.

    Also quite true, but I think it?s the differences that matter when judging whether something is subjective or objective, not the similarities. Similarities can never tell you whether X is objectively the case, or simply subjectively held to be the case by everyone in your study population. It would be quite easy to conclude that rotten flesh was objectively delicious…if everyone you knew was a turkey vulture.

    So, for instance, look at Jonathan Haidt?s work on moral foundations. I have lots and lots of reservations about the wider implications he draws from his work re: liberals vs. conservatives, believers vs. nonbelievers, and so forth. But it does seem pretty clear that large sets of people assign moral significance to certain concepts?group loyalty, purity, respect for authority?while other large sets of people do not. Neither set consists of psychopaths; these are all normal people who can create and participate in functioning societies and live reasonably happy lives. But their moral intuitions are different, and irreducibly so, at least in the sense of rational argument. And the universe is never going to come down and tell us which group is right; the disagreement is subjective.

  148. #148 fredg3
    March 3, 2010

    I think the Fibonacci sequence in nature gets over played. It seems that ANY time there’s a spiral it gets written off as a Fibonacci spiral. Donald Simanek writes an article debunking much of the “Fibonacci Flim Flam” – http://www.lhup.edu/~dsimanek/pseudo/fibonacc.htm.

  149. #149 Sushen Krsna Das, Ph.D.
    December 5, 2010

    Darwinism Dead at 150
    Wednesday, December 1, 2010
    || By: Sripad Bhakti Madhava Puri Maharaja, Ph.D. ||

    Darwinism, or the original theory of evolution proposed by Darwin 150 years ago in his Origin of Species, in which he introduced the idea of natural selection, was laid to rest about a half century ago when it was succeeded by the neo-Darwinian theory involving genetic mutation and natural selection, also known as the modern synthesis. Since then an endless stream of textbooks, courses, media presentations and “genetic toolkits”[1] have been used to indoctrinate students and the public with these ideas causing many to give up their religious conviction in God or the soul as integral to their understanding of life.However, with the advancement of science, especially in the field of biology, more detailed knowledge of the genes and genome have revealed a far more complex dynamic relation between the genome and phoneme and its environment than can be explained by appeal to simple genetic mechanisms. This has been a dawning realization among biologists during the last few decades, but the “evolution industry” (Suzan Mazur, The Altenberg 16: An Exposé Of The Evolution Industry (2010)) has kept the public in the dark about the real scientific overthrow of the modern evolutionary synthesis. Now all of that is about to change.

    Scientist were invited to attend a 2008 conference in Altenberg, Austria, to address this critical junction: “The challenge seems clear to us: how do we make sense, conceptually, of the astounding advances in biology since the 1940s, when the Modern Synthesis was taking shape? Not only we have witnessed the molecular revolution, from the discovery of the structure of DNA to the genomic era, we are also grappling with the increasing feeling – for example as reflected by an almost comical proliferation of “-omics,” that we just don’t have the theoretical and analytical tools necessary to make sense of the bewildering diversity and complexity of living organisms.”

    A senior investigator at the National Center for Biotechnology Information, National Library of Medicine, and National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, has published two peer reviewed papers on the current status of the “modern evolutionary synthesis,” wherein he states, “The edifice of the modern synthesis has crumbled, apparently, beyond repair.” [Eugene Koonin, The Origin at 150: Is a new evolutionary synthesis in sight?" Trends in Genetics, 25(11), November 2009, pp. 473-475] and [Eugene Koonin, Darwinian evolution in the light of genomics, Nucleic Acids Research, 37(4), 2009, pp. 1011-1034].

    From the abstract of his second paper: “Comparative genomics and systems biology offer unprecedented opportunities for testing central tenets of evolutionary biology formulated by Darwin in the Origin of Species in 1859 and expanded in the Modern Synthesis 100 years later. Evolutionary-genomic studies show that natural selection is only one of the forces that shape genome evolution and is not quantitatively dominant, whereas non-adaptive processes are much more prominent than previously suspected. Major contributions of horizontal gene transfer and diverse selfish genetic elements to genome evolution undermine the Tree of Life concept.[2] An adequate depiction of evolution requires the more complex concept of a network or ‘forest’ of life. There is no consistent tendency of evolution towards increased genomic complexity, and when complexity increases, this appears to be a non adaptive consequence of evolution under weak purifying selection rather than an adaptation.”

    The concept that natural selection provides the foundation for evolutionary change has long been challenged for its failure to explain how different forms arises in nature, but only how they may be favored once they do arise. Through the work of scientists like Motoo Kimura, Tomoko Ohta [Theoretical aspects of population genetics, Motoo Kimura and Tomoko Ohta (1971)] and others, it has been concluded both theoretically and empirically that natural selection has little or no effect on the vast majority of the genomes of most living organisms.

    In this regard, Dr. Koonin adds (see above): “There is no consistent tendency of evolution towards increased genomic complexity, and when complexity increases, this appears to be a non adaptive consequence of evolution under weak purifying selection rather than an adaptation.” Purifying evolution refers to the cell’s coordinated elimination of harmful mutations.

    Allen MacNeill [teaching biology at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY] writes on his blog[3]: “Kimura, Ohta, Jukes, and Crow dropped a monkey wrench into the “engine” at the heart of the modern synthesis — natural selection — and then Gould and Lewontin finished the job with their famous paper on The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm.” [4]

    Suzan Mazur, laying down the gauntlet recently wrote [5]: “Let’s begin with the facts: The days of evolutionary science being an exclusive old boys club are over. The public is a party to the discourse now and knows the emphasis in evolutionary science is on VISION and not textbook rules. And while Rutgers philosopher Jerry Fodor’s and University of Arizona cognitive scientist Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini’s new book, “What Darwin Got Wrong.” does not showcase amateur evolutionary theories, the authors do indeed reach out to the public “hop[ing] to convince” through Fodor’s sublime ability to argue a point and Piattelli-Palmarini’s wit, charm and biophysics savvy that we as a people have got to move on because the central story of the theory of evolution — natural selection — is wrong in a way that “can’t be repaired”. They are careful not to say what the public also knows, i.e., that a critical mass of people is simply tired of Darwin’s vision. It’s out of vogue.”

    And, as if to add yet another nail to the coffin: “Unless the discourse around evolution is opened up to scientific perspectives beyond Darwinism, the education of generations to come is at risk of being sacrificed for the benefit of a dying theory.” – Stuart Newman ( professor of cell biology and anatomy at New York Medical College in Valhalla, NY) [6]

    It was Darwin, himself who explained how he should be buried: “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.” [7]

    Suzan Mazur writes, “Stuart Newman’s now got a seductive theory about the origin of form of all 35 or so animal phyla–”it happened abruptly” not gradually, roughly 600 million years ago via a “pattern language”–which serves as the centerpiece of the “Extended Synthesis.”” [8]

    While what is being called the “Extended Synthesis” does not outright dispense with natural selection and gene mutations, it subordinates them to minor roles. And while the concept of evolution itself is certainly not yet rejected by these scientists, the gradual march of science is demonstrating how scientific understanding is constantly subject to error and revision because of its inherently finite, incomplete view of reality.

    In order to assuage the feelings of the Darwinian ideologues like Richard Dawkins, Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education in the US, and others the term “expanded synthesis,” is being promoted with the assurance that neo-Darwinian mechanisms are still being brought into the picture, although in a subordinate way, in order to ease their transition into what is not only a change in thinking about life, but a change in how to think about life in a non-mechanistic, dynamic, and holistic way, e.g. Complexity Philosophy’ [9]

    Vedantic science does not suffer the fate of finitistic science but has proposed for millennia that the cause of the diversity of species is due to the underlying variety of conscious living entities that manifest such bodies as indicated by theistic Samkhya philosophy. Modern science has not yet progressed to the finer level of understanding that requires advancement beyond a purely materialistic ontology. It must be properly appreciated that Vedantic knowledge is also systematic, scientific and rational but requires a different epistemic-ontological grounding than the impersonal/materialist paradigm assumes.

    And it is condescending to think that the ancient cultures were somehow more primitive, mythological, or somehow less informed about nature and reality than modern scientists. The chronological conceit of authors like Jean Gebser, Brian Swmimme and others think modern man to be superior to all previous civilizations that they know of based on a narrow materialist, Eurocentric education and the hegemony that the history of civilizations from that perspective has gained. Of course, there are civilizations mentioned in the Vedas that they simply have no knowledge of or they consider mythological. Nonetheless, their ideas are simply not true when considered from the conscious basis upon which reality is grounded according to Vedic understanding, from which a strong case may be made for their superior advancement. Much evidence of those civilizations has been lost through the course of history but what remains in the form of sacred literature has never been excelled.

    Descartes laid the philosophical groundwork for the modern scientific period by separating subjective cognition from objective bodies, thereby also dividing epistemology from ontology reducing knowing to indifferent “observation.” This is the perspective of consciousness and its object, of which material science only imperfectly studies the object. In reality these two are not separated but dialectically related and sublated in the higher comprehending original unity of self-consciousness. Physical scientists fail to study these higher categories of reality and are therefore left with an incomplete understanding of a mere superficial nature that is inadequate to comprehend the core truth.

    But scientific, rational inquiry will not stop until a comprehensive idea is reached that is coherent with the full range of our knowledge of life. That spectrum of knowledge is not circumscribed merely by chemistry, physics and mathematics. ThusVedanta-sutra advises, that you will have to continue your search, athatho brahma jijnasa, until you reach brahma, the underlying spiritual source, janmady asy yatah, the fountainhead where all inquiry will reach its purpose. Then beyond knowledgeBhagavatam will guide us to the ultimate search – raso vai sah, the search for our highest fulfillment, sweetness and love.

    References:
    ——————————————————————————–
    [1] http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/library/03/4/l_034_04.html
    [2] Will Provine, Tisch distinguished professor of Paleontology at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, in an interview states, “We’ve discovered that Darwin’s idea of evolution by descent from comment ancestors does not really work well as soon as you get behind multi-cellular organisms….and our methods phylogeny reconstruction are so poor, that we will never have a tree of life that goes back to the origin of life.”
    [3] http://evolutionlist.blogspot.com/
    [4] Stephen Jay Gould and Richard C. Lewontin. “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme” Proc. Roy. Soc. London B 205 (1979) pp. 581-598
    [5] http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL1003/S00236.htm
    [6] Stuart Newman, Evolution: The Public’s Problem, and the Scientists’ (2008).
    [7] Charles Darwin, The Origin of the Species Ch. 6. (1859)
    [8] http://www.archaeology.org/online/interviews/newman.html
    [9] http://www.calresco.org/lucas/compute.htm

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