From today’s Get Fuzzy (artist Darby Conley), sent by reader jsp:
Well, the Discovery Institute won’t go gentle into that good night. After their loss in the Eric Hedin affair, in which Ball State University (BSU) President Jo Ann Gora proclaimed that courses like Hedin’s could not teach intelligent design creationism (ID) as science, Hedin’s course in Physics and Astronomy was canned. That course proselytized Christianity and ID, and the Freedom from Religion Foundation pointed out its unconstitutionality to BSU. After that, there was an investigation by several faculty members, culminating with Gora’s wonderfully definitive policy statement.
The Discovery Institute (DI), home of ID, didn’t take this lying down. After naming me Censor of the Year for my small role in this issue, they have now influenced four Indiana State legislators to write to BSU asking for data on what happened when Hedin’s course was canned. And they’re crying “censorship” of intelligent design. My informants tell me that this inquiry is probably the first step in Indiana trying to pass a law that would allow ID to be taught at state universities (of which BSU is one). Alternatively, it may be the way the DI is doing preliminary spadework (“discovery”) before filing a lawsuit. Either way, this is not going to work. As the DI press release notes below, BSU is refusing to answer the legislators’ inquiries.
Here’s the first report of the hydra growing another head from the Muncie Star-Press:
MUNCIE — The Discovery Institute says four state legislators led by Senate Education Committee Chair Dennis Kruse, R–Auburn, have sent a letter to Ball State University’s president and board of trustees expressing concerns about the university’s treatment of BSU physicist Eric Hedin and its “imposition of a speech code censoring faculty speech on intelligent design.”
Hedin previously taught an honors course on the “Boundaries of Science” that briefly discussed the idea that nature displays evidence of intelligent design, but the course was removed following an investigation that the institute says operated outside of normal procedures.
In their letter, legislators expressed concerns “about whether improper procedures were followed while investigating professor Eric Hedin’s course, and whether an ad hoc committee appointed to investigate him was filled with persons with conflicts of interest…We are also concerned about the cancellation of Hedin’s class and the policy you announced last summer restricting faculty speech on intelligent design. We are disturbed by reports that while you restrict faculty speech on intelligent design, BSU authorized a seminar that teaches ‘Science Must Destroy Religion.’
The legislators promised to send additional questions to BSU in coming weeks.
Discovery Institute is asking BSU to investigate its honors seminar “Dangerous Ideas.” The sole textbook used in the course is an anthology edited by a prominent atheist in which the authors assert that “Science Must Destroy Religion,” that “There is no God; no Intelligent Designer; no higher purpose to our lives,” and even that scientists should function as our society’s “high priests.” The book contains an afterword by atheist evangelist Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion.
And here’s the Discovery Institute’s News Release:
Legislators Demand Answers about Intelligent Design Ban at Ball State University
March 11, 2014
(206) 292-0401 x107
Indianapolis—Four state legislators led by Senate Education Committee Chair Dennis Kruse (R–Auburn) have sent a letter to Ball State University’s (BSU) President and Board of Trustees expressing serious concerns about the university’s treatment of BSU physicist Eric Hedin and its imposition of a speech code censoring faculty speech on intelligent design.
Prof. Hedin previously taught an honors course on the “Boundaries of Science” which briefly discussed the idea that nature displays evidence of intelligent design, but the course was removed from BSU’s course schedule for Spring Semester 2014 following a controversial investigation that operated outside of normal procedures.
In their letter, legislators expressed concerns “about whether improper procedures were followed while investigating Prof. Eric Hedin’s course, and whether an ad hoc committee appointed to investigate him was filled with persons with conflicts of interest…We are also concerned about the cancellation of Hedin’s class and the policy you announced last summer restricting faculty speech on intelligent design. We are disturbed by reports that while you restrict faculty speech on intelligent design, BSU authorized a seminar that teaches ‘Science Must Destroy Religion.’
Your policy banning professors from expressing their views on intelligent design raises many troubling questions. One of the most important is: Does the policy forbid science professors from explaining either their support or rejection of intelligent design in answer to student questions about intelligent design in class?”
The legislators promised to send additional questions to BSU in coming weeks. The legislators’ letter comes after nearly 10,000 people signed a petition urging BSU to allow academic freedom for Prof. Hedin.
“Thus far BSU has refused to answer many questions about its mistreatment of Prof. Hedin,” said Discovery Institute attorney Joshua Youngkin. “BSU even recently filed a complaint with the Public Access Counselor to delay disclosing emails requested under the Indiana Access to Public Records Act. It’s time for BSU to stop stonewalling.”
“Senator Kruse and his fellow legislators are to be applauded for investigating BSU’s actions violating academic freedom and open discussion,” added Donald McLaughlin, Discovery Institute’s Indiana representative and an alumnus of Ball State.
Now, you may ask,”What is this seminar that teaches that Science must destroy religion’?” In fact, it turns out to be an honors seminar that uses as its basis a book edited by John Brockman (my agent), What is Your Dangerous Idea? . I’ve read that book—in fact, I contributed one of the essays—and it’s a mixture of diverse ideas, most of which have no bearing on religion. Brockman’s introduction (he is an atheist) says nothing about religion, and Steve Pinker’s foreword merely discusses and summarizes the book’s contents. Reader Roan below has also linked to Dawkins’s published afterword, and that, too, lacks any explicit atheism. But you can peruse the book’s contents at Amazon. And yes, there are anti-religious pieces like Sam’s and these:
In other words, the book itself doesn’t seem to be promoting, overall, an atheist or a religious agenda, but is a balanced discussion of issues that intellectuals consider “dangerous.” To me, that seems an appropriate mix for an Honors Seminar. As I’ve always said, I wouldn’t have minded if Hedin had taught his course with two strictures: 1). It be taught not as a science course but as a philosophy or humanities course, and 2.) It be balanced, promoting no religious viewpoint in particular. If it discussed intelligent design creationism, it would also have to discuss criticisms of that notion. If it promoted God as having a hand in science, it would have to include contrary views by scientists like Victor Stenger and Richard Dawkins. Remember that President Gora’s objection was to teaching ID as science, not to having any discussion of religion or unbelief anywhere in her university.
The DI is going to lose on this one, and if the legislators try to pass some “equal time” law for ID in Indiana Universities, they’ll just look ridiculous. The Discovery Institute is simply unable to accept that they can’t push creationism in a public university, and are trying to make trouble.
I’ve gotten a copy of the letter to BSU from the four Indiana legislators engaged in their ludicrous crusade, and I’ll put it up tomorrow. I know that one of them is a Republican, but I’m predicting that the other three are, too (it’s not evident from the letter). In the meantime, no worries. The DI is livid that its Wedge Strategy didn’t work, and is trying to push the camel’s nose back into the tent.
Last December, David Dobbs published a jeremiad in Aeon magazine called “Die, selfish gene, die”. And I criticized it in two posts (here and here), while Richard Dawkins, who of course coined the term “selfish gene,” and Steven Pinker also took issue with it. I’ll summarize Dobb’s original thesis by quoting my initial post on it:
At any rate, Dobb’s goal is several fold. First, he wants to claim that the metaphor of the selfish gene is wrong. Second, he wants to show that it’s wrong because new understanding of gene regulation—how genes turn on and off during development—render the selfish gene metaphor passé. Finally, he claims that a new theory, that of “genetic accommodation,” relegates much of conventional evolutionary theory to the dustbin, for the new theory deposes the centrality of the gene in favor of the centrality of the environment and its non-genetic effects on development.
I won’t reprise my criticisms, except to say that the metaphor of genes acting as if they are “selfish” when subject to natural selection remains perfectly good, whether or not those genes (or any bit of DNA) are part of the genome that makes proteins, regulates other genes, or comprises any bit of DNA that has the ability to get itself replicated more often than its competitors. Second, gene regulation doesn’t do anything to invalidate the “selfish gene” metaphor, for even regulatory genes, if they’re subject to adaptive evolution, behave “selfishly.” Finally, Dobb’s theory of genetic accommodation was incoherent, and, even when construed more coherently as the notion of “genetic assimilation,” is a phenomenon that appears to be very rare in nature—certainly not common enough to make the idea of genes as “selfish” entities passé.
Now, after I thought the dust had settled, Aeon apparently thinks the controversy is worth reviving, and is milking it for web hits by asking five people, Robert Sapolsky, Laura Hercher, Karen James, John Dupré, and David Dobbs himself, to weigh in on the issue: “Dead or alive? Is it time to kill off the idea of the ‘selfish gene’?”
It’s a remarkably unenlightening read—by and large a waste of space—though a few contributors make some good points, and Karen James’s take is well worth reading. I’ll just reprise each person’s main reactions to the question:
Robert Sapolsky, a neuroscientist at Stanford. Sapolsky emphasizes our new knowledge of gene regulation, arguing that perhaps a lot of what we once thought of as “junk” DNA actually has a function in regulating genes. (He does, however, seem to buy into the ENCODE Projects deeply criticized conclusion that a substantial fraction of noncoding DNA has a regulatory function. We don’t really know that yet.) But Sapolsky does narrow in on the huge flaw in Dobb’s argument:
What this implies is that the evolution of genes – selection for changes in the DNA sequences of particular genes – isn’t as important as the extreme gene-centric view suggests. But that doesn’t decrease the importance of the evolution of the genome, the collection of all the DNA (coding for genes, regulatory elements, and whatever other functions haven’t been discovered yet). Why? Because, as noted above, regulatory elements such as promoters are also made of DNA sequences. When there’s a mutational change in the DNA sequence coding for a gene, and that new variant gets selected for, evolution happens. But critically, when there’s a mutational change in the DNA sequence coding for a regulatory element, and that new variant is selected for, evolution also happens. And that can matter – just think of those formerly polygamous mountain voles. By now, it is clear that the evolution of regulatory elements is at least as important as that of the genes themselves.
Dobbs’s point, however, was not to show that we know a lot about how genes are regulated, which would have been fine for a general essay in, say, Scientific American. No, Dobbs wanted to make a big splash by showing that gene regulation and the notion of genetic accommodationism invalidated the idea of the selfish gene. And Sapolsky shows why that’s wrong, for all adaptive changes in the genome, be they in regulatory or coding elements, involve natural selection. And natural selection is precisely what the idea of the “selfish gene” is meant to encapsulate. (And did so brilliantly, in my view). But Sapolsky wants to be a nice guy and not be too hard on Dobbs, even though the paragraph above makes hash of Dobbs’s thesis. Sapolsky ends with a kumbaya moment:
It ultimately makes no sense to ask what a gene does, only what it does in a particular environment; remember what turns grasshoppers into locusts. It is the triumph of context. In proclaiming the importance of gene regulation, Dobbs is de facto proclaiming the genome as more a collaborator with the environment than as the Holy Grail.
Yes, but so what? As we’ve known for over a century (indeed, since Darwin’s time if you count his ignorance of how heredity works), genes have a survival value only in a particular environment. Finches with heavy beaks are advantageous in environments with large seeds, but those beaks are a handicap when seeds are small. Clearly natural selection involves the interaction of genetic variation with an environment, be that environment internal or external. That is old news. Dobbs defends himself later by saying that this stuff, and new findings about gene regulation, may be old news to scientists, but not to the public. Fine. Then let Dobbs write an essay on those new findings. That is not the essay he wrote, for he wanted to make a big splash by overturning the “selfish gene” notion, and did so by dragging in questionable concepts like epigenetics and “genetic accommodation.”
Laura Hercher, an instructor in genetic counseling at Sarah Lawrence college in New York. Hercher’s point seems to be that, as a genetic counselor, she sees that there is no one-to-one relationship between gene and phenotype; things are complex. (Well sometimes they’re not that complex: if you have the gene for Huntington’s chorea or achondroplastic dwarfism, you’re going to show the symptoms.) Like Sapolsky, she lauds Dobbs for emphasizing gene-environment interaction, while largely ignoring his attempt to overturn the selfish gene metaphor. Insofar as she addresses that metaphor, she thinks, mistakenly, that Dawkins equated selfish genes with genetic determinism. Did she read his book? For Dawkins explicitly addresses, and denies, such a connection. Hercher’s essay doesn’t add much to the discussion:
But this emphasis on controversy within the evo-devo universe has obscured what I would consider to be Dobbs’s most significant argument: there is a pressing need to create a language in which to discuss the complex relationship between genes and traits, which is accessible to the non-scientist.
. . . Stories are important to writers. Many of us love the story of The Selfish Gene, which might explain some of the drama in response to Dobbs’s article. But stories are also important to all people as a method of coping, of making predictions about the world, of understanding things that are complicated and frightening. David Dobbs is right that when it comes to genetics in 2014, we need a better story to tell – a less selfish, more inclusive metaphor to offer the wider world.
Really? Do we really need more inclusive metaphors? And why? Did Hercher even read the book, which explains how “selfish genes” can lead to the evolution of cooperation? Does she know that Dawkins considered calling the book The Cooperative Gene instead?
Karen James, a staff scientist at Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory in Maine. In her essay, “Let’s keep the ‘selfish gene’ lightbulb switched on’,” James shows herself to be the only commenter who seems to understand what Dobbs was getting at, and criticizes it appropriately. She says it all in these excerpts:
Gene expression is important; indeed it is one of the most-studied processes in modern genetics. But it’s not at all clear that gene expression (whether generating environmentally responsive variation within the same species or codified variation among different species) represents an overthrow of the gene-centric view, on which The Selfish Gene rests.
. . .There are some notable exceptions, including cultural transmission of knowledge and behaviour (a concept that Dawkins explores in the final chapter of The Selfish Gene, in which he coins the word ‘meme’), epigenetic changes such as methylation, and epistasis (complex, gene-gene interactions). My major disagreement with Dobbs is not with these, but with the exception that he focuses on at greatest length: genetic assimilation.
Dobbs defines genetic assimilation as ‘an adaptive trait … originally developed through gene expression alone … made more permanent in … descendants by a new gene’. But ‘gene expression alone’ is misleading; gene expression is itself controlled by genes and how they interpret the environment. While it’s true that this interpretation can further modify the organism’s (and the gene’s) environment, and new genetic variations will now be selected in that modified environment, I don’t see this as evidence against the gene-centric view of evolution. I see it as an extension.
. . .In fairness, Dobbs does acknowledge that genetic assimilation is not the norm, nor ‘that it widely replaces conventional gene-driven evolution.’ But if it’s not common, and if it doesn’t replace gene-centric evolution, surely it cannot be a significant threat to the selfish gene.
How does this all connect to a larger view of evolutionary change? Considering the elements of evolution by natural selection – heritability, variation, and differential survival – it becomes clear that rewriting the genome really is the only way to evolve. Heritability is a must for evolution and, with a few exceptions, the aspects of organisms that are stably inherited through the generations are their genes. There are other mechanisms of evolution besides natural selection, such as genetic drift, but those still require heritability.
The answer to Dobbs’s question ‘Why bother rewriting the genome to evolve?’ then is ‘Because there is no other way’. The interactions among genes, and between them and the environment, are indeed far more sophisticated and ramified than what we learnt in high school, but evolution is, and indeed must be, gene-centric.
That summarizes, in just a few short paragraphs, why Dobbs’s article was not only misguided, but misleading. I still maintain that it was, in toto, damaging to the public understanding of science.
John Dupré, a British philosopher of science and director of the Centre for the Study of Life Sciences at Exeter University. Dupré notes that evolution can occur without genetic change (although many of us define “evolution” as a change in the frequencies of different gene forms), and his example is a good one: cultural inheritance, not just in humans but in some nest-parasitic birds like the indigobirds of Africa.
Indigobirds lay their eggs in nests of other species, and are thus freed from babysitting, since the male and female of the “host” species, unable to recognize the alien chick, do all the tending, allowing the parasitic birds to have more offspring. (You can have a lot more chicks if you can farm out their care to others.)
Parasites maintain their fidelity to nests because the fledgling parasitic male chicks learn the song of their foster father, while the parasitic female chicks learn the nest and appearance of their foster parents, and also learn to recognize the calls of their foster father. This keeps the system stable,so that a parasitic female will infest the nest of the same species as did its parents: she will mate with her own male, who emits the recognized call of her foster father, and lays her eggs in the nest of the species of her foster parents.
Occasionally, though, a female makes a mistake and lays an egg in the nest of a different host species. That can trigger a “speciation event,” because such mistakes are rare, and the new parasitic chicks, imprinted on a different host, go on to parasitize the nest of the new species. Parasitic birds infesting the nests of different species, then, can be considered different species themselves, because they don’t mate with each other. As Allen Orr and I discuss in our book “Speciation,” this one of the few forms of nongenetic speciation, effected by a form of cultural inheritance based on imprinting. But even that involves subsequent genetic evolution, because the parasitic chicks go on to evolve markings in their mouths that resemble the markings of the chicks of their foster parents, so as to deceive those parents into feeding the alien parasite birds.
But this nongenetic and cultural form of evolution is rare (most species, and all plants, lack cultural inheritance), and is certainly no reason to overturn the notion of adaptation and speciation based on changes in genes themselves. (We shouldn’t forget, too, that that imprinting of parasitic chicks is the result of natural selection on “selfish genes” to mate properly and maintain nest fidelity.)
Dobbs also brings up genetic assimilation, which is a scenario too complex to explain here (read the Wikipedia article on it). He claims that this also acts to invalidate the selfish gene metaphor.
He’s wrong on two counts: natural selection on genes is still involved in this phenomenon, making the “selfish gene” metaphor still relevant; and examples of adaptations in nature involving genetic assimilation are almost nonexistent. When I wrote my original critique of Dobbs, I didn’t know of any, but now there’s one plausible example involving the reduction of eyes in cave fish. (I give the reference below.) Still, that is only one example out of gazillions of adaptations whose evolutionary basis we understand, and which didn’t involve genetic assimilation.
As for epigenetics, I still know of no examples of adaptations in nature that involved a change in the DNA produced by solely the environment, and which then became inherited in a stable way over many generations. While epigenetics is important, the epigenetic changes involved in evolution have involved modifications of DNA coded by the DNA itself, bringing this evolutionary phenomenon into the bailiwick of “selfish genes.”
David Dobbs, science writer. Dobbs kicked off the whole controversy with his article, but his response to the kerfuffle is lame. It is, in fact, all about tone: we’ve been nasty, and we’ve misunderstood him. There is not a single attempt to address the scientific criticisms that many of us, including Pinker, Dawkins and me, aimed at his article. He claims, in fact, that our criticisms were designed to stifle discussion! But if that was the case, Aeon wouldn’t have run a second piece continuing that discussion! Dobbs’s beef:
My feelings here matter little. What does matter is the effect such attacks have on others looking on, and on open discussions about genetics and evolution at a time when genetics has plentiful reason to regroup and reconsider instead of defend and attack. Such hostility seems designed to quell rather than enrich discussion; to freeze rather than advance understanding; above all, to silence. It worked. While evolutionary researchers who objected to my article rightly felt free to speak up, few scholars who agreed with me felt similarly comfortable. Although many expressed agreement privately, almost no one did so in the open. I can’t blame them; who wants to leap into a bloody shark pool?
Pardon my French, but that’s hogwash. I don’t believe there’s a secret group of evolutionists who are afraid to openly agree with Dobbs. Maybe there are a few such pusillanimous people, but “many”? Of course we’ll never know, for Dobbs can’t name them. They’re scared!
Dobbs goes on to talk about how his intent was to create a multilayered story, and to bring new developments to the eyes of the public. That’s all fine by me, but that wasn’t his sole intent, as is palpably clear to anyone who read his original article. Stung by the criticisms, he retreats to an almost theological stance: the scientific criticisms we raised are ignored, and we should be very concerned with the meaning of the stories:
Dawkins, responding to my article, asked: ‘Does Dobbs really expect me to be surprised [by the power of gene expression]?’
I do not. I was not writing for Dawkins. I was writing, as Dawkins himself writes, for a general audience, and for the same reasons Dawkins does: to share the wonders of genes and evolution with people who might not know of them; to put those wonders into context in a way that might generate new understanding; to share and make memorable not a brand-new fact or finding but a fresh reframing of the story of how evolution works. Like the ideas Dawkins described in The Selfish Gene, the ideas I wrote about had been discussed by scientists for years or decades but had reached few outside academe. And as Dawkins had done originally, I argued that a different characterisation of the gene’s role in evolution – in my case, one emphasizing the gene’s sociability rather than its selfishness – could tell a story about evolution that was still accurate but more layered, exciting, and consistent with recent research.
. . . In the century since it was named, ‘the gene’ has been a thing vague, variable, and often abstract. Is it wise to insist that something so slippery and mutable, so variously conceived, is not just ‘potentially immortal’, as Williams proposed, but literally immortal? Science does not advance by insisting that certain of its stories are immortal. It moves by allowing stories to evolve. And sometimes by letting them die.
There are a lot of new and exciting findings in evolutionary genetics, and plenty of room for responsible journalists like Carl Zimmer or Ed Yong to convey them to the public. But notice that neither Zimmer nor Yong ever resort to hype—to the “Dawkins/Darwin was wrong” trope that sells magazines and brings blog clicks. Dobbs thought he could gain attention by using new findings in genetics to go after a famous man who coined a famous and useful metaphor. It didn’t work, for nothing in science has happened to make that metaphor passé. I hope Dobbs has learned his lesson. Let the science sell itself: you needn’t use it to claim that scientific paradigms are flawed. The “X was wrong” hype may bring attention, but unless it’s supported by solid science, it won’t move people like me, and in the end will only confuse and mislead the public who, claims Dobbs, was the target of his article.
I think the figure below is a readers’ poll, though I’m not sure. I wouldn’t really go by the opinions of nonscientists, many of whom haven’t read Dawkins’s book and aren’t acquainted with evolutionary genetics. Indeed, that’s the case for many scientists as well, so this whole poll seems pretty useless.
Rohner, N., D. F. Jarosz, J. E. Kowalko, M. Yoshizawa, W. R. Jeffery, R. L. Borowsky, S. Lindquist, and C. J. Tabin. 2013. Cryptic Variation in Morphological Evolution: HSP90 as a Capacitor for Loss of Eyes in Cavefish. 10.1126/science.1240276. Science 342:1372-1375.
I’m not one to complain much about the weather, but the prolonged snow is starting to get me down (how do people in Alaska survive?). After a deceptive warm spell, it snowed again in Chicago last night, and heavily. And now the wind is howling like a banshee, making it seem much colder.
Here are a few “selfies” and other photos taken on my walk to work:
At least these streets will be plowed quickly. Unlike weenie cities like Washington D.C., we know how to deal with snow:
I wear my moth-eaten balaclava (purchased decades ago for Himalayan treks) about once a year, but today the wind mandated that I don it:
Ominously, the newspaper box looked like a skull:
But there are compensating virtues of snow; one is the landscaped pond outside my building, frosted in white:
Sadly, there are no compensating virtues for our feline friends:
Hili: Stairs begin and end but life goes on.
A: But where to?
Hili: Where temptation leads.
Hili: Schody zaczynają się i kończą, a życie idzie dalej.
Ja: Ale dokąd?
Hili: Gdzie pokusa prowadzi.
You don’t like worms? That’s a narrow-minded attitude—especially in light of these beautiful marine worms, photographed by Alexander Semenov, posted on Colossal, and called to my attention by several readers (how do you people find these things?).
I’ve chosen a few for your delectation, but go look at them all. I have no idea what the species are (they’re all polychaetes, a class of segmented worms ["annelids"]) but perhaps some readers know. Some of these have fantastic morphological complexity.
The site’s description follows, and be sure to look at Semenov’s photos of jellyfish and starfish.
Our favorite photographer of everything creepy and crawly under the sea, Alexander Semenov, recently released a number of incredible new photographs of worms, several of which may be completely unknown to science. Half of the photos were taken at the Lizard Island Research Station near the Great Barrier Reef in Australia during a 2-week conference on marine worms called polychaetes. Semenov photographed 222 different worm species which are now in the process of being studied and documented by scientists.
The other half of the photos were taken during Semenov’s normal course of work at theWhite Sea Biological Station in northern Russia where he’s head of the scientific divers team. We’ve previously featured the intrepid photographer’s work with jellyfish (part 2, part 3), and starfish.
If you’re in or near London, you’re in luck, for Steve Pinker is going to discuss his latest book, and the difficulty of good writing, with noted author Ian McEwan. Those are two smart and eloquent guys, and if I was anywhere near there I’d go to this Intelligence-Squared event, to be held at the Royal Geographical Society on Thursday, September 24, 2014, at 7 p.m. That’s plenty of advance warning, but I’d buy tickets now, as it’s a sure sell-out. You can book tickets at the site, although it isn’t cheap at £30 a pop.
And here’s the description of the event:
Steven Pinker is one of the world’s leading authorities on language, mind and human nature. A professor of psychology at Harvard, he is the bestselling author of eight books and regularly appears in lists of the world’s top 100 thinkers.
On September 25th he returns to the Intelligence Squared stage to discuss his latest publication The Sense of Style, a short and entertaining writing guide for the 21st century. Pinker will argue that bad writing can’t be blamed on the internet, or on “the kids today”. Good writing has always been hard: a performance requiring pretence, empathy, and a drive for coherence. He will answer questions such as: how can we overcome the “curse of knowledge”, the difficulty in imagining what it’s like not to know something we do? And how can we distinguish the myths and superstitions about language from helpful rules that enhance clarity and grace? Pinker will show how everyone can improve their mastery of writing and their appreciation of the art.
Professor Pinker will be in conversation with Ian McEwan, one of Britain’s most acclaimed novelists, who has frequently explored the common ground between art and science.
You can see a 77-minute video of Pinker giving a talk at MIT with the same title as his upcoming book at this site. It may very well mirror the structure of that book.
I’m deeply acquainted at the moment with the difficulty of writing, as I’m spending most of my days struggling to put ideas across in a clear and engaging way. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done—next to testifying against the state in cases involving forensic DNA.
It’s a common atheist trope to call out those people who, after a tragedy, say that those who survived were spared by God, or that such survivals were “miraculous”.
In fact, such criticism has become so common that it’s almost a cheap shot, and yet it’s still worth pointing out the hypocrisy implicit in asserting loudly that survivors were spared by God while not mentioning that, by the same token, those who died must have been killed by God. The reason to mention such things is that they reveal not only how common faith is, but how inconsistently it’s applied. I say this not to cheapen the horrible pain experienced by the friends and family of the missing, but to suggest that perhaps it’s palliative to know that these deaths were not God’s decision, but the inevitable vagaries of a natural world. The answer to “why me?” is simply “shit happens.”
So two items about the missing Malaysia flight 370, which almost certainly has crashed without survivors.
First, according to WBRC News in Birmingham, Alabama (I also heard this on NBC News last night), a man who almost boarded the doomed flight is attributing his survival to God:
A man with a ticket for the lost plane to Malaysia called a last-minute decision not to board an act of God.
Greg Candelaria works in global technology services, which requires him to frequently fly around the world.
He planned to board Flight 370 for business and then meet his daughter, who is in China wrapping up the adoption process for her child.
“I think this is a God thing,” Candelaria said. “I don’t think it’s coincidence. Part of my motivation was to fly over there on business and meet my daughter and my new granddaughter.”
Company policy mandated Candelaria fly back to Houston for the flight to Asia instead of his original plan to fly from Spain.
If all had gone as planned, he would have been on the Beijing-bound Flight 370 that vanished this past weekend.
Has anybody ever asked one of these exultant survivors if they think that the deaths were also “a God thing”? I’d be curious how they’d answer.
Finally, reader Chris sent me a link to the MSN News “picture of the day” about the missing Malaysia Airlines flight. The caption is this:
A sand sculpture in a beach in Puri, India, wishes for the well-being of the passengers of a missing Malaysian Airlines flight.
I find that ineffably sad in two ways.
I’m no movie reviewer (I’ll leave that to my nephew, who I hope will weigh in below), so my review of “12 Years a Slave,” which I saw last weekend, should be taken as the lucubrations of a tyro.
I won’t recount the plot, although there’s not really a spoiler, except to say that it’s based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who lived in Saratoga Springs, New York, but was kidnapped and sold to Southern slavers in 1841. It took him 12 years—years in which he witnessed the most horrible degradation and mistreatment of his fellow slaves—before he regained his freedom. He subsequently wrote a book about his experiences and campaigned against slavery.
The movie, directed by Steve McQueen, won the Academy Award this year for “Best Picture,” although, in a rare snub, McQueen didn’t also get Best Director (that went to Alfonso Cuaron for “Gravity,” a film that for some reason I have no desire to see).
The film garnered two other Oscars: one to Lupito Nyong’o as Best Supporting Actress, and the other to Best Adapted Screenplay by Mark Ridley. Chiwetel Ejiofor did a terrific job as Solomon Northup, but lost out to Matthew McConaughey from “Dallas Buyers Club” (a film that I will see). One note of interest: Brad Pitt, who co-produced the movie, makes a cameo appearance as the single white man in the south who eloquently decries slavery, telling a slaver that he will eventually reap retribution. The scene in which Pitt does this, though, strikes a false note; it’s a bit of unneeded moralizing put in the movie for no obvious reason except to make Pitt look good. The horrors and immorality of slavery were amply depicted without Pitt’s preaching.
My verdict: a very good movie but not a great one—but still one you should make an effort to see. It was beautifully photographed, the acting was excellent (particularly by Ejiofor and Nyong’o), and the story was compelling. But it was compelling not so much through the depiction of character, but because the story was so heartbreaking and the portrayal of slavery so graphically brutal. Perhaps that was part of the problem for me: the power of the movie lay largely in its scenes of brutality, particularly the repeated and bloody whippings, which reminded me of The Passion of the Christ. But as far as showing the degradation of slavery, this movie was not markedly superior to “Django Unchained” (granted, that was more of an “action” movie with more shootings and explosions). I repeat: this is an excellent movie well worth seeing, but for me will not take its place in the pantheon of great movies next to “Ikiru,” “Tokyo Story,” “Chinatown,” or “The Last Picture Show.”
Now to the question of faith. Religion plays a large part in this movie, and in two senses. It is shown as a means by which the slaver controls his slaves by telling them that the Bible sanctions slavery and the whipping of slaves (which it does), and also that they should accept their lot. There are at least two scenes in which the slaver Edwin Epps (played by Michael Fassbender) is shown preaching from the Bible to a forced audience of his slaves on a Sunday.
Clearly faith was used to control the slaves, quelling their discontent and serving, in the Marxist sense, as a kind of opium. But it’s also shown as a palliative for the slaves themselves, helping them accept a horrible existence which could not be changed.
In that sense, then, was faith good for the slaves? One might answer that the “opium of the slaves” was bad because it prevented them from bettering their own lot, but that was clearly impossible in the antebellum South. A slave rebellion would have been brutally quashed, as was Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831, which simply led to the death of a few hundred blacks and no change in slavery. And remember, the slaves (at least in this movie) thought their faith was true—that they really were going to a better place after they died. So it was not a matter of believing something for which there was known counterevidence.
In that sense I cannot see faith as being inimical to the slaves themselves, although of course it was a pernicious device used to control “human property” and make them accept their whippings. But, given the South at that time, what was the alternative? What good would have come from trying to convince slaves that there was no God? In that sense it’s like the “dying grandmother” scenario in which you allow a religious woman to retain her faith on her deathbed. In this case I can see no advantage that would have come from trying to convince slaves that their faith was false.
Or am I wrong?
I am intensely interested in the question of the circumstances in which faith—defined as belief in an issue that is disproportionately strong compared to the weak evidence for that issue—is beneficial. According to Sam Harris, it almost never is. I agree insofar as faith keeps people invested in a delusion that won’t come to pass, and thus prevents them from taking action to better themselves. And it prevents people from thinking clearly about issues, usually to the detriment of better solutions (stem cell research is one example). But in the case of slavery, the notion that dispelling faith would prompt slaves to improve their lot isn’t realistic.
One possible example of the beneficial effects of faith is the placebo effect, something well established in medicine. Placebo effects have been shown to be beneficial in cases of depression, and even in things like knee surgery (yes, they’ve done “sham” knee surgery, where patients think they’ve been operated on for knee problems even though they’re just cut open with nothing done subsequently—and, surprisingly, this gives results as good as a genuine operation). In such cases the faith that you are being treated is enough to effect a cure, or at least substantial improvement. But in such cases one could, I suppose, argue that this isn’t really “faith,” for the patient really does think that he or she is getting genuine scientific medical treatment. Nevertheless, what placebo effects show is that mere belief in something that cannot possibly work the way it’s supposed to can still effect real improvement.
But how does that differ from belief in God, which can, despite God’s nonexistence, effect psychological benefits? I suppose many of you will answer that faith can be good for individuals, but as a system reduces well being overall.