Robert Wright: Pirouetting on the fence

When my advisor Dick Lewontin’s book, The Genetic Basis of Evolutionary Change, appeared in 1974, one reviewer criticized him for equivocating about the significance of genetic variation. In his text, Lewontin seemed to vacillate endlessly between the “neutral theory,” which saw variation at the DNA level as of no selective consequence to the organism, and the “selection theory,” which claimed the opposite. The reviewer noted that Lewontin did not so much sit on the fence as pirouette on it.

A similar feat of posterior rotation has been performed by Robert Wright, who has specialized in trying to harmonize two contradictory positions: materialistic evolution and divine, teleological purpose. In his recent book The Evolution of God, which I’ve reviewed here, Wright makes the case that while evolution and natural selection may have indeed molded human behavior, behind it all we see “scientific evidence” of a divine purpose. This evidence is, according to Wright, the fact that the theologies of Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – have over centuries become more inclusive, more tolerant of other faiths. Wright claims that the inclusiveness results from increasing interactions between human societies, so that each perceives a “nonzero-sum” relationship with others and decides to go along to get along. And so theology changes over time (that’s what Wright means by the “evolution of God”) ultimately promoting greater morality. I guess this much is plausible, although, as I noted in my review, there are other plausible theories that can explain the growing morality of our species.

What took Wright over the top was his claim that driving the increase in morality was a transcendent “purpose” — some unspecified but apparently divine force pulling societies towards ever-increasing goodness. And so believers can find “facts on the ground” that support the existence of a higher being. Wright did admit in his book that he “wasn’t qualified” to pass judgment on whether God existed, but he surely gave his readers plenty of “scientific evidence” for it. And indeed, that’s how many reviewers perceived The Evolution of God: as a welcome guide to how religious people can buttress their faith against the attacks of the “new atheists.”

My critique of Wright’s book concentrated on his theology, on the structure of his argument (which I consider unfalsifiable and therefore unscientific), and above all on the supposed “empirical evidence” for divine guidance of human biological and moral evolution. Wright has complained about some of my critiques of his theology, and I will post a response here soon.

Wright’s dizzy pirouetting is on display in a long and messy op-ed piece he wrote in yesterday’s New York Times: “A Grand Bargain Over Evolution.” It’s basically a précis of his book, and offers what I call the “Certs Gambit.” (If you’re of a certain age you’ll remember the television commercials for Certs mints, in which two people argue about whether the product was a breath mint or a candy mint, with the argument finally ended by a voice from above booming, “STOP! You’re both right.”) Wright’s Certs Gambit in the Times involves reconciling atheistic evolutionary biology with religious belief, showing how both can find support from understanding how natural selection molded human morality. It is a return to eighteenth-century deism:  God made the universe and then went permanently to lunch, certain (because he built it into the process) that natural selection would eventually cough up his favorite species.

Like Jesus, Wright sees himself as a harbinger of universal harmony:

I bring good news! These two warring groups [atheists and religious believers] have more in common than they realize. And, no, it isn’t just that they’re both wrong. It’s that they’re wrong for the same reason. Oddly, an underestimation of natural selection’s creative power clouds the vision not just of the intensely religious but also of the militantly atheistic.

[Note the insertion of the annoying word “militant.” I guess nonmilitant atheists properly appreciate the creativity of selection.]

Here’s his solution: harmony (and maybe a Templeton Prize for Wright) will arrive when religious people give up the idea of God’s constant intervention in evolution and the affairs of the world, and when atheists accept that science is compatible with a transcendent purpose. The harmony devolves from accepting the “creative power” of natural selection.

If both groups were to truly accept that power, the landscape might look different. Believers could scale back their conception of God’s role in creation, and atheists could accept that some notions of “higher purpose” are compatible with scientific materialism. And the two might learn to get along.

[Note the use of the loaded words “accept that” here, words Wright uses throughout his piece.  All of his pirouetting is concentrated in that phrase.  “Believe that” would be epistemically neutral; but “accept that” means acquiescence to a true state of affairs.]

So where’s the evidence for a higher purpose in evolution? As in The Evolution of God, Wright sees “purpose” in the development of increasing morality in human affairs – indeed, in the fact that we have a moral sense in the first place. To many, like C. S. Lewis, it’s hard to see how natural selection could yield morality:

The inexplicability of this apprehension, in Lewis’s view, was evidence that the moral law did exist — “out there,” you might say — and was thus evidence that God, too, existed.

But Wright brings good news! Atheists and the faithful are both right! Evolution is both a God-driven and a materialistic process — two processes in one!  Yes, as Wright admits, there do exist purely secular explanations of morality: evolutionary hypotheses involving reciprocal altruism as well as non-evolutionary theories based on people’s ability to recognize and build a harmonious society. But Wright’s kicker is that God still lurks beneath the surface:

. . .But they may not have to stray quite as far from that scenario as they fear. Maybe they can accept this evolutionary account, and be strict Darwinians, yet hang on to notions of divinely imparted moral purpose.

The first step toward this more modern theology is for them to bite the bullet and accept that God did his work remotely — that his role in the creative process ended when he unleashed the algorithm of natural selection (whether by dropping it into the primordial ooze or writing its eventual emergence into the initial conditions of the universe or whatever).

[Note again the words “accept that” instead of the epistemically neutral “believe that.” Here Wright is again smuggling God into the picture!]

This goes along with Wright’s postulate in The Evolution of God that natural selection itself might have been devised by the “transcendent force” (let’s stop pussyfooting around and just call it “God”). But of course such a view is NOT consistent with scientific materialism, for there is not the slightest evidence that natural selection is anything other than the ineluctable consequence of genes competing with each another for representation in future generations. That the whole process might have been designed by God to achieve certain ends is a bullet that I, for one, am not prepared to bite. Certainly evolution is consistent with a deistic view that God made the Big Bang and then took his hands off the universe, letting everything unfold naturally and materially. But that’s not quite the same as asserting, as Wright has done repeatedly, that God designed natural selection as a way to build moral beings. The latter supposes that evolution has somehow been directed.

To show that natural selection is indeed a teleological process designed by God, Wright resorts to the “convergence arguments” familiar from the writings of Kenneth Miller and Simon Conway Morris. These assert that built into the evolutionary process was the consequence that selection would produce rational, moral beings capable of apprehending and worshiping their creator — in other words, us. The argument rests on “evolutionary convergence”: the observation that natural selection has sometimes produced similar results in completely independent lineages (a classic example is the physical eye, which has evolved several dozen times).

Of course, to say that God trusted natural selection to do the creative work assumes that natural selection, once in motion, would do it; that evolution would yield a species that in essential respects — in spiritually relevant respects, you might say — was like the human species. But this claim, though inherently speculative, turns out to be scientifically plausible.

For starters, there are plenty of evolutionary biologists who believe that evolution, given long enough, was likely to create a smart, articulate species — not our species, complete with five fingers, armpits and all the rest — but some social species with roughly our level of intelligence and linguistic complexity.

I have criticized elsewhere the assertion that the evolution of a fully moral, religious “humanoid” species was inevitable. All we can say is that such a species did evolve — but only once, so that convergence arguments are completely irrelevant. It’s just as plausible — indeed, I think more plausible — to argue that such beings were not inevitable consequences of evolution, and might very well have failed to appear were the tape of evolution to be rewound and replayed.

Here’s why Wright sees morality as inevitable:

And what about the chances of a species with a moral sense? Well, a moral sense seems to emerge when you take a smart, articulate species and throw in reciprocal altruism. And evolution has proved creative enough to harness the logic of reciprocal altruism again and again.

Vampire bats share blood with one another, and dolphins swap favors, and so do monkeys. Is it all that unlikely that, even if humans had been wiped out a few million years ago, eventually a species with reciprocal altruism would reach an intellectual and linguistic level at which reciprocal altruism fostered moral intuitions and moral discourse?

But the truly scientific answer to Wright’s question is “we don’t know how unlikely it is.” Yes, we see the rudiments of morality in other species, but only one species went all the way to developing an explicit moral code.  We cannot assume that just because we see rudiments of some trait in some species, its full evolution was inevitable. That’s like saying that evolution must produce fully volant fish because flying fish have already gone part of the way by evolving the ability to glide.   It doesn’t take an intellectual giant to see that just because something evolves, its appearance need not have been inevitable were life to begin again.

Wright also claims that repeated evolution of “moral behaviors” is evidence for the preexistence of moral rules – i.e., the Transcendent Purpose formerly known as “God.”

If evolution does tend to eventually “converge” on certain moral intuitions, does that mean there were moral rules “out there” from the beginning, before humans became aware of them?

His implicit answer is “yes,” but it’s Wright’s intellectual style to make his points in the form of questions whose answer is rather obvious. In that way he can claim that he’s on the side of both atheists and the faithful without having to take a stand himself.  This is the same thing he’s doing by using the weasel-word “accept” rather than “believe”.

I’m not convinced that such convergence of altruism says anything about its “out there” existence. Instead, it is evidence only for the following proposition:

If a species evolves to be social, and individuals interact repeatedly with one another, natural selection may (but need not) mold individual behavior in a way that leads to reciprocal altruism.

Although Wright cites Steve Pinker as accepting the possibility of pre-existing moral rules, I think Pinker probably meant something closer to the proposition I constructed above.  Altruism isn’t really a pre-existing “thing” out there, it’s a solution that selection can arrive at if 1) the conditions of sociality and repeated interactions among individuals are of the right type, and 2) the relevant genetic variation exists.  Without that, altruism can’t evolve.

Indeed, you can make another proposition about “immoral rules” as well:

If it is to the reproductive advantage of individuals of a species to kill the young of other individuals, or to engage in other behaviors that violate what humans see as morality, then “immoral” behaviors like infanticide can evolve.

Indeed this is exactly what happened in lions and langur monkeys. (Some evolutionary psychologists have claimed that these behaviors are “rudiments” of an immorality that we find in humans: the murder of step-offspring by their adoptive parents, but I won’t address that here.) Does this mean that infanticide is an immoral rule floating out there in space?  The point is that in some cases natural selection produces behaviors that we see as “moral”, but in other cases behaviors we find “immoral.” It all depends on the circumstances. This is not evidence for pre-existing “rules”, but simply for the multifarious ways that natural selection can mold the behavior of social species.

And here’s a third proposition:

If members of a species gain a reproductive advantage by helping members of a second, unrelated species, then we could see the evolution of two species helping each other.

This, of course, is why we have mutualisms between organisms like algae and fungi (lichens), between leafcutter ants and fungi, and between termites and their gut symbionts. These mutualisms could be considered interspecific “moral” behaviors, since they merely extend the principle of “selfish altruism” (aka the “golden rule”) towards members of a different species.

Natural selection can create all kinds of behaviors, including those that humans would find immoral were they to occur in our culture. All that matters is that the behavior gives individuals a reproductive advantage and the right kinds of mutations are around. Indeed, humans may well have evolved some immoral behaviors, such as the propensity to cheat when you can escape detection.

At any rate, the evolution of altruistic behaviors in some animals does not count as evidence that that somehow morality pre-dated those behaviors. How could it? It’s like saying that the “goal” of detecting vibrations in fluid somehow pre-dated the evolution of hearing and lateral lines. Would we have been able to predict that hearing would some day evolve had we been present at the formation of the first primordial replicator 3.4 billion years ago? I don’t think so. The “prediction” is made retroactively! As in the theological and biological changes described in The Evolution of God, Wright has a tendency to see whatever has happened as inevitable.

Thus, the “good news,” as Wright calls it, is merely an attempt to make a theological virtue of empirical necessities, which, of course, is the basis for all apologetics.

. . . natural selection didn’t “invent” human moral intuitions so much as “discover” them? That would be good news for any believers who want to preserve as much of the spirit of C. S. Lewis as Darwinism permits.

But the point is just that these speculations are compatible with the standard scientific theory of human creation. If believers accepted them, that would, among other things, end any conflict between religion and the teaching of evolutionary biology. And theology would have done what it’s done before: evolve — adapt its conception of God to advancing knowledge and to sheer logic.

Of course these godly speculations are compatible with the “standard scientific theory of human creation”!  This is just the standard idea that God designed evolution to achieve a certain aim — in this case, morality.  What is new here? Nothing; it’s the same 200-year-old deism — a deism that didn’t harmonize science and religion for most people then, and won’t now. Many religious people like to see their god as continually acting in the world rather than having gone to lunch after the Big Bang.  I don’t, therefore, see devout Muslims, fundamentalist Protestants, or Orthodox Jews accepting these speculations and ending their conflicts with science.

And what are we atheists to do? Wright says we must admit the possibility of a Higher Purpose:

But believers aren’t the only ones who could use some adapting. If there is to be peace between religion and science, some of the more strident atheists will need to make their own concessions to logic.

They could acknowledge, first of all, that any god whose creative role ends with the beginning of natural selection is, strictly speaking, logically compatible with Darwinism. (Darwin himself, though not a believer, said as much.) And they might even grant that natural selection’s intrinsic creative power — something they’ve been known to stress in other contexts — adds at least an iota of plausibility to this remotely creative god.

[Note the word “grant,” which, like the word “accept”, presupposes a pre-existing truth that we must acknowledge.]

And, god-talk aside, these atheist biologists could try to appreciate something they still seem not to get: talk of “higher purpose” is not just compatible with science, but engrained in it.

Engrained in it? Sorry, Mr. Wright; I’m not willing to acknowledge that any god had a hand in designing the process of natural selection. There’s just no evidence for that. Natural selection is simply what happens when replicators compete for representation in the next generation. Yes, it’s formally possible that God brought the whole complicated process into being, but why complicate matters by positing an unnecessary layer of divinity atop a process that works fine on its own?

And I’m even less willing to grant that “natural selection’s intrinsic creative power” adds any plausibility to this “remotely creative god” (note how Wright sneaks “god” in there!). If we’re going to quote Darwin on the role of divinity in natural selection, here’s a place where he definitely abjures celestial intervention or any “principle of improvement”:

I entirely reject, as in my judgment quite unnecessary, any subsequent addition “of new powers and attributes and forces,” or of any “principle of improvement” except in so far as every character which is naturally selected or preserved is in some way an advantage or improvement, otherwise it would not have been selected. If I were convinced that required such additions to the theory of natural selection, I would reject it as rubbish. . . . I would give absolutely nothing for the theory of Natural Selection, if it requires miraculous additions at any one stage of descent.

Finally, Wright tries to give believers solace by saying that organisms do have a purpose: to spread their DNA.

And, actually, even once you accept that natural selection, not God, is the “designer” — the blind watchmaker, as Mr. Dawkins put it — there is a sense in which these organs do have purposes, purposes that serve the organism’s larger purpose of surviving and spreading its genes. As Daniel Dennett, the Darwinian (and atheist) philosopher, has put it, an organism’s evolutionarily infused purpose is “as real as purpose could ever be.”

So in a sense Paley was right not just in saying that organisms must come from a different creative process than rocks but also in saying that this creative process imparts a purpose (however mundane) to organisms.

As I noted in my New Republic review, this is truly creationism — or intelligent design — for liberals. This would all sound very different if Wright used the word “function” instead of “purpose”. “Purpose” sounds, well, so . . . intentional!  And of course that is what Wright want the reader to think. In my dictionary, the definition of “purpose” is “the reason why something is done or created or for which something exists.”  Again, Wright is using words to sneak God into his argument. This is the same tactic used by Kenneth Miller when he lectures about how natural selection produces “design” instead of saying it produces apparent design.

But Wright is asking a lot of the faithful here. I doubt that many believers will be satisfied in learning that their “purpose” is to spread their genes. For that is the “purpose” of every species, be it fungus, gnat, or tortoise. A theology based on propagation of DNA leaves nothing special for humanity. How many believers will find comfort in that?

Wright is a cagey man. He ends his op-ed piece with some furious pirouetting, as he did in the final chapter of The Evolution of God. Note how, in the following passage, he simultaneously claims that God is not necessary but at the same time invokes a “higher-order creative process.”

There are two morals to the story. One is that it is indeed legitimate, and not at all unscientific, to do what Paley did: inspect a physical system for evidence that it was given some purpose by some higher-order creative process. If scientifically minded theologians want to apply that inspection to the entire system of evolution, they’re free to do so.

The second moral of the story is that, even if evolution does have a “purpose,” imparted by some higher-order creative process, that doesn’t mean there’s anything mystical or immaterial going on. And it doesn’t mean there’s a god. For all we know, there’s some “meta-natural-selection” process — playing out over eons and perhaps over multiple universes — that spawned the algorithm of natural selection, somewhat as natural selection spawned the algorithm contained in genomes.

I’m not sure what Wright is trying to say here, unless he’s invoking a kind of anthropic principle: in some universes natural selection gave rise to beings who, through evolved rationality, evolved altruism, or both, became moral. And we live in such a universe. (But of course it is conceivable to have a universe containing smart, rational beings that lack sophisticated moral codes.)  But this scenario doesn’t offer much solace to believers. Where is God, Jesus, Moses, or Mohammed in this process? What about heaven, or an afterlife? Are prayers answered? If there’s nothing “mystical or immaterial going on,” what becomes of the billions of believers whose faith rests firmly on those “mystical phenomena”? As Many Christians have recognized (C.S. Lewis among them), if Jesus wasn’t actually the son of God, the whole structure of Christianity collapses.

In his peroration, Wright claims (somewhat cynically, I think) that even if there’s no god, believers can nevertheless shoehorn one into his scenario:

Clearly, this evolutionary narrative could fit into a theology with some classic elements: a divinely imparted purpose that involves a struggle toward the good, a struggle that even leads to a kind of climax of history. Such a theology could actually abet the good, increase the chances of a happy ending. A more evolved religion could do what religion has often done in the past: use an awe-inspiring story to foster social cohesion — except this time on a global scale.

Such is Wright’s intellectual style. Without ever admitting what he himself believes, Wright weaves a narrative in which he sees both atheists and the faithful attaining philosophical harmony. But that won’t do. This is not a “grand bargain over evolution,” but a Faustian bargain for both scientists and the faithful. The price of Wright’s bargain is that both scientists and believers must abjure critical elements of their craft and belief. The faithful must abandon most of the trappings of conventional religion: the belief in a divine and providential power who interacts with the world and listens to prayers, and belief in an afterlife and divinely ordained prophets and scriptures. Wright’s church is Our Lady of the NonZero Sum, the Power That Drives Morality. Gone are Jesus, Mohammed, and Moses, replaced by the “awe-inspiring story” that through our Purpose of Spreading Genes, an undefined transcendent source has pulled us all towards the good.

And we scientists – well, we must give up our crazy notion – and all the supporting evidence — that evolution is a blind, contingent, materialistic process that is not externally directed toward certain goals. We must “accept” the idea that there is “scientific evidence” for a higher purpose/higher order/transcendent reality. We must accept the idea that natural selection and evolution give real evidence for a “remotely creative god.”

This is nonsense. Wright’s utopian solution fails for the same reason that accommodationism always fails: any genuine harmony between science and faith requires that the faithful give up essential elements of their supernatural beliefs, and that scientists accept some elements of the supernatural. The Certs Gambit for science and faith may sound warm and fuzzy in the liberal columns of the New York Times, but in practice it doesn’t work.  Still, it may just earn Wright a Templeton Prize.

____________

Update: Other critiques appear at PharyngulaThe Mermaid’s Tale, and The Apple Eaters.

125 Comments

  1. Veronica Abbass
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 5:59 am | Permalink

    This may be off topic; however, in the NIH News announcement “Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., Sworn in as NIH Director,” U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is quoted as saying “As a scientist, physician, and passionate visionary, Dr. Collins will further NIH’s ultimate mission to improve human health.”

    The definitions for the adjective “visionary” in the Compact OED are

    1. thinking about the future with imagination or wisdom.
    2. relating to supernatural or dreamlike visions.

    http://www.askoxford.com/concise_oed/visionary?view=uk

    Which definition describes Collins, 1 or 2 or as I fear a combination of both.?

  2. Veronica Abbass
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 6:02 am | Permalink

    Sorry, I forgot to include the source for
    the Sebelius quote:

    http://www.nih.gov/news/health/aug2009/od-17.htm

  3. Diego
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 6:05 am | Permalink

    Sounds a bit like Kropotkin, particularly in the interpretations of symbioses. I hate to burst your bubble, Wright, but species in symbioses can cheat and can evolve towards parasitism and away from true mutualism. And I wonder how convergent the “morality” of humans and ants would be?

  4. Posted August 24, 2009 at 6:06 am | Permalink

    We’ve just posted a somewhat similar reaction on our blog (URL above). We were not as thorough as you, but I think the points are the same.

    Whether one wants to think evolution is ‘true’ or not, Wright’s arguments are non-sensical, post-hoc, and essentially made up.

    Another point is that ‘evolution’ means different things to different people. The nature and relative importance of natural selection as one of, or as the, phenotypic molding mechanism(s) is debatable up to a point. But even that is rather beside the point that all the available material evidence suggests that historical descent is how we got here.

    Another relevant point is that almost the exact same arguments have been offered since the 1800s. That means, correctly, that they are not about the facts, which have confirmed evolutionary ideas with new, unrelated data (and should therefore be persuasive). It’s about opinion, emotion, and, perhaps more importantly, it’s part of a culture-struggle for various kinds of power, psychological as well as material.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted August 24, 2009 at 6:38 am | Permalink

      Yes, very nice piece!

  5. Posted August 24, 2009 at 6:12 am | Permalink

    We’ve hat tipped you over on our blog (The Mermaid’s Tale, ecodevoevo.blogspot.com), where we make much the same point. Without your patient refutation of Wright’s specifics.

  6. newenglandbob
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 6:18 am | Permalink

    Jerry, thanks for the well written critique of Wright’s article.

    As I have said elsewhere, Wright brings up the same old tired arguments that have been thoroughly refuted over the last several hundred years.

    I now see where Wright is coming from and his motivation for what he produces. He is motivated by two processes: pattern recognition and fear.

    Humans look for patterns whether they are there or not, and Wright sees patterns everywhere he looks. His ‘higher order purpose’ is a result of seeing non-existent patterns.

    The fear process is what drives him to look in the first place. Wright wants there to be a god and he is fearful that modern science shows that a god is not necessary.

    Therefore Wright uses the “god of the gaps” argument concentrating on the initial gap.

    His ‘logic’ leaps are actually funny. He says we don’t know something so there must be a ‘purpose’ behind it – goddditit.

    The contortions he goes through to wind up at his conclusions remind me of the acrobats performing on the old Ed Sullivan show. I hear the music playing (nananananananana…) and see the acrobats jumping and spinning all over the stage, doing multiple tumblesaults and handsprings.

    Jerry, in your summation:

    Wright’s church is Our Lady of the NonZero Sum, the Power That Drives Morality. Gone are Jesus, Mohammed, and Moses, replaced by the “awe-inspiring story” that through our Purpose of Spreading Genes, an undefined transcendent source has pulled us all towards the good.

    You hit the nail on the head in showing the pattern recognition and fear processes that are driving Wright.

    • Morgan-LynnGriggs Lamberth
      Posted August 24, 2009 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

      newengland bob, yea1
      To see those patterns as designs and divinity behind natural causes is as the argument form pareidolia argues is like seeing Yeshua in a tortilla. And the teleonomic argument argues that since the weight of evidence exhibits no teleology, then to posit divinity [ a source of teleology] would contradict those natural causes; natural selection, for instance, exhibits no teleology, so creationist evolutionist like Conway and Miller exhibit some disregard for the reality of selection, the non-planning, anti-chance agency of Nature. And genetic drift exhibits no teleology but randomness. So, creationist evolutionist and the accommodationists ignore the valid work of Mayr and Simpson!
      What squalid obscurantism1
      As for purpose,Fr. Griggs of the House of Rationalists ever says:” Life is its own validation and reward and ultimate meaning.”
      Thank you my friend, Jerry!
      [ I’ve such good Facebook friends!]

      • Morgan-LynnGriggs Lamberth
        Posted August 24, 2009 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

        Sorry for the typos!

  7. Kallan
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 6:22 am | Permalink

    That last quote struck me as I read. It is surprisingly often that “social cohesion” is put forward as a good that needs to be nurtured. Here in the UK for example our PM has a bad habit of talking about “Britishness” but there’s a similar tone being expresses by Wright there.

    Now am I alone in thinking that social cohesion doesn’t necessarily have to be a good? We can point to all kinds of evil forms of social cohesion such as the obvious nationalism/facism, criminal gangs or football hooligans. Social cohesion is as often a method of entrenching bad behaviour as a good but none of the faitheists or apologists seem to acknowledge that.

  8. Posted August 24, 2009 at 6:57 am | Permalink

    This is an accommodatheist version of what Stuart Kauffman proposed. How uncreative of Wright.

  9. gingerbaker
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    If evolved altruism is irrefutable evidence of God’s plan, why does he love honey bees more than us? Do they now have souls too?

    And what does Wright’s theory have to say about the future role for organized religion as an instrument of objective morality? That eventually there will be no need for it, as humans will evolve all the morality they could possibly handle all by themselves? Perhaps for certain supermen, that time has already arrived?

  10. Astrosmash
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    “But Wright brings good news! Atheists and the faithful are both right!”

    Two great tastes that taste great together…Reeses Peanut Butter Cups!

    The Reeses Gambit?

    • Chayanov
      Posted August 24, 2009 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

      More like the Shimmer Gambit. “It’s a floor wax and a dessert topping!” In other words, two things that don’t go together.

  11. Hempenstein
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    The “awe-inspiring story” is the evidence that H sapiens developed on the African savannah and, in three separate radiations, spread out across the earth over the last ~70Kyrs. There’s the basis for mutual altruism. Period, paragraph.

    The same story serves as evidence that the species already HAS spread its DNA. Any rational assessment of the current status points to the need to curtail that now.

  12. Posted August 24, 2009 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    “Vampire bats share blood with one another, and dolphins swap favors, and so do monkeys. Is it all that unlikely that, even if humans had been wiped out a few million years ago, eventually a species with reciprocal altruism would reach an intellectual and linguistic level at which reciprocal altruism fostered moral intuitions and moral discourse?”

    How many just-so stories does it take to win a Templeton, anyway?

    • newenglandbob
      Posted August 24, 2009 at 8:36 am | Permalink

      How many just-so stories does it take to win a Templeton, anyway?

      answer: 17. Plus one needs to say goddidit a couple hundred times and then sit around the camp fire singing Kumbaya.

      oh, that was a rhetorical question?

    • Leigh Jackson
      Posted August 24, 2009 at 9:40 am | Permalink

      And how much plagiarism? Laws of nature = evolution; evolution = moral progress; thus Nature is inherently progressive.

      Herbert Spencer

  13. Mintman
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    Of course nothing of what Wright writes proves a god or a transcendent purpose, that is clear.

    I do not understand, however, why you wipe the notion that something like human society would likely evolve again or in parallel off the table. The combined evidence of (1) convergent evolution, (2) the steps leading up to our morality observed in other species, (3) the obvious advantages of cooperation and (4) the inconceivability of significantly different morals (e.g., imagine a society where lying was a virtue) points to exactly that.

    Yes, in many species other solutions might be better, or they are simply not cognitively able to form a society, but if you wait enough millions of years you would be likely to hit on that cooperative behavior coupled with that set of morals again – because it works. We know that know, even from only one data point. Likewise, even if we had only one species that has evolved to hear, we could still assume that this neat feature can easily evolve again if we wait long enough.

    It could be added that it is a frequent human fallacy to think that we are too special and unlikely for the same thing to occur again or elsewhere.

    • newenglandbob
      Posted August 24, 2009 at 8:31 am | Permalink

      I do not speak for Jerry Coyne, but I also think it is unlikely to get something like human society again.

      There are other successful societies that have arisen from evolutionary processes. The ants and bees are notable, successful societies which are quite different from human society. They communicate more by chemicals and by instinct than our society.

      After reading Carl Zimmer’s “Microcosm”, it also seems that colonies of bacteria can cooperate in a very different way from our way.

      There is something to the theory of ‘infinite’ time possibly producing another similar society, but it is a double edged sword, in that it could also give rise to something that wipes all life from our planet.

      There seems to be no limit to how many different ways the four building blocks of DNA can be combined. The resulting combinations and timings of the amino acids seem to result in an infinite variability of living organisms.

    • tmaxPA
      Posted August 24, 2009 at 10:55 am | Permalink

      why you wipe the notion that something like human society would likely evolve again or in parallel off the table.

      If I could attempt to answer this briefly: because what constitutes “something like human society” in this particular regard uis going to vary so greatly as to be useless for making a scientific point. It is an unfalsifiable argument, and so it gets ‘wiped off the table’ without even being considered because we already know it is a blind alley, scientifically speaking.

      It is not a matter of being ‘special’. For simplicities sake, we make the result a binary possibility, which may confuse you: were evolution to be ‘re-run’, would we end up with “the same” morality or not. If it varies at all, it wasn’t (or rather needn’t be, which is the same thing in this case) the result isn’t due to pre-determined ‘purpose’. But even without getting to sentience, you will find something which you will wish to call morality, even more, “like human society”. But unless you re-roll the dice and get the same Yatzee, not just any Yatzee, you’ve proven the results are not fore-ordained.

      • Mintman
        Posted August 24, 2009 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

        Perhaps I have confused you. I am not arguing that every petty detail will be exactly the same, stuff like the burka and circumcision included. I am arguing that there is only one set of basic morals that can conceivably work.

        If you evolve to be a social species, you cannot possibly lionize thieves, liars, cowards, deadbeats, etc. because such a society would disintegrate on its first day. Accordingly, every conceivable society must consider it virtues to respect property, tell the truth, be brave, work hard, etc. This, and not some god’s fiat, is why it appears quite counter-intuitive to assume that anything goes, and I would like to see a justification for that assumption.

        Similarly, no matter how often we combine and mutate DNA, we will likely never be able to produce a 2000 m tall slime mold or a flying tree, because there are certain limits to what is physically, chemically and biologically possible. Convergent evolution does not happen by chance.

        Btw, social hymenoptera and termites are really not a good analogy as their behavior is controlled by instinct, not by learning or intelligent reasoning – it is nonsensical to assume that they are guided by morals as we define them. And bacteria? Come on.

      • Mintman
        Posted August 24, 2009 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

        Please note again that I am not arguing for a “pre-determined purpose”. As a biologist, I am taking issue with the idea that there could be multiple possible moral systems available for an intelligent cooperative species. If so, what are they? Would they be stable? Okay, so lions kill their rivals’ young. So what? Most hummingbirds do not cooperate at all. Does that inform us about the possibilities open to a species that evolves to go “the whole way” into social behavior? Of course not, like the lions they are simply many steps behind us on the way to morals. But it is still likely that our specific morals are the only ones that can possibly work once these steps are taken.

  14. Janus
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    What really bothers Wright is that he doesn’t want to deal with a rather depressing truth: Most of humanity is insane. Therefore he resents the new atheists for constantly reminding him of this unpleasant fact. His solution is a simple one: if he can get atheists to be agnostic about the deistic god, and if he can get theists to pretend (in the presence of atheists, at least) that they are deists, atheists won’t have to call theists insane anymore. There will still be some arguments, but they’ll be nice, respectful ones that preserve social harmony and don’t force anyone to acknowledge that one’s friends, family, and neighbors are freaking nuts.

    • tmaxPA
      Posted August 24, 2009 at 11:02 am | Permalink

      Well this explains why you are so angry inside, Janus. You are confusing “agreeing with you” and “being sane”. I’m afraid that, given only a choice between the two alternatives, Wright’s position is far more correct than yours is.

      • Janus
        Posted August 24, 2009 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

        I’ll have to remember that line the next I visit a psychiatric hospital. The doctors may be convinced that their patients’ firm belief in pink elephants flying around the room is a symptom of insanity, but thanks to tmaxPA I now know better. It’s not that the mental patients are insane, it’s just that they “don’t agree” with the doctors!

  15. Posted August 24, 2009 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    If convergence of religious moral codes is evidence for Wright’s God, does the existence of schisms and holy wars mean that Wright’s God is incompetent?

  16. bueller007
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    w.r.t. the first paragraph in the article, as I recall, Lewontin also got a well-deserved smackdown from Kimura in his book “The Neutral Theory of Molecular Evolution”.

  17. Tulse
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    “built into the evolutionary process was the consequence that selection would produce rational, moral beings capable of apprehending and worshiping their creator”

    The notion of worshipping a truly Deist non-interventionist Transcendent Purpose seems bizarre to me, like worshipping Maxwell’s equations. By definition a deist god no longer interacts with the world, so why bother praying to it or doing rituals for it? It seems to me that Wright has to squeeze all the God out of god in order to make his argument.

    And I think that the point Jerry makes cannot be emphasized enough: such a god is NOT what religious people actually believe in. Wright is offering a shell game, a variant of the gambit used by the religious where in day-to-day life they believe in the existence of a personal, interventionist anthropomorphic deity who answers prayers, but when challenged by atheists they retreat to the Ineffable Infinite and hand-waving deist vagueness that is so nebulous it isn’t even wrong.

  18. Jamie
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    Very good article, as usual, but I have a nit to pick.

    “…there is not the slightest evidence that natural selection is anything other than the ineluctable consequence of genes competing with each another [sic] for representation in future generations.”

    This seems to me to imbue genes with agency, and therefore purpose of the very sort that Wright is claiming. One may edit out the agency through careful definition as in:

    wiki definition of ‘competition': “an interaction between organisms or species, in which the fitness of one is lowered by the presence of another”

    but certainly what comes to most readers’ minds is something more like:

    wiki definition of ‘compete': “to seek or strive for the same thing, position, or reward for which another is striving”

    Later Jerry deals with a similar confusion:

    “Wright tries to give believers solace by saying that organisms do have a purpose: to spread their DNA… This is the same tactic used by Kenneth Miller when he lectures about how natural selection produces ‘design’ instead of saying it produces apparent design.”

    I propose an analogous:

    …consequence of genes apparent competing…

    Clearly, with so many knockdown arguments such little nits should hardly matter. But think of a young person’s firs attempt to grasp what is at issue being told that genes compete for future survival. How will that dispose one to assess the arguments one later hears? I think in the minds of many religious this is the very heart of the matter. They imagine a competition between their own agency and the imagined agency of material nature.

    • Posted August 24, 2009 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

      I think that explaining natural selection as genes competing with each other influences more than just children and the religious – Darwinian “fundamentalists” seem to be obsessed with the idea of genes competing as the essence of natural selection, and they do seem to see it as a very active, goal-oriented phenomenon.

      Gould’s piece in NYReview of books tackles some of these issues – it’s a bit out of date, but I think that much is still relevant:

      http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1151

  19. anon
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    “Yes, it’s formally possible that God brought the whole complicated process into being, but why complicate matters by positing an unnecessary layer of divinity atop a process that works fine on its own?”

    God is no more an unneccessary layer than a a driver would be to the purely mechanist workings of an automobile engine. Anengine will hum along quite nicely without any driver at all. The driver provides direction, purpose and meaning – none of which are mechanistic concepts.

    And none of these would be rejected out of hand by anyone but a nihilist.

    • Stephen
      Posted August 24, 2009 at 10:36 am | Permalink

      “The driver provides direction, purpose and meaning – none of which are mechanistic concepts.”

      http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/darpa/cars.html

      “And none of these would be rejected out of hand by anyone but a nihilist.”

      This is absolutely wrong. Why do you say this? What is your reasoning here?

    • Stephen
      Posted August 24, 2009 at 10:38 am | Permalink

      “God is no more an unneccessary [sic] layer than a driver”

      Necessary in the sense of “explanatory necessity”? Because that’s the claim, that positing God is unnecessary to explain the workings of the world/universe. So what, exactly, do you think positing God adds to the explanation, and why is that necessary?

  20. Tulse
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    “The driver provides direction, purpose and meaning – none of which are mechanistic concepts.”

    And what makes you think there is direction, purpose, and meaning in the universe? (In your answer, make sure to explain how trillions of cubic light years of nothingness at 3K figures into “purpose”.)

  21. Martin
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    Thanks for a well-written, thoughtful response to Wright’s Op-Ed piece.

  22. Posted August 24, 2009 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    Coyne,

    My critique of Wright’s book concentrated on his theology, on the structure of his argument (which I consider unfalsifiable and therefore unscientific)

    Is your argument regarding the incompatibility of science and religion

    A) falsifiable, or
    B) unscientific

    If it is falsifiable, what is the experiment?

    • Tulse
      Posted August 24, 2009 at 10:58 am | Permalink

      “If it is falsifiable, what is the experiment?”

      Not all theories are amenable to experimentation, but can be answered via observation. For example, if we found a billion galaxies spelling out “Yes, Jerry, I do indeed exist. Signed, God”, I would take that as a potential falsification of the claim.

      • newenglandbob
        Posted August 24, 2009 at 11:13 am | Permalink

        Not until after taking a blood test to see if there were drugs affecting the observation. :)

      • Posted August 24, 2009 at 11:20 am | Permalink

        Tulse,

        if we found a billion galaxies spelling out “Yes, Jerry, I do indeed exist. Signed, God”, I would take that as a potential falsification of the claim.

        You seem to be addressing whether the statement “God does not exist” is falsifiable. That was not what I asked. I asked, is the argument “religion and science are incompatible” falsifiable, or is it unscientific?

        Besides, an experiment that requires supernatural intervention for falsification is not falsifiable. Otherwise the term has no meaning.

        For example, if the only falsification experiment for evolution was: “God could show up, do a special on the BBC, and demonstrate how by special creation he created the diversity of life” then evolution would not be falsifiable.

      • newenglandbob
        Posted August 24, 2009 at 11:28 am | Permalink

        heddle wants to know:

        is the argument “religion and science are incompatible” falsifiable, or is it unscientific?

        If one has good definitions of ‘religion’ and ‘science’ then the argument: “is religion and science incompatible” is falsifiable.

        One could have a good definition of ‘science’ (See Karl Popper) but one would have to have many definitions of ‘religion’ and then each of these would have to try to fit into the argument separately.

      • Posted August 24, 2009 at 11:37 am | Permalink

        newenglandbob

        If one has good definitions of ‘religion’ and ’science’ then the argument: “is religion and science incompatible” is falsifiable.

        Assume whatever definition Jerry Coyne uses for “religion” when he makes the claim. Or choose a reasonable definition of your liking. Then describe the falsification experiment.

        BTW, the claim is not a question: “is religion and science incompatible” as you wrote. The claim under discussion is the definitive statement “science and religion are incompatible”.

      • newenglandbob
        Posted August 24, 2009 at 11:53 am | Permalink

        Heddle, that is easy then.

        I will define one set of religion as the evangelical creationist who believe that everything in his bible is literally true. That includes the biblical ‘fact’ that the sun revolves around the earth.

        Science has shown that the earth revolves around the sun.

        Due to the above conflict, religion and science are incompatible.

        “is religion and science incompatible” is a falsifiable statement because someone can design a test that could show the above to be false.

      • Posted August 24, 2009 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

        newenglandbob,

        Fair enough. I suppose. After all I asked for a “reasonable” definition of religion. You wrote:

        I will define one set of religion as the evangelical creationist who believe that everything in his bible is literally true. That includes the biblical ‘fact’ that the sun revolves around the earth.

        Whether this is reasonable is, I suppose, subjective. But the number of people who believe that “everything in the bible is literally true” is vanishingly small if not zero. Your definition, for example, excludes garden-variety YECs. Because YECs, in general, acknowledge that the bible contains metaphors and other figures of speech. They do not think, for example, that you can pick grapes off of Jesus even though is “the vine”. And in general they agree that statements such as “the sun rose” are not to be taken literally any more than in modern English.

        Somehow I think Coyne has a broader definition of religion in mind.

      • newenglandbob
        Posted August 24, 2009 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

        No, heddle, you don’t get to move the goalposts after I score a touchdown. You asked for one example. I never claimed it to be what any majority believe. I said “I will define one set of religion”. There could be hundreds or thousands of sets. It obviously does not apply to Hindism or Buddhism or Jainism, etc.

        My point is that you ask for an aswer to a problem that is very complex. One can not answer it yes or no without definitions and qualifications and discourse.

      • Posted August 24, 2009 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

        newenglandbob,

        No, heddle, you don’t get to move the goalposts

        Not moving them. In fact I grant your victory. For your definition of religion, which is a specific doctrine: (everything in the bible is literally true–e.g., the sun orbits the earth)–a “religion” with few or no adherents, but no matter– I concede an incompatibility between this religion which you defined and science. Uncle. You win. If that is your version of a “reasonable” definition of religion, and you feel that you have scored a touchdown–then congratulations on a magnificent victory.

        Of course, you could have scored your “touchdown” much more easily. You could have offered a reasonable definition of religion as the belief that Al Roker is a demigod who will float into space if he is not tethered to the ground.

      • Mark
        Posted August 24, 2009 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

        As Alan Sokal has pointed out, the scientific approach requires a strict level of skepticism that religious belief prevents. Falsification of the claim that religion and science are incompatible would require that you prove that no religious belief impinges on proper scientific reasoning, which would require a full survey of all religious beliefs with evidence that they do not impede scientific understanding. Newenglandbob’s example stands as an example that while falsification is possible in theory, there is no such falsifying evidence. While it may be possible to conceive of a deistic belief system that does not seem to conflict with science, one must also demonstrate that this system of belief is the core of all religions. Regardless of what you might claims, it isn’t. QED

    • Posted August 24, 2009 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

      I’m pretty certain it is always about moving the goal posts. Be it the imparted wiggle-room of words like “reasonable” or, in the case of the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, certain tangible objects get conveniently and exotically re-termed, thus moving beyond the boundaries of methodological inquiry. Voila, still compatible!

      • Posted August 24, 2009 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

        gillt,

        I’m pretty certain it is always about moving the goal posts. Be it the imparted wiggle-room of words like “reasonable”

        You are missing the boat. The question on the table, I’ll remind you, is: Is the argument that religion and science are incompatible falsifiable?

        Brought on, I’ll also remind you, by Coyne’s comment:

        My critique of Wright’s book concentrated on his theology, on the structure of his argument (which I consider unfalsifiable and therefore unscientific)

        Since you find the word “reasonable” to provide too much wiggle room, and since newenglandbob has demonstrated that he can come up with a “reasonable” religion that nobody, or virtually nobody, affirms—as an example of a reasonable definition, I plead guilty to overestimating the likelihood of a non-evasive, serious-minded discussion. My bad.

        This time I’ll be very specific:

        Is the claim that Francis Collins’s religion is incompatible with science:

        A. Falsifiable, or
        B. Unscientific

        And if it is falsifiable, what is the experiment?

        Now there is, I hope, no wiggle room. I believe it is fair to say that Coyne has argued that Francis Collins’s religion, which is fairly mainstream—and not just the absurd hyperliteralism that newenglandbob defined (my fault, I opened the door and he walked trough) is incompatible with science.

        So I am asking a simple, straightforward question, using a dichotomy just as Coyne used it: is that statement falsifiable or unscientific?

      • Posted August 24, 2009 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

        Collins allows his non-evidence-based belief system to determine what aspects of our scientific knowledge he is willing to accept. This shows incompatibility, an incompatibility that can in turn be falsified through his specific claims.

        Francis Collins says:
        1. humans are no longer evolving:
        Wrong and falsifiable
        2. the entire human genome is functional:
        Wrong and falsifiable
        3. altruism didn’t evolved (or at least he can’t imagine how it could have):
        Science offers incomplete explanations, Collins disregards.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted August 24, 2009 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

      Nope, what I said was “unfalsifiable” was Wright’s theory in his book, which is that God has promoted the increase in human morality, acting through theology, over time. And what I meant by this was that there is no evidence Wright construes all evidence as support for his theory. It is of course falsifiable by the facts, and I consider it falsified.

      • Posted August 24, 2009 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

        whyevolutionistrue,

        I don’t care what you were referring to, only that you stated:

        which I consider unfalsifiable and therefore unscientific

        which FWIW, I agree with. If it is not falsifiable then it is not science.

        I am asking a simple question and if you answered it then forgive me, I missed it. Again,

        Is the statement “religion is incompatible with science” falsifiable?

        Yes or no?

        If yes, what is the experiment?

        If no, does that mean it is unscientific?

      • J.J.E.
        Posted August 24, 2009 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

        @heddle

        Is the statement “religion is incompatible with science” falsifiable?

        The answer is neither. “Religion is incompatible with science” isn’t a scientific statement, nor is it meant to be. It is a simple restatement of the definition of science with the special case of religion in mind. Most human endeavors that aren’t directly related to science aren’t in the business of providing explanations for natural phenomena. Examples include art, literature, sports, etc. But quite a large proportion of religion is in fact in the business of providing explanations regarding observations about the world. This includes most of Christianity and Islam, for example, who at the very least claim there is was an historical figure who performed spectacular feats and experienced miraculous fates. Yet their explanations are incompatible with the way the scientific method proceeds. In this way they are incompatible with science. The scientific method is a human endeavor and has relatively modest and well-defined boundaries. For most things, it is easy to say whether or it is scientific, anti-scientific (ie contradicting the scientific method), or a-scientific. Most religion is anti-scientific in that it attempts to provide explanations that can’t be tested against observation.

        As Jerry has pointed out before on this blog, if by religion, you mean “deism”, the contradictions aren’t so direct, though deism does in fact at least violate parsimony principles (Occam’s razor) which scientists also value.

        The short answer to your question is: You failed to ask the right question. You lose extra points for attempting to force a binary answer to an irrelevant and poorly motivated question.

  23. Paul
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    And none of these would be rejected out of hand by anyone but a nihilist.

    And what’s more “nihilist”: someone who tries to find meaning in this life because they are fully aware there is no intrinsic direction, purpose, and meaning to existence, or someone who goes and kills fitness instructors and himself because this life doesn’t really matter anyway, Jesus is waiting for him?

    If nihilist is the former, count me in. Who needs to be given a meaning or a purpose? Find your own and quit using ancient Gods and their orders as a substitute.

  24. anon
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    And what makes you think there is direction, purpose, and meaning in the universe?
    and
    So what, exactly, do you think positing God adds to the explanation, and why is that necessary?

    Gentlemen, are you agreeing that atheism = nihilism?

    In your answer, make sure to explain how trillions of cubic light years of nothingness at 3K figures into “purpose”.)

    Without that emptiness solar systems with life bearing planets could not form as gravitational pulls from close by stars would render planetary formation impossible or cast planets via gravitational slingshot away from a life giving sun.

    • Posted August 24, 2009 at 10:56 am | Permalink

      Gentlemen, are you agreeing that atheism = nihilism?

      No. Why would we?

      Without that emptiness solar systems with life bearing planets could not form as gravitational pulls from close by stars would render planetary formation impossible or cast planets via gravitational slingshot away from a life giving sun.

      That would only be true for the solar system. Now explain what the purpose is of the rest of the galaxy, and the myriads of other galaxies.

    • Tulse
      Posted August 24, 2009 at 11:03 am | Permalink

      “Without that emptiness solar systems with life bearing planets could not form”

      So the entire universe is necessary to have one habitable earth? Really? What is your evidence for this?

      And “could not” is certainly not in the vocabulary of an omnipotent being. Presumably such a being could have created a universe that is just a giant meadow with fountains of single-malt scotch, no?

    • Mark
      Posted August 24, 2009 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

      You assume, of course, that the laws of physics had to be as they are. But a tenet of Christian theology is not only that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, but he is also perfectly free. No constraints, because if God is constrained, then whatever put the constraints there is more powerful than God, and therefore, that would have to be God.

      Now, I can imagine a universe that consists of an endless space of life supporting lacunae, easily transversible by intelligent beings, where all living things enter into positive sum relationships (bees give us honey, we bring them flowers, etc.) and in which the entire universe is teeming with life, much of it intelligent and all perfectly cooperative. Surely God could think of this.

      Why didn’t he do it? According to Christian theology, he could have.

      • Posted August 25, 2009 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

        Worse still for the Christian, as they usually hold that such a place exists too – it is called heaven.

  25. anon
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    “And what’s more “nihilist”: someone who tries to find meaning in this life because they are fully aware there is no intrinsic direction, purpose, and meaning to existence.”

    Without iherent meaning, individual meaning is not possible. In an absurd world there are absolutely no guidelines, and any course of action is problematic. Passionate commitment, be it to conquest, creation, or whatever, is itself meaningless. Enter nihilism.

    “and meaning to existence, or someone who goes and kills fitness instructors and himself because this life doesn’t really matter anyway, Jesus is waiting for him”

    If you get to compare all believers to one nut job do I get to compare all atheists to Stalin and Mao?

    • Tulse
      Posted August 24, 2009 at 11:05 am | Permalink

      “Without iherent meaning, individual meaning is not possible.”

      How so? And how is having a meaning imposed on you by the universe somehow more ennobling?

      “In an absurd world there are absolutely no guidelines”

      And in a truly absurd world without meaning, that fact is itself meaningless.

      • newenglandbob
        Posted August 24, 2009 at 11:15 am | Permalink

        hehe, a good one Tulse.

      • Tulse
        Posted August 24, 2009 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

        “hehe, a good one Tulse”

        I can’t claim originality for that observation — it comes from the excellent essay “The Absurd” by the philosopher Thomas Nagel.

    • J.J.E.
      Posted August 24, 2009 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

      Why ever would you compare Stalin & Mao. Surely you would agree that one of the more unique and horrible aspects of Stalin and Mao was their insistence on the absolute and indisputable “Truth and Goodness” of their own decrees or the decrees of the party. They set down principles by authority that they claimed were incontrovertibly true. In other words, they set down dogma.

      Surely this aspect allies them most closely with Christians, Muslims, and Scientologists who claim absolute authority for incontrovertibly true principles laid by some arbitrary “unimpeachable in principle” authority.

      Get this trough your head. The presence or absence of belief in a magical sky daddy isn’t the most vexing aspect of religion to atheists and freethinkers: it is the moral authority that those superstitious gits impose upon their unsupportable dogmas that is most offensive. And for that reason, the religious are more closely allied to other peddlers of unverifiable, dangerous dogma, including Mao and Stalin.

    • H.H.
      Posted August 25, 2009 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

      Without iherent meaning, individual meaning is not possible. In an absurd world there are absolutely no guidelines, and any course of action is problematic. Passionate commitment, be it to conquest, creation, or whatever, is itself meaningless. Enter nihilism.

      Even if atheism is nihilistic in the sense that it excludes the idea of “inherent” or “ultimate” meaning to existence itself, how is this in any way an argument against its veracity? Do you think a fact ceases to be a fact simply because it makes you uncomfortable? All you have established is that if the nonexistence of god is a fact of reality, you wouldn’t be very happy about it. Great. Come back when you have an actual argument that doesn’t turn on how much bruising your poor ego can handle.

  26. Paul
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    @anon

    Are you saying that an omnipotent entity could not create a universe with different physical constraints? Your explanation needs to take that into account. Why bother with the vast nothingness?

  27. Paul
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    If you get to compare all believers to one nut job do I get to compare all atheists to Stalin and Mao?

    I do not compare all believers to one nut job. I pointed out possible descriptions of nihilism and was seeking your opinion. I do tend to agree with Nietzsche in characterizing a belief in the afterlife as nihilist, but I do not think that, in general, they are likely to go around shooting people/themselves. I am of the opinion that fewer would if they were not comforted by a belief in an afterlife where all is forgiven, though. Their beliefs can directly motivate action. Much like Stalin or Mao — they were motivated by deifying themselves (metaphorically at least), not by any disbelief in gods.

    So, based on your statement on inherent/personal meaning: there is no inherent meaning to a checkered 64 section board with 32 pieces on it. It has no significance, itself. But it is possible to impart meaning to the pieces, and use them to play a game of chess. Are you denying this “personal” meaning, based on the fact that a board and pieces do not possess a meaning in and of themselves?

  28. Posted August 24, 2009 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    1 million pounds sure is a nice incentive! Wright also has a faitheist budy who was a Templeton Fellow, so he knows he has at least a good chance at that.

    BTW, the Templeton Prize winners have “evolved” too. From such superstars of science:

    1973 – Mother Theresa (the first)
    1982 – Billy Graham
    1993- Chuck “Convicted Felon” Colson

    To actual scientists and respected philosophers:

    2000 – Freeman Dyson
    2007 – Charles Taylor

    Question: has at least the prize winner “evolved a higher consciousness”? [scare quotes, not an actual quote}

  29. Nancy
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    Could Wright be suffering from semantic confusion? Many scientists, including you, describe genes as competing with each other – which does sound as if the genes were actively goal-driven.

    I assume that you don’t use the word “competition” to refer to the same thing as what happens when animals compete, say, for food or mates or the Regional Championship.

    But why wouldn’t some, including Robert Wright, come to believe that through the description of genes competing, as if they had a goal, you are indicating that there is an active drive to achieve something on the part of genetic material – which Write believes to be morality.

    • Posted August 24, 2009 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

      Genes are competing – to reproduce. That is their goal. Wright is talking about cultural evolution, so in his case memes are competing to reproduce. In any case, Wright jumps from memes having a goal to the entire process having a purpose, or destination, in mind (pun intended) outside of the competition itself.

      • Nancy
        Posted August 24, 2009 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

        But genes aren’t actively doing anything. They are seleted for reproduction – they aren’t doing anything active. It’s all chance.

        And that’s what I mean by a semantic problem. The term “competing” carries with it the sense of doing something active – with a built in goal of winning. And that is what I think trips up those not up on the nuances of biology terminology.

        And that’s useful to the promoters of religion. They don’t believe in chance, basically. Everything is controlled by a god, in their view, so there is no room for non-goal-oriented events and conditions that impact evolution.

        As far as Wright’s views – isn’t conflating cultural evolution with biological evolution a common practice of all evolutionary psychologists?

      • Posted August 25, 2009 at 11:28 am | Permalink

        You are adding a sporting sense of active and winning to genetic competition. Try thinking of the “race” in terms of a hundred generations. Some genes at the “starting” generation are found in the “finishing” generation. Others are replaced by new genes. The set of genes that exist in the 100th generation have “won” by the fact that they exist. Then extend the analogy to 1,000 generations or 10,000 generations, etc.

        However, whatever the time scale, the genes have no information that they are even in a competition, so they have no goal other than reproducing.

        “Chance” is an equally confusing word. Selection is absolutely not chance. Quite the opposite. The underlying variation in genes has a random element (mutation) to it, but genes are selected (natural and sexual) because of a reason.

        You really do need to know evolutionary meaning of these common terms to understand the concepts.

        Wright isn’t an evolutionary psychologist, who work on biological (brain) evolution by imagining the situation humans found themselves in during hunter/gatherer days. They are interested in the biological bases of cultural institutions.

      • Nancy
        Posted August 25, 2009 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

        You are adding a sporting sense of active and winning to genetic competition. Try thinking of the “race” in terms of a hundred generations.

        Why are you lecturing me on the subject? I clearly stated that I think that OTHERS will make the error. Because of the confusing terminology.

        And I think that the importance of the possibility of semantic confusion is greatly underestimated, by people who already understand the meaning and are so up in their own little worlds that it never occurs to them that they are being misunderstood.

        Genes have no “goal” – I don’t know why that terminology is used – does it derive from game theory? But if genes are able to be expressed to a greater degree than other genes then, may be they can be said to have “won” – but it wasn’t because they had a goal to win. Using that word is a kind of anthropomorphism.

        And chance controls everything. And adaptationism does not change that – which is what Gould is talking about in the article I linked to elsewhere.

        And I certainly don’t need to be told what an evolutionary psychologist is – I’ve been debating them, including Steven Pinker, for years. And Wright has written books, classified by Amazon, at least, as “evolutionary psychology.”

      • Posted August 25, 2009 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

        My apologies for the lecturing tone. But you keep making basic mistakes yourself.

        Gene expression is only a mechanism, it has nothing to do with genetic competition. Again, you are thinking in very limited terms, in this case one body. Selection should be thought of in terms of populations over time.

        If chance could control something, then it wouldn’t be chance.

  30. anon
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    So, based on your statement on inherent/personal meaning: there is no inherent meaning to a checkered 64 section board with 32 pieces on it.

    The already written rules would impart meaning to the chess game, otherwise you couldjust move your rooks and pawns willy nilly in a meaningless fashion.

    The major objection to Wright’s op-ed from atheists appears to be that he dared to (gasp!) propose that existence has meaning and purpose. So why exactly does the idea that existence has a reason for existing provoke such a negative visceral response from atheists? It appears to stem from some deep seeded psychological level or emotional state.

    • newenglandbob
      Posted August 24, 2009 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

      No, your psychobabble is just nonsense.

      The reason to reject Wright’s article is that he has no evidence whatsoever. It is all just “we don’t know, so therefore goddidit”.

    • Tulse
      Posted August 24, 2009 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

      “there is no inherent meaning to a checkered 64 section board with 32 pieces on it”

      Of course there isn’t, otherwise one couldn’t play both chess AND checkers on the same board. (It’s called a “checkerboard”, after all…) Indeed, one can play multiple different games on such a board.

      And that presumes the board is only used for games. If the board is checkered in white and black, it could instead be a physical representation of an 8 X 8 grey icon. It could be an instantiation of the numbers 170, 85, 170, 85, 170, 85, 170, 85 in binary (with one colour representing 1 and the other 0). It could represent which of the first 64 integers are odd and which are even.

      In other words, it could represent any damn arbitrary thing you want — there is no “inherent” meaning to a chessboard, just the meaning that we in our culture attach to it.

    • jo5ef
      Posted August 26, 2009 at 8:02 am | Permalink

      “So why exactly does the idea that existence doesn’t have a reason for existing provoke such a negative visceral response from religionists? It appears to stem from some deep seeded psychological level or emotional state.”

      Fixed it

      Occams Razor baby.

      Dawkins: Why does there have to be a why?

  31. Paul
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    The already written rules would impart meaning to the chess game, otherwise you couldjust move your rooks and pawns willy nilly in a meaningless fashion.

    The already written rules? The board pieces exist independently of any rulebook. You can move the pieces willy nilly as much as you want, there is no intrinsic meaning to them that will stop you. There is nothing stopping you from manipulating the board and pieces in any manner you wish. If you wish to impose a ruleset on it, you can play a game. This ruleset does not exist in any inherent fashion in the pieces/board.

    The major objection to Wright’s op-ed from atheists appears to be that he dared to (gasp!) propose that existence has meaning and purpose. So why exactly does the idea that existence has a reason for existing provoke such a negative visceral response from atheists?

    Visceral? Where is the visceral response? I have seen nothing but reasoned responses. It’s a sloppy argument, and people are simply pointing out where it fails. One part is where meaning and purpose are claimed to be intrinsic to existence, which is hardly a closed issue. Asserting they are over and over again does not add to any sort of understanding of the universe we observe in existence.

    Science works. Projecting meaning and purpose onto inanimate objects does not, which is why by this point Sun-worship has largely gone by the wayside. People just need to find different places to hide their God. They could at least be honest about it, instead of constantly shifting goalposts and redefining things in order to keep religion relevant.

  32. Posted August 24, 2009 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    [O]nly one species went all the way to developing an explicit moral code.

    I must emphasise that: “an explicit moral code”. “An”, as in, “one”. In other words, morality is a monolithic construct, and any “true” religious understanding would converge upon this one “true” morality.

    This is contrary to observation, in which we have multiple (and multiplying!) religious traditions, many of whose concepts of morality are at direct odds with one another. Indeed, many of the schisms propagating these traditions are driven by refinements to their adherents’ understanding of morality. For instance, may gays be ordained as clergy? Answering this simple yes/no question threatens to split the Anglican denomination apart: it is not a peripheral issue to its adherents (however much it should be). The argument that religion has “discovered” some inherent moral reality denies the fact that the religious cannot agree upon what that moral reality should be.

    Of course, if there were only one universally accepted set of morals, this would still not be evidence for a supernatural author behind them. It would merely be consistent with such a proposition, which is far better than we can say for things as they now stand.

  33. Tulse
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    “The argument that religion has “discovered” some inherent moral reality denies the fact that the religious cannot agree upon what that moral reality should be.”

    And you really only see this claim of “convergence” from wishy-washy liberal theologians and their fellow travellers — fundamentalists damn well know the truth, which is there own highly-specific beliefs, and anyone who deviates even the slightest from those beliefs is wrong, period.

    In other words, this claim is by no means representative of actual religious belief. Indeed, if it were, one might expect that the more closely related the religious sects are, the more they would be in harmony. As counter-evidence, I give you the Protestants and Catholics in Ireland (and earlier in Britain and Europe), the Shiites and Sunnis (in various spots in the Islamic world), and, from a broader perspective, the various “People of the Book” in general (as in the Crusades, the pogroms, etc. etc. etc. bloody etc.).

  34. Adam
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    i’d like to see Wright and Coyne debate. i really think they are talking past each other and i think something better would come out of a debate.

  35. D
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    I understand what it might mean for a God to tweak the laws of nature / the initial conditions of those laws, or for it to suspend those laws as needed.

    What I don’t understand is what it could mean for a God to “use” natural selection to engineer life. Is that any more meaningful than God “using” the laws of divisibility to generate infinitely many primes? How is the mathematics of feedback loops (for example) the sort of thing any sort of entity could “make” real in a manner distinct from mundane tinkering?

  36. D
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    Put another way, I don’t see how God “unleashing” natural selection to cause the evolution of species is any more meaningful than God “unleashing” the laws of demand and supply to increase prices with increased demand. The mechanism seems to have no place for such an entity outside of plain and simple interventionism.

  37. Traveler
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    Even if we do grant that the universe has a purpose and that evolution has been moving towards the fulfillment of that purpose, why should we assume that the existence of morality is that purpose? The ultimate purpose could just as well be something that won’t evolve for another ten million years. Or the purpose could be fulfilled by evolution taking place on a planet in another galaxy, with evolution on Earth being just an accident of the fact that the same physical laws apply here. (“Church of the Cosmic Byproduct” anyone?)

  38. Screechy Monkey
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    Even if one grants Wright’s premise that there is a directionality to evolution — and I gather that’s highly debateable — it still doesn’t get you to purpose.

    There’s another kind of directionality in the universe that is not, as far as I know, disputed: the trend towards increasing entropy. Does Wright believe that God loves entropy? That the purpose of the universe is to end up in (heat death, a singularity, etc.)?

    • I.Strange
      Posted August 24, 2009 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

      And what of the trend toward secularization and self-sealing theology? God’s purpose, clearly, is to rid himself from humanity.

  39. Johan
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    “Like Jesus, Wright sees himself as a harbinger of universal harmony”

    Hmn, I do not think that is very accurate summary of what Jesus is quoted as saying. In fact, just the opposite might be a better desription. I hope I don’t get accused of proof-texting if I refer to Matthew 10:34.

  40. Posted August 24, 2009 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

    “We must “accept” the idea that there is “scientific evidence” for a higher purpose/higher order/transcendent reality”

    There are naturalistic forms of moral realism. Moral realism/intrinsic value could indeed become part of natural science, or natural science could be an insufficient method for finding moral facts. This is one of the most popular views of metaethics right now and there’s a lot of essays written about it by philosophers. You don’t have to be a nihilist to be a scientist.

    You might want to see Richard Boyd’s essay, “How to be a Moral Realist.” It’s not perfect but it gives you a general idea about what philosophers have been working on related to naturalistic moral realism.

  41. Posted August 24, 2009 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

    I read the article and was a little taken aback as well. I’m a sociologist, not a biologist, but I’m interested in evolution and natural science. I took a few shots at the piece here: http://thedisenchantedworld.blogspot.com/2009/08/you-keep-using-that-word.html

    Of course, my understanding of the issues Wright brings up is limited compared to the analysis here and elsewhere.

  42. foxfire
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

    Jerry Coyne, the above review is remarkable (to me) for specifying the specific reasons why I was not remotely convinced by Wright’s latest. I didn’t particularly agree with your initial review of his book, mainly for the reasons Wright stated in response to your review.

    I think JD (see # 8 above) states where Wright “comes from” as succinctly as possible: “This is an accommodatheist version of what Stuart Kauffman proposed.” ( I assume JD is referring to Kauffman’s “Reinventing the Sacred”).

    Anyway, many kudos to you for capturing the reasons why I couldn’t totally enjoy Wright’s latest – I found the archeological/historical data in the book fascinating and have/am reading based on Wright’s excellent bibliography (and bibliography begets bibliography).

    Too bad Wright can’t just drop the woo.

    P.S. I know “faitheist” won, yet there is such an enjoyable sound-flow to “accommodatheist”, that I gotta go with the latter on occasion.

  43. gregor
    Posted August 25, 2009 at 12:51 am | Permalink

    This on day when the Christian religious government of USA under GWB has been shown to be completely immoral.

    Where does Wright see the inevitable evloution of humans as a moral species?

    Most humans are assholes. So if you follow Wright’s logic, the believers should come half way and accept the notion that even though there may be a higher power that we don’t comprehend, there is certainly enough evidence that God does not exist.

  44. jay
    Posted August 25, 2009 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    Mintman: “social hymenoptera and termites are really not a good analogy as their behavior is controlled by instinct, not by learning or intelligent reasoning – it is nonsensical to assume that they are guided by morals as we define them.”

    Why do you separate moral sense from instinct? True our detailed ‘moral codes’ are a product of intelligence, but the underlying moral sense, the cross cultural gut feeling that certain things are ‘wrong’, that other things are ‘good’. What is this if not instinct?

    As humans we have to deal with the boundary between our intellectual analysis and our millions of years of accumulated instincts. When instinct pushes us in a direction, we need to integrate that with our overal mentl state, what can we do but categorize it as ‘emotion’ or ‘feeling’?

  45. Posted August 25, 2009 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    My apologies for the lecturing tone. But you keep making basic mistakes yourself.

    Gene expression is only a mechanism, it has nothing to do with genetic competition. Again, you are thinking in very limited terms, in this case one body. Selection should be thought of in terms of populations over time.

    If chance could control something, then it wouldn’t be chance.

    What mistakes have I made? I am describing the mistakes that people might make due to the way that selection is described – as genes “competing” to win something.

    Yes selection is populations over time. When did I say anything that indicated that *I* thought anything else?

    But what happens to populations over time is very much influenced by changes to the environment. Which is due to chance.

    And this statement makes no sense to me: “If chance could control something, then it wouldn’t be chance.”

    Yes chance “controls” everything. Genetic mutation is chance. An asteroid hitting the earth and altering the climate is chance. And those things control – or influence if you prefer – how a population evolves.

    If it isn’t chance then what is it? Intelligent design?

    • Posted August 31, 2009 at 11:40 pm | Permalink

      I hereby reinstate my lecturing tone:

      Let’s clear up the definitions we’re using once again, as your arguments rely so heavily on semantics.

      Common word “chance” = evolutionary word “random”

      Genetic mutation is random, as it is a copying error of DNA. What the errors are and where and when the errors occur are all random.

      However, genetic mutation does not control evolution. It presents the opportunity for individuals and populations to vary, so that natural selection, which is not random, causes evolution.

  46. Posted August 25, 2009 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    I think it’s clear that Wright’s belief that evolution is leading somewhere, like morality, is directly connected to his adaptationist roots. It’s the algorithm where the “purpose” of evolution resides – basically Wright is saying that the algorithm is what deists and atheists can agree on – the god of the gaps – “for all we know” – magical ingredient:

    …for all we know, there’s some “meta-natural-selection” process — playing out over eons and perhaps over multiple universes — that spawned the algorithm of natural selection, somewhat as natural selection spawned the algorithm contained in genomes.

    And this connects with the main belief of the Evolutionary Psychologists – that virtually everything about human culture can be explained on the basis of adaptation. That’s strict adaptationism.

    And it’s this obsession with the algorithm that made Daniel C. Dennet have such a hard time with the concept of spandrels.

    http://www.springerlink.com/content/w64743j66821t3m4/

    • Jamie
      Posted August 26, 2009 at 2:22 am | Permalink

      It is not clear to me that it is adaptationism that is confusing Wright. It looks to me more like he is simply uncomfortable with a strictly materialist view of reality. I agree with you that he is likely suffering some semantic confusion, but I suspect he would have difficulty giving up his desire for higher purpose even in the face of a perfectly executed materialist description. Perhaps you are right that he is fixated on ‘the algorithm’ a la Dennet, but ‘algorithm’ is a two sided metaphor. In Dennet’s case, meant as the abstraction of a mindless process. In Wright’s case, meant to imply a software engineer.

      BTW, thanks for the link to the Gould article in post #18. I had always been impressed by his erudition and his rhetorical skills. I agree, however, with his critics that his reasoning left something to be desired.

      • Posted August 26, 2009 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

        Gould’s reasoning left something to be desired? Examples?

        And I strongly suspect that Wright’s and Dennett’s obsession with the all-encompassing algorithm is very similar (at least as of the publication of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea) – as Gould notes:

        Dennett describes evolution as an “algorithmic process.” Algorithms are abstract rules of calculation, and fully general in making no reference to particular content. In Dennett’s words: “An algorithm is a certain sort of formal process that can be counted on—logically
        —to yield a certain sort of result whenever it is ‘run’ or instantiated.” If evolution truly works by an algorithm, then all else in Dennett’s simplistic system follows: we need only one kind of crane to supply the universal acid.
        I am perfectly happy to allow—indeed I do not see how anyone could deny — that natural selection, operating by its bare-bones mechanics, is algorithmic: variation proposes and selection disposes. So if natural selection builds all of
        evolution, without the interposition of auxiliary processes or intermediary
        complexities, then I suppose that evolution is algorithmic too. But—and here we encounter Dennett’s disabling error once again—evolution includes so much
        more than natural selection that it cannot be algorithmic in Dennett’s simple calculational sense.

        ***end quote **

        I’d say they both buy into the idea of an all-mighty algorithm, but Wright nudges it into the direction of being goal-oriented.

      • newenglandbob
        Posted August 26, 2009 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

        The combinations of amino acids to make the DNA helix could very well be algorithmic as Dennett’s mindless process. It also has no purpose because it is driven by selection to be the survivor in the current environment.

        Wright’s writings are completely opposite of that.

      • Jamie
        Posted August 26, 2009 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

        Well, just off the cuff, early in his essay Gould characterizes his opponents thus:

        “…the ultra-Darwinists share a conviction that natural selection regulates everything of any importance in evolution…”

        This sets me up to expect that Gould is going to expose one or more important evolutionary processes that shape evolution apart from, or outside of, natural selection. He does, in the middle of the essay in about five paragraphs, mention three candidate processes, the neutral theory, hox genes and punctuated equilibrium. But he does not develop these arguments. He shows neither that they are important evolutionary processes nor that they act outside of natural selection, except for the neutral theory which is outside of natural selection by definition. He has perhaps established some grounds for an assertion that natural selection may not be the whole story, but he does not develop any arguments. He prefers to spend his allotted space describing in great detail his amused contempt for his opponents. He merely asserts that they are wrong. He gives little evidence for it and establishes no competing or auxiliary theory. He communicates very clearly that he is upset and feeling gratuitously attacked, flashes his teeth and claws and seems to think that settles the matter.

        Now I am perfectly willing to entertain the possibility that there is something in his essay too subtle for me to grasp, but my impression is that his essay is full of passion and little else. I had become accustomed to coming away from his essays feeling educated and entertained. In this particular case I felt neither. Hence my expostulation that his reasoning left something to be desired.

  47. Posted August 25, 2009 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

    i look at it this way, if it cannot be explained to a child then it should not be explained to adults.

  48. Josin
    Posted August 26, 2009 at 12:00 am | Permalink

    @ Gregor – you beat me to the punch. I’m reminded of Bill Hick’s comment that “human beings are a virus with shoes”. Wright should read up on 20th Century history AND current affairs before opining we are evolving morality as a species

  49. Leigh Jackson
    Posted August 26, 2009 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    Afterthought.

    Perhaps it’s even easier than Robert Wright thinks. All that needs to happen is for apologists of the Abrahamic faiths to entirely disconnect natural science from knowledge of God.

    They should make no appeal whatsoever to science by way of defending truths which are claimed to transcend science: i.e. truths whose warrant depends entirely on acceptance of the divine grace of faith.

    Theology as the exegesis of divinely revealed truths has nothing to do with natural science. So if the Abrahamic churches all remain absolutely silent about all scientific knowledge, there will be no conflict between science and faith, since science cannot speak about knowledge whose warrant transcends science.

    Let there be NOMA.

    • newenglandbob
      Posted August 26, 2009 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

      In your scenario it leaves religion with a totally empty magisteria. I like it.

      Science Magisteria: 51,252,495,964,691
      Religion Magisteria: 0

    • H.H.
      Posted August 26, 2009 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

      Theology as the exegesis of divinely revealed truths has nothing to do with natural science. So if the Abrahamic churches all remain absolutely silent about all scientific knowledge, there will be no conflict between science and faith, since science cannot speak about knowledge whose warrant transcends science.

      Well, that’s what many theologians try to claim right now. Except science should not “remain silent” on claims of revealed knowledge. Such claims have to be supported–with evidence–and now we’re back to the fundamental conflict. Faith claims and “revealed truths” are incompatible with the scientific method, which is at heart a skeptical endeavor.

      Let there be NOMA.

      How about not. Why concede any “domain” to faith at all? It has to earn the right to stake its claim. Deluded god-botters thinking themselves to be in possession of “divine truth” are the problem. Oh, you can make them pinky swear to stop meddling with science, but once you’ve granted their claims epistemological validity, they’ll come back on a mission from god. It’s inevitable. No, best cut to them off at the knees. Faith is bullshit. It gets no piece of the pie. NOMA is dead.

  50. Posted August 26, 2009 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    The combinations of amino acids to make the DNA helix could very well be algorithmic as Dennett’s mindless process. It also has no purpose because it is driven by selection to be the survivor in the current environment.

    Wright’s writings are completely opposite of that.

    Nobody is saying there is no algorithm. What Gould said was: “But—and here we encounter Dennett’s disabling error once again—evolution includes so much
    more than natural selection that it cannot be algorithmic in Dennett’s simple calculational sense.”

    The reason that the algorithm is so important to Evolutionary Psychologists is because it makes their strict adaptationism possible. And strict adaptationism is how you claim that rape, male dominance, and inferior female math skills are a direct result of pre-historic sexual selection.

    • Posted August 26, 2009 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

      I should say, the reason the simplistic algorithm is so important – but it’s the same simplistic algorithm that Wright uses to suggest that there is an inevitable outcome to evolution – the morality is baked right into the algorithm.

    • newenglandbob
      Posted August 26, 2009 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

      OK, I see your point, but I certainly do not believe that ‘nature’ is all consuming. That is not my definition of adaptationism. Nature and nurture combined control the organism.

      Dawkins’ upcoming book has excepts from the first two chapters and mentions something about human will overcoming heredity.

      • Posted August 26, 2009 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

        Well if Dawkins doesn’t believe that nature is all-consuming it would be a change from his usual EP views.

        That’s what really annoys me about the whole “new atheist” thing – as an atheist, I don’t want to be represented by gigantic douchebags (Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris), and Evolutionary Psychologists (Dennett and Dawkins.)

        So the review in this week’s New Yorker was very annoying…

        http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2009/08/31/090831crbo_books_wood

      • newenglandbob
        Posted August 26, 2009 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

        I do not agree that those people are douchebags or evolutionary Psychologists.

        When you make accusations like that, there is no reason to converse with you.

  51. Posted August 26, 2009 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

    I’m sorry if the truth is too harsh for you, but Christopher Hitchens, especially is INDISPUTABLY a douchebag. If you knew anything about him you wouldn’t be having the vapors over it.

    Start with this:

    http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2007/01/hitchens200701

    And Sam Harris’s contention that Islam is more likely to produce violence than any other religion is completely absurd. You read that in the Huffington Post, right?

    And yes, I can see why you might think it’s an insult, but Dennett and Dawkins are indisputably evolutionary psychologists. Dawkins especially – he is like the high priest of EPs – second only to Steven Pinker.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 29, 2009 at 9:44 am | Permalink

      Interesting claims on Dennett and Dawkins. Do you have references?

      [If they are true. I have reason to doubt that, since there seems to be an agenda in your comments. Maybe I’m reading those wrong, but don’t they suggest that “adaptionists” are excluding other mechanisms?

      Not being a biologist, I’m baffled by such characterization, as selection seems like a perfectly fine null hypothesis and it would be wrong to eschew testing.

      I can also imagine that it can be used as a profitable research strategy in some cases, say in studying phenotypes. (As opposed to genotypes, where I imagine a non-adaptionist (near-neutral?) null hypothesis is most often correct.)]

  52. Posted August 26, 2009 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

    Well, just off the cuff, early in his essay Gould characterizes his opponents thus:

    “…the ultra-Darwinists share a conviction that natural selection regulates everything of any importance in evolution…”

    This sets me up to expect that Gould is going to expose one or more important evolutionary processes that shape evolution apart from, or outside of, natural selection. He does, in the middle of the essay in about five paragraphs, mention three candidate processes, the neutral theory, hox genes and punctuated equilibrium. But he does not develop these arguments.

    It’s a book review, not an article about Gould’s views on evolution. He goes into detail in his own books.

    And your complaint was initially about his reasoning – you haven’t explained what was wrong with his reasoning – your gripe now is he didn’t go into detail enough within this book review.

    • Jamie
      Posted August 27, 2009 at 12:25 am | Permalink

      Yes, my gripe is that he did not go into enough detail in his book review.

      His book review is also an essay on his views on evolution, and in particular how his view of evolution is superior to the views of the authors of the books he is reviewing, with which he finds fault. He asserts most forcefully that they are wrong, but in my opinion does not provide adequate argument to back up his assertion. That is sufficient to justify my statement that his reasoning leaves something to be desired. But I apologize for my ambiguous phrasing. I did not mean to say his reasoning is incorrect…. more that it is absent from the page. I am not arguing against the body of his work or his ability to put together a syllogism. I am merely expressing an opinion about an item you linked me to. It was also thoughtless of me to say that ‘I agree with his critics’ without specifying what critics or what criticism. I was referring to the letter exchanges here and here published shortly after his book review. I have no idea what others may have said against his work with the exception of some criticisms of NOMA.

      You were pointing out that some people who ought to know better seem to be beguiled by the metaphor of competition applied to genes. I quite agree with you on that point. But I am not familiar with the controversies over ‘strict adaptationism’ and evolutionary psychology.

  53. Posted August 26, 2009 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

    He merely asserts that they are wrong. He gives little evidence for it and establishes no competing or auxiliary theory. He communicates very clearly that he is upset and feeling gratuitously attacked, flashes his teeth and claws and seems to think that settles the matter.

    Examples?

    And as far as attacking opponents – did you see how Smith attacked Gould?


    Gould occupies a rather curious position, particularly on his side of the Atlantic. Because of the excellence of his essays, he has come to be seen by non-biologists as the preeminent evolutionary theorist. In contrast, the evolutionary biologists with whom I have discussed his work tend to see him as a man whose ideas are so confused as to be hardly worth bothering with, but as one who should not be publicly criticized because he is at least on our side against the creationists.[3]

    • Jamie
      Posted August 27, 2009 at 12:58 am | Permalink

      So that I don’t waste my time needlessly documenting my every statement (that can’t be your desire, can it :) ), could you expand on which elements of my description you are having trouble detecting in Gould’s review? Is it the bald assertions? the clear communications? the upset feelings? the teeth and claws? something else?

      As for Smith, yes a mean-spirited attack, I agree.

      • Nancy
        Posted August 27, 2009 at 7:53 am | Permalink

        Is it the bald assertions? the clear communications? the upset feelings? the teeth and claws?

        Your choice.

      • Jamie
        Posted August 27, 2009 at 10:32 am | Permalink

        Sorry, I decline to play games with you.

  54. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted August 29, 2009 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    Aww, late to the _good_ party. All right then, FWIW some odds and ends:

    Good and thorough review.

    Wright claims that the inclusiveness results from increasing interactions between human societies, so that each perceives a “nonzero-sum” relationship with others and decides to go along to get along.

    This baffles me. Granted, I’m neither a biologist nor a game theoretician. But it is claimed that non-zero sum games devolve to zero-sum:

    “Economic exchanges must benefit both parties enough above the zero-sum such that each party can overcome its transaction costs. […] any zero-sum game involving n players is in fact a generalized form of a zero-sum game for two players, and that any non-zero-sum game for n players can be reduced to a zero-sum game for n + 1 players; the (n + 1) player representing the global profit or loss.”

    The strategies will change accordingly, here with transaction benefits instead of costs, but isn’t it necessary for Wright to show that these strategies are different with respect to inclusiveness? Even tit-for-tat-with-slight-forgiveness can be slightly more often defeated by mafia gang strategies using inclusiveness and sacrificial patsies.

    Besides, an experiment that requires supernatural intervention for falsification is not falsifiable. Otherwise the term has no meaning.

    This is a theological claim, a non-sequitur on science no less, and it saddens me to see it on Coyne’s blog, as he argues so compellingly against them.

    Anyway, Vic Stenger has a (falsifiable) model for this in his “God – The Failed Hypothesis”.

    Roughly: science uses observation, but it is not necessary and in fact a priori (and even more a posteriori) wrong to conflate this with “observation of natural systems”. By defining “material” systems as those who reacts on actions, one can distinguish those from observations of those who do not. Non-natural systems includes theological and religious claims of “supernatural” systems.

    [Note that this is a perfectly sane a posteriori characterization, as already Newton knew and used to characterize natural systems. It has continued to be observed in modern QM.]

    This means that experiments such as above are amenable for experimentation, and indeed have been. One such example is prayer studies.

    This is btw also usable in a scientific study of the incompatibility of science and religion, over and beyond the fact that they study radically different objects (facts vs belief claims) and use radically different methods (observation and theory vs making stuff up).

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 29, 2009 at 9:34 am | Permalink

      D’oh, that should have been “non-material systems” in this context.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted August 29, 2009 at 9:51 am | Permalink

        Double d’oh, rather not. (Or equally usable, at worst.)

        This is what I get for posting in a non-caffeinated state.

  55. Posted August 29, 2009 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    Making a slight but IMHO relevant tangent on “materialism” per se: it is ironic that the classic materialist notion that there is this one universe “that really exists” (or even a given number of specific “physical universes” as a subset of “possible worlds”) is essentially, logically incoherent as modal-realist critics have shown. There is no clear, coherent logical way to define “materially exist” in a way distinguishing that from mathematical existence, leaving some to follow the MUH (mathematical universe hypothesis) or “ultimate ensemble”: all “possible worlds” exist because such distinctions can’t be made. It is ironically our conscious experience only, that lets us say “hey, this is ‘really here’ and not just some Platonic diagram” etc.

    Most scientists don’t realize that, most philosophers (and new atheist types) don’t admit if they do, although Victor Stenger did admit that for one possible universe to exist required some special logical privilege that wasn’t warranted. Yet people like him still imagine corralling the multiverses within “physics”, somehow – but why not all cartoons being “real”, then? They can be made of “descriptions” of number and geometry too.

    MUH rightly acknowledges there is no strictly logical way to define “material existence.” If no other distinctions matter, then every “mathematical structure” has to exist with equal standing. This addresses the logical peculiarity of only one or some “possible worlds” being brute facts of existence. Yet, doesn’t that spoil seeking genuine underlying principles in ours? Misbehaving universes will “exist” too.

    The MUH is subject to two basic criticisms. First, its extravagance implies Bayesian expectations that contradict our experience – such as types of unruliness that still permit our existence. (Issues about statistical measure and infinite sets make this topic even more controversial.)

    Second, is our universe fully describable by pure mathematics? I agree with those who contend that physical existence as such, or special features (such as “real flowing time,” consciousness, true quantum randomness; the wave function and its collapse) are indeed not circumscribed within logic and math, but distinctly real anyway.

    So, I think our world is real and not just a possible world we happen to be mere conceptual descriptions within. Then, who “breathes fire into the equations” as Hawking asked, or close? “God” IMHO. And that brings us to religion: it isn’t always about believing in “revelations”, or about impingements upon the world. Some think theological facts have to be true, due to a reasoning process instead, for others it is some “mystical” experience we want to consider valid.

    So we want to say: if we have a good argument or experiential tilt that *does not contradict* what we know, we can believe it even if it contradicts the teachings of Pope Popper. After all, the specific content of yesterday’s conversations is lost (if unrecorded) and “unfalsifiable”, the existence of the universe itself in the past (instead of just current, apparent evidence of such) is not, maybe not you’re being “a brain in a vat” etc.

    That doesn’t tell us what can “happen” in the universe versus what needs “acts” to find fruition. I find no evidence of “acts” in evolution, thinking it more “clever” for the universe to be anthropically designed to some end. Yet it is a game point to look for the latter in the form of possible failures or inadequacies of the world in itself.

  56. Posted November 28, 2013 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

    For decades SETI is going on and hasn’t found any extraterrestrial intelligence out there. If the evolution of intelligence is inevitable there should be an abundance of it in our galaxy. So next time someone makes that argument ask him: Where are all the smart aliens?


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