Archive for the ‘Evolution’ Category

Is Self-Transcendence Unique to Humans?

April 2, 2012

Gil Bailie, in a 3/31/12 post on The Cornerstone Forum’s Facebook page, has this to say:

Upon discovering the unimaginable vastness of the cosmos and the equally inconceivable arc of time that constitutes its history, it is easy to conclude—as many do—that our little speck of cosmic dust and its proud little dominant species are utterly inconsequential. But if we sense, as Christians do, that what’s most precious is love, then how far might we have to look in the cosmic maelstrom to find another creature capable of love? It’s been said that the chances of finding the basic bio-chemical conditions for even rudimentary life are equal to the chances of a cyclone hitting a junk yard and resulting in a fully equipped Boeing 474. What are the chances of finding a creature capable of non-instinctual acts of loving self-sacrifice? It is, I think, precisely such acts which define and distinguish our species. We may be alone in the universe. If so, it can only be because we really aren’t alone.

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has a different view, which he expounds in this TED talk from February 2012 (18 minutes long).

George Dunn responds after viewing Jonathan Haidt’s TED talk:

But I”m not convinced that the sort of “self-transcendence” Haidt discusses is always such a great thing. Girard’s theory helps us to understand that group cohesion is often, maybe even typically, forged at the expense of some enemy or scapegoat. Also, I’m not sure that what he describes is so much “transcending” the ego as it is a vast expansion of it. Finally, I’m always wary when people start talking about the “sacred,” having learned from Girard and others to associate the scared with violence, oppression, and obfuscation. Altruism, as I understand it, doesn’t have to depend on some “sacred” merger of one’s personality identity with the group. To the contrary, wouldn’t genuine altruism be a matter of responding to the alterity of the other person and recognizing her unique identity as a separate person, rather than simply responding to some identity that we both share? In any case, Haidt’s account of self-transcendence doesn’t explain why we—and other animals—are sometimes willing to stick our necks out for others who are not members of our own group or even our own species. Maybe he would explain that sort of altruism as a “bug,” rather than an adaptation. In any case, it seems to me that altruism can’t simply be reduced to the sort of vertical self-transcendence he describes.

If we achieve self-transcendence not only in war and religion, but also in sports and team research, then self-transcendence has got to be value-neutral. And then there’s the issue of the sacred, which Haidt seems to think is here to stay. He may be right, but I tend to agree with Sam Harris, who writes:

Even if Haidt’s reading of the literature on morality were correct, and all this manufactured bewilderment proves to be useful in getting certain people to donate time, money, and blood to their neighbors—so what? Is science now in the business of nurturing useful delusions? Surely we can grow in altruism, and refine our ethical intuitions, and even explore the furthest reaches of human happiness, without lying to ourselves about the nature of the universe.

Are Religious Believers Just Nerds of a Different Stripe?

September 21, 2011

Is there really a difference between religious people and Trekkies? College Humor’s video looks at the similarities and the differences.

Julian Sanchez’s comments, quoted on The Daily Dish under the video, ignore the differences altogether in order to make the new atheists seem irrelevant and off-the-mark.  “…Richard Dawkins is a little like that guy who keeps pointing out all the ways that superhero physics don’t really make sense,” he writes.

Well no, that’s not actually what Richard Dawkins is up to. Anyone who has read his books would know that. He’s addressing people who actually believe that an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent deity created the cosmos only a few thousand years ago. We needn’t think for a moment that the so-called “young-earth creationists” are an insignificant minority of believers. They comprise 40% to 50% of the U.S. population. It may be fun to point out ways in which these believers are like Trekkies, but let’s get serious. Trekkies have never attempted to take over school boards, eliminate evolutionary science from state science textbooks, and have Star Trek episodes shown in science classrooms—as science, no less. This is a major difference, and Julian Sanchez is doing a disservice to scientific literacy when he fails to acknowledge that.

Excerpt from a Theological Thread

September 12, 2011

In the beginning was a post by Andrew Sullivan on The Daily Beast: “The Origin of Sin Not Species,” which begins:

My own view is that there can be no conflict between eternal truth and empirical facts, because God is without error. And so the Genesis story is not disproven by Darwin; Darwin actually helps us understand its deeper spiritual, metaphorical truth.

Sullivan continues on in this bafflegabulous vein, attempting to weave Darwinian evolutionary theory and the Judeo-Christian creation myth into a single glorious tapestry. (He tried this in a conversation with Sam Harris a few years back and—in my opinion—failed.)

And he concludes,

One day, Christianity will see science as the wondrous gift it is, rather than as a threat to a cultural neurosis masquerading as faith.

My friend W sent me a copy of his response to Andrew’s post, and I responded to his response, as follows:

I imagine when Andrew starts going on about the perfection of the Godhead and related matters, many of his readers scroll down to the next post, hoping for one of his wonderful “Mental Health Breaks.” I am pleased that he sees science as a gift and not a threat, but I wish someone would introduce him to some of the science of evolutionary psychology (EP). He might find it far more satisfying, wondrous, and inspiring than these foundational myths, as beautiful as they sometimes are. For one thing, EP possesses what biblical hermeneutics notoriously lacks, i.e., method, rigor, internal coherence, and a relatively high degree of consensus. It can be studied in exquisitely sequenced and integrated college courses without provoking lawsuits and schisms. Instead of beginning sentences with, “My own view is…” (Andrew’s second sentence), professors of EP start with, e.g., “The data show…” or “There is widespread agreement based on available evidence that…” EP is cumulative, collaborative, and objective rather than fissiparous, dispersed, contentious, and subjective. Of course scientists quarrel among themselves, sometimes viciously attack each other and lose all sense of objectivity. But the scientific method sooner or later rinses away the blood and sweat while fresh talent or cooler heads cull through the debris to uncover the scattered gems. And, as in mineralogy, the gems can be conclusively identified as such and will be universally recognized (at least among mineralogists) for what they are. No quibbling about whether something is trash or treasure. The only way any such internal cohesion can be achieved in religion is by authoritarian measures. Fiats. Directives. Catechisms. Encyclicals.

What you (a lapsed Catholic) and Andrew (a disaffected but loyal Catholic) are participating in and exchanging is the kind of “lived religion” that Winnifred Sullivan described in the book that I reviewed yesterday. Religion of the institutional, hierarchical, and authoritarian variety—the kind of religion that just tells you who God is and that’s that—has been slowly evaporating since the Reformation, and nearly all Christians, including Catholics, are now protestant (That’s “protestant” with a small “p”)—i.e., their religion is much more personal, lived, individual, and unorthodox than would have been possible even a hundred or so years ago in this country and elsewhere. We are even beginning to see this disconnect between religious authority and folk religion in Muslim societies, and that’s why it’s so unfair to judge all Muslims by what the 9/11 hijackers did.

Andrew is still basically very faithful, isn’t he? But not so faithful to church hierarchy. He seems to have a strong belief in God based on personal experience, and he doesn’t look to anyone else—least of all a council of elders or a body of doctrinal “experts”—to elucidate the mysteries of faith for him. He seems to thrive on the “do-it-yourself” ethic as applied to the spiritual quest. I would say you and Andrew have these approaches in common—the creative personal quest and the suspicion of authority—but you (W) have gone much farther into the dark night of the soul, perhaps, than Andrew, and, though you still profess to believe in God, you’re no longer sure who He is or even whether He’s good and perfect. Andrew doesn’t doubt these things.

Some of what you say suggests you’ve still got a toe-hold in Andrew’s kind of faith. (“I’m probably in enough trouble already,” you write. With whom? A just and perfect God?) To doubt God’s inerrancy is, in a way, to doubt God altogether, and I wonder if your early upbringing did not permanently imbue you with a horror of apostasy and of backsliding. Elsewhere you write about your “spiritual decay,” as if approaching God without a mediator were a symptom of degeneracy. I think you have things backwards. You’re framing things the way you were taught to in your early religious education. But the way forward is not the way back. The sisters had it all wrong, and you have been spiritually growing during all these years when you thought you were in decline. They were ossified. You are alive.

I loved your quotations, especially the one from George Carlin*, which you sent me some time ago. Yes, another lapsed Catholic. And you are right not to embrace his nihilism (not fully, at least). It’s neither practical nor useful in getting through life unless you’ve got a phenomenal sense of humor to counterbalance it.

*Here’s the George Carlin quote from W’s response to Sullivan:

“….For centuries now, man has done everything he can to destroy, defile, and interfere with nature: clear-cutting forests, strip-mining mountains, poisoning the atmosphere, over-fishing the oceans, polluting the rivers and lakes, destroying wetlands and aquifers… so when nature strikes back, and smacks him on the head and kicks him in the nuts, I enjoy that. I have absolutely no sympathy for human beings whatsoever. None. And no matter what kind of problem humans are facing, whether it’s natural or man-made, I always hope it gets worse.  I think we’re already ‘circling the drain’ as a species, and I’d love to see the circles get a little faster and a little shorter.” 

Richard Dawkins Slices and Dices Rick Perry Over Evolution Remark

August 28, 2011

As anyone who has ever listened to Richard Dawkins is aware, the man does not suffer fools gladly. Fortunately, he doesn’t need to, for he’s a scientist, not a politician. In today’s Washington Post Q&A “On Faith,” Dawkins slices and dices the new fool on the block, Texas governor Rick Perry—and with what exquisite and finely-honed skill. It’s like watching a sushi master chef fillet a salmon with a set of Shun knives. Here’s the full article, and here are some choice excerpts:

There is nothing unusual about Governor Rick Perry. Uneducated fools can be found in every country and every period of history, and they are not unknown in high office. What is unusual about today’s Republican party (I disavow the ridiculous ‘GOP’ nickname, because the party of Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt has lately forfeited all claim to be considered ‘grand’) is this: In any other party and in any other country, an individual may occasionally rise to the top in spite of being an uneducated ignoramus. In today’s Republican Party ‘in spite of’ is not the phrase we need. Ignorance and lack of education are positive qualifications, bordering on obligatory. Intellect, knowledge and linguistic mastery are mistrusted by Republican voters, who, when choosing a president, would apparently prefer someone like themselves over someone actually qualified for the job.


A politician’s attitude to evolution is perhaps not directly important in itself. It can have unfortunate consequences on education and science policy but, compared to Perry’s and the Tea Party’s pronouncements on other topics such as economics, taxation, history and sexual politics, their ignorance of evolutionary science might be overlooked. Except that a politician’s attitude to evolution, however peripheral it might seem, is a surprisingly apposite litmus test of more general inadequacy. This is because unlike, say, string theory where scientific opinion is genuinely divided, there is about the fact of evolution no doubt at all. Evolution is a fact, as securely established as any in science, and he who denies it betrays woeful ignorance and lack of education, which likely extends to other fields as well. Evolution is not some recondite backwater of science, ignorance of which would be pardonable. It is the stunningly simple but elegant explanation of our very existence and the existence of every living creature on the planet. Thanks to Darwin, we now understand why we are here and why we are the way we are. You cannot be ignorant of evolution and be a cultivated and adequate citizen of today.