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This is the archive for November 2006

Thursday, November 23, 2006

I'm a big fan of Robert Sapolsky's writing. This month in American Scientist Online he co-authors an article with G. A. Bradshaw on the study of animal mentality. Here are a few choice quotations capturing some of the article's main points.
Charles Darwin placed human beings on the continuum of animal species nearly 150 years ago. Somehow that insight was lost. Nurture is being reconciled with nature, and boundaries that once separated academic disciplines are dissolving, all of which bring models of animal and human behavior to unity. Separation has given over to integration, and what seemed like a haphazard collection of observational anomalies is now taking form as a coherent, human-inclusive, trans-species theory of mind and body.
And...
Evolutionary theory suggests that species with a recent common ancestor are more likely to have traits in common than are distantly related species. Of course, common ancestry does not ensure identity, but as a reflexive stance, neither anthropomorphism nor anthropodenial makes sense. If morphological, physiological and genetic traits merit bidirectional inference, then there is scant reason to exclude mental states.
And again...
...the paradox of using animal models for research?that they are both categorically different from us and alike enough to study?begs resolution. The same similarities that justify the use of animals in biomedical research (an implicit anthropomorphism) clash with the dissimilarities that justify the ethics of vivisection (an implicit anthropodenial).
And finally...
Old prejudices are hard to relinquish, and humans have held themselves apart from other species for centuries, if not millennia. Oxford evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins refers to this posture as "the tyranny of the discontinuous mind." The same impetus gave rise to the medieval concept of the "great chain of being," in which humans sat above the animals but below the angels. Parasitologist Sean Nee at the University of Edinburgh attributes this self-segregation to a deep-seated fear of sameness. Regardless of its origin, bidirectional inference threatens the belief in human superiority and the self-image of those who adhere to it.

American Scientist Online - Mirror, Mirror

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

An excellent post at Gene Expression pointed me to the Inglehart-Welzel Cultural Map of the World, which "visualizes the strong correlation of values in different cultures."
The World Values Surveys were designed to provide a comprehensive measurement of all major areas of human concern, from religion to politics to economic and social life and two dimensions dominate the picture: (1) Traditional/ Secular-rational and (2) Survival/Self-expression values. These two dimensions explain more than 70 percent of the cross-national variance in a factor analysis of ten indicators-and each of these dimensions is strongly correlated with scores of other important orientations.
I see myself most comfortably living in Sweeden, where between 64% and 85% are atheists who hang out in country with extraordinary furniture. Ironically, I would expect to see George W. Bush most at home in Pakistan or Indonesia. But perhaps evangelical Texas is off the map.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

...in a world dangerously charged with ideology, science needs to take on an evangelical role, vying with religion as teller of the greatest story ever told.
This statement seems to capture the message at a forum at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif. (Video clips of the forum can be found here.) I fear the religious references ('evangelical,' 'greatest story ever told') are clever but only serve to put the two alternatives on a level playing field. But they are not to be found currently on a level playing field; and we should not consider them to be equivalently supported options. One view supports critical inquiry along with continuous assessment and revision as it systematically confronts the world in all its complexity and detail, and the other does not, perferring a faith that halts inquiry and rejects reason. The latter is the dangerous ideology.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

In the New Yorker Anthony Gottlieb reviews two new biographies of Descartes--Desmond Clark's Descartes: A Biography, which argues that Descartes philosophy is best understood in the context of his scientific work, and A. C. Grayling's Descartes: The Life and Times of a Genius, where it is suggested that Descarts spent a good deal of his life as a spy. I'm rather sympathetic to the first suggestion and a bit skeptical about the latter; but I haven't read either work yet.
It isn?t easy to see Descartes?s work the way he saw it?the relationship between science and philosophy has changed too much for that. Despite his current reputation, the man himself seems to have been less interested in metaphysics than in applying algebra to geometry and delving into the innards of cows. He turned to philosophy relatively late in life, and out of fear that the Catholic Church would condemn his science. He would have been surprised at how he is remembered.
Read more at The New Yorker: THINK AGAIN
Jonathan Weiner reviews Frans de Waal's new book Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Arthur C. Brooks, director of nonprofit studies for Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affair, points out in a new book that conservatives are more generous than liberals.
In a recent Chronicle essay David Barash asks whether teaching sociobiology (or what he thinks is its equivalent, evolutionary psychology) is tantamount to "corrupting the youth." As in the famous case of Socrates, Barash argues that the charge is unwarranted.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

A very nice history of animal spirits and the discovery of electrochemical impulses in the nervous system can be found over at The Neurophilosopher.
So the Educators for Reproductive Rights, collaborating with Students for Choice, sponsor Pro-Choice Day and a panel discussion on Pro-Choice religious views ... and the Enquirer titles their article "Abortion foes stay polite." The article is nearly all about potential confrontation and the well-mannered anti-choice crowd who served cookies outside. What about the polite people inside who coordinated a panel discussion to cultivate informed discussion about controversial issues? What about the panel members and their points of view?

Saturday, November 11, 2006

A. C. Grayling responds to a recent joint statement by the Archbishops of Canterbury and Westminster that "atheism is itself a faith position." (Recall the James Randi response: "atheism is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby.") They are committing, says Grayling, the informal fallacy of to quoque.
We understand that the faithful live in an inspissated gloaming of incense and obfuscation, through the swirls of which it is hard to see anything clearly, so a simple lesson in semantics might help to clear the air for them on the meanings of "secular", "humanist"; and "atheist". Once they have succeeded in understanding these terms they will grasp that none of them imply "faith" in anything, and that it is not possible to be a "fundamentalist" with respect to any of them.
His argument is, roughly, that not subscribing to a belief in god is not itself a view that requires faith because it is a position dependent upon reason and evidence. "I don't believe P because there is insufficient evidence for P" is not at all like "I believe that P even though there is insufficient reason that P."
People who do not believe in supernatural entities do not have a "faith" in "the non-existence of X" (where X is "fairies" or "goblins" or "gods"); what they have is a reliance on reason and observation, and a concomitant preparedness to accept the judgment of both on the principles and theories that premise their actions.
By calling those who don't share their belief in a god "atheists" who commit to different articles of "faith," theists attempt to keep the discussion in their own terms.

I would add only that often--and we see this frequently from creationists who attack evolutionary theory--a lack of certainty is associated with faith. So, when scientists admit that their evidence, though sufficient to support belief, falls short of supporting complete certainty, many of the religious believers will describe the scientitsts' situtation of as a matter of faith. But faith is a matter of believing without or despite empirical evidence--evidence doesn't matter. Thus Grayling's point that rejecting a position for lack of evidence is not the same as accepting something for which there is no evidence.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The local paper places me on the vanguard. I'd rather be in the vanguard and on the cutting edge, but I'm pleased to see the article turn out so well.
HIGHLAND HEIGHTS - Universities across the country tout themselves as leaders in technology. At Northern Kentucky University, philosophy professor Rudy Garns is on the vanguard. Garns has allowed three of his classes to submit the three required papers in the form of a podcast. A podcast is an oral presentation that is recorded digitally. It is posted on a Web site where people can download the files and listen to them from their computers or transfer them to their digital media players - such as an iPod - for listening later. "These are mostly honors students, so it is not surprising they are creative and adventurous," Garns said.
Of course, we're not really podcasting until we can produce a regular series of episodes and syndicate the feeds. Stay tuned....

The Enquirer - At NKU, students turn in podcasts

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

So Neadertals and humans mixed it up a little, it seems.
Erik Trinkaus, Ph.D., Washington University Mary Tileston Hemenway Professor in Arts & Sciences, and colleagues radiocarbon-dated and analyzed the shapes of human bones from Romania's Pe?tera Muierii (Cave of the Old Woman). The fossils, discovered in 1952, add to the small number of early modern human remains from Europe known to be more than 28,000 years old.

Results were published in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

The team found that the fossils were 30,000 years old and principally have the diagnostic skeletal features of modern humans. They also found that the remains had other features known, among potential ancestors, primarily among the preceding Neandertals, providing more evidence there was mixing of humans and Neandertals as modern humans dispersed across Europe about 35,000 years ago. Their analysis of one skeleton's shoulder blade also shows that these humans did not have the full set of anatomical adaptations for throwing projectiles, like spears, during hunting.
I'm not sure how to read this. They couldn't throw at all? or well? or far? Over at Babel's Dawn the suggestion is that maybe they wouldn't have made a good baseball team. What would William Calvin have to say abou this? The demands of hunting and throwing are central to his theory of the evolution of human intelligence and the increase of brain size.

More human-Neandertal mixing evidence uncovered

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Richard Sloan measures the difference between science and religion in the Chronicle.
The view that all human experience can be reduced to the function of biological activity may be satisfying to scientists, but it is anathema to theologians. The researchers Marguerite Lederberg and George Fitchett recognize this problem in an interesting article with the provocative title "Can You Measure a Sunbeam With a Ruler?" In it, they explore the scientific problems with attempts to reduce the experience of religion to the measurable quantities of science. The point of their title is to reiterate a longstanding concern in science: the difficulty of quantifying human experience. By attempting to measure a sunbeam and in so doing reduce it to that which can be quantified by a ruler, we lose the character of the sunbeam itself. While such measurement may be possible, it cannot capture the essence of the sunbeam and in fact may distort it."
Water is H2O, but that fact doesn't dilute or reject the enjoyment I experience when I drink some. But what about the experience of enjoyment ittself? If it turns out that the experience of enjoyment can be reduced to (or identified with) particular patterns of synaptic firing, would it follow that enjoyment loses all its punch? Of course not. The feelings aren't lost by giving a materialist account of them. The worry by Sloan and others is really that this materialistic account will exclude the immaterialistic (supernatural) elements in their worldview. You don't lose the character of the sunbeam; you lose the miraculous or magical account of the source of that character. Sunbeams remain golden, warm, and lovely. Similarly for religious experience. I agree with Sloan that counting the number of people who attend church wouldn't help us much to understand the nature and source of religious experience. But even if we could give a meaningful materialistic (scientific) account of the experiences, that would not change the character of the experience. It would, perhaps, undermine Sloan's assumptions about the source or purpose of those experiences. If those assumptions are wrong, it would be good to know that. I'm much more concerned with those who try to reduce matters of science to religious assumptions and articles of faith.

The Chronicle: 11/3/2006: The Critical Distinction Between Science and Religion

Saturday, November 04, 2006

This is certainly a pick-me-up for election eve.
YouTube - Freedom

Friday, November 03, 2006

From the NYT. This about sums it up.
As President Bush throws himself into the final days of a particularly nasty campaign season, he's settled into a familiar pattern of ugly behavior. Since he can't defend the real world created by his policies and his decisions, Mr. Bush is inventing a fantasy world in which to campaign on phony issues against fake enemies.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

New survey by Harris Poll.
...a new Harris Poll finds that 42 percent of all U.S. adults say they are not "absolutely certain" there is a God, including 15 percent who are "somewhat certain," 11 percent who think there is probably no God and 16 percent who are not sure.
It's not clear what people are claiming when they say they are not absolutely certain but are somewhat certain. What would it take to convince them they are wrong? I suspect many who claim to belong to a particular religion do so because they are identifying with a cultural group and not with a set of specific theistic beliefs.
Not everyone who describes themselves as Christian or Jewish believes in God. Indeed, only 76 percent of Protestants, 64 percent of Catholics, and 30 percent of Jews say they are "absolutely certain" there is a God. However, most Christians who describe themselves as "Born Again" (93%) are absolutely certain there is a God.
I'm not surprised that belief in God is not necessarily an essential part of Americans' religious commitment. A strong affiliation with a cultural or religious group will still inform (or sometimes misinform) one's sense of moral and social value.

BREITBART.COM - While Most U.S. Adults Believe in God, Only 58 Percent are 'Absolutely Certain'
This from John Kerry.
You know, education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don't, you get stuck in Iraq.
While the comment has received a lot of criticism (as though it were an insult to our troops to note that the military harvests undereducated and disenfranchised Americans for combat), it seems to me the criticism is deflated once we realize that even if you do study, you will likely get stuck in Iraq. --That's what we should be pissed about!

As Vote Nears, Stances on War Set Off Sparks - New York Times
In the recent New York Review of Books, Gary Wills writes a nice overview fof the mess that results from the infusion of religion into our political life.
The right wing in America likes to think that the United States government was, at its inception, highly religious, specifically highly Christian, and even more specifically highly biblical. That was not true of that government or any later government--until 2000, when the fiction of the past became the reality of the present. George W. Bush was not only born-again, like Jimmy Carter. His religious conversion came late, and took place in the political setting of Billy Graham's ministry to the powerful. He was converted during a stroll with Graham on his father's Kennebunkport compound. It is true that Dwight Eisenhower was guided to baptism by Graham. But Eisenhower was a famous and formed man, the principal military figure of World War II, the leader of NATO, the president of Columbia University--his change in religious orientation was just an addition to many prior achievements. Bush's conversion at a comparatively young stage in his life was a wrenching away from mainly wasted years. He joined a Bible study culture in Texas that was unlike anything Eisenhower bought into.
The article goes on to highlight some of the many faith-based initiatives supported by the Bush administration--all of which, because they are mired in ignorance, have failed miserably. I can appreciate an individual's need for faith, but let's adopt faith-based solutions only when reason- and science-based solutions are unavailable. Public values should be defined by public dialogue and debate, thorugh negotiation and compromise; not dictated by unapproachable authorities.