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Amused Muse

Inspiring dissent and debate and the love of dissonance

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Location: Surreality, Have Fun Will Travel, Past Midnight before a Workday

Master's Degree holder, telecommuting from the hot tub, proud Darwinian Dawkobot, and pirate librarian belly-dancer bohemian secret agent scribe on a mission to rescue bloggers from the wholesome clutches of the pious backstabbing girl fridays of the world.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Dennett as Dramameme, and a Sad Anniversary

UPDATED: New entry in the WTF! category: “Maybe we need to keep evolutionary theory around for the laughs.” (William Dembski, Uncommon Descent, May 3, 2006). I guess that’s what passes for humor at the Disillusioned Institute these days, or else he’s wisely backing off his own countdown just one month later (See “What Dembski Said” at left).
I did manage to complete some sentences with a few people at “Drinking Liberally” last night. Packed is right—I went to Arise! at noon to buy the book and that was a good idea. And then the musician came onstage to drive away the rest of the 331 lingerers just after I managed to sit down at the bar to actually eat after a few beers.

Thus trapped, I pulled out my trusty purse-sized book* (not Zuniga’s), and made a discovery: I totally recommend reading Daniel Dennett after having tied a couple on. (“There couldn’t be ‘real’ minds and ‘real’ selfishness without billions of years of hemi-semi-demi-pseudo-proto-quasi minds and mere ‘as if’ selfishness to drive the research and development process that has eventually yielded our minds.”) I could barely put the thing down to walk the three blocks to my house! It prevents hangovers, too. Yes, I had retained it all when I woke up this morning.

Why didn’t anyone tell me earlier to reject this false dichotomy of studying and drinking? From now on I intend to get hammered any time that I come across a difficult passage, and I think that sets a grand precedent for that private Catholic college which I’m about to enter this fall for grad school. Yes, indeedy! (The nuns are, I hear, very liberal. I just want to be a librarian, people, and it’s the only place I can go, so that's why, that's why.)

*Richard Dawkins: How a Scientist Changed the Way We Think

I highly recommend this book. But you know, all it’s missing is some acknowledgement by Gould (oh, Jesus, I'm becoming maudlin because it's nearing the anniversary of Stephen's death) of the contribution that Dawkins’ and Dennett's so-called “Darwinian fundamentalism” has truly made. I loved Gould, and feel grateful to him, and I miss him terribly as if he had been a friend (I never met him, either), but it was because of Gould that I put off reading Dawkins for so long. That’s unfortunate, for I find Dawkins to be so clear and so scrupulous in his prose that he has been added to my list of heroes—the list of people I have never met but who have become father figures for someone like me, who doesn’t have many real-life models.

Dennett is fast becoming a hero to me, too. Being a general reader doofus, I plan to just pile on the heroes without resolving in my mind their conflicts with each other. I cannot understand, after having read The Selfish Gene, what precisely bothered Gould so much, but I cannot respond with a rejection of Gould either, just with the sincere regret that he never acknowledged his mischaracterization of Dawkins. Nor do I resent Gould for misleading me in that area—it’s the fights with the creationist hucksters that are important. Life is short. I miss you, Stephen J. Gould.


Blogger Russ said...

I caught this post after a couple beers and a couple chapters of Dennett's Consciousness Explained. Nice coincidence.

Which Dennett are you reading? I'm currently mid-gorge on his writing. Having read Breaking the Spell, being greatly immpressed with his scholarship and liking his clear, lively style and his great intelligence, I picked up Consciousness Explained, Freedom Evolves and Darwin's Dangerous Idea. I decided to partake of Consciousness Explained first since the intrigue-laden title beckoned to my "Agatha Christie and two beers" frame of mind. I've not been disppointed. So, far he has defined mystery, played a nice party game and compared and contrasted purple and yellow cows. You just can't get that on two beers and a yard swing alone.

May 04, 2006 10:53 AM  
Blogger Kristine said...

I’ve just started “Freedom Evolves,” but that roller-coaster passage I referred to is from the book that I mentioned (“Richard Dawkins: How a Scientist Changed the Way We Think”). Great book so far. Dennett has a chapter, Michael Shermer has one, and even Dawkins’ first wife, zoologist Marian Stamp Dawkins, weighs in with a moving tribute. (How could she let the guy get away?) ;-) There are some criticisms of Dawkins, too, that are intriguing. This was the first sampling of Daniel Dennett for me—haven’t finished anything else by him yet.

Last night I started reading “The Panda’s Thumb” again (with red wine), and while I will always credit Gould for helping this small-town girl navigate between the creationist icebergs as I grew up, I am more confused than ever by his statements about The Selfish Gene. I don’t think that Dawkins ever denied that natural selection works on individuals. I don’t think that Dawkins ever insisted that single genes work in isolation (Dawkins usese the word “gene” for “allele” anyway), that genes don’t collaborate, or that there is a “gene for this” and a gene for that, etc.

Sorry to go gushing on about Stephen, when you want to discuss Daniel; Dennett is new to me, whereas Gould was a big, big influence. I have ambitions of reading Consciousness Explained very soon, but first I want to get through Dawkins’ work, being that I was quite misled about it by Gould.

May 04, 2006 11:46 AM  
Blogger Russ said...

I'd like to toss in a humble Dawkins tribute of my own. Think of it titled “Richard Dawkins: How a Scientist Changed the Way Russ Thinks.” How sappy, huh!

Long ago, and, oh, so far away - my personal ancient life, not the Carpenters song - I was mired in a post-collegiate disdain for learning. The great love of personal scholarship with which I entered college back in the 70's, had been gradually leached, vacuumed, and drained away. Master's thesis footnoting, i-dotting, t-crossing and hoop-jumping; too many classroom requirements too far out of sync with what I envisioned as a future me; a master's advisor basking lazily - very lazily - in the afterglow of recent tenure approval; and several other factors seemed to align against me, the seeker after truth.

My first hike with Dawkins was "Climbing Mount Improbable," and it reawakened that deep love I had for a personal attempt to understand the comsos, especially from the science perspective. I thought it was dead, Sir Richard showed me it had only been hibernating and only needed the light of a new spring to rouse it.

The depth of my appreciation really needs to be in a longer essay form, but for now I have to settle for a simple hardy thanks to Professor Dawkins.

May 04, 2006 1:35 PM  
Blogger Kristine said...

I wonder what the nuns at St. Cate's will make of Dawkins.

May 04, 2006 5:59 PM  
Blogger Russ said...

Please "go gushing on about Stephen." I've only read Gould selected essays in anthologies, excerpts in the media, that sort of thing. I'd appreciate a Gould perspective from an admirer. I have several of his books on my must read soon list: Wonderful Life, Panda's Thumb, I Have Landed. Cast aside all inhibitions. Let the inspiration of Gould flow unimpeded. Go ahead, spill.

In exchange, I offer up my insight to what I see as the Gould-Dawkins conflict of geniuses - I've read enough Gould to have gained some sense of their differences.

So, "go gushing on about Stephen."

May 04, 2006 8:59 PM  
Blogger Kristine said...

Actually, I have mixed feelings about Gould now. So many people have charged him with misleading the general public about evolution, and the general public is in the category that I belong. What I considered to be his greatest work, "The Mismeasure of Man," has come under attack for being downright inaccurate. And when he says, "Not only do we need a one-to-one mapping between between gene and body [for the Selfish Gene thesis to work], we need one-to-one adaptive mapping," I feel that I'm in over my head.

Dawkins' book made sense at the time that I read it, and yet when Gould insists that natural selection cannot "see genes and pick among them directly," I see what he's saying. What do I know? I'm essentially a glorified secretary--I read this stuff for fun. Because I have a strange idea of fun.

May 04, 2006 9:42 PM  
Blogger Kristine said...

Tell you what: when you get to it, in Panda's Thumb, read "Caring Groups and Selfish Genes" and tell me what you think.

Here's Gould: "Mutation is the ultimate source of variation, and genes are the unit of variation. Individual organisms are the units of selection. But individuals do not evolve...species are the unit of evolution." It's been a while, and I don't do this for a living, but I now sense, after believing him when I read this a gazillion years ago, that he's wrong. However, I cannot argue against it--is he wrong?

May 04, 2006 10:31 PM  
Blogger Russ said...

Perhaps, too willingly, I afford the benefit of the doubt, but, from my perspective, I don't think that Stephen J. Gould would have ever intentionally mislead anyone. His point of view was primarily that of paleontologist, and, as such, I find myself being somewhat forgiving when he argues using cell biology, genetics, or biochemistry, and, just as anyone else might do when out of their element, expose his own weaknesses. Mind you he was no slouch in these areas, but I think he was not sufficiently well-schooled in those arenas to have developed a real intuitive sense of them. Not having read "The Mismeasure of Man," I can't comment on specifics from it, but I know that Mr. Gould was very human and that occasionally human fallibility could be seen peeking out from his cloak of greatness. Sometimes he made mistakes, and perhaps, some of his readers were mislead, but, for every unintentionaly misleading, he lead thousands more to a deeper understanding and appreciation of our all-natural evolutionary past. Professor Gould was a great teacher with forgivable, somewhat endearing flaws.

From the Gould I've read, I think he lacked an appreciation for some of the differences in metaphors applied to evolution both in academia and in public understanding. For example, nuclear DNA is often called a blueprint for an organism, but this is actually a rotten metaphor for how an organism arises from a fertilized egg. DNA mediated development doesn't have a list of building components and drawings of how to piece them together. Better is the DNA-as-recipe metaphor in that it more closely parallels real development of a real embryo. Gould somewhat too often, perhaps, used the lesser of competing explanatory constructions when the distinction was important. Operator error applied to language, but not willful malicious intent.

Dawkins and Gould stand heads above most of the rest in terms of providing non-trivial access to real science for the non-professional. A good conception of evolution has been with mankind for only about 150 years, so, it's quite new in the scheme of things. These two bold, courageous evolution exemplars, have honed their new ideas, and, then, like any good scientist, thrust them into the gales of peer review and public critique. Almost all the time, they are dead on accurate, showing us the power of their esteemed intellects. But, once in a great while, they slip up just like everybody else. Keep adding on those heroes, like Gould and Dawkins. They may error from time to time, but, with heroes like these, a single step back will be preceded by a hundred or a thousand steps forward.

Kristine, the fact that you read this stuff for fun says you are willing to put in some effort to glean a better understanding of your world. I wish the world was filled with precisely that kind of people.

May 05, 2006 12:10 AM  
Blogger Kristine said...

[Laughter] I just finished his chapter “Our Greatest Evolutionary Step,” in Panda’s Thumb and it ends thus: “It is now two in the morning and I’m finished. I think I’ll walk over to the refrigerator and get a beer.” He is (was) one of us!

Of course I don’t think that Gould would ever deliberately mislead anyone, but he did seem to be projecting his own concerns onto Dawkins, accusing Dawkins of being a genetic determinist, etc., and I think it’s possible that Gould was really fighting his own battles within himself. Earlier in the anthology he comes very close to drawing a parallel between Dawkins and Alfred Russell Wallace, whom Gould asserts championed natural selection to the point of it replacing the Creator in a new religion. Gould goes on to contrast Wallace’s new form of “creationism” with Darwin’s “middle way,” thus setting up his later argument that Dawkins is a natural selection fundamentalist like Wallace, whereas (and this is never explicitly stated) he, Gould, emulates the caution and scrupulousness of Darwin.

I have no doubt that Gould truly believed this, but I do find, again, Dawkins to be so careful and thoughtful that I think it is Gould who was not exerting the requisite caution.

After reading Gould again, I need to re-read Selfish Gene because I’ve lost the understanding that seemed so clear from Dawkins. For me, understanding science is a little like what others describe as a mystical experience, in that I can see something very clearly one minute, and then, after some time has gone by, I lose the vision. (I don’t mean to imply at all that I’m employing mystical means to understand science, just that I can have a metaphorical or poetical view that does not last.)

You know, as a young girl, I had dozens of imaginary playmates. Sometimes I think that these writers and scientists who occupy my mind as personalities (apart from the ideas that they put out there) have become, well, something quite similar! That’s what happens when you look to renowned people for father figures, I guess. I miss Carl Sagan, too. I used his words and concepts to try to explain evolution to my own father, who literally believed in a 6-day creation.

May 05, 2006 1:01 PM  
Blogger Russ said...

Browsing a used book store (Curious Books) this morning, I found a couple of Gould books, including Panda's Thumb and soon I'll set aside time to read it. I'll get back to you about "selfish genes" when I do.

You said in one post "For me, understanding science is a little like what others describe as a mystical experience, in that I can see something very clearly one minute, and then, after some time has gone by, I lose the vision. (I don’t mean to imply at all that I’m employing mystical means to understand science, just that I can have a metaphorical or poetical view that does not last.)"

I've addressed many groups on mysticism and spirituality as completely natural phenomena. If you are a religious person, what I'm going to say may seem a bit harsh, but religions understand only about 98 percent of spirituality. But that other 2 percent is like the genomic differences between humans and chimps: it's a very big 2 percent. It's the two percent giving us spoken language, art, literature, and engineering, mathematics, Darwins, Sagans, Goulds, Dawkinses – indeed, all things distinctly human. When religions insist that the source of human spirituality is outside the person, they excise that distinctly human 2 percent of spirituality, and send congregants on a wild goose chase. It leaves most of them lost.

Our spirituality is the appreciation of the relationships that we, as humans, develop with the ideas from our cultures -- love, friendship, patriotism, the flag, honor, religion, nature, birth, death, cars, land, pets, painting, writing, etc. The ideas may have some meaning in and of themselves, but the spiritual component results from our awareness of the relationships. For example, simple math tells us that for every generation we step back into the past, we have twice as many direct ancestors, each of whom must have successfully reproduced -- two parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great grandparents, etc. So, ten generations back, say at the time of the American Revolution, I had 2 to the 10th power, or 1024, direct ancestors. Pretty cool. Twenty generations back, say about the time of the invention of the printing press, I had 2 to the 20th power or more than a million ancestors. A simple idea, but a profound one. It leaves me quite awed. Had even one failed to have children, I wouldn’t be here. The idea is accessible to anyone with basic mathematics skills, but the idea itself is not moving if we are not aware of it. Becoming aware of the idea and its relationship to our lives evokes the mental responses we can call spirituality. This is nothing supernatural; it’s simply the wonderful human mind telling us “there is something extra-special here.“ Similarly, when I press my nose up to Darwin’s window overlooking the history of life I am often moved to tears -- again, deeply spiritual, but nothing supernatural.

Of course, emotional appreciation may not constitute knowledge or understanding, but it is often enough to motivate and inspire greatness. I’m convinced that Darwin was sufficiently motivated and inspired by his own acquired awareness of the relationships amongst various living organisms that he chose to seek out the deeper significance of their similarities and differences. Further, I’m convinced that we all need to enhance our sense of all-natural awe, wonder, and, yes, spirituality, by consciously seeking out the awareness of what ideas connect us to the natural world and each other.

May 20, 2006 10:33 PM  
Blogger Kristine said...

Thank you. I am decidedly not a religious person. ;-)

May 22, 2006 12:49 PM  

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