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James Brody September 2nd, 2006 03:46 PM

Ann Coulter & Wm. Provine: Evolution's Odd Couple
 
Ann Coulter & Wm. Provine: Evolution's Odd Couple

Coulter wrote a best seller, Godless: The Church of Lliberalism. She's also a skinny attorney who hates most liberals and rants as if still married to six of them. She also dislikes Darwinism and the preferential treatment that it gets in some public schools. The distinguished evolutionary scholar, William Provine, agrees that the standard edition of evolution has some moth holes but he probably likes more liberals than does Coulter. In some respects, they complement each other and I have a perverse twitch when I read them back to back...

ANN

Coulter believes in IQ, capital punishment, and extending to unborn children the protections that we give to Illegals and criminals. (Hoorah!) And in treating criminals and illegals like we now treat unwanted fetuses. (Hoorah, again!) She makes her case on contemporary social issues for 198 pages but saves the last 100 for her thoughts about us Darwinians. I enjoyed the first part but felt "unfair" and sometimes embarrassed in the second. I also enjoyed some of her comments about my less-gifted contemporaries: "No one disputes that a monkey looks like a human, especially in the case of Al Franken." WOW!

Her wit and arguments impress me, she knows our flaws:

1) She accepts the notion that time and genes produce incremental changes but the random mutation into desirable traits seems implausible: many of us ordinary folks agree, always have, and don't see a need for much else. On the other hand, the cognitive types in California argue that adaptations are needed because random experiments at birth by neurons should lead only to dolts. Gould's idea was that "constraint" describes boundaries and opportunities for genetic changes and becomes plausible in the frameworks now offered by statistical physics. Design, maybe yes, and one that accelerates its skills with each generation; designer, no.

2) Selection is a tautology. So what. Tautology is an equal opportunity whore who, for some cash and a little respect, will do anything. Evolutionists are neither her first nor last customer.

3) We can't find new species and Darwin's Origins claimed to be about new species. Even the Galapagos started with 17 kinds of finch and 150 years later, Coulter finds that 17 are still there. MacArthur & Wilson, however, found that acreage determines the number of species but I'll go along that the magic 17 may be the same 17. Want more birds? Give me more land! (I understand that cichlids speciate within an African lake but I need to check on that fact.)

As for the lack of transition species in the fossil record, a) mothers eat deviants, and probably before any of them turns to rock, b) mutants need to reproduce with something and most critters, not just Tommy Cruise, are picky breeders, c) some of us argue that behavior changes occur before those of bones, and d) given the mutual resonance between critters and the worlds they make, very little might change until a rock falls. (I understand that heat shock proteins restore protein functions after a toxin or mutagen but, given enough exposure, stabilize the deviant forms into something reproducible. The deviations, however, tend to be throwbacks to earlier forms! (Lots of "maybe" here: Raff, for example, suggests that earlier DNA sequences can be active for 5 million years after their last expression. Want to see an anthropologist's ancestor?)

4) She's unrelenting. She found out about the bogus moth data and that Dawkins' story is untrue: there is no computer simulation that makes an eyeball. I suspect that she is correct that teachers still tell these stories. I also agree that a lot of evolutionists use them as examples because the story is so damned convenient. But so was the tale of Jesus walking on water. And even John Donne viewed the crucifixion as a suicide.

WILLIAM PROVINE

Provine sits in an endowed Chair in biological sciences at Cornell. He wrote a magnificent history of Sewall Wright and tells some of the debates that Wright had with Ron (RA) Fisher. (For those of you in Limbaugh's Riolinda: Wright was one of three - Fisher, Wright, & Haldane - who integrated Mendelian genetics with natural selection. Wright also gave us the foundations for path analysis, used widely in modern behavior genetics, and his model of evolutionary change is still with us and doing well.)

His "Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics" is short, rich, and surprising. Provine gave us a fine history of the debates between Darwin and Thom Huxley and Frank Galton. The former was usually an incrementalist, the latter two saw evolution as sometimes taking giant steps. Provine follows the debate up through Haldane's contributions but it continued for another 60 years. Gould is dead and Ed Wilson seems to be quieter: "All my rowdy friends done settled on down..."

Surprise! Darwin had his own problems with Coulter's intellectual forebears: many of them liked the idea of evolution but couldn't appreciate Selection. Some of them had no sense of deep time, some of them (by an instinct that Coulter shares?) needed a Designer. That is, cathedrals need architects but no one remembered that architects learned from millennia of smaller churches that grew from caves.

Provine's Afterword, however, is the big story. It was written about thirty years after the rest of his book and, except for a phrase on the cover, hides behind the bibliography. Provine lists ten domains where he no longer believes as he once did. For example::

1) Selection accomplishes nothing; it an outcome, not a mechanism.

2) The evolution of ears, proteins, and genes do not necessarily parallel each other.

3) Gene pool, random drift, genetic homeostasis, species, microevolution vs. Macro...all illusory unless approached so carefully as to make them almost useless!

Darwinian theory can be a Cheshire Cat.

BOTTOM LINES

I grew up in the United States of Toby Keith, conceived by a redneck southern mother and a stoic military father. I can't stand most liberals, love evolution, and resonate with much of what Coulter and Provine say. Coulter, however, does collages, Provine lays bricks. Coulter tries to be the older sister from hell, Provine the calm uncle. Both create magnificent works. On the other hand, my mother's genes, in spite of my father's gentle manner, hunt for narcissists with whom to fight. Coulter is a natural whose talent deserves better coaching in evolutionary theory!

1) She wants equal time for Intelligent Design (ID). I don't. I spent three years of my childhood in swampy south Georgia. School opened with bowed head and mumbling lips but my grit serotonin allele,* the one my feuding mother supplied, is still pissed.** And, today, I want neither my cart nor my country to follow only one horse, reared by a fundamentalist nag.

2) The teachers that Coulter rips for messing up math and grammar do no better when they teach evolution. They would also make a mess of ID. ID is no cure for evolutionary mistakes, a more humble appreciation for what we don't know probably is.

3) We evolutionists need a good predator to keep us lean, smart, and awake. Coulter is one such. Meanwhile, she should know that most academics in the social sciences distrust people who believe in human instincts and in IQ. The faculty who don't like her also don't like us; on the other hand, Coulter and we evolutionists could sometimes get along, at least those of us who are not liberals!

4) Statistical physics, especially as translated by Philip Ball, Steven Strogatz, Duncan Watts, and Albert Barabasi, show us structures evolve and explore, structure that guide genes. Still the odd kid on the playground, I search within the boundaries of "maybe" rather than imagining someone who laid kindling and lit a fuse for the Big Bang. Did the BB left us debris that, examined with the right questions, reveals conditions in place before it happened and that, if reinstated, will make another Big Bang? My own descendants, every one of them selection's child, will figure it out...

James Brody

"5HTTLPR S, correlated with neuroticism, lower NEO scores, and greater risk for suicide or aggression, particularly if impulsive. See Lesch, KP (2003) Neuroticism and serotonin: A developmental genetic perspective. In Plomin, R., DeFries, J. Craig, I. & McGuffin, P. (Eds) (2003) Behavioral Genetics in the Postgenomic Era. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Assn. pp. 389-424. 5HTTLPR S is one partner in psychiatry's recognition that environments interact with genes. (Christ had the same short allele that I do?)
**Janisse Ray came from a people whose members often courted jail and early death. Her magnificent book, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, details 1) her rearing in south Georgia and life with her bipolar father and grandfather and 2) the swampland ecology of that region and the stubborn people who settled it.

JimB

References:
Coulter, A. (2006) Godless: the Church of Lilberalism NY: Random House.
MacArthur, Robert & Wilson, E.O. (1967/2001) The Theory of Island Biogeography. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press
Provine W (2001) The Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics. (Revised Ed.) Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press.
Raff, Rudolf (1996) The Shape of Life. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Copyright, 2006, James Brody, all rights reserved.

Fred H. September 4th, 2006 09:22 AM

Re: Ann Coulter & Wm. Provine: Evolution's Odd Couple
 
From JimB’s post:
Quote:

Provine's Afterword, however, is the big story. It was written about thirty years after the rest of his book and, except for a phrase on the cover, hides behind the bibliography. Provine lists ten domains where he no longer believes as he once did. For example::

1) Selection accomplishes nothing; it an outcome, not a mechanism.
Yeah, well put—selection isn’t really even a “mechanism," as I, carelessly perhaps, in some of my posts have occasionally indicated (although I at least always noted its circularity), but it's actually more an “outcome.” Hope Carey and some of others here are listening and learning.

Fred H. September 4th, 2006 03:56 PM

Re: Ann Coulter & Wm. Provine: Evolution's Odd Couple
 
Here’s something Provine said/wrote last year regarding a debate that he apparently had with some ID guy (Stephen C. Meyer, apparently at the National Press Club), from http://www.evolutionnews.org/2005/04/) :
Quote:

Steve Meyer’s criticism of neo-Darwinism was surprisingly narrow, emphasizing natural selection acting upon mutations. I have a far deeper quarrel with the evolutionary biology of the 1960s. I no longer see natural selection as a mechanism, or an active cause of evolution. Natural selection (or adaptation) is a result of many interacting ecological and genetic causes and does not “work upon” individual genes. I reject random genetic drift and see the movement of neutral DNA by hitchhiking with pieces of chromosome with high or low survival rates. I reject gene pools, genetic homeostasis, am critical of the biological species concept and all hopes of generating robust phylogenetic trees older than 700 million years ago because of the wide exchange of DNA and RNA between one-celled organisms. Thus I turn out much more critical of neo-Darwinism than does Steve Meyer. None of my criticisms, however, suggest a ID creator, but a more lively and realistic view of evolution than I learned in graduate school.
So there you have it my atheistic Darwinian friends—a highly credentialed Darwinian acknowledging that he no longer sees natural selection as a mechanism. Now if Provine (and the others) would just gain a bit of appreciation for the absurdly low entropy at the beginning of our universe, 14 billion years ago, then maybe he (and the others) wouldn’t be so damn negative regarding first cause thing. Oh happy day.

ToddStark September 9th, 2006 07:52 AM

Kudos and comments
 
Jim,

This is one of my favorite of your essays, it's very clear and pointed as well as candid.

I have just enough "liberal" in me to find it difficult to get through Ann Coulter's rants in anything but abstract format, so your summary was immensely helpful for me. Calmer, somewhat more diplomatic conservatives like Rick Santorum are much easier going for me, but they tend to have a duller, more equivocal appreciation of the issues that doesn't touch on the real (meaning technical) issues as well I think.

Provine is a sharp guy, I can buy the argument that selection isn't a mechanism in the same sense that Peter Corning argues against selection being a force and against Stu Kauffman's 4th law of thermodynamics. It's hard to see it being a "driver" of specific change in the sweeping sense that Dawkins sometimes seems to imply when he waxes philosophical.

It's just plain annoying though that people who need to see a "designer" hiding among the shifting clouds will take that as an excuse for supernaturalism. The point of natural science to me is admitting that there is a lot we don't know and then exploring it. Pointing out that many of the details are still missing should be a positive thing, not an excuse to burn textbooks. The mentality that slips in between political ideologies here is very frustrating to me.

I don't see natural selection being the last word in biology at all, I see it as the first step in the exploration. It is the reason why it makes sense to look for natural explanations of biological function, not the answer to their details. I doubt that the realities of biology could ever fulfill the need people have for simple explanations, so it's unavoidable that we end up inserting metaphysics at the points where we get frustrated with the limits of the explanations.

kind regards,

Todd

Fred H. September 9th, 2006 06:26 PM

Re: Ann Coulter & Wm. Provine: Evolution's Odd Couple
 
Quote:

Todd: Provine is a sharp guy, I can buy the argument that selection isn't a mechanism….
Wow Todd, I’m impressed. I hope Carey is listening and learning.
Quote:

Todd: It's just plain annoying though that people who need to see a "designer" hiding among the shifting clouds will take that as an excuse for supernaturalism.
Well Todd, what I find rather annoying are the Darwinian atheists who, OTOH, seem to “need to see” a universe that has, using Dawkins’s characterization, “the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but pitiless indifference,” and that such folk use “natural selection”—what Provine now acknowledges is not even a mechanism—as an excuse for their atheism.

Carey N September 9th, 2006 06:53 PM

Re: Ann Coulter & Wm. Provine: Evolution's Odd Couple
 
You memory fails you, Fred; I actually articulated the point that natural selection is an outcome, not a force, quite a while ago.

Quote:

Originally Posted by Carey, more than a year ago
Natural selection is not a force in the way you conceive it but simply a consequence of the fact that some mutations (rare though they may be) happen to increase the reproductive output of the organisms in which they have occurred. The imagery created by terms like "selection pressure" is misleading . . . nobody and nothing is applying any pressure. [Adaptive evolution simply follows] from the connection between differential reproduction and heritable variability.

Remember now? You scoffed at this when I first wrote it.

Todd's note on this was really great, so I'm just going to quote it for you; read it again:
Quote:

Originally Posted by Todd
I don't see natural selection being the last word in biology at all, I see it as the first step in the exploration. It is the reason why it makes sense to look for natural explanations of biological function, not the answer to their details. I doubt that the realities of biology could ever fulfill the need people have for simple explanations, so it's unavoidable that we end up inserting metaphysics at the points where we get frustrated with the limits of the explanations.


Fred H. September 9th, 2006 10:02 PM

Re: Ann Coulter & Wm. Provine: Evolution's Odd Couple
 
Carey, you’re in denial. Here’s what you said at http://www.behavior.net/bolforums/sh...6&postcount=31 :
Quote:

Natural selection is the mechanism by which adaptive evolution occurs; it is not, and was never intended to be, a mechanism by which replicators originated. As soon as those replicators arose, however, natural selection kicked in and contributed to their refinement.
And here's what you said at http://www.behavior.net/bolforums/sh...08&postcount=5 :

Quote:

That the theory of natural selection works is undisputed among people who actually study this subject (and other people who don't study this subject professionally but are willing to honestly address it), both theoretically and empirically.

2b) Think again about gravitation. That gravity exists is indisputable, just like evolution. As to what causes gravitation - we have only theory, albeit very strong and well-supported theory. Guess what? The state of affairs with natural selection is similar: it is a theory regarding what causes adaptive evolution to occur, and it is supported by a massive amount of evidence. I think the NY Times author's comparison is pretty tight.
Etc., etc. But if denial makes you feel better, fine.

Carey N September 9th, 2006 10:35 PM

Re: Ann Coulter & Wm. Provine: Evolution's Odd Couple
 
That's the thing . . . this guy Provine establishes that selection is an outcome (something we already knew and agreed upon) upon which adaptive evolution depends, and then proceeds to say that it is not a mechanism. I don't see why selection cannot be both an outcome (of an association between differential reproduction and heritable information) and a mechanism (of adaptive evolution) at the same time.

Of course, you can't provide an actual argument to the contrary . . . you can only cite others and rely on statements/implications along the lines of "This person proclaims that selection is not a mechanism; therefore selection has nothing to do with evolution, and God must be responsible instead."

Fred H. September 10th, 2006 08:30 AM

Re: Ann Coulter & Wm. Provine: Evolution's Odd Couple
 
Carey, read what Provine said:
Quote:

I no longer see natural selection as a mechanism, or an active cause of evolution. Natural selection (or adaptation) is a result of many interacting ecological and genetic causes and does not “work upon” individual genes.
See that? He’s equating natural selection with “adaptation,” and he’s saying that adaptation (or natural selection) is, duh, the “result of many interacting ecological and genetic causes.” IOW, life (like the universe itself) simply evolves.

And indeed Carey, I’m inclined to agree that life, like the universe, evolves, and that this evolution is the result of many interacting causes. And I’m delighted that a Darwinian with Provine’s credentials has enough sense to acknowledge that “natural selection” is not a meaningful theory, or as he says, a “mechanism” or “active cause,” of evolution . . . unlike, say, the superb theory of gravity is indeed a meaningful “mechanism” or “active cause” of the evolution of cosmological things that we observe in our universe.

And so there you have it Carey—evolution is the result of many interacting causes, but “natural selection” is not truly a meaningful theory or mechanism or active cause of evolution.

James Brody September 10th, 2006 05:33 PM

Coulter & Provine: Evolution as Exploration
 
"I don't see natural selection being the last word in biology at all, I see it as the first step in the exploration."

Todd,

Thanks for your kind remarks: pairing Provine and Coulter was one of those accidental things that kindled an "oh shit!" reaction.

Religion converted fireside terrors to assurance: we heap up like cold rats but with words instead of body mass.

Folks who represent the supernatural get a bit huffy when displaced. They sometimes toast evolutionists but such are the risks of being an outlier in a herding species.

I'm grateful for my freedom to wander as I wish...

Jim

Fred H. September 10th, 2006 05:51 PM

Re: Ann Coulter & Wm. Provine: Evolution's Odd Couple
 
Quote:

[JimB said:] We evolutionists need a good predator to keep us lean, smart, and awake.
I think perhaps you’re being a tad dramatic here, JimB. I’d suggest that self imposed intellectual rigor and honesty (which you yourself certainly seem to possess) might be quite sufficient, perhaps with a bit of humility and an appreciation for physics, cosmology, and the absurdly low entropy at the beginning of our universe, 14 billion years ago.

I mean when someone as credentialed as Provine acknowledges that he longer sees natural selection as a mechanism, or an active cause of evolution, and then you have the Darwinian atheist high priest, Dawkins, proclaiming the following, well, I’d say that Darwinism has a problem:
Quote:

Evolution by natural selection is a process that works up from simple beginnings, and simple beginnings are easy to explain. The engineer or any other living thing is difficult to explain -- but it is explicable by evolution by natural selection. So the relevance of evolutionary biology to atheism is that evolutionary biology gives us the only known mechanism whereby the illusion of design, or apparent design, could ever come into the universe anywhere. [http://dir.salon.com/story/news/feat...ins/index.html , Salon article/interview, April 30, 2005]

Carey N September 10th, 2006 11:44 PM

Re: Ann Coulter & Wm. Provine: Evolution's Odd Couple
 
Quote:

Originally Posted by Fred
with a bit of humility and an appreciation for physics, cosmology, and the absurdly low entropy at the beginning of our universe, 14 billion years ago.

1) Humility? Admittedly, some scientists are arrogant, no matter what discipline you examine, but I've never read a biologist who claims to have a theory of everything.

2) Many biologists have a deep appreciation for physics (perhaps not astrophysics, but that's because astrophysics is not relevant to biological evolution).

3) Face it, early-universe low-entropy has nothing to do with how biological evolution occurs. Disagree? Explain why without citing someone else.

Fred H. September 11th, 2006 08:13 AM

Re: Ann Coulter & Wm. Provine: Evolution's Odd Couple
 
Well, when Dawkins says, “that evolutionary biology gives us the only known mechanism whereby the illusion of design, or apparent design, could ever come into the universe anywhere,” I’d say that’s roughly akin to a, rather arrogant (and somewhat lame), theory of everything, at least as far as the evolution of life is concerned; and it also indicates (as does your question/comment number 3) a rather surprising lack of appreciation/understanding for the necessity of a universe having a beginning low entropy and the required physical constants, and I suppose even the required physics, necessary, based on what we currently know/understand, for life and human consciousness to have ever evolved.

ToddStark September 11th, 2006 10:44 AM

Re: Ann Coulter & Wm. Provine: Evolution's Odd Couple
 
Re: Darwinism vs. alternatives

My goal is to see the best scientific explanations, including natural selection, applied fairly to natural phenomena, and moral reasoning given its proper naturalistic foundation based on the facts of how human beings think and decide.

The arguments over whether Darwinism is immoral or equivalent to atheism quickly seem boring and pointless to me. Any concrete analysis of specific data made into an ethereal abstract and then marketed as a basis for grand answers is going to be very attractive to at least some people and then eventually become problematic as it becomes a "religion," whether it is a naturalistic religion like Marxism or one with a heaven and hell like Christianity.

It seems to me that the metaphysical plausibility argument is essentially whether nature itself is smart enough to produce and promote clever novelties, or whether it needs help from a dedicated research, design, and marketing team. Darwin's insight was the counter-intuitive idea that the R&D and marketing could be part of nature itself. My guess is that he was right. Being essentially correct unfortunately doesn't prevent the idea from being misused.

I don't think that is a mistake, nor do I think that Darwinism in its technical aspects is in any way misconceived. I do think it is almost trivially easy to misapply it as a "force" in areas where it is more important to understand the details than to simply say that the "fittest" survived.

My feeling is that meaning comes from within nature as well: our widespread convention linking meaningfulness and good human judgment to ethereal abstracts outside of nature are probably harmful in the long run because they don't reflect the biological reality of how our brain works. Biologically, our moral reasoning is probably more like growing a limb than learning a new skill. The intuitions and emotional decisions we use to judge right and wrong and determine what is sacred are pretty deeply wired into us during development. Then we associate them with our religious beliefs, but our moral sense runs much deeper than those ideas and their putative authority. Still, I don't see any easy way to abandon this widespread consensus mistake and still accomplish what people assume our religions do for us right now socially and politically.

I do think we Darwinists often get so irritated at the anti-Darwinian movement that we go overboard defending natural selection itself, and make it seem more all-powerful than we should. We sometimes set it up as an alternative to religion, and that's not good. It is just a starting place for naturalistic thinking, a powerful idea that makes it possible to postulate and test natural explanations for evolutionary change as we come up with models for filling in the details for explaining specific kinds of biological features.

Margaret McGhee September 11th, 2006 11:50 AM

Re: Ann Coulter & Wm. Provine: Evolution's Odd Couple
 
As usual your posts are full of interesting ideas. One that jumped out and compells me to comment is this:
Quote:

My feeling is that meaning comes from within nature as well: our widespread convention linking meaningfulness and good human judgment to ethereal abstracts outside of nature are probably harmful in the long run because they don't reflect the biological reality of how our brain works.
More in terms of seeing that from another angle - rather than disagreeing - it seems to me that ethereal abstracts that emanate from the human brain are one of the more interesting products of nature. As to their being harmful, that's another question that can have different answers depending on how you look at it.

It seems that the vast majority of humans throughout recorded history have lived their lives under fealty to one of those ethereal abstracts or another. Almost all wars of conquest (or wars in defense of such conquest) have been fought in the name of - and very often at the claimed behest of - those ethereal abstracts.

It seems likely to me that those ethereal abstracts - more directly our propensity to harbor them in our minds - are just as much a product of evolution that has been selected for its fitness - as is our opposable thumbs. I suspect that explains why those humans who so eagerly attach themselves to those ethereal abstracts and reserve a hallowed place in their minds for them - are vastly more represented on this planet than those who don't - and always have been, apparently.

It also explains for me - according to my emotion theory of behavior choice - why people are so emotionally attached to them. Why we are ready to kill - and die - for them. It's because we are wired that way - and because those who have learned to give the emotions generated by that wiring great weight in their behavior choices - vastly outnumber those of us who aren't.

I know that by saying "within nature" you meant ideas that our present science can somewhat verify according the rules of its parochial system - scientific theories of nature. But, I think it's good to remember that that distinction makes a huge difference when judging whether an idea is "harmful in the long run" or not.

To reduce possible confusion I'll specify that I interpret "ethereal abstracts" in this case to mean unifying beliefs that serve the purpose of uniforms on a soccer team - so that players can know who's on their team and who they can trust to share their survival interests - who's out to help them and who's out to do them in. Although I think these come in the non-ethereal form as well - like communism.

The other part of your statement - the part about good human judgement - deserves a post of its own when I get time.

Margaret

PS - Thanks once again for writing posts that prevent me from applying my brain to my own economic support for so many hours of the day. :cool:

Fred H. September 11th, 2006 11:17 PM

Re: Ann Coulter & Wm. Provine: Evolution's Odd Couple
 
Quote:

MM: I know that by saying "within nature" you meant ideas that our present science can somewhat verify according the rules of its parochial system - scientific theories of nature. But, I think it's good to remember that that distinction makes a huge difference when judging whether an idea is "harmful in the long run" or not.
Yes, I suppose we can understand how it is that MM “feels compelled by her emotions,” to believe that the “rules” of “our present science” are a “parochial system.” But does it ever occur to MM that whatever she herself happens to believe, based on her so-called “emotion theory of behavior choice,” her so-called “axiom,” can never be any less “parochial” than whatever she happens to believe that others “believe,” since she herself, as she explains in her so-called “axiom,” can believe only whatever it is she believes b/c that is what makes MM herself “feel good,” and that she “uses her brains to justify it”??? Hello?

Nope, it never occurs to MM herself; ergo it seems that her so-called “axiom” is somewhat true for MM herself . . . and that she’s unable to grasp the catch-22 implications of her circular notion. Fascinating.

Fred H. September 12th, 2006 09:56 AM

Re: Ann Coulter & Wm. Provine: Evolution's Odd Couple
 
Quote:

Todd: I do think we Darwinists often get so irritated at the anti-Darwinian movement that we go overboard defending natural selection itself, and make it seem more all-powerful than we should.
Yeah, well, no one wants to hear that their baby is ugly. But frankly Todd, when a Provine acknowledges that natural selection is not even a mechanism or an active cause of evolution, then he’s essentially conceding that not only is that baby ugly, but it’s also retarded. Again Todd, I think some rigor, honesty, and a bit of humility would go a long way for y’all, knowmsayin bro?

ToddStark September 12th, 2006 10:37 AM

Re: Ann Coulter & Wm. Provine: Evolution's Odd Couple
 
TS:
Quote:

My feeling is that meaning comes from within nature as well: our widespread convention linking meaningfulness and good human judgment to ethereal abstracts outside of nature are probably harmful in the long run because they don't reflect the biological reality of how our brain works.
MM:
Quote:

More in terms of seeing that from another angle - rather than disagreeing - it seems to me that ethereal abstracts that emanate from the human brain are one of the more interesting products of nature. As to their being harmful, that's another question that can have different answers depending on how you look at it.
I agree with you here Margaret. I think of abstract ideals as part of nature, a part that we have specialized in using, sometimes for good, and sometimes for ill. My negative judgment of "ethereal" abstracts in the long run is that rather than treating them as ideals, they get hooked into our nervous system as concretes, we take them so seriously as to kill and die for them, often overriding our ability to take the current circumstances into account. I can only guess that this may have come about because it is adaptive in some sense, but I lean toward thinking of it as something we should recognize in ourselves and come to grips with, limiting its power.

[Kathleen Taylor's relatively recent book "Brainwashing" from Oxford Press runs this argument much longer and in great detail, showing examples how and where ethereal ideals are leveraged past the point where they serve our best interests.]

MM:
Quote:

I know that by saying "within nature" you meant ideas that our present science can somewhat verify according the rules of its parochial system - scientific theories of nature. But, I think it's good to remember that that distinction makes a huge difference when judging whether an idea is "harmful in the long run" or not.
Perhaps, but it seems to me that "parochial" here is nothing more than a statement of politics. It is almost trivially true that we aren't talking about some sort of closed perfect system for explaining all of nature. At least from my perspective. So one can take the political stance that science (considered as some sort of political group) needs to be taken down a notch in their influence, or the political stance that it needs to be elevated. Myself, I wasn't making either argument. Science and mathematics are as close to a universally objective way of approaching a topic as anything any human being has ever considered, so calling such things "parochial" is to me just to say that our knowledge is not perfect, and probably cannot ever be perfect.

Judgments about what is harmful are partly objective, because human beings are real things and share very much of their biology and ecosystem and basic needs with each other. Regardless of what they may believe, and regardless of the range of their preferences, human beings live under certain real biological constraints for their survival and the quality of their life. I'm not going along with the relativist argument that refuses to acknowledge the objective component of basic human needs and pretends that facts and solid causal models should have no bearing on our moral and ethical decisions. I wouldn't go to the opposite extreme either, and claim that there is some sort of direct deductive path from causal models and facts of nature to ethical decisions.

The only sensible relationship, in my opinion, is that our epistemic values can and do shape our knowledge of facts and then facts should help inform our other values.

I don't see any reason why we can't continue to better understand the foundation of the mind and brain and biological needs and apply that knowledge to better decision making in all areas. What is the point of your own theory, if not to accomplish something like that? Is your whole point in proposing the theory to try to prove that we shouldn't try to understand the brain better because there is a hard line of mystery somewhere?

Quote:

To reduce possible confusion I'll specify that I interpret "ethereal abstracts" in this case to mean unifying beliefs that serve the purpose of uniforms on a soccer team - so that players can know who's on their team and who they can trust to share their survival interests - who's out to help them and who's out to do them in. Although I think these come in the non-ethereal form as well - like communism.
I consider communism's abstract ideals to be just as ethereal (in the sense I originally intended) as those of Christianity or Islam of Judaism. The thing that distinguishes them is their ability to become drivers of decision making and behavior even though they are completely removed from reality and have taken on a life of their own in culture-space and mind-space.

Think about mathematics. A given system worth using might contain a model that accurately represents the thing you are looking at, or you might have a perfectly valid model that is completely independent of the real world you care about. In neither case have you completely understood the world, but you may or may not be doing a good job representing the thing in front of you. To me, science is mostly about trying to do a good job representing the thing in front of me, and then drawing reasonable conclusions from that, but recognizing that I can't capture everything (or if I do, I will surely not be able to prove that I have done a good job at it!). This isn't (just) my butchery of Godel, it is also how I think of the power and limits of the modelling process.


MM:
Quote:

The other part of your statement - the part about good human judgement - deserves a post of its own when I get time.

PS - Thanks once again for writing posts that prevent me from applying my brain to my own economic support for so many hours of the day.
Looking forward to it ... and right back atcha. ;)

Thanks, and kind regards,

Todd

Fred H. September 12th, 2006 06:37 PM

Re: Ann Coulter & Wm. Provine: Evolution's Odd Couple
 
Quote:

[Todd to MM]:I don't see any reason why we can't continue to better understand the foundation of the mind and brain and biological needs and apply that knowledge to better decision making in all areas. What is the point of your own theory, if not to accomplish something like that? Is your whole point in proposing the theory to try to prove that we shouldn't try to understand the brain better because there is a hard line of mystery somewhere?
Yeah Todd, I’d say that you’re probably right that we’ll continue to “better understand” things. But regarding the “point” of MM’s theory—I’d say there really is no point other than the upshot that MM, unwittingly, is acknowledging that she herself can only believe whatever she believes b/c, as she indicates in her so-called “axiom,” one can believe only whatever makes one “feel good,” and that one then “uses [their] brains to justify it.” And since she seems unable to grasp the catch-22 implications of her circular notion, then I’d say her “axiom” is probably more or less true for MM herself. Weird.

Margaret McGhee September 13th, 2006 12:31 AM

Re: Ann Coulter & Wm. Provine: Evolution's Odd Couple
 
Quote:

Todd: Perhaps, but it seems to me that "parochial" here is nothing more than a statement of politics. It is almost trivially true that we aren't talking about some sort of closed perfect system for explaining all of nature. At least from my perspective. So one can take the political stance that science (considered as some sort of political group) needs to be taken down a notch in their influence, or the political stance that it needs to be elevated. Myself, I wasn't making either argument.
Neither was I. I might have misunderstood you. When you said, " . . our widespread convention linking meaningfulness and good human judgment to ethereal abstracts outside of nature are probably harmful in the long run . . ", I thought you meant all of nature - not human nature as in EP. In any case I didn't mean parochial in any demeaning or political sense - just in the sense that science establishes its own highly rational standards for belief (in scientific terms) and enforces them pretty well - which I see as a really good thing - and much better than the other way of establishing beliefs which is pretty much acccording to what feels best at the time. And now my brain hurts from thinking about that. :eyes:

Quote:

Todd: I'm not going along with the relativist argument that refuses to acknowledge the objective component of basic human needs and pretends that facts and solid causal models should have no bearing on our moral and ethical decisions. I wouldn't go to the opposite extreme either, and claim that there is some sort of direct deductive path from causal models and facts of nature to ethical decisions.
Are you saying that Ayn Rand is pretty cool - until you try to apply her philosophy? :cool:

And now to the really interesting part of your post.
Quote:

I don't see any reason why we can't continue to better understand the foundation of the mind and brain and biological needs and apply that knowledge to better decision making in all areas. What is the point of your own theory, if not to accomplish something like that? Is your whole point in proposing the theory to try to prove that we shouldn't try to understand the brain better because there is a hard line of mystery somewhere?
My main reason for proposing my theory is: I don't see any reason why we can't continue to better understand the foundation of the mind and brain and biological needs and apply that knowledge to better decision making in all areas. Absolutely, that's what really excites me - aside from the thrill of looking through a new window.

And the really interesting part of this view is to understand when and how intellect affects our decisions - which I see as much more limited than most see it. I think there's vast progress to be made in that area. But even with that statement I'm buying into the notion that decisions highly weighted with emotions from rational decisions are always better than decisions governed almost entirely by limbic emotions. I don't believe that's the case.

For example, the millions of Americans who volunteered to put their lives on the line and fight in WWII- like my Dad - did not sign up as the result of a rational weighing of risks and advantages. They were pissed off that our nation and way of life was threatened and were willing to die before they saw Tojo and Hitler realize their goals. And many of them did die before it was over. They were motivated by hate, fear, love, patriotism and a few others. Suitably motivated, they then used their brains to outproduce and outfight the bastards and kicked ass - or maybe I should say kicked DNA.

Reason, while highly useful for survival, is cold and passionless. It motivates nothing alone. Only emotion motivates us to do anything. Our intellect must first be called up by emotional need. The result must then be attached to an appropriate emotional tag - which is the marker that gets weighed in our decisions - not the result itself - along with our other emotional inputs. See Damasio.

That's the part of the puzzle that I'm still working on. How much rational restraint should we (can we) willfully inject into our emotional decision process - and when should we do it? Is it good to develop that ability to a high skill and use it continuously - or will that take all sponteneity from our life - or possibly even produce worse decision in some contexts?

What I see now is the critical importance of holding rational beliefs in our minds. I believe that our beliefs are our most significant source for behavior decision emotions. If we populate our minds with rational, moral beliefs - then I expect that the emotions that proceed from those beliefs when we are faced with an important decision - will lead us to rational, moral decisions that will benefit our survival and our society's survival.

I see reasoning ability as secondary. Useful in editing our beliefs when we have that opportunity, like right now - but relatively useless when making important (emotion laden) real-time decisions.

I am certain that few soldiers who have their finger on the trigger and an enemy in their sights are calculating risks and benefits at that moment of terrible decision - at least not the ones who survived to tell us about it.

Best regards, Margaret

Fred H. September 13th, 2006 09:16 AM

Re: Ann Coulter & Wm. Provine: Evolution's Odd Couple
 
Quote:

[MM to Todd]: That's the part of the puzzle that I'm still working on. How much rational restraint should we (can we) willfully inject into our emotional decision process - and when should we do it? Is it good to develop that ability to a high skill and use it continuously - or will that take all spontaneity from our life?

What I see now is the critical importance of holding rational beliefs in our minds. I believe that our beliefs are our most significant source for behavior decision emotions. If we populate our minds with rational, moral beliefs - then I expect that the emotions that proceed from those beliefs when we are faced with an important decision - will lead us to rational, moral decisions that will benefit our survival and our society's survival.
OMG Todd, it seems that you may, in your typical gentle fashion, have helped MM begin to see the reality that sane humans adults are indeed capable of choosing to hold “rational” and “moral” beliefs. That we humans aren’t necessarily preordained to “use our brains to justify” and believe only whatever happens to “feel good.”

I can’t wait until MM finally finishes her work on that “part of the puzzle” she’s still working on and fully realizes what most already know, that we sane adult humans do indeed have at least some freewill, that we have moral responsibility. O happy day.

Think of it Todd—you’ve been an active ecological cause in MM’s evolution! Who the hell needs natural selection when we’ve got the knowledgeable and gentle Todd?

Margaret McGhee September 13th, 2006 11:14 AM

Addendem re: the part about "parochial" science.
 
Thinking about this later - I think that parochial simply means part of a closed system - in this case a closed system of enforced rationality - in which all members of the system have ostensibly pledged to uphold that rational basis and disallow their emotions to guide their conclusions.

I note however, that even within this closed system, an essential component is the encouragement (necessity) of follow-on studies that either support or refute the original hypothesis. And I note the emotional conflicts that sometimes erupt over such studies where it is obvious that at least one side in the debate is using their scientific skills in fierce support of their emotional conclusions. This is especially true when the results either support or question existing belief systems - which as I have noted are probably the most significant source of our behavior decision emotions.

The "scientific method" seems to be a very good example of how humans have attempted to "inject reason into the behavior decision process" - despite the basically "emotional" nature of that process in us. It shows the power of human emotions to sometimes overwhelm that process in its careful design to allow offsetting emotions to cancel each other out - leaving a (hopefully) rational result. It's a tough job - but the payoff for succcess can be tremendous.

Margaret

James Brody September 16th, 2006 04:58 PM

Rationality: A Fence & A Deceiver
 
Aside from a few talented exceptions, "rationality" only stabilizes tradition and impose conformity...the helper to mothers and old men who want things to remain as they were and to assure their own security.

And the "rational" who do not ratify conventional wisdom are shunned, excoriated, or burned.

Faith in rationality also leaves us vulnerable to direct attack by "irrational" people. The hordes defeated the Romans, Muslims are likely to defeat Catholics.

JB

ToddStark September 17th, 2006 02:23 AM

Reasoning vs. its discontents
 
I'm just a consultant, not some great scientist or pundit. I probably have a selective view of the topic since it is a professional specialty of mine to apply systematic methods to locate and solve real world problems in business processes and computer systems. I can tell you truly from hard experience that rational methods, along with expertise and experience, can take at least some people a long way to solving real problems that other people using "emotional" or "irrational" or "intuitive" methods have repeatedly failed at solving. I guess I think those "talented exceptions" are very important.

One of the reasons people hire me is that most people don't understand the basic tools of science and mathematics well enough to use them effectively. They have "theories" (guesses) rather than skills and tools for investigation. Amazingly, in most cases no one has actually tested their theories yet when I come in, only argued for their various theories. By the time I am called in on a problem, they have acted on two or three wrong "theories" and now are in a crisis. They will then pay big bucks to actually solve the problem rather than waste more time and money chasing competing guesses. The first thing I usually do is go back and look at the problem without the benefit of all the theories, and at first they think I'm crazy. But then the data reveals its own hidden story, if I've identified the right place to start looking. I'm just using the basic tools of pattern recognition and reasoning built into us, and extended through mathematics and applied common sense. That's all a "scientific method" involves in practice. Using our built-in tools well. I think that's all we mean by "rationality" in practice, if you strip away all of the ideological baggage.

I don't use "emotion" or "irrationality" to locate the source of an error or determine whether a particular action had a particular effect (that's what got them into the crisis in the first place), I make observations, get impressions from experience, then build an appropriate instrument, gather evidence, and analyze it. And the point is, this is very often domain-general impressions. I am usually not an expert in the situation where the problem is happening, I have domain-general problem solving skills and expertise in a narrow range of things.

If that's not applying a rational method, we must be using the term differently.

kind regards,

Todd

Fred H. September 17th, 2006 01:36 PM

Re: Ann Coulter & Wm. Provine: Evolution's Odd Couple
 
Quote:

JimB: Faith in rationality also leaves us vulnerable to direct attack by "irrational" people. The hordes defeated the Romans, Muslims are likely to defeat Catholics.
I guess the “faith” in “rationality” that, say, atheists often seem to have, may leave them vulnerable to “irrational” people, but I’d say that’s only b/c those having such “faith” aren’t actually as “rational” as they believe they are, often lacking an adequate measure of humility and failing to grasp the reality of things and what we actually know and don’t know (e.g., the faith that some here have in what they believed was utterly rational, “natural selection,” which Provine now acknowledges is not even a mechanism). IOW, their “rationality” is often an illusion.

And while I’d agree that Muslims are likely to defeat atheists (e.g. much of today’s atheistic Europe), I’d not bet against Christians, Jews, etc., at least not the ones that keep reproducing and fighting.

Margaret McGhee September 20th, 2006 02:31 PM

Re: Ann Coulter & Wm. Provine: Evolution's Odd Couple
 
Todd, I think you are confusing rationality with emotions again.

You are probably no more rational than your clients - although you do seem like a very smart person. You are just motivated by different emotions - that are more conducive to solving their problems.

Having a job within an organization provides many strong emotions involved with status, wages, promotion prospects, retirement benefits, stock options, allies and enemies within the organization, etc. That's to say nothing of the basic desire to benefit as much from your job as possible while doing the least amount of work. Creative problem-solving is hard mental work.

But, these powerful emotions are different from the ones that would guide decisions in the best interests of the company. Very few employees ever adopt beliefs about their job that align with the company's best interests. Almost all are more concerned with their own success than the company's success. That goes all the way to the top. Only insofar as the president of a corporation's success is tied to that of the company will he or she be motivated to make decisions in the company's best interest. That's also what makes some problems virtually intractable within any organization.

As a consultant, you are immune from such emotions (at first at least) - and therefore can apply your rationality in a mental environment not overwhelmed by those stronger emotions.

The longer you remain as a consultant for that company however, the more you are likely to ally yourself with certain factions there - the more likely that you will start to adopt some of their same decision-harming beliefs - and their accompanying emotions. As long as your allies do the consultant hiring then you will probably be able to transfer a lot of that company's money into your bank account - before another faction assumes control.

And all the while you will convince yourself that it's your superior rationality and creativity that makes them pay you - when it's actually the endemic emotional barriers preventing the employees who have similar inate skills - to apply them in the company's benefit. ;)

Best regards, Margaret

PS - Reading this back it seems like you could interpret this as me insulting you or your profession. I have worked as a consultant myself and my cynicism comes from that experience. The fact that an "outsider" can come up with solutions better and faster than existing employees speaks to the enormous effect that "employee emotions" have on their effectiveness. Those emotions simply work to stamp out creativity and views that are in the company's best interests.

IMO those stem from the relationship between the employer and the employee. Also, there are very strong emotions of acceptance by fellow workers that work against an employee making an extra effort at creativity - which is often interpreted by other employees as "kissing up to the boss". As long as those emotional relationships exists as they do - outside consultants will always be necessary and highly valuable resources. And consultants will always tend to be those who tried working for larger companies and found that they value their own creativity too much to subjugate it to those same stifling employer / employee emotions.

Perhaps it's just not reasonable psychologically to expect people to apply creative problem-solving skills to other people's problems - when they are basically being paid to spend a set amount of time at work each week. The consultant relationship is an arrangement that allows you to psychologically adopt those problems - on the company's behalf - while insulating you from the emotions that the employees must experience.

Fred H. October 17th, 2006 03:10 PM

Re: Ann Coulter & Wm. Provine: Evolution's Odd Couple
 
Quote:

[Carey’s Sep 9th response to Fred:] That's the thing . . . this guy Provine establishes that selection is an outcome (something we already knew and agreed upon) upon which adaptive evolution depends, and then proceeds to say that it is not a mechanism. I don't see why selection cannot be both an outcome (of an association between differential reproduction and heritable information) and a mechanism (of adaptive evolution) at the same time.
Well, if you’re still out there Carey, I doubt thinking of natural selection as both an outcome and a mechanism is really all that viable.

Consider looking at it this way: As human consciousness/understanding is obviously an outcome of evolution (and/or “emergence”?), so too is natural selection/adaptation; and as human consciousness/understanding is not a mechanism or active cause of evolution (although I suppose one might argue that the conscious “artificial selection” by human breeders is a cause of, say, the evolution of dogs), neither is natural selection/adaptation—rather human consciousness and natural selection are merely the results of many interacting causes. IOW Carey, we still don’t really know much regarding the actual mechanisms/causes of biological evolution. So if you turn out to be a half way decent scientist, and forget the nonsense about “natural selection” being any kind of meaningful explanation regarding evolution, then there’s a whole lot of opportunity for you to discover those still unknown mechanisms . . . hell Carey, maybe you’ll discover God.

Fred H. October 18th, 2006 09:44 AM

Re: Ann Coulter & Wm. Provine: Evolution's Odd Couple
 
Just to finalize this thread, and perhaps rub it in a bit, let me summarize things by saying that William Provine, the distinguished evolutionary scholar who sits in an endowed Chair in biological sciences at Cornell, is one of the few Darwinians out there that has enough intellectual honesty/rigor/balls to acknowledge the obvious, that natural selection is not a mechanism or an active cause of evolution.

Here again is what Provine said/wrote last year regarding a debate that he apparently had with some ID guy (Stephen C. Meyer, apparently at the National Press Club), from http://www.evolutionnews.org/2005/04/) :
Quote:

Steve Meyer’s criticism of neo-Darwinism was surprisingly narrow, emphasizing natural selection acting upon mutations. I have a far deeper quarrel with the evolutionary biology of the 1960s. I no longer see natural selection as a mechanism, or an active cause of evolution. Natural selection (or adaptation) is a result of many interacting ecological and genetic causes and does not “work upon” individual genes. I reject random genetic drift and see the movement of neutral DNA by hitchhiking with pieces of chromosome with high or low survival rates. I reject gene pools, genetic homeostasis, am critical of the biological species concept and all hopes of generating robust phylogenetic trees older than 700 million years ago because of the wide exchange of DNA and RNA between one-celled organisms. Thus I turn out much more critical of neo-Darwinism than does Steve Meyer. None of my criticisms, however, suggest a ID creator, but a more lively and realistic view of evolution than I learned in graduate school.
So there you have it my atheistic Darwinian friends—a highly credentialed Darwinian acknowledging that he no longer sees natural selection as a mechanism. Now if Provine (and the other atheistic Darwinians) would just gain a bit of appreciation for the absurdly low entropy at the beginning of our universe, 14 billion years ago, then maybe he (and the others), in addition to having a “more lively and realistic view of evolution than [they] learned in graduate school,” would also see how current physics/cosmology does "suggest" a "Creator.” Oh happy day.

James Brody October 18th, 2006 03:51 PM

Mechanism or Outcome?
 
Fred, Carey,

I think of you guys often...

1) Reification is a necessity of human thought.

2) Things with 80/20 organizations often appear to "live" because our minds and other living organizations also approximate an 80/20 pattern.

3) Still love Will James and PW Bridgeman: a "thing" consists of whatever it is that we do to measure it.

but, I'm a finger-tips guy!

Thanks both of you for being on board...

JB

Fred H. October 19th, 2006 09:45 AM

Re: Ann Coulter & Wm. Provine: Evolution's Odd Couple
 
I suppose there’s some truth to the 80/20 thing, which suggests that a minority of inputs/effort tend to cause most of the results—some things resonate and/or are important, many things don’t and/or aren’t. Perhaps the art is discerning, as best one can, the reality of things, and using that knowledge to one’s advantage.

Regarding “reification [being] a necessity of human thought,” I suppose that’s a reasonable assumption since it does seem to be a common trait among us humans. But to blame criticisms of the “natural selection” notion on any (inappropriate or otherwise) reification of that circular notion is, I think, unwarranted; and I’d add that Provine’s view, that “natural selection (or adaptation) is a result of many interacting ecological and genetic causes and does not “work upon” individual genes,” is about as much as we currently can say regarding that aspect of evolution, suggesting that there’s a whole lot more to discover.

Not that there’s anything wrong with being a “finger-tips guy,” JimB, so long as one has a reasonable measure of discernment, which I think you generally have (or am I just kissing your ass?). And I’m honored to be here, delighted that I’ve not been banned.

James Brody October 20th, 2006 06:04 PM

Re: Ann Coulter & Wm. Provine: Evolution's Odd Couple
 
"...delighted that I'm not banned."

Probably ain't gonna happen...I think your religion may do it if you're not careful.

JB


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