Choose Your Own Fairy Tale

Richard Dawkins really annoys the crap out of me sometimes. I was just listening to a rebroadcast of his interview on NPR’s Fresh Air about his book The God Delusion, and I found myself as irritated with him as I’ve ever been with the most caricatured Bible-thumper.

Let me say first that I’m an agnostic, and perfectly comfortable with philosophical arguments against various spiritual and religious beliefs. He’s not prodding me in any sensitive spots.

A good example of why he irritates me was his reply to Terri Gross’ question about why religion seems to be such a universal part of human societies over time and space. He concedes that yes, this is so “anthropologically”, though he adds the caveat that individual humans are pretty diverse in their views. So far so good.

So why is it this true “anthropologically”, he wonders? Well, he suggests, part of it is that people wish to believe in comforting and simplistic untruths to make themselves feel better, casting back to an earlier part of the interview in which he recounted anecdotes of religious people saying that they couldn’t bear to live if they didn’t believe in God or the afterlife.

Problem #1, purely on evidence, truth, rationality–things Dawkins claims are his stock in trade. The problem is that a goodly number of religions or spiritualities that I can think of across time and space don’t provide comfort to the believers, nor do they significantly simplify questions of cosmology and sociology. In some cases, spiritual beliefs make the temporal and spiritual world seem vastly more menacing, depressing, or dangerous, and promise no escape in an afterlife from these conditions. Many of them complicate and vasten the world as we perceive it.

Dawkins isn’t the only sociobiological thinker who really aggravates on this kind of point, but he’s among the worst offenders when it comes to tossing off “anthropological” universals without apparently having read any anthropology that doesn’t come from the favored few sources that tautologically comfort evolutionary psychology and sociobiology. If you’re going to talk the big picture, man, then educate yourself a bit about it. Don’t use Ocaam’s Razor like a blunt instrument to simplify and reduce human time and space to a kind of crayola scrawl. It may be that there is a particular kind of Christian for whom religious belief is an existential comfort, but that isn’t even necessarily terribly representative of Christian theology over the totality of the history of that religion, let alone representative of religion in general.

Then Dawkins started whipping out Cliff’s Notes flavored evo-psych talk. Perhaps, he mused, humans believe in religion because we have a cognitive module that predisposes us as children to believe in what adults tell us. Because that would confer a Darwinian advantage, saving children from various dangers. The problem, he suggests, is that this module can’t distinguish between false information (“join in the rain dance”) and true information. Look, I know there are smart versions of evo-psych, but this is not it, even given the limitations of a radio interview for communicating complicated information. There is so much wrong with this even at the level of a casual sketch or hypothesis. There is tremendous scientific evidence that children know how to lie, and learn very quickly what lies are and that both adults and children can lie. Lying is a basic part of our social and communicative intelligence. A lot of socialization into religion takes places with peers in many societies, not adults. (In fact, a lot of past human societies actually isolated children from adults or parents in various ways.) But most of all, it’s as much a fairy tale as Dawkins claims religion is. Dawkins says that the religious believe in things which are not true so as to give themselves comfort. Well, that’s pretty much what a Just-So story like “Once upon a time, there was a Darwinian advantage to believing in what adults said, and hence, we came to be religious” amounts to. Yes, yes, I know he would say that this is a testable story and “God created the heaven and the Earth is not” but I suspect what Dawkins thinks is a valid test of that kind of narrative is roughly the equivalent of a Jesuit spouting off about the uncaused cause.


If you want the real comforting fiction, though, it lies at the bottom of Dawkins’ enterprise. He must think that if only we all could come to share his clear-eyed dismissal of all religion, something about the world as we know it would be better. That means for one that he believes emergent aspects of consciousness, will and reason can overcome whatever ur-Darwinian dynamics created religion back in the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness, which is in and of itself a pretty dubious argument in a lot of current science. But secondly, what good would actually come of this sea change, for Dawkins? Would there be no more wars of religion? I can make an argument in my sleep that any “war of religion” you care to name really wasn’t caused or sustained by religion, and dump evidence by the truckload on its behalf. Would there be no more con men evangelists preying on the weak minded? The religious have no monopoly on this kind of predation.

Would the world be better if everyone had a clear scientific understanding of their circumstances? What would change if everyone saw things that way as opposed to many or some people seeing things that way? Knowing why things happen in the world is no protection from natural disaster, from social conflict, from accident or happenstance. This is the old dream of modernism resurfacing again, the experts who believe that if only they are given power through universal acclaim, all that is bad and horrid in the world shall melt into air in time. Dawkins might as well given the closing kitschy speech of Things to Come. “The Universe OR Nothing: which shall it be?”

Yes, sure, I’d appreciate it if various religious fundamentalists would just take a hike, and maybe even that some of what seems flawed or absurd to me about even modest spirituality lose some of its protected status. That’s strictly personal preference: I think there are other forms of malevolent power and individual chauvinism that would inrush into the vacuum left by religion. But there’s no better example of a person making up a story to make himself feel better than Dawkins telling himself (and anyone who cares to listen) that were there no religion, a great deal of our mutual existence would improve. There’s no scientific or empirical reason to think that this is the case. What would help Dawkins (or anyone else who wants to persuade the religious to rethink) is if he could apply skepticism to himself. Or perhaps more simply do something that at least some religions advise: seek humility.

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35 Responses to Choose Your Own Fairy Tale

  1. hestal says:

    I agree with you. Dawkins, Sam Harris in “The End of Faith” and its tiny follow-on, “Letter to a Christian Nation,” Christopher Hitchens in “God is not Great,” and E. O. Wilson in “The Creation, an appeal to save life on Earth,” all irritate me. They are the most well-known spokesmen for the ungodly world of Science and they just don’t make sense.

    Jimmy Carter in “Our Endangered Values,” and Kevin Phillips in “American Theocracy,” have more realistic things to say. They discuss the real dangers of the First Amendment, in which the Framers, unwittingly I hope, made religion the freest of the free in the land of the free. This has enabled Christianity to at once act as a Foreign Nation complete with its own constitution(s) and its own Pledges of Allegiance, as a Policital Party, and as a Fourth-Century Relic in its war agains science, while at the same time carrying on its own internal sectarian war pitting Jimmy Carter, Kevin Phillips, Bill Moyers, John Danforth, Judge John E. Jones III, Bart D. Ehrman, Gregory A. Boyd (megachurch evangelical preacher), and Jack Rogers (honorary head of the Presbyterian Church in 2001) against R. Albert Mohler (president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lousiville), the late Jerry Falwell, the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, the leaders of the United Methodist, Catholic, Presbyterian, and Episcopal churches, and Tony Perkins (head of the Family Research Council) — and others on both sides.

    The real blocking and tackling should occur at the governmental level. In his new book “Culture Shift, engaging current issues with timeless truths,” Mohler sets out an agenda for the involvement of Christianity in local and national politics. The book might well be called, “Christian Manifesto,” because it is “a public declaration of intentions, motives, and views.”

    In the Preface he says that American culture cannot be ignored because Christians have to live here, and it cannot be embraced without reservation because so much of it is contrary to the teachings of Christ. And there is one other important consideration concerning the relationship of Christianity to American culture:

    “At the same time, we remember that our Lord gave His church an evangelistic commission—to be witnesses of the gospel. Every single person we will try to reach with the gospel is embedded in some culture. Understanding the culture thus becomes a matter of evangelistic urgency.”

    He next asks how much should Christians be involved in the political process. And the answer is:

    “As evangelical Christians we must engage in political action, not because we believe the conceit that politics is ultimate, but because we must obey our Redeemer when He commands us to love our neighbor.”

    He then compares Christianity to the secular “ideology” and asserts that Christian morality, for there is no other kind, is the way to go. He says for secularists anything goes, whereas Christians prefer to be able to make “laws that restrict human conduct in some ways.” In this last quotation I wonder if he is talking about the Supreme Court decision in the case Lawrence v. Texas in which private sexual conduct between homosexuals was declared lawful. The decision was handed down in 2003 and no doubt was responsible for lighting fires under Christianity which led to the spate of state constitutional amendments banning gay marriage.

    He then reminds his readers that Christians are victims. Everybody, especially secularists, is out to get them. He says:

    “These days, it is the secularists who seem to be most intent on pushing a proposed right never to be offended by confrontation with the Christian gospel, Christian witness, or Christian speech and symbolism. This motivation lies behind the incessant effort to remove all symbols, representations, references and images related to Christianity from the public square.”

    Mr. Mohler is not happy with the Supreme Court. He says that they are sowing confusion and it is up to the church to straighten things out. He objects to rulings in the Ten Commandments cases, in school prayer cases, and he thinks that the 14th Amendment should not be used to require the states to follow the Bill of Rights. He quotes authorities to support his view, and he says that by overstepping its Constitutional bounds, the Supreme Court has stood the law on its head:

    “Now when any case involving references to the deity in the public square comes before the Court, the ground is clear for proponents of the most radical secularism to have their day. The only mitigating factor in these cases is the personal restraint exercised by at least some of the justices. Some argue that the only reason the Court has not adopted a more pervasive secularist approach is fear of public outrage.”

    He complains at some length that the public schools are on the wrong path, and then he recommends a course of action:

    “So what should Christian parents and churches do? I am convinced that the time has come for Christians to develop an exit strategy from the public schools. Some parents made this decision long ago. The Christian school and home school movements are among the most significant cultural developments of the last thirty years. Other parents are not there yet. In any event, an exit strategy should be in place.”

    In a chapter he calls “Bad Science Meets Bad Theology,” he employs the same technique against genetic science as he has before against Evolution. He presents the vigorous debate among scientists about the influence of genes on sexual preferences as proof that homosexuality is a sinful choice. His shrillness shows that he clearly recognizes that the religious dogma that the Christian Bible is literally true is becoming more and more out of step with the Book of Nature.

    He seems to be very intent on steeling the flock. He writes two chapters on abortion, he has another entitled “Are We Raising a Nation of Wimps?” and another, “Hard America, Soft America.” In the first he thinks we have a “generation that seems, in all too many cases, unwilling to grow up, assume responsibility, and become genuine adults.” Apparently young Christians are not militant enough. In the second he compares two Americas, one that coddles, and one that plays for keeps.

    In another chapter the title says it all: “The Post-Truth Era, Welcome to the Age of Dishonesty.” But in two other chapters he goes very far down the road of being hard and honest. In one chapter he writes about the tsunami that took many lives around the rim of the Indian Ocean in 2004. He says that God caused this disaster to happen and we shouldn’t ask why. He says:

    “We are in absolutely no position to argue that there is no link between human sin and this awful tragedy. The Bible makes clear that God sometimes does respond to specific sin with cataclysmic natural disaster. Just ask the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah.”

    “Beyond this, Christians must seize opportunities to confront natural disasters with the life-changing power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Christians are to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, and clothe the naked in the name of Christ. This is a powerful testimony, but acts of compassion must be accompanied by words of conviction. Our answer to the reality of unspeakable tragedy must be to witness to the gospel of unfathomable power—the power to bring life out of death.”

    He does not tell Christians how they should deal with the situation when they are providing disaster relief using federal funds for supplies and other expenses. Should they proselytize or not?

    But even though he cannot explain what human sin caused God to use the tsunami to murder so many, he is confident he understands the reason behind the tragedy of New Orleans. He says:

    “The pictures coming out of New Orleans in 2005 tell the story. Broken glass, twisted steel, sunken streets and abandoned homes testified of the city’s impermanence. Yet the pictures of devastation wrought by nature paled against the picture of moral devastation that followed the hurricane. Lawlessness in the streets, rioting in the Superdome, and sniper fire aimed at rescue teams revealed the disorder and anarchy that lie close beneath the surface of human civilization. Of all people Christians should be the least surprised. After all, we have been warned of civilization’s fragility, and we know that history unfolds God’s judgment in the rising and falling of empires, nations, and cities.”

    Nowhere in this chapter about New Orleans can I find a single word of sympathy, Christian, secular, or human, for the victims of the Katrina disaster. Apparently compassionate conservatism springs into action only when the recipient is worthy, or as the Methodists might say, “holy.”

    In his manifesto, Mr. Mohler has resurrected two strategies from the early 19th century. In that long ago time the slave-holding states, primarily in the South, pushed their agenda on two fronts. They tried to work within the secular system in order to obtain concessions from Congress that would enable them to expand slavery into the territories and new states, and they threatened secession from the Union. Mr. Mohler and his fellow true believers are duplicating these failed strategies. They are trying to win control of the secular system by political action, but failing that they are willing to secede from the United States. Removing their children from the public schools is an important first step toward divorce. At the moment it is only a threat, but secession was once only a threat until it became a war.

    So I think that fundamentalists are serious threats to our democracy, and they are relentless. But you are right Herr Professor, it has little to do with religion, and much more to do with the nature of the men who rule some sects. But because the Framers set things up the way they did we have a problem on our hands that is hurting us.

  2. peter55 says:

    Thank you for these insightful reactions to Saint Richard.

    You are more fortunate than we in Britain, who have to listen to or read Dawkins’ many unsolicited interventions in our public life — angry letters to newspapers, rent-a-quotes on radio and TV, denouncements de jour of any passing cleric — often castigating believers as evil, malicious, benighted and nasty. I have heard of no one ever persuaded from belief to atheism (or even to agnosticism) by his arrogant, holier-than-thou, nanny-knows-best attitude to what others are permitted to think and believe.

    For your interest, here is marxist literary critic, Terry Eagleton’s superb demolition of Dawkins’ book, “The God Delusion”. I am not sure if Eagleton is a believer or not, but he has — unlike Dawkins — actually read some theology. Eagleton, as you did, remarks on Dawkins’ willingness to pontificate on subjects he knows nothing about.

  3. hestal says:


    I read the article by Eagleton. Thanks for the link. I have to say that Eagleton’s description of Christianity is not even close to the Christianity that I grew up with and still live with after many decades. I was raised a Southern Baptist, graduated from Baylor University, the largest Baptist school in the world, and I live in the heart of fundamentalist Texas — the Creation Evidence Museum is not far from my front door — but I am not, nor have I ever been, a Christian.

    What Eagleton describes is alien to me and to the many preachers I know. Many of my college friends went to Baptist seminaries and became preachers in Baptist churches throughout the Bible Belt. Many of them are dead and the others retired, but the religion they followed was authoritarian in the extreme and still is.

    But that being said, I think that Dawkins is just as wrong as Eagleton, and Professor Burke is right,

    “Would the world be better if everyone had a clear scientific understanding of their circumstances? What would change if everyone saw things that way as opposed to many or some people seeing things that way? Knowing why things happen in the world is no protection from natural disaster, from social conflict, from accident or happenstance. This is the old dream of modernism resurfacing again, the experts who believe that if only they are given power through universal acclaim, all that is bad and horrid in the world shall melt into air in time. Dawkins might as well given the closing kitschy speech of Things to Come. ‘The Universe OR Nothing: which shall it be?'”

    Nothing will change by eliminating religion because there will always be “cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men” (as George Washington called them) who will find a way to exploit others. But the current exploitation of religion by those men is harming America and something needs to be done about it. So I wish that Dawkins and Eagleton would just shut up, unless and until they have something helpful to say.

  4. joe o says:

    Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought has much more reasonable speculations on these issues.

  5. peter55 says:

    Hestal — I think Eagleton was raised as a Catholic. He is from an Irish family who raised him in England. That environment had (and perhaps still has) its own particular dynamic. The Irish were colonial subjects, treated as second-class citizens in Britain, and most belonged to a religious minority. Even today there are anti-Catholic laws still in force in Britain. (A Catholic cannot become British sovereign nor marry the heir to the throne, for example, nor can a former Catholic priest become an MP. And let us not forget that England has an official, constitutionally-enshrined state church, the Church of England, whose senior bishops sit in the upper house of the British Parliament.) Perhaps being in a minority religion in a country where your ancestors were persecuted and your current freedoms limited makes for a more apologetic, less strident, display of religious beliefs than otherwise.

  6. hestal says:

    Peter55 – I come from a part of Texas that was settled by Jewish immigrants who landed in Galveston. My home county was largely Jewish for the first 50 years or so. In my hometown, when I was a little boy, most of the businesses were owned by Jews, but there were few young Jews. The last Jewish boy was in my class when we started school. There were many Catholics as well. We had a Catholic church, but I don’t remember a synagogue. When my mother went to school she had many Catholic schoolmates. But about 30 years later my Jewish classmate was gone and so were the Catholics. The church stood locked and empty. Somewhere along the way the church burned. At my last high school class reunion one of my classmates was telling a story of a long ago automobile accident and she said, “It happened up where the Catholic church “used” to be…”

    In my childhood there were no blacks in the entire county and they were not permitted to stay overnight. There were no Latinos either. We were white, ignorant, and fundamentalist. There were varieties of fundamentalism and they warred with each other, but they all believed in an inerrant Bible. When I went to Baylor it was the same.

    The farm I grew up on was sold by my parents after I went away to college. They moved to a place that had no Jewish people but did have a few Catholics, no blacks, but a few Latinos who were illegally brought up from Mexico to work on the many dairy farms in that county. The old homestead later fell into the hands of a high official of the Texas KKK. He constructed a large cross made of metal pipes with regular holes drilled . He had a large propane tank attached (over 200 gallons) so he could
    set the thing ablaze. KKK meetings were clearly visible from Hwy 281, which for years was the main highway between Canada and Mexico. His daughter was married beneath that blazing cross. You may wonder what the KKK was doing there if there were no blacks to oppress and terrify, and the answer is that there were plenty of whites of the wrong fundamentalist sect.

    This place is still crazy and it is just part of a fabric that runs from Florida through the South, including the border states, to Texas and then
    up through Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, and Ohio. The only reason I am here is to tend to my mother who has Alzheimer’s and who will be 90 next month.

    This a place of madness, utter insanity, and it is all about religion.

  7. lawprof says:

    “But because the Framers set things up the way they did we have a problem on our hands that is hurting us.”

    Would you rather that the government determine whose beliefs are worthy of expression?

  8. msw says:

    “I think there are other forms of malevolent power and individual chauvinism that would inrush into the vacuum left by religion.”

    Is that true for all cons, or just religion. Is it ever worth fighting falsehood?

    “I can make an argument in my sleep that any “war of religion” you care to name really wasn’t caused or sustained by religion”

    Not one? This enormous social institution is never a source of violence – despite what appears to be massive evidence that it can be? The crushing of Giles Corey under stones is best explained by economics?

    The EvoPsych thing is Dawkins’ thing. It’s not a part of his argument in The God Delusion. I shouldn’t need to point this out, but “actually having read his book” isn’t a common attribute of his critics, so I suppose I must. It’s embarrassing, but he has to talk about something when he goes on these shows, and since no one is willing to talk about his actual arguments, that’s what fills the gap. I suppose addressing his actual argument is too shocking for NPR’s audience, and his critics prefer ad hominem attacks (e.g. every argument made above).

    You’re in the education biz – presumably you have, on occasion, pointed out that the evidence doesn’t support someone’s belief. Why do *you* do it? Are you, like Dawkins, trying to bring about a Wellsian fascist/meritocratic nightmare society?

  9. hestal says:


    What you quoted was incomplete. What I said was:

    “So I think that fundamentalists are serious threats to our democracy, and they are relentless. But you are right Herr Professor, it has little to do with religion, and much more to do with the nature of the men who rule some sects. But because the Framers set things up the way they did we have a problem on our hands that is hurting us.”

    As I said, agreeing with Professor Burke, the problem is not religion, it is “the nature of the men who rule some sects.” The framers recognized that some men of a certain type existed who would be dangerous to our liberties, and they tried to design a government that would keep them from gaining power and, should that fail, keep them from doing harm. They designed the system of checks and balances and they warned us repeatedly about “factions” which are defined, then and today, as parties that are “adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” This was James Madison’s definition of faction in Federalist 10. My modern dictionary contains virtually the same definition. Factions were mentioned more than 50 times in the Federalist essays and in every case they were identified as a danger to liberty.

    George Washington devoted, by my count, about 20% of his Farewell Address to warning us about factiions and the men who form them. He described these men as “cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled.” He said they were likely to gain authoritarian power on the “ruins of public liberty.” So before the Constitution was ratified and afterwards, key members of the Founding Generation told us to avoid political parties because they would harm us. But they were ignored and we have the current two-party system, led by these dangerous men. These parties are designed to preserve their own power and to hell with the People.

    The Framers did their best to design a system that would keep us safe, and it worked for a time. But over two centuries the bad guys gradually discovered and exploited the weaknesses of the Framers’ system. So it is time for a system upgrade: Constitution 1.1.

    We need to change the way we select our representatives so that the hold of these men can be broken. And we have the technology available today to do it easily and effectively.

    This change would remove political parties from the scene, except perhaps as think tanks to propose ideas for legislation and the like, and break the power of other large groups such as religions and unions.

    So, lawprof, all I am after is one citizen, one vote with nobody between the citizen and the levers of governmental power. If you are citizen, lawprof, I would like to see you become our president for a term without having to declare your intentions, mount a campaign, or ask for donations. I would like for you to be tapped on the shoulder by a random computer selection to ask for your service, and I would like for you to accept.

    Of course this idea sounds very complicated and unworkable, but it really is not. In fact by applying this approach to the selection of all our representatives, and by enlarging their number, we would have a government that is more responsive to the People than we have ever had, and it would mirror their demographics.

    But my intellectual superiors, professors and the like, take it for granted that the the two-party system is as natural as tornadoes and hurricanes, which of course it is not. It is the work product of “cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men.” However Bruce Ackerman, Sterling Professor of Law at Yale University, said in his book, “The Failure of the Founding Fathers:”

    “There was no miracle at the Philadelphia [Constitutional] Convention. In designing the presidency, the Framers made blunder after blunder – some excusable, others not.”

    In another place in his book he called the Framers “dumb” and “stupid.”

    He was applying these adjectives as part of his criticism that the Framers had “failed” to recognize the value of political parties. He said:

    “Two-Party competition is at the core of modern democracy, but the Convention had a very different aim. It sought to create a republic that transcended faction, not a democracy in which parties rotated in office. Its complex constitutional machine aimed to encourage the selection of political notables to govern in the public interest, and to disdain the arts of faction.”

    He is correct that the Framers tried to exclude parties, and their evil manifestation, factions, from the government. And his statement that “Two-Party competition is at the core of modern democracy,” is true but not the whole truth. The man who accused the Framers of making blunders and of being dumb and stupid made a blunder of his own. He failed to recognize that the “core of modern democracy” is rotten.

    The Department maintains a website under the management of its Bureau of International Information Programs, and it has a section about Washington’s Farewell Address. Therein they say:

    “Washington, like many of his contemporaries, did not understand or believe in political parties, and saw them as fractious agencies subversive of domestic tranquility. When political parties began forming during his administration, and in direct response to some of his policies, he failed to comprehend that parties would be the chief device through which the American people would debate and resolve major public issues. It was his fear of what parties would do to the nation that led Washington to draft his Farewell Address.”

    But Washington did understand parties, and he warned us in his Farewell Address that they would ruin public liberty.

    Larry J. Sabato, founder of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, had this to say about the Framers and their attitude toward Political Parties:

    “Once avoided in their entirety by the founders and the Constitution, political parties have become the sine qua non [essential ingredient] of American democracy.”

    Many people, including perhaps you, lawprof, think that the Framers designed the two-party system and that it is actually part of our Constitution, when in fact the opposite is true.

    But Mr. Sabato did say something that shows perhaps he is beginning to see the light:

    “Along the way, though, the constitutionally ungoverned parties have also changed to serve their own needs better—and some of these selfish purposes have begun to override those of the citizenry’s.”

    He seems to think that this “selfish” turn is fairly recent but if he were a black man living in Alabama or Georgia in the late 19th century he would have a different idea.

    If anyone were to compare the words of the Constitution with the actions of the government, controlled by the two-party system, one would see that America has fallen short. And likewise if one were to compare the wishes of the People, as elicited by public opinion polls, with the actions taken by the government one would see that the government has fallen short.

    So, lawprof, we can change our government to eliminate the two-party system and return government to the People. But our leaders, our intellectuals included, either want to protect their turf, or they don’t use their intellects but use their reflexes instead.

  10. peter55 says:

    msw says: “It’s embarrassing, but he has to talk about something when he goes on these shows,”

    Dawkins doesn’t have to go on these shows, he doesn’t have to write unsolicited letters to the editors of newspapers and magazines, he doesn’t have to give talks at provincial universities, all of which he does in Britain.

  11. noveggies says:

    To return to your original point about Dawkins’ position being no better than that of religious propagandists or polemicists: one of the funniest–albeit crude–critiques of Dawkins is the double episode South Park featuring Dawkins, where Dawkins convinces the world that religion is pointless, and religion becomes obsolete. Except, in the future (to which Cartman is catapulted through a series of ridiculous events), there is a cataclysmic war between humanoids and sea otters over which side believes in “True” science.

  12. Timothy Burke says:

    Dawkins is perfectly free to stick to a sophisticated argument in his book, and to talk more subtly when he chooses to appear in the public sphere. Nobody’s making him talk stupidly in his many public appearances. If he’s keen to help out people argue against religion, the best thing he could do is put a sock in it. This is why I find his argument that the religious tell stories to make themselves feel better so absurd: by contrast, what is Dawkins’ public persona amount to? It’s not helping as far as persuasion, and it’s not good science, so what else is it but ego-gratification?

  13. msw says:

    He seems to sell a lot of books. Are you arguing that ego gratification is illegitimate as a motive? On you blog?

  14. msw says:

    Sigh. “your blog”.

  15. Neb Namwen says:

    When Dawkins spoke at Swarthmore back when I was still living in the area, a friend and I wrote on the blackboard a paragraph which can be summarized as “The memes are coming! Warn all your friends!” I thought it was quaintly recursive, and Dawkins seemed amused… but I realize looking back that, at some level, that is exactly Dawkins’ message in a nutshell: the meme that memes of a certain description are bad and dangerous, which description seems not entirely inapplicable to itself.

  16. Timothy Burke says:

    If you’re on a crusade to change the world–or at least this is what you say you’re doing–it’s a bad idea to decide instead to simply indulge oneself. Frankly, that’s more of Hitchens’ stock-in-trade when it comes to anti-religious argument. Hitchens is hardly one of my favorites these days, either, but his anti-religious writing is a lot wholesomely self-indulgent.

    Both Dawkins and Sagan’s anti-religious writing (and here I’m going beyond the radio interview to talk indeed about what they respectively wrote) still fails in part because both of them take religion itself as being something rather simple to understand. That’s a double failure: it’s neither simple or unitary in character as a sociohistorical phenomenon, and it raises philosophical questions that deserve respect even if one ends up dismissing them in their entirety.

    Dawkins’ memetics are another matter, but equally problematic, for exactly the reason that Neb mentions. If you’re a hardcore memeticist (Susan Blackmore, for example) then you can’t escape the event horizon of your own theory, because she pretty much collapses all consciousness and thought into a medium through which memes propagate, and denies that there can be a consciousness which masters or precedes memes. If that’s so, then memetics itself is nothing more than a meme, and there’s nothing ontologically knowable in the world.

    Reductionism is an aid to understanding as long as it’s provisional, a kind of gedanken-experiment. Once you start believing in your reductions and simplifications, it’s a short road to being the proverbial kid with a hammer seeing all the world as a bunch of nails.

  17. msw says:

    Dawkins doesn’t argue that religion is sociohistoricalically simple, he argues that it is epistemologically simple. Either it’s something for which you have some evidence, in which case put up or shut up (a possibility he doesn’t bother with, since not many seriously try to make this claim), or it’s something you believe sans evidence. Arguing why that is invalid may be an interesting philosophical exercise, but it’s one that he doesn’t have to bother with, since theists aren’t solipsists. They aren’t equal opportunity fabulists. They may believe that the Sybil was a con artist, or they may believe that she was deluded, but they’re pretty darn certain that she wasn’t channeling Apollo. And, pace Eagleton, it’s not an opinion that they feel unentitled to if they aren’t ancient Greek scholars.

    His evolutionary psych stuff isn’t a part of that argument. He doesn’t make it in the God Delusion. Gross asks him where religion came from, and he gave the Dawkins answer to “Where does human society trait X come from?” I think evolutionary psych is nonsense, but hey, it’s the curse of our time. I don’t see Pinker getting this sort of hostility. And, as empirically unfounded as it is, the extreme reductionism that you attribute to it isn’t one of it’s sins. Regardless, it’s tangential to his anti-religion arguments.

    As for Dawkins “failure” – geez – what do you consider “success”?

  18. hestal says:


    Please don’t misunderstand me. I come to this blog to learn. I don’t understand much of what is said here. You and others do not care much for “evolutionary psychology.” So what is the alternative? I hear all the time that evolution is the basis for everything biological and that every day in every way evolution is verified by scientists and vilified by religionists. Yet you seem to take some middle ground. You say, I think, that our human psychology has no biological basis. I know that I am wrong about what I just said, but I can’t come up with another way of expressing what i think y’all are saying.

    I have heard others disparage “evolutionary psychology,” as if our brains are evolution-free zones. And my brain tells me that everything about us is a product of evolution. So can you please enlighten me, or point me to a book that will teach me?

    This is not the first time I have asked this question here, and try as I might, I cannot get unstuck.

  19. Neb Namwen says:

    Dawkins doesn’t argue that religion is sociohistoricalically simple, he argues that it is epistemologically simple. Either it’s something for which you have some evidence, in which case put up or shut up (a possibility he doesn’t bother with, since not many seriously try to make this claim), or it’s something you believe sans evidence.

    This only holds if religion is properly understood as a thing one believes — as a collection of fact claims. It’s easy to get confused about this when one’s major opponents are fundamentalist Christians qua creationists, because creationism, as set against the theory of evolution, is a (false, unsupported) fact claim. All this tells us is that some religious people make some false fact claims. It does not tell us that the main business of religions generally is fact claims, or even that elements of religion which appear superficially to be fact claims are actually functioning as fact claims in the lives of religious people and communities.

    Dawkins et al. wish that religion weren’t sacred — that it wasn’t taboo to critique religion the way one critiques any other collection of fact claims. But religions are not (although they may be composed in part of) collections of fact claims. I do not see anyone insisting that people “put up or shut up” rational explanations for why they sing “Happy Birthday”, play marbles, or wear pants (or, rather, for why those activities are “true”).

    Of course, even if religions don’t function as fact claims, they do have content which is held to be true, primarily value claims, and that might be considered fair ground for a call for justification. However, no set of value claims has a rational justification of this kind — including whatever set of value claims underlies Dawkins et al.‘s conviction that religion is bad!

    Enlightenment liberalism has its own sancta which it’s taboo to question, namely individual adult humans, considered as free-willed rational subjects, as loci of value. This “makes sense” in the sense that a society with those values is a nice one to live in, but it’s no closer to any body of evidence than the corresponding value claims of any other religion. In fact, it is where that value and those of some religion clash that secularist liberals like Dawkins get hottest under the collar — exactly as holders of any religious value system do when engaged in a full frontal conflict with an incompatible value system.

    I can’t fault Dawkins for acting that way, because everyone does, but I fault him (and friends) for pretending to be above the fray. They’re not. They have a value system that makes sense but ultimately can’t be proved, which they defend vehemently and to which they will brook no objection, just like their religious opponents. If they actually critically examined their own worldview as they insist that others should, they’d very likely believe the same things, but one hopes they’d be a bit less stridently self-assured about it.

  20. peter55 says:

    As Timothy says, religion is not monolithic. As Neb says, there is more to religion than fact claims. Indeed, it is possible to make a reasonable case that some religions (eg, variants of Zen Buddhism) comprise no fact claims at all. That there is something other than fact claims in religion — that which is commonly called religious practice — is something known to practitioners for just about the whole of recorded human history, and most adherents of most religions spent much of their time grappling with their perceived sense of full belief in the fact claims of their belief system. Strange that 21st-Century Atheism has yet to learn this, but I guess that would require believers in 21CA to practice some curiousity about their subject.

    On the question of evidence for what fact claims there are: That religious adherents have not presented evidence to rebut Dawkins et al is not, in itself, proof that no such evidence exists. Most practitioners of religion would point to personal experiences as evidence of a non-material realm. That such evidence is not usually objectively replicable it not a good reason to dismiss it out of hand.

    If I ask you do you like coffee, I have absolutely no way of objectively verifying your answer. I can observe your drinking habits, but even if you are not malicious these may not give me definitive proof — there are lots of activities a person could do regularly without liking them (eg, exercise or eating vegetables). Whatever your answer to my question, the only evidence you could present for your claim about your tastes is subjective and not replicable or verifiable.

    And lastly, it is worth noting that the subjective evidence that believers report for belief in a non-material realm currently exceeds the zero evidence (of any sort, even subjective) for the existence of super-strings, M-branes and the more than 4 dimensions of space-time. Are Dawkins, Hitchens and their colleagues in the 21CA movement calling for an end to the public funding of string theory? Why not?

  21. jpool says:


    Next time you’re confused by a term like this, you might try google or wikipedia as a starting place. Evolutionary psychology is an attempt to explain supposedly universal aspects of human psychology or culture as the result of particular kinds of evolutionarily favored traits, and then offer some kind of explanation as to why said trait would have offered evolutionary advantage. There are, to my mind a couple of basic problems with this. First, it attempts to read history backwards, with the result being that what we are becomes what we had to be, rather than maybe what we happened to turn into. Second, any explanations that you offer in this regard aren’t theories in the scientific sense, because they can’t be tested. They’re more like ideas or notions. Take, for example, the common idea that the phenomenon of contagious yawning arose from an evolutionary advantage for social groups falling asleep together. The best an idea like this can hope to do is to obtain plausibility, “Yeah, sure, I can see that.” You can’t go back and show how life changed among the primates (or what have you) among whom said trait first developed.

    Certainly at least the basic elements of our cognitive capacities — language, dreaming, abstract thought, metaphor — are hard wired in and became permanent aspects of our wetware (brains) at some point in the evolutionary development of (pre)humans/primates/animals. On the other hand, our genetic inheritance is only part of who we are, the other part being made up by the complex and highly varied thing called human culture, that we each find our way within. We are all the products of evolution, but that doesn’t mean that everything we are is evolutionarily proscribed.

    Neb Namwen and peter55 have done fine jobs responding to msw. I would only add that both deistic and scientistic view of creation have an irresolvable paradox at their core, and both do their best to direct attention away from it. Our understanding of the nature of reality/existence requires some form of origin for all things. Faced with the questions “How did the universe come into being?”/”Who made God?” each side says either, “They were always there,” which is no answer at all, or “Hmm. Yes, it’s a mystery.” (nodding wisely) My point is not that science is a kind of faith in the way that religion is a kind of faith, but rather that both systems of explantion are forced to confront mysteries that cannot be explained away. If nothing else, this should, as Tim notes, inspire a degree of humility.

  22. hestal says:

    Thank you jpool.

    I do appreciate your explanation. And I think you have identified for me the cause of my confusion. I used the term “evolution” to include natural selection. But what I think you are describing when you say,

    “On the other hand, our genetic inheritance is only part of who we are, the other part being made up by the complex and highly varied thing called human culture, that we each find our way within. We are all the products of evolution, but that doesn’t mean that everything we are is evolutionarily proscribed.”

    is a process that does not include natural selection. My understanding of evolution is that it includes natural selection. It begins with variations in the genetic material passed from parent to child, and then adds natural selection. So I expect the interplay between genes and the environment, whether it is the womb or the dorm room, to produce differences in us. And I confess that I include human culture as a product of evolution by natural selection.

    So my persistent confusion is that all of our traits are truly and directly products of evolution by natural selection, even though we cannot prove the chain of events that led to their development. I still cannot find any other answer to explain what we are.

    So I guess that I give powers to evolution by natural selection that are too broad. Somewhere it must stop and some other natural force must take over. I don’t know what this force could be other than rational thought leading to decisions that form our characters. So the process that produces human individuals is evolution by natural selection plus rational thought.

    Am I on the right track?

    Thanks again.

  23. jpool says:


    I think you’re running into two problems.

    First, natural selection is generally understood as the principle that more favorable heritable traits gain greater success in survival and reproduction. I don’t really understand how you’re using it here. (I think you might be using “evolution by natural selection” to mean something more general, like what we normally call “history.”) Environment and other material factors provide the conditions under which natural selection occurs, and to a degree so does culture, in terms of the values that shape what types of individuals gain favored access to reproduction. It is only in a metaphorical sense, however, that you could speak of natural selection determining one’s behavior or character over the course of one’s lifetime. Culture is not an inherited trait. It is something learned and collectively and willfully reproduced or reshaped. We make culture, as Marx said of history, not under conditions of our own choosing, but we do make it. It is not directly dependent upon biological reproduction of heritable traits, and in this way it is fundamentally different from natural selection.

    The second thing I think you’re running up against is your presumption of a universal rationality. As Tim pointed out in an earlier post, another problem in evolutionary psychology is a practice of identifying cultural universals — aspects of human psychology that have been shared by all humans at all times — based upon a limited sample of contemporary western populations. Often behaviors that we think of as universal are quite specific to our time and place. (One of my favorite examples of this is when people state, as they often do, that all boys will “naturally” play with guns. There may be a certain tedency towards aggressive play that’s more common with Y chromesomes, but the relatively recent invention of firearms should make it obvious that there’s nothing natural and everything cultural about pretending that a stick is a gun.) The thing is there isn’t any single system of rationality, nor are any of us completely rational consistent people all the time. What seems rational to us in any given circumstance will be the product of our cultural presumptions and values and our own variable judgements.

    Hope that helps.

  24. hestal says:


    So we are what we are because of genetic variation plus natural selection plus culture. The first two comprise Evolution by Natural Selection but the third is an added element that was created by our species and perhaps some of our primate relatives. So our survivability, starting at some point in our past when culture became important enough, depends on culture and the kinds of creatures we now encompass also are products of culture. I don’t know if you meant natural selection no longer applies to our species, for it surely does still apply to some, doesn’t it?

    So all I need to do is find a way to separate culture from genetic variation and natural selection. When and how does culture determine our species’ success in a way that natural selection does not? In other words, is the fear of fire different from the fear of nuclear bombs?

    And I also need to find a way to understand how our non-cultural elements affect our cultural elements. Are they employed in making cultural decisions? Are our actions based on our instincts and emotions — I can’t see how it would be anything else, otherwise thousands of individuals faced with identical circumstances would always take the same action in response. I suppose that there is a difference between taking an action that is right as opposed to taking an action that feels right, but I don’t see how one can be due to natural selection and the other due to culture.

    It seems to me that the actions we can take as individuals are fundamentally identical to the actions taken by other “higher animals,” as Darwin called them. Even though our inner lives are filled with elaborate futures for ourselves and although we constantly review our pasts and turn everything upside down, and even though these inner lives may vary widely from human to human, the things we actually do are severely limited. There may be less than two dozen actions that we can take, if that many, as we interact with the environment. So if culture is not one of those “material factors” that drive natural selection then what is it? If it is not material then it must be mental, not supernatural. And it must be a mental process that is not affected by the parts of us that are not produced by natural selection. But all parts of us, except perhaps the mental faculties, are products of natural selection. But Darwin himself, in Chapter XXI of the “Descent of Man” says that our mental powers are products of Evolution by Natural Selection.

    “The high standard of our intellectual powers and moral disposition is the greatest difficulty which presents itself, after we have been driven to this conclusion on the origin of man. But everyone who admits the principle of evolution, must see that the mental powers of the higher animals, which are the same in kind with those of man, though so different in degree, are capable of advancement. Thus the interval between the mental powers of one of the higher apes and of a fish, or between those of an ant and a scale-insect, is immense; yet their development does not offer any special difficulty; for with our domesticated animals, the mental faculties are certainly variable and the variations are inherited. No one doubts that they are of the utmost importance to animals in a state of nature. Therefore the conditions are favourable for their development through natural selection. The same conclusion may be extended to man; the intellect must have been all-important to him, even at a very remote period, as enabling him to invent and use language, to make weapons, tools, traps, &c., whereby with the aid of his social habits, he long ago became the most dominant of all living creatures.”

    So at what point and in what way do the products of our mental powers, which are themselves products of Evolution by Natural Selection, cease to be also products of Evolution by Natural Selection? What barrier has been crossed that divides our world? Is it merely the difference between the mental world we construct in our brains and the rest of nature?

    As you can see this is really a problem for me. I suppose that because I have been immersed in the “culture” of religious fundamentalism for my entire life that I can’t help but see the tendency to regard humankind as “special” and lying outside Evolution by Natural Selection. I have many friends, fewer than I once did because several have died of old age, who are devout Southern Baptists, some of them are/were ministers. They, in some cases, can accept the idea that Evolution by Natural Selection might apply to other life forms, but not to humans. So any claim that says we are “special” and above or outside the control of Evolution by Natural Selection sounds very much like religion to me, not science. So it is against that background that I struggle to understand the state of evolutionary science, and its sub-classes, in the man-made world of today.

    And I wonder if evolutionary psychology is limited in what it tries to explain. Is it limited to the faculties we have as opposed to the actions we might take in response to the operation of those faculties?

    Because I think that Evolution by Natural Selection governs us then I don’t think that there are cultural universals that all humans have exhibited in all times. But I do think that our corporeal selves are confined within a uinverse of action that none of us can overcome. We have a finite number of actions that we can take in any given situation. We don’t think about it that way, but we feel it every day in many ways. When Thoreau said “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” he was speaking the truth. But those men lived in difference places and in different cultural circumstances, yet their lives were the same. Their emotional status was identical. They wanted something they could not have and they could not have it because no action available to them would transform their lives.

    Your statement about rationality,

    “The thing is there isn’t any single system of rationality, nor are any of us completely rational consistent people all the time. What seems rational to us in any given circumstance will be the product of our cultural presumptions and values and our own variable judgements.”

    sounds exactly like Evolution by Natural Selection in action. The survival of a species depends on the survival of many individuals. It is necessary. And those individuals must deal with their environment in different ways because that environment changes and what works today may not work tomorrow. So some individuals act in one way in the face of given circumstances and their brothers act in different ways. Some survive and some don’t, but the species goes on, again producing individuals who respond in different ways to nature.

    It would be very surprising to me for there to be one culture or one mental process for humankind, because such an outcome would not be consistent with Natural Selection.

    Today, Thoreau’s statement is still true of humans, but the context is different. Those of us who are quietly desparate have different specifics than those of his day, but basically we are still in the same pickle. We want our lives to be different, but we lack the choice of actions to transform them. Our environment acts more on us than we on it. We can think different thoughts than our ancient ancestors, but we can take only a few actions to deal with our environment, and even though we may employ different reasons for taking an action, its consequences still have the same impact on our survivability, perhaps differing in degree only, but not on percentages. We may kill more people with nuclear weapons than our ancestors could have killed with fire, but the percentage of our species under such threats may well have been greater then that it is today.

    And finally, my difficulty in understanding or accepting the idea under discussion, is entirely due to my powers of reason coupled with my inner weighing mechanism which applies values to the likelihood that your explanation is better than mine. You might say that culture determined that mechanism, but I might say that Evolution by Natural Selection did and I am a slave to it. I think I am a slave to a very great degree — especially over time. I repeat my behaviors. Same circumstances = same actions.

    I do think, however, that there is a rational right way for humankind to move forward, and that right way can be decided by collective action. I think our chance of survival is improved by deciding our course of action by collective means. Many heads are better than one.

  25. hestal says:


    In the fourth paragraph I put an extra “not” in on sentence.

    “And it must be a mental process that is not affected by the parts of us that are not produced by natural selection.”

    should have read,

    “And it must be a mental process that is not affected by the parts of us that are produced by natural selection.”

  26. cstephen says:


    For some doubts and problems with Evolutionary Psychology, see David Buller’s book, Adapting Minds.

    For a discussion of cultural evolution and its relationship to biological evolution, see Elliott Sober’s Philosophy of Biology, chapter 7



  27. hestal says:


    Thanks for the references, I may read them. But this morning I got “Sense and Nonsense,” by Kevin N. Laland and Gillian R. Brown. It is their analysis of the debate on the validity of evolutionary psychology and its other guises. The argument seems to divide along the line I have already identified: is culture not a part of evolution by natural selection?

    The authors say, “For social scientists, culture is most commonly regarded as a cohesive set of ideas, beliefs, and knowledge that exists in a completely different realm to biology. These researchers believe culture is the primary influence on human behavior.”

    So I was right all along. I am still confused of course, but about something new. Before I was confused as to how the argument could even exist unless evolutionary psychology’s critics were defining culture as outside the domain of Evolution by Natural Selection. That has been confirmed, they are.

    So now my confusion is this: How in the world can anyone declare that culture is outside the domain of Evolution by Natural Selection? It is just the kind of academic argument that is of no interest to me. I am interested in engineering changes to our mass behavioral systems to improve our lives and promote better futures for our children. This kind of argument is a waste of time, and I am glad that you, jpool, and others in this thread have taught me. My education on this topic is now complete.

  28. cstephen says:


    Maybe this will help.

    You ask “How in the world can anyone declare that culture is outside the domain of Evolution by Natural Selection?”

    Well, statements like “culture is (or is not) outside the domain of Evolution by natural selection” are just too vague, at least by themselves. There are some aspects of culture that have a certain kind of independence from biological evolution, and other aspects that don’t.

    For example: If we ask: Why do Italians eat more pasta than the French? This presumably has a purely cultural explanation. But if we ask: Why do people like the taste of sweets? This latter question may have a large evolutionary explanation (e..g, in the relevant ancestral past, sweet food was highly correlated with ripe, nutritious fruit, etc).

    There are different kinds of models of cultural evolution and how they might relate to more narrowly biological evolution. For example:

    (1) You might argue, as traditional sociobiologists such as E. O. Wilson did, that some psychological or cultural trait is common in our species due to a selection process just as in standard cases (i.e., you have heritable variation in fitness with respect to the traits in question). In this case, you still argue that the traits in question are transmitted genetically.

    (2) Instead, you might drop the requirement that the relevant traits are genetically transmitted. For example, if traits are transmitted because children imitate their parents, a selection process can exist without the mediation of genes (sometimes people argue that the incest taboo is an example of this. Suppose that incest avoidance is advantageous because people with the trait have more viable offspring than those without it. If offspring LEARN whether to be incest avoiders from their parents, the frequency of the trait in the population may evolve. This could occur EVEN IF there are no genetic differences between those who avoid incest and those who do not.

    In this second kind of selection model, mind and culture replace one of the elements in the standard model (type (1), but not the other. That is, in both models (1) and (2), fitness is defined in terms of reproductive success (having babies). In models of type (2), however, the mode of transmission is replaced by a psychological one.

    (3) A third approach is to abandon both of the main ingredients of the traditional model in (1). Suppose that the mode of transmission is NOT genetic, AND fitness is NOT measured by number of babies. According to this approach, individuals acquire their ideas because they are exposed to the ideas of their parents or peers, or other members of their parents’ generation. Some ideas may be more attractive than others, and so increase in frequency. Notice that there is no need for organisms to differ in their survivorship or degree or reproductive success.

    Any one of these three models can be used to try to account for some aspect or aspects of culture. Type (1) and (2) are usually called “biological” whereas type (3) don’t propose biological explanations at all.

    Of course, one might combine two or more of these processes in describing some feature of culture. Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman do this in their models of the so called “demographic transition”

    If I remember correctly, I think that Laland and Brown talk about this case.

    I don’t know why you think your education on this topic is now complete – maybe you mean that sarcastically, but I don’t think anyone in the world has the answers to all of these questions.

    I don’t know if I understood your concerns or not, but maybe something here will help you.

  29. hestal says:

    Thanks Chris,

    I mean it is complete. I understand what you are saying about sweets and eating a lot of pasta, but I don’t think that distinction is important. The debate seems to me to be about academic turf. I have read “Sense and Nonsense” which discusses Darwin’s views on human behavior, eugenics, progressive evolution, nature vs. nurture, ethology, instinct, sociobiology, kin selection, conflict between parents and offspring, reciprocal altruism, game theory, the rejection of sociobioloy by social scientists, behavioural ecology,flexibility of individual behavior, adaptive tradeoffs, optimal group size, marriage, number and quality of offspring, demographic transition, evolutionary psychology, evolved psychological mechanisms, environment of evolutionary adaptness, domain specificity, detecting cheats, homicide, memetics, meme fidelity, religion, consciousness, science, gene-culture coevolution, cultural inheritance, cultural selection, and conclusions on all the foregoing. The authors named the book well.

    It is all a big fuss, but it has nothing to do with evolution by natural selection. It seems to be simply an argument over turf and defining terms. And the largest argument seems to be whether culture lies outside the domain of biology which is the position of social scientists according to the authors. But each of the various forms of human behavior science (?) seem to claim culture to some degree as part of their theories. Perhaps the argument is worthwhile and will someday lead to some great leap forward. But to me it is utter nonsense. So when I say that my education is complete I mean there is nothing that the experts can teach me because they disagree so strongly with each other, so I will decide for myself. And I conclude that culture is determined by biology and therefore is subject to evolution by natural selection. The reason for this is that cultures constantly declare that those who do not do what they like are not part of that culture. For example, Christians often claim that other Christians are not “true” Christians because of some bad behavior. But they are Christians, and the Christian culture has not been able to overcome the biological character of the humans who comprise it. I just can’t escape the idea that all culture is severely limited by biology. There are only a few, a very few, actions that any human can take in any given set of circumstances and they are all biologically determined. Cultures are about expressing our inner lives but they are no more than sunsets or waterfalls — they occupy our minds but they don’t change who and what we are. Evolution is about survivability and our actions will have something to say about that, perhaps. Those actions are biological.

  30. jpool says:

    I don’t think that distinction is important.

    I conclude that culture is determined by biology and therefore is subject to evolution by natural selection.

    Really? Presumably, then, you think that northern Italians are biologically different and that explains why they don’t eat so much pasta. If you were raised in China, by Chinese parents (I’m presuming here that you were not), you must beilieve that you would be the exact same person, believing the same thing with the same values and preferences. You can believe that if you want to, but it’s silly. We can and do argue about where biology stops and culture begins, but to argue that biology produces culture or that culture is reducible to biology is to ignore the tremendous variation in human thought and behavior that simply does not map onto biology.

  31. hestal says:

    Steady jpool,

    I agree, the examples you gave are indeed silly, and it was unfair of you to try to put them in my mind or on my lips.

    Of course I would be a different person if I had been born in China and raised by my Chinese parents – but that point has nothing to do with what I am saying. We must not forget that Evolution is about species, not about individuals. My actions as a Chinese boy or a Texas boy have no bearing on the survival of our species, but the actions of millions of boys, whether they are Chinese or Texan, might.

    So we naturally try to make everything about our own individual position and identity, but that has nothing to do with the survival or our species. Culture is all about individual identity and it has nothing to do with our species’ survivability either.

    The elevation of culture as a force outside the effects and power of Evolution by Natural Selection is shown to be false by one simple fact, among many simple facts, and that is that there are tyrants in all cultures. Defenders of culture will answer that those tyrants are just products of human nature (implying that they don’t belong to the culture) and they are right, but culture did not eliminate them. So I assert that very few cultures desire to produce tyrants, but they can do nothing about it. So all of our education, our arts, our science, and our culture cannot prevent the creation of tyrants. The best we can hope to do is control the “effects” of tyrants, but that is an old, old story beginning before the dawn of human history, back when Evolution by Natural Selection was the law of the jungle, and before it was banished by dreamers.

    If culture is so important that is adds something to the survivability of our species I would like to have it shown to me. Even science, which I think is our highest human accomplishment, may have made it possible for many billions to live on our planet, but at the end of the day, there is no evidence whatsoever that the lifespan of our species as a whole has been increased. Will we be in 10,000 years?

    So because culture cannot control the effects of Evolution by Natural Selection, it is still bound by that process. Unless and until culture can get control of Evolution by Natural Selection and manage it toward the accomplishment of species-wide goals it is still just another way of socializing and nothing more – evolutionarily speaking.

    You said,

    ”We can and do argue about where biology stops and culture begins, but to argue that biology produces culture or that culture is reducible to biology is to ignore the tremendous variation in human thought and behavior that simply does not map onto biology.”

    And you are being silly now. Individual variation has always been part of our species. It would be astonishing for it to be any other way, because variation is the driving force behind Evolution by Natural Selection. So you are endorsing evolution, not culture, when you make this claim. It is the interplay of these highly variable individuals, who were produced by Evolution by Natural Selection, that indeed produces culture. In fact, if this high degree of variation is not produced by Evolution by Natural Selection, then just where does it come from? Mr. Darwin claimed variation as the cornerstone of his Theory long ago; you just can’t take it away because you want it for your own theory.

    In “Origin of Species…” Chapter I is titled, “Variation under Domestication,” with a subtitle of “Causes of Variability.” Chapter II is titled “Variation Under Nature,” and Chapter V is titled “Laws of Variation.” In addition I counted 400 uses of some form of “variation” or “vary” in the first 67 pages of his masterpiece. I quit because I was tired. So you have to do better than this. I agree with Mr. Darwin, a high degree of variation is to be expected in many species, but not all, the degree is itself variable. (Ain’t it wonderful?) Culture has no claim on variation of human thought; in fact culture is an effect of variation, not a cause. And if culture did not cause variation then what did? You know, and disapprove, my answer.

  32. jpool says:

    What in the hell are you talking about?
    You started this conversation by asking folks to explain to you the terms they were using and the arguments they were making. In response you’ve shown an unwillingness to listen to those arguments and appreciate how they were using their terms, preferring to insist on your own puzzling definitions and preexisting ideas. You are using “culture” in a way that I suspect has something to do with an opposition between nature and culture, but has nothing to do with the way that anyone else is using it here. If you wanted a starting place for understanding what we mean, you could do worse that to read Emile Durkheim.
    Darwin was trying to explain, as the saying goes, the origin of species. Modern humans have existed as a species for a couple hundred thousand years now. Variation exists between species (biological variation) and it exists within species (genetic variation), but, in a sentient species like ourselves, variaton also exists in our aesthetics and sensibilities, in the understanding we have of the world, and in our relationship to one another (cultural variation). This is not just a matter of individual variation, nor of our “nature” as a species. It is different in different places, at different times, and we can collectively make changes in it. Think, for an example, about how understandings of relations between men and women have changed in your lifetime. What explains the different understandings of gender in, say, contemporary San Francisco and 18th century Algeria?
    If you say evolution by natural selection…

  33. hestal says:


    What in the hell am I talking about?

    I did come here to learn, but I gave up long ago, probably before you were born, accepting things on blind faith. In my experience teachers I have encountered often used the dogmatic method. But I can tell that I have irritated you, so perhaps this post will be more palatable if I punctuate with question marks instead of periods. I will try.

    Isn’t the distinction you are trying to make between “biological variation” and “genetic variation” simply a difference of convenience? Isn’t it simply a distinction used by researchers as a form of shorthand? Aren’t “biological variations” produced by evolution by natural selection? For example, a google search on “biological variation between species” produced:

    “The Illusion of biological variation: a minimalist approach to the mind” an open talk and discussion by Marc D. Hauser.” The link is:

    In the second paragraph of Mr. Hauser’s opening remarks he says,

    “The topic that I want to talk about today falls under the title “The illusion of biological variation.” For those of you who have been staring at the image projected on the screen here, you may think that there is some kind of animation that is creating the motion. But that is a perceptual illusion: the image is completely static, with nothing moving at all, except that your visual system thinks it is. If you don’t believe me, focus on one of these concentric circles and look at the dot, and you will see that nothing is actually moving. Now, no matter how many times I tell you that the image is static, you won’t believe me — well, your visual system won’t believe me it can’t. Illusions are interesting because, no matter how aware we are of them, they simply won’t go away. Similarly, and by way of analogy, I will suggest today that much of the variation that we see in the natural world is in some sense an illusion because at a different level of granularity, there are some core, invariant mechanisms driving the variation.”

    He goes on,

    “The first point to make is that when we look upon the natural world, we immediately see extraordinary variation in animal forms, what looks like limitless variation, not just in size (from extremely small animals to immensely huge animals), but in shapes, material properties and so forth. Similarly, we see apparently limitless variation in the patterns of animal locomotion, including most noticeably, those observed in the air, on land and in the sea. Somebody raised a question earlier in the meeting about the immune system — again, a system with limitless variation in the kinds of responses that it generates to different kinds of problems in the environment. I want to call all of this observed variation, the “the illusion of biological variation.” It is an illusion, at least in part, because when biologists have looked deeply into the sources of variation in these different domains, as Cherniak’s talk illuminated this morning, we find something different — a common set of core mechanisms that generates the variation.”

    At this point, aren’t you, Jpool, thinking, “Yes, but, these variations are not cultural or mental faculties, they belong to physical features of species not to their intellectual features?” Aren’t you already itching to show me the error of my ways? But you have already done that, and I don’t accept it. And neither does Mr. Hauser. He says,

    “Thus, for example, it certainly appears to be the case that there is limitless cultural variation. Can we account for it by some simple, primitive mechanisms, and then use pruning as a mechanism for selecting among the possible, biologically given variants?”

    Mr. Hauser then discusses language, morality, and music. Do you agree that at least one of these would be included in the concept of culture? I think his presentation is worth reading. Therein you will surely notice that he is saying that these things are part of our evolved natures – in effect they are evola, products of Evolution by Natural Selection. So the question is not if there are variations in culture, the question is are these variations free from Evolution by Natural Selection, are they some other force of nature? I think they are all produced by Evolution by Natural Selection because each and all of us are products of Evolution by Natural Selection. We are not products of culture, but we are products of biology.

    If it were otherwise then we would be able, by means of culture, to stop forever the production of individuals who kill. When I raise this point the culturalists cannot explain it. They just wave it away as if it is not important. But it is important, isn’t it? And if these killers are not part of culture then they must be produced by evolution by natural selection, right? So how does the process work? Where along the way does culture control and produces people who do not kill, and where does evolution by natural selection control and produce killers?

    Your defense of culture is not really a defense, is it? All you do is list a few things that have variations and claim that this proves how culture is not a part of Evolution by Natural Selection, even though I have already showed you that variation is the fundamental force driving Evolution by Natural Selection. So identifying more and more examples of variation only reinforces my point. You must have something more. “Biological variation,” to quote Mr. Hauser is an “illusion.’ So lists and illusions don’t prove a thing, do they?

    But I grow weary. I promise that I will read your next comment, if you should make one, and I will not respond. You can have the last word, and that is exactly what you want, isn’t it?

  34. peter55 says:

    British philosopher, John Gray, has an interesting article in today’s UK Guardian on the current wave of atheist evangelists:,,2265446,00.html

    I don’t often agree with Gray, who generally seems to think the world is on its way to hell in a handbasket. But he does here what good philosophers can be counted on to do well — expose the hidden assumptions and invalid reasoning of an opponent’s argument. And Dawkins, Hitchens, et al, have quite a lot needing exposure.

  35. jpool says:

    I’m sorry that I let my temper get the better of me before. As you said, I had been growing increasingly irritated, not because you disagreed with me, but because it seemed to me that you were asking for explanations and then waving them away. We can disagree in our conclusions, but if we don’t understand the different ways that we are using our terms then we are at best talking past one another.

    I guess I am accepting your offer of the last word here (I can’t really win, can I? I either walk away or I’m a bullying jerk), to try one more time to clarify what I’m saying. What I (and others) mean by culture is not something that overrides nature or biology, but something that provides a great deal of variation in meaning and significance on top of the base that biology allows for. I also don’t mean something hierarchical, where some people are closer to a Hobbesian state of nature and others are more “civilized.” I like some cultural values more than others. I think that they are “better” in terms of providing for more social justice and less suffering and I would prefer to live in a society that possesses them, but this is not a question of such cultural values being either more or less “natural.”

    You are certainly right that no society has succeeded in eliminating either murder or violence more generally, and probably also correct that violent impulses are basic to the human condition. What culture has done is shape our understanding of the meaning of violence – under what circumstances it is acceptable, to what classes of people and by which classes of people, with what consequences. Some societies have held that killing one’s own slaves or killing foreigners was acceptable, while others not so much. Cultural understandings don’t eliminate killing, but they change when and how it might occur.

    Finally on the article that you cite, I think you are misunderstanding Dr. Hauser’s argument (it is a strangely organized conference talk, so this is very understandable). On the point of biological variation, I read him as arguing not that different species don’t exist, but rather that the tremendous physical variation that occurs can mask the persistence of similar genetic mechanisms. Then on culture, yes he makes the statement that you quote, but it would seem to both endorse the importance of cultural variation and the possibility that that variation is made possible by a set of common mechanisms. Then he writes this:

    “Chimps look much more like gorillas than they do like human beings, and yet at the level of genetic similarity chimpanzees cluster with humans and not gorillas. That said, if we leap now from the anatomical level and genetic levels to the psychological level, we are faced with a fundamental problem. If we take some of the towering intellectual achievements in our history (and even some of the less towering intellectual achievements), the gap between us and them is extraordinary; in fact I would say it is larger than the gap we see between gorillas and chimpanzees on the one side, and the humble beetle on the other. So we have to somehow come to grips with the fact that the genetic level of similarity is not accounting for the psychological variation and differences we see.”

    Hauser, then, is arguing that the psychological differences, and consequent difference in terms of what each species has been able to produce, between humans and any other animals, are much greater than either genetic or biological differences. Hauser’s argument, along with Noam Chomsky, is that the thing that creates this unique variation for our species is our capacity for expressive language. Other scholars disagree, at least in regard to higher primates, but their disagreements are ones of degree rather than kind: humans possess a capacity for language, and thus for creating, elaborating and transmitting culture, that is fundamentally different from that possessed by any other species.

    In the end it’s two separate questions. The same neural mechanisms allow for the possibility of and limits on cultural variation, but our experience of the world changes a great deal depending on which of those cultural variations we live within. In the moral experiment of the fat man and the train, that Hauser refers to, the common structure of moral reasoning, that people feel more than they can explain (or where their explanations seem to follow rather than precede the feeling), provides evidence of common neural mechanisms that underlie our moral thought. So far, so universal. But if one were to introduce other terms to the moral equation that Hauser is pursing, say varying the gender, age, class or social status of the individuals involved, I suspect that we would quickly run into differences in the way that the lives of these hypothetical individuals were valued based on differences in culturally defined concepts of personhood. If we step outside of the thought experiment, we don’t have to wonder, because people in fact do make different kinds of choices in regard to the relative value of human life, just as they do in the music that they enjoy listening to. Cultural variation, like biological variation, is only “illusory” to the extent that we presume it to indicate that cultures or organisms bear no relation to one another. On the other side, one could just as easily speak of the “illusion” of psychological similarity, to the extent that it presumed that common neural responses indicated that there is no difference in the ways that humans experience moral dilemmas or aesthetic expression.

    You are of course free to continue to disagree with me and to consider the evolution of our species to be the only issue worth discussing or considering.

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