Archive for the ‘evolution’ Category

A fun Day 1!

January 18, 2013

Day 1 was fun, with all those introductions and not so much “explanation” from me. Teachers need to remember: students are people too. They deserve to be met and heard, not just lectured at.

So, I’ll put away the Opening Day necktie (I wonder if my footballers and cheerleaders noticed the themetie?) ’til next Fall, roll up my sleeves, and get down to trying to explain a bit more on Tuesday.

As my first class concluded and disbanded yesterday in Room 204, students crowded in for Professor M’s to follow. I made a prediction to them: Professor M will write a long and somewhat difficult quote from the philosopher Peirce on the board. Let me know next time if I’m not correct. (After so many years we can all mime not only our own opening acts but also those of our colleagues,  to a point. I threw a curve this year, though.)

Then I headed back upstairs to my office, sat down at my desk, looked up and across the hall into 304, and what did I see? The confirming remnant of Professor M’s just-concluded previous class:


It’s the very statement I’d just forecast downstairs,  a quote from C.S. Peirce, contending that philosophy is a branch of science.

It’s decidedly not my view. I see science as a branch of philosophy, not the other way around. Some religion, too. It all begins in wonder, curiosity, and plurality. I’m sure we’ll be talking about that, this semester.

But I’m also sure that Professor M will teach a great Intro to Philosophy course. There’s no single royal road to wisdom, no exclusive source and sustainer of wonder.

That’s why we’re co-philosophizing in my classes. It’s gonna be a lot of fun, especially if the theists hang in there with me. I came out of the closet: I’m a humanist, a secularist, a naturalist, and when push comes to shove, an atheist. Some also call me an accomodationist. If more ‘ists are really needed, though, I prefer “pluralistic meliorist.”

That should be enough fog to hold off the positivist reductionists, no?

But it also presses the next inescapable question, the one D&D will be taking up with me in our late-Thursday afternoon independent readings course on Religion, Rationality, & Science: are science and religion compatible? Really compatible, not just in the way marriage and infidelity can be (as David astutely noted), but more like salt and pepper?

Or like humans and chimps, perhaps? Evolutionists are often asked, by deeply-confused fundamentalists: why are there still monkeys? Just as you could also ask, more than a century and a half after Darwin, why  there are still theists. Or: why tolerate religion?

My working hypothesis is that there are still theists for the same reason there are still other kinds of primate: common descent, shared ancestry, developmental divergence from the same tree of life. It’s all related, we’re all related, theists and atheists, philosophers and scientists, believers and skeptics.  Same tree, same source, different branches.

I suggested that we preface next week’s discussion of Stephen Jay Gould’s notorious “Non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA) proposal with a peek at Evolution.

This really is going to be a fun semester.

Thanks for the memory

November 21, 2012

Life itself is gratifying, of course. But it’s nice at Thanksgiving to have enumerable specific objects of gratitude. Sunshine, laughter, pie and ice cream, Willie Mays and the like do make life worth living.

And this morning I’m specifically grateful for an unexpected find, last night. Rummaging through my library cabinet, I rediscovered a lost and forgotten binder full of my favorite role model secular evolutionist. Through the years I’ve frequently spoken of my first landlord, the kindly and avuncular octogenerian who pulled dollars from my young ears, not long before his death in the ’60s. It’s a mild obsession.

He was, I eventually learned, an eminent figure whose expert testimony had been solicited but then disallowed by the Scopes “Monkey Trial” judge in Dayton, TN in 1925. Dr. Winterton Curtis made a curiously strong impression on me in my earliest days and years. I’ve never quite understood why. Surely it’s a coincidence that I would grow up and  develop a fascination with the evolutionary view of life as part of its deepest meaning?

Well, my new-found binder includes a note from my late father. It betrays an almost mystical suspicion that something more than money was exchanged in those encounters with Dr. C.

“We lived with Dr. Curtis for three years, until my graduation from Veterinary School [at the University of Missouri-Columbia] in 1960. I have no clue if an elderly stranger can affect a small child, but I swear, Phil possesses many of the intellectual attributes of this grand old man. Phil, do you remember him ‘pulling money out of your ears’ and presenting you with it?”

I sure do, Dad. And I’m deeply grateful for the memory.

Darwin and philosophy

October 11, 2012

Revisiting Darwin’s autobiography, and one of his more sagacious but plaintive reflections:

If I had to live my life again I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied could thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.

Don’t let it happen to you, kids. And remember: “the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and flourish.”

Maybe that will help answer the student’s question that caught me so flat-footed yesterday in CoPhi: “What does any of this evolution stuff have to do with philosophy?”

Only everything, on my reading. Evolution by natural selection is possibly the best idea anyone ever had, as Dennett says. It brings our quest for meaning into meaningful harness with the rest of nature and life, provides the widest available perspective on our origins and destiny, links us to the primordial past and the possibility of a wondrous future for our species, and replaces disingenuous skepticism (a topic that came up yesterday in connection with scientific realism: can any reasonable person really doubt the existence of atoms etc.?) with a promising conceptual framework to unite all the disciplines of learning.

And as John Dewey said, in “The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy“:

Origin of Species introduced a mode of thinking that in the end was bound to transform the logic of knowledge, and hence the treatment of morals, politics, and religion… making many sincere and vital efforts to revise our traditional philosophic conceptions in accordance with its demands.

Darwin helped us understand that the world and all its species, and possibly the entire universe, are in dynamic and mutually-formative relations with one another and with their respective environments. Those in closest proximity are vital environing influences themselves, competitors for existence and co-creators of life. They are change-agents, in perpetual process of growth and adaptation (or demise). Nothing is fixed and final and forever. Our thinking must be flexible and adaptive too.

But maybe the best answer to what’s philosophical about evolution can be explained in  simpler terms still. I’ll visit the kids’ section and get back to you. Meanwhile here’s a start:

The Tree of Life begins with Darwin’s childhood and traces the arc of his life through university and career, following him around the globe on the voyage of the Beagle, and home to a quiet but momentous life devoted to science and family… a gloriously detailed panorama of a genius’s trajectory through investigating and understanding the mysteries of nature.

As we noted recently, when discussing David Hume’s rejection of intelligent design, it’s all really pretty simple, and wondrous, and beautiful.

Carl Sagan’s version of the story is very good.

But maybe you’ll find Eric Idle’s easier to hum. Listen to this:

It’s the sun and you and me, and all the stars that we can see, and life, and everything in this amazing and expanding universe that philosophers are trying to understand. Makes you feel kinda small, but also kinda special. We’re the ones who get to be here and sing along.

Darwin, Kierkegaard, Marx…& coal

October 10, 2012

It’s Darwin, Kierkegaard, Marx, and Scientific Realism today in CoPhi, and in EEA our introduction to Bill McKibben. Where to begin?

Well, why not with the best mindless eye-opening idea anybody ever had?

If I were to give an award for the single best idea anyone has ever had, I’d give it to Darwin, ahead of Newton and Einstein and everyone else. In a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unifies the realm of life, meaning, and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea [Darwin@dawnevolutionDennettMatthew ChapmanScopes TrialLoyal Rue]

We were talking yesterday about Hegel’s idea of history as a progressive march to expanded human consciousness of reason and freedom, driven by ideas in conflict (“thesis-antithesis”). I think we all have to admit (though of course we-all don’t, in these environs) that Darwin’s discoveries were a big hitch ahead on that road. His autobiographical account of an argument he had with the Captain of his storied ship (the Beagle) over slavery is instructive in this regard:

In the voyage at Bahia in Brazil he defended and praised slavery, which I abominated, and told me that he had just visited a great slave-owner, who had called up many of his slaves and asked them whether they were happy, and whether they wished to be free, and all answered “No.” I then asked him, perhaps with a sneer, whether he thought that the answers of slaves in the presence of their master was worth anything. This made him excessively angry, and he said that as I doubted his word, we could not live any longer together.

Darwin and Fitzroy patched that one up, and history is now clear about the winner of that debate. Progress, right? Fitzroy would later regret his role in Darwin’s saga, and our species’ climb up the tree of life from ignorance and superstition.  But Darwin’s big idea, like Lincoln’s, was a great emancipator of the human spirit.  They shared a birthday, curiously, and (as Hegel might have said) a zeitgeist.

So Darwin offered an account of our proximate origins that does not require the theistic hypothesis. He himself remained agnostic on the question, unlike our contemporary Richard Dawkins. He’s reviled by many Americans (deluded or not), but I can only envy the “popular understanding of science” he and others have proffered students in the U.K. and that our public schools continue to neglect.

Then today, a leap. Followed by a revolution. Don’t we all want to see the plan?

Kierkegaard said something similar to what Hegel more cryptically assigned to the owl of Minerva, when he said “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” He also said

  • “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.”
  • “People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.”
  • “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.”
  • “The most common form of despair is not being who you are.”
  • “Once you label me you negate me.”
  • “To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself.”
  • “If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of the potential, for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible. Pleasure disappoints, possibility never. And what wine is so sparkling, what so fragrant, what so intoxicating, as possibility!”

But what about the possibility of overriding the ethical, humane, and parental demands and privileges of fatherhood in the name of a sacrificial faith? The  Abraham and Isaac story still chills, especially in an age when young women around the world continue to be sacrificed by their pious fathers, brothers, and other young men.

Members of the Taliban just perpetrated another of these unspeakably obscene “pious” faith-murders, as reported in this morning’s news. They shot a schoolgirl for being “anti-Taliban and secular.”

Honor killings,” such atrocities are sometimes euphemistically camouflaged. There’s nothing honorable about them, and nothing a respectable philosopher can say in their defense.

It’s not just Islamist fundamentalists, btw, who support the abuse and murder of children in God’s name. Ophelia Benson cites an Arkansas congressional candidate who says “God’s law” decrees death for “rebellious children.”

Marx said some things too.

  • History calls those men the greatest who have ennobled themselves by working for the common good; experience acclaims as happiest the man who has made the greatest number of people happy.
  • As Prometheus, having stolen fire from heaven, begins to build houses and to settle upon the earth, so philosophy, expanded to be the whole world, turns against the world of appearance. The same now with the philosophy of Hegel.
  • Communism is the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution.
  • The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force… The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas.
  • The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.
  • The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working Men of All Countries, Unite!

Whether Kierkegaard’s and Marx’s words have ultimately been a force for emancipation and the change we need is a question for historians, and philosophers, and historians of philosophy, and philosophers of history. It’s probably best to leave the politicians out of it. [Kierkegaard and Marx @dawn]

We were also talking about infinity yesterday, of course finding words and even numbers inadequate to the boggling scale of the concept, and I was reminded of that art installation outside Vandy’s Science Library celebrating the reach “from atom to cosmos… ever into mystery.” But can we believe that science really solves micro-mysteries and discovers real entities at the subatomic level? Yes, says David Papineau. Not always, but sometimes for sure.

I consider myself that kind of selective scientific realist, too, because ultimately a humble belief in the progressive (though incremental) probity of science is optimistic. That’s why I always drop in, whenever I’m in the neighborhood, to appreciate Nancy DuPont Reynolds’ wonderful sculpture in the window.

We’ll greet Bill McKibben first in Rolling Stonewhere he wrote last summer:

Pure self-interest probably won’t spark a transformative challenge to fossil fuel. But moral outrage just might – and that’s the real meaning of this new math. It could, plausibly, give rise to a real movement.

There’s lots to be outraged about. Mitt Romney said at the “debate,” for instance, “I like coal.” He doesn’t understand or care, evidently, that “a coal-fired power plant doesn’t need an accident to wreck the planet; it performs that task constantly.” But at least it employs coal-miners, eh? Except when it kills them.

But what’s our next step, class?

Winterton Curtis redux

July 28, 2012

I’ve had a lifelong obsession with an old zoologist at my alma mater, Winterton C. Curtis (1875-1966), who happens to have been my first real landlord: my parents rented rooms in his home soon after my birth, while my Dad was finishing his veterinary degree at Mizzou.

I remember him visiting our family in the years just prior to his death. He pulled dollars from my ear.

Later I’d learn of his historical importance, as one of the expert witnesses not allowed to testify at the infamous 1925 trial of John Scopes in Dayton TN.

Well, during our recent visit to Columbia, MO, Older Daughter and I rode by the place with my old roomie RD (still a Columbia resident).

And that’s what got me hunting for the little offprint of the memoir Dr. Curtis published in the Columbia Missourian in 1957, that belonged to my Dad. Found it yesterday. And, found it again this morning online: “A Damned-Yankee Professor in Little Dixie.” (The house is pictured on p.37.)

And check out the last page, where he talks about how the former university president “admitted publicly” that faculty positions were rotated among “the various Protestant denominations…” What a different world it was, not so long ago.

I’m just intrigued by the single degree of separation between myself and someone who was born in 1875, who began his university teaching career at my old school in 1901, who was in Tennessee literally alongside H.L. Mencken  in 1925, and who used to entertain a little boy who would one day move to Tennessee to philosophize about things like the Scopes Trial.
Somewhere in a box I have my dad’s personal correspondence with Dr. C.  I’ll look for it today.
I’ve also discovered that the Missouri State Historical Society has the Curtis archives, which I’m now eager to inspect and find a way to work into my James fiction project.
I love picking up pieces of the past and aiming them at the future. Stay tuned.

Extended sympathies

May 28, 2012

A Memorial Day dream, or pure fantasy? Depends on how many of us share and spread the cooperation meme. Andrew Revkin imagines a time when humans will war no more. Darwin did too:

“As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races.” Descent of Man

A Memorial Day for War’s Fallen, Perhaps Someday for War Itself? –

Darwin Day

February 11, 2012

Darwin Day‘s almost here!

Darwin Day is a global celebration of science and reason held on or around Feb. 12, the birthday anniversary of evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin.

In honor of the greatest idea anybody ever had, a reprised post from ’09:

The great instigator of doubt– but let’s not call it that, let’s call it skeptical reflection leading to spiritual awakening– of both the 19th and 20th centuries, hands down, has been the effort either to assimilate or repulse the human  implications of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.  That’s why I wish Jennifer Hecht had reserved a slot in Doubt‘s penultimate chapter, somewhere in the vicinity of her discussion of the Tennessee “monkey trial,” for mention of John Dewey’s “The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy.”

But it’s a good discussion of the Scopes circus trial, to which I claim a small “degrees of separation” connection: I lived under the same roof, for a short time, with one of Clarence Darrow’s expert witnesses who was not allowed to testify in Dayton, Tennessee on behalf of John Scopes. I remember Winterton Curtis, my first landlord, as a kindly, charming old man who mysteriously pulled dollars from my ear.  (The Dayton judge would’ve seen that as proof of his Satanic nature, no doubt.) He was also very respectful of the locals H.L. Mencken derided as “boobs.”

If you want to learn more about Scopes, Dayton, and Friendly Atheism, read Matthew Chapman’sTrials of the Monkey. Chapman, great-great-great-(great?) grandson of Charles Darwin himself, went down to Dayton to try and understand the curious breed of human known asYoung Earth Creationist [more]. He still doesn’t get it (any more than I do)but he actually confesses to liking many of the Darwin Deniers he met and spoke with– including one (Kurt Wise) who studied with Stephen Jay Gould at Harvard, before being hired to teach biology (!) to Bryan University undergraduates.

And if you want to see an entertaining dramatic rendition of Scopes, watch Spencer Tracy and Frederic March in Inherit the Wind.

Niall Shanks, 1959-2011

July 17, 2011

Very sorry to learn this morning of the death of an old friend and colleague, Professor Niall Shanks. [Obit]

Dr. Niall Shanks (b. January 18, 1959), who served as President of the Tennessee Philosophical Association in 1993, died early Wednesday morning, July 13, 2011.  In 2005, Dr. Shanks became the Curtis D. Gridley Distinguished Professor in the History and Philosophy of Science at Wichita State University. He received a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Leeds in 1979, a Master’s from the University of Liverpool in 1981, and a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Alberta in 1987. Dr. Shanks was Professor of Philosophy & Humanities and Adjunct Professor of Biological Sciences and Physics & Astronomy during his career at East Tennessee State University from 1991-2005.  Shanks’ early research focused on quantum mechanics, but later his interest centered on evolutionary biology and its implications for medical theory and practice. He was the author of numerous articles and books in the history and philosophy of science, including the highly popular book entitled, “God, the Devil, and Darwin: A Critique of Intelligent Design Theory” (Forward by Richard Dawkins, Oxford University Press, 2004/2007). His service to our community and universities and his contributions to science and philosophy will continue to inspire, enthuse, and enthrall us. He will long be remembered and missed by his many students, colleagues, and friends.

We taught together in Johnson City, Tennessee in 1992-93. He was acerbic but ultimately funny and good-humored about living in the Appalachian wing of the Bible Belt. (“I am what my neighbors call a ‘ferner,’ for I am a transplanted Englishman who grew up in Manchester in the north of England“-Fighting For Our Sanity in East Tennessee) He was a good office mate and pub companion. I gave him a tour of Vanderbilt in 1993, just before he insulted the keynote speaker and the night before he preceded me in election as president of the Tennessee Philosophical Association. He advised me not to hide my talents under a bushel basket.

We exchanged just a couple of notes after he landed in Kansas in 2005. He had a strange repulsion/attraction to the heartland of creationism, he admitted. I miss him.

How does the light get in?

July 14, 2011

Spent some of my morning yesterday with my Mother-in-law in the waiting room of a renowned ocular physician (“Lasik surgeon to the stars,” accomplished ballroom dancer, string musician, humanitarian, fugitive of Mao’s cultural revolution, Horatio Alger immigrant story), following up on her recent cataract surgery. A video loop of old testimonial local TV news stories about the doctor’s previous patients was curiously interwoven with episodes of “I Love Lucy” and a duet of “Danny Boy” with the doctor accompanying Dolly Parton. A strange summer moment, for sure, but mostly it has me pondering this morning the incredibly evolved light-sensing organ we tend to take too much for granted. The creationists are quite right to notice how amazing it is, but wrong to presuppose its defiance of nature.

The embattled Richard Dawkins apparently has an achilles heel with respect to what we could euphemistically call the process of sexual selection (see #elevatorgate and @rebeccawatson for the sordid details), but he’s still a masterful and reliable explainer of other complicated biological things. Here’s an entertaining eye-opener:

“Are we still evolving?”

April 7, 2011

That’s the question of the day, along with “Where to, humanity?” But who to ask?

Most days lately, the answer would have to be: doesn’t seem so. Jerry Coyne, some researchers at Duke, and Time all say yes. But they’re not really asking the  more important and pointed question:  are we evolving culturally? Are we becoming a better, kinder, more peacable and cooperative species? Again, appearances usually suggest not. But it would have been easier to think otherwise a century and a half ago.

The 19th century was a crowded one, probably philosophy’s best so far. John Stuart (“of his own free will”) Mill is the most famous English utilitarian, but Jeremy Bentham is the one who came up with the “hedonic calculus” for determining the greatest good of the greatest number. (It’s not very reliable, unfortunately.) He’s under glass, now.

Auguste Comte was a positivist who also preached the  ”religion of humanity,” sometimes aka “secular humanism.”

As for Darwin’s “friends,” you might say that with pals like these he didn’t need Intelligent Designers

Herbert Spencer, for instance, came up with “survival of the fittest” and (according to most mainstream evolutionists) badly misapplied evolutionary ideas to society in general. Social Darwinism is un-Darwinian.

But American philosophy generally  has been very friendly to the evolutionary hypothesis, in many ways a direct and favorable response to it.  Pragmatism is America’s indigenous philosophy – unless we’re talking about the thought of its indigenous peoples, of course.

The evolution vs. creation  debate had been raging in America even before Darwin published, in 1859. Ernestine Rose, one of many neglected female freethinkers in the 19th century spotlighted by Jennifer Hecht in Doubt, had an answer to those early IDers who were sure that oddities like blind fish somehow attested to divine architecture in nature.

What did she make of the world without a creator? One believer had told her that an eyeless fish living in a cave in Kentucky proved that there was a creator, since this showed design. Rose explained, “He forgot the demonstrable fact that the element of light is indispensable in the formation of the organ of sight, without which it could not be formed… [Inherit the Wind…What is “holy to the agnostic” (Darrow cross-examines Bryan)… Hecht on the Scopes TrialWinterton Curtis… on Darwin15 answers to creationiststheistic evolution…theistic evol DS1…DS2Coyne vs. ShermerHitch on theistic evoldefining religion…evol & meaning (Galaxy Song)] [meaning & evolution… grandeurEverybody’s StoryEvolution for EveryoneDarwin’s Dangerous IdeaOnly a Theory (K. Miller)…   Greatest Show on Earthonly a theory (Dawkins & Krauss)… Why Evolution is TrueTrials of the Monkey40 Days and 40 Nights]

NEXT WEEK: O 138-152, PW 108-119 (Peirce, James, Dewey, Wittgenstein, Russell)