Oh My Darwin! (Back to May/December)

Charles Brown CharlesB at CNCL.ci.detroit.mi.us
Tue Nov 30 07:59:23 PST 1999


This is an interesting article

>>> Yoshie Furuhashi <furuhashi.1 at osu.edu> 11/30/99 04:00AM >>Like Fodor, Lewontin and Gould argue that the EPists have it wrong:
Language, consciousness, and most of our distinctively human mental capacities are side effects of the fact that our brain grew big for other reasons. Furthermore, they caution, these reasons cannot be reconstructed. Our extraordinary human abilities are epiphenomena of "all those loose connections with nothing to do," explains Lewontin. As an example of a nonadaptive trait, he offers the uniquely human ability to use recursion in language, that is, to make sentences of the form: "I say that Noam Chomsky says, when people say..." Though chimps can be taught to compose simple sentences of the form "I want" or "I see" on a computer, they cannot be taught to use recursion.

Does Lewontin have a theory about the origin of this unique linguistic ability of humans? "You could invent a story," he explains with distaste. "You could say it was an advantage to early human beings in being able to say, 'I saw Joe doing that,' but that's just yak!"


Charles: Isn't it true that biologists don't know the actual Darwinian mechanism for the origin of almost any traits of ANY life forms ( except for that experiment with moths in England; but somebody said even that experiment was flawed) ?

Seems to me the best hypothesis for the adaptive advantage of language , but more completely all culture and symbolic conduct, is that it allows the experiences of dead generations of the species to be shared to some extent by the living generation. Culture's advantage is that it is a LaMarckian (i.e. super-Darwinian) mechanism. I mean an extrasomatic, non-genetic mechanism. Culture is a superexpansion of the social realm to include dead generations in the sociality of the living generation.



Even if God were to descend on Cambridge and part the waters of the Charles River at Lewontin's feet, it would still be unthinkable to imagine the skeptical biologist embracing religion. Gould, on the other hand, has recently been evincing a new sympathy for the realm of the unscientific. In his most recent book, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (1999), he not only sets out terms for a peaceful coexistence with the obdurate religious believers among us but seems to offer another defense against the sociobiological threat. His thesis is that it makes perfect sense to see science and religion as distinct and complementary forms of human endeavor: Science addresses the "factual character of the natural world"; religion is concerned with spiritual meaning and morality.


Charles: The rational kernel I see in religion is in ancestor worship. It is an overt form of what I say above: messages from dead generations to the living generation in the form of complex symbolic and pnemonic systems. Contra Engels, who only focuses on the superstition and fear and awe of uncontrollable forces in ancient religion, ancestor worship is a LaMarckian, super-Darwinian adaptive mechanism (extrasomatic, non-genetic). Of course, new discoveries are made superceding the ancient knowledge, and the tough thing is to know when "to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em". That is the eternal challenge of human culture.


This dualism stands in stark contrast to the views of Wilson, Dawkins, and Pinker, who categorically deny the existence of a soul or spirit. Indeed, from the outset, it was Wilson's goal to deny the existence of an independent moral realm. In On Human Nature, he says, "Human behavior...is the circuitous technique by which human genetic material has and will be kept intact. Morality has no other demonstrable ultimate function." Consilience (1998), Wilson's latest and most ambitious statement to date, takes an even more radical position, arguing that "there is intrinsically only one class of explanation." He goes on to make the bold assertion that "all tangible phenomena, from the birth of stars to the workings of social institutions, are based on material processes that are ultimately reducible, however long and tortuous the sequences, to the laws of physics."


Charles: A form of ultimate vulgar materialism. Arch reductionism. Anti-dialectics. No levels of organization of reality.


three cheers for Richard Lewontin,

Yoshie ((((((((((((


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