Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Pulverizing the Monoliths

> Simplistic, much?

After the article about her new book in the NY Times last week, Barbara Herrnstein Smith (the professor I hold responsible for my interest in all things science/religion related) has written a response. Her sentences are infinitely more articulate than my own, so I've copied some of them here.
"Contrary to what a number of readers concluded from Fish’s description, “Natural Reflections” is not centrally about the truth or value of science or religion and does not argue for their equal authority in different realms of thought or practice. It is centrally about human cognition and argues that certain widely shared cognitive tendencies are exhibited equally by nonscientists and scientists, including some anthropologists and psychologists seeking to explain religion on the basis of evolutionary theory and cognitive science, and also equally by atheists and theists, including some theologians seeking to reconcile science and religion. 

A number of the general cognitive tendencies that I note, like projection, binary thinking and us/them thinking, are prominently displayed in the comments themselves. Especially evident is what I call “cognitive conservatism,” that is, people’s tendency to retain their beliefs, intellectual as well as religious, in the face of what strike other people as conclusively refuting arguments or clearly disconfirming evidence...

Finally and most seriously, I think that the idea of science and religion as counterpoised monoliths deepens prevailing misunderstandings of both. As I emphasize throughout the book, the kinds of things that can be assembled under the term “religion” are exceptionally diverse. They range from personal experiences and popular beliefs to formal doctrines, priestly institutions, ritual practices and devotional icons — Neanderthal burial rites to Vatican encyclicals. The same can be said of “science,” a term that embraces a wide range of quite different kinds of things — general pursuits and specialized practices, findings and theories, instruments and techniques, ideals and institutions (not to mention a share of devotional icons and ritual practices). 

The strong, snappy contrasts between Science and Religion offered in a great many of the comments (and in writings by a few scientists and philosophers that I discuss) depend on understandings of each that are exceedingly vague and, at best, highly selective. Those contrasts would lose much of their intellectual substance and all of their rhetorical bite if the writers drawing them were asked to indicate what specifically, in setting those mighty abstractions in opposition, they were actually talking about...

Science and religion, in Gould’s account, are nicely balanced and occupy equally valuable pieces of land, but they remain monoliths — precisely, as one commentator puts it, “rocks of ages.” In “Natural Reflections,” I seek to pulverize both of those rocks, not in order to annihilate them but in order to reveal their complex, copious, varied, and changing composition. In doing so, I stress their connections with each other, their continuity with other elements of human culture (yes, “Gods” is originally in lower case in the last passage Fish quotes from the book), and also the cognitive dispositions and liabilities exhibited by practitioners and proponents of both — scientists along with theologians, theists along with atheists, and, of course, Professor Fish along with myself."

Related Link:
Human Cognition at the Nexus of Science and Religion: 2006 Terry Lectures by Barbara Smith

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Day 2 & 3: Evolution & Ethics – They Come in Twos

It seems that often in the attempt to explain an idea, people will set up dualisms to more clearly define the terms and concepts in question. This two-sided approach seems to come up time and time again in the discussion of the origins of human morality – pitting moral reasoning against moral emotions, intellect vs. passion, nurture vs. nature, culture vs. genes, etc. I’ve been wondering about the usefulness of dividing controversial issues into these extreme dichotomies, especially when the subject matter seems either A) too complex to even formulate sides that are truly distinct, or B) more realistically involving a place somewhere in the middle. Granted, dualisms may be useful to illustrate a point – after all, it is helpful to define what something is by illustrating what it is not – but there is a tendency to paint caricatures instead of real positions.

This seemed to happen in the debate between Darwin and one of his critics, St. George Jackson Mivart. Mivart actually agreed with much of what Darwin had proposed in the Origin of Species and was a supporter of natural selection, but the two scientists had a falling out after Mivart wrote a scathing review of The Descent of Man. Their main point of disagreement was the difference between humans and other animals – particularly that difference which leads to morality. Whereas Darwin argued it was a difference in degree, Mivart was adamant that it was a difference in kind.

Mivart's argument goes like this: no one denies that man is an animal, but the mistake is to conclude that man is no more than an animal.  There is plenty of evidence to show that we share with other primates the capacity for sensations, passions, desires, etc. But sensational knowledge of the world is fundamentally different from intellectual understanding. What sets humans apart is their intellectual faculty and ability to reflect upon their experiences. Morality, which is uniquely human, requires some sort of judgment to evaluate competing emotions and desires. And this ability to judge is not simply an outgrowth of the evolved capacity to feel emotion – it is another thing altogether. Darwin's mistake is getting so caught up in man's similarities to animals that he obscures the crucial dissimilarity: a moral sense that we do not share with any other creature.

In this argument we see the two sides shaping up quite nicely: Darwin's morality as a continuous evolving capacity that developed from lower animals to humans (it only differs in degree) vs Mivart's morality as an discontinuous jump (it differs fundamentally in kind). But was Darwin really advocating this definition of morality? Is there any room for him to accept some sort of difference in kind? There just may be. Reading through The Descent of Man, one finds seemingly contradictory statements about the human moral capacity that suggest Darwin may not have had the view Mivart charged him with. On the one hand, Darwin says that:
"...the mental faculties of man and the lower animals do not differ in kind, although immensely in degree. A difference in degree, however great, does not justify us in placing man in a distinct kingdom..." 
That seems like a rather straightforward statement. But Darwin also acknowledges that:
"A moral being is one who is capable of reflecting on his past actions and their motives- of approving of some and disapproving of others; and the fact that man is the one being who certainly deserves this designation, is the greatest of all distinctions between him and the lower animals." 
Even later he admits that articulate language is "peculiar to man." This sounds inconsistent, but only if we are using Mivart's two-sided notion of morality, one that pits "degree" against "kind". We could see Darwin as viewing the human moral sense as less of a radical break and more of an emergent property (this is an interpretation Larry Arnhart proposes in his book Darwinian Natural Right). If Darwin is describing a novel trait that appeared at a high level of complexity, producing an intellectual capacity that could not have been predicted at lower levels, then he is not contradicting himself. He really can say that man is distinct from other animals in a fundamental way (given the size and complexity of the human brain), without giving up the claim that man evolved his morality in a continuous way. This does not imply a break in the laws of nature, but rather an underlying uniqueness of human morality that depends on emergent traits. Novelty, therefore, can arise in a way that is compatible with Darwin’s theory.

I'll most likely have more to say on the dualisms that reappear in this evolutionary story, but so far it seems like breaking out of a two-sided world can be quite helpful.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Day 1: Evolution & Ethics – Darwin Was Here

The past decade has seen an explosion of research in the biology of human nature as related to morality. Systematic studies in genetics, neuroscience, cultural anthropology and animal behavior are supplying more data than ever before about the role of emotions in our moral judgments, similarities between human and non-human primate social behavior, and the evolutionary roots of our sense of right and wrong. Spanning both the sciences and humanities, this emerging field of the biology of morality seems to fulfill what E.O. Wilson had in mind over 30 years ago when he called for "ethics to be temporarily removed from the hands of the philosophers and biologicized." Philosophers may still cling tightly, but they're having to share their grip of ethics with a growing number of scientists.

Given all the increased attention – from an assortment of disciplines ranging from molecular biology to law – the concept of "biologicized" ethics may seem new, but in many ways it reflects an earlier trend in human inquiry that goes back to the ancient Greeks. When Aristotle called man a "political animal", he was not simply speaking in metaphor. His comparison was rooted in his own studies of biological sciences, which included detailed observations of a variety of plants and animals (and apparently the first dissection of a chimpanzee). He also compared humans to the other social animals – ants, bees, wasps and cranes. The moral and political nature of humans in biological terms was not an unfamiliar notion to Aristotle, but it would be transformed and solidified by another intellectual heavyweight millennia later: Charles Darwin. In his work The Descent of Man, Darwin laid out the basics for almost all subsequent discussion of evolution and ethics, and he did it without any knowledge of genetics or neuroscience. In fact, it can be quite a challenge to find a new idea in the field today that does not have its roots in Darwin's writings over 150 years ago. Consider the following quotes:
"any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man."
"The moral nature of man has reached its present standard, partly through the advancement of his reasoning powers and consequently of a just public opinion, but especially from his sympathies having been rendered more tender and widely diffused through the effects of habit, example, instruction, and reflection... nevertheless the first foundation or origin of the moral sense lies in the social instincts, including sympathy; and these instincts no doubt were primarily gained, as in the case of the lower animals, through natural selection."
The continuity of morality from lower animals to humans, the additional element of reason, the emphasis on social instincts and emotions like sympathy; all of these insights are coming into the forefront right now. Of course, some of the terminology has changed and there is vastly more data to work with, but the discussion still echoes Darwin to a surprising degree. As we face a new decade, I can only speculate about the potential advances in science, how their implications will ripple out into other disciplines, and how they'll change our views of human nature and morality. But if the past is any indicator, they'll probably stem from something Darwin said.

Friday, January 15, 2010


I made it to Oxford. It's beautiful, tiny, intriguing. If cities were subject to Photoshop tools, you'd have to slide the time scale back a few centuries and set the color saturation to 50%. Oh, and then slosh on some sort of melting-snow filter. Although it's neither possible or meaningful, I can't help but compare Oxford to the last foreign city I spent time in. Barcelona is still so much in my mind that it makes for some rather extreme comparisons (size-scale, weather, language).  Let's just say that even if I wasn't exactly looking for a contrast, I sure got one!

Monday I officially start my "short-term student visit" at the Center for Practical Ethics. This involves a visitor card, some desk space, and free reign to the plethora of events, lectures, and seminars at Oxford. First on the list is a seminar called "Evolution and Ethics", which lands smack in the middle of that very interesting cross section of science, morality, and religion:
"Can we, drawing upon our evolutionary history, find within our pre-human ancestors the basic ingredients of human morality? This seminar will examine the prospects and promise of evolutionary theory and some of its implications for religious belief. The participants will first consider the nature of morality and then various ways that evolutionary ethicists have sought to explain human morality." 
Amazing. If I can just manage to get a library card to the Bodleian Library, I can start delving into titles like Darwinian Natural Right and Primates and Philosophers. So much to do – I can barely wait to start! My goal is to post something each day of the seminar, and I'll try to continue that pattern for the rest of my visit (perhaps a bit ambitious, but it's 2010 and I'm aiming high). I'll try to explore some of the ideas I'm reading/learning about – mostly as a way to explain them to myself and work through questions. Of course, I'll also be making some comments on this funny little town where the friendly cashiers call you "love", the coin-sizing system is an utter mystery, and my sense of left and right is called into question every time I cross the street. Cheers.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Framing Climate

The presentation of science has been gaining a bit more attention recently, particularly around the issue climate change. The release of thousands of emails from a climate research unit in England (dubbed Climategate by skeptics) as well as the recent climate conference in Copenhagen have stirred up many conversations around the techniques of science framing and coverage. This interview with Matthew Nisbet is a great summary of some strategies – actual and potential – for reframing climate change and engaging the public. Nisbet, a professor of communication at American University in DC, coined the phrase "framing science" and has been writing about it for several years. Here are some of his insights:

Why the "crisis" frame doesn't work: 
"As an alternative strategy for generating greater public engagement, many environmental advocates and some journalists have attempted to reframe the issue in terms of "climate crisis."...This environmental catastrophe frame, however, is either not personally relevant enough to build broad-based support for action, is dismissed as remote and far off in the future, or is easily challenged as "alarmism," shifting public attention back to a paralyzing and false narrative that emphasizes contrarian views of climate science."

What frames would work better:
"Newly emerging perceptual contexts hold the promise of resonating with a broader coalition of Americans and social groups. Over time, these new meanings for climate change are likely to be key drivers of public engagement and, eventually, policy action. For example, Al Gore's more recent WE campaign has emphasized the moral imperative to to "repower America" through new energy technology and increased energy efficiency...

A second example of the moral imperative to take action is scientist E.O. Wilson's best-selling 2006 book The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth. In this book, Wilson frames environmental stewardship as not only a scientific matter, but also as a religious one...With this frame, Wilson has engaged Christian readers and media outlets that might not otherwise pay attention to popular science books or appeals related to climate change...

The public health implications of climate change have also emerged as a potentially powerful interpretive resource for engaging the public. This frame makes climate change personally relevant to new audiences by connecting the issue to health problems that are already familiar and perceived as important such as childhood asthma, food borne illness; and urban heat waves."

On social media and framing:
"With new forms of user-centered and user-controlled digital media such as blogs, online video, and social media sites, "bottom up" alternative frames are gaining greater influence in policy debates over issues such as climate change...government and foundation-led initiatives should focus on building a "participatory" public media infrastructure for science and environmental information.
We should think of these new models for non-profit science media as an integral part of the infrastructure that local communities need to adapt to climate change, to move forward with sustainable economic development, and to participate in the national policy debate."