Looking Up Instead of Down

Two pieces today about how humanity is progressing, in its understanding of the world and in its social progress, rather than regressing, as conservative movements around the world are striving to do.

  • Richard Dawkins on science as a jewel in humanity’s crown;
  • Steven Pinker on how humanity, through institutions, can overcome the evolutionary derived bases for the more toxic relationships among families and friends;
  • And my comments about why conservatives are against these things.
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Richard Dawkins, Free Inquiry, February/March 2024: Science, the Poetry of Reality, Jewel in Humanity’s Crown

This article was delivered as the keynote lecture at CSICon 2023 last October, slightly modified from its original publication in 2011, and is a chapter in the author’s 2017 book Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist.

It’s long for a magazine piece; about 10 pages in the 2017 book.

Aristotle was tutor to Alexander the Great.

You could be the tutor of Aristotle. And thrill him to the core of his being.

Aristotle’s was one of the great intellects of all time. But you know far more. You have a deeper, more penetrating, more comprehensive understanding of the way the world works. Such is the privilege of living after Galileo, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, and Max Planck. I am emphatically not belittling Aristotle’s genius. Today, he could walk into a seminar on philosophy or ethics, no problem. But not science. Science is another matter. Because science advances cumulatively.

No, Aristotle, the brain is not for cooling the blood. It’s what you use to do your philosophy, your logic and your metaphysics, your rhetoric and your ethics. It’s what you use to think about your material cause, your formal, efficient, and final causes. Your loves and your hates, your thoughts and your dreams; they’re all emergent consequences of nerve impulses chattering away like machine guns inside your skull.

You could blow Aristotle’s mind by telling him about gravitation waves, or showing him an iPhone. …

Philosophers of science love to say that present scientific knowledge is only an unfalsified approximation to a deeper truth. But have you noticed how often they rely on a single hackneyed example: Newtonian gravity as a workable approximation to general relativity. How many other examples fit the pattern? In my own field of evolutionary biology, we have facts that are not temporary, unfalsified approximations. They are just plain true. If you trace your great-great-grandparents and a chimpanzee’s great-great-grandparents back sufficiently far, you will hit a common ancestor. That’s not an approximation. It’s a simple fact. It’s just true.

People are still attracted to the obsolete “essentialism” of Plato.

My purpose is not to belittle the ancients. The point is only that science is cumulative. If Aristotle had been born in 1800, he might have beaten Darwin to it. Archimedes might have given Newton a run for his money. The scientist of any age stands on the shoulders of not just giants, as Newton said, but lesser shoulders of countless ordinary workaday scientists. Cumulatively, collectively, science climbs to where our vision outreaches the horizon of a lone individual, out toward the Event Horizon of the very cosmos itself, and back to the dawn of time and space, energy, and matter. That is science. And science is glorious.

I shall be accused of the sin of scientism, the belief that science can answer all questions. I plead guilty but with mitigation. The accusation often goes with a parallel accusation: a charge of being deficient in poetic imagination. That is preposterous. I’ll give just one quote, from the great Indian physicist Subramanyan Chandrasekhar:

This “shuddering before the beautiful,” this incredible fact that a discovery motivated by a search after the beautiful in mathematics should find its exact replica in Nature, persuades me to say that beauty is that to which the human mind responds at its deepest and most profound. 

Then there’s the accusation of arrogance, of claiming to know everything. But science is humble. It has to be. We love what we don’t know, because it gives us something to do. Here are some of the things we don’t know:

Summarizing: how life began; how consciousness evolved in our brains; how or why (we know when) the universe began. He goes on to discuss the strangeness or weirdness of science: how solid matter is mostly empty space; how relativity is so counterintuitive. How we live in a so-called Middle World, a model of the world constructed in our minds, evolved for survival in the real world.

I pleaded guilty to the sin of scientism but with mitigating circumstances. Scientism, in the strong pejorative sense, thinks science can answer every question. Of course, it cannot and doesn’t try. Science is not in the business of telling whether Karajan or Solti was the better conductor. That’s personal preference. Nor can science tell right from wrong, good from evil. We must decide on other grounds. Science cannot tell you that it’s wrong to inflict pain on sentient beings. But if you decide, on other grounds, that inflicting pain is wrong, science can help you decide what is likely to be painful and which beings are likely to be sentient.

Though he footnotes Sam Harri’s THE MORAL LANDSCAPE here. Going on: “For some reason, our Pleistocene brains turned out emergently capable of calculus and chemistry. But that’s already an amazing bonus. We are not entitled to expect our neural equipment to understand everything. We may encounter deep problems that will forever be beyond us.”

He goes on for some time discussing modern objections to science. Science as a tool of the patriarchy. Examples of nonsensical, feminist metaphors, e.g. that Newtonian physics should be called “Newton’s rape manual”, or that the experimental method is suspect because it was the “brainchild of white males.” This merges with cancel culture on the left (though he doesn’t use that term): words and phrases to be purged, e.g. “double-blind experiment” because that insults the blind. He squarely defends the idea that sex is indeed discontinuous: male and female.

He describes participating in a double-blind experiment on TV, with dowsers, who were surprised they lost. One of them said, that’s why we don’t do double-blind experiments, they never work! How science tries to overcome subjective bias. How science discarded “vitalism.”

I’ll quote the final paragraphs.

Science is beautiful. It’s beautiful because it’s elegant. And it’s beautiful because it’s true. And of course, it is also useful.

Historically, the benefits of science to humanity need no listing. Although admittedly, when applying to the British Charity Commission for charitable status for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, I was startled when they asked me to kindly explain how science benefits human welfare. I did my best to oblige them. I take it there is no need to do so for readers of this publication. But benefit to human welfare, important as it is, is not the main reason I would stand up for science as a sublime triumph of our species.

Evolution has delivered at least a billion species over a period of four billion years. Only one of these species knows where it exists (in one arm of a spiral galaxy, one of many billions of galaxies). Only one species knows what it is made of (atoms belonging to a known list of elements), and it knows what atoms are made of (up quarks, down quarks, and electrons). Only one species knows why it exists (to propagate the genes that designed individuals). Only one species knows how to discover such things (the scientific method, which belongs to all humanity).

Faint hearts find it a bleak and cold conclusion that we are survival machines made of atoms, living finitely on a rock spinning around an ordinary star hanging in a vacuum in the suburbs of a galaxy, one galaxy among billions. But the universe owes us no comfort. And there is a savage nobility in standing up to face the truth. I cannot think of a better way to enjoy our transient brush with reality than to work at understanding it.

Science is the poetry of reality, zenith of human achievement, jewel in our species’ crown.


Next. I’m finally, this month, sitting down to read Steven Pinker’s 1997 book How the Mind Works all the way through. I’ve read pieces of the book several times over the years (I even mentioned it in my essay), but haven’t read it all the way through until now. I’ll discuss it more fully another time, but I’ve noticed in my reading of it how many fewer lengthy, eloquent, philosophical passages there were in this book than in some of Pinker’s later ones. Until the last 50 pages or so. I’ll quote a paragraph or two.

He’s spent the bulk of this 565 page (not counting notes, index, etc.) book discussing, among other things, how the logic of genetic reproductive fitness, refined over hundreds of thousands or even millions of years, plays out in relationships between kith and kin, parents and children, brothers and sisters, men and women, husbands and wives, rivals, friends and acquaintances, allies and enemies — these are the subheadings of Chapter 7, “Family Values,” running nearly 100 pages. These are familiar topics to me, mostly from later books. His conclusions validate what he admits are stereotypes about such relations, and which some modernists like to think are defects of modern culture. They’re not; they’re innate, because they make sense in the evolutionary long run.

Near the end of this chapter he asks, under the subheading “Humanity” on page 517,

So should we all just take poison now and be done with it? Some people think that evolutionary psychology claims to have discovered that human nature is selfish and wicked. But they are flattering the researchers and anyone who would claim to have discovered the opposite. No one needs a scientist to measure whether humans are prone to knavery. The question has been answered in the history books, the newspapers, the ethnographic record, and the letters of Ann Landers. But people treat it like an open question, as if someday science might discover that it’s all a bad dream and we will wake up to find that it is human nature to love one another. The task of evolutionary psychology is not to weigh in on human nature, a task best left to others. It is to add the satisfying kind of insight that only science can provide: to connect what we know about human nature with the rest of our knowledge of how the world works, and to explain the largest number of facts with the smallest number of assumptions. Already a large part of our social psychology, well documented in the lab and the field, can be shown to fall out of a few assumptions about kin selection, parental investment, reciprocal altruism, and the computational theory of mind.

And yet, he goes on, people can be good in so many ways, and the human condition has vastly improved of the centuries. How to explain this? (This section anticipates Pinker’s later book The Better Angels of Our Nature, which I’ve partially written-up ending here.)

If the brain has not changed over the centuries, how can the human condition have improved? Part of the answer, I think, is that literacy, knowledge, and the exchange of ideas have undermines some kinds of exploitation. It’s not that people have a well of goodness that moral exhortations can tap. It’s that information can be framed in a way that makes exploiters look like hypocrites or fools. One of our baser instincts — claiming authority on a pretext of beneficence and competence — can be cunningly turned on the others. When everyone sees graphic representations of suffering, it is no longer possible to claim that no harm is being done. When a victim gives a first-person account in words the victimizer might use, it’s harder to maintain that the victims are a lesser kind of being. When a speaker is shown to be echoing the words of his enemy or of a past speaker whose policies led to disaster, his authority can crumble. …

People throughout history have invented ingenious technologies that turn one part of the mind against another and eke increments of civility from a human nature that was not selected for niceness: rhetoric, exposes, mediation, face-saving measures, contracts, deterrence, equal opportunity, courts, enforceable laws, monogamy, limits on economic inequality, abjuring vengeance, and many others.

He goes on. And notices how such practical wisdom might humble “utopian theoreticians.”

This is beautiful, and he expands upon on this in that later book — how humanity has progressed by institutionalizing practices that sidestep our base instincts.

This plays to my recurring theme in this blog that it is both science and “literacy, knowledge, and the exchange of ideas” that conservatives are against, since they see them as threatening their culture, their traditions, their religions. What they are really trying to retain are the ancient, evolutionarily derived motivations of base human nature. Why? Because those motivations have been precisely refined to prioritize reproductive success, and tribal solidarity and survival — conservatives don’t put it in those terms (they don’t “believe” in natural selection), but that’s what they’re actually talking about. Save the children. Protect the children from ideas that might threaten their own settling down and raising children. Ironically, these are the priorities of base animalistic survival, even as the religious would insist that humans are above mere animals. Yet for these priorities they would forego any kind of change, or learning, or new experience, or growth, that might be a distraction from achieving them.

This is not to say that theirs is a wrong way to live. Nor, of course, am I addressing some stark black and white dichotomy between that mindset and any other. In everything there is a range, a spectrum. What many of us non-conservatives resent is the efforts by a certain group of conservatives to prohibit or suppress any way of life other than their own. I post items about these efforts all the time. Ban books that might reveal other ways of living, so children never hear about them. Ban practices that conservative religious beliefs find objectionable. At the extreme, institute Christian Nationalism through the government, as a group is planning to do once, if, Trump is re-elected. If progress is the gradual expansion of options, as I like to say, the aim of conservative zealots is to eliminate all options except their own. Which is not the way to an equitable, mature society (remember the David Brooks item cited in this post three days ago, about the need for pluralism).

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