Monday, August 25, 2008

Book: Darwin's Cathedral

An evolutionary concept that hasn't received much attention over the years is that of Group Selection, which is the idea that natural selection favors certain variations that lead to differential rates of survival and reproduction between groups. This differntial success rate results in adaptations that benefit the group rather than just the individual. More simply put; a group that possesses a particular group trait or behavior would be more likely survive (and reproduce) over the long term than another group that does not possess the group trait or behavior. Part of the reason for this inattention is because it has been thought to play only a minor role in evolutionary processes compared to the faster and more effective individual selection. Another piece is likely the strong arguments made for individual (genetic) selection and against group selection in books such as The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype by Richard Dawkins and Adaptation and Natural Selection by George C. Williams. While my understanding of the arguments against group selection have always been limited at best, and I am unlikely to do them any real justice here, I have understood evolution as a process that takes place at the individual, level rather than as a group process. However, the idea of group selection also maintained some degree of intuitive credibility in my mind; I simply understood that it could result entirely from variation between individuals, on the genetic level.

In Darwin's Cathedral, David Sloan Wilson argues that the rejection of group selection as a major component in the story of evolution was premature and a 'wrong turn' (p. 12), and insists that the arguments against group selection are overstated. He indicates that the flaw in these arguments lies in their assumption that group selection is simply a part of individual selection. He presents a new model for evolution which maintains group selection and individual selection as separate processes that work in conjuncture with one another. This model, called 'Multilevel Selection Theory' purports to reintegrate group level selection with individual selection. In this context, behaviors that are generally understood to increase individual fitness despite their appearance of being generous or altruistic remain such, but other behaviors that require and promote large scale group cooperation to the extent that they increase the likelihood of group survival compared to other groups can be understood in terms of group selection. In the book he focuses on the example of Religion as just one social institution that has provided the type of variation between groups which leads to differential survival at the group level.

Wilson examines a variety of perspectives throughout the social sciences that have been used to explain the phenomenon of religion, particularly those posited by Emil Durkheim and Rodney Stark. He makes two major observations which provide the theme and tone of the book. First, he points out the fragmentary nature of the social sciences, sociologists rely on a different overarching structure to explain behavior than psychologists or anthropologists might. The various disciplines within the social sciences never really bother to ensure that their frameworks are consistent with one another. He argues that they ought to work towards some sort of unification, so that our sociological explanations for group behaviors are not contradictory to what we know about human psychology or our anthropological understanding. As a social scientist myself, this point is well taken, as I've often felt the various silos can and do overlap a great deal. The second observation/statement he makes is that an evolutionary explanation may be the type of framework needed to facilitate such an integration of disciplines. I also found this to be an intriguing proposition.

Wilson tests the various social sciences explanations of religion alongside his multilevel selection theory by examining several modern and historic denominational cases studies to determine which explanation offered the most comprehensive understanding. Using examples of behaviors and ideas from early Christianity, Calvinism, the Gospels, Balinese tribal religion, Judaism, and modern Christianity he demonstrates how religions possess characteristics that seem to be adapted specifically to their temporal, geographic, and societal environments based on the survival advantage they provide for groups of individuals rather than just individuals or cultural memes. This survival advantage offered to groups by certain aspects of religion does not depend on whether the religion's doctrines about the supernatural are actually true, but rather on their ability to provide the group of adherents with some survival advantage over other religious groups.

It must be understood that the survival advantages offered by particularly religious ideas are not necessarily the result of intentional human decisions, but as a natural occurrence in the evolution of religious ideas. Every new idea or twist builds upon an existing religious framework; the group who adopts this new iteration is then subject to a variety of environmental pressures which can lead to either the flourishing survival or the decimation and extinction of the group. Thus it is an evolutionary process that is subject to natural selection.

My understanding of some of the arguments presented in this book is limited, and thus my ability to truly critically assess the arguments is limited. However, I did think that multilevel selection made intuitive sense, but the difference between it and the standard individual level selection is perhaps too subtle for me to nail down. It does seem reasonable to view groups as an additional adaptive unit whose survival can be enhanced or limited by their social institutions. As such, religion would be a natural outgrowth of our biological evolution. The survival or our religious ideas is tied to the ideas' ability to provide an environmentally specific adaptive advantage to the group who adopts that idea. I'm not entirely certain however whether this is best understood as a multilevel process or an individual level process.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Book: Saving Darwin - How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution

Karl Giberson is an and a physics professor at an Evangelical Christian university (Eastern Nazarene College), he also accepts Darwin's theory of evolution as the best scientific description for how life on Earth came to be the way it is. While many Evangelical Christians see acceptance of evolution to be in conflict with the Christian faith, many others such as Giberson are capable of integrating an understanding and acceptance of evolution with their Christian faith.

When I picked up Giberson's book Saving Darwin, I anticipated it would follow much the same format and cover much of the same material as any number of other decent books examining the relationthisp between science and faith from a Christian perspective. That is to say that I anticipated it would demonstrate why evolution is good science, why objections to evolution are not, and how he conceptualizes his faith in light of evolution. However, Giberson takes a slightly different approach to discussing the 'conflict' between faith and science, which ultimately kept the book interesting while discussing the elements essential for such a book to be informative, and provided a longer discussion than most of the history behind the 'conflict'.

Giberson approaches the discussion of evolution and faith from a historical perspective, providing insights into the early religious objections that began as a fringe opinion among the Seventh Day Adventist sect. These objections became canonized around the turn of the 20th century during the rise of Christian fundamentalism, and have been around in great number among Evangelical Christians ever since. At the time of the publication 'The Fundamentals' pamphlet series, which defined fundamentalism for generations to come, Giberson points out that discussion of the dangers of evolution was generally coming from isolated sects of believers, and it received scant mention in 'The Fundamentals'. He suggests this is due to an understanding by the authors of 'The Fundamentals' that the issue of evolution was not critical to the Christian faith, and perhaps also due to a general acceptance of evolution as the scientific explanation for the diversity of life on earth. Without a lot of reading into this history, I'm not entirely sure how valid this interpretation is, but I have my doubts about the marginal nature of creationist objections to evolution.

Giberson makes sure to assert the scientific validity of Darwin's theory of evolution and to point out the flaws in the main objections to Darwin's theory, he tends to offer a patient and sympathetic critique of such objections rather than simply dismissing them as intellectually dishonest positions promoted by religious crackpots who don't bother to understand the scientific method. My initial feeling was that he was probably going a little bit easy on them, but given that the purpose of the book is to promote understanding and acceptance of evolution among Evangelical Christians by demonstrating that Christianity need not be at odds with the scientific understanding of evolution, his tone makes sense.

While Giberson is careful not to step on the toes of his religious brethren who object to evolution, he is slightly more critical of those non-religious scientists who are openly critical of religion as a kind of poison to society. Giberson accurately states that the limitations in the scope of scientific inquiry make it impossible to obtain definitive scientific answers about concepts that are outside the realm of material existence, concepts such as God. However, the tone of his criticisms directed toward authors such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Stephen Jay Gould seems to suggest the often ugly tone of the conversation about faith and science has come primarily from the non-religious end of the spectrum. Although I share a similar religious background as Giberson, I've always felt that the negative tone started from the religious side. The reality is probably that all along the way there has been overly negative posturing from both sides of the debate coupled with ad hominem attacks and over generalized conclusions.

The final part of the book, that part typically reserved for a demonstration of how one might reconcile their faith with their scientific understanding, doesn't ever really get off the ground. The subtitle of the book 'How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution' is never directly addressed, which I find slightly odd and a somewhat disappointing aspect of this book. Giberson does discuss the flaws he sees with the theology behind young earth creationism and intelligent design, but he doesn't provide a framework by which one could begin to understand how he conceives of God. It is obvious throughout the book that his faith at one time tended towards a fundamentalist reading of the Bible and, while sometimes difficult, along the way he's been able to accomodate his understanding of science and evolution without abandoning his faith, but he isn't clear how he determines the degree to which he reads the Bible 'literally', what attributes he ascribes to God, or how he understands central Christian assertions (such as Jesus' resurrection) that appear to defy scientific understanding. Perhaps the reality is that when discussing theological assertions, there is clear manner of parsing verifiable truth from myth, or perhaps Giberson himself doesn't feel that such a grand task is within the scope of his book.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Book: Evolution - The Triumph of An Idea

This is another book that I listened to on CD as I drove back to KC from Ontario the other day; These are some of my thoughts in response to the book.

Ever since Darwin first published his theory of evolution in On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection there has been ongoing controversy surrounding the theory and it's implications. It's important to note that this controversy does not exist within the scientific community, but in the realm of dogmatic religious thinking which requires the Biblical creation story to be literal history. For scientists, the theory provides the overarching framework by which all of biology is understood. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Darwin's theory is that while Darwin published it 150 years ago, before the age of genetics and biochemistry, it flourishes under intense critical scrutiny and continues to be supported by new scientific evidence that Darwin could never have conceived of. Due to it's exceptional simplicity and vast explanatory power, this theory has been called, 'the greatest idea ever' by Daniel Dennett. I too would add Darwin's idea to the short list of best ideas ever. In Evolution Carl Zimmer chronicles the history of this great idea, from its earliest days, to it's role in modern science, and into the future.

Zimmer recounts the days prior to Darwin's theory in which the fact that life on earth had changed over time was well known among most people with a rudimentary knowledge of scientific discovery. Many thinkers who immediately preceded Darwin had put forth their own ideas about how such change took place. However they often came up woefully short in their ability to explain the scientific data and generate fruitful predictions about future findings. Darwin's unique contribution occurred to him while travelling the world as a young and green naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle. He realized that the apparent changes in life over time were in direct response to environmental changes brought on by geological and climatological events in the earth's history. As the environment changed, certain traits that varied among members of a species might confer ever so slight a survival advantage to the individual(s) possessing that trait. When extrapolated over immense periods of time and further environmental changes, such changes will lead to a great diversity of life such as we observe in our world. This mechanism for change, which Darwin called 'Natural Selection', is the defining characteristic of Darwinian evolution.

Throughout the book, as science marches forward, Zimmer provides numerous examples of findings that could only have been predicted under the framework of Darwinian evolution and thus lend further support for Darwin's theory. He also discusses the many anti-evolution objections and legal battles that have arisen over the years, most notably in the United States. Early objections often took the form of overtly religious sentiment, citing a literal interpretation of the Biblical creation story and genealogies as reason enough to reject Darwinian evolution as the explanation for life's diversity and the geological evidence for a very old earth. However, after a handful of high profile embarrassments showing that this form of young earth creationism had no scientific merit, the anti-evolutionists abandoned this form of overt religious objection.

More recently, anti-evolutionists have attempted to reframe their objections in scientific terminology, with concepts such as Intelligent Design (ID). While ID dresses itself up in scientific language, it lacks any scientific credibility since it doesn't adhere to the scientific method of generating and testing hypotheses, nor does it provide any evidence in support of it's 'theory'. While ID advocates like to pretend that their objections have some scientific basis rather than simply being religious arguments, they are incapable of supporting their conclusions with any form of scientific data. Not only is their objection motivated solely by their overly simplistic literal interpretation of scripture, ID promotes a way of thinking that is intellectually inert. The manner by which ID draws conclusions is by looking for gaps in our existing scientific understanding, such as how the human blood clotting mechanism evolved. Once such a gap is identified, ID then waves it's magic wand and concludes that an Intelligent Designer (read God) created the structure from scratch. This sort of premature conclusion serves only to stifle further investigation or understanding of the human blood clotting mechanism since it suggests that all is known that we are capable of knowing. This manner of thinking not only lacks scientific credibility, but also strains theological credulity as well. What happens to our conceptions of God if and when we do determine how the blood clotting mechanism evolved? Objections to evolution are not scientific, or even scientifically motivated. When someone suggests that science curriculum should 'teach the controversy' or 'the weaknesses of evolution', they are asking for equal time to be given for a severely inferior idea that has no scientific basis and they are not promoting quality science education.

Towards the end of the book, Zimmer spends a little bit of time discussing some of the more recent and perhaps speculative ideas that have sprouted from Darwinian thinking such as evolutionary psychology, cultural evolution, artificial intelligence, and ecology. His discussion of each of these is rather brief, but a good overview of some of the newer developments in fields that have been and will continue to be informed by Darwinian evolution. For each of these, there are much more comprehensive discussions to be found elsewhere, but Zimmer provides a good introduction.

For a relatively short book (423 pages) Evolution touches on a wide variety of subjects and scientific findings, with the purpose of demonstrating the importance and far reach of Darwin's theory. While the book may be a little bit overwhelming as an introduction to Evolution, it is a great second or third book for someone who has done a little bit of reading about evolution.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Book: What Happened

In the car the other day, as I was driving up to Ontario from KC, I decided I'd take the opportunity to 'read' a book on CD that I was unlikely to get around to ever actually reading. I went with the much hyped What Happened by Scott McClellan, George Bush's press secretary from 2003 to 2006. While I won't presume to add much to the large number of reviews out there, I'll simply post some of my thoughts on the book.

Since it's release this spring, the book has received a lot of publicity as the memoir of an administration insider who came to be somewhat critical of the Bush cadre and their handling of a variety of issues. Receiving much of the attention were McClellan's comments about the administration coming to believe their own rhetoric in the lead up to the war in Iraq, coupled with their inability (or unwillingness) to ever honestly and critically assess the results of their own actions and policies. Overall, these thoughts may not be as revelatory as one would have hoped since many of McLellan's criticisms had been speculated about much earlier by others who were opposed to the war and critical of the Bush administration. Being one such person myself however, there were moments in the book where I had a self righteous 'told you so' sense of satisfaction when receiving verification of my opinions from someone with first hand knowledge of the administration.

An additional portion that I felt added to my understanding of the political machinery behind the Iraq war was the admission by McClellan that Bush's real vision and intentions for the war revolved around the notion of transforming the Middle East by introducing American style democracy. Bush saw the invasion of Iraq as the lynchpin to such a transformation which would then spread throughout the region. Since the American public would be unlikely to support the war with it's cost in lives and money based on such a rationale, the marketing of the war required a different theme. Thus, the selling of the war to the American public revolved around the idea that Iraq posed a clear and imminent threat to the American (and Western) way of life, even though evidence for such a notion was flimsy at best and non-existent at worst. Providing some verification that Bush and co. were never being completely forthright about the evidence or their intentions during the run up to war.

McClellan chronicles his own time working for Bush from the late 90's when Bush was Governor of Texas, up to the abrupt ending of his tenure as press secretary in 2006. In the process, Mclellan is probably more detailed than he needs to be when describing his 'behind the scenes' experiences and perspectives, but from time to time he has an interesting insight or observation about the administration that may not have been apparent to a non-insider. One example being his description of the progression from Bush functioning as a popular and ostensibly bi-partisan governor to a presidential administration that is extremly insulated, defensive, and secretive. Generally, you get the feeling that despite his criticisms, McLellan maintains a deep admiration for the President. McClellan even succeeds in humanizing Bush (to an extent) for someone like me who has always thought of Bush to be out of touch with the majority of humanity. McClellan appears to have less admiration for others in the administration that he feels hung him out to dry as their representative to the press during the yellow-cake and Plame affairs.

To a fault McClellan paints a picture of himself as something of an accidental beneficiary who stumbles into a number of high profile positions and opportunities without actively jockeying for a position in the halls of power. He may be doing this unintentionally, but he may also be attempting to veil his ambitious aspirations and perhaps feign humility. The result is a narrative that had me thinking to myself, "This guy sounds like the Forrest Gump of the American political scene" every time he described some new advancement opportunity he was faced with. Generally speaking, the book is probably much longer than it needs to be for the little bit of insight I actually derived from it. For that reason, I'm glad I listened to the 12 hour reading as I drove, rather than using time that could have otherwise been productive.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Starting off...

So I decided to start a blog. This is all in the hope that I would record some of my thoughts in writing. My plan is to post thoughts I have about things that interest me including science, religion, psychology, and current events, to name a few. My hope is to also write posts about books as I finish reading them, just to keep a record of what I thought at the time of reading. I always have about 10 books that I'm working my way through (some faster than others) at any given point in time, so these 'reviews' will likely come in fits and starts. It's my hope that I'll have something to write about that is interesting, at least to me, but hopefully to others as well. If anyone else ever actually checks this out, hopefully you'll find it either entertaining, interesting, or perhaps even insightful. I enjoy discussion, so I invite comments about any of my posts, especially if you disagree with something I've said. Since I haven't been around quite long enough to know everything yet, many of my thoughts are a work in progress, and may even be informed by some of your comments. I have a couple of new posts in the works and should be posted soon....we'll see how this goes.