About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

On intelligent design, memetics, and the consilience of science and humanities

Strange title for a blog entry, and in fact the three don’t have much in common, other than being the topics of recent columns I published in Skeptical Inquirer, and which may be of interest to readers of Rationally Speaking, perhaps generating some additional discussion and food for thought.

My essay on Intelligent Design essentially asks whether it is just a form of creationism. The answer, in my opinion, is yes, and I provide a hopefully clear example of why.

The piece about consilience (“the unity of knowledge”) is a partial criticism of the scientistic approach adopted, among others, by E.O. Wilson (not to be confused with David Sloan Wilson, who recently appeared as a guest on this blog, and who, in fact, co-authored an article on sociobiology with E.O. in the most recent issue of the Quarterly Review of Biology).

Finally, readers may be interested in a second look at my column on memetics (part of my “Dawkins trilogy”), since Susan Blackmore, of The Meme Machine fame, has issued a response, to which I counter-responded in Skeptical Inquirer. All in good fun.


  1. Massimo,

    I was wondering if you could speak a bit more to the currently prevailing attitudes about Consilience among scientists and evolutionary biologists in particular. My own impression is that a lot of people find the applications of biology to human culture fairly naive, if not outright silly.

    -- Chris

  2. "Intelligence design" is used to argue that there must be a god who designed the world, so I guess it is a form of creationism. It is also a silly argument since the design is unintelligent in many ways and since evolution provides the natural order which people point to as intelligent design.

    I'm not very familiar with memetics, but I'll read your essay about it.

  3. Chris,

    it is hard to say how widespread certain attitudes about consilience really are within the scientific community, there are no sociological data that I am aware of. However, when people of the caliber of E.O. Wilson speak, people listen. And of course there is much nonsense being spit out all the time by evolutionary psychologists...

  4. There is little doubt that Intelligent Design has been poisoned by ulterior motives, but that doesn't imply that the whole approach is dead. As an example, the present configuration of dogs has been, to a degree, crafted by intelligent design. We have made them conform to some decidedly non-Darwinian standards for our own purposes, esthetic and otherwise. It could also be argued that sexual selection in humans is, today, a form of intelligent design. If we were more intelligent, perhaps the changes would be more profound.

    Now, bear with me a moment, if we were to disappear from the scene, could future intelligent beings devine the Hand of Man from the inherited characteristics of the descendants of canis familiaris? Would they be able to deduce our existence from some constellation of peculiar features -- perhaps in the same manner that we can trace the peculiar history of the cichlids or the sequence of human migrations out of Africa.

    Now, numerous science fiction writers have suggested that some ETs could have influenced evolution on Earth. Arthur C. Clarke and Carl Sagan are among them. If we accept the hypothesis, how could we confirm or refute it? If there were discontinuities in our ancestry, could we at least begin to explore the idea that there were conscious choices taken? If we, ourselves, were to muck with the path of evolution on another planet, say Europa, how would we go about it? Presumably the ultimate purpose would be to create intelligent life. How could those beings ever know what had been done?

    We are, today, constructing lifeforms for industrial purposes. What might be the long term residue of our efforts? How might it differ from an undiverted course of evolutionary history? How could we recognize a similar event in our past?

    I think that Dembski's criteria are actually pretty sound. There is obviously much that we don't know and can perhaps never know, but I do think we have satisfied the requirements many times over since Darwin. As you suggest, each gap filled is a confirmation of an implicit prediction. If we were to fairly calculate the statistical probability of all those events, given the null hypothesis that Natural Selection was not involved, the result would be so strong that no one could argue against it. The next step is to quantify the expected rates of change and measure them against some more operational version of Dembski's yardstick. Can't be done, you say, but maybe we could chip away at it.

  5. "If we were to fairly calculate the statistical probability of all those events, given the null hypothesis that Natural Selection was not involved, the result would be so strong that no one could argue against it."

    How could that be the null hypothesis? Isn't that the very circle that ID is trying to square?

  6. Massimo,

    Thanks for making all these PDFs available! I have a question on the memetics essay.

    You mentioned that evolution is often accused of using circular reasoning. (Ie. only the fittest survive, and the ones that survive are the fittest.)

    You said the circle is broken because there are independent ways of judging fitness. Could you give a few examples?

    Stepping back for a moment, do we even need to address this point? I thought "only the fittest survive" was actually a mischaracterization of Darwin's theory.

    The criticism also sounds silly when applied to artificial selection, which could be called "survival of the most desirable". If we want dogs with short legs, we choose those dogs for breeding. Which dogs are most desired? The ones we allow to survive! It seems circular, but it leaves out the additional steps of actually breeding the dogs.

  7. Sneb,

    the circularity problem holds only for simplistic versions of the Darwinian theory, but my point is precisely that memetics is an example of simplistic application of Darwinism, at least for now.

    As for specific examples of how to get out of the circularity problem, there is a large physiological and biomechanical literature that uses optimization theory to predict the best fit phenotype in a given environment. One then goes out and tests such predictions. If the prediction holds, this is consistent with the action of natural selection.

    Thanks for spotting the typos!

  8. Paul01,

    I'm not exactly sure what you're asking, but let me give it a shot. The null hypothesis, in statistical jargon, generally refers to the assumption that you are trying to disprove. I maintain, along with most everyone else who has studied the subject, that modern species have evolved over time from earlier forms by means of differential reproductive success imposed by environmental contingencies. Therefore, my null hypothesis, the point I am trying to disprove, is that the environment has no long term impact on the distribution of physical features within a species. The traditional religious characterization of the natural world is that species are immutable. No one can seriously believe that any more, but some do seriously believe that species do not arise from earlier species.

    So if I were Darwin, I would have made a wager with the skeptics of the time. Give me a list, I would have said, of species pairs that are similar, but in your opinion, not related. If I can find a fossil for, say, fifty percent of these pairs that represents a plausible common ancestor, then the bet requires you to accept that evolution from common ancestors has taken place. Likewise give me a list of complex features that you feel could not have arisen through many small changes, each having a beneficial effect for the organism. If I can satisfactorily document a plausible scenario for, say, 20 percent of these impossible events, you are required by the bet to accept the efficacy of natural selection.

    I believe that if a formally structured "contest" had been instituted from the beginning, requiring both sides to state their prior estimates of probability for a list of assertions, then the results by now would have been irrefutable. The problem with creationists is that they keep moving the goal posts.

  9. jj dollo

    Thanks for your explanation. I believe I misread the early part of the paragraph of yours that I quoted from, and hence I got the tenor of your comment wrong.


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