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.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Massimo's picks

* The Scientist published a special on the evolution of evolutionary theory. Yours truly is abundantly quoted, alongside the usual two or three critics...

* Apparently, the current crop of American novelists are both more sensitive to feminist concerns and a hell of lot less interesting when it comes to sex...

* The problem with the US Senate is not the filibuster, it's that it's cheap to filibuster.

* Apparently some people are depressed, and even suicidal, because they don't live on Pandora, Avatar's imaginary world. Get a life, and while you're at it, go down to Haiti and make yourselves useful.

* How many philosophers are anti-realists about science?

* Center for Inquiry's take on the latest obscene absurdities from Pat Robertson, the Devil and Haiti.

* For Hindus the Ganga river is holy, but not enough to stop polluting it.


  1. I have a lot of problems with the Roiphe article on sex scenes in fiction. To name two:

    (1) Roiphe describes how her acquaintance threw away a Roth novel because of its sex scenes, and Roiphe suggests, "Did it perhaps retain a little of the provocative fire its author might have hoped for?"
    This kind of thinking always bugs me; she seems to be suggesting that a strong negative reaction to a work of art is a credit to the artist. But when I react negatively to a work of art it's usually because I think it's just really poor in concept and/or execution -- so to take my negative reaction as proof of the work's merit strikes me as perverse.

    (2) I'm not sure feminism has much to do with the shift in tone in sex scenes over the last few decades. It's possible. But based on the examples Roiphe gives, my guess is this: Writers always want to be surprising and original. In Mailer's time, that was accomplished by being frank and graphic about sex (as Roiphe points out, they were writing "with the thrill of the censors at their backs"). But now that everyone's so used to frank discussion of sex, writers are trying to be surprising by rejecting or questioning that trend.

  2. The Huffington Post piece about the cost of the filibuster accepts as a premise that everything can be boiled down to market theory. Does anyone really believe that the number of filibusters is related to the number of times the Washington DC telephone directory is read into the Congressional Record. What is clearly going on is two political parties, with slight differences in ideology, jockey for political control. Thus health care "reform" is not reform and actually benefits health insurance companies yet is opposed for political advantage.

  3. "Pat Robertson is a Nut..." probably true.

    Having a Pentecostal grandmother with classic bipolar 1, I'm used to bizarre accusations. They're usually leveled at family members or neighbors, but take the same form as Mr. Robertson's ridiculous assertion.

    Religion has validity beyond its supernatural claims, but a fundamentalist approach seems to reinforce mental pathology.

  4. I have a book on my shelf "Darwinism Evolving" which traces the history of the evolution research tradition since before Darwin. It's a surprisingly fat book. Lots of conceptual shifts, but Darwin certainly hit one big nail right on the head. We just learn more and more about how the principle instantiates in the world.

    ... In the article, what's talked about is interesting and doubtless valid, but that isn't what I think of as multilevel selection, which has to do with individuals vs. tribes/herds/flocks, as Wilson and Wilson. Or is it meant, the (lower) chemical level invading the (higher) genetic level??

  5. Blue Ridge,

    multilevel selection theory refers to more levels than the traditional individual vs. group. It includes species (at the upper extreme) and individual genes (at the lower one).

  6. Multilevel inheritance describes passing on phenotypic changes to subsequent generations in ways that lie outside the genetic code of DNA.


    Oh, I see down a bit

    Why is the Modern Synthesis lacking?...Evolution was defined as a change in the genetic composition of populations.

    Pretty strong statement! But we can take it as shorthand for "one accepted measure of evolutionary change was defined as..." Science writers, eh? I'm still not sure what implications epigenetic inheritance has for multilevel selection theory. Sure, selection takes place among populations of genes as well as populations of people. If you view people as associated with a unique set of genes, then you can do as Richard Dawkins does and reify the evolving population of people as an evolving population of genes. Epigenetics seems to undermine the idea that "you are your genes", but we knew that anyway. You can regard epigenetics as like disease organisms and do the comparative advantage math anyway. Nei?

  7. Pat Robertson's Comments

    Many people may not be able to appreciate or understand the fact that Voodoo is like superstition and religion on meth or speed. Secularists and others commenting on Pats remarks don't seem to be bothered in the least that Voodoo is the state religion of Haiti. ???!

    Possibly Pat Robertson could have chosen a better time and place (but I even hesitate to say that)to commentate of the issue, but ultimately I think most Haitians would actually agree with him. The Haitian culture is particularly self defeating and there must be a good reason for that.

    Does anyone have a better reason for this intense poverty than the 'white or lighter class' has suppressed, beaten the whole country down and they've never had a chance? If that were true, the Dominican Republic ought to be just as bad off but it just isn't.

  8. Yes Cal, there are better explanations. They are in political economy and history. I have come across several links lately for obvious reasons. I will pick some of the best of them and post them here, if I remember.(been very busy) You won't like any of them anyway, but for the benefit of others I will try to remember.

  9. Here is one link on Robertson/Haiti


  10. I really like the idea of evolvability. Are there any books out there which would give me a better understanding of the concept?

  11. yup, I recommend:


  12. Well, Sheldon, I could like it if the writer understood Voodoo or Catholicism.

    The writer blatantly says here below my comments that "Haitians are Christians". But what many Haitians believe is that is that they can be Catholic while they mix Voodoo in with their churchy practices. The Catholic church doesn't even teach Salvation by faith alone in Christ alone. Christians? By whose definition? Voodoo as well is a very dark religion. How can the writer assume that it could be Christian? It's clearly an opinion piece.

    Editor: Joan Walsh
    Updated: Today
    Is there any truth to what Pat Robertson is saying?

    Of course not! Haitians are Christians. Pat Robertson's language is the reductio ad absurdum of the Christian right. It's so absurd it's almost funny. This notion of a pact with the devil is basically an echo of an old colonial response to the successes of the 1790s Haitian revolution.

    What is this pact he's talking about?

    Part of the revolution mythology is that one of the revolution leaders sacrificed a pig in Bois Caïmin in a voodoo ceremony and made a contract with Petwo [Haitian voodoo spirits]. It may or may not be true, but to call that a pact with the devil is a gross misrepresentation of what voodoo is. It's about anything but the devil. He's imposing an evangelical religious order on a much more sophisticated practice, and he's turning it into a cheap invocation of Satanism."


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