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.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Massimo’s Picks

By Massimo Pigliucci

* David Sloan Wilson slams Richard Dawkins for the latter's “pre-1975” understanding of theoretical evolutionary biology. Ouch. (And yes, I think Wilson is largely correct.)
* Episode 18 of the Rationally Speaking podcast is out! Julia and I chat about evolutionary psychology.
* The Obama administration apparently has no qualms wiretapping the internet in the name of “security.” And I thought I had voted against that kind of crap.
* Christine O’Donnell, the Delaware Republican / Tea Party candidate for the Senate, doesn’t believe in evolution and thinks that scientists are genetically engineering human-mice hybrids that might take over the world.
* Jerry Coyne slams CFI for declaring war on atheism. The substance of his post is actually mostly on target, but given the rhetoric, methinks the guy needs a large dose of valerian...
* The Founding Fathers were nothing like what the Tea Party thinks they were. Read up on the history of your own precious country, busters!
* Why college athletics is a bad, bad idea.
* The GOP’s Pledge to America is a cynical political maneuver, not sound policy, and even less anything approaching economic good sense.
* I have been featured on American Scientist’s “Scientists’ Nightstand.” Check out my reading suggestions.
* Jon Stewart on the Pledge on America. Precious, brilliant.


  1. Generally, I find American right-winger's, (Tea Party and others), rhetoric about the Constitution and the "Founding Fathers" both annoying and disturbing. You often hear this poppycock about the "Founding Father's original intent" as if they had some coherent and unitary original intent. Also there is this religious language attached to the "Founding Fathers" and their founding documents that seems to be a bunch of hookum. Even the author you link to can't help but say:

    "Those lofty figures, along with the seminal document they brought forth, form a sacred part of our common heritage as Americans."

  2. RE: the CFI thing.

    What sort of claims *would* theologians be considered experts on? Certainly the existence of God or Gods (particularly their own) is obviously not one of them, but what *is* the content of their subject?

    Geologists, for example, have some basic foundational assumptions upon which their field rests - geological consensus goes pretty far beyond their foundational ideas. Can the same be said of theology? Theology seems to be a different field depending on which religious tradition is assumed.

    Assuming there is something there at all, it seems that theology might be a lot more like a history than it is a science; that is, it's a systematic ordering of particulars rather than a systematic proof of general laws (I'm evoking Husserl here I think).

    Is that what people mean when they say that an ignorance of theology hobbles those arguing against God's existence? Or do they mean something else?

  3. James, right, but notice that I didn't take exception to the substance of Jerry's post, only to his (usual) hyperbole.

  4. Oh, I wasn't implying that you were.

    I'm just really trying to understand what on earth is being referred to when folks talk about deep theological understanding. I suspect that there is something there, but that it isn't quite what those who attack the new atheists think it is. I can't say for sure though. The promise of deep theological knowledge never seems to get fulfilled. So, without asking for that which purports to being so difficult to communicate, I'm wondering if theologians are even referring to the same kind of knowledge that say a Dawkins might be referring to.

  5. About Dawkins, who I enjoy very much, I have a personal experience to share. I was his campus student liaison when he visited my college in the late '80s. Our personal interaction wasn't memorable, though I might have detected a note of disappointment that I wasn't a coed hottie. No, what stayed with me was a lecture he gave on campus in which he suggested homosexuality was an adaptive behavior, a ploy by which the non-dominant male gains access to the females belonging to the dominant male. When asked how this would explain lesbians, he responded with a question: "Are there many of those?" Then he suggested that a specie's tendency toward monogamy could be determined by the ratio of the average male's weight to that of the average female. By his reckoning, human males should take about 1.5 mates. It took me about twenty years to take him seriously again, and now I read him with great pleasure.

  6. Regarding Jerry Coyne’s comments on John Shook’s criticisms of atheists, Shook wrote:

    ”Atheists are getting a reputation for being a bunch of know-nothings. They know nothing of God, and not much more about religion, and they seem proud of their ignorance.”

    However, Laurie Goodster reports in the New York Times:

    “On average, people who took the [Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life] survey answered half the questions incorrectly, and many flubbed even questions about their own faith."

    "Those who scored the highest were atheists and agnostics, as well as two religious minorities: Jews and Mormons. The results were the same even after the researchers controlled for factors like age and racial differences.”

  7. GapsInTheMind,

    as I said, I disagree with Shook's commentary, but the results of the recent Pew poll really don't address the problem. The questions asked by the poll are so elementary that they hardly qualify as cutting edge theology...

  8. Massimo, I didn't realize you were a group selectionist. I'd be interested in reading something from that perspective, since hitherto I had understood G.S. to be so exceedingly weak as to not be worth bothering about.

  9. It is interesting that the questions were so elementary yet the religious were bested by atheists and agnostics even on questions regarding their own religion.

    But sure, it’s a mere survey, fair enough, it doesn’t touch on cutting edge theology.

  10. Ian, I wouldn't consider myself a "group selectionist," but I agree with Wilson that Dawkins has an outmoded (and, indeed, technically incorrect) understanding of group selection. The best treatment of the subject I have found in recent years is this book:


  11. Massimo: The episode of the podcast is excellent. Thanx.

  12. 1. The old idea of selection among groups leading to the evolution of group-level traits works only under very special circumstances.

    2. The “new” view of group selection (NGS)—the one espoused by D. S. Wilson et al.—gives results that are either wrong or, when they’re right, essentially equivalent to those derived from the simpler and less confusing inclusive-fitness theory (IFT), pioneered by Price and Hamilton and developed in the 1980s.

    Bottom line: who gives a shit, really. Top it up with this: Professor Dawkins is putting his body on the line to fight none other than the Pope. But it appears that he should instead devote his time to the intellectual machinations of a self-important pseudo-pedantic Templeton Foundation accomodationist. Sigh...

  13. Hulnca, you appear to hold the same old-fashioned (and technically wrong) ideas about GS that Dawkins does.

    As for him fighting the Pope, good for Dawkins, but I suspect he rather enjoys it, and he is certainly no hero for it (he's not risking anything).

  14. Massimo: In the podcast, you pointed out that the preference for symmetrical face (for example) is not uniquely human, which you said is a problem for evolutionary psychology. Apparently this is because evolutionary psychology aims to investigate human nature (ie. things that are uniquely human). But they don't necessarily have to restrict themselves to things that are uniquely human, do they? Suppose evolutionary psychologists say that we find symmetrical faces attractive because we inherited it from our non-human/non-primate ancestors. Does that make the symmetrical-face argument more reasonable?

  15. optical,

    you are correct, but in that case evopsych simply becomes standard evolutionary genetics of the type practiced since Darwin (think of his work on the evolution of basic emotions like fear), so there is nothing special about the field.

  16. Massimo: Yes, you made that point in the podcast as well. But again evolutionary psychologists don't necessarily have to claim that EP is special. Although some do, I'm sure lots of evolutionary psychologists feel that their work is simply an extension to the classic evolutionary genetics. The issue is if EP claims are valid, not if they are novel.

  17. optical, right, I have no qualms about that type of evopsych, my problems are mostly with the "human nature" crowd - not because I don't think there is such thing as human nature, but because I think it's awfully tough to investigate it from an evolutionary point of view.

  18. I read Coyne's response to Wilson's paper and I admit that I find it pretty convincing. here is the link: http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2010/08/30/a-misguided-attack-on-kin-selection/

    It seems like Wilson is misguided about kin selection and the whole idea of inclusive fitness. By the way, for those who think group selection works, are there any examples of it?

  19. @ Huinca:

    "Bottom line: who gives a shit, really. Top it up with this: Professor Dawkins is putting his body on the line to fight none other than the Pope. But it appears that he should instead devote his time to the intellectual machinations of a self-important pseudo-pedantic Templeton Foundation accomodationist. Sigh..."

    What do Dawkins' opinions on group selection have to do with his opinions on the pope? What does Wilson's accommodationism have to do with his opinions on group selection?

    Beware the halo/horns effect.

  20. Massimo,

    I find the tone of Jerry Coyne's post to be quite reasonable. I can't see that it indicates a man in need of a large dose of sedative or carried away with hyperbole, as you suggest. Perhaps I'm missing some relevant context. Could you highlight sections that give you this impression of rabidity?

    I'm conscious that the comments that I seem to end up posting here tend to be in defence of Jerry Coyne. I honestly believe that this comes from scrutinising your criticisms and finding them unconvincing, rather than blindly supporting everything he says.

  21. Ghost,

    I welcome criticism of my positions, it's one of the reasons I write the blog, it sharpens my own thoughts. In this particular case, I take issue with the very title of Jerry's post. To accuse CFI, one of the premier secular humanist organizations in the country, of waging war against atheism is ridiculous.

    Apparently Jerry doesn't get that a tenet of humanism is to welcome different opinions and to discuss them openly. Three CFI writers have recently criticized the New Atheism, but from different perspectives and in different contexts. By putting everything into one basket and labeling it "CFI war on atheism" Jerry reveals that either he is a superficial thinker, or he needs medication for emotional overreaction. (In my opinion, of course, it's both.)


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