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, December 17, 2013

Massimo's Picks!

* Soft paternalism, the future of citizen-government interactions?

* (Old but good one) How not to Feyerabend.

* Who needs a gun? Good question.

* A feminist Kant? Seriously?? And yet...

* Jerry Coyne builds a straw man to defend the metaphor of selfish genes. (Check out the original criticism here.)

* Historical redress: who must pay for the past, and how?

* Listening to your inner voice, unless you are crazy.

* Former RS podcast guest Cordelia Fine has a problem or two with the latest neuro-gender study.

* The importance of philosophy of medicine.

* The ways of lust.


  1. There's a nice piece by Bill Skaggs about Dobbs's piece on gene expression and the controversy here: http://weskaggs.net/?p=507

    1. Good piece. It in general agrees with some of my comments on my own first-level comment about Coyne. (I mentioned prions, too; yes, they're not involved in heritability, like some of the other things listed by Skaggs [as far as we know], but, still, by affecting genetic expression, are another blow to the "Exon doctrine.")

  2. Despite the fact that I largely agree with Coyne's take on this matter, I think he's just a bombastic jerk most of the time. He seems to think he's Thomas Huxley to Dawkins' Charles Darwin. He also has an overinflated view of himself. Take, for example, a recent email he wrote to the director of the Natural History Museum in LA about a sign posted near the entrance that mentions God. He threw a hissy fit later when the museum didn't personally respond to him wrinting the following statement: "...it’s rude to not respond to an evolutionary biologist who writes about a sign like this." As if his expectation is that whenever he pens an email to someone he is entitled to a personal response. The guy is a very smart evolutionary biologist, but he's also more obnoxious than Dawkins, IMO.

    1. Well, the endorsement of god in a public institution (and a scientific one, no less) was blatant enough to warrant a complaint. I don't know if it's the case in your country, but in mine (Mexico) you deserve a written response from public servants by law, when requesting information from them. Even a "non of your business" would've been a response (a lame one, but still).

  3. PZ Myers actually does a very good job of defending Dobbs, and of telling people like Coyne they're all wet. And, I agree with him. Dobbs' piece isn't radically new. Besides, the "central dogma of DNA" is continuing to be undercut in other ways.

    Here's PZ: http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2013/12/03/higher-order-thinking/

    1. Epigenetics.

    2. A 15-year-old blast from the past, prions. IMO, this is why so many biologists were so upset with Prusiner getting his Nobel.

    In my opinion, Coyne's attack on Dobbs, and defense of selfish genes, is driven in part by him being a determinist on matters of will/volition. (And, per a G+ comment of mine, Massimo, still working on a response back. That said, I like Patricia Churchland saying "self-control" is a more reasonable idea than "free will." Or perhaps than "volition," I'll extenuate. Also, a good new NYT piece on consciousness sheds more light on how consciousness, and perhaps ideas of a "self," arise from communication between brain areas, and is related to this. That constant communication would be at least somewhat analogous to Dennett's multiple drafts, or Hume's ongoing stream.

    1. I don't think the so-called Central Dogma has been "undercut" in any way. Ever.

    2. Dak,

      apparently you never heard of retrotransposons, which clearly violate the CD. There are also well documented cases of RNA replication, as well as of direct translation from DNA to protein.

    3. Sure, I've heard of those things. They have nothing to say about the CD. I don't mean to be rude, but I don't think you understand what the CD is. It states that information, once it get in to protein, never comes back out. That's it. The strict sequential flow of information from DNA to RNA to protein is not the CD. Read Crick's original papers on the topic and you will see.

      Crick, F.H.C. (1958) On Protein Synthesis. in Symp. Soc. Exp. Biol. XII, 139-163.
      Crick, F. (1970) Central Dogma of Molecular Biology. Nature 227, 561-563.

    4. Dak,

      no offense taken, I'm used to be called a moron in my own fields of expertise... ;-)

      In this case, you are historically correct. However, the more common understanding of the dogma was (until recent discoveries) that information flows in one direction, from DNA to protein, which we now know is incorrect.

      Not much hinges on this anyway, since epigenetic inheritance works by different channels. Cheers.

    5. And, I was referring to the "common understanding," per Massimo. Agreed that epigenetics, which includes acetylation as well as methylation (and prions and other things, either discovered, or to be) works via different channels.

      This is why the "end of science" is even less true in biology than in physics.

    6. The Central Dogma. This states that once “information” has passed into protein it cannot get out again. In more detail, the transfer of information from nucleic acid to nucleic acid, or from nucleic acid to protein may be possible, but transfer from protein to protein, or from protein to nucleic acid is impossible. Information means here the precise determination of sequence, either of bases in the nucleic acid or of amino acid residues in the protein." Cited in Larry Moran's blog at http://sandwalk.blogspot.ca/2007/01/central-dogma-of-molecular-biology.html

      You're using a different definition of "information" here than Crick did in his original papers, and according to Moran it's Watson's incorrect version of the Central Dogman that has been refuted. By an interesting coincidence, Moran writes today, apropos Elliot Sober, " If there are other, equally valid, definitions out there then you MUST acknowledge them and incorporate them into your argument." http://sandwalk.blogspot.com/

      Moran also writes "It seems as though Pigliucci and Müller are unaware of the revisions [to the Modern Synthesis] that took place in the 1970s or else they think these were insignificant allowing the 1940s theory to remain "substantially unchanged."

      Either way, they look awfully foolish to me."

      And, in the process of agreeing with Joe Felsenstein that the "Modern Synthesis" has incorporated the necessary extensions, Moran argues that the problem is a genuine widespread misunderstanding of the correct views. He says "If you haven't read the book edited by Pigliucci and Müller then I think you should. Let me know if you think the majority of authors really understand evolution the way you do." http://sandwalk.blogspot.com/2013/12/what-do-they-mean-when-they-say-they.html

      Felsenstein and John Harshman, who posted in Moran's blog, believe, as do Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne and Steven Pinker, that the issue is primarily self-interested scientists misrepresenting the value of their work. Moran is adding incompetence to the charge of malice. (He does profess not to understand a couple of Pinker's tweets on the issue, but it's hard to see what he doesn't understand. Since Moran didn't really articulate an objection, the point is moot.)

      About the only scientist I know of who doesn't disdain the supposed straw man was PZ Myers. I suppose we are to gather that Stephen Jay Gould would have but he's dead and he hasn't got a good reputation as a scientist anyhow. And Richard Lewontin is still alive, but his main claim to fame is creating his very own fallacy.

      Of course I'm speaking as an amateur student of the popular/semipopular literature. As I read it, all the challenges to the Modern Synthesis are more about denying genetic determininism and the pervasiveness of perfect adaptions than anything else. But the large majority of reputable practicing biologists agree the science is for the Modern Synthesis. How can it be reasonable for a layman to persist in defying professional interpretations?

    7. S.,

      I have never accused any of my colleagues of incompetence. In my (certainly biased) opinion, when someone does that one should smell a rat. They may have ran out of actual arguments...

    8. S Johnson: Gould doesn't have a good reputation as a scientist? Says who?

      As for support, and how this issue isn't such a big deal?

      From P.Z.'s most recent, specific blogging, he links to this old post, well worth a read.

      I quote:

      >>"Another factor in this process (one that Bard does not touch on) is that the individual genes themselves are not invariant units. Mutations can affect how genes contribute to the network, but in addition, the same allele can have different consequences in different genetic backgrounds — it is affected by the other genes in the network — and also has different consquences in different external environments.

      Everything is fluid. Biology isn’t about fixed and rigidly invariant processes — it’s about squishy, dynamic, and interactive stuff making do.

      Now do you see what’s wrong with the simplistic caricature of evolution at the top of this article? It’s superficial; it ignores the richness of real biology; it limits and constrains the potential of evolution unrealistically. The concept of evolution as a change in allele frequencies over time is one small part of the whole of evolutionary processes. You’ve got to include network theory and gene and environmental interactions to really understand the phenomena. And the cool thing is that all of these perspectives make evolution an even more powerful force." <<

      Why can't more people get that?


    9. Did you read Dawkins' reply to Dobbs? I don't think he said anything different.

    10. Retrotransposons definitely do not violate the central dogma of molecular biology. Look up what it actually says - if you are in any doubt about this.

    11. Tim,

      Yes, already addressed above. And it is entirely inconsequential to both the Extended Synthesis in general and to the issue of epigenetic inheritance in particular.

  4. And, now, soft paternalism.

    2I halfway guessed the "soft paternalism" piece would have someone like Sunstein, if not himself, associated with it. Blech. Typical neoliberalism, with a conservative worship for the rationality of the market and **the eventual** rationality of human actors **if properly incentivized** (sic on horrible English) with a stereotypical paternalistic type of American liberalism.

    Yes, people like him reject the most doctrinaire versions of human-actor rationality. But, by incentives as a "nudge," they buy into other versions of that stereotype.

    And, the idea of soft paternalism doesn't even engage the issue that governments, like big biz, don't necessarily have our best interests at heart, even when they say they do.

    What would the likes of Sunstein say to this: "Hi, I'm Gen. Keith Alexander. I can't tell you that the NSA has already been spying on your cell phone, but, in combination with your service provider, Verizon, we're giving you a 20 percent off coupon, for the rest of the year, plus a discount on a data plan upgrade, if you'll just sign the bottom line on this spying waiver."

  5. Commenting separately on some of the other pieces besides Dobbs' response to Coyne and the soft paternalism, because both of those got long and into other issues.

    1. The "feminist Kantian" piece reminds me of why I'm not a Kantian, thank doorknob!

    2. The inner voice? Wow ... I remember reading Jaynes decades ago. Found it interesting and half-convincing. I've become more skeptical since then. But! It does tie in with my acceptance, in some way, shape or form, of subselves. That, in turn, gets back to issues of will, or volition, and unitary selves or not, and attribution of volition, or will, or not, and other things.

    3. On Bloom's lust piece, I just checked out his book from the library and am looking forward to it. Interesting thoughts in the column. The fact that he sees shades of gray in this issue is something I like.

    1. Jaynes' book is one of the most fascinating works of psychology I've ever read, but I also am skeptical of its validity. He seemed to cherry-pick examples that supported his thesis and to draw conclusions that didn't seem warranted. Still, there was a point at which human consciousness arose such that self-introspection was possible. It's a shame that brains don't fossilize.

    2. Oh, agreed. I think, beyond cherry-picking, per the link of Massimo's, that Jaynes was thinking too crudely. He was theorizing well ahead of the likes of Dennett and other philosophers who started talking more about modern theories of consciousness.

  6. Very interesting blog. You might find this video about The New Atheism interesting! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-mRPZ_O9bUU

  7. Massimo, do you think Coyne's determinism is an influence on his stance on "selfish genes"?

    1. Gadly,

      hard to tell, but I'm pretty sure his pro-selfish gene views developed before his overtly atheistic / reductionist turn. His support for standard Modern Synthesis stuff has been unwavering ever since I've known Jerry (and a cause of major dispute btw us before our disagreements spilled over into the skeptic community).

    2. Appreciate the response. I wasn't sure, but I could see that if his determnism was long-held, how it might influence his stance on the Modern Synthesis.

  8. From the philosophy of medicine piece:
    "Medicine is chock-full of philosophy and doesn’t know it."
    Life itself is chock full of philosophy if only people realised it that article would be unnecessary.


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