Archive for the ‘Philosophy of Biology’ Category

The recent philosophy club discussion dwelled some time on how evolution by natural selection might track truth. Paul Griffiths makes the case that evolution has manipulated cognitive processes  in such a way that they tend to track truth and also responds to Plantinga’s EAAN (which I have not found persuasive, though I am inclined to think that one can have warranted religious beliefs even with an evolutionary explanation for those cognitive processes influencing them).

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Morality is a collective illusion foisted upon us by our genes”—Michael Ruse

[The following was presented to the UNF Philosophy Club on December 9, 2011. By no means is it complete and it is my intention to develop a more coherent paper arguing against the Moral Error Theory. I am open to any comments and criticisms]

As we approach the 35th year anniversary of John Mackie’s, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, it has become an appropriate time to commemorate the arguments put forth along with more recent ones, as well as some criticisms of his argument. Though, to begin outright with the arguments discussed may create some confusion. Therefore, in an attempt to avoid this confusion, it is essential that a brief account of the origins of the Moral Error Theory be given.


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Tim Dacey

In a recent class discussion a debate brewed over the topic of Randy Thornhill’s and Craig Palmer’s A Natural History of Rape. The arguments proposed in their book have been widely criticized and rejected by much of the scientific and philosophical community (for good and bad reasons). What follows is some general thoughts; perhaps though, a formal paper will emerge for this topic if a good discussion results.  It seems there are some important flaws that can be revealed in the assumptions Thornhill and Palmer use to make their argument.  I am inclined to use an example from the history of evolutionary biology, namely, Stephen Jay Gould’s criticism of the assumptions underlying the adaptation of antlers in “Irish Elk.” Similar to Gould,  I will reveal a similar ‘bad’ assumption that Thornhill and Palmer use and then present an alternative argument that may prove more convincing.


Recall that the assumptions the adaptationist program was using to explain the immense antlers (and bodies) of the Megloceros, or “Irish Elk,” focused on combating predation where antlers served as weapons. However, the largest predator that this creature would ever face in the late Irish Pleistocene was a wolf pack. In fact, these massive antlers could be harmful to the survival of the Elk. That the antlers were often detrimental to the survival of the Elk seemed to present and anomaly for Darwin’s theory of natural selection, as a trait was being selected for that was harmful to the individual. It was Gould who pointed to the faulty assumption that antlers were weapons combating predators and that this was the only way large antlers would emerge. Gould challenged this assumption and insisted that competition for females may have led to large bodies. That is, Elk with larger body size would tend to triumph over those males who were smaller ultimately leading them to pass their genes on to offspring. A consequence of this, of course, are larger antlers; this follows a principle of allometry.


Likewise, it is my contention that Thornhill and Palmer use a faulty evolutionary assumption, that rape is intended for procreation. There are at least two general categories that we can place rape in: (1) genetically predisposed (I am not suggesting a ‘rape gene’, rather just that there could exist genes that when malfunctioning or ‘overly present’ may create an anxious and violent drive for sex leading to something such as rape) and (2) conditionally predisposed (e.g., watching violent pornography may construct an anxious and violent cognitive drive for sex). (1) is where Thornhill and Palmer would need to focus there argument, as individuals regarding (2) could not pass their traits on to their offspring, or at least not genetically. Further, the argument that Thornhill and Palmer would need to insist upon would be similar to Gould’s—that rape isn’t being selected for per se. Rather, genes correlated with behaviors of dominance (perhaps testosterone genes) are selected for via sexual selection. Suppose that in early hominins males with higher levels of testosterone are selected for because they can dominant their opponents for mates (not a surprising behavior among apes). These individuals will pass their genes on to their offspring who in turn compete for mates and pass their genes on. What tends to emerge are males with aggressive behavior causing genes. Since these genes will also correlate with sex drives, then a by-product—an unfortunate one in this case—emerges where individuals with increased aggressive and sexual drives may ‘rape’ other members in the population. That “rape is selectively advantageous for procreation” can be rejected in the same fashion that the original argument used in Megaloceros’ antlers was rejected.

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The logician and philosopher of science Neil Tennant’s piece entitled ‘What might logic and methodology have offered the Dover School Board, had they been willing to listen?’ Read it here in the articles section.

P.S. Tennant (appropriately) takes Larry Laudan to task for the latter’s position on the scientific nature of creationism, which he (Laudan) expressed in a 1982 paper highlighted recently in a post on the blog. 

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If an award were to be given to the most influential evolutionary scientist since Darwin, the award would most certainly go to Richard Dawkins (I am strictly talking about Dawkins as the evolutionary scientist or perhaps the philosopher of biology). Potential objections may argue that John Maynard Smith, WD Hamilton, Stephen Jay Gould, and highly qualified others should receive it. However, it was with the publication of The Selfish Gene that certifies Dawkins’ merit of this hypothetical award. Why? Dawkins utilized a bit of creativity in science (personifying genes), inspired by Jacque Monad and concentrating on the central unit of selection; the gene, which was inspired by WD Hamilton. In this view, Dawkins elaborately explains the role of the gene in evolution. It is as he states, “Darwin’s Theory.”

Like Darwin, Dawkins was meant with an incredible amount of hostility not only from the expected fundamentalist religious community, but also from the scientific community as well. Many contend that Dawkins is being ‘reductionistic’ or too much of a ‘genetic determinist’. Those critics, it seems, assert a term without taking into account what they actually mean. Further, some reviewers have read the title without conceptualizing what Dawkins’ meant by the term ‘selfish gene’. In fact, Dawkins’ notes (in the video) that he talks more about altruism than selfishness and also states (in the 30th anniversary addition) that he should have titled the book, The Cooperative Gene. In light of the 35th year since the publication of The Selfish Gene, Dawkins’ first book is still controversial for what I believe are misunderstandings of his book. The following is a short video, which entertains Dawkins’ point of the book.

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A very interesting paper by Peter Godfrey-Smith argues yes…


Here is a selection from the article for those who may not want to read its entirety.

I will give a very simple example (similar to one found in Dawkin’s The Blind Watchmaker). Suppose we are explaining the evolution of the human eye. Building the genetic basis of the human eye involved bringing together many genes. Consider a collection of genetic material, Y, that has everything needed, as far as genes go, to make a human eye, except for one final mutation. So this background Y is such that if new mutation M arises against Y, it will finalize the evolution of the human eye. Initially, Y was rare in the population — it was the product of a single mutational event that produced Y from yet another precursor, X. Selection can make the appearance of the eye more likely by making Y more common. This increases the number of independent “slots” in which a single key mutational event will give us the eye. If the intermediate Y remains rare in the population, then additional mutations are much less likely to produce the human eye, because the right mutation has to occur in exactly the right place – in an lineage where Y is present.

I hope a discussion on the nature of evolution is pursued following this post.

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In “Agent Causation” Timothy O’Connor makes a passing assertion that there are many unresolved questions for materialist agency as he posits it, and that many of these questions are empirical in nature and can only be resolved with “extensive advancements within neurobiological science.” [1] Two particularly salient questions are (1) “Precisely to what extent is an ordinary human’s behavior directly regulated by the agent himself, and to what extent is it controlled by microdeterministic processes?”[2] And (2) whether microdeterministic processes can be predicted or not. While O’Connor may believe that advances in neuroscience will reinforce rather than call into question his theory, this is not the case. Stretching from the 1980s to a recent study in 2008, neuroscience has demonstrated that predictive brain activity can be seen to occur prior to a test subject’s consciousness of making a decision. From Libet to present, these studies provide damaging replies to the questions which O’Connor’s theory leaves unanswered. (more…)

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