Taking some contemptuous cross-fire. Disappointed.

Wow. The NY Times piece about my book has inflamed some sensitive nerves out there. Jerry Coyne, a distinguished evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, has taken issue with part of the article, a so-called “drive-by diss” of Richard Dawkins (the Dawkins Foundation site has reposted Coyne’s attack). Further, Coyne argues that this diss was a craven attempt to gain readers. He writes:

What galls me is the increasing desire of people to gain credibility by a drive-by snipe at Dawkins’s materialism and atheism. There’s no need for that here, and no need to mention the man.  Haskell is going for readership, pure and simple, and wants to get it by criticizing a well known atheist.

This saddens me and, to be honest, seems uncalled for. Coyne says that he has not read the book, so I would expect maybe just a touch more humility in his questioning of my ideas and perhaps the civility not to impute my motives. He also sticks his neck out and offers a critique of my writing (“breathless lubrications”) without having set eyes on the book. I’m disappointed that an honest and non-aggressive expression of a difference of opinion about a difficult philosophical question — the nature of the universe — should be greeted with such a vigorous and contemptuous slap-down.

For the record: Dawkins’ work is one the reasons I got into biology in the first place. But, yes, I personally stop short of the kind of full-blooded philosophical certainty that Dawkins has used in his writing. All this is evident in my writing and in the many interviews I’ve given lately. But none of this data was used, nor did Coyne stop to ask what I meant.

Drive-by diss, indeed.

[Correction: the first draft had an errant “a” added in the last paragraph which I have now removed.

Additions: For those who do not want to wade through the entire comments section, I have cut-and-pasted Jerry Coyne’s follow-up and my further comments below.

Coyne: I’m curious, though. Did you make that statement about Dawkins or not? Jerry Coyne

Haskell:

Hi Jerry,

Thanks for connecting here. I sure did say that I *suspect* that the universe (multiverse?) may consist of more than atoms re-arranging themselves. (If inherent value and “rights” exist, as you say in your post, then you’ve perhaps agreed — neither of those are made of atoms and both are pretty hard to pin down.) I also said that I do not buy the full Dawkins position on atheism. To suggest that this was an attempt to get readers is absurd — I had a multi-hour conversation with Jim Gorman about the book and biology, so of course we talked about the big questions in evolution and the world of ideas. Dawkins has outlined MANY of those big ideas and so I don’t think it is unreasonable for me to say that I disagree with him on some of them. Surely we’re allowed to have disagreements without getting slammed for being desperate book-sellers, bad writers, etc, etc. Especially when those disagreements are about things with such a history of being quite difficult.

I’d be happy to send a copy of the book. It is, in part, a book-long celebration of what it means to look at the world through evolutionary lens. You might like it. :)

Again, thanks for connecting here. I admire your work and have done for many years.

Haskell: Oh, I just saw the post on your website. Simple answer: no I did not DISS anyone. To diss is, as I understand it, to disrespect someone, treat them rudely.

Haskell (after several days of comments by others):

Thank you to everyone who has contributed comments here.

A few brief thoughts from my end of things:

1. Comment about atoms. Ethical claims (about species extinction, human rights, etc) are not, to my knowledge, fully derivable from the laws of physics, chemistry, or biology. Yet I “deeply suspect” some ethical claims reflect more than the passing whims of nervous systems and might, therefore, have some kind of objective nature. What that nature is, I do not know, but it seems unlikely to be made out of atoms. I’m the first to admit that the suspicions that I harbor might just be feelings in an evolved brain and nothing more. But perhaps not.

2. For those who want a single number on the Dawkins probability dial, I’ll have to disappoint you. The answer to the question depends on what you mean by “God”. If the god that you’re imagining presupposes a fundamental ontological division between humans and other creatures, then the needle surges up, red-lining the dial. But if by “god” you mean the idea that ethical statements might reflect some kind of objective reality in the universe, the needle does not know what to do, but is inclined to remain low, listening.

3. Dawkins’ long-standing and vigorously argued positions on religion are well known and in many ways they define the way in which the field of biology is seen by non-biologists, especially in the area of biology’s relationship with religion. As my book’s Preface makes abundantly clear, I used an idea taken directly from religious traditions – the potential insights offered by contemplative practice, a practice that has an important role in my life – and applied it to observation of the ecology of a forest. Mine is a markedly different attitude toward the biology-religion relationship than has been advocated by Dawkins. So I mentioned him briefly in a multi-hour interview, indicating that I did not agree with some of his positions and statements. For those who don’t want to read the book, but want to assess my approach, the reviews of the book (http://theforestunseen.com/reviews/) do a good job of outlining my basic stance towards the use of contemplative practice in the context of scientific observation and reflection.]

105 thoughts on “Taking some contemptuous cross-fire. Disappointed.

  1. Stephanie

    Meh. Chalk it up to ego and be done with it. You’ve gained more than you’ve lost (including me as a supportive reader). I understand your need to reply/clarify, but I truly hope you’re not THAT disappointed.

    Reply
    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Hi Jerry,

      Thanks for connecting here. I sure did say that I *suspect* that the universe (multiverse?) may consist of more than atoms re-arranging themselves. (If inherent value and “rights” exist, as you say in your post, then you’ve perhaps agreed — neither of those are made of atoms and both are pretty hard to pin down.) I also said that I do not buy the full Dawkins position on atheism. To suggest that this was an attempt to get readers is absurd — I had a multi-hour conversation with Jim Gorman about the book and biology, so of course we talked about the big questions in evolution and the world of ideas. Dawkins has outlined MANY of those big ideas and so I don’t think it is unreasonable for me to say that I disagree with him on some of them. Surely we’re allowed to have disagreements without getting slammed for being desperate book-sellers, bad writers, etc, etc. Especially when those disagreements are about things with such a history of being quite difficult.

      I’d be happy to send a copy of the book. It is, in part, a book-long celebration of what it means to look at the world through evolutionary lens. You might like it. :)

      Again, thanks for connecting here. I admire your work and have done for many years.

      Reply
        1. Rich

          Hi, sorry to jump in, but my interpretation was that Coyne is angry about your calling Dawkins a “crusading atheist.” You seem to be avoiding that point or unaware of it. When you put disparaging labels like that on people, don’t be surprised if they get annoyed. :-)

          Reply
      1. earwicker

        I don’t get the impression you “dissed” anyone, but I’m more specifically interested re: the part about atoms rearranging themselves – in a sense everyone agrees with that. Nobody at all buys the argument: “electrons and quarks are dumb, people are made of electrons and quarks, therefore people are dumb”, because people aren’t dumb, so it must be wrong somewhere. Something complex and impressive can be constructed out of things that are simple and unimpressive. It’s the patterns and arrangements that matter. In biology, natural selection explains how the patterns emerge. So whence comes your suspicion that something more is going on? Are you talking specifically about a cosmic plan or supernatural moral force that somehow tickles the atoms into going in just the right direction to make sure that person A gets cancer, whereas person B molests child C? (Sorry to mention such unpleasant examples, but we must always remember that if we posit a moral force behind the cosmos, it must be something we wouldn’t want to meet it in a dark alley!)

        Reply
        1. Jeff Syrop

          “but we must always remember that if we posit a moral force behind the cosmos, it must be something we wouldn’t want to meet it in a dark alley!”
          What a clever line!!!

          Reply
    2. Grace

      Prof. Coyne, Accusing Haskell of using this interview to ‘diss’ Dawkins to increase his own visibility really strains credulity. I think your friend Diane was wrong, and that you were wrong to air her snipe on your blog.

      Here’s the offending paragraph of James Gorman’s story:

      “Dr. Haskell wanted to tell the story of forest ecology and also to refresh himself with a kind of natural history meditation, as opposed to goal-directed scientific research. He has a daily practice of sitting and concentrating on his breathing (he doesn’t use the word “meditation”) of no specific religious bent. He does, however, set himself apart from crusading atheists, like Richard Dawkins, saying he harbors a “deep suspicion that the world is more than atoms rearranging themselves.”

      Not that the author of the piece, James Gorman, referred to Dawkins as a “crusading atheist”–not Haskell.

      My guess is that you’ve also been interviewed for news or feature articles, which means that you should know that when you spend several hours with a reporter, having a wide-ranging conversation, you have no absolutely idea which snippets he will choose to include when he distils that interview into a 1200-world article or exactly how he will describe your views (or even if he will describe them accurately).

      If Haskell wished to somehow discredit Dawkins by classifying his personal beliefs as agnostic rather than atheist–a distinction that shouldn’t reflect badly on either of these scholars–shouldn’t he have employed a more effective strategy, such as explicitly stating that in his book? What you’re accusing him of doing is the equivalent of trying to assassinate someone with birdshot.

      Reply
      1. Grace

        Oops — “Note that the author of the piece, James Gorman, referred to Dawkins as a “crusading atheist”–not Haskell.”

        Mea culpa for the typo.

        Reply
  2. Pingback: A new book on nature and “The drive-by Dawkins diss” « Why Evolution Is True

  3. Kat Z.

    Sorry to read that you were subjected to an unwarranted assault. Although pretty close to being an atheist — or maybe a pantheist — myself, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed your book and blog, and see no reason to launch brickbats at anyone who examines the world with an open, educated mind. How disappointing that Mr. Coyne’s mind seems so closed that he feels the need to lash out at you despite his general ignorance of your work.

    Reply
  4. Marcu

    Well Richard Dawkins site did lead me to this one, so that can’t be bad. Is the book available in the UK? It looks good.

    Reply
  5. Kathryn Marsh

    I always enjoy comments that begin “although I haven’t read the book” – you can absolutely guarantee that the writer is about to make a food of himself. What a pity he hasn’t read it – I suspect he would enjoy it if he did. So sad when people’s minds are so closed. My problem with Dawkins is that he produces wonderful research and insights but has one corner of his otherwise open mind walled off. We all have our own particular belief or unbelief systems, but very few of us “know” as certainly as Dawkins are that they are right. Most of us find our beliefs are as subject to evolution as everything else in the natural world.
    Meanwhile I will continue to keep your book as one of my bedside pile to dip into when I need rest, refreshment and inspiration and it is too cold, dark or wet to get it in my own woodland (which even includes the occasional mysteriously arriving golf ball – waiting for them to hatch)

    Reply
    1. George Locke

      very few of us “know” as certainly as Dawkins are that they are right

      The certain knowledge that Dawkins professes is that claims to knowledge of the supernatural are bogus. (Haskell’s “suspicions” are not bogus in this way since they’re not claims to knowledge – from his comments it’s not clear that he’s referring to the supernatural at all.) There is no evidence to support any supernatural claim; they typically violate parsimony flagrantly, and often they are contrary to evidence.

      Surely you agree that we can be certain in believing in evolution, so when you criticize Dawkins for certainty per se, you seem to be using different standard of evidence when it comes to evaluating religious/spiritual claims. The evidence for Jesus’s divinity is much worse than the evidence for ether, but probably you don’t think certainty about the non-existence of ether is a problem.

      As a regular reader of Coyne’s blog, I find Haskell’s remarks above completely justified. Expression of difference of opinion is not a diss, and Coyne’s tone was not called for. Needless to say, Haskell’s suspicions, if they extend beyond the ontology of ideas to the supernatural, find no support in evidence.

      Reply
      1. David George Haskell Post author

        Thank you for this — for modelling what it might look like to disagree with someone without sneering at them.

        I agree that the physical evidence for the supernatural claims of the various theistic traditions is thin or non-existent. Might they have other claims that contain some truth? I don’t know. I’m sad that not knowing the answer was considered some kind of diss of Dawkins.

        Reply
        1. Mike McCants

          The fundamental point is that the claims of science and the claims of religion are incompatible. Science has “evidence” and religion has none.
          You say:
          “Might they have other claims that contain some truth? I don’t know.”
          Why do you profess ignorance of these “other claims”? Either a claim is based on observations and evidence or it isn’t. Either a claim is scientific in a broad sense or it isn’t.
          You said that you harbor a “deep suspicion that the world is more than atoms rearranging themselves.”
          That is interpreted as the existence of something that can not be studied by science broadly considered. So it is criticized as simply your “wishful thinking” anti-science opinion. And you are partly supported by Templeton money. No wonder that you dare not admit that the claims of science and the claims of religion are incompatible.

          Reply
          1. David George Haskell Post author

            You’re inferring things that are not correct. And I find your analysis of the philosophical underpinnings of science and religion to be a little simplified. But I am MORE than happy to disagree about these points. But Coyne’s post was not a discussion of the philosophy of science or religion, it was an attack on my motives and my writing, an attack made before he had seen the book. To be clear: disagreeing with Dawkins or Coyne is not the same as dissing them. I respect both of their work and have said that all along. Thanks for your comment. I appreciate your interest in this.

        2. George Locke

          It’s true, I’m a model citizen in many ways ;)

          Gnus like Jerry and myself are sensitive to what we call “religious privilege”, which is our name for the protected status of religious ideas. Dawkins could manage his PR better, but even so, the labels (“arrogant”, “fundamentalist”, “militant”) ascribed to him see less related to what he says than that he speaks at all. Dawkins argues bluntly without the sort of deference that is expected around religious issues, and people see that as arrogance. We think this expectation of deference is a social ill – no ideas deserve special protection, yadda yadda yadda.

          We are sensitive to criticism of Dawkins he’s usually/often being criticized for this sort of bad reason, and we’re tired of it. I’m sorry that this exhaustion has spilled over and made a mess on your doorstep.

          The take-home for those who sympathize with Ms. Marsh is this: it’s crazy to think that atheists are arrogant for having confidence about religious claims. Arrogance is supposing that you know what you could not possibly know, and that’s the entire basis of theism. Theists cannot possibly know that God exists, and Dawkins is just making that as clear as he can. God’s existence is – at best – merely possible, just as likely as Thor, the Great Green Arkleseizure, and plenty of other ideas that no one takes seriously. (Many conceptions of God are logically inconsistent or vague to the point of being meaningless.) If you see it differently, I’d love to hear about it, but don’t tell us we’re “overly certain” for making our case.

          Reply
        3. Bruce Gorton

          I don’t think that was it, I think that reporter’s sub possibly stuffed you over a bit with that “crusading atheist” bit. To you it was mentioning a few things you disagree with Dawkins on, to the sub it was probably something along the lines of “Hello nurse. Conflict!”
          I am a bit surprised Coyne didn’t get that, I mean he has dealt with reporters before surely?

          Reply
  6. Randy Tindall

    i read the comment and agree that it is undeserved and even a bit hysterical. And, by the way, no matter who used the term, I don’t think that describing Richard Dawkins as a “crusading atheist” is necessarily unfair (I am no believer, myself, but I simply can’t fathom his certainty in the face of this immense mystery). I respect his work and have no quarrel with his beliefs which I have seen in print and in documentary films, but he is very vocal and often seemingly contemptuous of the beliefs of others.

    And I also thought you were a bit misquoted. The NYT article said you had a suspicion that the universe may be more than atoms self-rearranging, not that you were stating this as fact or dogma. Why would this personal statement of opinion require evidence?

    Reply
  7. Efavorite

    to Kathleen Marsh – sounds like you haven’t read Dawkins’ book, “The God Delusion.”

    Nowhere does he say he “knows” he’s right about the lack of gods. That’s what some reviewers say, though.

    Reply
    1. David George Haskell Post author

      “We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.” R. Dawkins in The God Delusion. Dawkins is very clear about his position and I respect that position. I just don’t have his level of certainty. Apparently, that counts as a diss these days. Thin skin.

      Reply
      1. Sameer

        I think in the book Dawkins puts himself at 6 (“I don’t know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.”) on his 7 point scale of theistic probability. In later interviews he has modified it to 6.9. Since you say you don’t have his level of certainty, I am curious as to where you would place yourself. Especially since you say:

        I agree that the physical evidence for the supernatural claims of the various theistic traditions is thin or non-existent.

        Reply
        1. Sameer

          Thanks for responding. I didn’t say you dissed Dawkins, Prof. Coyne did. What I was trying to get at is how much apart you and Dawkins really are on the theistic probability scale. I guess you are refusing to answer that directly. But since you say “I don’t know the answers” and given what you have said about the evidence for theistic beliefs, I am guessing you fall somewhere between 4 and 5.

          Also, you say “I don’t know the answers” but in the NYT profile quotes you as harboring “deep suspicion that the world is more than atoms rearranging themselves.” Also the discussion of the role of science (“Science is one story, he writes, true but not complete, and the world cannot be encompassed in one story.”) etc. suggests that you have an opinion or belief about the answers – perhaps some sort of deism, Spinoza’s god and all that.

          My own guess is you are probably not very far off from Dawkins but are reluctant to label yourself one way or another. I read your profile and the book and your experiment sound very interesting. Your book and blog are now on my list.

          Reply
      2. Pete

        It is interesting that you object to a critic not having read your work, since it does not appear that you have actually read Dawkins. If you had, surely you would remember the belief scale he devised? It ran from 0 to 7, with what you might call “full-blooded philosophical certainty” at both ends, yet he only rated himself a 6.

        Reply
  8. Sherri Bergman

    Life’s much more fun when scientists are arguing. Reminds everyone that the grail is discovery, not certainty. Have at it, don’t take personal offense, and be sure to let the rest of us watch!

    Reply
  9. Jack Etheridge

    Sounds like you might need to get back out and enjoy the fall days in your woods. Hope you can continue to inspire by example and leave most of the noise behind. I haven’t read your book yet either but look forward to it, was recommended to your work by one of your former admiring students, Christina Gibson, my niece and the NY Times article was enough to further spark my interest. Best of luck to you. Peace

    Reply
  10. Abby Schwarz

    I’m surprised at Coyne’s hasty and–as he hadn’t read your book–ignorant comments. Dawkins’ attitude seems to be “my way or the highway” which is disappointing and unexpected from such an experienced scientist. Their reactions suggest that they objectify and separate themselves from the natural world rather than tolerating ambiguity and recognising connection. I am a biologist (Ph.D. animal behaviour and ecology, now retired) and found the NYT article about you delightful. I plan to follow your blog. Thank you!

    Reply
    1. Circe

      ” Dawkins’ attitude seems to be “my way or the highway” which is disappointing and unexpected from such an experienced scientist.”

      As they say on Wikipedia, “Citation Needed”. while I have often heard that Dawkins is “strident”, professes “my way or the highway”, puts up an arrogant display of unwarranted philosophical certitude, I am yet to see any evidence from anyone conforming this. On this thread, I can find David Haskell’s quote of Dawkins’s quip about one god less than others, but a humorous quip like that (about which, if I recall correctly, Dawkins admitted that he was not the first to use it) is too light a thread by which an accusation of arrogant unwarranted philosophical certitude can be hanged. Specially when you take into account that even on the question of the existence of the supernatural* Dawkins puts his level of certainty at a 6 out 7.

      * It perhaps bears noting that the non-existence of the “supernatural” is tacitly assumed (with absolute certainty) in almost any kind of scientific practice. As JBS Haldane eloquently put it in a slightly different context:

      “My practice as a scientist is atheistic. That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel, or devil is going to interfere with its course; and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career. I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not also atheistic in the affairs of the world. ”

      In other words, Dawkins is being no more that intellectually honest and consistent when he expresses skepticism about the super-natural.

      Reply
  11. Mandy

    Hi,

    What about the fact that some of your research has been supported by the Templeton Foundation? Sure, we all have suspicions, and we can never be really certain about some scientific “facts”, only propose claims with “high probability” when corroborating evidence supports them. When you said you had “deep suspicions” were you suggesting something beyond what science can prove? (I’m sorry, I had that impression. My apologies, if I’m mistaken.) Were you alluding to something supernatural, which could be what struck a raw nerve with Coyne?

    Reply
    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Coyne can answer what struck his nerves.

      My Templeton work was summer support (14 yrs ago) for an undergrad and myself to do game theory analyses of the iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma, a classic problem in evolution and ecology. No supernatural involved! 100% computer programming of evolutionary game theory.

      HUGE sigh: I’m an evolutionary biologist getting slammed by a bunch of folks who have not read any of my work and who seem to assume that I’m a some kind of creationist. All I said was that I DID NOT KNOW about the supernatural and that I disagreed with some of Dawkins’ positions. Surely we’re allowed to disagree with the man? Especially when those disagreements are expressed in an open and non-hostile manner.

      Reply
      1. Mandy

        Hi David,

        I’m sorry if I offended you with my questions. Perhaps I should have asked them with more finesse. English is not my first language, so something was definitely lost between framing my questions and typing them. Although I admit that the Templeton Foundation-connection raised a red flag to me.

        It now becomes apparent to me that something else was said in your book, what transpired in the interview, how the interviewer discussed it in the ensuing article, and what Coyne understood and wrote about it. I should never trust words in parentheses again.

        Reply
  12. Mickie Bond

    Some people just never get past the “knee jerk” response. They are not happy. I believe that Dawkins would have enjoyed your writing and laughed out loud at some of it. Please don’t stop.

    From: Ramble Sent: Friday, October 26, 2012 7:55 AM To: mickiebond@mindspring.com Subject: [New post] Taking some contemptuous cross-fire. Disappointed.

    David George Haskell posted: “Wow. The NY Times piece about my book has inflamed some sensitive nerves out there. Jerry Coyne, a distinguished evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, has taken issue with part of the article, a so-called “drive-by diss” of Richard Dawkins ” Respond to this post by replying above this line

    New post on Ramble Taking some contemptuous cross-fire. Disappointed. by David George Haskell

    Wow. The NY Times piece about my book has inflamed some sensitive nerves out there. Jerry Coyne, a distinguished evolutionary biologist

    Reply
  13. pete saussy

    “trhe dogs may bark but the caravan moves on” i wonder whether the “breathless lubrications” should have been lucubrations which would be a better metaphor for midnight oil

    Reply
  14. Eric

    I’m sure these misunderstandings are trying for an author, and kudos, David, for moderating these discussions in such a way that fosters conversation instead of closing it. Chin up!

    You probably don’t see it this way, but it’s thrilling for me to see such huge issues brought to the surface by one square meter of forest. This “Level of Certainty” issue is a synecdoche of your book’s theme: we can watch and learn much from this world, but we can never pretend to be authoritative on its inner workings, not even in one small patch of Tennessee backwoods. Balancing scientific rigor with modesty and a sense of wonder is an art, and many leading scientists can learn much from your aesthetic.

    Reply
  15. julianhoffman

    Well, I added a comment to Jerry Coyne’s blog post but it appears that he doesn’t wish to have it on his site as later comments are appearing while mine hasn’t. I think the way he has written about a single phrase in an article written by someone else is extremely disappointing for someone of his standing and obvious intelligence. Adding the fact that he’s never read any of your work, and yet feels self-righteously able to make sweeping comments about your writing and beliefs, and I begin to realise how fundamentalism isn’t solely the preserve of the religious, but can be found in many facets of life. What is so profoundly disappointing is how, without any irony, he takes offence at what he perceives as the unnecessary mention of Richard Dawkins in a negative way while somehow feeling it’s perfectly okay to mention that your writing is almost certainly inferior to Dawkins even though he’s never read a word of it. Rather than open any kind of meaningful discussion about the author’s concerns, and placing it within the context of his reading, the article instead engages in an unattractive and misguided game of tit for tat. Below I’ve added the comment that I’d left on Jerry Coyne’s blog.

    “This is a remarkably poor response to the article about David George Haskell’s supposed “drive-by diss” on Richard Dawkins. For the life of me I can’t begin to understand how mentioning an author, whether in agreement or not, is meant solely to gain readership. As we weren’t privy to the conversation and discussion which formed the basis of the article it’s laughable to describe the comment as a “drive-by diss.” That ridiculous phrase itself could be interpreted as trying to gain readers and credibility, by somehow showing Dawkins to be down with his homies and cool with the kids. Surely art, science and natural history deserve more than this dumbing-down? If anything, this piece will be a bonus to The Forest Unseen as readers will want to know what all the fuss is about. The least, and most responsible, thing you could do for the ideas in this response to be taken seriously is to read the book. I bet Haskell has read his Dawkins.

    Spirituality doesn’t neccesarily need to be religious in character so the sarcastic response falls a little flat. And while you ask what evidence Haskell has to prove that “the world is more than atoms rearranging themselves” you don’t seem to be so rigorously demanding of yourself by immediately writing about awe, which you “suspect is expressed much better by Dawkins than by Haskell’s breathless lucubrations.” Remind me again, this is a book that you’ve never read? I suppose it’s possible that Haskell simply “suspects” that the world is more than just atoms rearranging themselves. Any writing that brings about a greater understanding of the natural world is surely positive, whether it’s scientific or poetic, or a combination of the two.”

    Reply
  16. papalinton

    Then what was your specific purpose or reason for choosing Dawkins to disagree with? I do somewhat smell a gratuitous rat in the reasoning behind such a selection. After all, why would you do it if it wasn’t to give some spark to the book? And if that was the case, just say that.

    Reply
    1. David George Haskell Post author

      A comment that I disagree with some of Dawkins’ positions in a multi-hour interview that was focused on how biology relates to ideas in our society and to big questions in our culture is hardly out of line. Dawkins is the main proponent of many of those ideas, so commentary is appropriate. Especially when such commentary was expressed in a respectful way. As I’ve said, I admire his work. He inspired me to get into biology. I agree with a lot of his critique of mainstream theism.

      Reply
      1. papalinton

        Thanks for replying. You have responded to my query but have yet to answer it. I think the truth of the answer lies not so much in Dawkins as the main proponent [there are any number of eminent biologists equally if not better qualified], rather, it is the renowned and public face of Dawkins on which you capitalize in your reference. In essence, it is the strawman-Dawkins, the public persona, that is being utilized here.

        Your “… suspect[ing] that the world is more than just atoms rearranging themselves” needs to be a deal more substantively fleshed out if it is to be taken as a credible objection in response to Dawkin’s position [acknowledging himself at 6 on a Likert scale of 0-7] of the value of theism in science. Your use of the term ‘suspect’ seems to be little more than an argument from personal incredulity if not simply a ploy to ‘spice’ up your book. It is a disappointment to learn that you have accepted Templeton money. The Templeton foundation is unequivocal in its efforts to inveigle religious explanation into the discourse with science, hitching its wagon as it were, onto the sciences’ bona fides. Any inadvertent sniff of teleology [ characterised in the ‘… more than just atoms rearranging themselves’] is like manna from heaven to the theist in their inane scuffling to legitimate theology as an equal partner with science. The Templeton needs science but science does not need Templeton.

        Notwithstanding my commentary and defense of Dawkins, what I have read others say and report of your work, your research seems right on the button. Understanding humanity’s global and interconnected link with nature is the key to understanding not only ourselves but also our binding and unbreakable relationship with nature going forward. And the track record of the sciences suggests that this understanding and knowledge will only come through the sciences.

        Reply
        1. David George Haskell Post author

          Thanks for this. I agree with a lot of what you say — an understanding of our kinship with life, of our status as animals like all other animals, of the importance of science as the best way to understand the biological, physical, and chemical world.

          I’m personally unconvinced that science alone (the development and testing of hypotheses about the world) can form a foundation for ethics. Whether ethics “exist” in any real sense is an open question. I’m agnostic, but I think they they might. I’m sorry if that seems like an assault on your beliefs.

          Please remember that these are comments in a 1400 word newspaper article, of which my words form a few dozen.

          The implication that Dawkins should not be discussed when biologists talk about how biology relates to culture (especially evolutionary biology) is hard to understand. Surely he has dished out some objection to the ideas of others in his day? Were those merely attempts to get himself some publicity? No — he said what he thought, often with admirable vigor.

          Reply
    2. Denise

      Gratuitous rat? Never heard of one of those. Must be an eastern species.
      The important thing is that from Mr. Haskell’s work, we now have an excellent (according to the review) book on nature that has true value in inspiring people to care about nature. Maybe read a few chapters and see for yourself.

      Reply
  17. Lowen Gartner

    As someone who appreciated the NYT’s piece, is now a new subscriber to your blog, and is a fan of Ursula Goodenough’s ideas I am curious about your quote that you have a “deep suspicion that the world is more than atoms rearranging themselves.” Have your suspicious led you to conjectures about what that might be?

    Reply
    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Thank you. I think the book offers a way of approaching those questions — listening. I do not have any clear answers. But these are important questions: they get to the root of ethics. I think that any coherent ethic has to be grounded in a firm understanding that we are kin to the rest of life, not separate entities somehow “above” the rest of the community of life as most of our culture assumes.

      Reply
      1. Lowen Gartner

        “Whether ethics “exist” in any real sense is an open question. I’m agnostic, but I think they they might.” I would be curious to hear more about “how” and “where” they might exist and what that would mean to the scientific method and human behavior?

        I know I tend more to think of ethics as a construct of human thinking that would disappear if humans did. That is unless I allow my suspecting to dip into the “all is mind” paradigm.

        I look forward to your further ramblings situated at the junction of science, literature, and contemplative practice.

        …..and I hope that you are no longer disappointed about the cross-fire.

        Reply
  18. Old Rasputin

    I’m a little confused as to the source of this misunderstanding. The “diss” here is not that someone disagrees with Dawkins, and it’s not about anyone’s deep suspicions about anything. I can’t speak for Jerry, but I assume that what drew his ire was the characterization of Dawkins as a “crusader” for an atheist “religion”, which is an image recycled time and again in one groundless (often) illiterate argument after another, usually from the religious. Even that wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t such a non sequitur. It was, at best, tangentially related to the rest of the content. It’s as if someone were interviewing Stravinsky, and he said “yes, I’m not afraid to defy conventions of form and harmony… unlike that spineless hack Strauss!” It seems like a cheap shot, taken for no good reason other than to make someone else look bad with the intent of making oneself look better by comparison.

    I’m not sure where Dawkins claims to be 100% certain of anything. I gather that he believes that there is no god (as conventionally defined) and that he believes Christian and Muslim and etc mythology is just that. He is /sufficiently/ confident (“certain”, if you like) that these religious claims are false to live his life as though they are. Most people of an even remotely scientific/skeptical bent do not diverge too sharply from this position, so when an obviously intelligent educated scientist actively tries to distance himself from the name Richard Dawkins, it is often suggestive of political rather than philosophical motivations (though of course there are those exceptions who are explicitly religious). This, I’m guessing, was Jerry’s deep suspicion.

    But the important part: as far as I can make out, Haskell never said anything about crusaders or Dawkins. Presumably, those were Gorman’s words. Jerry was simply mistaken. It seems to me that that should have been front and center in this discussion. Why not say, “no I never said that; I don’t make a habit of mischaracterizing others for personal gain or otherwise, and frankly, the accusation that I was is absurd”?

    And while we’re on the topic of misquoting others, I’m dying to know what these “breathless lubrications” are. You might want to edit that; it sounds vaguely dirty.)

    Reply
  19. papalinton

    David
    “I’m personally unconvinced that science alone (the development and testing of hypotheses about the world) can form a foundation for ethics. “
    This is perhaps where we differ. Given that science as we know it today has only been around for such a short period [a couple of centuries] if one takes christian theism as a comparator. And from that perspective, the question of whether science “alone” can do it is a somewhat unfair or inappropriate comparison. I do think ethics, and its corollary, morality, can be underpinned by the sciences, particularly as the neurosciences, still very much in its infancy, seems to be building a cogent narrative of how this is possible. As an intro into the field, have you read Dr Sam Harris’s book, ‘The Moral Landscape’?
    The old trope, ‘science answers the how? questions while religion answers the why? questions’, seems to be no longer a distinction worthy of being made. Religion has never given us an adequate How? answer at any time in the past 2 millennia. Where it has attempted to do so, it has been found utterly wanting. Religion has not been able to evidentially match their How? responses with their Why? claims. And yet understanding the How? through science has given us an exponentially-growing and an extraordinarily significant base on which to posit any reasonable Why? question.

    Building a foundation for ethics must be founded on more than folkloric history.

    Reply
    1. Lowen Gartner

      re Sam Harris: I actually like Harris’ book and find it a practical approach to thinking about morality in a quasi-utilitarian form. Morality can be objective-ish, but first we must subjectively agree on the framework we want to work with. Sam Harris has decided to connect morality to well-being – a subjective decision. This subjective decision creates then the future possibility of an objective framework (perhaps via neuroscience). However, even this is problematic because it requires balancing the well being of the collective versus the individual which are generally in conflict to one degree or another – more subjectivity.

      Reply
      1. papalinton

        Yes Lowen, what you write is proper. But the nature of the ‘collective versus the individual’ is not problematic. Indeed ethics is about establishing a balance. And founding ethics and morality on well-being as the focus would suggest a far wider and more inclusive a framework than to subscribe to the alternative, that morality is a gift from the supernatural, chiseled in stone no less. Equally, well-being is not a subjective decision of Harris’s per se. Whatever subjectivity there may be is a function of definition of well-being, however it may be defined. And as Harris notes, to talk of ‘well-being’, despite it’s somewhat amorphous character isn’t any less a positive message through which to discuss ethics and morality than the concept of what is meant by ‘good health’.

        On balance, and germane to the discussion, it is that ‘well-being’ has a greater universal appeal to what each if not every person seeks to attain in the day-to-day living of their lives, an appeal that surely must be an improvement, even if only marginally, than the theistic framework of morality that is inextricably linked to particular gods of their choice.

        Lowen, I do think your perspective is perhaps bit of a caricature. Millennia of christian morality, Hindi morality, Muslim morality, seems to have done little to advance our understanding of ethics and morality other than to take sides for a particular ‘giver’ of morality. Hardly a useful framework for dealing with today’s issues of the human condition.

        Reply
        1. Lowen Gartner

          We could discuss at length. I would be interested in our host’s perspective on this which based on my limited knowledge of this overall comment conversation does not include a theistic framework.

          Reply
  20. Joe Willis

    The comment you allude to doesn’t seem contemptuous to me. It seems matter-of-fact. Trying to reconcile “spirituality,” whatever that is, with materialism is futile. First of all, “materialism” has gotten a bad name, almost synonymous with selfishness. I think the problem with Dawkins (which is not really Dawkins’ problem) is that he’s more rational than most people can stomach. I think he’s a head of his times. People looking for “spirit” are not much further ahead than a couple of centuries ago when someone thought he’d found the soul in the pineal gland. It isn’t there!
    You are a good writer, and probably a good ecologist, but I think you’re off base with your criticism of the criticism. “The New Atheists” didn’t ask to be called that. That’s just a modern version of yellow journalism.” Anyway, keep up the good work, but quit the fluffy stuff.
    Joe Willis, blackoaknaturalist

    Reply
  21. St Brigid Press

    I enjoyed the Times article very much. It was my first introduction to you and your work, and I will be looking for a copy of your book.
    All best,
    Emily Hancock
    St Brigid Press
    Afton, Virginia

    Reply
  22. kbeamish

    Dear Mr. Haskell,
    please know that your NY times post brought my attention to your blog. And then your recent post motivated me to buy your book for our school library. I teach environmental biology and one of the most important things that I have learned as a teacher, is that I must connect my students to the natural world, before I can open their hearts and minds to protecting it. Your way of observing and writing about this wondrous planet speaks to my own approach. Thank you.

    Reply
  23. countrymoosie

    Materialism viewed as the machine without the ghost is like vegetarianism viewed as the veg without the meat. Other thought: you and Jane Goodall: in relationship with what you observe and not the less scientific for that. I am enjoying much food for thought – arising from this discussion.

    Reply
  24. RogerM

    David,
    On the Dawkins scale 1-7 where do you stand?
    Strong theist. 100 per cent probability of God. In the words of C.G. Jung: “I do not believe, I know.”
    De facto theist. Very high probability but short of 100 per cent. “I don’t know for certain, but I strongly believe in God and live my life on the assumption that he is there.”
    Leaning towards theism. Higher than 50 per cent but not very high. “I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.”
    Completely impartial. Exactly 50 per cent. “God’s existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable.”
    Leaning towards atheism. Lower than 50 per cent but not very low. “I do not know whether God exists but I’m inclined to be skeptical.”
    De facto atheist. Very low probability, but short of zero. “I don’t know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.”
    Strong atheist. “I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung knows there is one.”

    Reply
  25. John Trimble

    Your deep suspicion that the world is more than atoms rearranging themselves is entirely valid, and I find it refreshing to hear evolutionary biologists speak with wonder and humility. The definition of deity varies with every person by their experiences and beliefs. Personally, I find the exploration of the natural world through the evolutionary lens to be a deeply spiritual task, as it seeks to unravel the very nature of our existence. It is *almost* as exciting as plate tectonics, and every individual has the right to explore our existence as they see fit. I am equally leery of judgmental bible-thumping evangelicals and ardent journal-thumping atheists. There is a happy medium to be found, and a principled observer should respect the opinions and experience of others, while seeking to constantly refine his or her view of the natural world.

    Reply
  26. Grace

    Another observation – from a non-scientist and someone who was raised in the old, cold, segrated Methodist churches of small towns in the Deep South in the 1960s, and who now is utterly horrified that attempts to legislate religious beliefs into laws that prohibit abortion and reduce access to contraception are so successful.

    It seems that uncertainty is the more scientific approach to religion. Indeed, we haven’t proven there is a God or gods; neither have we proven there isn’t, correct?

    One thing about Prof. Coyne’s blog that made me particularly uncomfortable is that he described himself as an “evolutionist.” To me, this implies that evolution is some sort of a belief system. When what it is, is scientific fact.

    Some facts are hard to prove. Evolution isn’t one of them.

    One thing the continuing debate over evolution calls into question for me is the common assertion of economists that people behave rationally. (Of course, the definition of ‘rational’ is a moving target in that debate.) But the continuing battle of people for whom, for whatever reason, the fact of evolution creates a religious crisis of some sort, to either disprove or disregard is beyond irrational–it’s hysterical.

    Reply
    1. Circe

      “One thing the continuing debate over evolution calls into question for me is the common assertion of economists that people behave rationally.” I don’t think that is very accurate: while microeconomic models almost always assume rational behavior, this is done more out of helplessness than certitude: we just don’t have the tools and the right models for actual, non-rational behavior. There are several attempts to get around this limitation: one of which is the computer-science inspired notion of bounded rationality. This assumes that people try to be rational, but may be impeded in this because of lack of time or information. Modelling emotional responses mathematically, on the other hand , is probably not even practical.

      Reply
      1. Grace

        http://www.sp.uconn.edu/~langlois/r700.htm
        “Rationality is a notion at the heart of both economics and business research. In their descriptive models, economists postulate that people behave rationally; and, in their normative models, many consultants and academics insist that business people ought to make rational decisions. …As a point of orientation, a discussion of Karl Popper’s well-known rationality principle should be raised…. This will provide a framework and a language with which to discuss both rationality and the methodology of economics. According to Popper’s principle, one should analyse social processes by assuming that agents act appropriately or reasonably in the situation in which they find themselves…”

        Reply
        1. Circe

          To begin, I will note that Popper was not an economist. Secondly, I take you misunderstood my comment: I was not saying that rational behavior is not a central theme in economics; I was saying that economics are acutely aware of this and realize that this is an approximation guided more by pragmatics than anything else. Further, there are serious attempts to address this deficiency, see, e.g. Bounded Rationality, and Prospect Theory for examples.

          Reply
    2. Lowen Gartner

      Facts are stubborn things – John Adams
      Facts are stupid things – Ronald Reagan
      “Scientific fact” is an oxymoron – Lowen Gartner
      Evolution is a theory. And of course it is a belief system. Just one supported with a lots of evidence.
      Jerry Coyne, as an evolutionist, studies evolution.

      Reply
      1. Circe

        “Evolution is a theory. And of course it is a belief system. Just one supported with a lots of evidence.”

        Against, this is not completely correct: “Biological evolution happens” is a fact as much as “trees grow” and “the Earth is attracted towards the Sun” are facts. It is a fact that has been observed in the wild, in the lab, and in controlled scenarios.

        Then, there are theories of evolution to “explain” how evolution happens: just like there are theories of gravity to explain how “the Earth is attracted towards the Sun”. These theories, which often complement and supplement each other, are as much a “belief system” about evolution as the general theory of relativity is a “belief system” about gravity.

        Reply
        1. Lowen Gartner

          It seems we differ on the definition of terms. Quoting the old adage, there are no facts in science – only measurement embedded within assumptions. As for scientific theories, these are belief systems that have demonstrated extraordinary explanatory power in that they – explain all known data, are hard to vary, are falsifiable, have made predictions that have been demonstrated, and make more predictions about what data we should expect to observe.

          Reply
        2. Papalinton

          Lowen
          “As for scientific theories, these are belief systems that have demonstrated extraordinary explanatory power in that they – explain all known data, are hard to vary, are falsifiable, have made predictions that have been demonstrated, and make more predictions about what data we should expect to observe.”

          One could even cheekily suggest the ability of science to correctly ‘prophesy’ future outcomes and events far outstrips theism’s claim to do same, not to mention the frequency by which these ‘prophecies’ are made. By comparison, science has demonstrated extraordinary efficacy as both an explanatory tool and a predictive or ‘revelatory’ process [ :o) ]. Theism simply pails into insignificance on both counts.

          Reply
        3. Papalinton

          “What, “Sandy” is not the apocalypse fulfilling that Mayan prophecy related to 2012?”

          No, but it is clear that ‘Sandy’ happened because of gays. See HERE

          :o)

          Reply
        4. Circe

          @Lowen Gartner: “Quoting the old adage, there are no facts in science – only measurement embedded within assumptions.” I have seen this game before, and as someone who does science for a living, I must say I don’t like it. There would be no need of theories if there were no “facts” to explain. How do you precisely separate “measurements” from “facts”? Is “Obama is the president of the US” a fact? Is “massive bodies are attracted towards the Earth” a fact?

          If they are, then so is biological evolution. If they are not, then I frankly don’t know what’s the point of keeping the word “fact” around in the language.

          Reply
          1. Lowen Gartner

            “I frankly don’t know what’s the point of keeping the word “fact” around in the language.”

            For the scientific lexicon my response is “exactly”!

            Common everyday language and scientific language are two different things. If you read back, I am talking about scientific language, and there are words (such as “theory”) that have a different meaning in common language than in the scientific lexicon and there are many words in common use that have no meaning in the scientific world. I hold that the word “fact” is one of those that has no meaning in the practice of science (though of course it does in casual conversation among some scientists) and that the phrase “scientific fact” is misleading to the public.

            I think we need to be clear when communicating with the general public on what is theory, what is hypothesis and what is conjecture and how all of it is the current best effort to explain data/evidence.

        5. Circe

          @Lowen Gartner: I still do not understand your position. You seem to have no qualms using the word “data” in a scientific context, but somehow have an objection to the word “fact”. So I will repeat my question above. Are you going to label “massive bodies are attracted towards the Earth” as “data”? Personally, I would label that as a statement of “scientific fact”, one that is supported by all the “data” available to us. “Theories” of gravity are then needed to explain this “fact”.

          Similarly, I will contend (with a lot of terminological support from evolutionary biologists, I believe) that “biological evolution happens” is a “scientific fact”, again supported by all the “data” we currently possess. There are also several “theories” of evolution designed to explain this “fact”, and we can then weigh the “evidence” in favor of each of these theories.

          Frankly, I don’t see the point in conflating the terms “fact” and “data”.

          Reply
          1. Lowen Gartner

            I differentiate between data (which is meaningful in science) and fact. If you want to conflate them, that is your choice.

            As for “massive bodies are attracted towards the Earth” , isn’t there a theory where these bodies don’t change direction and move forward, but that space bends around them? What you describe is data based on certain instruments within a set of assumptions about how things work that has been conflated with the word fact. But change the assumptions, and the same data (measurements) yield a new interpretation – a new fact?

            Is it a fact that given a point and a line, that there is only one line through the point parallel to the line?

  27. Liz

    Dear Professor Haskell, I am having a thoroughly enjoyable and satisfying reading experience with your book. At first I was wondering why there weren’t any pictures. But then I realized it was not necessary. I went to Google image and Youtube, got the picture and the sound, and was able to appreciate your writing so much more. This is not the same as walking with you on a bird watching tour of course, but from California this is the best I can do. I wish this kind of observation can be part of the K-12 education. Introduce our children to the wonderment of nature first, and then entice them to work up the will to learn, instead of boring them away with algebra and molecular formula from the get-go :).

    Many thanks from a very grateful reader.
    Liz

    Reply
  28. Papalinton

    “Scientific fact” is an oxymoron – Lowen Gartner

    Yes it is Lowen. You know that. I know that. But perhaps there is a greater good to be served here by clearly differentiating the term as used in science, its veracity predicated as it is on the notion of falsifiability, and not ever to be confused with the nonsense trotted out as ‘religious fact’; Muhammad flying off to heaven on a winged horse, the 72 virgins that inspire supposedly rational people to blow themselves to bits, or the revivification of a three-day old putrescent corpse and its actual physical bodily levitation into the blue beyond to who knows where. Let’s not forget that the Pope knows that transubstantiation, the cracker and wine actually turns into flesh and blood during the eucharist ritual, is a ‘fact’. This is the gruel that has been fed to the young for millennia as ‘real’, as fact. If there is an oxymoron in the debate, one need not look further than the invention of ‘religious facts’ or ‘truths’.

    Is it any wonder the level of despairing confusion and equivocation that the average religious believer is confronted with on understanding the term ‘fact’? Is it any wonder the religiose portray evolution as simply just another false belief system, a devilish alternative to the true word of god, in existential competition for the hearts and minds of followers?

    Christians know all other faiths and gods apart from their own particular stripe and flavour of religious belief are false, and despite Dawkins rightfully urging that they take that one further step, they are emotionally and psychologically reticent to take that step. This is no less evident by which the religious perceive evolution as a belief system as you and I understand it, they are too fearful to take that one further step and acknowledge that it is indeed one ….. supported with lots of evidence.

    Reply
  29. Jim Gallatin

    Wonderful, thoughtful blog and book. It is enough for me to read and enjoy them without deciding who is wrong and who is right or parse through each phrase. Really appreciate it all.

    Reply
  30. David George Haskell Post author

    Thank you to everyone who has contributed comments here.

    A few brief thoughts from my end of things:

    1. Comment about atoms. Ethical claims (about species extinction, human rights, etc) are not, to my knowledge, fully derivable from the laws of physics, chemistry, or biology. Yet I “deeply suspect” some ethical claims reflect more than the passing whims of nervous systems and might, therefore, have some kind of objective nature. What that nature is, I do not know, but it seems unlikely to be made out of atoms. I’m the first to admit that the suspicions that I harbor might just be feelings in an evolved brain and nothing more. But perhaps not.

    2. For those who want a single number on the Dawkins probability dial, I’ll have to disappoint you. The answer to the question depends on what you mean by “God”. If the god that you’re imagining presupposes a fundamental ontological division between humans and other creatures, then the needle surges up, red-lining the dial. But if by “god” you mean the idea that ethical statements might reflect some kind of objective reality in the universe, the needle does not know what to do, but is inclined to remain low, listening.

    3. Dawkins’ long-standing and vigorously argued positions on religion are well known and in many ways they define the way in which the field of biology is seen by non-biologists, especially in the area of biology’s relationship with religion. As my book’s Preface makes abundantly clear, I used an idea taken directly from religious traditions – the potential insights offered by contemplative practice, a practice that has an important role in my life – and applied it to observation of the ecology of a forest. Mine is a markedly different attitude toward the biology-religion relationship than has been advocated by Dawkins. So I mentioned him briefly in a multi-hour interview, indicating that I did not agree with some of his positions and statements. For those who don’t want to read the book, but want to assess my approach, the reviews of the book (http://theforestunseen.com/reviews/) do a good job of outlining my basic stance towards the use of contemplative practice in the context of scientific observation and reflection.

    Reply
    1. Lowen Gartner

      “I’m the first to admit that the suspicions that I harbor might just be feelings in an evolved brain and nothing more. But perhaps not.”

      I have found the easiest way to distinguish is to answer the question “would this exist if all human (and similarly intelligent/conscious) life were suddenly absent from the universe?”

      I’d be curious as to what you suspect….

      Reply
      1. David George Haskell Post author

        An excellent question. As it turns out I’m writing an essay on exactly that question. At root my answer is: I do not know. But it seems to me that much of the philosophy of ethics hinges on that question. Is ethics solely a construct of our brains or does it have some objective external validity also? Note that the latter option does not imply theism, although theism is one option. I doubt that the question can ever be answered fully. But I’d argue that all we’ve learned about what humans are (evolved animals) is certainly relevant to the discussion. In the pre-Darwinian world we could imagine ourselves as special and separate, an imagined status that does not hold up any more (either evolutionarily OR ecologically).

        Reply
        1. Lowen Gartner

          I look forward to your essay. I must agree that it is a uniquely human trait to “imagine ourselves as special and separate” and suggest that perhaps that is the only significant way we differ from other life forms on earth, with all other differences being “an imagined status that does not hold up any more”.

          Reply
        2. Mike

          Hrm. Argumentum ad ignorantiam. Most *scientists* refrain from saying, “We don’t know,” or “We shall never know.” They simply say, “We don’t know… yet.”

          “Where ignorance lurks, so too do the frontiers of discovery and imagination. | God is an ever receding pocket of scientific ignorance.” – Neil deGrasse Tyson

          There’s been recent scientific rigor on the examination of extreme differences in altruism in individuals and the stability of altruistic tendencies over time, with credible attribution to size/activity of the Temporoparietal Junction involved in appreciating the perspectives of others – critical to altruism being the ability to perceive others’ actions as meaningful. Now, what’s “meaningful” can obviously be a relative perspective (derivation of consciousness?). But further study of brain systems that allow for seeing the world as a series of ‘meaningful’ interactions can advance understanding of empathy and altruistic behavior (fountainhead for ‘ethics,’ as you seem to imply)– as well as disorders like autism and antisocial behavior (i.e., deficits in empathy, intimacy/vulnerability).

          “Biology is not destiny—it’s capacity. Clearly, the evolutionary process has given us the capacity for empathy and for altruism, and it’s also given us the capacity for violence and for xenophobia and for aggression. But the question of whether and under what circumstances we exercise this kindness is no longer a biological question… This is fundamentally a human social and political, in the broad sense, problem.” http://ow.ly/f6ACX

          From what place does your molecules+ projection of ‘external validity’ hail, having studied at Oxford under a pioneering advocate of social evolution, inclusive fitness theory etc?

          There’s a slightly dangerous, false dichotomy at play here, in that when a member of the scientific community even passively or contextually implies that correlations exist between ethical considerations / morality and ‘external validities,’ it lends credence to the [currently] mainstream assumption that religious people are more honest than nonreligious people; that renunciation of these ‘externalities’ lends itself to ethical arrears. That simply is not bearing out in all the most recent sociological research: the ethical behavior of people who say religion is “essential” to their lives is often not distinguishable from the behavior of those who describe religion as “unimportant.” http://ow.ly/f6Ksl

          Atheists are typically THE *greatest* fans and champions of science, and are unfortunately also more distrusted and despised (at least by Americans) than any other minority (incl. Muslims or homosexuals). So, one might suggest it is incumbent upon high[er]-profile scientists with theistic sympathies to speak unambiguously, with as much clarity as possible, lest they run the risk of propagating a prejudging stereotype. Sure, lending voice to inferences of ‘external validities’ for morality/ethics could ultimately prove quite harmless, originating from an isolated mountaintop town where Episcopal traditions are still quite en vogue. But *most* atheists [many of whom were raised in theistic cultures/traditions, and came unto themselves a *different* –some might say bolder, given how reviled– understanding of the world, thanks to talented lecturers/writers like Dawkins and even yourself, who make complex ideas so much more accessible] would say that liberation from these ‘external validities’ has not only opened a door to insatiable amounts of intellectual curiosity for scientific discovery (and assoc. advocacy to adequately fund progress, like, ahem: http://ow.ly/f6MQi), but also a release from the feelings of shame over what’s altogether natural in homo sapiens, that has historically characterized theism (or, at least a theism that doesn’t make it a *point* to incorporate modern science into its doctrines: http://ow.ly/f6Orp)

          Into what type of ethic might we graduate our collective, conscious existence, if every individual’s journey was accompanied by a freedom from shame\humiliation? Particularly for women and GLBT.

          As for subaqueous excogitation at mandalas, or wherever: all things in moderation. “Contemplation often makes life miserable. We should act more, think less, and stop watching ourselves live.” -Nicolas Chamfort

          Reply
          1. David George Haskell Post author

            Thank you for these thoughtful comments and links.

            Despite Neil deGrasse Tyson’s pithy quote, I still don’t see that science can be used to answer ethical questions. (By the way, Dawkins is quite clear on this: he thinks that science cannot be used in this context). Whether that means that all ethical claims are ultimately arbitrary (person A’s opinions/genetic predispositions vs person B’s) or whether ethics might be grounded in something else, I do not know. I’m sorry if that “not knowing” is offensive or seems politically dangerous. Note that “something else” does not imply a need to a return to the bad old days of patriarchal, homophobic, guilt-tripping old skool theism. You spell out the advantages of the abandonment of that worldview quite clearly (and I agree).

            As for a fully formed foundation for ethics that takes into account modern scientific knowledge and leaves behind the harmful baggage of the past: a worthy goal. I don’t know. (Yet?)

        3. Mike davis

          Re: Nov. 8 comment.

          The question is not whether science can be used to answer ethical questions. Clearly it can (we know, for example, that climate science informs a moral imperative for a cleaner, carbonless form of industrialization). The question is whether, as you posit, the origins for ethics can be found in something other than scientific understanding.

          So, define ethics. And what evidence is there that ethics is anything other than a human construct, that ethics could be derived from some sort of external source? Ethics get passed on from generation to generation primarily through the rule of law — nothing supernatural about that. Prior to the rule of law, ethics were passed down through cultures and individuals with wide variations.

          If consciousness is some product of physics/chemistry/biology, and ethics, then, a byproduct of that? — That’s still an outgrowth of biological processes. There is no evidence of consciousness (yet) outside of Earth, so how can one suggest that ethics (as our brains know/define ethics) are derived from something external to human consciousness? If there is something external (Universe?) that offers a standardization for ethics here on Earth…that’s a pretty lofty supposition in the midst of widespread suffering.

          No surprise that there’s kin and group selection as partial explanation for altruism.
          The ability of human brains to devise and uphold a standard of ethics, however complex given how complex Earth’s systems are, has origins in natural selection.
          Wiki on Hobbes’ Leviathan:

          “Not only is the concept of a summum bonum superfluous, but given the variability of human desires, there could be no such thing. Consequently, any political community that sought to provide the greatest good to its members would find itself riven by competing conceptions of that good with no way to decide among them. The result would be civil war. There is, however, Hobbes states, a summum malum, or greatest evil. This is the fear of violent death. A political community can be oriented around this fear. Since there is no summum bonum, the natural state of man is not to be found in a political community that pursues the greatest good. But to be outside of a political community is to be in an anarchic condition. Given human nature, the variability of human desires, and need for scarce resources to fulfill those desires, the state of nature must be a war of all against all. Even when two men are not fighting, there is no guarantee that the other will not try to kill him for his property or just out of an aggrieved sense of honour, and so they must constantly be on guard against one another. It is even reasonable to preemptively attack one’s neighbor.

          ‘In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently, not culture of the earth, no navigation, nor the use of commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’

          The desire to avoid the state of nature, as the place where the summum malum of violent death is most likely to occur, forms the polestar of political reasoning.”

          Humans have devised a big enough brain to operate outside biological imperative — though, studies have shown that in many cases, we think we do, but we don’t. And…if atoms can be affected by disease or trauma (brain), what evidence is there for another sensor of reality? Altruism, even, is a concept with some variability — it can take on the pathology of a mental illness (as with anything else in extremes), and with “self-sacrifice”: people are known throw themselves into harm’s way to save… their cat, or… a cell phone lodged in the subway tracks (not always a member of their own species).

          I suspect you may have altered your own consciousness through daily meditation (I admit, this is possible), but with age, your brain may lose the ability to do as much. Have you spent much time with people who’ve suffered brain disorders or trauma? A stroke victim, for example, who maybe wants to move his hand, but the brain circuitry has lost the ability to move the hand… Speaking from personal experience (elderly loved ones with dementia)…it may offer some perspective. On just how fleeting and biologically based the capability to even ask these questions of ourselves really is…

          “old days” of patriarchal theism? 90% of women in Egypt TODAY have been subjected to FGM. The correlation between theism and control as it applies to matters of sex is well-ingrained, and intact. Hard-wired. ‘Externalities’ — Be careful what you wish for. Or, at least what you (a scientist who would like? to be taken seriously, as a scientist) are PREPARED(?) to defend when the likes of Coyne, Dawkins, and secularist admirers of science are reading. Not “offensive,” just dubious.

          Reply
          1. David George Haskell Post author

            About “old days”: I was flat *wrong* to state it like that. You are absolutely right to flag that statement. Those days are not gone — in this country, let alone other places.

            About “moral imperative for a cleaner” form of economy: Science can certainly tell us about what we’re doing to the world and provide good projections into the consequences of our actions. But provide a *moral* imperative? I don’t think so. I fail to see how testing hypotheses about the nature of the world (which is what science does) can tell us why we should care about other people, let alone other species. Isn’t mass extinction, population decline, etc all part of the natural way of things? Why should Homo sapiens give a damn about the extinction of other species? Moral statements require a reference to some other frame of analysis than natural science, although natural science can inform about facts. Some of those frames of analysis are theistic, but others are not (utilitarianism, etc).

            I do totally agree with you that reference to any external “objective” set of ethical principles carries with it the possibility of authoritarianism. i.e. one group of people imposing their view of the world on others. But just because an idea can be distorted and abused does not falsify whatever truth it may contain. After all, science has also be used to oppress women, minorities, and other groups. For an interesting reflection on one particular case of why science is relevant to ethics, but ultimately cannot answer ethical questions see: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/29/opinion/sunday/bruni-gay-wont-go-away-genetic-or-not.html?_r=0

            Dawkins on this question (from Q Review of Biology):

            “The question, “What is right and what is wrong?” is a genuinely difficult question that science certainly cannot answer. Given a moral premise or a priori moral belief, the important and rigorous discipline of secular moral philosophy can pursue scientific or logical modes of reasoning to point up hidden implications of such beliefs, and hidden inconsistencies between them. But the absolute moral premises themselves must come from elsewhere, presumably from unargued conviction.”

            I’d say that those “unargued” convictions are either illusions created by our brains or they reflect something real about the universe. This strikes me as an important dichotomy and one that I’m (unsurprisingly) not able to answer.

  31. Neita

    David, I found your book review through “Open Spaces / Sacred Places” Facebook page, which led me to your blog and twitter account.

    I just wanted to comment that I’m excited to learn from you. I’m a budding naturalist (currently completing my requirements to be a volunteer/Certified Master Naturalist in Maryland), inspired both by Richard Louv’s “Last Child in the Woods” as well as my own personal experiences with finding peace in nature. I’m a business writer in my regular career. And I’ve been intrigued and experimenting with social media to see what impact it may have on just getting people outdoors.

    I’ve enjoyed the NY Times City Room blog series by Marielle Anzelone, “Autumn Unfolds” and “Springtime” as she chronicles the changing of the seasons. I’ve been so intrigued by concentrating on just one small part of the world. I’ve wanted to pick my own piece of the forest (maybe it will be a wetland!) and spend regular time observing there.

    Therefore, I look forward to reading your book, enjoying it, and learning from it on a more professional level (and then returning to read the “contemptuous cross-fire” comments with a better understanding!).

    Best regards,
    Neita

    Reply
    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Thank you, Neita. I hope that you enjoy the book. I do not know Marielle Anzelone’s work, but it will look it up. Hers sounds like a great project, as does your idea of watching a patch of wetland — much to be learned!

      Reply
  32. Bruce Burdick

    Is there any hope that Dawkins and the religious might find some common ground? I like the idea of FORTMUP (FORces and conditions That Must be present for life and us to be Possible). These include the expansion rate of the universe after the Big Bang (1 millionth of 1% slower and the universe would have collapsed on itself after a few million years, 1 millionth of 1% faster and all would have been dust), as well as gravity and electromagnetism, and the conditions on earth that allowed life. And life seems to be based on cells caring for each other (if we define an act of caring as an act which sustains or enhances life.). Can we examine “survival of the fittest” closely and find that those that survive are those with cells which are successful caring for each other? If we define an act of caring as an act which sustains or enhances life, then cells care for each other (though they do not have the emotions we associate with caring.) Consider your heart cells and how they are successful pumping blood to all your other cells. Consider your red blood cells successful at delivering oxygen to all your other cells. It appears each of your ten trillion cells has a way of caring for all your other cells.
    Now the religious would prefer a God that has a plan, while FORTMUP is just all that is and all that can be identified by science. Atheists might see no need for FORTMUP, unless they Google Robert Emmons Gratitude Highlights and find that those that keep a gratitude journal are more optimistic about the week to come, and have fewer physical complaints, and feel so much better that they exercise 1.5 hours a week more than those not keeping a gratitude journal. The concept of FORTMUP gives us much to be grateful for, including each of our 10 trillion cells that make us possible.

    Reply
    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Thank you for this comment.

      I’m personally very grateful for all my cells *and* for the elimination from my body of the pathogenic bacteria and other critters that have at various times tried to kill me.

      A gratitude journal is a great idea. I’ll add: “thoughtful comments on my blog” to today’s entry.

      Reply
      1. Bruce Burdick

        How very nice to have you appreciate these ideas. Would it be interesting to do “Experiments in Happiness” as part of teaching biology and science? I note the University of Pennsylvania has a General Overall happiness Questionnaire.
        http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/Default.aspx
        which might be given at the beginning of the semester and at the end of the semester. Different perspectives in biology would be taught and tested for their effect on the students. I would like to test the following concepts:
        – writing or thinking thoughts of gratitude each day leads to higher scores on the happiness questionnaire.
        – we can be grateful for our cells and their success in caring for each other and us.
        – “survival of the fittest” can be examined closely and interpreted as “survival of those beings whose cells are successful caring for each other – and their success is dependent on the environment in which they live”.
        Please let me know if I might help you design these “Experiments in Happiness in Biology Class.” I could contact Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania and see if his online questionnaire might be adapted for your needs. Perhaps your class could use unique Usernames like “DGHXXXXXXXX” that would help identify them for the study,and still keep their scores anonymous to everyone.
        Thank you for considering it, Bruce

        Reply
  33. Michael D

    Hi Dr. Haskell,

    I received your book as a gift earlier this year while visiting my cousin, Tommy M. He told me that it was a wonderful book. I read and thoroughly enjoyed it. I thought that the image of the mandela was absolutely perfect, and the meditation on the forest qua forest and the subtle introductions of biological and evolutionary topics was genius, and made for an interesting read. Just the other day Tommy referred me to the NY Times review which lead me here (and to the other blogs).

    One comment that I found interesting was regarding the (problematic) position of science to ethics. As an engineer this problem I find most intriguing. I was reminded of a line from Leo Strauss’s essay on Heidegger where he writes,

    “I have already referred to the well-know expression: we know more and more about less and less. What does that mean? It means that the modern science has not kept the promise which is old out from its beginning up until the end of nineteenth century: that it would reveal to us the true character of the universe and the truth about man….You all know the assertion that value judgments are impermissible to the scientist in general and to the social scientist in particular. This means certainly that, while science has increased man’s power in ways that former men never dreamt of, it is absolutely incapable of telling men how to use that power. Science cannot tell man whether it is wiser to use that power wisely and beneficently, or foolishly and devilishly. From this it follows that science is unable to establish its own meaningfulness or to answer the question whether, and in what sense, science is good.” (in Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism)

    I quote Strauss carefully not because of the connotations of his later neoconservative disciplines but because he finds an interesting problem that Heidegger sees. Heidegger asked the question, “what is there something rather than nothing” and asked questions about what is being. At the basis of this is an abyss, and thus true ethics would seem to be an impossibility. What Strauss via Heidegger sees is that without the solid grounds for ethics, we turn to science as good children of the enlightenment to give us the light, but it cannot by definition give a value judgment. Thus it shows that it is all normative. Plato knew this and Socrates chastised Theodorous in Theatetus for trying to speak from a position of pure thought that is denied to him.

    I’m sure you have thought through this, but I figured it was worth a post. I really am disappointed in the backlash against you for this article. I love dialogue and debate, but pure demagoguery (without even reading your book) is sad. Ironically enough I was watching an old interview of Christopher Hitchen where he posed a question about his polemic style. His response was something to the effect that Americans aren’t used to a true debate (except our courtroom dramas) and are not used to the tradition of debate in which you have to know your opponents position inside and out as well as your own, and where not position is really ever held as gospel, but the truth comes out of the debate…..

    Michael D

    Reply
    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Dear Michael,

      Thank you very much for this thoughtful comment and quote.

      I’m delighted that you enjoyed the book and found its biological/evolutionary lens an interesting one.

      Your comments here about science and ethics resonate with many of my own thoughts. I agree that science alone cannot provide a foundation for ethics, but I do think that there needs to be communication from science into the field of ethical analysis. Our (relatively recent) scientific understanding of ourselves as evolved creatures living in a limited and fairly “fragile” ecosystem certainly challenges us to think about ethics in a somewhat new way. So science contributes significantly to ethical thought, but it cannot, as you point out, tell us what is “good” (or tell us whether “good” exists in any real sense). Strauss’s point about science’s inability to “establish its own meaningfulness” is one that I’ll need to ponder. In some ways science’s predictive power and fruitfulness might be seen as evidence of meaning.

      These are very difficult questions (and important ones). Well-intentioned debate (with a measure of respect for the “other” side) is surely the best way of tackling them.

      Again, thank you for your comment!

      With my best wishes, David

      Reply
      1. Bruce Burdick

        Can many of these ethical dilemmas be resolved by adopting a goal of sustainable health for each person living on the planet now, and for sustainable health for each person in all future generations? If we cannot show that we can provide sufficient food and a healthy environment for people now and in future generations, then shouldn’t we change our life style and our ways of generating energy so that we can? If we are Americans, isn’t “the pursuit of happiness” in our constitution? Can’t science and scientists embrace the need for health and the “right to pursue happiness”? Now people will argue their happiness should come before the happiness of others. Might we desire increasing “gross national happiness” rather than the “gross domestic product”. Would people be better off if “fiduciary responsibility” were defined as a responsibility to increase wealth in ways that also increase the “gross national happiness”?

        Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s