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Selected Books by Edmund Blair Bolles

  • Galileo's Commandment: 2500 Years of Great Science Writing
  • The Ice Finders: How a Poet, a Professor, and a Politician Discovered the Ice Age
  • Einstein Defiant: Genius vs Genius in the Quantum Revolution

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Rick Thomas

Your timeline suggests a discontinuity - the biological revolution. But there's a simple argument for a continuum of mutually causal processes. 1) Primate social intelligence increases, effectively expanding the ability to judge the implications of action. 2) Biological processes like sexual selection and the Baldwin effect select for the more intelligent, the more morally capable, the more able to articulate. 3) Pre-humans invent language and moral systems and coevolve with those contexts.

Is it too simple to argue that humans invented language and morals because language and morals are judged good?
BLOGGER: It probably is too simple. To give a too simple response, I will just note that even today, with long histories of language and morals behind us, it is very difficult to get people to agree to do something because it is good. Conflicts of interest and mistrust complicate all social efforts.

Rick Thomas

We must distinguish evolutionary processes from historical processes.

Evolution has left a biological capacity for language and a biological capacity for morals. The processes that created them includes individual and collective choice. Evolution judges them good, by defintion. And so did the primary agents of evolution, the proto-humans.

Evolution doesn't care about historical choices. A "sociopath" is often a person of substandard capacity (Bush) or one who, while capable, acts otherwise (Stalin).

It can't be any other way. "Conflicts of interest and mistrust" are, still, among the most salient drivers of the human evolutionary process.
BLOGGER: I'm not sure what the dispute is about — or even if there is a dispute, so I'm stepping aside.

Rick Thomas

I'll frame it as a dispute if you like. You say "If culture was the outcome, the revolution itself must have been biological, or at least begun that way." That is correct, it began that way. But in every interesting way, culture and biology are peers. You seem content to posit a "revolution" rather than to pursue the implications of coevolution.
BLOGGER: Ah, I see. So we are disputing over tastes. On this blog I pay a lot of attention to biological origins.

Rick Thomas

(What's with the evasive responses??)

I have reread several of your articles that discuss coevolution. Nowhere do you address hypothesis that I mentioned in an attempt to contribute to the discussion - that the animals themselves are the significant agent of change.

Deacon has this blindness as well. He says (SS p329) "For genetic assimilation to take place, this [hypothetical] persistent aspect of language must also impose consistent invariant demands on neural processes...." The answer is plain: it is not an aspect of language but the persistent choice of the language users that present the "invariant demands" on their own neurons.

You will find that this line of thinking will clarify many issues that you leave as mysteries.
BLOGGER: Well, the reason I've been evading a discussion of the proposition "that the animals themselves are the significant agent of change," is that I did not realize you had proposed it. I'm not sure of your argument from that little snippet, but normally getting from that idea to biological evolution runs us through Lamarckian processes, and hence is discredited from the outset. Baldwinean (pseudo-Lamarckian) processes may be at work, but I have yet to find a case where appealing to them seems necessary (and when I started this blog I expected to say a lot about them).

Andreas Plischke

Although Ayala (2009) is not correct and up-to-date in all details of evolutionary biology of human morality (see here for a vivid catch-up, I think he is pointing out an important aspect that is often being neglected when discussing biological roots of cultural mechanisms: biological (i.e. genetic, or material) evolution and cultural (i.e. memetic, or informational) evolution are two separate systems, that are nevertheless interacting and coevolving. The capacity for morality (and language) is part of the former, the contents (the actual moral judgement of an action, or the particular language that one speaks) are part of the latter system. Cultural evolution is much more flexible than material evolution, but still - as culture is a behavioural trait of biological organisms - there are constraints imposed by natural selection. This does not mean that every particular cultural behaviour has an obvious and straightforward biological advantage for its performer. Darwinian fitness is per definitionem environment-dependent, and the fitness effects of a cultural behaviour depends on the cultural environment (e.g. while brown skin is considered attractive nowadys in Western cultures, it was for centuries a signal of lower social class, identifying fieldworkers, so white skin was the beauty standard).
In the same way that it is impossible to make future predictions about genetic evolution -as it involves random processes- it is impossible to make predictions about cultural evolution, let alone to derive one from the other in a circular argument. Making suggestions for the norms of ethics on the basis of evolutionary biology is a logical overdetermination.

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