Monday, March 9, 2009

I Saw Dawkins Too!

Peder has a great post over at Two Gits about his experience during the Dawkins talk last week. I have to agree with his overview. There was not much substance. It was very much a talk presented for the layperson. However, it was entertaining and I don't regret attending. I do regret not knowing that Peder and Nils would be there. Next time guys.

I think Peder describes the Archi-, Archae-, or Arche-, and Neo-purposes more succinctly than Dawkins himself.

For the type of purpose that we can see in nature, the unconscious selections that nature has made through the survival of better adapted individuals and the passing on of their genes, he uses the term “archi-purpose”. The word “archi” being Greek for first or principal, it can also mean the earlier version, so all definitions apply here, I think.

For the type of purpose that we can see in human invention, deliberate creations that were meant to accomplish a goal, he uses the term “neo-purpose”. The word “neo” being Greek for new or recent.
He also poses some questions for Dawkins that he didn't get to ask. Since I doubt he's going to answer them, I thought I'd take a stab at 'em. Just for conversation's sake.

Do we as humans, having subverted archi-purpose, exist outside of natural selection?
Yes, and no. Certainly there are a number of situations in which we are able to avoid natural selection. Sick people that would die without medical care are able to survive and reproduce fairly regularly. However, it seems inevitable that we will run up against something that our technology can't conquer on it's own. We may find that we need to evolve or go extinct. As far as subverting our archi-purposes goes, those may be driving factors in natural selection. Our drive to eat fatty foods no longer serves us well. We are overweight, unhealthy, and die sooner because of the decisions we make based on this particular subversion of purpose. Will it result in less reproduction for those that have the greatest drive to eat high calorie foods? Maybe.

If not, what is the next step in human evolution?
Let me hope that the next step is that those of us that are able to find solace in reason and seek peace (assuming these things have a genetic basis) outbreed those that find it all too easy to murder in the name of imaginary friends (more subversion of purpose). Unfortunately, educated non-religious people seem less willing to reproduce. This really doesn't seem to be helping the cause from the view of natural selection.

If evolution is a scientifically provable, it means we should be able to model or predict future steps in the ladder; what traits will be favored in future human species?
I think that this may be theoretically possible but with very little accuracy. In reality there are just too many factors. I'm running into similar challenges in ecology. We can't even figure out why shallow lakes turn green and you want to know what the next step in human evolution will be? Good luck.

With out sounding like a fan of eugenics, does it look like we are headed in a positive direction? Can we do anything about it?
Ahh, eugenics. It's not a swear word but it sure feels like it. My personal opinion is that approached reasonably some of the ideas behind eugenics are both feasible and beneficial. I may open this can of worms another day. So, are we headed in a positive direction? That depends on what you consider a positive direction. Can we do anything? Yes. Will we? Not likely.

How about other species?
That's a bit broad. Maybe you can be a little more specific (get it?) and we can continue this one later.

Does the potential environmental disaster we are causing equate to any of the mass-extinction events in the earth’s past?
Wow. That's a great question. I would say that currently it's not even close. Will it get there? Well, I don't have a lot of faith in mankind. I don't think we'll stop until it's too late. This is another question that warrants an entire post with much discussion if you're interested. I'll bring friends too.

Just because we are content living within our epoch, where nothing has changed much in our cultural memory, doesn’t mean that things can’t go completely haywire. Assuming we don’t nuke the planet down to molten rock, and even if we do, won’t the earth’s myriad species just adapt with time and move on–with or without us?

How do you deal with theist family members (Nils’s question)?
I'd really have liked to hear how Dawkins responded to this one. I'm struggling with this myself. Some relatives are just fine with the fact that I'm an atheist. Some are worried. Some are upset. None understand it though. I just had a conversation with my mom last night about what an atheist is. I've never discussed it with my dad and doubt that I ever will. It's really varies between people. Let me know when you find a fool proof answer to this one.

It would be fun to continue this conversation if anyone is interested. Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?


John Kamman said...

boo ya. Its bed time, otherwise I'd contribute more. With regards to the extinction question, there is a great article called "planet of weeds" that compares the environmental crisis to the other five mass extinctions...a bit dated, but hits home. I like what he has to say.

Peder H said...

Shane, thanks for your kind words and responses to my questions. I wasn't sure if I was barking up the right tree when I was writing it. I don't have the scientific background that you do, so I am glad that it at least made a little bit of sense--even if some of my questions did betray my ignorance and naive expectations of science.
The "How about other species," question should not have been on its own bullet-point. It was meant as a continuation of the question immediately above it. Though, of course there are millions of species, so yes more specificity would be good, ha. I guess what I had in mind is observable evolution, beyond the micro bacterial scale, which is the only evolution we can see happening presently, that I am aware of (though, admittedly I'm not aware of much). We always hear of species dying and extinction in response to changes, or in response to our influence. Am I missing the point with that line of reasoning? Is the point that those species are at the end of their genetic path, and others will take their place in the changed ecological pyramid? I assume the answer is obviously yes, considering the biodiversity present today after the multiple mass-extinction events that we are aware of. So then the question that comes to mind is: Why bother? Why are we so obsessed with preserving the status quo of our little epoch? Things change, shit happens. At what point did we (I know this sounds nihilistic)start putting the preservation of humanity above the natural world? I like the idea that there is a responsibility, as the only self-aware species on the planet, to try to minimize our affect on it and its many other species. But I'm not sure that it is something that is realistic outside the scale of me taking care of myself.
We just bought an acreage, and we have big plans for self-sustainability. We are also ready to embrace the inherent hypocrisy of the thousands of dollars we have to spend to get to that point. There is also the question of what happens if one removes the human factor from the equation? What happens if I injure myself, or manage to live long enough to be weakened by age? Then it's right back to the power grid and the grocery store.
Wouldn't it be better to revert to the super sustainable hunter gatherer existence of our ancestors? How far should I go? Actually,I would be all for it, if some of my gathering included a high speed internet connection and the ability to culture the yeasts needed for fermentation.

Peder H said...

Also, have you seen the movie "Idiocracy"? The movie stank in my humble opinion, but I enjoyed the premise. Your statement, "Unfortunately, educated non-religious people seem less willing to reproduce. This really doesn't seem to be helping the cause from the view of natural selection," made me think of it.

Shane said...

Peder, you have more of a grounding in science than some of the "biologists" I know.

So, if I understand, you're asking if we can do anything to ensure that other species continue to evolve in a "positive" direction? Well, we'd really have to define positive. Let's assume we mean that they continue to develop traits that allow them to survive as a species. If we are concerned, we could stop causing change at a rate such that natural selection can't possibly hope to keep up. Will we? No. I'd like to be wrong but I just don't see it.

Species are able to change at the macro scale (darwin's finches). We don't often see them evolve into a new species, but remember that we define what a species is (and we do it very poorly).

I think to describe ecology in terms of a pyramid is like describing a sandstorm as a brick. Nothing is quite so ordered as that. However, the short answer seems to be, yes. Species are generally replaced but sometimes that can result in a large number of replacements and dramatic changes (think honeybees or other keystone species).

Why bother? Good question. I'm still struggling with this myself and in some situations, like invasive species, I'd say don't. However, I can't help but feel responsible as a member of the species that is causing the extinction of so many others. Perhaps it's just a subversion of my paternal instinct.

I don't think self sustaining or hunter gatherer microsocieties are necessary at all. Though I certainly see the draw. In fact, I can't help but think that they would just "evolve" back into the same industrial societies of today. My opinion is that our entire impact could be abated with simple population control. But to do that, we probably need a strong world government. And as a wise man once said, "You can't get there from here."

Nope, haven't seen Idiocracy. I'll check it out when I have a chance.