Fugitives from Fundamentalism

The Musings of Adult Missionary Kids (MKs) & Former Born-Again Believers

Darwin’s Dangerous Disciple

Posted by Ann on October 29, 2010

Realizing this blog is in danger of becoming too funny (wink), here’s a portion of an interview with Richard Dawkins published in this week’s edition of Skeptic Magazine.  Below is an excerpt in which he discusses his book River Out of Eden. Dawkins addresses how humans are irrational in their belief all things have been put on this earth to benefit humanity (rather, God-believing humanity since atheists are just animals);  in their belief the world revolves around them.

Skeptic: In the 1930s, von Uexküll used the term Umwelt to describe the different “real worlds” that animals construct based upon their differing sensory systems. He even built mechanical devices to try and create their perceptual Weltanschauungen. He manufactured optical devices to simulate the compound eyes of insects to allow one to see “what they saw.” With virtual reality now a reality, we could certainly do such things at a more sophisticated level than von Uexküll did. Do you think this might be a potentially valuable line of research?

Dawkins: Von Uexküll used the concept of the Umwelt to explore the differences between the perceptual worlds of different animals. He tried to find a way to “think himself into” the Umwelt (the perceptual world) of a bee or a bat, for example, by seeing the polarization of light or by seeing into the ultraviolet range of the spectrum and thus probably not seeing images as we see images at all. I think it’s a very important thing to do that, partly as a metaphor for “getting outside yourself” and seeing another point of view. We have an immensely human-centered view of things such as ethics and morality. Even if we pay lip service to being evolutionists, many people still think according to the Judeo-Christian view that all things have been put on Earth for the benefit of humanity and that the only justification for scientific research is if it benefits humanity. I think it’s a salutary lesson to try to “think yourself into” the Umwelt of another species. But as I said in my talk last night before the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, I suspect that the perceptual world of other species possibly may not be as different from our own as you might think, even though they get their information through different physical media.

Read the rest of this interview>>

7 Responses to “Darwin’s Dangerous Disciple”

  1. dsc01 said

    Not to be nitpicky, but I read A River Out of Eden (assigned by a Catholic biology teacher, interestingly) about ten years ago. You’re thinking of The Greatest Show on Earth, I think. He talked about it on Bill Maher’s show a couple of weeks ago.

    “Umwelt” is a good term to know. I wish I had known it 5 years ago, when I was doing a lot of thinking on the subject.

    • dsc01 said

      Aw, man! I suck at xhtml!

    • Ann said

      Hey, thanks! Corrected the post. The Greatest Show on Earth is his new book.

      BTW, if you go to the dashboard and click on comments you can write or revise your comments without having to know code. It’s what I use most of the time.

  2. Ann said

    This was interesting:

    Skeptic: Could there be selection for a mechanism that would operate like this — “those who look like me, talk like me, act like me, are probably genetically close to me. Therefore, be nice, good, and altruistic to them. If not avoid them?” And could that mechanism later be programmed to say “be good to someone who wears the same baseball cap, the same Rugby colors, or whatever?” That is, could evolution have a produced a hardware mechanism that is software programmable?

    Dawkins: I think that’s possible.

    • dsc01 said

      “Possible”? I’ve just been assuming that that’s the way it is for a long time.

      I think that it’s clear, observing the behavior of all animals, that this is the case (i.e. genetics provide the hardware; conditioning provides the software).

      For example, there’s a bird species in which the males collect colorful objects to decorate their nests, in order to entice females. They’re partial to blue, and I assume that this is because blue is relatively rare in nature, meaning that collecting a lot of blue items can be rather diificult, and success may represent superior genes.

      Blue objects aren’t so scarce anymore, thanks to humans, and the males of this avian species are therefore now widely known as shameless thieves (carrying a blue keychain is inadvisable in their habitat).

      That’s a pretty simple example, but I think that the concept extends to subtler characteristics that are more complicated to discuss.

      I would say that this is probably a very basic mechanism driving evolution. The average layman rarely thinks about what “adaptation” actually means in evolutionary theory, beyond changing to suit one’s environment, which isn’t terribly specific.

      Obviously, though, a species, within any single generation, is incapable of changing its physical characteristics overnight to suit a different environment. It can, however, adapt a characteristic that already exists to a purpose more suited for the environment.

      While the example The Skeptic gives doesn’t much change how the characteristic is used, the bird example does. While females’ preference for blue nests once favored males successful in seeking out scarce items, now this preference will select for other characteristics that we don’t necessarily know how to predict. Being adept in thievery is an easy suggestion, but there is more blue litter than there are blue keychains; a bird good at making off with dull plastic fobs may well be less attractive than one who lazily gathered some shiny foil candy wrappers.

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