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Author Topic: A Perfect Example of Scientism
Posts: 65
Post A Perfect Example of Scientism
on: October 11, 2011, 13:55

Where is Sir Karl Popper - the most famous of the philosophers of science - now that we need him so much. He hated scientism, and it would be wonderful to have his powerful voice around to speak out. But, he's only with us in the spirit. So, I guess we have to do it ourselves!

I found a superb piece of scientism in a book review in my favorite mag - The New York Review of Books. Its called "Can Our Species Escape Destruction?", its by a perfectly respectable professor, John Terborgh (a Research Professor in the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences at Duke and Director of its Center for Tropical Conservation) published on October 13, 2011 (see

It comes from a perfectly ordinary - even dull - piece on how we are going to destroy ourself through environmental destruction, etc., etc., etc., and then, out of the blue, unrelated to anything previous, scientism!

Here is what he says, a perfect gem of unsupported and probably unsupportable statement of evolutionary psychology variety (I'm not against evolutionary psychology - I think its fascinating - but unfortunately there little data to support its often wild conjectures. In other words, it is one of those blank sleights were folks can see whatever they see so inclined to see, provided they skip the empirical part.):

Rejection of evolution presents a huge obstacle to the future well-being of humanity. A deep understanding of the “selfish gene” sheds light on many facets of human behavior that the value systems of our society would regard as both positive and negative. Such understanding can help explain why people are clannish and often compulsively greedy, why married men philander, and why we are so prone to violence as a means of resolving disputes. On the positive side, the science of evolution can help explain why we are mostly monogamous, why mothers obsessively cherish their babies, why we tend to care for our relatives more than strangers, even why we strive to succeed economically.

It sounds to me like he views evolution as a replacement for Freud!

I’m convinced that we won’t have lasting harmony in our global society until we recognize the facts and implications of evolutionary biology and put them to work in creating laws to counteract our most unfortunate tendencies, tendencies that were advantageous during our hunter-gatherer origins but that have become decidedly disadvantageous in a highly integrated society of strangers. With engineers designing ever more powerful and destructive weapons capable of erasing our entire civilization, our salvation must be to construct a legal architecture informed by evolution that will thwart the worst tendencies of the selfish gene so that such figures as Hitler, Stalin, or Saddam Hussein cannot acquire power.

"Selfish Genes"? We gotta have laws again selfish genes? Darwin must be rolling over in his grave!

Darwin’s understanding of natural selection as “unspeakably cruel and amoral” led him to abandon religion. The expression “nature red in tooth and claw” captures the gist of it. It is an unbreachable rule of nature that many more offspring are produced than ever survive to reproduce. This means quite simply that most individual plants and animals, the overwhelming majority in many species, die young. Recent studies in the Serengeti, for example, have determined that the smaller species of antelopes share a single fate, to die in the jaws of a predator. It is a world without sympathy or remorse. Only the wary, the fleet, and the lucky ever survive to reproduce. Technology has removed man from nature and greatly altered (but not eliminated) the process of natural selection as it applies to our species. We are, however, but one of millions of species, all the rest of which still must obey the laws of nature.

Our species emerged with a brain molded by natural selection to succeed in this unforgiving milieu. Survival required just the right combination of boldness and caution tempered with intelligence—let’s call it astuteness. The most successful left more than the average number of offspring and we are the linear descendants of those successful individuals.

Still into evolutionary psychology! But, finally, it gets better, although he doesn't reject evolutionary psychology:

It is becoming increasingly apparent that competition has a dark side, for a competitive system provides no rewards for restraint; to the contrary, lack of restraint is often rewarded. Being born into a competition-based society can be likened to entering a major marathon. Thousands surge forward at the starting gun and about two hours and ten minutes later, one person crosses the finish line. Most runners are far behind, not even within sight. Economic competition produces similar outcomes.

One can legitimately argue about the fairness of such a system and its enormously skewed distribution of rewards, but there are deeper issues in an overcrowded world pressing hard against the limits of the earth’s renewable resources. Without restraint there is nothing to prevent the exhaustion of resources and a global calamity of unprecedented proportions. So far, as demonstrated by the failure of the world’s nations to agree at Copenhagen on a plan for curbing carbon emissions, we have yet to muster the necessary political will to embark upon a program of collective restraint.

The human predicament of overpopulation and overexploitation of resources is fundamentally driven by the primordial impulses that drove our ancestors to achieve above-average reproductive success. In the contemporary world, these impulses form the self-interest of competitively driven entities, be they individuals, corporations, or nation-states. Will giving license to human greed bring us all down, or will the collective assert itself in time to tame the worst excesses of the few? This is the existential question that lurks in the background of every chapter of Flannery’s book.

The world needs to impose collective restraints on many fronts, but so far self-interest and competitiveness have trumped most efforts to respond to the needs of the collective whole. We are like ants in our tribalism—feeling greater affinity and sympathy for our kin and our countrymen than we do for people half a world away. Most insidious are the illusion of limitless growth and the self-serving notion that economic growth can eliminate poverty. These illusions have reigned largely unchallenged for more than a century and have taken us far down the road to Armageddon. Flannery has it right when he reflects that “it is not so much our technology, but what we believe, that will determine our fate.”

I'm probably being too hard on the gentleman. He is trying. He recognizes the problem and that human nature is involved, but he thinks he can just re-rig our evolutionary drives to get to success. Basically, he is trying to reinvent the wheel of religion.

Posts: 51
Post Re: A Perfect Example of Scientism
on: October 17, 2011, 10:53

I'm probably being too hard on the gentleman. He is trying. He recognizes the problem and that human nature is involved, but he thinks he can just re-rig our evolutionary drives to get to success. Basically, he is trying to reinvent the wheel of religion.

Are you being too hard on him? He is a rational, supposedly erudite individual who has studied the situation long and hard. Would one not expect him to notice that religion provides the very tools he is trying to invent and perhaps notice that it is BECAUSE religion has been successful that we are even as civilized and critical of our animal behaviors as we are?

I've found few people willing to imagine what we might be like if, at key points in history, there has not arisen a person who outlined a system of belief that transformed the world-views of -- eventually -- large communities of people and not only increased our awareness of the welfare of other people and groups, but set higher standards than the prevailing ones for what was "kosher" to do to them.

When I read the last paragraph you cite, I can't help but agree with it, but, for me, it resulted in a "Well, duh!" moment. I've spent the last thirty-five years of my life steeped in a community and culture (the Baha'i Faith) that has moved past worrying the problem to finding ways to implement the solutions and to draw others to the awareness that there are solutions to be had and that many of them have existed for a very long time.

Here's part of the problem: I've had a number of secularists tell me that they discard ANYTHING that comes from a religious source out of hand. They will not judge it by its merit, consider how it might answer their desperate search for solutions, or even pause to notice that their own rhetoric on the subject of "can't we all just get along" is often a faith statement with the serial numbers filed off.

With that dogmatic an attitude, an entire shelf full of solutions would be bypassed by these individuals. Christ, and others from the religious side would encourage them to "judge of a thing by its fruits", but such rational advice, coming as it does from a religious figure, must be roundly ignored.

I begin to understand the impetus behind the movement to declare that Christ, Buddha, Muhammad and others were not actual historical people, but rather imaginary friends of the real people who came up with such ideas as the Golden Rule. I suppose, though, it doesn't matter if the ideas are attributed correctly as long as the people espousing them are effective at putting them into action.

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