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How Far Can Darwin Take Us? - Comments

rod-the-farmer's Avatar Comment 1 by rod-the-farmer

There is supposedly a long version of this, but the link appears to be damaged somehow. It keeps telling me I need a new version of RealPlayer, but none is available. Still, short as it is, interesting.

This one seems to work

This last one is rather funny. The interviewer (?) spends an incredible amount of time, asking a question, or at least that is what he SAID he was going to do. Poor Pinker doesn't get a chance to get a word in edgewise.

Tue, 02 Jun 2009 14:25:00 UTC | #366911

ColdFusionLazarus's Avatar Comment 2 by ColdFusionLazarus

"Radical Universalism" Within atheism and Darwinism, you just cannot move for political ideas that surround you.

Noam Chomsky

if we adopt the principle of universality : if an action is right (or wrong) for others, it is right (or wrong) for us. Those who do not rise to the minimal moral level of applying to themselves the standards they apply to others -- more stringent ones, in fact -- plainly cannot be taken seriously when they speak of appropriateness of response; or of right and wrong, good and evil

I'm still not sure that I agree that reading is not a Darwinian adaptation. Sure, reading is not a natural process for us. There is nothing in our genes that sets us up for reading. But all such ideas evolve from societies and cultures. So reading is a meme that has evolved, is it not?

Tue, 02 Jun 2009 14:54:00 UTC | #366919

rod-the-farmer's Avatar Comment 3 by rod-the-farmer

I cringe to make a critical comment about Adam Gopnik, but the phrase that comes to mind is "a man who loves the sound of his own voice". Combine that will someone who seems to be very well read, and you have a dinner guest from hell.

Tue, 02 Jun 2009 15:01:00 UTC | #366923

Zzyx1170's Avatar Comment 4 by Zzyx1170

rod-the-farmer wrote:
"This one seems to work "

I made a 30 MegaByte mp3 of this which can be downloaded from:

Tue, 02 Jun 2009 15:50:00 UTC | #366967

Sally Luxmoore's Avatar Comment 5 by Sally Luxmoore

The evolution of the shrug

I like that!

Tue, 02 Jun 2009 15:56:00 UTC | #366972

ustumble's Avatar Comment 6 by ustumble


Thanks for the MP3. I see you have a PZ one there as well. What is it?

I'm always looking for things to listen to on long drives.

Tue, 02 Jun 2009 18:59:00 UTC | #367003

Alternative Carpark's Avatar Comment 7 by Alternative Carpark


I'm always interested in hearing what Pinker has to say.

Tue, 02 Jun 2009 20:09:00 UTC | #367016

Bonzai's Avatar Comment 8 by Bonzai


So reading is a meme that has evolved, is it not?

I heard something like this being bandied around a lot on this site, but I am still not sure what a 'meme' is.

It is meant to be a cultural analogy to gene. But if you try to make the analogy too closely then probably nothing is really a 'meme'.

Its application to religion has been ripped apart by Scott Atran's devastating critique.

I don't think memes have much explanatory power.

Instead people use it loosely to mean all kinds of concepts and cultural inventions. It is so broad that it can be anything 'abstract'.

It seems that it is just one of those buzzwords that people use to sound 'scientific'(I don't mean you in particular, just a general observation)

EDITED "Memes" don't evolve if you adhere to its technical meaning as a cultural counterpart to genes. Genes don't evolve, only organisms do by virtue of having or not having certain genes. The genes themselves only mutate randomly.

Tue, 02 Jun 2009 20:41:00 UTC | #367023

Goldy's Avatar Comment 9 by Goldy

isn't reading merely another adaptation of tracking/hunting/something similar? That uses sight and memory (both, I believe, with a genetic component) applied to symbols to get a meaning.

Tue, 02 Jun 2009 20:45:00 UTC | #367025

Bonzai's Avatar Comment 10 by Bonzai


Reading an adaptation?

In the bulk of human history, most people were/are illiterate, especially people who actually had to do the tracking/hunting/farming etc. That means most people who were actually involved in production.

I think there is some truth to the theory that literacy started off as a conspiracy of the scribes to monopolize power. It has definitely been used for such purpose by the scholastic class.

Tue, 02 Jun 2009 20:48:00 UTC | #367026

Alternative Carpark's Avatar Comment 11 by Alternative Carpark

Hmm, so much for hearing what Pinker has to say.....

Tue, 02 Jun 2009 20:54:00 UTC | #367027

Goldy's Avatar Comment 12 by Goldy

11. Comment #384190 by Bonzai
I agree about the early secretive writing thing :-)

edit - Mind you, I did read that early writing seemed to involve accounts and stock taking - maybe it wasn't scribes for gods as much as accountants lining their pockets... ;-)
Here endeth the edit

But yes, I think reading is just an adaptation - we use the same thing all the time, don't we? Checking vegetables and other food by sight, recognising people, landmarks etc. We also use our sight to see how people are emotionally by picking up on visual clues.
Stringing a bunch of symbols together uses these processes, surely. Just have to learn it which isn't that difficult (sort of) as we already read other symbols :-)

I think...

Tue, 02 Jun 2009 21:08:00 UTC | #367029

Bonzai's Avatar Comment 13 by Bonzai


Going by that way of thinking everything we do would be an adaptation by definition. Whatever we do we need to have the capacity to do it, say we need to have x number of neurons and so forth and we have that many neurons likely would have served some (related or unrelated adaptive) purposes in the past.

But that would be different to say that a specific activity,--like reading,--is an adaptation. I also don't think it is a very useful way of looking at things if we want to understand somethings specific, like literacy.
Edited So by that logic using the computer is also 'adaptive'.

Tue, 02 Jun 2009 21:13:00 UTC | #367031

Bonzai's Avatar Comment 14 by Bonzai


Pattern-symbol,-- recognition is most likely adaptive. But reading is definitely not, or every child would be born being able to read just as naturally as it can speak and there wouldn't be any problem of illiteracy.

Tue, 02 Jun 2009 21:19:00 UTC | #367032

memeweaver's Avatar Comment 15 by memeweaver

That mp3 file could could down from 64kps to 32kps and thereby halve the file-size without noticeable change in quality for what is just human speech.

Tue, 02 Jun 2009 21:47:00 UTC | #367035

ColdFusionLazarus's Avatar Comment 16 by ColdFusionLazarus

15. Comment #384196 by Bonzai on June 2, 2009 at 10:19 pm
Pattern-symbol,-- recognition is most likely adaptive. But reading is definitely not, or every child would be born being able to read just as naturally as it can speak and there wouldn't be any problem of illiteracy.

Spot on. That's exactly the point. We are born to see and to recognise things, but we are not born to read. However, the idea of reading has been sparked into existence and has developed from there. Daniel Dennett said, on another thread here, that a language itself is a treasure trove of the information that has gone into developing it over thousands of years. Languages die out, but Daniel suggested it would be a worthy profession to record the details of a dying language before it disappeared altogether, to capture some of the information locked within. The best reading/writing systems are the ones that flourish, spread and survive. Chinese writing is not a popular writing system across the world because it lacks effieciency and is harder to learn. All of this smacks of evolution of language and a separate evolution of reading. I'm quite taken by the idea of a meme. That ideas themselves are sparked into existence and the best ideas flourish.

Tue, 02 Jun 2009 22:22:00 UTC | #367038

Zzyx1170's Avatar Comment 17 by Zzyx1170

ustumble wrote:

Thanks for the MP3. I see you have a PZ one there as well. What is it?

It's an interview PZ did on the radio. His corresponding blog entry is:

Tue, 02 Jun 2009 22:57:00 UTC | #367039

George Lennan's Avatar Comment 18 by George Lennan

Rod the Farmer's link works fine - however, it's *almost* not worth watching - Gopnik goes on and on and on and on. Pinker's contribution is excellent as ever. I suggest liberal use of the fast forward feature.

Tue, 02 Jun 2009 23:30:00 UTC | #367041

bendigeidfran's Avatar Comment 19 by bendigeidfran

Comment #384187 by Bonzai

I prefer mneme.

edit - or epigenetics.

Say mneme and epigenetics and you must know something...

Tue, 02 Jun 2009 23:57:00 UTC | #367045

logical's Avatar Comment 20 by logical

I am convinced the ability to read has evolved:
from reading traces.
Face and landscape recognition evolved as different strain and enabled (most?) people to draw and paint - and symbols connect both, therefore too much people cannot decipher symbol meanings and give up early to try.
Is this a testable hypothesis?

Wed, 03 Jun 2009 00:04:00 UTC | #367046

Bonzai's Avatar Comment 21 by Bonzai


I am convinced the ability to read has evolved

The ability to do all things are 'evolved'. By that account the ability to use your PC (or Mac ) is also evolved.

But that doesn't mean that there are little modules in the brain selected for the using computers or reading books.

(I haven't watched the clip here but Pinker is big on modules, I don't know if he claims there are modules for using computers, but he probably claims that there are modules for reading.)

It is testable. If a child can pick up how to read by osmosis like he does speaking then reading would be a selected/born trait. That experiment has already been done many times, the outcome is called mass illiteracy.

Just because you can perform a task with the right amount of training it doesn't follow that you would naturally do it. The monkey has been evolved to the point that we can teach him tricks to beg for money. But dancing to beg is not a naturally selected trait for the monkey, there is no little module in his head that makes him do it, his keeper does,--and the guy should be charged.

Wed, 03 Jun 2009 00:16:00 UTC | #367047

Brian English's Avatar Comment 22 by Brian English


The ability to do most things are 'evolved'. By that account the ability to use your PC (or Mac ) is also evolved.
That's the anthropic principle in reverse. Normally the anthropic principle is I can write this particular novel that has such significance for me on this computer, therefore computers were designed and built for specifically for me to write this, and only this, personally significant novel. Good work. :)

For a less cryptic version. That we evolved in this universe, and find requisite conditions to survive on a small part of a small planet, in a mostly inhospitable universe doesn't mean the universe was created hook-line-and-sinker for our survival....the creator considered martians too....

Wed, 03 Jun 2009 00:25:00 UTC | #367048

Brian English's Avatar Comment 23 by Brian English

Actually, ignore that comment. I think a touch gastro, tiredness and general dementia is starting to lower the normally sterling quality of my comments.

Wed, 03 Jun 2009 00:26:00 UTC | #367049

Chris Davis's Avatar Comment 24 by Chris Davis

Those having trouble with the wmv link might try opening it directly from within Windows Media Player. It sounds as though some people have Realplayer set up as the default for .wmv files - not good.

Damn, this could more properly have been called 'Gopnik Asks an Hour-Long Rhetorical Question, With Pinker Filling In When He Occasionally Pauses For Breath'.

Wed, 03 Jun 2009 00:35:00 UTC | #367050

logical's Avatar Comment 25 by logical

i am following your footsteps ;-)

Wed, 03 Jun 2009 01:14:00 UTC | #367053

Tagred's Avatar Comment 26 by Tagred

I'd agree with Bonzai.

the ability to communicate has evolved in all humans and practically all life, [i]how[i] and in what form that communication takes depends is learned and not necessarily evolved. I guess the communication techniques "evolved" as symbols try to represent sounds. You'd be fairly hard pressed to understand the Saxon chronicles even if it is "olde English"

ahhh screw it, im talking rubbish. i saw a programme once where the scientist said that all humans are born with the knowledge of language, I felt it was the wrong thing to say; and that we are born with the knowledge of communication, language is learned, so i reckon writing is part of that learned communication system.

Im no anthropologist or whatever so feel free to put me right

Wed, 03 Jun 2009 04:30:00 UTC | #367107

Chrysippus_Maximus's Avatar Comment 27 by Chrysippus_Maximus


Wittgenstein ftw.

Wed, 03 Jun 2009 08:04:00 UTC | #367161

Szymanowski's Avatar Comment 28 by Szymanowski

Tagred, ironically you seem to have a definitions issue. By my understanding "language" is synonymous with "mode of communication". Hence "body language", &c.

Wed, 03 Jun 2009 09:54:00 UTC | #367201

JonLynnHarvey's Avatar Comment 29 by JonLynnHarvey

Wonderful to emphasize Darwin is in favor of universalism and abolitionism not "social Darwinism"

Wed, 03 Jun 2009 12:16:00 UTC | #367235

Goldy's Avatar Comment 30 by Goldy

15. Comment #384196 by Bonzai
And the one above. I see your point - but there's a bunch of stuff we learn as we grow up. Tying shoelaces, knapping flint (well, it used to be important ;-)) and the like. Even in the animal kingdom things have to be learnt...or so David Attenborough tells us. Bashing nuts with rocks, pulling termites from mounds, that sort of thing.
Then there's things that need practise - walking (we all do that but it can be buggered up like with that chicken boy in Fiji) and birds needing practise to fly. I assume they are evolved and naturally occuring but the need for practise it there. As with speaking (I have a three year old with interesting turns of phrases and language usage) - that needs practise to perfect (and languages seem to be so different to each other!).
That's why I think reading is just an adaptation of some of the other visual/memory senses. Sure, we need to learn it and there is illiteracy, but the way some people speak would be considered illiterate too.

Hmmm, don't think I'm 100% clear here. Early, lack of sleep due to coughing wife and restless baby and need coffee. I'll try and clarify if you want me to...*please say no, please say no!*

Wed, 03 Jun 2009 14:17:00 UTC | #367276