Edge 275—February 24, 2009
(12,150 words)


A Talk With Denis Dutton
Introduction By Steven Pinker

Armand Leroi
The Song of Songs


Michael Shermer on Jerry Coyne's "Does The Empirical Nature Of Science Contradict The Revelatory Nature Of Faith?"


The Evolution of Art
By James Q. Wilson

What's Cooking

Science Is Just One Gene Away From Defeating Religion
Colin Blakemore

An Interview with Jerry Coyne
Greg Ross

Darwin Was Right
Daniel Dennett, Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, and Paul Myers

How I learned Not To Fear The Anti-God Squad
By Maurice O'Sullivan

The Background Hum
Ian McEwan and the science of suspense.
by Daniel Zalewski


Obama's Moral Majority
Jonathan Haidt

How Your Looks Betray Your Personality
by Roger Highfield, Richard Wiseman and Rob Jenkins

The Masterly Blasphere
Ian McEwan

Who Says Stress Is Bad For You?
By Mary Carmichael

STEVEN PINKER—February 11, 2009

Natural Selections 150 Years On
Mark Pagel


Darwin 200: Should scientists study race and IQ?
A Debate
NO: Steven Rose
YES: Stephen Ceci & Wendy M. Williams

Darwin 200: Human Nature: The Remix
Dan Jones

Nouriel Roubini and Nassim Taleb

Richard Dawkins

DENIS DUTTON — January 28, 2009

John Horgan & Denis Dutton


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"Songs can survive hundreds of years of geographical and cultural separation."

Armand Leroi

In this EdgeVideo, evolutionary biologist Armand Leroi reports on his art/science conversation and collaboration with musician Brian Eno which began when the two sat next to each other an an Edge dinner in London. The dinner discussion began with evolution and music, proceeded to the evolution of music, and led to the following question: has anybody attempted to reconstruct the history of human song? People around the world sing in different ways. Is it possible to retrieve that history. Can we do for songs what we've done for genes, for language?

ARMAND LEROI is a Reader in Evolutionary Developmental Biology at Imperial College, London. He is the author of Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human Body, winner of The Guardian First Book Award, 2004.

Armand Leroi's Edge Bio Page

Further reading on Edge: The Nature of Normal Human Variety: A Talk with Armand Leroi [3.15.05]

This is the first in a series of Edge Videos of "table-top experiments" presented as part of the 2007 Edge/Serpentine collaboration during Serpentine Gallery Experiment Marathon in London, curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist under the leadership of Director Julia Peyton-Jones. Edge presenters were zoologist Seirian Sumner, archeologist Timothy Taylor, evolutionary biologist Armand Leroi, psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, geneticist Steve Jones, physicist Neil Turok, embryologist Lewis Wolpert, and psycholgist Steven Pinker and playwright Marcy Kahan. The live event was featured at the Serpentine as part of the Edge/Serpentine collaboration: "What Is Your Formula? Your Equation? Your Algorithm? Formulae For the 21st Century."

Writing in Sueddeutsche Zeitung ("Short Answers To Big Questions"), Feuilleton editor Andrian Kreye noted that:

The experiment is not only represents a collaboration by Brockman and Obrist’s of their own work; it is also a continuation of a movement that began in the '60s on America’s East Coast. John Cage brought together young artists and scientists for symposia and seminars to see what what would happen in the interaction of big thinkers from different fields. The resulting dialogue, which at the time seemed abstract and esoteric, can today be regarded as the forerunner to interdisciplinary science and the digital culture.


"For those seeking substance over sheen, the occasional videos released at Edge.org hit the mark. The Edge Foundation community is a circle, mainly scientists but also other academics, entrepreneurs, and cultural figures.

"Edge's long-form interview videos are a deep-dive into the daily lives and passions of its subjects, and their passions are presented without primers or apologies. The decidedly noncommercial nature of Edge's offerings, and the egghead imprimatur of the Edge community, lend its videos a refreshing air, making one wonder if broadcast television will ever offer half the off-kilter sparkle of their salon chatter.

Mahzarin Banaji, Samuel Barondes, Paul Bloom, Rodney Brooks, Hubert Burda, George Church, Iain Couzin, Helena Cronin, Paul Davies, Daniel C. Dennett, David Deutsch, Jared Diamond, Freeman Dyson, Drew Endy, Peter Galison, Murray Gell-Mann, David Gelernter, Neil Gershenfeld, Anthony Giddens, Gerd Gigerenzer, Daniel Gilbert, Rebecca Goldstein, John Gottman, Brian Greene, Anthony Greenwald, Alan Guth, David Haig, Marc D. Hauser, Walter Isaacson, Daniel Kahneman, Stuart Kauffman, Ken Kesey, Stephen Kosslyn, Lawrence Krauss, Ray Kurzweil, Jaron Lanier, Armand Leroi, Seth Lloyd, Gary Marcus, Ernst Mayr, Marvin Minsky, Sendhil Mullainathan, Dennis Overbye, Dean Ornish, Elaine Pagels, Steven Pinker, Jordan Pollack, Lisa Randall, Martin Rees, Matt Ridley, Lee Smolin, Elisabeth Spelke, Scott Sampson, Robert Sapolsky, Dimitar Sasselov, Stephen Schneider, Martin Seligman, Robert Shapiro, Lee Smolin, Dan Sperber, Paul Steinhardt, Steven Strogatz, Leonard Susskind, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Richard Thaler, Robert Trivers, Neil Turok, J.Craig Venter, Edward O. Wilson, Richard Wrangham, Philip Zimbardo

Continue to Edge Video

Darwinian aesthetics is not some kind of ironclad doctrine that is supposed to replace a heavy postructuralism with something just as oppressive. What surprises me about the resistance to the application of Darwin to psychology, is the vociferous way in which people want to dismiss it, not even to consider it. Is this a holdover from Marxism or religious doctrines? I don't know. Stephen Jay Gould was one of those people who had the idea that evolution was allowed to explain everything about me, my fingernails, my pancreas, the way my body is designed—except that it could have nothing to say about anything above the neck. About human psychology, nothing could be explained in evolutionary terms: we just somehow developed a big brain with its spandrels and all, and that's it.

A Talk With Denis Dutton
Introduction By Steven Pinker

By Steven Pinker

Denis Dutton is a visionary. He was among the first (together with our own John Brockman) to realize that a website could be a forum for cutting-edge ideas, not just a way to sell things or entertain the bored. Today Arts and Letters Daily is the web site that I try the hardest not to visit, because it is more addictive than crack cocaine. He started one of the first print-on-demand services for out-of-print scholarly books. He saw that philosophy and literature had much to say to each other, and started a deep and lively scholarly journal to move that dialogue along. He saw that pompous and empty prose in the humanities had become an impediment to thinking, and initiated the Bad Academic Writing contest to expose it.

And now he is changing the direction of aesthetics. Many people believe that this consilience between the arts, humanities, and sciences represents the future of the humanities, revitalizing them with a progressive research agenda after the disillusionments of postmodernism. Dutton has written the first draft of this agenda. He has defended a universal definition of art—something that many theorists assumed was simply impossible. And he has advanced a theory that aesthetics have a universal basis in human psychology, ultimately to be illuminated by the processes of evolution. His ideas in this area are not meant to be the last word, but they lay out testable hypotheses, and point to many fields that can be brought to bear on our understanding of art.

I see this as part of a larger movement of consilience, in which (to take a few examples), ideas from auditory cognition will provide insight into music, phonology will help illuminate poetics, semantics and pragmatics will advance our understanding of fiction, and moral psychology will be brought to bear on jurisprudence and philosophy. And in his various roles, Denis Dutton will be there when it happens.

Steven Pinker, Johnstone Family Professor, Department of Psychology, Harvard University; Author, The Stuff of Thought.


DENIS DUTTON, a philosopher, is founder and editor of the highly regarded Web publication, Arts & Letters Daily (www.aldaily.com). He teaches the philosophy of art at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, writes widely on aesthetics. and is editor of the journal Philosophy and Literature, and the author of the recently published The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure and Human Evolution.

Denis Dutton's Edge Bio Page

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[DENIS DUTTON:] What we regard as the modern human personality evolved during the Pleistocene, between 1.6 million and 10,000 years ago. If you encountered one of your direct ancestors from the beginning of the Pleistocene moseying down the street today, you would probably call the SPCA and ask for a crew with tranquilizer darts and nets to cart the beast off to the zoo. If you saw somebody from the end of the Pleistocene, 10,000 years ago, you'd call the Immigration & Naturalization Service—by that time our ancestors wouldn't have appeared much different from any of us today. It is that crucial period, those 80,000 generations of the Pleistocene before the modern period, which is the key to understanding the evolution of human psychology. Features of life that makes us most human—language, religion, charm, seduction, social status-seeking, and the arts—came to be in this period, no doubt especially in the last 100,000 years.

The human personality—including those aspects of it that are imaginative, expressive, and creative—cries out for a Darwinian explanation. If we're going to treat aspects of the personality, including the aesthetic expression, as adaptations, we've got to do it in terms of three factors.

The first is pleasure: the arts give us direct pleasure. A British study a few years ago showed that six percent of all waking life of the average British adult is spent enjoying fictions, in movies, plays, and on television. And that didn't even include fictional books—bodice-rippers, airport novels, high literature, and so forth. That kind of devotion of time and its pleasure-payoff demands some kind of explanation.

As a second comes universality. What we've had over the last forty years is an ideology in academic life that regards the arts as socially constructed and therefore unique to local cultures. I call it an ideology because it is not argued for, it is just presupposed in most aesthetic discourse. Allied with this position is the idea that we can seldom or perhaps never really understand the arts of other cultures; other cultures likewise can't understand our arts. Everybody's living in his or her own socially constructed, hermetically sealed, special cultural world.

But of course, a moment’s though reveals that this can’t possible be true. We know people in Brazil love Japanese prints, that Italian opera is enjoyed in China. Both Beethoven and Hollywood movies have swept the world. Think of it—the Vienna Conservatory has been saved by a combination of Japanese, Korean, and Chinese pianists. The universality of the arts is a fact, again a fact that requires explanation. We simply can't keep going on forever making this false claim that the arts are unique to cultures.

And third, we have to consider the spontaneity of the arts—the way they spontaneously arise, beginning in childhood experience, across the globe. Think of the ways in which children, by the time they're three years old, can engage in make-believe and keep imaginary worlds separate from one another. A small child playing with its teddy bears at a tea party. If you knock over a cup and spill the pretend tea in it, the child will not be in the least confused as to which of the three empty cups to refill. In fact, if you refill the wrong empty cup, and insist it was the one that spilled, the child may well break out in tears. The child then goes from the tea party over to the television, and watches a Bugs Bunny cartoon, or "Sesame Street." From there, it’s on to reading a book, entering into its make-believe world, and then to have dinner with mommy and daddy. Even a three year old can keep all of these real and fictional worlds coherently separate from each other. Such spontaneous intellectual sophistication—try to imagine teaching it from scratch to a three year old—is a mark of an evolved adaptation.

Pleasure, universality, spontaneous development. We see them in the cross-cultural realities of music, the universality of storytelling, as well as things like food tastes, erotic interests, pet-keeping, sports interests, our fascination with puzzle solving, gossip—the list is indefinitely long. Charles Darwin has a lot more to say about how we evolved as inventive and expressive social animals with our remarkable personalities than has been given credit for. These aspects of evolution have deep implications for the origins and evolution of the arts.


You ask why I have such a long-standing interest in the genesis of artistic experience. I don’t really know. I grew up in Southern California; my parents had met at Paramount Pictures, where they worked in the 1930s. They later founded bookstores, the Dutton Books of Southern California. I think that among my earliest memories must be sitting on the living room floor playing over and over again a recording of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. To my child’s mind, this music was magical, its pleasure intense.

I took violin and piano lessons as a child, but was never very good with anything I could not memorize. I seem to have some mildly dyslexic inability to read music fluently, though my musical memory is fairly prodigious—I do know that standard run of Western classical music inside and out.

I entered the University of California at Santa Barbara, originally as a chemistry major, but soon changed to philosophy and was fascinated by aesthetics. As an undergraduate, I was taught—and more or less accepted—elements in Wittgenstein and anthropology that proclaimed the uniqueness and incommensurability of cultures and art forms.

It's not as though this was ever backed up by serious arguments. It was supported by anecdotes. My generation was taught that the Eskimos had 500 words for snow. It's an urban legend; it's simply not true. But if you believed it, then you could believe that the Eskimo lives in a special intellectual world of which we're not a part.

Consider the story, equally fabulous, about the African who, for the first time shown a photograph of a person, didn't know how to read it as a photograph, couldn't see it as a representation of a person. Fancy that: the confused African couldn't see any natural resemblance between a photograph and a live person. My experience in New Guinea would indicate that's just ridiculous. I can imagine that the African might have been a bit confused when for the first time he saw a truck come into his village, with a white man getting out of it and shoving a piece of paper in front of his face. But to turn such an incident into a failure to understand a naturalistic representation—that’s just loopy social constructionist ideology, it’s not serious research on what were then called "primitive" cultures.

Another one of my favorite myths is the story of Ravi Shankar in San Francisco giving a concert. He comes out on stage and tunes the sitar. Now the sitar is a very complicated instrument to tune, and he works on it for about ten minutes. When he's finished, he nods to the audience and everybody applauds thinking that was actually the first piece of music on the program. Ipso facto, people cannot really understand foreign cultures.

After I got out of college, I joined the Peace Corps and went to South India. I worked in a village north of Hyderabad, in South India. It was a Dravidian language-speaking culture with the caste system of India, in many ways ancient and very foreign—Southern California it was not. On the other hand, if you looked at the foibles and passions and absurdities and ambitions and plans that people have for their lives, Indian culture was completely intelligible.

Indians are not another species of animal. They're human beings, and we can understand them. And I found out we can understand their music, because I started playing the sitar in India, studying with Pandarung Parate, a student of Ravi Shankar himself. I still play the sitar. In fact, I can get free meals in Indian restaurants in the town where I live by twanging on the sitar for a while for entertainment. I've played it on and off for 40 years.

And by the way, found out what was behind that story about Ravi Shankar In San Francisco. It’s another urban legend concocted to support the thesis that cultures can't understand each other. No one who has watched it being tuned could possibly think that fiddling with the pegs and the strings is a piece of music. No San Francisco audience, no matter how stoned, could mistake that for a performance: the applause was just relief that the tedious tuning was finished.

But the story got incorporated into the 1960s zeitgeist. It’s time to be done with these fables after 40 or 50 years, and ask ourselves why the arts are universal. The notion that art is purely socially constructed, indeed, the human personality is socially constructed, has to make way for something more complex.

After grad school at NYU and UCSB, I taught philosophy at the University of Michigan, Dearborn, and later moved to New Zealand, where for some years I taught philosophy of art in my university’s school of fine arts. I taught courses across the board in philosophy—the history of philosophy and various subdivisions of philosophy, but the nagging aesthetics questions persisted. My colleagues all seem to agree that culture was the only way to explain art, but this position seemed unsatisfactory.


In the late 1980s, I developed a passionate interest in oceanic art and the carvings of New Guinea. One day, my wife suggested, "Well, we're close enough. Why don't you simply go up to New Guinea and find out what their aesthetic standards are." By that time, I was well acquainted with what European connoisseurship would call the "greatest" works of New Guinea art. But would the Eurpean valuations accord with local New Guinean valuations? Australian friends, old New Guinea hands, helped me to find a village, Yentchenmangua on the Sepik River, where carving traditions were still alive. (This project had the unintended by-product that somewhere out there in a museum or gallery there's an authentic New Guinea carving carved by me. I’d left one of my practice carvings in the village and only found out later that it has been painted and sold off.) This experience taught me something crucially important: that New Guinea standards for greatness and for excellence are as far as I could determine the same as those of knowledgeable European curators, connoisseurs, and collectors.

I'm not saying that the New Guineans would make judgments that would coincide with every naive tourist—newcomers to the art—who gets off the boat. Tourists in my experience make very bad choices in buying New Guinea arts. But the people who really know the good work in museums, who are very deeply familiar with New Guinea art but who have never set foot in New Guinea, oddly have the same taste patterns as New Guinea carvers themselves. And this shows that with the art form, knowledge and familiarity with the whole field determines a convergence of taste. And that, again, has to be explained.

You could try to explain it by saying that God has imprinted us with something. Jung thought he had ways of approaching this. Joseph Campbell was interested in these issues. But the person who really has the answers is Charles Darwin. In his first books, which are amazingly detailed, he couldn't go into all of these specific aesthetic issues, but he set out the blueprint for us. And we can apply Darwinian ideas and come to some initial rough account. I hope that over the years my arguments about the genesis of artistic taste will be refined.

And I have to stress that I am far from claiming that I have all the answers about the evolutionary origins of aesthetic taste. Darwinian aesthetics is not some kind of ironclad doctrine that is supposed to replace a heavy postructuralism with something just as oppressive. What surprises me about the resistance to the application of Darwin to psychology, is the vociferous way in which people want to dismiss it, not even to consider it. Is this a holdover from Marxism or religious doctrines? I don't know. Stephen Jay Gould was one of those people who had the idea that evolution was allowed to explain everything about me, my fingernails, my pancreas, the way my body is designed—except that it could have nothing to say about anything above the neck. About human psychology, nothing could be explained in evolutionary terms: we just somehow developed a big brain with its spandrels and all, and that's it.

This position is unsupportable. We know there are built-in spontaneous features of the human personality, conspicuously present, for instance, in the evolutions development of speech. But other aspects of the personality as well, one which have to do with the arts, are also universal, appearing in childhood with little or no prompting, or simply arising "naturally," so it seems to us, as features of social interactions.

I cannot understand why there still is so much resistance among academics to such ideas. If you want to be a one-dimensional determinist, go ahead and make it all "culture." My side of the argument isn't trying to make it all "nature," make it all genetics. Human life is lived in a middle position between our genetic determinants on the one hand and culture on the other. It's out of that that human freedom emerges. And artistic works, the plays of Shakespeare, the novels of Jane Austen, the works of Wagner and Beethoven, Rembrandt and Hokusai, are among the freest, most human acts ever accomplished. These creations are the ultimate expressions of freedom.

It makes no more sense to claims that our artistic and expressive lives are determined only by culture, as it does to say that we are determined only by genes. Human beings are a product of both. Why can't we get over our post-Marxist nostalgia for economic or cultural determinism and accept human reality as it actually is? The truth of the human situation is that we are biologically determined organism that live in a culture. That we are cultural creatures is part of what is determined by our genes.


It’s a great question, What is art?. But it's been answered in the wrong way by philosophers for the last forty years. The fundamental mistake has been to imagine that if we can explain why Duchamp's great work, Fountain, is a work of art, then we'd know what traditional works of art are. I say "no" to this procedure. Instead of asking how is it that Duchamp's readymades are works of art, I say, let's ask what is it that makes the Pastoral Symphony a work of art. Why is A Midsummer Night's Dream a work of art? Why is Pride and Prejudice a work of art? Let's look first at the undisputed paradigm cases and find out what they all have in common—and not only in the Western tradition but also in the great Eastern traditions of China and Japan. Look at Hokusai, consider at New Guinea carving, and look at African carving. Better to understand them, and then analyze modernist experimentation and provocations, such as Duchamp’s brilliant work. I do regard Duchamp as an incandescent genius. But our respect for him must include a recognition of the fact that he was in some of his works experimenting in ways intended to outrage and provoke people by implicitly asking what the limits of art are.

To put the point analogically: if you're teaching ethics in a philosophy class and you want to get to understand what murder is, you don't begin by asking whether capital punishment or abortion or assisted suicide is murder. What you do is start with the clear cases and then move out later to ask, "Is capital punishment murder?" We ought first to make sense of the clear cases.

An obsession with marginal cases has actually degraded the discussion in aesthetic theory of what the arts are. I must say it's made for a lot of fun in philosophy of art classes. Duchamp’s gestures are sure to get students interested. It's the same with questions like, what is wrong with a forgery? Or, is there an intentional fallacy in interpreting literature? These issues generate intriguing conundrums. But after we've had our fun, we must also get back to central questions of what is it that makes the Iliad or Guernica art? Then we can better deal with Duchamp.


Modernism has long had a project—to oversimplify—directed against the excesses, pomposity, and absurdities of the nineteenth-century art that preceded it. Think of those huge, gaudy, sentimental paintings produced by the Victorians. You’ll find many in the basements of art galleries and museums in New Zealand: gigantic canvases of biblical themes—The Flight from Egypt or some other biblical topic. Many of these paintings cannot be regarded today as anything but big dark monstrosities, and white elephants so far as storage space goes. No one wants to look at them—but no one knows what to do with them, either.

We're in the same situation right now in the late twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century. Our museums are burdened with gigantic mega-canvases. Will anyone be interested in seeing them in a hundred years? Will anyone actually care about a shark in formaldehyde in a hundred years? (That’s a particularly tough one: even in formaldehyde, that shark will likely have disintegrated in a hundred year’s time. Or is that fact part of the whole work of art?) This is an interesting issue. I'm not sure I want to put it in permanent storage. The huge canvases produced in the 1970s where size alone was supposed to prove it's great art. Well, it didn't then and it still doesn't now.

Many times in its history, including ours, art as experienced periods of folly. It’s fun to watch, of course, but as a Darwinian I'm also interested in the features of works of art that are going to make them still looked at and listened to and read 500 years from now. That for me is the question. By the way, I think that Warhol stands a chance, as does Jackson Pollack. On the other hand, I'm not so sure about Schoenberg, particularly his atonal music.

Anton Webern once suggested that someday we will have advanced to the point where the postman will in his sophistication do his rounds whistling an atonal non-tune. A lovely hope for modernism, but the idea is completely implausible. What is it about a melody that a Schoenberg tone row doesn't quite qualify in the minds of most people? That's a question about basic human musical psychology. And, of course, it's the reception of twelve-tone music of usually presented as though it's a question about culture—or resistance to change. I don't think it's about culture. Alone.


One of the earliest influences on my thinking on this is Ellen Dissanayake, who has written three major books and a lot of articles. And she wrote a book entitled What is Art For?, and then Homo Aestheticus. Her most recent book is Art and Intimacy. Her view of the arts was a revelation. She wasn't trying to disparage the arts, reduce them to a brute drive, or make them any less than the grand things they are. She did want to connect them with an evolved human nature in a way that makes a lot of sense. One of the great ironies of the academic world is that this woman who has made such a contribution with her books and articles, has never been able to land an academic job. She's a medical stenographer in Seattle. After working all day, she has goes home to write at night or on the weekends the pioneering books on the subject of evolutionary aesthetics. I regard her as one of the most remarkable intellectual figures of our time.

Of course, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides are extremely important in their groundbreaking work in evolutionary psychology. Stephen Pinker is so imaginative and informed: he has been a great inspiration. Joseph Carroll has done exquisitely sophisticated research in literary Darwinism, sometimes alongside his younger colleague, Jonathan Gottschall. Brian Boyd, my colleague in New Zealand famed for his Nabokov biography, is also heavily involved in the evolutionary psychology of literature.

These people have meant a lot to me and have helped me to overcome, if I may say so, my own Wittgensteinian enculturation in which forms of life are incommensurable between cultures. It’s not just Foucault and Derrida: Wittgenstein also has a lot to answer for. There's a deep anti-naturalism in his work, but a consistent ambiguity that makes it difficult to identify. Consider Wittgenstein’s gnomic, seemingly profound claim, "If a lion could speak, we could not understand him." Oh yeah? That’s a deeply mischivous idea, and Wittgenstein would have profited from getting to know an animal ethologist or two. If a lion could speak, the ethologists would be pretty clear about that he’d be talking about: annoying other lions, and members of the opposite lion sex, tasty zebras, and so on. People who live with animals can understand them, sometimes rather remarkably.

On the other hand, used in the wrong ways, animal ethology can itself be misleading. In evolutionary aesthetics, animals have to be used to explain evolutionary principles, natural selection and sexual selection in the human situation. Take, for instance, chimpanzee art. We became human in the Pleistocene, having forked off from the chimps fully five million years before that—which means we are still very distant indeed from our closest surviving primate relatives. These days, people in zoos and primate research centers enjoy to take out big sheets of butcher paper and let the chimps go at them with brushes and paint. The chimps have a grand old time, scribbling about or making a typical upward fan figure. They are essentially taking joy in the sheer disruption of the white background with a solid color. It's not unlike the pleasure many of us have gotten with finger-painting, or early painting in school: we can get pleasure simply in the contrasts that we create.

Is this "chimpanzee art"? People who make the claims are usually not aware of other aspects of the chimps’ behavior. First, the typical upward fan shape actually is not a picture, an image of a fan, because a chimp can't turn it on its side or render it upside down. It's not a representation as much as part of a motor sequence in the chimp's arms and hands. Second, if the trainer does not take the piece of paper away from the chimp, the result will be inevitably be a brownish blob because a chimp has no idea of when to stop. It no objective, or sense of a plan or end point in creating the work. It's only a work of art for us because the trainer took it away from the chimp before it became a blob. Finally, and for me most tellingly, when they're finished—or the paper’s been taken away—the chimps never again go back to look at the work.

It is seems to me that anyone who says, "Yes, chimpanzees have art," is making a mistake. Chimpanzees like to disrupt white paper with big colored blobs. As human beings, we can understand that, but that does no make their creations works of art. There is no cultural tradition within which chimps are working. There's no criticism—art talk or evaluation of any kind—with the chimps. There's no style in the sense that it's a learned way of doing it, though there are uniformities in the output for muscular reasons. To call this art or proto-art underestimates and misunderstands what human art is.

Animals have much to teach us, but from a Darwinian perspective, human beings really are something else.


Even as mega-banks topple, Juan Enriquez says the big reboot is yet to come. But don't look for it on your ballot -- or in the stock exchange. It'll come from science labs, and it promises keener bodies and minds. Our kids are going to be ... different.

This year's TED Conference, TED 2009, held in Long Beach and curated by Chris Anderson, offered four intense days interesting presentations of "ideas worth spreading". The "spreading" of these ideas extends far beyond the confines of the conference hall as Anderson has extended his vision to multiple viewing locations as well and by presenting TED conferences in venues such as India, Africa, Oxford, and Europe. And most importantly, he has tapped into the viral nature of the Internet age with the "Ted Talks", videos of the live conference events, which feature superb production quality coupled with elegant web presentation. The combination of interesting speakers, excellent technology and production, and the Internet, makes for a rich experience, free for all.

At TED 2009, one of the highlights was the very first talk, as Juan Enriquez, a frequent Edge contributor, opened the conference with his usual energy. [Click here for Juan Enriquez's TED Talk.]

JUAN ENRIQUEZ is CEO, Biotechonomy; was Founding Director, Harvard Business School's Life Sciences Project; Author, The Untied States of America

Juan Enriquez's Edge Bio Page

On "Does the empirical nature of science contradict the revelatory nature of faith? " by Jerry Coyne

Lawrence Krauss, Howard Gardner, Lisa Randall, Patrick Bateson, Daniel Everett, Daniel C. Dennett, Lee Smolin,George Dyson, Emanuel Derman, Karl. W. Giberson, Kenneth R. Miller, Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, NEW Michael Shermer



A is A: Why Science Cannot Contradict Religion

In a recent "In Conversation" that I did with Karl Giberson at the Harvard Club in New York to discuss his new book Saving Darwin, I noted our parallel career paths of both attending Christian colleges, both embracing creationism, and both replacing our creationism with evolutionary science, and yet I became an atheist while he retained his Christian faith: "As you were going down the path of abandoning creationism and challenging your religious beliefs, why didn't you just keep going and become an agnostic or atheist?" Giberson's reply is revealing:

"There's a slippery slope, and you slide off that fundamentalist plateau down toward unbelief at the bottom, and you probably clawed your way as you were sliding down looking for something to grab a hold of and couldn't find anything; I guess I'm stuck on a bush part way down at the moment and haven't felt the need to slip all the way to the bottom."

The sense I had in spending an evening with Karl Giberson is that he is this close (hold your thumb and forefinger about a centimeter apart) to being an agnostic (in Huxley's definition of God being "unknowable"). I agree with Jerry Coyne's appraisal of both Giberson and Ken Miller as being "thoughtful men of good will" with "a sense of conviction and sincerity" in their books, and in his final assessment that "in the end they fail to achieve their longed-for union between faith and evolution…for the same reason that people always fail: a true harmony between science and religion requires either doing away with most people's religion and replacing it with a watered-down deism, or polluting science with unnecessary, untestable, and unreasonable spiritual claims."

But I go even further than Coyne. And knowing both Giberson and Miller, I believe that they are both close to the position I shall herewith articulate: I don't think a union between science and religion is possible for a logical reason, but by this same logic I conclude that science cannot contradict religion. Here's why: A is A. Reality is real. To attempt to use nature to prove the supernatural is a violation of A is A. It is an attempt to make reality unreal. A cannot also be non-A. Nature cannot also be non-Nature. Naturalism cannot also be supernaturalism.

In a natural worldview, there is no non-natural or supernatural. There is only the natural and mysteries left to explain through natural means. Believers can have both religion and science as long as there is no attempt to make A non-A, to make reality unreal, to turn naturalism into supernaturalism. The only way to do this for theists is to posit that God is outside of time and space; that is, God is beyond nature—super nature, or supernatural—and therefore cannot be explained by natural causes. This places the God question outside the realm of science. Thus, there can be no conflict between science and religion, unless one attempts to bring God into our time and space, which is a violation of the principle of A is A.

March 2, 2009, 2009

James Q. Wilson

Art suffuses our lives. Whether it's bluegrass, heavy metal, Frank Sinatra or Mozart, music moves us all. On a trip to a foreign city, visiting an art museum is a mandatory exercise. Imaginative writing affects many of us, though—alas—with decreasing frequency.

Why should art be important? Being seen as an "art lover" may increase our status, but otherwise art is not useful. Yet art has been part of the human experience since Paleolithic man painted on the walls of caves in Lascaux, France, and Altamira, Spain, more than 30,000 years ago. Art preceded cities, agriculture and writing.

Denis Dutton, an art professor in New Zealand, has proposed a bold new explanation. He argues that humankind's universal interest in art is the result of human evolution. We enjoy sex, grasp facial expressions, understand logic and spontaneously acquire language—all of which make it easier for us to survive and produce children. In "The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution," Dutton contends that an interest in art belongs on this list of evolutionary adaptations.

In making his case, Dutton has to refute the late Stephen Jay Gould's argument that human culture is a socially formed byproduct of our large brains. Dutton easily overcomes this argument by pointing out how many "byproducts"—such as a spoken language—have given humans a huge evolutionary gain. But he must still explain why an interest in art gives us an edge. This is no easy task. Just because many people have a trait does not mean that it confers an evolutionary advantage. I like the Boston Red Sox, but I doubt that preference was genetically passed on to my children. (Happily, they became Sox fans anyway.)...

...Evolution has, without any doubt, left people with an appreciation for both natural and man-made beauty, but sexual selection explains, I think, only a small part of the reason. But read Dutton's book: his masterful knowledge of art and his compelling prose make it a thing of beauty.

February 19, 2009

The evolutionary role of cookery

YOU are what you eat, or so the saying goes. But Richard Wrangham, of Harvard University, believes that this is true in a more profound sense than the one implied by the old proverb. It is not just you who are what you eat, but the entire human species. And with Homo sapiens, what makes the species unique in Dr Wrangham’s opinion is that its food is so often cooked.

Cooking is a human universal. No society is without it. No one other than a few faddists tries to survive on raw food alone. And the consumption of a cooked meal in the evening, usually in the company of family and friends, is normal in every known society. Moreover, without cooking, the human brain (which consumes 20-25% of the body’s energy) could not keep running. Dr Wrangham thus believes that cooking and humanity are coeval.

In fact, as he outlined to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), in Chicago, he thinks that cooking and other forms of preparing food are humanity’s “killer app”: the evolutionary change that underpins all of the other—and subsequent—changes that have made people such unusual animals.

Humans became human, as it were, with the emergence 1.8m years ago of a species called Homo erectus. This had a skeleton much like modern man’s—a big, brain-filled skull and a narrow pelvis and rib cage, which imply a small abdomen and thus a small gut. Hitherto, the explanation for this shift from the smaller skulls and wider pelvises of man’s apelike ancestors has been a shift from a vegetable-based diet to a meat-based one. Meat has more calories than plant matter, the theory went. A smaller gut could therefore support a larger brain.

Dr Wrangham disagrees. When you do the sums, he argues, raw meat is still insufficient to bridge the gap. He points out that even modern “raw foodists”, members of a town-dwelling, back-to-nature social movement, struggle to maintain their weight—and they have access to animals and plants that have been bred for the table. Pre-agricultural man confined to raw food would have starved. ...

February 22, 2009

Colin Blake

...Human beings are supremely social animals. We recognise people and judge their feelings and intentions from their expressions and actions. Our thoughts about ourselves, and the words we use to describe those thoughts, are infused with wishes and wants. We feel that we are the helmsmen of our actions, free to choose, even to sin.

But increasingly, those who study the human brain see our experiences, even of our own intentions, as being an illusory commentary on what our brains have already decided to do.

Perhaps we humans come with a false model of ourselves, which works well as a means of predicting the behaviour of other people - a belief that actions are the result of conscious intentions. Then could the pervasive human belief in supernatural forces and spiritual agents, controlling the physical world, and influencing our moral judgments, be an extension of that false logic, a misconception no more significant than a visual illusion?

I'm dubious about those "why" questions: why are we here? Why do we have a sense of right and wrong? Either they make no sense or they can be recast as the kind of "how" questions that science answers so well.

When we understand how our brains generate religious ideas, and what the Darwinian adaptive value of such brain processes is, what will be left for religion?

February 19, 2009


Greg Ross

...What do you make of that? The Origin of Species was published 150 years ago. Why is the debate still ongoing?

Well, it's not happening in many other countries. I say in the book that of 34 industrialized countries in the world that were surveyed, we ranked 33 in accepting evolution, just above Turkey. In Europe acceptance of evolution is very high. There's no doubt that it's because of the pervasiveness of religion in the United States, and fundamentalist religion. That's the reason why the opposition persists and will keep persisting.

Some creationists seem to feel that it's the scientists who are being dogmatic here—that you're somehow invested in this idea or want it to be true, or that your training has blinded you to other possibilities. How do you respond to that?

I think they're the ones who are dogmatic, because the difference between religion and science, which is the difference between religion and evolution, is that we question things. Nobody worships Darwin as a religion. We don't adhere to a set of dogmas that are unchanging and unquestionable. We all recognize that Darwin was wrong about a lot of stuff. His theories of genetics were wrong, his theories of biogeography were wrong—that's been corrected by plate tectonics—his stuff on sexual selection is very good but not complete. Evolutionary biology is constantly changing and revising its conclusions. But the main conclusions that Darwin made—that evolution occurred, that it occurred through natural selection, that there were common ancestry and splitting and that it happened slowly—those have all been supported. We accept those things because mountains of evidence have shown them to be true. They've been subsumed in what we call neo-Darwinism or modern evolutionary theory. There's a lot of stuff that Darwin said and that other early evolutionists said that is wrong, so we're constantly revising and changing our stuff. It's just that Darwin happened to be right on the main points of the theory. We're not dogmatic about it. I might still be willing to give up my idea that evolution occurred if we got certain evidence from the fossil record, but we haven't gotten it. Whereas there's no observation that will make a religious person give up [his beliefs]. I say in the New Republic article that if the Holocaust didn't do that, then nothing ever will. That's the ultimate argument against belief in at least a certain kind of god. ...

February 4, 2009



by Daniel Dennett, Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, and Paul Myers

What on earth were you thinking when you produced a garish cover proclaiming that "Darwin was wrong" (24 January)?

First, it's false, and second, it's inflammatory. And, as you surely know, many readers will interpret the cover not as being about Darwin, the historical figure, but about evolution.

Nothing in the article showed that the concept of the tree of life is unsound; only that it is more complicated than was realised before the advent of molecular genetics. It is still true that all of life arose from "a few forms or... one", as Darwin concluded in The Origin of Species. It is still true that it diversified by descent with modification via natural selection and other factors.

Of course there's a tree; it's just more of a banyan than an oak at its single-celled-organism base. The problem of horizontal gene-transfer in most non-bacterial species is not serious enough to obscure the branches we find by sequencing their DNA.

The accompanying editorial makes it clear that you knew perfectly well that your cover was handing the creationists a golden opportunity to mislead school boards, students and the general public about the status of evolutionary biology. Indeed, within hours of publication members of the Texas State Board of Education were citing the article as evidence that teachers needed to teach creationist-inspired "weaknesses of evolution", claiming: "Darwin's tree of life is wrong".

You have made a lot of extra, unpleasant work for the scientists whose work you should be explaining to the general public. We all now have to try to correct all the misapprehensions your cover has engendered.

February 20, 2009

By Maurice O'Sullivan

...The somewhat aging enfant terrible Christopher Hitchens, author of an oddly dyspeptic attack on Mother Teresa ("The Missionary Position") and the recent bestseller "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything," is simply the most public face of American atheism. Also on the bestseller list in the past have been Sam Harris's "Letter to a Christian Nation" and Richard Dawkins's "The God Delusion." And now, behind the scenes, groups like American Atheists, the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Council for Secular Humanism have been busy publishing journals, funding college scholarships and establishing Web sites. ...

...So far, American atheists have no figurehead with the brilliance or literary and scientific prizes of Britain's Mr. Dawkins, the recently retired Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford, where Balliol College named one of its most prestigious awards after him. Even so, these new American atheists are far better advocates for their cause than the dysfunctional O'Hare clan. Now that they have broken the ice, in fact, we should only hope that even more thoughtful atheists will follow them into the pool. ...

FEBRUARY 12, 1009
[registration required]

Ian McEwan and the science of suspense.
by Daniel Zalewski

ABSTRACT: PROFILE of novelist Ian McEwan. Writer accompanies Ian McEwan on a hike near McEwan's country home in Buckinghamshire and notes that McEwan punctuates his observations about human nature with references to scientific studies and publications. McEwan's interest in science isn't antiseptic; it sets his mind at play. His empirical temperament distinguishes him from his friends Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, and Julian Barnes. Tells about McEwan's love of walking and hiking. He and his wife recently traveled to the Himalayas and New Zealand. McEwan was spending much of his summer in Buckinghamshire, trying to settle into a new novel. McEwan is a connoisseur of dread. His success has a lot to do with his talent for creating suspense. His plots defy what he calls the "dead hand of modernism." Mentions his novels "Black Dogs," "The Comfort of Strangers," "The Child in Time," and "The Innocent." Some critics have disparaged McEwan as a hack with elegant prose. McEwan is insistent that something stirring should happen in a novel. His novel-in-progress, which is about global warming, was inspired by a hiking trip he took along a fjord in Spitsbergen, a group of Norwegian islands. He started work on the new book, as yet untitled, in December, 2007. He promised that it would not be didactic. Tells about the book's protagonist, Michael Beard, and McEwan's research into climate change and solar technologies. Writer visits McEwan at his London home in Fitzroy Square. Mentions Neil Kitchen, the brain surgeon whom McEwan shadowed while writing his novel "Saturday." ...

February 2009


President Obama has a unique opportunity to unite Americans and redefine liberalism. But if he is to succeed, he must broaden the moral register of the political left

Jonathan Haidt

...First idea: use all five moral senses. A scientific consensus is emerging that human moral psychology was shaped by multiple evolutionary forces and that our minds therefore detect many—sometimes conflicting—properties of social situations. The two best studied moral senses pertain to harm (including our capacities for sympathy and nurturing) and fairness (including anger at injustice). You can travel the world but you won't find a human culture that doesn't notice and care about harm and fairness.

Political conservatives in the US, Britain and many other nations value three additional sets of moral concerns. Like liberals, they care about harm and fairness, but they care more than liberals about loyalty to the in-group (which political party cares most about flags and borders?), authority (which side demands respect for parents and teachers?) and spiritual purity (which side most wants to restrict homosexuality and drug use?). It's as though conservatives can hear five octaves of music, but liberals respond to just two, within which they have become particularly discerning. (My research colleagues and I have not just plucked these "senses" from the air; they emerged from a review of both evolutionary and anthropological theory, and were tested in internet surveys, face-to-face interviews and even in the decoding of religious sermons.)

This hypothesis doesn't mean that liberals are wrong or defective, but it does mean that they often have more trouble understanding conservatives than vice versa. Liberals tend to relate most moral issues to potential harms and injustices. They therefore can't understand why anyone—including the majority of Americans—would oppose gay marriage, for example, because legalising gay marriage would hurt nobody and end an injustice. Arguments about the sanctity of marriage or the authority of tradition sound like empty words sent out to cover irrational homophobia. But the culture war is not primarily a disagreement about what's harmful or fair; it is better described as a battle between two visions of the ideal society, one that is designed to appeal to two moral senses, the other designed to appeal to five. ...

February 11, 2009


by Roger Highfield , Richard Wiseman and Rob Jenkins

THE history of science could have been so different. When Charles Darwin applied to be the "energetic young man" that Robert Fitzroy, the Beagle's captain, sought as his gentleman companion, he was almost let down by a woeful shortcoming that was as plain as the nose on his face. Fitzroy believed in physiognomy - the idea that you can tell a person's character from their appearance. As Darwin's daughter Henrietta later recalled, Fitzroy had "made up his mind that no man with such a nose could have energy". Fortunately, the rest of Darwin's visage compensated for his sluggardly proboscis: "His brow saved him."

The idea that a person's character can be glimpsed in their face dates back to the ancient Greeks. It was most famously popularised in the late 18th century by the Swiss poet Johann Lavater, whose ideas became a talking point in intellectual circles. In Darwin's day, they were more or less taken as given. It was only after the subject became associated with phrenology, which fell into disrepute in the late 19th century, that physiognomy was written off as pseudoscience.

Now the field is undergoing something of a revival. Researchers around the world are re-evaluating what we see in a face, investigating whether it can give us a glimpse of someone's personality or even help to shape their destiny. What is emerging is a "new physiognomy" which is more subtle but no less fascinating than its old incarnation. ...

February 11, 2009

The John Updike opus is so vast, so varied and rich that we will not have its full measure for years to come, writes Man Booker-prizewinning novelist Ian McEwan

A "BIG-BELLIED Lutheran God" within the young Updike looked on in contempt as he struggled to give up cigarettes.

...This most Lutheran of writers, driven by intellectual curiosity all his life, was troubled by science as others are troubled by God. When it suited him, he could easily absorb and be impressed by physics, biology, astronomy, but he was constitutionally unable to "make the leap of unfaith". The "weight" of personal death did not allow it, and much seriousness and dark humour derives from this tension between intellectual reach and metaphysical dread.

In a short story from 1984, The Wallet, Mr Fulham (who, we are told in the first line, "had assembled a nice life") experiences death terrors when he takes his grandchildren to a local cinema. While "starships did special-effects battle" Fulham's "true situation in time and space" was revealed: "a speck of consciousness now into its seventh decade, a mortal body poised to rejoin the minerals, a member of a lost civilisation that once existed on a sliding continent". This "lonely possession" of his own existence, he concludes, is "sickeningly serious".

God makes no appearance in this story, but it is unlikely that an atheist could have conjured so much from the minor domestic disturbance that follows. First, a large cheque "in the low six figures", a return on canny investments, fails to show up in the post. Fulham makes many phone calls to the company in Houston, the matter begins to loom too large -- "He slept poorly, agitated by the injustice of it." He suspects a thief, a "perpetrator", or there is a flaw in the mindless system. He is tormented by "outrageous cosmic unanswerableness". ...

February 14, 2009

Who Says Stress Is Bad For You?
It can be, but it can be good for you, too—a fact scientists tend to ignore and regular folks don't appreciate.

By Mary Carmichael

...More recently, Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University has studied a similar phenomenon in alpha males. He's seen plenty of "totally insane son of a bitch" types who respond to stress by lashing out, but he's also interested in another type that gets less press: the nice guy who finishes first. These alphas don't often get into fights; when they do, they pick battles they know they can win. They're just as dominant as their angry counterparts, and they're subject to the same stressors—power struggles, unsuccessful sexual overtures, the occasional need to slap down a subordinate—but their hormone levels never get out of whack for long, and they probably don't suffer much stress-induced brain dysfunction.Sapolsky likes to joke that they've all been relaxing in hot tubs in Big Sur, transforming themselves into "minimalist Zen masters." This is a joke because they've clearly come by their attitudes unconsciously: Sapolsky studies wild baboons...

...As Maddi's work makes clear, a lot of the explanation stems from early experiences. This may be true of Sapolsky's baboons as well. Sapolsky suspects that part of what makes an animal a dominant Zen master instead of an angry alpha lies in what sort of childhood he had. If an adult baboon picks up on conflict around him but keeps his cool, "quelling the anxiety and exercising impulse control," that may be behavior his mom modeled for him years earlier. The key? Factors such as how many steps the baby baboon could take away from his mother before she pulled him back—i.e., how much she allowed him to learn for himself, even if that meant a few bumps and bruises along the way. "I think the males who had mothers who were less anxious, who allowed them to be more exploratory in the absence of agitated maternal worry, are more likely to be the Zen ones who are calm enough to resist provocation," he says. A little properly handled stress, then, may be necessary to turn children into well-adjusted adults....

February 11, 2009


Stephen wonders if putting your genome on the Internet is like posting the social security number that God gave you. (05:06)

February 12, 2009


Mark Pagel

The theory of evolution by natural selection has prospered in its first 150 years and provides a consistent account of species as highly adapted and rare survivors in the struggle for existence. It now faces the challenge of finding order in the evolution of complex systems, including human society.

...The question of whose interests are served is sharpened once natural selection is allowed to venture into the realms of cultural and societal evolution. The big complex adaptive system that is human society is leaky: there are many different independent replicators — both biological individuals and cultural elements — each potentially with its own strategies for survival and reproduction. Should human society be viewed as a vehicle for the combined, cumulative effects of these replicators, rather than as a replicating system in its own right? If so, what rules govern which vehicles are successful, and do they bear any relationship to those for biological phenotypes?

There is a growing sense, for example, that human languages have adapted to human minds. Humans have domesticated languages: languages show features related to how they are used and to society, and this probably enhances their survival. Language might also to some degree have domesticated humans. It might have a regulatory role in human society not unlike that of gene regulation, and this may have enhanced human survival. Much the same could be said about the interactions between humans and the varieties of religion, art and music, topics that interested Darwin. The ability of natural selection to keep up with the times as more and more questions are asked shows that, far from being old at 150, Darwin's theory still has a spring in its step. ...

February 12, 2009


In the first of two opposing commentaries, Steven Rose argues that studies investigating possible links between race, gender and intelligence do no good. In the second, Stephen Ceci and Wendy M. Williams argue that such research is both morally defensible and important for the pursuit of truth.

NO: Science and society do not benefit

Steven Rose: In a society in which racism and sexism were absent, the questions of whether whites or men are more or less intelligent than blacks or women would not merely be meaningless — they would not even be asked. The problem is not that knowledge of such group intelligence differences is too dangerous, but rather that there is no valid knowledge to be found in this area at all. It's just ideology masquerading as science.

YES: The scientific truth must be pursued

Stephen Ceci & Wendy M. Williams: When scientists are silenced by colleagues, administrators, editors and funders who think that simply asking certain questions is inappropriate, the process begins to resemble religion rather than science. Under such a regime, we risk losing a generation of desperately needed research.

February 12, 2009

Darwin 200:


People's mindsets are neither fixed by evolution nor infinitely malleable by culture. Dan Jones looks for the similarities that underlie the diversity of human nature.

Dan Jones

...Ideas with a distinct Chomskyan flavour have been a stimulus to recent thinking about morality. What counts as a moral transgression, and how one should react to the transgressor, vary from culture to culture. But deeper patterns seem to lurk beneath this surface diversity.

Following Chomsky's lead, a number of researchers are working on the idea that an innate and universal moral grammar might underlie human ethical judgements. A series of web-based studies led by Marc Hauser of Harvard University have suggested that moral judgements can be explained in terms of such universal and fundamental moral principles. Harm caused by direct physical contact, for instance, is generally deemed to be morally worse than harm arising as a side effect, as are harms caused by specific actions rather than omissions.

But these are early days in fleshing out the tool kit of putative moral principles and parameters. "By the time Chomsky started his work in the 1950s he already had a massive amount of descriptive linguistics from all over the world to play with," says Hauser. "In the case of morality, we don't have anything like what the linguists had 50 years ago. We don't know whether the distinctions we're making are at the right level of abstraction, or whether they are principles or parameters."...

...A bird's-eye perspective on moral diversity and uniformity comes from psychologists Jonathan Haidt, of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and Craig Joseph, of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Surveying anthropology and evolutionary psychology, they argue that evolution has built into the human mind a preparedness to care about five sets of social issues: fairness and justice; avoiding harm to and caring for others; in-group loyalty; social hierarchy and respect for authority; and the domain of divinity and purity, both bodily and spiritual.

"Morality is a social construction, but each society constructs it on top of these five innate moral foundations, relying on them to varying degrees," says Haidt. "Some moralities, such as those of secular Europe, rest primarily on the first two, prizing concerns about harm and fairness above all else; other cultures, such as those of traditional India, emphasize fairness less, and the virtues of respect and spiritual purity more." ...

February 9, 2009


How to predict a financial crisis and the five signs of a bear, with Nouriel Roubini, RGE Monitor and Nassim Taleb, The Black Swan author.


February 11, 2009

Why we really do need to know the amazing truth about evolution, and the equally amazing intellectual dishonesty of its enemies

Richard Dawkins

...The Guardian reported that, in February 2006, "Muslim medical students in London distributed leaflets that dismissed Darwin’s theories as false". The Muslim leaflets were produced by the Al-Nasr Trust, a registered charity with tax-free status. The British taxpayer, that is to say, is subsidizing the systematic distribution of scientific falsehood to educational institutions. Science teachers across Britain will confirm that they are coming under slight, but growing, pressure from creationist lobbies, usually inspired by American or Islamic sources.

So, let nobody have the gall to deny that Coyne’s book is necessary. Not just his book, and here I must declare an interest. February 12, 2009, was Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday, and the 150th anniversary of The Origin of Species falls this autumn. Publishers being as anniversary-minded as they are, Darwin-related books were obviously to be expected this year. Nevertheless, it is true to say that neither Jerry Coyne nor I was aware of the other’s book on the evidence for evolution when we began our own – his published now, mine in the autumn. And our two books may not be the only ones. Bring them on, I say. The more the merrier. The evidence is massive, the modern version of the story would surprise and inspire even Darwin, and it cannot be told too often. Evolution is, after all, the true story of why we all exist, and an exhilaratingly powerful and satisfying explanation. It supersedes—and devastates – all predecessors, no matter how devoutly and sincerely believed.

Why Evolution Is True is outstandingly good. Coyne’s knowledge of evolutionary biology is prodigious, his deployment of it as masterful as his touch is light. His coverage is enviably comprehensive, yet he simultaneously manages to keep the book compact and readable. His nine chapters include "Written in the Rocks", laced with examples that make short work of the most popular of all creationist lies, the one about unbridgeable "gaps" in the fossil record: "Show me your intermediates!", say the creationists. Jerry Coyne shows them, and very numerous and convincing they are. Not just fossils of large charismatic animals like whales and birds, and the coelacanth-cousins that made the transition from water to land, but also microfossils. These have the advantage of sheer numbers: some kinds of sedimentary rock are almost entirely made of the tiny fossilized skeletons of foraminiferans, radiolarians and other calcareous or siliceous protozoa. This means you can plot a sensitive graph of some chosen measurement, as a continuous function of geological time, while you systematically work your way through a core of sediments. One of Coyne’s graphs shows a genus of radiolarians (beautiful protozoans with minute, lantern-like shells) caught in the act, two million years ago, of "speciating" – splitting into two species. ...

January 29, 2009

DENIS DUTTON — January 28, 2009

Denis Dutton says art is a tool for propagating. (05:57)

January 31, 2009

John Horgan & Denis Dutton

"For those seeking substance over sheen, the occasional videos released at Edge.org hit the mark. The Edge Foundation community is a circle, mainly scientists but also other academics, entrepreneurs, and cultural figures.

"Edge's long-form interview videos are a deep-dive into the daily lives and passions of its subjects, and their passions are presented without primers or apologies. The decidedly noncommercial nature of Edge's offerings, and the egghead imprimatur of the Edge community, lend its videos a refreshing air, making one wonder if broadcast television will ever offer half the off-kilter sparkle of their salon chatter. —Boston Globe

Edge Video: http://www.edge.org/edge_video.html

Edited by John Brockman
With An Introduction By BRIAN ENO

The world's finest minds have responded with some of the most insightful, humbling, fascinating confessions and anecdotes, an intellectual treasure trove. ... Best three or four hours of intense, enlightening reading you can do for the new year. Read it now."
San Francisco Chronicle

"A great event in the Anglo-Saxon culture."
El Mundo

Contributors include: STEVEN PINKER on the future of human evolution • RICHARD DAWKINS on the mysteries of courtship SAM HARRIS on why Mother Nature is not our friend NASSIM NICHOLAS TALEB on the irrelevance of probability ALUN ANDERSON on the reality of global warming ALAN ALDA considers, reconsiders, and re-reconsiders God LISA RANDALL on the secrets of the Sun RAY KURZWEIL on the possibility of extraterrestrial life BRIAN ENO on what it means to be a "revolutionary" HELEN FISHER on love, fidelity, and the viability of marriage…and many others.

Praise for the online publication of
What Have You Change Your Mind About?

"The splendidly enlightened Edge website (www.edge.org) has rounded off each year of inter-disciplinary debate by asking its heavy-hitting contributors to answer one question. I strongly recommend a visit." The Independent

"A great event in the Anglo-Saxon culture." El Mundo

"As fascinating and weighty as one would imagine." The Independent

"They are the intellectual elite, the brains the rest of us rely on to make sense of the universe and answer the big questions. But in a refreshing show of new year humility, the world's best thinkers have admitted that from time to time even they are forced to change their minds." The Guardian

"Even the world's best brains have to admit to being wrong sometimes: here, leading scientists respond to a new year challenge." The Times

"Provocative ideas put forward today by leading figures."The Telegraph

The world's finest minds have responded with some of the most insightful, humbling, fascinating confessions and anecdotes, an intellectual treasure trove. ... Best three or four hours of intense, enlightening reading you can do for the new year. Read it now." San Francisco Chronicle

"As in the past, these world-class thinkers have responded to impossibly open-ended questions with erudition, imagination and clarity." The News & Observer

"A jolt of fresh thinking...The answers address a fabulous array of issues. This is the intellectual equivalent of a New Year's dip in the lake—bracing, possibly shriek-inducing, and bound to wake you up." The Globe and Mail

"Answers ring like scientific odes to uncertainty, humility and doubt; passionate pleas for critical thought in a world threatened by blind convictions." The Toronto Star

"For an exceptionally high quotient of interesting ideas to words, this is hard to beat. ...What a feast of egg-head opinionating!" National Review Online

Today's Leading Thinkers on Why Things Are Good and Getting Better
Edited by John Brockman
Introduction by DANIEL C. DENNETT


"The optimistic visions seem not just wonderful but plausible." Wall Street Journal

"Persuasively upbeat." O, The Oprah Magazine

"Our greatest minds provide nutshell insights on how science will help forge a better world ahead." Seed

"Uplifting...an enthralling book." The Mail on Sunday

Today's Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable
Edited by John Brockman
Introduction by STEVEN PINKER


"Danger – brilliant minds at work...A brilliant bok: exhilarating, hilarious, and chilling." The Evening Standard (London)

"A selection of the most explosive ideas of our age." Sunday Herald

"Provocative" The Independent

"Challenging notions put forward by some of the world's sharpest minds" Sunday Times

"A titillating compilation" The Guardian

"Reads like an intriguing dinner party conversation among great minds in science" Discover

Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty
Edited by John Brockman
Introduction by IAN MCEWAN


"Whether or not we believe proof or prove belief, understanding belief itself becomes essential in a time when so many people in the world are ardent believers." LA Times

"Belief appears to motivate even the most rigorously scientific minds. It stimulates and challenges, it tricks us into holding things to be true against our better judgment, and, like scepticism -its opposite -it serves a function in science that is playful as well as thought-provoking. not we believe proof or prove belief, understanding belief itself becomes essential in a time when so many people in the world are ardent believers." The Times

"John Brockman is the PT Barnum of popular science. He has always been a great huckster of ideas." The Observer

"An unprecedented roster of brilliant minds, the sum of which is nothing short of an oracle—a book ro be dog-eared and debated." Seed

"Scientific pipedreams at their very best." The Guardian

"Makes for some astounding reading." Boston Globe

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