book reviews

Books about evolution
Reviewed by: T.J. Nelson

The Social Conquest of Earth
Edward O. Wilson

T his popular-style book by the famous sociobiologist E.O. Wilson provides a light overview of the currently fashionable ideas about population ecology today. The general idea is that humans, like ants, are social animals that have conquered the world. The total mass of humans and ants on the planet, says Wilson, is about the same. Human evolution was driven by individual selection and group selection, and these two forces have created an internal conflict has created all the problems that we see around us today: war, genocide, colonialism, prejudice, and racism, all the way up to the really big problems like overpopulation, loss of biodiversity, homophobia, income inequality, global warming, and insufficiently high taxes.

In this book, Wilson's love of making scientific observations about nature comes through, but the approach is a far cry from Wilson's hard-headed earlier works, like the brilliant Genes, Mind, and Culture: The Coevolutionary Process, which he wrote way back in 1981 (which, I might add, is one of my favorite books). The style here is like a cross between Brian Cox and Richard Dawkins: more reminiscing and generalizing than new ideas, and a lot of the ideas, like the idea that artificial intelligence is not only undesirable but impossible, will almost certainly turn out to be wrong. His idea that we should not colonize space, in particular, seems defeatist, considering that the alternative would be our inevitable eventual extinction. This book may help to inspire young people to get interested in sociobiology and population ecology, but for me it was kind of a letdown, given the stellar reputation of the author.

created oct 6, 2012

Mind & Cosmos
Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False
Thomas Nagel

I n this short book, philosopher Thomas Nagel takes a whack at the mind-body problem. Then he takes a few whacks at biology for failing to solve it. The theory of evolution, says Nagel, is wrong because it doesn't explain the mind-body problem.

Well ... that's a new one.

Why should it be up to "Darwinism" to explain mind-body dualism? It's like saying the theory of gravitation should explain the Great Depression. Yes, they both have to do with things that go down, but there the resemblance ends. Nagel says [p.53] that consciousness plays an essential role in the survival and reproduction of organisms. Therefore, if the theory of evolution doesn't explain consciousness (by which he means the mind-body problem), it is invalid. Here Nagel, in my opinion, confuses his terms. The word "consciousness" has so many different meanings it's easy to interchange them. Attention, subjectivity, and awakeness are just three that come to mind. They are fundamentally different. The theory of evolution, as formulated by Darwin, was not concerned with how bodily organs functioned, only with explaining how their function contributed to speciation.

Nagel also says that random mutations cannot explain evolution. But again, it seems like a complete non sequitur. Isn't this an unrelated problem? What seems to be happening here is that Nagel is trying to provide philosophical support for the creationists, with whom he deeply sympathizes, while at the same time denying the need to include God, which, as he recognizes, would create even more insurmountable philosophical problems. Attempting these two incompatible feats at the same time turns his work into a philosophical pretzel.

I also have a problem with his use of the term "reductionism." Nagel repeatedly asserts that "psychophysical reductionism" (by which he means, I think, ordinary everyday reductionism as applied to the study of consciousness), is a philosophy that he rejects. Nagel uses the term reductionism as if it's a philosophical viewpoint. Although reductionism is a big deal to philosophers, for scientists, reductionism is a practical tool that has proven to be of immense value in helping us understand our complicated universe. It's a way of breaking things down into their smallest individual components and analyzing the parts separately in order to figure out how something works. Few scientists would ever claim that the whole is not more than the sum of its parts. Saying that reductionism is a failure is no more meaningful than saying that a screwdriver is a failure.

Philosophers don't need to be so antagonistic toward science. Philosophy can help science explain the mind-body problem by giving us a vocabulary and pointing us in the right direction. Nagel may well be right in saying [p.16] that mind is a basic part of nature. But in this book he seems to get too caught up in attacking materialism to get any further. It's a shame, because Nagel could be on the right track. He might make a lot more progress if he could just relax and stop worrying about Daniel Dennett so much.

evolved oct 6, 2012