Category: evolution

House guidelines that you’re free to ignore

I like arguing. I love a good verbal altercation. I like talking to people who disagree with me, not for the sake of disagreeing, but for the thrill of being challenged, being confronted with an alternative world view, being forced to think differently. The Internet is a wonderful place for such interactions. You can easily search out a favorite topic, knock out a (what you think is) thoughtful opinion, respond to the reactions, get in a little fight, all without having to shout over music in a bar, with no danger of getting a drink thrown in your face when you get a little cheeky, no need for a taxi home at the end of the night. All great stuff.
The problem arises, however, when you find yourself arguing by different rules, resulting in misunderstandings, hurt feelings (not mine, usually, as I am, at times, embarrassingly thick-skinned), and a general lowering of the tone *straightens tie disdainfully*, so, for the delight of my many readers and contributors (hey, you two), I shall now attempt to lay out a few guidelines on how best to engage with me on such hot topics as: “where are ethics from?”, “why are scientists all evil?”, and “what are the chances of teleology being a measurable reality?” (One or more of those may not actually be a very hot topic) –

  • even if the subject matter gets heavy, keep the tone reasonably playful and light. I believe you can make even more pointed criticism of someone’s opinion when it’s done with a smile (of course, this could be perceived as being glib, smug, or patronizing, but it’s a risk worth taking if we can avoid gloomy grumpiness).
  • if your opponent has made a worthwhile and thoughtful point, take the time to acknowledge it, even if you still don’t agree.
  • try and remain open to the possibility that you may be wrong. If you don’t do this, it’s hard to get the other person’s point.
  • are you arguing from a logically consistent position? If you’re unsure, admitting that doubt is no bad thing.
  • focus on what you have in common with your opponent. Establishing common ground should help move things along.
  • ask yourself honestly what your goals are in the debate. Is it true intellectual curiosity or are you just trying to win? If it’s the latter, it may not be the best use of your time.

Okay, that’s it. I fully acknowledge that I don’t manage to stick to any of these for longer than the first few nanoseconds of kerfuffle, but my intentions are good. Anything I’ve missed?


a question of science, philosophy, morality…and Scandinavians

Having butted into a discussion on another blog about morals and god and stuff, I becameImage embroiled in a tricky argument with a nice fella who was some kind of Christian, and who took the position that science was a religion. I’m not sure I equipped myself very well, not being particularly clear and certainly far too longwinded, but in the end I managed to summarize my argument like this:

Where I step in is when people suggest that there is no way that evolution can account for certain behaviors. I’ve yet to find any evidence to support that position, and considering there is no evidence that the behavior of every animal on the planet has been shaped by *anything* other than evolution through natural selection, evolution is not even competing with serious alternative hypotheses. The construction of the origin myths and various deities are endlessly fascinating, producing a wonderfully rich texture to the history of our species, but the claim that without some of them we would somehow behave less morally is, to me, ridiculous. If the claim is that the Christian myth gives us superior morals compared with, say, Norse mythology, I see no evidence for that. The people of Scandinavia developed a complex society with social codes, restrictions, expectations, legends and guiding stories passed down generations. To claim that they lacked a morality (with the inference that they still do, as most of the Nordic nations are only nominally Christian) is just silly, but if this claim is not made, that leaves the whole validity of Christian morality hanging, imho.
So, to conclude, if people take inspiration from supposedly wise words written down a long long time ago, great! Do we need any of those words to live a good life? Probably not.
Give a child an understanding of the world around them through science, give them language skills, the gift of communication for them to share ideas and grow intellectually, independent of those around them, and give them the confidence to question, everyone and everything, to take nothing at face value, and to keep exploring until they form their own picture, do these things, and you’ll find you’ve done a pretty good job equipping that child with what they need.

So finally I felt that I got to sum up my main point, probably far too late in the day, but there you are. If you’re interested in such philosophical musings, the blog Love and Heretics is a lovely place to dip into.

Lice to meet you!

Saying hello is only monkey business, and it helps to keep that in mind. An attempt to combine zoology and business greetings.

_62548099_chimpanzeehandclaspIn a typical business english class, I’m often tasked with not just teaching the polite small-talk of pre-business meeting introductions, but also of persuading Germans that it’s necessary to use this rather subtle style of social interaction, rather than the relatively brusk german approach.

This is where the wonderful zoologist Desmond Morris comes in. In his book The Naked Ape, written way back in the 70s, but still brimming with anthropological nuggets, he posits that human greetings are an extension of our primate grooming instincts. An ape will approach with an extended begging paw while quickly smacking its lips, symbolising the act of collecting and eating the flakes of skin and parasites from the areas the other ape cannot reach. Many primates other than ourselves have also ritualised this grooming activity, using it as a social bonding exercise, and, perhaps partially due to our lack of fur, we have further transformed it into handshakes, waves, nods, bows, removal of hats and enquiries about states of health.

In Germany the firm handshake takes care of much of the grooming process, allowing Frankfurter financiers and Berliner bureaucrats to get straight down the the meat of the matter. Good for them, I say (I’m a big fan of directness), but how many other cultures hold such heavy stock in the old paw clasp?

The british, for example, have developed an elaborate greeting performance (in common with that other little island nation, Japan, where there is crucial significance in the depth and duration of the bow, resulting in a repeated series of “reply” bows, calling to mind an image of two nodding donkey pumps). In Britain, the overly direct handshake is either softened or often completely replaced by a complex, chattering dance involving asking how someone is, replying in the positive then asking back, also replying positively, then muttering about weather, inquiring about travel conditions, apologising for the paltry selection of snacks, and so on.

This exotically polite word ballet is often mistakenly assumed by the hapless german interloper to begin with a genuine health enquiry, thereby bringing the ritual to an abrupt halt with an honest medical assessment as reply, usually a complaint about a cold that is taking for ever to go, a lack of sleep the night before, backache, a stiff neck, or any other ailment that germans enjoy dwelling upon.

Bearing this in mind, my goal is to help my students understand the value of gauging the social grooming dance correctly. Each culture has cultivated our genetically programmed, furry urge to remove dead skin and ticks from one another into rituals that may vary, but they all serve the same purpose. A shake; a bow; a “How are you?” – “I’m fine, and you?”. Regardless of the culture, if all goes well, the result is metaphorically tick-free fur, and a social bond, with everyone ready to get down to business.