January 17, 2014

Richard Dawkins contra essentialism

Every January, literary agent John Brockman gets his authors of popular science books to write short essays answering a question for his Edge website. This year's is: What scientific idea is ready for retirement?

Richard Dawkins contra Essentialism:
Essentialism—what I’ve called "the tyranny of the discontinuous mind"—stems from Plato, with his characteristically Greek geometer’s view of things. For Plato, a circle, or a right triangle, were ideal forms, definable mathematically but never realised in practice. A circle drawn in the sand was an imperfect approximation to the ideal Platonic circle hanging in some abstract space. That works for geometric shapes like circles, but essentialism has been applied to living things and Ernst Mayr blamed this for humanity’s late discovery of evolution—as late as the nineteenth century. If, like Aristotle, you treat all flesh-and-blood rabbits as imperfect approximations to an ideal Platonic rabbit, it won’t occur to you that rabbits might have evolved from a non-rabbit ancestor, and might evolve into a non-rabbit descendant. If you think, following the dictionary definition of essentialism, that the essence of rabbitness is "prior to" the existence of rabbits (whatever "prior to" might mean, and that’s a nonsense in itself) evolution is not an idea that will spring readily to your mind, and you may resist when somebody else suggests it. ...
Essentialism rears its ugly head in racial terminology. The majority of "African Americans" are of mixed race.

Sure, but the great majority are majority sub-Saharan. The minority that weren't used to prefer the Latin-style found in New Orleans where they considered themselves a middle group, but in the second half of the 20th Century, public expressions of such views became unpopular for reasons of idealistic solidarity on behalf of the black masses and/or a convenient way to prosper as the leadership of the black masses.
Yet so entrenched is our essentialist mind-set, American official forms require everyone to tick one race/ethnicity box or another: no room for intermediates.

No, actually, since the 2000 Census, the U.S. government allows people to tick as many of the racial boxes as they want. I believe there are 63 possible combinations.

On the 2010 Census, the President of the United States chose to ignore his mother's half of his family and tick only the "African-American" box.

The hilariously essentialist Census category is Ethnicity, where you are either "Hispanic" or "Non-Hispanic." Are you a Congregationalist minister and member of the Myopia Hunt Golf Club? Non-Hispanic! Are you a Tamil Brahmin? Non-Hispanic! Are you a Maori character star? Non-Hispanic! (Oh, wait, Cliff Curtis mostly plays Hispanics ... and Arabs ...)
A different but also pernicious point is that a person will be called "African American" even if only, say, one of his eight great grandparents was of African descent. As Lionel Tiger put it to me, we have here a reprehensible "contamination metaphor."

Or, these days, it's a good way to get ahead in the world, as the career of the current President shows.
But I mainly want to call attention to our society’s essentialist determination to dragoon a person into one discrete category or another. We seem ill-equipped to deal mentally with a continuous spectrum of intermediates. We are still infected with the plague of Plato’s essentialism.

Lawyers look for "bright-line" distinctions: you are either old enough to drink or you are not. You are eligible for affirmative action or you are not. The government and the culture has been rewarding certain racial groups, so it's hardly surprising that somebody who understands the modern system, such as, to pick a random example, Barack Obama will officially identify solely with the -- if you are a preppie from paradise, all else being equal -- more legally and culturally privileged race.

Something else to keep in mind is that there is one irreducible essence in human affairs that in practice surprisingly resembles a Platonic archetype: the structure of your biological family tree. Every individual has one father and one mother, two grandfathers and two grandmothers, and so forth and so on. If you draw out the shape of the family tree of your ancestors, it is exactly the same shape as every other human's in the world. It's Platonic perfection.

The only thing messy about this is the inevitable inbreeding -- 40 generations back you have roughly a trillion slots to fill in your family tree, but there weren't a trillion people around to fill it, so some (many) of your ancestors fill multiple slots in your Platonic family tree.

Racial groups -- or partly inbred extended families -- emerge from this tension between the Platonic purity of the structure and the messy reality of the names filling the structure.
   

61 comments:

Anonymous said...

Mixed race people overwhelmingly self-identify with their minority race. If persecution and discrimination was really prevalent, that wouldn't be the case. I wonder if there's historical data on that, changing in the 60s or so.

5371 said...

Sounds like Dicky Dawkins's idea of the gene.

Ryan Long said...

Steve, where do you come up with nonsense like this:

"The minority that weren't used to prefer the Latin-style found in New Orleans where they considered themselves a middle group, but in the second half of the 20th Century, public expressions of such views became unpopular for reasons of idealistic solidarity on behalf of the black masses and/or a convenient way to prosper as the leadership of the black masses."

Don't you suppose that racial segregation, Jim Crow, and the like played a role here? How many white people at the time were differentiating among African-American groups in the way you describe?

If you're going to make claims like this, at least provide some kind of citation that might lead us to believe it's based on something other than the first thing that comes to your mind.

Thursday said...

Paul Bloom's work How Pleasure Works (inaccurate title) talks about how essentialism is one of the drivers behind science. Of course, human beings often find essences where there are none, but even there they are usually looking at non-random patterns (family resemblances) that arise out of essences at a lower level.

Anonymous said...

Actually, evolution is an essentialist metaphysics because it assumes there's this magical process which creates bunnies out of ???, which was created from ????, which was created from ?????. Sorry, observable evidence is not available, though a rich tapestry of phantastical, imaginary fairy tales are available for your consideration. As far as all observed evidence is concerned, bunnies just create.... more bunnies.

Darwinism, having had nearly two centries to provide observable evidence of speciation, has utterly failed and should thus be chucked onto the burnpile of history. Plus, after nearly two centuries, Darwinism has produced zero tech, and thus no one will be harmed by abandoning this thoroughly discredited metaphysics.

Chubby Ape said...

It's funny that Dawkins argues in favour of nuance and recognizing shades of grey when he's one of the most famous binary thinkers alive today. It's also odd that Dawkins claims Aristotle would not have been able to wrap his mind around the theory of evolution when Aristotle's work on ethics is all about the need to adapt to circumstances to stay on the sweet spot between extremes. In fact Aristotle believed the most civilised people came from temperate climates. I don't think Aristotle would have had as much trouble as Dawkins imagines he would in understanding that, say, desert rabbits look different from forest rabbits because they've adapted over generations to different climates. Dawkins is too strong a believer in the religion of Progress to imagine that someone living more than 2,000yrs ago isn't several times stupider than himself.

Anonymous said...

Ryan Long might look at this Wikipedia article for information about Creole identity in New Orleans:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creole_of_Color

a very knowing American said...


“Darwin was himself a liberal, but his theories had consequences in some degree inimical to traditional liberalism. … The doctrine that all men are born equal … was incompatible with his emphasis on congenital differences between members of the same species. … There is a further consequence … If men and animals have a common ancestry, and if men developed by such slow stages that there were creatures which we should not know whether to classify as human or not, the question arises: at what stage in evolution did men, or their semi-human ancestors, begin to be all equal? Would Pithecanthropus erectus, if he had been properly educated, have done work as good as Newton’s? … A resolute egalitarian who answers … in the affirmative will find himself forced to regard apes as the equals of human beings. And why stop with apes? I do not see how he is to resist an argument in favour of Votes for Oysters. An adherent of evolution should maintain that not only the doctrine of the equality of all men, but also that of the rights of man, must be condemned as unbiological, since it makes too emphatic a distinction between men and other animals.”

Bertrand Russell, The History of Western Philosophy (in The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell, p. 274)

How carefully has Dawkins thought through the whole anti-essentialist thing? Are his private thoughts different from his public ones? Steven Jay Gould certainly thought and wrote about this a lot. Part of his motivation for pushing punctuated equilibrium over gradualism was the moral/political one of drawing a bright line between (1) the origin of species and (2) the origin of races (which Darwin wasn’t willing to do), thus giving Homo sapiens some kind of historically-contingent approximation to a universal essential nature. Many evolutionary psychologists, even when they disagree with Gould in other matters, make a similar universalist move, for some of the same extra-scientific reasons.

Steve Sailer said...

Aristotle was significantly less essentialist than his teacher Plato.

It's a little strange to blame the two guys who did a lot of strong, original thinking, rather than those who came after them who were lazy enough to accept one or the other on faith.

Reg Cæsar said...

…the President of the United States chose to ignore his mother's half of his family…

Makes sense to me. Have you seen those people?

Anonymous said...

Some months ago, I was forced to "unfollow" that nitwit Dawkins precisely because of this politically correct nonsense.

Rifleman said...

Dawkins might not like "essentialism" but he LOVES "reductionism".

And that aint good either.

Anonymous said...

Dawkins has written great stuff but notice that Leftists like him are always preoccupied with denying the reality of race.

Power Child said...

The upper reaches of a given human's family tree get kinda interesting when you account for interbreeding with cousin species like Neanderthals.

Now that I've typed it, I realize our interbreeding with Neanderthals has received a fair amount of attention lately. So, what about other cousin species? Did Homo sapiens have opportunities to interbreed with Homo heidelbergensis or other child species of Homo erectus?

If you "zoom out" from an individual human's family tree to the whole human species' family tree, it seems unlikely that we had just one neat line of single parents with our Neanderthal cousins poking in the side of the line at some point.

Anonymous said...

Is Dawkins a blind fool or a clever sumfabitch?
Some might say his argument about 'race' pushes 'conservatism' while sounding 'liberal'.

Blacks have no problem using one-drop rule to define who's black. In fact, they are happy with it, and Libs back it up.

If anything, it was cons who were complaining about terms like 'African-American' and etc.
Cons are more likely to make fun of how light skinned mulattos call themselves 'black'. Libs are very shhhhh about that.

So, Dawkins' argument is likely to piss off Libs more, yet he frames it as 'anti-racism'. Hmmmm.

Cons would actually like what's he's arguing for since it will break up the 'leftist' and 'color' coalition. Blacks would divide into blacks, mulattos, quadroons, octaroons, and etc.
And Hispanic solidarity would crack up too. This is why essentialism today is pushed more by the 'left' than by the 'right'.
And what the hell is 'people of color'? Congo blacks and Caucasian Arabs have more in common with one another than Arabs do with Europeans racially, historically, and culturally?

The one-drop rule used to be an issue of 'contamination', but today it's an issue of 'precious fluid'. If light-skinned blacks tried to pass as whites in the past, today they try to pass as black even if they just have one drop of black blood.

Meanings change over time.

Ryan Long said...

@ Anonymous - Thanks for the link. I checked it out. Here's what I found:

Beginning with the United States acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase and especially after the American Civil War, many Creoles of color lost their status under the binary system of the United States. Its southern society had classified people with any visible African ancestry as black and second class, because slavery had become a racial caste. Former free people of color were relegated to the ranks of the masses of emancipated slaves. With their advantage of having been better educated than the new freedmen, many Creoles of color were active in the struggle for civil rights.[8] But white Democrats regained political power across the former Confederate states by the late nineteenth century and began to re-impose white supremacy. To achieve this, they established legal racial segregation under a Jim Crow system and disfranchised most blacks through voter registration and electoral rules, often part of new state constitutions.

This appears to be consistent with my original comment.

josh said...

Looks like somebody has read and not understood Edward Feser.

Gubbler of the Society of Reformed Chechenistics said...

Essentialism can mean different things.

The laws/rules/principles of science are essentialist. There are ideals of what is science and what isn't, which is why Intelligent Design is not regarded as real science. It deviates from and violates the essential rules of science.

If anything, Dawkins have been going out of his way to make an essentialist argument for evolution on the basis of what is true science.
While there may no perfect rabbit, Dawkins argues there is a perfect and true and universal law behind evolution that is true everywhere.

The problem isn't essentialism per se but how essentialist truths are arrived at and formulated.

Platonic essentialism is just silly stuff--though interesting as philosophy--, but science is essentially essential. While it pores over mountains of data, it seeks the essential laws of nature behind everything. So, even if science rejects the perfect rabbit, it seeks the perfect explanation of how rabbits came to evolve. Evolutionary theory is premised on fact but fine-tuned into an essentialist argument.

Also, isn't Dawkins practicing a form of essentialist moralism? I mean where in science or law of nature does it say 'anti-racism' is better or morally more essential than 'racism'?

What if some 'anti-racist' arguments are false and some 'racist' arguments are true? Only a radical essentialist would say 'all racist' views must be false and all 'anti-racist views must be true'.

Also, it's essentialist to argue that all 'racist' views are like those of Nazism, KKK, or Nation of Islam.
Just as Stalinism wasn't the only form of essential socialism, Nazism wasn't the only essential form of 'racism'.

Anonymous said...

Dawkins, the 'progressive' who routinely pisses off feminists.. and now seemingly blacks.

Dawkins: "Obama isn't black!!! Such notion is KKK!!"

Anonymous said...

All empiricisms turn into essentialisms.

With empiricism, we see the world around us, but our minds like to 'make sense of stuff', and so, whatever we see are formulated into grand paradigms that come to shape the way we think for a long time.

Before Plato thought of perfect circles, squares, rabbits, chickens, and gyros, he must have seen them in one form or another.

And of course, the concept of perfect forms and formulas did help to advance mathematics, so you gotta give it some credit.

Also, essentialism tends to be universalist than tribalist since it seeks the all-truth.

The Golden Rule of morality.
The notion of 'all men are created equal'. Essentialist and universalist.

Dawkins seems to stick to the essentialist notion of good and evil. If he wasn't such a self-righteous prig, he would see history and mankind as something far more complex than 'rational enlightened and noble persons' such as hisself VERSUS 'irrational, evil, dumbass, mindless, stupidass, punkass, hateful, ugly, and etc' folks like most of us(and people of color too).

Dawkins is okay with racial mixing but he's not okay with sensibility mixing. His sensibility is pure and heroic and those who agree. Pot calling kettle black.. or mulatto or octaroon or whatever.


Anonymous said...

Oh my... 'rears its ugly head'???

Dawkins is a Nazi, Dawkins is a Nazi!!!

Dawkins seems to believe in the notion of 'ugly' as opposed to 'beauty'. So, some people are ugly, and some are beautiful, spiritually or physically. Shame on Dawkins!! Essentialism of aesthetics, physical or moral.

Wasn't it the beauty cult of Nazism that led to the Holocaust?IS there pure or essential beauty or ugliness? Surely, lots of people are a mix of beautiful and ugly on the inside and outside. To say some people are essentially beautiful while others are ugly..
or to say that some views are beautiful while others are ugly...

HELP HELP, CALL THE ADL!!

Dawkins wants to commit holocaust on 'ugly ideas and attitudes', and such essential attitudes may make us wipe out 'ugly races'!!! One essentialist mentality leads to another. If essentialism about perfect circles led to slavery and genocide, then surely essentialism about 'ugly ideas' will lead to mass killing of 'ugly people' as well.

After all, the Hogocaust is the product of essentialism. Hogs are ugly, so let's kill them and eat them!!!
Why do we kill pigs? Because of the essentialism of the ideas of 'ugly' and 'beautiful'.

Anonymous said...

Essentialism can be anything. 'Diversity is our strength'. In some cases and ways, true enough. But is diversity ALWAYS a strength? Essentialist multi-cultis say so.

'White guilt' or 'moral stain of slavery' are essentialist. I mean do white people really more responsible for evils of the world?

'Equality is good'. Based on what empirical fact?

Anonymous said...

Cleanliness and hygiene are also essentialist quasi-Nazi stuff.

I mean, who is to say anything can be purely clean or purely pure? Why do people wash their hands after they take a dump?? Damn Nazis, do they really think they can purify their hands of germs when there are germs all around?
Every time a bottle of pickle is pasteurized, it's the road to another Holocaust. Such processes spread the false notion that some things can be made clean and germ-free.

This is why Hindus are so great. They crap and eat on the same spot. They pee and poo and bath in the same water. They mix every deity and even incorporate gods of other religions and even worship rats. They don't make a distinction between good and evil but instead see good and evil and creation and destruction as the same cycle of things. They don't make a distinction between reality and spirituality either, which is why yogis spend day after day sitting on cactus, which means they don't make a distinction between pain and pleasure either.
That must be why India progressed so much on all levels while the UK rotted in a stew of hateful Nazism.

Damn Nazis!! Now Mongols, they didn't discriminate or make a big deal of racial purity or essentialism. Genghis Khan made love to everyone of all races, even with 'racist' ones tried to maintain their bogus 'purity' by wickedly resisting the progressive Mongol spread-the-love movement.
Interracist ideology sure is full of love and peace.... just like Ottoman ruled Greece and Latin America where natives were showered with love by Conquistadore-amores.

Glossy said...

Dawkins is wrong about the reason why evolution was only discovered in the 19th century. Of course people always knew that careful breeding can change the traits of plants, animals and humans in desired directions. All of agriculture is based on that, as well as a lot of politics. What people didn't always know is that the Earth is billions of years old. They thought it was several thousand years old instead. The rate of change that breeders and parents observed was far too slow to turn fish into deer in 7,000 years. It's actually far too slow to do it in 7,000,000 years.

The fact that the Earth and life upon it are billions of years old is not self-evident at all. The real intellectual breakthrough was made by the people who realized how old some fossils really are, not by Darwin. Darwin's contribution was just an extrapolation of the always-known mechanisms of breeding and inheritance, and of the rate of change they were known to produce, unto the new time frame. And if I'm not mistaken, he formulated the theory of evolution very soon after the staggering antiquity of the Earth was established.

Anonymous said...

Following Dawkin's logic, couldn't we make a positive case for racial essentialism too?

After all, Brits were racially less tolerant than French, Spanish, and etc.
And yet, they were also less tolerant of corruption, slovenliness, inefficiency, and etc. They were morally more effective in instituting positive change both at home and abroad.

Could British racial essentialism have had something to do with ethical essentialism?
This may seem wrong in our PC age where 'racial intolerance' is ESSENTIALLY associated with ONLY evil, but what if British racial attitude was indeed, in some ways, linked to their moral attitude.

Morality, after all, is a form of intolerance of bad behavior and wrongful deeds. Though morality needs to be forgiving and tolerant to some degree, it must set strict standards of proper values and obligations.
At work, one must really work. One cannot mix work ethic and laziness at work.

Maybe the British racial intolerance made them more efficient in other ways too. Race-mixing among other European imperialists may have led to cultural, social, and even moral confusion(since different races/cultures had different views of morality). So, the mixing of races may have increased inefficiency and diminution of cultural purpose and unity--not because mixed-race people were less than human but because cultures often don't mix very well and because diversity without clear borders lead to distrust and lack of clear identity.

We can see the results in Mexico, India, Central Asia, Southern Italy, Turkey, and etc. They are not inferior humans but culturally messier and more confused humans with lower sense of obligation, unity,and principles.

So, while racial essentialism, at its darkest, could lead to something like Nazism, maybe it also helped foster a clean and sober reform-minded mentality of UK.
Suppose UK had been invaded by Moors and most Brits had become half-African. Then, suppose UK was invaded by Hindus and became hinduish to a great degree.
While mixed-race Brits would be still be human-humans, would they have a clear sense of racial or cultural or moral purpose? Look around mixed-up India, and it doesn't look that way.

Also, who is to say essentialist interracism will work wonders? Is Egypt any kind of paradise? Or how about Jim Jones community that mixed whites, blacks, and etc? How did that turn out? Messy, crazy, confused, and, in the end, fatalistic and murderous.



Glossy said...

From the wiki on James Hutton (1726 - 1797):

"Rather than accepting that the earth was no more than a few thousand years old, he maintained that the Earth must be much older, with a history extending indefinitely into the distant past.[23] His main line of argument was that the tremendous displacements and changes he was seeing did not happen in a short period of time by means of catastrophe, but that processes still happening on the Earth in the present day had caused them. As these processes were very gradual, the Earth needed to be ancient, in order to allow time for the changes. Before long, scientific inquiries provoked by his claims had pushed back the age of the earth into the millions of years "

The processes mentioned there were geological. Erosion, sedimentation, etc.

Once you accept that the Earth is very old, you can extrapolate the rate of change seen in breeding (and just in family life) far enough for it to become possible for species to gradually turn into other species.

Anonymous said...

Ryan Long, the legal status of Creoles in New Orleans was impacted by Jim Crow, but the social distinction continued to be made. For example, the Creole jazzman Jelly Roll Morton viewed himself as from a group distinct from black jazzmen such as Louis Armstrong. Thus, the original point, that Latin-style intermediate groups existed in Louisiana and developed a culture distinct from that of much of the rest of the South, is far from "nonsense." Your original comment overstated your point, and was unfair to Mr. Sailer.

Anonymous said...

Reading this, I doubt Dawkins has studied Aristotle... at all. Any first-year philosophy student could tell you that Aristotle's first principles weren't essences, but what later philosophers named "primary substances" -- things neither "said of" anything else (i.e. not universals), nor "present in" (i.e. not accidental to) anything else. The examples he gives are individual men, horses -- members of natural kinds. Physical things, not essences.

For Aristotle, essences don't pre-exist the things themselves -- they are merely unique collections of non-accidental properties.

And what's up with the rabbit example? I'm pretty sure Dawkins doesn't understand the difference between the respective schools of Plato and Aristotle.

vinteuil said...

Dawkins is a very smart guy, and his *Selfish Gene* is surely among the greatest popular science books ever written.

But he's wandering well outside his zone of competence, here.

Plato thought that certain essences (or "forms") exist in a timeless, immaterial realm where we've met them before - 'cause how else could we possibly explain our grasp of things like, say, the number three, or perfect triangularity - stuff we've never encountered in real life?

This really is a very serious philosophical problem.

But, so far as I know, Plato *didn't* think that there had to be a timeless and immaterial form for every little thing - like, say, rabbits, or Hispanics.

Anonymous said...

The British science writer Colin Tudge has made this point for years, it wasn't Christianity that slowed the development of evolution, it was Platonism. When you see living things as imperfect versions of ideal types that don't exist in the real universe, it makes it difficult to see populations as they are, full of variation and that variation providing the raw material for evolution. Ernst Mayr may have made this point even earlier, because he was a student of not only biology but the philosophies underpinning it. You can see that particularly in the works of Georges Cuvier who was the father of both paleontology and comparative anatomy, in many ways he had a much more analytical mind than Darwin did, but he couldn't get pass his Platonic essentialist thinking and therefore thought evolution couldn't happen.

vinteuil said...

@anonymous 1:39 p.m.

Yeah, Dawkins is even more clueless about Aristotle than he is about Plato.

Anonymous said...

"The British science writer Colin Tudge has made this point for years, it wasn't Christianity that slowed the development of evolution, it was Platonism."

One scientific habit that must go is blaming some -ism for all the ills in the world.

It's like Allan Bloom blaming German philosophers for all that went wrong in America in the 60s. He had a point, but there were many other factors too.

This sort of reminds me of the book by Ron Rosenbaum EXPLAINING HITLER. Everyone has one theory and uses it to explain EVERYTHING about Hitler.

Or how about the dufuses in ROOM 237 who try to explain everything about THE SHINING with a single pet theory of theirs.

Maybe there is a tenuous link between Plato and Evolution, maybe not. It's certainly food for thought. The thing is we cannot know for sure, but Dawkins unscientifically pontificates like it's objective fact.

He also pigeonholes essentialism as ONE THING when it can be lots of other things.

Dawkins uses the scientific method when he deals with evolution, but he has the personality of a puritanical zealot.

Anonymous said...

Saying something is totally obsolete should be obsolete.
In social sciences, nothing is totally proven or disproven. There are only general truths. Humans are too complex to explain with one theory.

Gubbler of the Society of Reformed Chechenistics said...

Dawkins just love being self-righteous and showing off how smart he is.

He's like those preachers who, even as they rant against sin and wickedness, love to make a scene among the wicked and feel so good and holy.

Dawkins just love going among the dummies and showing off how he's smart he is and how dumb they are.
He basks in it though he will never admit it. Jerk.

AWC said...

Why Mulattoes Identify as Black:

http://occamsrazormag.wordpress.com/2013/03/23/racial-admixture-in-usa-and-why-mulattoes-identify-as-black/

..

Anonymous said...

"When you think about how fantastically successful the Jewish lobby has been, though, in fact, they are less numerous I am told - religious Jews anyway - than atheists and [yet they] more or less monopolise American foreign policy as far as many people can see. So if atheists could achieve a small fraction of that influence, the world would be a better place."

Dawkins makes a politically incorrect statement about the Jewish lobby, but has to throw in that completely inaccurate statement about the "religious Jews." It fits well with his ideology, "the root of all evil," but it makes him look like an idiot, which makes me think he is simply too ignorant to know any better. About the census, he is also ignorant, although this is more forgiving. He is not a serious intellectual.

whiskey's uncle said...

Humans are too complex to explain with one theory.

Actually, I've yet to find an aspect of human behavior that isn't explained by the fact that white women hate hate hate hate *hate* beta males.

David said...

Conflating Plato's and Aristotle's views of what essences are is dumb.

Anonymous 1/17 1:39 PM (pick a name, darn it!) and vinteuil are on the money. For P., an essence is revealed from the supernatural realm. For A., an essence is a feature common to some discrete items, identified as such by humans pursuing aims and on the grounds of observed cause-and-effect. That's why here A. has his palm flat, keeping thought down to earth, while P. is pointing at super-nature.

A. was Darwin's kind of people (A. made an unprecedented and immense effort to study all known animals and classify them by their observed traits, without benefit either of modern instruments or of the many centuries of work back of us - errors and omissions did occur). But Dawkins wouldn't be A.'s kind of people: A. obdurately avoided being an intemperate proselytizer who talks through his hat.

Anonymous said...

Dawkins, and most prominent evolutionary biologists and philosophers, never seem more clumsy than when they are trying to prove that the Democratic Party Platform is written in our DNA. Their arguments are as lucid as modern poetry.

Anonymous said...

Instead of using the US census to illustrate what he calls the "essentialist mindset," about race Dawkins could very well have used the Edge.org essay by anthropologist Nina Jablonski, a takedown of the idea of racial groups with "sharp boundaries," which of course are as imaginary as everything else in the transcendent realm of "the forms".

What Dawkins seems to understand and Jablonski might not is that there is still some biological basis to the idea of a racial group with imperfect, fuzzy boundaries.

Would be interesting to read Dawkins' take on Nicholas Wade's next book.

Maxwell Power said...

Well there must be some leather-jacket/RPG-glasses-wearing feminists with Justin Bieber haircuts nodding along with Dawkins right now

Anonymous said...

Nina Jablonski's is the funniest essay in the whole tirade.

Anonymous said...

The USA is a bit different when it comes to those who are mixed with black.

It's more "black identity" and more black blood, as opposed to other countries who are either mixed (1st generation and multigenerational mulatto children from mulatto-mulatto parents) or whiter (quadroon to octoroon) both in identity, phenotype and genotype.

In the Horn of East Africa (e.g. Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea) most are 40-50% Arab on average and hence are seen different from other sub-Saharan Africans on the Continent of Africa.

Most Horn of East Africans tend to mingle among themselves, are somewhat culturally and genetically connected to Arab North Africans (but it's a strained relationship, because they aren't full Arab since Arabs are quite inbreed Caucasoids thanks to cousin marriage and polygamy).

I have seen Ethiopians, and they tend to marry and have children with other Ethiopians (other mixed people).

A person in South Africa who is mixed before and after Apartheid is seen as "colored", a ethnic category which includes East Asians, South Asians and mulattos to quadroons/octoroons.

There's no "black togetherness". In Brazil, the "one drop rule" didn't apply, and instead "lightening" the family with mulattos marrying each other (preserving the mixed bloodline) or marrying lighter-skinned people (usually white immigrants from Lebanon, Syria, Italy, Germany, Ukraine, Poland) was seen as good for marriage, family and society (a form of upwards social mobility).

Colorism is important in Brazil and it affects socio-economic status, friendships, marriage and future children.

The USA is an EXTREMELY f*cked up country because other 1st and multigenerational biracials that I knew with at least 1 African parent/1 European parent all married mixed people, or white people, had lighter-skinned children and lived in South America, Europe, Western Asia, East Asia or other places.

If Barack Hussein's Obama mother was not a white US American then I guess he would have a different upbringing.

He's weird because most would tick the "mixed" box, or the "white" box in rarer cases.

Anonymous said...

Glossy,
The problem faced by 18th century young-earth science in assuming enough time for the occurrence of evolution was worse than thought at the time, because, in fact evolution of domestic animals and plants due to human-imposed selection is many times faster than the rates of evolution documented by the fossil record and by construction of molecular phylogenies. Why "natural evolution" is so slow has really not been addressed by theoretical biology.

Anonymous said...

"Dawkins, and most prominent evolutionary biologists and philosophers, never seem more clumsy than when they are trying to prove that the Democratic Party Platform is written in our DNA. Their arguments are as lucid as modern poetry."

My view, as a maverick evolutionary biologist, is that Dawkins never had an original idea. "The Selfish Gene" merely takes the population genetics abstraction of the gene and runs with it rhetorically. Talk about essentialism, Dawkins founded his career on it. Evolution, when it is finally explained adequately, will be seen to be based on ecological opportunity + performance of whole organisms, not on Dawkins' near deification of bits of DNA.

As for Dawkins' style, whenever I encounter something like his recent Edge comments on American governance, I understand why so many in my lineages of back-country Carolinian riflemen turned out for little seminars with the British such as Kings Mountain, Cowpens, Musgrove's Mill and Blackstock's Farm.

Anonymous said...

One scientific habit that must go is blaming some -ism for all the ills in the world.

This example would be an exception I believe ( Platonism ) because of it's great antiquity and longevity. Like I said a lot of great thinkers in Western culture never questioned it's validity, it was viewed as self evidently true for hundreds of years. Your larger point is almost certainly correct, how much influence did some 19th century thinker have on American universities in the 1960's or 70's, probably not a ton.

Anonymous said...

With liberals it works both ways. I've seen liberals cry "racist!" if someone describes Obama as "bi-racial" because it "minimizes" his blackness.

Anonymous said...

"Anonymous said...
Reading this, I doubt Dawkins has studied Aristotle..."

"Anonymous vinteuil said...
Dawkins is a very smart guy, and his *Selfish Gene* is surely among the greatest popular science books ever written."

Dawkins mainly studied Hamilton, and built his career on his work.

Gordo

Ryan Long said...

@ Anonymous (er... the Anonymous talking to me, anyway)

My point was not that turn-of-the-century blacks didn't have their own self-referential ethnic distinctions. If this is what you think my point was, then you've misunderstood.

Sailer claims that "public expressions of such views became unpopular for reasons of idealistic solidarity on behalf of the black masses and/or a convenient way to prosper as the leadership of the black masses." This is what I consider to be nonsense.

My reasoning is that it was the anti-black racists who refused to make any distinctions between different ethnicities of American blacks. Your Wikipedia article backed me up on that. Regardless of how blacks chose to see themselves, racists chose to simply see them as black. My argument is that this is what undermined the way blacks saw themselves and each other. Wikipedia agrees.

My comment is both fair to Sailer and more accurate on the facts as they are popularly understood. If Sailer wishes to advance an alternate theory, he may do so. But if he wants to convince me, he'll need facts and evidence, of which there are none in this post.

Rohan Swee said...

Quibbling about alleged "essentialist thinking" is a cleverer man's version of "race = skin color", i.e., a straw man that can be used to fill mental space that might otherwise be colonized by more disruptive ideas. It also allows Dawkins to display his charming ignorance and naïvété about American political reality (hell, anybody's political reality), but that's just a bonus.

Is anybody out there really thinking about race in the way Dawkins imagines? Not that I'm aware of. (I mean, aside from the gravy-train engineers to whom Steve alludes, who I'm sure don't go into much philosophical depth in their categorizing exercises.) Maybe they exist, just like there must be somebody out there, somewhere, who thinks that African albinos are white people. (I mean, they have to be, because I once read some lady professor of anthropology conclusively disprove the existence of race by citing the existence of African albinos.)

This sort of stuff is really just deadwood that's not going to be cleared away until the generation that's deeply emotionally invested in "anti-racism" shuffles off its mortal coils.

Anonymous said...

"What Dawkins seems to understand and Jablonski might not is that there is still some biological basis to the idea of a racial group with imperfect, fuzzy boundaries."

It's really as simple as evolution is not possible without (development of different)races.

In fact, rejection of Platonic essentialism about rabbits proves that race does exist and is all-important to evolution.
If Platonic rabbitism is true, then rabbits can only belong to the rabbit species. But in fact, rabbits evolved from a species that was not yet rabbits. So, one species evolved into another species. How did that happen? Through the gradual development of new races that eventually produced the species known as the rabbit.

So, while races are not different from one another in the total-absolute-essentialist sense, the dynamic of races means that one species can evolve into a totally different species, and such transformation is achieved through the development of racial differences. So, even while races belong within a single species, the process of racial change can eventually lead to one group totally splitting apart from the species.

So, race-ization is about something more than difference within the species; it is the gradual changes within the species that may lead to a wholly different species.

Race-ization is merely a step in the species-ization. Every living organism, big and small, once all belonged to the same microscopic species. But the micro-organism developed new races of itself which led to new species that developed new races of themselves that became new species that developed new races of themselves that became new species and etc.
So, race and species, while distinct in meaning, are part of the same process. Species-ization is merely a dip in the horizon in the path of race-ization. A species will develop new races that moves away from its center but are still visible in the horizon. But at some point, the races may 'fall over' out of view from the horizon(like a ship sailing into away into the ocean), and then it's a new species.

Rohan Swee said...

The British science writer Colin Tudge has made this point for years, it wasn't Christianity that slowed the development of evolution, it was Platonism. When you see living things as imperfect versions of ideal types that don't exist in the real universe, it makes it difficult to see populations as they are, full of variation and that variation providing the raw material for evolution. Ernst Mayr may have made this point even earlier, because he was a student of not only biology but the philosophies underpinning it. You can see that particularly in the works of Georges Cuvier who was the father of both paleontology and comparative anatomy, in many ways he had a much more analytical mind than Darwin did, but he couldn't get pass his Platonic essentialist thinking and therefore thought evolution couldn't happen.

I'm a bit dubious about these "X would have happened faster, or Y been figured out faster, if only..." These can be useful exercises for thinking about history and intellectual development, but they can also be cherry-picking speculation with the advantage of hindsight. We all know how this is going to turn out so it's not that difficult to find a path through history taking us where we want to go.

All we have for certain here is that the civilizational tradition including Plato and Christianity eventually produced a Darwin who pulled it all together - after millenia of really smart guys thinking really hard about nature. Why do we assume that it could all have been seen so clearly, so much earlier, if only? "If only the pagan tradition had not been supplanted by Christianity", "if only Islam had triumphed in Europe", "if only..." fill in the blank with the preferred narrative, 'cause there's plenty of historical fact to pick and choose from and make the case for it.

Maybe these things just take a long time to figure out, because they're, um, really hard to figure out? Hindsight always makes things seem easier than they were. Western culture was permeated by allegedly retarding Platonism (or Christianity), while other traditions had philosophical foundations arguably far better at inculcating the "right" mindset for this or that scientific discovery. Yet here we are.

One may be on more solid ground arguing that a particular belief kept an "almost there" individual from breakin' on through to the other side. But, again, we only start speculating that way because somebody else not too far away in space or time did break on through.

Anonymous said...

"Is anybody out there really thinking about race in the way Dawkins imagines?...This sort of stuff is really just deadwood that's not going to be cleared away until the generation that's deeply emotionally invested in "anti-racism" shuffles off its mortal coils."

It's all about displaying moral superiority by a generation that had zero experience of diversity themselves except the version presented to them through Hollywood and who because of it have been waging war on their own population ever since.

Anonymous said...

"Why "natural evolution" is so slow has really not been addressed by theoretical biology."

It's not slow imo. It just doesn't happen until it has to happen and when it has to happen it happens quick.

Example
Early humans adapted to the tropical rain forest can stay in the rain forest unchanged for millenia because why change?

Climate changes, tropical rain forest expands, early humans expand with it, climate changes again, rain forest retreats, early humans retreat also - except some living in an island of surviving rain forest when the rest retreated who carry on as before as why change?

And then their island goes too.

That's when you get evolution - when there's no choice and by definition if there's no choice it has to be quick.

Just as quick as humans breeding animals.

Reg Cæsar said...

…a generation that had zero experience of diversity… --anonymous & ageless

"Generation" is a social construct. It has no meaning in the real world.

The word "racist" is a red flag you're dealing with a dishonest person-- an honest person would reach for a more precise term.

In the same way, the word "generation" is a sure sign of an unserious person.

The people who've chewed me out for supposedly "racist" cracks aren't much older than those who've done the same for my "homophobia", whatever that is. (I'm not afraid of my own kind!)

My "generation" may be corrupt, but so were the two before us and the two after.

Anonymous said...

""Generation" is a social construct. It has no meaning in the real world."

1. You think social constructs have no meaning in the real, social, world?

2. When is a generation constructed - at what age?

Maxwell Power said...

The White Man is the Platanic/Hisponic ideal of everything that's wrong with this world

PatrickH said...

Thanks to the commenters who pointed out that Dawkins fails miserably (and typically) to understand Aristotle at all. His comments about rabbits and approximations to blah-blah-blah are on a par with his utter inability to get beyond freshman-level blunders about Thomas Aquinas. Dawkins has said nothing interesting or right or valuable or even funny about any philosopher. Ever. It is time for Uncle Dickie to retire. He's past his due date. Put him out of our misery.

Oh, and he's wrong about Plato too.

Gottlieb said...

I'm a 'mixed' but I call myself, depending on the situation, as white. Looking at me, I easily step by Greek, Spanish or French from Marseille ('only' French survivors). I'm kind of a phenotype that is very common on the edge of the mediterranean, so I think my phenotypic similarity extends from Lisbon to Samarkand.
The fact that black and possibly Amerindian ancestry, especially from mother family, says absolutely nothing of what I am or how I identify. The genetic combination of any individual, messes with your self perception is fed back by similar perceptions of others. Besides appearance, behavior is also very important because it expresses the variation of psychological traits that are distributed in groups and subgroups. Therefore, besides the exterior features, is also extremely important interior features, which I call '' soul'' of the race. But for a race as Caucasian, intense diversification of types, easily noticed through the cultural expressions of their ethnic groups, becomes extremely blurred the European perception of biological continuity. The only way to end this location exclusivism would through intra-ethnic marriages. If Swedes to marry Greeks, a new people emerge from this union and cultures of both would be replaced by a unified culture, but this would be an ecological crime, since both cultures and populations are unique.
Everything that human beings think and believe is consciously built . Yes , race is a biological and cultural construction and can also be a culturally biological construction. Where whiteness begins and where it ends ? Culture is a means to legitimize and organize the community around cultural totems as religion and self identification and if you have physical and psychological traits , the better .
What matters about the idea of race is that if I want to believe that it is important for my life and that makes my life better and safer , so why should I care what others think ?
The problem of white nationalists is that they seem to need to explain to your enemies why they think so when it is completely irrelevant . They do not have to explain , you just have to act while there is time , and act intelligently , in other words, do not act according to its principles , but playing the game of modernity . Who lies better, takes the prize .

Anonymous said...

If you read the whole Dawkins article you'll see that he attributes the anti-abortion, and the anti-euthanasia movement to Plato! For real? I'm going to practice a little philosophy without a license: these movements are driven by squeamishness - to me, this emotional reaction, points to an origin, in what Alex Rosenberg would call, our, selected for, hard-wired, Core Morality. How exactly does a pro-life meme conflict with gene replication? It might be one of those evolutionary overshoots. I never heard a pro-lifer, at least one on the street, holding a sign, invoking anyone but Jesus.

I used to be very pro-life but since reading a lot on evolutionary biology, my standards for a life worth living have gone way up, and now I feel that most lives are not worth the trouble. Meaningless living, bracketed by a few years in diapers, just doesn't inspire me much. Maybe Dawkins should direct his big brain on addressing this development (middle class nihilism) and it's implications, rather than the missteps of a philosopher from thousands of years ago.

Let's face it most American parents would cringe if their college bound children announced that they planned on majoring in a course of study that focused on The Classics, almost as much as they would if they planned on studying The Bible - memes that are given lip-service but little real regard.

Anonymous said...

I mean, who is to say anything can be purely clean or purely pure? Why do people wash their hands after they take a dump?? Damn Nazis, do they really think they can purify their hands of germs when there are germs all around? Every time a bottle of pickle is pasteurized, it's the road to another Holocaust.

No, it's just the road to Crohn's Disease.