E.O. Wilson at Microsoft

I recently read Ridley’s The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature, as a follow-on to Dunbar’s Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language.  Between the two books, E.O. Wilson came to visit Microsoft campus and talk about one of his many works, The Creation : a Meeting of science and Religion.

It turns out that Wilson is cited extensively in “The Red Queen” and is a giant in the area of science where evolutionary theory overlaps with study of human nature.  He’s been teaching at Harvard for 50 years and won several awards for his research.  He’s an unabashed secularist, but far more Baconian that authoritarian, so I was very interested.  It’s all very relevant to Microsoft and Google business, BTW, but that’s a topic for later.

He started by relating his upbringing in the Baptist South.  I immediately pegged him as the didymous (twin) of J. Vernon McGee; he has the same rich drawl and I imagine McGee looks the same.  He talked about how he’s been touring the country with evangelicals, forming a sort of alliance to preserve biodiversity.

Very early, he went to great lengths to differentiate himself from evangelicals.  He doesn’t want anyone to mistake him for a believer, and to make the point he set up a (IMO straw man) definition of “evangelicals” as people who believe that the creator needs to “interfere” periodically, while he is more of an emanationist in the Pythagorean sense.  He sees people who try to rationalize the two as “wimps”, which I think is rather arbitrary and silly (presupposing lack of sentience in the “emanated” takes a leap of faith equal to the converse).

But once he cleared the “we differ on completely stupid and irrelevant metaphysical points” air, he got down to the areas of agreement.  As I’ve blogged before, these are remarkable and huge.  Basically, if evangelicals disagree with him on any of his latter points, they would be hypocrites (and in the past, have been).  Perhaps this is why he’s getting so much cooperation from evangelicals.  His statistics about vanishing biodiversity are alarming.

It was eye-opening for me.  I always assumed that, with the advent of conservationist and “green” movements, we had reversed the tide and that species extinction was a sin of our past ignorance more than a reality of today.  Not so.  I always assumed that technology, liberty, and free flow of information would be sufficient to make sure the right thing is done.  Not so.

Separate but (very) related, I recently saw a stat about human languages since the invention of printing press.  One would assume that the printing press and other communication technologies would have made it possible to preserve human languages for posterity.  Surprisingly, one major effect of better communication technology was to remove a lot of the regionalization of language, which made it possible for people to “compare” and choose languages more easily.  Since the invention of printing press, 50% of languages in use at the time have died off, and language is far more homogeneous now.

This also ties with the story of the Picts and Edward Curtis.  The Picts and Druids were wiped off the face of the earth around 1000 years ago.  It was the fate of many previous races; but happened right around the time that such events became reprehensible and mostly ceased to happen.  It can be considered tragic in the sense that, had they hung on for a few hundred more years, they might be with us today.  But far more tragic to me is the fate of a whole slew of Native American Tribes.  Edward Curtis settled in Seattle just 120 years ago, and made it his life’s work to record the lives of the various Native American tribes around the country who were slowly dying off.  He took photographs and audio recordings, funded by Roosevelt and J.P. Morgan.  Most of the tribes he recorded have gone completely extinct (at least in terms of Y haplotype and MTDNA), and his work is the ONLY recorded history of their existence, customs, and lives.  You can look at this and laud the technology that made it possible to give them a crude approximation of immortality; or you could lament the conditions which made it possible for them to vanish with nary a trace.  But regardless of which attitude you take, you have to admit that they wouldn’t even exist today without the selfless work of a single man: Edward Curtis.

9 thoughts on “E.O. Wilson at Microsoft”

  1. What is your interpretation of machah WRT comparing/contrasting secular humanist atheists and evangelicals?

    Regarding dialects, the issue isn’t how prolific they are — they tend to evolve very quickly in densely-populated areas. Since the invention of printing press, we’ve had all sorts of new ones pop up. “Singlish” in Singapore is quite interesting to me. Beijing slang evolves very rapidly, as does ghetto talk around the U.S. and in various immigrant populations. History shows that after printing press there were several successful attempts to stamp out regional languages (including languages which had variety of dialects); and only since about WWII has the attempt been to revive and “preserve” some of them (like Sami and Celtic).

  2. Machah is the concept of blotting something out from under the sun. There are many laws in Deuteronomy that require offenders be put to death so that their evil may be blotted out from under the sun (e.g. disobedient teenagers). Evil must be erased and not allowed to take root in the next generation. So, there is a scriptural basis to argue that an evil father will produce evil progeny, and I think a secular humanist would agree. (Conversely, one could argue that the scripture only recognizes that evil itself reproduces, intellectually, like a meme.)

    I wonder if E.O. Wilson would align with Charles Murray and Richard Hernstein (The Bell Curve). To me, atheist secular humanist doctrine, warped to an extreme, would create monsters like Hitler and Stalin. Justifying animal-like decisions, using genetics as an excuse, can only result in an animal-like society.

  3. To follow up… to a large extent, the secular humanist is right. A person is a product of both environment and genetics, neither of which we seem to control at birth. An evangelical must wonder how any soul exercises free will. But, I think this aligns well with the concept of original sin. The New Testament is full of references to the slavery of the flesh. The flesh is the old, genetic, sinful nature, which enslaves man.

  4. OK, I get it with macah. There is another way that macah is used, which is as in blotting out the sin without blotting out the sinner — when the sinner repents, sometimes the sin can be “blotted out”, so that no record exists. This was the only consistent reference I could find. Either way, I see it as an example of “burning the books”, or erasing history. In fact, I found the concept rather dishonest; at least for today’s day and age — the current usage seems to be one of “washing one’s hands”. IOW, as long as you can claim ignorance, the crime stands; and can even be removed such that future people can claim ignorance for the same thing. That is, the concept seemed to me like saying “you screwed up and it was really bad; but it benefited us a lot, so as long as you repent we’ll let you off the hook and not bother telling others to avoid doing the same thing”.

  5. Also, note that a twisted view of Christianity is what created Hitler; far more than secular humanism. The popes for a couple of centuries insisted that Jews needed to be “blotted out”, and the writings of Luther, Eckhert, Goethe, and these other eminent Christians of the time were rather macach toward Jews. Undoubtedly, paranoia about Christian interpretation of Jewish doctrine to “blot out Christ” fueled Hitler.

    Of course, atheism does the same — somehow the Dutch arrive at Euthenasia whether they are listening to God or Darwin. The lesson to me is that humans best not be too quick to judge.

  6. The blotting of sins is a Greek New Testament concept. I’m using the word machah in reference to capital punishment used to purge evil from society.

    I could be wrong, but I thought that Secular Humanism evolved from the work of Nietzsche. And, certainly, the Nazi party was an atheist party based on Nietzsche’s philosophy.

    And, as you point out, there are many twisted views of Christianity floating around, just as the New Testament predicted. That is just as bad.

  7. You mentioned Edward Curtis, and I thought your interest here would make you curious about a film on Curtis.

    “The Indian Picture Opera” is a dvd of a Curtis magic lantern show from 1911-1912. This is an awesome documentary that is a trip back into time. I was able to find it on Amazon.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *