Re: Meanings, mechanisms, and Ockham's razor

William B. Provine (
Mon, 06 Apr 1998 16:57:04 +0100

Dear Ted,

What a thoughtful comment to me and ASA.

I actually believe we know rather little about evolution. We know that natural
selection can produce differences within species, and good evidence of natural
selection in genera. We have no direct evidence of natural selection producing
the long line of differences between the common ancestor of amphibians and
reptiles. We do not have even a rudimentary grasp of precise mechanisms of
speciation, but this situation is changing. We do not know how to define
species. Yet the handwriting is on the wall, so to say. We have come far enough
to see that no kind of supernatural force is necessary for producing all we see
in organisms. The null hypothesis is all natural forces, naturalism.

We must be very careful in talking about biological organisms reducing to
chemistry and physics. This reduction is wholly impossible. A single organism
can be reduced only as far as its hereditary material; to go further, we must
say that that the hereditary material came from pre-existing hereditary
material. The reduction goes back to the origin of life, including every
organism in the continuous line leading to the organism in question.

If by "biochemistry" you mean starting from existing genomes, then we are ok to
talk about possible reductionism. Otherwise, we can't do it.

You probably know that sociobiologists have done a great deal of work on the
question of democratic and democratic-like social systems. The argument runs on
the lines of selfish interest--what kind of social system would we expect to
result? The answer is very clear: one that has a strong component of "altruism."
The basic argument of sociobiology is: prick any example of altruism and it
bleeds selfishness.

I need to say something about love, meaning in life, kindness to others, and the
practice of ethics. I have argued that *ultimate* foundations for ethics and
meaning in life are indeed illusory. But I fervently believe in proximate
practice of ethics and meaning in life, including love and kindness to others. I
see this general point of view as the opposite of pessimism. It just suggests we
need to spend more of our time promoting the good life here on earth and
worrying less about the (nonexistent) nether world.

The key to raising children with regard to ethics is to program them to adore
being social, giving to others and caring. You can see it coming: the child gets
a big jolt of pleasure from helping others and interacting with them in ways we
would all consider kind. Ah, the child is selfish. Selfishness is the key to
good moral behavior. So yes, perhaps, evolutionary biology has in a general way
something to offer us.

Democracy does not reduce to biochemistry. Reduction goes a step at a time. No
one I know argues that democracy reduces to biochemistry, yet in time perhaps
that too will come about in a way even someone like you might think robust.

Best wishes, Will