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startled by responses to Dennett’s “Breaking the Spell”

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  • rainer_hilscher_03
    Hi fellow biopoets, I was very much startled by the responses to Daniel Dennett s book Breaking the Spell I recently read on this list. It is not Dennett s
    Message 1 of 2 , Feb 26, 2006
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      Hi fellow biopoets,

      I was very much startled by the responses to Daniel Dennett's book
      "Breaking the Spell" I recently read on this list. It is not Dennett's
      book (which I haven't read) but the NYT review and the responses on
      this list and reference blogs (which I have read) that I am going to
      comment on.

      "That review is a wonderful dismemberment of Dennett and the scientism
      he represents, wherein every time he hears the word culture, he
      reaches for his evolutionary gun, where all questions are rescued by
      the god out of the machine." [Eugene's email]

      After reading that NYT review and the above quote I was very much
      reminded of two incidents during my BA and MA in literature and
      cultural science. In 1994 (at an American University in Ohio) I was
      told that I should not study literature given my scientific approach
      to literature. My crime back then was to apply sexual selection theory
      to Restoration comedies. Later, in 1997, at a German university I was
      told that I would explain away love with my biological approach to
      human mate choice.

      Wieseltier's review, to me, manifests exactly the same kind of
      response, just in a different domain. You are destroying religion by
      approaching it scientifically.

      As I see it, there is a larger issue at stake here. Evolution is
      great, as long as we don't apply it to human behavior, in particular
      something as sacred as religion. We quite happily watch copulating
      lions on TV but evolutionary approaches to religious studies are
      characterized as "scientism" and as being reductionist.

      Evolutionary theory is not a new set of glasses that can be
      selectively applied to human behavior. There is no such thing as an
      "evolutionary reading" of a text, or an evolutionary taboo-zone of
      human behavior. Once we engage in evolutionary thinking we have to do
      so full throttle. Religion may be one of the scariest topics but it is
      also one of the most fascinating to be approached with evolutionary
      tools.

      Instead of excluding certain human domains from traditional
      evolutionary theory we should start thinking about how to update
      evolutionary thinking to accommodate human complexities.

      In my opinion, people who subscribe to evolution but exclude certain
      behavioral niches (such as religion) face a so far unidentified
      species of "Intelligent Design". Many times I have heard the statement
      "humans have transcended biology/evolution". And how exactly does this
      work? Where does this new quality come from? If it's not nature, who
      then is responsible? Some yet unknown intelligent designer?

      And if it is nature, well, then we can employ our evolutionary
      toolbox. Even to religion. Very interesting examples of such
      approaches are the recent target article (and comments on)
      "Religion's evolutionary landscape: counterintuition, commitment,
      compassion, communion" in Behavioral and Brain Sciences (2004, issue
      27). The work of Richard Sosis
      (http://www.anth.uconn.edu/faculty/sosis/) is also very interesting.

      Bye,
      Rainer
    • William Benzon
      ... Well . . . perhaps. But I m deeply skeptical about Dennett s scientific credentials. For a number of years he has been espousing a certain version of
      Message 2 of 2 , Feb 26, 2006
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        on 2/26/06 11:15 AM, rainer_hilscher_03 at rainer.hilscher@... wrote:

        > Hi fellow biopoets,
        >
        > I was very much startled by the responses to Daniel Dennett's book
        > "Breaking the Spell" I recently read on this list. It is not Dennett's
        > book (which I haven't read) but the NYT review and the responses on
        > this list and reference blogs (which I have read) that I am going to
        > comment on.
        >
        > "That review is a wonderful dismemberment of Dennett and the scientism
        > he represents, wherein every time he hears the word culture, he
        > reaches for his evolutionary gun, where all questions are rescued by
        > the god out of the machine." [Eugene's email]
        >
        > After reading that NYT review and the above quote I was very much
        > reminded of two incidents during my BA and MA in literature and
        > cultural science. In 1994 (at an American University in Ohio) I was
        > told that I should not study literature given my scientific approach
        > to literature. My crime back then was to apply sexual selection theory
        > to Restoration comedies. Later, in 1997, at a German university I was
        > told that I would explain away love with my biological approach to
        > human mate choice.
        >
        > Wieseltier's review, to me, manifests exactly the same kind of
        > response, just in a different domain. You are destroying religion by
        > approaching it scientifically.

        Well . . . perhaps.

        But I'm deeply skeptical about Dennett's scientific credentials. For a
        number of years he has been espousing a certain version of memetics, a
        rather common version at that. In this version memes flit around from brain
        to brain, occupying neural real estate and often do so at the expense of the
        human host. This is all very metaphorical language. But, unlike the
        metaphors used to explain technical concepts in non-technical terms, these
        memetics metaphors do not have any basis in neurobiology or cognitive
        science.

        As far as I can tell, Dennett's memetics has no scientific basis. It's been
        around since Dawkins coined the term in 1976 and has produced no worthwhile
        intellectual results. I saw a recent op-ed piece in which Dennett suggested
        that memetics can explain religious belief. Judging from the reviews I've
        read of his most recent book, he pushes the memetic line in it, though it's
        only one line of thought he seems to be pursuing.

        Dennett's memetic thinking is a species of magical thinking. It may give him
        some sense of comfort in thinking that he knows how religion works. But it
        explains nothing.

        >
        > As I see it, there is a larger issue at stake here. Evolution is
        > great, as long as we don't apply it to human behavior, in particular
        > something as sacred as religion. We quite happily watch copulating
        > lions on TV but evolutionary approaches to religious studies are
        > characterized as "scientism" and as being reductionist.
        >
        > Evolutionary theory is not a new set of glasses that can be
        > selectively applied to human behavior. There is no such thing as an
        > "evolutionary reading" of a text, or an evolutionary taboo-zone of
        > human behavior. Once we engage in evolutionary thinking we have to do
        > so full throttle. Religion may be one of the scariest topics but it is
        > also one of the most fascinating to be approached with evolutionary
        > tools.
        >
        > Instead of excluding certain human domains from traditional
        > evolutionary theory we should start thinking about how to update
        > evolutionary thinking to accommodate human complexities.

        That is precisely what Dennett does NOT do. He hacks away human complexities
        until what's left can be handled by his impoverished concepts.

        Bill Benzon
        --

        William L. Benzon
        708 Jersey Avenue, Apt. 2A
        Jersey City, NJ 07302
        201 217-1010

        "You won't get a wild heroic ride to heaven on pretty little
        sounds."--George Ives

        Mind-Culture Coevolution: http://asweknowit.ca/evcult/
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