Posts Tagged ‘evolution’

Social Darwinism Cafe

March 31, 2009

Last night’s Philosophers’ Cafe at Kathmandu on Commercial Drive was a completely full house and a lively affair. (The announcement of the next topic stirred a lot of interest, so get there early, have dinner. The food is the main reason I go.) The conversation was non-stop for two hours, I didn’t take notes, I’m not naming names, here are my impressions. Comments are on (Your first comment will await moderation, (it’s an issue of spam) after that it’s a free for all.

Zahid Makhdoom moderated the night and opened with the philosophy: the purpose is not to find answers but to ask questions, If you’re confused coming in, the best result would be to leave even more confused. We will be muddying the waters. (What follows is a series of unfinished notes and open questions.) And then a short elaboration of the topic under discussion. “Is Social Darwinism an instrument of racist and authoritarian thought? Is survival of the fittest an appropriate moral, social, economic, or political ethic?” Social Darwinism, that is the conscious application of evolutionary principles, has a history of racism. Species development is confused with species evolution, and the value judgement is levelled against people. Makhdoom gave a few examples. I can recall two. 1) That when a dog plays in a yard no one considers the dogs ownership. Winston Churchill on Palestine. 2) Alberta Eugenics, sterilization program so the “unfit” wouldn’t breed.

No one argued for Social Darwinism. A good point was made using the person of Gandhi. Gandhi because a test for part of the discussion, the idea that tests are specific and that phenotypes are universal tests. Gandhi was a horrible plumber, but a great leader. It was his biographical development, contingent place in history that produced the Gandhi effect.

One scientific mind noted, about halfway through the conversation, that there were at least three different ideas of evolution at play in the room, they were undefined, undifferentiated and the communication was suffering for it. When the scientist was talking he was interrupted. “Science? This is a philosopher’s cafe.” (I just mistyped ‘cafe’ as ‘cage’. Paging Dr. Freud…) What? When did philosophy respect limits of knowledge, the disciplining and cloistering of specialized areas of inquiry, is a recent institutional social construct and was noted early in the twentieth century as potentially leading to the downfall of philosophy. (econophile)

Folk thinking is short term – an application of values on change – Do we have any control of our destiny? Development vs. Evolution – we should all be in more or less the same boat. Slaves forbidden the written word. Undeveloped and oppressed human potential confused as genetic (evolutionary) inferiority.

What does the fittest mean? Luckiest?

This was from a small dialogue while paying the bill: Genetic expression – the ideas that ideas are genetic – that people have a tendency. I don’t know. There is the notion of the great thinker. Darwin for example, changed the way we think about historical reality. But had Darwin, by chance, suffered a massive head injury, we would still today be talking about evolution, maybe even social evolution (social Wallacism?) This is because Darwin built his theory on previously published works and material evidence. He also mentioned at least four others who were hot on the theory’s tail. Today, the theory has been worked and reworked by the scientific community. Darwin had a very loose idea of genetic material, which has played a significant part in the contemporary understanding of the theory.

The individual’s social success as a measure of fitness. This idea more or less dominated the room. (with the accompanying machismo!) (An issue is framework.) The idea of success as adaptation to the social is not evolution. The other main idea was the ecological destruction – These conflicting notions were not noted. (?)

Consciousness is it developmental? There can be no argument that the plastic brain is a feature of our species.

One person whose main thrust was the idea of collective fitness over individual fitness (this is closest to evolution because one life cycle, your own personal birth to death existence, is well inside the concept of evolution.) gave some advice to young people. “Our generation has left it up to you to solve the problem.” What? When did this turn in the social take place? There was a comment that if we live 80 years, so much is spent sleeping and working that in all that 5 years is free time? Maybe that was what happened in the sixties, the systemized organizational man, is completely unfree, the youth were free to criticize the system. Where did that get us?

Darwin’s Finches

November 21, 2007

Last night I went to Evolution of Darwin’s Finches, a lecture by Rosemary and Peter Grant. Luckily I got to the lecture hall a little early, because the place completely filled up. Even the aisles were filled. There was a nice article about the lecture in the Georgia Straight (notice the comments are about God), but I think the popularity of the speakers, was simply a result of 35 years of work. The room was filled with birders, and biologist, academics both institutional and independent, students, teachers, children, teenagers and the very, very, old. I’m guessing the majority in the room were academics of some sort. This couple has got to be a kind of role model for anyone interested in this branch of science.

I’ve been reading Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. I’m working a number of ideas into some sort of theory for a project I’m proposing. The Grant’s work seems interesting. It’s interesting because it’s real hands-on science. The theory of evolution , I don’t know, but right now I’ve got a feeling it’s important in all its complexity to any theory of social change. The problem with any theory of social change is the theory of social stasis, which might be analogous to the confrontation between the theorists of evolution and the believers in God’s creation. (This is a little of what I’m talking about.) What I’ve just written sort of explains why I haven’t been writing lately.

The Grants observed evolution through natural selection. Changes in the environment (changes in weather patterns and the resulting changes in plant based food sources) produced measurable differences in beak and body sizes in the islands’ finch populations. And after 35 years of observing the birds behaviour, they could see the “cultural” differenced that grew up around inherited adaptation.

Chapter 1. Education as a Necessity of Life

July 29, 2007

Before I go on about Chapter One of Dewey‘s Democracy and Education, I should say a few things. First, I’m reading this book because I’m under the impression that it’s a founding text for “progressive education.” I say “under the impression,” because I haven’t actually read it yet. I finished a program in education and reading Dewey wasn’t necessary. Very little “source” reading, actually no source reading was necessary. Perhaps my Faculty of Education subscribed too strictly to Dewey’s doctrine of learn by doing and feared that including source readings would render its program “remote and dead — abstract and bookish.” And secondly after reading the first chapter I see a need for a rewrite of this book. Maybe someone has already done it, if so let me know, but if not, now’s the time.

Calling for the remake of a classic is dangerous ground. There are unsuccessful remakes for sure, and choosing a classic in any form is a risky move, But a chapter for chapter, subsection for subsection rewrite, would change the course of progressive education.

Dewey sees in evolutionary ideas a metaphor for life and education . He writes “As some species die out, forms better adapted to utilize the obstacles against which they struggled in vain come into being.” But the idea of progressive improvement isn’t with us today. Today when a polar bear loses her struggle to survive, no more adapted creature is waiting in the DNA of her offspring to survive in the new environment. The concepts Dewey uses to base his philosophy are false. That’s not to say his philosophy, in this sense and ideal education for creating an improved society, is without merit, but that as an articulation it fails.

The other major problem in this chapter, other than the debatability of the title, is the confusion of socialization as a broad educational process and schooling as a more formal kind of education. Education in these terms, or with this definition becomes unworkable. The meaning of “education” is culturally broad. In the title “The Education of Little Tree“, education refers to much more than the bits of formal schooling in the book. Education is synonymous with “experience” in this sense. When Dewey writes “What nutrition and reproduction are to physiological life, education is to social life.” He may be over-emphasizing the importance of education in the formal sense by leaving the distinction between social rearing and formal tuition unclear. We can live without formal tuition, it isn’t necessary for life.

“The young of human beings compare so poorly in original efficiency with the young of many of the lower animals, that even the powers needed for physical sustentation have to be acquired under tuition. How much more, then, is the case with respect to all the technological, artistic, scientific, and moral achievements of humanity!”

Here again Dewey confuses child rearing and socialization, with more formal tuition. The lower animals who seem to live just fine, and as an example, the raccoon, which could be here long after our animal form has been extinguished, does just fine without technological, artistic, scientific, and moral achievements. Formal tuition is superfluous to life. Not that it’s superfluidity reduces its cultural importance, but Dewey seems to be basing the urgency and importance of education on a claim of necessity.

“As formal teaching and training grow in extent, there is a danger of creating an undesirable split between the experience gained in more direct associations and what is acquired in school. This danger was never greater than at the present time, on account of the rapid growth in the last few centuries of knowledge and technical modes of skill.”

Dewey ends Chapter One with a warning. This split is “one of the weightiest problems with which the philosophy of education has to cope.” Am I wrong to think Dewey is equating conscious learning with direct associations and unconscious learning with what is acquired in school? This too is a problem.

Preface to Democracy and Education

July 10, 2007

The Preface is incredibly brief and straightforward, but the problems in it can only grow throughout the book. I question Dewey’s “endeavour to detect and state the ideas implied in a democratic society and to apply these ideas to the problems and enterprises of education.” What ideas does a democratic society imply? Would those implications have changes since 1915? (Not that this matters.) The idea that an actual democratic society has ideas implicit in it and that one can go about detecting and stating those ideas is not an idea at all but misconception based on an idealization of democratic society. This misconception can only lead to a polemical argument. What ideas are actually in play in our specific democratic society? To be of any practical use to the problems and enterprises of education any ideas applied should not be implied but in play.

Dewey clearly explains that “the philosophy stated in this book connects the growth of democracy with the development of the experimental method in the sciences, evolutionary ideas in the biological sciences, and the industrial reorganization, and is concerned to point out the changes in subject matter and method of education indicated by these developments.” I wonder if his philosophy and purposes are a problem? I am not an expert on Dewey, but wouldn’t be stretching it to say he launched the progressive education movement in the States. The progressive movement is today stalled. Could it be that the simplistic philosophical foundation of the movement is it’s problem? Dewey confuses possibility with progression. He sees implicit in growth, development, evolution and reorganization a progressive improvement. We now know (and Dewey could have known then) that the possibility of improvement will not necessarily actualize. What does this mean for the philosophy stated in this book?