Dutton on Darwin: The Biology of Art

Image: The Yorck Project 2002

The world of digital media rested its scrutinising eye on philosophy late last year, as the late Denis Dutton, philosopher of art, delivered a talk to TED, the American-based conference organisation dedicated primarily to its eponymous fields of technology, entertainment and design, as well as more broadly business, global issues and science. Dutton, who held the position of professor of philosophy at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand until his death last month after losing his fight with prostate cancer, gave a taster of the evolutionary theory of art appreciation developed in his 2009 book The Art Instinct. Since 1984 the TED audience have been addressed by speakers such as Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, Al Gore and Michelle Obama, and even Jamie Oliver. In keeping with the theme of the aesthetically pleasing, the whole lecture has been stylishly illustrated by animator Andrew Park and released for all to admire on YouTube.

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Interview: In the Name of God – The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Ethics and Violence

John Teehan is the author of In the Name of God: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Ethics and Violence, and has published and lectured widely on the impact of evolutionary theories on moral philosophy. In this comprehensive interview, John talks in depth about some of the themes in his book: how our moral minds may have been shaped by evolution, and how such a perspective can inform upon our understanding of religious violence.

Philosopher’s Eye: Why did you decide to write ‘In the Name of God: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Ethics and Violence’?

John Teehan: I’ve always been deeply interested in the study of morality.  Not simply in terms of what we ought to do, how we ought  to live—although those are essential questions—but also in terms of why do  we have the values we have, how do moral traditions develop. This lead me into a study of moral psychology, and in particular evolutionary psychology. If we want to understand how we got where we are today in terms of morality, then trying to understand the origins of moral behaviour seemed to be Continue reading “Interview: In the Name of God – The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Ethics and Violence”

A Dog’s (Moral) Life… and Legal Representation

Back last August I posted an entry about Santino, a chimp living in a Swedish zoo who had developed a most interesting past-time: collecting rocks and stones to hurl at visitors to the zoo. The furtive manner in which Santino collected his projectiles may hint at, I suggested, a moral sense: a notion that his actions are somehow reprehensible.

Chimps, of course, are not the only animals to whom moral sense might be attributed. The latest issue of Scientific American contains a brief article elaborating on the so-called moral behaviour of canids (that’s dogs to you and I), which ties in with the newly released book Wild Justice by Mark Bekoff and Jessica Pierce (who incidentally author the article). Continue reading “A Dog’s (Moral) Life… and Legal Representation”

Words, words, words . . .

A recent study by the University of California, San Diego, estimates that the total amount of words “consumed” in the United States – where this consumption is from televisions, computers and other media and does not include people simply talking to one another – has more than doubled from 4,500 trillion in 1980 to 10,845 trillion in 2008. If images are added to the approximately 100,500 words per day we are exposed to, then it is estimated that we are bombarded with the equivalent of 34 gigabytes of information each day. You can read more about the study here.

Some academics are worrying about the possible adverse effects of this deluge of information. The psychiatrist and author Edward Hallowell, an expert on attention-deficit disorder, has suggested that people who spend too much time on their laptops and Blackberrys “are so busy processing information from all directions they are losing the tendency to think and to feel… People are sacrificing depth and feeling and becoming cut off and disconnected from other people.” Other researchers, however, dismiss such concerns. According to Amanda Ellison, of Durham University’s neuroscience research unit: “it is quite difficult to actually overload the brain because it can contain a lot more information than was previously thought.” She also points out that: “There is no one memory centre. Visual information is stored in one part of the brain and audio information is stored in another.”
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Focusing in on mental illness

459px-DepressionThe notion of a mental disorder, or illness, is an essentially normative notion. It is dependent on the availability of some metric of normalcy, or orderliness. Whether a given mental tendency is a disorder or not depends on whether or not, and in what ways, it deviates from what is considered normal, or orderly. But, what are the norms that determine this metric?

This question is highly controversial, and its importance transcends far beyond the walls of academia. Few such seemingly terminological issues have such a tremendous impact on the day to day lives of so many millions of individuals across the world. For example, until quite recently (1973!!), homosexuality was considered a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association. Its status as a disorder gave legitimacy to subject individuals ‘afflicted’ with this ‘disorder’ to psychiatric treatment, often leading to detrimental effects (not to mention the pervasive social and legal discrimination they faced). Characterizing a given tendency as a disorder has the potential to bring about terrible harms and injustices. However, there are also cases in which pursuing various corrective measures seems crucial. Certain tendencies, such as schizophrenia, can be so disruptive to an individual’s life that treatment seems necessary. Labeling such a tendency as a ‘disorder’ potentially brings with it various societal and legal commitments to provide support that can substantially alter the lives of suffering individuals for the better. It is clear, then, that much hangs on how we come to characterize a mental tendency as a disorder.

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Genes, memes, and…

First there were genes. Then there were memes. But is there a third kind of replicator? In this week’s New Scientist meme theorist Susan Blackmore boldly proposes, “[w]e’re close. We’re right on the cusp.”

A replicator is an entity that makes hi-fidelity copies of itself. Genes do this and it is due to the different extents to which genes enable their hosts to survive that we get biological evolution. The origin and continued existence of life and intelligence was famously explained by this process one hundred and fifty years ago. Meme theorists propose that the same process underlies cultural evolution, where (on some accounts) the replicator of that process is the so-called ‘meme.’

In her article Blackmore warns us that “electronically processed binary information” is coming to exhibit the same characteristics as genes and memes, and so is coming to be a new kind of replicator. As a selection process this may not be so unlikely: a form of selection on the servers that sustain the internet…why not? But Blackmore goes much further: “The temptation is to think that since we designed search engines and other technologies for our own use they must remain subservient to us. But if a new replicator is involved we must think again.”

For Blackmore’s article follow this link.

Related articles:
£1.99 - small The levels of selection debate: philosophical issues
By Samir Okasha, University of Bristol
(Vol. 1, February 2006)
Philosophy Compass

Evolutionary Psych: Too young to be this sexy?

Wasserläufer_bei_der_Paarung_cropEvolutionary psychology is all the rage nowadays. Researchers from around the globe are looking at the interplay between a species’ behavior and its environment, past and present, in an attempt to crack the mysteries of how we came to be as we now are. The appeal is obvious. Darwin seems to have provided a successful explanation of our biological traits. Why not think our psychological traits are to be explained similarly? After all, psychology just is an expression of biology. If reflection on our hunched-back ancestors and their habitat can explain how we came to walk upright, why can’t such reflection also explain our anger over spousal infidelity, why can’t it explain our own infidelity, our altruistic and egoistic behaviors, etc? Continue reading “Evolutionary Psych: Too young to be this sexy?”