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the neuroscience of philanthropy March 11, 2008

Posted by AP in neuroscience.
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new york times magazine:

Charity, do-gooding, philanthropy it’s all just selfishness masquerading as virtue. So says the cynic. In modern times, the theory that each of us, despite occasional appearances of self-sacrificial nobility, is ultimately and invariably looking out for No. 1 got a big boost from Darwin’s theory of evolution. By the logic of natural selection, any tendency to act selflessly ought to be snuffed out in the struggle to survive and propagate. So if someone seems to be behaving as an altruist — say, by giving away a fortune to relieve the sufferings of others — that person is really following the selfish dictates of his own genes. The evolutionary psychologist Randolph Nesse confessed that he slept badly for many nights after absorbing this supposed discovery, which he called “one of the most disturbing in the history of science.”

Before resigning ourselves to a similar spell of disillusioned sleeplessness, it might be instructive to test this theory against a particular case of philanthropy. In recent years, Bill Gates has channeled billions of his dollars to a foundation devoted to fighting disease and poverty. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation may today be the single-most-powerful force in the world for the relief of suffering. But what, one might ask, is in it for Bill?

language and evolution February 5, 2008

Posted by AP in language, science.
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economist.com reports on new research that suggests biological evolution and linguistic evolution behave similarly:

Languages are formed not, it seems, by a gradual drifting apart of two groups who no longer talk to each other, but by violent rupture. Around a third of the vocabulary differences between modern Bantu speakers arose this way, around a fifth of the differences between speakers of Indo-European languages, and around a tenth of the Austronesians. That compares with around a fifth for biological species.

All this suggests that the formation of both languages and species is an active process. For species, adaptations to novel environments and the need to avoid crossbreeding with those on the other side of the split are both plausible hypotheses. For languages, the explanation may be a cultural rather than biological need to distinguish populations.

scientists push candidates for positions on science December 14, 2007

Posted by KG in 2008 Elections, news, politics, religion, science, tech.
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disagreeing with bill nye the science guy really is beyond the pale…


A Who’s Who of America’s top scientists are launching a quixotic last-minute effort this week to force presidential candidates to detail the role science would play in their administrations — a question they say is key to the future of the country, if not the world.

The candidates did not respond immediately, but most of the Democratic contenders for the White House have released science policies. And Sen. Hillary Clinton has repeatedly slammed the Bush administration’s science record.

Republican candidates can be forgiven for not immediately responding to the call for a dialog on science. Iowa front-runners Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee were busy sparring this week over whether Romney believes Satan and Jesus Christ are brothers — a relatively obscure doctrine of Romney’s Mormon faith.

But also on board are 11 Nobel laureates in science, the editor of Scientific American, the president of Princeton University, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and other academic luminaries in the field. Krauss calls the drive bi-bipartisan, noting the inclusion of Norm Augustine, the retired CEO of Lockheed Martin, and Richard Garwin, who was on the White House’s Science Advisory Committee under both Democratic and Republican administrations. Minnesota Republican congressman Jim Ramstad is also on the list.


excerpt from ‘the portable atheist’ November 27, 2007

Posted by KG in books, news, religion, science.
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usatoday ran this excerpt from the introduction to christopher hitchens’ the portable atheist: essential readings for the nonbeliever, which has selected writings from bertrand russell, darwin, einstein, twain and others, along with some new pieces by salman rushdie and ayaan hirsi ali…

Richard Dawkins may have phrased it most pungently when he argued that everybody is an atheist in saying that there is a god—from Ra to Shiva—in which he does not believe. All that the serious and objective atheist does is to take the next step and to say that there is just one more god to disbelieve in. Human solipsism can generally be counted upon to become enraged and to maintain that this discountable god must not be the one in which the believer himself has invested so much credence. So it goes. But the man-made character of religion, from which monotheism swore to deliver us at least in its pagan form, persists in a terrifying shape in our own time, as believers fight each other over the correct interpretation and even kill members of their own faiths in battles over doctrine. Civilization has been immensely retarded by such arcane interfaith quarrels and could now be destroyed by their modern versions.

Believing then—as this religious objection implicitly concedes—that human life is actually worth living, one can combat one’s natural pessimism by stoicism and the refusal of illusion, while embellishing the scene with any one of the following. There are the beauties of science and the extraordinary marvels of nature. There is the consolation and irony of philosophy. There are the infinite splendors of literature and poetry, not excluding the liturgical and devotional aspects of these, such as those found in John Donne or George Herbert. There is the grand resource of art and music and architecture, again not excluding those elements that aspire to the sublime. In all of these pursuits, any one of them enough to absorb a lifetime, there may be found a sense of awe and magnificence that does not depend at all on any invocation of the supernatural.

can biology do better than faith? November 26, 2007

Posted by AP in religion, science.
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edward o. wilson, professor of entomology at harvard university, opines at newscientist.com on what he considers irreconcilable systems.

spoiler alert: biology wins.