Debating Religion The Dawkins Way

When debating religion, you can take the low road (e.g., Ann Coulter’s recent flirtation with anti-semitism) or the high road. Here’s Richard Dawkins, an avowed atheist and evolutionary biologist at Oxford, having a high-minded conversation about the existence (or non-existence) of God with Alister McGrath, who is Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University and also has a background in molecular biophysics. We’ve posted the videotaped debate below. (And, by the way, you can download the video to an iPod by accessing the video here, looking to the right where it says “Download to Video iPod” and following these instructions).

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More Swapping

After we mentioned Book Mooch last week, one of our faithful readers alerted us to another site — PaperBackSwap is reportedly easier to use than Book Mooch, and the actual process of exchanging books runs more smoothly. Meanwhile, despite the site’s name, you can swap both paperback and hardback books there. In case you missed our last piece, the idea of these sites is simple. You can trade your old books for ones you haven’t read. The only cost is the postage for shipping. Not a bad deal. Thanks Maggie for the tip.

Got other tips? Write us any time.

Better Thinking Through Podcasts

ipodwithclass_2.jpgYesterday it was science podcasts; today it’s podcasts that encourage better, deeper thinking.

The CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) has posted a feature that highlights podcasts (scroll down the page) that will take you beyond sound bites and into the realm of deeper thinking. The list, which has a noticeable Canadian bent, mentions programs that are certainly worth your time. (Our University Podcast Collection gets a very small mention, by the way.) But, to be sure, many other great podcasts could also have been listed here — ones that you can find in our collection of Ideas & Culture Podcasts. Some of the honorable mentions on our list include the following:

1) SALT – Seminars About Long Term Thinking (iTunesFeedWeb Site): This podcast grows out of an award winning speaking series hosted by Stewart Brand and organized by the Long Now Foundation, which is dedicated to providing a counterpoint to today’s “faster/cheaper” mindset and promoting “slower/better” thinking. The podcasts feature many well known thinkers, and, at least in my view, it’s one of the more thought-provoking collections you’ll find on the Net.

2) NPR: Intelligence Squared (iTunesFeedWeb Site): Intelligence Squared brings Oxford-style debating to America – one motion, one moderator, three panelists for the motion and three against. Past topics have included religion in America, Hamas, and Hollywood. A new season begins with a discussion of undocumented immigrants in the US.

3) Bill Moyers Journal (iTunesFeedWeb Site): Veteran journalist Bill Moyers returns to PBS with Bill Moyers Journal, a weekly program that takes a deep look at a wide range of subjects, including politics, arts and culture, the media, the economy, and important issues facing democracy today.

4) Start the Week (iTunesFeedWeb Site): A BBC production, Start The Week “sets the cultural agenda for the week ahead, with high-profile guests discussing the ideas behind their work in the fields of art, literature, film, science, history, society and politics.”

5) Public Radio Fan (Web Site): This is not a podcast, but rather a web site that features links to over 900 public radio programs (including many outside of the US) that are available via podcast. Name your favorite public radio show – Fresh Air, Talk of the Nation, or whatever – and you are likely to find it here. This page hits the mother lode.

Bonus: France Culture – Répliques (iTunesFeedWeb Site): A French language podcast, this program, led by the well known philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, features an engaging panel discussion on a different cultural topic each week.

Finally, I should mention that Elizabeth’s piece yesterday includes a couple of podcasts that are also particularly relevant here, including WNYC’s RadioLab and In Our Time. And, in at least my view, I think you can give your mind a good workout with our collection of free university courses. And why not through in there our list of 100 Culture Blogs. That’ll make for some smart reading.
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Science for The Rest of Us: Podcasts At a Glance

Today, Elizabeth Green Musselman has penned a guest blog post that you’re bound to enjoy. Elizabeth is a professor and historian who works on the history of science, and she has recently launched a thoughtful podcast on the history of science, medicine, and technology. It’s called “The Missing Link” (iTunesFeedWeb Site). Below, she highlights for us a range of podcasts that will appeal to everyday science enthusiasts. (If you’re interested in doing some guest blogging, drop us a line.) Thanks Elizabeth and take it away:

These can seem like dark days for those people who love science but who neither specialize in the field nor can quite stomach the gee-whiz factor that plagues so much popular science writing and broadcasting. Now that Stephen Jay Gould is cavorting somewhere in the Beyond with Charles Darwin, and ever since the New York Academy of Sciences put the ax to its inspired magazine The Sciences, where is a levelheaded lover of the sciences to turn?

The podcast world has begun to develop a niche market for just such listeners, that is, listeners who like their science relatively non-technical but still high-minded – listeners who think of science as a part of human culture, rather than an arcane temple. Not surprisingly, some of the best content comes from radio programs that have been re-released as podcasts. These include WNYC’s RadioLab, an hour-long show whose serious investigations on a theme (such as sleep or mortality) take on an intriguingly funhouse quality through the program’s inventive use of sound and the humorous interaction between co-hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich. NPR has also released Krulwich’s solo reports in podcast form as Hmmm… Krulwich on Science.

Another longstanding NPR favorite, The Engines of Our Ingenuity, began broadcasting brief, thoughtful reflections on technology and culture in 1988. Written and hosted by John Lienhard, a retired professor of mechanical engineering and history at the University of Houston, the show now airs five days a week on 30 NPR affiliates in the U.S. The brief programs are also available in podcast form.

On the other side of the pond, the BBC 4’s long-running, popular show, In Our Time, frequently considers scientific topics and can also be heard in podcast form. Most recently, the program explored antimatter. On each hour-long program the host, Melvyn Bragg, keeps a panel of three scholars moving at a pace that skirts neatly between brisk and contemplative.

Finally, several podcasts produced by individuals have begun to appear, each of which considers science in context. Exploring Environmental History features Jan Oosthoek’s smart interviews with his fellow environmental historians and scientists, often focusing on how historical study can point us toward stronger environmental policy solutions. The most recent episode considers Arctic climate conditions both today and in the Little Ice Age. My own monthly podcast, The Missing Link, considers those fascinating moments in the history of science, medicine, and technology, when our intellectual and technical prowess rubs up against our very human dreams and failings. The most recent episode visits Berlin, Germany, where the gruesomeness of a pathology museum’s collection masks a centuries-long history of both inequitable medical care and brilliant microbiological research. The program also discusses the Berlin Phonogram Archive, one of the first attempts to record the world’s music for posterity, designed originally to demonstrate the evolutionary scale of primitive to civilized humanity.

500 Years of Art in Morphing Action (Excellent Video)

This video takes you on a fairly amazing tour of the great portraits of women in Western art. It moves from da Vinci to Picasso, and, along the way, the portraits seamlessly morph one into another. This morphing allows you to see how artistic styles changed over time, and also how the human face has been artistically treated during different periods. Watch the video below, which is accompanied by Bach’s Suite No. 1 performed by Yo-Yo Ma. For information on the paintings covered in the clip, click here. And also see the related video, Women in Film.

PS Thanks to BoingBoing for highlighting our interview today with Satoshi Kanazawa.

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Information R/evolution: The New Video

Earlier this year, Michael Wesch, an assistant professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State, released a smart video that immediately went viral on the internet. It was called Web 2.0… the Machine is Us/ing Us and it cleverly explained the often vague concept of Web 2.0 and why it matters. Now Wesch has launched another video under the title Information R/evolution (see below). Influenced by the recent book, Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder, Wesch’s new clip offers a creative look at how the digital age fundamentally changes our relationship to information and how information gets organized. Have a look.

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Our Ancestral Mind in the Modern World: An Interview with Satoshi Kanazawa

beautiful4.jpgHuman behavior is notoriously complex, and there’s been no shortage of psychologists and psychological theories venturing to explain what makes us tick. Why do we get irrationally jealous? Or have midlife crises? Why do we overeat to our own detriment? Why do we find ourselves often strongly attracted to certain physical traits? Numerous theories abound, but few are perhaps as novel and thought-provoking as those suggested by a new book with a long title: Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters: From Dating, Shopping, and Praying to Going to War and Becoming a Billionaire — Two Evolutionary Psychologists Explain Why We Do What We Do. Written by Satoshi Kanazawa and Alan S. Miller, the book finds answers not in ids, egos and superegos, but in the evolution of the human brain. Written in snappy prose, their argument is essentially that our behavior — our wants, desires and impulses — are overwhelmingly shaped by the way our brain evolved 10,000+ years ago, and one consequence is that our ancestral brain is often responding to a world long ago disappeared, not the modern, fast-changing world in which we live. This disconnect can lead us to be out of sync, to act in ways that seem inexplicable or counter-productive, even to ourselves. These arguments belong to new field called “evolutionary psychology,” and we were fortunate to interview Satoshi Kanazawa (London School of Economics) and delve further into evolutionary psychology and the (sometimes dispiriting) issues it raises. Have a read, check out the book, and also see the related piece that the Freakonomics folks recently did on this book. Please note that the full interview continues after the jump.

DC: In a nutshell, what is “evolutionary psychology”? (e.g. when did the field emerge? what are the basic tenets/principles of this school of thinking?)

SK: Evolutionary psychology is the application of evolutionary biology to human cognition and behavior. For more than a century, zoologists have successfully used the unifying principles of evolution to explain the body and behavior of all animal species in nature, except for humans. Scientists held a special place for humans and made an exception for them.

In 1992, a group of psychologists and anthropologists simply asked, “Why not? Why can’t we use the principles of evolution to explain human behavior as well?” And the new science of evolutionary psychology was born. It is premised on two grand generalizations. First, all the laws of evolution by natural and sexual selection hold for humans as much as they do for all species in nature. Second, the contents of the human brain have been shaped by the forces of evolution just as much as every other part of human body. In other words, humans are animals, and as such they have been shaped by evolutionary forces just as other animals have been.

DC: Evolutionary psychology portrays us as having impulses that took form long ago, in a very pre-modern context (say, 10,000 years ago), and now these impulses are sometimes rather ill-adapted to our contemporary world. For example, in a food-scarce environment, we became programmed to eat whenever we can; now, with food abounding in many parts of the world, this impulse creates the conditions for an obesity epidemic. Given that our world will likely continue changing at a rapid pace, are we doomed to have our impulses constantly playing catch up with our environment, and does that potentially doom us as a species?

SK: In fact, we’re not playing catch up; we’re stuck. For any evolutionary change to take place, the environment has to remain more or less constant for many generations, so that evolution can select the traits that are adaptive and eliminate those that are not. When the environment undergoes rapid change within the space of a generation or two, as it has been for the last couple of millennia, if not more, then evolution can’t happen because nature can’t determine which traits to select and which to eliminate. So they remain at a standstill. Our brain (and the rest of our body) are essentially frozen in time — stuck in the Stone Age.

One example of this is that when we watch a scary movie, we get scared, and when we watch porn we get turned on. We cry when someone dies in a movie. Our brain cannot tell the difference between what’s simulated and what’s real, because this distinction didn’t exist in the Stone Age.

DC: One conclusion from your book is that we’re something of a prisoner to our hard-wiring. Yes, there is some room for us to maneuver. But, in the end, our evolved nature takes over. If all of this holds true, is there room in our world for utopian (or even mildly optimistic) political movements that look to refashion how humans behave and interact with one another? Or does this science suggest that Edmund Burke was on to something?

SK: Steven Pinker, in his 2002 book The Blank Slate, makes a very convincing argument that all Utopian visions, whether they be motivated by left-wing ideology or right-wing ideology, are doomed to failure, because they all assume that human nature is malleable. Evolutionary psychologists have discovered that the human mind is not a blank slate, a tabula rasa; humans have innate biological nature as much as any other species does, and it is not malleable. Paul H. Rubin’s 2002 book Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom gives an evolutionary psychological account of why Burke and classical liberals (who are today called libertarians) may have been right.

As a scientist, I am not interested in Utopian visions (or any other visions for society). But it seems to me that, if you want to change the world successfully, you cannot start from false premises. Any such attempt is bound to fail. If you build a house on top of a lake on the assumption that water is solid, it will inevitably collapse and sink to the bottom of the lake, but if you recognize the fluid nature of water, you can build a successful houseboat. A houseboat may not be as good as a genuine house built on ground, but it’s better than a collapsed house on the bottom of the lake. A vision for society based on an evolutionary psychological understanding of human nature at least has a fighting chance, which is a much better than any Utopian vision based on the assumption that human nature is infinitely malleable.


Weekly Wrap – October 20

We’ve reached the end of another week. Let’s quickly recap what we served up in case you missed out. Have a good weekend and see you Monday.

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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.