Review: Sean Carroll, The Big Picture

Published :07 December 2016

One of Carroll's goals in "The Big Picture" is to reconcile the laws of physics with the poetry in how we talk about ourselves in everyday life? How does he do that? He does it by drawing on the concept of emergence.

We find it natural to use a vocabulary of "causes" and "reasons why" things happen, but those ideas aren’t part of how nature works at its deepest levels. They are emergent phenomena.

Here is an example of Carroll deliberately misleading us. To make naturalism more appealing he changes the meaning of words. It begins with his use of the word “emergent.” In his text Carroll defines emergence very gingerly and cautiously, and I wasn’t quite sure what he meant. I understood it better from the interview with him conducted by Robert Lawrence Kuhn and posted online at Kuhn pointed out two meanings of “emergent.” “There's a difference between something that's emergent that can be predicted from the laws at the fundamental level, and something that's emergent from the fundamental level that in principle that could not be predicted.”  Carroll replied: “I would call those the sensible and the silly notions of emergent. I'm using the sensible notion.” It’s this “sensible” meaning that Carroll gives the word “emergent” in his book.  Recall that for him the laws of physics are merely manifestations of solutions to Schrodinger’s equation at another scale. But because they appear at a different scale he says they’re “emergent” at that scale. He applies the same logic to our everyday way of talking. When he refers to that as “emergent,” he means it will be just as determined as the laws of physics are as a result of their concordance with the Core Theory.

Essentially, Carroll’s argument consists of a syllogism:

  • The poetry of everyday talk is just another way of describing what happens.
  • Everything that happens must always accord with the Core Theory.
  • Therefore everyday talk is emergent, just like the laws of nature.

Huh! Everyday talk is like the laws of nature! How can he justify that? 

Our book reviews' popularity

Published :25 October 2016

Traffic data from Google Analytics gives us totals of visits to the site's book reviews over the past year. Top, Richard Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene," then Denis Noble's "The Music of Life" and James A. Shapiro "Evolution: a View from the 21st century." Of our classic texts: top, Ronald Fisher's "The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection," then Erasmus Darwin's "Zoonomia" and Paley's "Natural Theology." Local author Victoria Alexander's "The Biologists' Mistress" ranked high, also Gregory Bateson's "Mind and nature" that appeared in two different sections of the site. 

Matt Ridley's "The Evolution of Everything"

Published :13 October 2016

In his novel and bold tracing of the evolution of culture Ridley covers at least two issues, pursues at least three missions, but ends in what we see as a contradiction. 

"New Trends in Evolutionary Biology"

Published :04 October 2016

In London November 7-9 evolutionist Denis Noble will preside over a joint conference of the Royal Society and the British Academy titled “New Trends in Evolutionary Biology: Biological, Philosophical and Social Science Perspectives.” How can members of the British Academy use this opportunity to explore what evolutionary theory implies, or could imply, for the arts and the humanities? They might start by familiarizing themselves with how scientists think. "The Meaning of Science" by Tim Lewens could be a good place to start. We have a review of it inside. 

Biologist's Mistress by V.N.Alexander

Published :29 May 2016

I'm thrilled! Someone from the humanities, using the methods of the humanities, illustrates how practitioners of the humanities can find new meaning through a radical joining of art and science. Along the way Dr. Alexander lays out her prescription for the meaning of evolution. This is a wonderful example of what this site was set up for, to celebrate and encourage new thinking in evolution. 

Links added

Published :05 February 2016

I just discovered Danny Yee's excellent reviews of books on evolution. I have to feature that list somewhere on this site, so I've added a list of helpful links under "Login" to the right.  I welcome suggestions for links to add.

Neither Darwin Nor Deity, by Shaun Johnston

Published :23 December 2015

As compensation for hosting this site I am including my own account of evolution in this site's “Classic Reviews” section. As far as I know mine is the first serious attempt to account for how creativity and consciousness could have evolved. My goal: “I would like artists and humanists to have available theories of evolution such as mine that can account for creativity, in us and in nature.” This focus on creativity sets me outside the reach of scientific methods. 

"The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins: Review

Published :19 December 2015

Dawkins' insight can be summed up in two new terms—replicators, and vehicles. “Replicator” stands for are whatever it is natural selection works on to drive evolution. Vehicles are whatever the replicators reside in. Us, for example. In a single generation what natural selection selects for is the more successful individuals, but over vast numbers of generations it is the replicators within us, that account for our success, that natural selection picks out and judges for success in replicating. 

Does Dawkins make a value-judgment between replicators and vehicles? “…when you are actually challenged to think of pre-Darwinian answers to the questions ‘What is man?’ ‘Is there a meaning to life?’ ‘What are we for?’, can you, as a matter of fact, think of any that are not now worthless except for their (considerable) historic interest? There is such a thing as being just plain wrong, and that is what, before 1859, all answers to those questions were…. It requires a deliberate mental effort to turn biology the right way up again, and remind ourselves that the replicators come first, in importance as well as in history…. Their preservation is the ultimate rationale of our existence.”

Natural Theology, William Paley: Review

Published :15 December 2015

Even as long ago as 1802 there were enough atheists denying the Creator credit for the wonders built into its creatures for William Paley to feel impelled to come up with an entire book-full of examples. The effect is mighty impressive and I think hard to dismiss.

Of course you want me to give you some examples. But I won’t. The whole point is not any one example being unusually apt but how many there are.

Denis Noble Challenges neo-Darwinism

Published :09 November 2015

Lines are being drawn. Positions are being taken. Denis Noble has flung down the gauntlet. Neo-Darwinism no longer has the field to itself. Lamarckism is back.

I am pleased to have Denis Noble's permission to summarize a recent article of his. “The language of neo-Darwinism and 20th century biology reflect highly reductionist philosophical and scientific viewpoints, the concepts of which are not required by the scientific discoveries themselves.” These concepts form “a biased interpretative veneer that can hide those discoveries in a web of interpretation. I refer to a web of interpretation as it is the whole conceptual scheme of new-Darwinism that creates the difficulty. Each concept and metaphor reinforces the overall mindset until it is almost impossible to stand outside it and appreciate how beguiling it is.” 

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