Thursday, February 02, 2006

Dawkins on the Discontinuous Mind

I stumbled across this essay by Dawkins discussing the problems inherent in discontinuous thought. The essay was written in 1993 or thereabouts and doesn't seem to contain as much of the vitriol that characterizes much of his writing (and is one of the things I really enjoy about his writing). Also, he talks about lawyers specifically:

"The discontinuous mind is ubiquitous. It is especially influential when it afflicts lawyers and the religious (not only are all judges lawyers; a high proportion of politicians are too, and all politicians have to woo the religious vote)."

He goes on to share an anecdote which illustrates the point of discontinuity well:

"Recently, after giving a public lecture, I was cross-examined by a lawyer in the audience. He brought the full weight of his legal acumen to bear on a nice point of evolution. If species A evolves into a later species B, he reasoned closely, there must come a point when a mother belongs to the old species A and her child belongs to the new species B. Members of different species cannot interbreed with one another. I put it to you, he went on, that a child could hardly be so different from its parents that it could not interbreed with their kind. So, he wound up triumphantly, isn't this a fatal flaw in the theory of evolution?"

The thinking embodied in the lawyer's statement has interesting implications that Dawkins discusses further both in this essay and in The Ancestors' Tale.


Blogger Xeno said...

It seems like a good argument but is based on a falicy. species can interbreed. It happens all the time. Most of the time the offspring are sterile but not always.

6:41 PM  
Blogger scarlet panda said...

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9:21 PM  
Blogger scarlet panda said...

Dawkins makes a good point about discontinuous speciation, and the ring species example is an excellent one. His larger point about the perils of discontinuous thinking in general is less convincing.

Why does the lawyer in his example fail to understand the continuous nature of speciation? Dawkins suggest it's because he is afflicted with the discontinuous mind. He is so used to thinking in discrete categories that he cannot grasp the concept. I think not. I'm sure the lawyer in his example understands fuzziness and complicated gradations in legal issues. But his biology teachers taught him the traditional definition of species, so that's how he thinks of it. He just needs to be taught about ring species.

Placing things into categories is not a mental failing; it's a practical necessity in most areas. We have discrete clothing sizes, even as we recognize that people's sizes are a continuum. We have laws that criminalize acts committed with a specific state of mind, even as we recognize that there is infinite variation in state of mind. Dawkins doesn't seem to grasp the usefulness of this.

Consider his discussion of the abortion debate He criticizes those who debate at what point a fetus "becomes human," a result of their sadly discontinuous thinking. But everyone recognizes that fetal development is a continuum. When they ask, "When is it human?" they do not mean that there really is a point at which the transformation occurs. What they mean is, "At what point should we assign it to the category 'human' that we have decided to give certain protections under the law?" Perhaps Dawkins would say that giving protections to "humans" is meaningless. But removing such distinctions from the law would be completely impractical.

(Also, Dawkins is again showing his bigotry toward religious people here--he criticizes pro-lifers, who are actually less guilty than pro-choicers of the kind of discontinuous thinking he dislikes. Pro-lifers usually pick a point even Dawkins would probably agree is significant--fertilization; it's pro-choicers like myself who want to pretend something magical happens around the beginning of the third trimester.)

Anyway, as usual, Dawkins should probably stick to his area of expertise.

10:03 PM  
Blogger Fishfrog said...

SP, it seems like your hatred of Dawkins has clouded your normally unbiased judgment. If you were a detached, rational thinker like myself, you would see that everything Dawkins writes is the absolute truth. And the only reason clothes designers break clothing sizes into discrete categories (small, medium, large, etc.) is because they are racist.

8:34 AM  

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