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In memoriam, Karen Neander (1954-2020)

Photo credit: David Braddon-Mitchell

I just learned today, fortuitously, while looking up a reference to her work, that my former PhD advisor Karen Neander died on 6 May. I am sorry to say I had not been in touch recently. I suppose I thought that there would still be time. I miss her dearly. I wish I could have at least been able to say goodbye.

The brilliance of her intellect always made others’ shine brighter, an enormous feat in a discipline so often practiced as blood sport. She is one of those rare individuals in any academic discipline whose PhD thesis advanced the field in one giant step, so that she is probably best known for that work, even more so than subsequent publications.

In colloquia or in seminars, when she made a contribution, one would have the sense that something enormously sensible had just been said, and, digesting it, feel a dawning awareness that something complex, confusing, and rare would have just been made clear. As one might imagine, she was an extraordinary advisor.

Visiting her home office, one could always find where she was last working: a cup of tea next to the laptop on the floor, encircled by a broad fan of photocopied papers several wide, the outermost of them just beyond arm’s reach.

Karen was a gentle soul in an ungentle world. Nonetheless, she had a fighting spirit, independent, and cosmopolitan. An Australian, she made the remark that of course, in the US, she never felt completely at home, and, with her accent, was known immediately to be an outsider, but that in Australia, her friends and family often said that she no longer sounded like a native. “I suppose once you’ve been gone long enough, you’re not really at home anywhere,” she noted. Yet I have hardly ever felt more welcome myself in anyone’s home or office.

The photo is from http://dailynous.com/2020/05/10/karen-neander-1954-2020/.

A quick question about evolutionary psychology

I recently read Paul Bloomfield’s “Tracking Eudaimonia,” in which that argument is made that evolutionary biology, by means of the concept of proper function, can provide an empirical basis for the semantics and knowledge of virtues. A key element of the argument is that human beings have the genetic endowment, due to natural selection, for capacities for behavior and cognitive life, that explain why we are able to act in virtuous ways. For instance, our ancestors acted in certain ways we now identify as virtuous, such as exhibiting other-regarding behavior, which contributed to their success in natural selection; this is why we have these capacities nowadays; and so the portions of our genome have the proper function of encoding for those aspects of our physiology, etc., which form the basis for those capacities.

Evolutionary psychology plays a central role in filling in details of Bloomfield’s proposal, because the discipline is devoted to discovering psychological and behavioral adaptations. In considering how evolutionary psychology might be used in the service of virtue ethics, the following question occurred to me. If behavioral capacities for virtues evolved by natural selection in the ancestral environment of the human species, as is a central principle of evolutionary psychology generally about behavioral adaptations, what maintains them, now that we are no longer in that environment? In general, adaptations will decay, when selection is relaxed; or adaptive traits will change, in response to changing environments. Now that our environment has changed significantly, shouldn’t our psychological adaptations be expected to decay or change, in our new environment?

Pascal Wagner-Egger et. al. on teleological thinking as a common root between creationism and conspiracism

Writing in Current Biology Magazine, Wagner-Egger and colleagues identify an intriguing connection between creationism and what they term “conspiracism:” teleological thinking, encapsulated in the slogans “everything happens for a reason” and “it was meant to be.” On on the one hand, important critical questions can be raised concerning the conceptual basis for their study, and also, about the nature of the causal relationship they have identified. On the other hand, their work points to strategies—and limitations—for addressing creationism.

Wagner-Egger et. al.’s conclusions

The paper identifies two sets of beliefs, “creationism” and “conspiracism.” They understand creationism as “the belief that life on Earth was purposefully created by a supernatural agent” and conspiracism as “the proneness to explain sociohistorical events in terms of secret and malevolent conspiracies.” They identify a third set of beliefs, teleological thinking, or “the attribution of purpose and a final cause to natural events and entities.” Their aim is to identify the relationships among these three sets of beliefs. They find that there is a correlation: belief in creationism is correlated with conspiracism, and teleological thinking is correlated with both. The conclusion that advances the literature, they claim, is that teleological thinking is a “new predictor” of conspiracism.

Correlation and causation

The maxim that correlation does not imply causation is especially apt in this case. As Wagner et. al. point out, their results do not warrant the conclusion that teleological thinking causes conspiracism or creationism any more than it warrants the claim that conspiracism and creationism cause teleological thinking. They do appear to favor teleological thinking as a cause, however, since they refer repeatedly to the persistence of childhood beliefs about the purposes of natural objects as a cause of creationism. Regardless of the direction of causation, Wagner-Eggers et. al.’s conclusion is significant. If teleological thinking is at the root of creationism and conspiracism, disabusing those who hold any of the three sets of beliefs will erode their confidence in the others.

Critical questions about Wagner-Eggers et. al.’s formulation of creationism

Wagner-Egger et. al.’s formulation of creationism obscures issues surrounding denial or misunderstanding of evolutionary biology. One might think that “life on Earth was purposefully created by a supernatural agent” while at the same time thinking that evolutionary science provides an adequate account of everything it is purported to explain. For instance, someone might think that a creator designed laws of nature or set natural processes into motion that result in evolution as scientists understand it. Presumably, in the surveys they conducted to identify creationists, they looked specifically for the denial of particular evolutionary claims in connection with beliefs about the creation of life on Earth. Unfortunately, the survey instruments they used are not available online, and they do not appear to have used a standardly-used, research-validated survey instrument.

Moreover, Wagner-Egger et. al.’s analogy between creationism and conspiracism is opaque, and lacks motivation.

Creationism could be seen as a conspiracist belief system (indeed, involving the ultimate conspiracy theory: the purposeful creation of all things…and conspiracism as a type of creationist belief targeting socio-historic events (e.g. specific events have been purposefully created by an all-powerful agency).

This fails to account for an important disanalogy. On Wagner-Egger et. al.’s account, conspiracists adduce the existence of a “secret and malevolent” agent. In contrast, creationists typically believe that the supernatural agent at work in nature is benevolent, and that its work is plainly evident to anyone who tries to see it. Furthermore, there are a range of motivations for affirming religious beliefs which do not have immediate consequences for trust in science, for instance, grounding moral beliefs in a purposeful universe which nonetheless includes purposeless, mechanical causes.

This suggests that a finer-grained instrument for detecting the relationships between religious belief, teleological thinking, and attitudes towards evolutionary biology is required in order to draw parallels between creationism and conspiracism. This reflects the larger point that the relationship between evolutionary biology and religious belief and more generally, beliefs about the origin and nature of the universe, are complex.

Strategies and limitations in addressing creationism

Beyond teleological thinking, anti-scientific, anti-evolutionary creationism and conspiracism bear a striking resemblance to one another on two key points. First, both rely on a similar attitude towards evidence: both find any and all facts compatible with their point of view. Second, both are founded on a kind of narcissism. Creationists see the universe as intended for the benefit of humans. Similarly, conspiracists see historical events as having been orchestrated by the grand conspiratorial forces in order to disadvantage those outside the conspiracy, that is, the conspiracists themselves.

Taking Wagner-Egger et. al.’s result about the links between creationism and conspiracism seriously suggests the further question, what is the strength of interactions between the two? To what extent do creationists see evolutionary biologists as forming a conspiracy, or see the global conspiracy at work in promoting evolutionary biology? Creationists should be pointed towards evidence of the independence of evolutionary scientists from one another, and the lack of their common interests beyond pursuit of evolutionary questions. Science red in tooth and claw—the creationist should be pointed towards the competitive nature of science, in which working groups are pitted against one another for prestige and funding, and the essential place in science for falsification and conceptual change as markers of the success of science. Of course, there are scientists whose work depends on evolutionary biology, but who are not aligned with them, and so have no interest in the success or failure of any particular claim about evolution. This accords with emphasizing the many failures of optimization and adaptedness that can be found in nature as evidence of history, rather than design. The greater extent to which belief about teleology in science and nature can be undermined, the harder it will be for someone to maintain a connection between conspiracism and creationism.

Unfortunately, if creationists and conspiracists cannot be swayed by any evidence at all—if their level of narcissism is so high that they will not relinquish their hostility towards science—then there is no point in engaging with them, except to curtail their influence and prevent the spread of their belief system.