# The Tyranny of the Discontinuous Mind – Christmas 2011

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Originally published in New Statesman, the Christmas issue for 2011, of which he was guest Editor.

by Richard Dawkins

What percentage of the British population lives below the poverty line? When I call that a silly question, a question that doesn’t deserve an answer, I’m not being callous or unfeeling about poverty. I care very much if children starve or pensioners shiver with cold. My objection – and this is just one of many examples – is to the very idea of a line: a gratuitously manufactured discontinuity in a continuous reality. Who decides how poor is poor enough to qualify as below the ‘poverty line’? What is to stop us moving the line and thereby changing the score? Poverty/wealth is a continuously distributed quantity, which might be measured as, say, income per week. Why throw away most of the information by splitting a continuous variable into two discontinuous categories: above and below the ‘line’? How many of us lie below the stupidity line? How many runners exceed the fast line? How many Oxford undergraduates lie above the first class line?

Yes, we in universities do it too. Examination performance, like most measures of human ability or achievement, is a continuous variable, whose frequency distribution is bell-shaped. Yet British universities insist on publishing a class list, in which a minority of students receive first class degrees, rather a lot obtain seconds (sometimes subdivided into upper and lower seconds), and a few get thirds. That might make sense if the distribution had three or four peaks with deep valleys in between, but it doesn’t. Anybody who has ever marked an exam knows that the bottom of one class is separated from the top of the class below by a small fraction of the distance that separates it from the top of its own class. This fact alone points to a deep unfairness in the system of discontinuous classification.

Examiners go to great trouble to assign a score, perhaps out of 100, to each exam script. Scripts are double or even triple marked by different examiners, who may then argue the nuances of whether an answer deserves 55 or 52 marks. Marks are scrupulously added up, normalised, transformed, juggled and fought over. The final marks that emerge, and the rank orders of students, are as richly informative as conscientious examiners can achieve. But then what happens to all that richness of information? Most of it is thrown away, in reckless disregard for all the labour and nuanced deliberation and adjusting that went into the great addition sum. The students are bundled into three or four discrete classes, and that is all the information that penetrates outside the examiners’ room.

Cambridge mathematicians, as one might expect, finesse the discontinuity and leak the rank order. It became informally known that Jacob Bronowski was the “Senior Wrangler” of his year, Bertrand Russell the Seventh Wrangler of his year and so on. At other universities, too, tutors’ testimonials may say things like, “Not only did she get a first: I can tell you in confidence that the examiners ranked her number 3 of her entire class of 106 in the university.” That is the kind of information that really counts in a letter of recommendation. And it is that very information that is wantonly thrown away in the officially published class list.

Perhaps such wastage of information is inevitable: a necessary evil. I don’t want to make too much of it. What is more serious is that there are some educators – dare I say especially in non-scientific subjects – who fool themselves into believing that there is a kind of Platonic ideal called the ‘First Class Mind’ or ‘Alpha Mind’: a qualitatively distinct category, as distinct as female is from male, or sheep from goat. This is an extreme form of what I am calling the discontinuous mind. It can probably be traced to the ‘essentialism’ of Plato – one of the most pernicious ideas in all history.

For legal purposes, say in deciding who can vote in elections, we need to draw a line between adult and non-adult. We may dispute the rival merits of eighteen versus twenty-one or sixteen, but everybody accepts that there has to be a line, and the line must be a birthday. Few would deny that some 15-year-olds are better qualified to vote than some 40-year-olds. But we recoil from the voting equivalent of a driving test, so we accept the age line as a necessary evil. But perhaps there are other examples where we should be less willing to do so. Are there cases where the tyranny of the discontinuous mind leads to real harm: cases where we should actively rebel against it? Yes.

There are those who cannot distinguish a 16-cell embryo from a baby. They call abortion murder, and feel righteously justified in committing real murder against a doctor – a thinking, feeling, sentient adult, with a loving family to mourn him. The discontinuous mind is blind to intermediates. An embryo is either human or it isn’t. Everything is this or that, yes or no, black or white. But reality isn’t like that.

For purposes of legal clarity, just as the eighteenth birthday is defined as the moment of getting the vote, it may be necessary to draw a line at some arbitrary moment in embryonic development after which abortion is prohibited. But personhood doesn’t spring into existence at any one moment: it matures gradually, and it goes on maturing through childhood and beyond.

To the discontinuous mind, an entity either is a person or is not. The discontinuous mind cannot grasp the idea of half a person, or three quarters of a person. Some absolutists go right back to conception as the moment when the person comes into existence – the instant the soul is injected – so all abortion is murder by definition. The Catholic Doctrine of the Faith entitled Donum Vitae says

“From the time that the ovum is fertilized, a new life is begun which is neither that of the father nor of the mother; it is rather the life of a new human being with his own growth. It would never be made human if it were not human already. To this perpetual evidence . . . modern genetic science brings valuable confirmation. It has demonstrated that, from the first instant, the program is fixed as to what this living being will be: a man, this individual-man with his characteristic aspects already well determined. Right from fertilization is begun the adventure of a human life . . .”

http://www.priestsforlife.org/magisterium/donumvitae.htm

It is amusing to tease such absolutists by confronting them with a pair of identical twins (they split after fertilisation, of course) and asking which twin got the soul, which twin is the non-person: the zombie. A puerile taunt? Maybe. But it hits home because the belief that it destroys is puerile, and ignorant.

“It would never be made human if it were not human already.” Really? Are you serious? Nothing can become something if it is not that something already? Is an acorn an oak tree? Is a hurricane the barely perceptible zephyr that seeds it? Would you apply your doctrine to evolution too? Do you suppose there was a moment in evolutionary history when a non-person gave birth to the first person?

If a time machine could serve up to you your 200 million greats grandfather, you would eat him with sauce tartare and a slice of lemon. He was a fish. Yet you are connected to him by an unbroken line of intermediate ancestors, every one of whom belonged to the same species as its parents and its children.

“I’ve danced with a man who’s danced with a girl, who’s danced with the Prince of Wales”, as the song goes. I could mate with a woman, who could mate with a man, who could mate with a woman who . . . after a sufficient number of steps into the past . . . could mate with ancestral fish, and produce fertile offspring. To invoke our time machine again, you probably could not mate with Australopithecus (at least not produce fertile offspring) but you are connected to Australopithecus by an unbroken chain of intermediates who could interbreed with their neighbours in the chain every step of the way. And the chain goes on backwards, unbroken, to that Devonian fish and beyond. On the way, about six million years into the past, we would encounter the ancestor we share with modern chimpanzees. It so happens that the intermediates, like the common ancestor itself, are all extinct. But for that (perhaps fortunate) fact, we would be connected to modern chimpanzees by an unbroken chain of intermarrying links. Not just intermarrying but interbreeding – producing fertile offspring. There would be no clear separation between Homo sapiens and Pan troglodytes. The only way to maintain our human-privileging laws and morals would be to set up courts to decide whether particular individuals could ‘pass for human’, like the ludicrous courts with which apartheid South Africa decided who could ‘pass for white’.

And of course the argument extends to any pair of species you care to name. But for the extinction of the intermediates which connect humans to the ancestor we share with pigs (it pursued its shrew-like existence 85 million years ago in the shadow of the dinosaurs), and but for the extinction of the intermediates that connect the same ancestor to modern pigs, there would be no clear separation between Homo sapiens and Sus scrofa. You could breed with X who could breed with Y who could breed with ( . . . fill in several thousand intermediates . . .) who could produce fertile offspring by mating with a sow.

Humans are clearly separable from chimpanzees and pigs and fish and lemons only because the intermediates that would otherwise link them in interbreeding chains happen to be extinct. This is not to deny that we are different from other species. We certainly are different and the differences are important – important enough to justify eating them (vegetables are our cousins too). But it is a reason for scepticism of any philosophy or theology (or morality or jurisprudence or politics) that treats humanness, or personhood, as some kind of essentialist absolute, which you either definitely have or definitely don’t have. If your theology tells you that humans should receive special respect and moral privilege as the only species that possesses a soul, you have to face up to the awkward question of when, in human evolution, the first ensouled baby was born. Was it when the first Homo sapiens baby was born to parents belonging to whatever species is considered to be our immediate predecessor (erectus, ergaster, heidelbergensis, rhodesiensis, no matter, the argument stands regardless)? There was no such baby! There never was a ‘first’ Homo sapiens. It is only the discontinuous mind that insists on drawing a hard and fast line between a species and the ancestral species that birthed it. Evolutionary change is gradual: there never was a line, never a line between any species and its evolutionary precursor.

In a few cases the intermediates have failed to go extinct, and the discontinuous mind really is faced with the problem in stark reality. Herring gulls (Larus argentatus) and lesser black-backed gulls (Larus fuscus) breed in mixed colonies in Western Europe and don’t interbreed. This defines them as good, separate species. But if you travel in a westerly direction around the northern hemisphere and sample the gulls as you go, you find that the local gulls vary from the light grey of the herring gull, getting gradually darker as you progress around the north pole, until eventually, when you go all the way round to Western Europe again, they have darkened so far that they ‘become’ lesser black-backed gulls. What’s more, the neighbouring populations interbreed with each other all the way around the ring, even though the ends of the ring, the two species we see in Britain, don’t interbreed. Are they distinct species or not? Only those tyrannised by the discontinuous mind feel obliged to answer that question. If it were not for the accidental extinction of evolutionary intermediates, every species would be linked to every other by interbreeding chains.

Where else do we see the tyranny of the discontinuous mind? Colin Powell and Barack Obama are described as black. They do have black ancestors, but they also have white ancestors, so why don’t we call them white? The complication in this case is the weird convention that the descriptor ‘black’ behaves as the cultural equivalent of a genetic dominant. Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics, crossed wrinkled and smooth peas and the offspring were all smooth: smoothness is ‘dominant’. When a white person breeds with a black person the child is of intermediate colour but is labelled ‘black’: the cultural label is transmitted down the generations like a dominant gene, and this persists even to cases where, say, only one out of eight great grandparents was black and it may not show in skin colour at all. It is the racist ‘contamination metaphor’ of the ‘touch of the tarbrush’. Our language is ill-equipped to deal with a continuum of intermediates. Just as people must lie below or above the poverty ‘line’, so we classify people as ‘black’ even if they are in fact intermediate. When an official form invites us to tick a ‘race’ or ‘ethnicity’ box I recommend crossing it out and writing ‘human’.

I am not saying the Supreme Court should actually have split the Florida delegates. They had to abide by the rules, no matter how idiotic. I would say that, given the lamentable constitutional rule that the 25 votes had to be bound together as a one-party block, natural justice should have led the court to allocate the 25 votes to the candidate who would have won the election if the Florida delegates had been divided pro rata, namely Gore. But that is not the point I am making here. My point here is that the winner-take-all idea of an electoral college in which each state has an indivisible block of members, either all Democrat or all Republican no matter how close the vote, is a shockingly undemocratic manifestation of the tyranny of the discontinuous mind. Why is it so hard to admit that there are intermediates, as New Mexico uniquely does? Most states are not ‘red’ or ‘blue’ but a complex mixture.

Scientists are called upon by governments, by courts of law, and by the public at large, to give a definite, absolute, yes-or-no answer to important questions, for example questions of risk. Whether it’s a new medicine, a new weedkiller, a new power station or a new airliner, the scientific ‘expert’ is peremptorily asked: Is it safe? Answer the question! Yes or no? Vainly the scientist tries to explain that safety and risk are not absolutes. Some things are safer than others, and nothing is perfectly safe. There is a sliding scale of intermediates and probabilities, not hard-and-fast discontinuities between safe and unsafe. That is another story and I have run out of space.

But I hope I have said enough to suggest that the summary demand for an absolute yes-or-no answer, so beloved of journalists, politicians and finger-wagging, hectoring lawyers, is yet another unreasonable expression of a kind of tyranny, the tyranny of the discontinuous mind.

Originally published in New Statesman, the Christmas issue for 2011, of which I was guest  Editor.

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### Turkey is Teaching Students About Evolution and Darwin for the Last Time

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1. I love the phrase “the tyranny of the discontinuous mind”. And have used it repeatedly and effectively in lectures, arguments, and even here on Dawkins’ website. Thanks Richard for this turn of phrase….. it is valuable and useful.

I always use the California Salamander (Ensatina escholtzii) as an example of a ring species. I focus some of the lesson on the valley that they “horseshoe” around. The lesson is pretty demonstrative and generates lots of student commentary (and hopefully deepens their understanding).

We then use a kit containing a series of hominid skulls including the Australopithecines, all of the Homo species, as well as chimps, gorillas and orangs.

I leave the kids by showing them the geography of the African rift valley and the Afar region, leaving them to hypothesize about human origins and potential ring species in our past…

2. The election example is a good one not just because a better system ought to be introduced, but also because the discrete red/blue/purple classification of states depending on who wins elections belies the continuous variation among states in just how popular each of the major parties is in that state. Texas is a famous firm red state. Does that mean finding someone who votes Democrat in Texas will be hard work? On the contrary. Actually, if you colour states in a continuous manner based on the percentage split, the nation is largely purple or near-purple, with Texas being quite close to the middle. See here. http://dimlightarchive.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Purple-Map.jpg

3. Thank you for the article, Professor. Your point regarding humano-centric thought bears a great deal of relevance to politics here in the US as well; I am constantly surprised by how many people reference philosophies (such as Ayn Rand’s Objectivism) that tout humans as the de facto lords of all Creation, even as they claim to be atheist and have supposedly eschewed dogma (which contains ideas like this). I see this crop up in climate change arguments as well, as sadly, these ideals of rugged individualism, objective human rights (and from what objective authority are they derived? Hmm.), and laissez-faire bordering on anarcho-capitalism are all used as perfectly reasonable moral justification for ignoring the impact of humans on their climate.

4. Many, if not all people want to label and categorize the world so that they can understand it in a simplistic way. To extend effort into seeing within the gray zone requires patience, skill, analyzing, understanding, and knowledge depending upon the situation. My guess is that laziness or a lack of caring is at the heart of the matter. Whatever it takes to maintain the status quo; just because it’s easier or allows them to continue thinking that they are right. Unfortunately, we all do it to some extent.

I would add that some people actually go to great lengths to create a system that labels people. They spend countless hours/years/decades researching, revising, and justifying their view. The problem is that they somehow seem to be unable to see what the real issue is. Countless hours and years are spent wasted away while the real issue is far out of their range of vision.

We humans play some interesting games.

5. Every time I hear someone say Obama is the first “black” president (of the USA), I’m reminded of “the tyranny of the discontinuous mind,” and what RD says about it here and in The Ancestor’s Tale. Indeed, calling someone black, or white, or brown, or yellow (as they used to say), is a symptom of such a mind.

What’s more, unlike the intermediates that used to exist between, say, the cabbage and the kangaroo, the intermediates (the intervening colors, that is) between the blackest person and the whitest or brownest or yellowest one still exist today.

Which is to say: if you stood the whole of humanity in a line, you could walk along this line, from the blackest person on one end of it to the whitest person on the other, and as you walk along the line from black to white (or vice-versa), you would pass from one person to the next, from one shade of color to the one that follows, from a slightly darker to one that is lighter skinned (or slightly darker skinned if you walked from the opposite direction), and so on to the other end, where the whitest person stands.

A continuous mind would see that at no point along that line will you be able to discern where a black person ends and a brown one begins; where a brown one ends and a yellow one starts; or, where a yellow ends and white stands, because those standing next to each other would be all but indistinguishable. The discontinuos mind, however, only sees the one black person at the far end and the one white one at the other end and says: aha; we have a different race!

I suspect the same could be said of genotype as of phenotype.

6. Thanks for posting this article; I enjoyed it very much. Those who have read my comments here, over the years, know that I am fond of pointing folks to the famous Sorites Paradox which deals with things that become other things (or concepts) little by little, with no dividing line to be found. The question of going from the moral status of a clump of cells to the moral status of a living child with recognized protected rights, is one such. Another directly related one is the quality of consciousness in that same progression. I will often ask people to try to visualize the corresponding development of the quality of the average adult consciousness in our ancestors going back millions of years. When did we become human?

7. In reply to #4 by QuestioningKat:

Many, if not all people want to label and categorize the world so that they can understand it in a simplistic way. To extend effort into seeing within the gray zone requires patience, skill, analyzing, understanding, and knowledge depending upon the situation. My guess is that laziness or a lack of caring is at the heart of the matter. Whatever it takes to maintain the status quo; just because it’s easier or allows them to continue thinking that they are right. Unfortunately, we all do it to some extent
I would add that some people actually go to great lengths to create a system that labels people. They spend countless hours/years/decades researching, revising, and justifying their view. The problem is that they somehow seem to be unable to see what the real issue is. Countless hours and years are spent wasted away while the real issue is far out of their range of vision.

We humans play some interesting games.

In the context of an otherwise excellent article did nobody else notice this glaring example of discontinous thinking from Richard Dawkins?

“a qualitatively distinct category, as distinct as female is from male, or sheep from goat.”

Would he have been as happy with as distinct as gay is from straight human being or black is from white human being? So why male and female particularly when they share so many traits and are only genuinely qualititively distinct in one pair of chromosomes and the lay out of their reproductive organs. Even hormonely the differences are quantitive!

The rest of the article was, as usual, brilliant.

8. “What percentage of the British population lives below the poverty line?”

I know the answer to that, rounded off its 0%, and I’m very much of the opinion its actually zero without any rounding.

I’ve visited South Africa, where I drove for almost an hour through a township on the edge of Johannesburg.

Hundreds of thousands of crude shacks with no running water and which only had electricity if they had made an unauthorised spur (at great personal risk) from a nearby pylon.

At every road junction you will find people selling news papers, coat hangers, dustbin bags and almost anything else you can think of; and where unemployed people hold up one finger as your car approaches the meaning of which is “can I have one day’s work” (the going rate for which is approximately £1).

I was visiting the AIDS hospice where the housekeeper of my friend who lives in Johannesburg had been taken so she could receive some basic care in the last 48 hours of her life.

Whenever I hear someone on TV say people in Britain live below the poverty line, I remember the township, and I remember the hospice, and I feel sick, and I want to shout at the screen “YOU KNOW NOTHING ABOUT POVERTY”

9. In reply to #7 by atheistengineer:

In the context of an otherwise excellent article did nobody else notice this glaring example of discontinous thinking from Richard Dawkins?

“a qualitatively distinct category, as distinct as female is from male, or sheep from goat.”

Would he have been as happy with as distinct as gay is from straight human being or black is from white human being? So why male and female particularly when they share so many traits and are only genuinely qualititively distinct in one pair of chromosomes and the lay out of their reproductive organs. Even hormonely the differences are quantitive!

The rest of the article was, as usual, brilliant.

I don’t believe that qualifies as discontinuous thinking; there is a very clear physiological difference between men and women, at the chromosomal level, and in their capacity; namely, women pass along their mitochondria and are equipped to allow a fetus to gestate within them. Men have no such capacity, and there isn’t a gradual change from one to the other; there isn’t a continuous string of slightly different genders until; you get from one end of the spectrum to the other. (While I understand that there are intermediate steps, I would say – and please don’t interpret this as any sort of condemnation, but I cannot think of a better word – that they are anomalies, and that the different degrees to which gender may or may not be ascribed to someone is not an unbroken line.)

10. I am an identical twin, I am feeling the urge to phone up my brother and ask for my soul back!

Loved this line”The complication in this case is the weird convention that the descriptor ‘black’ behaves as the cultural equivalent of a genetic dominant”

That Richard can explain complex ideas with such an economy of words is joyful to read.

11. Is that really an example of discontinuous thinking from Professer Dawkins, or is it continuous thinking? I’m not sure where to draw the line.

In reply to #7 by atheistengineer:

In reply to #4 by QuestioningKat:Many, if not all people want to label and categorize the world so that they can understand it in a simplistic way. To extend effort into seeing within the gray zone requires patience, skill, analyzing, understanding, and knowledge depending upon the situation. My guess is that laziness or a lack of caring is at the heart of the matter. Whatever it takes to maintain the status quo; just because it’s easier or allows them to continue thinking that they are right. Unfortunately, we all do it to some extent I would add that some people actually go to great lengths to create a system that labels people. They spend countless hours/years/decades researching, revising, and justifying their view. The problem is that they somehow seem to be unable to see what the real issue is. Countless hours and years are spent wasted away while the real issue is far out of their range of vision.We humans play some interesting games.In the context of an otherwise excellent article did nobody else notice this glaring example of discontinous thinking from Richard Dawkins?”a qualitatively distinct category, as distinct as female is from male, or sheep from goat.”Would he have been as happy with as distinct as gay is from straight human being or black is from white human being? So why male and female particularly when they share so many traits and are only genuinely qualititively distinct in one pair of chromosomes and the lay out of their reproductive organs. Even hormonely the differences are quantitive!The rest of the article was, as usual, brilliant.

In reply to #7 by atheistengineer:

In reply to #4 by QuestioningKat:Many, if not all people want to label and categorize the world so that they can understand it in a simplistic way. To extend effort into seeing within the gray zone requires patience, skill, analyzing, understanding, and knowledge depending upon the situation. My guess is that laziness or a lack of caring is at the heart of the matter. Whatever it takes to maintain the status quo; just because it’s easier or allows them to continue thinking that they are right. Unfortunately, we all do it to some extent I would add that some people actually go to great lengths to create a system that labels people. They spend countless hours/years/decades researching, revising, and justifying their view. The problem is that they somehow seem to be unable to see what the real issue is. Countless hours and years are spent wasted away while the real issue is far out of their range of vision.We humans play some interesting games.In the context of an otherwise excellent article did nobody else notice this glaring example of discontinous thinking from Richard Dawkins?”a qualitatively distinct category, as distinct as female is from male, or sheep from goat.”Would he have been as happy with as distinct as gay is from straight human being or black is from white human being? So why male and female particularly when they share so many traits and are only genuinely qualititively distinct in one pair of chromosomes and the lay out of their reproductive organs. Even hormonely the differences are quantitive!The rest of the article was, as usual, brilliant.

12. In reply to #9 by GospelofJudas:

In reply to #7 by atheistengineer:

In the context of an otherwise excellent article did nobody else notice this glaring example of discontinous thinking from Richard Dawkins?

“a qualitatively distinct category, as distinct as female is from male, or sheep from goat.”

Would he have been as happy with as distinct as gay is from straight human being or black is from white human being? So why male and female particularly when they share so many traits and are only genuinely qualititively distinct in one pair of chromosomes and the lay out of their reproductive organs. Even hormonely the differences are quantitive!

The rest of the article was, as usual, brilliant.

I don’t believe that qualifies as discontinuous thinking; there is a very clear physiological difference between men and women, at the chromosomal level, and in their capacity; namely, women pass along their mitochondria and are equipped to allow a fetus to gestate within them. Men have no such capacity, and there isn’t a gradual change from one to the other; there isn’t a continuous string of slightly different genders until; you get from one end of the spectrum to the other. (While I understand that there are intermediate steps, I would say – and please don’t interpret this as any sort of condemnation, but I cannot think of a better word – that they are anomalies, and that the different degrees to which gender may or may not be ascribed to someone is not an unbroken line.)

I’d already mentioned the clear distinction in terms of reproduction though! In what other respects are we qualititively different? In terms of hormones – it is a continuum with both sexes having both sets of hormones in differing proportions. In looks and physicality – some superficially obvious differences but in general again very much a continuum. Examples like Castor Semenya who is very strong and looks ‘masculine’ or Johnny Depp with an absolutely beautiful delicate bone structure being cases at the extremes of those continuums. And there are different genders between the two, copying mistakes do happen and people are born both male and female.

In terms of important things like abilities or opinions or IQ or emotions how are we qualititively different? My husband loves our children as much as I do and is a far more patient carer. In work I’m as ambitious as he is. So how is it not an example of discontinous thinking? How different are we in real important terms?

The minute you start down the qualititively different route you start to condition your children and discrimination becomes inevitable – there is no way around that. That really is a tyranny of a discontinous mind because I’ve heard the ‘qualititively different’ crap used to justify not hiring me as an engineer or being used to disuade me from science. Likewise used to disuade male friends from childcare. Elsewhere someone has mentioned the wage differentials in so called male and female jobs.

The best people, both male and female, have mixtures of so called ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ traits which they use in different situations. So being loving and nurturing with family and ambitious and analytical at work. I’ve seen science overblow superficial differences and ignore similarities in a way that just wouldn’t happen in any other branch of science.

Religion has used the notion of differences for far to long to justify discrimination for me to be happy to see it anywhere. Likewise employment, education and even on ocassions here. I’d prefer to celebrate how we are all human beings, more alike than different – especially on a site like this. If we really are that qualititively different why should I be welcomed?

13. In reply to #12 by atheistengineer:

Religion has used the notion of differences for far to long to justify discrimination for me to be happy to see it anywhere. Likewise employment, education and even on ocassions here. I’d prefer to celebrate how we are all human beings, more alike than different – especially on a site like this. If we really are that qualititively different why should I be welcomed?

There comes a point at which language requires some degree of classification in order to be effective. We share a lot of similarities with primates, and really on a long enough scale with all living things, yet it’s useful to be able to distinguish between a fish and a human.

The if-ought dilemma should never be answered by these qualitative differences that I speak of either. In the case of men and women, women have a womb and can (in theory) carry a fetus to term. Men do not. There is no graded distinction between this; I understand that not all women are fertile and that the reasons are manifold, and as we’ve both discussed there are some people who by a quirk of genetics fall somewhere in between. However, there is not an unbroken line. You don’t have men who can carry a fetus for a month, or who can carry part of a fetus, or anything like that.

That being said, I don’t believe that there is any reason at all to discriminate (or use the if-ought fallacy) when it comes to this. I can certainly understand your reservations, but discontinuous thinking would be better guarded against when it comes to values assigned to arbitrary distinctions. “You are a woman, so you should/are/can/can’t” is the danger, not simply stating, “It is a fact, that because you are a woman you have the capacity to nurture a fetus to term, or share distinct physiological characteristics with the portion of the population that can do so, and that the portion of the population that can never carry a fetus to term conspicuously lack.”

14. Considering that Dawkins is usually on the side of feminists everywhere else, I think you’re taking this out of context. He is a biologist, and as far as sexual reproduction is concerned in that field, you’re either a male or a female. The sexual characteristics that define being a female (carrying the larger gamete and accepting the smaller gamete from the male) aren’t the same as the cultural stereotypes of gender, like androgyny or tomboyishness. Certainly, there can be interesting cases such as asexual or hermaphrodite species, but the male and female roles remain distinct nonetheless.

In reply to #12 by atheistengineer:

In reply to #9 by GospelofJudas:

In reply to #7 by atheistengineer:

In the context of an otherwise excellent article did nobody else notice this glaring example of discontinous thinking from Richard Dawkins?

“a qualitatively distinct category, as distinct as female is from male, or sheep from goat.”

Would he have been as happy with as distinct as gay is from straight human being or black is from white human being? So why male and female particularly when they share so many traits and are only genuinely qualititively distinct in one pair of chromosomes and the lay out of their reproductive organs. Even hormonely the differences are quantitive!

The rest of the article was, as usual, brilliant.

I don’t believe that qualifies as discontinuous thinking; there is a very clear physiological difference between men and women, at the chromosomal level, and in their capacity; namely, women pass along their mitochondria and are equipped to allow a fetus to gestate within them. Men have no such capacity, and there isn’t a gradual change from one to the other; there isn’t a continuous string of slightly different genders until; you get from one end of the spectrum to the other. (While I understand that there are intermediate steps, I would say – and please don’t interpret this as any sort of condemnation, but I cannot think of a better word – that they are anomalies, and that the different degrees to which gender may or may not be ascribed to someone is not an unbroken line.)

I’d already mentioned the clear distinction in terms of reproduction though! In what other respects are we qualititively different? In terms of hormones – it is a continuum with both sexes having both sets of hormones in differing proportions. In looks and physicality – some superficially obvious differences but in general again very much a continuum. Examples like Castor Semenya who is very strong and looks ‘masculine’ or Johnny Depp with an absolutely beautiful delicate bone structure being cases at the extremes of those continuums. And there are different genders between the two, copying mistakes do happen and people are born both male and female.

In terms of important things like abilities or opinions or IQ or emotions how are we qualititively different? My husband loves our children as much as I do and is a far more patient carer. In work I’m as ambitious as he is. So how is it not an example of discontinous thinking? How different are we in real important terms?

The minute you start down the qualititively different route you start to condition your children and discrimination becomes inevitable – there is no way around that. That really is a tyranny of a discontinous mind because I’ve heard the ‘qualititively different’ crap used to justify not hiring me as an engineer or being used to disuade me from science. Likewise used to disuade male friends from childcare. Elsewhere someone has mentioned the wage differentials in so called male and female jobs.

The best people, both male and female, have mixtures of so called ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ traits which they use in different situations. So being loving and nurturing with family and ambitious and analytical at work. I’ve seen science overblow superficial differences and ignore similarities in a way that just wouldn’t happen in any other branch of science.

Religion has used the notion of differences for far to long to justify discrimination for me to be happy to see it anywhere. Likewise employment, education and even on ocassions here. I’d prefer to celebrate how we are all human beings, more alike than different – especially on a site like this. If we really are that qualititively different why should I be welcomed?

15. In reply to #14 by Zeuglodon:

Considering that Dawkins is usually on the side of feminists everywhere else, I think you’re taking this out of context

That is sort of wondering off topic a bit and not a debatable topic here so I’m we’ll just have to accept that we differ in that opinion. Dawkins is brilliant at tacking the excesses of religion and representing the victims of religion – that is his forte.

If you and GospelforJudas are talking solely in terms of reproduction and reproductive organs and gametes than yes there is a distinct discontinuity. Women can get pregnant, men can’t. Maybe that should have been made clearer?

But for the rest of biology and socially and in every other way, I’m struggling to see where any clear discontinuity would lie? It depends where you draw the line and it looks like he’s chosen reproduction to make the distinction. However in the context of the article (when does life begin etc) I’m surprised that was the example chosen when anything would have sufficed.

but the male and female roles remain distinct nonetheless.

I assume you and gospelforjudas mean in terns of reproduction and for the nine monthes of pregnancy? Otherwise they shouldn’t in the 21st century.

16. In reply to #15 by atheistengineer:

In reply to #14 by Zeuglodon:

If you and GospelforJudas are talking solely in terms of reproduction and reproductive organs and gametes than yes there is a distinct discontinuity. Women can get pregnant, men can’t. Maybe that should have been made clearer?

But for the rest of biology and socially and in every other way, I’m struggling to see where any clear discontinuity would lie?

We’re – or at least, I’m – not arguing that there is a discontinuity anyway. As far as I’m concerned, male and female merely describe who does what in the bedroom. If that has an effect on a species’ sexual dimorphism, then maybe I would factor in those on a probabilistic basis (like males generally being bigger than females, but not all males being bigger than all females or this being passed off as a good thing).

After that, one doesn’t make assumptions. Individuals have their own quirks, and so I take them on an individual basis.

17. In reply to #15 by atheistengineer:

I assume you and gospelforjudas mean in terns of reproduction and for the nine monthes of pregnancy? Otherwise they shouldn’t in the 21st century.

Oui, et c’est tout.

18. “What percentage of the British population lives below the poverty line?”
I know the answer to that, rounded off its 0%, and I’m very much of the opinion its actually zero without any rounding.

I know what you are saying. I used to teach art in the inner city. I remember being informed that one girl was found living on the streets with her siblings (no parents) eating out of trash bins. She had no attention span and eventually did not return to school. Whenever anyone says that they grew up poor, I bite my tongue and remember this girl. It’s amazing how some people believe that they were poor……… then tell me about their vacations – some to Europe.

19. The Tyranny of the Discontinuous Mind

The discontinuous mind loves the false dichotomy. – ( “Debate the controversy”. – “We evaluate opposing views”. ) The simplistic – “God-did-it by magic or denial of god-doing-it by-magic”! Natural v Unnatural.

There is no concept in the discontinuous mind of the range of diversity of possibilities in the material world, or of the range of possible speculations about it!

The range of scientific techniques and applications, is just off the scale in their small-minded thinking processes.

The use of misleading obfuscating pseudonyms for “incredulity” – “infinite”, “omnipotent”, “immaterial”, “beyond natural science” etc. – along with various fallacious, compartmentalised, mental gymnastics, – is a good indication of this kind of thinking.

20. This question has been bothering me for a while. I think this is a good place to put it out there hoping somebody would answer it 🙂

I do understand why there is no such thing as a first human. But I don’t understand why there has to be a thing called the “first life”. If there is a “continuous” chain of intermediates between me and the Devonian Fish, why isn’t there a continuous chain between me and Chemistry? If there is indeed a continuous chain between me and Chemistry, then does it mean that we cannot find out how life started? Since the first life would be indistinguishable from the last “rock”?

21. In short, YES. There is absolutely a continuous chain between you and Chemistry (in my world view). Actually, there is a continuous chain between you and the big bang. The Chemistry necessary to result in life had to evolve out of the materials that stars throw out. So, you are spot on in your assessment.

The thing is, science has honesty built into it. So, allow me to be honest. The evidence that we have for evolution of species, once life has begun, is extensive and unassailable. This evidence has been the “star of the show” in court cases and is airtight. for this reason we assign very high confidence in the Theory of Evolution.

Now, the hypotheses that have been forwarded to explain abiogenesis (what you call chemistry) are plausible and well thought out. They are, however, a tier down as far as confidence is concerned because there is so much more to learn and elucidate. It is a “fuzzier” picture because of the nature of the phenomena being tested: they occurred a vast amount of time ago in a potentially widespread area (the whole earth). What is important about this group of research is that we are testing events that are possible.

The fact that we can say it is possible that events unfolded in a testable, logical sequence allows scientists to say that we are on the right track. However, this line of reasoning is not as secure as Evolution…..YET.

In reply to #20 by rmanoj:

This question has been bothering me for a while. I think this is a good place to put it out there hoping somebody would answer it 🙂

I do understand why there is no such thing as a first human. But I don’t understand why there has to be a thing called the “first life”. If there is a “continuous” chain of intermediates between me and the Devonian Fish, why isn’t there a continuous chain between me and Chemistry? If there is indeed a continuous chain between me and Chemistry, then does it mean that we cannot find out how life started? Since the first life would be indistinguishable from the last “rock”?

22. Also, do not think that the logical sequence goes ……rock……life……

There are tons of intermediates in between. To get you started reading about it, research …
the miller urey experiment….organic chemical evolution… monomer accumulation…
hot clay hypothesis of polymer formation (also look into dehydration synthesis and hydrolysis)…
molecular cooperatives….protocells…
development of replication…replicants….
RNA world….
speigleman’s monster….
phospholipids and the formation of membranes…

this should get you started!!!

In reply to #20 by rmanoj:

This question has been bothering me for a while. I think this is a good place to put it out there hoping somebody would answer it 🙂

I do understand why there is no such thing as a first human. But I don’t understand why there has to be a thing called the “first life”. If there is a “continuous” chain of intermediates between me and the Devonian Fish, why isn’t there a continuous chain between me and Chemistry? If there is indeed a continuous chain between me and Chemistry, then does it mean that we cannot find out how life started? Since the first life would be indistinguishable from the last “rock”?

23. In reply to #20 by rmanoj:

I do understand why there is no such thing as a first human. But I don’t understand why there has to be a thing called the “first life”. If there is a “continuous” chain of intermediates between me and the Devonian Fish, why isn’t there a continuous chain between me and Chemistry? If there is indeed a continuous chain between me and Chemistry, then does it mean that we cannot find out how life started? Since the first life would be indistinguishable from the last “rock”?

I think that in the use of the term “first life”, by people like David Attenborough, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Life_%28TV – they are talking about the first fossil records of life.

There are no fossil records of the abiogenesis or the early evolution of DNA single cells. This sort of information has to be deduced from genetic material in modern organisms, and the chemistry of the Earth in the distant past.

The “Theory of Evolution by way of Natural Selection”, starts with LUCA.

24. Thanks a lot for your responses! You have given me enough keywords to keep me going for a while 🙂

In reply to #22 by crookedshoes:

Also, do not think that the logical sequence goes ……rock……life……

There are tons of intermediates in between. To get you started reading about it, research …
the miller urey experiment….organic chemical evolution… monomer accumulation…
hot clay hypothesis of polymer formation (also look into dehydration synthesis and hydrolysis)…
molecular cooperatives….protocells…
development of replication…replicants….
RNA world….
speigleman’s monster….
phospholipids and the formation of membranes…

this should get you started!!!

25. In reply to #2 by Jos Gibbons:

Even better, see these cartograms (scroll down for the best ones).

Note also that Texas is pretty thoroughly gerrymandered, though this is more significant in the non-presidential elections, I understand. The redirecting advantage swings between Dems and Reps (though I don’t know how evenly), but it’s on the Rep side at the moment.

26. In reply to #8 by N_Ellis:

So homeless people have it easy? Perhaps they all decided to live on the street for fun? You don’t consider that poverty? You don’t consider permanent unemployment an impoverished existence? I think you’re talking about extreme poverty. The fact there are other people more desperate than a given person does not mean that they have tolerable living conditions.

I think you’re also falling prey to the fallacy described in the article. The fact that some conditions are better (access to health care, roads, schools) doesn’t mean that all conditions are better, or that all are sufficient for the avoidance of impoverished, seriously damaging elements in peoples’ lives.

Now, people may not realize the benefits they do have, true. But that’s true of everyone.

27. Spot on re arts educators and the ‘First Class Mind’…many “arts” educators (and many artists) tend to grade (or appraise the value of) the student (the individual) rather than the work (or the piece in question)…as I once heard through the grapevine ‘it’s about being a “Trinity student”‘…

28. With regard to the discussion in some of the comments above as to whether there are clearly “distinct” male and female categories in sexually reproducing organisms: I would recommend Melissa Hines’ book Brain Gender (OUP, 2004), especially Chapters 2 and 3, where she lays out how a lot of research into gender differences at the hormonal, brain developmental, and even genetic level, seems to show the need for a “multidimensional model” of gender, or a “gender continuum” that is not characterised by two and only two discrete categories (100% female and 100% male) but that includes a lot of grey area in between.

She discusses the variability in hormone levels in male and female organisms and the fact that males and females always have each others’ hormones anyway, just in different quantitites and activated at different times; how oestrogen, for example, is fundamental in converting testosterone in males to estradiol which has a strong influence on many masculinising characteristics and how of course females have testosterone as well; and most significantly, she discusses intersex conditions.

Most people aren’t really aware of these conditions and lump them together under the categories of “hermaphroditism”, “asexual” and what have you. But just to consider a few of these conditions:

CAH, Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia, where female (XX) fetuses display androgen levels similar to those of males and are masculinised during fetal development as a result (displaying ambiguous or partially fused genitals caused by the fetus’s virilisation).
CAIH, Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, where the cells of male (XY) fetuses are deficient in their response to androgen and are born with feminine external genitalia (these children are usually reared as female until the lack of menarche reveals their XY genetic coding).
PAIH, Partial Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, where XY fetuses become partially feminised and are typically born with ambigous-appearing external genitalia.

As an illustration of the “continuum” that Hines mentions, it’s interesting to note how the ambiguous external genitalia of these intersex individuals really look like an intermediate developmental stage between female and male external genitalia. The masculinised XX individuals, for example, are often born with fused labia (in some cases almost resembling a scrotum!) and / or an overdeveloped clitoris which in extreme cases resembles a small penis. The feminised XY individuals typically have feminine-typical external genitalia or underdeveloped male external genitalia.

Intersex condition such as these (there are several others, and they have interesting effects on the development of the internal reproductive system as well) fit somewhere along a gradient on a gender continuum where male-typical individuals are on one end and female-typical individuals on the other. Most people fit generally within a distribution concentrated at each end depending on the rate of concordance between their genetic constitution and hormonal production, but there’s not really any such thing as a 100% female or 100% male! There’s a lot of variability. People with intersex conditions fit on the gradient somewhere in between the “male-typical” and “female-typical” distributions by virtue of their differing hormonal levels in relation to their genetic sex – the differing concordance between these on a sliding scale. So by keeping the existence of intersex individuals in mind, and the normal variability in the production of hormones associated with male or female development (we are all androgynous to some degree as atheistengineer pointed out above, and it differs from individual to individual), it becomes more convenient than accurate to insist that “male” and “female” halves of the species are categorically distinct and that they represent the exclusive forms of gender. Yes, most individuals fall within the distributions for “male-typical” or “female-typical” gender (indicating a concordance between their genetic sex and gender identity during life which is influenced by hormones), and yes, there are clearly distinguishable and differentating characteristics between male-typical and female-typical individuals (such as females having the capacity for gestation whereas males do not), but there’s certainly a sliding scale in between as well where the two ends of the spectrum gradually merge. For everyday purposes it’s convenient to refer to male and female categories but that is technically a discontinuous characterisation…!