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The Robotic Mind

As I was reading the comment section to “Our Anthropomorphic  Bias” I was struck by the...

Book Review - "Social Bonding"

Social Bonding and Nurture Kinship - Compatibility between Cultural and Biological Approaches...

Can Life Be Defined In One Word?

A year or so back Carl Zimmer asked the science world if life could be defined in three words.I...

Naive Group Selection

You would think after thirty years of numerous critics exposing the shortcomings of...

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Will we recognise alien life if we find it?
The answer to that is: if it’s a very basic life form we will only know it as living if it’s based on carbon and water. The reason for saying that is that you only have to look at the articles  and comments on this subject here at Science 2.0 over the last few weeks to see that almost everyone has an axe to grind, or a hobbyhorse to display, or they are led astray by careless language.

Life, it seems, is a subject close to everyone’s heart, (no pun intended) except, of course, for those who consider the quest for certainty about its meaning to be mere pseudoscience.
The problem, in a word, is language.
Carl Zimmer’s recent article Can Life Be Defined in Three Words raised just that issue.
He referred to the many attempts that have been made by scientists to define what life is, and in doing so, unwittingly exposed some of the main problems in reaching a definition of life.
He described Radu Popa’s study in which Popa went to the trouble of counting the definitions of life, and gave some of the definitions. For example, “Some scientists define life as something capable of metabolism.”

Can you see the problem with that approach?

Jerry Coyne is a goose.
There, I've said it.
I mean it in the nicest possible way of course, but it had to be said.
And the reason for this unseemly outburst?
Well, if you want to see something really unseemly, check out Jerry's column of 8th February 2011 titled "Vernon + Midgley + evolution=Fail", where he referred to the British philosopher Mary Midgley thus; Mary Midgley, famous for completely misunderstanding modern evolutionary biology and for attacking Richard Dawkins' book The Selfish Gene on completely ludicrous grounds. (See Dawkins' response here) In a prime case of the bland leading the blind..." and indulged in other cheap shots at Midgley's expense.
This was foolish for two reasons.
In his article “The World Is Not Woven From Real Stuff” Sascha Vongehr raised the important matter of quantum physics and our perception of the natural world.

He argued that “the feeling that facts are just out there in a really existing world, is strictly wrong” and asked “However, how can a layperson best grasp that direct realism is wrong?”

The reader was then taken through the mental exercise of considering how familiar objects such as billiard balls behave, that is, they lose motion. This was used to demonstrate that “real things” cannot be made of smaller things inside smaller things because eventually “real stuff out of smaller real stuff slows down and collapses into a motionless heap over time.”
Michael White made a comment in response to a poorly explained point I made about behaviours in the original version of Twelve Misunderstandings of Evolution, but in his haste to present his own take on the issue he added this: “The reason tigers hunt alone and lions hunt in packs is genetic. Anyone who doubts that should propose what kind of environmental change would make tigers, as they are now genetically, hunt in packs.”

I think it’s safe to assume that most readers would find nothing to criticize in that statement. The influence of the gene-centric view of evolution and of life has been so overwhelming that statements of that type provoke no doubts at all; they are accepted as being totally uncontroversial. But the statement is wrong.
My recent article The Origins of Virtue sparked a discussion in which Josh Witten has assumed that Gerhard Adam and I are confused as to the subject of genic selection. The confusion lies entirely with Josh, but the matter deserves clarification for readers.
Gerhard and I (I hope I’m not putting words into Gerhard’s mouth that he would find unpalatable!) have no problem with the purely technical aspects of genic selection. The problem arises when conclusions are derived from these studies that are of a purely personal nature, mere opinions and prejudices with no scientific basis. As a self-styled champion of the scientific method, Josh should be supporting us in this endeavour, unfortunately the opposite is the case.