Schopenhauer on evolution


I don’t know if by the time of writing the Fourfold root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, Darwin had published his Origin*. In this book he criticizes De Lamarck. He writes about De Lamarck

For he quite seriously maintains and tries to prove at length, that the shape of each animal species, the weapons peculiar to it, and its organs of every sort destined for outward use, were by no means present at the origin of that species, but have on the contrary come into being gradually in the course of time and through continued generation, in consequence of the exertions of the animal s will, evoked by the nature of its position and surroundings, through its own repeated efforts and the habits to which these gave rise.

He [Schopenhauer] writes that this could not have been the case. He says there is a simple objection to this. He writes

[…]he overlooks the obvious objection which may be made, that long before the organs necessary for its preservation could have been produced by means of such endeavours as these through countless generations, the whole species must have died out from the want of them. To such a degree may we be blinded by a hypothesis which has once laid hold of us!

He says though

Nevertheless in this instance the hypothesis arose out of a very correct and profound view of Nature : it is an error of genius, which in spite of all the absurdity it contains, still does honour to its originator.

He has praise for De Lamarck while at the same time blames the French for the error. He writes

The true part of it belongs to De Lamarck, as an investigator of Nature ; he saw rightly that the primary element which has  determined the animal s organisation, is the will of that animal itself. The false part must be laid to the account of the backward state of Metaphysics in France, where the views of Locke and of his feeble follower, Condillac, in fact still hold their ground and therefore bodies are held to be things in themselves, Time and Space qualities of things in themselves ; and where the great doctrine of the Ideal nature of Space and of Time and of all that is represented in them, which has been so extremely fertile in its results, has not yet penetrated.

He writes that error in De Lamarck’s formulation lies in assuming

the animal to have first been without any clearly defined organs, but also without any clearly defined tendencies, and to have been equipped only with perception.

He continues to write that this idea if carried to its logical end, De Lamarck

ought to have assumed a primary animal which, to be consistent, must have originally had neither shape nor organs, and then proceeded to transform itself according to climate and local conditions into myriads of animal shapes of all sorts, from the gnat to the elephant.

This primary animal, he writes is simply the will to live and as such is not physical but metaphysical. He argues that

the shape and organisation of each animal species has been determined by its own will according to the circumstances in which it wished to live ; not however as a thing physical in Time, but on the contrary as a thing metaphysical outside Time.

The will to live, he writes is

the prius, the thing in itself : its phenomenon (mere representation in the cognitive intellect and its forms of Space and Time) is the animal, fully equipped with all its organs which represent the will to live in those particular circumstances.

and that it is the intellect[knowledge] that is adapted to the mode of life of each animal.

I think that gives a brief outline of his thoughts on the development of organisms to what we have now. And so to end this post, he writes

If, on this occasion, anyone were to raise the question as to whether Nature ought not to have provided insects with at least sufficient intelligence to prevent them from flying into the flame of a candle, our answer would be : most certainly; only she did not know that men would make candles and light them, and natura nihil agit frustra[ Nature does nothing in vain].

* He could have been familiar with the Darwinian theory since this edition is written in 1879, 2 decades after Darwin published the Origins.

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About makagutu

As Onyango Makagutu I am Kenyan, as far as I am a man, I am a citizen of the world

33 thoughts on “Schopenhauer on evolution

  1. Mordanicus says:

    The will to life reminds me of Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene”, in which Dawkins argues that the primary drive behind evolution the aim of our genes to be immortal.

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    • makagutu says:

      That reminds me I have the Selfish Gene somewhere in my reading list. That is an interesting view.
      In Schopenhauer’s case, he writes that the will to life is true for all things even lower animals with little or no intellect.

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      • Mordanicus says:

        After I had read “The Selfish Gene”, I drew the following comparison: god is for our genes, what big brother is for Oceania’s ruling party, an illusion for distracting the truth.

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  2. tildeb says:

    This is another example of the seductive power of metaphysical thinking. What is the will to life if not an emergent property of physical interactions? To suggest such a will is disembodied, like a hazy of invisible driver of cellular activities, is the age-old and quite erroneous notion of motion requiring a similar kind of disembodied agency.

    And it’s dangerous to interpret physical interactions as directional, as if this disembodied agency were still lurking about guiding and manipulating and hiding purpose in materialistic interactions from those of us who seek to understand through knowledge. Genes, for example, behave as they do for chemical reasons alone. No secret driver with some kind of intention imposed on the interactions is necessary, yet this the message believers hear when biologists like Dawkins use the colloquial term of naturalistic chemical and physical interactions in the form of such words as ‘aim’ or ‘purpose’ or ‘reason’. Genes, for example, don’t care about anything including immortality; but conglomerated into an organism with behaviour and viewed from a distance, with some descriptive prosody thrown in for rhetorical value, it seems like they do.

    This is not evidence for showing us value in metaphysical epistemology but a clear warning of how its use can so easily and for so long and with such great effect continue to deceive even big-brained people like Schopenhauer.

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    • Mordanicus says:

      Dawkins used this metaphoric language to explain his gene-centred view of evolution as opposed to an individual oriented perspective. No doubt about that Dawkins ever really believed that genes should care about anything. Unfortunately many religious are not able to recognise metaphoric language, and mistake it for metaphysics.

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      • makagutu says:

        I don’t think genes have any care in the world. They are blind in a sense. And it is true many people don’t understand this or haven’t given it much thought as it were.

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    • makagutu says:

      Metaphysical thinking can truly be both persuasive and misleading, on that we are in total agreement. Unless, I misunderstood what Schopenhauer writes, he writes the intellect works to aid the will. It is the will that comes first and then intellect comes later. I could be making an assumption about him, but I don’t think he denies evolution. His contention as I understand it is, if animals developed means to protect themselves as a response to predation, then the particular species would have been extinct while developing this mechanism. He says elsewhere that young hegoats start to defend themselves with non-existent horns when they could have used their teeth which at that time is already developed. He is not ascribing this will to life to any disembodied being or deity but to exist in each and every animal or life for that matter.

      He says, De Lamarck’s theory is a work of genius. He doesn’t refute it.

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  3. Good morning Mak!
    Very interesting, these ideas on Schopenhauer and Lamarck. However, I think Schopenhauer missed out on Darwin: the Origin of Species was published in 1859 and Schopenhauer died in 1860.
    I think Schopenhauer was ahead of his time in many respects. Like Mordanicus said before, Schopenhauer’s Will could fit in well with Darwin’s theory. It’s not a conscious sort of Will and it’s not limited to humans, but applies to all living things. The fact that he called it ‘Will’ has caused a lot of misunderstanding, I think.
    I’ll be curious to see the discussion on this one! 🙂

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    • makagutu says:

      Hello Lively, hope you are doing great.

      Aha, I wasn’t quite sure whether he had read Darwin. He sure was ahead of his time, and like Nietzsche after him felt he was not appreciated by his peers and that his audience was to be in the future.

      His treatment of the word Will indeed has caused a lot of misunderstanding.

      I am interested too in seeing where the discussion leads.

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  4. I usually do not gather a crowd of cheerleaders with this, but besides deserving his credits for his fierce stand against religious brainwashing and their continuous attempt to infiltrate public education, Dawkins’ evolutionism is as feeble and nonsensical as any theory meant to counteract another wrong theory could be. Because while creationism is logical and rational for anyone believing the existence of a creator, evolutionism lacks the truly major scientific backbone and data, its otherwise superb ingenuity would require. Creationism is so simple once you accept any idea of a “designer”, and this can be YAHWEH, Jesus, Allah, Brahman, Vishnu or Ridley Scott’s “engineers”. Yes, evolutionism IS needed as the only scientifically looking theory capable of keeping scientists busy “ever looking for the one…”, and yes it has come to be accepted as a valid hypothesis, BUT it has been actually so badly mistaken for the otherwise scientifically valid time-based genetic development within species, that it seemed to have deserved the leap of faith, to become a trans-species development. I am not going to enter any scientific argument, because science stops at the border of in-species genetic adaptation and development, becoming philosophical daydreaming beyond such…
    Take religion out of life, and you’ll have people return to a common sense, better than any Decalogue…
    Take evolutionism out of science and you will lose what? A few weeks ago I took my kids to London’s Nat. History Museum. Enjoyed all displays without having to ever mention evolution. Why would I need it to SEE what has been found and it’sthere…. Oh, evolution might be needed to IMAGINE what has never been found, and cannot be there..?!
    QED!?
    I’m glad to have left religion on moral, ethical, rational and logical grounds, because should I have waited for valid scientific reasons, I would have remained the religious zealot I was…

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    • tildeb says:

      evolutionism lacks the truly major scientific backbone and data, its otherwise superb ingenuity would require.

      If I found myself thinking along these lines about, say, quantum theory – that it is lacking ‘backbone’ as a scientific theory, so to speak – and then came across a bunch of physicists who seemed to be very bright people for their understanding of a difficult subject who told me it was brilliant physics that successfully described how the world worked, I would not assume for a moment that I was in a position of equivalent knowledge about physics as they were to justify any sense that our differing positions about a specific subject of the field – quantum theory – were in any way, shape, or form equivalent.

      In other words, I understand that such differences of opinion between me and esteemed leaders in scientific fields are not a reflection of what’s true in reality – something I think I understand about it that all these big brained folk have missed – but clearly a reflection about me and my state of insufficient knowledge. I presume I am ignorant when I stand contrary to, what seems to be in the eyes of those highly respected in their fields to be, science ‘good’ science, that my lack of knowledge influences the quality of my contrary opinion, and that there are people of great knowledge in these fields who can help me improve my knowledge deficit. To think otherwise is a colossal kind of arrogance, isn’t it, a presumption of equivalency where none is indicated?

      If I thought as you do that evolutionary theory was lacking, I would automatically assume I had no clue what I was talking about and that this was a reflection of my inadequate and insufficient knowledge about the subject because it’s a theory. That means I can entrust this understanding with my life. Libertyofthinking, why don’t you know this?

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      • Yes, I am used to be hinted of arrogancy…
        The subtlety of your wording shows great understanding of why evolutionism must be kept at its unquestionable, almost religious status. What worries me, is your attempt to equal at least on this level, evolutionism with physics. I shall therefore leave your joy unharmed any further, having not for a moment had the intent of innitiating a debate.
        I’ve made my point of view. Be well.

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        • tildeb says:

          To be clear, LibertyofThinking, you don’t understand what the term ‘theory’ means; you don’t understand what evolution is, and you don’t understand why it is true. You don’t understand how this knowledge affects you, and you don’t understand how it comports with every other avenue of inquiry. You don’t understand how overwhelming is the evidence for it, don’t understand how it has successfully predicted findings, don’t understand how it informs medicine, don’t understand how it works seamlessly with genetics, and don’t understand just how colossal is your ignorance.

          All of this is correctable.

          Yet you simply don’t care or you would first recognize why being ignorant is a problem and then fix this knowledge deficit you are now aware of. There are lots of great resources to do this. Yet even this obvious lack of understanding you embrace apparently makes not the slightest impression on the esteem with which you hold your contrary opinion.

          This makes you a fool.

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          • From time to time, I take upon myself the honour of challenging in my own way, some of my deeply respected friend Noel’s posts, in a personally respectful manner, never condescending to direct attacks and name callings, as you allow yourself to do.
            It is easy from behind your supermanic anonymity to do this.
            I take pride in wishing you, as fool as I may have made of myself, all the best in your quest of silencing all who would dare to question ALL you so well seem to know and understand.
            After all, OMNISCIENCE cannot be questioned…

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          • tildeb says:

            But your responses are neither respectful of the science nor respectful of why it produces knowledge. This is insulting to people who do what you don’t: bother to understand why. That method of inquiry that produces cell phones and satellites and your life-saving medical interventions is identical to the one used to arrive at understanding why evolution is true. When you state that understanding why evolution is true has almost religious status you are showing a profoundly ignorant opinion that is not just factually incorrect but belittling to the effort required to become knowledgeable about it. You equate faith-based belief (like what informs religion) to confidence in knowledge (what informs evolutionary theory). You dare assume that you are ‘challenging’ the belief of others when you criticize this confidence when this is simply not true; you are not challenging this knowledge because you don’t even know what it is. In its place, you promote ignorance and think yourself polite to believe your opinion is magically equivalent to the life long work of tens of thousand of practicing biologists. It’s not. It’s incredibly arrogant and insulting and egotistical.You are foolish for not correcting this state of mind… believing as you do that you already know it’s just another kind of faith when in fact and practice such confidence is no such thing. It’s a matter of knowledge – something you don’t realize is missing from your ‘challenging’ opinion.

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          • makagutu says:

            I think we can agree to disagree without recourse to name calling.

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      • makagutu says:

        Whereas I agree with you for taking the word of those esteemed fellows in any given field, for a long time priests were the teachers and people believed them. Am sure, you will agree, that as a sceptic, you would question established institutions and where possible challenge what is accepted knowledge or what we say has become the norm and that wouldn’t necessarily mean rejecting good science. I think the only person who wouldn’t be qualified to make a comment is one who hasn’t read the theory in question but decides to say it is wrong because they don’t know.

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        • tildeb says:

          I do not ‘believe’ (in the religious sense) evolution is true because some people say it is; I use these educated people (people highly respected for their knowledge in their fields) who say something is true to indicate to me that my contrary opinion is, in all likelihood, based on not knowing stuff that they know. My point is that my contrary opinion to these people is not equivalent in knowledge and so I estimate my opinion’s value to be less than. It falls to me to bring my knowledge level up. My contrary opinion is a red flag to me that my knowledge is inadequate rather than continue blithely onwards with a contrary opinion equivalent to talking out of my ass and believing myself knowledgeable enough to assume I am not ignorant when my contrary opinion indicates I am!

          I am not name-calling regarding LibertyofThinking. I have explained why he is both ignorant and foolish for maintaining his contrary opinion based on insufficient knowledge. I have explained why this maintenance is not an innocent byproduct but maintained in spite of and in the face of compelling evidence. He should be offended that he foolish and ignorant. This is a good sign even though he is trying to argue that he rejects gaining knowledge in favour of sustaining a state of ignorance while believing his contrary opinion still has equivalent merit to those whose opinions are much more knowledgeable than his. His offense needs to be redirected to himself.

          Not all opinions are equal; sometimes people hold very foolish ideas for really poor reasons. This is what LibertyofThinking is doing. The way out of this intellectual morass for him isn’t to play the victim and blame others – who simply point out why he is both foolish and ignorant and revealing what negative effect this ignorance has on reducing the quality of the opinion rendered – as being rude; it’s a clarion call to put aside the childish hurt feelings and bloody well crack open the arrogant mind and learn.

          Look, intellectual integrity involves having the courage to recognize why a change in opinion is warranted and a willingness to act on it. Without this courage, this willingness, one becomes encased in various states of ignorance. All of us suffer form this state. But believing that ignorance is of some minor, secondary, concern regarding the quality of a contrary opinion is a guaranteed way to continue to fool one’s self. If he wants to stop being called ignorant and foolish, then that choice is his, not mine.

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          • makagutu says:

            How is your argument different from the fallacy of appeal to authority? Unless am wrong, I think that is what you are asserting and calling others names for asking that you question that established institution of science. By asking that it be questioned, I am not implying a conspiracy theory by scientist to mislead everyone but asking you to for a moment question that authority you appeal to. I agree with you opinion can’t take the same place as knowledge claims, but I think even Dawkins mentions in one of his books of an experience with a professor when he was in college who after teaching a given theory for several number years was shown that it was wrong and had to change.

            And it is not a question a childish hurt feelings to ask for civility, even in a science debate. What happens is you deflect the issues under discussion and instead of responding to that, time is spent dealing with this or that insult or epithet. Maybe in your lexicon, ignorant and foolish are not insults or rude, but they are in mine and as such, I think they are not warranted.

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          • tildeb says:

            Not at all. I’m saying use a disagreement as a springboard to finding out for yourself what they know that you don’t. This will serve people well.

            Now, as to being a name-caller, I’m going to explain why.

            Why do biologists accept evolutionary theory as a fact? Because someone told them to?

            *sigh*

            Really? You think this is a good point? You think that’s why every major scientific body in the world endorses it without qualification… because all these hundreds of thousands of working scientists are too busy being yes-people that they can’t think for themselves?

            Really? You think I accept evolution because I appeal to authority? You’ve read WEIT, The Greatest Show on Earth; do Coyne and Dawkins believe in evolution because they have been told to believe? Or is there something a little more to it?

            Let’s review.

            Evolution is a theory. A scientific theory. That means something rather important, something other than a tentative hypothesis, doesn’t it? It means something far beyond the silly notion that biologists and the rest of us plebes ‘believe’ in it because we have to, because we are told to, because we must do so. We actually read such books as OoS to find out for ourselves. Some people read such books and then read more, and more, and more, and find out just how powerful is the explanation, just how much research it stimulates, how much applicable knowledge it produces. Some people don;t. They presume their assumptions contrary to this scientific consensus is somehow valid on its own merits. I find it incredible that people like LoT are literate enough to be able to use the internet to post comments can come up with such confidence in their simplistic contrary tripe in any fair comparison.

            The suggestion that biologists and geologists and medical doctors and paleontologists and pharmaceutical researchers and mining company executives and geneticists and vulcanists and and chemists and oceanographers and anthropologists and linguists so on are somehow ‘forced’ to go along with believing in evolution is not just bizarre but absurdly delusion. The ‘conspiracy’ angle is absolutely unwarranted, and entirely facetious. Going along with someone who suggests this silliness of a conspiracy should be taken seriously, that the conspiracy opinion is deserving of any respect whatsoever wihtout compelling evidence of how so many are integral to it, is a capitulation of intellectual integrity at the least and intelligence at the worst. There is, literally, no excuse for this ignorance to be treated with anything other than outright contempt because it’s so easily and demonstrably a lie. It’s a falsehood. It is not true. It is imaginary. It is an imposition of a conspiratorial belief of immense proportion on to reality that is factually wrong, that has not a shred of compelling evidence in its support. Evolution is true because it accurately explains how life changes over time. Every, single, avenue of scientific inquiry that deals with biological life in reality supports with compelling evidence the predictive, testable, and reliable evolutionary explanation that now informs therapies, technologies, and applications that WORK for everyone everywhere all the time. How much does all this matter?

            Well, against this explanatory power that works seamlessly with EVERY OTHER SCIENTIFIC INQUIRY only knowledge deniers can stand against it. Reality supports it. That’s not a trivial or biased ally out to hurt people’s feelings. Its actually a rather significant compensatory factor, wouldn’t you say?

            To not endorse probably the single greatest knowledge achievement of humanity but suggest it – rather than one’s understanding of it – somehow fails to meet the intellectual rigor of a conspiratorial believer is almost too stupid for words. To assume the conspiratorial angle is a worthy opinion able to stand contrary to reality itself is, I think, the pinnacle of arrogance if not a mental illness. To then go on and make shit up about the quality of support for dissenting voices – Expelled! for crying out loud, a religious movie aimed at misrepresenting science in order to try to make enough wiggle room for Oogity Boogity to be considered a legitimate alternative – is adding injury to insult. Calling such a knowledge denier arrogant and ignorant for sticking with a delusional absurdity when real knowledge is but a few keystrokes away is incredibly tame even if somewhat insensitive, wouldn’t you say?

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    • makagutu says:

      I have spent time a bit since I became irreligious to understand bits of science here and there to be able to make a contribution. The bible as Asimov rightly says, if read properly makes one an atheist, and it is this that happened though with a little nudging forward by reading Rand’s Fountainhead, Shelley’s In defence of Atheism and God Delusion.

      I would want to read the Origin of Species as written by Darwin, I have read Why Evolution is True and The Greatest Show on Earth, two very great books that lays a good case for evolution and that are very convincing.

      I don’t think Schopenhauer in his critique denies the fact of evolution but rather questions the central tenet as laid by De Lamarck and developed later by others.

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      • To clarify: I consider Schopenhauer a philosophical dwarf, arriving to no conclusion, wealthy enough to have continued shivering between metaphysics and whatever else.
        I have read the OoS as a child. Nice nature monograph, the wonders of a frustrated theology dropout, with a keen love for biology…
        What annoys me is the fact that someone like me, an agnostic atheist, is thought to must believe in evolutionism, or else…
        It took Francis Crick 20 years to revisit his directed panspermia theory, it may take much more for me, given my infinitesimal knowledge about molecular biology. I’m glad he didn’t have his head chopped off in 1973, otherwise he couldn’t have revise anything by 1993…

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        • makagutu says:

          In defense of Schopenhauer, I think as a student of the immortal Kant and as a student of both the Vedas and Upanishads, he succeeded in showing the problems associated with pure reason. And I notice he had such a great interest in other sciences. Am yet to read his insights on colour theory, and other sciences where he seems to have had an interest but I do think he was a man of great insight.

          It is sad though that most people, for whatever reason, think every time a question is asked about evolution, then whoever is asking is a creationist nor have they read any works on evolution which makes dialogue difficult and insights that would otherwise be gained are missed. I find this very sad!

          Now you keep growing my reading list, am going to ask you to petition nature to let me live long enough to read this books 😛

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          • You know my friend, how heartbreaking it is to see how petty and pathetic both the religious and the evolutionist establishments can be when it comes to defend their unquestionability? The religious establishment has learned though, that the Inquisition was wrong, while it looks as evolutionism’s vigilantes are just about embracing it. One could find a multitudes of wrongs in Ben Stein’s “Expelled”, but unfortunately his points are mostly valid.
            I have first hand heard about scientists who where afraid of being stigmatized and bullied by employers only for attending a creationist lecture. I have worked with brilliant scientists, founders of faculties, world experts in their fields, who have remained on the religious side, who have never compromised their academic duties and research, but have religious beliefs respected, and that in Eastern Europe, where stalinism was dumped once… They have learned that freedom MUST not exclude equally allowing information to be made available. Yet both establishments today fight to have the other one expelled from thinking… Exclusivism carries always in itself the seeds of its own destruction.

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          • tildeb says:

            Evolutionist establishment?

            Good grief. Now it’s a conspiracy, is it? I wonder what it will evolve into as we travel down this paranoid rabbit hole… perhaps the Evolutionary Elders of Zion?

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          • Have you ever thought maybe this, latest example of an evolutionary vigilante rampage “comment” may be offensive to a Jew, like myself?
            Noel, I’m out my friend, this is getting weird and aggressive. Not my world. Sorry…

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          • tildeb says:

            Now a comment is a rampage? You’ve led a sheltered life. And if you are a Jew then the analogy should be a wake-up call to you because that’s where conspiratorial thinking leads: to the Big Lie. But you seem determined to try to be someone else’s victim rather than a product of your own making. You should rethink your goal.

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  5. aguywithoutboxers says:

    A truly lively thread you’ve created here, my Nairobi brother! 🙂 I need to read “The Selfish Gene.” How did I miss this yesterday? I’m sending warmer weather your way!

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  6. Hello again, Mak!
    That was quite a discussion!
    It may sound a bit silly, but I wondered how attached I am to the theory of evolution (I’ve read Darwin and Dawkins and am a sceptic, as you know.) I’ve recently read an article by someone who said Lamarck might not have been as wrong as he seemed because of epigenetics…sometimes scientific achievement seems like a carrousel, too. And as long as we’re going round and round, maybe we shouldn’t be too confident that we’ve achieved anything. There have been previous times where scientific optimism knew no bounds and now, looking back, we think we know much better.
    PS: Or I might have become too philosophical for my own good! 🙂

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    • makagutu says:

      Hello Lively, it is good always to be a sceptic though I think they are people who have written in criticism of scepticism. I want to read A.C Grayling’s The refutation of scepticism.

      You haven’t become too philosophical as yet. And I sure agree that what we know must be open to challenge, everywhere and always.

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