New podcast episode: David Lahti | Nature, Culture & Evolution

@jstump and David Lahti talk about cultural evolution and how the ideas interplay with the current landscape of faith and science in the United States.


Looks great! He has high credentials. I am looking forward to this. Thanks

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This is a very good interview with a man who has PhDs in both philosophy and biology (I’d like to see him get together with @DOL Dr Denis Lamoureux, who has PhD in theology and biology, too).

Some thought-provoking quotes:

[M}y closest interest right now, is studying the evolution of behavior, especially learned behavior.

And what we mean by culture in biology is any socially learned trait that can change through time and therefore be different in different populations. So just as language is culture in humans, and so you can go into a different geographical area, and people are going to be speaking differently, and as a matter of fact they might speak so differently that they won’t be able to understand each other, the same thing happens in birds. And so we’re looking into this very process in birds because their generation is only a year, our generation is much longer than that, their variation is much less, but they go through the same developmental process of learning, songbirds do, from their elders, as we do in our language.

I do like birds but I also have this other motivation which is to try to understand how ideas change through time, human ideas and especially the subject of my first PhD, which is moral ideas. Like how did our moral ideals come about and why is there variation now? You have to look at this philosophically, theologically, sociologically, anthropologically, evolutionarily in order to get a sort of a big picture of why this is going on. And the philosophical or theological wrinkle of this, or aspect of this, is understanding whether our views are true or not and how we are to assess that, which is enormously different from anything that biology can deal with.

All of our beliefs have some sort of history, both developmentally within ourselves and then other people who have held those ideas before us. But what I do think is that sometimes a lack of awareness of where these ideas come from, can make us think that the ideas that we happen to have, that we maybe haven’t investigated or criticized in ourselves to the extent that we could, we might be tempted to think that they have a different status than they really do

And so the reason that they’re (YEC) interested in evolution is not because they’re genuinely concerned that it’s not good science. That’s more of a symptom than the root cause, I would say. It’s that people are worried that the new atheists are correct, in that once you accept evolution, you’ll realize how stupid your faith is, and you’ll abandon it. And so it ends up being two trenches on the opposite side of a no man’s land where you have the creationists on one side and the anti-theistic evolutionists on the other and strangely enough they agree on one thing, and that is that evolution and faith don’t mix

When I read Genesis one, I think of it differently. When I think about God, I think about him differently, because of evolution. And I would often summarize, even just to myself so I can remember this, I summarize it as three H’s: history, humility and holism.

Is there any way in which your theology affects your scientific work, your understanding of evolution?
It has a metaphysical effect on me. Whereas I think if I had a worldview where I was, “just the facts, man,” and I tried to keep everything limited by the scientific worldview, I would be hard pressed to have the same sort of respect, or the same sort of deep meaning of those kinds of discoveries, that I do when I believe as I do, that the universe has a purpose, and that everything in it does.

Thank you, @jstump and Dr Lahti!


Thanks @Randy. Though it’s not quite getting the two of them together, my conversation with Lamoureux is coming up in a couple of weeks!


Fascinating life’s journey, and it seems we have a lot to learn in this area. The closing comments even give an optimistic perspective on this contentious election season!


Thanks @jpm for mentioning this. I found it very interesting. In fact I immediatly went to the index of the new Damasio book to see if he cited Lahti. He didn’t but it would not have surprised me if he did. If @jstump were to bring Antonio Damasio on for podcast episode I think it would also be very interesting.

I found Mr Lahti’s life story very relatable in terms of the starting with nature out there before extending a similar interest to humankind. I never got into laboratory science but I definitely appreciate those who further our frontiers on that front and enjoy learning about what is being discovered. I resonated with this statement by David Lahti:

I think if I had a worldview where I was, “just the facts, man,” and I tried to keep everything limited by the scientific worldview, I would be hard pressed to have the same sort of respect, or the same sort of deep meaning of those kinds of discoveries, that I do when I believe as I do, that the universe has a purpose, and that everything in it does.

In spite of being a non-deist, I’ve never been tempted by scientism. The idea that one can control what is true by adopting a just-the-facts,-mam attitude to control what beliefs to allow in is pretty repulsive to me. The true naturalist goes out into the world to meet and discover what is there, not to confirm other beliefs to which one is committed.

I too believe “that the universe has a purpose, and that everything in it does” or else why does the universe not run down and devolve into what is simpler? Instead we see the early chaos of the universe become ordered and multiple generations of stars lead to the formation of heavier elements and eventually, under the right conditions, life … and then minds, consciousness, language and culture. The cosmos as a whole continues to unfold in surprising ways. Either someone is steering it or else it does itself have purposes which we can only guess at (except for those who accept authoritative testimony). I lean toward thinking it has purposes which are above our pay grade to know. Even calling them purposes as something pre-decided upon is probably projecting our own nature on to some greater which includes but is not limited to us.

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Excellent summary @Randy those were the highlights for me as well!

This gets beyond biology and into the social Sciences.

My view is that religion and people of faith have influenced the evolution of human learned behavior in the last 12,000 years


Lahti is an interesting cat! Since we share the same interests, language and morals, I’d be fascinated to chat with him someday.

What he means by culture in biology is no different than what is meant by culture in philosophy or sociology. Here’s a bit of “cultural knowledge” from a sociologist and one of my riffs on culture:

Human language requires “shared meanings” on numerous levels. Obviously, people have to agree upon the meaning of words, but we also have to agree how to use them, which translates into syntax and grammar. If someone invented their own, private grammar, no one would understand them. Human language thus relies entirely upon shared meanings and cooperation to function. Anthropologist Sarah Hrdy credits sharing the duties of parenthood for laying the groundwork of human cooperation, making possible language and, eventually, morality.

Still, “shared meanings” is a difficult concept to wrap the mind around. What does it include? “Common knowledge” is an easier idea to grasp. One aspect of this is our “declarative knowledge” of facts and events. Science is an example of shared factual knowledge, while history is the name we give shared knowledge of past events. But these examples hardly scratch the surface of cultural knowledge. It also encompasses “procedural knowledge,” or what we might call “know-how” and skills.

Some things can be learned only by practical experience, not by descriptions or rules. In the classic example, there’s a world of difference between riding a bicycle and being able to describe a bike and explain how to ride it. The same holds true for speaking a language, knowing good and evil, and falling in love. None of those human activities can be truly understood without practical experience, and each of the examples I provided is appropriate to a different stage of life. We learn how to speak words as infants, but children don’t master the grammar of their native language until the age of 5 or so. Kids begin learning proper behavior as toddlers, but society doesn’t hold them morally or legally responsible for their actions until they’re 10-13 years old. And if a boy that age told his mother he’d fallen in love, she’d likely smile and explain that what he felt wasn’t really love. He’s not mature enough for that experience.


I thought this was good. In the podcast with Sean McDowell, the question arose of how the Bible and faith can affect our interpretation of science. I think that properly placed, we can put our wonder and reference here, provided we are willing to consider alternatives to that interpretation, too.

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I’m struggling with Dr Lahti’s last paragraph. In it, he seems to say that while we often get our priorities wrong and demonize the other side, it’s better to care than to be lukewarm. In some ways, I guess that’s true. However, as a philosophy doctor, I suspect he also would say it’s better to say nothing where nothing is needed.

It’s been said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” but sometimes it seems that the main reason evil exists is when good men make it out of nothing.

Probably what he’s saying is it’s better to care for others in a mistaken way, than to not care at all. Thanks.

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Bumping this up because it’s a rerun today!

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“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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