Hostirad (hostirad) wrote,

Yesterday was the last full day of the 2006 Human Behavior and Evolution Society conference. It was the high point of the conference for me because of the number of paper presentations on evolution and religion and because of the presence of Daniel Dennett.

I sat behind Dennett during the plenary sessions and the symposia on religion and was fascinated by his rapt attention to the talks and his vigorous note-taking. Great thinkers are forever students. At noon there was a special panel session on the Dover school board case, with contributions by Judge John E. Jones, Dennett, Paul Gross, and others. Jones got a standing ovation from the packed hall before he spoke a word. He was amused by this, noting that this had never happened to him before. He said that right-wing web sites had recently accused him of making his ruling as a publicity stunt to kick off a "world tour," and then quipped that it seems his world tour had started. Dennett, after effusively praising Jones for his ruling and his well-written decision, took issue with a minor point in the decision. Jones indicated that modern evolutionary theory does not rule out a Creator. Dennett pointed out that evolutionary theory does, in fact, rule out certain notions of such a Creator even if it does not rule out all possible Creators.

Dennett's keynote talk that evening was based on the talk he has been using for his book tour for Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Having already read the book, I was already familiar with most of his points. Nonetheless, his presentation was a virtuoso performance, a pleasure to behold. The talk began with a number of slides graphically illustrating how animals can be infected by parasites that alter the host's behavior for the benefit of the parasite. Naturally, this set up very nicely the idea that humans are hosts to infecting religious memes. Of course, not all religious memes are as destructive as biological parasites, and some act in a mutualistic fashion whereby humans derive some benefits. Dennett emphasized that he was not so much interested in demonstrating whether religious ideas are true or false as he is in getting people to understand the behavioral consequences of holding various sets of memes. His one policy recommendation is to make study of all world religions mandatory in the school system, from grade 1 to 12.

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