Friday, September 08, 2006

What is Darwinism? (1) David Stove's Decalog

The late Australian philosopher David Stove made a list of ten propositions made by Darwinians, So You Think You Are a Darwinian?

Stove writes:

Most educated people nowadays, I believe, think of themselves as Darwinians. If they do, however, it can only be from ignorance: from not knowing enough about what Darwinism says. For Darwinism says many things, especially about our species, which are too obviously false to be believed by any educated person; or at least by an educated person who retains any capacity at all for critical thought on the subject of Darwinism.

If 'Darwinians' denote adherents of, whatever is denoted by 'Darwinism', it might be argued that Darwinians might be the experts on, what 'Darwinism' actually denotes.

What does Darwinism say? Darwinism says, whatever Darwinians say.

Later Stove writes:>/p>

What is needed to make someone an adherent of a certain school of thought is belief in all or most of the propositions which are peculiar to that school, and are believed either by all of its adherents, or at least by the more thoroughgoing ones. In any large school of thought, there is always a minority who adhere more exclusively than most to the characteristic beliefs of the school: they are the ‘purists’ or ‘ultras’ of that school. What is needed and sufficient, then, to make a person a Darwinian, is belief in all or most of the propositions which are peculiar to Darwinians, and believed either by all of them, or at least by ultra-Darwinians.

Not that simple, not at all that simple, Mr. Stove. After the discovery of Mendel's results in genetics, 'Darwinism' came to mean that an inherited trait in the offspring was a blend of the two instances of the same trait in the parents. This implies (1) that all inheritable traits are continous, and (2) that phenotype = genotype. The issue was first settled in the 1930s with the modern synthesis of Darwinian evolution and Mendelian inheritance.

Do modern Darwinians reject Mendelian inheritance? Of course they don't. That would be extremely ultra-Darwinian. So Stove's idea that ultra-Darwinists are the real Darwinist leads to the quant problem that modern day ultra-Darwinists aren't really ultra-Darwinists.

But let us have a walk-through of those propositions, shall we?

1. The truth is, ‘the total prostitution of all animal life, including Man and all his airs and graces, to the blind purposiveness of these minute virus-like substances’, genes.

According to Stove, this is Richard Dawkins quoting someone else while defending his book The Selfish Gene.

But this is more properly called genetic reductionism.

The main point in The Selfish Gene is to explain altruistic behavior among social animals. Animals living in large colonies, such as ants, bees and whasps, have sterile workers. These sterile workers do not abstain from having their own offspring, because they are given a religious upbringing or anything like that. No, its the chemistry, their genes.

The conclusion from this is that the unit of selection is not the individual organism, but the gene.

Taking genetic reductionism to its extremes is self-defeating, however. If your genes make you believe in genetic reductionism, anyone else with the same genes will also already believe in genetic reductionism, and anyone else without those genes cannot be persuaded, because they lack those genes.

However, let us be less extreme. In The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin attempts to argue for the position that there is only one human species in existence. Here is an except from chap. VII:

He who will read Mr. Tylor's and Sir J. Lubbock's interesting works (24. Tylor's 'Early History of Mankind,' 1865: with respect to gesture-language, see p. 54. Lubbock's 'Prehistoric Times,' 2nd edit. 1869.) can hardly fail to be deeply impressed with the close similarity between the men of all races in tastes, dispositions and habits. This is shewn by the pleasure which they all take in dancing, rude music, acting, painting, tattooing, and otherwise decorating themselves; in their mutual comprehension of gesture-language, by the same expression in their features, and by the same inarticulate cries, when excited by the same emotions. This similarity, or rather identity, is striking, when contrasted with the different expressions and cries made by distinct species of monkeys. There is good evidence that the art of shooting with bows and arrows has not been handed down from any common progenitor of mankind, yet as Westropp and Nilsson have remarked (25. 'On Analogous Forms of Implements,' in 'Memoirs of Anthropological Society' by H.M. Westropp. 'The Primitive Inhabitants of Scandinavia,' Eng. translat., edited by Sir J. Lubbock, 1868, p. 104.), the stone arrow-heads, brought from the most distant parts of the world, and manufactured at the most remote periods, are almost identical; and this fact can only be accounted for by the various races having similar inventive or mental powers.

Darwin's point here is that there are things that are not learnt, but are natural (innate) to all humans. It is our genes that are expressed through that which is common to all of us, not personal choices or social customs.

2 '…it is, after all, to [a mother’s] advantage that her child should be adopted’ by another woman.

According to Stove, this quotation is from The Selfish Gene, p. 110.

Looking again at social insects, we notice that the queen doesn't take care of her own offspring. She has workers to do that for her. If a woman (a female human) were to have as many children as she could possibly have, it would likewise be advantageous for her to have someone else to take care of the children - even if it were older siblings.

3. All communication is ‘manipulation of signal-receiver by signal-sender.’

Stove comments:

This profound communication, though it might easily have come from any used-car salesman reflecting on life, was actually sent by Dawkins, (in The Extended Phenotype, (1982), p. 57), to the readers whom he was at that point engaged in manipulating. Much as the devil, in many medieval plays, advises the audience not to take his advice.

An interesting comment considering that this is actually exactly, what the creationist Werner Gitt claims and uses to "disprove" evolution.

I would have to read The Extended Phenotype, , p. 57 to figure out, what Dawkins could have meant; but life is too short for that.

Anyway, what is in particular Darwininian in this quote? As mentioned, even creationists claim this. Are Creationists Darwinians? Are they lured by their genes to only believe that they are creationists?

4. Homosexuality in social animals is a form of sibling-altruism: that is, your homosexuality is a way of helping your brothers and sisters to raise more children.

According to Stove, "[t]his very-believable proposition is maintained by Robert Trivers in his book Social Evolution, (1985), pp. 198-9."

In what way is this proposition Darwinian? Do homosexuals take care of the children of their siblings? Again, I would need to read the page indicated to figure out, what is really meant, and again, life is too short for that.

5. In all social mammals, the altruism (or apparent altruism) of siblings towards one another is about as strong and common as the altruism (or apparent altruism) of parents towards their offspring.

Stove somments:

This proposition is an immediate consequence, and an admitted one, of the theory of inclusive fitness, which says that the degree of altruism depends on the proportion of genes shared. This theory was first put forward by W. D. Hamilton in The Journal of Theoretical Biology in 1964. Since then it has been accepted by Darwinians almost as one man and has revolutionized evolutionary theory. This acceptance has made Professor Hamilton the most influential Darwinian author of the last thirty years.

That's all Stove has to say about this proposition.

However, notice that propositions 4 and 5 both deal with altruism, which happens to be the general theme of sociobiology. How do we explain altruism, if everything is a struggle for survival? And again, the point is that the unit of selection is not the individual, but the gene. But the proposition here could also be defended by appealing to imitation: siblings learn altruism towards each other by imitating the altruism of their parents. Darwin does mention imitation as an important factor, so a Darwinian could have it either way.

6. '…no one is prepared to sacrifice his life for any single person, but everyone will sacrifice it for more than two brothers [or offspring], or four half-brothers, or eight first-cousins.'

Another Hamilton quote (Italics are Stove's, however). As Stove mentions, this proposition is a consequence of the theory of inclusive fitness. So it's not really a new proposition, and Stove has nothing else to say about it. And again, this is not a necessary proposition for a Darwinian.

7. Every organism has as many descendants as it can.

Stove comments:

Compare Darwin, in The Origin of Species, p. 66: ‘every single organic being around us may be said to be striving to the utmost to increase in numbers’; and again, pp. 78-9, ‘each organic being is striving to increase at a geometrical ratio’. These page references are to the first edition of the Origin, (1859), but both of the passages just quoted are repeated in all of the five later editions of the book which were published in Darwin’s lifetime. He also says the same thing in other places.

Now, this proposition isn't implied by the quotes, so it isn't Darwinian, but Stovian. The two Darwin quotes mention "striving to (the utmost) to increase", which is a different thing than having as many descendants as possible.

As Stove further mentions, Darwin is depending on Malthus here.

However, notice that Darwin actually mentions "every single/each organic being" - no parent/sibling altruism here. The sociobiological translation to genes rather than individuals were still in the future.

Still, this proposition isn't peculiar to Darwinians; Jews, Muslims and Christians will tell us that God has commanded us to multiply and fill up the whole earth. So is Stove asking us to go against one of God's commandments? No, couldn't be. Only a Darwinian would do such a thing.

8. In every species, child-mortality - that is, the proportion of live births which die before reproductive age - is extremely high.

Stove comments:

Compare Darwin in the Origin, p. 61: ‘of the many individuals of any species which are periodically born, but a small number can survive’; or p. 5, ‘many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive’. Again, these passages, from the first edition, are both repeated unchanged in all the later editions of the Origin.

Stove's point is that this doesn't apply to humans in general. Child-mortality has occasionally been high, but not in general.

As Stove mentions, this is again based on Malthus' theory and therefore not peculiar to Darwinians. However, the current rapid increase in the world's human population is something farely new, while as far as we have evidence it is quite traditional for families to have many children.

9. The more privileged people are the more prolific: if one class in a society is less exposed than another to the misery due to food-shortage, disease, and war, then the members of the more fortunate class will have (on the average) more children than the members of the other class.

As Stove correctly mentions, historically the opposite has usually been the case. However, this proposition is actually a strawman. In times of food shortage, the privileged classes will most likely suffer less in terms of child-mortality. However, since often families of the privileged classes have fewer children, they will still not necessarily have more children.

Also, the proposition suffers from the problem that different social classes aren't different species. So it's really a pointless proposition.

10. If variations which are useful to their possessors in the struggle for life ‘do occur, can we doubt (remembering that many more individuals are born than can possibly survive), that individuals having any advantage, however slight, over others, would have the best chance of surviving and of procreating their kind? On the other hand, we may feel sure that any variation in the least degree injurious would be rigidly destroyed.’

According to Stove, this is from The Origin of Species, pp. 80-81.

Again here, Darwin is taking things somewhat to their extremes. But is it necessary to follow along to these extremes in order to accept evolution? Why can't Stove handle some scaling?

The general problem with these propositions is there dependency on sociobiology and Malthus' law, and that Stove's approach relies too much on quote-mining.

Does the fact that (most) human societies today have a very low child-mortality in anyway disprove that humans and chimpanzees had a common ancestor around five million years ago?

It should be noted that Stove's paper addressed here was mean to be a request for comments, and not to be taken as a final result. However it still clearly shows that 'Darwinism' is a fuzzy term mostly used by quote-miners and people wo tend to read things too literal.

In short, I find that Stove has constructed himself a strawman.


Anonymous said...

This review of Stove is deeply dishonest. Just to cite one of many examples, you quote Stove on sibling altruism and say "this is all Stove says about this proposition." In fact, Stove writes several more pages about sibling altruism and returns to it in subsequent chapters.

Anonymous said...

I agree that the review is deeply dishonest or, worse yet, much more guilty of the lack of investigation than it ascribes to Stove. Why would someone write an article with little or no knowledge of the material that he is critiquing? Stove's approach is to take the arguments presented by Darwin and Darwin's peers, follow them to their conclusion based on the principles of logic and point out the areas where these conclusions are not borne out by fact--in particular as it relates to humans.

Half-hearted effort under the guise of "Life's too short" is disingenuous at best.

About Me

A Christian in Satanist clothes