Monday, October 16, 2006

Review of David Stove: Darwinian Fairytales (preface)

Well, why not? As a child I liked to read fairytales.

For the uninitiated: David Stove was an Australian philosopher of science, who died in 1994. He mainly critisized David Hume's inductive skepticism and those philosophers - like Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn - who shared Hume's skepticism. In his later years, Stove took up criticism of Darwinism in general and sociobiology in particular, and this criticism has lately spawned quite some interest in his works, particularly in North America among the Darwinist-skeptics there.

The manuscript of Darwinian Fairytales was finished late 1993, but Stove's illness (see the Wikipedia article linked above) postponed the publishing, which was done in 1995 by Stove's former student Dr. James Franklin, who during Stove's work with the book also had made valuable comments on the progressing manuscripts.

The book consist of a preface and eleven essays (rather than chapters). Denyse O'Leary (Post-Darwinist) has written reviews of these twelve parts on her ARN pages, and like her, I'll go through the book sequentially and also comment on O'Leary's review along the way.

Stove starts by writing, "[t]his is an anti-Darwinism book". By this is meant that the book is written against all Darwinists, including Darwin himself. However, Stove tempers this claim by stating that:

My object is to show that Darwinism is not true: not true, at any rate, of our species. If it is true, or near enough true, of sponges, snakes, flies, or whatever, I do not mind that. What I do mind is, its being supposed to be true of man.

So, Stove doesn't mind about Darwinism, when other species than his own is concerned; but humans are to be exempt from the clutches of evolution. Again, this is given some tempering:

I do deny that natural selection is going on within our species now, and that it ever went on in our species, at any time of which anything is known. But I say nothing at all in the book about how our species came to be the kind of thing it is, or what kind of antecedents it evolved from.

What does Stove mean by natural selection? It's not easy to say by now. The problem is, of course, that different rules apply to humans than to other species to some extent. Atheists tend to have fewer children than theists, but since being atheist or theist isn't genetically determined, this is selectively of no relevance. It's a cultural phenomenon, religion in general encouraging having many children and banning contraceptives. But that, of course, also be Stove's point: for humans, cultural selection is far more important than anything that could be called natural selection.

All, in all, Stove is not against Darwin's theory of evolution, only against its application to humans within historic times. And

What does matter is, to see our species rightly, as it now is, and as it is known historically to have been: and in particular, not to be imposed upon by the ludicrously false portrayals which Darwinians give of the past, and even of the present, of our species.

Ummm, yes there are all those caveman cartoons, the male hitting the female with a club and dragging her back to his cave by the hair. I remember those from my childhood, but I also remember Flintstones cartoons, and a good question would be: is anything of this supposed to be scientific?

Isn't Stove building up a strawman? But, ok, we'll have to wait and see, what the following essays have to say.

As promised, I'll look at O'Leary's review as well. It can be found here (ARN) and here (Post-Darwinist).

O'Leary also begins with a short introduction of Stove and the book. After having given the same quote as #2 aobove, she writes:

He waives the question of how our species came to be what it is now, because he wants our species portrayed correctly in known historical time, and "not to be imposed upon by the ludicrously false portrayals which Darwinians give of the past, and even of the present, of our species." In other words he has no time for the sham psychology of "evolutionary psychology."

Ummm, that's O'Leary's interpretation, and it's not at all easy to see that it is necessarily correct. To me it appears rather as if Stove is not interested in how our species came to be what it is, because his concern is that Darwinians are giving false portrayals of what it is. That is, it should be a simple question of empiricals.

O'Leary spends a couple of paragraphs attacking "evolutionary sychology" on behalf of Stove. It's somewhat difficult to relate to - that some evolutionary psychologist says something doesn't prove anything else than that some evolutionary psychologist says something. Not that Darwin was the master of self-critique, when it came to human psychology; but compared to a certain story about how all misery on earth came around due to two people eating a forbidden fruit, it doesn't require much to count as an improvement, though not the final word.

After treating us to a long list (with links, if anyone's game for a peek!) of phenomena that evolutionary psychologists supposedly claim to be able to explain, O'Leary writes:

And this is hardly an exhaustive list. Indeed, no exhaustive list would be possible, because anyone can interpret any current social situation (a gruesome baby-killing, a demand to legalize polygamy, US-Canada relations) in the light of what supposedly happened in prehistoric times, and then make up a story about how the behavior arose among cave guys shouting rot into the stalactites of their caves ....

Not that I am all that much of a fan of evolutionary biology or sociobiology; but turning things a bit around, we might ask: how is this much worse than saying that human behavior is all a question of curses and blessings with the odd demon-possession thrown in for good variation? Maybe O'Leary should worry a bit more about, if anybody except those who conjure up these things take it seriously.

(*The vast majority of those cave guys were not our direct ancestors, but, hey, why let a detail get in the way of a good story, let alone tenure?)

Interesting parenthetical comment. Could it be that O'Leary believes more in natural selection than Stove does?


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