Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Review of David Stove: Darwinian Fairytales (essay 1)

Stove begins "Essay I: Darwinism's Dilemma" with:

If Darwin's theory of evolution were true, there would be in every species a constant and ruthless competition to survive: a competition in which only a few in any generation can be winners. But it is perfectly obvious that human life is not like that, however it may be with other species.

It's not quite that simple. There's a reason for Darwin's choice of the title The Origin of Species. At the time, most naturalists (which meant people studying nature back then) considered species to be immutable, created kinds. Some variation was accepted, but only within species. Think about Plato's ideal forms - we can identify a circle as a circle, even if it isn't perfectly circular. The same here: for naturalists of the Platonistic variety, species existed in an ideal form in the mind of God, while actual organisms might deviate within limits from that ideal form. That is, a species was a fixed and once for all given concept. Darwin's idea was that it was not so: species can originate from other species, not just as varieties, but as true species.

Darwin begin chapter 3, "Struggle for Existence", of Origins with:

Before entering on the subject of this chapter, I must make a few preliminary remarks, to show how the struggle for existence bears on Natural Selection. It has been seen in the last chapter that amongst organic beings in a state of nature there is some individual variability; indeed I am not aware that this has ever been disputed. It is immaterial for us whether a multitude of doubtful forms be called species or sub-species or varieties; what rank, for instance, the two or three hundred doubtful forms of British plants are entitled to hold, if the existence of any well-marked varieties be admitted. But the mere existence of individual variability and of some few well-marked varieties, though necessary as the foundation for the work, helps us but little in understanding how species arise in nature.

That is, Darwin at first ignores the taxonomic groups and simply sees that there is variability among organic beings, a variability that everybody accepted. However, Darwin doesn't stop there; he proceeds to ask the question:

How have all those exquisite adaptations of one part of the organisation to another part, and to the conditions of life, and of one distinct organic being to another being, been perfected?

Continuing along that line and ending up with a suggested answer, Darwin writes:

Again, it may be asked, how is it that varieties, which I have called incipient species, become ultimately converted into good and distinct species, which in most cases obviously differ from each other far more than do the varieties of the same species? How do those groups of species, which constitute what are called distinct genera, and which differ from each other more than do the species of the same genus, arise? All these results, as we shall more fully see in the next chapter, follow inevitably from the struggle for life. Owing to this struggle for life, any variation, however slight and from whatever cause proceeding, if it be in any degree profitable to an individual of any species, in its infinitely complex relations to other organic beings and to external nature, will tend to the preservation of that individual, and will generally be inherited by its offspring. The offspring, also, will thus have a better chance of surviving, for, of the many individuals of any species which are periodically born, but a small number can survive.

This line, "of the many individuals of any species which are periodically born, but a small number can survive" is what offends Stove, since that cannot be the case for humans.

But Darwin has an answer to that:

There is no exception to the rule that every organic being naturally increases at so high a rate, that if not destroyed, the earth would soon be covered by the progeny of a single pair. Even slow-breeding man has doubled in twenty-five years, and at this rate, in a few thousand years, there would literally not be standing room for his progeny. Linnaeus has calculated that if an annual plant produced only two seeds and there is no plant so unproductive as this and their seedlings next year produced two, and so on, then in twenty years there would be a million plants. The elephant is reckoned to be the slowest breeder of all known animals, and I have taken some pains to estimate its probable minimum rate of natural increase: it will be under the mark to assume that it breeds when thirty years old, and goes on breeding till ninety years old, bringing forth three pairs of young in this interval; if this be so, at the end of the fifth century there would be alive fifteen million elephants, descended from the first pair.

What is important here is not whether 0.1% or 99.9% of a single generation survives; the "selective deaths" are calculated as an accumulated difference over generations. For some species, suchs as elephants and humans, it may take many generations before this number reaches a significant level, but that's only a question of time. It's a population, not a generation, that evolves. That is, Stove's words "a competition in which only a few in any generation can be winners" simply don't catch the point. To look at Darwin's example, over 600 years, one pair of elephants might grow into fifteen million elephants; seeing that this has far from happened, we can safely conclude that "but a small number can survive".

Ok, let's return to Stove, who proceeds by writing:

This inconsistency, between Darwin's theory and the facts of human life, is what I mean by 'Darwinism's Dilemma'.

Well, seeing that it's a false dilemma, how can we proceed with this review?

Of course, Stove continues unaffected by claiming that Darwinians have tried to "wiggle out of the dilemma" by three types of attempts, 'the Cave Man way out', 'the Hard Man', and 'the Soft Man'. According to Stove, these three types are "hardy perennials" that have been with us "ever since Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859."

I won't go into details about Stove's descriptions of these three types, since it's actually somewhat irrelevant. Not because the descriptions don't fit with some Darwinians, it's just that Stove is starting off from a wrong assumption and therefore possibly misinterpreting these Darwinians - not to say, misrepresenting them.

For instance, Stove considers Thomas Henry Huxley, "Darwin's bulldog", an exponent for the Cave Man way out type, and writes on p. 3:

But in those distant times [where there was a 'struggle for life' among humans], Huxley informs us, human beings lived in 'nature', or in 'the state of nature', or in 'the savage state'. Each man 'approproated whatever took his fancy and killed whomever opposed him, if he could'. 'Life was a continual free fight, and beyond the limited and temporary relations of the family, the Hobbesian war of each against all was the normal state of existence.'

As Stove mentions, "the Hobbesian war of each against all" refers to Thomas Hobbes, who wrote two hundred years earlier, and who in his book Leviathan (1652) operated with "the state of nature" characterized by a "war of each against all". For Huxley as well as for Hobbes, this "state of nature" was a scare-picture more than anything based on actual knowledge about human life in any period.

Stove's quotes are from Huxley's Evolution and Ethics, and other essays (1894). But let's look at some other quotes from Evolution and Ethics. First:

The propounders of what are called the "ethics of evolution," when the 'evolution of ethics' would usually better express the object of their speculations, adduce a number of more or less interesting facts and more or less sound arguments in favour of the origin of the moral sentiments, in the same way as other natural phenomena, by a process of evolution. I have little doubt, for my own part, that they are on the right track; but as the immoral sentiments have no less been evolved, there is, so far, as much natural sanction for the one as the other. The thief and the murderer follow nature just as much as the philanthropist. Cosmic evolution may teach us how the good and the evil tendencies of man may have come about; but, in itself, it is incompetent to furnish any better reason why what we call good is preferable to what we call evil than we had before.

That is, while Huxley is in little doubt that the propounders of "ethics of evolution" are on the right track, but he certainly finds that it's a speculative discipline, and also - a very important point - not only moral, but also immoral sentiments are results of evolution. That is, we cannot from evolution itself deduce any moral, no reason why "what we call good is preferable to what we call evil". The term '[c]osmic evolution' used by Huxley refers to that he oprates with evolution as a general principle, not only has life evolved, but so has the universe at large.

In the next paragraph, Huxley writes:

There is another fallacy which appears to me to pervade the so-called "ethics of evolution." It is the notion that because, on the whole, animals and plants have advanced in perfection of organization by means of the struggle for existence and the consequent 'survival of the fittest'; therefore men in society, men as ethical beings, must look to the same process to help them towards perfection. I suspect that this fallacy has arisen out of the unfortunate ambiguity of the phrase 'survival of the fittest.' 'Fittest' has a connotation of 'best'; and about 'best' there hangs a moral flavour. In cosmic nature, however, what is 'fittest' depends upon the conditions.

Huxley is here taking on Herbert Spencer's much misunderstood concept of "survival of the fittest". As Huxley points out, what is 'fittest' cannot be determined without considering the conditions, which of course makes sense: evolution is supposed to be a response to a changing environment.

For Huxley, also humans are subject to the cosmic process of evolution; but it's not quite that simple:

Men in society are undoubtedly subject to the cosmic process. As among other animals, multiplication goes on without cessation, and involves severe competition for the means of support. The struggle for existence tends to eliminate those less fitted to adapt themselves to the circumstances of their existence. The strongest, the most self-assertive, tend to tread down the weaker. But the influence of the cosmic process on the evolution of society is the greater the more rudimentary its civilization. Social progress means a checking of the cosmic process at every step and the substitution for it of another, which may be called the ethical process; the end of which is not the survival of those who may happen to be the fittest, in respect of the whole of the conditions which obtain, but of those who are ethically the best.

That is, social progress implies an ethical progress whereby the cosmic process (of evolution) is checked, and it is those who are ethically the best that survive. This may, of course, sound just as far-fetched as the opposite. But the point is that Huxley is going to give a different meanint to 'survival of the fittest':

As I have already urged, the practice of that which is ethically best–what we call goodness or virtue–involves a course of conduct which, in all respects, is opposed to that which leads to success in the cosmic struggle for existence. In place of ruthless self-assertion it demands self-restraint; in place of thrusting aside, or treading down, all competitors, it requires that the individual shall not merely respect, but shall help his fellows; its influence is directed, not so much to the survival of the fittest, as to the fitting of as many as possible to survive. It repudiates the gladiatorial theory of existence. It demands that each man who enters into the enjoyment of the advantages of a polity shall be mindful of his debt to those who have laboriously constructed it; and shall take heed that no act of his weakens the fabric in which he has been permitted to live. Laws and moral precepts are directed to the end of curbing the cosmic process and reminding the individual of his duty to the community, to the protection and influence of which he owes, if not existence itself, at least the life of something better than a brutal savage.

That is 'survival of the fittest' does not mean 'survival of (only) the few fittest', but 'fitting as many to survive as possible'. Without that, human life would be that of a brutal savage, a "Hobbesian war of each against all". For Huxley, it is a question of respecting the culture into which you are born and which provides you a life better than that.

This may of course be considered as nothing but conservative propaganda; but it certainly does mean that Stove's 'Cave Man way out' type is too simplistic an understanding of, what's going on here.

On p. 4-5, Stove gives some examples, where he thinks that Huxley sees struggle for existence. For instance, on p. 5, Stove writes:

Huxley implies that there have been 'one or two short intervals' of the Darwinian 'struggle for existence between man and man' in England in quite recent centuries: for example, the civil war of the 17th century! You probably think, and you certainly ought to think, that I am making this up; but I am not. He actually writes that, since ' the reign of Elizabeth ..., the struggle for existence between man and man has been so largely restrained among the great mass of the population (except for one or two short intervals of civil war), that it can have had little, or no selective operation.' [Stove's italics]

Stove continues by ironically stating that:

You probably also think that the English civil war of the 17th century grew out of tensions between parliament and the court, dissent and the established church, republicans and the monarchy. Nothing of the sort, you see: it was a resumption of 'the struggle for existence between man and man'.

Well, Huxley's point rather is that, even we accept that there was some struggle for existence, it had little, or no selective operation. Anyway, Hobbes, who was contemporary with the civil war, saw it as a return to the state of nature.

The 'Hard Man' type is for Stove represented by Herbet Spencer and Darwin's cousin Francis Galton. The 'Hard Man' type, unlike the 'Cave Man way out' type doesn't consider the struggle for existence a past stage, only that society by interfering with selection causes problems rather than solving them, ending up with more unfit surviving due to various welfare institutions, such as unemployment relief and hospitals. About Galton, Stove writes p. 9:

Galton's intellectual and emotional situation was therefore this. On the one hand there was Darwin's theory of evolution. If it is true, then competition for survival is always going on in every species, and as a result natural selection is always going on too. Therefore, preferential survival of the organisms best fitted to succeed in the struggle for life is inevitable. But on the other hand there were, right before his eyes, the quite opposite demographic realities of contemporary Britain. What could poor Galton possibly be expected to conclude, except that the inevitable was being led astray, and needed the help of people like himself in order to be put back on the rails?

Not quite as simple as that. As Stove mentions, Galton coined the word 'eugenics', which Galton in for instance Restrictions in Marriage defined as "the science that deals with those social agencies that influence, mentally or physically, the racial qualities of future generations". So, yes, Galton does suggest that a more conscious approach should be employed by those agencies. But, how does that make Galton a 'Hard Man' type? His point is exactly not that everything should be left to the struggle for existence. For more on Galton, see e.g. my post Francis Galton - a racist?.

Even Darwin himself ends up being a 'Hard Man'. Stove quotes (pp. 9-10) The Descent of Man, three paragraphs of obviously eugenics content suggesting marriage restrictions. The first paragraph is from chapter 5, "On The Development of the Intellectual and Moral Faculties During Primeval and Civilised Times":

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

Indeed, this could sound as if Darwin was against any care of the imbecile, the maimed, the sick, and the poor. Even that he is against vaccination. But let us read the paragraph following this one rather than those presented by Stove:

The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature.

So, it's not as if Darwin suggests that we shouldn't care about the helpless. His point is that the "civilised" races unlike the "savages" have more developed social instincts. This is certainly a debatable proposition; but still, Stove is misrepresenting Darwin.

Finally, we come to the 'Soft Man' type, about which Stove writes p. 11:

The Soft Man is intellectually at ease. Having been to college, he believes all the right things: that Darwin was basically right, that Darwin bridged the gap between man and animals, etc., etc. He also believes, since he is not a lunatic, that there are such things as hospitals, welfare programmes, priesthoods, and so on. But the mutual inconsistency of these two sets of beliefs never bothers him, or even occurs to him. He does not think that his Darwinism imposes any unpleasant intellectual demands on him.

According to Stove, most of us, including himself, belong to this type. This might well be the case; but the "mutual inconsistency" that Stove mentions, does it really exist? For some people, Darwinism may be some sort of cult with a number of doctrines that you have to accept unquestioned and use as guide for your life; but to the best of my knowledge, that's not a requirement.

Denyse O'Leary's review of "Essay I" can be found here.

O'Leary also starts her review with quting Stove's opening sentences, and she follows Stove's misinterpretation by writing:

Speaking for myself, I grew up with the alleged population bomb, which is hardly the outcome to expect from "constant and ruthless competition to survive", or as Darwin's bulldog, T.H. Huxley, called it, "a continual free fight."

Like Stove, O'Leary doesn't quite catch that Darwin is dependent on Thomas Malthus and therefore the "constant and ruthless competition to survive" is dependent on the available resources. Changes in social organization and in technology can allow a population to increase in size; but not indefinitely. It's doesn't quite cut it to pick out small dramatic sounding quotes and claim that they sum up a whole theory.

After quoting Stove for a passage about, why the Hobbesian war men don't just eat their wife and children, O'Leary writes:

We can see here how the much later "selfish gene" thesis got started, and all the foolishness that followed in its wake. From the mid twentieth century onward, it became necessary to neoDarwinists. They needed to explain why people did not simply devour their own families, if the struggle for survival is as fierce as they insist.

This is just more of the same obsession with that struggle for existence, and O'Leary continues in that way:

Yes, people fight. We fight about land, nationality, ethnicity, politics, religion, theology, royalty, language, honor, shame, morality, girls/boys, guns, and gold. But few actual struggles offer life itself as the prize. And, Stove argues, that was probably always true for humans.

Yes, indeed, but what's the point?

In Origins, chapter 3, Darwin writes:

I should premise that I use the term Struggle for Existence in a large and metaphorical sense, including dependence of one being on another, and including (which is more important) not only the life of the individual, but success in leaving progeny. Two canine animals in a time of dearth, may be truly said to struggle with each other which shall get food and live. But a plant on the edge of a desert is said to struggle for life against the drought, though more properly it should be said to be dependent on the moisture. A plant which annually produces a thousand seeds, of which on an average only one comes to maturity, may be more truly said to struggle with the plants of the same and other kinds which already clothe the ground. The missletoe is dependent on the apple and a few other trees, but can only in a far-fetched sense be said to struggle with these trees, for if too many of these parasites grow on the same tree, it will languish and die. But several seedling missletoes, growing close together on the same branch, may more truly be said to struggle with each other. As the missletoe is disseminated by birds, its existence depends on birds; and it may metaphorically be said to struggle with other fruit-bearing plants, in order to tempt birds to devour and thus disseminate its seeds rather than those of other plants. In these several senses, which pass into each other, I use for convenience sake the general term of struggle for existence.

The point is "success in leaving progeny", so killing your family isn't really going to help here. If O'Leary (and Stove) had taken the time to read this paragraph, O'Leary would have known that her argumentation here and in the following paragraphs is of no relevance, such as for example this:

It is not clear in any case why struggle should be as important to Darwin's thesis as Darwinians such as Huxley have made it out to be. As Stove notes, "If you and I are competing for survival, and for ten days in a row you are able to get food while I cannot, then I starve to death and you win this competition, whatever may have been difference between us which enabled you to win." In other words, in natural selection, time and chance may be doing most of the heavy lifting, rather than struggle as such. But the Darwinists very much preferred the narrative of struggle.

Besides that Darwin acknowledges that natural selection may not be whole explanation for speciation, O'Leary here as well as Stove miss the point that struggle need not be direct.

O'Leary provides this quote from Stove:

Huxley should not have needed Darwinism to tell him - since any intelligent child of eight could have told him - that in 'a continual free fight of each against all' there would soon be no children, no women, and hence no men. In other words, that the human race could not possibly exist now, unless cooperation had always been stronger than competition, both between women and their children, and between men and the children and women whom they protect and provide for.

To which O'Leary comments:

So what to do now? If Darwinian natural selection depends on survival of the fittest and the continual free fight, how to account for co-operation? The Darwinians hit on the idea that any appearance of co-operation or altruism in human life must be a sham.

Again O'Leary and Stove don't catch the point; the fittest may be those who are able to co-operate. Also, Huxley point out, the egocentric is as natural as the altruistic, and we cannot from that deduce, why we consider the former to be a bad guy and the latter to be a good guy, not even why they behave as they do

Following this, O'Leary writes:

This cultural decision, made early on, predicted many developments in Darwinian theory down to the present day, and helps explain why it is so controversial. Early on, the "Darwinian Hard Men", as Stove calls them, produced a huge bulk of literature arguing that such institutions as charity hospitals and unemployment checks are both impossible and undesirable recent developments. They seemed not to notice the contradiction between "impossible" and "undesirable." Commenting on Spencer's outrage against government denials of individual freedom in The Man versus the State (1884), he notes, "The evils which Spencer inveighs against are real, indeed. But they happen also to be one which, if his own view of man were true, could not possibly exist." (7)

Please tell me, who is it that doesn't make a distinction between "impossible" and "undesirable"? Anyway, Spencer's point was that society was evolving towards increasing freedom for individuals and less state control. For Spencer, progress was a move from homogeneity to heterogeneity, or diversification. Spencer was for natural rights that no state should legislate against, the role of the state being merely to protect the weak aginst the strong without crushing the strong. As for Huxley, "survival of the fittest" was for Spencer a question of allowing as many as possible to be fit, not a question of the strong treading down the weak.

O'Leary continues:

Stove goes on to talk about the fundamental inconsistency that riddled early Darwinism's account of the human population: The Darwinists were worried that less fit people, according to their own definitions of fitness, were outbreeding more fit people. (p. 8) The difficulty is that, on a Darwinian account of life, that makes no sense. Everyone who actually breeds must be more fit by definition than everyone who does not.

Again, O'Leary simply follows Stove in not really understanding much. Neither Huxley nor Galton were relying on natural selection for improvement of the population. Obviously, you cannot systematize natutal selection, because then it isn't natural selection. Natural selection might provide a population adapted to the moist British climate, but it won't produce another Shakespeare for instance. Now, of course, it may debated, if the solution to that kind of problems is eugenics or providing an environment that encourages people to engage in arts, science, and so on. Galton thought that many more characteristics are inheritable than it's usually believed today; but you don't have to be a Darwinist to get that idea.

O'Leary continues:

As I pointed out in By Design or by Chance?, the sociopathic street child may be better fitted to survive, in Darwin's sense, than the sheltered piano prodigy. Indeed, if the street child later produces eight children he doesn't support, of whom only three survive to adulthood and go on to produce more children, he is a much bigger Darwinian success than a piano prodigy, who is much celebrated but dies childless. Yet, as Stove perceives, there is no evidence that Darwin or his supporters could accept the state of affairs that their theory predicts.

Again, it's not quite that simple. The question is, how to improve a population. It is exactly not leaving everything to natural selection.

A couple of paragraphs later, O'Leary writes:

Stove notes that most people who accept Darwinism today do so without grappling with this difficulty.

Where by "this difficulty" is mean the inconsistency between what Darwinism predicts and what Darwinists want. If a meteorologist predicts it's going to rain, you may choose to stay indoor, equip a raincot, or just think that rain's actually beneficial for you. So we conclude that meteoroly is not true.


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