Friday, October 20, 2006

Review of David Stove: Darwinian Fairytales (essay 4)

Stove's Essay IV is titled "Population, Privilege, and Malthus' Retreat". Now, this starts to sound like something, doesn't it?

This essay mainly attacks Maltus' Essay on Population. As Stove points out, Malthus' claim was that a population would in general be as large as the available food resources allowed. And also that it was written as a polemic against socialism, or 'systems of equality', as Malthus and others with him called it. The fear for Malthus was that socialism, the abolishment of private property, would replace the existing comparative poverty of most by the absolute poverty of all.

Stove has a longer discussion about the role of privilege as seen by Malthus. This ends on p. 42 with:

In plain English: other things equal, and on the average, people who are less miserable (or more privileged) have more children than people who are more miserable (or less privileged).

But this doesn't quite fit with fact, as Stove objects. And over the next pages, Stove mentions various reasons why this might be the case. One of the reasons given by Stove is of particular interest: the possibility of members of privileged classes to pursuit other interests than raising a family.

In particular, Stove mentions William Godwin's critique of Malthus in the book Of Population. Also some of Francis Galton's stastical results that show that privileged people tend to have fewer children are mentioned.

Then, on p. 46, Stove writes:

The response of Darwin himself to the criticism was entirely and depressingly characteristic. He discusses at length the relevant writings of Greg, Wallace, and Galton, in chapter V of The Descent of Man (1871). Yet he somehow manages to do so without ever once betraying the faintest awareness that what he is dealing with is an objection to his theory.

But, then what is Darwin's theory? Let's have a look at that chapter 5, "On the Development of the Intellectual and Moral Faculties During Primeval and Civilised Times". For Darwin as for many of his contemporaries, social progress was the issue. However, they were also aware that this obsession with progress wasn't shared with their fellow human beings throughout human history:

It is, however, very difficult to form any judgment why one particular tribe and not another has been successful and has risen in the scale of civilisation. Many savages are in the same condition as when first discovered several centuries ago. As Mr. Bagehot has remarked, we are apt to look at progress as normal in human society; but history refutes this. The ancients did not even entertain the idea, nor do the Oriental nations at the present day. According to another high authority, Sir Henry Maine (7. 'Ancient Law,' 1861, p. 22. For Mr. Bagehot's remarks, 'Fortnightly Review,' April 1, 1868, p. 452.), "the greatest part of mankind has never shewn a particle of desire that its civil institutions should be improved."

Yet, Darwin finds that there is evidence of progress from more primitive stages to more advanced stages in all civilized nations:

In all parts of Europe, as far east as Greece, in Palestine, India, Japan, New Zealand, and Africa, including Egypt, flint tools have been discovered in abundance; and of their use the existing inhabitants retain no tradition. There is also indirect evidence of their former use by the Chinese and ancient Jews. Hence there can hardly be a doubt that the inhabitants of these countries, which include nearly the whole civilised world, were once in a barbarous condition. To believe that man was aboriginally civilised and then suffered utter degradation in so many regions, is to take a pitiably low view of human nature. It is apparently a truer and more cheerful view that progress has been much more general than retrogression; that man has risen, though by slow and interrupted steps, from a lowly condition to the highest standard as yet attained by him in knowledge, morals and religion.

Now, this should make it clear, what we are talking about. Even today, many creationists claim that primitive societies have degraded from a more civilized stage, in which they were originally created. That is, the issue is, whether social change is for the better or for the worse. Not that Darwin wants to abolish private property:

Man accumulates property and bequeaths it to his children, so that the children of the rich have an advantage over the poor in the race for success, independently of bodily or mental superiority. On the other hand, the children of parents who are short-lived, and are therefore on an average deficient in health and vigour, come into their property sooner than other children, and will be likely to marry earlier, and leave a larger number of offspring to inherit their inferior constitutions. But the inheritance of property by itself is very far from an evil; for without the accumulation of capital the arts could not progress; and it is chiefly through their power that the civilised races have extended, and are now everywhere extending their range, so as to take the place of the lower races. Nor does the moderate accumulation of wealth interfere with the process of selection. When a poor man becomes moderately rich, his children enter trades or professions in which there is struggle enough, so that the able in body and mind succeed best. The presence of a body of well-instructed men, who have not to labour for their daily bread, is important to a degree which cannot be over-estimated; as all high intellectual work is carried on by them, and on such work, material progress of all kinds mainly depends, not to mention other and higher advantages. No doubt wealth when very great tends to convert men into useless drones, but their number is never large; and some degree of elimination here occurs, for we daily see rich men, who happen to be fools or profligate, squandering away their wealth.

So, it all sorts out for the best in the long run. To fully appreciate, what is going on here, we would need to know about the political discussions of the day. However, the main thing is that Darwin assures that progress can be achieved without any drastic measures. Why attack the establishment more than necessary? In other words, it is not so much a question of Darwin not showing any awareness of objections to his theory as a question of Darwin not wanting to be classified as a socialist.

What Stove refers to with "Malthus' Retreat" is that Malthus in the 2nd (and later) edition of Essay on Population (1803) writes that sexual abstinence such as delayed marriage was the main check on the number of privileged people in a population.

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

After merely reporting, what Stove writes, O'Leary writes:

Now, remember that the Darwinist insists on treating humans as the 98% chimpanzee, so if humans wiggle out of Darwin's theory, the theory is not the "universal acid" that Darwinist Daniel Dennett claims it to be. I did not make this rule. The Darwinists did. I am simply applying it, just as Stove did.

As far as I have been informed, 92-98% of the genome is shared between humans and chimpanzees depending on, what is mentioned (only coding sequences or coding sequences + pseudogenes and so on). I do not know, if 'the Darwinist' insists on treating humans as the 98% chimpanzee, though I'll take Denyse's word for the existence of at least one Darwinist that does so. I was under the impression that at least some Darwinists insist on treating chimpanzees as 98% humans.

Concerning Darwin's reluctance to acknowledge objections to his theory, O'Leary writes:

Various fixes were attempted, such as the notion that advanced human societies promote social losers, but that really doesn't help much as an explanation because it merely identifies another instance of a problem for the theory, at least as applied to humans. If society is a Darwinian jungle, why should it promote losers?

Well, Darwin isn't saying that society is a 'Darwinian jungle'.

Concerning Maltus' Retreat, O'Leary writes:

Malthus himself eventually gave up the idea that humans were just like other animals and admitted that his biology had been wrong. Darwin and Wallace never did. (p. 50).

Not exactly, what Stove wrote.

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A Christian in Satanist clothes