Thursday, October 26, 2006

Review of David Stove: Darwinian Fairytales (essay 7)

In Essay VII, "Genetic Calvinism or Demons and Dawkins", things are getting still worse. You'd think that to be impossible, but then I simply ask you to hang on and watch the horror show unfolding.

On p. 119, Stove writes:

For nothing whatever can literally replicate itself. The most that anything could possibly do in that way would be, to produce perfect copies of itself. By contrast, the object or target of selfishness is - by the very meaning og that word - oneself, and nothing else. Superscientist may create in his laboratory an exact replica of me, or I may happen to have an identical twin. But it is not this copy or twin who is the object of my selfishness: it is myself.

Stove is a philosopher, so he should know that it isn't all that easy to define itself or myself. What is a self, an identity? If your self is a certain set of genes in your genome, then any other organism with the same genes in its genome has a share in your self. If you kill such an organism, you have killed a part of your self. In short, Stove had a great opportunity to do some real philosophy for once here; but he missed it.

Sure, Stove is right in saying that genes cannot be selfish; but I suppose that we all know that, so what's the point? And, according to Stove, there's even a geneticist who insists on calling genes 'selfish' (cf. p. 120). Stove continues:

This is Dr Richard Dawkins, of Oxford University, and to say that he insists on talking in this way is to understate the case extremely. He wrote a book which purports to explain evolution as principally due to what he calls the 'ruthless selfishness' of genes. And, as if in order to exclude all charitable misunderstandings, he actually entitled his book The Selfish Gene.

And not only that; a book with such a nonsensical title should have injured Dawkins' scientific reputation. But that didn't happen, as Stove remarks (ibid.):

But in fact the effect was the very reverse. The Selfish Gene not only became a best seller, but at once elevated its author into the very front rank of biological authorities: a position which he enjoys to this day.

Ehh, talking about nonsensicals, how can a book elevate its author into the front rank? You can be pushed into the front rank, and you can be elevated into the top rank, but you cannot be elevated into the front rank. And, even if you could, how could a book accomplish that? Was the book outfitted with some kind of spring mechanism that could elevate Dawkins to the top, or push him to the front?

In short, we do employ metaphorical language, even Stove does that, so where is the problem?

The connection to Calvinism and demons is as follows (ibid.):

One of the pioneers of genetics, William Bateson, was fond of repeating a remark which a Scotch soldier made to him during the 1914-18 war, after listening to one of his lectures: that genetics is 'scientific Calvinism'. Well, what Dawkins did in The Selfish Gene was in effect to embrace this old joke, or three-quarters joke, as being no joke at all, but the sober truth. Genes are to him what demons were to Calvinist theologians in the 16th century, or what 'Zurich gnomes' used to be to socialist demonologists of our own century. That is, they are beings which are hidden, immoral, and invested with immense power over us: power so great, indeed, that we are merely helpless puppets, except insofar as God, or History, or some equally extraordinary causal agent comes in to assist us.

As Stove explains, Calvin claimed that no created things had any real causal power, since God alone is the cause of everything, and all created things are effects. However, demons are exceptional in that they have causal powers, though only within the limits set by God's permission and appointment.

Then, on p. 121, Stove continues:

Dawkins in The Selfish Gene is not, of course, engaged on any mission of cosmic warfare or of moral reformation. But just as Calvin divides created things into potent demons and causally impotent everything else, so Dawkins divides the organic world into potent genes and causally impotent everything else. According to Calvinism, we are pawns in a game, in which the only real players are the demons and God. According to The Selfish Gene, we are pawns in a game in which the only real players are genes.

According to Stove, the popularity of The Selfish Gene is due to it being along the lines of 'The Secret History of the Court of King So-and-So', the general interest of humans in 'wickedness in high places'. And the book didn't add any new knowledge. On p. 122, Stove writes:

Indeed, (except for its last chapter, of which I shall speak later), it did not even claim to do so. It was avowedly a book which expounded, combined, and semi-popularised the main contributions which others had made to evolutionary biology in (roughly) the preceding 40 years: say, since R.A. Fisher's The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection, (1930). But Dawkins had the wit to perceive, as no one had before him, that genes, since they are hidden, powerful, and immoral, furnished the materials for a book of 'Secrets and Scandals of the Court of King Gene'. No power on earth could have prevented such a book from succeeding.

Would Dawkins agree with this characteristic? I would sincerely doubt that. And even Stove mentions that Dawkins didn't use 'selfish' in a moral sense ibid.):

The sense in which he uses the word 'selfish', Dawkins writes, is one which is standard in biology, and which is 'behavioural, not subjective'. It is this. 'An entity, such as a baboon, is said to be altruistic if it behaves in such a way as to increase another such entity's welfare at the expense of its own. Selfish behaviour has exactly the opposite effect. "Welfare" is defined as "chances of survival" ... .

So, according to Dawkins, genes are selfish, because they do not behave in a way that increases the chances of survival of other genes, only in ways that increase their own chances of survival. For Stove, this is meaningless: "To justify his calling genes selfish in the behavioural sense, Dawkins would need to show that self-replication increases the self-replicator's chances of survival " (ibid.). The problem in Stove's argumentation is that he things about a gene as the individual, concrete gene; but that's not how Dawkins sees it. Stove is aware of this; as he writes p. 123:

At this point, however, Dawkins would remind me that 'the selfish gene ... is not just one physical bit of DNA ... it is all replicas of a particular bit of DNA, distributed throughout the world'. What a gene does by self-replicating, he says, is, to benefit 'itself in the form of copies of itself'. 'The gene is a long-lived replicator, existing in the form of many duplicate copies' of itself.

Stove then proceeds to attack this idea; but that attack still doesn't quite get it. However, Stove's main point is that Dawkins anyway links the selfishness of genes to selfishness of their carriers and from there to morality, including teaching morality. On p. 126, Stove writes:

Here is another specimen of Dawkins contradicting his own theory. He says, 'let us try to teach generosity and altruism', but also says that 'altruism [is] something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world'. Well, I wonder where we are, if not 'in nature'?

As Stove describes it, this does sound as if Dawkins, who is known as zealous anti-religious, actually tries to reivent religion, just without a god. This is a common trait with humanists, and they can even find religious backing for it, if they want to. Read for example Matthew 25:

(34) Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:

(35) for I was hungry, and ye gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in;

(36) naked, and ye clothed me; I was sick, and ye visited me; I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

(37) Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee hungry, and fed thee? or athirst, and gave thee drink?

(38) And when saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?

(39) And when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

(40) And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of these my brethren, even these least, ye did it unto me.

That is, Jesus is here saying that to serve him is to serve the needy among us. But notice here that Jesus says "[i]nasmuch as ye did it unto one of these my brethren, even these least, ye did it unto me"; that is Jesus is benefitted by the benefit of 'one of these [his] brethen', so indeed Dawkins did not provide any new knowledge. But in return, Stove apparently doesn't quite catch the idea either.

In analogy with the word 'gene', Dawkins has coined the word 'meme'. About this, Stove writes p. 129:

A meme is anything which can be transmitted by non-genetic means from one human being to another. Hence all ideas, beliefs, attitudes, styles, customs, fashions - in fact all the elements of culture in the broadest sense - are memes. There is a meme for Pythagoras's Theorem, and another for wearing stiletto heels; a meme for being in favour of capital punishment, and one for the idea of a triangle; a meme for the Mozart Requiem and another for shaving ...

So memes are identifiable pieces of culture that have a sort of a life of their own. Continuing, Stove writes:

Now, Dawkins says, organic evolution is driven by the struggle between one gene and its rival genes for a place on the chromosome, and with that, the chance to self-replicate; and just so, cultural evolution, he says, is driven by the struggle between one meme and its rival memes for a place in our brains. Take, for example, the meme for the belief that the sun is at the centre of the local planetary system. A few brains in classical antiquity had contained this meme, but it then disappeared for nearly thousand years. In the mid 16th century, however, it popped up again in the brain of Copernicus, and a struggle began between this heliocentrism meme and the geocentrism meme. At that time, the latter was settled in almost all brains, but the heliocentrism meme has won this struggle long ago. It has been so successful, in replicating itself from one brain to another, that by now there are hardly any brains left which contain the geocentrism meme.

According to Stove, it is Dawkins' claim that memes, even though they are transmitted by human agents, really themselves are the causal agents, humans only serve as vehicles of transmission. For Stove, this is saying that there are two conspiracies going on, one for biology - the genes - and one for culture - the memes - which for Stove is "demonological" (cf. p. 130); that is, memes in Dawkins' theory are simply renamed demons just as genes are. So, Stove denies that Dawkins has made any new scientific discovery. The same goes for Dawkins' later books, The Extended Phenotype and The Blind Watchmaker. For Stove, it is all "puppetry theory"; that is, Dawkins has just come up with the same old stories about human life being determined by forces stronger than themselves. Stove, however sees some softening of Dawkins' genetic determinism in the later books, though not enough of it. As he writes p. 134:

The overall tendency of these two later books, however, is exactly the reverse: they are actually more puppetry theoretical than the first one was. We read in The Extended Phenotype that 'the fundamental truth [is] that an organism is a tool of DNA', and in The Blind Watchmaker, that 'living organisms exist for the benefit of DNA.' Such statements abound even more in the later books than they did in the first one. In addition, they are not counterbalanced here, as they were in The Selfish Gene, by cheerfully inconsistent statements like the one I quoted earlier: that we have 'the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth'.

So, for Stove, all Dawkins claims is that we are the powerless victims of genes/memes. But let's have a closer look at things, shall we? The piece quoted by Stove from The Blind Watchmaker is part of this:

We have seen that DNA molecules are the centre of a spectacular information technology. They are capable of packing an immense amount of precise, digital information into a very small space; and they are capable of preserving this information - with astonishingly few errors, but still some errors - for a very long time, measured in millions of years. Where are' these facts leading us? They are leading us in the direction of a central truth about life on Earth, the truth that I alluded to in my opening paragraph about willow seeds. This is that living organisms exist for the benefit of DNA rather than the other way around.

Now, for Dawkins, it is a question of longevity: a gene may exist unchanged for millions of years; but how long is the lifespan of an individual organism? Much, much smaller. On the next page, Dawkins writes:

DNA gets the best of both worlds. DNA molecules themselves, as physical entities, are like dewdrops. Under the right conditions they come into existence at a great rate, but no one of them has existed for long, and all will be destroyed within a few months. They are not durable like rocks. But the patterns that they bear in their sequences are as durable as the hardest rocks. They have what it takes to exist for millions of years, and that is why they are still here today. The essential difference from dewdrops is that new dewdrops are not begotten by old dewdrops. Dewdrops doubtless resemble other dewdrops, but they don't specifically resemble their own 'parent' dewdrops. Unlike DNA molecules, they don't form lineages, and therefore can't pass on messages. Dewdrops come into existence by spontaneous generation, DNA messages by replication.

The DNA molecules themselves don't have a long lifespan either; but their patterns can exist for millions of years. The combination of short duration of the instantiation of the pattern and the long duration of the pattern itself, obtained by self-replication, is what enables cumulative selection, because the self-replication occasionally is erroneous. So, things aren't exactly as Stove reports them.

Denyse O'leary's review of Essay VII can be found here.

Basically, O'Leary simply just runs along with Stove, and there's really not much to comment on separately. On detail, though; O'Leary writes:

Stove goes on to suggest that Dawkins's The Selfish Gene is just another instance of fatalism, like astrology, Freudianism, Marxism, and Calvinism. He argues that many people like this sort of thing because it confirms what they feel they have always known, that either they or someone they know is born to lose. They are but puppets, and the selfish gene is a puppet master that suits them well. So anything can be blamed on genes, and genes never defend themselves.

Well, how does O'Leary know for sure that it isn't her genes that make her take up her pen to defend the honor of genes?

3 comments:

katty said...

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kimberly said...

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Anonymous said...

You go to great lengths to discredit this author and his work but you haven't refuted anything he's said. You've simply written a long winded diatribe exposing your own lack of understanding, preconceived ideas and bias. You are also ill informed and I'm still trying to decide whether you are a purposely spreading misinformation or if you're just plain ignorant when it comes to the subject matter.

All in all a very poor attempt to make light of a book unearthing the serious problems in modern day science and the almost 200 years of fraud and deception we've had to endure at the hands of over zealous evolutionists.

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A Christian in Satanist clothes