Friday, October 27, 2006

Review of David Stove: Darwinian Fairytales (essay 8)

In Essay VIII, "'He Ain't Heavy, He's my Brother' or Altruism and Shared Genes", Stove deals with 'inclusive fitness' or 'kin selection'. This subject is described by Stove p. 138:

The general principle, in Hamilton's own words, was this. 'The social behaviour of a species evolves in such a way that in each distinct behaviour-evoking situation the individual will seem to value his neighbours' fitness against his own according to the coefficients of relationship appropriate to that situation.' (That is, acoording as the 'neighbour' is an offspring, a sibling, a cousin, or whatever.)

Stove doesn't reject that there is a connection between degree of relatedness and altruism, only that this connection explains much. Also, Stove claims that altruism isn't always directed towards near relatives, where he mentions Mothet Teresa, Florence Nightingale, father Damien, and Albert Schweitzer as examples.

Stove's direct target here is sociobiology, which is based on the synthesis between Mendelian inheritance and Darwinian evolution, which usually goes by the name of 'neo-Darwinism'. Darwin himself saw moral evolution as increasingly altruistic, even in its most developed form being directed towards members of other species.

However, Stove sees things differently. On p. 139, he writes:

Altruism ought to be non-existent, or short-lived whenever it does not occur, if the Darwinian theory of evolution is true. By the very meaning of the word, altruism is an attribute which disposes its possessor to put the interests of others before its own. Disposes it, for example, to defend conspecifics in danger, when it could have simply saved its own skin; disposes it to eat less, or less well, or later, if this helps otherss to eat more or better or earlier; disposes it to mate later or less often, if this helps others to mate sooner or more often; and so on. But ant such behaviour by an organism clearly tends to lessen its own chances of surviving and reproducing; and altruism is therefore an attribute which is injurious to its possessor in the struggle for life. And in that struggle, Darwin says, 'we may feel sure that any variation in the least degree injurious would be rigidly destroyed.'

Yes, as long as we are focusing on an individual organism as the unit of selection. But say, an organism sacrifices itself for another organism with the same genes in a situation, where either one of them or both of them will die. Then the altruistic behavior, on the level of genes, actually makes sense. I am not saying that this kind of calculations are performed by the individual exhibiting the altruistic behavior, only that even without such calculations, the result would be the same. After all, an individual that can itself exhibit altruistic behavior is more likely to return the favor.

According to Stove, Darwinism was only concerned with individual survival until the mid-1960s. At p. 140, he writes:

A less starkly individualistic version of Darwinism - the theory of inclusive fitness - was put forward by W.D. hamilton in 1964, though J.B.S. Haldane and R.A. Fischer, decades earlier, had several times stated the germ of the theory. Its general idea is as follows. An organism acts in such a way as to maximise, not its individual fitness or chances of surviving and reproducing, but its inclusive fitness: that is, the fitnesses of a group of conspecifics which includes, first, the organism itself, then those with which the organism shares the highest proportion of its genes, then those with whom it shares the next highest proportion of its genes, and so on.

On the following pages, Stove mocks this idea. Bacteria that multiply by fission and dandelions that nultiply parthenogenically should then be the most altruistic organism; but they are among those organisms that come closest to the Malthusian struggle for existence. And so on. All this mocking may be relevant or not; it is beyond me to say for sure. I am no sociobiologist myself, and I also find that sociobiology appears to be a mess; but then again, I have never really bothered to understand it very well.

On p. 161, Stove sums it all up as that the sociobiologists really reject altruism; what they claim is that the apparent altruism really is the selfishness of genes. For example, Stove writes:

It is this interpretation of the theory, and this one alone, (I need hardly say), which recommends itself to sociobiologists. Alexander, for example, writes that kin altruism, 'by which the phenotype is used to reproduce the genes, may be described as phenotypically (or self-) sacrificing but genotypically selfish.' Dawkins writes that 'a gene might be able to assist replicas of itself which are sitting in other bodies. If so, this would appear as individual altruism, but it would be brought about by gene selfishness.' It would be easy to multiply quotations to the same effect; but it can hardly be necessary.

Stove then spends the next pages explaining how the inclusive theory of fitness, once accepted, necessarily would lead to the assumption of selfish genes, and that sociobiology yherefore is just yet one more variant of the selfish theory of human and animal behavior.

At the bottom of p. 163, Stove writes:

If a man openly denies the reality of altruism, then, as well as incurring the deserved ridicule of people of common sense, he incurs the moral indignation of people of common decency; as Hobbes, Mandeville, and Machiavelli (among others) found out by experience. He deserves it, too. Now the Darwinian theory of evolution is a theory which logically impels whoever believes it to deny the existence of altruism. But for more than a hundred years, (as we have seen), Darwinians all shrank from that denial: restrained, no doubt, partly by fear of the evil reputation of a Hobbes or Machiavelli, but also by their own decency.

This is too odd, and I have to admit that I fail to see the problem. For Hobbes the problem was not that altruism didn't exist, but that it was contingent on, whether people could feel safe. Therefore, the Sovereign was needed to handle to trouble-makers, so peaceful, law-abiding citizens could do their work for the common benefit. The very word 'altruism' was coined by August Comte, who was an admirer of Napoléon and had a similar idea as Hobbes' - that without law and order everything would be chaos. Now, in what way is that Darwinism? Is it more common for Darwinists to be for a strong state than it is for non-Darwinists? Is it impossible for a Darwinist to believe in self-organization rather than in the necessity of an imposed order? In short, Stove is barking up the wrong tree.

I have found that some people have a weird idea that humans are ever so altruistic - except the few odd ones that don't believe that - even politicians are altruistic - except those from the other party, who anyway are Darwinists/Hobbesians/Machiavellians/Bad-guys-by-any-other-name; and, of course, those from the other party say the same. The worst in this respect are Christians that claim that humans are egoistic, unless of course they accept Jesus, and at the same time claim that it is Satan who claims that humans are egoistic; but then again, when was the last time that anybody considered it worth the effort to ask Christians to be just halfways self-consistent?

However, according to Stove, the selfish gene theory is the Darwinists way out of the dilemma: a way of denying the existence of altruism without being accused as Bad-guys-by-any-other-name. As Stove writes p. 164:

But a denial of the reality of altruism which did not openly offend either common sense or decency: that, by contrast, would be exactly 'what the doctor ordered' for all present day Darwinians. It would give them what no Darwinians had ever had before: freedom to profess their Darwinism fully, without getting a bad name, and with a conscience that, if not quite unclouded, is not in revolt either. A combination 'devoutly to be wished'.

This isn't philosophy, but standard political-religious agitation: Darwinists don't believe that the leader of our party is really working for the common good; but that's because Darwinists are the instruments of Satan and therefore believe that all people are egoistic.

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

Basically, O'Leary is simply following Stove, and she mentions that Stove's conclusion is that Darwinists are not really scientific - they may be pursuing scientific interests, but they don't provide anything that a rational person can believe in. After this, O'Leary concludes with:

But today, the lay person may well find that Darwinism is by law established, much as if it were an established church, even if it is contradicted by common experience available to anyone.

The obvious problem here is that Darwinism isn't sociobiology - O'Leary needs to learn the difference between a speculative theory based on Darwinism and Darwinism as such.

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A Christian in Satanist clothes