Sunday, October 29, 2006

Review of David Stove: Darwinian Fairytales (essay 9)

In Essay IX, "A New Religion", Stove continues his assult on sociobiology, more precisely on its demonology, the genetic determinism. Except that now genes are not demons, but gods. On p. 171, he writes:

A person is certainly a believer in some religion if he thinks, for example, that there are on earth millions of invisible and immortal non-human beings which are far more intelligent and capable than we are.

We must assume that Stove wasn't aware that genes were rejected in the Soviet Union under Stalin with that same argument: they were invisible and could therefore not exist and therefore not have any influence.

Stove continues:

But that is exactly what sociobiologists do think, about genes. Sociobiology, then is a religion: one which has genes as its gods.

Well, I searched through Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker and found the following occurences of 'intelligent':

  • Chapter 2, p. 21:

    We may say that a living body or organ is well designed if it has attributes that an intelligent and knowledgeable engineer might have built into it in order to achieve some sensible purpose, such as flying, swimming, seeing, eating, reproducing, or more generally promoting the survival and replication of the organism's genes.

    The word 'intelligent' here is an adjective to 'engineer', which apparently denotes a human. Genes are mentioned, but not as intelligent in themselves. The apparent intelligence of the genes would really here be the intelligence of the engineer.

  • Chapter 5, p. 114:

    In the first generation there will be some dozens of intelligent young mulattoes, much superior in average intelligence to the negroes. We might expect the throne for some generations to be occupied by a more or less yellow king; but can any one believe that the whole island will gradually acquire a white, or even a yellow population, or that the islanders would acquire the energy, courage, ingenuity, patience, self-control, endurance, in virtue of which qualities our hero killed so many of their ancestors, and begot so many children, these qualities, in fact, which the struggle for existence would select, if it could select anything?

    This is actually part of a quote beginning p. 113. As Dawkins writes, a Scottish engineer Fleeming Jenkins had claimed that blending inheritance (which was the common assumption back then, before Mendel's theory of discrete inheritance became known and accepted) ruled out natural selection as a plausible theory of evolution. Darwin who was worried by Jenkins' argument then wrote a parable about a white man shipwrecked on an island inhabited by 'negroes'. And this, of course, superior white man becomes king of the island. Dawkins tells us to not "be distracted by the racist assumptions of white superiority"; but he has his own reasons for that. Not that I disagree with Dawkins; but I don't even think that we should take those assumptions seriously here - they appear to be driven into the extreme for the sake of argument. Jenkins' point was that blending inheritance would lead to a uniform population over time, and therefore natural selection would have nothing to select from. Darwin - by going into extremes - tries to make that idea look ridicolous.

    Anyway, the word 'intelligent' (and 'intelligence') is also here applied to humans.

  • Chapter 6, p. 141:

    But of course any God capable of intelligently designing something as complex as the DNA/protein replicating machine must have been at least as complex and organized as that machine itself.

    Here the adverb 'intelligently' is applied to 'designing something', the designer being a god; but apparently not a gene - what is designed (or rather not designed, according to Dawkins) is the "DNA/protein replicating machine", which includes the genes. So same situation as on p. 21.

  • Chapter 6, p. 145:

    Suppose the origin of intelligence is so improbable that it has happened on only one planet in the universe, even though life has started on many planets. Then, since we know we are intelligent enough to discuss the question, we know that Earth must be that one planet.

    Here again, the word 'intelligernt' (and 'intelligence') is applied to humans (and possibly animals), not to genes.

  • Chapter 6, p. 158:

    Could it be that one far-off day intelligent computers will speculate about their own lost origins?

    Well, here 'intelligent' is an adjective applied to computers, those silicon-based thingies that are on everybody's desktop, not to genes.

  • Chapter 7, p. 183-184:

    But van Valen's evolutionary Red Queen effect is not paradoxical at all. It is entirely in accordance with common sense, so long as common sense is intelligently applied.

    We won't worry about the deeper meaning here. The word 'intelligently' is applied to 'applied', and the subject is 'common sense'. Now, who is able to apply common sense? Shall we agree that Dawkins most likely refers to humans?

  • Chapter 10, p. 263:

    Such is the breathtaking speciesism of our Christian-inspired attitudes, the abortion of a single human zygote (most of them are destined to be spontaneously aborted anyway) can arouse more moral solicitude and righteous indignation than the vivisection of any number of intelligent adult chimpanzees!

    Here 'intelligent' is an adjective applied to 'adult chimpanzees', not to genes.

So, shall we agree that at least Richard Dawkins doesn't claim that genes are more intelligent than we are?

At page 172, Stove supplies a number of quotes from Richard Dawkins and Edward Wilson that are supposed to indicate that these two consider organisms to be only tools used by DNA. The problem here is that the quotes are very short, hardly a full sentence each, so what the authors meant is not necessarily, what Stove wants us to think. Sure, the metaphorical language used by sociobiologists is suggestive; but since we humans are tool-users, our language reflect that.

Stove continues p. 172-173 referencing The Extended Phenotype, in which Dawkins allegedly claims that genes are manipulating and capable of just about everything - through their organisms. I haven't read The Extended Phenotype; but I'd Guess that Dawkins' point is that all this is possible without genes having any conscious purposes. Stove mentions that "beaver genes (not beaver) manipulate logs and water to make a dam". It is well-known that beavers build dams, and apparently they don't need to go to engineering school to learn to do it; it's simply part of being a beaver; that is, the dam-building activity is encoded in the beavers' genes, and that's probably Dawkins' point: an activity, to which we would ascribe conscious purpose, if performed by humans, can be encoded in genes that have no consciousness. A beaver is conscious; but is it conscious about genes?

The rest of Essay IX is just Stove still not getting the point.

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

O'Leary commits the same misunderstanding as Stove:

One problem is that, while sociobiologists (adherents of selfish gene theory) claim on the one hand that genes are not really selfish or consciousness or purposeful, they write as though they in fact are. For example, Dawkins informs us (in The Extended Phenotype) that when the cuckoo lays its egg in the nest of a reed warbler, the cuckoo's genes are manipulating the reed warbler's genes, to the cuckoo's advantage. But manipulation implies intelligence and purpose (though causation as such does not necessarily imply that.

And she ends writing:

It is not really surprising that most people who are drawn to religion prefer traditional monotheism to this stuff.

Such as a religion that tells them that they are created in the image of an invisible, manipulating god?

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