Monday, October 30, 2006

Review of David Stove: Darwinian Fairytales (essay 10)

In Essay X, "Paley's Revenge or Purpose Regained", Stove first mentions G.C. Williams' book Adaptation and Natural Selection from 1966. Stove writes p. 179:

Its subject, however, is not altruism. It is something which lies equally close to the heart of Darwinism, and is far more widespread and prominent in organisms than altruism is: namely, adaptation. Organisms differ from inanimate objects in being, in countless ways, adapted or adjusted or fitted to the circumstances which surround them. Every one of their organs, structures, processes, phases, has a function or purpose: something that it is for. It is in order to explain this great fact of life, and to explain it along the most severely Darwinian lines, that Adaptation and Natural Selection is written.

After that, Stove takes us on a little, historical tour beginning with David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779), in which Hume argues against 'the design argument', continuing with William Paley's Natural Theology (1802), in which Paley argues for 'the design argument', and ending with Darwin's The Origin of Species (1859). According to Stove, this book explained the origin of new species by natural selection that progressivly would lead to a new species.

Then Stove writes p. 182:

Such was, in essence, the Darwinian explanation of adaptation. In addition to its intrinsic merits, it had the advantages, over the Paleyan or theistic explanation, of being completely down to earth, and of explaining many other things beside adaptation. After all Darwin, in the Origin, had not been trying to explain adaptation: he had been trying to explain the origin of species! And yet, as Williams observes, the natural selection theory is actually a better explanation of the preservation and accumulation of adaptations, than it is of the origin of species.

Ok, that explains the title of Williams' book.

According to Stove, the explanation of adaptation by natural selection with one blow sent the theistic explanation into "a steep and apparently irreversible decline", and 'Natural theology' which was intended to limit the advance of atheism "found that its principal support had been removed" (ibid.).

However, according to Stove, while Paley by 1960 was considered to be "a fool or hypocrite or both" (ibid.), the situation has changed since then. Ironically, Paley has had his revenge. As Stove writes bootom p. 182:

The explanation of adaptation by reference to the purposes of intelligent and powerful agents has come back into its own. And its reinstatement has turned out to require only some comparatively minor changes to the theology involved.

Now, of course, Stove is not here referring to William Dembski's celebration of Paley. No, it is Richard Dawkins again, who, as Stove correctly mentions, is "full of a proper respect for Paley's explanation of adaptation" (ct. p. 183). For Stove, this is not surprising, since Dawkins is a theist himself. As Stove writes p. 183:

It is not in the least surprising that Dawkins should feel a profound intellectual sympathy with Paley's great book. It would be astounding if the opposite were the case. For he is a theist himself, as I [David Stove] have pointed out in Essay VII and IX. He agrees with Paley, that the adaptations of organisms are due to the purposive agency, (more specifically, the selfish and manipulative agency), of beings far more intelligent and powerful than humans or any other organisms.

This is -almost - true. In The Blind Watchmaker, chapter 1, Dawkins writes:

The watchmaker of my title is borrowed from a famous treatise by the eighteenth-century theologian William Paley. His Natural Theology - or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity Collected from the Appearances of Nature, published in 1802, is the best-known exposition of the 'Argument from Design', always the most influential of the arguments for the existence of a God. It is a book that I greatly admire, for in his own time its author succeeded in doing what I am struggling to do now. He had a point to make, he passionately believed in it, and he spared no effort to ram it home clearly. He had a proper reverence for the complexity of the living world, and he saw that it demands a very special kind of explanation. The only thing he got wrong - admittedly quite a big thing! - was the explanation itself. He gave the traditional religious answer to the riddle, but he articulated it more clearly and convincingly than anybody had before. The true explanation is utterly different, and it had to wait for one of the most revolutionary thinkers of all time, Charles Darwin.

So, yes, Dawkins indeed feels a profound intellectual sympathy with Paley's great book. But Stove ignores a detail, the word 'Blind' in The Blind Watchmaker. As Dawkins writes, Paley begins his book with this passage:

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there for ever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer which I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there.

As the story continues, Paley argues that from the complexity of the watch, each part precisely fitted to function together with the other parts, we conclude without hesitation that the watch is designed. That is, we conclude from watch to watchmaker, from the fact of the watch to the necessity of the watchmaker. Dawkins isn't denying this line of reasoning with respect to organisms as well, only that the watchmaker needs to be able to see into the future; that is, the necessity of any conscious purpose.

Therefore, Stove's argumentation doesn't quite hold. Dawkins exactly does not claim that any "purposive agency" is at play.

On p. 184-185, Stove picks up Adaptation and Natural Selection again and supplies a few quotes that should give the impression that Williams just as Paley saw design in organisms. For example bottom p. 184 to top p.185:

'[E]very adaptation is calculated to maximise the reproductive success of the individual, relative to other individuals ...' An adaptation is 'a mechanism designed to promote the success of the individual organism, as measured by the extent to which it contributes genes to later generations of the population of which it is a member.' 'Each part of the animal is organised for some function tributary to the ultimate goal of the survival of its own genes.'

So, according to Stove, little was left for Dawkins to popularize this new religion of genes, and it is all simply paraphrases of Paley

Stove acknowledges that neither Williams nor Dawkins referred to any real purpose or intelligence. As Stove writes p. 186:

Dawkins in order to make clear the great difference between the Paleyan explanation of adaptation and his own Darwinian one, writes (for example) as follows. 'Natural selection ... has no purpose in mind. It has no mind and no mind's eye. It does not plan for the future. It has no vision, no foresight, no sight at all.'

Continuing, Stove claims that this would be true, even if we substituted 'natural selection' with 'artificial selection', since artificial selection doesn't have a purpose in mind either - it is cattle breeders that have. Yet, no one would claim that "purposeful intelligent agents play no part in bringing about artificial selection!"

This is quite true, but not all that relevant - the word 'artificial' implies human activity. An artifact is something made by humans, and in archaeology it is important to be able to tell the difference between an artifact and a natural object; but that doesn't imply that an artifact has a purpose in mind itself, while a natural object doesn't.

However, Stove's complaint is really about the reification of natural selection, which just as artificial selection cannot have a purpose. It is about the causal agents, the genes, we need to ask, whether they are purposeful. According to Stove, a purpose needs not be conscious. He mentions p. 187:

People quite often realise that they have been, for some time, intending or 'purposing' to bring a certain state of affairs about, without having been conscious at the time of having any such purpose. It cannot be doubted that much of the activity of dogs is purposive; but whether any of it is consciously so, may very reasonably be doubted.

Well, isn't Stove here undermining his own position? This is epiphenomenalism; that is, the idea that the consciousness really plays no role in making decisions, all purposes really only exist in the subconscious and therefore belong to physiology. But our physiology isn't a result of our own intelligent design, it's a result of our genes. So, Stove is apparently a sociobiologist himself!

Anyway, Stove admits that Dawkins "has returned a clear 'no', not only to the question whether natural selection is purposive, but to the question whether genes are so." (ibid.), so where is the problem? However, Stove doesn't accept that denial, because Dawkins, and Williams as well, many more times describe genes as purposeful than they deny that genes are purposeful, ans, as Stove writes later p. 187:

If the writer of a book says a certain thing twice or once or never, but implies the opposite over and over again throughout his book, a rational reader will take it that the writer's real opinion is the one which he constantly implies; not the other one.

Not necessarily so. In The Blind Watchmaker, chapter 1, Dawkins writes:

Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose. Physics is the study of simple things that do not tempt us to invoke design. At first sight, man-made artefacts like computers and cars will seem to provide exceptions. They are complicated and obviously designed for a purpose, yet they are not alive, and they are made of metal and plastic rather than of flesh and blood. In this book they will be firmly treated as biological objects.

That is, Dawkins here writes that "computers and cars" will be treated as biological objects, so obviously he is using words in a non-standard way. Continuing, he writes:

The reader's reaction to this may be to ask, 'Yes, but are they really biological objects?' Words are our servants, not our masters. For different purposes we find it convenient to use words in different senses. Most cookery books class lobsters as fish. Zoologists can become quite apoplectic about this, pointing out that lobsters could with greater justice call humans fish, since fish are far closer kin to humans than they are to lobsters. And, talking of justice and lobsters, I understand that a court of law recently had to decide whether lobsters were insects or 'animals' (it bore upon whether people should be allowed to boil them alive). Zoologically speaking, lobsters are certainly not insects. They are animals, but then so are insects and so are we. There is little point in getting worked up about the way different people use words (although in my nonprofessional life I am quite prepared to get worked up about people who boil lobsters alive). Cooks and lawyers need to use words in their own special ways, and so do I in this book.

So, consider yourself warned - Dawkins is using words to mean what he wants them to mean, which should be ok, as long as he states in which way he uses words in a deviant sense relative to, what the intended audience would expect.

Unfortunately, Dawkins doesn't directly define how he uses the word 'purpose'. At the beginning of chapter 2, Dawkins writes:

Natural selection is the blind watchmaker, blind because it does not see ahead, does not plan consequences, has no purpose in view. Yet the living results of natural selection overwhelmingly impress us with the appearance of design as if by a master watchmaker, impress us with the illusion of design and planning. The purpose of this book is to resolve this paradox to the satisfaction of the reader, and the purpose of this chapter is further to impress the reader with the power of the illusion of design.

Note that here Dawkins uses the word purpose three times. First to imply that natural selection has no purpose in view, then to indicate the purpose of the book in general and chapter 2 in particular. Now, a book and a chapter don't have any purposes in view either; but still it is clear that Dawkins' purpose is to describe biological objects in a way so the reader will first be impressed with the illusion of design and then to show that it's only an illusion - in the case of, what's usually understood by 'biological objects'. This may of course be peculiar to The Blind Watchmaker; yet even if so, in the other books, the same idea may apply, although the authors may have been to sloppy to inform the readers; but that's a different problem than that they really meant that genes are purposeful in the same way, e.g., humans are.

But Stove isn't the kind of guy to let linguistic sloppyness simply pass by. On page 189, he writes:

Dawkins told the readers of The Selfish Gene that, if they objected to his describing genes as selfish, he could easily 'translate [that statement] back into respectable language'. Well, I do object to it, and one of the grounds on which I object to it is, that it implies that genes are purposive. So I would like to know what the 'respectable translation' is of 'genes are selfish'.

Since Dawkins, according to Stove, didn't supply that translation, Stove is going to try to work it out for himself. Needless to say, this project doesn't succeed; but Stove kicks back claiming that no one else, including Dawkins, has provided such a translation. While this is certainly a valid objection, the problem is that Stove's claim that 'selfish gene theory', as Stove calls it, is a new religion only holds true in a purely linguistic sense. Of course, Stove is entitled as well to use words according to his own rules.

Anyway, Dawkins' point is that genes, not individual organisms, are the unit of selection. That is, to trace evolution, we need to trace genes. Therefore Dawkins describes genes with words that would usually be used to describe individual organisms. And further, it's not the single instance of the gene that is the unit of selection, it's the gene pattern.

On p. 191, Stove mentions Darwin's book The various Contrivances by which Orchids are Fertilised by Insects, and here he complains about the word 'Contrivances', which also indicates purposeness. Stove writes that everybody understood that Darwin didn't use the word in that meaning, but in which meaning then?

This leads up to this general accusation (ibid.):

Darwinians, then, have never paid, or even acknowledged, the debt they have all along owed the public: a reconciliation of their teleological explanations of particular adaptations, with their non-teleological explanation of adaptation in general.

The problem really is that human language is, well, human language, and we tend to detect purposeness in each other. This is of importance for human cooperation; but unfortunately it also leads to many false accusations for unaccepted purposes. The "you did that on purpose!" warcry always means that you are in trouble, even if the claim is wrong. The teleological explanations are therefore simply due to that are purposefully designed by humans to be understood by humans, and that's all there is to it. Don't let yourself be lured by the contrivances of language, and everything should come out just fine. And we probably shouldn't ignore either that anthropomorphic language spawns some human interest in an area that might otherwise not have spawned that interest.

On p. 194, Stove claims that before 1600 bce, no one thought of using adaptation of organisms as a design argument; in return this argument 'ran riot' in the 17th and 18th century.

For once, Stove is actually making sense; let's see, how well he can keep up the standard. On p. 195, he writes:

By 1800, adaptation had become not merely the main, but virtually the only empirically evidence appealed to, to establish the divine existence and purposes. Paley sufficiently indicates that he himself attached little value to the design argument when it is based on anything other than adaptation. And yet when Plato or Aristotle or Cicero or Aquinas had employed a design argument, it had never been from adaptation. It was always from some fact, or supposed fact, of astronomy, or of general or terrestrial physics: from almost anything in the world, in fact, except the adaptations of organisms.

I had hoped that Stove would mention that after it had been accepted that there was no difference between the sub-lunar world and the super-lunar world, astronomical arguments for design simply weren't hard currency anymore. But he doesn't. In return, mid p. 196, he argues for that teleolical arguments should not be translated into non-teleological terms, because

If organisms weree indifferent towards their own survival and reproduction, or if they positively leaned to the Buddhist side of those issues, there would be no struggle for life, hence no natural selection, and hence no evolution, according to the Darwinian theory. So very far is that theory, then from according no causal role in evolution to purpose.

That is, I suppose, to say that there is nothing wrong with purposes. Over the next pages, Stove develops the idea of purposeness, and on pp. 198-199, he even mentions the sexuality of plants, about which he has several interesting things to say. For istance that it was a blow to our anthropocentrism, becaus eit showed that even palnts weren't here merely for "our sustenance, delight, or use: that on the contrary, they had a purpose of their own, an overriding purpose too, and one which they share with all other organisms - to survive and reproduce themselves." Continuing, Stove writes:

But the discovery of the sexuality of plants was not only intellectual dynamite: it was moral and political dynamite as well. For the Christian religion, after all, had waged war from its very start against the sexual impulse in man: not just against its hypertrophy, but against the thing itself. It had always been obvious to every thoughtful person that the sacrement of Christian marriage was no more than an uneasy compromise with the deadly sin of concupiscence. And yet, how could something which not just we and the 'beasts' do, but which wheat and apples and roses and oaks do, be an offense against the divine nature and purpose? The conclusion which was bound to be drawn, and was drawn, was that, in spite of St Paul, sexual intercourse is innocent.

Well, while Paul isn't known to have been much of an admirer of sexuality, I cannot recall that he anywhere says that it's a crime - though, of course, deviant sexual behavior is the sure ticket to hell. However, according to Stove, the "pursuit of happiness" was given a little twist by this discovery.

Stove's main point in these pages is that all the components of Darwinism - that all organisms strive to survive, reproduce and increase in a struggle against each other - were in place long before Darwin was even born; actually they were in place before Paley wrote Natural Theology.

From bottom p. 201 to top p. 203, Stove deals with Arthur Schopenhauer, "the Philosopher of Pessimism", who operated with 'the will to live', an purposive force, which wasn't conscious, but simply a driving force.

On p. 203, Stove treats us to his own version of

The conception of life, then, which we rightly call Darwinian though it owes nothing to Darwin, is this. All organisms strive to the utmost to survive, reproduce, and increase; everything they do, and all their adaptations, are contributory to that end; and it is only (or near enough only) the limitness of their food, and the struggle for life in which it embroils conspecifics, which prevents them increasing without limit.

Not necessarily so - depending on the meaning of 'organisms'. Darwin had no idea of genes, as we know them today, though he entertained the Pangenesis theory. However, Darwin doesn't make an always clear distinction between individual organisms and populations, and indeed theories of society as a single organism are quite common. On the frontispiece of Hobbes' Leviathan is shown the picture of the Sovereign, whose body is made up of the people; the idea being that with the Sovereign as its head, the people can work as one cooperating body instead of as a number of bodies fighting against each other. This is an important, though not well-integrated, aspect of Darwin's theory of evolution. Think about it, the earliest organisms were single-celled, then came multicellular organisms, then came societies of such organisms. Darwin's idea of common descent was not simply evolution, but to stretch the sympathy between members of a society to all that had the same common descent. Stove, by focusing only on the struggle between individual organisms doesn't catch this aspect.

On p. 204, Stove first mentions that

no effect of that kind [the conception of life above] can ever be brought about by intelligence, or by consciousness. Indeed, according to this conception of this, there could be no greater error than to tjink of intelligence and consciousness as external to the struggle for life, or as a possible source of interference with it. On the contrary, intelligence and even consciousness are just some of the means which have evolved in certain species for use in the struggle of life, and for nothing else; just as, in certain other species, a hard shell, or fleetness of foot, or a certain kind of dentition, has evolved.

So, it's not that Stove disagrees with Darwinists, as long as they don't make a new religion out of it. Against this we might ask, where this purposeness resides? That is, assuming Stove doesn't have it to be some kind of soul. Is Stove a monist or a dualist?

After this, Stove mentions the "ancient philosophical idea: 'the principle of plenitude'", whereby is meant that "the world is full - plenum - in the sense that there are no unrealised possibilities." This is turns means that everything is the only way it possibly can be. According to Stove, a child or an uneducated adult believes that there are many unrealised possibilities, but an educated adult knows better. Also scientific discoveries work this way: informing us that something isn't possible. For Stove, Darwinism is part of this process. As he writes p. 206:

In the same way, Darwinism says, biological science will in the end dispel all illusions of our being free and able to act otherwise than we do. We do not feel the universal striving to increase, or the struggle for life, any more than we feel gravitation, inertia, or air pressure, and yet the former forces really do constrain us just as rigidly as the latter do. The striving to increase, in our species as in every other, never sleeps, never tires, and never neglects an opportunity for reproduction.

This is Darwinism according to Stove; but I'm not fully convinced that all Darwinists will sign this declaration without having a few extra paragraphs in small print on the back of the paper.

Anyway, Stove claims (ibid.):

This conception of life, (as I [David Stove] have pointed out in earlier essays), is not true, because it is not true of human life. Despite Darwin - and despite Hume, Malthus, and Schopenhauer too - human life is not a plenum: it contains countless unrealised possibilities of reproduction.

By this, Stove means that humans don't have all the children they might have had. We have been through all this before, so we won't go through it again.

Stove ends Essay X on p. 207 with:

The basic idea of the new religion, then, that humans and all other organisms are mere means to the ends of more powerfull intelligent agents, is not an innovation of the last few decades. On the contrary, it was present all along, in the conception of life which Darwin shared with Schopenhauer and some others. The purposive gene gods of the new religion are the Life Force of Schopenhauer or the striving to increase of Darwin; only broken up into a multitude of little independent life forces or strivings to increase, in each single organism, and 'given a local habitation' in its body. That is how the new religion came about.

We could go further back; in the Homeric epics and classical Greek dramas, humans are the puppets of the gods, wars betweeb humans are caused by disagreements between the gods, and who's to win and who's to loose a battle is decided by the ever changing moods of the gods. Particularly interesting here is Euripides' play Hippolytos, a description of which can be found at the University of Nottingham, Department of Classics:

Aphrodite is determined to destroy Theseus' son Hippolytos because he will not worship her, preferring Artemis. She has therefore caused his step-mother Phaidra to fall in love with him. Phaidra wishes to keep silent and let herself waste away, but her interfering old nurse prises the secret out of her and approaches Hippolytos. He rejects Phaidra, whom he believes to have set up the approach; she, fearing exposure, hangs herself, leaving a note which claims that Hippolytos had raped her. Theseus believes this note despite Hippolytos' protestations, and curses his son. A terrible bull emerges from the sea, and Hippolytos is mangled trying to control his stampeding horses. Artemis tells Theseus the truth and he is reconciled to his dying son.

So, the idea of humans as victims of forces greater than themselves is even older than the 19th century, something which Stove hasn't denied either. The idea of human free will has never really existed except as a legitimation for punishments, so what's really Stoves's point?

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

As usually, O'leary basically follows Stove. But not quite, where she writes:

As many have pointed out, looking only one per cent like a bird dropping will not save a caterpillar from a hungry bird. Probably not even five percent or ten. Some purpose working behind the scenes is required to sustain major projects over the long periods in which they do not appear to pay.

That's where the selfish gene comes in. It attempts to get itself replicated in as many descendants as possible. It will persist through many iterations until it succeeds, and is thus capable of these apparently miraculous transformations.

This is not Stove's claim, but O'leary's imagination.

Later O'Leary writes:

In other words, in attempting to explain complex adaptations, Darwinism transferred purpose from an unselfish God to selfish genes, without giving any clear account of how or why genes should do all that Darwinists need them to do. Nor have Darwinists ever demonstrated that they actually do.

Again not quite Stove's point. It is true that Paley in Natural Theology claimed the creator to be benevolent; but that's not exactly the same as unselfish.

O'Leary ends with her usual complaint:

Because he is not a religious believer, philosopher Stove does not write with the intention of substituting a more conventional theistic explanation for the Darwinian religion of the selfish gene (he describes it as such). He is content to point out that it is a religion, which transfers the debt of purpose to the gene. Indeed, the religious character of Darwinism has often been remarked on by other sources. Dawkins has famously said that Darwinism made him feel fulfilled fulfilled [sic - doubly fulfilled] as an atheist.

That's as may be, but forcing it on the public as the only acceptable explanation for a variety of puzzling life forms is increasingly, and very understandably, controversial.

Again not quite Stove's point, which O'Leary partly omits - by mentioning that Stove doesn't have "the intention of substituting a more conventional theistic explanation for the Darwinian religion". Maybe O'Leary should have paid more attention to what Stove really is saying rather than just try to use him to have ID accepted in public schools.

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