So. This guy.
[Update 01/10/09: Okay, the above words used to be a link to an article on the Royal Institute of Philosophy website, titled So You Think You Are a Darwinian? by Daniel Stove. Thanks to Bjorn for helpfully pointing out that the original link has died, but another version of the article can be found here. Please do let me know if that one vanishes too.]
The brief informal survey I conducted earlier in the week returned a statistically insignificant 100% result of “fucking idiot”. Looking at it again with slightly less tired eyes, it still seems like complete bullshit.
It seems to be some sort of tirade against “Darwinism”, but the author, David Stove, never really describes what he means by the term. The closest he comes is to clarify his referring to people as “Darwinians” as being those who “believe our species to have originated, not in a creative act of the Divine Will, but by evolution from other animals”. This is potentially quite sensible, but it very quickly loses any semblance of coherence. The bulk of the article is dedicated to “ten propositions which are all Darwinian beliefs”, which are all “obviously false”. But looking at some of them, if the author really thinks that they’re all connected to Darwinism, and that their falsehood is obvious… well, we’re back to “fucking idiot” territory. Or possibly batshit crazy land.
One at a time, then.
1. The truth is, ‘the total prostitution of all animal life, including Man and all his airs and graces, to the blind purposiveness of these minute virus-like substances’, genes.
This was written summarising the idea behind a Dawkins book, and quoted by the man himself. Stove complains that genes, tiny individual stretches of DNA, are incapable of having “brains and purposes” of their own. He appears to think that the only way living creatures could be in any way driven by a genetic imperative is if the molecules coding the genetic information are consciously pulling levers and plotting how best to achieve their goals. Perhaps he also imagines photons of light running very fast across the universe on little legs because they have somewhere very important to be.
2 ‘…it is, after all, to [a mother’s] advantage that her child should be adopted’ by another woman.
Stove admits that Dawkins’ explanation for why this is true in nature is sound: mothers who can persuade other females to rear their young for them can divert their own energies to producing more offspring, while their genes are looked after and propagated with the aid of another, who foregoes the chance to propagate her own genes by raising her own children. Genes for this kind of deceptive behaviour will, in the right circumstances, spread successfully; we can see this happening in nature.
But Stove says something which neatly highlights the big misunderstanding here:
This, you will say, is a grotesque way of looking at human life; and so, of course, it is. But it is impossible to deny that it is the Darwinian way.
It’s the “Darwinian way” in the sense that it’s something that we know happens in nature, and is explained by the Darwinian processes of evolution. But there’s a huge difference that he doesn’t seem to recognise, between pointing out what’s going on in the world, and insisting that this ought to happen wherever possible, or that this is morally right in any or all circumstances.
Yes, in nature, genes for certain behaviours like brood parasitism do tend to be successful genes, and to cause the animals whose bodies they inhabit to do well and create more copies of those genes in their offspring. But where does any human sense of morality come into that? Where does anyone get the idea that human women acting like this themselves would be a good, right, and proper thing to do? Nature’s a bitch. Why the hell would you take your moral standards from her?
Also, nature has given some creatures gills, also by Darwinian processes. Doesn’t mean humans have a moral imperative to breathe underwater.
I’ve compared these complaints about the immorality of evolutionary mechanisms before to someone doing star jumps, flagrantly defying the laws of gravity, and shouting “Suck it, Newton!” Just because stuff tends to fall down, doesn’t mean that we should all strive to stick firmly to the ground, as nature clearly wills it.
Wait, I’ve had a thought. Is this guy writing about the people who do take their morals from nature in exactly this way? Have I been wrong to think that he’s going after evolutionary science generally, and is actually simply decrying the very small (and likely fictional) subset of people who base all their decisions on what would be encouraged by Darwinism? Well, sadly, no. It’s clear from the article as a whole that he’s not nearly that lucid.
3. All communication is ‘manipulation of signal-receiver by signal-sender.’
He doesn’t even bother actually refuting this one. I can only assume that he’s reading into the word “manipulation” all sorts of implicit underhand subterfuge and uncaring deviousness. I see no problem in the point Dawkins was trying to make here about the nature of communication (whatever point that was; I haven’t read The Extended Phenotype lately).
4. Homosexuality in social animals is a form of sibling-altruism: that is, your homosexuality is a way of helping your brothers and sisters to raise more children.
I’m not really sure about this one, not having read the Robert Trivers book which might give it context. Stove’s rebuttal, though, appears to amount to: “Well, if he believes that, who’s to say he doesn’t believe all these other crazy things, none of which I have any evidence to suggest he actually does believe?” Because hey, homosexuality and suicide are pretty much equivalent in a biological sense, right?
5. In all social mammals, the altruism (or apparent altruism) of siblings towards one another is about as strong and common as the altruism (or apparent altruism) of parents towards their offspring.
…Still not seeing anything obviously false, or any attempt to counter it. I don’t really know how to defend a statement like this if he’s not even going to put forward an argument. Is it supposed to be disproved by the fact that I spent more on my mum’s birthday present than my brother’s? You know that’s not really how any of this works, right?
6. ‘…no one is prepared to sacrifice his life for any single person, but everyone will sacrifice it for more than two brothers [or offspring], or four half-brothers, or eight first-cousins.’
Emphasis [and parentheses] are Stove’s. And I call bullshit on this one. The part of the quote abbreviated to an ellipsis includes the phrase: “in the world of our model organisms, whose behavior is determined strictly by genotype”. See, the work he was doing was on a mathematical model to aid our understanding of some aspects of altruism. It wasn’t literally referring to real organisms in the real world.
Nobody expects something as wobbly and variable as a gene pool to always comply precisely with a mathematical model, and Darwinism has never predicted that creatures will do a mental tally of their kin whose lives are in danger to decide whether it’s worthwhile making a sacrifice. All we’re doing is examining a gene’s likelihood to propagate successfully amongst a species, considering what effects that gene has on a creature’s behaviour.
A gene for extreme and unconditional altruism, for instance, is likely to be selected against and disappear quickly, because if you’re always leaping into the fray to protect just anyone then you’re more likely to Darwin Award yourself out of the gene pool, before you have a chance to pass those genes that make you so selfless on to anyone else. On the other hand, if you’re all about self-preservation, that might not be optimal behaviour for your individual genes either. If you have a gene, presumably you got it from one of your parents, which means there’s usually a 50/50 chance that they passed it on to each of your siblings too. So, a gene for some level of altruism toward your kin might do a good job of looking after copies of itself, even while they’re in other organisms. (And remember that it still doesn’t need to be consciously scheming to achieve any of this.)
7. Every organism has as many descendants as it can.
Well, not exactly.
For a start, reproducing prolifically is no use at all if all your kids end up dead because you were trying to look after too many of them at once. For some species, laying hundreds of eggs at a time so that a small handful will survive without being eaten by predators makes sense. For others, predators aren’t as big a problem as competition for food, so they stop after a small number of kids and then devote their remaining energies to making sure a large number of them survive to reproductive age, rather than producing more and more of them.
But also, there are obvious examples in nature of individual organisms who do not strive to maximise the number of their own direct genetic offspring. Worker bees, for example, are often infertile. But even though those individual bees aren’t passing on their own genetic information, the genes which code for producing worker bee offspring exist in other bees in the colony, which are benefited by having the worker bees around.
This relates to the altruism thing mentioned above, and is central to Dawkins’ main point in The Selfish Gene and elsewhere: the unit of replication, the discrete entity which is “trying” to get itself reproduced and replicated, is not the individual organism, but the gene. Stove doesn’t seem to recognise this; with his shallow understanding of the processes of evolution, he seems to reduce the complex and interwoven ways in which natural selection can act to a simple genetic cry of “MOAR BABIES!!”
This quoted principle actually comes from something said by Darwin, but I don’t think that Darwinism holds to the principle as Stove seems to understand it. The phrase Darwin used was “each organic being”, which I suspect may refer to the species or types of creature as a whole, not necessarily the individuals. At least, it’s possible that Darwin was using somewhat ambiguous language, perhaps slightly carelessly – but even if he meant it, literally and absolutely, as Stove interprets it, it doesn’t really matter. If that’s the case, he was just wrong.
Darwin didn’t know everything, and the science of evolution has come a long way in the 150 years since On The Origin Of Species was published. The kind of “Darwinism” this article seems to be a diatribe against – that of holding everything Darwin ever wrote as sanctified doctrine – simply doesn’t exist in biology.
And Stove continues to confuse the facts about the workings of natural selection in nature, with the implications for expected and acceptable human behaviour. The fact that not every single human being who ever lived has done everything in their power to have as many children as possible, without exception, is apparently utterly irreconcilable with a Darwinian model, in which descent with modification powers the variability in living organisms. Well, maybe if you’re a cretin or know nothing about the subject.
8. In every species, child-mortality – that is, the proportion of live births which die before reproductive age – is extremely high.
The possibility that humanity, with our evolved intelligence, culture, language, developed personalities, interpersonal relationships, and so forth, might be capable of moving beyond some of the more primitive urges that have driven the adaptation and proliferation of life for millions of years, still seems beyond what Stove is willing to consider.
Which is made all the more bizarre by the fact that he seems to understand so many of the principles at work. When food is plentiful, creatures will naturally tend to reproduce at an impressive rate. Those individuals best suited to reproducing in large numbers will pass on the genes that make them so suited, to their large numbers of offspring. Thus, genes for grand-scale reproduction will tend to spread wider than genes for more inhibited reproduction. This will always lead, as Stove points out, to a point at which food is no longer sufficiently plentiful for all the many offspring these creatures are having.
But there are so many more variables at work than to suggest that this prolific reproduction, and subsequent high child mortality rate, must be the optimal path for every species to take. As discussed, some fish do lay hundreds of eggs and then do their best with whatever few survive. But Richard Dawkins describes, in a recent video, some very different ways at which particular species can arrive at their own stable equilibrium.
And it really shouldn’t be as mind-bendingly unfathomable as Stove seems to find it, that the culture and consciousness and conversation recently developed by homo sapiens should have shifted our own priorities somewhat. The selective pressures on our own species aren’t what they were a few millennia ago, or even a few centuries ago. Our evolution has given us minds which are quite capable of deciding for themselves how many offspring we want to have. They’ve also given us quite enough other bonuses, like advanced medicine and improved food production, that we don’t need to worry about being driven to extinction by our failure to constantly be creating more copies of ourselves. It’s entirely Stove’s own assertion that the above proposition is “not a peripheral or negotiable part of Darwinism”, and must apply universally, unequivocally, to every individual organism, and he provides nothing to support it.
9. The more privileged people are the more prolific: if one class in a society is less exposed than another to the misery due to food-shortage, disease, and war, then the members of the more fortunate class will have (on the average) more children than the members of the other class.
I’m getting bored of this now, and I’m sure I’m not alone. Stove provides a lot of blather about this, which has very little to do with Darwinism. Here’s the major thing he’s missing, again, as concisely as I can think to summarise it right now:
The selective pressures acting on living organisms are not identical across all times, places, and species.
Humans have many facets which distinguish them from many other species. In particular, the complexity of our social interactions go a long way toward making our reproductive habits far more complicated than Stove’s idea of the Darwinian view, i.e. “If you’re not dead, you should be having babies”.
Nope, scratch that, I’m really too bored of this now, and I can tell I’m going to have to get wordy again if I’m going to explain in enough detail why he’s still wrong. It’s time for bed anyway.
I think I’m still somewhat in the dark as to what this guy’s point is. But if he’s dismissing evolution as a scientific theory, on the grounds that not every single mechanism ever posited for natural selection is applicable to our own particular species in the present day, then I’d say the “fucking idiot” corner is looking pretty strong.