by Denyse O'Leary
(Australian philosopher David Stove (1927-1994), not a religious man and no defender of any type of creationism, wrote a book Darwinian Fairytales (Avebury Press, 1995), part of the Avebury Series in Philosophy, that shows clearly why the principal neo-Darwinian concepts of kin selection and inclusive fitness simply do not conform to the available evidence - certainly not for humans, and probably not for many other life forms. This series of blogs briefly introduces the topics covered in the 11 chapters of the book, with some other links, as available. This is a brief comment on Chapter 7 of 11, "Genetic Calvinism or Demons and Dawkins".)
Stove here discusses Dawkins's view that, thanks to the magic of natural selection, genes can appear to behave selfishly. Selfish genes are the only real players in life, according to Dawkins.
The basic problem is that the only possible object of selfishness is a self. That is, selfishness is a quality of a mind/brain that is inordinately focused on itself (as a whole) as opposed to a hierarchy of needs that include the self but also other selves in an environment. Cruella Deville, who wanted to slaughter 101 Dalmatian puppies to make a coat, might be selfish, but her actual genes are as irrelevant to the idea of selfishness as viruses or prime numbers.
Dawkins admits that he is speaking figuratively when he says that genes are selfish, but does that rescue his concept? Stove thinks not, because if he were right, identical twins should be willing to give each other all their worldly goods and heartthrobs, and even their passwords, yet they generally are not. (p. 125)
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.
Dawkins might have rescued his idea if he had just let it go at that. After all, some people honestly believe they are puppets of fate. As with any other type of belief, the believers can always assemble anecdotes to demonstrate their case. Developing a general theory that actually works is another matter, and that's where Dawkins's theory loses its wheels.
Incredibly, Dawkins insists at one and the same time that altruism "has no place in nature," but nonetheless asserts "let us try to teach generosity and altruism." (p. 126) But how can we? How are we to acquire altruism if it has no place in nature, let alone teach it?* And remember, we are but puppets of our genes. At this point, it is fair to say that Dawkins isn't making any sense.
It gets worse. As Stove notes (p. 128), in addition to the selfish gene, there is also the meme. Memes are allegedly anything that can be transmitted from one human to another by non-genetic means. They infest our brains and manipulate them, whether they are ideas, beliefs, attitudes, styles, customs, fashions.
Do not bother to ask whether neuroscience has discovered any correlate of a meme. Of course not.
Stove usefully contrasts the scientific discoveries related to genes with the entertaining but useless intellectual froth associated with memes (pp. 132–33).
He ends up wondering about Dawkins's sanity (p. 133), perhaps unnecessarily. Many clever people develop odd ideas without quite going over the edge. But we are hardly called to take it all seriously.
In Chapter 8, Stove addresses the theory of kin selection, according to which both animals and people are more altruistic toward those who share more of their genes. Is that what we actually observe? Chapter 8: "'He Ain't heavy, He's My Brother' or Altruism and Shared Genes"
Toronto-based Canadian journalist Denyse O'Leary (www.designorchance.com) is the author of the multiple award-winning By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), an overview of the intelligent design controversy. She was named CBA Canada's Recommended Author of the Year in 2005 and is co-author, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of the forthcoming The Spiritual Brain (Harper 2007).
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