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), which is 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 6 of 11, "Tax and the Selfish Girl or Does Altruism Need Inverted Commas?".)
In Chapter 6, Stove addresses a central question in more detail: Is altruism rare? Why should it be a problem for biology? For whom is it a problem, and why?
He starts out by observing,
There are some beliefs which, though we have found them to be false over and over again, never entirely lose their hold on us, because they appeal to something permanent in human nature. ... There are other beliefs which, though disproved countless times, never die out, because they appeal, not to something in everyone, but to a certain perennial type of person. An example is, the belief that everyone is at bottom selfish, or that no one ever acts intentionally except from motives of self-interest. (p. 79)
Darwinism, says Stove, depends on universal selfishness because only the selfish could become a "favoured race in the struggle for life", to use Darwin’s phrase. Darwin himself was not a man of bad character, but he was the heir of an Enlightenment tradition that necessitated selfishness as a way of explaining behavior. He attempted to argue that altruism might be an advantage if an altruistic group competing with a group in which all members were selfish. But of course, free riders would quickly destroy such a group unless something stronger than mere personal survival was driving altruism (p. 81).
In the last thirty years, selfish theory has garnered huge attention from evolutionary psychology's recent claims about "selfish genes."
(Note: "Evolutionary psychology" is an updated term for sociobiology. The latter term fell out of favor in the 1970s, partly because of the uproar around The Bell Curve , a book which claimed that social policy could do little to change differences in social standing between blacks and whites because the characteristics that create them are inherited. I guess that means I will never get to be as powerful as Condi Rice or as famous as Oprah, but who said life was fair anyway ... ?)
Altruism, Stove shows, is only a problem for sociobiologists, who hope to interpret human social life in terms of Darwinian evolution. He cites examples, such as E.O. Wilson wondering why animals accept rank order in a pack, thus preventing fights, and Dawkins wondering why bereaved women or monkeys would steal babies. (p. 82) He is careful to point out that these sociobiologists do not disapprove of altruism, they simply cannot account for it except by not-very-convincing arguments that it always masks an underlying selfishness. Puzzled to account for why Darwin's heirs should appear unaware of how widespread altruism is, he suggests,
The folly which is common to the favorite questions of our time and to the typical questions of sociobiologists, lies in a certain presupposition which they have in common. This is, that human life, and indeed all animal life, is best understood by comparing it with the model furnished by youngish American adults of the last 25 years. By people, that is, who are, beyond all historical precedent, free, rich, mobile, innocent of the very idea (let alone the reality) of food shortage, under no necessity to work, unburdened by familial, religious, or other loyalties, undistracted by education, curiosity, or any disinterested passion, principally anxious (if male) to preserve a whole skin, and (if female) to preserve her immaternity. They (as the saying is) 'just want to have fun', and are the first instance in history of an entire generation, as distinct from a tiny minority, being in a position to realise this challenging idea. For this very reason, however, they make a highly misleading model for human biology; and a still worse one, for general biology. (p. 84)
Stove points out that many animals might well spread their selfish genes much more effectively by behaving otherwise than they do. For example, a female chimpanzee could let other females raise her infants and have many more of them, but if anyone thinks she herself is likely to see the matter in that light, his safety when reasoning with her in the primate enclosure is a poor bet.
Again, among the most important motivators of human beings are the fact that we hate to be alone for long, even when it is in our interest, and we love to communicate, even when it harms our interest. These primary human motivators may help or hinder survival or passing on genes, but they are actually irrelevant to that project, just as the mother chimpanzee's attachment to her baby (or to another chimp's baby if she loses her own) is irrelevant to Darwinian considerations.
There is no reason whatever apart from the Darwinian theory of evolution, to believe that there ever was in our species an 'evolution of altruism' out of a selfish 'state of nature'. People believe there was, only because they accept Darwin's theory, which says that there is always a struggle for life among conspecifics, whereas there is no such struggle observable among us now, but a great deal of observable altruism instead. The right conclusion to draw, of course, is that Darwin’s theory is false. But the conclusion usually drawn is the Cave Man one: that there must have been an evolution - admittedly difficult to explain - from an originally selfish human nature into our present altruistic and tax paying state. (p. 96)
In Chapter 7: "Genetic Calvinism or Demons and Dawkins", Stove addresses the neo-Darwinian theory that genes can be selfish, even if people aren't. Can they indeed?
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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