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Friday, April 10, 2009

The Dawkins Trick

Here's how to be a superstar in the world of Darwinist extremism, like Richard Dawkins: You write 50 pages of shocking text taking a metaphor like 'the selfish gene' quite literally. Then, you slip in one sentence saying something to the effect that, 'Of course, this is all just a metaphor!' Then you go back to writing as if it were literally true for another 50 pages.

It is as though one kept insisting that snow is black, very, very dark, reflects no light, and so on, and then paused once in a while and wrote, 'Of course, I know that snow is really white!' Calling snow black is not a metaphor, it's a simple falsehood. And so is calling genes 'selfish'.

Furthermore, 'Dawkins’s crude, cheap, blurred genetics is not just an expository device. It is the kingpin of his crude, cheap, blurred psychology'. (Mary Midgley)

9 comments:

  1. Yes, but the idea that selection pressures are focused at the genetic level rather than the level of the individual organism is a legitimate hypothesis with interesting theoretical implications.

    Moreover, don't economists do precisely what you're describing all the time by "assuming" that individuals are rational and maximize utility? "Of course we know that utility is a fictional concept!"

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  2. "Yes, but the idea that selection pressures are focused at the genetic level rather than the level of the individual organism is a legitimate hypothesis with interesting theoretical implications."

    That's true, but apparently the idea is:
    1) Not original to Dawkins; and
    2) Largely false, at least in the way Dawkins expresses it:

    "As Dobzhansky put it, tracing the history of his subject in 1962:

    "The original conception of simple unit-characters had to be given up when it was discovered that the visible traits of organisms are mostly conditioned by the interaction of many genes and most genes have pleiotropic, or manifold, effects on many traits . . . Although geneticists no longer speak of unit-characters, others continue to do so… The academic lag goes far to explain why so many social scientists are repelled by the idea that intelligence, abilities or aptitudes may be conditioned by heredity (Mankind Evolving, p. 33)."

    As Midgley notes, Dawkins treats genes in a way that would be marked wrong on undergrad exams!

    "Moreover, don't economists do precisely what you're describing all the time by "assuming" that individuals are rational and maximize utility?"

    Well, many people object to that as well, but Dawkins construct would be more like assuming that individuals are omnipotent gods and can achieve whatever they want effortlessly.

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  3. Yes, I meant to add that Dawkins is a zoologist, and not a geneticist!

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  4. Here's an actual professional noting that Dawkins doesn't even get the definition of a gene correct:
    http://sandwalk.blogspot.com/2007/01/richard-dawkins-definition-of-gene-is.html

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  5. All fair points. Still, I think the refocusing of evolutionary biology on a level even smaller than the individual organism was important, even if Dawkins went about it in a way that was less than perfect.

    I personally prefer The Extended Phenotype to The Selfish Gene, though mostly the last three chapters of it.

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  6. Oh, and for anyone who wants to use the 'Dawkins is just speaking metaphorically' defense, it's off the table:

    "She thought that I would defend my selfish genes by claiming that they were intended only as a metaphor, and assumed that I was speaking metaphorically when I wrote, ‘We are survival machines-robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. This is a truth which still fills me with astonishment’ (The Selfish Gene, p. ix). But that was no metaphor. I believe it is the literal truth..."

    -- Richard Dawkins

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  7. Gene - just one question (i think i pressed the wrong button previously) - you are NOT hinting that you may be an ID proponent, only that you think Dawkins is somewhat of a hyperbolic jerk at times, right?

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  8. Yes, James, that's about right.

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  9. Phew. :) Seriously, you had me worried there for a moment (particularly in light of the position of some other famous Austrian economists....)

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