No, that piece I reposted yesterday isn't my favorite post, I don't know which one would be. I can say that this one gave me a lot of pleasure. I don't know if anyone else ever pointed out the incompetence of one of Richard Dawkins' most successfully sold bogus scientific ideas in therms of not only its obvious lapses in physics (speed of sound) and mathematics (his idea has to mean that decreasing numbers in a population has to result in an increase in percentage) but also in its basic contradiction of several claims of the very Darwinism Dawkins was trying to advance in creating his explanatory myth.
This second version contains an update saying a bit about why I've gone from a conventional belief in natural selection to being skeptical of the idea. In the several years since I wrote it I've become even more skeptical of that explanation of evolution and more convinced that a lot of the supposed progress in biology based in it is likely as illusory as so much of the past progress it was imagined was being made in psychology under that field's conventional dogmas. If I updated it it would be even more controversial because all of my subsequent reading on the topic has made me even more skeptical of it. For the record, I don't believe any less in evolution, I am skeptical of the practice of explaining it in terms of the British class system, which is what Darwin actually did. I doubt that there is any one definable force that explains evolution, I think it's certainly a far more massively complex phenomenon and suspect many individual "forces" or circumstances created it.
Backing up, the problem that acts of generosity posed for the theory of natural selection goes back to the beginning with Darwin. If natural selection is what formed all organisms, body and mind and behavior, acts of generous self-sacrifice, resulting in the death or injury or even some form of reproductive disadvantage can't be explained. Natural selection is, as even Darwin asserted, all about "survival of the fittest" [On the Origin of Species 5th ed. p. 92] in a struggle for life and reproduction. And, as seen in yesterday's post, Darwin and his followers were already making the most extravagant claims about its action in human societies. They, of course, had nothing but narrative, lacking data to back up then claims. Quite often in Darwin, Haeckel and others, the narrative was a thinly veiled creation myth designed to assert an appearance of natural selection in nature when it was only there in the fables. That effort has continued down to today, it is the reason why such an overwhelming amount of asserted "science" surrounding behavior and thought becomes accepted, fashionable, out-moded and then junked as newer fables or, on occasion, some actual data or the application of reason debunks them.
In the hands of any Darwinian fundamentalist, whose goal is not to test Natural Selection but to uphold it and assert its universal explanatory power, all phenomena which could harm the theory must be either rejected or twisted to fit it. "Altruism" as expounded by Hamilton is transformed into a mere appearance of generosity but which is, actually, Darwinian self-interest on behalf of genes contained within organisms. In order to do that the human experience of generosity has to be made to equal behaviors in other species which are far removed from us in evolutionary descent by many hundreds of millions of years, ants figure heavily in it. I haven't seen any applications of Hamilton to organisms more distant in time for us, though the imperatives of the ultra-Darwinist claiming the total explanatory power of natural selection could hardly continue to ignore the vast majority of the living species, and grad students in the soft "sciences" will always be looking for novel ways to please the faculties in their field.
The most frequently articulated form of Hamiltonian "altruism" I've encountered, by far, is that of gene selfishness as popularized by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene. And by a factor of many times to one, the expression of such "altruism" brought up by his fans is in the fable of "the first bird to call out". I wrote briefly and quickly on that last spring. My recent go around at Jeffrey Sallit's atheist themed "science" blog, "Recursivity", brought up some even more absurd aspects of it, so I will go over it again. Here is the fable as Dawkins sets it out.
Laying down one's life for one's friends is obviously altruistic, but so also is taking a slight risk for them. Many small birds, when they see a flying predator such as a hawk, give a characteristic "alarm call", upon which the whole flock takes appropriate evasive action. There is indirect evidence that the bird who gives the alarm call puts itself in special danger, because it attracts the predator's attention particularly to itself. This is only a slight additional risk, but it nevertheless seems, at least at first sight, to qualify as an altruistic act by our definition.
Richard Dawkins: p.6, The Selfish Gene, Thirtieth Anniversary Edition, 2006
In my analysis last spring, I noted, at great detail that the entire basis of the invented "altruism" was the assertion, "There is indirect evidence that the bird who gives the alarm call puts itself in special danger, because it attracts the predator's attention particularly to itself." Only where is that "indirect evidence" that the first bird calling out had more of a chance at being killed by the predator? Dawkins gives none, something he has in common with others making assertions of "altruism" of this sort. Lacking a large enough number of filmed examples to study in which to identify both the "first bird to call out" and that it was the one caught by the "flying predator" it would be impossible to make that hypothesis into real science. No matter how well it might work as convincing narrative.
Just on the basis of physics, if the other birds in the flock were close enough for the alarm call to allow them to escape, they'd have to be far closer than the predator and, the speed of sound being rather fixed, they'd probably have taken off in a flurry of confusion before the predator even heard the call. I don't think that part of the fable passes muster either in terms of adequate scientific observation (something generally lacking in evo-psy) or on the basis of basic physics. I'll pass over the often observed phenomenon that when birds see a predator, they very often don't call out but play statues. Also that among some birds, it's not uncommon for different species to flock together and for bird flocks to be found in close proximity to each other.
But, as I put it to the mathematician, Shallit, the proposal has even more basic problems with it. If Dawkins is correct that there is a genetic basis of bird "alturism", in lines with his fable, and that the "altruism" consists in the self-sacrifice of birds containing those genes, in order that other birds containing that gene can escape and reproduce, he ignores that birds not containing that genetic "altruism" would also benefit from that self-sacrifice. That would mean that every time Dawkins fable happened, every time those "altruism" genes worked as proposed, the percentage of birds containing the "altruism" genes would decrease and the percentage of those not containing them would increase within the flock and within the species. For Dawkins fable to work, decreasing numbers within the population would have to result in either increasing percentages or, at the very least, a statistically neutral wash. I challenged Shallit to explain why that wasn't true. On my last check the self-promoted champion of science and mathematics had failed to do that. As I noted to him neither has anyone else I've ever posed that problem to.
Even more problematic from the point of view of natural selection would be the fact that every time an "altruistic" bird sacrificed itself, its breeding potential, passing on the "altruism" gene to a new generation, would be cut off. In its stead the birds not carrying "genetic altruism" would have an increased chance of successfully breeding in its place and any offspring they produced would not have to compete with as many offspring carrying his "altruism genes" in the next generation. How the "altruism genes" would increase from that needs to be answered. As well as how those who claim to uphold the highest of scientific and logical integrity could create such "science".
Now, there is nothing in classical Darwinism that is more established than the contention that eyesight and hearing are the products of natural selection, progressively selecting individuals with inferior eyesight and hearing to die through predation and decreased success in producing offspring. Good eyesight and hearing are the quintessential examples of positive adaptations, offered as proof of the correctness of the theory of natural selection. Natural selection fails as a theory if positive adaptations do not result in more offspring for those individuals having them than for those which don't have them, eventually resulting in new species which incorporate that adaptation. That is the bedrock concept of natural selection and Darwinism. Without that the long, violently contested and continuing struggle over the evolution of the eye would never have happened.
I further noted that the proposed "altruistic" self-sacrifice, based in genetics would have the odd effect of turning superior eye-sight and hearing into a maladaptation. "Altruistic" birds with superior eyesight and hearing would be more likely to see a predator first, more likely to call out first and more likely to die in its talons than an "altruistic" bird with bad eyesight and hearing. Nearsighted, hard-of-hearing "altruistic" birds would be more likely to be among the survivors as their more able fellows sacrificed themselves, they potentially would increase the percentage of bad eyesight and hearing in the subset of "altruistic" birds, leaving them more prone to being preyed on in other ways. I'll repeat that. According to classic Darwinism, such good eyesight and hearing would increase the maladaptive effect of genes that directly led to early "altriustic" bird death if they had superior eyesight and hearing within the group of "altruistic" birds, but bad eyesight is, in itself, maladaptive. Any way I can see, Dawkins' proposed "altruism" is a maladaptation, failing in purely Darwinian terms as well as contradicting the properties of the set of Natural numbers.
How Richard Dawkins and those who peddle the idea of Hamiltonian "altruism" can be successful when their ideas are so essentially irrational needs investigation. It also has to be asked how the entire effort to dispose of real generosity on behalf of a theory that can't explain it can lead alleged champions of science to so totally trash everything, including logic, including mathematics, including Darwinian doctrine, itself. in order to deliver on a bad note of promissory materialism.
No matter what it's alleged scientific origin is, the concept of "altruism" set out in such illogical fashion is extremely popular with materialists, atheists, "skeptics" because of their devotion to Darwinism. As noted, it is frequently cited by them in online discussions and blog brawls. It is ideologically important to them that Darwin's ultimate theory, which is natural selection, not evolution, has a standing similar to that of the laws of gravitation and those concerning chemical bonds. I was brought up with a non-ideological faith in the power of natural selection which I've found extremely difficult to test and question and I wasn't wedded to it in the same, emotional way that atheists are. The first reason for the atheist devotion to natural selection is found in its earliest supporters. Galton said it in noting his motives in the invention of eugenics,
THE publication in 1859 of the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin made a marked epoch in my own mental development, as it did in that of human thought generally. Its effect was to demolish a multitude of dogmatic barriers by a single stroke, and to arouse a spirit of rebellion against all ancient authorities whose positive and unauthenticated statements were contradicted by modern science.
Ernst Haeckel, as well, expressed his adoption of natural selection in terms of its ideological use,
On the other hand, the theory of development carried out by Darwin, which we shall have to treat of here as the Non-miraculous or Natural History of Creation, and which has already been put forward by Goethe and Lamarck, must, if carried out logically, lead to the monistic or mechanical (causal) conception of the universe.
Most explicitly he said,
This final triumph of the monistic conception of nature constitutes the highest and most general merit of the Theory of Descent, as reformed by Darwin.
As noted in previous posts, Charles Darwin was fully aware of Haeckel's statements as he cited the book in which Haeckel said it. I have seen nothing to indicate that Darwin rejected that view.
The very real conflict over evolution overturning a literal interpretation of Genesis masks a far deeper ideological conflict that comes from natural selection, considered to be an absolute law of nature. It was a fight that Darwin's accepted and deeply appreciated early promoters were already laying out in full detail, including, literally, a rejection of the most basic ideas of morality. You can read Huxley, Galton, Haeckel, and others right down to today to see that has been a feature of natural selection as articulated by its foremost promoters. As natural selection was, itself, based in the moral atrocity of Malthusian economics, any expectation of anything else coming from it is irrational. There is no place for the real phenomena of human generosity in the declaration that the alternative to selfishness is death, which is what natural selection is. Generosity escapes the artificial gravity of Darwinism, it will whenever it arises. Its reality is denied by Hamilton's perversion of "altruism", itself a word invented by Comte to try to force generosity into his less sciency articulation of materialism. It's hardly a surprise that, given the cynicism and stupidity of most of the promotion of atheism today, that turning it into selfishness by unthinking molecules would be so very popular.
* In a planned post I will look at the idea that what the rather awful and depraved W. D. Hamilton had to say about generosity and "altruism" should have been taken with more pinches of salt than are compatible with health.
Update: Since someone asked, my difficulty in questioning natural selection comes, first and foremost, in that it was the way I've been taught to think of evolution for more than fifty years. Try to imagine how you would face the fact of evolution if you didn't presume that natural selection was both a law of nature and the framework into which all other thinking about evolution must fit. Second was the enormous coercion that comes to someone who begins to question the theory. That coercion is ubiquitous and powerful. Creationists aren't affected by it because their denial of evolution removes them from its effects. I was never brought up to believe in the literal truth of the early chapters of Genesis, I never have so I never had that to overcome. I had been brought up to an entirely conventional belief in contemporary evolutionary theory. My mother has a degree in Zoology, I did well enough in the biology classes I took that my teacher encouraged me to think of changing my major, I've had two field biologists in my family. I used to care what the people imposing that coercion think, most people on the left still do. I don't care about their opinion any longer.
I was brought to not caring about it through my investigation of "evolutionary" psychology and Sociobiology and other "scientific" expositions of biological determinsm far earlier than my reading of Darwin's books and letters led me into total heresy on the matter.
I now doubt that natural selection is a force of nature in the same way that gravity or other physical forces abstracted into laws are. I don't think that, as science, it's an especially good theory. I don't believe that all of those trillions of variable, changing lives of unique individuals, their deaths, their successes and failures at reproduction, the role of mere chance and far more subtle and effectively infinite variation in those really equals one force of nature. I think a lot of the articulation of this is colored by natural selection instead of the actual events being accurately explained by it.
Natural selection's alleged virtue of providing an explanatory mechanism for evolution doesn't make up for its deficiencies as a theory. Evolution would still be a fact if natural selection was junked and no successor framework for thinking about it replaced it. There is no law of nature that everything has to be susceptible to that level of human comprehension. The belief that everything is eventually explainable with science is a superstition, not scientific. As I noted in talking about the enormous dimensions of evolution, both in time and in numbers of lives, the idea that Charles Darwin would find the key that unlocks the entirety on the basis of the information he had available in 1859 it is a matter of faith, not of reason. I think that to a great extent the lens of natural selection might have a decisive effect on what is looked for, how what is found is looked at and for the acceptance of any analysis of that by science. I will predict that, eventually, natural selection will either change far more radically than it already has in its history (Darwin and his contemporary colleagues, other than Weismann, believed in Lamarckian inheritance, after all). I think it's also possible that, eventually, natural selection will be laid aside as more of that enormous field of study is discovered.
Much is made about the instances of accuracy in what Darwin said and I am not entirely dismissive of Darwin. I firmly believe in what I think is his greatest insight, common ancestry, while admitting that is based on belief and presumed probability. Which will be the topic of my next post in this series. But I am in the same position that St. George Mivart, an early convert to Darwinism, found himself in while attending a series of lectures on the subject given by no less of an authority than Thomas Huxley. He found that the more he learned about it the less credible it seemed to him.