Sunday, April 2, 2017

Stories Permissible And Impermissible - Putting A Thumb On The Scale For Darwin

In looking up the quote from Stephen Jay Gould I referred to this morning, I came across a rather curious thing, that the evo-psys are using a quote from the arch-anti-evo-psy guy Stephen Jay Gould in a number of things online to support the validity of their work which he slammed in much of his other public writing.

Curious, especially as I'd read the source of the quote along the way, I needed to go back and reread it.  And, in fact, that quote is extremely interesting in what it reveals, especially as it is entirely at odds with just about everything by Gould on the topic which I'd ever read.   The quote, whole or clipped, is the first of two paragraphs from Gould's essay Sociobiology:  The Art of Storytelling, New Scientist November 16, 1978.

Sociobiologists have broadened their range of selective stories by invoking concepts of inclusive fitness and kin selection to solve (successfully I think) the vexations problem of altruism – previously the greatest stumbling block to a Darwinian theory of social behaviour.  (Altruistic acts are the cement of stable socieities.  Until we could explain apparent acts of self-sacrifice as potentially beneficial to the genetic fitness of sacrificers themselves – propagation of genes through enhanced survival of in, for example – the prevalence of altruism blocked any Darwinian theory of social behaviour.) 

The next paragraph is especially interesting to consider in light of the current use of that paragraph because in it (and in the entire essay) Gould undermined what he said in that paragraph.

Thus kin selection has broadened the range of permissible stores, but it has not alleviated any methodological difficulties in the process of storytelling itself.  Von Bertalenffy's objections still apply, if anything with greater force, because behaviour is generally more plastic and  more difficult to specify and homologise than morphology.  Sociobiologists are still telling speculative stories, still hitching without evidece to one potential star among many, still using mere consistency with natural selection as a criterion of acceptance.

It would be fun and instructive to go through Gould's list of problems with sociobiology and, as well, evolutionary psychology, but it's more interesting to ask why Gould was willing to cut them slack over the matter of "altruism" which would certainly have been covered by his as well as Von Bertalenffy's objection to coming up with unevidenced stories about other supposed traits, that they had an ineffability that meant could never be concretely observed unlike morphological features of individuals and, I suppose, species.

Clearly, for Gould to have made such an exception for something as complex, ineffable, as varied and as possibly opportunistically misinterpreted as acts deemed to display "altruism" he must have had a motive in doing that and I think his motive is, in fact, not in any way different from the motive of sociobiologists he criticized in coming up with stories he deemed not "permissible".  They got rid of "vexatious problems" for the theory of natural selection.

Just how Gould would have decided that that motive in making stuff up was bad when he didn't like what they concluded but, in this one case, it was just swell reveals one of the biggest problems with the theory of natural selection which is based entirely on the empowerment of selfishness, self-interest to a law of nature when no one who wasn't depraved would accept that as better than generosity, selflessness, kindness, helpfulness, etc.  There is, actually, no way to square those moral values with natural selection except by redefining them, reanalyzing them, making up a story about them that turns them into an act of selfishness, even if you have to twist the entire act into what it certainly isn't.   As I've pointed out, when you try to turn selfless acts of individuals into acts of selfishness on behalf of their genes the problems you create quickly overwhelm the story with things that have to be ignored to support the creation fable.

That Gould began his essay with a discussion of one of the foremost of scientific skeptics of natural selection, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, shows that Gould was certainly aware of the problem with what he did in that paragraph as he was with what his fellow Darwinists did when they went beyond where there was any evidence.   Here, from the beginning of the essay:

In 1969 he [Bertalanffy] wrote:  If selection is taken as an axiomatic and a priori principle, it is always possible to imagine auxiliary hypotheses – unproved and by nature unprovable – to make it work in any special case … Some adaptive value … can always be construed or imagined.

“ I think the fact that a theory so vague, so insufficiently verifiable and so far from the criteria otherwise applied in “hard” science, has become a dogma, can only be explained on sociological grounds.  Society and science have been so steeped in the ideas of mechanism, utilitarianism, and the economic concept of fee competition, that instead of God, Selection was enthroned as ultimate reality”.  

I think the description of how people wanting to assert natural selection in any given instance or, in fact, in any of their purpose-made stories was one of the most insightful criticisms of a scientific or quasi-scientific dogma I've ever read.  I think Gould was an extremely able, honest and skilled advocate for natural selection but I don't think he succeeded in removing the criticism contained in it.  I think he wanted to apply his skill to using it to render stories he didn't like impermissible while asserting that the kind of story he liked was permissible because of its utility to, certainly Darwinism but, also his generation of biology, more generally and his preferred quasi-material ideology in general.  I think that's the reason that all of it is protected from even the most qualified of scientific, even biological criticism.  In the end, if, for some reason, natural selection was admitted to function as God and was, in fact, incompatible with the idea that nature happens by blind, random, chance, they would have to construct something else to replace Darwinism.  I do think that is one of the most urgent of reasons that people like Gould have done this from the start.  In his case, it's more remarkable for his generally honest and rigorous truth telling.  I would say the same thing of several of his close colleagues who signed onto their take down of sociobiology in 1976.

I have gone from a totally conventional Darwinist to being an extreme skeptic of natural selection based on reading what Darwinists have said and noticing their lapses in reason, in rigor and, in way too many cases, ideologically interested dishonesty.  I used to accept Gould's idea that Natural Selection was the greatest idea in the history of science but these days I think Dmitri Mendeleev and his insights into the elements are more impressive, certainly more supported, less in need of constant patching and stretching, less ideologically motivated and, certainly more durable.  They're also a lot less dangerous.


  1. I was introduced to the work of Emmanuel Levinas through "Totality and Infinity," and introduced to that through an anecdote when Levinas saw a man dash into traffic to save the life of a small boy. They were strangers to each other, the man and the boy, and yet the man acting without hesitation to save the child. Why, Levinas wondered? And spent much of his life studying phenomenology (essentially) for an answer.

    Gould is looking under a streetlamp, and trying to say the light has been improved by a new lightbulb. I won't say Levinas is not using his own preferred streetlamp, but I'm not sure the argument is as sound there. There are many things science does a poor job explaining, but it insists it's streetlamp is the only one on the street, and the light is so much better there that the answers can only be found under it.

    Curiouser and curiouser.....

    1. To use a theory that is based on elevating self-interest to a force of nature to explain unselfish acts makes about as much sense as using one based on the theory that species don't change species to explain evolution. I think there are, perhaps, an infinite number of mutually exclusive entities to explain what those trying to explain the obvious fact of unselfishness by turning it into selfishness are engaged in. You can't do it without twisting the meaning of one or the other out of any coherence.

  2. "You can't do it without twisting the meaning of one or the other out of any coherence."

    Well, as long as the results are good..... (Why I prefer philosophy (a.k.a. "theology," the way I do it). It undergirds science, hell, makes scientific thinking possible. But it doesn't worship science; doesn't even worship "reason." It is much more "self-aware" than any other field I'm familiar with.)

  3. Materialism In the same manner as Gould providing criticism of natural selection as a scientist, I thought you might be interested in this criticism of scientific materialism by a scientist. In both cases the conclusion is they have become dogma, and are no longer science.

  4. Materialism In the same manner as Gould providing criticism of natural selection as a scientist, I thought you might be interested in this criticism of scientific materialism by a scientist. In both cases the conclusion is they have become dogma, and are no longer science.

    1. Thank you, that was pretty good.

      I still like to ask the materialists how, if our thoughts and ideas are the epiphenomena of physical objects, how new ideas can arise in our brians. How would the brain know it needed to make a new object, what it needed to make to "be" the right object, how it would know how to make exactly the right physical structure to produce the right idea, and a myriad of other problems. How would the brain know any of those before the materialists' idea could be present as a physical object in the brain. Taking into account that any proposed way for that happening would have to match the temporal experience of our thinking of new ideas. Considering how we navigate and operate in our world, it would have to happen thousands of times every day, maybe every hour.

      I asked that question all year between 2015 and 2016 and got a few lame attempts that were so inadequate that it would have been pathetic if they weren't so ridiculous.