Thursday, May 4, 2017

Cleaning Up The Spilled Whine

Materialists have a large whine cellar but one stocked with a vast number of a very limited number of cheap varieties. They go from the cheapest of bum varieties to mid-range somewhat popular but cheap varieties in an unending series of old bottles of the stuff.   That's a metaphor, in case you're one of those whining about that.   None of those is cheaper and more ubiquitous than anything dealing with the phony St. Charles Darwin figure who is their idol.

I think that Denis Noble is wise in avoiding taking on the massive figure of St. Charles Darwin in his lectures, there isn't really much of a scientific reason for doing it, as he points out, without making that point exactly,  Charles Darwin's natural selection stopped being of active scientific relevance way back in the last century if not before.   But I don't think avoiding him and natural selection will remain a viable political strategy of those trying to make progress in science or outside of science. Without the very neo-Darwinian synthesis of the 1930s, without attaching a particular understanding of Mendelian inheritance to natural selection, natural selection doesn't work at all.   As H. Allen Orr, one of Jerry Coyne's graduate students, noted in a criticism of Daniel Dennett's ridiculous view of natural selection he said:

Now Dennett is an able philosopher and this argument is surely not news to him. So why is he ineluctably drawn to the view that cultural change involves some brand of Darwinism? The reason is that he believes natural selection is an "algorithmic process," a blind, formal procedure whose operation is guaranteed to return a certain kind of result. A defining property of an algorithmic process is its "substrate neutrality": An algorithm does a job and returns a result whatever the input. Dennett concludes that natural selection, as an algorithm, is also substrate neutral. One can select between genes on chromosomes, codes in a computer, or ideas in a culture. As long as mutation, replication, and differential survival occur, any substrate can be selected. For instance, ideas can change (mutate), they can spread (replicate), and some can die out while others persist (differential survival), so we would seem to have a substrate suited for selection. Following Dawkins, Dennett claims that the substrate that gets selected in cultural evolution is the "meme," any memorable idea, jingle, or fashion that lasts long enough to get copied by another person.

This substrate neutrality argument is supremely important to Dennett. It -- and nothing else -- explains why selection can be lifted from its historical base in biology. It is what makes Darwinism so dangerous. But Dennett slips here. While it is true that many different kinds of substrate can be selected, it is simply not true that Darwinism works with any substrate, no matter what. Indeed Darwinism can't even explain old-fashioned biological evolution if the hereditary substrate doesn't behave just right. Evolution would quickly grind to a halt, for instance, if inheritance were blending, not particulate. With blending inheritance, the genetic material from two parents seamlessly blends together like different colored paints. With particulate Mendelian inheritance, genes from Mom and Dad remain forever distinct in Junior. This substrate problem was so acute that turn-of-the-century biologists -- all fans of blending inheritance -- concluded that Darwinism just can't work. Modern evolutionary genetics was born in 1930 when Sir Ronald Fisher cracked this problem: Population genetics shows that particulate Mendelian inheritance saves the day. It is just the kind of substrate needed for evolution by natural selection to work.

I have put the most important part of that for my argument into blue letters.  I'm not a biologist, never mind a geneticist and am certainly not equipped to judge the extent to which the newer findings concerning the actual behavior of genes in living organisms and the obvious and important influence of non-genetic inheritance plays in normal, everyday reproduction does to this idea but I can't believe it doesn't make it far more complicated than even H. Allen Orr pointed out at the end of the last century.

But that was something that Darwin not only didn't believe in as he definitely believed not only in the inheritance of acquired trait, he is reported by his most qualified scientific colleagues in his extended inner circle in rejecting the very theory of Weissman that is central to the reigning orthodox neo-Darwinian dogma.

The immense significance of this positive knowledge of the origin of man from some Primate does not require to be enforced. Its bearing upon the highest questions of philosophy cannot be exaggerated. Among modern philosophers no one has perceived this more deeply than Herbert Spencer.  He is one of those older thinkers who before Darwin were convinced that the theory of development is the only way to solve the   enigma of the world. Spencer is also the champion of those evolutionists who lay the greatest weight upon progressive heredity, or the much combated heredity of acquired characters. From the first he has severely attacked and criticised the theories of Weismann, who denies this most important factor of phylogeny, and would explain the whole of transformism by the c all-sufficiency of selection.  In England the theories of Weismann were received with enthusiastic acclamation, much more so than on the Continent, and they were called  “Neo-Darwinism” in opposition to the older conception of Evolution, or “Neo-Lamarckism.” 

Neither of those expressions is correct. Darwin himself was convinced of the fundamental importance of progressive heredity quite as much as his great predecessor Lamarck; as were also Huxley and Spencer. 

Three times I had the good fortune to visit Darwin at Down, and on each occasion we discussed this fundamental question in complete harmony. I agree with Spencer in the conviction that progressive heredity is an indispensable factor in every true monistic theory of Evolution, and that it is one of its most important elements. If one denies with Weismann the heredity of acquired characters, then it becomes necessary to have recourse to purely mystical qualities of germ-plasm. I am of the opinion of Spencer, that in that case it would be better to accept a mysterious creation of all the various species as described in the Mosaic account.

If you want to refute Haeckel on those points, let me know when you had a chance to talk to ol' Chuck at his home base at Down.  Though I especially loathe the proto-Nazi, Haecke,  I especially like the last line and I hope Jerry Coyne will read it.

If the strength of non-genetic inheritance and the influence of non-genetic or extra-genetic influence in determining the actual organism is shown to be far stronger than now known (though perhaps quite subtle, a point which is entirely relevant when it's a question of natural selection) does to the primacy of particulate inheritance and, so, natural selection, I don't know.  I can't see that the issue isn't ultimately relevant to the retention of the idea of natural selection.

I am not as convinced as Denis Noble is that science isn't gradually making it necessary to leave Darwin behind.  I would suggest comparing Darwin's classical definition of gradual change as the engine of evolution of new species with what Denis Noble says at about 6:00 on that second lecture I posted yesterday.  Here's Darwin from the sixth, what some consider the definitive edition of The Origin of Species:

Again, it may be asked, how is it that varieties, which I have called incipient species, become ultimately converted into good and distinct species, which in most cases obviously differ from each other far more than do the varieties of the same species? How do those groups of species, which constitute what are called distinct genera and which differ from each other more than do the species of the same genus, arise? All these results, as we shall more fully see in the next chapter, follow from the struggle for life. Owing to this struggle, variations, however slight and from whatever cause proceeding, if they be in any degree profitable to the individuals of a species, in their infinitely complex relations to other organic beings and to their physical conditions of life, will tend to the preservation of such individuals, and will generally be inherited by the offspring. The offspring, also, will thus have a better chance of surviving, for, of the many individuals of any species which are periodically born, but a small number can survive. I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term natural selection, in order to mark its relation to man's power of selection. But the expression often used by Mr. Herbert Spencer, of the Survival of the Fittest, is more accurate, and is sometimes equally convenient. We have seen that man by selection can certainly produce great results, and can adapt organic beings to his own uses, through the accumulation of slight but useful variations, given to him by the hand of Nature. But Natural Selection, we shall hereafter see, is a power incessantly ready for action, and is as immeasurably superior to man's feeble efforts, as the works of Nature are to those of Art.

I have pointed out this statement by Jerry Coyne's teacher, Richard Lewontin before, in which he states, both correctly and bravely, that much of proposed, purported natural selection can't be observed or even measured due to what he takes to be the unmeasurable weakness of selective factors over the unobserved and, inevitably, forever lost past.

It is not only in the investigation of human society that the truth is sometimes unavailable.  Natural scientists, in their overweening pride, have come to believe that eventually everything we want to know will be known.  But that is not true.  For some things there is simply not world enough and time.  It may be, given the necessary constraints on time and resources available to the natural sciences, that we will never have more than a rudimentary understanding of the central nervous system.  For other things, especially in biology where so many of the multitude of forces operating are individually so weak, no conceivable technique of observation can measure them.  In evolutionary biology, for example, there is no possibility of measuring the selective forces operating on most genes because those forces are so weak, yet the eventual evolution of the organisms is governed by them.  Worse, there is no way to confirm or reject stories about the selective forces that operated in the past to bring traits to their present state, no matter how strong those forces were.  Over and over, in these essays reproduced here, I have tried to give an impression of the limitations on the possibility of our knowledge.  Science is a social activity carried out by a remarkable, but by no means omnipotent species.  Even the Olympians were limited in their powers.

Richard Lewontin:  Introduction:  It Ain't Necessarily So

How do you know a force which is unobservable or measurable is there?  How can such unverifiable stories be real science?  How do you know it isn't all imaginary or an artifact of your indoctrination into your professional field?  How do you know that you're not imagining something you want to be there, being there?  Reading that passage was one I remember because it was the thing which led me, more than anything else, to doubt that natural selection was in any sense real but was a conventional meta-narrative, exactly one of those "stories" or rather a story-line which was introduced by Darwin and Wallace into science, which became the way that scientists explained things and, most importantly, a required article of faith which is still required by anyone who is to be taken as respectable in science or outside of science even with its tremendous baggage of supporting inequality, injustice, violence, murder, which didn't even end with the example of the Nazi's eugenic murders but which is one of the foremost uses of natural selection today.  Sociobiology and evolutionary psychology are and have been used to destroy the assumptions of equality and the ability to improve lives, families, groups and communities.   That is something which was warned about by scientists, including Richard Lewontin and others in the Sociobiology Study Group from the mid-1970s.   Note this article from the old Science For The People magazine from 1976 [Page 7 of the Pdf].  Note the quote, the foremost organ of the supposedly liberal media, the New York Times jumped on the bandwagon and said:  

Sociobiology carries with it the revolutionary implications that much of man's behavior toward his fellows … may be as much a product of evolution as the structure of the hand or the size of the brain. 

That is something which has been used, by, not only journalists and other writers and advocates, but scientists to reinforce existing economic, social and political elites, racial elites, men over women, since the introduction of natural selection in the first edition of the Origin of Species, inequality is the engine of death which it purposes as the means by which nature rules everything.  That is a record that is there to be read, the history of natural selection as just that kind of "revolutionary" entity in society, politics and academia.  It is something which has never gone away and, as can be seen in such allegedly leftist scientist as the Marxists Karl Pearson and Haldane, will never be safely altered. I think that so long a science has not gotten past the requirement to patch up natural selection, its potential for promoting inequality and, yes, even murder, will always be there and, at times, that potential will be realized in blighting and ending lives.

I don't have anything to lose in asking these questions and pointing these things out.  It requires no bravery on my part to do it, at all.  Someone whose income or career or standing could easily be destroyed by doing that would likely find the cost of doing so too great.  Look at what has happened to those who criticized evo-psy (for most purposes the same thing a sociobiology), even those who already had tenure and standing.  Look at what a jerk like Jerry Coyne says about Denis Noble.   I do think, from the work that Noble and other are doing, that eventually the neo-Darwinian ideology will be replaced, replacing natural selection or even just admitting that these new findings will either lead to having to either patch it up again or to scrap it will be a harder sell.  I do fear that it's going to take a lot more in the way of horrific consequences before that inevitable part the stories making inequality and death a progressive force life before that will happen.  If they didn't learn from what the Nazis did, what will it take?


  1. First, I have to say Daniel Dennett it not really an "able" philosopher. He's barely functional at the task, but to non-philosophers (by which I mean those not schooled in academic philosophy) he may seem a sage.

    And on that point my comment turns: knowledge of the field, I mean. The scientific study of culture is anthropology, a field Dennett show no awareness, much less knowledge, of. Science itself is not dispositive of human knowledge, and anthropology is certainly not the arbiter of any discussion of culture; but if you want to claim science as the basis for your analysis, as Dennett does, you have to know what science has to say about culture. And Dennett doesn't; at least, he doesn't betray any such knowledge.

    Funny, that.

    But then Dennett is just another popularizer of ideas. He doesn't subject them to the scrutiny of his academic peers, he tosses them out to the general public, where polite people like Allen Orr have to acknowledge Dennett knows more about philosophy than he does. The fact is, Dennett doesn't really know much at all.

    There are two problems here: one is ignorance of other fields of thought going as superior knowledge (Dennett's flaw, not Orr's). Call it "Trumpism" now, because it reigns in the White House (lord help us all!). The other is related: ignorance of other fields leads to the presumption that reasoning in your field is sufficient to understand all things.

    I remember a discussion among lawyers, back when I was a law clerk, about another lawyer who had somewhat retired from practice, and had decided to act as the general contractor on a major remodel of his home. The other lawyers laughed at his hubris, and recognized it: being a lawyer, you know all you need to know about everything else, so why not step outside your field into another? What could be simpler? It's a understandable hubris in law, a field that touches on every other field of human endeavor (much like philosophy does). But of course, handling contracts for construction firms, or lawsuits against shoddy contractors, does not make you an expert in construction. Every once in a while a lawyer forgets that, usually to his or her despair.

    So I get it: to the man with a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail. Except, of course, it isn't a nail. Christians who think we are all lost souls in need of salvation can be just as myopic, and just as irritating. The vast complexity of the cosmos, the complexity and limits of human knowledge, the difficulty of truly engaging in the rigor of scientific analysis, should make us all humble. Instead, it makes some of us arrogant.

    Donald Trump is the Platonic ideal of this ignorance; he should come to stand as the model for what not to do, and for what arrogant ignorance looks like in the extreme. But the difference between Trump and someone who is not, say, an anthropologist (or a linguist, since Dennett attacks Chomsky's scientific work) yet ignores one field and attacks a major figure in the other, is only one of degree, not of kind.

    I don't think anthropology is the last word in what culture is, or how it exists, or how it persists. But I wouldn't presume to explain the nature of culture, without having rather thoroughly explored anthropology first. Even philosophy has to take account of knowledge from other fields, if it is to have any claim to our attention. If you are going to claim that science has superior access to Truth, you'd better understand the science of that field, first.

    Otherwise you're just making things up.

  2. Reading through Orr's review (again), I get the distinct impression Dennett is arguing for intelligent design, just with a depersonalized intelligent designer. The Creator God of Abraham and Moses is replaced with the Unmoved Mover of Aristotle.

    Which is really not as big a shift as Dennett thinks it is; not to mention it completely misunderstands the role of Creator in the Jewish and Christian traditions.