History, Evolution, and The Darwin Debate

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Review of Darwinian Fairytales

March 14th, 2006 · No Comments

David Fontana’s review of Stove’s Darwinian Fairytales, now being republished.

Darwinian Fairy Tales

David Stove

Avebury Books, Aldershot and Brookfield USA, 1995, Viii and 225pp, N.P. ISBN 1-85972-306-3

Reviewed by David Fontana

The book that first prompted me to question neo-Darwinism as a complete explanation for human evolution was The Monkey’s Tale by Tom Lethbridge, sometime Director of Excavations for the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, but paradoxically best-known for his many books on dowsing and the paranormal. Written with Lethbridge’s usual combination of common sense and careful reportage, it prompted me to look a little askance at the Darwinism presented by my scientific training as proven fact. Over the subsequent years I have encountered a range of scientific literature which casts further doubt on neo-Darwinian orthodoxy. I am thinking in particular of two early works, the splendid (and inconclusive) debate between Lunn and Haldane under the somewhat misleading title of Science and the Supernatural (1935), and Sir Alistair Hardy’s The Living Stream (1965). Among more recent publications I might mention Rupert Sheldrake’s A New Science of Life (1981), Francis Hitching’s The Neck of the Giraffe (1982), Richard Milton’s The Facts of Life (1992), Robert Wesson’s Beyond Natural Selection (1991), Brian Goodwin’s How the Leopard Changed its Spots (1994), and Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box (1996).

Together these books provide an impressive survey of the scientific reasons why natural selection cannot sufficiently account for the diversity of modern species. The alternative/additional explanations advanced by Robert Wesson and by Brian Goodwin are based upon the concept of inner direction and of the self-organising capacities of life. Wesson argues that the complex systems we find in living creatures are better described by modern chaos theory, and that ‘evolution is not a single process but a conglomerate of interactions, changing as the organism becomes more complex in its structures, its needs, and its relations with other organisms and the physical environment’, while Goodwin explains how patterns arise spontaneously ‘from the complex chaotic dynamics of the living state’, and how organisms ‘are themselves expressions of this emergent order and agents of higher levels of emergence … life exists at the edge of chaos, moving from chaos into order and back again in a perpetual exploration of emergent order’. Rupert Sheldrake¹s theory of formative causation includes an extended view of this pattern-making, a view bolstered by some interesting experimental evidence.

The picture that emerges from this literature suggests that at the very least there are impressive grounds for a serious debate on whether or not natural selection is the sole explanation for evolution, or just one explanation among many. No-one can usefully enter this debate without at the very least reading the meticulous arguments advanced respectively by Wesson, Goodwin and Behe, three highly respected academics with an impressive grasp of their material. Natural selection may account for some of the changes in flora and fauna traceable through recorded time, but there are legitimate doubts as to whether it can explain all of them. In fact, it may account for only a relatively small percentage. The opposition of neo-Darwinians to any informed debate on the truth of neo-Darwinism as an all-inclusive theory of evolution is therefore somewhat difficult to understand, and could have more to do with a doctrinaire aversion to any idea of conscious purpose behind existence than with an unbiased attempt to arrive at scientific truth. As with Shakespeare’s Lady MacBeth, there seems to be a little too much protesting going on among certain of the more vocal of them. (In this context it is perhaps worth reminding ourselves that Darwin was not himself prejudiced against the idea of purpose in the universe – e.g. ‘I cannot view … the nature of man and conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws … with the details … left to … what we may call chance’).

Against this background, I turned to David Stove’s Darwinian Fairy Tales with some interest. Unlike the other authors I’ve mentioned, the late David Stove was a philosopher (University of New South Wales) and not a scientist. In spite of the whimsical, jokey nature of his literary style – more akin in places to Jerome K. Jerome than to A. N. Whitehead – his intention is deeply serious, namely the philosophical absurdities in neo-Darwinian theory. In pursuing this intention he focuses particularly upon the work of Richard Dawkins, probably the most widely known populariser of neo-Darwinism. Before dismissing philosophy as being peripheral to science, we should remember that the popularisation of science depends to a great extent upon the use of terms and ideas that carry meaning to the layperson. These terms and ideas may have a powerfully persuasive quality when used by the popularisers of science, but if we look into them and find that words are misused, that the logic is faulty and that conclusions are incorrectly drawn, we can recognise the potential damage of the misinformation concerned.

Stove therefore deserves a hearing, so let me give some examples of what he has to say. Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene comes in for particularly caustic treatment. The whole notion of a selfish gene is argued by Stove as manifestly false, since genes cannot be said to ‘benefit’ – and therefore be selfish – by replicating themselves. A quibble over language you might say, but Stove points out the enormous social implications of the term ‘selfish gene’. If we are assured that our selfishness is in our genes and not in ourselves, this relieves us of blame for our selfish actions. We have a perfect excuse for them. More than that, the selfish gene theory would seem to suggest that selfishness is an actual advantage, in that in Dawkins’ terms it has led to the survival of our species. Even if we could all go against our genes and be resolutely unselfish, it would therefore seem that we would be letting down the side. We owe it to our progeny to continue a dog eat dog mentality.

In addition, as Stove points out, if we are genetically selfish, how come that unselfish, altruistic behaviour has arisen? As it operates contrary to survival, those unlucky enough to have had any tendency towards it should have died out long ago, together with their genes. Yet the whole animal kingdom abounds with examples of altruism. One such is the response of victors when the vanquished submit. Rather than killing or maiming them as the selfish gene would dictate, the fight is terminated and the vanquished allowed to live to fight another day (and perhaps even to breed).. Darwin himself thought that altruism in its various forms might serve the purposes of survival by assisting social cohesion within a tribe and thus helping them to compete with more internally divisive neighbours, but this fails to explain how, in an initial state of dog eat dog, the altruistic members of a tribe would ever have survived long enough to influence the gene pool.

As Stove points out, modern sociobiologists (i.e. those neo-Darwinians who see social living and not just the environment as responsible for natural selection) have ‘openly, and in many cases aggressively’, embraced the selfish theory. For them, altruism has become in their own words ‘a problem’ (Stove has some choice things to say about people who regard altruism as a problem). One attempt at an explanation by sociobiologists is that altruism is really hidden selfishness, in that it brings the individual inner satisfaction. But Stove counters with the point that this satisfaction, this feel-good factor, is of no obvious advantage for survival. He dismisses the sociobiological argument that the explanation may be that through sacrificing their lives altruistic individuals help tribal survival. Such self-sacrifice is hardly the action of a selfish gene (unless we allow for a life after death with attendant rewards for good behaviour – not a particularly attractive idea for most neo-Darwinians). Moreover, selfish genes with an ‘altruistic’ spin to them would be less likely to be passed on than the mainstream variety, due to their inconvenient tendency to prompt an early self-sacrificial death in their unfortunate possessors. Stove points out that altruism in fact taxes Dawkins’ mind to such an extent that he even naively asks why people should adopt children, as ‘the adopter … wastes her own time … (and) releases a fellow female from the burden of child-rearing’. Such rumination leads Dawkins to proclaiming that we need to know ‘what the average relatedness between adopter and child is likely to be’, and what the attitude of the natural mother is, since ‘it is, after all, to her advantage that her child should be adopted; do mothers deliberately try to deceive naive young females into adopting their children?’. (As Dawkins regards this as a pressing question for research one is tempted to enquire why he has failed to look at existing findings which point to the success of adopter families, or better still to put his question to adopters themselves, and take seriously what they have to tell him).

Stove could have added at this point that much of sociobiology, like Freudian theory, has the fatal weakness that it is not falsifiable, and therefore is not the stuff of science. For example, if sociobiologists advance the proposition that altruism cannot exist, and we then counter by giving examples of altruism, they resort to the fall-back position that altruism is ‘hidden selfishness’. If we ask a sample of those manifesting altruism to tell us their motivation, and they reply by denying the feel-good factor and the hidden selfishness that drives it, sociobiologists then shift ground once more and argue that such people are either misleading us (out of a selfish desire for social approval no doubt), or are patently unaware of their own deeper motivation. Thus there is no way in which we can put this slippery ‘hidden selfishness’ theory to proper scientific test.

But I digress. In spite of his inability to solve the puzzles presented to him by people who enjoy parenthood, who care for the sick and the handicapped and the elderly, who give money to charities, who educate the underprivileged and thus increase potential world competition, and who lay down their lives for perfect strangers, Dawkins claims to approve of altruism. However, as Stove points out, since Dawkins considers that all communication (including ipso facto the communication of his claim to favour altruism) is self-interested manipulation of others, we must assume that his approval arises from self-interest – perhaps (one is tempted to suggest) from the self-interested recognition that altruism makes people more likely to continue to support the privileged lifestyle of Oxbridge professors.

Stove is equally dismissive of Dawkins’ theory of ‘memes’. For those new to the theory, ‘memes’ is a term coined by Dawkins for all the things (such as ideas) we communicate to each other non-genetically. Stove writes that he cannot read what Dawkins has to say about memes ‘without feeling anxiety for Dr. Dawkins’ sanity … (and trying to think) what I or anyone could say to him to restrain him from going over the edge into absolute madness’. For Dawkins regards memes as ‘living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind, you literally parasite my brain … in just the way that a virus may parasitise the genetic mechanism of a host cell’. I can understand Stove’s concern. Memes are ‘living structures’ and act in ‘just the way that a virus’ does? Indeed? I find myself agreeing with Stove’s point that ‘Among the symptoms (of mental disorders) there are none more common than delusions of being “possessed” by “evil spirits” … or of being “parasitised” by hostile organisms as yet unknown to terrestrial science’. But if in spite of everything Dawkins is right about the existence of memes we should perhaps – given the social harm that appears to be caused by his selfish gene theory – find some way of stopping him from parasiting our brains with his own cerebral viruses.

Dawkins does modify somewhat what Stove sees as his incipient madness over memes in the two books that followed The Selfish Gene, namely The Extended Phenotype and The Blind Watchmaker, but compensates by becoming even more deterministic – ‘the fundamental truth (is) that an organism is a tool of DNA’ (The Extended Phenotype) and ‘living organisms exist for benefit of DNA’ (The Blind Watchmaker). But as Stove makes clear, a molecule of DNA (i.e. a gene) cannot be said to ‘benefit’ from using the organism as a tool and replicating itself. Replication is not a truth either of value or of biology, but simply a ‘trivial truth of arithmetic, that two is a larger number than one’. If we synthesise a molecule of water in the laboratory, can we be said to have ‘benefited’ those water molecules already in existence? Stove argues that molecules have neither purpose nor intelligence (a statement with which Dawkins would presumably have to agree, unless he wishes to assign purpose and intelligence to the universe after all).

In a short review it is impossible to do justice to the full sweep of Stove’s arguments, or to the consequences arising from them, but the above examples may be a useful starting point. Also useful is his speculation as to why the selfish gene idea appears to be such an attractive idea to a certain type of person.

It is a kind of man who is deficient in generous or even disinterested impulses himself, and knows it, but keeps up his self-esteem by thinking that everyone else is really in the same case. He prides himself … (on realising) … what most people disguise even from themselves, that everyone is selfish, and on having the uncommon candour not to conceal this unpleasant home truth (page 79).

Stove assures us he is ‘not a creationist or even a Christian. In fact I am of no religion’. His purpose is therefore not to defend creationist or religious views, nor even to say anything about how our species came ‘to be the kind of thing it is, or what kind of antecedents it evolved from’. Such questions strike him as ‘overwhelmingly uninteresting’ except to specialists. His expressed concern is to see our species rightly, as it now is, and as it is known historically to have been; and in particular not to be imposed upon by the ludicrously false portrayals which Darwinians give of the past, and even of the present, of our species (page vii).

My conclusions on reading this diverting and though-provoking book is that it is right for philosophers to pursue the debate on Darwinian and neo-Darwinian theories. All that Stove is asking is that the debate be carried out on the basis of facts rather than of prejudice (on either side), and without the damaging misuse of words. Stove¹s book is unashamedly what he calls ‘anti-Darwinian’, and although Dawkins is his main target he makes plenty of references to G. C. Williams, W. D. Hamilton and others he sees as being unnecessarily doctrinaire. Each chapter is in the form of an essay, and therefore stands on its own, though they are best read in the sequence in which they are presented. The book is well-annotated throughout, but the absence of an index is a handicap.

David Stove died before publication, and the book was seen through the press by James Franklin, his literary editor, of the school of mathematics at the University of New South Wales.

Professor David Fontana is a professor of educational psychology and the author of over a dozen books

Behe, M. J. (1996) Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Dawkins, R. (1979) The Selfish Gene. London: Paladin.
Dawkins, R. (1982) The Extended Phenotype. Oxford and San Francisco: Freeman.
Dawkins, R. (1986) The Blind Watchmaker. London: Longman.
Goodman, B. (1994) How the Leopard Changed its Spots. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Hardy, Sir A. 91965) The Living Stream. London: Collins.
Hitching, F. (1982) The Neck of the Giraffe. London and Sydney: Pan Books.
Lethbridge, T. C. (1969) The Monkey’s Tail: A Study in Evolution and Parapsychology. London: Routledge & Kegan

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