Monday, September 9, 2013

Idle Thoughts -- Dawkins vs. Midgley

From Wikipedia -- "we are born selfish" (The Selfish Gene, p. 3). As Midgley points out, there is a major difference between us and our genes.

Out of a sense of fairness I should note ahead of time that I regard Dawkins as a brilliant and gifted scientist who is also a wildly emotional and completely irrational social philosopher.

Dawkins' concept of the selfish gene is an interesting one.  There is little doubt that evolution has selected for certain traits which then are passed down from generation to generation. These include psychological traits. Dawkins contends that this essentially explains everything about human beings. Our genes are selfish therefore we are selfish. It's not that the genes are conscious and make this decision, of course, but the forces of natural selection reinforce genes which express traits that make those genes likely survive into the next generation. This is basic evolutionary biology.

The question is, can this be applied human beings in general? Dawkins forgets that there are other traits also at work. The genes are not simply aimed at reproduction, they reinforce other characteristics often as a side effect. His position would make more sense if genes simply and completely created a situation of endless recycling reproduction.

But this is not true. The human desire for sweets and fats, for example. This may have evolved when we were plains apes with have very little access to sweets and fats.  Originally it was a way for genes to reproduce. That is, it directed us to eat those rare but very useful items in large amounts when they were available.  That kept as healthy and able to reproduce, thus passing the genes on. But given the current circumstances those selfish genes are now hurting our chances of surviving and reproducing. Dawkins ignores this contradiction which occurs in the face of changing circumstances.

To hear Dawkins tell the tale, our genes actually are highly intelligent, very crafty beings working manipulating us every moment of every day. Oh, to be sure, he denies that this is his intent; but it doesn't take long to realize that is the denials are on the surface. He really does believe the genes have an almost magical power. No, change that. Although he would bitterly deny it, it is clear that he does believe the genes have a magical power.

So why would this respected biologist come to such a rather bizarre conclusion? The answer is that he is showing the same prejudices all we human beings show.  He has found a way to take undeniable facts and twist them around support his emotional position. If anyone doubts the doctor is an extremely emotional man, just check YouTube and listen to him speaking about religion. His passion is so extreme it's rather scary.

It is ironic that Dawkins, an author and speaker noted for his viciously emotional anti-religion screeds, criticized Midgley sharply for her "highly intemperate and vicious paper."  Dawkins reminds me of the classic bully. Most people misunderstand bullies. At least at the elementary school level, bullies are not like the ones you see in the Simpsons, that is to say, conscious of being bullies and proud of it. Extensive studies have shown that bullies almost always think they're the ones being bullied. They think they're defending themselves. And that describes Richard Dawkins when he gets off his biological topics and into areas of psychology and sociology.

Midgley is correct. Dawkins ignores data which contradicts his position, and overstates that which supports his position. In his search for clarity and simplicity, Dawkins simply ignores the hard reality of evolution. Evolution is messy.  It does the best it can with the material it has. It makes approximations. It tries many things, most of which fail. The philosophic clarity Dawkins seeks is not to be found in biology.

Remember that Dawkins says that he despises philosophy and philosophers, somehow ignoring the fact that science is one branch of philosophy, and that most of his public declarations are of a philosophic nature. Sometimes I believe he is hopelessly lost in the depths of his self delusions.

A few examples of issues which Dawkins has ignored:  1. Altruism and reciprocity. These terms are very familiar to biologists, sociologists, primatologist, and members of many other disciplines. 2.  If our selfish genes so totally control us and we are therefore utterly selfish, how does Dawkins explain people who take actions which cause great harm to themselves, even even unto death, in order to benefit others?  3.  How is it possible, if all our genes care about is reproducing themselves, that some people take vows of chastity and actually keep them!

Let the state again that Richard Dawkins is a fine scientist. He is a leader of modern biological theory and should be respected in this field. The problems he has arise when he allows his emotions to overwhelm his intellect and lead him into areas of which he is profoundly ignorant, yet deeply opinionated.

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