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    Anti-Darwinism Dominating Progressive Science Outreach
    By Sascha Vongehr | October 17th 2012 05:42 AM | 31 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Sascha

    Dr. Sascha Vongehr [风洒沙] studied phil/math/chem/phys in Germany, obtained a BSc in theoretical physics (electro-mag) & MSc (stringtheory)...

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    As pointed out recently, a new type of creationism has entered popular discourse through the backdoor. That was mostly about computer geeks and physicists trying to outperform "old atheists" in fashionable, gadgety ways, thus unwittingly bringing God back in. But there is another form of implicit denial of evolution worth mentioning, and it is similar in that it is again mostly done by “progressives”, atheists and humanists who claim to defend science, especially evolution!


    Let us focus on only three today: Bio-centric, empoverished depiction of evolution, the Overambitious rejection of “gene centrism”, and the closely related Rejection of genetic influences on behavior as well as Rejection of gradualism before speciation, which I leave for last since it is to do with "racism".


    1) Bio-centric depictions of evolution seem as if evolution is all about cute animals and not for example social systems. Science2.0 keeps anything not about biology out of its “evolution” section (it is fully under "Life Sciences" with a narrow definition of "life"). This is basically done because, for example, meme-evolution, is not politically correct and rejected as “social Darwinism”, read: Hitler and his pals. If evolution is only about animals and plants and, grudgingly accepted, bacteria and viral particles, then it is not about such structures as, say, crime and imprisonment and definitions of crime inside a political system that is lobbied by forces that reproduce/procreate via building prisons and surveillance technology. The big problem with this anti-postmodern, purist delineation of “proper” science:


    The beginning of life from pre-biological evolution is thus implicitly rejected, meaning that the origin of life is squarely left in the hands of God almighty.


    For example, a limited concept of "reproduction/procreation", one perhaps demanding a division of systems like cells or at least sacks of membranes, fails not only to describe social systems' evolution, but it fails to describe all kinds of more general evolutions, especially that happening among molecules in the absence of membranes. This means that we would refuse to count the very origin of life as being based in evolution. A prion molecule refolding another one would not be “reproduction/procreation”. "Reproduction" then would be assumed to somehow start almost by accident to a sort of pro-animal that we would have no idea where it came from. However, the molecules that make up even the most primitive sort of biological unit are already all about reproduction. Relative to them, you always already have a sort of society of interacting molecules. The first cells are not the beginning of evolution, they are the results of a "social" evolution. If you refuse “social Darwinism” for political reasons, you refuse Darwinism, period.


    The fact that there are any sort of systems more numerous so that it is interesting to talk about them at all is another way of stating that they are naturally selected to appear numerously, and that is their way of "reproducing". Whether some of the information carriers that are involved in rendering them numerous ("reproduce") is according to some sort of criterion more inside a visible boundary of the systems, or simply the system itself (for example the shape of a prion), or perhaps rather outside of them, should not be the criterion for “reproduction”.


    Bio-centrism, for example here on Science2.0, is restriction to biological evolution without explicitly telling the reader, as if cute animals are all there is to evolution and as if that is the current state of science. I charge that this implicitly rejects the most important part of evolution. It needs to be stressed that life via evolution is precisely nothing else but the mathematics of getting numerous/powerful/predominant in some way. All else represents evolution upside down. For example, a basic concept of “reproduction” comes causally before "life" but does fully belong to evolution. Having "life" causally before "reproduction" is claiming "life" without and before evolution!


    2) Overambitious rejections of “gene centrism” are popular around here. Strangely, they seem to be accompanied with bio-centric evolution, although it is biology where genes are central. As one who rejects bio-centric evolution, I am automatically immune to extreme “gene centrism”! But what is “gene centrism”?


    There are extreme forms like the simplistic interpretation of the “selfish gene” and its popularization. Again, it is so called skeptics and cheerleaders for naïve scientism, especially “new atheists” who have used such in order to attack higher level descriptions like group selection. I have always supported group selection! However, group selection must be based on solid mechanisms, like inclusive fitness for example, and that means genes!


    “Gene centrism” must be seen in the historical context of that if you do not strongly focus on DNA molecules and their chemically described interactions, you have the still huge crowd of religious people simply not grasping that evolution needs no mystic ingredients. “Gene centrism” tells them: “Look, there is a mechanism that one can understand by reductive science”. “Gene centrism” never meant to say that the universe has been created by racist little DNA molecules that consciously “desire” to do something or “know” anything.


    That a gene “wants” something or is “selfish” is always a shorthand, and those who use it have always explained that it is such! It is short for: Genes are vitally involved in ("central to") determining behavior, and thus they are naturally selected, meaning they invade the gene-pool to a certain ratio given a particular environment. This can be well modeled with fitness parameters like expected* benefits b and expected costs c (Hamilton formula of inclusive fitness as applied in evolutionary game theory). The models have been confirmed, via numerical simulation for example, to allow the emergence of cooperation and altruism, and the models have been also predictive, for example they have predicted population oscillations of competing mating strategies in Side-Blotched Lizards.


    The rock-paper-scissors game theoretical model that predicted the population oscillations of different mating strategies, subsequently discovered among lizards. Source: wikipedia


    *Important: “expected” does not mean that an old person cannot have children anymore and thus “expects” c = 0 costs for drowning while 'trying to help his drowning young brother'. “Expected” means that these parameters are expectation values that make only sense by evaluating them through the dynamics of large populations.


    3) Rejection of genetic influences on behavior and the rejection of gradualism before speciation are closely related to rejecting the central role of genes in biological evolution. For example, altruism among lower animals is very much about inclusive fitness, which needs genes: We become reckless and take huge risks once a relative is just insulted, the reason being that relatives carry some of our own genes, while we hardly care if a stranger is killed across the street.


    Both, rejection of genetic influences on behavior and the rejection of gradualism before speciation seem to fight “racism”. In short: If behavior is not genetic, great apes all learn to rape their females in school, thus society or your political enemy, perhaps religion can be blamed. And if any and all small differences between groups, for example in IQ or aggression, are completely rejected in case the groups are not already different species (meaning they can still interbreed like interracial couples), then there would be no such gradual differences between races, especially not in their “behavior”, and all differences are again due to bad teachers or the media or whatever you prefer. Even worse: races are at times refused to even possibly exist, which is a very anti-scientific attitude, namely the restriction of terminology as such, before even getting to criticize the empirical measurement procedures on which one may operationally define differences that are to be categorized by different words!


    A surprisingly large number of otherwise relatively rational science bloggers, for example all popular writers on NatGeo’s ScienceBlogs, especially the Nazi guilt ridden German ones, subscribe to this anti-science. And it is especially bad anti-science, because it removes vital parts from evolution so that evolution no longer works without – you guessed it – God almighty actively guiding juvenile animal behavior and letting new species drop straight from heaven. How could there ever be different species if no differences ever start to appear between different groups? Are we supposed to believe that populations must be locally separated for thousands of years before anything else but skin color can possibly differ, and that then first the sexual organs must differ so widely that interbreeding is impossible, before even a single average IQ point may dare to gradually deviate, regardless of how you measure IQ? What utterly politically motivated pseudoscience!


    Conclusion

    A macro evolutionary population invasion occurred, namely that of the anti-scientific scientist and especially science writer in the internet enhanced environment under publish-or-perish selection mechanisms stabilized by the interplay of mob-democracy with establishment manipulation. The crazy thing is that especially those who claim to defend evolution, agnosticism, secularism, and for example proper physics free from crackpottery, are usually the worst by implicitly pulling out the core of the very fields they supposedly support. It may be good news, since because of this, ever more, a minority, but still increasing numbers, do realize that science is a socially constructed belief system in the process of evolution.

    Comments

    Strong argument, Sascha.

    If behavior is not genetic, great apes all learn to rape their females in school, thus society or your political enemy, perhaps religion can be blamed. 
    This fallacy is partly rooted in Rousseau's 18th century misconception that nature is good and that children are born completely "innocent"

    This is a great line:

    “Gene centrism” never meant to say that the universe has been created by racist little DNA molecules that consciously “desire” to do something or “know” anything.

    You'd (perhaps) be surprised at how many life science professors (PhD biologists) reject race as a manifestation of the early stages of microevolution (forgive the addition of the unnecessary prefix 'micro' to sub for gradualism) and, thus, speciation.

    I'm not a professor, but I reject it too, and not because of racism. Lots of traits vary in sub-populations without speciation occurring - it's not a "first step," since there are no steps, no direction. Some traits may be microevolution, but there's no sign of actual speciation happening, and extremely low likelihood of speciation given the mobile nature of the population.

    Of course it's not racist to consider it, but I'm suspicious of people who dwell on it.

    Gerhard Adam
    That's a pretty big leap to speciation.  Considering that one could probably go back as far as neanderthals and still be fundamentally the same species, it would be a stretch to argue that something as superficial as race is of any "evolutionary" consequence in that regard. 

    It is certainly genetically driven, but that's a far cry from speciation [early stages or not].  After all, every generation is in the early stages of some speciation event, potentially.
    Mundus vult decipi
    John Hasenkam
    For example, a limited concept of "reproduction/procreation"

    Sascha, you might be interested in the ideas of Ian Stewart and others who are exploring the role of geometry in molecular dynamics


    Can geometry helps us shed light on the behavior of viruses? In discussing this tantalizing question, Stewart points out that mathematicians have developed a general theory of the geometry of viruses 

    I fail to see why anyone still does not realise that that reproduction in relatively simple molecules is readily apparent in a variety of contexts; especially in relation to CNS diseases.

    The Selfish Gene was  not meant to imply selfish genes but many interpreted it this way. As I just read last night the CEO of Enron, those evil pricks, was a great fan of The Selfish Gene. When the French edition was published they sent the proposed cover to Dawkins and it had a picture of all these "wind up men" on it, implying that we were wholly at the mercy of our genes. Of course genes matter, of course genes influence everything from IQ to acne, that is trivially obvious, but Dawkins, a purported science education specialist, should have known that such a metaphor was going to hopelessly mislead a great many people; as indeed happened. Good for sales though. Made him famous for all the wrong reasons. 

    Good post Sascha, thanks.  

    Gerhard Adam
    John

    I agree that Sascha brings up excellent points [even though I expect some are also directed at me]. :)
    The Selfish Gene was  not meant to imply selfish genes but many interpreted it this way.
    Unfortunately that isn't an interpretation nor a misunderstanding.  It was quite deliberate.
    "We are survival machines - robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.  This is a truth which still fill me with astonishment."

    Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene
    Of course, almost no one really believes this, but nevertheless it still permeates may of the discussions when one hears individuals talk about how "altruism" could evolve from selfish genes. 

    Mundus vult decipi
    car2nwallaby
    Ok, so just trying to parse through what your points are:
    1. You dislike the categorization on this site.  Why?  Have you written something about evolution in molecular systems or simulated evolution and had it rejected?
    2. "Overambitious rejections of “gene centrism” are popular around here".  Example?  Point me to these faceless forces who... actually, I can't quite figure out what it is they're doing to upset you.
    3. a) You believe scientists have rejected the nature part of nature vs. nurture.  I don't know of anyone who believes genes have no influence on behavior.  b) You want acknowledgement of genetic racial differences.  Geneticists are indeed studying these differences.  One reason is to aid personalized medicine, another is to track human migration.  One conclusion is that skin color changes much more rapidly than most other traits because it is under geographically varying selection pressure.  Near the equator you don't want to get burned, near the poles you don't want vitamin D deficiency.  There is certainly variation in other genes, but if you don't have differential selection pressure they don't sweep through a population as quickly.  Other examples of significant differences are also tied to selection pressure: the spread of alcohol dehydrogenase and of adult lactase expression following agriculture, and the prevalence of sickle-cell in Africa because it also aids malaria resistance.  So yes, science is studying racial genetic differences.
    I don't see anything in this post that merits your title or apparent outrage.  There is nothing here about "science outreach", and no data (nor even anecdotal examples) supporting the claim that this is some newly emerging threat.

    Science is about the wonder of discovery.  When did Science 2.0 become so paranoidly cynical that articles like this (not the only one) become top stories?



    vongehr
    You dislike the categorization on this site.  Why?
    Because of item 1. Bio-centrism rejects the core of evolution theory. We need to put "life sciences" under "evolution" and not the other way around. Or at least call it "biological evolution" or "evolutionary biology". Also, yes, there have been instances where articles were misclassified, but that is not a big deal. The big deal is that the current practice supports bio-centrism (= reducing evolution to biological evolution without making this explicit to the reader).
    "Overambitious rejections of “gene centrism” are popular around here".  Example?
    There are several bloggers here, and I did not want to name them because the loss of face is much more important around science blogs than the science.
    You believe scientists have rejected the nature part of nature vs. nurture.  I don't know of anyone who believes genes have no influence on behavior.
    As I wrote, this is mostly about "progressive" science writers. If you for example look at SB, look for example at the interchange with the German blogger Martin Baeker, you will see that established scientists being popular and by others endorsed bloggers reject science completely whenever it scratches their convenient political opinion that lets them succeed in the blog world, where it is all about being linked by political friends and suchlike.
    Geneticists are indeed studying these differences. ...
    Yes, and they also study IQ and all of that, but did you ever try to argue these on popular science sites for example? You better have thick skin. Also, if scientists publish their findings without political distortion, often they will never be funded again except for by private, right wing think tanks, which then makes "progressive" science writers (people like Greg Laden etc.) pile on about that those findings are politically motivated because look, they are funded by fashists.
    Gerhard Adam
    Sascha

    I would like to clarify that I don't dispute the game theory models or the equations in terms of their numerical analysis.  My dispute comes from the definitions of terms often associated with such variables, and the definitions of many of the parameters.

    For example, the original point of Hamilton's rule was kin selection, so that we would tend to behave altruistically to those directly related because of genes.  My problem is that the same would be true of individuals that were simply raised together, so is this a case of proximity producing the results or actual kin selection?  Clearly one would be hard pressed to argue that the parents of an adopted child aren't just as "altruistic" to them as they would be their own.  Yes, I'm using a human example, but there are also instances of other animals "adopting" others if there are no resource constraints, while simultaneously there are plenty of animals that will abandon kin if resources are constrained.

    Ultimately the problem is that such selection [depending on kin] requires a level of recognition by the gene which I don't believe exists.  I fully agree that this is simply a molecule that promotes a certain behavior, but since most animals can't distinguish kin from proximate mates, then it would seem that selection would likely presume that if you were raised with someone then they are likely "good" for you and therefore be treated cooperatively.  The fact that the majority of the time, those that are proximate ARE related, is coincidence and not causal.

    Similarly, I fully agree with you regarding evolution as being a continuum, but I'm sure you would agree that we can look at segments of that continuum without being guilty of invoking a unique origin or beginning [i.e. inviting mysticism].  After all, we should be able to discuss the formation of our solar system without being required to return to the Big Bang.  Implicitly there is an understanding [or there should be] that we are merely examining one part of a continuum.  So, it is with biology.  We clearly have a definition [or sense] of what we mean by something being alive.  Whether this is accurate, complete, or appropriate is certainly subject to debate, but it is also possible to consider just that portion of the evolutionary continuum that focuses on those specific developments.  Again, it doesn't require a mystical origin, it simply picks up at a point in time where we understand that previous processes were and are still active.

    If it turns out that these processes can't legitimately be separated, such that there is no clear line of demarcation, then I agree ... the question simply becomes meaningless, but I don't think it raises the specter of mystical origins as a requirement.

    Certainly the genetic origin of behaviors is a major element of evolution and hopefully I've never conveyed the idea that I don't think so.  Since we see cooperation at the lowest levels of life, one would be hard pressed to define it in any way except as an intrinsic characteristic that is controlled by genes.  In addition, we know that "higher" animals have additional elements that can influence it, but primarily, behavior will be genetically driven.

    However, I do think it is legitimate to question what trait the genes are responsible for.  Is "altruism" actually a trait?  Is it risk-taking behavior [as I've indicated]?  I don't see these as being conflict regarding their genetic origins, but merely questioning the interpretation of what the genes are actually defining.  Part of the issue is whether what we interpret as being altruistic, actually is.  Is the altruism of ants "real" or is it genetically coerced?  Similarly with the cells of our bodies.  Is a malignancy our cells attempt at revolution? 

    As I said, I don't dispute the reductionist understand that everything we know as life is reducible to some component that provides a bonafide scientific view into what is occurring, and that it is measurable and testable.  However, I also think that we need to be sure that we don't become too comfortable in asserting our interpretations of those traits without a better sense of whether they really mean what we think they do.

    In any case, I think [as always] you have truly unique insights and there is nothing you're saying that I would fundamentally disagree with.  
    Mundus vult decipi
    vongehr
    promotes a certain behavior, but since most animals can't distinguish kin from proximate mates
    It is the "certain behavior" that, given its interaction with the co-evolving environment distinguishes in case it turns out to somehow effectively do so. Since system/co-evolving environment are complex, all you can do, and all evolution does do, is put out systems/models and see what happens. You are correct to criticize oversimplifications like that all animals noses can smell out kins (a male chimp does seldom know whether an infant is his own). However, I fear you go too far and reject not just oversimplification, but that there are such mechanisms ("can't distinguish"), and that if such mechanism are not 100%, they have no effect because b=0 or c=100% (which reminds of IDers saying that if eyes or wings are not already 100% there, they have zero benefit!).
    we can look at segments of that continuum without being guilty of invoking a unique origin or beginning [i.e. inviting mysticism].
    Absolutely, but explicitly say so. What is usually done instead is to scoff at algorithmic evolution and restrict the discussion to an empoverished concept that does often not even describe animal evolution sufficiently, as you also point out via supporting group selection. I cannot count the instances where evolution has been rejected as not applicable because "evolution needs blah", where "blah" is variously about physical boundaries, countable generations, clearly identifyable information carriers "inside" (like molecular genes), ..., all from a deeply ingrained bio-centrism about evolution being what happens to animals like lions, making them kill babies, but not to my political party or belief system or scientific peer review. The very beginning of life is not likely to offer a lot of "blah" either. If we reject evolution to be working more generally, we agree with IDers in saying that the origin of life cannot be explained by evolution.
    However, I do think it is legitimate to question what trait the genes are responsible for.
    Relative to a given environment where the genes happen to have a certain effect, yes, but this gets the more difficult the more complex the gene-environment interaction is. Your arguing "but what if ..." often changes the environment and thus obviously the (interpretation of the) interaction (altruism/risk taking/cooperation).
    we need to be sure that we don't become too comfortable in asserting our interpretations of those traits without a better sense of whether they really mean what we think they do.
    I agree.
    Gerhard Adam
    I fear you go too far and reject not just oversimplification, but that there are such mechanisms...
    Actually I reject the simplistic explanations of such mechanisms as being necessarily genetic [well actually, not the genes we think are important].  As I included in my own post, a new paper recently suggested that perhaps there is a kind of kin selection that occurs based on our microbiota.  This could be plausible in helping identify individuals relationships without genetics participating in the recognition, and still affected the behavior.

    In a nutshell, it should be clear that if we could create any creature, purely from its genetics, it would be non-viable for the long-term.  There are too many other systems involved that also exert their influences, and whatever is achieved by those systems reduces or even eliminates the need for any genetic response.  As a result, we have creatures that are absolutely dependent on their microbiota for their survival, while the genetic component is "oblivious" to the need.

    So, part of my argument is not to reduce natural selection, but to ensure that the entire complexity of interactions is included, lest the sole focus be on genetics.  This doesn't deny that it is fundamental and central to natural selection, but it isn't the whole story.  So, if the microbiota is a requirement, then we have those additional hundreds of millions of genes that are implicated in the selection of any given member of the population.  Given the role of the microbiota during development, I have also indicated how such influences can affect the development of our brains, and consequently behavior.

    In short, my primary objection to this gene-centricism is that it presumes that the genes are the complete driving force for the organism.  So when we look at humans, we get this rationalization about how our behavior, achievements, etc. are all genetically derived [which is little more than the concept of "divine right"].  My intent is to argue that there are far too many other elements, genes, etc. that we are dependent on that are not part of our genetic make-up but are what is responsible for making us viable.
    Mundus vult decipi
    vongehr
    kin selection that occurs based on our microbiota.  This could be plausible in helping identify individuals relationships without genetics participating in the recognition
    The role of microbiota is certainly interesting; they are vital in digestion. But on one hand, microbiota are environment of the genes of the animal's own (not counting the bacteria) cells, just like the genes of other animals around them belong to the environment - it was always clear that the interaction between the genes and the environment (which includes other genes of course) is complex. Also, you cannot charge that usual biology does not already count different genes. I bet that even "The Selfish Gene" does not dismiss the genetic information of the mitochondria for example, which are still a sort of "microbiota", and after all, the whole gene is full of viral information, so we can be described as being fully a (rather totalitarian) society of microorganisms. I think we agree here. I though remember that our discussion under your articles was almost entirely about whether b = 0. ;-)
    Gerhard Adam
    ...it was always clear that the interaction between the genes and the environment (which includes other genes of course) is complex.
    Agreed, but I'm going to split this hair anyway, and perhaps it doesn't make much difference.  Part of my point is that in the case of the microbiota, WE are the environment being modified.  Therefore that adds a layer to evolution that isn't intuitively obvious.

    The other part is that whatever is being done by the microbiota adds a different driver to evolution, to which the genes are then unaware, since they cannot react to selection that is driven by the microbiota.  In other words, the genes are simply "unaware" of the issue so there's no adaptation.

    An example, of this is the "training" of the immune system, which suggests that we have never evolved a more specific means of identifying pathogens, because much of that is determined by the information provided by our microbiotia.  As a result, our immune system is essentially "immature" from a purely human genetic perspective.

    Biology certainly counts the genes, but it tends to treat them as if they are simply separate or "walled off" from each other.  So the genes of the bacteria are rarely, if ever, considered in terms of the influence it has on the final organism, where the organism's genes aren't performing that task. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    vongehr
    WE are the environment being modified.  Therefore that adds a layer to evolution that isn't intuitively obvious.
    I am not sure what we are actually discussing now. What you say here is precisely my argument against bio-centrism. That we are environment is not intuitive because we focus too much on environment being something outside of cute rabbits.
    to which the genes are then unaware, since they cannot react to selection that is driven by the microbiota.
    ???? Genes are always "unaware", and their changes in predominance (reaction) is driven by their environment, i.e. the microbiota for example. It seems you argue against certain misconceptions mainly because you are caught up in them yourself.
    As a result, our immune system is essentially "immature" from a purely human genetic perspective.
    Yes, so is human brain and all systems that need to be adapted to a very fast changing environment. Call it "immature" or "highly advanced", I do not see the fundamental point you are making.
    Biology certainly counts the genes, but it tends to treat them as if they are simply separate or "walled off" from each other.
    Yes, that is what I mean by bio-centrism of the cute animal type. If we were to start teaching evolution with viruses (including internet viruses and memes), this would be less of a problem.
    Here in TN, they have taken steps though new legislation to allow creationism back into the classroom. This law turns the clock back nearly 100 years here in the seemingly unprogressive South and is simply embarrassing. There is no argument against the Theory of Evolution other than that of religious doctrine. The Monkey Law only opens the door for fanatic Christianity to creep its way back into our classrooms. You can see my visual response as a Tennessean to this absurd law on my artist’s blog at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2012/04/pulpit-in-classroom-biblical-... with some evolutionary art and a little bit of simple logic.

    John Hasenkam
    Unfortunately that isn't an interpretation nor a misunderstanding.  It was quite deliberate.


    Thanks for that Gerhard. It has been so long since I read The Selfish Gene I have forgotten the details of it that made me so angry. I threw the book out and went on my own "crusade" telling all and sundry that it was utter nonsense. Nonetheless the book was very influential, which just made me more angry ... . You are correct, when he writes the sentences you refer too that really is inexcusable crap from a purported science educator. 
    Interesting, and I've mostly thought so myself.

    I expect the problem with bad science in this field is the poor public understanding of evolution, coupled with the political popularization of the topic. (The public doesn't understand chemistry either, but no one talks about it.) That opens the doors to all sorts of contributors to make all sorts of assertions, but the audience, even scientists from other fields, are poorly equipped to spot fundamental errors, not to mention the blinding biases that derive from outside the issue.

    There's an argument you keep making that I'm not comfortable with. I'm not convinced that bad biology (or bad QM, for that matter) opens a backdoor to creationism and religion. The fact that some religious beliefs require flawed logic isn't new. At most, it seems to me, science "fails" to preclude the possibility of gods, which it never sets out to do anyway. I'm a hard agnostic thus atheist, and I don't see anything there to challenge my lack of belief - it's just another gap, and there will always be gaps big enough to squeeze ever-smaller gods into, if that's your entire intellectual purpose.

    A minor criticism:
    I do see the parallel, but I think it introduces confusion to use the word "society" interchangeably to describe everything from a set of reproducing molecules to a human society, especially in the presence of ideas of Social Darwinism. The core principle of Darwinism is selection thorough competition, which he borrowed from contemporary views about individuals and societies, so it's hardly absurd to apply Darwinism back to societies. But classical Darwinian evolution and Social Darwinism aren't the same thing. Social Darwinism treats the evolution of societal entities, including individual humans and even lineages, yes, but also institutions, memes, technologies, political structures, traditions...

    It's quite possible for a human to achieve everything, in terms of Social Darwinism, and be a total failure at Darwinian evolution, and vice versa. Someone might be uber-rich, single-handedly reinvent all the arts and sciences, establish brand new institutions, rearrange the entire social order - and die without offspring. His neighbor might be an uninfluential moron from a vanishing subculture, forced to the bottom by competition, whose every contribution is forgotten - but have 30 kids! Thus losing at Social Darwinism but winning at the classical version.

    So I don't think the defined existence of a "society" of particles that undergoes classical Darwinian evolution proves the validity of Social Darwinism. I think you're stretching the term, and it's confusing. (But I do think other things prove Social Darwinism.)

    As for the socio-political ramifications of evolution... This is pure politics. It's worth discussing sociologically, but as a matter for biology? Let it go! Nobody who weighs in on questions like whether one race is inferior to another is talking about the science of biology - even though, as you say, it could be, perhaps in a parallel world, a legitimate matter of biology. It -could- be valid, but just have a look.

    To criticize the advocates for getting the science wrong on a blog is like criticizing politicians for getting economics wrong in a speech. It's their whole purpose, and the science is just a rhetorical tool for all participants. Meanwhile I hope and assume there are real biologists studying real biology somewhere without getting caught up in this irrelevant distraction.

    Dear adamant egalitarians: Just fight for equal rights without qualifications. Not all individuals are equal in every way, and it shouldn't matter. Even if one group was somehow objectively superior to another, it shouldn't matter in terms of the things you're concerned with, like laws
    Dear hopeful bigots: See above. Also; I've met some of you, and frankly if I were you I wouldn't be too loud about some people being superior to others. You'll draw attention.

    vongehr
    I used "Social Darwinism", i.e. inside "", for a reason. The main thing to understand is that evolution is not about systems that have genes, or have sex, or that must divide, or die, or anything that cute animals must. Bio-centrism is clearly the urge to reject evolution as what drives society and technology and "artificial" intelligence. It is a human centric view that completely misses what is actually happening, and it is evolved that way (!), i.e. we are selected to believe that it is all about us. The sub-problem I address here is that this rejection of the core of evolution theory means also that the origin of life for example is left in God's hands. This is a minor aspect that may get atheists interested in more interesting issues, like that of the social construction or better "evolution" of scientific truth.
    It's quite possible for a human to achieve everything ...
    Bio-centrism! Whatever these two example persons do, they both are no longer able to not use mobile phones or not pretend they are scientific.
    To criticize the advocates for getting the science wrong on a blog is like criticizing politicians for getting economics wrong in a speech. It's their whole purpose, and the science is just a rhetorical tool for all participants.
    Well, this is about "science blogs" after all. I reject the last bit. Perhaps true for all selected participants (I am pretty much ignored), but I personally have no political agenda (though it often seems), simply because it does not matter. We have no way to predict consequences of political decisions, given their interaction with the current environment (including everything from internet to CO2). Humans are so blind toward the complexety of what we are caught up in, there is precisely nothing we can rationally support.
    Meanwhile I hope and assume there are real biologists studying real biology somewhere without getting caught up in this irrelevant distraction.
    Again: Bio-centrism. Biologists are no longer experts on evolution. Biologists are to evolution like astronomers are to physics: physics was kind of started there, but you do not ask a planetary astronomer about the standard model of particle physics or the non locality of quantum mechanics.
    John Hasenkam
    Yes, and they also study IQ and all of that, but did you ever try to argue these on popular science sites for example? You better have thick skin.
    I had an experience that illustrates this. Nearly a decade ago, on anthropology forum, I put forward some studies regarding Australian aborigines. These studies are remarkable in many respects and too long to explain here(that would require a long post). The important point is this: Australian aborigines, with the possible exception of Tierra del feugians, have been very genetically isolated for circa 60,000 years. Interestingly enough some studies suggest both morphological and cultural similiarities across these two groups, which is remarkable given their geographic isolation. Point one for genetic impacts on culture. 

    On that forum I pointed out various studies which not only showed huge IQ differences between aborigines and caucasians, I also showed how aborigines in general are appalling at mathematics. So in came the PC crowd, with one commentator even suggesting that she would "set a mob upon me".  I was under attack from all sides until a Professor jumped in and stated that for years he had sat on research into Australian aborigines which clearly demonstrated significant different CNS structure. In particular, a much larger visual cortex(x2) which correlated with their remarkable visual acuity(the latter has also been noted in other hunter gatherers). He ended his comment with "let the storm begin". I had to raise the issue before this professor, a highly respected anthropologist, had the guts to come to my defense, only doing so because I was being attacked from every which way. 


    While many people think of Left-Right competition in the brain, DiMasio has argued that of equal importance is the anterior-posterior "competition". While many think that humans were all of a one from circa 150,000 years ago, it is preposterous to presume that selection pressures arising from the development of agriculture and writing did not have ongoing effects on our cerebral evolution. Over time there may have well been an increasing development of frontal lobe size at the expense of the posterior sensory regions, especially given the visual cortices occupy large volumes of the CNS, and that human brains are very metabolically expensive.

    In Australia there has been an almost blanket ban on genetic studies on aborigines. This has huge implications for their health because aborigines suffer from specific health problems at extraordinarily high rates. We, and the aboriginal spokespeople, are doing all aborigines are huge disservice by failing to recognise that genetic differences are quite possibly playing an important role in these problems. Talk about the road to hell is paved with good intentions ... . 

    Sorry, couldn't keep this shorter, could write much more, but I trust my point is clear.  
    vongehr
    In Australia there has been an almost blanket ban on genetic studies on aborigines. ... Talk about the road to hell is paved with good intentions ... .
    Yes, your point is clear and thanks for bringing up the aborigines, a group that showcases how treating all people the same with good intentions written big can be a good strategy to ged rid of them. Let the fight begin.
    I need to learn to stick to a point, and do it on one page... I see I wandered off pretty badly, above.

    I just didn't like the one argument: That in a pre-biotic system, you had a "society of interacting molecules," where Darwinism occurs, and that this helps validate Social Darwinism.

    My problem is the word social/society, which I think means two different things here. The society of particles you describe is really the population; whereas in Social Darwinism, depending on whose definition (and I just discovered no two are alike...) society is the environment. So I thought it was a false relationship. Now that I have seen seven definitions, I wish I'd never brought it up. (For one common definition, your analogy is perfect.)

    Anyway, I don't think you need that argument. Evolution is a cybernetic concept, a process which of course applies to biological systems, and social systems, and all systems. Darwinian evolution (which is not identical to evolution) will occur wherever there is selection. Societies are systems, composed of more systems, with selection mechanisms at every level; ergo Social Darwinism. It seems there's no disputing it.

    At the same time, Darwinian selection isn't the only process in evolution... but I will refrain from rambling.

    vongehr
    My problem is the word social/society, which I think means two different things here.
    The important aspect with regards to the topic of this post is that (human society) social evolution and pre-bio evolution are in similar ways distinguished from biological evolution as usually taught (i.e. rabbits more than ERVs).
    society is the environment.
    The clear distinction into what is and what is supposedly not environment is grounded in bio-centrism, which for example hinders people from taking the position that the whole biosphere evolves as one system where every part is the environment of all else. For Niklas Luhmann, humans are the environment of society.
    Now that I have seen seven definitions, I wish I'd never brought it up. (For one common definition, your analogy is perfect.)
    Now that makes me smile. And now you know why I use "" so much. The establishment calls this "bad writing". I call it "being aware of what the fuck is going on". ;-)
    I promised to stay out of your articles, Sascha. But I can't stay out of this one.

    Well done!

    First post, so not sure how to do the nice blue line quote thingy!

    Quote "I threw the book out and went on my own "crusade" telling all and sundry that it was utter nonsense."

    I find discussions relating to The Selfish Gene a fascinating topic. Obviously no one knows the 'answers', but at some stage along the evolutionary chain it seems to me that the development of an ego (and the maintenance of that ego (linked to the concept we generally refer to as 'Pride')) was a useful survival mechanism (belief in yourself and your own perceptions/opinions results in confidence, and confidence seems to have a direct relationship to performance - as can be seen in sports people).

    Therefore, I often wonder whether the criticism of the concept of the selfish gene is more a defensive mechanism to prevent the acceptance that we are less in control of ourselves than we think we are - which is what we see regularly in many other areas of life, notably religious people taking appalling actions to prevent people even coming across other ideologies.

    Of course everything I've written here could be well off the mark, but I'm afraid in my experience too many scientists display the same mentality, and respond similarly, when their own deep-seated theoretical beliefs are challenged, as do religious people when, for example, they are told that the earth is not the centre of the universe.

    While The Selfish Gene will only be part of the whole story of evolution, it made a lot of sense to me, and I'd be interested to know what aspects of it people found disturbing/annoying.

    Rob

    Gerhard Adam
    It isn't an issue of control or ego.  It is simply too simplistic and essentially behaving as if genes somehow have ESP.  After all, if a gene were to compete for dominance in a species, then clearly the most evolutionarily advantageous route is inbreeding.  This ensures that the maximum number of like genes will get replicated.  Yet, this has been demonstrated to be uniformly destructive to the organism because when genes are that pervasive they amplify the mistakes.

    To suggest that genes have a "desire" to maximize their distribution in a population, implies that genes "know" something about population or that they have some sense of their relative numbers.  Again, this is clear nonsense.

    Genes are replicated because they produce useful traits for the environment that the organism is in.  The "desires" of the gene have little or nothing to do with it.

    However, the biggest mistake with a concept like the "selfish gene" is that there isn't just one.  In humans there are 23,000 of them.  So which ones are "selfish"?  Are they all competing amongst themselves?  Segregator distorter genes that do behave "selfishness" are generally counter-productive if not destructive to the organism.

    With 23,000 genes, are we to assume that there's some sort of gene "conspiracy" to ensure that a particular combination is preserved?  If so, it's peculiar that evolution should have employed a strategy where promptly 50% are discarded by sexual reproduction.

    In short, the entire thesis sends entirely the wrong message, because it isn't that simple.
    Mundus vult decipi
    John Hasenkam
    Therefore, I often wonder whether the criticism of the concept of the selfish gene is more a defensive mechanism to prevent the acceptance that we are less in control of ourselves than we think we are 

    Perhaps some people think like that but not myself. I have the almost exact opposite view, that the very idea we are in "control of ourselves" makes little sense to me. The concept "control" is far too localised, as if we are isolated entities that somehow think and act independently of our genetic heritage, personal history and environment. That view suggests we are god like creatures, existing above nature and the relevant contingencies. 


    What is disturbing about the selfish gene concept. Simply this: it is hopelessly simplistic, it is ridiculous to think of genes as having imperatives. The selfish gene concept clearly won wide popular approval but it did not win wide approval amongst biologists and geneticists. To suggest something as complex as evolution can be reduced to some over-riding "control centre" is a logical error that also permeates far too much of psychology. 
    From my point of view, Dawkins was just following standard biological descriptions when referring to it as the 'selfish' gene, and to provide a catching title. To extrapolate the title and apply it to the author's view of a gene I think is an assumption we cannot make. We are bombarded by language at university, and in text books, such as "a species developed this behaviour/appendage". Biologists haven't tended to write descriptions by saying "all the individuals that randomly did not contain genetic mutation "A" died out over time leaving the current individuals present" (as well as the ones with genetic mutation "A" who have died of old age of course!) as a method of explaining that a species 'developed' something.

    As an example, I could write a book called "The Selfish Bacterium" and explain how a bacterium produces toxins to promote it's own survival at the expense of others. However it seems that the biological/evolutionary community would think that I have written the book with the belief that the bacterium is doing it with purpose and understanding.

    So I don't agree that Dawkins wrote that book thinking that genes have imperatives, or an awareness that allows them to make selfish decisions. Also, he mentions in his book the interaction between genes, and that if a particular gene, while individually stronger than others (he used the analogy of a strong rower in a team of 8), doesn't combine together with other genes to produce a stronger whole when compared to a weaker gene, then it will not survive in the population if the weaker gene that combines with theh other genes results in a stronger 'being', or survival machine, as he called them.

    So from my point of view, some of the criticisms of his book that have been mentioned are concentrating more on the wording of his expression rather than the concept of the book (and personally I also dislike the way that evolutionary concepts are constantly anthropomorphised in literature).

    With regards to the concept being 'hopelessly simplistic', I agree that there are forces acting at a variety of levels that govern the development of the fauna we see today. However there is also no reason why a simple concept can't pervade the universe and be the basis on which many other processes are based yet ultimately bound to, such as the flow of energy from higher to lower regions.

    I don't think there is anything complex about the evolutionary processes principles, but the variety of manifestations of these principles can be viewed as an extraordinary range of physical attributes and behaviours - but they are all following the same pattern.

    John, I agree with you that we are not in control of ourselves (I think you mistook my not greatly worded sentence as me thinking that we are in control of ourselves), but the point I was referring to is that a lot of people react defensively when anything comes up that challenges the feeling that we are in control of ourselves.

    The majority of people's decisions could probably be predicted with the right knowledge of their background and behaviour, and recent advances have shown that researches can see simple decisions being made in the brain before the subject has actually 'made' their choice. But most people don't want to feel that it is not 'them' making the choice, and that actually their subconscience has made the choice (I think the feeling of making our own decisions is generally and illusion whose development had some kind of evolutionary advantage, or was a random result of some other physiological development).

    By explaining that our altruistic behaviour could result from nothing more than the fact that the groups of animals who didn't exhibit altruistic tendencies (as part of their genetically programmed behaviour) died out, and the ones who did (through chance genetic mutation) show some altruistic behaviour survived by default, takes away from people the feeling that 'they' have done something good and places it under the control of our unaware genes.

    I don't think most people want to hear that. I realise that there might be other theories out there explaining altruistic behaviour that I am not aware of, and that in 20 years time I might come to accept more than Dawkins' theory, but I haven't come across one yet that makes more sense to me. If you have any suggestions/links to other theories, please let me know as I'd be interested to read them.

    Just in case you haven't already seen it, there was a recent article with many comments and links that you may enjoy:
    http://www.science20.com/gerhard_adam/inclusive_fitness_group_selection-...

    vongehr
    You make some great points. Especially, I fully agree with that the following is basically the whole reason for why people like to stick to these fundamentally wrong descriptions of, for example, evolution (but the same holds for quantum physics for example):
    most people don't want to feel that it is not 'them' making the choice, ... I don't think most people want to hear that.
    What those people who at least partially grasp this still mostly miss (not sure in how far you are aware of it) is that these issues are not something that we just happen to miss for lack of IQ. Oh no - IQ we have plenty, but we are evolved to think irrationaly like this, and it is no longer our primate evolution among the trees either, but our being under the control and selection of social systems.
    Especially progressives believe that we are getting more aware. In fact, they are the best example for how ever more enslaved little cogwheels we become.
    John Hasenkam
    <blockquote>So I don't agree that Dawkins wrote that book thinking that genes have imperativesSo I don't agree that Dawkins wrote that book thinking that genes have imperatives</blockquote>
    Dawkins continually refuted the claim but that is not really the point here. His mode of expression encouraged far too many people to think like. He is a science educator, he should have thought much more carefully about how he went about explaining evolution. 

    The majority of people's decisions could probably be predicted with the right knowledge of their background and behaviour


    Not really, as the famous experiments of Milgram and Zimbardo revealed, human beings can act in very surprising ways when confronted with a different environment. We see people acting the same way often because we are observing them in the same environment. For example, some studies have shown that how people act in crisis situations can be very hard to predict. There is no "heroic character", or least we don't always know who will be heroes until the person is in a situation where heroic actions are called for. Group behavior is much more predictable than individual behavior, which points to causes of behavior that lie well beyond the individual organism. 

    and recent advances have shown that researches can see simple decisions being made in the brain before the subject has actually 'made' their choice.


    You are referring to the famous experiments of Libet many decades ago, recently replicated earlier this year but only a few months ago subject to serious challenge. What people "feel" is intuitively obvious them, as it is intuitively obvious that the sun rises, the moon is big on the horizon. What we feel is not a good guide to understanding what is going on. 


     However there is also no reason why a simple concept can't pervade the universe 


    Are scientfiic theories "simple". Is QM simple? It might be true that a simple concept is at the bottom of it all but our current knowledge suggests there is nothing simple about the universe. 


    If you are looking for another view of genetics, a holistic theory of genetics, I suggest that the understanding of genetics is not going to be simple. In fact over the last decade genetics has become much more complicated. 


    Quentin Rowe

    Evolution has had it's meaning hijacked by the implicit idea that there is some kind of intention lurking within, and that it is somehow a thing unto itself. This is utter nonsense of course, as it is at heart an uncaring, uncompromising mechanism.

    The definition certainly needs clarification, but the main aspect I note is that it requires a physical persistence over time to be part of it's core concept. The mechanisms of change, and forms of expression are actually lesser details.

    The evolution mechanism is also multiply layered, and can demonstrate apparently conflicting outcomes. This matters not, as it is the end outcome that matters - the persistence of form. A simple example is the sneeze, which serves two potential functions: as a pathogen ejection mechanism, and as a group inoculation mechanism. From an evolution point of view, this can work negatively or positively, depending on what time scale or population size you define as your boundaries.

    As for propagation, reproduction isn't the only conceivable mechanism. It would not surprise me if there are biological, or semi-biological substances that form not via reproduction, but from the simple probability of being able to form from time-to-time as the local environment permits.

    But wait, isn't that how life 'began'?