Twelve Misunderstandings Of Evolution
No. 1 “Evolution is the external and visible manifestation of the differential survival of alternative replicators.”
This is my all-time favourite, the Dawkins Fallacy, the definition of evolution Richard Dawkins gave in The Extended Phenotype p.82. The fallacy it contains is so obvious I’m amazed that his colleagues have not drawn his attention to it. The survival of replicators is a result of evolution, an outcome, and therefore cannot be the definition of evolution. If we said that fire is the visible manifestation of the production of ash, the statement would be true but meaningless. It would not be a definition of fire and it would tell us nothing about fire, just as Dawkins’ definition tells us nothing about evolution.
No. 2 Cooperation is a "problem" in evolution theory.
The origin of life itself required cooperation between complex molecules as they began performing the functions that we now associate with life, i.e., metabolism, homeostasis and reproduction. Cooperation therefore preceded evolution. It follows therefore that if there is a problem it is with the theory, not with cooperation.
No. 3 Selfishness is the principal factor in evolution.
Selfishness is an insignificant factor in evolution because it is an exaggerated and therefore less common form of natural self-interest. Self-interest can be explained as the assertiveness necessary for survival. The procuring of food for example is a manifestation of this assertiveness. Selfishness on the other hand is a learned behaviour found among organisms that are nurtured by parents. It is discarded as the organism matures. An eighteen-year-old first-time mother knows more about selfishness and cooperation than any selfish gene theorist. She knows that when her darling is introduced to other children it will have to give up any notions of preferential treatment. If sharing and cooperating do not come naturally it will be taught to share and to cooperate so it can smooth out the lumps and bumps of life’s journey. She also knows that during this process she will have to protect the child’s self-esteem if it is to have the assertiveness necessary for a full life. In short, she knows that a successful life (biological fitness) requires a balance between individual and social needs. If only the gene-centrics were as perceptive.
No. 4 Group selection is only a theoretical possibility.
All selection is group selection. The first life forms that survived while others failed were groups of complex molecules. The eukaryotic cell that became the basis of all modern life forms was/is a grouping of bacteria. An organism is a group. When an organism is favoured by selection, what we see is group selection.
No. 5 Hamilton’s rule shows how altruism is spread genetically.
Hamilton’s rule is nonsense. Proportional altruism based on degrees of relatedness is nonsense. The altruistic act is merely a refined or exaggerated form of cooperation; the focus by Hamilton and his followers on altruism was a deliberate distraction to prevent considerations of cooperation. (See Misunderstanding No.11) Their redefined version of altruism in which the altruist suffers a loss of fitness rarely occurs in nature and so cannot be a significant factor in evolution. Cooperation is the principle underlying survival, and therefore underlying evolution. Cooperation can be seen at all levels of life, between molecules, within cells, between cells, between organs, between organisms within groups, and between groups. And because cooperation within groups has assisted individual organisms in survival, reproduction, and just plain old comfort, it has brought about the further development of altruism. Altruistic acts occur when individuals see themselves as belonging to a greater entity. It is that reality that the gene-centrics cannot handle.
No. 6 The study of animal behaviours gives a good picture of evolutionary theory.
The study of animal behaviours gives a limited picture of evolution because most evolution took place at the level of micro-organisms. The animals that we are most fond of studying, that is, those closest to us in evolutionary terms, are late arrivals on the scene. This view also ignores the evolution of plants. For more on this see the work of Lynn Margulis on endosymbiosis.
No. 7Alarm calls are motivated by selfishness.
This is a typical misunderstanding spread by armchair experts, an example of the mistakes that flow when the original premise (No.1 above) is incorrect. The fallacy lies in the assumption that an animal giving an alarm call is drawing attention to itself, and is therefore increasing its own risk, but increasing the survival chances of its genes that reside in close kin, who will presumably escape. This clever little fabrication disintegrates when we move out of the air conditioning and into the real world. An animal in imminent danger of attack does not waste time or energy on alarm calls; escape is its only concern, so alarm calls are given by those that consider themselves to be relatively safe. This is therefore behaviour for the good of the group, not for the good of an individual’s genes. This misunderstanding came about as selfish gene theorists scurried to explain unselfish behaviours, and made contortionists of themselves in the process.
No. 8 Members of the same species are competing for the same resources.
This statement is true to such a limited extent that it promotes misunderstanding. In general terms, members of the same species share resources. When a resource becomes scarce they fight for it when all other options have been exhausted. In many cases they migrate, from butterflies to humpback whales to humans. And that migration is not a case of individuals moving off to satisfy selfish needs; it is a group activity featuring mutual aid and cooperation. For territorial species, once boundaries are established competition ceases, and the various groups share within the groups. Yes, there is competition within groups, but that competition is insignificant in comparison to the time and effort that individuals within the group devote to cooperation. Competition within species is an occasional behaviour; it is not a rule of nature.
No. 9 Gene selection is a valid concept.
Gene selection as a concept is almost irrelevant to evolution. Evolution is tied to natural selection. Natural selection targets organisms, not genes. An organism is a product of the genotype, (not individual genes) and the environment in which the genotype develops. This environment includes cultural influences and the effect of memory, that is, past experiences. And it’s these infinitely variable qualities, rolled into a package in which genes are invisible, that becomes exposed to natural selection. Gene-centrics are fond of talking, for example, of a gene for speed in a predator being favoured by natural selection. This alleged gene for speed might result in the greatest variation ever, but if it ends up in a predator that is noisy, or smelly, or poor-sighted, or stupid, or cannot mate, it will not be passed on. It is the total package that succeeds or fails. Richard Dawkins tried to get around this by claiming that when a single variation is being selected, as in the light or dark wings of the peppered moth, then a gene is being selected. Not so. A trait is being selected, not a gene. That trait could be the product of several genes or even several groups of genes. So Dawkins tried to get around these group influences by claiming that it’s common practice for biologists to talk of “a gene for X”, even when it’s known or understood that more that one gene can be involved. Not good enough. Careless language such as this leads to fallacies such as gene selection in evolution. But of course Dawkins cannot talk of groups of genes being selected because that would be, well, group selection, and that, he tells us, is a heresy.
The case of speed in a predator is an interesting one. It is dependent on so many factors- physical structures and their relationships, metabolism for fast access to energy or the storage of it, emotional factors in the will to push to the limits, and the developmental factors behind all these, that speed cannot be regarded as a genetic trait, it has moved beyond that, through genotypic, to become a phenotypic trait for which mention of genes is useful only as background information. It follows from this that in discussions of natural selection and evolution, which also deal with phenotypes, mention of genes is again only useful as background information.
No.10 Genes build organisms for the preservation of genes.
Genes cannot plan or think; they come together randomly. If the random group has features favoured by natural selection it survives and an organism may be formed. If its features adversely affect its fitness it fails. Natural selection is the driving force; it directs development by eliminating the unworkable.
No. 11 Selfish gene theory is a legitimate way of looking at evolution.
Selfish gene theory is based on the definition of evolution given by Richard Dawkins that has been shown to be false. A theory cannot be built on a false definition. The theory as a package is baseless. The book that brought selfish gene theory into public awareness, The Selfish Gene, did not present a scientific view of evolution; it presented a world-view, a fact noted by John Maynard Smith in the London Review of Books. “The Selfish Gene reports no new facts. Nor does it contain any new mathematical models…What it does offer is a new world view.” Actually, what it offered was a recycling of an old world view. The Selfish Gene was a contribution to individualism, an idea that had captured the imagination of a section of the British intelligentsia since the Normanisation of England. The concept was first given written form by Thomas Hobbes in the 17th Century, and a remarkable parallel exists between Hobbes’ warped view of society and Dawkins’ warped view of evolution.
Hobbes: Individuals are concerned only with their own self-interest.
Dawkins: The primary function of genes is their own survival,
Hobbes: Individuals compete with other individuals within society.
Dawkins: Genes compete with alleles (that he calls rivals!) for a place in an organism.
Hobbes: Society is an artificial construct built by individuals for their protection.
Dawkins: An organism is a structure built by genes to facilitate their survival in a natural world fraught with danger.
Hobbes: Society is secondary to the individual.
Dawkins: The organism is secondary to the gene.
If both these views were correct then we could reasonably argue that the similarity between the two is purely coincidental, with no connection at all. But the fact that both are wrong, yet similar almost to the point of being identical, suggests that a link exists. Hobbes was an advocate for individualism, and the fact that Dawkins regards group considerations as heresy, the fact also that he attempted without justification to present selfishness in a positive light, tells us that the link is indeed individualism. Still not convinced? Consider this. Selfish gene theory was a fringe theory without credibility until Hamilton’s equation for the genetic spread of altruism was dragged out of the archives to give an alleged mathematical basis for selfishness in nature. But Hamilton’s preference for modelling rather than evidence did not end there. He was so taken with mathematics that he wrote Geometry for the Selfish Herd, a completely fictional explanation for the herding instinct that was also seized with glee by the evolution-as-selfishness crowd. But Hamilton was not the first to attempt geometrical explanations for natural phenomena. Lo and behold, Samuel Stumpf tells us in Philosophy: History and Problems, that Hobbes “…saw in geometry the key to the study of nature. With a razor-sharp intellect and a fervour that caused him to exaggerate the possibilities of this method, (sound familiar?) Hobbes undertook to recast the whole gamut of knowledge in accordance with this single approach…He therefore set out an ambitious project, which was to recast the study of physical nature, the nature of man, and the nature of human society, using the same method throughout.”
So there we have it. A world-view based on mathematics and selfishness. All roads lead to Hobbes. Of course, Hamilton was not alone in the modern era in seeing mathematics as the key to understanding nature. Haldane, Fisher and Maynard Smith were similarly afflicted. (With no math background, Dawkins had to be content with mathematics-envy.) But with what were they afflicted? They were afflicted by a meme. Ain’t that delicious? (For another discussion of this subject see Truth and Reconciliation for Group Selection VI, a blog article by D.S. Wilson.)
No. 12 “Selfishness beats altruism within groups, altruistic groups beat selfish groups.”
This was the conclusion reached by E.O. Wilson and D.S. Wilson in their joint paper Rethinking the Theoretical Foundations of Sociobiology. Much as it pains me to include a misunderstanding disseminated by two of the best, I’ve included this because it teaches us (and them I hope) an important lesson; never accept anything advocated by a selfish gene theorist. The assertion that altruism is locally disadvantageous was first made by Darwin. (Possibly his greatest mistake, but what a mistake! Which brings up another lesson; there’s no such thing as an authority; once a person is beyond criticism, you’ve created a deity.) It was gratefully picked up by the gene-centrics and accepted by the Wilsons, to then play a starring role in the statement above. The second of their conclusions is correct, the first is incorrect. It is incorrect for several reasons. There is no disadvantage associated with altruism because altruists give that which they have in excess. Their fitness is therefore not affected. (Acts affecting fitness are the acts of heroes, but I doubt that anyone would postulate heroism as an evolutionary imperative. It may well have played a role in human evolution by contributing to group solidarity, but not in evolution generally.) But just as importantly, when the two conclusions are paired they are seen to be contradictory. If selfishness beats altruism within groups then it’s most unlikely that an altruistic group would ever develop. Certainly not often enough, or effectively enough, to influence evolution. Furthermore, the first conclusion overlooks the fact that groups are simply cooperating individuals. Cooperation defines the group, so selfishness cannot play a dominant role in within-group motivations. It can exist in groups, but an individual cannot be exclusively selfish as this would result in rejection/ejection by the group. Selfish behaviours therefore have to be occasional only; the selfish individual engages in cooperation to a far greater extent than in selfishness. Cooperation wins.
The conclusion the Wilsons should have reached is; Cooperation beats selfishness within groups and between groups. Now that is a solid foundation.