Jerry Coyne is a goose.
There, I've said it.
I mean it in the nicest possible way of course, but it had to be said.
And the reason for this unseemly outburst?
Well, if you want to see something really unseemly, check out Jerry's column of 8th February 2011 titled "Vernon + Midgley + evolution=Fail", where he referred to the British philosopher Mary Midgley thus; Mary Midgley, famous for completely misunderstanding modern evolutionary biology and for attacking Richard Dawkins' book The Selfish Gene on completely ludicrous grounds. (See Dawkins' response here) In a prime case of the bland leading the blind..." and indulged in other cheap shots at Midgley's expense.
First, Midgley’s understanding of evolutionary biology is quite good for a non-expert in the field, and her appreciation of, and respect for Charles Darwin far exceeds that of those gene-centrics who have targeted her for a character assassination.
His giving of the link suggests to me that Jerry possibly supports the quaint notion of Dawkinsian Infallibility (a common affliction among supporters of evolution-as-selfishness) as he apparently anticipates no unfortunate consequences should readers actually take the trouble to read the reply.
But that is exactly what we shall do.
“I have been taken aback by the inexplicable hostility of Mary Midgley's
assault. Some colleagues have advised me that such transparent spite is
best ignored, but others warn that the venomous tone of her article may
conceal the errors in its content. Indeed, we are in danger of assuming that
nobody would dare to be so rude without taking the elementary precaution
of being right in what she said. We may even bend over backwards to concede
some of her points, simply in order to appear fair-minded when we
deplore the way she made them. I deplore bad manners as strongly as
anyone, but more importantly I shall show that Midgley has no good point
This, from one who has dished out a breathtaking level of contempt and ridicule to fellow biologists who have contrary views on evolution and natural selection.
But, with his readers now firmly onside, their eyes damp with emotion, the assassination began.
He started with a quote from Gene Juggling:
'[Dawkins'] central point is that the emotional nature of man is exclusively self-interested, and he argues this by claiming that all emotional nature is so. (A reasonable point given this from TSG page 2 “Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.” And from page 4; “Therefore we must expect that when we look at the behaviours of baboons, humans, and all other living creatures, we shall find it to be selfish.”) Since the emotional nature of animals clearly is not exclusively self interested, nor based on any long-term calculation at all, he resorts to arguing from speculations about the emotional nature of genes . . .'
Midgley raises the art of misunderstanding to dizzy heights. My central point had no connection with what she alleges. I am not even very directly interested in man, or at least not in his emotional nature. My book is about the evolution of life, not the ethics of one particular, rather aberrant, species.
I shall return to this misunderstanding of me, but for the moment let me concentrate on her more serious misunderstanding of the definitional conventions of the whole science of 'sociobiology', a science of which she aspires to be a serious scholar. When biologists talk about 'selfishness' or 'altruism' we are emphatically not talking about emotional nature, whether of human beings, other animals, or genes. We do not even mean the words in a metaphorical sense.
Dawkins has only just begun his defence, and already he’s up to his neck in misrepresentation.
As with; “My book is about the evolution of life, not the ethics of one particular, rather aberrant species.”
Such a claim should be easy to assess. Here’s my take on it. In the 286 pages of The Selfish Gene there are 238 pages with references to animal behaviours and animal evolution, which of course include humans. Of those 238 pages, pages with references to human evolution or behaviour alone, total 46. Pages with references to plant, bacteria and fungi on the other hand, have a grand total of only16. You can decide if the statement was evasive or just plain dishonest. The focus of Dawkins is certainly the animal kingdom, not life in general as he claims.
Yet Coyne himself in his column refers to the selfish gene as a metaphor and discusses it’s value as a metaphor! And Dawkins on page 196 of TSG said; “We have even used words like selfish and ruthless of genes, knowing full well it is only a figure of speech.” Well is it or is it not? He can’t have it both ways. You can decide if Dawkins is evasive, confused, or just plain dishonest.
He went on; It follows from such a behaviouristic definition of altruism and selfishness that 'calculation', whether long-term or not, is irrelevant, as is 'emotional nature'. Yet he has stated; “We simply expect that second cousins should be 1/16 as likely to receive altruism as offspring or siblings.” Does he really expect us to believe that genes have evolved to such a precise extent that they produce behaviour of such fractional exactitude without a calculation occurring? Or even that such behaviour actually occurs at all? And given that kin altruism is the bedrock of the selfish gene hypothesis, this calculation is of vital importance! It’s nonsense, but it’s not irrelevant.
Further, But even if, to grant the inconceivable, I really was saying that genes had a selfish 'emotional nature' it would not follow that I thought human beings had one too.
Dear oh dear, how blatant can he get? Has Dawkins already forgotten this clanger from TSG page 2? “I shall argue that a predominant quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness. This gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behaviour.”
Why is that a clanger? Because it not only contradicts his previous statement, it exposes his claim that in reference to genes, the word “selfish” has a technical meaning unconnected to its normal usage. His claim is that in the technical sense it merely means that the gene acts in such a way as to increase its numbers. Yet he has clearly proposed a link between genes acting to increase their numbers and individual selfishness. Midgley was right.
That they never look at the sky and see for example, migratory birds flying in the well-known V formation?
This is such an obvious example of group behaviour whereby all the members of the group contribute to the success of the group, and therefore, to their success as individuals. And that is the point about group dynamics that the gene-centrics refuse to see. That every adaptation (physical or behavioural or cultural) that contributes to the fitness of the group, has an influence at the individual level, and consequently at the gene level. Let’s not forget that gene numbers is ultimately all that the selfish gene hypothesis is all about, as they admit. So what a sterile line of enquiry it is! To focus on gene numbers while the drama, the striving, the winning and failing, the beauty and ugliness of natural selection is taking place, betrays an outlook and priorities that are highly suspect. To insist, as they do, that gene frequency change is the whole story of evolution, shows an attitude and level of understanding that can only be described as primitive.
To dismiss out of hand the connection between group survival and individual survival, between individual survival and gene survival is just delusional.
The world is not black and white, is not subject and object. The world is comprised of layers of reality that are not discrete. They are connected. They influence each other. We only have to consider that the strangeness of the quantum arena is the foundation of the familiar world, to realise the truth of this. Yet the intent of the gene-centric position has been to establish a particular molecule, no, a portion of a molecule as the primary factor of life and evolution, to establish it as the ultimate reality. This is blindness on a grand scale.
Dawkins went on; To illustrate the kind of argument I was making, I used an analogy: 'If
we were told that a man had lived a long and prosperous life in the world of
Chicago gangsters, we would be entitled to make some guesses as to the
sort of man he was. We might expect that he would have qualities such as
toughness, a quick trigger finger, and the ability to attract loyal friends . . .
Like successful Chicago gangsters, our genes have survived, in some cases
for millions of years, in a highly competitive world. This entitles us to
expect certain qualities in our genes' (The Selfish Gene, p. 2). If anybody
had suggested to me that it was possible to misread that passage as saying
that people are essentially Chicago gangsters I would have laughed. Yet
this superhuman feat of misunderstanding is exactly what Midgley manages
to achieve, '. . . telling people that they are essentially Chicago gangsters is
not just false and confused, but monstrously irresponsible' (Midgley said.)
I ask Midgley to look again at my words, take a few deep breaths and read them
calmly and quietly. See the role of my Chicago gangster analogy. The point
was that knowledge about the kind of world in which a man has prospered
tells you something about that man. It had nothing to do with the particular
qualities of Chicago gangsters.
First, Midgleys’ comment that he has presented people as “essentially” Chicago gangsters is quite reasonable, as the point Dawkins made, here and throughout the book, was that genes are competitive and ruthless, (as are gangsters.) Combine that with his other position that gene qualities will surface in individual behaviours, and we see the reason for Midgley’s concern. It was Dawkins who raised the analogy of genes to gangsters, so it was quite OK for Midgley to expose it, to take it to its inevitable unreasonable conclusion. The analogy was unreasonable, not Midgley. There’s an immaturity about Dawkins’ logic in general, and it can be seen clearly in this case. He gets so excited by his own cleverness that he fails to take his ideas to their logical conclusion, and then takes affront when others are forced to do it for him.
Second, the prevarication of Dawkins is clearly displayed where he said that his gangster analogy “had nothing to do with the particular qualities of Chicago gangsters.” Then why make the analogy? Has he already forgotten that he said “We might expect that he would have qualities such as....”?!! There’s some desperate thrashing about going on here.
Several points actually.
First, that Jerry Coyne should shake off his laziness and really start thinking about the shortcomings of the selfish gene hypothesis.
Second, that Mary Midgley, far from failing to understand evolutionary biology, did the world a favour by exposing the superficial posturing of gene-centric orthodoxy.
And third, that when faced with an able and determined opponent, Richard Dawkins hides behind misrepresentation, obfuscation, prevarication, vituperation and assassination.
There’s not an original thought in his article; it’s a rehash of Dawkins’ reply to Gene Juggling. So naturally, as he failed to analyse the Dawkins reply, Stangroom repeated every mistake and misrepresentation committed by Dawkins.
It seems that when it comes to the selfish gene interpretation of evolution, truth doesn’t matter much at all.