clehrich (clehrich) wrote,

A Note on Evolution

I just read an entry in jhkimrpg's blog entitled "Evolutionary Stupidity" (I can't figure out how to set up a link to it). I made a remark in the comments, but I'll go on a bit here.

A fairly classic problem with the whole evolutionary psych. determinism thing is a combination of bad data and post facto restructuring. I'm sure there are clever people out there who do it better, but ultimately I find Levi-Strauss's criticism, in A View From Afar, pretty devastating.

Consider the family and kinship for a second, and the "selfish gene" argument with respect to ethics (as proposed by E.O.Wilson et al.). We can certainly accept that a culturally-determined system must within reasonable limits meet the fundamental restrictions laid down by genetics. Otherwise it would die out, after all.

Now Wilson says (he didn't coin the phrase "selfish gene," but it applies well) that genes try to survive, not individuals. For example, if a group of rabbits are grazing and one sees a fox, that rabbit thumps to warn the others, in the process making itself the most likely target of the fox; in addition, by delaying its own escape it lowers its own odds of survival. This gives the appearance of ethics: the rabbit appears to sacrifice its own life (or at any rate take a big chance) in order to save the troupe. But Wilson's argument says that an individual's genetic propagation can be valued fairly precisely. I don't know the formulas, but the idea is that Ego (the original individual with the genes) is equivalent to something like 2 parents or 4 siblings or 6 half-siblings or 8 first cousins. In other words, if Ego dies but 1 parent and 2 siblings and 4 half-siblings and 6 first cousins survive, for example, then the gene has propagated just fine. So the point is that the rabbit isn't being ethical but rather maximizing the defense of its genetic legacy. (I'm sure I have that slightly wrong, but the point is I think basically right.)

Supposing all that is true, and I certainly am in no position to challenge it, what this all means is that it is essential that a human kinship system establish parameters for genetic distribution. In particular, these parameters must prevent radical isolation, under which a bad flu in a household could wipe out a genetic legacy.

Fine, but the point is that of the many thousands of human kinship systems we know a fair amount about, every single one meets that requirement, yet there is amazing variability in such systems. There is no "natural" family, it appears; everything under the sun has been tried and made to work one way or another. And since every one meets this "selfish gene" criterion, that criterion ends up telling us nothing at all about kinship systems!

Furthermore the fact that any number of kinship systems allow for and even encourage radical genetic isolation (through required incest, usually) under certain circumstances, it appears that human beings can overcome even this most fundamental evolutionarily-determined drive. Culture trumps evolution, in short.

So whenever I start seeing a lot of tripe about how evolutionarily people or women or dark-skinned people or whatever are this or that or the other thing, I know I'm dealing with (a) an idiot, (b) an ignoramus, (c) a ideologue, or possibly (d) a deluded scientist. But I have not yet actually run into (d) except in books; usually it's a combination of the other three.

The piece John was ranting about (quite rightly) fits the usual structures. The guy doesn't know what he's talking about, and is using the pretense of science to disguise his prejudices -- probably, he is disguising them from himself as well, which is where ignorance and ideology meet on the playing-field of idiocy.

Rex Harrison sang, "Why can't the English teach their children how to speak?" I always wonder, "Why can't more people teach their children how to think?"

And To Cause Trouble...

I recently asked a large e-group of historians and philosophers of science a fundamental question about the Intelligent Design theory, and I got a lot of somewhat shocked replies.

Basically I said this. ID proposes a metaphysical explanation for known data; the various camps of post-Darwinian evolutionary theory propose physical explanations for the same data. There is no way comparatively to evaluate the validity of a metaphysical and a physical proposition, as Kant pretty much proved (but as was already largely known to the Pyrrhonists). Thus the question becomes quite simple: are metaphysical propositions considered legitimate within scientific explanation?

Now in the 16th century and the early 17th, when the Scientific Revolution was getting rolling, this was a major point of contention. Eventually people like Merin Mersenne laid it on the line. "We will take phenomenal truth, limited to phenomenal criteria. We refuse in advance to deal with absolute truth, i.e. metaphysical truth, and we will avoid making claims of this kind as well. By doing so, we have a position from which to evaluate, because everything is phenomena, and thus relative to phenomena and amenable to experimental verification." This became the essential foundation-point for scientific epistemology.

Meanwhile people like my old pal Cornelius Agrippa, but also a lot of others, said this was pointless. If you examine only phenomenal truth, you can only find relative answers about phenomena; you cannot learn the answers to big questions, like the meaning of life or whatever. For them, the only reason to study phenomena (or anything else, for that matter) is to get answers to these things. But these guys lost that particular battle.

What's striking about the ID debate is not, to my mind, that a bunch of religious zealots want to teach ID. No surprises there. What is interesting to me, actually, is the response of the scientists. A great many have said and continue to say that ID is bad science and so on and so forth, so it should not be taught in schools ever. I don't have quotes in front of me, but they're easy to find. The thing is that this is not technically correct: ID is not science at all. It proposes a metaphysical explanation. The scientists ought to say something different: they ought to say, it seems to me, "ID is not science at all, but an explanation for the metaphysical reasons behind the data we scientists examine. We have no way of knowing whether they are right or wrong, but certainly their explanation has nothing whatever to do with evolution. These are not comparable theories; they are not about the same things. We think this theory, if it is as good as these people say (and we can hardly evaluate it ourselves) ought to be taught -- in philosophy classes, where they deal with metaphysics. Teach it next to Plato or something. But science has nothing to say about God -- nothing at all. Never has, never will, ever." The sad thing is that so many scientists in this debate refuse to say this, because they think that science proves the non-existence of God. If they think this, they prove the ID people right: science is, in practice at least, a system propounding metaphysical claims without legitimate foundations, and therefore any other system working similarly should be entirely comparable. Interestingly, this also means that these scientists have turned their back on the Scientific Revolution and decided that Agrippa was right after all. I find this odd and more than a little ironic.

ID is silly, and what's more it's hardly new: this same wheeze has been around for centuries -- see Montaigne's "Apology for Raymond Sebon," which pretends to be a defense but is actually a scathing attack on this sort of thing. Evolution is not silly, but like all science it really ought to stick to what it knows and shut up about the rest. When evolutionists get on their high horse and start telling everyone they know everything about everything, and can make metaphysical pronouncements ex cathedra, they have fallen into the same ugly trap that Stephen Weinberg et al. fall into when they argue, "I have a Nobel Prize in physics so I can tell that X kind of philosophical discourse in some other discipline is stupid."

Don't scientists ever realize that by doing this stuff they shoot themselves in the foot? They alienate the people who would like to be on their side, and they make themselves deeply unappealing to the vast majority of undecided folks in the middle.

Okay, those are my rants for the day. See you soon with a thing about religion in RPGs.
Tags: science
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