The Selfish Gene

71 posts / 0 new
Last post
Devrim's picture
Devrim
Offline
Joined: 15-07-06
Jul 11 2006 14:16
The Selfish Gene

Would anyone be interested in a reading/discussion group on Richard Dawkins 'The Selfish Gene'? I think that it is quite an important book, and is very misunderstood. I don't think that it is available on line so it would mean buying the book, or getting it from the library.

Devrim

wannatodiveinto...
Offline
Joined: 9-07-06
Jul 11 2006 14:26

Yes if it was put up against any work by a decent, SCIENTIFIC broad minded, evolutionary geneticist like Stephen J Gould:

Q: Of all your work, what has stirred up the most controversy?

"The problem is that there are many evolutionary biologists who view everything that happens in evolution -- every feature, every behavior -- as directly evolved for adaptive benefit. And that just doesn't work. Whenever you build a structure for adaptive reasons, the structure is going to exhibit properties that have nothing to do with adaptation. They're just side consequences. "

frok here:

http://www.motherjones.com/commentary/columns/1997/01/outspoken.html

Devrim's picture
Devrim
Offline
Joined: 15-07-06
Jul 11 2006 15:29
wannatodiveintoyourocean wrote:
Yes if it was put up against any work by a decent, SCIENTIFIC broad minded, evolutionary geneticist like Stephen J Gould:

Yes, it would be a discusion group. I think the advantage of doing it that way is that people could concentrate on the things that were actually said, and not the straw men that were often put up in the Dawkins/Gould argument.

Your comment seems to imply that Dawkins is not these things.

Devrim

ticking_fool
Offline
Joined: 12-03-05
Jul 11 2006 15:32

I'd be up for it. I read a lot about this stuff a few years ago and I've researched the 19th century political background quite heavily for my PhD thesis (on a science fiction author - don't ask how they connect up. It's pretty bloody torturous), so it might be fun to get into it.

JDMF's picture
JDMF
Offline
Joined: 21-05-04
Jul 11 2006 15:37

if laymen are allowed in, i'd be up for it smile

I really liked the book and have a copy of it (found it from a 2nd hand bookshop!).

but i warn you, i am no expert on the subject.

MalFunction
Offline
Joined: 31-10-03
Jul 11 2006 16:25

have read quite a bit of SJ Gould's stuff.

and have been meaning to read the dawkins for ages.

what exactly would be the focus of the discussion?

magnifico
Offline
Joined: 29-11-05
Jul 11 2006 19:32

I'd be up for this definitely. I think Dawkins' work in general and selfish gene theory in particular have some very interesting political ramifications.

'wannadiveintoyourocean', the follow on to your quote is

Q: Could you give an example?

A: I'll give you the obvious one: Let's say the human brain gets big for natural selection reasons. Let's say it's an adaptation. There are some things we needed to do on the savannas of Africa for which a big brain was good. Now that doesn't imply that everything the big brain can do is therefore an adaptation. But that's the error that many so-called evolutionary psychologists make. Our brains didn't get big so that we could write, so that we could read, so that we could compose operas, so that we would know the facts of our personal mortality -- those arise as side consequences of building a big brain for other reasons. Not to mention random things that occur in evolution. We wouldn't be here if the impact of a large extraterrestrial body hadn't removed the dinosaurs. That wasn't adaptation or natural selection. That was just a bad break. Mammals happened to survive because they were tiny little creatures that could hide -- because they never had any evolutionary success competing with dinosaurs. And so it's lucky that we're even here.

so I'm pretty sure Gould wasn't referring to Dawkins, who holds none of the positions he is attacking and isn't an 'evolutionary psychologist'. If he was attacking Dawkins then he was using a very innacurate straw man.

Devrim's picture
Devrim
Offline
Joined: 15-07-06
Jul 11 2006 20:08
JDMF wrote:
if laymen are allowed in, i'd be up for it smile

I am a school teacher, and my subject is not biology, so I am a lay man too. wink Actually, I think that everyone is, but I don't think that it is really important.

I think that enough people are interested to make it worth while.

Malfunction wrote:
what exactly would be the focus of the discussion?

I hadn't considered it, but maybe we could go through two chapters a week, which is about forty pages, and spend a week discussing the chapters we have just read. Maybe that is two fast. Maybe we should just do one.

JDMF wrote:
I really liked the book and have a copy of it (found it from a 2nd hand bookshop!).

There are two versions of the book. The original (1976), and a 1989 version. The 1989 edition has 130 new pages including the chapter 'Nice Guys Finish First', which I think is one of the most interesting. It is about cooperation and altruism.

Does anyone have any different ideas?

Devrim

RPG
Offline
Joined: 8-08-05
Jul 11 2006 20:33

I would be interested. I think Dawkin's position has been misrepresented by people like Steven Rose on the (SWP) left and the far right. Even in the first edition of TSG Dawkins points to game theory as an explanation for co-operation and mutual aid -an idea later developed by Matt Ridely in The Origins of Virtue. As anarchists we clearly have an optimistic view of human nature so I am interested in anyone who makes a contribution to that as Dawkins does.

I thought the main difference between Gould and Dawkins was over the speed of evolutionary change but then I am no expert.

EdmontonWobbly's picture
EdmontonWobbly
Offline
Joined: 25-03-06
Jul 11 2006 20:38

I would be interested in the Dawkins reading. Though I may cheat, my partner is a paleontology graduate student and I'll likely be bouncing ideas off of her first. I've read some Gould so I would love to check this out too.

Devrim's picture
Devrim
Offline
Joined: 15-07-06
Jul 11 2006 20:43
RPG wrote:

I thought the main difference between Gould and Dawkins was over the speed of evolutionary change but then I am no expert.

Yes, that is what a lot of it comes down too. The theory of 'punctuated equilibrium' suggests that there are short sharp burst of evolutionary change. It has to be remembered that we are still talking on a geological time scale though.

EdmontonWobbly wrote:
I would be interested in the Dawkins reading. Though I may cheat, my partner is a paleontology graduate student and I'll likely be bouncing ideas off of her first. I've read some Gould so I would love to check this out too.

It is not cheating, and I think if people talk about there ideas first, it could make for a better discusion. Invite her to join in.

Devrim

RPG
Offline
Joined: 8-08-05
Jul 11 2006 21:22

D - the notion of 'punctuated equilibrium' I think is pretty interesting from a revolutionary point of view - can we achieve a 'step change' in social relations as the Russian revolutionaries felt or does sustainable change take longer like the development of capitalism which started in the C14th?

I guess this is the sort of thing a 'book club' discussion would cover (I am with Dawkins rather than Gould on this one).

Devrim's picture
Devrim
Offline
Joined: 15-07-06
Jul 11 2006 21:38
RPG wrote:
D - the notion of 'punctuated equilibrium' I think is pretty interesting from a revolutionary point of view - can we achieve a 'step change' in social relations as the Russian revolutionaries felt or does sustainable change take longer like the development of capitalism which started in the C14th?

I guess this is the sort of thing a 'book club' discussion would cover (I am with Dawkins rather than Gould on this one).

It is an interesting point. Camette refers to this 'step change' in 'Community and Communism in Russia' http://www.libcom.org/library/about-revolution-jacques-camatte

Gould was meant to be some sort of Marxist, and I think that he let his political opinions get in the way of his science (I am also with Dawkins on this one). It is also interesting to note their different attitudes towards religion. Gould is much more tolerant of it than Dawkins, suggesting that it operates in a separate 'magistra' to science whilst Dawkins is against religion completely.

Devrim

jef costello's picture
jef costello
Offline
Joined: 9-02-06
Jul 11 2006 21:43

I'd be interested in this but I really won't have time to read the book for a while.

RPG
Offline
Joined: 8-08-05
Jul 11 2006 21:56

D - interesting point about religion, although I am anti-religion Dawkins' fundamentalist positions irritate me.

I think the lessons I took from the SG, which is a great read were:

1. Darwinian evolution is right, it can explain even the most complex things like the development of the eye.

2. We should understand at the end of the day we are animals albeit special ones.

3. Despite its title the book actually has a positive message for anarchist - despite the fact that people can be selfish there is a sound basis for co-operation.

As a leftie I have always worried that my view of human nature is over optimistic. Dawkins helped reassure me. The danger I think is when people fall into evolutionary determinism - we are not prisoners of our genes. When I was born I could not swin. I have subsequently learned. There are bits of my behaviour/character that I have changed over the years. We are complex products of our genes and environment as Dawkins points out.

Devrim's picture
Devrim
Offline
Joined: 15-07-06
Jul 11 2006 22:01
RPG wrote:
D - interesting point about religion, although I am anti-religion Dawkins' fundamentalist positions irritate me.

I like them, but then I live in a country where most people refuse to accept 'Darwinism', and believe that the world was created in seven days.

Dev

RPG
Offline
Joined: 8-08-05
Jul 11 2006 22:06

Dev - I don't disagree with Dawkins views, quite the opposite (I was bought up as a Catholic so have a fair idea of what a religious up bringing can mean!) just not sure his 'head on' tactics always work.

redtwister
Offline
Joined: 21-03-05
Jul 12 2006 02:47
Devrim wrote:
RPG wrote:
D - interesting point about religion, although I am anti-religion Dawkins' fundamentalist positions irritate me.

I like them, but then I live in a country where most people refuse to accept 'Darwinism', and believe that the world was created in seven days.

Dev

The issue at hand with religion is complex in that milieu. Gould ended up taking a pretty slack position, but both he and especially Richard Lewontin were quite clear that for them in the US the debate over "science" as the great bringer of light, especially in the hands of Dawkins and Dennet, was a kind of nasty elitism, which it is. The issue is not merely evolution versus creationism, on which Gould and Co. never once retreated, but the critique of the bourgeois rationalist defence of Science with a capital "S" as a class position.

IMO, on these matters while I often like Gould, I prefer Richard Lewontin, who takes a lot of time to take apart Dawkins and Wilson, as did the philosopher of science and mathematician Philip Kitcher.

What I find entertaining is that

1) people want to separate sociobiology from evolutionary psychology, which is basically buying into a bait and switch, IMO

2) that despite the often overt and covert political and ideological commitments of Wilson, Dawkins, Dennet and company, it is always, even by the left, Gould and Lewontin who are attacked for being overtly political

3) that so many people blithely accept the separation of the reactionary deployment of sociobiology and ev psych, like "A Natural History of Rape", and its liberal mainstream: Dawkins, Wilson, Dennet, Steven Pinker, etc. and people like Paul Gross and Norman Levitt, who claim to be socialists. Paul Gross' "Exorcising Sociobiology" and Gross and Levitt's "Higher Superstition" are often confused for right-wing material, when they claim to aiming from the left.

As for the science, we are all amateurs at best. Even a school teacher of biology is an amateur compared to basic research scientists in universities, frankly. The gap between what I know and can learn on my own is much smaller with the high school biology teacher than between that teacher and Gould, Dawkins, Wilson and Lewontin.

I do highly recommend that people acquaint themselves with Gould and Lewontin and others articles in the New York Review of Books, material I can easily make available as I used my online sub to poach a large number of articles and put them in Word format. It is short and succinct.

Two other novel references are the book The Darwin Wars and a very interesting article from a religious journal highlighting the religious nature and bad science of sociobiology http://www.firstthings.com/ftissues/ft0101/articles/bethell.html.

I will also try to find a very interesting article on the history of science that is very illuminating.

Also, attempts to right Rose off because of his affiliation with the SWPGB is stupid. The question at hand is his science.

One small note: on how "positive" Dawkins, et al are, the issue is not a positive or negative view of human beings like some preference for essential goodness versus original sin. The problem is that both are religious positions.

Have fun.

Chris

lem
Offline
Joined: 25-07-05
Jul 12 2006 03:13

Not sure I get the interest, really embarrassed

Isn't it simply a case of, we are designed to be altruistic, to an extent?

Interestingly enough, did you know that genes are selected not to increase the fittness of the individual (or whatever Darwin suggests); but that each gene's function (?) is simply to increase its own frequency, with no other genes in its remit. Iyswim. I don't think thats what Darwin says. So the genes that make me tall, are not trying to get "me" to pass on all my genes into the population, but merely tallness. Iyswim

Carry on wink

MalFunction
Offline
Joined: 31-10-03
Jul 12 2006 07:53

quoth lem:

Quote:
Isn't it simply a case of, we are designed to be altruistic, to an extent?

er no we weren't designed, we evolved.

as a species we needed to co-operate to survive.

"altruism" is a cultural phenomenon which our evolution has allowed to take place. in terms of being hard-wired, i suspect at best we're hard-wired to have such behaviours.

(like language - we have evolved to be hard-wired to be able to learn and use a langauge, but it's the culture that determines how the language evolves and is used, and individuals have input into that)

magnifico
Offline
Joined: 29-11-05
Jul 12 2006 07:56

Is this the discussion or are we going to do it in a more structured way as Devrim suggests? I think that would be better.

lem wrote:
Isn't it simply a case of, we are designed to be altruistic, to an extent?

According to Dawkins no, we're not. No behaviour could possibly evolve that caused us to put the survival of others' genes above our own, unless they are close family and so have mainly the same genes. Where he is misunderstood is that people read this far and assume that he is saying that altruistic behaviour is impossible in humans. But he isn't saying this - he believes genetic evolution is entirely 'selfish' but he is not a biological determinist.

Nemo's picture
Nemo
Offline
Joined: 12-07-06
Jul 12 2006 10:49
RPG wrote:
The danger I think is when people fall into evolutionary determinism - we are not prisoners of our genes. When I was born I could not swin. I have subsequently learned.

Actually, you could:

I think there is something to genetic determinism, though it's not what people usually mean by it. Clearly the general form of your body is determined genetically: two arms, legs, one head, two eyes, etc. And, like Chomsky, I would argue that the general functioning of the mind is similarly genetically determined. But like the body there is some room for manoeuvre: the same person could be skinny or fat or muscular, depending on how they eat and exercise. Likewise for the brain: the same person could be stupid or smart, or good at maths or bad at maths, etc. Just depends on how they exercise their brain.

Nemo's picture
Nemo
Offline
Joined: 12-07-06
Jul 12 2006 11:04
magnifico wrote:
lem wrote:
Isn't it simply a case of, we are designed to be altruistic, to an extent?

According to Dawkins no, we're not.

I've not read Dawkins, so I can't comment on his position, but there does seem to be an ideological obsession with explaining cooperation in terms of self interest. This smacks of Adam Smith to me.

For example see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Evolution_of_Cooperation

I think the big giveaway that something is wrong with this is that cooperation seems to be confined to some species (and to different degrees) and not others.

EDIT: Here is something that is vaguely related to cooperation which is interesting: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Searle#Social_intentionality

Quote:
Collective intentional behaviour exists, and is not the same as the summation of individual intentional behaviour.
wannatodiveinto...
Offline
Joined: 9-07-06
Jul 12 2006 13:33
Quote:
According to Dawkins no, we're not. No behaviour could possibly evolve that caused us to put the survival of others' genes above our own, unless they are close family and so have mainly the same genes.

I’m no fan of Dawkins but to be honest this sounds like a parody and if he’s really expressing views like this (and I doubt it) he isn’t much of a scientist or a geneticist.

Firstly with many animal herds or swarms – they concept of family is greatly enlarged. With plants e.g. dandelions they are often, in fact, not just "close" but genetic clones and are "selected" as one organism so can only be judged collectively.(OK its not a pleasant voluntary collectivism but more of an imposed genetic “ant” communism)

Also as pointed out by Derwin (indeed) in the morality thread – quite often highly significant evolutionary changes are caused by “small group effects” where groups are isolated and forced to “become close”

As far as evolution in general is concerned I don’t think you can rule out almost anything “possibly evolving” (within the limits of dna, protiens etc there's always billion to one shot "hopeful monsters" who suddenly get a chance after a major change in climate or what ever)– the limitations are usually in your already pre existing body architecture rather then possible survival strategies.

This goes even more so for "behaviour" which can be highly variable.

Survival strategies are immensely variable even within the same species depending on circumstance and can appear but altruistic or selfish to our "moral judgment" But there is no doubt in my mind that there is some biologically built in sociability AND there's some built in selfishness.

After this for humans there are parents, schooling, society, environment etc etc.

A statement like no behaviour could possibly evolve seems profoundly unscientific (and weirdly deterministic) and more rooted in a sort of pseudo-religious doctrine of “scienticism” then science even modern capitalist distorted science as are some of the posters here I fear….

Beyond that I think Nemo is making some sensible points!

Krossie

Nemo's picture
Nemo
Offline
Joined: 12-07-06
Jul 12 2006 14:00
wannatodiveintoyourocean wrote:
Beyond that I think Nemo is making some sensible points!

That doesn't sound like me at all!

I think my main point would be: this is science, it is what it is regardless of what anyone wants it to be or whatever political persuasion you are of. The whole genetic determinism thing got a bad name (particularly on the left) because of Social Darwinism and when cheerleaders for capitalism began linking Darwinism to free-market economics. But that doesn't mean we should throw out the baby with the bathwater. The Soviets made that mistake and rejected Darwinism in favour of a politically correct, and factually incorrect, alternative. Which lead them to stop selectively breeding their crops, and may plausibly have contributed to the mass starvation in the USSR (though general mismanagement probably played a bigger role). For example, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lamarckism and: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lysenkoism

wannatodiveinto...
Offline
Joined: 9-07-06
Jul 12 2006 14:24

I suppose I'm sort of a conservative at heart in that I think that things usually work best "in their place" so to speak. Science is brilliant for answering some questions and not others!

That’s not to say that a whole load of insights from a range of disciplines can't some times be synthesized in a new way (Marx would have to get a bit of grudging credit from me here). Also some thing can be consistently and honestly understood in the context of one area can then be applied to another and yield some new insights - nothing wrong with that – in fact its intellectual creativity at it’s finest.

Then there's the danger of one, misunderstanding a concept completely and then two, dishonestly misapplying it some where else to make yourself look polished.

The great Sokal hoax is the classic example of this being "found out" and fair play to him.

http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/

Quote:

Chris: I do highly recommend that people acquaint themselves with Gould and Lewontin

I'm a big fan of Gould and will be pursuing this Lewontin lad!

lem
Offline
Joined: 25-07-05
Jul 12 2006 16:56
MalFunction wrote:
er no we weren't designed, we evolved

angry

I don't think there needs to be a designer to use the word "designed". Evolution plays the role of a designer, in that the existence of functions are slightly explained by their effects (teleological, like when someone designs something). wink

Blacknred Ned
Offline
Joined: 19-06-06
Jul 12 2006 17:17

I enjoyed The Selfish Gene very much. Is the consensus that we should form a reading & discussion group and Devrim suggested? If we are, how do we do it?

Tbh, I'd rather take part in that kind of group than in an unfocused and rather uninformative ramble through the subject (and any others than coincidentally come up).

RPG
Offline
Joined: 8-08-05
Jul 12 2006 23:32

I think the comments so far show that there is much we could discuss about TSG, evolution, evolutionary psychology, determinism etc but agree that this is best done in a structured way.

Devrim's picture
Devrim
Offline
Joined: 15-07-06
Jul 13 2006 06:48

O.K., My suggestion is that we do it in a more formal way, and that we all start with chapter one 'why are people?'. If everyone can read it by Sunday night (it is only 11 pages, so that gives people time to buy the book, and still read it if they want to), we can start the discussion about it on Monday on a new thread (The Selfish Gene Ch 1 would be my rather unimaginative title), and leave this thread to what Ned calls a 'rather uninformative ramble through the subject'. Which I am just about to do. wink

Devrim

Devrim's picture
Devrim
Offline
Joined: 15-07-06
Jul 13 2006 06:54
RedTwister wrote:
The issue at hand with religion is complex in that milieu. Gould ended up taking a pretty slack position, but both he and especially Richard Lewontin were quite clear that for them in the US the debate over "science" as the great bringer of light, especially in the hands of Dawkins and Dennet, was a kind of nasty elitism, which it is. The issue is not merely evolution versus creationism, on which Gould and Co. never once retreated, but the critique of the bourgeois rationalist defence of Science with a capital "S" as a class position.

...One small note: on how "positive" Dawkins, et al are, the issue is not a positive or negative view of human beings like some preference for essential goodness versus original sin. The problem is that both are religious positions.

I don't see any 'nasty elitism' in Dawkins, and I don't think that his is a 'religious position' Can you explain why you say this, please?

Devrim