Reva Basch (reva) Wed 12 May 99 13:40
Welcome to Andrew Brown, author of The Darwin Wars, and guest interviewer Susan McCarthy.
With catlike tread (sumac) Wed 12 May 99 14:07
Andrew Brown's book *The Darwin Wars: How Stupid Genes Became Selfish Gods* has just been published in the UK by Simon & Schuster. It's got all kinds of vicious quotes on the back from evolutionary theorists attacking one another, closing with philosopher Daniel Dennett calling Andrew's work "a sleazy bit of trash journalism." How'd you get that great blurb, Andrew? And why do people feel so strongly about evolutionary theory -- why do we have Darwin Wars?
John Payne (satyr) Wed 12 May 99 17:42
<scribbled by satyr Wed 12 May 99 17:44>
hoofprints d' (satyr) Wed 12 May 99 17:44
[typo] Whoa, talk about blind-siding! (Interesting topic, but not exactly what had been on the surface of my mind lately, what with Kosovo and kids shooting kids.) Andrew, can you classify the areas of disagreement amoung evolutionary theorists in comprehensible terms for us mere mortals? (Having taken genetics once upon a time, I have some small hope of being able to follow it, if you make it simple enough... ;-)
Reva Basch (reva) Wed 12 May 99 20:46
Context is all, satyr. Andrew's next up as an Inkwell guest. Any disjunction with personal preoccupations or world events... well, please adjust your set.
Reva Basch (reva) Wed 12 May 99 20:48
btw, Andrew is in the UK, so factor that in to the rhythm of this conversation. In the meantime, you might want to check out his extremely wonderful site at <http://www.darwinwars.com>
Andrew Brown (andrewb) Thu 13 May 99 03:09
To answer the first of Sumac's questions:a couple of years ago I did a piece for the Guardian about the rivalry between SJ Gould and Richard Dawkins. It seemed a really interesting subject that no one had written up. A friend of mine, who was working as a teaching assistant for Gould, or had done so, and was also engaged with Dennett on a mailing list about evolution in the historical sciences, sent him a copy of my piece and got that quote back. I went round whimpering for a couple of days. after all, it was a perfectly decent piece of journalism on an interesting and important subject. Then I decided there was a book in it; when, in the course of events, I found myself flagging, I would be spurred to greater efforts by the memory of Dennett's remark. When the book was finished, they wanted blurb quotes to show examples of all these people slagging each other off, and I couldn't resist. Dennett wrote an extremely pompous letter to my publishers complaining about it.
Andrew Brown (andrewb) Thu 13 May 99 03:14
Actually, I believe the dispute is more about the qualities of imagination in the two sides than anything else -- if you're looking for non-gossipy explanations. there are of course long and tangled explanations involveing personal enmities and friendships. And there are some small areas of scientific difference of emphasis. But after brooding on it for years, I have come to the conclusion that it is at bottom about whether you like your history messy or improving. And this is a matter of temperament and style, and so very hard to eradicate. I may post a little from the book to illustrate this point.
Reva Basch (reva) Thu 13 May 99 07:26
Andrew Brown (andrewb) Fri 14 May 99 05:56
I will, honest. but am worked off my feet this weeken, at least till saturday., what with all the MI6 nonsense. so may be late .
hoofprints d' (satyr) Fri 14 May 99 09:38
> whether you like your history messy or improving Hmmm, "punctuated equilibrium" popped up on my memory channel...
Andrew Brown (andrewb) Fri 14 May 99 12:07
Here's an agreed fact: the stoy the book starts with ======== George Price killed himself in a squat near Euston station in the winter of 1974.: William Hamilton, who identified Price's body, has described the scene: "A mattress on the floor, one chair, a table, and several ammunition boxes made the only furniture. Of all the books and furnishings that I remembered from our first meeting in his fairly luxurious flat near Oxford Circus there remained some cheap clothes, a two-volume copy of Proust, and his typewriter. A cheap suitcase, and some cardboard boxes contained most of his papers, others were scattered about on ammunition chests." The deathbed of an altruist can be a terrible place. Both Price and Hamilton were theoretical biologists, a discipline about as mathematical and abstruse as may be imagined; yet it was Price's discoveries in the field which had led to his despair and death. He had reformulated a set of mathematical equation that shows how altruism can prosper in a world where it seems that only selfishness is rewarded. The equations had been discovered ten years before by Hamilton, but Price's reworking was general and more elegant. He had provided a general way in which to measure the direction and speed of any selection process; this makes possible, in principle, .a Darwinian analysis of almost anything. When Price had first found them he was so shocked that he set himself to do the work again, sure that there must be a flaw. He ended up reformulating them more generally and more powerfully; when this work was completed, he went mad. For though his equations show that truly self-sacrificing behaviour can exist among animals, and even humans, they also seem to show that there is nothing noble in it. Only behaviour which helps to spread the genes that cause it can survive in the very long term. Since man, too, is an animal, the human capacity for altruism must be strictly limited; and our capacity for cruelty, treachery and selfishness impossible to eradicate. Through algebra, George Price had found proof of original sin.
Andrew Brown (andrewb) Fri 14 May 99 12:09
Another longish bit: here's punk eek: ============ The general charge against Gould is that he has overstated the importance of his own theories. The philosopher and historian of science David Hull points out that there are two ways in which a scientist can try and spread a new idea: he can claim that it is an uncontroversial and natural development what everyone already believes, or he can market it as a revolution, whose strength is derived from the fact that only a chosen vanguard understand it. Both strategies have been adapted by both sides in these disputes, but Gould himself has tended to claim that his novel ideas are revolutionary, whereas Dawkins has preferred to argue that his are simply what everyone believed all along without noticing. Hull concluded his discussion with the delicate, dry observation that it was impossible to discern any correlation between the originality claimed for an idea and that which it might actually possess. Other assessments of Gould's originality have been less polite. According to some of his enemies, he is meant to have supplanted orthodox Darwinism, as practised by working scientists, with an entirely fictitious construct of his own . To some extent this is an inevitable consequence of writing about people still alive. As a journalist you can hope to make people laugh at your descriptions of them, but you never hope that all your subjects will consider you just. Historians have their problems, but at least they do not have to consider the amour propre of their subjects. The theory that has most upset people was his earliest, produced in conjunction with Niles Eldredge when both were palaeontologists working in New York. in 1972. Punctuated Equilibrium claimed that there was in fact a problem with the appearance of species in the fossil record: and this is that they persist, recognisably, for millions of years after their emergence in a largely stable form. What is odd about this is that if the Darwinian process were one of continuous friction-free adaptation, you would expect all species to be constantly evolving into their successors. This does not seem to happen. Instead, the fossil record shows clear breaks between species, which seem to emerge suddenly and from nowhere in geological terms. Of course, geological suddenness is perfectly compatible with gradual change across generations. The one thing this theory is not and has never been claimed to be, is an attack on natural selection. On the contrary, one of the unstated premises of the theory is the efficiency of Darwinian selection as an agent of change: it is precisely because neoDarwinism has found a process to develop whales from amoebas that we need an explanation for the persistence of amoebas, or of horseshoe crabs, which seem to have maintained their present form for around 200m years while almost every other species around at the time of their arrival has gone extinct, along with most of the ones that flourished in the mean time. But the theory is and was meant as a challenge to the then reigning interpretation of Darwinism in which the persistence was an uninteresting problem.. Various mechanisms have since been proposed to account for it. But the fact that there is something that needs explaining is now generally admitted. A measure of the theory's success is that its opponents now accept it full and deny there was anything new or interesting about it. The Dawkinsians are confident that the persistence of species can be explained without in any way diminishing the primacy of gene-based explanations.
Gail Williams (gail) Fri 14 May 99 17:27
Wowee... The altruism passage is a grabber! Can you explain why > human capacity for altruism must be strictly limited; and our capacity > for cruelty, treachery and selfishness impossible to eradicate. > ? Does altruism need cruelty, treachery and selfishness to help pass it along to the next generation?
Andrew Brown (andrewb) Fri 14 May 99 22:54
Exactly so. It's a kind of generalised Macchiavellianism. Macchiavelli, who was, FWIW, given his only government job by the devoutly xian Florentine government of Savonarola, himself finally burnt for an excess of xian zeal, saw that the only way to make virtue possible among the citizens was for the prince to be a treacherous bastard. So without treacherous bastards, there would be no trustworthy people. they'd all have been killed and eaten. (actually, of course, by the time you get to organisms as complex as people, this isn't true). But the kind of theories that Price and the sociobiologists after him work on are meant to bo so general that they apply to every living thing. Perhaps everything of any sort that gets copied, including (spit!) memes. And on that kind of level, it's quite clear that altruistic behaviour will only survive if an altruistic behaver survives, and the survival of the behaver demands intermittent unpleasantness. As I say, humans are necessarily much more complex than this. We have emotions, so that we feel very deeply the conflicts of game theory, just as we hurt when the laws of physics and engineering combine to break our legs. IN neither case does the mathemitcal explanation come naturally.
hoofprints d' (satyr) Sat 15 May 99 12:42
What was Price's background that he was so profoundly affected by the implications of his own theoretical work. Personally, while I'm sure I couldn't follow the mathematics, I find the conclusion rather unsurprising.
Andrew Brown (andrewb) Sat 15 May 99 15:57
he was a strange character. as a young man he was a chemist, andworked on the manhattan project, where he got a doctorate. then he worked as a scince journalists, then for IBM, in the late fifites and early sixties. Finaly he came to London, and worked as a theoretical biologist at UCL. .
hoofprints d' (satyr) Sat 15 May 99 18:38
Without enough altruism to make possible scientific enquiry, our species would probably never have reached the point of comprehending such concepts. But, apparently, without treachery enough to prevent us from making use of this new knowledge to eradicate treachery, we also would not have done so. It seems to be a conundrum.
With catlike tread (sumac) Sat 15 May 99 20:07
Andrew, has having been a religion writer given you a different perspective on the Darwin Wars?
Andrew Brown (andrewb) Sun 16 May 99 11:48
It made me a lot more sensitive to the penumbra of pop philosophy which surrounds all pop scientific theories. It gave me an interest in the ways in which systems of ideas arise and defend themselves, irrespective of content. It showed me very clearly that on some subjects Richard Dawkins was talking nonsense. On the other hand, I took up science writing becasue I wanted to do stories which might occasionally be true, as a change from the religious ones. But when I want to think religion repulsive or merely false, I don't go to scientists. I study the devout.
With catlike tread (sumac) Sun 16 May 99 13:32
Without going down enticing byways indicated in your book (such as the differences between religious issues in the US and the UK), would you talk about how it showed you where Dawkins was talking nonsense?
hoofprints d' (satyr) Sun 16 May 99 18:17
> the ways in which systems of ideas arise and defend themselves, > irrespective of content That would be an interesting read! Perhaps as a counterpart to Kuhn's essay on scientific revolutions.
Andrew Brown (andrewb) Mon 17 May 99 01:12
#21 Well, I gave a lecture the other day on the theme "Could there be a Darwinian fundamentalist" which was precisely on this kind of theme. I was interested partly in the historical analogies between the early xian intellectuals (the fathers of the church) and the modern Darwinians -- I don't htink there are interesting analogies betweeen modern fundamentalists and their scientific enemies. But when xianity was still a vigorous young system of ideas, doing a kind of Cambrian explosion across the intellectual biosphere, things were different. I can jsut see Dan Dennett as a cranky old archimandrite working on these beautiful epistles against the heretics. the other, much wilder, interest in theat lecture was whether there is a personality type that is drawn tosystems of orthodoxy. Again, you can see how such people would act almost as the immune system for an ideology and perhaps it can't grow without them. But that sounds like another book, preferably written by a central European academic with seven years of his life to spare.
Andrew Brown (andrewb) Mon 17 May 99 01:15
#20 Well, in his talk about how xianity spreads, and how (even what) xians believe. Especially the belief that xcians are necessarily uncritical thinkers. It strikes me that there is as great a range of curiousity among xians as among the rest of us.
hoofprints d' (satyr) Mon 17 May 99 07:37
You've already suggested that you dislike the term "meme", but it would seem to apply directly -- the idea of units of meaning which take on a life of their own in the nooshpere. Is there another way of expressing that idea that you prefer to "meme"?
Andrew Brown (andrewb) Mon 17 May 99 09:42
What's wrong with "idea" The thing I dislike about "memes" is that they give a false precision to an analogy. Yes, of course, ideas are _like_ organisms. Culture is _like_ an ecology. (apologies for telnet typing). But they are not very like each other. And a lot of the peripheral rhetoric of memes, all the stuff about viruses infestingus and so forth, is just stupid. The interesting ideas are those that we incoroporate into some kind of persistent self. In a way, I would like to believe in memes. I have tried. But sense keeps breaking through.
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