Andrew Brown (andrewb) Sat 22 May 99 00:55
spineless? :-) I don't think the distinction should be pushed too hard. It was a way to get into the arguments about sociobiology and to make them more comprehensible. It's not a grand classification of all the thinkers that have ever been.
Gail Williams (gail) Sat 22 May 99 12:47
Ok, I confess, I'm minimally clued about this stuff, though generally interested in evolution and science. Having read neither of these thinkers in the original, I was sorta hoping for a thumbnail description of the work each has done, and of their divergences, so there's something to hurl those funny metaphors about metaphors at. Then we can tell what sticks, and what slithers down. Anybody willing to do or point to a very simple summary?
hoofprints d' (satyr) Sat 22 May 99 19:03
hoofprints d' (satyr) Sat 22 May 99 19:04
<53> is hidden to avoid deflecting the topic back into the discussion of memes.
Andrew Brown (andrewb) Sun 23 May 99 00:46
"What sticks and what slithers down" is nice. Here's the thumbnail. Evolutionary biology is a huge subject. There are two ways to approach it: to find out what actually happens, and to find the mathematical rules that make everything happen. Obviously, the ultimate theory encompasses both but, like I said, it's a huge subject and everyone has to start somewhere. Dawkins and his friends start from the mathematics. They begin with population genetics -- the study of how gene frequencies alter in ideal populations -- and from game theory. This approach made a huge strides in the 1960s due to the mathematical advances made by W.H. (Bill) Hamilton, who is now professor of zoology at Oxford, and an American journalist named George Price, who was so horrified by Hamilton's discoveries that he checked them, reformulated them even more clearly, had some sort of a breakdown, and killed himself. The work of Hamilton and Price is part of what Dawkins popularised in the Selfish Gene. Specifically, they showed, mathematically, how a gene for "altruistic" behaviour could spread through a population at the expense of a gene for "selfish" behaviour. This is one form There were two further strands in the Selfish Gene. The first was ethology, which is based on the insight that animal behaviour is as much shaped by natural selection as animal bodies. It can be analysed in terms of the advantage it gives to animal genes. When this snalysis is combined with game theory (Price, again worked on this, with John Maynard Smith in Britain. Robert Trivers in the US) and the whole lot worked out using computers, you can get very sophisticated and wonderful models of gene flow and animal behaviour. But all these theories take for granted what "genes" actually are. They are dependent on a definition of "gene" that has nothing to do with DNA. A gene, for Dawkins, is essentially a unit of heritable material which could just as well be made of green jello as DNA provided green jellos had the right characteristics. Nor is he very interested in the processes by which genes come to have effects on the outside world. It is enough for his theories that they should do so. The blanks can be filled in later. This kind of bold analysis has been enormously successful. But it is possible to carry it too far. The point is that "gene" defined as "something hereditary that makes a difference" is all you need for mathematical analysis. But it may be a completely misleading way to thing of "gene" as "particular bit of DNA that makes a particular difference in the world". For when you get down to the level of molecular analysis a single gene consist of lots of discontiguous bits of DNA and the sort of traits we're interested in at a higher level can be produced by the interaction of large numbers of genes. These are the sort of objections that Gould and his friends made (cont next message) reason for Price's breakdown, as I understand it, was that
Andrew Brown (andrewb) Sun 23 May 99 01:06
(this is going to be more of a hangnail than a thumbnail. Still, the two sides agree about so much that it is impossible to be clear, fair, and short). Gould started off as a paleontologist (Dawkins was an ethologist, under Nico Tinbergen). So, broadly speaking, he starts from practice and moves towards theory, rather than the other way round. To the theoreticions like Maynard Smith, he never gets there ("Gould is a man whose ideas are too confused to be worth bothering with"). His original scientific theory was "Punctuated Equilibrium", which is normally understood as a thoery about how species emerge. I think it actuallya theory about why they persist. The fossil record shows that speciation can happen very quickly in geological time. In a way it is more puzzling that some things have persisted for hundreds of millions of years than that other species have been really short-lived. So Gould, with Niles Eldredge, proposed that the natural condition of species was to persist, and that speciation happened normally in a quick burst. Like thinking about genes instead of organisms, this was a way of reinterpreting existing data. Like that, too, it was widely misunderstood. The bastard child of Gould is the X files, just as the bastard child of Dawkins is having "genes for" liking Elizabethan lute music. Gould, Eldredge, and Lewontin, all maintained that if the simple mathematical equations of the populaiton biologists were right, you would expect the natural world to be in a state of constant flux, and species to be constantly changing. Dawkins and his friends replied that they were not nearly so simple-minded as they were accused of being, and that even if punk eek were true, it proved nothing. Creationists announced that the whole thing proved that evolution was a mess. Against the Creationists the Dawkinsians maintain that natural selection is necessary and sufficient to explain all the apparently designed complexity in the world. the Gouldians agree with this. But they thing there is a hell of a lot more undesigned complexity around than the Dawkinsians are willing to exist. They also argue for technical and philosphical reasons, that you cannot read off actual human behaviour and psychology from the mathematics describing the behaviour of idealised genes. You will come to an especially nasty end if you try to do this by using the language of "selfishness". There's some dispute about whether Dawkins actually meant to do that in the Selfish Gene. I think he did it, but without intending to. Our own dear <sumac> has a very elegant example of the Gouldian attack on "selfishness" in Salon at the moment.
Gail Williams (gail) Sun 23 May 99 12:14
When will *The Darwin Wars: How Stupid Genes Became Selfish *The Darwin Gods* come out in the States?
Reva Basch (reva) Sun 23 May 99 13:14
Gail, thanks so much for asking (in #52) the question I've been meaning to. And Andrew, thanks for the explanation.
Andrew Brown (andrewb) Sun 23 May 99 13:19
I hope it made sense. the trouble is that by the time you have written an entire book on the subject, you can't see the trees for the brambles. As for when the book comes out in the states -- when I find a publisher. I don't know. The curious can always order it form amazon.co.uk
the real Andrew Alden (alden) Sun 23 May 99 14:43
I like that summary.
With catlike tread (sumac) Tue 25 May 99 11:27
Me too. I have just read a book by Lee Dugatkin, in which he says that these arguments map to Locke & Hobbes, to liberal & conservative. He defines liberal as the belief that people are fundamentally good and conservative as the belief that people are neither good nor bad, but learn to be these things (and this is where he locates himself). He doesn't even address the belief that people are fundamentally bad/selfish.
Andrew Brown (andrewb) Tue 25 May 99 12:04
The mapping to Hobbes is spot on. I'm less sure about Locke and the Gouldians, though there is certainly a lot there. I did press Hamillton about all this the first time I interviewed him: he would go no further than that sociobiology proved that communism could never have worked. In 1995 this was not a sensational insight. But it may be as far as you can go. Mary Midgley would say that sociobiology also proves that completely atomistic individualism can't work either. I don't think that's disputed, though it is a matter of emphasis.
With catlike tread (sumac) Tue 25 May 99 17:48
Yes, the matter of emphasis is so important. It's as if people were at daggers drawn over whether the glass is half full or half empty. In the nature-nurture argument, for example, I think just about everyone now thinks that humans are produced by some of each, but just as everyone is shaking hands and agreeing, one party says, "Of course nature and nurture are both involved -- but nature is more important" and the other party shrieks with rage "Nurture is more important!" and the common ground is lost sight of.
Andrew Brown (andrewb) Wed 26 May 99 02:02
Yet in another perspective, differences of emphasis are _tremendously_ important. Like differences in style, they go to the heart of our individuality. We don't expect to find them among scientists, because science aspires to a god-like impartiality that transcends individuals. And in a sense it gets there. But as soon as you leave the equations behind, you're back with emphasis and style.
the real Andrew Alden (alden) Wed 26 May 99 16:53
Except that paleontology never really gets to the equations. It's a science without experiments in the physicist's sense.
hoofprints d' (satyr) Wed 26 May 99 19:27
If it isn't quantified, is it science? Conversely, do the numbers sometimes get in the way of what they originally described?
Wendy M. Grossman (wendyg) Thu 27 May 99 03:28
The heart of science is the self-corrective process of replicating research, not numbers in and of themselves. It seems to me that many of the people I meet in the process of doing professional skepticism imagine that science is about taking the mystery out of everything, or reducing humans to predictable globs of program code. And yet that would be much more true if astrology worked, since saying that you could actually work out a person's life and personality from a chart of the positions of the planets when they were born is much more prescriptive and lacking in mystery than any understanding science has to offer of how humans work. the Skeptic is about to publish an article by Rupert Sheldrake claiming that physicists and other hard scientists should be required to conduct experiments to see if double-blind testing would be important in their field as they claim it is in testing for ESP (or as is required for medical testing. wg
hoofprints d' (satyr) Thu 27 May 99 08:01
I've heard it said that the language of science is mathematics, but that's more true of some sciences than of others, and I don't buy it as a generality. Mathematics is a set of useful tools, but the language of science is reason. If Gould never arrives at theory, as Andrew suggested some from the other camp have charged, maybe it's because he's practicing a descriptive brand of science, long on detail and short on reducibility. He's proposed a theory which seems to explain his data. That his theory isn't founded in the manipulation of constructs (idealized genes) matters little or not at all. The formal theorists have done such a fine job of illuminating the behavior of a gradually evolving system composed of specifics-shorn gene constructs, that we can compare their conclusions with observables and conclude that the material world is otherwise. Would that be a fair summation?
Andrew Brown (andrewb) Thu 27 May 99 21:59
I think that's fair. Mind you, I don't think that the observed features suggesting punk eek contradict neoDarwinian genetics, and neither does anyone else. But they suggest some of the layers and layers of complexity and constraints which hold species in existence. Wendy's point about astrology is absolutely right, and goes to the heart of why so many technically educated people are fundamentalists. It's precisely because they expect science _should_ work like astrology. ONe of the important questions to ask the more simple-minded science-vs-religion types is just how much of a scientific education is needed to innoculate you against fundamentalism: three years? Five years? a degree? a doctorate? Then ask how many of the people who made the "Islamic bomb" in Pakistan had doctorates in physics, the hardest science of all. If anything, I think a scientific education makes you more vulnerable to fundamentalism, and to the belief that there is a user's manual for the world, if only we can track down the manufacturer. There are historical reasons for this. The confidence that such a manual existed, derived from theology, was one of the great stimuli to the rise of Western science. There's an important sense in which, if the inquisition had not existed, no one would have taken any notice of Galileo.
Andrew Brown (andrewb) Thu 27 May 99 22:06
I should mention at this point that I am about to disappear for a week: It's half-term in the mayfly season, so any parent who takes their responsibilities seriously must teach their daughter to fly fish. I had hoped this would coincide with an outburst of Islamic hostility towards me for a story I am doing about the Koran. But it's publication has been postponed so I'll be back in England in time to be burned in effigy in person, though I hope this won't prove necessary.
With catlike tread (sumac) Fri 28 May 99 09:47
I hope you have a great fishing trip, Andrew: the stars look good for that.
John Henry, the (steeldrv) Fri 28 May 99 22:06
Go Fish, Andrew. re: science. I think of science as a methodology for processing inquiries.
Iron Tongue of Midnight (sunbear) Mon 31 May 99 09:29
Go Fish, indeed. And for your return, I invoke the name of Thomas Kuhn.
Pseud Impaired (mitsu) Tue 1 Jun 99 01:28
Hello, coming late to this conversation, on the suggestion of (jmara). I have read most of the foregoing and I just would first like to say that I find Andrew's observations on the sociobiology debate quite insightful and interesting. I would like to add a few small comments of my own. Note that I am not a biologist but I have had a keen interest in this and other closely related fields for many years. I have to say that I find myself neither in the Dawkins nor the Gould camp, exclusively. The main problem I have with Dawkins is that he appears to ignore the complexity which surrounds what one might call a transition between different levels of organization; what Gregory Bateson (a man whose work is often ignored in these sorts of debates but who should really be required reading for anyone in neuroscience, genetics, or cognitive science) would call logical levels (he clearly borrows this from Russell though really it is more a metaphorical use of the term as Russell used it). Clearly genes can and do operate in a relatively clean mathematical fashion at the gene level of organization, and there are feedback loops which cross every level of organization from the biochemical all the way up to the scale of individual organisms and, further, to the level of societies and the global ecosystem as a whole. However, the transition between even two "adjacent" levels of organization can present many surprises; if this were not the case, it would be possible to write a mathematical equation that could predict human behavior from first principles. I am reminded of an example I like to use, from a conference on computational neurobiology that I attended several years ago. One researcher had built a mathematical model of the nervous system of a very simple worm which has a C-bending reflex; essentially a reflex which causes the worm to bend away in a C shape when stimulated on its side. What is interesting is that he measured the connection strengths between the nerve cells and the muscles in a live worm and found many "non-intuitive" connections; for example, a sensory neuron on the right side would be expected to contract the muscles on the right side, and relax the muscles on the left; however, they found that in many cases, it was precisely the opposite. There were a mix of connections which, as a whole, created a smooth C-bending reflex movement; but taken in isolation, the connections were seemingly random. What's more interesting is that they created a mathematical model of the neurons and their connections and they used a statistical training algorithm to get the model to produce precisely the same C-bending reflex outputs that the biological network produced. When they went in to look at the trained connection strengths, they got the same pattern: sometimes the connection was what you would "intuitively" expect; sometimes the opposite. Now, I am certainly not claiming that Dawkins would find this result surprising; in fact, just the opposite, he also argued that altruistic genes could thrive even in a purely Darwinian context. However, my point is that once you pass even one level of complexity, the potential for massive computational complexity that can transpire in that level transition makes it very difficult to ascribe direct causal relationships between features found at one level (a neuron connection in this case) and another level (the overall bending reflex). Sometimes, clearly, one can do this, but it is just as likely that you have to consider extremely complex interactions between thousands of genes in order to predict their outcome. Once this becomes a possibility level-crossing associations become much more suspect. On the other hand, I would have to say that I agree with the general premise that we have, in some sense, no self; this is not to say that we do not appear to have a self, nor is it to say that we do not act as though we have a self. But I would argue that the "Buddhist" view that strictly speaking we have no self, is essentially correct. However, because of my general distrust of assertions which cross levels, this does not lead me to throw away all large-scale metaphor as meaningless. Precisely the opposite: notions of personal responsibility, individuality, and so forth, are not meaningless because these notions live not at the fundamental level of analysis in which it becomes possible to say we have no self, but rather they are abstract approximations which refer to phenomena at the same level of organization as large-scale fuzzy concepts like "self"; so to the extent that it is meaningful to use the word "self" to refer to anything at all, it is meaningful to use those terms as well. Metaphor is very important precisely because of the computational barrier which exists at every organizational level-crossing. In some important sense we cannot extend a reductionistic description arbitrarily to larger and larger scales, not because there is some magical "self" that "really exists" at the higher levels, but because the complexity introduced is far too great to allow such a facile overuse of an otherwise credible reductionist theory. This is in fact a matter of principle; one cannot even in principle make some computations, and thus one cannot have a perfect reductionist description which operates at all levels of description. At best one can hope for a perfect description at *one* level of description, with metaphor filling in approximately everywhere else. This is not to say reductionism cannot poke through the levels; of course it can in many isolated instances. But not everywhere, not in general, not completely. While I am certain Dawkins et al would agree with this, I think they have certainly far less appreciation of how fundamental and formidable a barrier computational complexity really is. Apologies for the length. I look forward to Andrew's return.
hoofprints d' (satyr) Tue 1 Jun 99 16:23
Applicable term: emergent properties.
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