Monday, April 09, 2007

Dawkins Can Run, But He Can't Hide

While "The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins has been racking up a cool million or so unit sales over the past 30 years (respectable, but not that huge), he has clearly caused more than a million souls to accept some or all of his basic premise: Genes might be the fundamental building blocks of life, and they use various life forms as vehicles to maximize their own future replication. Dawkins goes to great lengths to assure us that this is a mindless pursuit by the genes, but that the genes quite naturally always do that which will accomplish the end of helping them make more little copies of themselves.

In Dawkins' attempt to sell his theory he admitted to needing a very clever title to his book/idea. The selfish gene implies self-awareness and intent, but Dawkins wants us all to be clear that he intends no such implication. Rather the approach is used by him to help us all understand the process, then he wants us to forget the method of teaching, while accepting the ultimate theory or premise. This is all well and good, except for a couple of troubling problems.

#1. Since he uses the anthropomorphising of the gene as his teaching method, he clearly implies that the "vehicles (life forms, including humans)" act in the way that his genes only appear to act. In particular, there is no escaping the conclusion that the self-aware human species which can manifest intent would act in the ways he suggests. If not, then the metaphors would not work as teaching vehicles.

#2. Looking at things through the "eyes of the genes," as he puts it, creates a clear picture for how the vehicles (called "survival machines) they create must act in order to maximize the duplication of the organisms which therefore maximizes the duplication of the genes. That is, short term strategies that are selfish work best.

Dawkins tries very hard in the book to run away from these conclusions, especially since he makes it clear where his politics lie. As a progressive or liberal he has to be in favor of "getting along," or as he stresses "altruistic" behavior. However, he seems to never actually say any act is altruistic, but rather explains that those acts that appear to be so are generally due to ulterior motives. One example includes helping a close kin, so that the genes of the closely related individual can replicate.

In the years following publication, he has tried to stress that many people who read him are just confused by the implications of his work. My sense is that he is too close to it, and just doesn't get it. Whether seen through the eyes of the gene or the survival machines, the best strategy for maximizing lots of children and grandchildren is selfish behavior.

A year after "The Selfish Gene" was published Robert Ringer sold more copies in the first year of his instant hit "Looking Out For #1," than Dawkins has sold to date. Ringer was offering a Dawkins' approach to sales and life in general. Ringer's idea was that we are all self-interested, and we should be, but that commonly our self interest is best expressed by looking out for others.

Ringer was roundly criticized for his title, and very few "got" his message, just like Dawkins. The may both be about how humans act. The question is: what will this message combined with materialistic and naturalistic explanations for life leave us with. I suggest that it leaves not other plan of action than pure selfishness or altruism that is cynical and manipulative.

The final effort by Dawkins to run away from the logical extension of his premise is the use of the prisoner's dilemma. I did original research using this game in my undergraduate work in pscyh, so I'm very familiar with it benefits and shortcomings. This is not a proper forum for explaining the game, if you wish a short primer, go here.

Dawkins uses the game to try and prove mathematically that over many iterations, the biggest winners are those who consistently co-operate and are forgiving. It would take another massive post to show all the holes in this analysis regarding the application to Dawkin's premise, but just consider a few.

1. The prisoner's dilemma is a zero sum game. Life is not.
2. The P/D has only two players, both with intent. Life does not.
3. There is no chance occurrences in P/D. In life, there are many.

Most importantly, the prisoner's dilemma only pays off in money. Dawkins only pays off in replication. We can only hope that your and my neighbors have found more to life than those two issues.


Anonymous said...

"The question is: what will this message combined with materialistic and naturalistic explanations for life leave us with. I suggest that it leaves not other plan of action than pure selfishness or altruism that is cynical and manipulative."

Please explain how you came to this conclusion, because it's certainly not the same conclusion that I've come to.


Randy Kirk said...

If my entire being has been created by genes whose intent is to replicate themselves, and if the way to maximize that replication is to act selfishly, then what would be the source of any other type of action? Where would the interest in acting truly altruistic come from?
Dawkins suggests two possibilities that I can find. One, that altruistic behavior may actually end up being the best way to maximize replication in the very long term. Two, that the survival machine (man) has through his intelligence decided to act in defiance of his genes.

As to #1., it is way beyond comprehension that the genes or even the humans will think about consequences dozens or hundreds of iterations out. Most folks can't think more than three moves out in a chess game.

As t #2., where would the idea of acting altruistically in defiance of our nature come from? Why would it be sustained?

bernardo said...

1) If genetically-motivated altruism does help preserve the gene that generated it, then it will be selected for. It does not take "the very long term". Maybe as little as one generation. It does not require thinking: Just following a genetic impulse to be altruistic (without a clear idea of why; All it takes is "It just feels good") will improve your group's chance of survival, in many cases.

2) We act defiantly against our nature all the time. We have decided to THINK about how to get what we want (food, shelter, health, physical safety, and eventually things like justice) rather than to trust that our genetic impulses will get us there. This means we routinely go against our genetic impulses, since we know that there are better ways to get what we want. This is sustained when our thought-derived behaviors work better than our gene-derived behaviors.

Within about 5 blocks of my house there is a McDonald's, a Carl Junior's, a Jack In The Box, a Subway, and a Quizno's. Pizza Hut and Domino's are a quick phone call away. I defy my genetic nature every day (well, ok, almost every day) by eating a vegetarian sandwich for lunch and cereal for dinner, instead of something more caloric. This is sustained for obvious reasons.

So altruism is kinda like dieting: It might be the opposite of what our genes make us want to do, but we are intelligent enough to not follow every instinct. (This analogy just came to me. It probably has holes in it, but it sounds good so far).

We have the ability to predict consequences and to act in such a way that we get the consequences we prefer. In fact, I would argue that most "sin" (as you call it) is desire from genetic impulses, and it is only our intelligent/civilized/deliberate/mature mind that allows us to fight the temptation to behave "sinfully", since we know it's bad for us in the end, even though "sinful" behavior may have helped us survive in more ruthlessly competitive (less respectful, less just) environments.

Randy Kirk said...

Hard to argue with your last paragraph. This is more or less what I've been trying to say. Dawkins seems to feel that we are born to sin, but that we are doing what you propose in #1 and #2.

The problem with this is that time and time again we see folks acting much differently than we might hope after years of civilization. We don't have to merely look at the major criminals past and present, but even at our daily lives as we likely act far more selfishly than altruistically. (And eat the doughnut instead of the rice cake.)

bernardo said...

(A side note: I am not a vegetarian! Far from it. It's just that they have great vegetarian sandwiches where I work, so I tend to have those on most days. Other than milk and cheese, I just end up not really having almost any meat during the week. On weekends I make up for it, though, with seafood and Chinese orange chicken).

"Hard to argue with your last paragraph. This is more or less what I've been trying to say. Dawkins seems to feel that we are born to sin, but that we are doing what you propose in #1 and #2."

Wait, so do you agree with me and Dawkins or don't you? What I'm pretty much saying - and what I think Dawkins would agree with - is that we are born to be animals, but our brains (being helped along by parents and by observing society) show us that we are better off not sinning. However, there is SOME genetic component to altruism, it's not ALL meme-driven. I think we can all agree that some altruism comes from genetic impulses (since a selfless gene would be selected for in situations where it helps the family survive) and some altruism comes from deliberate intelligent thought (although, as Nietzsche loved to point out, this latter kind is often just selfishness in disguise, unless it is the following of a conscience rather than the execution of a Machiavellian plan).

Are you saying you want to debate whether altruism is primarily gene-driven or primarily meme-driven? That's a tricky question, I'd have to think about it. To be honest I'd rather ask a psychologist, or someone who knows a lot about the behavior of wild animals, before I ventured a guess. But we can all agree it's at least a little bit of each.

Randy Kirk said...

Well, not exactly. I would not agree we are born to be animals. Animals do not have self awareness, so they probably don't have any kind of built in conscience, nor will they ever know anything about right and wrong, evil and good.

The rest is pretty much ok with me, though not in the detail. Christians believe that the way to become truly altruistic is to have the Holy Spirit guiding your path. I believe that some seem to do so through an intellectual decision, but that this is very rare.

I do not think that a better survival rate for people who are altruistic results in genes for altruism. In fact, I suspect that if there is any genetic influence of this type, it would be quite the opposite. The general "success" of folks that are very selfish probably results in more children than the altruistic types.

Although, in America, one could make the argument (as I have elsewhere) that Christians are far outproducing secularists, and fundamentalists are outproducing liberal Christians. The memes that are then passed to the children should mean that the future in America belongs to the fundamentalists.

bernardo said...

" Animals do not have self awareness, so they probably don't have any kind of built in conscience... I do not think that a better survival rate for people who are altruistic results in genes for altruism."

I think you are wrong about that part.

One; Animals have brains, so while they are (probably) not quite self-aware, they are capable of some rudimentary thought, of having instincts beyond reflexes, and of learning. Two; Animals do show compassionate behavior. I know this is not as extensive or powerful as a person who develops a conscience, but it indicates that the sub-intellectual (or, if you insist, sub-spiritual) animal state is not quite absolutely selfish, and that genes and instincts for compassion do have an advantage. It may seem to you that being selfish always leads to better results, but you have to admit that, in the wild and in prehistoric times, a family or tribe that cooperates is more likely to survive than a family or tribe that competes internally.

So we are born with some compassion and altruism hard-wired into us. But not much. most of our instincts still make us want to be a little more selfish than modern society requires (the law), which is a lot more selfish than modern society encourages (being nice).

I think we can agree that it is the formation of the conscience that makes people go from mostly-selfish animals (which we are when we're really young) to justice-seeking civilized humans. I think the conscience is an almost-subconscious rule-of-thumb in our psychological model of the world, a rule of thumb that says "Causing or benefiting from injustice leads to suffering". You think the conscience is at least in part created by a supernatural spirit. But I think we agree on what its effects are.

So what, precisely, is the difference between animal altruism and the human conscience? I think animal altruism goes something like "There is a list of beings who, if I see them experiencing suffering, I will experience suffering too, so I will try to protect them and help them" (this not being a deliberate thought or decision, but the vague outline of the algorithm, i.e. I am doing the same thing that I do when I anthropomorphize any controls system). But human altruism is more abstract, it's something like "If I suspect that any conscious being is suffering unjustly, I should try and minimize the cause of that injustice". The key differences are caring about everyone, not just your family and some other animals, and wanting to minimize injustice, not just suffering. That last one is the key difference.

So some animals will sometimes want to minimize suffering in others, while most humans will most of the time want to minimize injustice in others (which is much harder to understand, detect, or deduce). This means animals are not entirely selfish, unless you keep in mind that the minimizing of others' suffering is done really to minimize the animal's own empathic suffering.

As for how selfish people are more successful... Yes, society is a system that depends on cooperation, that trusts people to cooperate. If you exploit that system by being more selfish than most other people, of course you will be more successful. Whether or not this makes you have more kids, I don't know. But the thing about human beings is that most of us realize that sacrificing for the rest of society is worthwhile from a justice point of view and from a utilitarian point of view.

And as for some memes causing their carriers to have more kids... Yes, that's basically right. It doesn't mean that those memes are accurate models of the world, it just means that those memes are good at preserving themselves. From your writings I am certain that you realize that catchy/popular ideas are not always the correct ones, and that harmful ideas can be as hard to contain as any epidemic.

Randy Kirk said...

Humans and animals will replicate behavior that works for them, even if the "works for them" is destructive. So, a person takes strong drink to numb the pain. It works, so they do it again, even in the face of knowing the potential or even actual negative consequences.

Similarly both tend to avoid behavior that includes some kind of pain or negative result, at least to the extent that there is no positive thing go on to offset the pain.

So, if a dog does a nice thing (which he has no idea is nice,) and gets rewarded by a doggy bisquit or a rub on the head, he is likely to look for opportunities to repeat the behavior. I have always believed (and actually did a science fair experiment on the subject) that there is some ability of the parent to hand this knowledge to the kids. And I will agree that there seems to be some innate sense of some of these things that isn't related to being taught by the parent. I don't think we know this, however, as the teaching could be pretty subtle.