Sunday, April 08, 2007

Dawkins - Gene as Demigod

I have received much criticism from forum debaters and blog commenters when arguing science that, "I am out of my league." The idea seems to be that their vastly superior scholarship in the sciences, particularly biology, rend my arguments sophomoric at least. Therefore, I was most pleased to receive a birthday gift from an unexpected source a few weeks ago. Bernardo sent me a copy of Dawkin's, "The Selfish Gene."

The book has been praised by many for being lively and compelling. I am a voracious reader, and my wife will tell you that I almost never fail to complete a book, even if I'm not very impressed. With "Gene" I was pretty excited for about 4 chapters, but had to force myself to continue on, commonly falling asleep mid-sentence.

As I read and reread certain sections, I kept trying to fully form the impression that I was taking out of this work. After completing the book, I Googled reviews and criticisms to see if I could get my arms around my sense of the book. To my surprise I found that my feelings were shared by none other than Stephen Jay Gould. In this essay, John Alcock put it nicely:

Rejecting the usefulness or even coherency of the selfish gene concept, Gould and Lewontin have proposed that the adaptationist programme and sociobiology generates little more than untestable and unfalsifiable speculations about the origins of organismal adaptations, which after Rudyard Kipling’s tale of how the elephant got its trunk they have labelled Just So stories. If this charge where true, then sociobiology would indeed be the pseudo-scientific discipline its critics claim it is.


It seemed to me that Dawkins, having rejected the Biblical God, needed to find some way to explain the complexity and apparent design all around us, in particular within living creatures. He decided the the gene was the creator of complexity by virtue of its desire to self-replicate, and because from time-to-time the self-replication mechanism creates bad copies. The bad copies, under this theory, sometimes were more successful than their producers, thus they became the more dominant replicators, sometimes causing the extinction of the parent gene.

Some scientists believe that the Dawkins approach is simpler than Goddidit. The constant bouncing by Dawkins from examples in nature to "it could have happened this way," to analogies requiring genes to have self awareness and intent, made it absolutely impossible to be believed. I can understand how some, like Dawkins, who are predisposed to naturalism would find this idea compelling. I am not surprised that some, like Gould, have found this approach to be "just so stories."

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

"It seemed to me that Dawkins, having rejected the Biblical God, needed to find some way to explain the complexity and apparent design all around us, in particular within living creatures."

That is NOT at all the way we would phrase it.

We do not "reject" the biblical god... we simply don't find any reason to believe in it, much like you don't believe in any of the other thousands of gods which are worshipped around the world.

When it comes to life, we not only are looking to explain the complexity, but also the lack of complexity in some animals.

Also, we tend to not really see design because, if we did, we would view it as very bad design (such as the infamous human eyeball).

"Some scientists believe that the Dawkins approach is simpler than Goddidit."

It's not that his approach is simpler, but that his approach is better than goddidit, because "goddidit" tells us nothing about how it actually happened, unless you know something that we don't.

Kit

Randy Kirk said...

You don't reject the Biblical God. Most serious atheists that I have spoken with were Christian's once-upon-a-time, and describe their current belief system exactly as having rejected what they had once believed. For those who have never been Christian or Jewish, etc., or believed even for a day that the God of the Bible exists, then I suppose there is a chance that you would describe them as not having enough reason to believe.

Dawkins goes out of his way to say in this book and elsewhere that he reject the Biblical idea of God, and now even asserts that those who follow Him are potentially dangerous.

I can't imagine that any follower of Dawkins, Gould, or Darwin would find existing design to be "bad." They might sugget that improvements could be made, as with all things. But to offer up that millions of years of directed selection has produced only or substantially only poor design??

Goddidit tells us exactly the same things that Dawkins says about Genes. The Genes created survival machines to provide a method for self-replication. God created organisms for the various purposes that He states. Included in those purposes would be reproduction.

Anonymous said...

Kit,
About all the different gods you accept. Which god do you find most interesting?
In regard to the god of the Bible Do you accept that Jesus was a real person on earth according to
other histoorical records other than the Bible?

Kathy

Anonymous said...

"You don't reject the Biblical God. Most serious atheists that I have spoken with were Christian's once-upon-a-time, and describe their current belief system exactly as having rejected what they had once believed. For those who have never been Christian or Jewish, etc., or believed even for a day that the God of the Bible exists, then I suppose there is a chance that you would describe them as not having enough reason to believe."

That doesn't really match up with my experiences.

I was once a christian, and now I'm not. I didn't become a "former christian" by "rejecting" god, because you can only "reject" things that you believe exist, which was the point I was trying to make. That's why it sounds so strange to me when theists say that atheists have "rejected" their god.

I think the problem is, even though I described it to you, that you still don't understand how and why people lose theism. It's not something done actively, but instead passively; just like how you eventually lose your love for an ex-girlfriend.

"Dawkins goes out of his way to say in this book and elsewhere that he reject the Biblical idea of God, and now even asserts that those who follow Him are potentially dangerous."

First of all, I do agree with Dawkins that those who "follow Him" (although I sincerely doubt that he phrased it that way) are potentially dangerous.

Having said that, do you see the significant difference between the following two statements?

1. "Dawkins rejects the biblical God."

2. "Dawkins rejects the biblical idea of God."

(One is the rejection of a god, while the other is the rejection of the idea of a god.)

"I can't imagine that any follower of Dawkins, Gould, or Darwin [...]"

These people don't really have "followers" in the same way Muhammed or Jesus do, I hope you know. It's also very important to understand that Darwin died well over a century ago, and we've learned a whole lot that he didn't know about evolutionary biology. He's regarded like the inventors of the microprocessor: important for helping start a science, but his knowledge was far behind where we are now.

"But to offer up that millions of years of directed selection has produced only or substantially only poor design??"

Yes. I don't see what the problem with this is. I think it comes from a misunderstanding of the concepts of "directed selection" and "design" in this context. Also, it's really only considered "poor" in comparison to the creationist concept of a "perfect designer". Outside of that discussion, the concept of "poor design" isn't really talked about much.

"Goddidit tells us exactly the same things that Dawkins says about Genes. The Genes created survival machines to provide a method for self-replication."

The difference is in your sentence. Genes provide a method, while "Goddidit" does not (again, unless you know something that I don't).

When "Goddidit" can explain the "how", then we can examine it, although it does create an incredibly large new question of its own.

"God created organisms for the various purposes that He states. Included in those purposes would be reproduction."

When someone can give the method of how God did this, then we can talk about it... until then, it ain't science and, therefore, not useful.

Kit

Anonymous said...

Kathy asked:

"About all the different gods you accept. Which god do you find most interesting?"

Kathy, I'm a nontheist... I don't believe in or accept any gods at the current moment.

As for which god I find the most interesting... hmmm... I tend to find muslims as the most fascinating believers that I talk to, but I think the god that I find most interesting is probably Isis.

"In regard to the god of the Bible Do you accept that Jesus was a real person on earth according to
other histoorical records other than the Bible?"


Having studied these "historical records", I have great doubts that Jesus was a real person. I think that there was possibly a real person that these stories were based on, but the stories are so similar to other ancient myths that it's completely possible that the whole story of Jesus was made up. I'm definitely not convinced of his existence based on the historical references, and I encourage everyone to read them to make their own decision.

But, to be honest, it doesn't really matter to me if a Jesus existed or not, because I certainly do not believe in the superpowered Jesus as described in the bible. Whether he was based on a real person or not, I don't particularly care.

Kit

Randy Kirk said...

Kit,

What in the world is the difference between rejecting something all at once or a little at a time. I reject the Selfish Gene theory. But the whole time I was reading it, I was looking for a compelling reason to believe it. Why? Because a lot of smart people I trust, Bernardo, Shermer, and others believe it. So, while I didn't believe it when I started, I went seeking after new revelation. When I didn't find it, I rejected the theory once again due to insufficient evidence (for me.)

I totally disagree with you regarding followers. Many are more devoted and more worshipful of Darwin than almost anyone I know is of Jesus. The difference may be, as I stated a few weeks ago, I don't know if anyone would die for their belief in Darwin (and thus lose the opportunity to make more survival machines.)

God created = Gene's created
God's method of replication - various sexual and asexual systems within organisms = Gene's method - various sexual and asexual systems within organisms

Who can explain how Genes do it. We take Dawkins word for it. As Gould says, not falsifiable and just so.

Anonymous said...

"Many are more devoted and more worshipful of Darwin than almost anyone I know is of Jesus."

Please give some examples, because I don't believe this statement. On the other hand, if you're correct, that says something drastically negative about the followers of Jesus.

I would certainly prefer a quote along the lines of "I worship Charles Darwin".

Kit

Anonymous said...

"What in the world is the difference between rejecting something all at once or a little at a time."

I don't know what the above is related to. Would you please explain?

Just reading it, I can certainly see the difference between "rejecting" something all at once or a little at a time, for the basic reason that the experiences and effects are vastly different.

Kit

bernardo said...

Randy,

I'm probably going to need to re-read The Selfish Gene before I can have a meaningful discussion about the details in it. I was kinda hoping I could finish this other book first, though, which is taking me a while since, while I read it, I take notes about points I disagree with...

Anyways, I think you're forgetting that all that Darwin gives us is a model for how things (originally just biological structures, but other things too) have gotten this way (complex but effective) without deliberate design. It is a model with great explanatory power. Memes, and the "survival machine" idea, also have great explanatory power. I don't "worship" these ideas, but I like the fact that they can explain so much so elegantly. Like all models, they are not perfect or absolutely precise, but they are useful. It's not a matter of "believing" in it or not. It's a matter of how wrong you think it is. I think it's only a little wrong, while you think that the factors it leaves out are enough to overwhelm any analysis or prediction it makes, which is a reasonable opinion. (This parallels our opinions of Al Gore's movie, interestingly). You don't need to "believe" it.

If someone says that gravity cannot possibly be explained by a simple, mostly deterministic, physical/mechanical process, that God must actively be guiding it... and if I disagree with that, am I "worshiping" Newton? No. And no, I would not die for Newton or for gravity, because they just describe how the world works. I would not die for a model. I would die for a cause (I suppose, possibly). But remember that, when you die for a cause, you die because your models of how the world works tell you that your death will help further your cause.

We do not have to take anyone's word for the "stories" of how things evolved. Those stories are just presented as possibilities that make sense; They go right out the window if contradicted by fossil evidence or genetic evidence. At least they're more explanatory than "God did it", which is why I like them: They show that it is possible for things to have become as they are without divine intervention, and that makes them powerful and compelling, even if they are wrong.

As for the theory being non-falsifiable... I don't think that's so much of a problem. It's possible to falsify biological evolution, by discovering a species that is not "related" to anything else and that is too big (or noticeable for some other attribute) to have existed for very long unnoticed. But no, it's not possible to falsify the general idea of random-mutation-and-natural-selection (a.k.a. "survival of the fittest") since this can be observed every day in the marketplace, in politics, in society, in farms, and in wild ecosystems. So while that general mechanism cannot be "false" (since it exists at least in some form), it could be discovered that things other than that mechanism are necessary for the development of complex biological structures and new species.

Randy Kirk said...

Kit,

Maybe you could be a tad less literal with regard to the worship concept. It is similar to faith as you discribed it. Blind devotion. Willingness to follow with little real knowledge of the facts, and a great reluctance to even evaluate alternative ideas, much less give them a fair hearing. Revering the name and image by making it an icon.
rad

Randy Kirk said...

Kit,

You wanted to avoid saying that you had rejected God, even though at one point in your life you had believed He existed. You compared it to a girlfriend you had stopped loving over time. You still rejected her. If you don't think so, and she still had feelings for you, ask her if she thinks she was rejected by you. It doesn't matter whether it took you five minutes to decide or 5 years, you rejected her for someone else or no one else.

Randy Kirk said...

Bernardo,

I need to think about the non-falsifiable stuff for a while. However, Dawkins fills this book with made up, just so models that he thinks have value in showing how things work. However, even a small amount of evaluation of his depictions with regard to human activity show major evidence of bias and inadequate understanding of how humans relate.

I'll discuss this more in other more specifically related comments.

I also think the Al Gore movie is worse than the selfish gene in that Gore has a real agenda, chooses to slant the evidence to his POV without offering alternative opinions, and clearly desires to scare people into action. This is the worst possible way to use science. It detracts horribly from the trust one would like to place in its conclusions.

Anonymous said...

"Maybe you could be a tad less literal with regard to the worship concept. It is similar to faith as you discribed it. Blind devotion. Willingness to follow with little real knowledge of the facts, and a great reluctance to even evaluate alternative ideas, much less give them a fair hearing. Revering the name and image by making it an icon."

It's still my experience that even this is practiced by few, if any, people, and I would like to see examples, along with evidence of things they've said or done that support your claim.

The few that I can think of are half-literate kids on anti-religious messageboards.

I would like to see someone of some kind of note that matches your claim.

Kit

Anonymous said...

"You wanted to avoid saying that you had rejected God, even though at one point in your life you had believed He existed. You compared it to a girlfriend you had stopped loving over time. You still rejected her."

The difference is that I've always believed that she exists. When I "rejected" her, I still believed that she existed. Since I simply lost, over time, the belief that a god existed, "rejecting" that god was a moot point by the time I became a nontheist.

That's why I say that "I reject this idea/concept" is different from "I reject this *thing that exists*" (god, in this case).

Also, I should have clarified my analogy by saying: it's like losing the love for an ex-girlfriend who broke up with you. In other words, you were the dumpee.

It still doesn't completely work, because in both ex-girlfriend situations there's no question that she exists. My analogy breaks because I went from one point of believing that a god existed to slowly going to a point of not believing that a god existed.

If you want to call that "rejection", go for it; I just don't like it because often it's implied that I was somehow upset with God, which wasn't the case.

Kit

Randy Kirk said...

I understand this last quite well. I do know those who are very upset with God, (and you even say you would be if he existed.) But rejection of the idea of God is a fine variation.

I think we have one are of understanding.

Randy Kirk said...

Yikes, that would be areA of understanding.

Anonymous said...

"I do know those who are very upset with God, (and you even say you would be if he existed.)"

Well, that depends on the definition of the particular god. There are certainly definitions of "god" that I wouldn't be upset with in the least. It really depends on the stories of what any particular god did. If I feel that the god did things that I consider to be good, I wouldn't be upset with him. If I feel that the god did things that I consider to be bad, I would be upset with him.

I'm curious... who do you know that 1. believes in a god and 2. is upset with this god?

Regarding rejection, I view it similar to "rejecting the idea of pink unicorns living on the moon" versus "rejecting the pink unicorns that live on the moon".

I hope that clarifies my viewpoint.

Kit

Anonymous said...

Also, I would still like to see evidence of these people that "worship Darwin" (however you choose to define that).

Kit

Anonymous said...

Heh, lastly, to clarify another issue:

There never was a time (that I can remember) during my christianity period where I was ever upset with God, and that's certainly not one of the reasons why I lost my faith.

Kit

Randy Kirk said...

Regarding the worship of Darwin, I will admit to some overstatement. It does come from my visits to Darwin type blogs and forums. (fora? forum?)

Anonymous said...

"Regarding the worship of Darwin, I will admit to some overstatement."

I have a very low opinion of hyperbole, especially when used in a debate.

I would say that it's far more likely that you misunderstood what you read at the "Darwin type blogs", because that's what I saw when you visited the Panda's Thumb a couple of months ago.

But to say that people worship Charles Darwin more than Jesus?? You don't think that was a bit out there? Most people don't care about Darwin, myself included, because his science was 150 years ago. His name might be closely related to biology, but his work really isn't all that relevant anymore, since it was 150 years ago.

Regardless, my interest has never been in supporting the theory of evolution; I am not a biologist. My interest is in busting liars and scammers; in other words, the IDers and other anti-evolutionists.

I tend to like this quote: "if I thought that the theory of evolution was what you think it is, I would also think that it's garbage."

Kit

Randy Kirk said...

Funny quote. If it is what Dawkins thinks it is, it is garbage. : )

By the way, I accept about 80% of evolutionary theory.