Monday, January 09, 2006

The Problem with God: Interview with Richard Dawkins #4

The Problem with God: Interview with Richard Dawkins, Beliefnet, 15 December 2005 The renowned biologist talks about intelligent design, dishonest Christians, and why God is no better than an imaginary friend. Interview by Laura Sheahen. ...

Continued from part #3 with my comments bold and in square brackets and the interviewer's questions bold and in italics.

How would you respond to people who say the most interesting or worthwhile aspect of human beings is behavior that natural selection would not promote? I'm thinking of behavior like adopting children who aren't family members, voluntary celibacy, or people deciding to spend their whole life praying.

Adopting children that are not your own or a close relative's is an interesting question. Why do not just humans, but other species, do what on the face of it is the wrong thing to do from a selfish gene point of view? Cuckoos play upon this and actually engineer it so that other species raise [baby cuckoos]. This is a mistake on the part of the foster parents, which have been "forced" to adopt the cuckoos. [It sounds like this interviewer has done her homework (which means that Dawkins may not allow her another interview)! Dawkins is on record as saying that sociobiologists like him should not have to answer questions from "Lay critics" who "bring up some apparently maladaptive feature of modern human behaviour" like "adoption" because such questions "should never have been put":

"Lay critics frequently bring up some apparently maladaptive feature of modern human behaviour-adoption, say, or contraception-and fling down a challenge to `explain that if you can with your selfish genes'. Obviously, as Lewontin, Gould and others have rightly stressed, it would be possible, depending on one's ingenuity, to pull a `sociobiological' explanation out of a hat, a 'just-so story', but I agree with them and Cain that the answering of such challenges is a trivial exercise; indeed it is likely to be positively harmful. Adoption and contraception, like reading, mathematics, and stress-induced illness, are products of an animal that is living in an environment radically different from the one in which its genes were naturally selected. The question, about the adaptive significance of behaviour in an artificial world, should never have been put; and although a silly question may deserve a silly answer, it is wiser to give no answer at all and to explain why." (Dawkins R., "The Extended Phenotype: The Long Reach of the Gene," [1982], Oxford University Press: Oxford UK, 1983, p.36)
But adoption is a (if not the) major problem with Dawkins' "selfish gene" theory, and he can only get around it by claiming that natural selection is too weak to change it:
"Mistakes of this sort may, however, occasionally happen in nature. In species that live in herds or troops, an orphaned youngster may be adopted by a strange female, most probably one who has lost her own child. Monkeywatchers sometimes use the word `aunt' for an adopting female. In most cases there is no evidence that she really is an aunt, or indeed any kind of relative: if monkey-watchers were as gene-conscious as they might be, they would not use an important word like `aunt' so uncritically. In most cases we should probably regard adoption, however touching it may seem, as a misfiring of a built-in rule. This is because the generous female is doing her own genes no good by caring for the orphan. She is wasting time and energy which she could be investing in the lives of her own kin, particularly future children of her own. It is presumably a mistake that happens too seldom for natural selection to have `bothered' to change the rule by making the maternal instinct more selective." (Dawkins R., "The Selfish Gene," [1976], Oxford University Press: Oxford UK, 1989, New edition, p.100-101)
That is because according to that theory, adoption is "a double mistake" (or nature is right and Dawkins' theory is doubly mistaken!) in that "the adopter not only wastes her own time; she also releases a rival female from the burden of child-rearing, and frees her to have another child more quickly":
"There is one example of a mistake which is so extreme that you may prefer to regard it not as a mistake at all, but as evidence against the selfish gene theory. This is the case of bereaved monkey mothers who have been seen to steal a baby from another female, and look after it. I see this as a double mistake, since the adopter not only wastes her own time; she also releases a rival female from the burden of child-rearing, and frees her to have another child more quickly. It seems to me a critical example which deserves some thorough research. We need to know how often it happens; what the average relatedness between adopter and child is likely to be; and what the attitude of the real mother of the child is-it is, after all, to her advantage that her child should be adopted; do mothers deliberately try to deceive naive young females into adopting their children? (It has also been suggested that adopters and baby-snatchers might benefit by gaining valuable practice in the art of child-rearing.)" (Dawkins, "The Selfish Gene," p.101-102. Emphasis original)
Note by the way that according to Dawkins' bizarre gene-centred view of the world, "mothers ... deliberately try[ing] to deceive naive young females into adopting their children" (let alone "baby-snatchers") should be the norm! As the late Australian agnostic philosopher David Stove (who some regard as "The greatest philosopher of the twentieth century") noted, this "is a grotesque way of looking at human life ... But it is ... the Darwinian way":
"`is, after all, to [a mother's] advantage that her child should be adopted' by another woman.' This quotation is from Dawkins' The Selfish Gene, p. 110. Obviously false though this proposition is, from the point of view of Darwinism it is well-founded, for the reason which Dawkins gives on the same page: that another woman's adopting her baby `releases a rival female from the burden of child-rearing, and frees her to have another child more quickly.' This, you will say, is a grotesque way of looking at human life; and so, of course, it is. But it is impossible to deny that it is the Darwinian way." (Stove D.C., "So You Think You Are a Darwinian?," The Royal Institute of Philosophy, Philosophy 69, 1994, pp.267-277)
But the point is that if Dawkins' "selfish gene" theory was true, then the selfish genes of the "other species" that "adopt the cuckoos" would "force" them not to "adopt the cuckoos"! As David Stove pointed out, according to Darwin (and Darwinian logic) "adoption" is one of those things that, if Darwinism was true, should be "rigidly destroyed by natural selection":
"10. If variations which are useful to their possessors in the struggle for life `do occur, can we doubt (remembering that many more individuals are born than can possibly survive), that individuals having any advantage, however slight, over others, would have the best chance of surviving and of procreating their kind? On the other hand, we may feel sure that any variation in the least degree injurious would be rigidly destroyed.' This is from The Origin of Species, pp. 80-81. Exactly the same words occur in all the editions. Since this passage expresses the essential idea of natural selection, no further evidence is needed to show that proposition 10 is a Darwinian one. But is it true? In particular, may we really feel sure that every attribute in the least degree injurious to its possessors would be rigidly destroyed by natural selection? On the contrary, the proposition is (saving Darwin's reverence) ridiculous. Any educated person can easily think of a hundred characteristics, commonly occurring in our species, which are not only `in the least degree' injurious to their possessors, but seriously or even extremely injurious to them, which have not been `rigidly destroyed', and concerning which there is not the smallest evidence that they are in the process of being destroyed. Here are ten such characteristics, without even going past the first letter of the alphabet. Abortion; adoption; fondness for alcohol; altruism; anal intercourse; respect for ancestors; susceptibility to aneurism; the love of animals; the importance attached to art; asceticism, whether sexual, dietary, or whatever. Each of these characteristics tends, more or less strongly, to shorten our lives, or to lessen the number of children we have, or both. All of them are of extreme antiquity. Some of them are probably older than our species itself. Adoption, for example is practised by some species of chimpanzees: another adult female taking over the care of a baby whose mother has died. Why has not this ancient and gross `biological error' been rigidly destroyed? `There has not been enough time', replies the Darwinian. Well, that could be so: perhaps there has not been enough time. And then again, perhaps there has been enough time: perhaps even twenty times over. How long does it take for natural selection to destroy an injurious attribute, such as adoption or fondness for alcohol? ... So how come the Darwinian is so confident that there has not been enough time? What evidence can he point to, for thinking that there has not? Why, nothing but this, that adoption has not been destroyed, despite its being an injurious attribute! But this is palpably arguing in a circle, and taking for granted the very point which is in dispute. The Darwinian has no positive evidence whatever, that there has not been enough time. ... The cream of the jest, concerning proposition 10, is that Darwinians themselves do not really believe it. Ask a Darwinian whether he actually believes that the fondness for alcoholic drinks is being destroyed now, or that abortion is, or adoption - and watch his face. Well, of course he does not believe it! Why would he? There is not a particle of evidence in its favour, and there is a great mountain of evidence against it. Absolutely the only thing it has in its favour is that Darwinism says it must be so. But (as Descartes said in another connection) `this reasoning cannot be presented to infidels, who might consider that it proceeded in a circle'" (Stove D.C., "So You Think You Are a Darwinian?," The Royal Institute of Philosophy, Philosophy 69, 1994, pp.267-277. Emphasis original)
But in fact, not only in has adoption been common in many (if not most) human cultures, but "the animal kingdom finds adoption, or something like it, practiced by an astonishing array of creatures":
"From a Darwinian standpoint, going childless by choice is hard enough to explain, but adoption, as the arch-Darwinist Richard Dawkins notes, is a double whammy. Not only do you reduce, or at least fail to increase, your own reproductive success, but you improve someone else's. Since the birth parent is your rival in the great genetic steeplechase, a gene that encourages adoption should be knocked out of the running in fairly short order. It hasn't been ... Of course, Americans at the turn of the millennium do all sorts of strange things. We have strayed so far from the `ancestral environment,' as the evolutionary psychologists say, that one has to poke through layers of cultural and technological debris to find the logic of the genes. But a survey of human time and space finds many other cultures in which adoption has been common. In some of them, it has been far more common than it is with us. And extending the survey to the rest of the animal kingdom finds adoption, or something like it, practiced by an astonishing array of creatures, from orangutans to hermaphroditic worms." (Eisenberg E., "The Adoption Paradox," Discover, Vol. 22 No. 1, January 2001).

See other quotes in a section of my "Problems of Evolution" book outline, PE 15. 2.3 "Sociobiology ... Adoption" ]

So that's sort of a wild analogy to adopting children, in this case ones who are not your own species. By the way, I would hate this to be taken as any sort of suggestion that adoptive parents don't love their adopted children; of course they do. But you could think of it as a kind of genetic mistake, in that human adults have strong parental instincts which make them long for a child. If they can't have a child of their own, they can then satisfy those parental instincts by adopting a child. [The simple refutation of this `explanation' is that "human [and animal] adults" who can (and do) have a child of their own" also "adopt... a child", at some expense to their own offspring and to the benefit of a potential competitor's offspring:

"Motives for adopting may be as various as the people and animals that adopt. Among mammals, adoption has been reported in mice and rats, otters and skunks, llamas, deer and caribou, kangaroos and wallabies, seals and sea lions, as well as domestic animals such as dogs, pigs, goats, and sheep. Primates seem especially prone to adopt, as do carnivores of all sorts. ... The habit can be expensive. If the adoptee is added to an existing litter, the adopter's own offspring may get less to eat. If adopting delays the next brood, the adopter's lifetime reproductive success may be reduced. Even for the infertile, adoption seems maladaptive: It siphons off resources that might otherwise be shared with close relatives who share some fraction of their genes, thus reducing their `inclusive fitness.' ... In some species, mothers with one infant will take in another, despite the considerable strain involved in feeding, carrying, and protecting both. ... In any case, adoption among primates can't be chalked up to `reproductive error'- not in any literal sense. Like human adopters, these apes and monkeys seem to know what they are doing." (Eisenberg, ibid.)]
In the same way, we have sexual instincts; we long for sex and it doesn't matter that we use contraception. That's, as it were, separating the natural function of sex, which is reproduction. But we still enjoy sex in the same way that we enjoy being a parent even if it is not our own child that we're looking after. [In fact "contraception" is another one of those things that Stove notes above that should have been "rigidly destroyed by natural selection", as Dawkins himself admits in a quote above where he calls "contraception" (along with "adoption") as "apparently maladaptive feature of modern human behaviour." So Dawkins is `explaining' away one problem for his "selfish gene" theory by citing another problem for it!]

[Continued in part #5]

Stephen E. Jones, BSc (Biol).
"Problems of Evolution"

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