Darwin (or Dawkins) @ the LSE

The proceedings of the Darwin Day Talks “The Selfish Gene 30 Years on.” at LSE last week 16th March are now on-line on The Edge web-site. (I was in the air over China at the moment the tickets went on release, and by the time I landed they were all gone, though by the sound of the press reports, they were very hard to come by anyway.)

The day was chaired by Melvin Bragg, and included Dan Dennett, John Krebs, Matt Ridley, Ian McEwan and Richard Dawkins himself.

The Edge site includes Brockman’s own intro, full transcripts, audio streaming and mp3 downloads, and selected press reports. The Edge is a “professional” operation. Ironically, Brockman chose to use Krebs’ quote of Dawkins’ “Plane load of cultural relativists at 30,000 feet” story to introduce the piece. One of the very quotes I singled out for criticism in my review of Dawkins’ “A Devil’s Chaplain“.

This will be an interesting read, we already know Dawkins doesn’t “get it”, but I happen to believe Dennett does. Back soon.

32 thoughts on “Darwin (or Dawkins) @ the LSE”

  1. OK, so you think Dennett ‘gets it’. Haven’t completely read all the transcripts yet, but Dennett emphasises (with approval) Dawkins’ statement: “We are survival machines, robot machines, blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.”

    Dawkins himself – elsewhere – points out that this isn’t true, when he talks about contraception. Given that contraception – by definition – isn’t in the interest of the gene, there has to be room for (at least) emergent properties, and therefore the higher levels of the MoQ (for example). All of which is familiar to you. So why do you think Dennett ‘gets it’?

  2. Yes, that’s Dennett picking up on the key message from the 1976 book. The reversal of causal roles between gene and phenotype individual. Still absolutely true (in so far as one 16 word sentence can be).

    Ie it’s true about the relations between genes and phenotypes, but that isn’t the whole truth is it. Biologically we are “blindly” programmed by our genes. Fortunately we are more than biology, more than phenotypes.

    And of course the later comments are about picking up on memes – contraception is not genetic it’s memetic (cultural) – and there are even more refinements obout co-genetic evolution too, and plenty of totally genetic game-theory tricks. All of which both Dennett and Dawkins get OK.

    When I’m talking about “getting it”, I’m beyond both genetics and memetics – where Dawkins runs out of resources – Consciousness in human endeavour – like getting an aeroplane flying in the example.

    I have read the whole lot. Only McEwan (I think) says anything I’d disagree with. Dawkins is 100% OK, but he stays on pretty safe ground on this occasion.

  3. Let me put it another way.

    Dennett is a philosopher. Dawkins isn’t. Dawkins is trapped by the “scientific” meme, it’s his fundamentalist religion.

    Which is fine when he sticks to the science (of genetics and memetics), but woefully inadequate elsewhere.

  4. I may be projecting a little here – always a hazard – but there seems to be a whiff of reductionism still.

    dawkins argues for a clockwork mechanism – hence the language of ‘blindly programmed’, ie determinism. is it your perspective that if you add the physics to the genetics and the memetics then that is a full explanation? (‘the whole truth’??)

    my real problem with dawkins is precisely this seventeenth century metaphysic – i just don’t find it very interesting any more. which is why it is disappointing that dennett singles out that particular passage for praise.

    i still think that it is the question of causation and teleology that most needs to be unbundled, which pirsig has started to do, but which – so it seems to me – someone like dawkins is protesting violently against.

    btw when you say ‘meme’ I think ‘level 3 pattern of value’. seems to work so far.

  5. I think you’re right – Dawkins certainly sees a fairly linear causal path from the components to the big picture – ie genes “cause” biological behaviour, memes “cause” cultural / intellectual behaviour – all very deterministic. This is where I say he doesn’t get it.

    You must have heard me say causation is THE problem in our metaphysical analysis – it is only ever a metaphor – Paul’s Buddhist reading is the best I’ve seen, after Hofstadter that is – recognising strange loops – the emergent recursively affecting the causes – McGrath’s River in his recent piece. (It was Rayner’s River.)

    Dawkins is one of those who see the dilution of rigid reductionist causality, and complex recursive arguments, as the wimps (mystical) way out – not surprising he doesn’t understand religion 🙂

  6. ian mcewan, now there’s a name I recognize, along with dawkins and darwin. i didn’t know he did much besides write excellent novels. Go figure!
    Any way, I’m back and searching your posts for something I can comment on.
    BTW, I just read a mind blower of a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro called the unconsoled.

  7. ok, i just read a couple of the offerings on the transcript of the conference/celebration, namely dennet’s and mcewans. I’m not sure (as usual) exactly what you are agreeing with and what you disagree with. It seems that mcewan is subscribing to what the “friends of wisdom” are lauding…an acknowledgement of all that has gone before as the making up of what is…right or wrong…let’s let it all stand on it’s merits and take from it what we can. this is not to say that everything has the same value or quality, but the quality will be seen and understood as time goes on.
    it also seems that dennet and mcewan agree that literary prowess is essential in transmitting great ideas because without it they go unheard and un-understood.

  8. “Well I think one respect in which I am philosophical is this: although I’m very interested in the way life is, I’m also fascinated by the question “Are there aspects of life that just had to be so?”

    This is from Dawkins himself and as you say I think this reflects his scientific meme that you say he is trapped by, but isn’t this also one of the central questions of philosophy?
    we are always growing and experiencing new things and looking at things in new ways, but i find it rather reassuring to think that there is a closed system…that some things are true and others are not, no matter how much we would like to think they are and no matter that we may never actually know what the truth is.

  9. Hi Alice. So many points …

    I didn’t say I disagreed with McEwan. I said he was the only person I could recall saying “anything” I disagreed with. (That binary argument meme again – you assuming therefore that I was saying he was wrong.)

    None of the pieces is contentious or novel. So I moved on fairly quickly, I’d have to re-read to find exactly which piece of McEwan left me with that impression.

    He’s a good writer – I’m reading “Enduring Love” at the moment, coincidentally.

    Dawkins I similarly like 95% / 99%. His problem is he dismisses anything remotely mystical or illogical (to his meme set), yet still feels qualified to pronounce on the evils of religion. (and I’m an athesist remember.)

    Also – Literary truth is far superior to scientific truth – is a recurring theme. The Dupuy quote is the one I often use. No argument, and remember, I’m not only an atheist I’m an engineer too.

    Wisdom by the way, is not about the antiquity of knowledge – old being important to the new. It’s about broad truth – romantic as well as scientific – even apparently literary, recursive illogical truths. Logic is seductive and dangerous in the wrong place.

    Did I mention – great to have you back.

  10. Alice, you asked, does adding memetics to physics and genetics make “the whole truth” ?

    I might dare say “yes. But that’s with a broad working use of memetics. Memes work on memes, genes and physics, through their “living, conscious” agents. That recursion is good – memes on memes – it means consciousness can evolve (already has).

    People like Sam, and Mary Midgley have trouble with this, because it sounds facile to “reduce” the whole of human nature to memes, and indeed I’d agree it overloads the word somewhat. But memes have many layers of complexity, that can be considered to be all facets of human psyche and behaviour – mystical as well as logical – just not in any simple deterministic, reductionist, causal way obviously.

    (Remember genes are just a special case of memes too. Information is the key component.)

    This BTW is pure Pirsig.

    Bio / Life evolved over Physical.
    Culture / Intellect evolved over Life.

    (The debate has always been about the evolution of ideas in what I would call the memetic level – culture and intellect. Trouble is intellectuals like Dawkins forget intellect is just memes too.)

  11. just as the gene has a large variety of ‘expression’ in the biological realm (from amoeba to monkey via the snail) so too can the ‘meme’ (3rd level pov) have a large variety of expression in human culture. no problem with that (although I still have qualms about whether ‘meme’ adds anything – i suspect that if it is delineated clearly (and integrated with the Moq) then it could). what i do take issue with is the dawkins-style mechanistic reductionism – but so do you, which is cool.

    btw you didn’t respond to my e-mail about ‘asophic’/’apathistic’. i think that’s what you’re getting at with using ‘autistic’, isn’t it?

  12. Ah yes Sam, that “asophic / apathistic” mail – was in the middle of a “did you see this” thread if I recall – it had passed me by – I’ll go back and take a look.

    Thanks for the pointer to Matt’s post too.

  13. I will have to reread and digest and probably make more comments about what you wrote, but i have this to say…
    enduring love has the most compelling first chapter of any novel I have ever read. perhaps it it because of this that i was a bit disappointed by the rest of the book. I just think he was unable to maintain the intensity and mystery, although it was still a great read. BTW, they made a movie of it which i have not seen. I have “atonement” by mcewan on my bookshelf at the moment and now that I have completed two ishiguro novels (really good stuff dealing with memory and responsibility) I will be reading that next.

  14. Hi Alice, I made a mental note of Ishiguro’s works, so I’ll look out for those.

    In Enduring Love, I’m only 3 chapters in and I can see the very unsubtle / explicit philosophical / human-evolutionary-moral set-up, so I can see why it might be downhill from here. Hard to describe without spoiling the plot … but here goes …

    The people all hanging onto the ropes, knowing that, anyone of them who gives up might save himself at the expense of the others, whilst hanging on should save them all – is a classic prisoners’ dilemma / game-theory plot about maximising value. (Same as the runaway railway-train / track-switching dilemma). The religious / theistic character I’ve not worked out the significance of yet – I’m guessing some kind of emotional blackmail – but it reminds me why I found some disagreement with McEwan at the Dawkins presentations. (Clever, but too obvious and “conventional” for me so far.)

  15. here we go again. I say compelling, you say unsubtle. Is this the binary arguement meme again? Is something that is compelling capable of being subtle or are they mutually exclusive?
    For me the points you brought up concerning the prisoners’ dilemma were indeed subtle (if intended by mcewan ) because I certainly never saw them. Instead I was totally submerged in the “feeling” of the dilemma. I did not feel manipulated. I felt drawn in, captivated.

    I have friends who love and revere oprah winfrey. (yes i admit this) I always find myself, when they talk about her as such an amazing, insightful personage, with a frozen smile on my face thinking, “that woman just knows how to make a lot of money”. so of course i would say that oprah is unsubtle and quite manipulative.

    but it makes me want to reread “enduring love” to see if he was actually just taking me on an emotional ride. In fact the novel might improve with that in mind.

    I still want to read the new stuff you have written and respond to what you wrote to me before.

    I hope you welcome and value the feedback.

  16. and another question occurs to me. Is there something inately “better” about being subtle as opposed to unsubtle? (subtle sounds so much nicer than its opposite) as a rather straightforward person this point plagues me.

    PS. I did not know you are an atheist, yet i did know you are an engineer. have i told you my husband is also??(old joke, not funny)i thought you were still open to the possibilities. which would, perhaps, make you an agnostic.

  17. Nothing wrong with being direct, subtle isn’t necessarily better.

    I’d agree the “drama” is gripping, compelling for a chapter or two. But if you approached it as I did, expecting it to have some moral philosophical, evolutionary truth, message that needed digging out, then (so far) it doesn’t need much digging.

    In chapter 4, a total of what, 6 or 7 pages it includes all these phrases …

    romantic poetry, wonder of hubble telescope and the history of the universe, human error in technological context, the world marvelled for a day and then went about it’s business, wagnerian orchestra of human and computer power, feeling with and without experience, thought with and without language, unnamed sensation, unreliable urge to crap, freshly mutated virus of ill-fortune, Darwin’s more obscure contemporaries, anecdote, story-telling and narrative of science, conscious planning and memory supported intentionality in a non-primate-mammal, scientific illiterates who understand the word through fictions, histories and biographies, literature the greatest intellectual achievement of our civilisation, neural activity in the amygdala in our inherited pre-mammalian brain, etc, etc … Einstein and Dirac barely two pages later, twentieth century scientific or pseudo-scientific minds, anthopomorhism, anthropology, psychoanalysis, fabulation run wild, evolution culling us into the efficiency of the adrenalin rush.

    Knee-deep in clues that this is a treatise on evolution of moral knowledge, with the ballooning accident and clarissa’s love as vehicles (so far, I emphasise).

    I’m not knocking it – it’s what I was looking for – i was just disappointed it was not playing “hard to get”. This is not just aesthetics, this is explicit content, not slipped in under the cover of a plot; the style and phrasing is entertaining enough, but of course the undercurrent is “soft” values.

  18. Anyway – it’s a real page turner … and the clues are already plain in the cover blurb, vis ….

    “something that will test to the limits [the narrator’s] beloved scientific rationalism and drive him to the brink of murder and madness”

    “test to the limits” [but not exceed the brink] Sounds like he’s not going to let it go in the end (so far) ? I guess that’s why I felt I disagreed with him in the Dawkins speech. Unshakable faith in scientific rationalism is something he shares with Dawkins.

    BTW Sam, the narrator’s main problem is harrassment caused by “persitent attempted conversion to christianity in broad daylight”. Good story, even if the parable is thinly disguised 🙂

    BTW Alice, I’m agnostic in the open-minded scientific sense, that if someone gives me a convincing reason to believe (in a god, or in the flying spaghetti monster) I will, but I don’t have such a reason so, in the religious faith sense, I am definitely an atheist – I am not “disinterested” in the decision. My fully functioning, hole-free, world model needs no God – as a sentient purposeful intelligent agent transcending natural science, indeed would find such a concept an inconsistency.

    Sam and I remain on speaking terms, because (a) we’d agree nature includes things that “reductionist rational science” would label mystical, and (b) we’d share some “metaphorical” uses of intentional holistic causality for natural processes. Sam calls his God, I call it good, or quality, or value, or love, or interaction, or difference or “information” in the most generic sense.

    But this always was a debate about reason itself – about explanation and causation – and so is McEwan’s “Enduring Love”.

  19. you may be surprised by the turn of events which occurs in enduring love.
    I have yet to read your other responses thoroughly enough to digest and respond. I guess I just go naturally to book reviews.

    “But if you approached it as I did, expecting it to have some moral philosophical, evolutionary truth, message that needed digging out, then (so far) it doesn’t need much digging.”

    I think I can say that I generally read good literature, but I never have gone into the enterprise with the expectations you describe above. I want to be treated by the author with respect. I look for ingenuity, vivid imagery, and mostly truth about human nature with all of its faults, foibles and braveries. I like to look inside people’s ( interesting people’s) heads and see what they are doing with the time they have been allotted.

    perhaps that’s why i like your blog so much.

  20. in my attempt to “get it”, i will throw out a few more thoughts. (I resist calling them niave, tho i fear they are).

    You have often, very often said everything is metaphor. I will assume this embodies some moq treatise.

    with that in mind, it is no wonder to me, that you would go into the reading of a novel with the expectation of finding metaphor all over the place, particularly since it was written by mcewan who appeared at a dawkins seminar, who had some blurb on the back cover which alluded to such, and perhaps because you are not a great fan of the novel. (i think you said that).

    all this notwithstanding, if everything is metaphor, one would expect metaphor to be found in every novel, in everything.

    i understand that there are great themes (memes?) throughout literature. Some puposefully put there by the author, but i would say that great themes appear just because that is what literature is for, about, investigating human existence, exploring truth, getting to the bottom of things (a metaphor?)

    Jane austen (I know you are not too fond of her either) wrote about the people in her life. her greatest gift was the turn of phrase and her subtle humor. I don’t know if she sat down and decided to write about great themes. i would say that perhaps she saw commonalities in her characters and traits which needed to be explored, but i don’t think she was much of a philosopher.

    Virginia wolff wanted to explore how her mind worked and risked her sanity as she wrote about it. she was delving deep and into dangerous territory. she wanted to write about the truth, what is like to live inside the chaotic human mind. but is there any metaphor? (maybe icarus?) did she consciously intend for there to be one…or more than one?

    it’s like the difference between standing in front of a painting and asking…what did the artist mean? what is she trying to say?
    and saying gee, the colors are delicious, the craftmanship is phenomonal, the balance is perfect,the way the shadows play reminds me of feelings i had that day i spent with my sister five years ago. Well done, I like it.

    the latter is how i approach reading, novels particularly. i want to be exposed to something in a new way. the thing is how much risk the author took to expose the inner workings of the human mind and human endeavor in general. pirsig took the risk and that is why his book is s classic.

    the worrisome thing to me about always looking for metaphor is that you never actually experience the thing itself, plato’s cave comes to mind, and that is the very opposite of zen wisdom.

  21. Sorry, your obsessed reader is back.

    I am now reading “Atonement”, but with an eye towards seeing what you claim to have seen so clearly…a hidden (not so hidden in your case) agenda? So far no luck in that respect. What I see is an interesting, very well written exposition of what the author imagines to be going on in the characters’ minds and by extension what he probably believes to be going on in everyone else’s…an intimate portrait of the inner dialogue.

    I have long since relinquished my copy of “enduring love” I read the first part while (whilst) staying at my sister’e home in Eton. It was a great place to read a novel set in England since I wouldn’t have had a feel for the place otherwise. (I also read Brit Think/ Amera Think when I was there and laughed until I cried.) At any rate I had to leave her copy there, unfinished, ( because I’m so polite) and borrowed a copy from the library when I got home. As I said, my most vivid, and perhaps only vivid image of the book is the first chapter, but your commentary has brought more to light and this copy of “atonement” has the blurb which I think appears on your volume. “The calm life of science writer, Joe Rose is shattered, etc….” Now I seem to remember some of that inner dialogue and also the bit about Christianity.
    But I still hold to my belief that this is not primarily a novel about science or christianity or game theory or even homosexuality. these are merely devices which the author uses. the most important part is the inner dialogue, something which (I think) we all share and when it is done well it is shocking, clarifying and satisfying. We are not alone.

    PS. Where are moving in the states? Is this your first time living here??

  22. pps. ever heard of daniel wegner? I have one of my daughter’s textbooks which is written by him and have only read chapter one (novels are so much less arduous). The book is entitled “the illusion of conscious will”. I thought by the title you would have come across him.

  23. Firstly Alice,

    Sorry for ignoring you for 3 or 4 days, I’ve been away on business with a customer, and returned home this weekend with the house in upheaval due to builder / decorator well into the process of getting our house ready to lease out. (You picked-up that I’m moving to the US, in about a month from now – to Alabama, Huntsville in the north, close to Tenessee. My first time living there for more that two weeks at a time, Mainly Houston, New Orleans, and Boston previously ?)

    Am I a not a fan of the novel ? Far from it I have the fanatical love of the novel of a recent convert – last 5 years or so. I am totally hooked on the idea that “literature is the more superior form of knowledge”. Cervantes, Melville, Dostoyevsky, Voltaire, yes even Jane Austen …. and catching up with more modern authors too – too many to name … science has a kind of arrogance in thinking it is some “better” kind of knowlewdge – my main agenda, surely.

    I completed Enduring Love, the other night whilst travelling. It gripped me enough to read it in only 3 sittings. As expected, the scandal behind the man that died, turned out to have an innocent explanation. I didn’t meet any unexpected or surprising twists in the narrator’s paranoia.

    What I couldn’t accept was the convenient way the religious weirdo was simply condemned as dangerous because he was suffering from some homo-erotic jesus-loving syndrome, and therefore dumped out of the plot before the end. (Leaving McEwan, as the narrator, conveniently none the wiser about religion.)

    (So I’m re-reading it to see what I missed. You should read it Sam.)

    I’m not saying my current way of reading is “the right way” in any sense – I just happen to be on a quest. Yes, it’s all metaphors, but I’d expect an intelligent writer to disguise his or her motives, just to make the search more interesting 🙂 But I guess any writer needs to cater for a wide range of possible reader starting points.

    I’m genuinely surprised if you didn’t see the opening scene as a classic prisoners’ dilemma on your first read – with the guilt driving all the subsequent paranoia – must be a question of what each of us is (currently) programmed to be on the look out for.

    One thing I’m discovering about authors I’ve not yet read, is that there are hundreds and thousands of them and just not enough hours in the day to do them all justice, whilst holding down a serious day job too 🙂

    I’m reaching a “stop reading, start writing” point someday soon I feel.

  24. I’m off, back to san diego, to do the dreaded tax thing and the dreaded mammogram thing and to pick up more of our stuff to bring back to our new place in the mountains. I’ve ben here since October and it’s challenging to live in a new place after having been in the old place for twenty years. I’m not much of a traveller.

    Alabama, eh? I never would have guessed.

    “but I’d expect an intelligent writer to disguise his or her motives”

    just had to make one comment and reiterate what I said previously. It seems that very often the only motive is to portray people in the most honest, revealing way possible.

    “must be a question of what each of us is (currently) programmed to be on the look out for.”

    Absolutely! My husband would much rather sit and consume Tom Clancy, whose real motive is to write lots of books and make lots of money. I have often wanted to share what I’m reading with him, but realize he’s not “on the lookout” for what I am, just a good (?) story that will keep him engaged til the last page.

  25. Just a quickie Alice,

    I’ve just ordered “Unconsoled” and “Atonement”.

    On your point about “honesty” – I agree it’s important to honestly portray the (human) natural world being described, even if it’s a fantasy subject, but surely an author’s artistic aim is to add linguistic interest and metaphorical allusion in the telling, rather than simply bald statements of “facts” – whatever they are 🙂


  26. “Reading “The Unconsoled” by Kazuo Isihiguro”

    strange it is and so interesting. I can’t wait to read your review.

    so much like a dream where you are trying to do something or get somewhere and things keep getting in the way.

    I have a dream where I have a lead role in a play. It is opening night and I have never rehearsed or even seen the script. The entire dream is about trying to get a hold of the script because I am sure I can digest the whole thing in minutes and everything will be fine….but I keep getting diverted.

    I finished atonement and have a few questions about that, too.

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