Brian Goodwin

Having finished The Blind Watchmaker – I was browsing Dawkins contribution to The Third Culture, which includes commentary on, and by, other members. I was struck by one of Dawkins quotes about Stephen Jay Gould “building non-existent windmills to take a tilt at” and felt the same problem I’m having with Rorty at the moment. Similarly on reading the Brian Goodwin commentary on Dawkins – I found myself fuming at this from Goodwin

[Quote] To give a very brief summary of the way he presents neo-Darwinism in The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype, let me mention four points he makes: (A1) Organisms are constructed by groups of genes, whose goal is to leave more copies of themselves; (A2) this gives rise to the metaphor of the hereditary material being basically selfish; (A3) this intrinsically selfish quality of the hereditary material is reflected in competitive interactions between organisms, which result in survival of fitter variants generated by the more successful genes. (A4) Then you get the point that organisms are constantly trying to get better, fitter, and in a mathematical, geometrical metaphor always trying to climb peaks in fitness landscapes.

The most interesting point emerged at the end of The Selfish Gene, where Richard said that human beings, alone amongst all the species, can escape from their selfish inheritance and become genuinely altruistic, through educational effort. I suddenly realized that this set of four points was a transformation of four very familiar principles of Christian fundamentalism, which go like this; (B1) Humanity is born in sin; (B2) we have a selfish inheritance; (B3) humanity is therefore condemned to a life of conflict and perpetual toil; (B4) but there is salvation.[Unquote]

This is absolutely NOT what Dawkins says or believes – he explicitly reminds us all the time that the Selfish Gene is rhetorical, a metaphor – there is absolutely no suggestion of his point (A3) in Dawkins – that competitive behaviour (in the organism) is inherited from the inherently selfish gene. Utter bollox, and Dawkins does not only not say this, he is at pains to “caveat metaphor“. His use of “trying” in point (A4) similarly misses Dawkins point. No amount of trying by any organism can help it evolve to any peak of fitness. Goodwin is confusing metaphor with causality. His point (B3) is doubly fatuous. Dawkins memetic views make it absolutely clear that Dawkins sees humans as having both genetic and memetic mechanisms for development (and improvement) even if points (B1) and (B2) were true for any organism – which of course they’re not. Goodwin also makes big issues about the value judgements in views of evolutionary “progress”, subject dear to my heart, but quite spuriously lays criticisms of non-existent claims at the doors of Darwinist. What is Goodwin’s point in this misrepresentation ? [Post Note – Murray Gell-Mann, no less, says of Goodwin – Perhaps he doesn’t really believe what he says and is just being mischievous. Steve Jones says – I think he’s a mystic. Complexity is catching, that’s the trouble. Dawkins remarks – we thought he was … just being a bit off the wall. – Phew, got me going for a moment there – I’m in good company again.]

Actually I suspect Goodwin’s “life of sin” rhetoric is closer to being the accepted metaphor for the reality of life, perceived and rationalised this way by Christian society, in the absence of sufficently credible explanatory science. No excuse now surely ? The other metaphorical trap I see here is the recognition of deep recurring patterns in nature being seen as evidence in the some causal relationship with the pattern itself, not as evidence of some underlying mechanism common to occurences of the patterns – these may be mathematically explainable as “attractors” to use complexity and chaos language – but the existence of such attractors does not “cause” the development towards the recurring pattern, without some driver for the dynamic in the first place. Some good stuff about these recurring patterns in taxonomy in Foucault and Eco I seem to recall.

Yes Dawkins, like Pinker, comes over as a passionate zealot, but surely the passion is in awe of the science, not necessarily religion. In fact Dawkins, also like Pinker, often remarks that the amazing thing is that the science is so much more amazing than anything supernatural anyway.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.