Friday, May 15, 2009

The Stupidity of the "Selfish Gene"

I haven’t talked much about the “selfish gene” on this blog, although I did once post an review of Richard Dawkins' book of the same title, and noted the reviewer’s assessment that the selfish gene theory “makes life seem utterly pointless,” and in his words, “I largely blame ‘The Selfish Gene’ for a series of bouts of depression I suffered from for more than a decade.”

One of the reasons I haven’t talked much about the “selfish gene” is that if you accept the main tenets of the "New Theism," (as I have), the validity of the “selfish gene” automatically disappears. In addition, I hadn’t really found any authors who were willing to challenge Dawkins' theory head-on. Thankfully, however, I just finished reading through Denyse O’Leary’s review of David Stove’s book, Darwinian Fairytales: Selfish Genes, Errors of Heredity and Other Fables of Evolution. Together, O’Leary and Stove do a brilliant job of showing the implausibility of the “selfish gene” in both theory and practice…

“The problem is that genes are so unlikely to really function the way the sociobiologist needs them to…While sociobiologists (adherents of selfish gene theory) claim on the one hand that genes are not really selfish or consciousness or purposeful, they write as though they in fact are. For example, Dawkins informs us (in The Extended Phenotype) that when the cuckoo lays its egg in the nest of a reed warbler, the cuckoo's genes are manipulating the reed warbler's genes, to the cuckoo's advantage. But manipulation implies intelligence and purpose (though causation as such does not necessarily imply that.”

“And what are we to make of the cleverness of the cuckoo's genes in such a case? Stove writes…

‘If the nest parasitism of cuckoos is a case of manipulation, it is certainly a staggeringly clever one: far too clever for cuckoos, in particular, to be capable of. Can a cuckoo have a purpose as complicated as that of getting a reed warbler to feed a cuckoo nestling better than it fees its own young? That must be extremely doubtful. Still, let us suppose that a cuckoo is clever enough for that. He would need to be cleverer still, to be able to think up a way of achieving this purpose. In particular, could he think up a way of achieving it which did not involve any cuckoo's every going even within a mile of a reed warbler? No: there is no one who will credit cuckoos with so great an intellectual feat.’ (p. 173)

“Here we are talking about a bird that cannot even build a nest. In sum, for Dawkins's idea to work, the cuckoo's genes must be not only smarter than the cuckoo itself, but probably smarter than most human beings, which raises certain problems. They must then be the equivalent of pagan immortal gods.

“Essentially, Stove shows, selfish gene theory smuggled purpose back into biology, only now it is a gene, not a god that has a purpose, to replicate itself. He explains how the god-like 'selfish gene' entered Darwinian theory in the first place. Why was it so important?"

“Everywhere in biology we see apparent purpose: Caterpillars that look like bird droppings, praying mantises that look like fallen pink petals, plants that trap insects and eat them. The source of the purpose is unlikely to be the plant or animal's own unintelligent ancestors, or the human observer - and for philosophical reasons the Darwinist rejects divine purpose or cosmic law. Speaking of a spider that mimics a bird dropping, Stove remarks…

‘The intelligence displayed in this case probably exceeds human intelligence, and certainly exceeds the intelligence of spiders or their ancestors; and the engineering ability displayed enormously exceeds human ability, which in turn far exceeds the engineering ability of any other animals’ (p. 181)

“As many have pointed out, looking only one per cent like a bird dropping will not save a caterpillar from a hungry bird. Probably not even five percent or ten. Some purpose working behind the scenes is required to sustain major projects over the long periods in which they do not appear to pay.”

“Genes are not even whole organisms, like plants, they are merely nucleotides strung together inside the nucleus of a cell….The central question is: Can genes indeed superintend a project that transforms a caterpillar into a living likeness of a bird dropping if they do not have purpose, and if they do have purpose, how do they have it?

“In attempting to explain complex adaptations, Darwinism transferred purpose from an unselfish God to selfish genes, without giving any clear account of how or why genes should do all that Darwinists need them to do. Nor have Darwinists ever demonstrated that they actually do.

“Stove shows that if Darwinists were prevented from smuggling teleological language into their descriptions of the activity of genes, they would not be able to demonstrate that genes ever even ‘try’ to get themselves replicated at all. How could they? They are rows of molecules, not mail order brides.”

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