Saturday, April 26, 2008

Read before you type. Please. No, really.

Over the last week or so, it so happens that I've been having an interesting e-mail discussion with a recently made friend that has involved evolution, human behaviour, Richard Dawkins, 'spirituality', the possibility of 'group selection' and related topics. It has become clear that we have different perspectives on these various issues, however -- as in all high-quality discussions amongst people with varying viewpoints -- I feel as if it's been a worthwhile use of my time and that I've actually learned something. Or, at least, when we finally differ, I continue to maintain my full respect toward the person with whom I disagree. It has, in fact, been a pleasure to exchange viewpoints.

It's not very easy to define, but I have had precisely the opposite feeling after reading an article by Pat Shipman, a 'professor of biological anthropology', published in the New York Sun. (Via A&L Daily)

Dr. Shipman, it is quite clear, does not like Richard Dawkins's book, The Selfish Gene.

Unfortunately, she shows no sign of having actually read it.

(I know: this is an accusation that appears rather often at this blog; however, I must say that it so frequently seems apposite that I can't help but make it. I would be pleased to receive any evidence to the contrary. Believe me, I would.)

In fact, she seems to dislike Dawkins so much that she can't bring herself to refer to him by his title. Dawkins has a D.Phil and a D.Sc., which in many places would lead to him being called 'Dr.' She denies him this privilege, referring throughout her article to 'Mr. Dawkins'. This might be acceptable in some contexts -- I mean, I don't always insist on my own title-- however, on her departmental website, she prefers being referred to by her title.

Fair is fair, Dr. Shipman. Thus, your insistent repetition of 'Mr.' seems in some way dismissive.

Anyway, in her brief, crappy article 'Reconsiderations: Richard Dawkins and His Selfish Meme', Dr. Shipman essentially argues that Dawkins's book is not only wrong-headed but has actually has had a malevolent effect on science and human morality.

However, it is actually her own ridiculous analysis of Dawkins's book that proves to be laughable.
The hilarity begins on the first page of her article, where she claims:

In Mr. Dawkins's view, the organisms containing those genes are merely "lumbering robots" or "survival machines" that house and carry genetic information. The implication is that, in these terms, selfishness, even ruthless selfishness, pays off, and altruism does not.

This is, not to mince words, utter nonsense.

The word 'selfish' has led to all kinds of misunderstandings of Dawkins's theory, but he has explained at length (including in The Selfish Gene itself) that the metaphor he chose to describe gene-level 'motives' did not require relentless selfishness on the level of individual behaviour. In the thirty years since his book's publication, he has taken ample opportunity to try to correct this misunderstanding. (Beyond even the clarifications in the book itself.)

But even as explained in the first few pages of the original edition of The Selfish Gene, Dawkins made clear that he was interested in the origins of altruism. Even more in the revised version (with a couple of extra chapters emphasising even further the theme of altruism), Dawkins illustrates repeatedly -- how could Dr. Shipman have missed this?! -- how simple ruthlessness does not pay off in most evolutionary stakes and how some degree of altruism (at least that oriented toward kin- or based on reciprocity) does.

Does the phrase 'tit-for-tat' ring a bell, Dr. Shipman? If you have even a glancing familiarity with Dawkins's work, then it should.

If not, then, please, hold your tongue until you have done some required reading. Such as, say, the book you're pontificating about in the New York Sun. At least that should be on your required reading list.

Because Dawkins -- even in the book that Shipman critiques but doesn't seem to have read -- dealt with this issue quite clearly:

The argument of this book is that we, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes. Like successful Chicago gangsters, our genes have survived, in some cases for millions of years, in a highly competitive world. This entitles us to expect certain qualities in our genes. I shall argue that a predominant quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness. This gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behavior. However, as we shall see, there are special circumstances in which a gene can achieve its own selfish goals best by fostering a limited form of altruism at the level of individual animals. 'Special' and 'limited' are important words in the last sentence. Much as we might wish to believe otherwise, universal love and the welfare of the species as a whole are concepts that simply do not make evolutionary sense. (p. 2, emphasis added)

Dr. Shipman might not like this latter conclusion (the 'limitations' bit), but to argue that Dawkins ignored altruism is wrong, wrong, wrong.

In the revised version of The Selfish Gene that I own (the 1989 Oxford edition) there are even further chapters discussing the topic of altruism.

Moreover, considering the flippancy with which she refers to 'lumbering robots' and 'survival machines' on the first page of her misbegotten screed, you might think that Dawkins never considered the difference between genes and beings with more subtlety.

However, in The Selfish Gene (yeah, the book that Shipman, you'd have thought, had read), he observed,

Some people object to what they see as an excessively gene-centred view of evolution. After all, they argue, it is whole individuals with all their genes who actually live or die. I hope I have said enough in this chapter [Chapter 3, 'Immortal coils', and, indeed, he did] to show that there is really no disagreement here. Just as whole boats win or lose races, it is indeed individuals who live or die, and the immediate manifestation of natural selection is nearly always at the individual level. But the long-term consequences of non-random individual death and reproductive success are manifested in the form of changing gene frequencies in the gene pool. (p. 45)

Didn't you manage to read as far as page 45, Dr. Shipman?

In contrast to Dawkins's view, Dr. Shipman advocates a recent article by E.O. Wilson and D.S. Wilson that has sought to revive a notion of 'group selection'.

Now, I am a great admirer of E.O. Wilson for many reasons (his book Consilience is one that I would recommend to anyone interested in unifying the humanities with the natural sciences and his environmental advocacy has been consistently inspiring...moreover, he manages to impart the way that ants are endlessly fascinating. Who'd have thought that possible?), though I'm rather more sceptical about the other (non-related) Wilson.

In any case, I'm not sure that Dr. Shipman has done much to benefit group selectionism, as she seems to think that this simply means 'the good of the species' (her article, page 1).

Even advocates of group selection (or, more accurately, multi-level selection) are careful enough to emphasise a more nuanced version of the theory.

However, here again, Dr. Shipman lets provides yet another embarrassing howler. Speaking of Wilson and Wilson, she states,

The pair asserted persuasively that altruism and cooperation can be adaptive if they are directed toward relatives who share a suite of one's genes (kin selection) or if relationships can be established within a group in which cooperation is rewarded with future reciprocity.

Having (apparently) not read The Selfish Gene, she is clearly unaware both 'kin selection' and 'reciprocal altruism' are central features of Dawkins's book. (See, particularly, Chapter 6, 'Genesmanship', for the former and Chapter 10, 'You scratch my back, I'll ride on yours' for the latter.)

Indeed, Dr. Shipman appears to present 'kin selection' as somehow in opposition to Dawkins's work, whereas Dawkins very much saw himself as popularising the work of Bill Hamilton, who put the notion of kin selection on a more stable mathematical footing.

For all her blathering on about kin-selection and the altruistic behaviour of meerkats, Dr. Shipman overlooks the fact that Dawkins -- in his revised 1989 edition of The Selfish Gene -- discussed the altruistic behaviour of vampire bats.

In conclusion: to suggest that 'selfish' genes invariably mean 'selfish' behaviour is to fundamentally misunderstand Dawkins's book.

For a professor of 'biological anthropology' managing to avoid that simple error should be a doddle; however, Dr. Shipman appears to not be up to the challenge. She should be ashamed of herself.

Not only does she present the theories of John Maynard Smith as somehow opposed to those of Dawkins (who makes extensive use, for instance, of his notion of the Evolutionarily Stable Strategy), but she oddly lumps kin and group selection together, as if Dawkins had not made abundant arguments in favour of the former.

One of the crowning insults of Shipman's little package of intellectual trash is to claim that Dawkins has in some way assisted the spread of the 'Intelligent Design' movement:

The picture of evolution offered by [The Selfish Gene], and others by Mr. Dawkins, which many found bleak, also contributed to the growth and stridency of the intelligent design movement to undercut the teaching of evolution in public schools.


Shipman doesn't even begin to explain what she means by this, and she should be deeply ashamed of linking Dawkins's work with any presumed success of 'Intelligent Design', a movement that Dawkins has been intensely focused on combating.

She even has the gall to argue that the book has provoked a 'backlash against science'.

I don't know much about the work of Dr. Pat Shipman, and for all I know she writes brilliantly and insigtfully within her own field. But having examined this piece of intellectual nothingness alongside her depthless article on violence in the wake of September 11th, I have to say this: I'm not impressed.

She definitely has some more reading to do. And in the meantime, she should keep her mouth shut.

And, I suggest, she should refrain from using the word 'biological' in her title until she demonstrates that she has the ability to read, understand and recapitulate works on that topic.

And, for what it's worth, A&L Daily should take a bit more care in the articles that it recommends.


Jasper Milvain said...

To be fair, the choice of honorific may not have been the author's; some newspaper style guides insist on confining 'Dr' to medical doctors. But the New York Sun doesn't put its style guide online, so we'll never know.

J. Carter Wood said...


I don't even think it's _necessary_ to use the title all the time. Last names only are just fine by me. But the relentless repetition of 'Mr.' was somehow irksome.

Though it was the least of the problems with the essay...

Nice to hear from you. It's been a while.

Jura Watchmaker said...

Shipman's article displays signs of heavy and clumsy subediting, so I'm with jasper milvain on the "Dr"/"Mr" thing. Note that Shipman is referred to as "Ms" at the bottom of the article.

Content-wise, Shipman's article is absolutely abysmal. I find it impossible to believe that a biological scientist has such a shallow understanding of basic genetics.

J. Carter Wood said...

Ah. I'm far less attuned to such sub-editing issues, so I'm happy to defer to both you on that point.

It seems a quite unwieldy house style at the NYSun: ignore people's professional titles but tack on an unnecessary Mr. or Ms. at every opportunity. Hideous.

The content, as you point out, is the real problem. I don't see how anyone could actually have read The Selfish Gene and come away from it thinking that it says what she claims it does.

Whether the book is right or wrong (or bits of both), one is not allowed to misrepresent its arguments. Certainly not to that laughable extent.