Saturday, April 4, 2009

readings for april 8

1) Christ and a Bicycle by Andrew Brown. Apparently delivered as part of his advertising or publicity for his book Darwin Wars: The Scientific Battle for the Soul of Man.

2) Charles Darwin on Religion by John Hedley Brooke, an invited contribution to the website for The International Society for Science & Religion

3) Dawkins, R. 1997. Obscurantism to the rescue. The Quarterly Review of Biology 72(4):397-399. (pdf available)

4) portions of "Natural selection not inconsistent with natural theology", by Asa Grey, as published in the Atlantic Monthly in a series of articles for July, August, and October 1860.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Blogging Mott Greene

Last night was historian Mott Greene's seminar in the public lecture series Introducing Darwin, which I've organized along with Maggie Osler, Tony Russell, and Jessica Theodor. Thanks to Shari and CJ for helping with the mikes and to CJ for taking some pictures.

Mott's talk was very good--first half some biographical remarks on "Darwin the man", then moving on to some very interesting remarks on "Darwin the myth", particularly the various ways in which Darwin has been enlisted by a wide range of people to support a wide range of ideas (he's been claimed as a justification for both unregulated capitalism and communism, for instance). As we've discussed, Darwin himself is notable for his insistence on getting his facts right and in his extreme reluctance to make inferences beyond what the facts will support. I'm sure this is why he was always very reticent about the implications (if any!) of his ideas for religion, economics, etc.

The point that will stick with me the most is Mott's remark that both religious conservatives and secular liberals today tend to resist Darwinian-style explanations for social phenomena. For instance, one can argue that the rise since the 1960s of feminism and gay liberation is not ultimately attributable to individuals making and responding to arguments about justice or equality. Rather, the ultimate drivers are economic pressures and reproductive imperatives. Appeals to justice and equality are at best the proximate mechanisms by which individuals happen to respond to those ultimate drivers of human behavior. The point is not that this explanation of the rise of feminism and gay rights is right or wrong, it's that people from across the liberal-conservative spectrum tend to dislike this kind of explanation, independent of any evidence.

One point Mott didn't make, which I got the chance to make briefly in response to a question from the audience afterwards, is that non-biologists who've developed "evolutionary" theories of economics or society (think of Hegel, Marx, Comte, and many others) tend to conflate Darwinian evolution with organismal development. That is, they tend to think of growth of an individual organism from child to adult as "evolutionary". It's not just famous thinkers like Comte who thought this way--the recent remarks from our own federal science minister indicate that he believes in "evolution" in the sense of individual development and change. To a biologist, this is a serious confusion. Darwinian evolution doesn't have a direction or goal or purpose (see Mayr's remarks in his introduction to the Origin). But the development of an individual organism does have a predetermined goal--to convert a fertilized egg into a functioning adult organism. If you claim that human societies are like developing organisms, that's a very different claim from the claim that human societies are like evolving populations.

This confusion between evolution and development has three obvious sources. One is that both involve "change over time", which is what "evolution" means in a colloquial sense. Second is that there are indeed directional trends in the history of life (e.g., increase in the average "complexity" of organisms since the origin of life), and it's natural (but incorrect) to think of such trends as analogous to the directional development of a newborn into an adult. Third is that it's very hard for non-specialists to grasp that the notion of "fitness" in Darwinian evolution is "relative fitness". All that matters in Darwinian evolution is your ability to survive and reproduce, relative to the other current members of the population. This notion of relative fitness does not imply that absolute fitness will increase over time (even in a constant environment), or that there is some "maximally fit" or "ideal" or "perfect" state toward which a population tends to evolve. I think this is the key Darwinian insight that even very smart non-biologists seem to find very difficult to fully absorb (though in fairness, evolutionary biologists don't help them by talking about evolution using engineering and hill-climbing metaphors that are fine in many respects but are subtly and importantly misleading in other respects). Evolution by natural selection is change over time that both lacks a goal or endpoint, but that is not simply random either (random evolution is genetic drift). Directional, non-random change--but the direction isn't "towards" anything. That's Darwinian evolution. As Mott noted, it's this kind of explanation that many people either misunderstand or find unpalatable.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Martyrdom of Man

I forgot to mention this yesterday in class: If anyone is interested in reading an application of selection theory on the development 'human tribes' and a 'natural' history of Western civilisation then take a look at Winwood Reade's Martyrdom of Man (1872). It is an account of the West's development that draws a great deal from social Darwinism and was a pinnacle work during the age of Empire. It was highly influential upon a great many British figures from Cecil Rhodes to Winston Churchill. Reade was a renowned atheist and tried to devise a secular conception of human destiny that also appears in a dialogue in Churchill's novel Savrola. The book is largely devoid of the racism that would dominate later Continental and American works, and focuses predominantly upon cultural selection. Obviously it has many of the typical biases of late Victorian writing, neverthless is an early and interesting exercise of parochial altruism and group selection, roughly along the lines of the Bowles article of last Wednesday. It is most interesting in its predictions for the distant future.

A copy is available at your friendly university library.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Further reading on group selection

I'm posting in advance of class today because I likely won't have time afterwards. Looking forward to today's discussion on group selection and altruism, as it raises a fascinating tangle of empirical and conceptual issues at the interface of biology, sociology, and philosophy.

Group selection and altruism is a topic on which my thinking has been very much shaped by reading a few key people. So if you're keen on reading more on this topic, I suggest you have a look at:

The work of young British philosophy hotshot Samir Okasha, especially his terrific 2006 book Evolution and the Levels of Selection. This book is already becoming the standard reference on the topic. Most of his papers can be downloaded from his website, so if you don't want to buy or read the book you can easily access individual papers to get snapshots of Okasha's views on key issues.

The work of philosopher Eliot Sober (Marc Ereshefsky's doctoral supervisor), especially his book Unto Others with evolutionary theoretician David Sloan Wilson. Sober basically invented contemporary philosophy of evolutionary biology (in his classic 1984 book The Nature of Selection), and David Sloan Wilson did as much as any biologist to revive group selection as a respectable idea.

The exchange of views between Eliot Sober and evolutionary biologist John Maynard Smith in The Latest on the Best (MIT Press, 1987) is a good non-technical introduction to certain key issues such as what counts as a "group" (yes, that's actually a non-trivial issue).

Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene. At the time it was published (1976), this was the final nail in the coffin of group selectionist thinking. Wonderfully clear and forcefully argued, even if some of the conclusions aren't widely held today (which isn't to say that today's group selectionist thinking bears more than a passing resemblance to the naive views that Dawkins was attacking).

Finally, I'll share a little anecdote. As a grad student (this was in the late '90s), I was fortunate enough to have the chance to discuss group selection with Dick Lewontin. Lewontin and Sober wrote a famous 1982 paper about group selection, which addressed the issue that one can often build mathematically-equivalent group-selectionist and individual-selectionist models of the same biological situation. That is, the models make the same predictions about future evolution, but do so by making different assumptions about the underlying causal processes driving evolution. The existence of such predictively-equivalent models could be taken to suggest that the distinction between group and individual selection is merely conventional, a matter of choosing one heuristic perspective over another. In contrast, Sober and Lewontin took a realist view and argued that, in the case of a specific example (heterozygote advantage), the group selectionist model "gets the causal facts right" while the individual selectionist model is simply a mathematical fiction that gives the right predictions for the wrong causal reasons. I'd read the paper and thought a lot about it, and so I was excited to ask Dick Lewontin himself if he still took the same view. He didn't. He'd changed his mind and decided that, at least in the case of the example of heterozygote advantage, that there were no "causal facts" that one could appeal to in order to motivate a choice of one model over the other. I don't know that Lewontin has ever published his revised view, so I don't know if it's widely known that he changed his mind.

Postscript: In Evolution and the Levels of Selection, Samir Okasha argues that Lewontin and Sober's example of heterozygote advantage has actually been misinterpreted by both sides in this realist/conventionalist debate. Okasha argues that Lewontin and Sober arrive at the right (realist) conclusion, but for the wrong reasons. This is a nice example of what I think is Okasha's greatest strength--he's very precise and analytical, and he's good at drawing distinctions that need to be drawn. Okasha's book convinced me that much of the debate and confusion in the group selection literature has arisen because of people failing to draw key distinctions.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Evolution Obliterates Morality?

There was a quote put forth in Ruse in an effort to discern whether Darwin ever flirted seriously with the concept of group selection. It nevertheless carries other implications that caught my interest. I reproduce it here:

"It is extremely doubtful whether the offspring of the more sympathetic and benevolent parents, or of those which were the most faithful to their comrades, would be reared in greater number than the children of selfish and treacherous parents of the same tribe. He who was ready to sacrifice his life, as many a savage has been, rather than betray his comrades, would often leave no offspring to inherit his noble nature. The bravest men, who were always willing to come to the front in war, and who freely risked their lives for others, would on an average perish in large number than other men."

Does evolution obliterate morality? Are the noblest and greatest of service to the group destined to sacrifice themselves for the survival of those who indulge in a shallow life of self-preservation? Or is morality, a noble character, a learned rather than an evolutionary trait, and could the stuff of heroes spring from a brood of spoiled children and a bloodline of thoroughly spoiled adults?