Why Stove is wrong about evolution via natural selection

Something came up in a comment thread just now here.

I think that my responses to this article deserve their own post. I simply recopy my comment here.

I give below ten propositions which are all Darwinian beliefs in the sense just specified. Each of them is obviously false: either a direct falsity about our species or, where the proposition is a general one, obviously false in the case of our species, at least.

These quotations are assumed to be ‘obviously’ false, but I find their obviousness elusive. For example,

Obviously false though this proposition is, from the point of view of Darwinism it is well-founded, for the reason which Dawkins gives on the same page: that another woman’s adopting her baby ‘releases a rival female from the burden of child-rearing, and frees her to have another child more quickly.’ This, you will say, is a grotesque way of looking at human life; and so, of course, it is. But it is impossible to deny that it is the Darwinian way.

The complaint here, supported only by its supposed obviousness, is that this is a grotesque way of looking at human life — it appeals to the feeling that we are ‘special’ simply because we are human. We don’t want to think of ourselves this way. Indeed, society as it stands now has moved to something of a higher level. Nonetheless, historically the genes of both our species and others have enjoyed such benefits as those mentioned above. They are selected for simply because they propagate themselves more than genes that don’t favor such behavior.

I skipped point 1. Stove is right in a sense — genes do not have a conscious ‘purpose’, which is the concept he seems to mock. The idea that a gene ‘wants’ to spread itself is simply a different way of looking at natural selection. Some genes spread themselves, and others don’t. The ones that spread themselves more, whatever advantages that might entail, are the ones that persist. This is akin to saying that a ball poised atop a hill ‘wants’ to roll down it. There is no intent. Nonetheless, the ball will roll down the hill, as gravity and the incline will ensure.

On to point 3. Again, just because the concept leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth doesn’t mean it’s incorrect. Books are typically manipulative. Most books that aren’t novels, and many that are, are written to make a point.

Point 4 I’ll skip. Point 5 exhibits the sin of omission:

In all social mammals, the altruism (or apparent altruism) of siblings towards one another is about as strong and common as the altruism (or apparent altruism) of parents towards their offspring.

Ah, yes, if it were only that simple he would be correct. However, there’s more to it. Parents, for example, have already had children. They may be past the age where they are likely to have more. Additionally, the parents have a lot invested in the children. Even if each child only has two children that surivive to reproduce, this represents a geometrical spread of the parents’ genes. Thus from the even balance quoted above, things shift toward parental care for the children. Dawkins goes into this in pretty great detail.

Point 6 carries forward the error of point 5. It is moot.

Point 7: Darwin is outdated. He laid the groundwork. Holding modern evolutionary theory to the original ideas of Darwin is like holding physics to the ideas of Newton. Stove selectively ignores the refinements to this bit of evolutionary theory. He misses a key point. The optimum is not to produce as many offspring as possible. The optimum is to produce as many offspring as possible that will survive to reproduce as well.

Point 8 makes the same error as point 7 and amplifies it. Stove has a nice way of building what appears to be a justified case from flawed axioms.

He says,

No doubt human child-mortality has often enough been as high as 70%, and often enough higher still. But I do not think that, at any rate within historical times, this can ever have been usual. For under a child-mortality of 70%, a woman would have to give birth 10 times, on the average, to get 3 of her children to puberty, and 30 times to get 9 of them there.

My couple of weeks in sub-saharan Africa this year showed me that this estimate is actually decent. People die all of the time. The wonders of modern medicine and hygeine don’t invalidate evolutionary theory. It’s true that human civilization in general is taking a bit of a different tack, but that doesn’t mean evolution has stopped. It simply means that the conditions have changed.

It is important to remember that no one – not even Darwinians – knows anything at all about human demography, except what has been learnt in the last 350 years, principally concerning certain European countries or their colonies.

This is utter bullshit. I’m sure anthropologists would beg to differ.

Point 9 is more of the same. Stove wants to apply outdated hypotheses of evolutionary theory. Furthermore, he gives as counterexamples scenarios in modern human society assuming the evolutionary pressures of savages or animals. This is clearly a contradiction, which he accuses Darwinian evolutionists of, but manufactures himself in plain sight in the article.

Point 10 could use some refutation, but I’ll think you’ll find that my arguments would just be a repetition of those I used in response to point 9.

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12 Responses to Why Stove is wrong about evolution via natural selection

  1. GMB says:

    My own view is that humans are indeed special due to the 20 plus white death holocausts (ie glaciations) we have been through in the last three and a half million years. This is natural selection. In fact its natural selection to the max.

    But its hard to convince people of this thesis if they don’t appreciate some of the problems with evolutionary theory as it stands (or stood).

    I don’t think you’ve laid a glove on Stove. I mean if he’s against natural selection in its totality obviously I disagree. But in terms of the objections he raises I think he’s pretty flawless in his reasoning. And it ought to be a spur to greater sophistication in evolutionary theory. In fact I would use his objections as the best clue to how to improve the theory imagineable.

    There is some tendentious doctoring in the above. For example. You say:

    “These quotations are assumed to be ‘obviously’ false, but I find their obviousness elusive. For example….”

    But then you don’t go to the start of the proposition. But cut into the middle where you can make your objection stick. If you started from the start it would be pretty clear that he raises a valid objection to a crude view of evolution. And the going view at least on the public level is pretty crude.

  2. Stove makes his arguments about Darwin. He selectively quotes Dawkins to imply that modern evolutionary theory includes all of Darwin’s hypotheses, and then proceeds to tear down Darwin. The conclusion, then, is that he has proven some supposed tenets of modern Darwinists false, but he has not.

    ut in terms of the objections he raises I think he’s pretty flawless in his reasoning. And it ought to be a spur to greater sophistication in evolutionary theory. In fact I would use his objections as the best clue to how to improve the theory imagineable.

    I agree, in fact, these improvements are already included in modern evolutionary theory. This is the foundation of my objection. His is a straw man argument. He sets up an old book and then tears it down.

    But then you don’t go to the start of the proposition. But cut into the middle where you can make your objection stick. If you started from the start it would be pretty clear that he raises a valid objection to a crude view of evolution. And the going view at least on the public level is pretty crude.

    Given what I skipped, I don’t think it’s any more defensible. My criticism still invalidates his propositions. I’d be very curious to see why you disagree with that. Specifically.

  3. Steve Edney says:

    That ‘s right, GMB, humans are the only species on the planet who’ve lived through those 20 galciations……

    Every other species alive today was holidaying in the sun I guess?

  4. GMB says:

    They are the only species large species that spread far and wide during the interglacial periods and that therefore got attenuated in that way. A way which would have thinned them right down and cut them off from one another. So that when they finally get back together the each of the surviving clans would have changed but in such a way as the change was pointing in the one direction.

    The thing about the humanpoids is they were bipedal stick-weilding gangsters. A niche model so fantastically successful that they would spread out and dominate. But every time they did they get cut down by the White Death Holocaust.

    Its not the first time that large chunks of the planet have been taken over by bi-pedals of roughly the same size.

  5. Matthew Finlay says:

    GMB, in what way can you disagree with rescuingreason’s approach? Stove offers ten ‘Darwinian’ propositions that he claims are obviously false. Rescuingreason then shows why these proposals are either claims not associated with modern evolutionary theory or, alteratively, why they are not false. To my mind this is a pretty comprehensive refutation.

    If you still disagree, then why not pick just one of these ten proposals and point out where RR is in error? If you can’t do this, then either admit that he is right or concede that you are illogical.

  6. I was going to invite Stove himself to counter-argue, but then I saw that he’s dead, which is a shame.

    I think it would have been excellent intellectual sport.

  7. maelorin says:

    Stove’s intellectual problems begin with his first assumption: “Most educated people nowadays, I believe, think of themselves as Darwinians.”

    I’ve yet to meet an educated person who would call themselves ‘Darwinian’.

    Besides there’s no such thing as ‘being a Darwinian’. Many ‘educated’ people might understand that Darwin was a person, who expressed some very useful ideas. How that would translate into a personality cult or some kind of identity movement eludes.

    However, a great many educated people would accept that the Theory of Evolution is both a sound and contemporary explaination for certain (biological) phenomena.

    I would contend that the kinds of propositions made by Stove tell us more about the people who dispute evolutionary models than it does about the models themselves. Quite apart from the deficiencies of their understanding of contemporary science, their insistence on resorting to personality cultism, their persistence in asserting assumptions and value statements as (obvious) facts, and confusing or conflating allegories with anthropomorphic or anthropocentric reasoning.

    Stopes also does the classic Protestant mistake of taking a phrase in isolation and then insisting on interpreting it. As if the rest of the text it belonged to were merely an ensemble of other random phrases with no bearing on each other. Dawkins wrote a whole book in his effort to explain his idea(s) – just as Darwin wrote whole books to set out his ideas and reasoning.

    Evolutionary theory is more sophisticated than, for example, creationists generally (mis)represent. Many of Stopes ‘points’ are mere statements of (religious?) belief or doctrine – no more reliable or reasonable than the alleged ‘fallacy’.

    I fail to see the rigour of Stopes’ argument in this short article – largely a series of simplified assumptions – particularly since he insisted on presenting his views as faits accompli needing little explaination or evidence. The approach he takes presumes that humans are special and distinct from other animals per se – the common assumption that we’re distinct from animals because we have the car, etc which no other animal has managed. Human are different in our behaviours and habits from sharks and lice and worms and bacteria – but they are not overly impressed by our self-congratulatory achievements.

    In short: creationists seem to find ways to congratulate themselves on having a god to allow themselves to feel special – perhaps because deep down they fear they’re not? Those of us who prefer evolution as an explainatory model seem to enjoy being part of a bigger story of life and living things.

    Many philosophers confuse their discussions of a ‘philosophy of science’ with ‘philosophy about science’. Even worse, that they are equipped to discuss scientific theories because they are equipped to philosophise about science or a philosophy of science. As a science student, I was invited to attend a lecture in the School of Philosophy where the class was introduced to ‘philosophy of science’ – very little of the presentation bore any relationship to anything I recognised as science at the time (or since).

  8. GMB says:

    “Stove’s intellectual problems begin with his first assumption: “Most educated people nowadays, I believe, think of themselves as Darwinians.”

    We used to often refer to evolution as “Darwinism”. Check the time of writing. And he’s likely not wanting to rule out all aspects of evolution. So that he would not use the word evolution in that case.

  9. GMB says:

    He hasn’t put a foot wrong. Taking the link in its entirety.

    “Many philosophers confuse their discussions of a ‘philosophy of science’ with ‘philosophy about science’. Even worse, that they are equipped to discuss scientific theories because they are equipped to philosophise about science or a philosophy of science.”

    Yeah good one. You going to snob him out of the debate? Actually the real problem is the opposite. Science workers and mathematicians posing as natural philosophers.

  10. GMB says:

    Let me show you something that might make you change your mind about the value of Stoves arguments:

    “….However, Stove’s attack on Darwinism was not as radical as it appeared – HE ACCEPTED EVOLUTION WAS TRUE OF ALL LIVING THINGS, and said he had no objection to natural selection being true of more primitive organisms. What he wanted to attack was the distorted view of human beings put about by some Ultra-Darwinists….”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Stove

    Just to put some quibbling aside, pretend also that Stove is writing in the 1960’s rather then the 90’s so that he preceeds Stephen Jay Gould and a mates brainstorming up the idea of punctuated evolution.

    Also I was remiss in not telling you that Stove was writing in the early 90’s. Since then we’ve had the concept of Cladistics introduced. Which has made the theory of evolution a bit less presumptuous. A bit more all cards on the table.

    So just for the sake of the mental exercise I’d want you to review Stove under this semi-imaginary basis. I hope you’ll then see the beauty of what he’s saying. He makes it look too easy. Its that same sense of effortlessness you get listening to Bing Crosby’s singing voice which may blind you to the technical dexterity of the guy.

    Why I want people to be able to see authentic objections (TO THE STATE OF) various theories is that this is the way you develop better theories. I believe my explanation of human evolution is superior to anything I’ve seen. But you won’t see this or be able to offer me serious objections if you cannot see some of the historical problems that the theory has had.

    Evolution is based nearly totally on induction. Why we can have great confidence in it (not necessarily to the total exclusion of intelligent intervention) is that as time went on it seemed to be confirmed, many times over by near-independent fields of study.

    Now Bethell too is a serious philosopher. But my view is that when he is talking about subjects that impinge on his religion, its not that he makes serious logical mistakes; its more that he suddenly raises the proof bar sky high. And most people do this. So he ought not be written off in the way people are writing him off at Catallaxy.

  11. GMB: What was your intent in linking to that article? I don’t understand. If it were to get me to think about the state of the theory, then why link to an outdated articlee addressing an older version of the theory?

    You mention above a mental exercise, and I can see that you’re going somewhere besides simply linking to an article critical of Darwin.

    Any theory of course has problems, and the corrections for those problems are included as research progresses. What is your explanation of human evolution?

  12. GMB says:

    I linked the article since it was the best one I had found. The best worded and the best article. And people more generally haven’t really caught up with the state of things with regards to evolution. For example I know about Cladistics. And the implications for evolutionary theory. Yet few people seem to have thought this all through. And I don’t even know if its mainstream or not.

    “Any theory of course has problems, and the corrections for those problems are included as research progresses. What is your explanation of human evolution?”

    But that is not so. Or if it is people tend to be painfully useless at it. Painfully useless at figuring out what to spend the research money on. As the existence of Stoves valid objections show.

    You see you say that humans aren’t special. Well at least you used some sort of line like that to counter something that Stove said. But the specialness of humans is about the most obvious thing there is. And its a day to day mystery as to how they got that special.

    Now I have a theory for this. But you don’t. So why don’t you explain to me HOW you think it was that humans got to be so glaringly special. Or alternatively you could try on the much harder task of arguing that they aren’t special.

    And then maybe I’ll tell you what the answer is. But if you cannot even see that there is a mystery there then how on earth are you going to appreciate the answer to the mystery?

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