Sunday, 23 November 2014

Richard Dawkins warns about Universal Darwinism

In a section of a 2008 article in The Guardian, titled Why Darwin Matters Richard Dawkins wrote:

Although Darwin's theory can be applied to much beyond the evolution of organic life, I want to counsel against a different sense of Universal Darwinism. This is the uncritical dragging of some garbled version of natural selection into every available field of human discourse, whether it is appropriate or not.

Maybe the "fittest" firms survive in the marketplace of commerce, or the fittest theories survive in the scientific marketplace, but we should at very least be cautious before we get carried away. And of course there was Social Darwinism, culminating in the obscenity of Hitlerism.

Less obnoxious but still intellectually unhelpful is the loose and uncritical way in which amateur biologists apply selection at inappropriate levels in the hierarchy of life. "Survival of the fittest species, extinction of poorly adapted species" sounds superficially like natural selection, but the apparent resemblance is positively misleading. As Darwin himself was at pains to point out, natural selection is all about differential survival within species, not between them.

So: "Universal Darwinism" is "obnoxious" - according to Richard Dawkins! Frankly, an excess of caution is what got humanity into the current scientific mess surrounding Darwinism. It is why 155 years after Darwin published, the social sciences are still mostly stuck in a pre-Darwinian time warp. The precautionary principle is a disastrous approach to science and policy alike - as adeptly explained by Max More in The Perils of Precaution.

That Darwinism leads to "Hitlerism" is what the social scientists seem to think. Where's the science behind that? Understanding of Darwinism has not - to my knowledge - been shown to be correlated with any kind of poor behaviour. The nearest thing I can think of is the work which shows that economics students are more selfish than average - and that seems to be a bit different to me. The idea that understanding Darwinism somehow leads to bad social outcomes is currently a pseudo-scientific claim, not supported by the available evidence.

I'm not terribly concerned about "getting carried away" by Darwinian excesses. It seems like a non-hazard to me. What I am much more concerned about is the ignorance, stupidity and conservatism that are preventing the understanding of Darwinism in modern times. I am not talking about the clueless theists, but rather the anthropologists, historians, psychologists, developmentalists and physicists who should be taking advantage of Darwin's insights, but currently aren't. Some of these people are influential folk who educate the next generation and influence policy. We need to make sure that they have a basic working understanding of their own fields - and that will inevitably include the basics of Darwinism.

As for high level selection not really being "natural selection", Dawkins is wrong here - according to my understanding of these terms. Are we to believe that differential survival of species is not "natural"? Or that it is not "selection"? Of course differential survival of species qualifies as being "natural selection".

The idea that species selection is not a kind of "natural selection" is probably based on using "natural selection" as a technical term with a counter-intuitive meaning. I often dislike terminology that uses ordinary English words and gives them a counter-intuitive technical meaning. "Natural" and "selection" are ordinary words that work together pretty well in the context of Darwin's theory. There is absolutely no good reason to assign them a counter-intuitive technical meaning.

Of course, it would be possible to debate to what extent adaptations existed to benefit species - but that seems like a very different issue to whether the term "natural selection" applies to species.

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