Sam Pawlett rsp at uniserve.com
Tue Aug 3 09:36:25 PDT 1999

ken wrote:
> Just a couple random thoughts on evolutionary biology...
> One of the most annoying things about evolutionary biology,
> as Rakesh notes, is a kind of reductionism. Richard Dawkins
> is probably the most well known in this case: "genes have
> only one goal: to make more copies of themselves." For
> those wondering if positivist is alive and well - it certainly
> seems to be. For the most part scientists are still using the
> langauge of "discovery." The twit/physicist Richard Feynman,
> perhaps untypically, once said that "after the fundamental
> laws are discovered, physics will succumb to second-rate
> thinkers, like philosophers" just after noting that ""you only
> discover America once."

In fairness to Dawkins, "reductionism" simply means looking for explanatory mechanisms at the lowest possible level. Remember that much of Dawkins and a lot of evolutionary theory uses metaphor in its popular incarnation. So when he says "genes have goals" he does not mean this literally, he is not positing intentionality to DNA but talking "as if". Biologists call these 'just so' stories.

> What is most astonishing to me, other than the language of
> discovery, is a complete lack of understanding regarding
> creation. That we (yes, we) don't "discover" fundamental
> laws... we create them - we posit and institute them.

Who is saying this? The notion that the laws of science are created and not discovered is pure idealism.

It is just
> assumed, time and time again, that language is a completely
> self-reflective medium. Even when some people are aware
> that this isn't the case, they often turn to mathematics as a
> pure language

Well, math theorems are true necessarily and apriori, which means they cannot have any empirical content making them 'pure' ,if you will, truths. Some would dispute this.

- as if math solves the problem by conveying
> truth in its purest form (seemingly unaware that math is an
> artificial creation - something which Gadamer, rightfully I
> suspect, identifies as a violence against communication and
> understanding).

Math as artificial? You mean if humans didn't exist there wouldn't be exactly nine planets in this galaxy?

> For my pennies, Stephen Jay Gould is probably one of the
> best theorists regarding this. At least he's emphasized the
> importance of contingency (a la Hegel and Marx) better than
> most.

Dawkins et. al. have come up with sophisticated arguments against this. Dawkins comes close to saying that the theory of natural selection is necessarily true (if any species exists, it must have evolved by natural selection). Natural selection takes place through a series of small steps like the way a tennis tournament moves from many contestants to a single winner over a given period of time.

Remember that S.J. Gould is a Darwinian and believes in the ubiquity of natural selection. He just believes that natural selection and adaptationism are a few evolutionary forces among many.
> What I still find frustrating though, esp. with people like
> Dawkins, is unbelievably imprecise formulation of theoretical
> models: "genes have a goal..." or "the a species that does
> not reproduce is a failed species."

Imprecise in their popular work maybe. Not in their technical work. A species that does not reproduce goes extinct. In what sense can you call such a species successful? In Darwinian terms, reproduction just means success. That's the way biologists talk. The rate of reprodution is how fit the species is. In strict terms, cockroaches and rats are better adapted than humans are and hence will survive long after the human species goes extinct (which may not be that long in geological time), hence rats will be more successful than humans. However, a lot of biologists do think that the Darwinian notion of success and fitness

needs revising.

This is most annoying. I
> think that the social sciences have adopted a far better and
> less alienated (if I can say that) approach: the logic of
> systems... that kind of thing.

I agree, but its not just in the social sciences where scholars have developed a non-reductionist approach.

The ideas are pretty much the
> same, but there is a tendency for theory to get less abused if
> one talks about logics than success and failure. And I suspect
> the difference in language here has a lot to do with the
> overwhelming tendency to reduce social phenomena to
> genetics (the gay gene, ie. what would be termed a failed gene
> in evolutionary biology).

A failed gene is one that fails to reproduce itself. I don't think even Dawkins believes that genes explain all social phenomena. Even Steven Rose thinks that genes play some role in explaining behavior and social aggregates, its just that genes alone cannot provide an explanation. Hope i got that right.

To Rakesh: Have you read *Unto Others* by Sober and Wilson yet? I'm reading it right now, an excellent defense of group selection. It even got a favorable blurb from E.O. Wilson!

Sam P.

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