To all chowderheads, including Andrew Brown: the selfish gene is just a metaphor!

One would think that after philosopher Mary Midgley’s monumental misunderstanding of the thesis of Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, one corrected definitively by Dawkins himself, the record would be clear. But one would be wrong.  Midgley not only thought that Dawkins was claiming that—and approving of—the tendency of evolution to always produce selfish creatures (it doesn’t), but she also confused the metaphor of a gene being selfish (it behaves as if it wishes to displace other genes) with a fragment of DNA actually being selfish, which is ludicrous (see Dawkins’s refutation here). Genes don’t have consciousness or desires.

Sadly, Andrew Brown, who increasingly shows signs of willful ignorance rather than just wooly-headedness, commits the same error in a new Guardian piece: “Evolution will punish the selfish? It’s not as simple as that.” Brown is beefing about a new paper in Nature Commmunications (free online) by Christoph Adami and Arend Hintze (reference below; free download). That paper shows that previous theoretical studies of “ZD” strategies, in which one always interacts selfishly with an opponent, were wrong. The earlier work showed that ZD strategies would successfully invade a population of individuals who were either unselfish or behaved “tit for tat” (“I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine). That would invariably result in populations of individuals who behaved selfishly.  And that, of course, is contradicted by the many animal societies that show some cooperation.

What Adami and Hintze showed in their new paper is that ZD strategies are not “evolutionarily stable”: that is, even if they invade a population, they will ultimately lose unless they can for some reason recognize a priori those other individuals with a “nicer strategy”,  And, even if ZD strategies became fixed, creating populations of selfish individuals, such populations would be evolutionarily unstable, subject to reverse evolution in which they became more cooperative.

The value of Adami and Hintze’s paper is that it repatriates the evolution of cooperation as a viable outcome of evolution, at least using game theory.  And it’s a nice paper because, unlike many game-theoretic models, it uses a fairly realistic genetic model, in which the difference between selfishness and non-selfishness is based on five genes. (Most game-theory studies of cooperation have used no genetics, implicitly assuming that a behavioral difference is based on a single gene, and one that is dominant.)  Sure, the paper doesn’t show that cooperation in nature did evolve this way—for theory cannot do that—but it does what theoretical biology is supposed to do: show what can and cannot happen under certain assumptions. Ergo, the evolution of cooperation in societies is still a viable strategy. (See also the press release from Michigan State University.)

Sadly, but understandably, Andrew Brown doesn’t understand the function of evolutionary theory:

The [Nature report] is actually a report of a result in game theory which overthrew an earlier experiment in game theory suggesting that a completely “ruthless” strategy would succeed in a contest with other ones slightly less ruthless.

None of these experiments are conducted in the wild. They are all computer simulations. This is another reason to be slightly sceptical of all these grand results – it’s possible that when the pretty mathematics are fitted to the ugly world, they will break. But that’s true of pretty much all the kind of science that makes news. There’s nothing special to biology about it.

But of course one has to be skeptical of all mathematical results, since they’re all based on simplifying assumptions. Nevertheless, those assumptions are often useful in helping us understand nature. (I am thinking of sex-ratio theory here, as well as my friend Michael Turelli’s theory on how a parasitic bacteria that causes sterility in mosquitoes could sweep through a population. Turelli’s theory has actually been used to eliminate mosquito-carried dengue fever in parts of Australia!) Population genetics has been very successful as a hand-in-hand coupling of theory and experiment. To give but one example, we now understand why there are so many “self-sterility” alleles in plants: those alleles that prevent a plant from mating with itself.

Theory is also good at getting rid of misconceptions based on intuition. I think it was the Scottish statistician George Udny Yule who, based on his intuition, claimed that a dominant allele (say for brown eyes rather than blue) would sweep through a population simply by virtue of its dominance.  But, as three scientists showed with their simple “Hardy-Weinberg-Castle” model (one of those models that Brown is skeptical about), brown/blue allele frequencies will stay the same in a large population if natural selection is not operating (along with a few other assumptions). That is, the math showed that the verbal intuition was simply wrong.

Brown goes on to commit the Midgley Error: assuming that “selfish” is anything more than a metaphor, for both genes and computer codes:

The interesting question is how we come to describe a fragment of computer code as “ruthless”. I put scare quotes around “ruthless” because the attribution of moral qualities like ruthless, selfish and even altruistic (assuming for the moment that altruism is moral) to computer programs is the essential mechanism by which these stories spread. Yet of course no one who thinks about the matter for a moment supposes that computer programs (or genes) can be selfish, altruistic or ticklish. It’s just that no one would give a damn about them if they weren’t described emotively.

The root of all this anthropomorphism is Richard Dawkins’ first book, The Selfish Gene, which remains a masterclass in science writing. Anyone who could pass an exam after reading it would have a sound understanding of evolutionary biology – and of rhetoric.

That exam has only one question: “In the light of the text of the book, candidates will explain why ‘selfish’ does not mean ‘selfish’ and ‘gene’ does not mean ‘gene’.” The author himself would score about 80% on it (and claim for the rest of his life that the examiners hadn’t read the book). The average headline writer would score 0.

. . . But it is worth pointing out why it matters that genes and programs can’t be selfish in any interesting or important way. That’s not because believing this leads us to misunderstand genes, or to program computers badly. It’s because it leads us to misunderstand selfishness, which is a moral quality displayed in the acts and choices of responsible beings.

Brown hasn’t scored 80% here; he’s scored zero.  That’s because he misses a major aspect of the book: that the term “selfish gene” is just a metaphor, Mr. Brown!  Gene replication behaves as if the genes are selfish. There is no morality in either computer code and genes (the Midgley Error).  The emotive description only confuses those people who can’t think very hard; otherwise it is quite enlightening.  It is in fact a very good metaphor. Do you beef, Mr. Brown, when your car doesn’t start, and curse it for being “cranky” or “uncooperative”? Or do you object in general to any metaphor that is anthropomorphic?

And look at this backhanded “compliment” Brown gives Dawkins’s book (which of course has sold millions of copies, far more than anything Brown ever produced):

What makes the Selfish Gene such an interesting and important book is that it contains in itself all the arguments you need to understand why it is absurd to call genes (or computer programs) “selfish” – and then sometimes, and with equal force, ignores them.

I’m not knocking contradiction here. It’s the flaws and the self-contradiction that make the book compelling.

No, what makes the book interesting and important is that it explains in a compelling way how natural selection works, not because its premise is absurd or in any way contradictory. In an afterward, and repeatedly since its publication, Dawkins has explained not only that selfish genes can cause cooperative behavior, but that he could equally well have called his book The Cooperative Gene. DId you miss that, Mr. Brown?

Brown goes on to blather about how people can use computer programs in a humanly selfish way,—for example, bilking Greeks out of their pensions—and of course that’s true. But it’s completely irrelevant to Dawkins’s thesis, and is merely another cheap shot.  He concludes with this:

Of course we’re machines subject to physical and chemical laws. But we are such immensely complicated conglomerations of such machinery that we need a new and different set of concepts – things like morality, responsibility, ruthlessness and selfishness – to describe their interplay. To talk as if the same concepts could be applied to genes or program fragments and to human beings is dangerously misleading – even though it’s fun and makes for memorable headlines.

No, it’s not dangerously misleading. Really, Mr. Brown, what “dangers” have resulted from Dawkins’s enlightening metaphor, save the loss of trees expended on corrected the stupid misunderstandings of people like yourself and Mary Midgley? Have you ever cursed at your computer as if it were willfully misbehaving, or treated any piece of machinery as if it was malicious? I thought so.

This is just another of Brown’s pieces reflecting his venomous attitudes towards Dawkins, but it also shows his misunderstanding of both biology and good writing.  Yes, I suspect, as many readers have suggested, that the Guardian keeps Brown on simply because his stupidity draws corrective comments and lots of hits, but doesn’t there come a point when this kind of blather is inherently embarrassing to what used to be a good newspaper?

________________

Adami, C. and A. Hintze. 2013. Evolutionary instability of zero-determinant strategies demonstrates that winning is not everything. Nature Communcations online: doi:10.1038/ncomms3193

68 Comments

  1. Posted August 3, 2013 at 5:52 am | Permalink

    It’s unfortunate that’s is dangerous business for scientists to use metaphors or analogies. The ignorant will abuse it as they see fit. Think of “god doesn’t play dices” or Schrödinger’s cat.

    • Grania Spingies
      Posted August 3, 2013 at 6:37 am | Permalink

      I suppose the assumption is that people understand that metaphors are meant to be descriptive aids, not as exact analogues.

      However, you can be sure that when someone schooled in the humanities wants to criticise a bit of science they have read and decided they didn’t like, they will decide to parse every word written as if they were a Westboro Baptist reading the Old Testament.

      It’s an affront not only to science but also to the humanities.

  2. Posted August 3, 2013 at 6:00 am | Permalink

    But of course one has to be skeptical of all mathematical results, since they’re all based on simplifying assumptions. Nevertheless, sometimes those assumptions are often useful in helping us understand nature.

    How apropos; we discussed a paper in our journal club just this week in which the authors used a simple model to argue that species cannot exist in small organisms (< ca 1 mm).

    We found at least half a dozen problems with the paper, not the least of them the fact that species demonstrably exist in organisms of that size. Ultimately a colleagues who had been silent at first was able to demonstrate with half a dozen sentences and a print-out of four graphs from his own research that the metagenomics problem the paper set out to solve does not exist in the first place (it's all sequencing errors), but even apart from that it was a textbook case of the clash between overly simplistic models and empirical data.

    In case somebody is interested:
    http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2013.1248

    • darrelle
      Posted August 3, 2013 at 6:08 am | Permalink

      It seems like the initial necessary step of defining precisely what a species is for the purpose of the study would be the most difficult part. That would be key to trying to figure out whether the results would be in any way useful.

      • Pete Moulton
        Posted August 3, 2013 at 6:37 am | Permalink

        Good luck with that, darrelle. James Mallett recently published a paper detailing no fewer than 15 distinct species concepts.

        • darrelle
          Posted August 3, 2013 at 7:28 am | Permalink

          *laughing* Exactly what I was thinking.

      • Posted August 3, 2013 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

        Well, that is one of the problems: The authors wave vaguely in the direction of the Genotypic Cluster Species Concept (which I prefer myself) but then do not appear to make any use of it whatsoever.

        Then they seem to say that they are using the Ecological Species Concept. But while they define it as a lineage or group of related lineages with its own minimal niche/adaptive zone, don’t remember the exact words, in the rest of the paper they do not appear to care about the “related” or the “lineage” part. Unless I misunderstand their model (well possible), they would count two unrelated lineages as the same ecospecies if they converged on the same niche, which is obviously nonsensical. Think Echidna and South American Anteater.

        So there is no problem per se: define what is a species for you and go from there. In this case it just does not look as if they really went from there.

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted August 3, 2013 at 6:41 am | Permalink

      To take a simple example, one can construct a model of physics in which the speed of light is 20 miles an hour as physicist George Gamow did in his book expositing relativity “Mr Tompkins in Wonderland” and it wouldn’t be much use.

      To take a more complex example, the long history of controversies over the applicability of Bayes’ theorem is a specially apropos example of the need to be cautious when asking if a math model has any applicability to the real world. Nonetheless Bayes’ theorem turned out to be very useful in cracking the Nazi enigma code and locating enemy submarines, so its applicability to at least some situations has been vindicated by real-world experience.

      This is of course a major reason why William Dembski’s math models using information theory as an apologetic for intelligent design don’t amount to a hill of beans. We have no reason to believe they correspond to anything in the real world.

  3. NewEnglandBob
    Posted August 3, 2013 at 6:19 am | Permalink

    “Sadly, Andrew Brown, who increasingly shows signs of willful ignorance rather than just wooly(sic*)-headedness…”

    It appears more like willful maliciousness to me.

    *woolly

    • Grania Spingies
      Posted August 3, 2013 at 6:42 am | Permalink

      American v British again, I’m afraid.

  4. darrelle
    Posted August 3, 2013 at 6:23 am | Permalink

    This misconception is so common, I can’t count the number of arguments I’ve had about it over the years. And I just can’t understand how anyone with a reasonable level of reading comprehension could possibly misunderstand this metaphor in this way. Unless, of course, they are merely parroting others and have no first hand knowledge themselves, or are doing so willfully (i.e. lying) due to ulterior motivations.

    Sadly I frequently come across this on other science sites, particularly those geared towards the physical sciences, and technology / engineering sites. The most common single factor seems to be a dislike for Dawkins, and this is just one more, usually inaccurate, accusation that is commonly used by people who wish to express that they don’t like him. And there is invariably a comment that reveals that the key issue is that the person doesn’t like how Dawkins talks plainly about religion.

    • MNb
      Posted August 3, 2013 at 8:14 am | Permalink

      “(i.e. lying)”
      Self deception suffices; due to ulterior motivations indeed.

      “a dislike for Dawkins”
      I don’t like The God Delusion either. “Deriving” that his biology is wrong is a grave non-sequitur. Since when do scientists have to be likeable in order to excel in their work?

      • onkelbob
        Posted August 3, 2013 at 9:17 am | Permalink

        >Since when do scientists have to be likeable in order to excel in their work?<
        Indeed. Most of the "nice" scientists I know have the footprints on their back of their conniving compadres. Between the peer review process and selection of speakers at symposiums and conferences, Durocher had it right, nice guys finish last; or at least they come up short.

      • darrelle
        Posted August 3, 2013 at 10:59 am | Permalink

        Exactly. But, judging a persons credibility based on what one thinks of that persons moral standing is very common for humans, and is certainly encouraged by many religions, whether by design or evolution.

        But of course, that is a problem we need to guard against, not embrace.

  5. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted August 3, 2013 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    For the record, Andrew Brown won the John Templeton European Religion Writer of the Year award in 1994, and his Wikipedia article is flagged with the tag “The topic of this article may not meet Wikipedia’s notability guideline for biographies.”

    I certainly hope he understands that “chowderhead” is just a metaphor. 🙂

    • Posted August 3, 2013 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

      “chowderhead” is too vague. He should be referred to as a “mentally-defective individual”, as one might say about someone who fears leaving their abode, or hordes eight-foot stacks of old newspapers.

      We wouldn’t call a person who has a memory deficit, dementia, Alzheimer’s, a “chowderhead”. We would refer to their condition, not brand them.

  6. Posted August 3, 2013 at 6:38 am | Permalink

    Blundering Brown, on the other hand, is more than just a poetic adumbration.

  7. Sciamanna
    Posted August 3, 2013 at 6:46 am | Permalink

    Er, I think mostly you are violently agreeing with Brown. My reading is that he totally understands that it’s a metaphor. Re-read his exam question:

    “In the light of the text of the book, candidates will explain why ‘selfish’ does not mean ‘selfish’ and ‘gene’ does not mean ‘gene’.”

    His accusation to Dawkins, who “only scores 80%”, is that he hasn’t been very clear about it in the book, thereby creating confusion in the readers — and *possibly* that sometimes he seems to treat it as literal himself.

    Or in other words, Dawkins chose a bad metaphor, and sometimes gets tricked by it himself.

    Brown also seems to be aware of Dawkins’ rebuttals (“claiming the examiners hadn’t read the book”).

    Clearly he does have some beef with Dawkins, but I really don’t think he’s accusing him of literally thinking the gene is morally selfish.

    Me, I’ve read and liked the book, and my understanding is that the “selfish gene” is in fact (among other things) Dawkins’ mechanism for allowing the evolution of altruism — but I am also convinced that the title was a very bad choice, and the confusion is completely understandable. I don’t think Brown is confused on this point though.

    • Posted August 3, 2013 at 7:07 am | Permalink

      “To talk as if the same concepts could be applied to genes or program fragments and to human beings is dangerously misleading.”

      How could it be dangerous or misleading if Brown understands the concept of metaphor? Otherwise, he’s adopting condescension toward the reader.

      • Sciamanna
        Posted August 3, 2013 at 7:54 am | Permalink

        The misunderstanding exists. He’s not accusing readers of being stupid, but Dawkins of being misleading.

        Most of the misunderstanding, of course, happens when people read the title and not the book. In the nature of things, more people will read the title than the book.

        • Posted August 3, 2013 at 8:23 am | Permalink

          I suppose “Guns, Germs, and Steel” might as well be a community resource guide for locating pawn shops, hospitals, and auto repair facilities in East St. Louis.

          • Sciamanna
            Posted August 3, 2013 at 9:51 am | Permalink

            Indeed. On the other hand, it is not very likely to be mistaken for an apology of the innate, god-given superiority of the White Race.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted August 3, 2013 at 9:55 am | Permalink

            Ha ha! Good one!

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted August 3, 2013 at 9:57 am | Permalink

        And using the word, “dangerously”– please. It’s a tempest in a teapot. Brown thinks he’s giving sage advice to protect the hoi polloi

        • Posted August 3, 2013 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

          Shouldn’t that be, “… protect hoi polloi”?

          /@

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted August 3, 2013 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

            LOL if I was fancy. I was being all οἱ πολλοί about it though.

    • Posted August 3, 2013 at 7:23 am | Permalink

      My reading is that he totally understands that it’s a metaphor.

      My reading is that, as usual for Andrew Brown, his writing is too confused and contradictory to work out whether he understands this or not. Which probably means that he doesn’t.

      • Sciamanna
        Posted August 3, 2013 at 7:55 am | Permalink

        I should maybe point out that I don’t know this Brown person at all beyond this article. Maybe you’re right though, if I’m the only person who seems to read his article this way…

    • elisafdm
      Posted August 3, 2013 at 7:24 am | Permalink

      “So the danger of this sort of headline is not that it anthropomorphises computers (or genes). It is that the language computeromorphises human beings. This isn’t just morally wrong. It’s factually misleading. (…) To talk as if the same concepts could be applied to genes or program fragments and to human beings is dangerously misleading – even though it’s fun and makes for memorable headlines.

      It seems to me that Andrew Brown DOES understand that the metaphor is a metaphor, but he is still keen to rubbish it as a bad, misleading metaphor. This is a mixture of really bad condescension towards the general public, and of general “hate Dawkins” speech.

      RD’s book is very good – it opened the doors of popular biology to a non-expert like me, and pending some updates, which he added on the occasion of the 30th Anniversary edition, it’s still a very relevant picture of one of the two main schools of thoughts in modern biology (the other one being the Gouldians, of which Andrew Brown does not speak in his article). Gould never took issue with the book’s title, preferring to argue with Dawkins over content, which is what any critic of Dawkins should do. Seriously, next time I hear anyone arguing against RD for his choice of titles, I’ll not bother to comment. This is silliness at its height.

      • Sciamanna
        Posted August 3, 2013 at 7:57 am | Permalink

        Ah ok, so I’m not the only one to read it this way. Feeling all reassured now 🙂

        • Richard Thomas
          Posted August 3, 2013 at 8:39 am | Permalink

          No, not the only one (plus one). I was about to weigh in and say essentially what you said.

        • Diane G.
          Posted August 5, 2013 at 12:40 am | Permalink

          + 2

      • Posted August 3, 2013 at 7:59 am | Permalink

        This propensity not to engage actual content and instead get stuck deliberating over superficial you-name-its, often at ridiculous length, is everywhere. EVERYWHERE!

        I might go so far as to say it constitutes the lion’s share of what gets published in my field, music.

        • Posted August 3, 2013 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

          Yes, it’s a mental condition. Like people who believe in a flat earth. Rather than refer to them by denigrating names, just say they have a mental defect:

          “Mentally-defective Richard Reichenbalf has reviewed the latest concert by the San Francisco Symphony, where, instead of the music, he addressed his remarks to his personal dislike of the conductor.”

          • Posted August 3, 2013 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

            Yes, stuff like that.

            Susan McClary (a musicologist) is a virtuoso at this kind of onanism. She’ll go on for pages and never actually discuss the music itself.

          • Posted August 3, 2013 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

            I don’t know, however, about classifying this behavior as a mental condition.

            I think it’s a result of laziness combined with a childish preoccupation with shiny things:

            “I don’t really want to learn how to analyze this Debussy, but I’ll write a paper nonetheless, discussing, very superficially, kimonos and pagodas etc. Because Japonisme. And that’s really neat, ’cause its exotic and stuff.”

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted August 3, 2013 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

              Yes I agree – “I want to come off being smart without actually working like a smart person does”

            • Diane G.
              Posted August 5, 2013 at 12:44 am | Permalink

              Pay attention and you’ll notice that o2generate wants us to call a great many misguided ideas and beliefs “mental conditions.” (Used to be “mental illness” till some of us finally spoke up about the disservice that did to those with real mental illnesses.)

              This hang-up of his causes me to disregard his contributions, for the most part.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted August 3, 2013 at 10:25 am | Permalink

        Yes, Brown is trying to seem profound without doing all the actual work required to be profound….attacking the title – puhleese.

    • MNb
      Posted August 3, 2013 at 8:17 am | Permalink

      “Dawkins chose a bad metaphor”
      Oh please, I remember the first comments on the book I read in the papers in the 80’s, after the second translation in Dutch. It was clear to everyone, including me, that selfish was meant as a metaphor.

    • Gary W
      Posted August 3, 2013 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

      That’s my reading of Brown, too. He understands that Dawkins is using selfishness as a metaphor, but he thinks it’s a bad metaphor that will promote misunderstanding of selfishness.

      I think that’s nonsense. It’s a bit like saying that using the metaphor of a tree to represent family histories (“family tree”) will promote misunderstanding of trees.

    • Posted August 3, 2013 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

      To support you on this point, using the “selfish” metaphor while talking about altruism is immediately a problem. Altruism always brings in the context of moral/psychological selfishness, since it is that that it is incompatible with; you cannot do an altruistic act for selfish reasons. Because of this, even if Dawkins applied the metaphor perfectly, there’d always be the issue that the issue he’s talking about will always encourage thinking of the term “selfish” in terms of psychological/moral selfishness, and thus apply that to the genes as well, just because the context makes that the most obvious and direct link; splitting up the two terms in the context of altruism is actually pretty hard to do.

      And because of this, Dawkins himself risks equivocating on the issue — and seems to at times, although I have not read “The Selfish Gene” itself — because once he establishes that the genes are “selfish” then it will be too easy to leap to “And so you can have altruism from selfish mechanisms”, which to be interesting has to be the psychological/moral meaning.

    • Ohtobide
      Posted August 4, 2013 at 7:10 am | Permalink

      That is my reading as well. Brown knows it is a metaphor. He also sees, quite rightly, that it is a BAD METAPHOR, so bad that Dawkins does not even stick to it himself.

  8. Posted August 3, 2013 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    Nice post. It is amazing that this misunderstanding of evolution and cooperation persists, but the problem is not soup for brains, it is the emotional upset aroused by a metaphor that engages human moral passions. Some might be interested in a piece I wrote to try to explain the problem, and immunize against misunderstanding the metaphor, “Why so many people with selfish genes are generally pretty nice–Except for their hatred of “The Selfish Gene.” http://www.randolphnesse.com/articles/altruism

    • Posted August 3, 2013 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

      Can one be “immunized” (excellent choice of words) against a mental condition? If I have acrophobia, can I be “immunized”? Fear of snakes? Preset bias against all attacks, near or distant, that ultimately destroy my vision of an immortality, an eternal existence surrounded by everyone human who ever lived?

      I hypothesize that stuff like Andrew Brown’s writing are really deep-seated defenses against a realization that humans have no “afterlife”. And so, they are incoherent.

  9. MNb
    Posted August 3, 2013 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    “the selfish gene is just a metaphor”
    That’s exactly the problem – in the minds of the likes of Andrew Brown only believers are allowed to use metaphors and they have to be Biblical. I sometimes publicly wonder which mushroom the author of Revelations ate before writing. Sure some theologian asked me if I could prove that the author had eaten mushrooms. He was completely serious.
    If folks want to misunderstand you they will. So it doesn’t have use to watch your words.

    • Posted August 3, 2013 at 8:56 am | Permalink

      Indeed. Mr. Brown should declare jihad on the Washington Post every time it uses the phrases “fiscal cliff,” “underwater mortgage,” “debt ceiling,” and “deficit hawk.”

  10. Bob Carlson
    Posted August 3, 2013 at 8:20 am | Permalink

    I don’t have anything to add to the critique of Brown’s commentary, but I had never read The Selfish Gene and remedied that when I purchased the Kindle version a month ago. Unlike some of the older books that are converted to Kindle, it was done correctly with this book, and the footnotes are all linked. There are many of those, and they often discuss information that has been updated since the earlier versions of the book appeared. In some of those, Dawkins discusses how he had erred in his thinking about a particular matter. I found it superb, and a bargain at the price of $9.50.

  11. Christopher
    Posted August 3, 2013 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    I have given up commenting on his pieces. They are garbage. And I am shocked at the Guardian. But alas, like you say, he gets lots of hits from people mainly correcting him. Very irritating.

  12. Diana MacPherson
    Posted August 3, 2013 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    I see Andrew Brown as a tragic figure. He has such an intense thirst for recognition that it can only be quenched in the most immediate way: by attacking those who are more accomplished than him. That’s how you get people to listen to you, even if only for a minute.

    You see it again and again; instead of providing insight into established ideas or presenting brand new ones, Brown knocks anything or anyone that has actually done so; his constant new atheist attacks are a good example of this behaviour and I suspect he loves the negative comments because only the real mavericks cause such dissent!

    So, when Brown slams Dawkins’s established work, not for its real content, but for something as trivial as its use of metaphor and then blows the whole thing out of proportion, Brown gets loads of attention for very little effort.

    I suspect that Andrew Brown would like his Tantalus-y epithet because he’d love the idea of being a Titan, even a cursed, suffering one. But what am I saying, he’d probably miss or hate the use of the metaphor!

  13. Posted August 3, 2013 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    Perhaps this study will help Gary understand why most people neither wet their beds nor rob banks, for it is a mathematical model of the evolutionary advantages of the exact same type of ethical strategy I’ve been advocating for years and years.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Gary W
      Posted August 3, 2013 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

      The discussion you’re apparently alluding to was not about why most people neither wet their beds nor rob banks, but about the reasons for a particular individual to rob a bank.

    • Posted August 3, 2013 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

      Considering that Dr. Coyne took great pains to point out that the term “selfish” as described at the gene level was NOT a moral/psychological “selfishness”, it wouldn’t support your contention. At all. Unless you don’t think that humans — all humans — are capable of being psychological/morally selfish.

  14. Brygida Berse
    Posted August 3, 2013 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    Richard Dawkins would score 80% at understanding evolutionary biology? What does it even mean?

  15. Pliny the in Between
    Posted August 3, 2013 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    It’s part of the modern debate algorithm which is used in place of actually having a point:

    If presented with an inconvenient metaphor, then apply concrete thinking.

    If presented with concrete facts, then apply philosophical metaphor.

    If backed into a corner, then apply personal attacks

    If attacks fail, then invoke naivete defense

    If naivete defense fails, then feign exasperation, deploy stigmata, and take your ball and go home.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted August 3, 2013 at 10:30 am | Permalink

      Good observation – I especially like the first two because they are so ubiquitous!

    • Posted August 3, 2013 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

      Or claim it was sophisticated philosophical humour…

      /@

  16. DrDroid
    Posted August 3, 2013 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    I believe I once heard Richard say that it might have been better to name the book The Immortal Gene.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted August 3, 2013 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

      Maybe he should reissue it with the sub-title, “enough already with the metaphor debate”. 🙂

  17. Posted August 3, 2013 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    RE: treating machines as if they are malicious:

    It’s based on theology, a little-known corollary of the doctrine of original sin, namely, the doctrine of the perversity of inanimate objects!

    • Posted August 3, 2013 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

      Well, it’s ultimately rooted in our over-active agency detectors. Part of what led to religion in the first place.

  18. cherrybombsim
    Posted August 3, 2013 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

    My problem with these game-theory simulations is that they are too simple. Even one step up in complexity, to a game like rock-paper-scissors, is problematic. Anyone who relies on their biological adaptations to pick an option will be obliterated by a person who has actually studied the game and thought about it. Real-life social interactions are much more complicated than rock-paper-scissors, and success will go to the wiliest, regardless of any adaptive instincts.

  19. madscientist
    Posted August 3, 2013 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

    That sounds like an accurate characterization of a typical piece by Brown. “I can’t understand how you use words, therefore god.” would apply to most of his drivel, and Andrew Brown produces nothing but drivel. I for one have long avoided any articles by Andrew Brown because the man is a veritable ignorant ass and there is no evidence that he will ever change.

  20. Posted August 3, 2013 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

    Jerry:

    Check out this cat and barn owl playing:

  21. Jim Thomerson
    Posted August 4, 2013 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    Thanks for mentioning the Hardy-Weinberg-Castle law (or whatever). I read of his involvement many years ago, but could not recall his name. He was an American, at a time when American science was not that highly thought of. In any case, he is almost never recognized, and this is the first time I have seen his name in many years.

  22. kelskye
    Posted August 4, 2013 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    The fact that people can read Dawkins’ book and see the use of selfish in that moral sense probably suggests it’s a mistake to use such a metaphor. Dawkins isn’t the problem, it’s those reading Dawkins, because the human mind is far too willing to anthropomorphise even when they are explicitly told not to.

  23. Chris
    Posted August 5, 2013 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    I really wonder whether AB has read the same book as me. What I brought from reading “The Selfish Gene” is that we have reached the stage, as a species, where we can fight against our programming.

    FWIW I prefer Dawkins’s “sciency” stuff over The God Delusion, but maybe that’s because I’d already read many of the arguments before, and in more detail. Still, it’s a pretty good primer, and sends the message that any amount of Sophisticamated Theology (c) is ignorable if there’s no evidence to support it and there is no need to get bogged down in the details.


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