Archive for February 2016
I do agree with Ridley that evolution is a general theory which is “not confined to genetic systems, but explains the way that virtually all of human culture changes” (p.2) and even that there is much evidence for culture-driven genetic change in the human species (Chapter 5). He describes the process most often as one of “trial and error”. I would be happier if he would make the metaphor explicit and say like trial and error because the latter is a psychological not a sociocultural process. Cultural or sociocultural evolution takes place by cultural transmission, variation and selection. I also agree that divisions of labour within individuals and specialization and trade between them (which incidentally need to be distinguished) are important in evolution, even biologically. They may be involved in the origin and evolution of gender differences and relations for example.
Ridley is not always consistent. For example, one of his most repetitive themes is that evolution is a “bottoms up process”. It is not always clear what he means by this – sometimes he seems to be reaching for what evolutionists call “populational thinking” i.e. evolution is not about individual anythings but about populations of such. Anyway, for a “bottoms up” guy I found it strange that he attributes variation and change in monogamy and polygamy in human history to its “beneficial effects on society” (chapter 5) and the popularity of “fictions” like the mind is because it “preserves the social order” (chapter 8) . Similarly, for one who opposes a “great man” theory of history and the importance commonly placed on the role of leaders in social change I found it strange that when ultimately using Hong Kong as the model of successful economic development in chapter 12, he attributes its success to the actions of a governor and later a financial secretary. Weren’t they leaders?
Nor should one take this book as an authoritative source on evolutionary processes.The prologue tells us that evolution is “incremental and gradual” (well, sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t) and that the genome has “no master gene” (we don’t know whether it does or does not). Chapter 4 generally adopts Dawkins genes-eye view of biological evolution mostly avoiding problems such as all the cutting and pasting that goes on from transcription to post-translation and the fact that recombination in sexual species takes place within as well as between functional units. These mean that there is no genomic unit that is consistently reproduced or replicated, varies and evolves adaptively except, I suppose, base pairs. But somehow the idea of selfish base pairs is less captivating than selfish genes (although Ridley studiously avoids the “s” word, as does Dawkins himself these days).
Chapter 2 tells us that morality emerges spontaneously as individuals learn how to “get along” because they enjoy making other people happy! Given that the topic of altruistic (- +) and cooperative (+ +) as opposed to selfish (+ -) and spiteful (- -) relationships are among the most discussed in modern evolutionary theory, it is shocking that Ridley seems blissfully unaware of or uninterested in any of these ideas or research. In fact, this book even misses much discussed things which might be taken to support some of the views it expresses. One of the most discussed topics in recent years stemming from Maynard Smith and Szathmáry’s book The Major Transitions in Evolution has been transitions from prokaryotic cells to the eukaryotic, from single celled eukaryotes to the multicelled, from multicelled individuals to eusocial colonies and so on. Whatever theory one might favour of such transitions, they were undoubtedly bottoms-up events although the majority view is that they then transition to a top down process.
Oh well, I hope to have better luck with a couple of other books. Stay tuned but I will be slow – I have other responsibilities.
Over the holidays I began to read some recent books on cultural evolution. I began with Matt Ridley`s The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge (HarperCollins 2015) because it has received a fair amount of attention. From what I had read and heard, I expected to both love and hate this book. I expected to love it because it is about the “general” (largely cultural) evolution of, well, EVERYTHING. Sandwiched between a prologue and an epilogue are 16 short chapters on the evolution of each of the universe, morality, life, genes, culture, the economy, technology, the mind, personality, education, population, leadership, government, religion, money and the internet!
To be sure, some of the chapters are not about what their titles would lead one to expect. Chapter 1 titled the evolution of the universe is not about the evolution of the universe at all. Instead it is about the history of western philosophy and science from Lucretius through Newton to Darwin told as a tale of more or less linear progress (but with many “swerves”) supposedly towards empiricism and atheism! Chapter 2 titled the evolution of life is not about the origins of life at all, instead it is about biological evolution in general, and more specifically, a pretty conventional account of how the concept of natural selection has largely won out over theories of design from pre-Darwinian natural theology including right up to the American legal wins over scientific creationism and intelligent design. It includes a few (I suspect) deliberately provocative claims such as that Darwin was really “rediscovering” Empedocles and Lucretius (p. 52)! Chapter 4 on the other hand titled the evolution of genes is about the origins of life. Chapter 8 on the evolution of the mind is not about the evolution of the mind at all. Instead it is about how the mind as opposed to the brain is a fiction. Oh well, enough of that.
Ridley’s real aim is to use evolutionary theory as a sort of coat tree on which to hang his neo-liberal or libertarian politics – in support of “private property, free trade, low taxes, limited government and freedom of the individual” while viewing the “modern state” as “liberal fascism” (p.243). Along the way he takes swipes at and not uncommonly pontificates at length against public health care, critics of genetic modification and fracking, the public funding of science, formal and particularly public education, patent systems, the belief that global inequality is increasing, government monopolies on money, fear of the consequences of climate change, that the financial crisis was caused by deregulation and so on. He even claims we could get rid of governments (p. 313) while from time to time piously championing “relief for the needy” (e.g. p. 243). To be sure he avoids the late 19th and early 20th century misuse of Darwinism to advocate for eugenics which came to be associated with forced sterilization, discrimination, and even genocide – in fact, in chapter 11, he explicitly disavows such views. Whether I agree or disagree with his politics is not the point. I resent claims that scientific theories can be used to answer questions of value as opposed to providing those responsible for making such decisions whether in the public, private, or voluntary sectors with useful information. No scientific theory has been more misused in such ways than Darwinism. Anyone who thinks science can answer questions of value rather than providing information to decision makers should read the great 19th century sociologist Max Weber’s wonderful essays on “science as a vocation” and “politics as a vocation”. (Continued)