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February 11, 2003

Darwin under attack

So this is the reason why I hesitate to label myself a "conservative," they are attacking Darwin (or what they believe Darwinism is) over at Free Republic. If conservative means to defend America's western liberal traditions, I'm a conservative. If it means standing with the good Bishop against Huxley, well, that's a whole different cup of tea....

Comments from Jason
The author of the attack on Darwin is the late David Stove, IMHO a much over-rated Australian philosopher who seems to have had a habit of attacking thinkers he didn't understand and making a mess of their arguments. Karl Popper seems to be another target of Stove's ire - ironically his famous book Anything goes accuses Popper of being responsible for irrationalist postmodernism - despite the fact that Popper was one of the few philosophers of science that actual practising scientists like Albert Einstein and Peter Medawar thought highly of. Stove is also championed by the neo-conservative New Criterion crowd, not just grassroots Freepers whose ignorance can be excused. It's a very disappointing state of affairs but rather ironic that the anti-Darwinian Stove is the neo-cons' poster boy against 'irrationalism' (a category with which they conflate the falsificationism of Popper with the hijinks of Feyerabrand).

Posted by razib at 11:32 PM

Jason, Stove did make something of a hash of Popper, but he did, however, (IMO) a wonderful job of exposing Hume's Problem of Induction as a pseudo-problem. I even appreciate the humour of the conclusion of his analysis - that it was a premise smuggled in unwittingly by Hume from the Rationalists(!) that created the "Problem" in the first place.
Agree with him or not, that's still funny.

Posted by: PatrickH at February 12, 2003 06:27 AM

I thought you hesitated to call yourself a conservative, b/c you aren't, by any traditional definition, a conservative. As if an atheist who supports abortion on demand is a "conservative". Call it a form of political hypodescent. Pym Fortuyn is another victim of the one-drop rule: you don't support immigration *BANG* you're a right-wing extremist.

Posted by: Jason M. at February 12, 2003 06:31 AM

My guess is that Stove, who I haven't read, objected to the "boo-hurrah" theory of ethics, which holds that ethical beliefs are purely personal judgements like the preference for chocolate over vanilla ice cream. Popper himself probably didn't exactly advocate the boo-hurrah theory, but the positivist critique of unfalsifiable discourse often did lead to an ethical nihilism. And Sartre's existentialist theory of free, arbitrary choice had the same problem.

Posted by: john emerson at February 12, 2003 11:57 AM

hey john, you know i lived in portland until last month? how's the weather? :)

Posted by: razib at February 12, 2003 12:11 PM

well jason,

i don't see anyone on the Left half of the spectrum taking on multiculturalism. the Right half is more mixed (Rove et. al.), but some are taking a stand for West. Civ.

as far as abortion, etc.-well, if Roe vs. Wade is overturned, there would be little difference, as states that would ban abortion have hardly any abortion clinics anyway.

as an atheist, i appreciate western culture's (along with chinese & indian) acceptance of the critique of theism &/or religion. muslim & to a lesser extent latino immigrants [1] come from cultures where such critiques are less acceptable. i've actually been attacked by liberals for making criticisms of islam as "insensative." granted, not all liberals are like this-but enough to make me think that my secularism isn't a strong enough reason to align more Left than Right.

P.S. i'm a registered republican, tend to split between libertarian and republican, though i vote more on ballot measures than anything else....

[1] uruguay is 1/3 non-religious, so there is a big diversity, but in general, the whiter the country, the less religious-while indigenous countries like guatemala are witnessing religious bidding wars between protestants and catholics.

Posted by: razib at February 12, 2003 12:56 PM

I guess a better way to say that than pointing to two specific issues would have been for me to say that you are socially liberal ( encompassing a large number of matters from science to sexuality), which certainly contradicts a large part of the philosophical base of traditionally defined conservatism.

The problem with voting Democratic, Libertarian, or Republican is that each party, for the most part, caters to many disatisfying elements, and is philosophically very imperfect. The cost-benefit decision of voting is always a painful one. So painful that I would hesitate to call myself anything (politically) with any sort of pride.

Posted by: Jason M. at February 12, 2003 02:52 PM

I realise it's a common misconception but Popper was never a positivist though be briefly hung around the Vienna Circle. His line of demarcation was between science and non-science not truth and nonsense, and even then his demarcationist writings focused on the non-social sciences. Even today there are for instance some sympathetic to Austrian economics (like Rafe Champion) who argue that the a priorist school of hard-core Austrian economics ( a la Mises) is consistent with Popper's line.
However what is more significant about Popper to me is that he confronted Hume's induction problem squarely and basically said there is no need to ground truth on 'justified belief' i.e. he was an anti-foundationalist and you are right this is probably what gets the goat of Stove and the neo-cons who are essentially secular Platonists. Any approach other than Popper's ends up in an infinite regress whereas the approach developed by Popper in his later years is essentially a form of evolutionary epistemology - this essay by an extropian has a very good overview of the issues http://www.maxmore.com/pcr.htm

Posted by: Jason Soon at February 12, 2003 02:55 PM

Weather here is mild and dry. Not really a good thing when summer comes. I already have my heat off half the time. What were you doign in Portland, if I may ask?

Posted by: john emerson at February 12, 2003 03:10 PM

As someone who is a big fan of Stove (and who agrees with his takedown of Popper) I think it should be pointed out that Stove did believe in evolution, and thought Darwin was one of the most brilliant thinkers who ever lived. That he then writes a book called "Darwinian Fairytales" (which is mostly an attack on certain assertions of Neo-Darwinists) is, well, classic Stove.

Posted by: carter at February 12, 2003 05:32 PM

Stove attacks what he calls "ultra-Darwinists". Hmmm...where does that term come from?

Could it be that Gould's skewed views of modern evolutionary theory have once again (ironically)played into the hands of evolutions right-wing critics?

And did anybody notice who stood-up to Stove (in the article posted in the comment section), none other than Simon "Strawman" Blackburn. After sharing in Stoves distaste for Dawkins Blackburn is eager to conclude:

To anticipate misunderstandings, I should repeat that none of this is any kind of defence of any of the interpretations, or misinterpretations of Darwinian theory that go under the banners of sociobiology, or evolutionary psychology.

But what about misinterpretations of Evolutionary psychology that go under the banner of Darwinian theory?

Blackburn's response actually pissed me off more than Stove's article. Who cares what some marginal Creationist says, it's those liberal elites who can cause the most harm.

Posted by: Jason M. at February 12, 2003 05:46 PM

...it's those liberal elites who can cause the most harm., ergo, i find myself a man of the Right....

Posted by: razib at February 12, 2003 06:06 PM


I was hoping there would be a Stove fan out there who would clarify whether Stove was really an ID sympathiser. You seem to think he's not - well, given that I haven't read all of Stove's works, only his horrible displays of strawmans in Anything Goes I'll have to take your word for it.

Posted by: Jason Soon at February 12, 2003 06:43 PM


He was also an atheist.

Posted by: carter at February 12, 2003 06:54 PM


Your last comment intrigued me enough to dig a little deeper, and you are correct, David Stove was neither a Creationist or a Christian. According to First Things Stove:

1)Is non-religious

2)Thinks of Darwin as one deserved to sit amongst the pantheon of truly great Western thinkers.

3)Believes that humans evolved from another species by way of natural selection.

This would make Stove neither Creationist or (perhaps?) ID. I falsely assumed that any argument appearing in the Free Republic was A) "conservative" B) Creationist. In this case I was wrong on both accounts, there is, in fact, little difference between Stove's arguments and those often made by Darwin's enemies on the Left. Regardless of who embraces Stove, I don't see his arguments as political so much as I see them as terrible.

I'm going to take Stove out of my Darwinian "religious opposition" box for now and put him in the "philosophical opposition" box with another rabid Dawkins critic, Mary Midgley (whose intensity of opinion regarding The Selfish Gene earned her over 3 pages in Defenders of the Truth). Other Darwinian oppositions include "scientific" and "political".
Stove's opposition to "Darwinism" (really Neo-Darwinism!), with an emphasis on Sociobiology, blossoms into full obscurity in his curious essay "A New Religion":

...if the question is asked, what are the most intelligent and all-round-capable things on earth, the answer is obvious: human beings. Everyone knows this, except certain religious people. A person is certainly a believer in some religion if be thinks, for example, that there are on earth millions of invisible and immortal nonhuman beings which are far more intelligent and capable than we are. But that is exactly what sociobiologists do think, about genes. Sociobiology, then, is a religion: one which has genes as its gods.

Hmm... interesting definition of "god". Whatever natural forces caused the sun, must be "smarter" than humans too, seeing as how we cannot yet make a sun either. I better not speculate or put together observed and deduced evidence of how stars are formed less Stove accuse me of some sort of "cultic" belief.

...sociobiologists sometimes say... [they do] not at all believe that genes are 'conscious, purposeful agentsí. But these disclaimers are in vain. Of course genes are not conscious purposeful agents: everyone will agree with that. Where sociobiologists differ from other people is just that they also say, over and over again, things which imply that genes are conscious purposeful agents...

And where dull-witted critics differ from most people is that they are unable (or unwilling) to understand the purpose of a metaphor used in the literary place of more complex (but previously described) blind mechanism. Sorry Dave, this is a scientific argument, not a philosophical one. (oddly he admits this, but makes no attempt at factual refutation, or even pointing to a source that attempts it. If it is true that "There is nothing objectionable a priori, or philosophically, about the proposition that genes are the most intelligent and capable things on earth. It is a question of fact, and nothing else, whether they are or not.", then dear god why did he attempt a philosophical refutation!)

Previously I put a "perhaps?" after saying that Stove wasn't ID. I did this b/c this next argument seemed so very curious. It is clear that Stove is unimpressed with religion, but in light of his next objection I have to wonder exactly what it is that Stove thinks helped apes evolve into humans like he has affirmed happened.

Suppose that nest-parasitism has not yet evolved among birds, and that young cuckoos have not yet acquired their special adaptations for it. Cuckoos (we will suppose) raise their own young, but are extremely slapdash parents. In these circumstances, we might become anxious about the survival of cuckoos, and decide to take steps to improve their reproductive performance.
Now, would you or I be clever enough to think of nest-parasitism as a means to this end? I know I never would; but perhaps you would. But would even you be able to think of a way of getting the host-birds not only to feed the young cuckoos, but to feed them better than their own offspring? A way, at that, which does not require any human cuckoo-helper ever to go near a member of the host-species? With all due respect to human intelligence, this seems hardly possible. Still, let us suppose that we did think up such a way, and that in particular we came up with the brilliant idea of endowing young cuckoos with exceptional voice and gape. Even then, the hardest part of the job would still remain: that is, to implement this idea. Well, human beings are as pre-eminent on earth for engineering ability as they are for intelligence, but we could not do this. We cannot build young cuckoos, or breed them, to precise specifications. And no genetic engineer could as yet undertake this particular task with rational confidence of success.
It would, then, be a feat of manipulation, not only far beyond cuckoo capabilities, but beyond present human capabilities, to prevail on reedwarblers, without having to go near them, to feed cuckoo-young at the expense of their own young. Yet this feat is one which, if Dawkins is right, cuckoo-genes first performed long ago, and have practised ever since without the smallest difficulty. The implication could hardly be plainer: cuckoo-genes are more intelligent and capable than human beings. The same presumably holds a fortiori for human genes.

Let me put it like this- this is nothing but an argument from incredulity. It should also be noted that it is fundamentally no different from William Paley's argument from design (i.e. "Blind forces couldn't possibly solve problems that humans are incapable of solving.), and although not formally, is therefore a de facto ID argument. Leaving aside the specific issue of "nest parasitism", which I know little to speak of, we must be able to use his same argument in the place of other adaptations. I could neither think of or design an eye to see with or the genes to program such an invention. But eyes do exist, and unless it was a human who "thought up" such amazing things (which it clearly wasn't) then some process or something else must have. Or, perhaps even loonier than ID, Stove seems to have created some sort of incoherent paradox, that might rank as the worst idea I've ever seen. Premises:

1) Belief in something smarter than humans is religion.

2) All religions are false (or based on impossible/illogical thinking)

3) "Smarter" than humans is defined as doing something that humans can't do at this point in history (??!)

4) Humans were not always in existence

5) Humans therefore must have come about somehow

6) Humans could not have caused the existence of humans

7) Something else must have caused the existence of humans

Therefore. . . whatever caused the existence of humans must have been "smarter" than humans and therefore must be false/impossible/illogical. Whatever caused humans cannot logically exist, so humans, lacking causation, must not exist either. As far as I can tell Stove's greatest contribution to philosophy might be "I think, therefore I'm not"! ...talk about "irrationalist postmodernism".

Posted by: Jason M. at February 12, 2003 09:52 PM