Hatchet Jobs

The book review I discussed in Wednesday’s post is an example of a “hatchet job.” This is a literary form in which the goal is not merely to criticize an opponent’s work, but to show that it is utterly worthless. Hatchet jobs are often marked by large amounts of snark and snideness, often at the expense of making a cogent argument.

Such was the case in the essay at the heart of Wednesday’s post. We were discussing William Deresiewicz’s review of the book Jane Austen: Game Theorist, which was written by UCLA political scientist Mark Suk-Young Chwe. The review appeared in The New Republic, which is sadly notorious for publishing these sorts of bungled hatchet jobs. Let us recall that Deresiewicz opens like this:

Proust was a neuroscientist. Jane Austen was a game theorist. Dickens was a gastroenterologist. That’s the latest gambit in the brave new world of “consilience,” the idea that we can overcome the split between “the two cultures” by bringing art and science into conceptual unity—which is to say, by setting humanistic thought upon a scientific foundation. Take a famous writer, preferably one with some marketing mojo, and argue that their work anticipates contemporary scientific insights. Proust knew things about memory that neuroscientists are only now discovering. Austen constructed her novels in a manner that is consistent with game theory. Bang, there’s your consilience.

One problem with hatchet jobs is the risk of provoking sympathy for your target. That is certainly the case here. I have not read Chwe’s book, and it’s entirely possible that his arguments are as bad as Deresiewicz suggests. It’s hard to believe, though, that an obscure political scientist writing an academic book suggesting a novel reading of Jane Austen really deserves this level of hostility. It’s not as though he’s defending creationism.

Deresiewicz’s opening sentences bring to mind Mary Midgley’s review of The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins. Midgley’s review has become the gold standard for hapless hatchet jobs. No one familiar with Dawkins’ book would have recognized it in Midgley’s incompetent description, but that did not stop her from writing with extraordinary arrogance and condescension. The review opens like this:

Genes cannot be selfish or unselfish, any more than atoms can be jealous, elephants abstract or biscuits teleological. This should not need mentioning, but Richard Dawkins’s book The Selfish Gene has succeeded in confusing a number of people about it, including Mr. J. L. Mackie. What Mackie welcomes in Dawkins is a new, biological-looking kind of support for philosophic egoism. If this support came from Dawkins’s producing important new facts, or good new interpretations of old facts, about animal life, this could be very interesting. Dawkins, however, simply has a weakness for the old game of Brocken-spectre moralizing–the one where the player strikes attitudes on a peak at sunrise, gazes awe-struck at his gigantic shadow on the clouds, and reports his observations as cosmic truths. He is an uncritical philosophic egoist in the first place, and merely feeds the egoist assumption into his a priori biological speculations, only rarely glancing at the relevant facts of animal behaviour and genetics, and ignoring their failure to support him.

That Dawkins’s book had nothing to do with philosophic egoism is the least of this paragraph’s problems. And it is only the tip of a lengthy iceberg, that only gets worse after this beginning.

One sign of a bad hatchet job is when you can just see the writers congratulating themselves for their cleverness. With Deresiewicz it was the line about Dickens being a gastroenterologist. You can just see him sitting in front of his computer thinking, “Gastroenterologist? Heh! That’s good.” That line is especially obnoxious given that it was meant to conceal the fact that Deresiewicz had just two examples, written six years apart, of the disturbing trend he was presuming to document. With Midgley the sinking feeling begins right in the first sentence, with the line about biscuits and teleology. Upon reaching the laughably overwrought bit about Brocken spectre moralizing, you can be certain the review is not going to improve.

On the other hand, we can be grateful to Midgley for provoking an excellent counter-hatchet job from Dawkins himself. His reply opens like this:

I have been taken aback by the inexplicable hostility of Mary Midgley’s assault. Some colleagues have advised me that such transparent spite is best ignored, but others warn that the venomous tone of her article may conceal the errors in its content. Indeed, we are in danger of assuming that nobody would dare to be so rude without taking the elementary precaution of being right in what she said. We may even bend over backwards to concede some of her points, simply in order to appear fair-minded when we deplore the way she made them. I deplore bad manners as strongly as anyone, but more importantly I shall show that Midgley has no good point to make. She seems not to understand biology or the way biologists use language.

Elsewhere, Dawkins fired off two of my all-time favorite zingers:

But no reasonable philosopher would say: “I don’t like your definition, therefore I shall interpret your statement as though you were using my definition of selfishness; by my definition your concept of the selfish gene is nonsense, therefore it is nonsense.” This is, in effect, what Midgley has done: `Genes cannot be selfish or unselfish, any more than atoms can be jealous, elephants abstract or biscuits teleological’ (p. 439). Why didn’t she add to this witty little list, for the benefit of quantum physicists, that fundamental particles cannot have charm?

And later:

If the reader discerns in my reply signs of what appears to be undue rancour, I beg him or her to scan a few random sentences of Midgley’s paper and judge the provocation. It is not an invited book review, remember, but a voluntarily contributed article. Her concluding footnote would be hard to match, in reputable journals, for its patronizing condescension toward a fellow academic (a fellow academic, moreover, who is a professional in the field under discussion, a field in which the critic herself is most charitably described as trying hard): ‘Up till now, I have not attended to Dawkins, thinking it unnecessary to break a butterfly upon a wheel. But Mr Mackie’s article is not the only indication I have lately met of serious attention being paid to his fantasies’ (p. 458).

Double zing!

(As an aside, and just to head off what I’m sure someone will point out in the comments, Dawkins also writes, following from where my first quote from him concludes, “No doubt my ignorance would be just as obvious if I rushed headlong into her field of expertise, but I would then adopt a more diffident tone.” Her field of expertise is philosophy, and it will be pointed out that Dawkins’s treatment of philosophy in The God Delusion was not marked by a diffident tone. Point taken, but it is irrelevant to the point I am making here.)

Dawkins’s hatchet job was so effective because it had a solid argument to back up its snark and snideness. He made perfectly clear Midgley’s complete incomprehension of anything he was talking about, which amply justified his tone. His statement that, “[W]e are in danger of assuming that nobody would dare to be so rude without taking the elementary precaution of being right in what she said,” can be taken as a the golden rule of hatchet jobs. If you are going to go to town on someone, you better have the goods.

Which brings me to the finest hatchet job ever written. I am referring to Peter Medawar’s demolition of Teilhard de Chardin’s awful book, The Phenomenon of Man. Medawar writes:

“Everything does not happen continuously at any one moment in the universe. Neither does everything happen everywhere in it.”

“There are no summits without abysses.”

“When the end of the world is mentioned, the idea that leaps into our minds is always one of catastrophe.”

“Life is born and propagates itself on the earth as a solitary pulsation.”

“In the last analysis the best guarantee that a thing should happen is that it appears to us as vitally necessary.”

This little bouquet of aphorism, each one thought sufficiently important by its author to deserve a paragraph to itself, is taken from Père Teilhard’s The Phenomenon of Man. It is a book widely held to be of the utmost profundity and significance; it created something like a sensation upon its publication in France, and some reviewers hereabouts called it the Book of the Year — one, the Book of the Century. Yet the greater part of it, I shall show, is nonsense, tricked out with a variety of metaphysical conceits, and its author can be excused of dishonesty only on the grounds that before deceiving others he has taken great pains to deceive himself. The Phenomenon of Man cannot be read without a feeling of suffocation, a gasping and flailing around for sense. There is an argument in it, to be sure — a feeble argument, abominably expressed — and this I shall expound in due course; but consider first the style, because it is the style that creates the illusion of content, and which is a cause as well as merely a symptom of Teilhard’s alarming apocalyptic seizures.

Having tried to read Teilhard, I can confirm the feeling of suffocation to which Medawar refers.

Comments

  1. #1 Thanny
    March 1, 2014

    My favorite pair of lines in Dawkins’ rebuttal:

    “Did Midgley, perhaps, just overlook my definition? One cannot, after all, be expected to read every single word of a book whose author one wishes to insult.”

    And the line about first deceiving oneself in Medawar’s review is one that I never tire of reading.

  2. #2 JimR
    March 2, 2014

    It’s too bad “The Hatchet Job of the Year” award, at the ominivore.com, did not start till 2011, otherwise Dawkins’ riposte to Midgley would surely have been short listed. The best literary hatchet jobs from Aristophanes to Hitchens are in an article at
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/9862614/Top-10-vicious-literary-hatchet-jobs.html

  3. #3 G
    March 2, 2014

    Snark and sarcasm can shed light on the weakness of an opponent’s position, or on the weakness of one’s own. When used against a less-powerful opponent it can seem cruel and bullying, when used against a peer it can seem superfluous, and when used against a more-powerful opponent it can seem defensive. Four out of five of the possible outcomes are unfavorable to oneself and one’s own position.

    Anyone who indulges in snark should be careful to a) be capable of refuting the opposing arguement in sufficient detail to demolish it utterly, b) not overdo it (as with cusswords, snark is a spice, not the f—ing main course) and c) not use it against someone who is less-powerful than oneself.

    That said, there is legitimate ground for criticizing Dawkins’ choice of words for the title of his book, regardless of his disclaimers. The elevation of a vice to the level of a natural virtue provides excuses for sociopaths, and the anthropomorphism is something for which atheists have no tolerance when it’s done by theists. Dawkins himself admitted that his word choice was poor, so he has in effect conceded the arguement.

    Now pardon me while I duck out for a snack of teleological biscuits.

  4. #4 proximity1
    March 2, 2014

    “Why didn’t she add to this witty little list, for the benefit of quantum physicists, that fundamental particles cannot have charm?”

    Could it be because, in that case, “charm” was merely an arbitrarily-chosen noun to denote a newly-found particle phenomenon and never was a suggestion that “charm” was characteristic of that phenomenon?– or am I mistaken about that?

    “Dawkins’s hatchet job was so effective because it had a solid argument to back up its snark and snideness.”

    That’s why I wouldn’t qualify such criticism as being a hatchet-job. For me, a hatchet-job is a review which unjustly, with false or unfair reasoning, distorts and misrepresents a text and its author’s points.

    Even as a figure of speech, is it correct to describe genes as “selfish”-like ? Doesn’t that lead many people to suppose that genes are agents, working by some design and with intent? What, really, does the usage add in comprehension that couldn’t be found otherwise and without the unfortunate suggestion that genes’ behavior springs from something that is figuratively like selfishness?

  5. #5 Richard Wein
    March 2, 2014

    @proximity1

    “Doesn’t that lead many people to suppose that genes are agents, working by some design and with intent?”

    Well, at least a few people–such as Midgley–have interpreted it that way. But is this a common mistake, or is mainly limited to those who are trying hard to find fault with Dawkins? I don’t know.

    “What, really, does the usage add in comprehension that couldn’t be found otherwise and without the unfortunate suggestion that genes’ behavior springs from something that is figuratively like selfishness?”

    But I would say it is figuratively like human selfishness, with the emphasis on “figuratively”. Or to use Dawkins’ own word, it’s a “metaphor”. To interpret it as literally as Midgley does is uncharitable in the extreme.

    I can’t remember whether I’ve read The Selfish Gene, though I’ve certainly read much else by Dawkins on that subject. But the following passage seems credible to me:
    Dawkins was always clever with metaphors, but his recurring imagery of a gene concerned only with its replication and survival is tightly controlled: in every chapter, we are reminded that it is a metaphor, an analogy, an “as if”, a useful way of thinking about how behaviours, strategies and responses might have emerged from the mix of ever-renewing chromosomes and the disorderly experience of life.
    (http://www.theguardian.com/science/2012/aug/31/the-selfish-gene-richard-dawkins-review)

  6. #6 Richard Wein
    March 2, 2014

    P.S. If I remember correctly, “charm” was not an entirely arbitrary choice by physicists. I believe it was chosen because the attribution of that property to quarks warded off some undesirable problem that physicists were otherwise faced with. They had in mind “charm” in the sense of a magical spell or amulet that wards off evil.

    Still you’re right that it’s arbitrary in the sense that the choice was a kind of in-joke, and not meant to convey anything significant to people trying to understand the science. But how does that detract from Jason’s use of it as an example, in which it plays the role of a term that is obviously not meant to be taken too literally? I guess your point is that “charm” in any of its prior senses is so obviously inapplicable to quarks that no one could be tempted to take it literally. The example of Midgley–and one or two other critics of Dawkins–shows that it’s just about possible to mistake Dawkins’ usage for a literal one, while I’ve never heard of anyone making the analogous mistake in regard to quarks. I’d accept that there’s a small difference of degree here. It would be even harder to make Midgley’s mistake if the subject were the charm of quarks. But Midgley’s mistake still seems pretty obtuse to me. And I don’t think the difference of degree is so great as to render Jason’s charm example inappropriate. It’s clearly intended to be a litle tongue-in-cheek, and not to be saying that Midgley’s mistake is just as bad as taking the “charm” of quarks literally.

  7. #7 Lenoxus
    March 2, 2014

    In a way, “selfish gene” is the complementary metaphor to “natural selection“. As long as you understand they’re both metaphors, then they can both help one understand evolution (at least, certain “selectionist”/”adaptationist” models) better.

    We might say that the Earth wants to pull water toward itself, or in another sense that “water seeks the low ground”, an unusually helpful metaphor for basic fluid mechanics (at least, it was to me when I was a kid; for some reason, the behavior of water when one is messing around with dishes or bath toys can seem counter-intutive untill you rememer that it,s acted on by gravity just like any solid).

    It’s true that “selfishness” might be a poor choice of word because it’s so close to the actual subject matter; genes aren’t selfish, but they code for proteins which assemble into creatures which are. And yet I think this is also the exact reason that it’s actually a very good word: If genes are the locus of selection, that means that they “selfishly” serve their purposes, not those in the interest of the organism or its species, which is often how people think of evolution.

    Your complex human traits, including selfishness, arise at least in part from elements that behave “selfishly” in the sense of being selectively drawn to maximal self-replication. Justifying one’s human selishness by pointing to one’s genes misses the point of the phrase “selfish gene” – a selfish person cares about themself, while their genes don’t care about the selfish person!

  8. #8 Reginald Selkirk
    March 2, 2014

    proximity1 #4: Even as a figure of speech, is it correct to describe genes as “selfish”-like ? …

    If only someone would write a book exploring that question!

  9. #9 Blaine
    March 2, 2014

    I prefer ‘gene copying bio-robot’. Unfortunately, the equation ( ‘human being = gene copying bio-robot ) strikes fear in the hearts of Platonists everywhere. The fear is that one adds in their mind: ‘and that is all we are’. Taking this step allows one to rationalize the mindless slaughter of humanity’s refuse – we’re just gene copying bio-robots – no shotage of them…

    Ironically, these gene copying bio-robots can engage in a ‘robot’s rebellion’ of sorts and can repudiate the function of sex and engage in it recreationally and even refuse our robotic-ness altogether by committing suicide. Unfortunately, these behaviors are not evolutionarily stable strategies which is why they will never catch on in the general population ;-)

  10. #10 Lenoxus
    March 2, 2014

    Blaine: Did you intend to be serious when you said recreational sex will never catch on in the general population?

    It is a nice example of something easily misunderstood. In reality, there’s nothing about non-reproductive sex that makes it any weirder (evolutionarily speaking) than, say, the time spent by humans on storytelling or sports or fashion, most of which can’t be directly attributed to a specific selected-for trait so much as they are the excess consequences of our being who we are. (And in a way, recreational sex is is least strange — or rather, the most direct — of these behaviors…)

  11. #11 Blaine
    March 2, 2014

    @10
    I meant it somewhat tongue-in-cheek. If everyone stopped reproducing and engaged in sex exclusively for recreational reasons, then our species would quickly become extinct ( assuming contraception was effective and failures were dealt with by means of abortion ). The early Christians rejected the world and its maintenance by rejecting sex altogether ( read _From Shame to Sin_) Perhaps this would be an interesting modern day way for Christians to reject the ‘world’ and its maintenance – the Caprocrations and Phibionites which Clement condemned may be an early example.

    There is a lock-in effect ( by definition ) with ‘wanting’ children. If not wanting children is an any way genetic, it doesn’t get spread by definition.

    The definition of ‘reproduction’ can vary. For example, Moche men would feed a pregnant woman their vitalizing sperm by utilizing all her orifices. Perhaps there was a recreational aspect to this.

  12. #12 G
    March 2, 2014

    Single-cause theories of human behavior usually generate Ptolemaic epicycles of explanation to make everything fit. These theories are unfalsifiable because any behavior that doesn’t fit can be “made to fit.” That’s sufficient reason to be skeptical of Dawkins.

    Re. genetics and not-having children: Homosexuality is a specific case of non-reproduction, and yet it appears to have genetic components. A convergence of mutually-unrelated genetic factors may also be involved in non-reproductive heterosexuality. If that’s not the case, then non-reproductive sexuality is an example of a behavior that is not mediated or influenced by genetic factors, and a counter-example to Dawkins.

  13. #13 proximity1
    March 3, 2014

    @ 8: Ha ha.

    @ 7: ” In a way, “selfish gene” is the complementary metaphor to “natural selection“. As long as you understand they’re both metaphors, then they can both help one understand evolution (at least, certain “selectionist”/”adaptationist” models) better.”

    I think that “selection” is as unfortunate a term as is “selfish” —and each of them for the same reasons. Both, though supposedly only metaphors, invite misunderstanding–maybe “invite” is putting it too mildly. Selection implies some intention or agency at the very least. But Darwin’s entire point is that what occurs are more or less advantageous circumstances which result from purely coincidental relations between existing traits and environmental conditions which, themselves, are in continuously gradual flux.

  14. #14 G
    March 3, 2014

    Re. Proximity 1 @ 13:

    But there _is_ agency in selection: there is always a noun that does the verb, whether the noun is “new predator or prey alters the food chain” or “asteroid slams into Earth” or “humans dump CO2 into the atmosphere.”

    The only way that translates to “intention” is via projected personification: the same psychological mechanisms that put deities in clouds. The word “selection” is about as neutral as one can get, unlike “selfish” which directly implies the existence of a “self” that exhibits the trait.

    A phrase such as “natural creation” or “natural creativity” would be far more suspect than “selection,” since “creation” and “creativity” are attributes of conscious entities.

    In our desire to remove unwarranted projections of personification from our descriptions of nature, we should be careful to not go so far in the opposite direction that we end up doing something as foolish as what we routinely see being done by all manner of ideological extremists on the left and right, that only ends up alienating people who might otherwise be reached.

  15. #15 Michael Fugate
    March 3, 2014

    Of course if one defines agent as a thing that produces a specified effect, then agency for both a gene and selection are perfectly acceptable. If one plays around with agent-based models, all kinds of inanimate objects can take on agency.

  16. #16 Lenoxus
    March 3, 2014

    G:

    Single-cause theories of human behavior usually generate Ptolemaic epicycles of explanation to make everything fit. These theories are unfalsifiable because any behavior that doesn’t fit can be “made to fit.” That’s sufficient reason to be skeptical of Dawkins.

    The gene-centered model of selection (which Dawkins didn’t invent, he just contributes to and popularizes is) isn’t about “human behavior”. It’s a particular perspective of evolutionary biology, which is about all of life. So it’s both less comprehensive and more comprehensive than that — in the same sense that Newtonian physics (for example) is about everything in the universe including human behavior (we don’t defy the laws of motion, after all) and at the same time, isn’t about human behavior at all.

    If that’s not the case, then non-reproductive sexuality is an example of a behavior that is not mediated or influenced by genetic factors, and a counter-example to Dawkins.

    Homosexuality is a small riddle, although it should be emphasized that the mere existence of same-sex coupling isn’t a mystery, but rather the occasional apparent complete lack of desire to pair with the opposite sex. When you consider that, you realize (1) it’s no more noteworthy or non-selective than asexuality, (2) for most of human history, people who we today would call “gay” may well have reproduced, they were just going with the flow of social pressure (just like asexuals both past and present), and (3) it’s rare enough that it might even be below the “selection threshold”.

    I’m 99% sure there’s no single “gay gene” waiting to be isolated, and so there’s really no issue specifically with the gene-centered view. It makes sense to suppose that to the extent homosexuality is selective and genetic (and neither of those is the null hypothesis), the various “gay genes” naturally carry a benefit to ensure their own survival.

    Indeed, a huge part of the effectiveness of the gene-centered view is that it solves a lot of the observed instances of behavior in nature, such as self-sacrifice or resource sharing in ant colonies, that seem counter to an organism being optimized for complete self-reproduction.

    Anyway, again, non-reproductive sex is no odder than non-reproductive anything-else.

  17. #17 G
    March 4, 2014

    Lenoxus @ 16:

    (I’m tired & distracted with work at the moment, but I’ll try to make this coherent;-)

    A viable theory may nonetheless only account for a subset of the mechanisms. That’s why I’m skeptical of single-cause theories for complex phenomena, particularly cases that bear on organisms that exhibit social behavior or behavior suggestive of consciousness.

    To support Dawkins’ genetic determinist theory as it applies to conscious social organisms, one needs to translate it to a mechanism that affects behavior. For humans that might be various reward mechanisms in the brain, such as combinations of dopamine, adrenal hormones, endorphins, and so on, that might be hardwired to provide reward feedbacks for behaviors that serve the interests of the genes.

    But now we run into a confound: human social interactions are arguably more proximate triggers for those reward mechanisms. If we try to backtrack the social interactions to genetic causes (e.g. Alice’s social behavior toward Bob is only competition with Carol for Bob’s DNA) then we bog down in chaos where even theoretically deterministic behaviors can’t be predicted with enough certainty to justify conclusions.

    As for ants, we have no idea of the subjective experience of ants, “what it’s like to be an ant,” and what role their own social behaviors may play in their individual experiences and behaviors. For ants, as for humans, “nature” and “culture” may be linked in ways that are too complex to make detailed and specific predictions. (The fact that we can produce algorithms that emulate certain elements of ant behavior, provides no insight into the subjective experiences of ants, any more than the knowledge of light provides insight into the human subjective experience of seeing color.)

    (We don’t even know “what it’s like” to be a planarian in a T-maze faced with the task of remembering which direction to turn to avoid an electric shock and obtain sugar water. But clearly the planarian has approach/avoid feedbacks that generate internal reward states, which is to say, some kind of pleasure sensations.)

    —-

    To be clear about this: I’m not anti-Dawkins; his ideas about memes are highly useful and even a counterpoint to genetic determinism in that some humans clearly prioritize the propagation of their memes above the propagation of their genes.

    In fact this is a case where one can disagree with someone about A whilst agreeing with them about B. Though I’ll also disagree with Dawkins about C, his approach to promoting atheism, which tends to alienate the uncommitted even though, D, it also has the salutary effect of coaxing closet atheists & agnostics out of the closet to demand equal rights.

    As for sexualities, in the past, people with exclusively same-sex attractions might have engaged in opposite-sex pairings due to social pressure, but concluded that sex was inherently disgusting (as it would have been for them). Or they might have joined religious organizations or the like, that practiced chastity and/or gender segregation, as a means of avoiding the conflict between their own nature and social pressure. The same cases obtain for asexuals, as well as for some hypothetical percent of the population for whom a) their attraction to chaste vocations was stronger than their desire to reproduce and/or b) they were unable to reproduce for some other reason e.g. low sperm count, and/or c) they were primarily concerned with propagating their memes.

    The fact that non-reproductive behaviors continue in humans across Darwinian time, would tend to demonstrate that there are multiple genetic factors at work, and social factors as well. The fact that one can in some larger sense translate social phenomena to individual psychology, thence to neurophysiology, then chemistry, and then physics, does not mean that one can leap across all of those levels of translation to make anything like exclusively-accurate predictions in detail.

  18. #18 Reginald Selkirk
    March 4, 2014

    Check it out: Richard Carrier reviews the latest book on the historicty of Jesus

    The best way to describe this book is to imagine a rambling weirdo running into a grove of orange trees with a hammer and in a random frenzy smacking half the low hanging fruit, and then beating his chest and declaring proudly how the trees are now barren…

  19. #19 proximity1
    March 5, 2014

    @ 14 : “But there _is_ agency in selection: there is always a noun that does the verb, whether the noun is “new predator or prey alters the food chain” or “asteroid slams into Earth” or “humans dump CO2 into the atmosphere.”

    Those are all coincidental and passing features of the environment which I describe as “more or less advantageous circumstances.”

    You and I have very different ideas about what “agency” means. By agency, I mean what’s described here (taken from Wikipedia’s pages):

    “In philosophy and sociology, agency is the capacity of an agent (a person or other entity, human or any living being in general, or soul-consciousness in religion) to act in a world.”

    and

    “An agent typically has some sort of immediate awareness of his physical activity and the goals that the activity is aimed at realizing.”

    By your view of agency, everything in the environment qualifies as agents of natural selection–the wind, rain, the fact that on earth, there is gravity—all that I take as part of the environment in which “”more or less advantageous circumstances” have their part in the rise of “… purely coincidental relations between existing traits and environmental conditions.”

    Your view of agency in natural selection gives the ID people and the creation-science people enough room to drive a truck through, with all the marvelous stuff they need to produce both “watch” and “watch-maker.”

  20. #20 G
    March 5, 2014

    Re. Proximity 1 @ 19:

    The distinction I’ve made in the past is between “agency” (a noun that does a verb, with no implied personhood) and “personal/ conscious/ willful agency” (the noun in question has personhood, consciousness, and/or will).

    However if the conventional definitions of “agency” necessarily entail personhood, I’ll concede my definition. Particularly since you make a good arguement that I had left open a truck-sized loophole for creationists. (Password = 1234567, creationist intrusion alert!;-)

    After which, my statement changes to “(various things in the environment) qualify as _causes_ of natural selection.” One can’t get much more neutral than “cause.”

    Though, I’ll argue that “coincidence” is an all-too-seductive blackbox that functions as a dustbin, and “coincidental and passing” unduly minimizes the significance of events that alter the selection criteria and thus the characteristics of species and the survival of species.

    The sun, wind, rain, gravity, etc., have all had causal influences on the development and evolution of life on Earth. A planet of greater or lesser mass, available water, etc., would have different effects on the development of organisms than what we observe on Earth.

    The relations between environmental conditions and the traits of organisms are hardly “coincidental,” and are usually causal in either or both directions. For example favorable climate provides the opportunity for humans to develop agriculture; humans eventually dump CO2 into the atmosphere and alter climate. For that matter, all instances of population explosion >> overshoot >> collapse, are circular relations between organisms and environment. Taken out over a long enough span of time and you get changes in the traits of organisms.

  21. #21 Michael Fugate
    March 5, 2014

    >However if the conventional definitions of “agency” necessarily entail personhood, I’ll concede my definition.<

    As I mentioned before, a short side trip into agent-based models will show this definition is wrong.

  22. #22 proximity1
    March 5, 2014

    @ 20 : “I’ll argue that “coincidence” is an all-too-seductive blackbox that functions as a dustbin, and “coincidental and passing” unduly minimizes the significance of events that alter the selection criteria and thus the characteristics of species and the survival of species.”

    The way it was explained to me, our choices–due to our inherent limitations on the amounts of data we can collect, process and interpret as fallible human beings– are between one or another form of intention, or “design” on one hand and “coincidence”–or a probabilistic range of outcomes with more or less narrow ranges tending toward “1” ( i.e. fully deterministic, predictable outcomes) but never entirely “1”. E.g. “Identical” twins are never perfectly identical despite their sharing identical DNA, are they?

  23. #23 G
    March 6, 2014

    Michael @ 20: which “this”? My first definition, which I conceded to Proximity1?, or the second one that I adopted as a result of his/her critique of the first one? Speaking of nouns & verbs, pronouns and their cousins don’t make for clarity.

    Proximity1 @ 21: The explanation for the origin of life that I think is most likely to be correct, is that pre-biological molecules are dissipative structures that feed off ambient entropy and convert it to increased complexity & diversity. Eventually those molecules become self-reproducing, and eventually develop cell membranes, and thus originates life. After that it’s all a continuation of conversion of entropy to complexity & diversity, going uphill until consciousness and intelligence and culture arise (I don’t much like the word “emerge” either, as it also tends to be a black box).

    That’s the stage we’re at now, as conscious intelligent animals with cultures, after which we can go off to science fiction territory to speculate about what comes next.

    At one level, all of this is highly deterministic: the facts + the laws = the inevitability of life and emergence of intelligence. The degree of determinism is never complete due to the propagation of QM uncertainties upward through the system, e.g. an unpredictable gamma ray strikes a piece of DNA just so, causing a mutation. And as you said, identical twins demonstrate that genes alone are not determinative of behavior.

    To which I would add, we’re getting closer to a physical mechanism for free will (Penrose & Hameroff, “orchestrated objective-reduction,” with growing empirical support and a critical experiment planned for this year), thereby establishing another limit to determinism.

    The problem I have with “coincidence” is ultimately that it can become a satisfying endpoint for investigation, thereby missing the potential for further discoveries of “laws and facts.” The fairly conventional oversimplification that e.g. primordial soup + lightning = life “happens,” is an example to illustrate that “happenstance is not a stance,” and effects have mechanisms as well as causes: the goal is to keep digging and find the mechanisms.

    I get the impression that I’m not terribly far from the mainstream in saying that life originates from dissipative structures etc., and that there are additional “laws + facts” that will support the idea that negentropy is the key to the puzzle of the origin of life. If that’s true, it will be convergent with the idea that life is the rule rather than the exception for any planet in a habitable zone with liquid water. If that in turn is true, it will be the end of one more large chunk of creationist mythology. (And if orchestrated objective-reduction is conclusively supported, then free will as physical phenomenon arising from the mechanism of neural computation will also take out another large chunk of myth.)

  24. #24 Michael Fugate
    March 6, 2014

    that you need “personhood” to have agency.

    Viruses are a good place to explore issues with agency – are they alive? are they organisms? are they agents?

    I would argue they are agents and not much different than individual genes.

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