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Wednesday, 05 July 2006


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Ummm. I think it's possible to admire Dawkins very much as an authority on strictly mechanistic, biological processes, while still deploring his efforts to derive, and proselytise, some kind of metaphysics out of them. Plenty of admirers of Dawkins-as-zoologist just politely ignore that bit - look at his contributions to science, and allow the poor fellow his wacko philosophical indulgences. It gets the subject discussed, in any event.

But as for "metaphors are for poets not scientists..." well! don't you talk of an object possessing, say, inertia? Doesn't mean it's lacking in motivation. Don't we talk of "magnetic fields" without meaning a literal meadow attracting iron filings; "light waves" without a medium for them to wave in; "strangeness," "charm," "string theory" without referring to a ball of string ... frankly a great body of science deals with matters so utterly alien to our normal experience that it would be impossible to progress without using metaphors as concepts to work with, from beginning to end.

(There's a famous story of Richard Feynman giving his lecture, "Some Interesting Properties of Numbers," which ended with him deriving, and writing out, an equation involving i (the square root of minus one) on the board. Following which, he turned to the audience. "Gentlemen, we don't know what that means. But we have proved it, therefore it must be true.")

If "square root of minus one" isn't a metaphor, what is?

I guess the problem arises when people look at these specialist metaphors and try to take them literally. But what Dawkins is doing, I think, is trying to take a metaphor which has a very specific, mechanistic meaning to him, "selfish", and apply it on a grand scale, retroactively, to humanity - rather than the reverse, which I think is what you are criticising him for.

Despite my strictures, Hilary, I wouldn't wish to deprive scientists *entirely* of the use of metaphor, not least because it helps an 'O'-level maths, physics and chemistry failure like me, to understand their abstractions. All I insist upon is that they use them with *accuracy*. A force 'field' is a metaphor to indicate that a certain definable area of space/time is under a particular influence and no-one, I think, would mistake it for the meadow down the road. My complaint with Dawkins is that his metaphor is downright *false* and irrespective of his occasional nods in teh direction of truth and common-sense, he returns to the metaphor over and over again. Also, in defence of a term like "force field", at least it has the respectability of being used by scientists speaking to other scientists. I could be wrong on this but I can't imagine too many micro-biologists talking about "selfish genes" to each other!

As for Feynman, my favourite is when he remarked, and I paraphrase from memory, that anyone who claims they understand quantum theory, doesn't!

Isn't "selfish gene" a metaphor in much the same way as Smith's "invisible hand"? Do you feel a need to rant about that, David?

David, what makes you so sure that an exact copy of you would not be you? Why wouldn't it? Or rather, what difference would there be between 'it' and 'you' to justify a claim that 'it' was NOT 'you'? Please don't resort to a metaphor such as 'the soul' in your answer.

I'm looking forward to your next posts on this subject, although I must say that I fear you are in far over your head and are about to make yourself look very, very silly. Good luck, though, anyway.

Dearieme, correct me if I'm wrong but I think Adam Smith referred to the "invisible hand" no more than twice, or thrice, in his entire output. Please 'compare and contrast' that with Dawkins' endless repetitions. Also, take a quick look at my response to Hilary concerning *accuracy* in using metaphor. And "rant"! ME? WADDYA MEAN - RANT?!

Andy, I am a self-confessed silly, as I admitted in my post, not least because I once swallowed Dawkins' nonsense whole, and sillier than that is difficult to achieve! An exact copy of me is not me because one thing cannot be another thing. One electron is made up exactly the same way as another electron but it occupies a different part of space/time and is therefor capable of causing different effects.

I may well be over my head but, dammit, Sir, I shall go down fighting!

"Selfish Gene" is a pop-sci book; arguing with the rhetorical devices used in such to expound a theory is a classic crank device - there's a whole cottage secondary industry of books with titles like "Has Hawking Erred?" whose entire content is made up of such cloth. If you don't like pop-sci, "The Extended Phenotype" is Dawkins' academic tome.

Regarding Adam Smith, I'd agree that eighteenth century prose is more elegant and readable than contemporary, but it hardly seems fair to lump that on Dawkins. "The invisible hand" actually refers to the pressure on investors to back companies from their own countries, as I recall.

To continue my Reg Smeeton impersonation: in your previous post, your claim about electrons has accidentally stumbled into one of the more counter-intuitive bits of quantum mechanics. Let's not open another front just yet, but your claim, reasonable as it may sound, is not actually correct.

Thanks for the link, David.

Regarding the title, metaphors and other selfish shenanigans, I think this part in Dawkins' response to Midgley about covers it:

"When biologists talk about ‘selfishness or ‘altruism’ we are emphatically not talking about emotional nature, whether of human beings, other animals, or genes. We do not even mean the words in a metaphorical sense. We define altruism and selfishness in purely behaviouristic ways: ‘An entity… is said to be altruistic if it behaves in such a way as to increase another such entity’s welfare at the expense of its own. Selfish behaviour has exactly the opposite effect."

Oh dear David. You will keep coming back to this subject...

First off, as Ben says, the sense in which RD uses the word "selfish" is a technical one which he takes pains to explain and define precisely. Perhaps you're right and "The Vain Gene" would be a better title - but this is an irrelevance.

Secondly it's clear that your primary objections to Dawkins et al are that you dislike the man and his style of writing. Fair enough - but this is again an irrelvance when discussing the merits or otherwise of the science.

Thirdly, from discussing this subject with you before and at length, I know that your understanding of the relevant science is (or was) fundamentally flawed (I blame David Stove). In particular with that business about Malthus and "living organisms (including Man) increas[ing] their population to just above the level of available food", Stove and you are both catastrophically muddled. You should be aware that a critique of a scientific theory which has as its starting point a total misunderstanding of that theory, is entirely worthless. So I suggest before launching another attack you take some time to try to form an unbiased view of exactly what evolutionary theory does and doesn't say.

Fourthly, "I'm sure being a Doctor of Tamponology requires very rigorous training" - yes it does.

Hilary: "square root of minus one" isn't a metaphor, at least no more than "square root" and "minus one" are themselves metaphors.

Larry, I don't know if you are being deliberately disingenuous here, but "root" is, undoubtedly, a word deriving originally from horticulture. Plants had roots in our language before numbers ever did. In its application to numbers, the word "root" is undoubtedly meant to convey at least a flavour of the mental image of that number containing a hidden and possibly intricate structure from which it derives; hence square root, cube root, etc. A "square root" is not, literally, a tuber which is square, obviously. Neither is a cube root ... etc. These are metaphors, just as you argue "Selfish" to be in conjunction with the word "gene", above, and the "square root of minus one" is doubly a metaphor, because it takes a concept for which we already employ, in our language, a metaphor ("root") and extends it to a still more theoretical concept which cannot be literally true, only conceptually. In order to extend our understanding to encompass this concept, a metaphor is used, because Man seems to progress in understanding by using stories, pictures, linking of ideas, poetry, better than by any other method. I hope this clears up what I mean.

In the pressure of 'things to do, people to see' plus fending of 'SoD' on the subject of the folly of Afghanistan whilst simultaneously trying to read and digest the failrly dense papers that Ben very kindly linked to, I almost forgot to respond to 'Dr. Teabag', but first a point in reply to the other Larry, Larry Lamb, who claims that "The Selfish Gene" is only a "pop-sci" book. You may be right but not according to the author - please read the quotation from the preface in my post.

Now, to 'Dr. Teabag'. I will take your points in order, Larry:

1: I am not sure how much Dr. Dawkins has contributed to the world of biology but he would have been a star in the second-hand car trade judging by his slippery use of language. He, and you, claim that when he writes "selfish" he doesn't mean 'selfish' as you or I might use it in ordinary English, he means it in the biological sense as acts likely to further the procreation chances of an organism at the expense of another, and his description of such acts are, he claims, "behavioral" not "subjective", to which one can only ask, "Why use such language then?" If it's not deceitful, it is certainly lazy! Supposing I were to describe one of my old bits of 'shrapnel' as being 'Ferrari-like' which, in *my* defence, and reversing Dr. Dawkins, I could claim that I was using in a "subjective" way, not "behavioral". Local Trading & Standards officers might have a brief but pointed answer to that! I would ask again, do micro-biochemical scientists talk about "selfish" genes in their discussions with each other? Or do they confine themselves to scientific language?

2: You are half-right and half wrong. Yes, I do not like the persona I occasionally see or hear in the media in which he comes across as an arrogant, supercillious bully which is why his pathetic bleatings and whinings because he was attacked by Mary Midgley (see Ben's links above) produced a snort of derision from me. But the late A. L. Rowse, an emminent Shakespearean scholar, had a similar disposition but I don't disagree with him. As I confessed, there was a time when I swallowed Dawkins whole but since then I have read *better arguments* against him than for him. I will add this. It is obvious, indeed, self-proclaimed, that most of the opposition to Darwinism, neo or otherwise, comes from theists. What is not always clear is that *support for* Darwinism is equally obviously motivated by athiests with a fear bordering on the psychotic that the theists might begin to reclaim lost ground. As an agnostic, I am happy to hold their coats!

3. I won't take your bait on Malthus's theory which was utterly crucial to Charles Darwin in filling what he, himself, admitted was a gaping hole in his theory. (Incidentally, that is why I admire Darwin and dislike Dawkins; the former was humble enough to recognise that what he was proposing was a *theory*, where-as the latter preaches his 'theory as though it was Gospel (irony intended). I will simply re-iterate that it provides us 'non-comformists' with much amusement when neo-Darwinists have Darwin quoted at them and take to the hills. Some theory, some supporters!

I will pass by #4 and leave you and Hilary to deal with #5 about which I have no opinion or knowledge.

When I have finished studying Ben's links, and when my I find the right words to express my complicated thoughts, I will post Book II of the 'Dawkinci Code'.

Hilary, no I'm not being deliberately disingenuous. I take your point about cube-shaped potatos, and of course you're right about the etymology of the mathematical term "root". For myself, I'd rather say that "square root" isn't itself a metaphor but a literal and precisely defined mathematical term which means exactly what it means (although it may have been selected for the metaphorical overtones to which you allude).

However that wasn't my point. My point is that "square root of minus one" is no *more* of a metaphor than "square root" (or "minus one") already is. See you're wrong about this: "...extends it to a still more theoretical concept which cannot be literally true..." The statement "i^2=-1" is literally true, once the terms have been suitably defined.

I guess you're confused by terms like "real", "rational", and "imaginary" number - these are instances where metaphorical overtones of the chosen language are profoundly unhelpful (and are a source of enless confusion). It's far better just to stick to their precise technical definitions - you still get a lot of wonderful stories and pictures, but they don't have anything much to do with the day-to-day usage of the words "imaginary", "rational", and "real".

Larry, nobody's challenging the fact that i is "the square root of minus one" is axiomatically true. That's like, a tautology. But is this what you have understood me to mean by "literally true"? If so, perhaps that was badly expressed. I meant that the minus numbers, and of course "i ," don't have material counterparts in real life - which is why it took us so long to build up a superstructure of reasoning to establish them.

Is "i" an invention? Is it true that "God made the integers, all else is the work of Man?" I've got no idea. I bet you don't either, despite the confidence of your penultimate paragraph. Honestly, I'm not sure why you're arguing with me about this, because it's effectively the complete reverse of you nagging David about "selfish" being a perfectly appropriate word in a very specialist context. I was simply pointing out that a great deal of language, in all fields, develops by way of metaphor, even in unpoetical disciplines like science.
Nobody carries out a paradigm shift in a linguistic vacuum, not even mathematicians. None of us are clever enough for that. All of us use metaphors, and in the most counter-intuitive disciplines we do it by necessity.

David, "pop-sci" means "popular science" - I can't see why you think your quote from Dawkins disagrees with that.

I apologise, Larry Lamb, I thought you were implying what Dawkins had stated, that his flights of fancy should be read as "science fiction" because it was "designed to appeal to the imagination". Well, I can't argue with that, can you? Although, personally, I like my fiction rather more spicey.

Actually, David, just so I know we're debating in good faith, can I get you to agree that Stove quoted Dawkins out of context regarding baby snatching, and that your own use of the quote on The Sharpener was even further from the truth?

Dawkins contribution to biology certainly appears to be significant - I'm starting a biology degree in September, and as I didn't do biology at A level I'm doing some advance study so I'm not left sat there like a chump in the first few weeks looking bewildered. The textbook I'm working through at the moment - Chris Barnard's Animal Behaviour - is littered with references to Dawkins' papers and books. Admittedly I've not yet started learning 'proper', like.

Also: "*support for* Darwinism is equally obviously motivated by athiests with a fear bordering on the psychotic that the theists might begin to reclaim lost ground."? Nothing to do with the modern synthesis being one of the most widely accepted and well-supported (evidence-wise, not cheerleader-wise) theories in science, then? Can you back this comment up in any way?

Ben, no I don't accept your charge because Stove began the paragraph concerned with this: "Among certain certain species of *monkeys* (my emphasis now but not here-after), it sometimes happens that a bereaved mother will steal another mother's baby, adopt it and care for it. Most people have heard of this phenomenom [...], and [...] feel in a dim way, with a dull pain that they *understand* it too. Not so the sociobiologist Dr. R. Dawkins. He finds the fact of baby snatching deeply and importantly puzzling; as well he might, given his Darwinian assumptions. As Dawkins sees the matter, "the adopter not only wastes her own time: she also releases a rival female a rival female from the burden of child-rearing, and frees her to have another child more quickly. It seems to me a critical example which deserves some thorough research. [Not 'arf!] We need to know how often it happens; what the average relatedness is likely to be; and what the attitude of the real mother of the child is - it is after all, to her advantage that her child *should* be adopted; do mothers delinerately try to deceive naive young females into adopting their children?" (p110, 1979 ed. The Selfish Gene.) I just relish that sentence, "what the attitude of the real mother of the child is?"

Perhaps in my comment at The Sharpener I forgot to make clear that Dawkins was talking of higher developed apes, but then, what else are we, their nearest and dearest?

You have my sympathy for the fact that you are about to enter the realms of academe in which you may find the noise of minds slamming shut deafening! Just remember that in this controversy, as in so many others in the scientific world, great reputations, to say nothing of great book sales, are at risk.I do not seek to change your mind, I merely trust that you will keep a tiny piece of it open and allow in that worm of doubt without which science becomes religion and brooks no dissent. But keep it to yourself until you have your degree!

Fair enough, Stove mentioned the monkeys (not apes!), in his book at least. However here he shamelessly misquotes Dawkins:

"'…it is, after all, to [a mother’s] advantage that her child should be adopted’ by another woman. This quotation is from Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, p. 110. ...This, you will say, is a grotesque way of looking at human life; and so, of course, it is"

No mention of monkeys whatsoever, and a feeble insert of "by another woman" by Stove. Your own misuse of the quote was this: "Dawkins who once wondered why child-bearing women were so upset at having children taken from them because it should allow them even greater chances of reproducing more of their DNA which, according to ‘bish’ Dawkins, is their only aim in life."

Sorry to do a Paxman on you, but do you accept that this is a pretty poor showing and completely unfair to the original text? It seems so cut and dried to me that if you won't agree, I can't see the point in persevering with Revelations Book Two, Three, Ninety Seven or whatever.

The attitude of the mother is a genuine and relevant question. As I and others said on the Sharpener thread, we know of at least one species - cuckoos - that deliberately trick other birds into raising their young. Why shouldn't this phenomenon appear in other species, and why is it such a terrible question to ask? For myself, I can think of a good reason why it happens with some birds but not humans - meat-eating. If a mother could guarantee that a baby taken by another would be raised and not braised (quite like that, I may copyright it), I can well imagine such behaviour becoming commonplace. However humans evolved as omnivores and chances are that a snatcher did so for a meal, not a child, in which case anxiety and grief would be likely to evolve as instincts to avoid this. Some species of monkey are vegetarian, however, which is why it's worthwhile speculating on the attitude of the mother. PLEASE NOTE! All the preceding stuff is off-the-cuff speculation, and I do tend to favour 'evolutionary psychology' explanations which often run the risk of 'just so' stories. I'm just trying to highlight why different species might act in different ways, something Stove doesn't seem to grasp. Please don't call me a swivel-eyed loon you'd rather not sit next to on the bus.

Thanks for your good wishes and your warning, by the way. If anyone tries to tell me that the earth goes round the sun and that's that, I'll floor the bugger with a hatstand.

Ben, apologies, I must have missed your last comment yesterday.

As for your central point, yes, you are right, and no, I am not going to apologise. I'll tell you why. Until you reproduced it I hadn't re-read my words (it's bad enough writing this rubbish without re-reading it!) but I can see that you are right in accusing me of implying, incorrectly, that Dawkins was writing of *human* mothers. My refusal to apologise arises from the fact that from everything he wrote in his book, *he might well have been!* Consider; you, and he, can only come up with one example amongst the bird and animal species in which a mother voluntarily gives up its young to another. Just one! Dawkins is always at great pains to point out that humans are very much part of the animal world, indeed, so 'selfish' are we that, according to him, with our bigger brains it is now important that we "try to *teach* generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish" (p3, "The Selfish Gene"). There is absolutely nothing in Dawkins's book that would allow a neutral reader to think that there was any difference in selfish/altruistic levels between monkeys and humans, so if I mis-quoted him, it is his fault. Or, let me put it this way, Ben, if in one of your essays to come, you substitued the word "humans" for "monkeys" in that context do you think prof. Dawkins would give you an argument?

"you, and he, can only come up with one example amongst the bird and animal species in which a mother voluntarily gives up its young to another. Just one!"

Apart from the *hundreds of thousands* of insect species who give up their eggs as soon as they've laid them. Or all those fishes who simply bugger off elsewhere once they've spawned. Or moths, who have the temerity to *die* once they've laid their eggs. The inconisderate rotters! Who'd want to sit next to one of those on a bus?

Ah, don't tell me - that's not what you meant...

David, you lecture Ben about not letting his mind slam shut - but you've decided (or rather, had it decided for you) that Dawkins is a *bad man*, and therefore *nothing* he has *ever* written has any merit because he 'might well have' meant completely different! I mean, come on! He can hardly win with those rules, can he?

I'd be a bit like me instantly assuming every new thing you write is complete and utter rubbish because I think you're a pompous, ignorant old shit. Oh, hold on...

"Why use such language [selfish] then?" If it's not deceitful, it is certainly lazy!

Whatever, David. It is standard terminology within the discipline you're attempting to discuss, and it has a precisely defined, clear meaning. From the Dawkins piece you link to:

"When biologists talk about ‘selfishness or ‘altruism’ we are emphatically not talking about emotional nature, whether of human beings, other animals, or genes. We do not even mean the words in a metaphorical sense. We define altruism and selfishness in purely behaviouristic ways..."

Yet you persist in misunderstanding the same thing over and over again, like this:

" 'selfish' are we that..."

You've been banging on about this same subject for several hundred years, and yet your comments are still littered with the most elementary mistakes.

In your 5 words " 'selfish' are we that..." you manage to fit in two gargantuan errors. Firstly the term "selfish" is being used in the technical sense which you repeatedly fail to grasp. Secondly it is *genes*, and not humans which are "selfish" in this sense. It does *not* follow that humans are always selfish in the technical sense, *let alone* that humans are selfish under the ordinary usage of the word.

On the Malthus thing, I'm not laying bait for you. Nor am I denying the relevance of Malthus' theories to Darwin's development of his theory. I am simply telling you that your (and Stove's) understanding of the relevant science is wrong. Plain and simple: wrong.

I attempted at length to set you straight here, but you didn't then seem to have any interest in rectifying your hopeless misunderstandings. Unless this has changed, don't expect your muddled ramblings to be treated seriously, since it's apparent to anyone who does understand the theory that you do not.

Oh dear, 'NIB', I suppose you're back from your hols at Weston-Supermare - I thought it had been rather quiet round here for a while!

As to your point, 'NIB', such as it is, do try and concentrate, there's a good chap, it's very tedious having to go over everything again. Ben and I were talking about *emotions*. I can't prove it but my guess is that ants and amoeba and suchlike organisms at the lower level of living things do not have feelings, unlike the higher animals and birds that do. My garden blackbird flies (no pun intended) into a real paddy if another one tries to scoff the seed on 'his' table. Similarly, his 'wife' lavishes much care and attention and protection on her young 'uns. So have another go and this time try and come up with an example in the *higher* animal kingdom of mothers voluntarily giving up their young. I might add that the cuckoo doesn't actually *give up* its young, it simply lays its egg in some-one else's nest which is not *quite* the same thing.

I have already stated above that I do not like Dawkins's public persona (although I am sure he's a loving husband and delightful father) and indeed, it was his arrogance and incivility that made me wonder about his propositions. But there again, David Stove was an obstreperous Aussie with an over-sized ego but I *agree* with him simply because his arguments seem to me to be much sounder than Dawkins's. (Also, Stove had right go at one of my other heros, Karl Popper, but that doesn't stop me taking them on board.)

As for your final paragraph, 'NIB', I must point out to you as gently as I can that your trouble is that you can't think!

Larry, I have just dealt with 'NIB' and I'm rather busy so please forgive a brief response which I will put in the form of a question.

Dawkins states (p3, The Selfish Gene) that "we [human beings] are born selfish".

I wrote, "so selfish are we that ..."

Now, can you please explain where I made my gargantuan errors"

First, you tell me that I am using the word in the wrong sense - how do you know I am? It is precisely the same word.

Second, in that quote, Dawkins was writing specifically about humans not genes, so again, tell me where I'm wrong.

I don't want *at this stage* to get into the Malthus debate. Of course, Malthus was wrong because like a lot of people today, Marxists, Greens and the like, he took mathematical projections into the future as being gospel. Poor old Darwin, with friends like that (and Dawkins) who needs enemies.

Now, can you please explain where I made my gargantuan errors"

At the same time, can you tell me if words like "the selfish gene" are used by micro-biochemists are "standard terminology within the discipline"? I doubt it because they deal with the *reality* of inert chemicals and their reactions inside proteins and suchlike, unlike the weird metaphysical phantasies indulged in by Dawkins and his ilk who wouldn't recognise a bit of DNA if it bit them in the arse!

Oh, Christ, now I'm late and the little 'Memsahib' will beat me up again - it's all your fault, Larry!

There is a possible example in the 'higher animals' - the monkeys. Why does Dawkins' suggestion that the mother might *want* to give up the offspring offend you more than the idea that another female might *want* to snatch another mother's child?

It's not exactly unheard of for *human* parents to foist their children off on childless relatives/neighbours/the state so they can go out get on with some more shagging, is it? I'm sure if the likes of a Hitchens or a Heffer were to make that observation you'd be nodding in agreement, but because that devil Dawkins says it, you're spluttering into your tea with outrage.

May I suggest that, given the evidence of your delightfully fluffy blackbird tales, too many TV wildlife documentaries have affected your thinking on this subject?

Anyway, David, my final paragraph shows that I can think *at least* as clearly as you can. Or let me put it another way - did you decide you didn't like Dawkins' ideas before you took exception to his persona, or the other way around?

Or, to put it yet another way, I'm sure people wouldn't spend so much time here making a fool of you if you were, just once in a while, to admit you're wrong rather than resorting to your usual 'tricks' of long-winded qualification, endless changing of the subject and - just to be certain people get the measure of you - the deployment of snidey, patronising remarks. Ever wondered why you keep getting yourself banned left, right and centre while other people with similar viewpoints to yours are get a free pass?

It's almost as though you're on some kind of one-man mission to ruin every blog debate there is, while simultaneously a)Adding precisely nothing to the discussion and b)Proving just how much of a tedious little tosser one man can be. Some task you've set yourself there - is it really that boring down in Dorset?

I would ask any interested passers-by (are there any?) to re-read 'NIB's last two dyspeptic paragraphs above in which *he* accuse *me* of "ruining every blog debate" whilst "adding nothing to the discussion", and then allow me to remind you all (and him) that it was 'NIB' who barged in here and amongst other things informed me that "every new thing you write is complete and utter rubbish because I think you're a pompous, ignorant old shit."

I've tried, God how I've tried, but I can't see how that added to the debate, can you?

Er, the first three or four paragraphs of the post above? None so blind as those that want to be, David!

Besides, and read this slowly if you find it hard, *I never said* I disagree with everything that you say because "every new thing you write is complete and utter rubbish because I think you're a pompous, ignorant old shit" - I was pointing out how stupid it would be to for me to disagree with everything that you say because "every new thing you write is complete and utter rubbish because I think you're a pompous, ignorant old shit".

Do you understand now? Easy game to play, innit?

And that is yet another example of how 'NIB', himself, *enhances* "every blog debate" by *adding* "to the discussion".

Yeeeeeeees, as Paxman would say!


I have never claimed to be contributing anything - I *know* I'm just being irritating.

Irritating, isn't it?


Firstly I never asked for an apology – it ain’t me being misquoted – just an admission. Secondly I can’t accept that your misquoting of Dawkins was based on a misunderstanding that you choose to blame on him – nowhere in the original text is any hint of him wondering “why child-bearing women were so upset at having children taken from them”. I think the burden is yours to bear alone.

Here's a way to hopefully get you to understand where you and Stove are going wrong: It’s well-known what the attitude of human mothers is. What Dawkins wanted to know was what - in the specific case of the monkeys he mentions - the attitude of the female monkey was. Was it similar to that of human females, that the mother had no desire for her child to be taken and was grief-stricken when it was? Or was it a variation on cuckoo behaviour and the mother was somehow tricking the other female into adopting her child? Given that both types of behaviour have been observed in different species, which was it in the case of these monkeys? Is the child actually being snatched, or adopted via its mother’s manipulation? Isn’t this a good question to ask? The research at that time was apparently incomplete and Dawkins was hoping it would be taken further.

Stove seems to think that Dawkins is puzzled because the human reaction stands in contradiction to selfish gene theory; that it predicts that any mother of any species should not care that their baby is snatched because it frees up their resources. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the theory. Yes, an organism would benefit from getting another entity to raise its child – if you want to claim any part of what Dawkins said as something that can be applied universally, there it is. But that is in a perfect world where willing adopters sit waiting to take these cast-adrift children into open arms/wings/tentacles. It simply doesn't follow that every - or even any - species will be able to evolve such behaviour, because there are many obstacles to achieving this. It might be an evolutionarily unstable strategy if we're talking within a species; between species the host may develop a defence against it; as I suggested in the last comment, the offspring may in many cases be more likely to become food rather than a stepchild, and so it simply wouldn’t pay off. In the event, there are some - not one, see here - that have evolved this behaviour. From the universal 'rule', you cannot say that all organisms should act the same - they evidently don't, and that is to be expected as the selfish gene manifests itself in many different ways in many different species – and you cannot say that any of Dawkins' comments regarding behaviour in monkeys can necessarily be applied to humans. The selfish gene theory may apply across all of life, but details of an individual species’ behaviour do not.

Ben, thanks, I want to deal quickly with some immediate points you raise.

You write, "I can’t accept that your misquoting of Dawkins was based on a misunderstanding that you choose to blame on him". Sorry, but if Dawkins writes a book in which he states over and over again variations on the theme of "we [human beings] are born selfish". More-over he tells us quite clearly im his preface that "we[human beings] are [...] robot vehicles blindly programmed ..." To be fair, is it any wonder that in making that particular quote to which you have taken exception, I forgot that he happened, in that instance, to be talking of monkeys, a species whose behaviour is similar to ours? Let me repeat my earlier question: do you think Dr. Dawkins would object if the word 'monkey' was replaced with the word 'human', and if so, in what way *would* he, or, given the whole tenor of his book, *could* he?

In absolute contradistinction to the "irritating" and useless interjections of 'NIB', whose only saving grace is that on a very occasional basis he makes me smile, your contributions make me think. You keep coming up with the cuckoo and other species (I haven't checked them all but they appear to be birds) as a proof that some creatures in the higher levels of living things *do* give away their young. However, when I think on it, of course, they do *not*. What they do is lay their eggs in another nest confident that they will be cared for. In other words they are parasitical. The stress and upset of *raising* young and then suffering when they are snatched does *not* occur in their case. What I would like to have shown to me are examples of higher animals completely uncaring if and when their young are snatched. If there are indeed many of them that would explain Dawkins's puzzlement. Consider it this way: if virtually *every* higher animal is 'upset' at the loss of off-spring, why would Dawkins make an exception of humans? Seen like that, you can, I think, understand my *technical* mistake and misquote but it doesn't let Dawkins off the hook.

Anyway, we are passing by the essential point: why is Dawkins puzzled in the first place? Not, I believe, because he took a sudden interest in the social life of monkeys but because such behaviour appears to be a flat contradiction to his own daft theory!

Ben should be very proud because he can make David Duff 'think', wheras NIB can only make Him smile, occasionally. Perhaps NIB should try and please Him by bringing Him an apple.

How do you wish us to address you? 'Mr Duff', 'Headmaster' or just plain 'Sir'?

Well that didn't even make my lips twitch!

Sorry, Sir.

Would it make you happy if I cleaned your car, Sir?

Sorry, David, but he didn't write the book you seem to think he did. To quote the Butterflies and Wheels article I sent you: “[he deals] with general questions to do with evolutionary theory, many of which are only marginally relevant for understanding human behaviour. Moreover, he is on record as saying that he has little interest in human ethics and does not know a great deal about human psychology.”. If you choose to pick up on a couple of sentences and they've multiplied in your mind into something written over and over again, I suggest you re-read the book (as I think you said you would in the Sharpener thread). I find it strange, too, that you forgot he was talking about monkeys when, as you have shown, your source specifically noted what he was referring to. And to say that monkey behaviour is similar to ours -.which particular monkeys are you talking about? New World? Old World? Or are you referring to apes such as chimps or bonobos? Even between those two closely related species there are big differences in behaviour; the bonobos are celebrated as a matriarchal society that use sex as a means to resolve conflict. And yes, I think Dawkins would object if you replace the word 'monkey' with 'human' - not because the questions can't be asked, but because it's already answered and would make him look something of a simpleton. I think that's part of yours and Stove's basic misunderstanding - that he wondered 'what is the attitude of the mother?' in relation to a specific species where the answer was unknown, and you wanted to pretend his wondering applied to all of life.

Be fair, David, in your last comment it was "one species, just one!" and now I present you with more (including cuckoo bees), it's "birds, just birds!". At least concede that you were wrong on that.

You still seem to be missing the central point of the paragraph, something I tried to explain in my previous comment but might not have been clear enough on. You ask to be shown 'higher' animals (this is pure human chauvanism, by the way) that are completely uncaring when their babies are snatched - THIS ISN'T WHAT DAWKINS IS WONDERING ABOUT! It's not what puzzles him, he's not assuming that these mothers should be uncaring and can't understand why they do. And where does Dawkins try to make an exception for humans in this behaviour? Much as you might want it to be the case, he never even approached a discussion of humans. And as I said, I can think of lots of reasons why animals wouldn't evolve uncaring behaviour towards their children, despite the truth in the idea that it would benefit
them if they could pull it off.

Dawkins is puzzled - in the case of these monkeys, lest we forget and start on about humans again - about the incidences of baby snatching. He is not wondering why the mother is or is not upset. The attitude of the mother is unknown, but knowing would help to either a) explain the baby-snatching behaviour or b) remove a possibility and continue to search for the true reason. His puzzlement is towards the behaviour of the SNATCHER, because to raise the child of another is in no way benefiting the selfish genes of that organism. If it became clear that the snatching was actually induced via the manipulation of the mother - a variation on cuckoo behaviour – this would explain the snatcher's behaviour, as manipulation is widespread in the animal world. If it was not manipulation, further research is needed to discover what is going on. This behaviour stands as a possible contradiction to selfish gene theory, which is why it is worthy of further research. He is emphatically NOT wondering about the attitude of the mother because he believes she shouldn't be upset, and that if she was that contradicted his theory. He does not actually expect females to not care because it frees up their resources. He is stating that knowing the attitude of the mother will be useful in determining the causes of the snatcher's behaviour.

Your misunderstanding of this is the central problem here. You say “What I would like to have shown to me are examples of higher animals completely uncaring if and when their young are snatched”. I have said previously that I don’t expect that behaviour to have evolved, or at least be very rare. And as for your ‘essential point’ (it’s not, the essential point is that you had the entire gist of the quote arse about face) – Dawkins himself says that very thing in the Selfish Gene, so it’s hardly a devastating rebuttal, is it?

Allow me one final attempt at illustrating where the understanding is breaking down. Stove and you appear to be arguing like so:

Scientist A: There's some interesting behaviour in this species of monkey that appears to contradict the theory of kin selection - females are snatching babies unrelated to them and raising them as their own child.
Scientist B: Hmmm...perhaps they're being manipulated into adopting the child. It would be illuminating to know the attitude of the mother.
Stove and Duff: Ahhahahhahahaa! Scientist B wonders why human females get so upset about having their children snatched! He thinks they shouldn't care because now their child is being raised and they can knock out another sprog, what a maroon!

Point missed by a country mile, see?

Ben, visitors have kept me from my computer which, I think, has contrived to lose my last comment, dammit!

Anyway, I think we are in danger of repeating ourselves so I will leave the last word to you whilst thanking you for putting me back on my heels even if you failed to make me step backwards. However, before you dismiss me as hopelessly stubborn against all the evidence, please remember that once upon a time I was a convinced Dawkinsian! That is why *this* site is so different from the 'Trot-lot' in that the host positively welcomes contrary opinions to keep him on his toes. I need some time to study the very interesting links you provided and then I will post 'Book II' of the 'Dawkinci Code'. which will attack Dawkins from another angle.

Yippie, we agree on something (other than dry martinis of course). Dawkins is indeed a moron and his entire premise is based on his being saturated with capitalist ideology. Gene's have no agency and the concept of disposible soma is complete and utter shite!

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