March 7th 2009

  Buy Issue 2798

Articles from this issue:

EDITORIAL: Behind Malcolm Turnbull's pitch for green votes

CANBERRA OBSERVED: The Costello question that refuses to go away

ECONOMIC AFFAIRS: China's spending spree: our sovereignty at risk

GLOBAL FINANCIAL CRISIS: Targeted spending needed to promote Australian jobs

NEW ZEALAND: Kiwibank goes from strength to strength

QUEENSLAND: Premier Bligh calls snap election

PUBLIC ACCOUNTABILITY: Shooting the messenger undermines democracy

HEALTH: Labor's campaign against doctors' private practices

UNITED STATES: The nightmarish cabinet of President Obama

FOREIGN AFFAIRS: UN whitewash of China human rights abuses

GLOBAL WAR ON TERRORISM: What to do with Guantánamo detainees?

SPECIAL FEATURE: The agnostic who took on Darwin and Dawkins

MARRIAGE AND FAMILY: Sexual suicide of Western society

AS THE WORLD TURNS: Social websites harm children's brains - top neuroscientist / Conspiracy theory? / 'Right to die' can become a 'duty to die'

Euthanasia and dementia sufferers (letter)

Wilson Tuckey I (letter)

Wilson Tuckey II (letter)

CINEMA: Stylised miniature of feminist mythology - Revolutionary Road

BOOKS: ATTILA THE HUN: Barbarian Terror and the Fall of the Roman Empire, by Christopher Kelly

Books promotion page

The agnostic who took on Darwin and Dawkins

by David Palmer (reviewer)

News Weekly, March 7, 2009
2009 marks the bicentenary of Charles Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his seminal work, On the Origin of Species.

Australia's distinguished philosopher, David Stove (1927-1994) - an agnostic - found numerous flaws in Darwin's theory of evolution and conception of humanity, and proceeded to expose them, from a non-religious standpoint, in a trenchant collection of essays, Darwinian Fairytales*, completed shortly before he died.

Here Stove's critique is discussed by a Presbyterian minister, Rev. David Palmer.

David Stove

Philosopher David Stove, author of Darwinian Fairytales, was not a Christian. The point is not that Stove was anti-atheist but that he saw Darwinism as a "mere festering mass of errors", especially in relation to the human race.

Stove, by his own testimony, over a long period devoured "hundreds" of books on evolution, subjecting them to critical analysis.

He clearly admired Darwin as a thinker (though not atheist Richard Dawkins). He believed that it was "overwhelmingly probable" that we humans evolved from some other, and that natural selection was probably the route. Having said that, he is also quite happy to say, "I believe that neo-Darwinism, though a very good approximation to truth and completeness for many of the simplest organisms, is an extremely poor approximation in the case of our own species. Or rather, to tell the truth, I think that it is, at least in the hands of some of its most confident and influential advocates, a ridiculous slander on human beings.

"If it is true, or near enough true, of sponges, snakes, flies, or whatever, I do not mind that. What I do mind is, its being supposed to be true of man."

He says that if Darwin's theory were true, then there ought to be in every species a constant and unremitting battle for survival with few winners, which is plainly not the case, certainly not as far as the human race is concerned.

This inconsistency ("dilemma") has not gone unnoticed by Darwinians who have sought to escape by making use of various intellectual defences.

"The Cave man way out" (following Darwin's contemporary and champion, T.H. Huxley) is to admit that that human life is no longer the way that Darwin predicted but to "insist that it used to be like that".

But the whole idea of cave men surviving the brutal forces of natural selection is incomprehensible: "No tribe of humans could possibly exist on those terms. Such a tribe could not raise a second generation: the helplessness of the human young is too extreme and prolonged."

Stove adds, "The human race could not possibly exist now, unless cooperation had always been stronger than competition, both between women and their children, and between men and the children and women whom they protect and provide for."

"The Hard Man" defence, espoused by Herbert Spencer and all subsequent "social Darwinists", proclaims that, despite all appearances to the contrary, "underneath the veneer of civilisation, the Hard Man says, and even under the placid surface of every-day domesticity, human life is really just as constant and fierce a struggle for survival as is the life of every other species."

It is easy to see where the Hard Men approach can lead to: no care of the sick, the old, the poor, the afflicted. To the Hard Man, a hospital is inconceivable, as it is injurious to our species. It is not hard to see that eugenics arose amongst the Hard Men, with Hitler as their apogee.

Stove, after having summarised pre-Darwin thinking on evolution, says: "It was in fact left to Charles Darwin to say, in 1859, clearly and consistently and without the introduction of any extraneous matter, that all existing species have evolved from earlier ones. He expressly included man in this generalisation. But at the same time - it should be remembered - he also took care to say, in The Origin of Species, not one word more on the subject of that interesting species."

Stove discusses the influence of Thomas Malthus's theories on population, noting how Darwin took on board the notion that "any population of organisms is always pressing upon, or tending to multiply beyond, its supply of food; in other words, that every organic population is always as large as the available food permits, or else is rapidly approaching its limit."

Stove quotes many examples from the animal world to show that this is not only simply untrue, but "extravagantly wide of the truth".

He has considerable fun listing all the means by which our species limits its reproduction: contraception, abortions, monasticism and asceticism, abhorrence of incest, the failure of the most gifted to marry, killing of young men in wars, homosexuality and so on.

Stove argues that if the Darwinian explanation is true, there ought to be a constant struggle for life going on, when in fact, "in our species at any rate, no such struggle is observable".

The factual misconception lying in the Darwinian explanation is "the implication that child mortality is about the same in all species, or at least is tremendously high in all". In species such as cod and pines, the mortality rate is "99 per cent or more".

This, says Stove, is ridiculous - maybe not for cod and pines, but certainly ridiculous for birds and elephants and certainly for humans! Stove concedes something of a struggle for life "among gulls, rabbits, and weeds", but where among humans?

He quotes Darwin saying in defence of his theory, that "each species, even where it most abounds, is constantly suffering enormous destruction at some period of life, from enemies or from competitors for the same place or food".

To this Stove says: "The real reason why Darwin [and others] enormously overestimated the rate of child mortality in humans is quite obvious, and lies right under our noses. They did so under the compulsion of a theory."

Needless to say, Stove has no difficulty in showing that Darwin's predictions on infant mortality, whether for domestic or semi-domestic animals as well as humans, has at no time past or present reached the level required by his theory.

American capitalists

Stove does return to the Darwinian theme of the struggle for life, and so should we in our apologetic against the new atheists, to ram home the point of how influential the theme has been for American capitalists, Adolf Hitler and Communists.

Listen to these comments: "It is perfectly obvious that accepting Darwin's theory of a universal struggle for life must tend to strengthen whatever tendencies people had beforehand to selfishness and domineering behaviour towards their fellow humans. Hence it must tend to make them worse than they were before, and more likely to commit crimes: especially crimes of rapacity, or of cruelty, or of dominance for the sake of dominance."

Stove draws the following conclusion: "The Darwinian theory of evolution is an incitement to crime: that is simply a fact."

He points out the strong affinity between the Darwinian theory of evolution and the belief in intrinsic human selfishness. He then introduces us to the socio-biologists (such as Richard Dawkins and his ilk). As an aside, Stove makes the point that Darwin did not himself embrace the selfish theory of human nature for political and common sense reasons.

Stove sets out the argument between socio-biologists such as Richard Dawkins and himself in this way: "Human selfishness goes very deep and extends very far. But that is obvious, and not in dispute. It needs no expensive education in biological science to teach us that; nor did we have to wait to learn it from the recent examples of draft-dodgers, feminists, or the business virtuosos in dog-eat-dog and dirty tricks. The question is, whether there is not also an opposite side to human beings - an unselfish or altruistic side - which also goes very deep and extends very far. The sociobiologists say there is not. I say there is."

Stove mounts a defence for altruism, first establishing our preference as humans to mingle together and to talk as precursors to altruism.

He notes the way in which people agglomerate into villages, towns and cities and how, once a certain size and complexity are reached, each particular society develops groups for specialised social functions: the military function, the religious and the medical.

The point he makes is that the existence of such groups is inconsistent with the selfish theory of human nature. He asks: "What is more natural in human life, than the existence of an army, a priesthood, and a medical profession?"

Stove fleshes all this out, and then goes on to point out when precisely it is that the selfish theory flourishes.

"The selfish theory ... flourishes always and only in periods of Enlightenment. The first victims of Enlightenment, and the most important ones, are (of course) priests.... The next victims of Enlightenment, and the next most important ones, are kings: especially kings in their martial capacity....

"But alas, (the) Enlightenment is not only irreversible but insatiable, and proceeds inexorably to devour its own children. It cannot stop with the 'unmasking' of priests and kings as being entirely selfish: it must proceed to disclosing that everyone is entirely selfish."

As to the why of this selfish theory, Stove has this to say:

"The selfish theory of human nature was always explicitly intended by its adherents to explode the belief, assiduously cultivated by priests and other obscurantists, that a vast gulf separates our species from all other animals. It was intended, as Darwinism was always intended, to bridge the gap between man and the animals, to mortify human self-importance, and to 'cut us down to size'. Now isn't that just too bad? Because a vast gulf does separate us from all other animals, in point of altruism, as in point of intelligence. That is simply a fact, and a very obvious one, even if it has been stated by a billion obscurantists."

But surely Dawkins et al will allow room for altruism? This is where Stove takes us to the notion of a "veneer" of civilised behaviour that is supposed to mask humanity's essential selfishness: "Below this veneer, the selfish theorist says, human beings, even the most highly civilised ones, are really just as selfish as savages, sharks, or wolves, and will always reveal themselves as such when circumstances, such as torture or starvation, remove all the pretences and the superficial amenities of ordinary social life."

This veneer idea, no matter how widespread and longstanding its acceptance, is false says Stove.

First, if the members of every species are engaged in a battle for survival, there was no place ever for altruism, "how could even the least little bit of morality or of altruism have escaped being eliminated by natural selection?"

Second, consider "our stupendous present expenditure of money and effort on public health, education, unemployment relief, and the rest".

Stove does not shy away from the argument that, given sufficient pressure, human beings will do bad things. He concedes the inherent selfishness of the infant, but adds: "Adults are not hiding their infantile selfishness: they have grown out of it, that's all."

That our infants survive proves, says Stove, how unselfish and helpful adults are toward them. He says, "Our species, even apart from kinship, is sharply distinguished from all other animals by being in fact hopelessly addicted to altruism."

David Stove comes close to calling Richard Dawkins a charlatan when he begins critiquing The Selfish Gene, the book that launched Dawkins's career when it was published back in 1976.

He contends that the book represents an intellectual mischief. Dawkins's big point is that it is our genes that are self-replicating. But, as Stove says, nothing can actually self-replicate; the best that can be hoped for is a copy. Dawkins has linked "self-replication" with genes being "selfish".

But, as Stove says, the object of my selfishness is never going to be the copy of myself, it is always going to be me. The copy may mean much to me, but the one thing the copy can never possibly be is the object of my selfishness. That can only be me! Talk of "selfish" genes is nonsense. Genes can be no more selfish than they can be supercilious or stupid.

So how come the runaway success of The Selfish Gene?

Stove thinks there is a parallel with the 16th-century religious reformer John Calvin's alleged teaching concerning a cosmic conflict between God and the demons: Dawkins in like manner is positing a conflict between genes and, according to Dawkins, we are the pawns in this game where the only players are our genes.

In other words, humans are the helpless puppets of their genes, causal agents of great power which, incidentally, were unknown before the 20th century.

Stove acknowledges that Dawkins cannot maintain his puppetry theory consistently but makes passing contradictory nods in the direction of human choice whilst always maintaining his primary position that we are at the mercy of our genes.

Of course, people want relief from responsibility (much like the child caught thieving who accuses his mate, "He made me do it!" or men today able to enjoy sex without making the commitment of marriage, "It's your problem - get an abortion!"), and puppetry theories such as The Selfish Gene offer them this relief.

Here Stove tears into and makes mincemeat of Dawkins's notion of "memes". We have met memes in Dawkins's later book The God Delusion (2006). Suffice to say, genes have to do with evolution by the natural selection of specific characteristics; cultural evolution is the result of a battle among memes in our brains.

So, while we might say we are taught certain things by human agents (parents, teachers, the magistrate, etc), Dawkins says the causal agents are not humans but memes at work in the brain.

Stove observes: "Suppose someone says that human beings and all other organisms are just tools or devices designed, made, and manipulated by so-and-sos for their own ends. Then he implies that so-and-sos are more intelligent and capable than human beings."

Richard Dawkins writes that "we are ... robot-vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes", and again that we are "manipulated to ensure the survival of [our] genes".

Stove says: "According to the Christian religion, human beings and all other created things exist for the greater glory of God; according to sociobiology, human beings and all other living things exist for the benefit of their genes."

Stove turns to the famous design argument for the existence of God formulated in William Paley's Natural Theology (1802), and argues that Richard Dawkins has brought us full circle in a modified way back to Paley's argument on purpose.

Paley's argument for God as the purposive agency for creation after 1859 gave way to Darwin's notion that the creation of the species was not the result of divine, or of any other, purpose, intelligence or engineering skill, but rather it "is an effect of altogether blind forces: namely, the pressure of population, variation, and the resulting struggle for life among unequally endowed competitors".

From Paley to Dawkins

But now, ironically, through Dawkins's development of the concept of "the selfish gene", the neo-Darwinian explanation of adaptation by reference to the purposes of intelligent and powerful agents (genes and memes) bears striking resemblance to Paley's argument.

"He [Dawkins] agrees with Paley that the adaptations of organisms are due to the purposive agency (more specifically, the selfish and manipulative agency) of beings far more intelligent and powerful than humans or any other organisms.

"Dawkins ... differs from Paley only about the number of the gods responsible for adaptation, and about their moral quality: not about their existence, purposiveness, intelligence, or power."

Selfish Genes, Errors of Heredity, and Other Fables of Evolution

by David Stove
Introduction by Roger Kimball
(New York: Encounter Books)
Paperback: 326 pages
Rec. price: AUD$37.95

- This article is a shortened version of a review by the Rev. David Palmer, convenor of the Church and Nation Committee of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria. For 25 years he was a chemical engineer, serving in a senior managerial capacity in the ICI Corporation, both in Australia and overseas.

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