William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Intelligent Design is Mostly Harmlessness: Reply to Eugenie Scott

Eugenie C. Scott
Executive Director
National Center for Science Education

Dear Ms Scott,

Thank you for your recent letter informing me of the efforts of your fine organization to discourage the teaching of creationism, elsewise known as intelligent design.

The answer to your questions is: yes, I did know that “evolution was under attack.” But unlike you, I am not that concerned about it. I’m certainly not concerned enough to part with the $100 you ask for.

Like you, I’m convinced that the Earth is more than six-thousand years old. The evidence that its age is four-and-a-half billion years old, plus or minus a few tens of millions, is multitudinous.

Life on Earth—however it began—increased in complexity through some form of descent with modification. Natural selection at the individual level explains most observed variation, but not all. There are small holes in the theory of evolution—as there are in all biological or physical theories—that will probably be filled as time progresses.

The animal homo sapiens sapiens is one of the creatures produced by evolution. The weight of evidence supporting that statement is enormous. However, it is also true that evolution is weakest when explaining human behavior. Some observations which are counter to strict “selfish” gene theories: abortion, adoption, altruism, to name just the As.

However, even though the theory is strained when it comes to explaining human behavior, it does not break. The probability that the theory of evolution is true is as high as the probability that any of our best scientific theories is true. This probability is close to—but less than—one.

I have a colleague who is an atmospheric scientist. He is well published and funded and so forth. He is a follower of one of the religions that are not convinced that evolution is true. He even openly states that the Earth is only a few thousand years old.

Now, any atmospheric scientist doing his job must be willing to accept that the universe is older than than this, especially when his work involves planetary atmospheres, as his does. He once told me, “I just push the ‘I Believe’ button” when working.

Best I can say is that his behavior is not inconsistent with my theory that most of the human race is insane. Point is: all educational efforts to put this guy on the right path have failed. But since he has no plans on becoming a biologist, he’ll never suffer from his disbelief.

Most people just don’t give a damn about evolution. And why should they? Knowledge of evolution isn’t needed in preparing breakfast, making copies, taking the kids to soccer practice, operating a computer, and on and on.

You can argue that the world would be a better place if only these sad folk were better educated about evolution. But that’s so if you replace “evolution” by “string theory”, “analytic geometry”, or a host of other theories. You might say that evolution is more important than those other sciences because evolution is the basis of all biology. That’s true, but physics is the basis of everything, yet there will never be more than a handful of people who care to, and will be capable of, learning it.

Am I wrong to say that your ardency is motivated by your dislike of religion? Do you feel evolution is a tool that can remove this supernatural splinter from thy brothers’ eyes? Do you, that is, believe that if Judeo-Christian literalisms can be proved false, then the religious will recant, abandon their God, and see the Light of Reason?

If so, then are you in for a surprise. Anyway, it’s obvious that the combative tone adopted by the majority of your compatriots, their pitting Evolution vs. Religion as an all-out, winner-take-all battle, is in large part responsible for the escalation in rhetoric.

But would I want, as you say, creationists to insert some of their “sneakier catchphrases like ‘strengths and weaknesses’ or ‘academic freedom'” into the classroom?

It would be mostly harmless, for at least the reason that I do not believe that parents should trust the complete education of their children to the state. We should always do our best as teachers, but it’s a losing battle for many kids, who won’t take away from their biology classes more than some half-remembered story about giraffes’ necks.

Plus, I don’t think that those catchphrases are sneaky: they are a constant necessity. Scientists are just as prone to dogmatism as the religious.

As you quote, “the Supreme Court ruled that laws requiring equal time for creationism [and intelligent design] were unconstitutional.” If this hasn’t lessened the trend in disbelieving evolution, than nothing will.

Except maybe if certain rabid scientists would stop shouting that everybody who disagrees with them, or follows a religion, is a fool.

Your friend,

William M. Briggs

P.S. Congratulations on your Pubic Welfare Medal. That’s quite an honor.

35 Comments

  1. Matt,

    I’m torn on this.

    On the one hand, I don’t really give a damn if people believe if the universe is on a turtle’s back. On the other hand, I want science taught in science classrooms. I don’t really care if people want to build crazy museums where Fred Flintstone is riding a friendly T-Rex to work as scientific fact. That’s their right.

    I just want biology taught in biology class. And that means teaching contemporary evolutionary theory.

    Then again, I want the loud “religion is child abuse” types to shut up.

    Why can’t it be both ways?

  2. I would caution against the assumption that all creationists are “young-earth” creationists, i.e. the earth is only a few thousand years old. A significant number of Christians are “old-earth”creationists who believe like you that there is multitudinous evidence for a very old earth/universe. That being said, they also believe that the complexity of this universe and the lifeforms on this planet are far to complex/intricate to have evolved by mere chance. They feel there is room for an old earth interpretation of the biblical Genesis creation story. However, they also feel that evolutionary science has emasculated God, that evolutionary science hasn’t answered the fundamental question of how life began (which it hasn’t). As a statistician, you have a sense what the probability is of the purely secular evolution model, the odds of a simple biological lifeform evolving to a highly complex human being by “natural” selection, pure chance. Are you willing to bet those odds against the existance of a “god”? If so, then I pity you.

  3. I find the entire debate to be tiresome, especially since points of debate for this “new” war sound very much like the “old” war (variations of “I’m smarter than you are, nyah, nyah, nyah”. Others are suiting up for another round of beating the dead horse:

    http://chronicle.com/article/The-New-War-Between-Science/65400/

    May God bless them.

  4. Excuse me while I press my “I Believe” button. I believe evolution happens, but there are holes in the presentation. For example, how do we know I am a direct descendant of any Paranthropus, or any of those ‘thropuses. Where is the physical, statistical, documented connection?

    Those guys were ugly (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zinjanthropus )! My DNA may have 99% compatability with those fossils, but that’s not the same as 100%.

  5. Briggs

    14 May 2010 at 10:41 am

    Thanks, Fred. Last time I had any pity was back in ’72, when I stood up at a picnic and my overalls fell to my feet, revealing to the world my early formed boxer-brief decision.

    Also, I have no interest in talking you out of or into any theory of evolution. But you will notice, on your second reading, that I made no guesses of how life began, nor did I say a theistic interpretation of evolution was impossible. Nor did I say it was even unlikely.

    What I can tell you is that your understanding of the words “pure chance” is flawed. Well, this is so for most people. In short: there is no such thing as “pure” chance. Probability is always conditional on something.

    bob,

    On the contrary. If I don’t shave, my resemblance to that guy is pretty close.

  6. The whole Earth is “Mostly Harmless”, so there.

  7. bob, if it were 100% identical then you would be a thropus.

    The statistics for evolution are vast and accurate.

    Modern example: Phylogenetisists can pin down within 10 days exactly when the pandemic influenza of 2009 first occurred, although it wasn’t noticed or isolated until several months later.

  8. As a statistician, you have a sense what the probability is of the purely secular evolution model, the odds of a simple biological lifeform evolving to a highly complex human being by “natural” selection, pure chance. Are you willing to bet those odds against the existance of a “god”? If so, then I pity you.

    Oh boy, trying to place demeanor, and a fallacious “it doesn’t feel right, therefore it’s wrong” kinda argument, while appealing to the “if you are smart you know where you should stand” catchphrase that so annoys the hell out of me.

    If you have an argument present it. You’ll find that most of such creationist arguments have been found wanting… anyone who thinks we are not “apes” in this day and age is free to do so… but should not be “so” free to teach such garbage.

  9. “There are small holes in the theory of evolution”

    Can you point them out cos I’ve never seen any?

  10. Where does DNA come from?

  11. A number of comments:

    1) RE: “Best I can say is that his behavior is not inconsistent with my theory that most of the human race is insane” HA! I can only point out that ignorance & stupidity (independent from mental health) just don’t get the credit they deserve (especially relative to any number, most, conspiracy theories).

    2) A literal belief in the Bible is a very easy approach to take; considering that, ultimately, belief is founded on faith (bolstered by the promise of effortless rewards & salvation merely for believing), the need for critical thinking is inherently suspended. While most of the world may be insane, or stupid, or ignorant (or some combination), people tend to be lazy in general — and mental exertion is no exception. So there someone is, conditioned from earliest childhood (in many cases anyway) to believe without thinking, and then they learn that scientists that do a lot of thinking & study have come to a very different, mutually exclusive, conclusion, these people are forced to think — and its difficult for them to accept that a fundamental belief upon which they’ve built a significant part of their psyche is wrong (this is as traumatic, perhaps more so, than learning a trusted spouse of many years was polygamous). For them, this IS an all or nothing proposition and they need to disprove the proof that they have been wrong all along; they don’t have the ability to make an adjustment to a fundamental belief system. If part is wrong, the entirety is wrong and a psychological crutch upon which they’ve built a psychological dependency evaporates.

    Put another way, the challenge to a position (evolution theory & its evidence) that challenges their belief is in reality an effort to create a proof for a belief that was never truly accepted on faith (regardless of how many times or how long they asserted it was) — proof is for doubters. They oppose evolution so strongly because they cannot confront their own doubts about their faith (much like a duped spouse lives in denial of obvious evidence their partner has & continues an affair). Proof is for doubters.

    3) The group, ‘Reasons to Believe’ — see: http://www.reasons.org/ — happens to use specific Bible references to “prove” the Earth & universe are billions of years old. There’s a few groups out there that use that same Bible to “prove” the Earth is flat & the sun orbits the Earth, which is at the universe’s center….among other things.

    Isn’t it interesting that an Almighty God that created the heavens & the Earth and all that is seen & unseen exerted such inspiration that His sole reference work, drafted via His Divine inspiration of humans here on Earth can be, and has been, interpreted to mean pretty much whatever any particular human needs or wants it to mean for them at any particular point in time…and also resulting in numerous Christian denominations (at least over the past 500 yrs or so), each asserting they’ve got it figured right & the others are wrong in some key respect?

    4) Regarding ‘feeling right’ (reader comment, above) here’s an interesting article that addresses that human characteristic:

    http://www.salon.com/news/environment/mind_reader/2008/09/22/voter_choice/print.html

    and someone that addressed that specific “if it feels right it must be true” theme:

    http://www.salon.com/life/mind_reader/2008/02/29/certainty/

  12. Here’s an article that cuts to the core of the issue underlying this blog item & discussion:

    http://www.robertmprice.mindvendor.com/art_biblicism.htm — “The Psychology of Biblicism,” by Dr. Robert M. Price.

  13. Doug,

    DNA probably arose as a consequence of RNA, the constituent parts of which can be formed quite readily under the right conditions.

    Or so my now 10-years-ago understanding goes.

  14. “But would I want, as you say, creationists to insert some of their sneakier catchphrases like ’strengths and weaknesses’ or ‘academic freedom’” into the classroom? It would be mostly harmless, for at least the reason that I do not believe that parents should trust the complete education of their children to the state.”

    Dumbing down science education to accommodate religious extremists would be mostly harmless?

    William M. Briggs, you’re an idiot.

    “There are small holes in the theory of evolution”

    Is that what you call research opportunities? Holes?

    Do you think our planet’s orbit around the sun has holes?

    Evolution is how the world works. So why is it OK with you to pass laws to force biology teachers to lie to their students about the established truth of evolution? You’re a moron and you’re equal to a terrorist.

    “Scientists are just as prone to dogmatism as the religious.”

    What? Do you enjoy being a compulsive liar? Is that your problem?

  15. Andy,

    For one, there are still issues with how speciation occurs– that is, the kinds that occur and how. And of course we have the arguments between the phyletic gradualism and punctuated equilibrium camps.

    Doesn’t mean evolutionary theory is wrong, just that we don’t have a complete understanding of the mechanisms at play.

  16. Mr. Briggs,

    I think you nailed it, this there are a lot of folks who like to use the evolution debate to bash the religous. I think most of them don’t actually understand it themselves. A common belief is that Man is evolving to become more intelligent. I don’t see any evidence of that. A trait has to improve one’s probability of surviving to procreatge to be magnified by evolution. Even in the third world you can be pretty dumb without it affecting you chance to pass on your dumb DNA.

    I’m a physicist, so I’m no expert on evolution. I didn’t get a meaningful understanding in high school, but I did take a physical anthropology course in college which probably makes me dangerous. My feeling it that evolution is likely to be correct, but I don’t how much evidence there really is. To me, it’s the only theory we have, but that doesn’t make it correct. I don’t really know why it’s such an issue, you say it’s the foundation of biology, but I don’t think so. I don’t think anything biologists do would change if it were disproven. Cells would still be structured the way they are, regardless of how they got that way. It’s like cosmology, big bang steady state, expanding universe, what would be different regardless? How the universe was created certainly drove Boltzmann’s Constant to be what it is, but since we know it’s value, it doesn’t matter how it got to be.

  17. John,

    I’ll take it a step further: I took a lot of bio in high school and college and it’s almost certain (that is, 99.9999999999999999%) to be correct. That is, the theory as we know it likely explains how life evolved. I separate evolution as a fact from evolution as a theory, kind of like Gould. Doesn’t mean that running around screaming “child abuse!” to parents teaching religion is helping any.

    There’s a helluva lot more evidence in place for evolution than practically any other scientific theory.

    “A common belief is that Man is evolving to become more intelligent.”

    “Jersey Shore” proves otherwise.

    “I don’t think anything biologists do would change if it were disproven.”

    Here I disagree. Biology today depends heavily on understanding how life evolves, particularly at the genetic level.

  18. Briggs

    14 May 2010 at 3:48 pm

    Human Ape,

    I thank you, mostly because you prove what I was arguing: many people cannot master arguments that go beyond the complexity of “It’s true because I said so.”

    I doubt you’ll show up again, but if you do let me ask you this: would you enforce, by means of arms, financial penalties, or both a law which makes it illegal to promulgate evolutionary theory as you understand it? (Not as it is, of course, because the “holes” I point out are well known and vigorously debated among biologists.)

    If so, then I can make the same argument for an equal law with regard to, say, measure theory, or the theory of gravity. Your comments indicate you know little to nothing of either theory. I can use your legal mechanism to ensure that you are not allowed to disseminate your non-lucid ravings, especially to the public, which by definition includes children. We wouldn’t want them exposed to unsound arguments, after all.

    Also, a pointer: learn to read English before spouting off. Your juvenile ravings are an embarrassment: you are no gentleman.

    (As a side note—this is really shooting fish in a barrel, but Ape has me irked—I noticed the justly named Ape used the phrase “Drop dead Christian subhumans” on his web page. What’s funny about that is that any martyr for evolution would say something so obviously contradictory to his dearest belief.

    You’re a confused little boy, Apey.)

  19. Briggs

    14 May 2010 at 4:21 pm

    Andy,

    Sure. Let’s look at those As and “selfish” gene theories, but briefly. If strict “selfish” gene theories are true, why do people—and in some cases, other animals—adopt? Adoption works against an individual’s chance of passing on her genes. The resources she devotes to the adopted baby of course are not devoted to a child which posses half of her genes.

    Needless to say, abortion is highly selective against an individual passing on her genes.

    Finally, altruism. There have been some, unsatisfactory I believe, attempts at creating mathematical models showing why altruism evolved. Without getting into them, they say things like: you’d sacrifice your life for four but not for three or fewer cousins, or something equally weird. But these models fail at explaining, among other things, battlefield altruism, where soldiers sacrifice their lives for their unrelated comrades.

    And that’s just the As. We haven’t talked about suicide (not as a result of mental illness, but as a matter of culture; think Japan in WWII), nor the priesthood, and on and on.

    So, “selfish” genes theories are probably not correct. Perhaps, with humans and some other higher animals, evolution is working, in part, at the species and not just the individual level. (I don’t say this is true; it’s just a guess.)

  20. Ken,

    I think you got the Reasons people backwards. Having read a book by the founder, it seemed to me that his goal was to prove that the Bible was actually the word of god because stuff in the Bible was so consistent with our (recent) physical understanding of the universe.

    My personal take was that his conclusions don’t really follow. There was still a pretty big leap of faith. An interesting read, though.

  21. Here’s a thought. A thinking person should inform himself about certain questions and make his own decisions — and then he should have respect and tolerance for the beliefs of other, both contradictory and complementary. (If only we could legislate tolerance in a meaningful manner that wasn’t itself intolerant.)

    I am a Christian who adheres to the description by Dr. Bill Creasy of the Bible as literature, as history, as rooted in geography, and as the Word of God. But, I think the creationists of any ilk should drop their quest to have creationism taught in schools (or to force an admission that evolution is faith-based). While debate may be good, this sort of warfare is not, and as Briggs is pointing out (to the chagrin of Human Ape) the specifics of either position is mostly, if not ultimately, harmless to the opposite position.

    Instead, the religious should encourage church and higher-learning instruction in metaphysics (Thomistic Dualism for the Christian) to help people understand the difference between a materialistic world view and one that accepts something beyond the physical.

    Ken, I don’t agree that for the faithful the “need for critical thinking is inherently suspended.” It may be conveniently suspended by some who just don’t want to think very deeply, but in the face of assaults from people like Human Ape, believers should know why they believe. For me, it was a scientist who convinced me to take a different look at the Bible, and it easily absorbs all of the critical thinking I am able to muster.

  22. john:
    “Phylogenetisists can pin down within 10 days exactly when the pandemic influenza of 2009 first occurred,…”

    Fascinating stuff. Thank God the H1N1 thing wasn’t a real epidemic because we didn’t get the vaccine until it was all over.

  23. Smoking Frog

    14 May 2010 at 8:44 pm

    I agree in some broad way with Mr. Briggs’s general position, but I think one reason why some people are so hell-bent on suppressing those who reject the theory of evolution is that, to them, it seems so obviously correct, and this is because they are just as dumb and ignorant as those to whom it seems obviously incorrect or unlikely. For example of the extreme of this, I know a lady who, though not a “suppressor,” defended Lamarckism, without naming it, but simply with not knowing the difference between it and Darwinism. To her it was “obvious” that giraffes’ necks are long *simply because* their ancestors, for some reason, kept trying to reach the leaves of trees.

    But that’s the extreme. The average case is a person who finds it obvious that if mutations and natural selection occur, this *must* explain the world we see around us, with its complex organisms, fossil record, and so forth. Why isn’t it obvious to them that this might not actually work? Ideas about other things have seemed to work but have turned out not to. These people don’t trouble themselves with questions like whether the probabilities work, or how something like the eye could be reached in small steps, given that natural selection has no goal. Apparently they’ve never heard that some authorities on evolution have had problems with the theory; e.g., they’ve never heard of Haldane’s Dilemma.
    They’ve never heard of epigenetics or the suspicions that it may be operating in far more than a tiny minority of cases.

    My point is not that things like that could so damage Darwinism as to make it largely irrelevant (although they might), but that these people fail to appreciate that their own idea is just as much a simple fable as the ideas of those whom they condemn as ignoramuses. In fact, it’s more than that, since the main proponents of intelligent design do not claim that evolution did not occur, or that common descent is false.

    Most of all, these people fail to appreciate that their story seems to their religious opponents to be a simple fable. It’s a correct impression, and the religious opponents have it common with the sophisticated, non-religious or irrelevantly religious critics of the theory. So why don’t these people credit their opponents with this? Answer: Because they have no idea of what they’re talking about.

  24. Joe Triscari

    14 May 2010 at 9:24 pm

    This complaining about science illiteracy is fairly recent and, as you point out, purely political.

    You state “Most people just don’t give a damn about evolution.” While that’s true, let me modify it, “Most people just don’t give a damn about evolution including those complaining that its not being taught in schools.”

    Need proof? If you are someone who thinks evolution education is an absolute necessity answer the following question (for yourself, I honestly don’t care if you can Google it).

    Question: What is adaptive radiation?

    This is a question a tenth grader who is science literate about evolution should be able to answer. If you are someone lamenting the science illiteracy caused by religious folk and you cannot answer the question, you need to attend to your own science illiteracy before seeking to improve the world (keep in mind there are many other questions I could have asked).

    If you are a hand-wringer who can answer the question, Congratulations! Had we met in person you would have been the first who simultaneously had that basic science understanding and a deep concern for creeping science illiteracy caused by religeousness. If you are such a person, you should find like minded thinkers and educate them. They’re making your side of the political spectrum look foolish.

  25. Well, that was a lot of fun. Wonder whose oxen we should gore next?

  26. If Darwin doesn’t eliminate Eugenie first, then God will. I’m sure of it.

  27. Human Ape man,
    Low seratonin and high testosterone can be a lethal mix.
    Bananas and custard for you.

    “There is one purpose to life and one only,to bear witness to and understand as much as possible of the complexity of the world, it’s beauty, it’s mysteries, it’s riddles; the more you understand, the more you look, the greater is your enjoyment and your sense of peace. That’s all there is to it. If an activity is not ggrounded in to love or to learn it does not have value.”

  28. Abortion and adoption are contradictory to selfish gene hypotheses? Really? I think they would make perfect sense in that setting. Consider abortion: it’s most likely (in a traditional setting) as the outcome following a rape by an outsider or a liason outside the acceptable social group (or thirdly, perhaps, incest). In all cases it would result in a contamination of the local gene pool and abortion would be the most logical solution. Also, adoption is most likely within a close-knit family or social grouping.

  29. onecosmos.blogspot.com offers opportunities for further stretching.
    Briggs: thanks for relaying Lopez interview @ NRO; are you following Heartland Climate Conference?

  30. Briggs

    16 May 2010 at 6:06 am

    ad,

    Those are possibilities, but rare ones. A mistake is to think of human behavior in only specialized settings, as you have done. If strict “selfish” genes theories are to be predictive, they must be so for all of, or at least the majority of, human behavior. The most common mistake is to imagine evolution worked up until, say, 2032 BC and then stopped; after which humans became something other. Without going on and on about it, you can see the obvious fallacy.

    The majority of abortions are not because of rape, but for convenience—for the good, that is, of the present and not future genes. And most (nearly all?) adoptions are not from within families but from without—and this is again, for the lack of a better word, convenience of the present gene holder.

    And just think about modern demographics: in general, the better off a person is financially, the less likely she is to bear children. Once more, just the opposite of what you’d expect if “selfish” gene theories obtained.

  31. I was talking of a pre-historic setting. When it comes to abortion I don’t presume to tell other people what they can and can’t do, so I leave it there.

    When you talk of adoption you mean ‘official’ adoption, a rare legalese instance. Multiply those figures by a large number of zeros to get the unofficial rate. Relatives taking in nieces or nephews, grandchildren etc. or from close friends to help out in times of trouble. I’ve seen my parents do it. My wife and I have done it. You don’t do it for a stranger, but when it’s family you just help out (the more distant the relative the less and less so), and i’d suggest its quite common.

  32. Leonard Weinstein

    16 May 2010 at 11:58 pm

    The problem is not about what people believe, it is what the actions resulting from those beliefs are. I don’t think most non-religious people have a problem with religion that is non-intrusive, the problem is the very strong intrusions of many religions to try to convince all people to accept their religion. In many cases this is followed with efforts to FORCE conversion. Look at your history, and even at many positions of today. The efforts in the US are to get a toe in the door than shove the door open. Other countries are often much worse, with direct action. The effort to push intelligent design into a science class is clearly one of the wedge efforts. If it is taught at home, or in the church, or even in a class on philosophy and belief, I would not object. However, the basic nature of science does not allow a hypothesis that is not able to be falsified, and that clearly precludes teaching it there. I would not even object to calling evolution a theory that is not yet sufficiently supported to close all other theories, but any alternatives need a reasonable level of supporting evidence.

  33. Briggs

    17 May 2010 at 4:47 am

    ad,

    “Prehistoric”? At what point—what exact date—did mankind throw off his evolutionary fetters and become immune to the forces of nature?

    You’re becoming muddled. Abortions are rampant: whether or not you “presume to tell other people what they can and can’t do” is irrelevant to whether abortions confirm or disconfirm strict “selfish” genes theories. And, incidentally, that argument is silly, for I bet that you “presume” to tell other people that they cannot steal your property or your life.

    And what’s this lapsing into legal mumbo jumbo? The question is: does adoption confirm or disconfirm “selfish” gene theories. I say it disconfirms it. You’re going to have to word hard to prove the opposite.

    Notice, too, you have forgotten suicide (of the non-mentally diseased); priests, monks, nuns, and others who voluntarily remain celibate; altruism (of the kind I mentioned); and so on.

    No, it’s clear that “selfish” gene theories fail with humans, however predictive they are of oak trees, dandelions and the like. Something else is at work. My suggestion—perhaps false—is evolution at the species level. This has some support among biologists. I, of course, cannot prove it.

  34. Briggs,

    I hate to finally write when I found something to quibble about. But….

    As a scientist and an educator I find your website to be consistently
    of the highest quality both for scientific rigor and entertainment.
    I learn something from you at least once a week.

    But I have some areas of disagreement when it comes to your ideas
    about evolution.

    Your essay itself is excellent and I agree with everything you said
    about the condescending attitude of many folks who have little actual
    understanding of the details of evolutionary theory. I agree with your
    warnings about holes in our scientific theories especially evolutionary
    theories. There are undeniably some holes in the theoretical framework
    explaining evolution.

    I have a quote from you “Too many people are too certain about
    too many things” proudly posted in the front of my classroom.

    But as a scientist who has obsessed about evolutionary theory for more
    than thirty years I feel qualified to correct you (provisionally) on your
    understanding of “selfish gene” theory and group selection. There has in
    fact been a tremendous amount of work done on the role of gene-level selection
    since in was first explicated by Hamilton more than 40 years ago. I would
    recommend Hamilton, Trivers or Williams as good sources for a layman’s
    explanation of these ideas. An outstanding non-technical treatment would
    be The Extended Phenotype by Richard Dawkins.

    The idea of group or species level selection (as promoted by Stephan Gould)
    has been pretty thoroughly discredited for explaining any significant developments.
    Dawkins makes an especially effective argument against group selection in the work
    sited above.

    The ascendancy of the gene-level selection approach is in fact breathtaking. The
    research paradigms suggested by these ideas have produced an amazing amount of
    data which confirm these theories. Group behaviors, social insect behavior,
    non-coding DNA, molecular drive, etc. Lots of excellent data. For non-humans!!

    You are correct (provisionally) to suggest that there are many confounding
    factors when these theories are applied to humans. In explaining any animal behavior
    we must, at present, filter our predictions through the black boxes of development
    and neuroscience but the logic of evolution allows us to predict the effects of
    competing alleles without a complete causal chain connecting the gene to the effect
    of the gene. For non-humans!!

    But with humans you get serious confounding effects because the creation of the
    human mind allowed the development of another evolving component in the system.
    Our brains are probably evolved beyond what was optimally required for reproduction
    on the savannas of Africa in much the way a peacock’s tail is an extravagance of
    plumage. Our spectacular brains, probably the product of runaway sexual selection,
    are capable of of something new and significant:generating, replicating and transferring
    ideas. Memes.

    These ideas are themselves now elements of an evolving system. Ideas have a
    semi-autonomous life of their own.They evolve by successful replication in some instances
    regardless of the negative impact on their carrier. They have their own logic of
    reproductive success which can run in many instances counter to the interests of the
    organism whose mind it is inhabiting. In much the same way viral rabies genes can cause a
    dog to act against its own interest, ideas “infecting” a human brain can cause
    behavior which mitigates against the reproductive success of their owner.

    The effects of evolution caused the development of brains which are capable of being
    “infected” by ideas which cause behavior deleterious to the interests of the owner of
    the brain. Evolution is a race against the evolution of parasites which owe you no
    allegiance.

    The ideas which lead to abortion, adoption, altruism even suicide all have
    been given putative explanations in the literature on gene-level selection but a key concept
    here is that there is a real sense that for humans the dynamics of memic evolution will
    confound arguments which are exclusively based on gene-level selection logic. Evolution never produces “perfected” organisms, they are constantly vulnerable to manipulation by other evolving entities,,,,even evolving ideas!

    Thanks for your wonderful website
    I hope this has been helpful.
    Kip Kotzan

  35. Briggs

    19 May 2010 at 10:01 am

    Kip Kotzan,

    Thank you; and sorry it took so long for me to write back to you.

    I have read Hamilton, and some other works derivative of him, but I cannot agree with their conclusions. Naturally, I might be wrong. The problem with those mathematical abstractions, like all models, lies in their application, not their calculus.

    It appears that the cutoffs in theories of inclusive fitness (for humans) are arbitrary. Why stop at third cousins, twice removed? For example, it looks as if I should lay down my life for just anybody, because, after all, all of humanity more than duplicates the genes I have. That is, everybody else needs to be taken care of more than I do, because my genes are everywhere and in abundance.

    And again, why stop at humans? I share a lot of genes with apes, monkeys, and even ants. Why do inclusive fitness models exclude these creatures?

    Let’s not even get started on memes, because I’d guess we’d never agree. I’ll say that I have never seen an adequate response to the criticisms of Stove, and particularly Mary Midgley. The best Dawkins could do, by way of answering Midgely, is to say “She misrepresented me”, but he never said where or how.

    And on much of evolutionary psychology, I’m afraid I am a Gouldian. Far too many Just-So stories floating around.

    Anyway, let’s not argue these points. Since I am curious, and don’t know, how much evidence is there for species-level selection? I do know that some biologists talk of it, but I haven’t read enough either way to know how far the idea has progressed.

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