About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Sunday, October 28, 2007
The Dawkins trilogy
Briefly, as readers of this blog know, I'm as much an atheist as Dawkins is. Yet, I think he goes over the top when he claims that any religious education amounts to child abuse (some surely does, but what about Unitarians? C'mon!). Most importantly, I think he takes an unwarranted scientistic attitude when he claims that what he calls the “God hypothesis” is scientifically testable. It isn't, although it can be soundly rejected on philosophical grounds. Scientism doesn't do science (or atheism, for that matter) any favor, and betrays a lack of philosophical sophistication.
On memes, I think it's a nice metaphor, but no more than a metaphor. Memetics, as far as I can see, has not added anything of substance to pre-existing ideas on gene-culture co-evolution, not to mention the wealth of work in psychology, sociology and anthropology. It's not just that nobody has any clear idea of what the physical basis of memes are (indeed, according to some memeticists they don't seem to have a specific physical basis, since they can evolve by jumping from brains to hard drives to any other storage device). It's that nobody has proposed a “functional ecology” of memes, a theory that tells us why certain memes (say, some religions) spread more than others. Without such theory, memetics becomes an instance of circular reasoning (the fittest memes spread; the fittest memes are those that spread...).
Finally, the selfish gene. Dawkins was, of course, simply a (very effective) popularizer of that idea, which really emerged from the technical work of Hamilton in the UK and Williams at Stony Brook University (where I am) in New York. But even Hamilton and Williams later adopted more sophisticated and pluralistic views of evolution, and retreated significantly from the “gene's eye view” of the biological universe. Yes, there certainly are selfish genetic elements, and we can study the dynamics of their evolution inside genomes. But natural selection occurs at many levels, and even genes are forced to cooperate with other genes in order to maintain organismal fitness. More controversially, there have been strong suggestions recently that genes may sometime play a rear-guard action in evolution, fixing phenotypic changes triggered by other mechanisms, such as developmental plasticity and “accommodation” (to use Mary Jane West-Eberhard's term). Furthermore, philosophers like Okasha have convincingly argued that even Dawkins' much-vaunted distinction between replicators (genes) and interactors (phenotypes) is far from being either clear-cut or particularly useful in evolutionary theory.
I'm sure much more meaningful discussion can be had on all three topics, but it seems like Dawkins' undeniable charisma and captivating prose have somewhat hidden serious conceptual difficulties with much of his work, difficulties that people genuinely interested in the nature and limits of science ought to squarely confront.