Dawkins bash at the LSE

[This is sort of deadblogging, because it all happened last Thursday. But these are more or less the notes I made at the time. I have just been too busy to get them in order.]

The OUP threw “a lecture and party”:http://www.lse.ac.uk/collections/LSEPublicLecturesAndEvents/events/2006/20051215t1557z001.htm at the LSE to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the _Selfish Gene._ The panel lined up to praise Dawkins was very impressive: Sir John Krebs; Ian McEwan, Dan Dennett, Matt Ridley. There were some very good jokes made, and some illuminating things said. The book itself has so much become part of the foundations of the thought world of anyone who learned Darwinism from it that it is difficult to reconstruct what was so new when it was new.

Krebs gave the example of Dawkins’ theory (attributed usually to Krebs himself as well) that animal communication is best understood as an attempt at manipulation of another animal. Mutual communication only arises as a result of an arms race. This seems to be profoundly true, and had some interesting corollaries – that where there is a profound conflict of interest between the communicating parties, signals are more likely to be costly, as they are where sexual selection is involved, whereas the communication between two animals which have almost identical interests is likely to be discreet, as between monogamous parents, or, I suppose, parents and children. (thinks later: one prediction of this is that you would expect communication between siblings to be much more conspicuous than parent-child communication. Does this explain why small animals playing are noisy?)

This is, I think, a good way into Dennett’s theory of meaning – a signal that is reliably acted on will have a meaning, even if neither the transmitter or the receiver could express the meaning except in action. In that sense, yes, the colour of oak leaves in autumn has a meaning for parasites (see Hamilton) even though neither oak trees nor the insects that feed on them have minds. Dennett reserves the term “opinion” for meanings that could be expressed as statements. Obviously, only language-using creatures can have opinions in this sense. This raises an enormous, and almost insuperable barrier to understanding with anyone who supposes that meaning requires conscious understanding. But if you want to understand Dennett, you have to get used to his terminology. Similarly, he used, in his talk, the phrase “mentalistic behaviourism” to describe his angle of enquiry. I don’t know about anyone else, but I find this easier to understand than “The intentional stance”, and it does mean exactly the same thing.[1]

The other money quote I got down from Dennett’s speech was that “Steve Gould was right to call Richard and me Darwinian fundamentalists … who accept that mind, meaning and purpose are not the cause but the fairly recent effects of the mechanistic mill of Darwinian algorithms. No compromise is possible and the recognition is the mark of the _sane_ Darwinian fundamentalist.” (his emphasis)

Matt Ridley pointed out the example of Selfish DNA. This is prefigured in the Selfish Gene, though the term was not coined for another three years, by Crick and Orgel, Sapienza and Doolittle else in simultaneous papers in Nature. This was another very impressive example of the power of the idea of blind replication, serving only its own interests. But at the same time, as Ridley’s account of the contents of the human genome grew more detailed, it became obvious that the gene is not the only unit of selection. True, it is genes that are copied, but it is organisms that are winnowed, and selection is what you get after the winnowing. So even junk DNA will disappear if it is bad for the organism – and, sure enough, this is what happens. Small-celled organisms need small genomes, and something like a malaria parasite, which has to fit inside tiny red blood cells, has a very small genome indeed.

So gene level selection predicts the emergence of selfish DNA, but not its later disappearance. This didn’t seem to me an entire vindication of the central proposition of the book, though, as usual, this depends on whether you take it to mean what it says or what Dawkins later explains that he meant.

There was Ian McEwan, being scholarly – quoting van Leeuwenhoek, Galileo, and of course RD, with praise for his metaphor of genes as cards, passing unchanged through endless transient hands. I would have been proud to write that, he said.

Finally Dawkins himself. It had been called “A young man’s book”, he said – with the implications that, like Freddie Ayer with _Language, Truth and Logic,_ he would later admit that its only flaw was that most of it was wrong. But he would not, he said. He didn’t retract any of it, except that of course “Selfish” could have just as well been “Co-operative”. Yes, he continued: a book called the co-operative gene would have been just as good, and the important word in it was Gene. This seemed to me a striking example of creative theological reasoning, forever discovering new meanings in the original text.

He said he was so grateful for the publication of a book ( “Richard Dawkins: How a Scientist changed the way we think”:http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/0199291160/andrewbrownssite ) whose title really couldn’t say out loud. His voice faltered with modesty at this point. Later he repeated – it’s in the preface as well – his claim that “certain philosophers” seem to have read the book only from its title. This looks like a reference to Mary Midgley, who most certainly did read his book before reviewing it acerbically. Yet he cannot let go of the idea. It is apparently unendurable that anyone should read the book and think his worldview not so much mistaken as merely silly. It was a terrible lesson in the vanity of writers: here he was at the launch of his own festschrift, FRS, FRSL, on a platform being praised by three of the most distinguished writers, scientists and philosophers alive today; a thousand people had applied for tickets to the lecture, and 400 had been turned away. Yet still a 28 year old review rankled inside him so much that he had to denounce it to an audience which had no idea what he was talking about.

fn1. I checked with him afterwards.

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7 Responses to Dawkins bash at the LSE

  1. When I first read “bash” in the headline….

    The page for this individual article is, at least in parts, nearly unreadable because of (I assume) character set problems. I see that a lot, since I come to this site via RSS.

    And the comment box I’m typing into is twice the width of my screen. (Latest Safari, FWIW.)

  2. tom says:

    Speaking of meetings, see this?
    The British Academy: “The Neo-Darwinian Approach to the Study of Religion”
    http://www.britac.ac.uk/events/2006/darwin/index.html

  3. acb says:

    Jonathan — I am going through clipping the special characters by hand but slowly. I have a macro that removes them when I write things in, and post them from, OOo; but this piece was written in Word after OOo had an argument with the clipboard. So I forgot. Sorry.

    You’re the first person to complain about the new, wide comment box; I will shrink it a bit, but I really thought the old one was far too small, so I would make one the width of a normal post (900px).

    But now I have to write about the Archbishop of Canterbury.

    Tom — no, I didn’t. Thank you. I must clearly be there. Pascal Boyer and Robin Dunbar. Should be really interesting.

  4. acb says:

    OK. All cleaned up now.

    Is anyone else reading this in Safari and getting a strangely sized comment box?

  5. tom says:

    Great – I am pleased (and suprised) to have been informative. I’ll see you there

  6. I like a wide comment box as much as the next guy, and 900px would be dandy. But this one is specified as cols=”150″, which ends up being a whole lot more than 900px, the request being interpreted as referring to a monospace font of the size I’m currently viewing, bumped up a notch to accommodate my presbyoptics.

    I don’t think it’s a function of Safari, particularly, given the cols= width spec (not that you have a choice; textarea doesn’t allow width=). I see the same thing with Firefox.

  7. Ah, here’s the deal, borrowed from Wikipedia.

    They specify cols=”80″ in the textarea html, but style it thus:

    textarea {
    width: 100%;
    padding: .1em;
    }

    That seems to do the trick nicely, though I haven’t looked at any of their IE-workaround style sheets to see whether they need to fiddle.

Comments are closed.