Working against evolution?
February 7, 2003 11:16 AM   Subscribe

In an article called "The Sociobiological Conceit", Gene Callahan says darwinism is logically flawed and inherently self-contradictory: "if moral ideas are simply an 'illusion' fostered on us by our genes then so are all of our other ideas – including the ideas of sociobiology!". Callahan, fyi, belongs to the ultra-libertarian circles of the Mises Institute and LewRockwell. Would any of the evolutionists among us care to politely refute him?
posted by 111 (20 comments total)

 
Walking sticks with wings.
posted by The Jesse Helms at 11:22 AM on February 7, 2003


Why bother wasting more time refuting this stupid crap? Lump this dumbass in with the religious nutcases and flat-earthers.

Move along, folks. Nothing to see here.
posted by mrmanley at 11:40 AM on February 7, 2003


However, there were still many examples of human behavior that could not easily be attributed to such factors, for example, Mother Teresa ministering to the poor of Calcutta, who were not genetically close to her.
This guy literally doesn't seem to know what he's talking about. There's just not much here to refute.
posted by uosuaq at 11:44 AM on February 7, 2003


I would refute him, but if "all of our other ideas"-- including his-- are biological illusions, I guess it's not really necessary.
posted by 4easypayments at 11:45 AM on February 7, 2003


I'd like to point out that the author is not making a case against evolution itself, but is rather raising doubts about the field of evolutionary psychology which seeks to explain all humor behavior through an evolutionary lens. Evolutionary psychology is an interesting field; anyone who's seen Steven Pinker speak can attest to that. However, its claims are tentative at best.

Evolution itself is the most intensely studied, widely confirmed, established field in biology. Evolutionary psychology is still in its infancy and subject to much debate even among mainstream scientists about its claims.
posted by deanc at 11:52 AM on February 7, 2003


Does it refute Darwinism when a worker ant sacrifices his life for his brothers and sisters? Our altruistic behavior, our ability to sympathize and empathize, our compassionate nature are all part of what has enabled us to survive as a species. If it were "Every man for himself!" we'd be toast.

Evolutionists are usually more interested with more difficult questions, like: why do we make art and why do we believe in God.
posted by kozad at 11:58 AM on February 7, 2003


This hardly needs refutation, because his logic is awful.

In Darwin's theory of organic evolution, there is no room for the persistence of any behavior that does not promote the advancement of the genetic line of the organism exhibiting it.

Um, no. Darwin has little to say about something that has no impact on a species' fitness. Maybe if he said "persistence of any behavior that damages the prospect of advancing an organism's genetic line..." he'd be less wrong. But he'd still be wrong and the sociobiologists have scads of examples of collectives where individuals sacrifice their genetic heritage in favor of the collective's. (e.g. ants)

But of course he dismisses sociobiologists. How? Here's his "most decisive" argument in a nutshell: Sociobiology argues that morality is genetic. Therefore all moral ideas are genetic. Therefore all ideas are genetic. Therefore sociobiological ideas are genetic, so sociobiology has to crawl up its own ass and disappear. The assumption is questionable; step two is dubious; step three is obviously false. And even if there were a genetic determinism to sociobiology, that wouldn't be an argument for its falsehood.

Pathetic... and that's what I'm saying while in my "polite" mode.
posted by ptermit at 11:59 AM on February 7, 2003


Concerning his connection of moral beliefs and scientific beliefs: For one thing, moral "ideas" are basic and seem to be at least somewhat ingrained, whereas obviously sociobiological ideas are not. There are, however, epistemic norms which determine what we take as evidence for beliefs, including sociobiological beliefs; and these norms are arguably the product of evolution. See Nozick's The Nature of Rationality, Ch. 4. So there may be a sense in which moral ideas and sociobiological ideas are in the same boat.
Still, even if we have these ideas/norms/whatever due to evolution, it isn't ruled out that these things have some sort of independent validity. This is clearer for epistemic norms than for moral norms; but still Callahan's argument (or rather, a version thereof cleaned up on his behalf) doesn't get him where he thinks it does. He wants to refute this evolutionary theory of psychology on the basis that it has (prima facie) skeptical consequences for belief; but these problematic consequences are far from unavoidable.
posted by Mark Doner at 12:06 PM on February 7, 2003


Well the article is interesting if only because it charges against a different set of evolutionary straw men than is typical.

Part of it has to do wth a basic misunderstanding of the nature/nurture debate as well as sociobiology. The nature/nurture debate among scientists is rarely "which" but "how much". Likewise claiming that sociobiologists such as claim morality as a "trick" is an almost slanderous misreading of a person who has argued hard over the last decade for an eco-humanist ethic.

But ultimatelty as Wilson has noted. a part of the bug deal is that sociobiology treads on that last bastion of sacred humanness: moral reasoning. No one blinks when it is proposed that the ability of humans to count beyond 5 has its roots in evolution. Nor is the tendency of humans to communicate through a multi-layered language capable of rich and complex sentences. The discovery that a major behavioral gap between wolves and dogs is the ability to interpret human facial expression came without a stir.

But proposing that human moral reasoning evolved alongside math reasoning and language is revealing that the emperor has no clothes. It undermines the basic notion of a human-specific soul.

Nobody I know in sociobiology argues that dogs evolved to pose in dog shows. Instead what is argued is that dogs evolved a flexible ability to cooperate with humans that is less developed in cats and nonexistent in earthworms. Likewise, humans have evolved an ability to perform a moral calculus that balances good for the self with good for the community.

And can we really trust an article that critiques sociobiology wthout a single reference to the major works?

In regaords to Pinker and Evolutionary Psychology, I find that he is also guilty of turning the discussion into a straw man in order to portay himself as more revolutionary than he really is.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:19 PM on February 7, 2003


I am hardly any sort of specialist in evolution or even any branch of science but the notion of altrusim had been settled some time ago and without ref to evolutionary psy.
here is a book by the man largely responsible for our awareness of the connection between altruism and Darwin:
http://www.lrb.co.uk/v25/n03/berr01_.html
and a darn good read, too.
posted by Postroad at 12:19 PM on February 7, 2003


More reading:Maybe I didn't read the article closely enought, but I'm not sure exactly what the author's point is except to bash sociobiologists. He doesn't supply any alternate explanation for altruistic behavior. In fact, his entire agenda seems to be summed up in this one sentence:
If morality is indeed "a collective illusion of the human race, fashioned and maintained by natural selection in order to promote individual reproduction" (Ruse, quoted by Schloss, p. 248), then exposing that illusion could only be destructive to our species.
It looks to me like he sees an evolutionary vision of morality as dangerous, doesn't want to believe because of this, and so is setting out to deny it by reading way more into the term "illusion" than was probably meant by Ruse.
posted by moonbiter at 12:35 PM on February 7, 2003


Evolution != sociobiology.

Was that polite enough for you?
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:01 PM on February 7, 2003


evolutionary psychology which seeks to explain all humor behavior through an evolutionary lens.

I'm not too familiar with evolutionary psychology, so this quibble might be misplaced, but wouldn't it be more accurate to say, "evolutionary psychology...seeks to explain a very limited set of human behaviors through an evolutionary lens."?
posted by mr_roboto at 1:12 PM on February 7, 2003


When I was studying sociobiology in college, I never got the sense that any sociobiologists were attempting to explain anything other than our genetic predispositions toward behaviors. Obviously, genetics drives plenty of behaviors, from ants marching to babies suckling. To make the leap from that to say that it must therefore drive all behaviours is disingenuous and silly. The great evolutionary advantage of consciousness and memory is that it allows us to conceive of and execute behaviors that are not encoded into our nervous systems. That's the whole frickin' point of consciousness. Those ancestors that were able to formulate responses in realtime to new conditions were far better suited than those whose behaviors were genetically encoded. The point of evolutionary biology is to tease out the behavioral predispostions that haunt us from our pre-conscious past.

Or to put it another way, this article is completely asinine.
posted by vraxoin at 2:16 PM on February 7, 2003


Where I come from we don't call them "evolutionists," we call them "scientists." And we call creationists "lackwits."

I decided long ago not to be polite to the foolish people who are attempting to drag mankind back into the age of unreason.
posted by jkilg at 2:35 PM on February 7, 2003


Well the article is interesting if only because it charges against a different set of evolutionary straw men than is typical.

HA! :)
I work in genetics, and I can't count how many times that pesky altrusism gene gets in the way of our tests! oh wait.
posted by rhyax at 7:12 PM on February 7, 2003


But proposing that human moral reasoning evolved alongside math reasoning and language is revealing that the emperor has no clothes. It undermines the basic notion of a human-specific soul.

Only if you believe that the ability to make moral judgments is necessary in order to possess a soul. Since your theory would imply that even humans incapable of knowing right from wrong are souless, I doubt many people of faith would accept it. Of course, many religious people are perfectly willing to entertain the idea that animals have souls as well, so if your object is to undermine religous faith, this argument really doesn't get you very far.
posted by boltman at 11:58 PM on February 7, 2003


...in Darwin's theory of organic evolution, there is no room for the persistence of any behavior that does not promote the advancement of the genetic line of the organism exhibiting it...
Stated as some sort of fact, this is utter nonsense. Is it too much to ask pundits to have some knowledge of the topic they are discussing before actually discussing it? I mean this guy read some of the popularizing books of Dawkins, Wilson and the odd NYT science section article and he is suddenly someone who has to be refuted? I think not.
posted by talos at 5:27 AM on February 8, 2003


If this needs refutation for you then read The Selfish Gene.
posted by wobh at 5:55 AM on February 8, 2003


Only if you believe that the ability to make moral judgments is necessary in order to possess a soul. Since your theory would imply that even humans incapable of knowing right from wrong are souless, I doubt many people of faith would accept it. Of course, many religious people are perfectly willing to entertain the idea that animals have souls as well, so if your object is to undermine religous faith, this argument really doesn't get you very far.

Wow talk about a mess of bad logic. To start with, you invert the argument made by many religions that sociobiology critiques. The claim is not that moral reasoning is necessary for a soul, but that a soul is necessary (but not sufficient) for moral reasoning. Much of Christian moral philosophy makes the claim that humans ony were given the "breath of life" (soul) and moral reasoning comes from eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Once past the "age of reason" humans are accountable for their actions in a way that animals are not. Prior to the "age of reason" humans live in a "state of grace."

On the other hand, if the sermons I skim on religious television are any indication, chronic problems telling right from wrong are attributed by some to maladies of the soul. Although the term "possession" is rarely brought up the phrase "Satan in/out of your heart" is frequenly used. Some argue that salvation includes being "filled with the holy spirit" providing a moral compass. A similar claim is C. S. Lewis's propsal of a spiritual instinct for telling right from wrong.

So of course there are religious traditions that do not regard a basic spiritual difference between humans and other animals (Buddhism, Jainism, Neo-Paganism). But people from those traditions don't object to claims that human moral reasoning should be treated just like any other animal behavior. On the other hand the logical conclusion of those traditions is one of non-violence against animals which is equally offensive.

I agee that attacking the specialness of humans is not an attack on religious faith (which I did not address.)

One of the interesting things about Sociobiology is that after more than 200 pages talking about the evolution of social animal behavior in other organisms, Wilson devoted a single final chapter on humans. No one objects to sociobiology except when it the animals it talks about is homo sapiens.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:46 AM on February 8, 2003


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