Sunday, July 8, 2007

Atheist vs. Atheist

David Sloan Wilson has an article in the eSkeptic, "Beyond Demonic Memes," (the same article is on this blog), that attacks some of Richard Dawkins' speculations in The God Delusion. For example, Dawkins speculated that religion is "just" a side-effect of children's uncritical acceptance of their parents' beliefs and teachings.

Mr. Wilson sees a more complex and adaptive role for religion and he criticizes Dawkins for dismissing groups selection as an evolutionary factor. It has little to do with religion. Dawkins has always, and in all his works strongly resisted group selection, no matter the context.

I tend to agree with Mr. Wilson's ideas about a more complex and adaptive role for religion. I encountered the concept of group selection in The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History by Howard Bloom. The Official website for the book has two sample chapters, Superorganism and Isolation that introduce some of the concepts.

But Mr. Wilson also makes an ad hominem attack saying that Dawkins is "just another angry atheist, trading on his reputation as an evolutionist and spokesperson for science to vent his personal opinions about religion." Dawkins doesn't really come off as angry, at least he is not as angry as I am. I'm far more pissed off at the lies and the blinders of religion's advocates than Richard Dawkins.

There's a lot to be angry about if you're an atheist in America, just look at the other posts on my blog. A religion usually benefits its own believers to the detriment of the non-believers, it tends to make people more compassionate towards their co-religionists, and less compassionate towards the heretics and infidels they use as scapegoats.

Mr. Wilson is also taking money from the Templeton Foundation. This fact might distort Mr. Wilson's conclusions. Just because religion is adaptive doesn't mean it is good for us. If it really is putting blinders on delusional believers then they'll suffer too for their lack of contact with, and understanding of, the real world. Truth matters and the Templeton Foundation is committed to finding some kind of metaphysical truth in religion. Remember what kind of world we are adapting to, a world of continual war and predation.

Check out the Barefoot Bum's posts "Wilson on Dawkins" and "Statistical fallacies" and also the comments on Stranger Fruits' "Wilson on Dawkins" for more information on the arguments that have been going on.

The Barefoot Bum does not think Wilson correctly uses statistical methodology, the Bum accuses Wilson of presenting statistical concepts in a way that harms rather than helps the reader's statistical intuition.

UPDATE: Richard Dawkins Replies to David Sloan Wilson.

UPDATE II: The electronic ghost of Douglas Adams Replies to Richard Dawkins and David Sloan Wilson via a 1998 speech called 'Is there an Artificial God?':
"So, my argument is that as we become more and more scientifically literate, it's worth remembering that the fictions with which we previously populated our world may have some function that it's worth trying to understand and preserve the essential components of, rather than throwing out the baby with the bath water; because even though we may not accept the reasons given for them being here in the first place, it may well be that there are good practical reasons for them, or something like them, to be there. I suspect that as we move further and further into the field of digital or artificial life we will find more and more unexpected properties begin to emerge out of what we see happening and that this is a precise parallel to the entities we create around ourselves to inform and shape our lives and enable us to work and live together. Therefore, I would argue that though there isn't an actual god there is an artificial god and we should probably bear that in mind. That is my debating point and you are now free to start hurling the chairs around!"


rasmussenanders said...

Nice blog post and my compliments to your blog overall!

Like Dawkins I do not think that group selection can occur. I was entirely convinced after reading the selfish gene. But then again, maybe I should study the oter side as well...

Keep up the good work, I will be checking in every now and then ;)

Blake Stacey said...

The "selfish gene" model, under which kin selection is all, is only an accurate description of a population if that population is "panmictic" — each member can mate with any other. This sort of description, in which each individual feels the same average effect from all the others, is known in physics as a "mean-field theory."

Conclusions can be drawn with mathematical certainty for the panmictic case which no longer apply when the "perfect mixing" assumption is dropped. For example, if your population is spread across a geographical region, interesting effects can occur, and some objections to group selection no longer apply.

normdoering said...

Blake Stacey wrote:
"The 'selfish gene' model,..."

Group selection might be stronger at the memetic than at the genetic level. It only needs some basic support from the evolving genes.

Obviously Christianity or any specific religion is a memetic effect, not a genetic one... I assume. Maybe we should test that.

Luis Cayetano said...

Isn't it true that we can still accept the selfish gene theory whilst allowing for groups to be selected as vehicles rather than replicators? Dawkins alludes to this in The Extended Phenotype, when he says that individuals and groups can both potentially act as conduits for allele survival. In that case, one wouldn't talk about "group selection versus gene selection" (and if one did talk about that, then he would mean in terms of whether we can regard groups as replicators), but one could still reasonably ask whether groups can ever be selected as proxies by which alleles can be maintained primarily by the advantages they confer onto the group as a whole rather than on the individuals carrying them. I think it is Dawkins' contention that this is in any case unlikely, and he spends his efforts upon debunking the group-as-replicator idea, in the sense that he thinks Gould subscribed to. David Sloan Wilson accepts the fundamental distinction between vehicle and replicator; he is just more willing to allow for the group to act as a vehicle than is Dawkins. He cites some recent studies involving microbacteria to support his argument (I would like to see Dawkins reply to these studies specifically, or perhaps I should just read them myself). Dawkins calls Wilson's version of group selection "idiosyncratic". Why is this? I don't know, and I shall have to look deeper, because I would have thought that his version was the same as what Dawkins would allow as group selection rather than the group-as-replicator type. Or is Dawkins saying that Wilson is talking about a sub-group of group-as-vehicle? Or perhaps Dawkins' criterion for "true" group selection is that the genes must be involved in "engineering" solutions? This would strike me as a bit unfair, because it seems like he would have moved the goalposts in order that group selection can never be realised. Perhaps I'm just confused (actually, I really am). When we talk about the selfish gene, do we only mean genes that are involved in and must be involved in adaptations? (‘The entity for which adaptations can be said to be “for the good of”’) Or do we mean genes that, for whathever reason, are selected on the basis of their affects on something, be that the individual, group, species, or whatever, and that might or might not be then incorporated into an engineering solution?
Finally, if we talk about religion as being a group selection adaptation, does this mean that group selection was involved in actually building it up, or simply that the finished product was selected by virtue of the advantaged afforded to the group, (if not the individual)? It seems to me that group selection is incapable of building up complex adaptations, but suppose that something was built up by within-group selection, later becoming a disadvantage to the individuals having it, but still conferring advantage to the group. Is this what Wilson means in terms of religion? Does it differ from what he means by gene selection by virtue of group benefits?

rasmussenanders said...

The main problem with selection at the individual or group level as I see it, is that there is no fecundity. That is, every individual and more so every group is different from one another. Since evolution requires reproduction, unqequal survival, and high, though not perfect, fecundity, it doesn't work for individuals. The only unit which is relatively constant is the genes.

Perhaps this will change if we are able to clone ourselves, but I don't see it happening very soon.

Luis Cayetano said...

"The main problem with selection at the individual or group level as I see it, is that there is no fecundity. That is, every individual and more so every group is different from one another. Since evolution requires reproduction, unequal survival, and high, though not perfect, fecundity, it doesn't work for individuals. The only unit which is relatively constant is the genes."

But I think that the issue, for those who subscribe to the gene-centred view of evolution, should really be over what entities can act as vehicles, i.e. as the immediate, proximate units of selection. Most of this honour has been given to the individual, but the group is another possibility. Can selection on groups as a whole overpower selection between groups, such that an allele can be maintained despite its possibly deleterious affects on the individuals that carry them? The issue has stopped being about whether groups can compete with genes as the ultimate units of selection. It is no longer about whether groups can fulfil the role of replicator.

Clones would not fulfil the role of replicator, for the reason that Dawkins gives in The Extended Phenotype: if a change is made to the clone, it will not be passed onto the offspring (unless that change comes in the form of a mutation in a gamete).

Anyway, I still don't know why Dawkins thinks of Wilson's take on group selection as "idiosyncratic". How is it, as he says, a "re-definition"?

Luis Cayetano said...

Sorry, I meant to say "Can selection on groups as a whole overpower selection within groups..."

Anonymous said...

Mr. Wilson is also taking money from the Templeton Foundation. This fact might distort Mr. Wilson's conclusions.

Now that's an ad hominem, much more than Wilson calling Dawkins an "angry atheist" - which he is, sorry for you.