Saturday, October 23, 2010

A Dialogue with Bruce Alexander on Richard Dawkins

During Bruce Alexander's presentation he had mentioned that he found Richard Dawkins to be deplorable because he was a social Darwinist. To my understanding he was not, and so I engaged Dr. Alexander in a dialogue concerning the matter. He gave his consent to it being posted on the blog, and so the following is the exchange between us:

in class, you mentioned that you despise Richard Dawkins because he is a social Darwinist. could you please identify for me where Dawkins has identified himself a social Darwinist, or anything that he has said that necessitates social Darwinism?


Hi Brock,
Thanks very much for your comments. I am including a short
snippet from the draft copy of my next book which shows both why I
hate Richard Dawkins and why I think he is a Social Darwinist. It is
based on his 1989 book. I have not even thought to follow his recent
work. Do you think he is not a Social Darwinist?


Social Darwinism finds its recent scientific support in the biologically sophisticated writings of "Sociobiologists" or "Evolutionary Psychologists" who call themselves neo-Darwinists. An extreme example would be Richard Dawkins' famous book, The Selfish Gene (1989). Writing in a clear and forceful style, Dawkins summarises his powerful perspective on psychology on the first page of his book:
...We are survival machines—robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes (Dawkins, 1989, p. v.)
Later he adds two extensions of this doctrine:
...I think "nature red in tooth and claw" sums up our modern understanding of natural selection admirably. (Dawkins, 1989, p. 2)
Hi Brock,

Here is the snippet that I meant to include in my previous email.


...we, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes...I shall argue that a predominant quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness. This gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behaviour. However, as we shall see, there are special circumstances in which a gene can achieve its own selfish goals best by fostering a limited form of altruism at the level of individual animals. "Special" and "limited" are important words in the last sentence. Much as we might wish to believe otherwise, universal love and the welfare of the species as a whole are concepts that simply do not make evolutionary sense. (Dawkins, 1989, p. 2)
Dawkins expresses his doubt that culture can restrain the impulses of selfish genes as follows:
...Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something which no other species has ever aspired to. (Dawkins, 1989, p. 3)
Although Dawkins acknowledges that Darwin did not directly state any theories like these, he confidently attributes his views to Darwin:
The selfish gene theory is Darwin's theory, expressed in a way that Darwin did not choose but whose aptness, I should like to think, he would instantly have recognised and delighted in. In fact it is an orthodox outgrowth of neo-Darwinism... (Dawkins, 1989, p. viii)
Although Dawkins' sanguine view of innate human selfishness may be a reasonable deduction from the Origin of Species and an "orthodox outgrowth of neo-Darwinism" [i], it is definitely not "Darwin's theory" of human psychology as expressed in Darwin's two psychology books. In fact, Darwin's perspective on human morality is much more complex, and in large measure contradicts Dawkins and many other sociobiologists or evolutionary psychologists.
If Social Darwinism does not come from Darwin, where does it come from? I wish I could find some ancient expression of it, but as yet I have not. At this point, I can trace it back no further than the Calvinist theology of the Reformation (Weber, 1920/1958) with its veneration of uncompromising, entrepreneurial individualism in the service of God's design that His earth should be made to flourish, a view that was translated into a more secular form within Hobbes', Hume's, and Adam Smith's writings. From these secular writings, Social Darwinism entered into the political doctrine of the 19th century Whig and Liberal parties (Desmond & Moore, 1991; Hobsbawm, 1962; 1975; 1989)

[i] ...Richard Dawkins' reflective of neo-Darwinism's preoccupation with the...Victorian conception of evolution as a prolonged and bloody battle (Margulis & Hinkle, 1991, p. 15).


Forgive me but I fail to see how you have demonstrated Dawkins to be a social Darwinist. Perhaps I am mistaken on the meaning of social Darwinism. For your clarification, my understanding of social Darwinism is the belief that the most fit in society ought to prosper, and that the weak ought to be let to die. Is this not essentially what social Darwinism entails? It is, then it seems to me that one must make the distinction between arguing that social Darwinism would work (that is it would succeed in it fostering desired traits in human populations) and actually arguing that social Darwinism ought to be practiced. Is this not a fair distinction to be made? And if it is, are those who merely argue that social Darwinism could work, i.e. those who are merely purposing a mechanism of adaptation, also to be called social Darwinists? I was under the impression that one had to argue that society ought to embrace social Darwinism, and allow the week to die, or actively sterilize or kill them in order for one to be a social Darwinist. Am I mistaken? Does merely arguing that "if a society allowed for the week to die off, then the week would not perpetuate week traits in future generations", make one a social Darwinist? If the weaker definition is all that is required, then it seems clear that dawkins is a social Darwinist, however, if the stronger definition is used, I have never heard him endorse the killing off of the week. In fact I have heard him specifically state that while he believes that if there existed a mad dictator who wished to create a nation which would have the worlds best high jumpers, and to do so, he enacted a breeding program, or only allowed the tall and athletic to breed, that such a program would most probably work, this Dawkins says, is fundamentally different from the question of whether one ought to do such a thing. Here is a quote from Dawkins "it would be a very unpleasant thing if there were a sort of government organized breeding program in which the smart people were encouraged to breed and encourage the dull people not to. I think that would be a horrible thing. That's different, however, from saying that it wouldn't work" from Penn radio show 2006/10/25 27minutes in (available free on itunes, podcast)

So am I mistaken in what is required to be a social Darwinist? Is the distinction between arguing that it is possible, and arguing that it ought to be done, significantly different? The distinction is between oppenhimer and Truman, between theory and action, between what is and what ought to be, and is a difference which is of fundamental importance when ascribing moral blame to another individual.


Hi Brock,

Thank you for making me think more precisely about this issue. I personally agree with your definition of "Social Darwinism", although my quickie wikipedia search showed me that the term can be defined in various ways. I think therefore that you are right that the little Dawkins quotes that I sent do not prove that Dawkins is a Social Darwinist. I still think that he is one, however, on the basis of political comments that I recall from reading The Selfish Gene, but did not write down. If it were not a terrible busy time for me, I would re-read the Selfish Gene to see if my recollection is correct, but I just cannot do it now. Also, it is not fair to label him a Social Darwinist -- definitely a pejorative term -- on the basis of something he wrote two decades ago. I know I am not going to read his more recent stuff. There is too much, and I find it offensive. Therefore, I am not going to be able to settle the issue either to my satisfaction or yours. I agree that I should be more careful about labelling people with pejorative terms unless I am completely sure that they fit, and I will be more careful about Dawkins in the future, thanks to you.

The more interesting question is why some people like me, hate Dawkins, and some people, like you I am guessing, find him inspiring. Perhaps it is simply the difference between modern day Romantics and Whigs. But then the question becomes why are some people Romantics and some people Whigs. There is a lot of psychology to be worked out here. Perhaps,when we both have time we will have a cup of coffee together and you will tell me your take on Dawkins' philosophy (or science, if you like). I would be very interested.

Thanks for the stimulating comments,


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