In a recent book review, I wrote:
I was walking with pals in their pleasant backyard as a bunch of dear
little honey-eaters swooped and sang their hearts out above a sprinkler.
`Ah, look how they sport and carol for the very joy of it!' a friend cried,
clapping her hands to her breast.
You could see her point, and it was a gladdening thing to behold.
`Actually,' I mentioned, `what they're really saying is either "This turf
will be defended with lethal force" or "Feel like a quickie? I'm sure
you'll like it." ' My friend stared at me in disgust. But this cynical
estimate was not my fault, Darwin made me do it. Or perhaps it was Wallace,
as we'll see in a moment. It's those genes, you see, one way or another.
Isn't this a dreadfully reductive way to look at the world? How about those
other dear little birdies that shout at the top of their voices when a
dangerous intruder approaches, saving the flock at great risk to
themselves? A raven will call others to join the feast when it stumbles on
a carcase, rather than gorging alone. Surely this is natural altruism in
action, the very antithesis of those notoriously misunderstood `selfish
zoologist Richard Dawkins made famous--and which have been disputed hotly
by his territorial rival, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould?
...At least with ravens, reality is less than
noble. If a juvenile bird without territory chances upon something dead and
tasty, it'll be seen off by the larger adult who holds the turf. Calling in
other young hoons overwhelms the incumbent's defence. Everyone gets a
share, but it's smart politics, not the golden rule. And the recipes for
such political strategies have been conserved as genes selected by brute
For Dawkins, evolution is finally about the preferential survival of clumps
of adapted, co-operating genetic replicators (selfish in the sense
that unless they create effective bodies, they'll perish). Gould, by
contrast, wishes to stress the role of the whole organism and indeed
species, lineages sometimes smashed by natural catastrophes that make
locally effective adaptations abruptly irrelevant. No gene is
rewarded--selected--on its own; it takes a village to put many genes into
effect (at least among humans).
My pal and sometime co-author Rory Barnes, a philosopher by training,
> But this cynical
> estimate was not my fault, Darwin made me do it. Or perhaps it was Wallace,
> as we'll see in a moment. It's those genes, you see, one way or another.
Quite so. But the reductionist should beware of the belief that showing how
something arose, or how it is put together, or how it has prior causes etc
etc demonstrates that the putative thing or state of affairs 'doesn't really
exist.' The dear little birds can be having stax of happy innocent fun and
be enjoying themselves no end without in any way precluding a Darwinian
explanation of their behaviour. Or for that matter a Darwinian explanation
of their experience. Having fun has survival value. Especially if what the
birds are having fun doing is defending territory or selecting a mate or
committing adultery. You might as well tell a human that science has shown
that the poor twit's naive belief that he enjoys a good fuck is all
illusion, the activity has actually been genetically programmed by an
endless process of natural selection to blindly produce a state of affairs
in which his genes have the greatest chance of being passed on. Indeed it
has, but the guy can still like doing it. And he can even reach for a condom
if he has a mind to.
> the recipes for such
> political strategies have been salted away as genes selected by brute
Yea verily, but the Ravens can still have a great time calling in the young
hoons and getting into their tuck.
Quite, as Rory sez, so.
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