Kelley on Pinker on Dawkins

[Note: this post got big quick, so this is necessarily rather sketchy at points. I’ll be trying to further elucidate in the next few days. I’ll also be happy to respond to counter-arguments and questions.]

I’ve reposted the entire Times excerpt of Steve Pinker’s discussion of Richard Dawkins’s Selfish Gene below.

Dawkins’s book was, of course, a landmark in the history of evolutionary science. With this very readable book and its more specialized companion The Extended Phenotype Dawkins scored a rare feat in the realm of science writing: explicating and popularizing a new way of looking at evolution among both popular and professional audiences.

Dawkins book encouraged its readers to look at evolution with a “gene’s eye” view. Thinking less about the competition between animals or bacteria, and more about the competition between different sequences of DNA. Such a view made it much easier to explain things like altuistic behavior, for instance: a brother might sacrifice his own life for his sibling and still be assured that much of his genome would get passed on to future generations. Looking at the matter this way, we can more easily see how a gene encouraging such altuistic behavior might be selected for. An entire family with this gene might survive and propagate more successfully than others over the long run, thus assuring the continued presence of the self-sacrifice gene.

While recognizing Dawkins’s achievement, I many have felt that Dawkins has also had a tendency to state his claims a bit too dramatically and to push the explanatory power of his ideas a bit too far. When called out on this tendency, Dawkins has often clarified and nuanced his claims. I am someone who has been a bit skeptical of the Dawkins line of evolutionary storytelling, but I have always seen him as a very interesting and reasonable thinker with a lot to tell us about how life came to be as it is.

Steven Pinker, and cognitive scientist at Harvard and perhaps Dawkins greatest rival as a scientific popularizer, may also be Dawkins’s biggest stateside comrade-in-arms. But he does not share Dawkins preference for reasonableness over drama in the final instance. Much like the postmodern theorists he has publicly deplored, Pinker often seems to prefer the romance of taking and defending an extreme position to being right.

Not that there’s much danger in Pinker’s posturing: like the great postmodern firebrands, he’s got tenure. And his positions are not that extreme, socially. (I’d argue that they’re farther from the truth that from the political mainstream.) And they’re certainly not extreme enough to stem the flow of congratulation from his many fans.

The article below provides a fine example of Pinker at his worst. Aside from giving Dawkins his due praise on the 30th anniversary of The Selfish Gene, Pinker, characteristically, is also concerned to extend his thinking to new areas and new extremes:

Another shared theme in life and mind made prominent in Dawkins’s writings is the use of mentalistic concepts (ie, the explanation of behaviour in terms of beliefs and desires) in biology, most boldly in his title The Selfish Gene. The expression evoked a certain amount of abuse, most notoriously in the philosopher Mary Midgley’s pronouncement that “genes cannot be selfish or unselfish, any more than atoms can be jealous, elephants abstract or biscuits teleological”(a throwback to the era in which philosophers thought that their contribution to science was to educate scientists on elementary errors of logic encouraged by their sloppy use of language). Dawkins’s main point was that one can understand the logic of natural selection by imagining that the genes are agents executing strategies to make more copies of themselves. . . .

The proper domain of mentalistic language, one might think, is the human mind, but its application there has not been without controversy either. . . .

I sometimes wonder, though, whether caveats about the use of mentalistic vocabulary in biology are stronger than they need to be–whether there is an abstract sense in which we can literally say that genes are selfish, that they try to replicate, that they know about their past environments, and so on. Now of course we have no reason to believe that genes have conscious experience, but a dirty secret of modern science is that we have no way of explaining the fact that humans have conscious experience either (conscious experience in the sense of raw first-person subjective awareness –the distinction between conscious and unconscious processes, and the nature of self-consciousness, are entirely tractable scientific topics). No one has really explained why it feels like something to be a hunk of neural tissue processing information in certain complex patterns. So even in the case of humans, our use of mentalistic terms does not depend on a commitment on how to explain the subjective aspects of the relevant states, but only on their functional role within a chain of computations.

Mary Midgley aside, one has to wonder after reading this why philosophers ever stopped trying to “educate scientists on elementary errors of logic encouraged by their sloppy use of language.” Perhaps it was despair.

Pinker’s justification for using “mentalistic language” [wants, desires, knowledge] in relation to “hunks of matter” other than people and some of our animal friends is that psychology has so far failed to properly account for our sense of consciousness. So when we say an electron “wants” and a person “wants” we are referring to equally undefined phenomena.

The behaviorists responded to this by throwing mentalistic language overboard altogether. Which seems rather silly until Pinker comes up with his counterproposal: apply mentalistic language universally.

Why bother?, we might well wonder. Why not just continue to apply mentalistic language to those things that seem to us to merit such consideration, and not apply it to to things we know fairly well do not experience consciousness? Pinker himself points out several “confusions” arising out of the arbitrarily specialized use of mentalistic terms, why not just stop using them?

Speaking of cognitive psychology, Pinker tells us that mentalistic language “allows [CP] to tap into the world of folk psychology” and I think it is here that we find the true motivation behind Pinker’s project here. Pinker is less concerned with overall project of understand how evolution works than he is with trying to make evolutionary storytelling attain the sort of intuitive appeal of creation myths. Pinker’s project is more or less the creation of a “Wedge Strategy” on behalf of science. Much as religious belief presents itself as scientific inquiry through the work of the Discovery Institute, so Pinker’s science would present itself as a story to a public much more familiar with Spielberg than with the workings of systems.

The problems here are manifold: first, this representation of how science works is contrafactual. In fact, I’d say it runs counter to the epistemological underpinnings of the scientific worldview itself. Attempts to make scientific explanations of the world appealing narratives (be they sentimental or anti-sentimental) are lies, plain and simple. [But this is too big a point to discuss completely here.]

Second, it won’t work. Intelligent Design is lousy science, but it works reasonably well as a political ploy because most people can’t tell the difference. Real science often makes lousy stories, and any schmo can recognize a lousy story. From the perspective of making direct appeals to the populace at large, science is in a tough spot: the only way science can be made more appealing is to make it less “real.”

And that would be a bad deal, because the cultural capital of science is not going to be made by providing new grand narratives for society. Science will live or die by delivering results (where it has done fairly well) and being a reliable source of information for public decision-making (where it has done less well).

The truth of science is that there are no selfish genes. There are just different kinds of genes, some of which lead to organisms with a greater capacity to survive and propagate than others in particular environments. What lives, what dies, what propagates–these are all happenstance: the results of an extremely complex process arising out of a host of natural tendencies working in concert, with no intention behind it and no goal to achieve.

Not a heartwarming story. Not a story with great life lessons about competition and tough-mindedness. But the fundamental truth of science. Tough as it is, that’s the stroy that has to be sold to converts. The public at large, though, merely has to tolerate science (and pay, of course), they don’t have to practice it or even cheer from the sidelines.



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