Friday, May 24, 2013

Defining success from the standpoint of evolution

If we succeed in passing on our genes to the next generation, have we succeeded in life? If we fail to do so, have we failed in life? From an evolutionary standpoint,  this  is the definition of success. But is it really? 

25 comments:

Heuristics said...

I actually do hear people making this kind of argument from time to time, that the only success here in life is how many children you have gotten.

It appears to me however that you could just as well flip the calculation over and say that success in life is in how few children you have. Natural science just describes how things actually move, not how they should move.

Just from the standpoint of observing that the more children you have the larger the chance is of a broken copy of your dna sequence being passed on does not to me necessarily appear to lead to the conclusion that this is what __should__ happen. Some other premise appears to have been smuggled in somewhere in order to reach that conclusion.

Mark Frank said...

Heuristics - absolutely.

This strikes me as a very naive and silly objection to evolution and I am rather surprised a professional philosopher of Victor's standing even bothers to link to it.

Heuristics said...

Mark:

Well, normal people (non-philosophers) do say things like this and it appears that something about how evolution is taught to them have lead them to this conclusion.

From my own experience no-one in school ever said anything about what natural science is, they never explained anything to me about the limitations it has. There did however appear to be this assumption that everything we know comes from science. If you have this kind of view, and have the belief that there is a meaning to your life, that you are more the just a moist bag of chemicals drifting through space then evolution will most likely be where you start to look for answers to what purpose you have within life. That the purpose is to have a bunch of kids falls out of this type of thought I suspect.

BeingItself said...

VR seems to have a superstitious belief about the meaning of words. This post suggests that there is some essential real meaning to the string of letters 's u c c e s and s'.

But that is just silly, and ought to be embarrassing for a professional philosopher.

When evolutionary biologist speak of reproductive success, they have a specific technical meaning in mind. They are not making a normative claim.

jdhuey said...

Finding the proper perspective to view this issue is vitally important. Promoting that the best perspective to view evolutionary success is from the perspective of the gene and not the perspective of the individual or species is arguably Richard Dawkins most important contribution to evolutionary science.

Anybody that would conflate 'evolutionary success' with 'success in life' is making a huge mistake.

Crude said...

Strangely, I don't see anywhere where Victor is objecting to evolutionary theory based on its definition of success. He's questioning a view of success that could be illegitimately carried over from a popular understanding of a scientific definition - pretty benign.

I know evolution is sacred to the Cult of Gnu, but really, you can talk about it and even criticize a perspective related to it without defiling that particular holy altar.

Crude said...

Promoting that the best perspective to view evolutionary success is from the perspective of the gene and not the perspective of the individual or species is arguably Richard Dawkins most important contribution to evolutionary science.

Judging by what Denis Noble and EO Wilson have to say, Dawkins' most important contribution to evolutionary science turned out to be wrong.

Steven Carr said...

But is it really?

Isn't success defined as getting a Stanley Cup Winner's medal?

Or possibly dying early enough before you get a chance to sin enough to make God angry with you and sending you to Hell.

Manage not to make God angry , by dying early, and you can count your life a success.

jdhuey said...

While I'm no expert in the field of evolutionary biology so my opinion should carry little (or no) weight, it is my opinion that it is Noble and Wilson who are wrong. Group selection as a mechanism for evolution is, at best, not a useful concept and, at worst, simply wrong.

Papalinton said...

"When evolutionary biologist speak of reproductive success, they have a specific technical meaning in mind. They are not making a normative claim."

Right on. Indeed it is rather an irony that VR would posit defining success from the standpoint of evolution is bound by the number of progeny sired or birthed. And yet it was only a couple of OPs ago he sought to link size of family being closely aligned with religious success and that atheism is a self-inflicted condition that leads to oblivion.

Crude said...

While I'm no expert in the field of evolutionary biology so my opinion should carry little (or no) weight, it is my opinion that it is Noble and Wilson who are wrong.

Based on what? Please tell me this isn't "Well, Dawkins said he's wrong so..."

Wilson and Noble may be wrong, but if you want to play quoting-authority games, 'actual scientists who are still working in the relevant fields' trump 'ex-scientist who's been inactive for decades and is a pop science writer' any day of the week.

Victor Reppert said...

I am simply arguing that you evolutionary biology doesn't really tell us how to define human flourishing. If that's a criticism, then I suppose it's a criticism of a Mercedes Benz to say that it can't open a can.

On the other hand, people sometimes do make the mistake of thinking that evolution somehow can dictate values in some way.

In one sense, it isn't a criticism of atheism that it leads people not to breed. On the other hand, if you are going to defend atheism on the grounds that "resistance is futile, we are the wave of the future," then it undercuts that argument.

jdhuey said...

While I suspect that Dawkins may have written about E.O. Wilson's book I didn't happen to see it. I did read a couple of book reviews on it but my main source of critique was from Dr. Jerry Coyne's website (the not-a-blog "Why Evolution is True".) http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2013/02/26/e-o-wilson-mistakenly-touts-group-selection-again-as-a-key-factor-in-human-evolution/

Now while a discussion of why group selection may or may not be wrong could be interesting, I think that it would be too much of a digression from topic at hand.


Papalinton said...

"On the other hand, people sometimes do make the mistake of thinking that evolution somehow can dictate values in some way."

Name them.

Crude said...

While I suspect that Dawkins may have written about E.O. Wilson's book I didn't happen to see it. I did read a couple of book reviews on it but my main source of critique was from Dr. Jerry Coyne's website

Don't you think that's a bit lopsided in terms of reading up on this?

Do you read any science commentary or news that doesn't come from a Cult of Gnu style atheist?

William said...

Steven Pinker is an academic psychologist and not a biologist but this article makes a decent case that humans would be different in our psychology if group selection was a significant factor for our altruism. I agree with that.

http://edge.org/conversation/the-false-allure-of-group-selection

Crude said...

And while it's behind a wall, here's Denis Noble's paper.

TheWedge said...

From the Pinker article that William linked comes one of the most jaw dropping statements I've ever read:

Natural selection is a special explanatory concept in the sciences, worthy, in my view, of Daniel Dennett's designation as "the best idea that anyone ever had."

Natural selection is the best idea that anyone has ever had? I honestly can't even wrap my mind around such a stupid, stupid statement.

ingx24 said...

Natural selection is considered the "best idea anyone has ever had" by people like Dennett because it allows them to selectively explain away intuitions. If it seems like we have subjective thoughts, emotions, and experiences, we can explain that away as a "meme" put into our brains by natural selection. If it seems like the world is designed, we can explain that away as an "overactive agent-detection device" put into our brains by natural selection. If it seems like we have free will, or that we have an enduring, unified self, we can explain that away as a useful fiction put into our brains by natural selection. If it seems like some things are objectively morally wrong, we can explain that away as a set of adaptive behaviors put into us by natural selection. The theory of evolution by natural selection is a "universal acid" that erodes away our common-sense view of the world and of ourselves and replaces it with a worldview of scientistic materialism. And I hope I never live to see the day when this replacement is complete and scientism becomes the official "religion" of the western world.

Crude said...

Yeah, natural selection as the 'best idea anyone ever had' mostly seems to be a statement of someone's enthusiasm for its non-scientific, nigh-imaginary application rather than its actual scientific utility.

Second best idea anyone ever had: 'brute facts'.

Zach said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Heuristics said...

I nominate the metaphysical principle of dividing up existence in potentiality and actuality as the best idea. I can apply that idea to so many different scenarios... From questions about the reality of time, what happens in the double slit experiment etc.. I am currently writing a programming language where I put this idea at the core. It goes like this, there is only one basic thing in the language: functions. A potential function is similar to a c++ template, an instantiated potential function is an actual function (reduction from potentiality to actuality). Anyway, I could type forever on this. It's just a really cool idea.

Papalinton said...

"The best idea anyone ever had is that God is simple and Jesus is savior."

Talk to a Jew lately? or a Hindu or a Muslim? It is my understanding that Jews utterly reject the jesus bit as does Islam [as saviour]. And apparently according to Buddhists jesus actually travelled to India to learn about real spirituality.

William said...

Pinker's hyperbole regarding natural selection has to be taken in its context. Since the ID culture wars it seems there is an unwritten rule that any criticism of an aspect of evolutionary through requires public deference to Darwin in the preface so that those who oppose the theory in general will lack good ammo. Pinker is following that rule.

IlĂ­on said...

"Natural selection is considered the "best idea anyone has ever had" by people like ..."

I wonder, how many head will explode should it ever be commonly realized that "natural selection" is described in a certain famous "Bronze Age religious text" -- and attributed to the working of God?