Saturday, October 08, 2011

Creationists Get it Wrong Again

Since Uncommon Descent became, for all practical purposes, Sneery O'Leary's personal blog, it's become an amusing fountain of stupidity. The only question is, which particular bit of idiocy is worth remarking about?

Well, this one is. Sneery approvingly quotes the following excerpt from David P. Goldman's book, How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam Is Dying Too):

Richard Dawkins and other self-styled New Atheists postulate that humankind evolved a genetic predisposition to altruism. This assertion is something of a flying spaghetti monster. Among all American ethnic groups, Jews share the most consistent gene pool – as studies have established beyond question – the result of two thousand years of marrying within the same community. Yet secular Jews show the least altruism – at least in the form of willingness to raise children – of any group of Americans, while religious Jews show one of the highest degrees of altruism by the same measure. A religious explanation of altruism, not a genetic one, fits the facts.

This one is just too funny! Goldman, whose education was in music theory and German (!), is so far out of his depth he's gasping for air. "Altruism" - as it is understood by biologists - is about individuals acting to increase the fitness of others at the cost of decreased fitness for themselves. It was developed by Hamilton and Maynard Smith, not Dawkins (although Dawkins has popularized it.) For closely related organisms, as in parents and their biological children, altruism is explained by the theory of kin selection, and has nothing to do with belonging to a "consistent gene pool". Whether you're Jewish or not, the chance that a particular allele is inherited from your father is 50%.

Relatedness is important in the biological theory of altruism not because two individuals might share many genes (Goldman's "consistent gene pools"); it is important because the degree of relatedness controls the probability that two such individuals share a specific gene with altruistic effects. Furthermore, once such a gene arises, it will be fixed in the populations with high probability, so that nearly members of the population will possess it. These misunderstandings of the theory are so pervasive that there are articles devoted to correcting them.

It's clear that Goldman has never read Alexander's Darwinism and Human Affairs -- one of the deepest and most important works in philosophy ever written. (Or, if he has read it, he's misunderstood it thoroughly.)

Furthermore, no one is saying that culture can't influence altruism as it is practiced in humans. I don't doubt that the cultural practices of religions can affect altruism, but the effects can be both positive and negative. Frequently this manifests itself as altruism to others who share your particular sect's beliefs, and hostility to those who don't (as this famous Emo Phillips joke illustrates). Teasing out the separate genetic and cultural effects of such a complex phenomenon in humans is likely to be difficult.

The biological theory of altruism has been tested (not "postulated"), and it even has been tested in artificial life settings. It has passed these tests. Pretending, as Goldman does, that it does not "fit the facts" is just a delusion.

But then what would you expect from Goldman, whose past is less than savory? And what else would you expect from Sneery O'Leary?


jellybean said...

Raising children is essential and potentially rewarding work for the parent, the child, and the community. But as far as human altruism is concerned, child-rearing has to be one of the least remarkable manifestations of it. Birds do it. White supremacists do it. Members of terrorist organizations and their many wives do it. It is how you get your genes into the next generation. Hardly an act of selflessness or self-denial. That is some serious special pleading on the part of Goldman to arrive at the conclusion that religious Jews are more altruistic than secular Jews. I suspect he knows it.

Schenck said...

Neverminding that he's calling 'having more offspring' altruistic.

His point seems to simply be 'secular and religious jews behave differently, its because of their religion'. If altruism was genetic, then they'd both be equally altruistic.

Which is obviously stupid.

Luke Barnes said...

Thanks for the links

What's the story behind "Darwinism and Human Affairs"? Was it a classic at the time but now overlooked and out of print? Or before its time?

Jeffrey Shallit said...


I couldn't say. All I know is, I found it much more interesting and much deeper than any other philosophy book I've ever read.

pough said...

It's difficult to want to read past "self-styled New Atheists."

Wosniak said...

I like Weiss's essay where he notes similarities between "Spengler's" and "Goldman's" articles. I wonder if he has done the same analysis between Obama's "Dreams from My Father" and Bill Ayers' "Fugitive Days, A Memoir." He'd find the correlation to be even stronger.

Jeffrey Shallit said...


Yup, and Shakespeare didn't write his own plays, right?

Crackpots are everywhere.

Wosniak said...

I suspect your response was a gut reaction, and not based on any such analysis.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

I suspect your response was a gut reaction, and not based on any such analysis.

I looked into claims about Obama's authorship when they first came up. They were not very convincing, and the main person pushing them is a real nutjob.

Wosniak said...

Actually, the fellow has mostly solid arguments and a few weak ones. The well-known critique focused only on the weak ones.

Jeffrey Shallit said...


No apology for your incorrect suspicion, I see.

I don't know what the "well-known critique" is. I based my conclusion on the argument presented.

When you convince someone with actual credentials in authorship determination, such as Don Foster, let me know.

Wosniak said...

Can you do better than Don Foster? The author of this site sure thinks you can:
How about Chris Yavelow, who wrote a authorship detection program called FictionFixer?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

I'm not sure what your point about Foster is. Does Foster agree with you? I don't think so.

As for Yavelow, I looked at his "analysis" a year or two ago, and it was not convincing at all, because he did not provide any comparisons with other authors.

What ghost authors has Yavelow uncovered?

Wosniak said...

"What ghost authors has Yavelow uncovered?"

You mean, "What ghost authors has Yavelow uncovered who have admitted it?", right?

cody said...

Isaac Asimov wrote something like a longer version of that Emo Philips joke here: The Reagan Doctrine.