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?