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The Darwin Wars by Andrew Brown

The Darwin Wars

by Andrew Brown

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Amazon lists two books with the same main title, author, and cover, which is, I presume, the same work with different subtitles; one is “The Scientific Battle for the Soul of Man” and the other is “How Stupid Genes Became Selfish Gods.” Anthony Brown reflects on various aspects of the social, philosophical, and scientific aspects of various writings about evolution. He discusses the “Gouldians” and the “Dawkinsians”, acknowledging that the groups are not hard and fast, but reflect real divisions in science. The reader who wants more of a consideration of the science might wish to read Dawkins versus Gould: the Survival of the fittest. Brown does not consider the two to differ significantly on science, however much one side (mainly the Gouldians) may argue that there is one. The book is very interesting and has a lot of food for thought for people interested in the subject. He slices and dices some of my favorite science writers, which is always salutary.

The work is bookended with the story of George Price, a theoretical biologist who refined the equations describing altruism, which proved not to be pure enough for his tastes. This seems to have so distressed him that it was perhaps part of a radical change in his lifestyle: he became a Christian and began to give all that he had to the less fortunate, while continuing with his scientific work. He ended up committing suicide. All of which makes me glad that I am not of a philosophical turn of mind. I do wish, however, that Brown had explained this equation in more detail; I couldn't follow the math, but he also says that the equation showed that “our capacity for cruelty, treachery and selfishness [are] impossible to eradicate.” Quite a lot for a fairly short formula.

Brown discusses the Gouldians mainly from the philosophical/social aspects and discusses the Dawkinsians from both that and the scientific side a little more. This is more a dissection of Dawkins' sometimes unfortunate metaphors and dramatic statements that he ends up retracting or modifying. He describes us, via a vis our “selfish genes” as being “lumbering robots” created by them, and after being accused of genetic determinism, tries to explain that he isn't referring to the highly determined and predictable robots that were being manufactured at that time, but more of science fiction robots.

One idea of Dawkins's which Brown particularly loathes is that of memes. I thought he strained a bit to discredit it, particularly since the discussion is cheek-by-jowl with section on the effects of habits on evolution, and the chapter on religion is entitled “And the Meme Raths Outgrabe.” I am dissatisfied with his chapter on religion. I recommend reading Jerry A. Coyne's Faith versus Fact, especially his chapter "What's Imcompatible?" For example, Coyne points out that the Catholic acceptance of the theory of evolution is only partial. One must still basically accept the Adam-and-Eve story of original sin. One must also accept that God intervened in evolution to ensoul human beings. And since the liberal Protestants are so hurt at rarely being mentioned in discussions of science and religion (Coyne discusses this), I point at that they accepted evolution first.

I agree completely that Nicholas Humphrey's idea of taking children away from parents who want to give them a religious upbringing is tyrannous, I would add that in most of the world it is madness. As someone who was given religious training, I question Brown's dismissal of Humphrey's argument that one is told simply to believe, not given reasons. This is a particular pet peeve of mine. While religious seminaries, academies, and universities may have lengthy debates on theology, how much of this ever trickles down to the laity? Some writers such as Bishop Spong and Karen Armstrong admit that very little does, but hope to delight the laity by enlightening them sometime. I think that clergy with actual congregations are a little more chary. When I was a child, and wanted an explanation of theFatherSonandHolyGhost that forms the trinity, none of my Sunday School teachers could, and the youth minister wouldn't, explain. (He was so fond of answering a question with a question that I developed a great sympathy for the Athenians who executed Socrates.) I am of course a very tiny sample of one, but I keep seeing surveys that claim that the average Christian cannot name the four gospels, or has little knowledge of theology, so perhaps my experience isn't unusual.

I have one comment for the book designer, or perhaps this was Brown's decision. He quotes long sections of text without having them set out into paragraphs, which I think is somewhat confusing. I sometimes lost track of the quote marks and thought that I was reading his thoughts, not someone else's that he was quoting.

Despite having some cavils, I recommend the book to people with an interest in all the aspects of evolution. ( )
  juglicerr | Nov 16, 2015 |
Though it has been a matter of much comment at Amazon, I think, first off, we ought to put away the idea that it is somehow wrong or remarkable that Brown is a journalist writing a book about science.

The extent to which a good journalist (and Brown is one) cannot sufficently grasp the issues in modern Darwinism is precisely the extent to which no popular books ought to be written about it at all, by anyone.

If an intelligent journalist working full time on the issue can't correctly understand it, what hope does the casual reader have?

The fact is that most of the issues really aren't all that tough, and where things do get complicated, the issues are often philosophical and interpretive. Areas where scientists have not shown themselves to be particularly adroit (as Brown notes). There is plenty of writing out there by scientists whose credentials in the lab are impeccable and whose command of the facts I wouldn't dare to question.

But when some of these folks quit the job of fact gathering and start interpreting and sketching out implications . . . well, let's just say that words & phases like naive, wishful thinking, overly ambitious and even stupid start coming to mind.

Brown (though he briefly forgets which sex is XY) generally seems to have his facts straight, he digs up little-told portions of the history of the Darwin Wars, and has an interesting take on the personalities involved.

Brown's philosophical sympathies lie with the Gould camp (emphasizing the limits on what science can really say with confidence about things like society and culture), but he presents a pretty balanced view nonetheless, very solid on the sometimes rather half-baked philosphical underpinnings of scientific interpretation at its most exalted (and perhaps most dangerous) level.

A valuable book. ( )
1 vote ehines | Jun 26, 2011 |
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The current disputes in evolutionary biology differ in no mportant respects from other scientific controversies. Accusations of rediscovering the wheel, beating dead horses, attacking straw men, and parodying the views of one's opponents have been ubiquitous . . . No disinterested, non-committal, theory-free characterisation of such events is possible.

David Hull, Science as a Process
Violent zeal for truth hath an hundred to one odds to be either petulancy, ambition, or pride.

Jonathan Swift, Apophthegms and Maxims
Evolution is to analogy as statues are to birdshit.

Steve Jones, New York Review of Books
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God, when he died, left many situations vacant. (Foreword)
George Price killed himself in a squat near Euston station in the winter of 1974.
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Evolutionary theory is now one of the main myths of our time. It has to bear the weight of most of our hopes and fears about what being human really means. And for over twenty years it has been riven by a holy war, conducted with an extraordinary fury that reverberates far outside the walls of academe. The two scientific camps are currently divided between 'Dawkinsians' on the one hand who may not agree with Richard Dawkins about very much but are convinced Stephen Jay Gould is dangerously wrong, and the 'Gouldians' on the other hand who take the opposite views. But who is right, or wrong, and what does it all mean? The Darwin Wars is an entertaining and lucid account of the evolution of today's neo-Darwinist theories, including the hugely influential Selfish Gene theory, and the misunderstandings and even deep hatreds that they provoke. With wit and insight, Andrew Brown puts in context the wide-reaching debate and explains its real significance for us all. For just as Darwinism now provides the main explanatory framework of our times, so disputes about Darwinism are really disputes about our very nature and place in the world [retrieved 9/28/2015 from Amazon.com]

1 The Deathbed of an Altruist 1

2 The Birth of the Selfish Gene 23

3 Machiavelli among the Entomologists 45

4 Marxists at the Museum 67

5 Some Types of Selfishness 83

6 Primitive Combat 101

7 Sociobiology Resurgent 123

8 Enter the Meme 147

9 And the Meme Raths Outgrabe 167

10 Replication is Not Enough 201

Sources and Further Reading 221
Index 227
(Page numbers from the Touchstone ed. (2000)
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