Article unfair to Darwin

Jim Ring’s article, Lamarck’s ghost rises again (NZ Skeptic 80) does an excellent job in laying Lamarck’s ghost, and its recent revival, but it is bitterly unfair to Darwin and to one of the fundamental concepts of evolution when he attacks group selection and sociobiology. He is also wrong when he claims that social behaviour does not influence genetics.

Every organism on this earth, above the level of the procaryote cell, is a social group whose heredity is determined by genetics. The human organism consists of a complex assembly of specialised cells which originate from a single embryo, fulfilling multiple functions, accompanied by a whole host of ‘slave’ organisms, mainly bacteria, which assist metabolism. The whole society is enclosed in a membrane we call the skin. The group has little trouble dealing with ‘altruism’ which is firmly suppressed by chemical mechanisms, which occasionally fail to produce cancer cells. Biological groups occur at many different levels. Without the skin there are groups which are almost as tightly controlled by genetics, ranging from Portuguese man o’ war, and lichens, to colonies of ants and apes, all of which undergo Darwinian selection which always influences genetics. Those who do not survive because of ‘inefficient’ organisation, behaviour or technology make way for those who are ‘fitter’ in these departments.

Group selection has a long history, well before Darwin. Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan showed how an ideal human society allocates duties in much the same fashion as the cells within the body. Adam Smith showed that the ‘Wealth of Nations’ is also dependent on organisation and technology. In each case they showed that survival and prosperity were determined by superior fitness, and of course, this impinged on the heredity of the members. Those who do not survive do not pass on their genes.

Maynard Smith and Bill Hamilton completely failed to understand group selection. Hamilton deserves the Ig Nobel prize, and as for Maynard Smith, he was the Chairman of Cambridge Communist Party when I went up to Cambridge in 1940, so what is the evidence that Marxists are supporters of group selection. Marx himself took the idea from Darwin and Spencer to argue that capitalism will evolve into a better more just society called ‘socialism’. Opponents of group selection are positively obsessed with altruism which they cannot explain without group selection.

Herbert Spencer illustrated group selection as applied to nations and civilisations in his many works. He invented the term ‘survival of the fittest’, which originally applied to groups. Darwin enthusiastically welcomed Spencer’s work, and his slogan as the inspiration for selection of individuals as a major mechanism of evolution. Darwin wrote important works on group selection. His Descent of Man has a large section on sexual selection. The revival of sociobiology by E O Wilson was based on the work of many previous writers. (Abridged.)

Vincent Gray

Jim Ring replies:

I wrote that those claiming Darwin was wrong should demonstrate that they have read the collection of essays by John Maynard Smith: Did Darwin Get It Right? This also applies to those claiming Bill Hamilton was wrong.

Vincent Gray has not read Smith who provides the evidence Gray demands. Smith explains in detail how political views (his own included) influenced biologists, and vice versa. Levins and Lewontin produced this gem in an essay defending the Soviet Union’s espousal of Lysenkoism: “There is nothing in Marx, Lenin, or Mao that is or can be in contradiction with a particular set of phenomena in the objective world” (my emphasis). The ant expert E O Wilson provided a biologist’s opinion of Marx’s vision: “Wonderful theory; wrong species.”

“Hamilton deserves the Ig Nobel prize”. This is mere personal invective; Hamilton’s work was in mathematics so he provided proofs, which is unusual in science. Gray needs to show how these were incorrect. Not only did Hamilton understand Group Selection he set the parameters under which it could occur. Briefly: Group Selection cannot operate when one or more members can defect. At the same time he provided a firm basis for the understanding of altruistic behaviour. If Gray has found an example of altruism outside Hamilton’s limits he should publish his discovery in a peer-reviewed journal.

More Howards

In response to Clive Shaw’s letter (NZ Skeptic 80):

Dear Clive,

There are a number of explanations for the preponderance of letters from Howards in a previous issue of NZ Skeptic, which you thought “spooky”.

One possible reason is that bearing the name predisposes one to obsessively writing Letters to the Editor (a view held by my wife, but not otherwise entertained).

Another is that my dead ancestors are desperate to see the family name in print, and, by channeling their desires through Larry King’s psychics, are influencing editors never to refuse a proffered Howard contribution, however pointless or irrelevant.

A really probable explanation is that so many things can happen that improbable events are bound to occur.

Fraternal greetings to Hazel, Bernard Howard

‘Informed’ test necessary?

I wondered what had happened to Muriel Newman (see Agenda-driven History, NZ Skeptic 80). Thank God she seems to have moved on intellectually. I had been engaged in a running battle with her in the pages of our local paper, where she seems to get a free ride on her hobby horses. Most recently it was youth crime and zero tolerance. When I pointed out the science in her argument ranged from inconclusive to outright wrong, and recommended an article in Scientific American which to my mind said we should be very cautious about ascribing reasons to drops in the crime rate, the result was a fairly scathing personal attack.

I think however, with some pride, that historians are doing a better job at contradicting this sort of thing than scientists, although I have no evidence to support it really. A terrific example of this is Evans’s book about the David Irving trial. A great read in which Evans completely demolishes Irving’s politically driven conclusions.

I am coming to the opinion that before anyone should be allowed to publish their views anywhere, that they should be forced to sit an ‘informed’ test. This would establish whether they had bothered to read around the subject or just jumped in on what amounts to a wing and a prayer. There should be some small penalty involved for promoting foolish opinions, somewhere between public ridicule and death. Although the quality of history taught in New Zealand schools isn’t bad, the amount required of our students is risible. Having said that, history is one of the few subjects in schools or to some extent at undergraduate level and universities that requires critical thinking from day one.

I think Dr Newman’s efforts would be better directed to trying to correct this rather than promote pseudo history, particularly as like so many other New Zealanders she is not qualified to judge, and under the Metcalfe system would be punished with that rather gross looking instrument I have just noticed at the front of John Welch’s column! What on earth is that thing? It makes me cringe just to look at it. (Abridged.) Bob Metcalfe

Discrimination against non-psychics?

This advertisement (below) is from the Sits Vac of the DomPost, Wednesday June 28, 2006. I didn’t know whether to send it to the Listener, the Skeptics or the Human Rights Commission – we Muggles are being discriminated against again! The Skeptics won.

Googling “ONUVA frequency” gets the same message again and again: “What is onuva ? How do you begin to describe the indescribable, a frequency of love so clear that it feels like Source?” and a broken link:

“…frequency so clear it feels like Source”? What are they on (about)?

“Travel to the USA is essential”? Looks like a hook to me.

Hugh Young

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