The Early Days of a Better Nation

Friday, February 25, 2011



Lysenko's Tomb



A few months ago Chris Williams, an OU history lecturer and political activist whom I've known for years online, asked me to give this year's Darwin Memorial Lecture to the Leicester Secular Society. I suggested the topic of 'Darwin, Dawkins, and the Left' because, a couple of years earlier, I'd put together a stash of notes and links for a blog post that I'd never quite got around to writing.

The event, at the Society's splendid Victorian red-brick Secular Hall on 13 February 2011, drew a large and lively audience, from that cross-section of radical England that you so often find in its socialist, secularist and peace movements. Their searching and informed questions often had me thinking fast on my feet, and have improved the talk I actually gave into the version that follows. It's a combination of the talk I didn't give with the post I didn't write. I've left for another post what I said about my creationist upbringing and how I got over it.

The first questioner, after my talk, pointed out that all the examples I'd given of people on the left misunderstanding or misrepresenting Dawkins came from what the questioner called 'the ultra-left', mainly the Socialist Workers Party. It's a fair cop. In my defence, I said that the SWP is the largest Marxist organization in Britain; that Alex Callinicos is a respected academic, public intellectual, and prolific author; and that Richard Seymour's blog Lenin's Tomb is (quite rightly) one of the most widely-read and influential far-left blogs.

I also pointed out that the tropes I was talking about are found well beyond the SWP's orbit. A couple of years ago, a reviewer in the Scottish Sunday Herald ( 12 July 2009), wrote:
And science is no more immune to opinion, fashion and political bias than any other endeavour of humankind. (Evidence of that, I would suggest, is Dawkins's 1976 The Selfish Gene, ushering in the Thatcherite era. The clue is in the title.)
So while my examples were mostly from the far left rather than the broad left, I don't think they're thereby irrelevant.

However, in honour of my main foil in this over-long ramble, I've changed the title of the post from the one I used for the talk.

From 1972 - 1976 I studied biology and then zoology at Glasgow University, and read popular works about evolution - Konrad Lorenz's On Aggression, Desmond Morris's The Naked Ape, Robert Ardrey's African Genesis and The Territorial Imperative, Lionel Tiger's Men in Groups and I think Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox's The Imperial Animal. I soon found out that my teachers in biology and zoology didn't think much of these books, and that the message of most of these books was pretty conservative. They seemed to be saying, and quite often explicitly did say, that human nature was rooted in animal behaviour and was unchangeable. At the same time as I was learning about Darwin and evolution, I was learning about Marx and revolution. At that time, in the early and mid-1970s, there were very intense struggles going on in society, and an argument that was very much used by the conservative side in those struggles was precisely that the hopes of the left were futile and destructive because human behaviour was rooted in biology. This genetic determinism was quite prevalent and was linked to the argument that intelligence was genetically determined, and that the social inequalities between classes and races and sexes and nations were a straightforward consequence of differences in their genetic endowment. Workers and women and blacks and the Irish were just thick, and that was why they were what the left called oppressed, and that was that.

There were, of course, answers to these arguments from the left, some of them from distinguished psychologists and biologists, and I read them and listened to my lecturers who explained why the likes of Robert Ardrey weren't quite sound on evolution. This may help to explain but not excuse why, when I saw a copy of The Selfish Gene in the bookshop of Brunel University in 1976, I didn't read more than the title. I thought it was just more of the same.

Some time in the 1980s I read The Blind Watchmaker and was impressed enough to go and read the The Selfish Gene, and found that it was not at all what I'd thought.

The 'selfish' gene is, among other things, an explanation of how genes for 'unselfish' traits - traits that work against the individual organism's own reproductive fitness - can emerge and persist. It's because it doesn't matter to the gene's prevalence that its copy in one particular body is, let's say, eaten by a predator - as long as other copies of the same gene thereby get a better chance to be reproduced. To take a simple and familiar example, the 'gene for' the scut: the white underside of rabbits' tails. The white scut flashes like a warning light whenever a rabbit runs, and presumably makes the fleeing rabbit more visible to the fox. But it also makes copies of the same gene (or genes) in all the other rabbits more likely to get away.

The earlier 'group selectionists' explained this sort of thing - and there's lots of this sort of thing in biology - by arguing that behaviour or characteristics that benefited the group but not the individual were selected for because they helped the group survive. What the gene-selectionists showed mathematically was that this was unstable - that if selection took place at that level, genes that helped the individual to survive at the expense of the group (e.g. a rabbit without a white scut) would tend to spread through the population.

But over the years and right up to today, some people on the left still haven't read past the title. I remember some time in the early 1990s an article in Socialist Worker claimed that The Selfish Gene provided scientific cover for Thatcherism by saying that we were genetically programmed to be selfish.


A few years later, Alex Callinicos, a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party, took to task the materialist philospher Daniel Dennett for drawing on Dawkins's dangerous ideas. He wrote in the Summer 1996 issue of its journal, International Socialism
[Sociobiology's] ideological implications are made evident by the very title of one of sociobiology's founding texts, Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene (1976).
But this doesn't mean that Callinicos hadn't read past the title. He goes on to say:
Dawkins declares, 'We are survival machines - robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.'
So he'd read at least the first page of the preface. The impression of progress, however, is at once dashed:
Human beings must thus be seen as essentially the bearers of their genes, who use them as means to maximise their reproductive chances. The reactionary uses to which this idea can be put were made clear in Richard Hernstein's and Charles Murray's recent book The Bell Curve, which argues that black Americans' poverty can be explained by their biologically determined inferior intelligence as measured in IQ tests.

It should be emphasised that Dennett at no point shows any sign that he shares such repellent social views. [...] At the same time, however, the book is full of approving references to Dawkins' ideas and work [...]
See what he did there?

Reading this made my blood run cold.

In 2000, Julie Waterson, reviewing The Natural History of Rape wrote:
They want us to believe that theirs is a science book, using objective rules and laws. In fact it is a political book--similar to those used to justify capitalist greed (Dawkins' The Selfish Gene) and to condone racism (Murray's The Bell Curve).

A 2009 article and long comments thread on Lenin's Tomb, in which I participated, had a few highlights. In one comment, Seymour wrote:
Because Gould posits a much less reductionist model, much more pluralist in the way that selection works; and because he sees the struggle for survival as taking place at the level of the organism and not the 'selfish gene', he can argue that cooperation and mutual aid can be just as succesful pathways to reproduction as struggle and selfishness. Organs struggling against their environment can arguably do better by cooperation, depending on the organs in question and the environment in question. He doesn't have to explain altruism by reference to an altruism gene. For Dawkins, the sole unit of selection is the selfish gene, and the only route to reproductive success is selfish behaviour. The two views could not be more different. Dawkins offers a reductionist model that sees our morally laudable behaviour as a challenge or an affront to a natural order that is not just "non-moral" as Gould has it, but actually has immoral consequences by Dawkins' lights. Gould's conception allows for a great deal of flexibility, and Dawkins' doesn't.
I like the image of 'organs struggling against their environment'. I've had mornings like that. But seriously, this paragraph seems to get things entirely the wrong way round: if the unit of natural selection was the organism and not the gene, you would expect more selfish behaviour by individual organisms, not less!

In response to my hint that he might not have read the book, Richard responded:
It would be pathetic to rise to such baiting, and I considered it far better to just talk about the book in such a way that you might come away with the impression that perhaps you had pre-judged matters. So much for that. I certainly haven't read it 'cover to cover', but I've read enough of it to understand what it actually says.
I think that means 'No'.

The discussion sent me on a long and rather depressing trawl through other Marxist websites. In all fairness, some in the SWP have written reasonable and knowledgeable summaries of the debates in evolutionary theory. The most entertaining thing I found was a gem of an exchange on the website of one of the SWP's smaller competitors, where Clive Bradley trotted out all the usual pious objections, and Richard Dawkins quite unexpectedly responded, 'roasting [him] alive', as Bradley later acknowledged. It's well worth reading.

The more traditional Trotskyists Alan Woods and Ted Grant, in Reason in Revolt, their dialectical materialist guide to life, the universe, and everything, make heavy weather of Dawkins' metaphors:
According to Dawkins child adoption is against the instincts and interests of our "selfish genes." "In most cases we should probably regard adoption, however touching it may seem, as a misfiring of an in-built rule," says Dawkins. "This is because the generous female is doing her own genes no good by caring for the orphan. She is wasting time and energy which she could be investing in the lives of her own kin, particularly future children of her own. It is presumably a mistake which happens too seldom for natural selection to have ‘bothered’ to change the rule by making the maternal instinct more selective."
You'd never guess that Dawkins was writing about monkeys.

A likewise firm grasp of the wrong end of that very same stick was shown by Richard Seymour, in the thread I referenced earlier :
[Dawkins] tells you, for example, that natural selection favours lying, cheating, stealing children. He tells you that it favours a 'battle of the sexes'. He tells you that it favours competitive, selfish behaviour in such a way as to make, eg, the welfare state 'unnatural'. Now I am aware that he does not necessarily or wholly disapprove of the welfare state, and that he probably isn't a sexist or someone who looks unkindly upon children - but the point is that his inferences about human behaviour do have powerful ideological consequences even in the text's own terms.

Grant and Woods go on to raise the philosophical tone:
For Dawkins, human nature and motivation are to be understood by analysing human DNA. The same is true of James Watson (the discoverer, with Crick and Franklin, of the double helix) who said "What else is there but atoms?" They never allow the existence of either multiple levels of analysis or complex modes of determination. They ignore the essential relations between cells and the organism as a whole. This empirical method, which emerged with the scientific revolution at the birth of capitalism, was progressive in its day, but has now become a fetter on the advancement of science and the understanding of nature.
The fetter of the empirical method is certainly broken here.

And so on and on, right up to 2011, it goes:
I think it is well arguable that the bio-reductionism of Dawkins has always been inter-woven with a Thatcherite project of vicious, competitive individualism, egoistic bourgeois self-interest, and authoritarian national chauvinism, and now grounds an avowedly 'secularist' agenda which is a major vector for the revival of racism among middlebrow liberals who have already swallowed the neoliberal kool aid.

[...]

These people represent the basest elements, the ordure, of an imperialist culture whose degeneration is spiralling now that the crisis is eating away at even the perks and security of middle class employment. And there is further still to go. The adventures of the selfish gene have not ended at this nadir, I am sure.
To be fair, this outburst is in response to a remark by Dawkins in support of Pat Condell, an online comedian whose hostility to Islamism seems to have morphed into hostility to Muslims as such - but while Dawkins can well be criticised for that comment, it has no connection whatever with his advocacy of the gene-centred model of evolution.

What we see, over and over, is an apparent inability to grasp two simple points:

(i) that the selfish gene is not a gene for selfishness
(ii) that the gene-centred model of evolution is not about genetic determination or genetic determinism.

The perpetrators of this misapprehension also seem unaware that, as the radical anthropologist Chris Knight points out, the 'group selection' theory, which the 'selfish gene' theory displaced, was in fact the basis for the arguments advanced by some of the conservative popular biology works of the 1960s and 1970s - those of Ardrey, for example. These authors saw natural selection taking place at the level of societies, and argued that Western societies were losing out in the competition.

I suggest that part of the reason why geneticists and population-geneticists are not at all impressed by left-wing criticism - including criticism by left-wing scientists such as Gould, Rose, and Lewontin - is that several key figures in the development of these disciplines, notably J. B. S. Haldane and John Maynard Smith, were themselves on the left in 1940s and 1950s and had heard this kind of thing before. As Communists, Haldane and Maynard Smith had been severely burned by the Lysenko affair. In the Soviet Union at that time, mainstream genetics had been smeared as complicit in class privilege and racism. Lysenko wrote that all knowledge, including science, had a class basis. Not even Stalin fell for that. Looking over Lysenko's draft, Stalin scribbled in the margin: 'Ha-ha-ha! What about mathematics? And Darwinism?'

And it was indeed mathematics and Darwinism that buried Lysenkoism, as they also did for group selection.

The lesson, for a generation of left-wing scientists in Britain, was to regard dialectical materialism as irrelevant or dangerous to science. Decades later, the merest hint of it could still make their hackles rise. I well remember how one of them, the great entomologist and systematist R. A. Crowson, snapped 'That's irrelevant!' at me when I ventured a remark about speciation being an instance of 'quantity changing into quality'.

The lesson is unlikely to have been lost on the generation of geneticists and evolutionary theorists who were Haldane's and Maynard Smith's students. Nor was it lost on the 'mainstream' Communist parties. It may, however, have been lost on scientists from other disciplines (such as palaeontology, in the case of Gould and Lewontin, or neurology, in the case of Rose) which were spared the trauma, and whose encounter with Marxism was (as far as I know) mediated by the Maoist-influenced New Left of the 1960s. Still more has it been lost, it seems, on Trotskyism, which of course was innocent of the debacle.

In conclusion, I put it that the only kind of 'genetic determination' that Dawkins sees as possibly relevant to human social orders is 'kin selection and selection in favour of reciprocal altruism', which may have had powerful effects in the small, closely-related social groups of humanity's pre-history. And (as Chris Knight has also pointed out) if kin selection creates a biological basis for any human trait, it's fraternity.

So, brothers and sisters, why worry about it?

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71 Comments:

A few things. I know perfectly well that 'the selfish gene' is not a 'gene for selfishness'. I didn't argue that it was. Nor did I argue that the gene-centred model was about genetic determinism. What I have argued, among other things, was that Dawkins' metaphor is ideologically loaded in ways outlined by Mary Midgely (Dawkins is himself clear that he uses 'selfish' in a normative sense, with normative implications - that 'we are born selfish', and thus that his argument for the 'selfish gene' has ramifications for human behaviour); that Dawkins himself believes that there is a conflict between the harsh, cruel world of Darwinian struggle and the values of solidarity and compassion which he believes in, and that he thus has to lapse into a kind of dualism (here I cited Steven Rose) to explain this; that Dawkins' account of selection is more reductionist and less plural than that of Gould; that Dawkins is the major populariser of sociobiology, which does indeed attempt to explain a range of human behaviours by reference to distal mechanisms that might more easily be explained by immediate or proximal ones. I think your basic difficulty is not that your grasp of the science is superior in every respect to that of the Roses, Lewontin, Kamin, Gould, et al., and that therefore you're exasperated with all of these tiresome objections from knownothing Trots and Maoists. It is that you 1) point blank refuse to engage with the arguments of the scientists I mentioned above, preferring to snigger at the secondary commentary of the far left (your response to my adumbration of Gould's argument about selection is tellingly glib); 2) you are, for some reason (which I speculate has to do with your sympathy for a certain idea of Enlightenment - I recall your argument that the USSR had Enlightenment 'stitched into its genes'), just not willing to look at the arguments about how language and metaphors work.

As for this:

"Not even Stalin fell for that. Looking over Lysenko's draft, Stalin scribbled in the margin: 'Ha-ha-ha! What about mathematics? And Darwinism?'"

This isn't a particularly profound piece of wisdom. It's actually risible. It reminds me of Thatcher's famous jibe at 'multicultural mathematics'. The idea that knowledge has a social basis, that even the teaching of mathematics has these aspects (you may wish to consult Martin Bernal on the Hellenocentric bias of modern mathematics), isn't something that should be giggled at in this philistine fashion. Perhaps you should have called this post 'Stalin's Tomb'.

Richard Seymour,

1. It is complete BS to call The Selfish Gene dualism. Have you actually read the book?

2. You rely on other people's arguments rather than evidence from the book itself. Have you actually read The Selfish Gene? Or are you just parroting criticisms you've read elsewhere?

3. It is well known that Midgley made a complete mess of criticising Dawkins and her entire body of work on the subject can be ignored except as an example of a philosopher making a hash of things. Have you read any of the criticisms of Midgley's articles?

4. It is also well known that Rose, Lewontin, and Kamen had their own axes to grind and made many egregious errors in their criticisms (not nearly as badly as Midgley, however). Have you read any of the criticisms of Rose, Lewontin, and Kamen?

5. You do yourself no favours by using a double fallacy in your post: you remark that defending Dawkins implies the writer must believe their "grasp of science is superior in every respect to that of the Roses, Lewontin, Kamin [sic], Gould, et. al." First of all, this is an argument from authority (and a stupid one since many evolutionary biologists disagreed with the arguments of the above) as well as a strawman since Mr MacLeod at no time claims superior biological knowledge, let alone "in every respect" as you so charmingly put it. This is also a self-defeating argument. Are *you* claiming to know more about evolutionary biology than Richard Dawkins?

6. Your post is, in fact, a perfect example of what MacLeod is criticising: an uninformed rant against Richard Dawkins based on prejudice, misunderstanding, and projection of personal agendas, combined with a cavalier disregard for the actual contents of Dawkins' text. Well done.

"(Dawkins is himself clear that he uses 'selfish' in a normative sense, with normative implications - that 'we are born selfish'"

In The Selfish Gene, it is the genes that are born selfish. You can't paraphrase this as "we are born selfish" without failing to maintain the whole distinction between genes and creatures that is essential to the book. Unless it is supposed to be the genes that are addressing us directly, I suppose.

"What I have argued, among other things, was that Dawkins' metaphor is ideologically loaded "

Analysis of metaphorical loading really benefits from an understanding of the metaphor in question. If Dawkins' detractors could at least keep the gene/organism distinction clear, their arguments might be more convincing .

But an understanding of the science is necessary, too, because otherwise you may be criticizing a metaphor that more or less represents actual events. For instance, I once had someone highly recommend a book that criticized The Big Bang as a pseudo-religious idea, suitable for the injection of religious belief about a Creation into supposedly objective science. The book went on at some length about the author's dislike for this metaphor. But that doesn't make the science -- which the author tried to call into question because they didn't like the metaphor -- any less well-supported.

I've found the expression "reciprocal altruism" ironic since I first encountered it. The essence of "reciprocal altruism" seems to be "I do X, which benefits you and not me, with the result that you do Y, which benefits me and not you, and each of us ends up in a more advantageous position than if we just ignored each other." If the benefits flow only one way it's not "reciprocal" and presumably can't be selected for by the same mechanism. But that process is an exact analog of trade! Two organisms say do ut des, "I give so that thou givest," to each other, as the Romans did to their gods.

"Altruism" in this sense is precisely a superior strategy for pursuing one's own interest; it has nothing to do with Comte's original definition of "altruism" as total indifference to one's own interest (Comte went so far as to criticize Jesus because "love thy neighbor as thyself" accepted self-love as legitimate and therefore was intolerably selfish). A purely capitalist economy would have to be called "altruistic" in this sense. And paying for goods or services would have to be called a "sacrifice" (to be sure, the Romans did envision sacrifices as paying the gods for their services). I don't think that's what the words mean outside of biology, any more than "the selfish gene" has anything to do with what "selfishness" means outside of biology.

I don't understand why Mr Seymour can't simply say "yeah, you're right, Dawkins never said our genetics makes us selfish nor is the title of his book intended to" instead of bringing up three entirely unrelated propositions: that Dawkins' approach to the supposed foundations of human behaviour is sociobiologically reductionist; that gene selectionism is bad science; that there's a place for pomo deconstruction of the impact of metaphors. None of these claims, true or otherwise, amounts to a refutation of the position that the attempt to style The Selfish Gene as arguing that humans are predisposed to be selfish by their genes is an inversion of the book's argument. It's not hard to explain (personally, I prefer the caterpillar example), so I'm baffled as to why it's apparently so hard to understand.

In relation to human behaviour, Dawkin's view is, in my opinion, indeed absurdly reductionist. But it's an absurdly reductionist view that posits innate human altruism, if anything, not innate selfishness.

Rich says:In The Selfish Gene, it is the genes that are born selfish. You can't paraphrase this as "we are born selfish" without failing to maintain the whole distinction between genes and creatures that is essential to the book.

No. Dawkins does indeed say, of human beings, 'we are born selfish'. The full context is:

'Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.'

No one familiar with babies and small children can possibly believe we are born selfish. As is well known, new-born and young babies regulate their demands for feeding to times convenient for their parents; if breast-fed, they take full account of their mother's state of fatigue at any given time, and happily defer to it if necessary, even when they themselves haven't been satisfied; and as they get older, children are eager to share their toys with their siblings and other peers.

These common observations were probably missed by Dawkins, perhaps busy observing birds and deafened by the cheeps of hungry chicks, and recklessly generalising their behaviour to that of the human young.

In reply to Ken: No, your quote from Dawkins is not in full context at all. The full context can easily be determined by reading the book or even the remainder of the paragraph that you have truncated and that is that Dawkins is referring to genes and their actions. Moreover, if genes are evolutionarily programmed for selfish self-preservation, then surely those characteristics must be evident in their handiwork such as babies. I have never heard of this stuff about babies showing concern for their mothers well-being and I am inclined to take it with a pinch of salt. One of the stories related to me by my mother was that when I was a baby, she had to stop my father throwing me out of the forth floor window of a flat because he could no longer stand me screaming my head off all night long. I guess he just didn't understand that I was really trying to show my concern for him! Incidentally, have you considered what would happen to the baby if it harmed the mother?

@Alan Bellis: Read Ken's comment again and consider the orientation of his tongue with respect to his cheek.

Do you really, truly believe that Ken is asserting with a straight face that human babies behave in this way?

Ken is channelling the spirit of St. Augustine of Hippo, surely? New borns are not selfish and they are not unselfish because they are only aware of their own needs. There is surely a generalisation from a non-moral phenomenon (a baby wakes up at 3am and starts crying) to a moral phenomenon, or rather an elision between the two which, I think, causes the confusion.

I pretty much go with "brilliant thesis about evolutionary biology, pity about people getting the wrong end of the stick" as far as The Selfish Gene is concerned, I suspect that I differ from Ken inasmuch as I think that at least some of the responsibility for the wrong end of the stick getting got lies with Dawkins' fondness for purple prose and the confusion between the moral and non-moral use of the word 'selfish'.

Alan: I should know better by now than to use irony on the Internet.

» Richard Seymour:
Dawkins is himself clear that he uses 'selfish' in a normative sense

That is absolutely false. Dawkins actually says: “I am not saying how we humans morally ought to behave.” (TSG, Ch. 1) Contrary to your revealingly unsourced assertion, Dawkins’s use of ‘selfish’ is purely desriptive: ‘to increase one’s own welfare at the expense of somebody else’s’.

Chris Lawson’s question, then, still seems relevant: Have you actually read The Selfish Gene?

The problem I have with many of these authors is that they want to accept or reject the science based on whether it fits their ideology rather than the other way around. In that sense they are like creationists who reject evolution because it invalidates their ideology, but do not reject Newton's laws because they do not.

While we have evolved some behaviors that are at least superficially altruistic, there is no reason to expect that humans are all nice through and through.

Sorry Ken, I'm normally quite good with wind up quotes from The Onion, but I seem to have missed that one. Ha, ha, ha - Alan.

A few concerns.
1. Lumping "A Natural History of Rape" with "The Selfish Gene" implies the former is also somehow scientific, when it's not, but is rather a huge piece of Pop Evolutionary Psychology.

2. We are born selfish; we would have to be, to some degree, or we wouldn't survive.

3. That doesn't mean we are ... or ought to be .... thoroughgoing in our selfishness.

4. I prefer "tit for tat" to "reciprocal altruism" precisely for the reason another commenter mentioned - it's really not "altruism."

Ken, I agree with everything except your charge that Pat Condell's "hostility to Islamism seems to have morphed into hostility to Muslims as such." What is your evidence for this accusation?

Dawkins in his book the selfish gene is right with the arguments and how we behave, but we are more than biological animals we are social animals. As Joseph Stiglitz points out in his book Freefall if you have a greater state, people will be more open to changes. That means if we are more social and share more things, we will do things better.
We, humans are not only biology we are social. Although we have selfish genes, we can change that with our educational system.

Our genes are not the only variable in humans.

@ Ramiro : Yes, we are social animals: Our selfish genes make us so!

To a general point, Dawkins did write “we are born selfish” — but said later that he regretted it. However, in The Selfish Gene he did take pains to explain that his use of “selfish” in regard to genes had a strict sociobiological sense.

It also fascinates me that sf writer Brian Aldiss prefigured Dawkins by about 20 years in his short story, “Gene Hive” (1958): “Genes build themselves into cells and cells into the gene hive called man in order to develop their potentialities, not man’s. The idea of man’s being able to develop was purely an anthropomorphic concept.”

Richard: by the numbers, from the top.

A few things. I know perfectly well that 'the selfish gene' is not a 'gene for selfishness'. I didn't argue that it was. Nor did I argue that the gene-centred model was about genetic determinism.

Good! Glad we've got that cleared up. If I've misunderstood you all this time, my apologies.

What I have argued, among other things, was that Dawkins' metaphor is ideologically loaded in ways outlined by Mary Midgely

Having read (again) Midgley's paper and Dawkins' reply, I can only say that the former is one of the most egregious examples of repeatedly missing the point I've ever read, and that Dawkins answers it quite adequately.

(Dawkins is himself clear that he uses 'selfish' in a normative sense, with normative implications - that 'we are born selfish', and thus that his argument for the 'selfish gene' has ramifications for human behaviour);

'Nomative: of or relating to a norm; establishing a standard; prescriptive.' Thus Chambers. (I had to look it up, just in case I was missing some usage that would make this true). Since no such usage exists, I have to say that this passage gets matters exactly the wrong way round.

that Dawkins himself believes that there is a conflict between the harsh, cruel world of Darwinian struggle and the values of solidarity and compassion which he believes in,

I should say so! So did Gould. So does any - I won't even say socialist - any normal human being who is aware of the world of non-human nature. What I find hard to comprehend is why you should think there isn't such a conflict. Do you really think that the case for socialism (or any other civilised and humane arrangement of affairs) depends on, or draws any strength whatsoever from, finding examples of kindness among animals?

and that he thus has to lapse into a kind of dualism (here I cited Steven Rose) to explain this;

Dawkins answers Rose on this point on the last page of The Selfish Gene, 1989 edition. That human beings can consciously over-ride their immediate emotions and impulses has never been an issue of controversy between materialists and idealists, or monists and dualists. As for the all-powerful, relentlessly replicating genes, we outsmart them every time we use contraception (or masturbate, for that matter).

that Dawkins' account of selection is more reductionist and less plural than that of Gould;

Maybe, but that doesn't make it wrong. Reductionism just is explanation, and sometimes a singular cause is the correct explanation. Now, natural selection (leaving to one side for the moment the level at which it takes place) is the only natural explanation for complex adaptations: for all those features of the animal and plant world that Rev Paley attributed to the great watchmaker in the sky.

[Cont'd below]

[Cont'd]

But not everything about the course of evolution is explained by natural selection. That land animals have four limbs may be an accident of history; that they have five digits, even more so. Then there are consequences, very significant but not themselves adaptations. Given that they have a leg at every corner, as Spike Milligan puts it, they will have a space between the forelimbs and hindlimbs, but no one supposes that this is an adaptation for leaping over obstacles.

The flourishing or extinction of species and the composition of the biosphere at any given time is at a certain level the consequence of events and processes that are quite contingent in relation to the biosphere: everything from continental drift and asteroid impacts to the sheer accident of (perhaps) one pregnant female monkey drifting across the Atlantic or the everyday making and breaking of connections between areas.

None of this is contentious, though Gould made rather a song and dance about some of it. Gould and Dawkins were, when you actually get down to the detail, much more in agreement than their divergent rhetoric (to say nothing of secondary and tertiary comment on their views) might have one suppose.

Read Dawkins' chapter on punctuationism in The Blind Watchmaker, or his enthusiastic and respectful - even when critical - reviews of Gould's books in A Devil's Chaplain, to get a feel for this.

That Gould may well have been a greater theorist of the grand scope of evolutionary theory than Dawkins, as well as a better writer, is beside the point (and a question well above my pay grade).

[Cont'd below]

[Cont'd]

that Dawkins is the major populariser of sociobiology, which does indeed attempt to explain a range of human behaviours by reference to distal mechanisms that might more easily be explained by immediate or proximal ones.

If Dawkins is the major populariser of sociobiology as applied to human beings, then sociobiology is severely lacking in popularisers. In fact the main populariser of evolutionary explanations of human behaviour is (as far as I know) Steven Pinker. I would like you to cite an example Dawkins doing what you say he is doing - reaching for a genetic explanation of a human behaviour when a social one is to hand. (Your hilarious misreadings of his 'battle of the sexes' and 'battle of the generations' chapters won't do.)

I think your basic difficulty is not that your grasp of the science is superior in every respect to that of the Roses, Lewontin, Kamin, Gould, et al., and that therefore you're exasperated with all of these tiresome objections from knownothing Trots and Maoists. It is that you 1) point blank refuse to engage with the arguments of the scientists I mentioned above, preferring to snigger at the secondary commentary of the far left (your response to my adumbration of Gould's argument about selection is tellingly glib);

Glib it may be, but I think it gets the essential point right: whatever the unit of natural selection is, it (trivially, by definition) is the unit of 'selfishness' (in the biological sense of the term, as explained by Dawkins in his reply to Midgley).

As for my not engaging with the arguments of the scientists rather than 'the secondary commentary of the far left' - well, for one thing, I know my limitations. For another, where Rose, Lewontin and Kamin got together to write a book, Not in Our Genes, they didn't - where they ventured outside of science and into philosophy - rise above the level of argument familiar on the far left. They also resorted to direct falsification of Dawkins' position: they changed his statement about the genes that 'They created us, body and mind' to 'They control us, body and mind'. I checked this for myself, by the way.

2) you are, for some reason (which I speculate has to do with your sympathy for a certain idea of Enlightenment - I recall your argument that the USSR had Enlightenment 'stitched into its genes'), just not willing to look at the arguments about how language and metaphors work.

You may be on to something there.

As for this:

"Not even Stalin fell for that. Looking over Lysenko's draft, Stalin scribbled in the margin: 'Ha-ha-ha! What about mathematics? And Darwinism?'"

This isn't a particularly profound piece of wisdom. It's actually risible. It reminds me of Thatcher's famous jibe at 'multicultural mathematics'. The idea that knowledge has a social basis, that even the teaching of mathematics has these aspects (you may wish to consult Martin Bernal on the Hellenocentric bias of modern mathematics), isn't something that should be giggled at in this philistine fashion. Perhaps you should have called this post 'Stalin's Tomb'.


Hellenocentric mathematics? I thought I'd heard everything.

I learned about the non-Greek (Arab, Hindu, Babytlonian, Egyptian, etc) contributions to mathematics, and about the social roots of mathematics, a long time ago from Lancelot Hogben's Mathematics for the Million. Geometry? Taxation of fields. Angles? Calendars for the Nile. Trigonometry? Artillery. Probability? Gambling and insurance. And so on.

None of which makes a jot of difference to the fact that there is no proletarian or bourgeois mathematics - as you very well know.

Rather than jump on the "have you read it?" bandwagon explicitly, I would like to take a moment and try and explain what one who has read the book should be expected to have got from it.

Dawkins is very, very clear that he rejects genetic determinism. When he says "gene for X" he means a gene that makes X more likely, relative to its allele. A gene-centric view of evolution means that genes will be tend to become more or less prevalent in a population based on the effects of that X, and the book explores the ramifications of this. It does not mean that this X is certain (or even likely), and it does not mean that other factors mightn't have a much larger impact. I believe it was early in The Extended Phenotype where Dawkins specifically decries this kind of thinking, calling it "pernicious rubbish on an almost astrological scale." Environment matters - sometimes more than genes (say, an individual's sense of humor), sometimes less (say, Huntington's disease).

Fundamentally, a biological underpinning for altruism based on kin-selection or reciprocal altruism should make us *more* not *less* optimistic about the ability of people to work together, because the mechanisms of these kinds of pseudo-altruism seem able to be hijacked by cultural influences toward the higher purpose of true altruism.

Dawkins' work focuses on the effect of genes because the work is about evolution and genetics. He repeatedly explains that these are often not the strongest influence, and repeatedly warns against confusion of is and ought with regard to what he is saying.

The book is not perfect - it is the work of a human (or a few, if we include editors); clearly Dawkins makes now claim that it was divinely inspired. If you claim that some passages are unfortunately likely to be misinterpreted in harmful ways, Dawkins would likely agree with you. But to claim that these portions are indicative of the true point of the work is crass at best.

"That means if we are more social and share more things, we will do things better.
We, humans are not only biology we are social. Although we have selfish genes, we can change that with our educational system. "

Dawkins is aware of cultural evolution, hence his concept of the meme.

there is no proletarian or bourgeois mathematics..

Surely the mathematics used to underpin the merchant banking industry would qualify for the second. Certainly the spread of outcomes had a very strong rightward bias.

Lewontin is not a paleontologist, but a population geneticist. John Maynard Smith has written about his Marxism in London Review of Books (August 1985).

Oh, that's interesting -- I'd never known, until I followed the link to Dawkins' reply to Midgely that Ken gave above, that Midgely was the proximate source of the site name of Butterflies& Wheels.

That shows the pointlessness of this whole affair, I think. There are only so many times you can say "To criticize a metaphor you have to first understand the metaphor" and "Sometimes when scientists say things that sound like metaphors they really aren't." This brings us right back to quantum gravity being a social and linguistic construct a la Sokal, and really anyone who hasn't understood what is useful from the Sokal hoax already is never going to.

That means if we are more social and share more things, we will do things better.
We, humans are not only biology we are social. Although we have selfish genes, we can change that with our educational system.


This betrays a really fundamental misunderstanding.

The social is inside the biological; what matters in the social -- faces! height! body language! -- is a function of the biological before the social ever gets ahold of it. And yes, people are really plastic about this compared to, say, dogs or horses. But the social can't get itself out of the constraints of the biological, it can just make some choices about organization. (No amount of social anything is going to have humans doing social signaling through skin chromatophores like cuttlefish, for example.)

Talking about "selfish genes" is talking about the shape of the biological box. A less-inaccurate understanding of the shape of the biological box has social implications, but is not primarily about anything social and if you think the social implications are obvious from inspection you might benefit from a great deal more reading of the subject.

Thank you, Anon @ http://kenmacleod.blogspot.com/2011/02/lysenkos-tomb.html#7588978066688799684

I'm surprised that it took so long for the Extended Phenotype to get a mention.

Tangentially expanding on Gadfly's comment:

There's a fascinating book by Robert Axelrod called The Co-operation of Evolution. I didn't agree with everything in it (he tends to overstretch from time to time, IMHO), but he gives a great account of the first co-operative algorithm tournament. It turns out that "tit for tat" was a lucky winner -- it was the default program run by the organisers as a kind of benchmark. They expected smart programmers to come up with much better algorithms. But the default program won the competition. Unfortunately this led to a lot of confused reporting on how "tit for tat" was the best way of dealing with social conflict. I even read editorials praising the way the US and the USSR had played nuclear brinksmanship on the basis of "tit for tat".

The problem is that it's all wrong. The downfall of "tit for tat" is that it can get out of sync with its neighbours. That is, clusters of tit-for-tat cells can get caught in an infinite loop of betrayal-then-co-operation-then-betrayal. There was a far superior program, one also proposed by the contest organisers but never actually run in the contest, called "tit-for-two-tats". That is, it would only defect on a neighbour that had defected against it twice in a row. Had this program been used in the original contest, it would have wiped the floor with every other opponent, including tit-for-tat.

Of course, even tit-for-two-tats is very simplistic and easy to exploit if you can identify it. More recent versions of the contest have included some really clever algorithms that give subtle signals in their defect/co-operate cycle to allow them to identify others of their kind and then co-operate with their brethren and betray their opponents. It's all interesting stuff and jut goes to show that even extremely "selfish" algorithms can be rewarded by complex behaviour patterns that include lots of co-operation.

Whoops. I mean The Evolution of Co-operation.

Ken, great post LOL!
Alan, fabulous response LOEL!!

You have spotted a classic problem with "marxism" or "communism".

It is A RELIGION.
As wrong, as murderous, as lying and blackmailng and as cruel as all the other relgions.
It has "holy books" sects that fight each other, with "heretics" being even more evil than "unbelievers" (socialists and capitalists)

The reaction you have noted, especially from people like Richard Seymour is that of ones whose sacred beliefs are being challenged - by facts and observations, rather than a "revealed" non-truth.

Gregory - you're right, I don't know how I got that wrong. Sheer carelessness.

Greg Tingey - I don't agree that Marxism is a religion, though it can be held in a way that shares features with religion: dogmatism,sectarianism, fanaticism, cult-like organization. Richard Seymour doesn't show any of these pathologies.

Marxism is not a religio. Marxism became a religion in Rusia by Stalin.
Marxism analizes capitalism and only that.
Marxism has been a way to study the capitalistic cycles, the wages, etc.
If you read The worldly philosophers from Robert Heilbroner,you can understand why Marxism was born.
The capital, which is Marx's best book despite it's errors, prefigured the great depression.
Marx gave the problem and Keynes saved the capitalism from itself and made capitalism viable.

I'll try to give a more sympathetic reading of this -- there's an essay by Michael Berube (I'm pretty sure that it's in his book Rhetorical Occasions) that's part of his set of essays on Sokal, in which he points out that some of the founding scientists of quantum mechanics made wooly-sounding statements about the social implications of their work just like the contemporary analyzers of metaphors do. For instance, here's Niels Bohr, as quoted by Sokal, from a 1938 lecture on the complementarity principle:

"I may perhaps here remind you of the extent to which in certain societies the roles of men and women are reversed, not only regarding domestic and social duties but also regarding behavior and mentality. Even if many of us, in such a situation, might perhaps at first shrink from admitting the possibility that it is entirely a caprice of fate that the people concerned here have their specific culture and not ours, and we not theirs instead of our own, it is clear that even the slightest suspicion in this respect implies a betrayal of the national complacency inherent in any human culture resting in itself."

Whether you agree with this or not, it has nothing to do with physics. Some scientists do this too.

So why does Bohr get a pass? Firstly, because no matter what other statements he made, his science doesn't reduce down to his opinion of gender roles. Richard Seymour, for instance, argues that Gould's views are less reductionistic and more plural than Dawkins', but elides the question of whether or not they are more well-suited to explaining actual events. If you want to start from whether you like the metaphor or not politically and then work backwards to whether you should praise or denounce the science, there's really nothing valuable that you have to add.

Secondly, people sometimes write uncareful things that they later regret. I would guess, given the repeated explanations in later editions of the book, that the "we are born selfish" statement is one of them, for Dawkins. If someone wants to criticize that as a direction in which his rhetoric tends to go, fine. But his book and the ideas in it can't simply be reduced to it in the fashion linked to here. If it's bad rhetoric on Dawkins' part, it's bad not only because of its political implications, but because it gives people who want to persistently misread his book as easy way to do so.

Graydon: "(No amount of social anything is going to have humans doing social signaling through skin chromatophores like cuttlefish, for example.)"

Except, of course, social anything in the form of advanced genetics and biomedical technology allowing humans to modify their own genetic (hell, phenotypic) structure. Which is to say, the accuracy of your clean causal arrow is dependent on the time you're drawing it.

Please, no more Marxism = religion posts. It's as wrong as the evolution = religion meme. Marxism is an ideology, for sure, and an ideology that has been pursued with murderous fervour by several tyrants. But surely any ideology that is religious has to make some supernatural claims, which Marx and his followers never did (with the exception of The Housemartins, whose motto "Take Jesus, take Marx, take Hope" never ceases to amuse me).

I spotted it independantly, but I was by no means the first, actually, to detect that Marxism is a classic religion.
I think Bertrand Russell was the first .....

Lets see:
1] It has the unalterable words of the prophets in the holy books.
2] It has sects and divisions, who also have their own "holy" books: Not just Marx, but, Stalin/Lenin/Trotsky/Mao/Kim etc...
3] The prophecies and predictions made in the holy books are as wrong and as proven wrong as those of christian or muslim fundies, but it doesn't stop the true believers(TM) from swallowing this lying rubbish.
4] The sects and divisions fight amongst themseleves, and persecute deviants. THIS DID NOT START WITH STALIN - so Ramiro - blaming it all on Stalin (how convenient) because it won't wash.
5] Marxism persecutes all the competing religions, just like, well, you know....
6] Some sects of Marxism hate Darwin and evolution.
7] Millions of innocent people are killed in the name of the holy cause, so as to bring heaven closer.
8] The whole system operates on a basis of blackmail, both moral and physical.

I think that'll do for starters!

Graydon --

I agree with your basic premise, but I think you've underestimated the power of social forces. Sure it all comes from biology at root, but social forces in social animals fold back into the biology. Genes and society are in a mutual feedback cycle. The social insects are a great example where the social structure has driven the genetics as much as the other way around.

And as for replicating chromatophore signalling socially, we already do that. It's lipstick and powder. And choosing clothes to mark your social group. And speaking the local argot. And wearing a ring to show sexual pairing status.

Yabbut... we are born selfish. Kind of. I mean, the word 'selfish' is misleading, but only in that it assimilates an ordinary adult character trait to the monstrous, magical megalomania of the infant. To put it another way, we aren't born selfish, we're born at the centre of the entire universe, and it takes us several years (and a lot of hard work by other people) to grow out of that.

Still, though. Dawkins's comebacks to Midgley and Rose and Gould and poor old Clive Bradley are telling and effective, but I do wonder about anyone who seems to be misread so consistently by so many different people. I wonder if Dawkins is, perhaps, not a very careful writer, who writes to be agreed with more than to persuade. But I have to be tentative, because I've still never read either of his must-read books - I flicked through TSG years ago, when I was something of a Gould fan, and got completely stuck at the passage about 'memes'. Even now, the idea of the 'meme' strikes me as a claim that's either too strong to make with a straight face or too weak to bother writing down - a variant of what John Holbo called "the two-step of terrific triviality".

I hesitate to leave a comment as I don't have time to read absolutely everything everyone has written.

When I studied Biology I remember picking up Dawkins but finding him mostly unreadable. He's preachy and that's a style I don't enjoy. Having said that, from what I know of the man, I have to admit that I never considered TSG to be Thatcherite propaganda dressed up as popular science. It seems I've been living in a bubble!

I find the idea that it's either Nature or Nuture annoying. It's Nature AND Nurture. Yeah genetic traits do influence us but it's not all written in the base pairs.

Thanks for the post Ken. I really enjoyed it and It's given me some chin stroking for the day.

Phil:
"but I do wonder about anyone who seems to be misread so consistently by so many different people"

Because they deliberately WANT to hate him and everything he stands for, that's why!
He's a public atheist, remeber, and therefore EVIL - especially if you are a USAian xtian.

Greg Tingey - which 'sects of Marxism' hate Darwin and evolution?

Let's take some of the commonalities between Marxism and religion listed by Gerg Tingey as true - which, at the level of recognisable caricature, some of them are. We are then left with a puzzle.

Did Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, or even Stalin and Mao, claim to be infallible prophets who had written unalterable holy books? No. Did the later of these claim that the earlier had? No. This isn't how the (alleged) founders of the various 'religions of the book' and their (claimed) successors went about things. It isn't how the founders of new religions go about things today.

So how does a completely secular system of ideas, developed out of an engagement with the current mainstream of advanced public debate, and presented as an analysis and programme for a political and social movement, in the expectation that it would very likely only be accepted by that movement after long debate and much experience and would be modified in the process, come to be one about which the language used to talk about religion ('orthodoxy', 'heresy', 'sects', etc) comes naturally?

Did Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, or even Stalin and Mao, claim to be infallible prophets who had written unalterable holy books? No.

Did Jesus?

He's a public atheist, remeber, and therefore EVIL - especially if you are a USAian xtian.

That might explain Gould (to someone who'd never read any Gould, at least). Comes up a bit short wrt Steven Rose and Clive Bradley.

Ken.

Marx thought he was writing economics and some politics.
His followers decided he was a "divine prophet" - if you see what I mean.
Hating Darwin: And what did Mr MacLoed put at the TOP of his post - what was the name?
Trofim Lysenko, that's whom.
And Stalinism hated Darwin.
I suggest you learn some history....

And Stalin was big on being infallible - if you disagreed with unlce Joe, if you were LUCKY, you ended up in the Gulag ....

MArx made specific predictions, which are pasrt of all communist religious thinking.
They've been proven wrong, time & again - doesn't stop the bleivers from still swallowing the kool-aid.
( Like "the revolution" will occur in the MOST DEVELOPED countries first.... )

Greg Tingey: I'm the Mr MacLeod who wrote the post.

Both Stalin and Lysenko rated Darwin highly - as is obvious even from the marginal note by Stalin that I quoted. But just to make it more obvious, just read what Lysenko wrote. He hails Darwin as the founder of scientific biology, but says Darwin made some errors that contradicted the main thrust of his own 'teaching'.

An actual cite from Marx of this famous prediction that '"the revolution" will occur in the MOST DEVELOPED countries first' would be of some interest. Most of his major works are online, so the search should be easy.

Phil: Jesus didn't write any books, as far as we know, but 'Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away' seems like a strong claim to being (at least) an infallible prophet. (Leaving aside the question of whether he really said it.)

OK about Lysenko - but.
What atctually happened?
Soviet biology, which was a real world-leader at that time, went into reverse, and has still not really recovered.
People like Vavilov were sent to the camps, and died there.

I was always under the impression that the "revolution" would occur in the most developed countries first was an axiom, of all marxism.
The trouble is, that Marx's observations were a very accurate snapshot in time.
He then predicted what was likely to happen, assuming there were no changes.
But - there were changes.
The franchise was extended; trades-unions became more established, and bargained for their (capitalist) rights; healthcare and pension schemes came in (thank you, Bismarck) employers began to realise that an educated, motivated workforce is better for them (as employers) than a downtrodden lumpenproleteriat (never mind the benefits to the workers); etc, etc ....
BUT
The communist "Believers" take no account of the fact of this change of circumstances. Do they?

Any more than, say muslims take account of the fact that eating pig in 7th-C Middle-East is a bad idea, but the same rules cannot apply in 21st-C N. Europe, where pigs eat things humans can't, and the food-hygeine and keeping problems have been sorted.

Ken - the previous verse makes it clear that Jesus was talking about the imminence of the end of all things ("this generation shall not pass away"). The point isn't that his words are more lasting than bronze (to coin a phrase) but that the end of the world is coming so soon that his words won't have had time to be forgotten. It's rather a neat bit of rhetoric, actually - "you can be sure of this prophecy, it's not going to fail you; heaven and earth will fail you, but these words will still be true". Not one of his more accurate prophecies, admittedly.

Anyway, I thought I was helping. As far as we know Jesus didn't say "worship me, write down every word I say, call it a holy book and form a church to decree the correct interpretation of it", but it still happened. Jesus is more like Marx than Mohammed in that respect.

Greg - we're not disputing whether Lysenkoism had dire effects.

What you were 'always under the impression' of about Marx and Marxism might be worth checking against what Marx and Marxists actually said, and say. You might be surprised. There are lots of relevant sites on my blog's sidebar. They have very divergent views on lots of issues, but none of them fit your caricature of 'communist "Believers"' who take no account of changes since the 19th century.

Phil - OK, I see your point. Another example would be Buddha.

I've been wondering how best to characterise Greg's beliefs about Marx and Marxism. Could they possibly be a kind of religion?

"So how does a completely secular system of ideas, developed out of an engagement with the current mainstream of advanced public debate, and presented as an analysis and programme for a political and social movement, in the expectation that it would very likely only be accepted by that movement after long debate and much experience and would be modified in the process, come to be one about which the language used to talk about religion ('orthodoxy', 'heresy', 'sects', etc) comes naturally?"

I'm not agreeing with Greg here -- I don't think it's very useful to reify "Marxism" into an ahistorical, singular entity.

But why does this language come up? Well, if there is anything that links the various strands of Marxism together, it's the belief that a certain 19th century thinker was basically right. No one else gets this presumption of basic rightness, contra to evidence and the world-historical failure of Soviet (and, really, Chinese) Marxism. Even the Founder worship that some Americans show is still quite amenable to rejection of a particular Founder's ideas, or treating them as, basically, an inspiring but deluded example.

No scientist gets this kind of treatment -- it's common for scientists to treat stories of 19th century scientists as inspiring, but they aren't presumed to be right forever because of their brilliant analysis. I've already mentioned the Big Bang in this thread, but even though I treat it as true, I don't call myself a Hubblist. Marx did a whole lot of different things, but one of them was an attempt at social science. That social science really can't be considered to be forever true if it's going to be science.

Liberalism and conservatism have equally dusty roots, but they really change to a much greater extent over time. The welfare state liberalism of mid-20th-century America relies on different thinkers, different philosophies, different historical events, than earlier classical liberalism. That's why people don't say that socialism is a religion in the same way that some people say that Marxism is. And it's why socialism has to get beyond Marx, or at least treat Marx as about as relevant as Jefferson, say, is to most American liberals.

Ken, so what you appear to be saying is that:

The communist believers have decided that the REAL revolution hasn't happened yet (like the second coming gets being postponed - what a suprise!)
And Marx (Jesus/Mohammed/etc) was right all along!
How very convenient, and I'm not buying it.
Can I call "No true Scotsman" here?

I can think of only two cases where a communist government did NOT result in the mass terrorisation of the people, with secret police, executions, torture, camps, ultra-strict censorship, travel restrictions, etc ....
They are: Chile - and I'm not sure that Allende was a "real" communist - it is just that the US right wanted to portray him as such.
And the other is the regional guvmint of Kerala state in India - who are really wierd: but you'd have to ask my wife about them, since she spent some very interesting months there ....

I also note that all "communist" theories appear to state that all social reform and "moderate socialism" are a waste of time and space.
This is a certain recipe for civil war and completely unnecessary upheaval.
The complete removal of private property, is just such a complete non-starter, yet they still appear to cling to this.
It is as unrealistic, and as religious, as any loopy christian or muslim belief in afterlives, etc.

The claims that "Marx was right" or "Marx was wrong" are equally loopy and impossible to answer.

Compare: was Darwin right, or wrong?

A bit of both, mostly right, hence their enduring legacy, is the answer in both cases.

Greg, you are simply making up what I 'appear to be saying', as well as what communists think. Of all the self-defined Marxists in the world, all but a very, very small minority would say that REAL socialist revolutions have taken place (however critical they might be about the subsequent development of these revolutions). The same overwhelming majority of self-professed Marxists devote most of their political activity to advocating various social reforms and 'moderate socialist' measures, however inadequate in the long run they may think these reforms and measures are. No Marxists of whatever kind advocate 'the complete removal of private property' in the sense that you probably have in mind.

Now, what the Marxists and communists actually do advocate and how they go about trying to achieve it, etc, may be very much open to criticism. To do that you need to know what it actually is.

Right.

I give in.

It is obviously:
1] a religion, with as much weaselling as is usually available under the circumstances...
and
2} like I said: "No true Scotsman"

Clue: What actually happens when marxists/communists take control?
My answer is: exactly the same as if nazis/fascists take control.
For the majority of the population, that is.

Clue: What actually happens when marxists/communists take control?
My answer is: exactly the same as if nazis/fascists take control.


I always wonder if people like greg get anxious when they go near national parks.

"National Parks"?
Uh?

Like, erm, the Lake District (Wainwright is one of my heroes) or the Peak District?

Explain, please.

'No true Scotsman'?

Och, no! I haven't made that move here, at all.

I've - for the sake of argument - granted you all the Scotsmen, every last wee kirk of them. Hell, I've even thrown in the Canadians, just to be nice.

(That's a joke, derived from: 'To a first approximation, all Scots are Canadian.')

I lose Dawkins, like Dennet, because of the assumptions about gender which follow from their use and misuse as starting points for thinking about traits.

Also, he's a sanctimonious ass.

Well,Jack Crow, isn't that just too sad!

He happens to RIGHT, as in correct and true.
So tough.

Sp, like the deluded religious believers, you'll just have to put up with it, poor delicate little flower!

"there is no proletarian or bourgeois mathematics..

Surely the mathematics used to underpin the merchant banking industry would qualify for the second. Certainly the spread of outcomes had a very strong rightward bias. "
One could certainly say that about the Black Scholes equation, but that may stem from it being applied maths.

"So how does a completely secular system of ideas, developed out of an engagement with the current mainstream of advanced public debate, and presented as an analysis and programme for a political and social movement, in the expectation that it would very likely only be accepted by that movement after long debate and much experience and would be modified in the process, come to be one about which the language used to talk about religion ('orthodoxy', 'heresy', 'sects', etc) comes naturally? "

I suggest that Dawkins idea about memes is useful here. Political and religious sects exist as the phenotype of memes and the probability of survival of the sect and thus the meme does not correspond particularly well to the truth value of the meme in a scientific sense. Instead it depends on the reproduction probability in a given social context.

Paul - Kantorovich's linear programming was literally socialist mathematics, but the same technique is used in capitalist management.

Re memes - yes. In The Star Fraction I played with the idea that the communist programme is what replicates, using parties and partisans as its 'lumbering robots' (phenotypes). Some of the smaller marxist sects seem almost conscious that they exist solely as carriers of the programme, like viruses (the Bordigists, for instance).

Come to think of it, maybe the claim that 'Marxism is a religion' is not quite as damning as its proponents may think. Perhaps adapting the characteristics of other enormously successful memes is a good strategy.

"Come to think of it, maybe the claim that 'Marxism is a religion' is not quite as damning as its proponents may think."

Indeed, I've never taken it to be much of an insult. If socialism is a religion, it's a religion in this sense:

"Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in a popular form, its spiritualistic point d'honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, its universal source of consolation and justification." (Marx)

And the sects are the heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions.

Cheers
Stuart

At the risk of dragging the Marxism-Religion thing on longer than it should...

greg - Please try reading some Marx before making sweeping statements about what he says or what his followers believe! Your using the word "all" a lot more in your comments than seems strictly wise - i.e. "I also note that all "communist" theories appear to state that all social reform and "moderate socialism" are a waste of time and space". All of them? Are you sure?


I'd never read the old fellow before (except for the Communist manifesto when I was at Uni) - last summer I cracked on Capital Volume 1. I was surprised - it was far more nuanced, interesting, entertaining and more full of useful ideas than I had been led to believe. Lots of general, well developed and nuanced observations of the world, particularly as regards to trade and production, very little in the apocalyptic/deterministic/prophetic tosh often ascribed to Marx and his work.

Once you've done with that (it might take you a while, bit of a heavy one), why not have a go with some biographies of prominent Marxists to see how they put these ideas into action?

Well Padre, while I would certainly recommend reading Capital Volume 1 (especially now that David Harvey has written what by all accounts is a useful user's guide to it) there's no need to go quite that far to get some idea of what Marx was on about. The Communist Manifesto (not skipping the various prefaces its authors wrote over the years, which show just how undogmatic they were about this 'sacred text'), Engels's Socialism: Utopian and Scientific and Marx's Wages, Price and Profit and The Civil War in France between them give a decent overview of what they actually thought, in the space of a few pamphlets.

Thank you for drawing my attention to that thread on Lenin's Tomb. Watching someone on the wrong end of an argument tap-dance faster and faster is always entertaining.
It is a little like seeing that scene where Woody Allen pulls Marshal McLuhan out from behind a sign happen in real life.

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