The Early Days of a Better Nation

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Recent manifestations

On Sunday 13th February I gave a talk at the Leicester Secular Society's historic Secular Hall, on the persistent inability of some on the left to grasp what The Selfish Gene is actually saying. A full write-up is in the works but for the moment you can read the gist over at the Genomics Forum's blog.

Last week's LSE event on Science Fiction and International Orders was live-blogged by Stephanie Carvin. I've done a full write-up, which should appear in the next issue of the online magazine Salon Futura.

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I'm interested to see your remarks about conservatism and genetic determinism. Over on an Objectivist blog that I follow, people are regularly turning up who've run into conservative arguments against Ayn Rand that claim that Science Has Proven that our behavior is controlled by our genes and not by any kind of rational choice, and therefore all those appeals to reason and freedom will never work. The issue seems oddly parallel.

Ken - any chance you'd send along a preprint version of the writeup?

Would you say the author of this recent piece falls under this category or makes legitimate analysis?

Topper, the author of that piece is near the top of my list of offenders. I intend to pull together a post that will be somewhat less polite than the one on Genotype. Stay tuned!

William - yes, it is an interesting similarity. Of course, conservative criticisms of Objectivism have me chortling and rubbing my hands.

Uhuh, kin selection, and since we all have a common ancestor all human beings are kin. Of course that never stops us from killing distant kin to protect those close by.

I don't get why people get so up-tight about Dawkins' Selfish Gene. Surely they should accept that they were predestined to get upset anyway and then get over it? (sorry)

You didn't explain the scut.

Ken: So are you amused at the expense of the Objectivists or the conservatives? Or both? In either case, they don't seem to be more than an alliance of convenience.

Neal - I thought I did explain the scut. What's missing?

William: both, but the Objectivists are so arrogant and dogmatic that one is tempted to think kindly of Edmund Burke.

Ken: Some years ago I happened across Lenin's "Materialism and Empirio-Criticism." Reading it was quite striking—in the first place, because Lenin's criticisms of Kant and the logical positivists were almost identical to Rand's; in the second place, because Lenin's style of invective toward philosophical ideas he disagreed with was very much like Rand's. I have wondered ever since if there was some unacknowledged influence, despite the drastic disagreement of their political philosophies.

I personally have found a lot to like in Rand's ideas. On the other hand, there's a reason I don't call myself an Objectivist. I'm not looking for officially correct positions; I'm looking for tolls for thinking and living.

William: I've wondered the same for some time! There are also some striking parallels with the German-American Joseph Dietzgen, who was hailed by Marx and Engels as an independent discoverer of the materialist dialectic. From Lenin's polemic it's clear that Dietzgen was read by people in the Russian revolutionary movement, and from Plekhanov's 'Materialismus Militans' it seems Dietzgen was at one point all the rage among Russian radical intellectuals.

Chris Sciabarra's 'Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical' argues that an early influence on her was an old Russian idealist who was one of her philosophy lecturers at university. But (given that this is all speculation anyway) one can speculate that young Alice may have picked up some materialism there too.

Yes, you did, Ken - I wasn't reading it properly. But I'm not sure I buy it unless some inherited behaviour is involved too i.e. rabbit least likely to be caught by the fox flashes its scut whilst the others closer don't.

Incidentally, loved The Selfish Gene and have read it three or four times. Particularly liked when he talked about the strategies of social insects and how he was puzzled that such did not show up in the mammal world. In later editions of the book he then added the mole rat.

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