Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Richard Dawkins' Magical Gene

I figured out what pisses me off so much about Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene. It's because he's a magical thinker and magical thinking is stamped right through his thesis.

Richard Dawkins thinks that individual strings of nucleotides in individual organisms compete against other strings of nucleotides in the same organism. He thinks these utterly mindless, thoughtless and passive strings of information are "selfish" and that they "seek to replicate themselves". He thinks these strings, no different from the string 0103202010102310001 have a will, have something that they want.

Of course, none of that is true. The big problem is that it's not even true as a metaphor. You see, Richard Dawkins thinks of genes as constrained within organisms. He thinks the string 0103202010102310001 in organism Dave Thompson has a magical essence which will get passed on to Dave Thompson's biological children, and maybe Dave Thompson's other cells in the case of genes that manage to duplicate themselves across chromosomes.

But that's all crap. The truth is that the string 0103202010102310001 in Dave Thompson has no magical essence, has no essence of any kind. It is exactly identical as the string 0103202010102310001 in Chen Xian Lue on the other side of planet. Exactly identical. So when you talk about genes, it's completely illogical to talk about "the gene 0103202010102310001 in Dave Thompson" or even "the individual gene in such and such organism". When you talk about genes, the MEANING of "the individual gene" is "all of the strings matching this in all of the organisms on the planet".

When you imagine an individual string of nucleotides in an organism, the correct way to think about it isn't that they are selfishly competing against all other strings of nucleotides. Because if you're going to drag in competition into this, you can equally say that each string of nucleotides is a fanatical cooperator with all other matching strings of nucleotides across every organism on the planet. At most you can only say that strings of nucleotides are competing against non-matching strings of nucleotides. And even that is only a metaphor.

Consider what would happen in an environment with 90% infant mortality if a gene guaranteed 90% survival at the cost of 10% of infants that would die because their entire DNA liquefied. Basically, consider what would happen if 10% of copies of a gene sacrificed themselves for the other 90%. They would be wildly successful!

Yet this little insight completely passed Richard Dawkins by. If Dawkins understood what genes are in the first place, he would never have entitled his oeuvre "the selfish gene" because "selfish" is hopelessly reductionist and inaccurate to describe something that is by its nature fanatically cooperative. Assuming it had a will at all, which it doesn't.

Richard Dawkins is a fairly mindless little freak who believes in magic. As biologists must be since Biology is fairly mindless & random and makes no sense at all. What is infuriating about him is that he got one thing right (that natural selection means genes compete against non-matching genes) and used this truth to push forth a much greater lie (that there are these things called genes contained inside you). And the lie is the exact opposite of the truth since genes aren't contained inside you. They're spread out across all organisms.


Anonymous said...

You may have read the book, but you clearly didn't understand it. He thinks none of those things.

Richard Kulisz said...

Spoken like a magical thinker incapable of logic. If this guy could prove I'm wrong, he'd never have said I read the book. Instead, he claims I didn't understand it because I use logic and synthesis to examine ideas that are always left implicit in Dawkin's work. Ideas that Dawkins MUST believe in since 1) most people do, 2) Dawkins has left no other options. But that's logic.

Richard Kulisz said...

Giveaway #7 of magical thinking: the belief that just because someone doesn't admit to something, means they aren't thinking it.

This is actually worse than the belief that just because someone doesn't admit to something means you can't prove they aren't thinking it. This guy doesn't just believe that the contents of a person's mind are unprovable from external evidence. He believes that a person's mind HAS NO CONTENTS unless they're spewed forth in writing or speech.

Richard Kulisz said...

That's why he kept himself anonymous and his comment so short. He believes that by doing so, it's impossible for anyone to tell (let alone prove) that he's a mindless idiot. He is wrong.

There are so many different ways, so many levels, that this guy is an idiot, it's unbelievable.

Consider that he believes that what Dawkins _thinks_ matters more than what _impressions_ he gives. As if Dawkins were some kind of holy authority to be defended. Yeah, I do something similar, but I do it to destroy authorities, not to defend them from attack.

We're up to 6 idiocies crammed into 2 sentences. No wonder it took me half a second to conclude this guy's an idiot.

Veil said...

>Consider what would happen in an environment with 90% infant mortality if a gene guaranteed 90% survival at the cost of 10% of infants that would die because their entire DNA liquefied.

If an infant dies, isn't its DNA effectively liquefied anyway? So doesn't this example merely express the truism that a gene for 10% infant mortality outcompetes a gene for 90% infant mortality? What am I missing here?

Richard Kulisz said...

You're missing that there is no gene that it's competing against. It's competing against nothing, against its own absence.

Remember also that in a biologist's view there is no malevolent nature that wants to kill everything. You know, the kind of nature you experience if you ever go out alone and tool-less in nature. To a biologist, nature is the source of ecological niches, the source of life.

So in Dawkins' view, that gene is competing against "other copies" of itself. Some of the "copies" are victorious, and others "die". And the statistical view you're thinking of can't be brought in to solve the problem. Not in Dawkins' view anyways. Unless you invoke magic.

But then again, to most people (including physicists) statistics is magic. They don't teach what probabilities are in statistics classes anymore. It became forbidden when it was realized this conflicted with the dominant vitalist humans-are-outside-physics theory of physics established IIRC on Niels Bohr's authority at Copenhagen.

If you want to know what I'm talking about when I say magic, look up the Pilot Wave interpretation of quantum mechanics. Or look up the Principle of Complementarity, the Afshar experiment which contradicts it, and contrast that pile of magical crap with Fourier decomposition.

There is this view amongst people that "probability" means an event E1 at specific coordinates XYZT is somehow (magically) linked to all other events Ex everywhere, that they somehow conspire together to fool us and "maintain the probability distribution". This is total magical crap and I personally cannot believe such people aren't kicked out of physics circles and executed on the spot.

Richard Kulisz said...

What probabilities ARE mathematically, back in the days when they still taught it, is rather interesting. Because what they are is Many-Worlds more or less. The formal, mathematical, definition of 'probability' is that many-worlds is correct and that all other interpretations of quantum mechanics are seriously lacking. Because the alternative is that any talk of "the probability distribution of this one electron XYZT in 1 second" means absolutely nothing mathematically. And I've already told you what I think of the notion of "all electrons Ex".

I suppose that people are used to the magic enough that they don't think Dawkins' view entails any deep problems.