Richard Dawkins: an end to mythmaking?

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So Paxman can dub myths ‘hogwash’, but not religion. Surely all myths do a similar job – it’s just scientific ones don’t last as long


Richard Dawkins is a master mythmaker. His best fiction is that of the selfish gene. His great book of that title, published 35 years ago, described human beings as lumbering robots driven by immortal genes. It even had a brilliant, final twist. Sometimes, the myth promised, we can overcome the tyranny of the biological imperative inside us. Inevitably – though perhaps more quickly than many anticipated – his myth is going the way of the world. It spoke powerfully of what was taken to be truth for a time. But subject to the inexorable shifts of human knowledge, the myth is now starting to look outdated.

A crucial moment came in August 2010, when Martin Nowak, Corina Tarnita and Edward O Wilson published an article in Nature. They argued that the mathematics behind the idea that Dawkins had so successfully popularised doesn’t stack up. It was wrong, Wilson insists – and he should know as one of the few people who originally did the maths. He now prefers evolutionary theories that speak about altruism, based upon group selection. The next generation awaits a mythmaker of Dawkins’s stature to tell us this new story about life.

Now, I know what you are thinking. Is it not overly provocative to refer to the selfish gene as a myth, even though the dictionary definition of “myth” seems quite precise? My dictionary includes definitions such as “false belief” and “fictitious thing”. It will be thought inflammatory because, unfortunately, naming something a myth carries these pejorative overtones in our times. It is as if myths are straightforwardly untrue, and those who believe them are ignorant and foolish.

Written By: Mark Vernon
continue to source article at guardian.co.uk

29 COMMENTS

  1. This guy is surely trying to play a Swiss bank and get both sides fighting it out whilst he takes credit for the story?

    Myth as unquestionable authority is very different from that of the tooth fairy and a minted coin in exchange, though the metaphor is painfully congruent!

  2. E.O. Wilson! Do you see what you did? Your group selection is great for ants, but falls to pieces when applied to the evolution of just about every other living creature. Do scientifically illiterate people believe that anything published in Nature (or any scientific paper published) is not subject to change or fallacy?

  3.   The next generation awaits a mythmaker of Dawkins’s stature to tell us this new story about life.

    But only those scientific illiterates such as this author, who illustrates this in his misinterpretation of the “Selfish Gene”!

    He then confirms his utter scientific illiteracy here:

    Scientific myths, on the other hand, do well if they last more than a century. Who today reads Newton?

    …. .. Too uneducated to have heard of the laws of motion.

    Idiot opinionated rantings dismissed!

  4. I’m starting to think this is what people are doing in church sometimes: pouring over anti-theistic books and articles, and going around the room and saying “What unbelievers words can we completely manipulate today?”
    Ugh, this makes my head hurt right behind my left eye..

  5. Richard Dawkins is a master
    mythmaker. His best fiction is that of the selfish gene. It spoke powerfully of
    what was taken to be truth for a time. But subject to the inexorable shifts of
    human knowledge, the myth is now starting to look outdated. A crucial moment
    came in August 2010, when Martin Nowak, Corina Tarnita and Edward O Wilson
    published an article in Nature.

     

    The scientific consensus is strongly against Wilson
    et al on this.

     

    He now prefers evolutionary
    theories that speak about altruism, based upon group selection. The next
    generation awaits a mythmaker of Dawkins’s stature to tell us this new story
    about life.

     

    Contra Vernon, Wilson concedes the selfish-gene
    maths *does* work; the interesting query is whether any alternative
    evolutionary mechanism has maths which works, both in theory and in the real
    world. And frankly, there’s not a single known real-world phenomenon better
    explained by group selection than selfish-gene theory, even if you can make
    group selection work in theory (which frankly is itself rather contested).

     

    The book describes many myths,
    religious ones as well as scientific.

     

    None of the science explained in TMOR is myth; it’s
    all overwhelmingly supported fact.

     

    There are, of course,
    differences between scientific and religious myths.

     

    Is there even such a thing as a scientific myth? Go
    on, name an example.

     

    The great faiths of the world
    daily find truth leaping off the page

     

    Firstly, why are they great? Secondly, truth means
    it’s factually accurate; what people find is nice-sounding ideas that don’t
    stand up to scrutiny.

     

    Who today reads Newton?

     

    Well for starters, the Euler-Lagrange equation,
    which is equivalent to Newton’s second law, is how all the most advanced
    physical theories are put together. The law in question has not been refuted,
    although in quantum mechanics some averaging brackets are included, and in
    relativity it’s best to rewrite things in manifestly covariant terms. But to pretend
    that updates which obey the correspondence principle are analogous to proving
    actually the Earth goes round the sun contra the Catholic Church is to use the
    word “myth” to cover too wide a range of phenomena to be informative. It’s like
    using “extremist” to mean Muslims who blow up stuff and atheists who say what’s
    on their mind. Oh wait, people like Vernon don’t get that.

     

    Both kinds of myth seek evidence
    in their support.

     

    That’s nonsense. Scientific ideas are
    post-evidentiary conclusions, not evidence-seeking ideas we obtain before
    investigating. And many myths don’t seek evidence, and many even deny evidence
    against themselves.

     

    the myth fails too, which is
    what appears to be happening to the selfish gene.

     

     

    It doesn’t “appear” that way to enough experts in
    the field for a comment like this by anyone outside it to be justifiable.

     

    religious myths seek proof of a
    more personal kind. These myths work when they speak in their details about the
    truths of life.

     

    Does this guy not even know what “proof” or “truth”
    means? Truth is one of two truth-values in classical propositional logic. It’s
    not “analogy”. Why does Vernon give more of a thumbs up to metaphors than
    first-order approximate equations?

     

    the proof of the Narcissus myth
    is not established by trying to find a man called Narcissus and seeing whether
    his heart became empirically swollen and his visage literally hard, everyone
    knows that.

     

    *I* know that *is* how you’d prove it, and I also
    know we’ve *disproven* the idea any of that claptrap is real. There is no “truth”
    in surviving religions, or dead ones, or *Sabrina, the Teenage Witch*; they’re just
    stories that have something “good” about them (where they do), which isn’t the
    same thing as “truth”. Truth is a very specific good thing. Vernon is guilty of
    the same trick as advocates of “multiple intelligence theory”, who treat “intelligence”
    as a synonym for skill or talent, rather than recognising that that name’s
    inapplicability to some talents doesn’t denigrate them.

     

    why is it that many religious
    people are as wary of myths as Paxman appears to be? Is it because they agree
    with Paxman that the scientific accuracy of millennia-old myths can be readily
    knocked down? Don’t they see that saying that is like saying Shakespeare should
    not be taught in schools because Romeo and Juliet never existed? Religious
    people should be masters of myth, like Dawkins, for the greatest myths convey
    the truth of things to us, be that spiritual or scientific.

     

    What Vernon doesn’t seem to understand is “The
    stories in the Bible have the same status as those in Shakespeare’s plays,
    being historically fictional but illustrative of human nature” is *not* an
    attractive idea to people who actually think God is a real guy. The reason we
    look at Shakespeare’s plays in our schools may not be to learn about fictional
    families, but it is to look at historically real influences on the development
    of English literature and theatre, and how historically real events were
    reflected in his plays. Do biblical stories do that? Probably yes, and translations
    thereof certainly do that; the KJV wears its Jacobean heritage all over its
    language. If we never again teach the Bible in any way other than as a literary
    piece, we will be following Richard Dawkins’s frequent on-record orders, but we
    won’t be doing what we are doing currently, which is why he can consistently
    complain about us doing such things. What we do today is to pretend to
    impressionable children that these things are not only true, but confidently known
    to be true. And copy-paste this analysis for every other religious book.

  6. ”  A crucial moment came in August 2010, when Martin Nowak, Corina Tarnita and Edward O Wilson published an article in Nature “

    Sorry, must have missed that ” crucial ” moment. That is me and about 95% of all evolutionary biologists!

  7. “Myths are powerful because they fire the imagination, encourage play and make great poetic stories. They can only do so when there is something true in them.”
    Editor to article writer: “We’ll pay you to fill up our pages with words.”

  8. Always worth a quick wiki before reading anything like this:

     Mark Vernon is a writer, broadcaster and journalist. He writes for The Guardian, The Philosophers’ Magazine, Financial Times and New Statesman. He has appeared on BBC Radio 4′s In Our Time. He used to be a Church of England priest. He has since become an agnostic Christian, a position he now writes about.[1]

    He has a PhD from Warwick University in philosophy, he has a degree in theology from Oxford University and another theology degree and a physics degree fromDurham University. He is an Honorary Research Fellow at Birkbeck College, University of London. 

     

    “He used to be a Church of England priest. He has since become an agnostic Christian.”

    Aren’t they are the same thing ?

    He scored 647 comments on CIF I wonder if that is enough page views for the advertising revenue to pay his appearance fee ? A mention of Richard Dawkins is usually a reliable way of doing that.

    Michael

  9. @michaelkmurray:disqus 

    .. he has a degree in theology from Oxford University and another theology degree

    It seems that two theology degrees and some time as a priest is sufficient to addle the thinking processes beyond redemption!

    @OP:disqus  Scientific myths, on the other hand, do well if they last more than a century. Who today reads Newton?

    Quite an incredible comment from someone with a physics degree from Durham University. ( Who one might expect to have studied physics/ mechanics at school).  Still with a 4 degree career as a “professional student”, journalist and priest, a grasp of the real world is somewhat remote from his thinking.

  10. @OP:disqus

    They argued that the mathematics behind the idea that Dawkins had so
    successfully popularised doesn’t stack up. It was wrong, Wilson insists –
    and he should know as one of the few people who originally did the
    maths. He now prefers evolutionary theories that speak about altruism,
    based upon group selection.

    Before digressing into “group selection” or “kin selection” we should consider Occam’s  razor.

    Given the level of understanding of basic science (eg. Newton) and the “Selfish Gene”, in the OP, I would find it incredible if MARK VERNON had any understanding of “group selection” or “kin selection”, let alone a position to judge their merits.

    It should be obvious that as a “cheerleader for viewpoints”, rather than a rational thinker, he has quoted “group selection”, because Richard has spoken against it, and he wishes to discredit Richard. – No understanding of evolution is required – just a few negative quotes and repetitive assertions. 

  11. “Who today reads Newton?”
    Are you serious?  Newton’s conclusions regarding motion, thermodynamics and gravity are as relevant and necessary to an understanding of the world and the universe today as they were centuries ago.

  12.  Thanks for clearing that up for me. My goal was only to point out that just because he published a paper two years ago, doesn’t automatically validate a claim being made. A good chunk of journalists are terribly irresponsible!

    Mathematically disproved gene centered evolution? I have to read that and my university better have access…

    By the way, Magic of Reality is amazing, a great learning tool for people of all ages.

  13. “an article in Nature .. argued that .. the idea that Dawkins had so successfully popularised doesn’t stack up. It was wrong”

    From my reading of the brief synopsis, that Nature article does no such thing. What it does do is dilute the ‘kin selection` argument in favor of “standard natural selection theory”. A comment on the main article refers to `clickbait’, an apt description …

    ot: It’s been a long while since Paxo did a real grilling of anyone on Newsnight. He’s either going-to-seed or being on best behavour in the hope of receiving a royal tap on the shoulder. I always suspected that Newsnight stacked the deck against unsound opinion by putting the interviewee on the satellite link where Paxo could rail against him/her uninterrupted.

  14.  Just had to drop in to say, “Good line!” Made me laugh. What I didn’t expect was that ‘dropping in’ would take about 15 or 20 minutes working out that I had to be logged in, that this was in fact a new site, trying to remember if I was registered on the old one, following the steps to transfer myself to the new one and reading the terms and conditions (which were pretty obvious, but I suppose you can’t take anything for granted with some people) again, before finally finding my way back to the thread I was trying to comment on in the first place. So. Now that I’m here…

    When I read, “Who today reads Newton?” I was quite mystified as to why we were even discussing this. I suppose the answer is that Richard is a biologist, not a physicist, and the article is couched in such terms that people who understand little of evolutionary theory might be misled into thinking there is a genuine paradigm shift going on here. But the Newton comment is a dead givaway of the level of muddle-headedness we are really dealing with.

    Who today reads Newton? What, apart from every first year high school student? I mean, ok, Einstein and the quantum physicists did show that in certain circumstances it gets a bit more complicated than Newton, but in the everyday world we live in, last I checked, the light still worked, the gravity was still on, we still haven’t developed a perpetual motion engine, and all his other laws continue to apply.

    Many years ago I read an article about motorcycling by an enthusiast. He made the point that although some people think rules are made to be broken, we all have to obey the laws. “30mph,” he said, “That’s a rule. Gravity. That’s a law.” When I first encountered Newton at high school, I felt I already knew much of what I was being taught. After a while I worked out that this was partly because, like everyone else, I exist in the physical world, and partly because I’m the son of an engineer. The answers to my juvenile enquiries about the world around me were essentially Newtonian answers. That’s how my father understood the world, you couldn’t really be an engineer if you didn’t. That’s their everyday reality – forget Newton for a moment and you’re quite likely to end up dead. Now that’s no ‘myth,’ it’s simply a fact that isn’t likely to change.

  15. it s pretty simple, really: if you repeat something over and over (discrediting someone)
    there s going to be a moment that people start to believe it: ‘some of it must be true if you hear it from all corners’ … forgetting, or neglecting, that only one person is actually doing that. 
    (perhaps you ll recall the famous phrase: Carthage must burn …. it took 40 or 50 years …and Carthage did burn)

  16. There is debate going on.  But that does not mean either party are flat out wrong. The point is, the matter is being debated, and eventually it will be settled, because both positions are based on facts.  That is not mythmaking.  Mythmaking is just making stuff up without any facts to back it the way theologians do, deciding what is true purely by how it appeals aesthetically.

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