Monday 12 November 2012

My 1999 critique of Leftist anti-adaptationism


Comment - I could have summarized this argument more briefly simply by stating that liars should not be trusted; or that any argument strong enough to throw out the evidence that humans have adapted in response to selection will also throw out not just the rest of science, but also common sense. However, for a Leftist, this outcome is a feature, not a bug.

Also, I now perceive that this entire anti-adaptationism strand emerged from the New Left, affirmative action, 'equal outcomes' evolution of progressive politics from the mid-1960s; and the consequent political need to suppress a century of research into IQ and personality differences between human groups.


No short cuts to science

(a commentary on the target paper concerning Lifelines by SPR Rose).

Bruce G. Charlton

From Behavioural and Brain Sciences 1999; 22: 889

Abstract: Steven Rose regards oversimplification of biology as the supreme sin, inevitably leading to evil consequences, and requiring an unique distortion of scientific practice to avoid it. To avoid this, he proposes a short-cut to scientific knowledge by defining certain areas of biology that are intrinsically flawed. But this achieves only a subordination of science to politics. There are no general-purpose shortcuts for evaluating the validity of theories, and no substitutes for testing specific theories using relevant evidence.


Steven Rose is against “reductionism” in science. For his major example, he invents a theoretical framework termed “ultra-Darwinism” and characterized by intellectual bankruptcy and moral depravity.

The insistent refrain of Lifelines is: “things are more complex than that.”

But this is not enough, because in science things are always more complex than that – science is a search for simplified, unifying theories. The proper question is whether or not the simplification is useful, whether or not the simple model works as a theory, whether its consequences are consistent with the test of further observations.


Hence it is clear that what Rose objects to is inappropriate simplification, rather than simplification per se. But inappropriate simplification is merely a type of bad science – simplification is inappropriate when it does not work. So, Rose is against bad science.

Nothing controversial about that. The problem then becomes: how can we tell bad science from good? How can we tell oversimplification from the right amount of simplification?

To paraphrase Einstein: theories should be as simple as possible, but no simpler. In other words, we should simplify as much as possible (because simple models are more rigorously testable and more useful), but we will know that a scientific theory is oversimplified when its consequences are inconsistent with structured observation.

An oversimplified theory will not be predictive, because it has missed out important variables. Simplification is bad only when it does not work. In opposing oversimplification, however, Rose conflates the pragmatic and the ethical. For Rose, oversimplification in biology is evidence of moral depravity. He does not accept that any wickedness due to oversimplification is accidental; he is trying to argue for a special logical link such that oversimplification inevitably leads to evil consequences. Implicitly, he sees oversimplification as the supreme sin, requiring an unique distortion of scientific practice to avoid it.


Rose is transfixed by a specific ethical danger: that biological theories about human being may be oversimplified and that such oversimplified biological theories are more likely to be misinterpreted, misapplied, and used to justify moral harm than are any other sorts of theory.

With this in mind, throughout Lifelines Rose is trying to find a formula by which we might know in advance of testing whether a biological theory is oversimplified. The idea is that theories and scientists grouped under the ultra-Darwinist umbrella will be condemned a priori.

It seems to me that Rose wants to do this in order that the general public (who lack specific scientific knowledge) can prevent themselves from being hoodwinked by repressive political propaganda, probably right-wing, that is masquerading as science.

In trying to rule out this particular source of harm, Rose has implicitly set himself the task of constructing a general-purpose shortcut to measuring the truth of scientific theories – to know whether a theory is valid or vapid without having to go through all the hard work of reading, understanding, observing, and experimenting. In other words, Rose is seeking a shortcut to scientific knowledge.


If I am right about the fundamentally ethical drive behind the writing of Lifelines, this would explain why Rose hardly seems to have read about, let alone made the intellectual effort to understand, the major work in evolutionary biology over the past 20 years. Yet this has been a period of remarkable progress during which the theory and practice of evolutionary biology had been transformed. A few of these major advances are name-checked; but never explicated, engaged with, or refuted.

Throughout Lifelines, Rose fails to confront the best and most recent scientific work and attacks obviously inferior studies, garbled media reports of research, or old papers from the 1960s and 1970s that have often (as is the way for most science) since been revised or superseded.

This is merely shooting fish in a barrel.


Mistakes may be forgiven in a book of this scope. But some are evidence of a failure to do the elementary homework necessary for a person who is purporting to critique and redirect evolutionary biology. For example, on page 227 Rose writes “to cling to ‘the gene’ as the sole unit and level of selection under these circumstances, as Maynard Smith and the ultra-Darwinists do, seems perverse.” Well, it happens to be the case that Maynard Smith is co-author of a book (Maynard Smith & Szathmary 1995) called The major transitions in evolution (which was also published as an essay in Nature; Szathmary & Maynard Smith 1995) – a major work on exactly the topic of the many units and levels of selection that Maynard Smith is supposed to have perversely ignored.

Maynard Smith’s book forms part of a significant branch of mainstream evolutionary biology that includes important work by David L. Hull, Richard Dawkins, and some others who are elsewhere categorized in Lifelines as being among the single-gene-obsessed ultra-Darwinists.

Perhaps Rose does not know this work or understand its implications – or perhaps he knows but has excluded it. Whatever the explanation, this line of evolutionary research torpedoes Rose’s major argument. Scientists like Maynard Smith have already achieved a level of understanding of multi-level selection and interaction far beyond that called for in Lifelines.


Evolutionary biology is a science like any other, if it is allowed to be. It should not be treated as a special case. Blending ethical and social criticism with science, as Rose does, is a recipe for dishonesty and double standards. He has subordinated human biology to politics, and is mainly concerned to fit human biological knowledge into a pre-existing agenda of what is acceptable.

By contrast, I would argue that biology is oversimplified only when it is untrue; and not because simple theories are uniquely susceptible to misapplication. An oversimplification of human nature might be used to justify repression; but then again, tortured casuistic logic or a denial of human nature can be used to justify repression with equal facility. Hence, “reductionism” and “ultra-Darwinism” are merely boo-words, and are irrelevant to the proper practice of science.

The validity of a specific theory can only be determined by the laborious work of evaluating its consequences on the basis of specific relevant evidence. There are no short cuts to science, and no substitutes for substantive knowledge.



dearieme said...

Medawar seems to have had a vitriolic attitude to the IQ biz - what was that about, do you know?

Bruce Charlton said...

@d - Probably didn't know anything about it.

I didn't until a few years ago, and I had a much wider (not deeper) knowledge of biology than Medawar: I was a psychology lecturer for goodness sake!

He had some funny ideas -for example he claimed to hate Gilbert and Sullivan, if you can believe that!