Dawkins & Weinstein [Oct 2018]


Brett Weinstein & Richard Dawkins


BW: Both of them are evolutionary biologists, dyed in the wool

  • There are areas of notable difference, though

  • Disagree on specific areas of evolutionary theory

RD wrote The Selfish Gene at 35 years old

  • Still feels cutting edge, to BW

  • The current era has been much quieter, theoretically 

At first, BW thought RD + Fisher + co had run the table, closing most questions

  • Then realized there’s a lot of open questions still

  • e.g., why do males engage in elaborate displays before mating?

  • Why has progress slowed, given all the open questions that remain? 

  • And where are the biologists that can wield tools in the same bold way?

Darwin noticed the advertising capability of males e.g., peacocks

  • Darwin left it at aesthetic consideration 

  • Wallace, co-discoverer of natural selection, hated the simple explanation

  • The advertisement has to have some utility 

    1. Invoking taste, in Wallace's opinion, was bordering on mysticism 

  • One theory: the male is so fit, it can survive in spite of the ostentatious display

  • Less aggressive theory: it showcases parasite / malady resistance 

BW: if females are picking, based on good genes..

  • Then in a few generations, the need for display should disappear 

  • Female vigilance should drop, once genes leave the pool

  • Or, it should be oscillating; bad genes appear periodically, need to be sorted out

RD: This seems to be a matter of mathematical modeling

  • It’s an active field of research, nowadays

  • BW: Well, count me skeptical 

  • Math can spit out answers that aren’t feasible 

  • RD: Certainly the remedy is better models..

  • BW: Not so sure; math seems like a fallback option here 

BW: The current field seems to defer to these very powerful models/tools

  • And these have yet to predict or prove anything substantial

George Williams paper on senescence (feebleness of age)

  • Put forth a theory, and stated what we should see in nature 

  • BW is a fan of this sort of reasoning and inquiry 

  • It wasn’t simply that aging/deterioration is “good for the species"

  • Genes are modified by other genes

  • Things that kill you when you’re past reproductive age are favored

    1. Overwhelming genetic “pressure” is on genes that favor younger pursuit 

RD: Nationalism might be an even greater evil than religion

  • Might not be helpful to discuss in Darwinian terms 

  • There’s lots of complexity layered atop the base biological terms

  • BW: Disagree; think it’s vital to discuss in biological terms 

  • The complexity could be uniquely human, with social + genetic interplay 

    1. To confront the problem, we do need to confront who we are

  • BW: We need to look at “selfish replicators” 

  • To resist the will of the replicators, we need to stare straight into the motivations

We know there’s a genetic component to homosexuality 

  • BW: The older brother / right-hand rule

  • The more older brothers you have, the more likely you are to be gay - but only if you are right-handed

    1. Very odd; but suggests there’s some structure

Suicide: RD can think of psychological and mimetic reasons

  • BW thinks biology has instantiated a bad assumption

  • We’ve over-indexed on individual fitness, versus group fitness 

    1. The motivation might be for the familial continuity

  • RD: doesn’t seem helpful to couch this in Darwinian terms 

  • Suicide, nationalism et al are not instances of Darwinism

    1. They’re complex intertwining of sociology, psychology..

BW: So let’s dig deeper 

  • If Darwinian, then digging into their nature is essential to rectifying the problems 

  • e.g., understanding when the genocide program is “triggered”, genetically

  • RD: Still, the framing seems like a simplistic rationalization

  • You can acknowledge the relics of our genetic past 

  • BW: Agree we can get carried away with these logical traversals 

RD: Let’s think about the Nazi invasions to the east

  • You have layers of motivations; state-level, down to personal 

  • How can we make Darwinian claims across strata?

  • Even so, we can recognize phenomena like tribalism

  • Common motifs, played upon in common ways 

BW: Catholics contain a non-reproductive caste 

  • RD: Worker bees don’t reproduce

  • Alleges in Selfish Gene that celibacy in clergy is a failure of evolution

    1. Priests forego reproductive viability due to certain memes

  • BW: Person involved in failure or Darwinism is goading others to reproduce 

  • RD: His memes are spreading, if not his genes 

RD: Catholicism is a complex of mind viruses, yes

  • BW: We disagree on that

  • There’s lineage level adaptations, responsible for the spread of beliefs 

RD: Taking a step back: Darwinian natural selection is all about the survival of replicators

  • Memes are some; genes are others

  • Vehicles are bodies, brains

  • We unite the genome; but individual genes are like viruses

  • A set of independently tussling replicators 

    1. Some replicate by going in “gangs” ; others occupy lone vectors 

BW: Agree with most of what you’ve said

  • Genes are entrapped in shared fate at conception; this causes an organism

  • RD: The notion of an extended phenotype

  • e.g., beaver dams; bird nests - not part of the body, but genetically instigated 

    1. You can have genes that ultimately lead to consumption by a “terminal” host 

    2. The ecology is not functionally divisible from the organism, in this lens