In the never-ending circus of lies, misattributions, and ethical lapses surrounding the current so-called Culture War, especially as it relates to evolutionary science versus religious fundamentalism, biological anthropologist Pat Shipman has contributed yet another outright lie to the debate. In The New York Sun, she writes witheringly of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene:
A quip sometimes called Orgel’s Second Rule is “Evolution is cleverer than you are,” and evolution is apparently cleverer than Richard Dawkins, because kin and group selection do exist — and pay off.
Professor Shipman is arguing that the central premise of The Selfish Gene is wrong: that is, contra Dawkins, there is no doubt that group selection and kin selection exist. There are just two problems with this. Firstly, the evidence for group selection is far from certain. It is still a highly controversial subject and even its most ardent scientific supporters claim no more than that it is a minor adjunctive process to the “gene’s-eye view” articulated in The Selfish Gene. More importantly, Shipman has completely misrepresented — no, let’s be frank, she has lied about The Selfish Gene because in fact one of the the main arguments in The Selfish Gene is how altruism can arise in nature through the mechanism of kin selection. There are whole chapters of The Selfish Gene dedicated to explaining evolutionary observations with kin selection. So, instead of Dawkins dismissing kin selection, it was actually a fundamental part of his argument.
Thus Shipman has just taken the opportunity to write in the New York Sun (circulation 150,000 and picked up by Arts & Letters Daily , circulation unknown but enormous) and used it to spread lies. To rub salt into the wounds, she says this:
An ironic legacy of Mr. Dawkins’s work also deserves exploration here. Because his works are so lucid and so stunning, Mr. Dawkins’s ideas have assumed a life of their own. His powerful metaphor of the inherent selfishness of the gene was misunderstood by many and often taken deeply to heart. One reader wrote that reading “The Selfish Gene” triggered a 10-year series of depressions because “it presents an appallingly pessimistic view of human nature and makes life seem utterly pointless; yet I cannot present any argument to refute its point of view.” The picture of evolution offered by the book, and others by Mr. Dawkins, which many found bleak, also contributed to the growth and stridency of the intelligent design movement to undercut the teaching of evolution in public schools.
So now it’s Dawkins’ fault that one unnamed reader experienced ten years of depression and that the intelligent design movement sprung up. Well, you know, this is just more bullshit. The intelligent design movement is bankrolled by Christian fundamentalist billionaires who have never read The Selfish Gene. And one person blaming ten years of depression on a book that expressly observed that there is altruism in nature and that humans should find ways of overcoming our selfish urges says a lot more about the person doing the blaming than the book.
And finally, the ultimate in hypocrisy:
The benefit to science of “The Selfish Gene” in triggering a new understanding of the magnificent complexity of evolutionary processes must be weighed against the harm the book has done in provoking a backlash against science. I can only hope that, in the end, knowledge will triumph over ignorance.
Since The Selfish Gene triggered no backlash, this is wrong on its face. And even if it were true, and there are science books that have genuinely triggered backlashes against science, I fail to see how anyone who cares about science and truth can argue that they must be “weighed against the harm” they have caused. Darwin’s The Origin of Species, Copernicus’s De Revolutionibis Orbium Coelestium, and Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems come to mind. Pat Shipman seems to think that these books need to be weighed not against whether they are good science or not, but in the counter-revolutions they have inspired in people who never had much regard for evidence in the first place.
And, of course, it astonishes me that an author who lies about the contents of The Selfish Gene, misrepresents the current state of group selection in evolutionary theory, and seeks to blame Dawkins for the sins of his enemies, and does so in a high-profile public forum, could have the complete lack of insight to call for knowledge to triumph over ignorance. A hint, Prof Shipman: if you wish to combat ignorance, you might try not spreading it yourself.