Over at The Edge the philosopher Daniel Dennett and evolutionary geneticist H. Allen Orr just had an exchange over Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. I am not particularly interested in the details of this debate, rather, on the front page this selection from Dennett’s letter caught my attention:
When I explained then in a private letter to you what I had meant, you conceded to me in your private response that you had not seen my point in the light I intended, and that my claim was not in fact the blunder you had said it was….
What could Dennett mean? I immediately thought back to this:
I did indeed misspeak (p. 126), but the result was ambiguity, not error. The issue is complicated: it depends on whether you’re measuring the (average) speed of departure from a starting point in genetic space, or the speed of attainment of some particular evolutionary product. I meant the former. [Dennett]
Now I’ve been in the population genetics business for some time and, frankly, I have no idea what Dennett is talking about. And-I can find no polite way of putting this-it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Dennett has no idea what he’s talking about, either. Even the most charitable interpretation I can come up with is just plain wrong. [Orr’s response]
Dennett’s phrasing was awkward and peculiar to say the least. Orr is an evolutionary geneticist who “was awarded the Dobzhansky Prize by the Society for the Study of Evolution and the Young Investigator Prize by the American Society of Naturalists.” In regards to a technical understanding of evolution Dennett was way out of his league. And only an analytic philosopher could confuse population genetic theory with such lexical opacity. That being said, I did not believe that Orr did not understand what Dennett was trying to say, unpolished though he was. This is how I unpacked it:
1) Because most mutations are deleterious, selection is generally a force for constraint, maintaining the ancestral state.
2) In contrast, random genetic drift operates upon evolutionarily neutral variation, so it exhibits (approximately) equal effect on mutants and ancestral alleles over the long term.
3) These insights lead to the contention of Kimura et. al. that most evolutionary change is driven by the substitution of neutral mutations, with random genetic drift a major engine. Even though the vast majority of neutral mutations go extinct, a small number perpetually substitute themselves over ancestral variants at a constant rate (i.e., the rate of substitution is proportional to the rate of mutation).
4) But, when there is a positively selected mutant, natural selection operates far faster in regards to fixing the variant than random genetic drift and stochastic processes might in the typical population size.
It is more complicated than that…but my point is that though Dennett wasn’t exactly clear, I think a reasonable observer could understand what he was getting at, or at least the somewhat confusing waters into which he had ventured. Orr did not acknowledge this. As I said, Orr is a world renowned evolutionary geneticist (as he implies in his response), so I was skeptical that he was as clueless as he’d let on.
So, when I read Dennett’s full letter, I was not surprised. Here is what he says:
You leveled very serious charges of error and incomprehension in that review, and when I challenged them, you responded with a haughty dismissal of my objections (in an exchange in the Boston Review). Quoting an example, dealing with the speed of evolution: “Now I’ve been in the population genetics business for some time and, frankly, I have no idea what Dennett is talking about. And-I can find no polite way of putting this-it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Dennett has no idea what he’s talking about either.”
Dennett is bringing up exactly what I remembered in The Boston Review! This was 10 years ago, but Dennett obviously still resents Orr mocking him. In private correspondence Dennett states that Orr admitted that he wasn’t really wrong, and Orr’s response to this new salvo from Dennett does not contradict that characterization.
I writing about this for one primary reason: I thought, at the time, that H. Allen Orr was striking a low blow dishonestly when he could have stood on firm ground, though with a weaker impact. I’ve thought about this exchange on & off for several years now, and have considered blogging it, because I think it is perhaps a reflection of H. Allen Orr’s character. Most of the readers of The Boston Review don’t spend their free time reading The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection or Motoo Kimura’s papers, they wouldn’t be able to parse from Dennett’s somewhat confused phrasing what he was trying to get at. In other words, assuming that Dennett wasn’t a moron they couldn’t really map his verbal exposition onto a range of evolutionary models, because it isn’t exactly as if a broadly educated person is familiar with the great Neutralist vs. Selectionist debate of the 1970s. They were relying on H. Allen Orr’s expertise. I just can’t believe that H. Allen Orr didn’t understand what Dennett was trying to say, or, that he couldn’t have seen what he was getting at if he hadn’t prejudged Dennett and his ideas as a whole. If I had been him I would have pointed out that Dennett’s graceless exposition of the relationship between neutral and selective forces in evolution should be a clue that the man doesn’t have the technical competency to engage in such an ambitious meta-project as the one he laid out in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Instead, Orr is implying that Dennett simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and making him out to be the fool. This is rhetorically far more powerful, and I am sure it persuaded most readers of The Boston Review, who are not going to be conversant in the details of evolutionary genetics and trust H. Allen Orr. After all, who are you going to listen to on this topic? A philosopher or an evolutionary geneticist?
To my mind Orr did a disservice to science and intellectual discourse. He went for the knockout, calling an intellectual ignorant is basically undermining their worth. Saying that they are a bit confused lacks a similar punch. But the readers of The Boston Review, or the lay audience in general, is not looking for a legal case where you are an advocate for your position at all costs, because science and intellectual discourse is more than one battle, it is a long war against our moral and personal failings, against pride, against ego, against self-interest and self-aggrandizement. Most of the battles are lost, but slowly the war grinds on and the trenches keep moving inch by inch. Ph.D. scientists make considerably less in income than their intellectual inferiors in law or medicine. But the field in which they operate is one of great prestige, of civilizational significance. Presumably they wish to engage in the adventure of the ages, at the cost of financial status. Scientists are human, as the politics which suffuses any university department would confirm, but, like monks meditating upon the nature of God, abjuring themselves of worldly pleasures and satisfactions, scientists have to err on the side of truth as they see it, and not a short term rhetorical victory. For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?
Addendum: Readers can follow the links and judge for themselves if Dennett wasn’t clear in his intent, even i
f he was being muddled about it. Perhaps Orr didn’t understand what Dennett was trying to say. But if Orr could comprehend the opaque prose in The Genetical Theory, I can’t see why he couldn’t parse what Dennett was trying to get at. And just to be clear, though I point a finger at Orr on this occasion, rest assured that I understand that we are all guilty of this particular sin, and that includes myself. I simply want to emphasize Orr’s transgression here because I think it is important for us to remember that no matter the satisfaction that victory in one battle gives us, we are not fighting without a long term purpose, and dishonorable victories are fundamentally Pyrrhic.
Addendum II: Also, I understand that in practice science between the bounds of accepted & rejected consensus is quite the bloodsport, and an adversarial & amoral dynamic is common. Though this injects quite a bit of “noise” into the system, I trust over the long haul that the scientific culture will beat expectation in modeling reality. That being said, the issue I am pointing to here is slight of hand by gatekeepers. Orr writes reviews books as an evolutionary geneticist, with all the expertise that that entails. His behavior in this case was repulsive to me because he sacrificed the chance to elucidate the nature of evolutionary change to a broad audience so that he could mock (in, I suspect, a dishonest manner) someone and so win a point in an exchange of letters. I will refrain from an evolutionary psychological analysis of how this was truly “rational” from Orr’s individual perspective….