Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Dawkins on Stability

Or, is Dawkins a Proto Object-Oriented Ontologist?

By the times I had finished up with Beethoven’s Anvil I had concluded that, before we can think about evolutionary change, we must think about stability. Change only makes sense, is only possible, against a stable foundation.

I had no sense that this was a particularly novel idea, but I had no explicit source for it ideas of others. It now seems possible, even likely, that I got it from Richard Dawkins, who dwells on in the second chapter of The Selfish Gene. I was reminded of this in J. T. Burman’s article, The misunderstanding of memes (Perspectives on Science 2012, vol. 20, no. 1, pp. 75-104).

Here’s the second paragraph of that second chapter:
Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ is really a special case of a more general law of survival of the stable. The universe is populated by stable things. A stable thing is a collection of atoms that is permanent enough or common enough to deserve a name. It may be a unique collection of atoms, such as the Matterhorn, that lasts long enough to be worth naming. Or it may be a class of entities, such as rain drops, that come into existence at a sufficiently high rate to deserve a collective name, even if any one of them is short-lived. The things that we see around us, and which we think of as needing explanation–rocks, galaxies, ocean waves–are all, to a greater or lesser extent, stable patterns of atoms. Soap bubbles tend to be spherical because this is a stable configuration for thin films filled with gas. In a spacecraft, water is spherical globules, but on earth, where there is gravity, the stable surface for standing water is flat and horizontal. Salt crystals tend to be cubes because this is a stable way of packing sodium and chloride atoms together. In the sun the simplest atoms of all, hydrogen atoms, are fusing to form helium atoms, because in the conditions that prevail there the helium configuration is more stable. Other even more complex atoms are being formed in stars all over the universe, and were formed in the ‘big bang’ which, according to prevailing theory, initiated the universe. This is originally where the elements on our world came from.
While Dawkins is widely regarded as a reductionist, reducing all of life to competitions between those itty-bitty selfish genes, one could easily extract a Latour litany from that paragraph simply by listing the nouns:
Darwin, survival, case, law, universe, collection, atoms, name, Matterhorn, class, rain drops, rocks, galaxies, ocean waves, patterns, soap bubbles, configuration, thin films, gas, spacecraft, water, globules, earth, gravity, surface, salt crystals, cubes, the sun, hydrogen atoms, helium atoms, stars, the universe, the ‘big bang’, theory, elements, our world
It isn’t everything, but it’s a lot. Does it make Dawkins a proto object-oriented ontologist. Probably not. Still, it’s worth thinking about.

If he is at all serious about that stability thing, then he’s not really the reductionist he’s often thought to be, even if he insists on those pesky genes as the primary source of stability in the biological world.


  1. And yet inheritance isn't just about genes per se. There is plenty of it in noncoding sequences that act as the 'brains' of the genetic outfit. And the proteome has stable patterns (even if dynamically, or cyclically, so) that will not self assemble from scratch anymore, but depend on additions and deletions from existing structures that hark back to early lifeforms. Cells come from cells, not from DNA.

  2. FWIW, I'm not finding Dawkins's notion of a replicator all that useful in thinking about cultural evolution. I think that the linguistic/anthropological distinction between emics and etics is more useful, with emics serving a coupling function rather than one of replication.

  3. Dawkins is one of the big bafoons of the 20th century that nobody knows (except in the anglo world) and nobody cares about

    right along with Krugman although thats in the early 21st century and that spreads world wide - because it's politics - he won the nobel (he did what again? he offered what to society? a little theory that is not applied or if you try to apply it you will burn your fingers?)
    Obama got the nobel before doing anything everyone laughs at that one!