David was a very great admirer of Charles Darwin. He believed that the theory of natural selection was an enormous contribution to science. He believed that it is overwhelmingly probable that humans evolved from some other animal. He further believed that Darwinism was, as applied to humans, an obviously false and, indeed, a ludicrous slander on human beings.
David was an atheist. There is no solace for the religious in this book. (Indeed, it is rare to read a book so bluntly dismissive of religious claims.) He appreciates the power of the traditional argument from Design, which he thinks a very powerful argument. It is simply not true.
The attack on Darwinism (note, not on natural selection) starts with the very first paragraph: If Darwin’s theory of evolution were true, there would be in every species a constant and ruthless competition to survive: a competition in which only a few of any generation can be winners. But it is perfectly obvious that human life is not like that, however it may be with other species.
This inconsistency, between Darwin’s theory and the facts of human life, is what I mean by “Darwinism’s Dilemma”.
In this first Essay (Darwinism’s Dilemma), he identifies three ways of dealing with the inconsistency. The Cave Man (human life used to be like that but, at some unspecified time, stopped being so); the Hard Man (actually, it still is, we are just deluding ourselves) and the Soft Man (we will just ignore the inconsistency). Both the first two responses are clearly false and last is obviously not a solution.
If, at any stage, one is inclined to think that people don’t actually believe such things, he has plenty of quotes (notably from Charles Darwin himself) to show that they do (or, at least, say they do). Often at the start of the relevant essay. So, Essay I has Thomas Huxley …in the state of nature…[human] life was a continual free fight, Essay II Charles Darwin every single organic being around us may be said to be striving to the utmost to increase in numbers.
I trust none of my readers will be in any doubt that both these claims are false, and egregiously so.
Humans (and other animals) cooperate. Quite a lot. They play. Humans (and some other animals) exhibit altruism. Some humans embrace celibacy. Human mothers are not indifferent to baby snatching. (On strict Darwinian theory, mothers should be delighted if some other female is silly enough to invest in raising their child. Richard Dawkins—a frequent target of David’s intellectual demolition—actually noted that it is, after all, to [a woman’s] advantage that her child should be adopted.) Humans simply do not behave as Darwinian theory says they do. Indeed, they do not come even close to behaving in such a way.
Which is not an argument against natural selection (I have previously discussed that natural selection merely requires heritable variance and constrained resources). Fairly clearly, what genes are passed on (or not) is determinative of how things evolve. They are, however, fatal objections to a particular conception of how animals, particularly humans, behave. Of how those selection processes work.
In Essay 2 Where Darwin First Went Wrong About Man, David identifies the Malthus’s principle of population as where Darwin went wrong. Which is awkward, since it was reading Malthus’s Essay on Population which gave Darwin (and A R Wallace) the mechanism to explain what drove natural selection.
The Malthus-Darwin theory is that organisms vary and that the population of organisms is always pressing on, or tending to multiply beyond, its supply of food. The latter generates the selection process upon the former to produce natural selection.
Now, that organisms are limited in number by the supply of food is obviously true. But they always multiply up to that limit is much more dubious the more cognitively complex the species in question and is obviously false for humans. Reading David’s critique of Darwinism brings out very clearly why folk believe false theories. Typically, because they are partly true. People latch on to the bits of evidence that seem to support the theory and ignore, or seek to explain away, the bits that don’t.
And since, as David is at pains to point out, the explanatory power of the Malthus-Darwin theory is very great, there is a lot of truth to latch onto. Alas, there is also considerable amount of bits that aren’t to ignore or explain away.
Essay III provides further support for the proposition that the Malthus-Darwin position is that the struggle for existence is a struggle for food, which is what limits populations.
Essay IV looks at criticisms of Malthus’s proposition that there is never (or at least, not for very long) fewer people than the food supply can support and Malthus’s own retreat from the extreme version of his principle he started out with. David notes, for example, that the poor tend to breed more than the rich. Very un-Darwinian of the latter. (But very Beckerian of them: one of David’s serious intellectual weaknesses was he tended to have a rather simplistic view of social processes. But that affects his asides far more than his substantive arguments.) A point William Godwin made against Malthus early on—if his principle of population were true, England would have become a people of nobles.
Essay V looks at how hugely overblown the Darwinian conception of the struggle for life is and its intellectual implications.
Essay VI starts with the Dawkins’s quote above and examines Darwinianism tedious’s revival of that sad old chestnut, the selfish theory of human behaviour. A theory which rests on confusing the difference between no one acts intentionally except from motives of self-interest and no one acts intentionally except some motive or interest of his. Shifting from the outrageous falsity of the former to the trivial truth of the latter as convenient. The “problem of altruism” is a problem generated by bad theory, it is not a genuine problem. A sensible theory of human nature would take altruism as a fact of human nature and seek to explain it, not explain it away. (Ditto with selfishness.) Trying to collapse one into the other is not a sensible approach. (The theory that human selfishness is just frustrated or distorted altruism is hardly less silly.)
David points out the overwhelming human need to communicate is one of our basic drives. (Which rather suggests that we are looking at consequences of cognitive complexity: a very plausible reason for theory that explains microbes and pine cones very well, having difficulty with humans.)
All this is great stuff, but the real fun begins with Essay VII Genetic Calvinism, or Demons and Dawkins. It begins his sustained attack on Dawkins’s allocation of the language of intention onto genes. Genes are simply not the sort of things that can have intentions. They are not selfish, they do not have purposes, they do not manipulate. That replication is not selfishness. That, no, this is not merely engaging rhetorical metaphors but a new version of that hardy perennial, puppetry theory. Which holds that we are in fact, the helpless causal puppets of greater causal powers. In this case, our genes.
Genetic puppetry does what puppetry theory does, it drains causal power from human intentions and allocates it somewhere else. (I have argued previously that Dawkins’ teleological language helps Intelligent Design seem more plausible in the wider culture.)
David also engages in a scathing attack on Dawkins’s concept of memes, denying that it is other than a relabelling of well-known phenomena.
Essay VIII (opening quote from W D Hamilton: …we expect to find that no-one is prepared to sacrifice his life for any single person, but that everyone will sacrifice it for more than two brothers [or offspring], or four half-brothers, or eight first-cousins) savages the concept that shared genes explains altruism (so-called kin altruism). In the age of the suicide bomber, can anyone even begin to take such seriously?
Essay IX argues that neo-Darwinism is, in fact, a religion where genes play the role of gods—hidden, causally dominant powers with longevity way beyond their human pawns. (It certainly throws into a new light Dawkins’s own proselytising against conventional religion. [Mary Midgely, a philosopher David admired and freely admitted learning from, has recently published a book on this general theme.])
Essay X (opening quote from G C Williams: …the organism chooses its own effective environment from a broad spectrum of possibilities. That choice is precisely calculated to enhance the reproductive prospects of the underlying genes. The succession of somatic machinery and selected niches are tools and tactics for the strategy of genes) further attacks Dawkins’s and co’s re-introduction of the language of intentionality and purpose into explanations of natural phenomena. (For a wonderful examination of how the real power of natural selection is precisely what it explains without recourse to teleology, see Daniel Dennett’s splendid Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life). The essay includes a discussion of just how powerful the argument from design is.
Essay XI, with requisite relevant opening quote (Darwin: …we may feel sure that any variation in the least degree injurious would be rigidly destroyed [by natural selection]), announces that we are all biological errors. For none of us are out there having as many descendants as possible. Silly us, don’t we know how to be good little Darwinians?
No, we don’t. Or, more precisely, it would be inhuman of us to be so. Which is David’s point.
Darwinian Fairytales is often a deeply amusing book, but it is not a cheerful one. It is a work of intellectual demolition only. David has no alternative theory to offer in place of Darwin’s. His only objection is that Darwin’s theory, at least it applies to humans, is not true. Darwinian Fairytales thus does nothing—unlike Dawkins’s own meretricious puppeteering—to assuage the human wish for understanding how things are and came to be such. (As distinct from how they are not and did not come to be.)
The book also suffers from being lucid and demanding. One is both taxed to follow carefully what he is saying (the book rewards re-reading) yet also nagged by the thought that the propositions in question surely cannot be that simple. But the latter point is simply intellectual prejudice that somehow profundity has to be complex or obscure. The really powerful propositions are simple ones, otherwise they would not have such power.
David's assault also has the difficulty that folk often "adjust" propositions in their head to "get rid of the rough bits" and David's attack gives such moves no credence. [This works both ways, with folk often construing theories they don't like in ways to increase, or even create, falsity.]
David’s prejudices are not the common prejudices of the age, and some of his asides about social processes are merely glib—simplicity without the penetration. But it is a great work of intellectual demolition and a fine read.
ADDENDA: David Stove's literary executor has added a link to this review to the website on David's writings.