Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Wright is wrong on evolution

There's a minor kerfuffle going on right now because of an article and its follow-up over at HuffPo, penned by Robert Wright, author of The Evolution of God. His original article asserted that "the 'New Atheists' are right-wing on foreign policy" because saying that religion is at the root of all evil gives comfort to those who would like to blame all US foreign policy issues on those "crazy Muslims." Specifically, he calls out Dawkins for saying that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is rooted in religion, as opposed to a secular land dispute.

I have a number objections to Wright's argument, of course, but I do think he has a point that we should not get so wrapped up in opposing religion's (obviously negative) influence that we ignore other issues. I'm sure others have discussed the problems with his argument ad nauseum, so I'm going to leave that alone for now.

Instead, I am going to focus on a complete blunder he commits in the follow-up piece. While discussing whether Daniel Dennett's characterization of religion as a "virus of the mind" puts him in the same category, Wright gives us this howler:

Would Dawkins and Dennett say that religious belief is always, or even usually, parasitic in the Darwinian sense--bad for the reproductive prospects of the host? If so, how do you explain the number of Catholics in the world?


Let me get this straight: Wright is trying to say that Darwinian logic dictates that a parasite should be "bad for the reproductive prospects of the host"? That makes no fucking sense whatsoever.

Clue: A parasite cannot live without a host. The more hosts there are, the more potential living spaces there are for the parasite. The more potential living spaces there are for the parasite, the better the reproductive prospects of the parasite. So no, there is no "Darwinian" reason why a parasite would want to interfere with the reproductive prospects of the host.

Just the opposite, in fact. This is why the most successful parasites tend to be more innocuous. Parasites that kill their host tend to be less successful.

As Wright makes clear in the sentences that follow, he is getting confused about the definition of a parasite vs. a symbiont. As he correctly states, a symbiont confers a reproductive advantage on the host, while a parasite does not. This does not necessarily mean that the parasite confers a reproductive disadvantage on the host. Certainly many parasites do harm their hosts as a natural result of doing their business, but from a Darwinian perspective it behooves the parasite to minimize this damage.

So does the fact that there are a little over a billion Catholics in the world mean that it is unfair to refer to Catholicism as a "virus"? Nope: The number of people infected with HPV is probably even higher. And guess what, the V in HPV stands for "virus". So no, the fact that a billion people are infected with the Catholic meme does not in any way mean we can't call it a virus.

And in any case, even if we ignore this gaffe, the argument against Dennett he presents in that paragraph has all sorts of other problems. First, as he admits, it is only generally speaking that viruses are harmful to the host, so it is not fair to baldly assert that when Dennett refers to religion as a virus he must also be saying it is a parasite. Second, Wright asserts that religion "manifestly helps people flourish" but doesn't give any evidence to back it up -- except I guess the number of Catholics in the world? Well, then Wright must also believe that genital warts manifestly help people flourish, too, right?

The most frustrating thing about all this is that if Wright wasn't so intent on being an asshole, he might have a good point. If his thesis was that the "New Atheists" should be careful not to carry the issue too far, it might be a point well taken. But instead he just wants to say the "New Atheists" aren't any good -- which is exactly the kind of intolerance that sparked this movement to begin with.

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