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← The brain in love

bucketchemist's Avatar Jump to comment 17 by bucketchemist


Interesting. But can it explain love between gays and lesbians? May be it's a misfiring?

In 'The God Delusion' Dawkins refers to the application of adaptive behaviour out of context as 'misfirings', so, for example, heterosexual desire is part of the evolutionary logic of reproduction and therefore adaptive. When this desire is felt for partners who are infertile, or taking contraception, ore who are of the same sex, these desires cannot serve adaptive reproductive ends and are therefore misplaced and the behaviour constitutes a misfiring. This almost unavoidably carries something of a perjorative implication (although Dawkins probably does not intend it to so do). Those acts which are designated as misfirings, and the feelings which motivate them, when measured against the yardstick of evolutionary history (and futurology) in this way are bound to be regarded as inferior to behaviour which more accurately follow the script and progress the narrative. This phrasing of certain behaviours as misfirings presents an interesting metaphor. It sets up an interpretation of variant sexual behaviour as the result of the shaky hand of some Darwinian Eros aiming the arrows of lust at procreative partners but sometimes mistakenly firing them into 'unsuitable' targets. Alternatively, it presents the mechanism of evolution as faulty, going off half cocked and taking out the wrong hit. However open-minded and liberal the intent, there are strong suggestions of a naturalistic appeal to rightness and wrongness in the language and the entailments of the metaphor. To fire at the 'correct' target is right, to fire at another target is wrong.

It may also be the case that this metaphor of firing and misfiring might detract from an important feature of the evolutionary process: the fact that, in order to work at all, evolutionary transmission of information must contain a certain amount of 'noise'. A perfectly accurate copying of the structure of a replicator forbids the possibility of any evolution at all taking place. Without variation nothing changes. Furthermore, there is not way of knowing in advance which variations will prove useful in the future. It may seem self-evident that some features such as improved eyesight will be adaptive, but this certainty is only evident in retrospect and would not be the case in, for example, a cave-dwelling animal that spent all its time in darkness.

Some features which provide long term adaptive benefit are not immediately obvious but instead seem to exist as random behaviour or accidental add-ons. Stephen Jay Gould has referred to some such features as 'spandrels' and cites certain aspects of our biology, including our large brains, as candidates. These features initially emerge either to fulfill a relatively trivial function and are then brought into service to provide a more mission-critical role, so the human thumb, which allows us to grasp branches can also allow us to hold a pen, or they may develop as a kind of side-effect of other processes. Walking upright may have initially have served the purpose of allowing our ancestors to see greater distances, but it had the side-effect of freeing up our hands, which might then be used for manipulating the environment, tool use etc. In all cases these spandrels either started out performing some other function and were then utilised for something completely different, or began as apparently pointless adjuncts to the real business of evolution, mistaken misapplied junk activity; what Dawkins might call a 'misfiring'.

I have no doubt that Dawkins does not intend to construct an image of evolution in which the lessons of our biological past are transmitted into the bodies of future generations through the barrel of a gun, even if the bullet is such a pleasant projectile as that which explodes from the love gun of sexual desire. And if this prose appears too purple it merely indicates that the language of 'misfirings' plays into an intuition about targets and relationship to success and failure, winners and losers, worthy and unworthy, right and wrong. It also misrepresents the fuzziness of the genetic transmission process.

Mon, 21 Jul 2008 03:05:00 UTC | #203821