Episode 184 – 26th April 2013

We speak to world renowned primatologist Frans de Waal about his new book, celebrate the passing of the new defamation bill and the libel laws being sorted. The science of nervous breakdowns, how Jehovah’s Witnesses have some dodgy views on domestic violence, and much more!

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Libel Reform Success! (3:20) by James O’Malley (ft Mike Harris)
Frans de Waal Interview (12:25) by Tessa Kendall
Smart Pills (23:31) by Chris Chapman
Nervous Breakdowns (28:35) by Dean Burnett
Jehovah’s Witnesses & Domestic Violence (39:31) by Naomi Wilcox
Cookie Stuffing (49:06) by Drew Rae
Jargon (55:35) by Alex Brown

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9 thoughts on “Episode 184 – 26th April 2013

  1. Would you please consider also offering links to the specific portions of your show? (See “Democracy Now” for an example of this.) Many of my older friends won’t try to figure out how to get to the Frans de Waal interview and won’t listen to the whole podcast. I think if people hear even one of your interviews, they’ll be hooked – but you have to get them to listen to the first interview in order to addict them! ;-)

  2. Frans de Waal says, “In the last three decades of the previous century, so between 1970 and 2000 approximately, there were all these ideas (and Dawkins ideas and the selfish genes were along the same lines) there were all these ideas that we are inherently selfish, bad and morality cannot come from human nature, morality must come from outside.”

    Whatever about the existence of other writers who expounded such views I don’t think that they can be attributed to Richard Dawkins. That Frans thinks that they can seems to stem from an all too common misunderstanding of Dawkins’ selfish gene idea – a misunderstanding that Dawkins time and again has had to refute of the years. The confusion seems to centre on the phrase “selfish gene”. People seem to confuse the notion expressed in the book that genes are “selfish” with the idea of genes FOR selfishness. In fact Dawkins devotes a whole chapter (Chapter 12: Nice Guys Finish First) of The Selfish Gene describing how selfish genes (not genes for selfishness) can result in altruism – an instinctive morality – the very idea that Frans de Waal is espousing. Thus I think Frans’ inclusion of Dawkins as being among those who believed that we are “inherently selfish, bad and morality cannot come from human nature, morality must come from outside” is misguided. In fact later in the interview Frans makes the distinction between the evolutionary ideas concerning how genes propagate (which is what Dawkins was on about describing genes as being metaphorically selfish) and what’s going on in the animal’s head, what it thinks and whether is has selfish thoughts. This is a distinction that Dawkins himself makes in his book: having “selfish genes” does not necessarily make an animal selfish. Frans’ clearly understands this idea yet mistakenly thinks that Dawkins didn’t hold it – he did.

    Frans then compares this mistaken interpretation of (at least) Dawkins’ work to Freudianism because “… Freud of course believed that our basic instincts need to be overcome, that is civilisation will help us do that and Dawkins and Pinker are basically Freudians in my view.”

    I may be wrong but I’ve never once read or heard Dawkins or Pinker espouse any such belief. There is a world of difference between stating that there are CERTAIN inherent aspects in humans that MAY lead us to do wrong or act selfishly and the claim that we are “inherently selfish, bad”. We have aspects of both in us, as do other primates. In fact, to borrow a phrase from Dawkins, society (which undeniably has helped us refine our morality by weeding out those negative aspects) can be be seen as as a sort of extended phenotype. It exists precisely because we are inherently social and altruistic creatures.

    So, whatever the writings of others on the topic, I don’t think Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker’s ideas can be said to conflict in any major way with those of Frans de Waal.

    Now it may be possible that Frans de Waal meant that a misinterpretation of Dawkins work added to the notions of the ideas he’s criticising however given his later reference to him I don’t think that’s the case. He’s made a mistake.

    Having said all that I think his ideas of “bottom-up” morality have merit and this little error doesn’t affect his main point – that morality is innate.

    Of course I may have gotten this wrong. If so I’ll appreciate being steered in the right direction.

    1. I agree. I was thinking much the same while listening to de Waal. A small error, or perpetuation of misconceptions, in an otherwise excellent interview.

      1. Exactly my thoughts. Although it my be hard to believe given my little rant above I really did find it to be an otherwise wonderful interview.

    2. Dawkins can appear to be inconsistent in what he says about selfish behaviour and about morality. He and De Waal don’t disagree about everything – in fact, De Waal appeared in one of Dawkins’ TV programmes. I’ve written a review of the book here http://tessera2009.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/behaving-like-animals.html that may explain more although you really need to read the book to see all the evidence and the ideas in full – there’s so much to them that it’s impossible to get it all in to a review. (see particularly the quote from Dawkins about ‘throwing out Darwinism’)

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