No really, nitrogen carbon and phosphorus don't have feelings
November 17, 2017 8:19 AM   Subscribe

Is there a name for the logical fallacy that "the purpose of life is to pass on your genes?" I see this all over the place.

The hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, and phosphorus in your DNA don't care whether they are parts of inorganic molecules or molecules in a living being. They don't care even if you put a bunch of them together. The fact that "successful" genes are passed on to future generation is a tautology, not a purpose. But I see this "purpose/goal of life" fallacy everywhere. Is there a name for it? Articles on this topic - incorrectly assigning a meaning, purpose, or drive to genes/evolution/reproduction - would be helpful as well. Thanks!
posted by Tehhund to Religion & Philosophy (21 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Teleological fallacy?
posted by enn at 8:21 AM on November 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

begging the question?
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 8:23 AM on November 17, 2017

It's just a teleological way of thinking. I wouldn't even call it fallacious, it's just a paradigm that people like to operate within.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 8:24 AM on November 17, 2017 [11 favorites]

Well, you might want to look at Richard Dawkins' book The Selfish Gene, which is maybe the first major popularization of the idea (and "selfish gene" might be a useful concept for googling). (This book is also the origin of the word "meme"!)

My personal feeling is that it's a useful concept in evolutionary biology, but not the only useful metaphor and certainly not a philosophical basis for decision-making by humans.
posted by mskyle at 8:24 AM on November 17, 2017 [8 favorites]

Oh and I don't think OP is describing teleological thinking, which is maybe more like "wolves exist to control the deer population" (I am not a philosopher or logician!).

And FWIW, Dawkins' argument (badly summarized) is that the purpose of *genes* is to pass on genes, and that they generally do this by building larger organisms. Most would argue that even if the purpose of genes is to pass on genes, that doesn't need to be the purpose of the organisms built by genes (e.g. you and me).
posted by mskyle at 8:30 AM on November 17, 2017

enn: It's kind of a teleological fallacy, but that's too broad. In fact, the page you linked to commits this same fallacy in this passage: "Evolution might be better understood as the genetic movement of a species to better align its genetic composition and related behaviors to the environmental context, rather than striving towards some genetic goal independent of an environmental context."

Genes don't care if they're well-suited to the environment. If they're well-suited to an environment, they get passed on. But that's a tautology, not a purpose or goal.

mskyle: "My personal feeling is that it's a useful concept in evolutionary biology, but not the only useful metaphor and certainly not a philosophical basis for decision-making by humans."

This is a great clarification - people act as if "selfish genes" are a driving force of the universe and not just a way of understanding a part of biology.

(With those clarifications I'll try to stop theadsitting)
posted by Tehhund at 8:31 AM on November 17, 2017

You (the OP) might take a look at this paper, by Richard Dawkins. It's quite interesting in its own right, apart from the question that you posed. The paper is written in an accessible style and is obviously much shorter than Dawkins's book, The Selfish Gene (which is excellent, by the way).
posted by alex1965 at 8:35 AM on November 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'd second begging the question - when you say the purpose of life is X, you're assuming that there is a purpose to life, which is 99% of the battle in that argument. It's also reductive, to arbitrarily ignore all other aspects of life to focus on the relative rates of genetic reproduction, and call that success/failure.
posted by skewed at 8:46 AM on November 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

Do you think anything has any purpose? Do you think all purpose is fallacious? Because all of this is a matter of interpretation. I don't necessarily agree that "the purpose of life is to pass on your genes" but it is in no way a formal logical fallacy.

Logical fallacies are when you use invalid reasoning to present an argument. There's no logical steps in the statement "the purpose of life is to pass on your genes", and hence it cannot be a logical fallacy.

I think it's just a statement that you don't agree with.
posted by SaltySalticid at 8:54 AM on November 17, 2017 [20 favorites]

(not to abuse edit)
Further examples of statements that are not logical fallacies:
"The meaning of life is to love each other"
"The Earth is flat"
"All swans are white"
"I believe in demons"
"The purpose of pants is to keep your suspenders down"
etc. etc.
posted by SaltySalticid at 9:01 AM on November 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

You don’t need to present a formal argument to engage is fallacious reasoning. When a statement relies on implicit premises, the reasoning behind the statement can be good or bad. The statement in question relies on how genetic reproduction works, and . . . some other stuff. Getting from those ideas to “the purpose of life is to pass on your genes” involves drawing a conclusion from premises, albeit implicitly.
posted by skewed at 9:12 AM on November 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

Might this be covered by the pathetic fallacy?

An example is the metaphorical phrase "Nature abhors a vacuum", which contains the suggestion that nature is capable of abhorring something. There are more accurate and scientific ways to describe nature and vacuums.

Another example of a pathetic fallacy is the expression, "Air hates to be crowded, and, when compressed, it will try to escape to an area of lower pressure." It is not accurate to suggest that air "hates" anything or "tries" to do anything.

posted by ejs at 9:19 AM on November 17, 2017 [6 favorites]

I would call it reification, which is when you stretch a metaphor (or metonymy) too far, through entailments that don't match the target (or tenor: the "reality"). In this case a characteristic of humans is extended to a part of them.

It also kind of reminds me of the humunculus argument.
posted by ipsative at 9:37 AM on November 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

Post hoc ergo propter hoc

Well not quite right but it sure sounds cool and I think the (non) argument could be rearranged to fit the post hoc pattern. I'm with y nicolas léonard sadi carnot in that the thesis of genes "doing something with intention" is not a fully formed enough idea to actually be an argument let alone a fallacious one, it' more in the vein of "flowers bring joy to the mountain", which is about the perception of a hill not anything about the hill. Gene's using humans to make more genes is about inverting perceptions, not about the actual mechanism.
posted by sammyo at 9:38 AM on November 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

I think this could also be called anthropomorphism.
posted by kitcat at 9:42 AM on November 17, 2017 [7 favorites]

Reification (fallacy)
posted by ipsative at 9:48 AM on November 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

I think the most apt characterisation is that this isn't a fallacy, but rather that it's a position derived from what Daniel Dennett terms the intentional stance: "Here is how it works: first you decide to treat the object whose behavior is to be predicted as a rational agent; then you figure out what beliefs that agent ought to have, given its place in the world and its purpose. Then you figure out what desires it ought to have, on the same considerations, and finally you predict that this rational agent will act to further its goals in the light of its beliefs. A little practical reasoning from the chosen set of beliefs and desires will in most instances yield a decision about what the agent ought to do; that is what you predict the agent will do". People are ascribing intent to genes, and deriving from that an idea of their purpose, of what they're about (referred to as "aboutness", slightly lamely) and, consequently, what we're about. When you say "No really, nitrogen carbon and phosphorus don't have feelings" as an explanation of your rejection of that, it seems like you're (perfectly reasonably and respectably in the philosophical tradition) taking the position that aboutness, purpose and intent are all exclusively mental properties, that there has to be some sort of mental content that specifies purpose in order for their to be any fact of the matter about purpose.

My original training was in philosophy, and I'd personally take the view that automatically describing the stance you oppose as fallacious is probably a step too far. You can say it's wrong, and I'd be inclined to agree with you, but I don't think that you can easily rebut it without getting into a discussion about what people think purpose and intent are and what they have to do with each other, what people understand by the notion of the "purpose of life" in light of that, and what is actually meant by the specific expression of a genetically purposive model or existence.

It's a complicated and interesting subject , in my view, and I'm loath to say that any particular expression of an intentional approach to genes is fallacious unless I understand that approach in context.
posted by howfar at 10:34 AM on November 17, 2017 [11 favorites]

what people think purpose and intent are
Yep, this is the crux of it.

Additional readings relevant to this at SEP: Kant's notion of purposiveness, Hegel's Dialectics and the nature of purpose.

Ultimately, Kant and Hegel would say that the fact that Nitrogen doesn't have feelings is immaterial to the notion that a purpose of living processes (as we know them) is to replicate genes. If that language bothers you, switch out "purpose" for "function", and it means essentially the same thing.
posted by SaltySalticid at 11:26 AM on November 17, 2017 [4 favorites]

It may be a false proposition, but it's not a fallacy. It's possible that someone who believes it's true has committed or accepted fallacious reasoning to get there, but there's probably more than one way to argue for that proposition and more than one fallacy that might be committed in so doing.

You might start by looking at the Is-Ought problem. Hume argued that you can't derive "ought," or prescriptive, conclusions from any merely descriptive statements about the world. But of course, there are philosophers who disagree.
posted by bricoleur at 6:22 PM on November 17, 2017 [4 favorites]

The chips in my computer don't care whether I read MF or not either, but that is part of their purpose.
posted by bongo_x at 2:50 PM on November 18, 2017

incorrectly assigning a meaning, purpose, or drive to genes/evolution/reproduction

You actually can't prove this negative any more than someone else can assert the affirmative; it's logically fraught either way.

It's at root an epistemological problem. It's not like we actually have a firm scientific grasp on "meaning, purpose, or drive," let alone consciousness. I mean, I don't believe that the various molecules of your DNA "care whether they are parts of inorganic molecules or molecules in a living being." There's no evidence that they do or that "caring" isn't a purely human phenomenon or indeed that anything exists beyond your consciousness, but that's a purely solipsistic exercise and doesn't get us anywhere.

But there's not actually evidence that they *don't* through some currently unknown mechanism.

Absent evidence to the contrary we might as well assume the simplest likely answer, that things are as they appear to be, that processes function as they appear to function, and that any assignment of "purpose" beyond that is anthropomorphic. There's really no point in arguing about it though.
posted by aspersioncast at 2:55 PM on November 19, 2017

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