Skip to comments.Demons and Dawkins
Posted on 02/11/2003 7:23:06 PM PST by Ethan Clive Osgoode
So You Think You Are a Darwinian?
Darwinism's Dilemma (part I: Cave Man)
Darwinism's Dilemma (part II: Hard Man)
"Genetic Calvinism, or Demons and Dawkins"
SUPPOSE THAT J. S. Bach had been very rich when he died, and had provided in his will for a valuable scholarship to be awarded each year to the most gifted young composer that could be found. Or suppose Isaac Newton had been rich all his life, and had at one time or another supported at his own expense various talented but poor young mathematicians. Would these have been selfish actions on the part of Bach and Newton?
Clearly not: quite the reverse, in fact. Their actions would have been thought, and rightly thought, to be decidedly unselfish ones. They would have been praised, and righly, as evidence of Bach's devotion to music, or of Newton's disinterested love of knowledge. There might be evidence that Bach and Newton were selfish men, but these actions could not possibly form part of that evidence, since they are plainly evidence to the contrary. Human nature being what it is, there might indeed have been some tincture of vanity, in their performing generous actions on the conspicuous scale of these endowments. But vanity is not at all the same thing as selfishness. It is not even unusual for an unselfish person to be also a vain one.
Nowadays, however, there are certain neo-Darwinian biologists who would say that these actions were selfish ones, because of their "self-replicatory" tendency. That is, because Bach and Newton, by doing these things, had adopted the best means open to them, with the possible exception of parenthood, of increasing the number of people like themselves. What should we think of someone who said this?
Badly, anyway. First, he would be deliberately making moral mischief. For "selfish" is a term of opprobrium, and anyone who applied it to these actions of Bach or Newton must tend to make people think the worse of those men, on account of certain actions which were in fact greatly to their credit. And anyone who knows enough to be a biologist is sure to know that "selfish" is a term of opprobrium; so that this biologist would know he was making this moral mischief.
Second, he would be making intellectual mischief. For nothing whatever can literally replicate itself. The most that anything could possibly do in that way would be to produce perfect copies of itself. By contrast, the object or target of selfishness is--by the very meaning of that word--oneself, and nothing else. Superscientist may create in his laboratory an exact replica of me, or I may happen to have an identical twin. But it is not this copy or twin who is the object of my selfishness: it is myself. This copy or twin will plainly be nothing at all to me if, as could happen easily enough, I do not know of his existence. If I do know of him, he may be much to me, or little, or again nothing at all. But one thing he cannot possibly be is the object of my selfishness: namely me.
In reality of course, the tendency of Bach scholarships to produce Bach replicas would be extremely weak. But let it be supposed to be as strong as you like: suppose that, in some mysterious way, a Bach scholarship always transformed the recipient of it into an exact replica, mental as well as physical, of J. S. Bach at the age of twenty-two. Would this mean, or would it be even the slightest evidence, that in creating his scholarships Bach had behaved selfishly? Again, obviously not.
It is certainly some evidence of vanity, if a man multiplies copies of a picture or a statue of himself. But vanity (as I have said) is not selfishness, and multiplying copies of oneself is a very different thing from multiplying pictures or statues of oneself. If a man happens to have ten sons who are all extremely like him, that is not the slightest reason to believe that he is selfish. If anything, it is some faint evidence that he is not. At any rate, it is well known that selfishness is something which often deters people from having any children at all.
Viruses have a strong tendency to self-replication: but what would we think of a virologist who, on that account, insisted on calling viruses "selfish"? Well, this virologist, unlike someone who said that Bach's creation of his scholarships was selfish, would not be making moral mischief. But he would be deliberately making intellectual mischief, in two ways. First, by applying a term of opprobrium to behaviour which, since it is the behavior of viruses, cannot intelligibly be made the subject of either opprobrium or praise. Second, by saying something which, even apart from all questions of praise or blame, does not make sense, and which he know does not make sense.
Viruses not only are not selfish: they could not be. It makes no sense to say of a virus that it is selfish, any more than to say of a virus that it is (for example) studious, or shy. You could just as intelligibly describe an electron as being slatternly, a triangle as being scholarly, or a number as being sex mad. And this is a fact which could not fail to be known to anyone educated enough to know what the words "virus" and "selfish" respectively mean: a condition which is sure to be satisfied by anyone educated enough to be a virologist. So any virologist who insisted on calling viruses "selfish" would be insisting on saying something which he himself knows does not make sense. And if this is not deliberately making intellectual mischief, it will do as an example until the real thing comes along.
Genes, like viruses, have a strong tendency to self-replication. But to describe genes as "selfish" on that account, or on any account, would be just as nonsensical as describing viruses as "selfish." Genes can no more be selfish than they can be (say) supercilious or stupid. Yet while no real life virologist ever has called viruses "selfish" (as far as I know), there really is a geneticist who does insist on describing genes as "selfish."
This is Dr. Richard Dawkins, of Oxford University, and to say that he insists on talking in this was is to understate the case extremely. He wrote a book which purports to explain evolution as principally due to what he calls the "ruthless selfishness" of genes. And, as if in order to exclude all charitable misunderstandings, he actually entitled his book The Selfish Gene.
[ ... ]
DAWKINS MORE THAN once assures his readers that when he says genes are selfish, he is not nonsensically attributing to them a certain psychological or "subjective" character. He does not mean, he says, that genes are "conscious, purposeful agents." Applied to genes, the language of selfishness is "only a figure of speech." But he finds it a help in conveying to his readers, what he believes to be literally true, that organisms are simply vehicles which genes design, build, and manipulate, as part of the longer term process of increasing the number of their own copies. Anyway, he says, calling genes "selfish" cannot be importantly wrong, because it is dispensible. We could always "translate [it] back into respectable terms if we wanted to."
The sense in which he uses the word "selfish," Dawkins writes, is one which is standard in biology, and which is "behavioral, not subjective." It is this. "An entity, such as a baboon, is said to be altruistic if it behaves in such a way as to increase another entity's welfare at the expense of its own. Selfish behavior has exactly the opposite effect. 'Welfare' is defined as 'chances for survival'..."
It is true that this is the standard sense in which neo-Darwinian biologists use the words "selfish" and "altruistic" respectively. It is also true (as we saw in Essay VI) that it is a problem or worse for neo-Darwinism (as for Darwinism) how altruistic behavior could survive and spread in any population of animals. But let all organisms be as selfish as the extremest neo-Darwinian cares to suppose: that would still not justify anyone calling genes, as distinct from organisms, selfish.
Yet Dawkins says he uses the word "selfish" in the behavioral sense (as we have just seen), and he will have it that genes are selfish. But what connection is there, between selfishness in the behavioral sense, and that feature of genes on which everything in The Selfish Gene turns: their self-replicatory propensity? To justify his calling genes selfish in the behavioral sense, Dawkins would need to show that self-replication increases the self-replicators chances of survival. But how on earth could he, or anyone, possibly make that out?
My identical twin, or a laboratory-made replica of myself (as I pointed out earlier), is not a possible object of my selfishness, in the ordinary psychological sense of "selfishness." But suppose that I am myself Superscientist, and that I manufacture my own replica or twin. Have I then done something selfish, even in the behavioral sense of "selfish"? Have I improved my own chances of survival at the expense of the chances of others?
It is perfectly obvious that I have not. The coming into existence of a perfect copy of myself might, just conceivably, tickle my vanity. But it would not remove one year or one second from my age, or lighten, by however little, the burden of my present or future illnesses or other affliction. My age, health, wealth, and prospects would be just what they were before I conjured up my replica. Any rational insurance company, and any rational person, would tell you the same thing. And since I have not increased my own chances of survival, I have certainly not done so at the expense of anyone else's chances.
Equally plainly, the same is true for genes. By making a copy of itself, a gene certainly does not gratify its selfishness in the ordinary sense of the word, since (as I said earlier) genes cannot be selfish in that sense. But neither does it do anything selfish in the behavioral sense. Self-replication would even seem (to a layman such as myself) rather to worsen a gene's chances of survival, since it must use up a sizable part of its limited energy store. But even if that is merely a layman's misunderstanding, it seems obvious enough that a gene, by self-replicating, does not improve its own chances of survival. (Its replica is not going to look after the parent gene in its old age, for example.) Which is to say, that the self-replication of a gene is not selfish, even in the sense in which Dawkins says he is using that word.
At this point, however, Dawkins would remind me that "the selfish gene... is not just one physical bit of DNA... it is all replicas of a particular bit of DNA, distributed throughout the world." What a gene does by self-replicating, he says, is to benefit "itself in the form of copies of itself." "The gene is a long-lived replicator, existing in the form of many duplicate copies" of itself.
There: you have just witnessed how Dawkins made out the case on which his whole book depends. How he managed, that is, to represent the self-replication of genes as being selfish in the behavioral sense. Well, there is nothing to it, really, once you have seen how the thing is worked. All you need to do is to talk about things which exist in the form of other things, and more specifically about things which exist in the form of copies of themselves; and the job is done.
Talking like this may seem at first sight to be only an innocent departure, indeed only a trivial departure, from ordinary ways of speaking and thinking. But a little further reflection will soon correct that initial impression. The truth is that Dawkins has here done much more than sum up recent progress in evolutionary biology. In fact, he has opened up unlimited vistas of future intellectual and even economic progress, in very many fields.
For example, Dr. Dawkins should certainly say to his identical twin (if he has one): "In your own interests you ought to give me all your money, because by doing so you would benefit yourself in the form of copies of yourself." His brother will selfishly embrace this novel way of enriching himself, if the biology of The Selfish Gene is true; while at the same time the advantage which will accrue to Richard Dawkins is also clear. As a solution to a problem which must often arise between identical twin brothers this must be admitted to be as ingenious as it is equitable.
[ ... ]
BUT DAWKINS'S CHAPTER on "memes" also excited in me a good deal of alarm. The demonological cast of mind runs easily (as is well known) into mental disorders of a very dreadful kind, and little amenable to treatment. Among the symptoms of these disorders there are none more common than delusions of being "possessed" by "evil spirits", or of being "occupied" by "alien forces" or of being "parasitized" by hostile organisms as yet unknown to terrestrial science. And then, I read the following expression of the meme theory, written by a colleague of Dr. Dawkins, but heartily endorsed by him.
Memes are "living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind, you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme's propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn't just a way of talking--the meme for, say [Pythagoras's Theorem] is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men..."
I cannot speak for others, but for my own part, it is impossible to read these words without feeling anxiety for Dr. Dawkins's sanity. I try to think of what I, or anyone, could say to him, to help restrain him from going over the edge into absolute madness. But if a man believes that, when he was first taught Pythagoras's Theorem at school, his brain was parasitized by a certain micro-maggot which, 2,600 years earlier, had parasitized the brain of Pythagoras,... what can one say to him, with any hope of effect? And if a man already believes that genes are selfish, why indeed should he not also believe that prime numbers are sex mad, or that geometrical theorems are brain parasites?
In one of the popular recordings made about twenty years ago by "The Weavers", the group sand its song but then fell completely silent, until the leader said: "We will now sing the same song again--this time, louder." This is essentially what Dr. Dawkins has done, in the two books he has published since The Selfish Gene.
The later of these books is The Blind Watchmaker, which is pitched at about the same semi-popular level as The Selfish Gene, and has enjoyed almost equal success. The earlier one, The Extended Phenotype, on the other hand, is a book which probably only a professional biologist could follow in all its details. Still, lay readers can certainly understand enough of it to see that its substance is essentially the same as that of the two more popular books.
To do Dawkins justice, the same song is sung softer and better, in one part of The Extended Phenotype. This is the general treatment of genetic determinism in Chapter 2, which is distinctly better than the treatment of it implicit in The Selfish Gene. Someone had obviously convinced Dawkins, between 1976 and 1982, that causation does not, after all, come in two grades: genetic or "industrial strength" causation, and an inferior everyday non-genetic grade. Dr. Dawkins may reasonably be thought to have learnt this truth at disproportionate cost to the public, but it is undoubtedly a step in the right direction: that is, away from the genetic puppetry theory.
The overall tendency of these two later books, however, is exactly the reverse: they are actually more puppetry theoretical than the first one was. We read in The Extended Phenotype that "the fundamental truth [is] that an organism is a tool of DNA," and in The Blind Watchmaker, that "living organisms exist for the benefi of DNA." Such statements abound even more in the later books than they did in the first one. In addition, they are not counterbalanced here, as they were in The Selfish Gene, by cheerully inconsistent statements like the one I quoted earlier: that we have "the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth." Far from there being any "with one bound Jack was free" stuff in the later books, genetic puppetry theory, especially in The Extended Phenotype, is universal, unrelieved, and carried to the farthest lengths imaginable. It really is, then, "the same song again, this time louder," in these two later books. But alas, the song still makes no more sense than it did at first.
We and all the other organisms "exist for the benefit of DNA," forsooth! It is impossible to benefit an H2O molecule, or an NaCl molecule: that is, a water molecule or a salt molecule. Try it yourself if you don't believe me. Launch a Help a Water Molecule Week and see how you get on. You may well raise some money, but how could you possibly put it to work? Water molecules simply cannot be helped. And no more can DNA molecules--that is, genes--be benefited.
In particular, a molecule of DNA, or of water, or of anything, is not benefited by a replica of it brought into existence by this molecule itself, or by something else, or by nothing. However it comes about, the situation is essentially this: there is at one time a certain molecule of M, and at a later time there is M and its replica. Now, what benefit or advantage is there in this change, to anything whatever? M does not benefit by its replica coming into existence: filial piety does not exist among genes. The replica does not benefit by coming into existence. To paraphrase Kant, existence is not a benefit; or, if it is, it is a benefit which can be conferred only on the non-existent. There are no other possible candidates. Hence, there is nothing which benefits by this change, or is better off at the later time than it was at the earlier.
It is true, of course, that if M is a gene, and brings the replica into existence (and survives this process), then there is a larger number of this kind of gene in existence at the later time than there was at the earlier. But this proposition implies nothing whatever about benefit. Indeed, it is not even a truth of biology; it is only the trivial truth of arithmetic, that two is a larger number than one. It is equally true that if M is a water molecule, and remains in existence while its replica is synthesized in some laboratory, then there is a larger number of that kind of molecule in existence at the later time than there was at the earlier. But it would be evidently nonsensical, in this case, to speak on anything having benefited by the change. And it is no less evidently nonsensical in the case where M is a gene instead of a water molecule, and produces the replica itself.
No, Virginia, you and I are not being manipulated by our selfish genes for their own benefit. There are certain people who are subject to incorrigible delusions of being manipulated, and there are also such things as confidence men. But that is all there is to it: there are no "confidence genes." That class of work calls for both intelligence and purpose, and genes have neither. They cannot trick people out of their money by issuing false balance sheets, by writing fraudulent books, or by anything of the kind.
I may be quite wrong, but in reading Dr. Dawkins I have often formed the impression that (in Wittgenstein's phrase) a certain picture holds him captive. A picture, namely, of an exceptionally vain author, or, parent, or photographer, who delights in surrounding himself with his own writings, or children, or self-portraits. But genes (it can hardly be necessary to say) can no more be vain than they can be selfish. They cannot delight in the number of replicas that they make of themselves. They are not even intelligent enough, after all, to know when they have made a replica of themselves.
 The Selfish Gene, pg. 210.
 The Selfish Gene, pg. 211.
 The Selfish Gene, pg. 95.
 The Selfish Gene, pg. 4.
 The Selfish Gene, pg. 4.
 "Tax and the Selfish Girl or Does Altruism need Inverted Commas?", Darwinian Fairytales, ppg 79-117.
 The Selfish Gene, pg. 95.
 The Selfish Gene, pg. 37.
 The Selfish Gene, pg. 37.
 The Selfish Gene, pg. 207. I have put square brackets around "Pythagoras's Theorem" to indicate that I have changed the example given in the text.
 Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (New York, W. W. Norton, 1986).
 Richard Dawkins, The Extended Phenotype: The Gene as the Unit of selection (Oxford and San Francisco, W. H. Freeman, 1982).
 The Extended Phenotype, pg. 158. Italics not in text.
 The Extended Phenotype, pg. 126. Italics not in text.
Boy, you have that right. They could publish an Darwininian only dictionary for all the spaghetti language they use.
Naturalists simply cannot account for human nature with their materialistic presuppositions.
No, it's not. There is a whole camp of explanations sometimes called "red queen" theories, and both the evidence and arguments are quite straightforward.
[This ping list for the evolution -- not creationism -- side of evolution threads, and sometimes for other science topics. To be added (or dropped), let me know via freepmail.]
So let's see you explain how altruism becomes selfishness according to this 'red queen' theory.
Yup, the evo losers cannot win if they have any opponents in the field so they have to be excluded! Some scientific theory!
Listening to the evolutionists speak it reminds me of 1984:
War is peace/ slavery is freedom/ and of course, truth is whatever you want it to be.
Since it took Dawkins a whole book to re-define altruism to mean selfishness (1984 style) the author cannot be faulted on this. Perhaps you should direct your ire at Dawkins for his dishonesty.
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