A good book and
the Good Book
THE SELFISH GENE (ANNIVERSARY EDITION) by Richard Dawkins OUP, £14.99, pp. 360 ISBN 0199291144 ✆ £11.99 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655 RICHARD DAWKINS: HOW A SCIENTIST CHANGED THE WAY WE THINK edited by Alan Grafen and Mark Ridley OUP, £12.99, pp. 283, ISBN 0199291160 ✆ £10.39 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655 These days, Richard Dawkins is so much a popular spokesman for enlightenment values, a voluble and unembarrassable critic of religious belief that it might be as well to remember what it was that gave him his public eminence in the first place. It’s 30 years since the first publication of that splendid book, The Selfish Gene, now being reissued in a special edition, and one of the very surprising things about it is that in many ways it has become more controversial as time has gone on, and in ways which don’t reflect at all well on the development of society.
Then, to any intelligent reader, it simply seemed a statement of the truth of things; so well explained, in fact, that it was almost in danger of looking like a statement of the perfectly obvious. Now, of course, it is still correct, and it would be a dangerous lie to pretend that cracks of any significance have appeared in Dawkins’s explanation of the mechanisms of evolution. Nevertheless, since 1976 an increasing number of people have risen up to claim exactly that, not all of them obviously stupid in other ways, and what must have seemed inconceivable in 1976 has come to pass. People in positions of political and intellectual authority have started to give official weight to arguments against Darwin’s ideas, and the value of the truth is under siege in a way which no one could have predicted.
Some recent examples. A 15-year-old schoolgirl in Russia is mounting a court case to demand that creationism is taught as part of the national biology curriculum. 44 per cent of British adults agree that creationism should be taught ‘as biology’ in British schools. Indeed, at least one faith school, Emmanuel City Technology College, already does so, and in view of the rapid spread of faith schools, more may follow. Creationism is, as is well known, everywhere in American education, sometimes justified through hilarious means. A British-born ‘philosopher’ — British-born philosophers have been comic presences throughout the whole story — has been reported as saying that if the teaching of evolution in school established atheism in American schools, it should be banned, since that would violate the constitutional separation of church and state. This fabulous piece of logic didn’t seem to leave any consideration for the teaching of scientific truth.
We may laugh at such arguments as we laugh at, say, creationist theme parks in Kansas, but it grows harder and harder to refuse to engage, as Dawkins quite rightly does, with creationism or ‘intelligent design’ as scientific theories. From September, in English schools biology pupils will be required to understand and discuss theories no scientist gives credence to. Jacqui Smith, the Schools Standards minister, said in a parliamentary reply that ‘creationism is one of many different beliefs which pupils might discuss and consider’. In reality, of course, it hardly belongs even to the history of science, let alone to science as we understand it now, and there is no point in pretending that there is any merit in intellectual diversity in this area.
Already more extreme voices are being heard. Biology students and medical students in London have been very vocal in complaint about the fact that they are not being credited when they cite the Bible or the Koran as scientific fact. In 1976, it must have seemed that the argument was over — well, indeed, the argument is over in all essentials — but the apparent influence and confidence of voices eager to stress that it is only the ‘theory’ of evolution, 30 years on, cannot have been something that Dawkins, or anyone, could have credited. It is only as much a theory, in reality, as Newton’s theory of gravity.
Dawkins doesn’t engage with such people in a scientific context, probably sensibly; they clearly don’t understand what they are talking about, and don’t want to. The Selfish Gene has had more than its fair share of highly foolish detractors over the years — the first was a perfectly idiotic article by another British philosopher called Mary Midgley, beginning with memorable obtuseness, ‘Genes cannot be selfish or unselfish, any more than atoms can be jealous, elephants abstract [what?] or biscuits teleological.’ Dawkins engaged with that one, but since then he has preferred to challenge his wilder critics on their own ground, usually of religion, rather than admit they have any locus standi in the scientific debate.
But what a splendid book The Selfish Gene is and remains! It would be a great shame to think of it as a controversial polemic — that would be to accept the status of its non-biologist critics. It sets out, step by step, the mechanisms of evolution with wonderful lucidity, showing how, given enough time and ‘turnover’, as it were, an enormous number of tiny mistakes in reproduction is winnowed down by selection, so that the ones which give an individual an advantage, however slight, are gradually preferred and preserved from generation to generation.
By such means, any biological feature, however elaborate, can arise — even the eye, which gave Darwin himself pause for thought, could by tiny steps evolve from a patch of skin which could register the difference between light and the shade cast by, say, a predator. Dawkins’s genius was to see that behaviour, too, could evolve genetically, so that ground-nesting birds could develop even the paradoxical but evidently effective behaviour of jumping from a nest of its own chicks and parading with a fake broken wing before a predator, and luring it away from the vulnerable nestlings.
The first bold coup of the book comes in its dismissal of what used to be taken for granted in biological circles, the notion of self-sacrifice ‘for the good of the group’. Dawkins shows, irrefutably, that such instances of apparent self-sacrifice are never what they seem — no one mention lemmings, please — and that behaviour will always tend to preserve the animal’s collection of genes, if not necessarily in lower forms of life, the animal or insect itself. For instance, a Thomson’s gazelle who leaps outside the herd in front of a predator is really advertising how fit and difficult to catch he would be. The social insects share so many of their genes with other members of their colony that it makes no sense to talk of individuals committing suicide; the genes are efficiently preserved, the carriers come and go. The ants currently infesting my kitchen take what would, in a large mammal, be absurd personal risks (and they do get squashed); for them, it doesn’t matter.
In setting out what may or may not work for a species, Dawkins introduced a large audience to the uses of game theory, and used those mathematical complexities with extraordinary lucidity to set out what is described as an ‘evolutionarily stable strategy’ or ESS. Here is the single response to those who shrink from the notion of selfishness being the driving force of all animate nature. Selfishness, through the mechanism of an ESS, is most likely to discover that the most efficient means of survival and propagation is modified altruism. This is an amazing conclusion, and Dawkins proves it, in the extra chapters he wrote for the 1989 edition, through a lovely, simple analysis of effective tactics when playing that game-theory favourite, the Prisoner’s Dilemma. I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that when, in 1989, I first read that chapter, I had the real stoutCortez-gazing-at-the-Pacific feeling of having a huge fact revealed in front of me.
Unlike most popular science books, The Selfish Gene is only partly synoptic; much of its argument is, I believe, quite original. One of Dawkins’s most original chapters deserves particular comment. He applies the mechanisms of selection and selfpreservation to culture, and comes up with the notion of a ‘meme’; an idea or a fashion which propagates because it contains within it the means of reproduction. On the simplest level, people once started wearing baseball caps back to front because they were convinced that it was intimately connected to sophistication and, probably, sexual desirability. On a larger level, religions spread effectively when they contain the injunction both to bring up your children in faith and to evangelise — Christianity and Islam being much more successful religions, numerically than nonevangelising faiths — and to invent rewards which can’t be disproved. It’s a brilliant idea, and one which, I guess, has directly or indirectly influenced the thinking of millions of actors in our culture. Left-leaning dons were once fond of saying that Mrs Thatcher’s 1980s were a triumph of the selfish gene culture; a more thoughtful analysis might, indeed, prove that the ideology which transformed the world of 1980 into the world of 1990 was through the use of meme theory. Those freedoms spread because, as Mrs Thatcher saw very well, it was in their nature to do so.
Along with the 30th anniversary reissue of the book, Oxford is simultaneously publishing a festschrift of responses to the book, from professional colleagues as well as philosophers, a beyond-parody bishop and Philip Pullman, immediately proving that Dawkins’s world view is not, as is sometimes carelessly said, lacking in imaginative nutrition. It’s an interesting series of essays, but, I have to say, it does unintentionally demonstrate that Dawkins’s subject is not necessarily that easy to understand. Reading Dawkins after the contributions of a number of his colleagues, one has to conclude that he writes about it much better than anyone else.
If we are not to sink into the intellectual dark ages, there is no other bulwark than the truth, which The Selfish Gene overwhelmingly embodies. With that on the bookshelves, I suppose we need to worry a little less when we read the terrifying finding that 45 per cent of Americans in a recent poll believe that God created life on earth at some point in the last 10,000 years. Truth may not always seem a sufficient defence against determined, wicked ignorance; but it is some consolation to have it so easily and convincingly available as in this great book.