In this entry from last week I mentioned Joan Roughgarden’s recent book Evolution and Christian Faith, and praised her firm dismissal of ID. Sadly, there are many other parts of her brief book where I believe she has missed the boat.
One such part concerns her criticism of Richard Dawkins’ idea of the selfish gene. It comes near the end of the book, where she presumes to criticize extremism on both sides of the evolution debate. She writes:
I suggest we first identify positions that needlessly provoke polarization and learn to avoid them. Then, each of us, one by one, and in groups and community, can insist on a new standard of discourse. This may be followed by shifting some of the energy now being dissipayed on anti-evolution advocacy into other issues. (p. 125)
She then goes on to outline two positions which, she says, should be avoided. One is the vision of a hating, wrathful God as promoted by people like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. She certainly gets no argument form me on that one. It’s when she tries to equate that level of stupidity with Dawkins’ ideas about selfish genes that we part company. We consider her discussion in full.
In The Selfish Gene, the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins publicizes a view of nature emphasizing competition: “We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.” He continues, “Our genes made us. We animals exist for their preservation and are nothing more than their throwaway survival machines. The world of the selfish gene is one of savage competition, ruthless exploitation, and deceit.” In RIver Out of Eden,” Dawkins writes, “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect it to have if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” And in Devil’s Chaplain, he says, “Blindness to suffering is an inherent consequence of natural selection. Nature is neither kind nor cruel, but indifferent.” He also writes in The Extended Phenotype (a biological term for the traits that genes produce) that the gene should be thought of as having “its effects on the world at large, not just its effects on the individual body in which it happens to be sitting.”
These four books develop a philosophy of universal selfishness as though that were a fundamental part of evolutionary biology. This philosophy not only goes far beyond the data of evolutionary biology but is incorrect as well. It fails to appreciate the difficulty of disentangling the contribution of individual genes to the whole and about how a whole can function in ways beyond the sum of its parts.
Gosh. The creationists must be drooling with envy at such a quote mine.
First, Roughgarden has simply conflated two different aspects of Dawkins’ writing: His atheism on the one hand, and his advocacy of the selfish gene view of evolution on the other. These are separate topics, which explains why Roughgarden could not find a single quote expressing both thoughts simultaneously. Dawkins does not argue, “Selfish genes, therefore no God.”
The next point is that the quote from The Extended Phenotype above is very misleading. It is always poor form to attach your own beginning to someone else’s sentence. I expect that sort of nonsense from creationists, but it’s disappointing when a serious person like Roughgarden does it.
Dawkins’ point was simply that genes can have influences on the environment not related to building the body in which they reside. For example, the beaver’s dam is as much a product of the beaver’s genes as is the beaver’s flat tail. He certainly was not using that statement as part of any larger philosophy, and he was not saying that the selfishness that prevails at the level of the gene is normative for society generally. In fact, Dawkins has been quite explicit elsewhere that the selfish gene is meant as a useful way of viewing certain evolutionary phenomena, and not as a guide to the way human society should be structured.
The next point is that Dawkins is entirely correct to say that blindness to suffering is a consequence of natural selection. If you accept natural selection as the primary shaper of evolution (and Roughgaren does, as she expresses elsewehere in her book) then you must also accept that true selflessness is impossible, at least until far-sighted intelligence evolves. Roughgarden may dislike Dawkins’ blunt writing, but as we shall see she has no sound argument to offer against it.
Take cooking as an example. When you add salt to water you get salt water. You can boil the water off, collect the vapor, cool it, and re-collect the water, with the salt remaining at the bottom. In this way you can reconsitute both ingredients. Salt water is no more than the sum of salt plus water.
If, however, you add flour and water and heat, you get a form of bread. There’s nothing you can do to reconstitue the flour and water. You’ve made a new compound that assumes a function and significnace beyond the sum of flour and water. It has acquired its own identity and function because of the chemical bonds that have formed between water and flour molecules.
Similarly, when genes combine to make a body, the body becomes a unit more that the sum of the genes in it because the body now functions as a unit. And when athletes play together as a team, they acquire an identity and perform differently than the sum of individual players. That’s what teamwork is all about, the difference between a doubles game of tennis and two singles games.
Considering that Dawkins himself used both the cooking anlaogy and the athletic team analogy in The Selfish Gene, I’d say this is not the strong argument that Roughgarden seems to think it is. Roughgarden’s point here is simply not relevant to a discussion of the merits of Dawkins’ ideas. Of course genes work together to build bodies that then function as a unit. So what?
Talk of selfish genes is meant to emphasize that it is the gene, not the individual organism or species, that is the target of selection. What is it that natural selection selects? The gene, replies Dawkins. Dawkins then argues that certain puzzling questions about evolution can be answered if you pretend that each gene is behaving in the manner that will allow the most copies of itself to appear in future generations. Continuing the metaphor, banding together with other genes to make complex bodies is merely a strategy for gene propagarion that is sometimes effective.
An interview with Dawkins in The Guardian on February 10, 2003, illustrates the problem of the selfish-gene philosophy. During the interview, Dawkins “wanders over to the other side of the room and returns with a bird’s nest that he picked up in Africa. `It’s clearly a biological object.’ His eyes light up. `It’s clearly an adaptation. It’s a lovely thing.’ He says that birds do not need to be taught to make nests, they are genetically programmed to do so.”
When Dawkins refers to a bird’s nest, the issue I wish to raise is not whether a bird’s abilitry to make a nest is genetically endowed, but whether one or two birds cooperated to make it. A male bower bird makes a showy nest by himself that he uses in courtship, and such a nest can be thought of as an extension of his body. In contrast, a male and a female together make a robin’s nest, and their nest for holding eggs is not the extension of the body of either bird, but a new entity that results from the bond between the male and the female robin, from their collaboration. This nest, which is fruit of their relationship, is what allows them to breed and to raise young together. The evolutionary success of a male and a female robin resides not in the genes they have as indivduals but in the relationship they develop with each other. The conceptual problems that result from the difficulties of defining what an “individual” is, run throughout selfish-gene philosophy. (Empahsis Added)
Someone explain to me, please, what Roughgarden is saying here. I think Dawkins’ would argue simply that the ability of robins to cooperate in building a nest is itself a result of their genetics. And this ability developed because genes that promoted cooperation were more successful at propagation than genes that promoted something different. Why is this a problem for Dawkins’ view? The way Roughgarden describes things, it sounds as if the robins consciously decide to begin a life together by building a nest.
And Roughgarden goes completely off the skids in that bold-faced sentence. The whole point of Dawkins’ argument is that individual bodies are largely irrelevant. Ths robin’s nest is the product of genes that provide instructions to their bearers for nest construction and cooperation. That copies of these genes reside in more than one body is unimportant.
Under the selfish gene view, the only “individual” of relevance is the gene itself. Copies of that gene may reside in many different bodies. This view may be flawed, or might not be useful in some particular instance, but I fail to see how it leads to any conceptual problems.
Most evolutionary biologists are inclined to dismiss the selfish-gene metaphor as an entertaining hyperbole. For our present purposes, however, the matter can’t be left there because selfish-gene proponents directly and continually attack religion.
She then goes on to give some examples where Dawkins attacks religion. It is interesting how “Dawkins”, and “selfish-gene proponents” are used interchangably.
Of course, she is once again merely conflating Dawkins’ religious views with his evolutionary views. That they are two separate things is easily shown. Ken Miller has nice things to say about The Selfish Gene in his book Finding Darwin’s God. He certainly is not an atheist. Meanwhile Stephen Jay Gould had little use for selfish genes, but he was an agnostic who frequently made snide remarks about religion.
As for the selfish gene view being dismissed by most biologists, Roughgarden is just blowing smoke. I need only look at the thousands of papers that have been published from a decidedly Dawkinsian point of view to see that.
From here Roughgarden repeats the standard trope that people like Dawkins scare people away from evolution. Like they might have been sympathetic to evolution, but then mean old Richard Dawkins and his blunt talk came along and made them nervous. As is always the case when this little bagatelle comes up, Roughgarden provides no evidence that this is actually true. But what I found really interesting was the following paragraph, with which Roughgarden closes her discussion:
More important, selfish-gene philosophy intellectually enables the intelligent-design movement. If one group (selfish-gene advocates) asserts that facts from science refute the existence of God, then another group (intelligent design advocates) is free to conlude the opposite with as much validity. Selfish-gene advocates can’t have it both ways – they can’t assert that science disproves the existence of God and then turn around and say that anyone with the opposite position isn’t doing science. Inasmuch as most sicentists think the existence of God can’t be proved with data, the nonexistence of God can’t either.
It’s hard to imagine a paragraph more confused than that.
We have already discussed the fact that selfish genes are entirely separate from atheism, so she gets off to a bad start.
Next, no one claims that science, selfish genes or otherwise, proves atheism. People like Dawkins, (and myself) claim that atheism is the most reasonable conclusion to be drawn from the facts of nature as we know them, but we all agree that the God question is not itself something that science can resolve.
The accusation that ID folks are being unscientific stems from their desire to replace naturalistic explanations with supernaturalistic ones. It also comes from the fact that their ideas lead to nothing in the way of new insights into nature, or into new dircetions for scientific research. ID is nothing more than criticisms of evolution coupled with the assertion that design should win by default. It is not their “position” that prompts the charge.
Sadly, this sort of simple-mindedness and unwillingness to grapple seriously with contrary views is a major flaw in much of Roughgarden’s book. In future posts I will look at some of her thoughts on other subjects, but this post has gone on long enough.