The Primate Diaries

Author’s Note: This piece is a continuation of my article “Survival of the Kindest” that appeared in Seed magazine.

As an undergraduate in biology and anthropology I read every one of Dawkins’ books voraciously and would get into heated debates with my close friends about the Dawkins-Gould rivalry. He was one of the primary voices that taught me to love science and want to devote my life to the pursuit of natural knowledge. So before you read anything else, go out and read Dawkins’ work. It’s worth your time. This post will still be here when you come back.

The problem that I’ve found as I’ve gained more knowledge and insight about the discoveries and process of science is two-fold: 1) metaphors in science are essential, but are only useful insofar as they accurately reflect the reality they’re meant to describe and 2) science, just like any other organization created by primates, is an inherently political enterprise where allegiance and patronage play a substantial role. We address the latter concern by constantly questioning the ideas and authority of those who came before us. This is not always an easy or comfortable task, but is what makes the process of science such a powerful cultural tool. It is in this sense that I address the first problem relating to the metaphor of the “selfish gene.”

Michael Ruse, the philosopher of biology whose recent books include The Evolution-Creation Struggle and Darwinism and its Discontents, has a new review of The Genial Gene by Stanford biologist Joan Roughgarden. Ruse states that Roughgarden is “rightly celebrated as one of the important evolutionary thinkers of our time.” However, in his review he makes the oft-repeated mistake of assuming that any criticism of Richard Dawkins’ emphasis on brutal inter-individual struggle and competition is the result of someone that is misunderstanding his metaphor of the selfish gene.

In the Globe and Mail Ruse states:

[I]t seems to me that Roughgarden just doesn’t understand the function of metaphor in science. “Selfish gene” is the most brilliant metaphor of the 20th century, but it doesn’t mean that either genes are literally selfish or that we are.

This statement is a red herring and seems to be intended to distract from Roughgarden’s substantive criticisms of Dawkins’ description of natural history. It certainly isn’t an accurate description of her views as she presents them.

Throughout her book Roughgarden repeatedly references the “selfish gene metaphor” and understands that it refers to “emphasizing individual selection as the more important route to evolutionary success.” However, before pointing out what Roughgarden was actually being critical of, it’s important to be clear about what exactly the metaphor of a selfish gene refers to.

The selfish gene metaphor is nothing more than the fact that genes are the basic units of selection in evolution. From a gene’s point of view (not that a gene has a point of view, mind you) only those copies that are beneficial – or, at least, are not harmful – will survive into subsequent generations. These could be genes that promote competition (for example, by increasing the release of adrenalin resulting in a greater “fight or flight” response) or they could be genes that promote cooperation (perhaps by inhibiting adrenaline, or by increasing the release of oxytocin during periods of stress). If a certain gene results in a phenotypic trait that is useful in a given environment then that individual is successful and passes on the gene. This is where the metaphor that genes are “selfish” comes from. In it’s most basic form the selfish gene is not an argument for greed and competition so much as it is an argument based on utility.

Dawkins writes in the introduction to the 30th Anniversary edition of his book that:

The Selfish Gene could equally have been called The Cooperative Gene without a word of the book itself needing to be changed. . . Selfishness and cooperation are two sides of a Darwinian coin. Each gene promotes its own selfish welfare, by cooperating with other genes in the sexually stirred gene pool which is the gene’s environment, to build shared bodies.

Here is where Dawkins is on less stable ground. His book frequently expands the notion of selfishness beyond mere metaphor. Roughgarden highlights the following passages from Dawkins’ work to emphasize exactly what she objects to in his theory:


For example, The Selfish Gene publicizes a view of nature emphasizing competition: We are survival machines–robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes, ” Dawkins writes. He continues with, “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 if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.” And he states in the book, Devil’s Chaplain, “Blindness to suffering is an inherent consequence of natural selection. Nature is neither kind nor cruel but indifferent.” . . .

The issue before us is not whether this philosophy is appealing or repugnant. The issue is whether it is a true and accurate account of nature, of what the birds and bees around us are doing–whether their lives are really selfish and filled with uncaring sexual conflict.

Personally, I disagree with Roughgarden where it comes to a universe that has no design or purpose but is based on pitiless indifference. As a Christian she feels that purpose surrounds her. But just head a few hundred miles into space and you’ll see how much the universe thinks of you. Nevertheless, this doesn’t change her basic argument. I would even add a few more quotes from The Selfish Gene to emphasize her point that Dawkins’ metaphor frequently spills over into description:

Like successful Chicago gangsters, our genes have survived, in some cases for millions of years, in a highly competitive world. This entitles us to expect certain qualities in our genes. I shall argue that a predominant quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness. This gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behaviour.

My own feeling is that a human society based simply on the gene’s law of universal ruthless selfishness would be a very nasty society in which to live. But unfortunately, however much we may deplore something, it does not stop it being true.

Our genes may instruct us to be selfish, but we are not necessarily compelled to obey them all our lives.

Even in the group of altruists, there will almost certainly be a dissenting minority who refuse to make any sacrifice. If there is just one selfish rebel, prepared to exploit the altruism of the rest, then he, by definition, is more likely than they are to survive and have children. Each of these children will tend to inherit his selfish traits. After several generations of this natural selection, the ‘altruistic group’ will be over-run by selfish individuals, and will be indistinguishable from the selfish group.

The point I am making now is that, even if we look on the dark side and assume that individual man is fundamentally selfish, our conscious foresight–our capacity to simulate the future in imagination–could save us from the worst selfish excesses of the blind replicators.

How many of these words would need to have been changed if the book actually had been called The Cooperative Gene? In each of these uses, Dawkins has moved past the limited metaphor of the gene. He is now talking about how genes make individuals selfish. Dawkins is very clear that he’s not saying this is how the world ought to be, merely what the world is.

I am not advocating a morality based on evolution. I am saying how things have evolved.

Neither Roughgarden nor I are claiming that Dawkins believes selfishness should be the way of the world. The objection is simply that an emphasis on inter-individual competition and ruthless struggle is not a complete description.

In fairness, Dawkins also discusses how the selfish gene can work in tandem with other selfish genes for the benefit of all (afterall, isn’t that what made bodies such a successful adaptation in the first place?). But, as the quotes above emphasize, he marginalizes the cooperative or network interpretation of the gene to focus on the ultimate, individual and selfish unit. As I’ve written previously, I believe this position needs to be expanded in light of more recent evidence.

There is another section that, as someone trained to be an evolutionary anthropologist, I have a significant problem with. In Chapter 11 Dawkins states:

The argument I shall advance, surprising as it may seem coming from the author of the earlier chapters, is that, for an understanding of the evolution of modern man, we must begin by throwing out the gene as the sole basis of our ideas on evolution. I am an enthusiastic Darwinian, but I think Darwinism is too big a theory to be confined to the narrow context of the gene. The gene will enter my thesis as an analogy,
nothing more.

Enter the concept of the “meme.” What is striking is that the above statement is not altogether dissimilar from the argument by Alfred Russell Wallace (co-discoverer with Darwin of the principle of natural selection) that evolution couldn’t have possibly resulted in the human brain and the origin of consciousness. Underlying both assumptions is that there are fundamental laws of nature, but not when it comes to us. We’re special. The stuff of thought, of culture, of human complexity; these can’t be shaped totally by material influences. This seems profoundly disingenuous.

I’m not advocating any form of hard line genetic determinism for human evolution. What I’m pointing out is that if we’re to accept that the selfish gene breaks down in humans, what about chimpanzees and bonobos who share between 98.6% and 99.4% of our DNA? At what point do genes stop having a profound influence and memes take over? Does it worry you that this is the same kind of argument that the Pope advanced in his support for evolution when he referred to an “ontological leap,” except talking about spirit instead of memes? I think these are serious concerns.

A theory is functional when it has universal application, not when you apply it to one group or another based on what works. The entire concept of the “meme” to explain human altruism is effectively useless as a scientific argument because it’s a hypothesis that cannot be tested nor disproved. In essence, Dawkins is reestablishing the false dichotomy between animal and man. Laws of nature define the mere beasts, but human enlightenment is beyond such narrow bounds. I think we can do better.

The crucial point of any criticism over Dawkins’ position can best be stated by the devil’s chaplain himself:

Humans and baboons have evolved by natural selection. If you look at the way natural selection works, it seems to follow that anything that has evolved by natural selection should be selfish. Therefore, we must expect that when we go and look at the behaviour of baboons, humans, and all other living creatures, we shall find it to be selfish. If we find that our expectation is wrong, if we observe that human behaviour is truly altruistic, then we shall be faced with something puzzling, something that needs explaining.

To the extent that we find this view incomplete, there remains work to do.

Comments

  1. #1 Bob O'H
    September 24, 2009

    Throughout her book Roughgarden repeatedly references the “selfish gene metaphor” and understands that it refers to “emphasizing individual selection as the more important route to evolutionary success.”

    In which case she clearly hasn’t understood the idea. The whole point of the Selfish Gene idea is to get away from just individual level selection.

    The selfish gene metaphor is nothing more than the fact that genes are the basic units of selection in evolution.

    No. There was some confusion about this in the 70s, but that was clarified by Dawkins and Hull (I think): the gene is the unit of reproduction. The unit of selection is often something different: it can be the individual, or the group, or the gene (e.g. transposons). What makes the whole area interesting is that the units of heredity and selection are different. This was a bit obscure in The Selfish Gene, but it’s been clarified since.

    Enter the concept of the “meme.” What is striking is that the above statement is not altogether dissimilar from the argument by Alfred Russell Wallace (co-discoverer with Darwin of the principle of natural selection) that evolution couldn’t have possibly resulted in the human brain and the origin of consciousness. Underlying both assumptions is that there are fundamental laws of nature, but not when it comes to us. We’re special. The stuff of thought, of culture, of human complexity; these can’t be shaped totally by material influences. This seems profoundly disingenuous.

    I think this is a mis-representation of what Dawkins was saying. We have “memes” because of our intelligence and consciousness, but I’d be amazed if Dawkins saw these as arising from anything other than evolution. Hence, they are fully material: they are the product of material minds. It’s not clear that other species can’t have memes too: we just have more of them. Actually, I’m not sure how far one should push the meme metaphor. It’s certainly much fuzzier than the gene concept; it has some value but it’s clearly a metaphor, and should be (mis-)treated as such.

    On the wider point about metaphors, Chad had some good comments. This is one reason why I don’t like discussing the science using the popular writings of people like Dawkins and Gould. They need to use metaphors to explain the science, but that shouldn’t be confused with the science itself. Personally I think it’s better, when possible, to go to the mathematics. It’s still an analogy, but it’s more explicit. Hence, if we want to understand the science of the selfish gene, we should go to the work of people like Hamilton and John Maynard Smith (and yes, Sloan Wilson!). In fact, if you look for it, you can find the selfish gene in Fisher’s models (it’s not explicit, but its there).

  2. #2 beebeeo
    September 24, 2009

    Dawkins says: “… we must begin by throwing out the gene as the SOLE basis of our ideas on evolution”.
    He doesn’t say that genes have become irrelevant, does he?

    “Underlying both assumptions is that there are fundamental laws of nature, but not when it comes to us. We’re special. The stuff of thought, of culture, of human complexity; these can’t be shaped totally by material influences. This seems profoundly disingenuous.”
    Are you accusing Dawkins of a human exeptionalism that is based on sth supernatural (immaterial) ?
    The way I understand Dawkins is that genetic evolution has created the conditions that in humans memetic evolution has become a significant factor too. Both memetic and genetic factors shape our culture. Both are important.
    I am not really worried that Dawkins has
    made an ontological leap. I think that memetic factors become more and more important as the culture of a species becomes more and more complex. Is there really a need to draw a line where one becomes more dominant than the other ? Certain aspects of life will continue to be dominated by genetics and instincts whereas others will be dominated by our culture.

    I think that it also important to remember what Dawkins means with “true altruism”

  3. #3 Anon
    September 24, 2009

    If I could quibble with Bob O’H, we do not have memes because of our intelligence and consciousness but rather have memes, intelligence, and consciousness because of our social, verbal behavior. Our ability to imitate and to behave according to rules, both of which are classes of operant behavior, selected for and shaped by interaction with the environment (and for which we are arguably quite biologically prepared), are the functional demonstration of replication. Through these processes (which behaviorists and others have studied for decades), a behavior can be replicated in another individual… which, along with variability and differential success, is all we need in order to have a useful memetic (to use one possible label) evolution of culture.

    It is true that, as yet, there is no (or perhaps there are too many–either way, if we are looking for one, we will not find it) physical substrate for “meme”; there is no DNA of imitation, rule-following, or other verbal behavior (I use “verbal behavior” here in its strict sense–behavior that requires another individual for reinforcement or punishment; it is a very useful construct, one which was virtually ignored after Chomsky’s atrocious review of Skinner’s hypothesis). But of course, Darwin had no physical substrate to point to when he proposed Natural Selection, and his theory is substrate-neutral. If we follow Dennett’s lead and say that memes are “made of pure information” and may take any form, then a functional analysis of the (e.g.) imitative behaviors is, and must be, sufficient.

  4. #4 Bob O'H
    September 24, 2009

    If I could quibble with Bob O’H, we do not have memes because of our intelligence and consciousness but rather have memes, intelligence, and consciousness because of our social, verbal behavior.

    Yes, you’re right. Memes need to be communicated, of course.

  5. #5 llewelly
    September 24, 2009

    Dawkins has moved passed the limited metaphor of the gene.

    Did you intend ‘passed’ to be ‘past’?

  6. #6 EMJ
    September 24, 2009

    Thanks llewelly. Fixed.

  7. #7 Todd I. Stark
    September 26, 2009

    Very interesting analysis, and a nice article. Thank you very much.

    My impression is that metaphors are important, however the “selfish gene” as promoted by Hamilton, Williams, and Dawkins is more than just a metaphor, it is also a general reductionist strategy for understanding evolution which in addition to the gene’s central role in replication also _emphasized_ its role as a unit of selection.

    This was made clearest in The Extended Phenotype, which went so far as to claim that higher levels of selection were viable but also reducible in principle to gene-level selection mathematically.

    Gene selectionism is a powerful and effective strategy which like most reductionistic strategies in scientific analysis seems to do useful work far more than it fails, but probably does fail in at least some situations where mechanisms of “synergism” (Corning) or “cooperation” of various sorts do play a legitimate role in fitness and evolutionary process.

    I think many of the debates over the use of the metaphor of the selfish gene seem to also be referring to issues people have with the associated *strategy* and where they want to say it is appropriate or inappropriate.

  8. #8 ernst mayr
    September 26, 2009

    I find this hilarious. I recently came across an interview where Dawkins said he was at a doctor’s office. He was annoyed by the fact that a poster on the wall referred to bacteria as “clever” to describe their evolution and immunity from antibiotics. He said it was a missed oppportunity to teach about evolution. I had to laugh. I felt the same way about labeling genes “selfish”. Which is a stupid metaphor. Genes aren’t selfish and “selfish genes” don’t tell us anything about altrism. And few people think the gene is the unit of selection. Memes is a pseudoscience. And the Extended Phenotype is another useless metaphor that solves nothing.

  9. #9 Charles H. Smith
    September 26, 2009

    At the risk of getting myself dragged into a conversation I don’t want to have, your caricature of Wallace above is a profoundly inaccurate one. Wallace *did* believe evolution had created the human brain, and *did* believe consciousness arose through it. The complete role of natural selection adopted by Darwin, on the other hand, he did not support. If you do not understand this distinction, perhaps you should do a bit of reading beyond Gould and Dawkins.

  10. #10 Charles H. Smith
    September 26, 2009

    Okay, just to expand on that last comment, here is the full text of a letter Wallace sent to a newspaper in 1883:

    Sir,–In your article on Mr. Romanes’ “Mental Evolution in Animals” my opinions on the above question are referred to, and as they are not accurately represented I trust you will allow me to make a few explanatory remarks. The writer of the article says: “Mr. Darwin held that to man’s mind the general laws of evolution apply. Mr. Wallace holds that they do not apply, but that ‘a distinct exception must be made in the case of the human organism, or at all events in the case of the human mind.'” I cannot find these words (which are given as a quotation) in the last chapter of my “Contributions to Natural Selection,” where I have treated the question in some detail; and the whole gist of my argument is, not that natural selection “does not apply,” but that it does not exclusively apply, being supplemented by some unknown higher law. To show that I do actually recognise the action of natural selection in producing some of the higher human faculties, allow me to quote one passage. I say (p. 351): “Turning to the mind of man, we meet with many difficulties in attempting to understand how those mental faculties which are especially human could have been acquired by the preservation of useful variations. At first sight it would seem that such feelings as those of abstract justice and benevolence could never have been so acquired, because they are incompatible with the law of the strongest, which is the essence of natural selection. But this is, I think, an erroneous view, because we must look not to individuals but to societies; and justice and benevolence, exercised towards members of the same tribe, would certainly tend to strengthen that tribe, and give it a superiority over another in which the right of the strongest prevailed, and where consequently the weak and the sickly were left to perish and the few strong ruthlessly destroyed the many who were weaker.” Here, then, I fully recognise the power of natural selection to develop some mental faculties; but I go on to show that there are others, as well as some physical characters, which could not have been so developed, and I thence conclude that man was not developed exclusively by natural selection even if animals were so developed, but that in his case “some higher law” has intervened. This is very different from “barring” evolution in the case of man, as your reviewer says I do. Mr. Darwin himself admits that natural selection “has been the main, but not the exclusive means of the modification of organisms,” and I have given reasons why this is still more emphatically true in the case of man; and these reasons have, so far as I know, never been satisfactorily confuted. As to the hypothetical mode by which I suggested that the difficulty might be got over, it remains a mere suggestion, the correctness of which I am by no means anxious to maintain; but that the difficulties I have stated are real difficulties, and as regards natural selection alone insuperable ones, I am as much convinced as ever. Evolution, however, is a very different thing, and I can hardly imagine any mode or origin of man or his faculties which would not be in accordance with that great principle, which is, essentially, the principle of gradual modification under the action of laws, however complex or obscure those laws may be.–I remain your obedient servant, Alfred R. Wallace.

  11. #11 EMJ
    September 26, 2009

    I thence conclude that man was not developed exclusively by natural selection even if animals were so developed, but that in his case “some higher law” has intervened.

    You are correct. I used language that was too strong. My statement that, according to Wallace, “evolution couldn’t have possibly resulted in the human brain and the origin of consciousness” should have read “evolution alone couldn’t have possibly resulted in the human brain and the origin of consciousness”. Do you have any other objections?

  12. #12 acı çehre
    September 27, 2009

    This was made clearest in The Extended Phenotype, which went so far as to claim that higher levels of selection were viable but also reducible in principle to gene-level selection mathematically.

  13. #13 acı çehre
    September 27, 2009

    I think many of the debates over the use of the metaphor of the selfish gene seem to also be referring to issues people have with the associated *strategy* and where they want to say it is appropriate or inappropriate.

  14. #14 tala
    September 27, 2009

    Very interesting analysis, and a nice article. Thank you very much.

  15. #15 Skullsike
    October 1, 2009

    He is not misunderstood, he believes Nothing created Everything!

    Wow – What!

  16. #16 mapmanic
    October 27, 2009

    Humans do share a large percentage of their DNA with chimps but memetic evolution in chimps is negligible when compared to humans because of the massive shift into overdrive that occurred with the advent of symbolic communication. If circumstance were to select for increased intelligence in chimps (to the point where their brains were to “achieve” a critical mass and organization to make symbolic communication possible) then they too would be off-to-the-races with memetic evolution.

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