Roughgarden on Selfish Genes

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.

Roughgarden writes:

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.

Roughgarden continues:

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.

Roughgarden continues:

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.

Roughgarden continues:

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.


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Inasmuch as most sicentists think the existence of God can't be proved with data, the nonexistence of God can't either.

Of course, what makes this even more confused is that it's entirely possible for something to be verifiable, but for its converse not to be. And actually the statement "there is a god" is one such - it can be demonstrated simply by finding a helpful deity who's willing to engage in scientific experimentation, but can't be falsified without exhaustively checking every entity that exists to see whether it qualifies as a god (which is impossible).

By Corkscrew (not verified) on 05 Sep 2006 #permalink

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.

It's interesting to see what happens when you substitute "the existence of God" with "the existence of psi." Or chi energy, astrology, vitalism, homeopathy, clairvoyance, and the ability to bend spoons with the power of the mind. Advocates of such things will say either "there is good science supporting it" OR "we can only know these things through other ways." Or both.

I suppose the skeptics address whichever argument is made -- or made first. But if someone says science doesn't support the existence of Life Energy, are they just encouraging more bad paranormal research by granting it scientific status?

I guess she never read the following quote by Dawkins:

Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. (The Selfish Gene)

Anyway, to continue... I think scientists can agree on the following: Science has disproved all Scripture based Gods (and the question is, what is left to believe?). If anyone with a scientific mindset believes otherwise than the dissent is, in my opinion, based on emotional pseudo-arguments. Roughgarden clearly does not realize that her anti-Selfish Gene stance comes forth from the same emotional pseudo-arguments.

While Dawkins' atheism and his evolutionary science aren't identical, they are related. The subtitle of The Blind Watchmaker is Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design. Now of course you can have a god who didn't have anything to do with creating the material universe -- many such gods have populated world culture throughout history. Judeo-Christian culture believes that its God did create the universe, either directly or indirectly. Dawkins' evolutionary science goes hand in hand with his rejection of that particular God -- or at least the common historical understanding of that God.

I agree that it's foolish of Roughgarden to say: 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 conclude the opposite with as much validity. Where are all these people who say that science is capable of such a refutation?
However, it's unfortunate that Dawkins ever came up with the phrase "selfish gene", and I wish he were more careful with his descriptions of nature in general. Words like "selfish", "deceit", and "pitiless indifference" are usually applied to humans who knowingly and intentionally turn their backs on others. Genes don't know what they're doing, and are ultimately subject to natural selection anyway. No matter what genes might "want", if they don't fit in a certain environment they may be eliminated.
By overemphasizing selection at the gene level, Dawkins seems to miss some of the richness of life history, including human history. As David Sloan Wilson said in Darwin's Cathedral (p. 46), where he discusses religion as a group-level adaptation:

I believe that future generations will be amazed at the degree to which groups were made to disappear as adaptive units of life in the minds of intellectuals during the second half of the twentieth century. Against this background, thinking of groups as organisms whose function requires a complex and highly organized physiology is so new, and leads to so many predictions that would not be forthcoming otherwise, that it deserves recognition even if it turns out to be only partially true.

Sorry, my introduction to the Wilson quote above was not meant to be in italics.

Ah, good old Dawkins. I always wonder, when his name crops up, if anyone has actually read anything he's ever written. "The Selfish Gene" was recently re-released in the UK, along with a collection of essays devoted to Dawkins's impact on evolutionary thought (unsurprisingly, most were very positive, and the only serious negative essays addressed his notion of a "meme", which even Dawkins is ambivilant about). So I've recently read "The Selfish Gene", and it's amazing how many times, and how strongly, Dawkins repeatedly stresses that the word "selfish", or talk of "genes wanting something", are all just analogies. He repeatedly stresses that anything he says of this type could, if we wished, be re-written more carefully in standard "survival of the fittest" ways. He also suggests that to do so would be very tedious, and I'm enclinded to agree with him, especially as his books are aimed at a general audience.

Maybe one could say that the actual title has done some harm, and Dawkins suggests a different title (I don't have the book to hand, sadly, so I can't give a quote) which he nearly used: it was a lot less snappy, but more accurate.

John Doyle: I fail to see how your comments don't apply to modern evolution in general though?

James A: I think you miss the point: "Dawkins seems to miss some of the richness of life history, including human history" Well, yes, one would expect that in a book about evolution: human history has occured so quickly that biological evolution has very little to say on the matter. Yes, you can made valid criticisms of Dawkins's idea of memes, but they form a small part of "The Selfish Gene" and a tiny part of his work in general, and have nothing to do with a gene-centric view of biological evolution. So what's your point?

"Dawkins seems to miss some of the richness of life history, including human history"

Have you read The Ancestor's Tale? I find it hard to believe you have, since it's an enormous tome devoted entirely to the glorious richness of life history, including human history. I'm no Dawkins-ite when it comes to biology (although I do largely agree with him on religion), but I find the extent to which his views are misrepresented exasperating.

By Ginger Yellow (not verified) on 06 Sep 2006 #permalink

"Next, no one claims that science, selfish genes or otherwise, proves atheism."

I actually have seen this claim several times (generally from a rare type of message-board troll, but still, I have seen it). And I'm pretty sure I have seen a quote from Dawkins himself (a sound bite in a news article) making this claim or one essentially like it.

If Dawkins has been misquoted or otherwise misrepresented, I am relieved to hear it; I had thought it was a terribly boneheaded thing for anyone to say, but unimaginably so for a scientist getting a public forum for his views, since that claim badly damages the credibility of other scientists when they explain that science makes no such claim at all.

Thank you, Jason; I am now encouraged to actually read his work and find out for myself what he says on the matter.

~David D.G.

By David D.G. (not verified) on 06 Sep 2006 #permalink

Somewhere -- I do not now recall where -- Dawkins wrote that The Selfish Gene could justifiably have been titled The Cooperative Gene with no change in content.

After a passage on vampire bat blood sharing:

"Vampires are great mythmakers. To devotees of Victorian Gotic they are dark forces that terrorize by night, sapping vital fluids, sacrificing an innocent life merely to gratify a thirst. Combine this with that other Victorian myth, nature red in tooth and claw, and aren't vampires the very incarnation of deepest fears about that world of the selfish gene? As for me, I am sceptical of all myths. If we want to know where the truth lies in particular cases, we have to look. What the Darwinian corpus gives us is not detailed expectations about particular organisms. It gives us something subtler and more valuable: understanding of principle. But if we must have myths, the real facts about vampires could tell a different moral tale. To the bats themselves, not only is blood thicker than water. They rise above the bonds of kinship, forming their own lasting ties of loyal blood-brotherhood. Vampires could form the vanguard of a comfortable new myth, a myth of sharing, mutualistic cooperation. They could herald the benignant idea that, even with selfish genes at the helm, nice guys can finish first."
--The Selfish Gene, pg 233

Did she skip the chapter titled "Nice guys finish first"?

By ferfuracious (not verified) on 06 Sep 2006 #permalink

"And I'm pretty sure I have seen a quote from Dawkins himself (a sound bite in a news article) making this claim or one essentially like it."

I'm sure you haven't. What he says is that evolution makes atheism "intellectually respectable". When we didn't have a plausible naturalistic explanation for life's diversity, positing an invisible sky fairy was actually quite a parsimonious explanation, especially given all the other things we didn't have naturalistic explanations for. Once you have a plausible, tested materialistic explanation for life's diversity, the creation of the earth etc, the invisible sky fairy becomes less and less parsimonious, and atheistic materialism becomes more and more plausible.

By Ginger Yellow (not verified) on 07 Sep 2006 #permalink

There have always been those that do not believe in God. (When I say God, I mean the Christian God of the Bible. One must be specific these days)
There will always those that do not believe. Until the end.
Then all will believe and no amount of scientific data will change that. When you are before God you will believe.
I for one, could not be convinced by anything that there is no God. I have experienced Him in my life. It is difficult to refute personal experience. Once you have met someone, it is difficult to convince someone that they have not met them.


That's very nice for you, I'm sure, but what does it have to do with the subject?

By Ginger Yellow (not verified) on 07 Sep 2006 #permalink

Jason R: You have a nasty formatting error in your article!

In the second quote,at the end of the title River out of Eden, you apparently closed the title with a double-quote, instead of an "end italic" tag.

By David Harmon (not verified) on 07 Sep 2006 #permalink


You use the same tired arguments that many believers use whom I converse with from time to time. They don't realize that they are actually dismissing "faith" from their lives.

You stated, "When you are before God you will believe." That's a bunch of you-know-what. If that were to happen, I wouldn't BELIEVE--I would KNOW. I would have KNOWLEDGE from experience.

You stated, "I have experienced Him in my life." You now have KNOWLEDGE of him--not BELIEF. Knowledge that comes from actual experience means that faith is no longer required. Faith is belief with no evidence including experiential evidence. You now have this experiential evidence.

(Actually, in my humble opinion, I don't believe you've experienced Him at all in your life--you just wanted to experience Him and coopted some emotional event for that purpose.) But I don't wish to argue with you over that--it just naturally comes from my philosophical stance as an atheist and the knowledge that beliefs themselves have a powerful influence in your life.

Believing is seeing . . .

The point of this post is that science has no problem with KNOWLEDGE of a God, if that God were to make himself KNOWN to man in an experiential and verifiable way. Your post has not done that stance any damage whatsoever. You have merely unwittingly stated what all atheists already know--if they die and find themselves standing before God, then they'll know God exists. Woop di doooooo . . . It doesn't change anything for me here on Earth.

Your post is the standard fear-mongering finger pointing stance with a little, "You just wait and see what you're in store for," attitude.