We have completed maintenance on DiscoverMagazine.com and action may be required on your account. Learn More

The Selfish Genius, mind your manners Dr. Dawkins!

Gene Expression
By Razib Khan
Aug 24, 2009 6:03 PMNov 5, 2019 9:40 AM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

A month ago Larry Moran made reference to Fern Elsdon Baker's new book, The Selfish Genius: How Richard Dawkins Rewrote Darwin's Legacy. Moran was a bit disappointed by the previews, his pet hobby-horse being the revolutionary impact of the neutral theory of molecular evolution, while Elsdon-Baker seems rather fixated on the potential of Neo-Lamarckism, especially epigenetics. Well, I've read the book, and Larry Moran would probably be disappointed, though she mentions Stephen Jay Gould and pluralism a bit, there's really very little engagement with the 20th century debates in evolutionary biology. The narrative is broken into two parts, the first half being a history of science and a general description of the current consensus and its possible future trajectory, and the second half a detailed examination of Richard Dawkins' foray into social and political advocacy, and its relationship to his philosophy of science, and the potential impact of his reputation on science education. A mouthful in less than 300 pages. If you have read some Peter J. Bowler the first few chapters of the book won't have much new or surprising. It is mostly in the class of "facts which ignorant people should know." For example, that the idea of evolution was in wide circulation when Charles Darwin made the case for natural selection as being its primary driving engine. Or, that many progressive Christian clergy were quick to accept the fact of evolution. And so on. If you didn't know that Charles Darwin accepted some Lamarckian processes, you might pick up a book on the history of science. Elsdon-Baker's treatment is rather thin and cursory on these subjects because its primary aim isn't to educate you about the history of evolutionary thought, rather, it is to sketch out the constellations just thickly enough to illustrate how Richard Dawkins rewrote history to serve his own Whiggish narrative in a series of popularizations. This issue with Dawkins' arguments isn't particularly shocking, he famously asserted in The Blind Watchmaker that Darwinism allowed one to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. A. N. Wilson engages this model in God's Funeral: The Decline of Faith in Western Civilization because of its widespread acceptance. As an empirical matter Dawkins is likelywrong, unless you assert anyone who was an atheist or unbeliever before Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection was intellectually unfulfilled by definition. A history of 19th century evolutionary thought, and Darwin's own particular ideas, are followed by a series of rapid jumps down the decades to the contemporary period. These jumps span the late 19th century debates between the classical Darwinians such as August Weismann and Saltationists, with barely a reference to the emergence of genetics due to the synthesis of evolutionary theory and Mendelism, the creation of population genetics and later the crystallization of the neo-Darwinian synthesis, and finally the emergence of the ideas of William D. Hamilton which prompted Richard Dawkins' own foray into the public sphere. I can't guess with certainty the reason one would elide so much critical historical and scientific meat, but I assume it had to do with the fact that the book was aimed at a general audience, and, that it was constrained in the material it could cover due to its page count. These rapid leaps across paradigms quickly settle upon a more thorough outline of the debate between Richard Dawkins and those who promote the possibility of processes such as horizontal gene transfer and epigenetics, which would undercut the neo-Darwinian orthodoxy of which he is the primary public expositor. There is no mention of the selectionist-neutralist debate, or the earlier disagreements within the neo-Darwinian orthodoxy (e.g., Sewall Wright vs. R. A. Fisher, Ernst Mayer vs. J. B. S. Haldane). Obviously I was not satisfied with the survey of the scientific literature and the richly textured debates and disagreements which bubbled across conferences and decades were not even hinted at. Of course I am not likely the typical intended audience, so I will let it rest, but not before I note some issues with the substance of the science as Fern Elsdon-Baker presents them. For example, she portrays random contingency and natural selection as alternative paths, but the reality is that on even normal geological timescales selection is stochastic, more or less. With infinite time and population size one assumes that selection could explore the full sample space of fitness possibilities, but this theoretical boundary condition isn't taken seriously by most from what I know. Similarly, she asserts that Stephen Jay Gould emphasized evolution on the level of the species, but as someone who has read most of The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, I think this is not only wrong in the emphasis but misses the whole point of Gould's line of argument, that it is problematic to emphasize one level of organization or complexity as the primary target of selection. There is no symmetry between Gould and Dawkins when it comes to the levels of selection debate. Additionally, it seems to me that there is some conflation of issues such as phyletic gradualism and adaptationism, with these set against punctuated equilibrium. In fact R. A. Fisher's model of adaptation and conception of how allele frequencies change over time is totally at odds with gradualism, rather, there should be large initial changes which rapidly converge upon an adaptive optimum, which would then remained in a relatively fixed state until the adaptive landscape changed. Though I think Dawkins protests a bit too far in dismissing punctuated equilibrium as already part of the basic Darwinian framework, I do think in The Selfish Genius there is a bit excessive simplification so as to present a starker scientific narrative which makes Richard Dawkins out to be an advocate and not a scholar. I could go on in this vein with my critiques of Fern Elsdon-Baker's description of the scientific debate, but I will concede the difficulties in appropriately condensing the nuance in a relatively short work which is frankly verging on polemic, though I won't retract my opinion that there are some serious factual issues which might lead lay readers astray. In broad-brush strokes there is truth to the portrait insofar as Dawkins is a partisan, in particular of the tradition of evolutionary biology which comes through R. A. Fisher down to William D. Hamilton, the Oxford School, which was surveyed by Marek Kohen in A Reason for Everything: Natural Selection and the English Imagination. This is not a marginal or extreme faction, as detailed in The Selfish Genius it is in many ways the main trunk of evolutionary thought from the 1930s to the present day. The issue in terms of science is whether findings in fields such as epigenetics will overturn the rules-of-thumb which were established in the middle of the 20th century. Science and time will tell. Rather, when it comes to the present day Fern Elsdon-Baker's narrative takes a tangent and shifts away from the meat of natural science to the more delicate desserts of sociology, politics and rhetoric. Richard Dawkins is a household name not because of his science, but because of his ability as a communicator. There is no shame in this, scientists of undisputed eminence such as James Watson and E. O. Wilson are known more for their provocative public statements and social pronouncements than they are for their research (I would suggest that much of the public which is aware of "Watson & Crick" has no idea that James Watson is the Watson). In the mid-1970s Dawkins published The Selfsh Gene, which made his name as a distiller, transmitter and philosopher. Dawkins drank deeply at the well of William D. Hamilton and John Maynard Smith, and reworked their ideas into a more robust verbal apparatus, the selfish gene, the vehicle, the replicator, and so forth. His impact was great enough that a generation later his achievement warranted a festschrift, Richard Dawkins: How a Scientist Changed the Way We Think. In his later books Dawkins pushed further into the realm of popularizer, with his last scientifically oriented work, The Ancestor's Tale, being a descriptive natural history which avoids the logical and speculative tendencies of his previous projects. The original research of Richard Dawkins in ethology is a distant memory now, as he has transformed himself into a public figure and celebrity, with an actress wife to boot to round out the image. It is because of this reality that I am willing to move past the objections I entered in above in regards to how The Selfsh Gene characterizes the scientific debate and consensus; for all the talk of epigenetics most readers will be more interested in the fireworks in the second half of the book which delves into religion, philosophy and the role of public intellectuals. Elsdon-Baker paints a portrait of Dawkins as a naive positivist, a dyed-in-the-wool believer in an objectivity to which he has clear and distinct access, an obnoxious and often offensive advocate and polemicist who suffers no fools. I think this is in the main correct. Much of what irks many about Richard Dawkins is not the content, it is the style and delivery. Carl Sagan was arguably just as uncompromising a materialist, but his congenial and affable personality had a much softer edge to it. And this razor sharpness is what also elicits in devotion to Dawkins which can verge on cultish. The problem for Elsdon-Baker, and many others, is Dawkins' dual roles as a science popularizer and prophet of the New Atheism, and, his vocal connection between his Darwinism as the acid which necessarily ate away at his theism. This is familiar ground, Chris Mooney & Sheril Kirshenbaum and Michael Ruse have opined on. The pro- and anti- Dawkins factions were out in full-force in the early days of ScienceBlogs in the wake of The God Delusion. There is some rehashing of non-overlapping magisteria, but the more interesting bits are deconstructions of Richard Dawkins' view of science and implicit epistemology. As I said above, Dawkins seems to be a naive positivist, as are many scientists. They presume there is an objective world out there, a world that can be modeled, measured and conceived in a clear and distinct fashion. Natural scientists live in a world apart from literary essayists, who might quibble on the margins over a thousand interpretations. This is not to say that disputes do not arise in natural science, but the ability to observe and experiment, to scaffold verbs with mathematical formalism, does the endeavour much good. Science is not dependent upon the faculties of humans, rather, the world itself serves as a critical test and check upon the intuitions, deductions and inferences of the human mind. But of course science is the enterprise of humans, and so as with all human enterprises there is a great deal of messy politics, bickering and self-dealing. Even scientists as brilliant as Fred Hoyle could not give up on their pet theory when the data began to turn against it. This messy proximate reality, the objective principles of science being suborned by self-interest and bias, ultimately gives way to truth and falsification. There is only so long you can resist the verdict of nature, but in the meantime the normal human process of paradigmatic conflict persists. The difference is that these conflicts generally conclude, either with minds changed, or holdouts dying. Fern Elsdon-Baker seems to be of the position that Richard Dawkins and his acolytes in their scientistic fervor elide all these day to day details in the interest of promoting the march of science toward truth in a straight line without deviation and human foible, and that these omissions serve to undermine Dawkins' credibility, and that of science, with the public. The genius of science is not that it is right, but that it is wrong, and often indubitably so. Richard Dawkins' pronouncements seem to go against this spirit, for their are vigorous, aggressive, assertive and without doubt. In a debate this is an asset, but in transmitting the spirit of science it can be misleading. Additionally, Dawkins' aggressive espousal of atheism with the cudgel of science often leads him to conflating various intellectual modes. While claiming to be a rationalist he makes no distinction between philosophical rationalism of which the hallmark is deduction, and the inductive empirical workaday of normal science. This blurring leads one to easily dismiss theism on scientific grounds. Fern Elsdon-Baker rightly, in my view, points out that while some versions of theism can be empirically refuted (e.g., literalism which supports Young Earth Creationism), others can only be philosophically denied (e.g., philosophical Deism). The empirical inductive tools of science are of limited scope, and to assert that something is a scientific question does not make it amenable to scientific methods. Words are not magic. Finally, there is the matter of Richard Dawkins' Eurocentric anti-liberal positivism. To be fair, it is not stated as such in The Selfish Genius, but the message is clear. I actually do not know where some of this comes from, though Dawkins has expressed skepticism of some aspects of liberalism, such as multiculturalism, from all I know he is a conventional Labour party supporter who exhibits the typical European intellectual contempt for American conservatism. I am no Richard Dawkins scholar, but Fern Elsdon-Baker presented little concrete evidence that the man is anti-liberal, aside from a few quotations which make it clear that the liberalism of those who inflamed him to ire was less consequential than their relativism or multiculturalism. As a point of fact I also think Dawkins is correct, though perhaps premature, to suggest that Muslims tend to be Creationist. More polls need to be done, but if Turkish and American Muslims do not support evolution, it seems implausible that Egyptian or Pakistani Muslims would. Additionally, when it comes to rejecting some of Richard Dawkins' excessively authoritative assertions, such as the idea that female circumcision is an "ethnic religious" tradition, Fern Elsdon-Baker seems to feel that a claim to objectivity is totally acceptable, as she asserts that it has nothing to do with religion. Certainly this is a defensible claim, but there are many Muslims who do claim it has everything to do with religion, as that is their interpretation of Islam. In fact Dawkins is correct, to a great extent female circumcision is justified on ethnic-religious grounds, though the particular interpretation of the religion might not be widely accepted outside of that ethnic group, the idea that there is "true religion" which one might objectively use as a judge against which to dismiss Dawkins' assertion is itself falling prey to the sort of naive positivism that Elsdon-Baker so often chides him for. The issue here is not that Richard Dawkins is wrong, it is that he is in the minority viewpoint when it comes to the proper boundaries of sensitivity. In a world in which most people believe in God, making the necessary and essential connection between evolutionary biology and atheism may not be the best marketing ploy for the former. This is no seminal observation. Richard Dawkins aggressive, acerbic and take-no-prisoners style is a matter of taste. I am frankly skeptical that Dawkins is as consequential as his acolytes and detractors claim he is, most of the public is relatively detached from intellectual discourse, and probably are ignorant of terms such as "New Atheist." The Selfish Genius does not always play fair, as Fern Elsdon-Baker acknowledges on the first page in regards to the title, which was a gimmick rather than a description of Richard Dawkins' character. This sort of ploy seemed a bit low to me, but The Selfish Genius has a polemical flavor, and so likely such behavior should be interpreted in that light. Though Fern Elsdon-Baker writes in an engaging style which is accessible to the general reader, I believe that the complexity and subtly of some of the scientific questions which she wades into require a more well-versed audience to navigate the details with ease. The author may take a strong line against Richard Dawkins, she is no Steve Fuller, and she makes enough charitable concessions to Dawkins so that The Selfish Genius falls short of being mean-spirited. As an American I definitely learned a bit more about the intellectual scene in Britain, where Dawkins seems to stride across the landscape like a latter day giant. If you're a fan of Richard Dawkins there is enough to get you're juices flowing, but not enough for you to froth at the mouth. Fern Elsdon-Baker snipes at the intellectual edifice which Richard Dawkins constructs, but does not attack in a personalized fashion. If you're an admirer or a hater of Richard Dawkins, a worthwhile read. If you're looking for an introduction to the history of the science at issue, look elsewhere. Addendum: Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover.

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.