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Gene-juggling

  • Mary Midgley (a1)
Abstract

Genes cannot be selfish or unselfish, any more than atoms can be jealous, elephants abstract or biscuits teleological. This should not need mentioning, but Richard Dawkins's book The Selfish Gene has succeeded in confusing a number of people about it, including Mr J. L. Mackie. What Mackie welcomes in Dawkins is a new, biological-looking kind of support for philosophic egoism. If this support came from Dawkins's producing important new facts, or good new interpretations of old facts, about animal life, this could be very interesting. Dawkins, however, simply has a weakness for the old game of Brocken-spectre moralizing—the one where the player strikes attitudes on a peak at sunrise, gazes awe-struck at his gigantic shadow on the clouds, and reports his observations as cosmic truths. He is an uncritical philosophic egoist in the first place, and merely feeds the egoist assumption into his a priori biological speculations, only rarely glancing at the relevant facts of animal behaviour and genetics, and ignoring their failure to support him. There is nothing empirical about Dawkins. Critics have repeatedly pointed out that his notions of genetics are unworkable. I shall come to this point later, but I shall not begin with it, because, damning though it is, it may seem to some people irrelevant to his main contention. It is natural for a reader to suppose that his over-simplified drama about genes is just a convenient stylistic device, because it seems obvious that the personification of them must be just a metaphor. Indeed he himself sometimes says that it is so. But in fact this personification, in its literal sense, is essential for his whole contention; without it he is bankrupt. His central point is that the emotional nature of man is exclusively self-interested, and he argues this by claiming that all emotional nature is so. Since the emotional nature of animals clearly is not exclusively selfinterested, nor based on any long-term calculation at all, he resorts to arguing from speculations about the emotional nature of genes, which he treats as the source and archetype of all emotional nature. This strange convoluted drama must be untwisted before the full force of the objections from genetics can be understood.

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Wilsonian form, see my book Beast and Man (Cornell University Press, 1978; Harvester Press, 1979), Chapters 4–8

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Philosophy
  • ISSN: 0031-8191
  • EISSN: 1469-817X
  • URL: /core/journals/philosophy
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