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Gene-juggling

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 January 2009

Mary Midgley
Affiliation:
University of Newcastle upon Tyne
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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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Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 1979

References

1 Mackie, J. L., ‘The Law of the Jungle’, Philosophy 53 (10 1978).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

2 The attempt which he has eventually made to answer some of these criticisms may be read in Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie 47 (1978), 6176Google Scholar. Apart from some minor disputes, it simply intensifies the conceptual blunders which I discuss here. Dawkins always answers opponents who point out that ‘genes’ as scientists normally conceive them cannot possibly play the role which he assigns to them by retreating still further from the facts to a more general metaphysical position where ‘genes’ are classed as ‘replicators’. Unless he either learns to do metaphysics or retreats out of sight entirely, this is not going to do him any good.

3 See Sociobiology (Harvard University Press, 1975), 120Google Scholar. He adds, however, ‘Human behaviour abounds with reciprocal altruism consistent with genetic theory, but animal behaviour seems to be almost devoid of it’. He accounts for this (as I do) by the lack of calculation in animals, but seems not to see that, since these ‘animals’ are the subjects we are dealing with for almost the whole of evolution, any ‘genetic theory’ inconsistent with their capacities will have to be revised. Dawkins, in his ‘Grudger’ story, ignores Wilson's reasoning here, as he does most other things that do not suit him.

4 For an example of such work fully carried through, see Kyriakou, Burnet and Connolly on heterozygote advantage in the mating behaviour of Drosophila (‘The behavioural basis of over-dominance in competitive mating success at the ebony locus in Drosophila melanogaster’). Animal Behaviour 27 (1979) (in press).Google Scholar

5 Contrast with this confident and startling pronouncement a typical passage from the Preface to Smith, John Maynard's thoughtful book The Evolution of Sex (Cambridge University Press, 1976)Google Scholar: ‘I am under no illusion that I have solved all the problems that I raise. Indeed, on the most fundamental questions—the nature of the forces responsible for the maintenance of sexual reproduction and genetic recombination—my mind is not made up. On sex, the relative importance of group and individual selection is not easy to decide… It has struck me while writing that the crucial evidence is often missing, simply because the theoretical issues have not been clearly stated.’

6 See Singh, R. S., Lewontin, R. C., and Felton, A. A. on ‘Genetic Heterogeneity within Electrophoretic “Alleles” of Xanthine Dehydrogenase in Drosophila pseudoobscura’, Genetics 84 (1976), 609629.Google ScholarPubMed

7 For a fuller discussion of sociobiological ideas in their more modest, Wilsonian, form, see my book Beast and Man (Cornell University Press, 1978; Harvester Press, 1979), Chapters 4–8Google Scholar. Up till now, I have not attended to Dawkins, thinking it unnecessary to break a butterfly upon a wheel. But Mr Mackie's article is not the only indication I have lately met of serious attention paid to his fantasies. What this shows is that, in the absence of a serious and realistic psychology of motive, people will clutch at straws. Moral philosophers, in particular, have so thoroughly and deliberately starved themselves of the natural facts needed to deal with their problems that many of them are reduced to a weak state in which they lack resistance to even the most obvious absurdities. Anti-naturalist diets must be altogether given up if this sort of thing is to be avoided.

I would like to acknowledge invaluable help over the scientific side of this paper, given by my colleague Dr A. L. Panchen of the Zoology Department of the University of Newcastle.

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