“Self” Abuse

The Art of Making Stronger What We Cannot Kill

[Discussed in this essay: The Selfish Genius, by Fern Elsdon-Baker. Icon Books. 270 pages. USD $21, UK£8.99]

When a public figure consistently displays the kind of self-congratulation that leads him to self-refer as “the most formidable intellect in public discourse,” and to dub his cyber-home “a clear-thinking oasis,” it seems almost an expression of natural law that the responses to that public figure’s ideas will take on a personal tone. Thus, for example, theologian Alister McGrath’s book-length attempt to rebut Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion did not begin and end with Dawkins’ argument, but with his state of mind, the soundness of which was questioned in the very title: The Dawkins Delusion.

Dawkins seems to take delight in personalized attacks such as this, finding them as evidence that he has struck a nerve so deep that the only response his victim can summon is a feeble “I know you are but what am I?” He calls such critics “fleas” after the fashion of the Yeats poem dismissing “bad poets and imitators.”

There’s a taste of sour grapes to such a stance; a convenient excuse not to give the benefit of the doubt to—and perhaps actually read—the flea-critic in question. However haughty Yeats may have been in his original dismissal, he was merely declining to praise his imitators for political points, not asserting a right to (so to speak) judge their books by their covers.

And yet, judging books by their covers is, as all publishers know, an incomparable human skill. Why invite the inevitable suspicion that one’s criticism is rooted in pettiness or hurt feelings, rather than high-minded engagement with the issues of the day?

For whatever reason, writer Fern Elsdon-Baker could not resist the temptation to orient her criticism around the man himself—Professor Richard Dawkins—rather than his ideas, titling her recent book The Selfish Genius in a play on his most famous title. I can sympathize with her choice: Dawkins is so wrong about so many things of great importance that one longs for a one-stop shop of rebuttals. But I’m not sure such a decision is worth the price of seeming to prioritize personality over ideas. The Selfish Genius will only appear relevant as long as there is enmity for Dawkins the man (which I do not here endorse). In a few generations, few people will care whether Dawkins was right or wrong, though it will still matter whether or not his ideas endure.

This is a shame, because so many of Elsdon-Baker’s critiques of Dawkins’ positions are well presented, and well taken. Unlike McGrath, whose quarrel with Dawkins is largely restricted to discussions of religion, or a figure like the late Stephen J. Gould, whose titanic feud with Dawkins was largely confined to the mechanics of evolutionary biology, Elsdon-Baker has chosen Dawkins’ entire oeuvre as her subject, from his appearance on the scene in 1977 with The Selfish Gene, to his late role as an evangelist for atheism and scientific naturalism. Her critiques of each mode are apt, and I will take a moment to highlight some of them below.

But in so choosing her scope she casts Dawkins (intentionally or not) as the spokesman for a cohesive ideology, philosophically uniting the adaptationism and gene-centrism of his biological writings, with the hyper-rationalism and scientism of his writings against both religion and literary criticism. This attempt at a unified field theory of Dawkinisiana founders on too many easy counter-examples: some of Dawkins’ staunchest allies in the campaign against religious “accomodationism,” such as the biologists PZ Myers and Larry Moran, take significantly heterodox stances on strict gene-selectionism. And conversely there is nothing inherent in Selfish Gene theory that demands an atheistic or “incompatibalist” stance on religion. Many notable theistic biologists are essentially party-line Selfish Genists, including Francis Collins and Ken Miller.

And yet Elsdon-Baker has many important things to say about Dawkins’ various dogmas, and The Selfish Genius is very much worth reading as an antidote to popular, but mistaken, ideas about biology which should have given way long ago, but for the forceful advocacy of writers like Professor Dawkins.

She begins with a bit of needed revisionism, in this anniversary year, about the history of evolution as a concept, devoting two full chapters to putting Darwin’s theory of natural selection in context and very effectively putting the lie to the notion that before 1859 the only possible explanation for the myriad forms of life was Creationism. Besides Alfred Wallace, at least two other writers anticipated the theory of natural selection, including the 9th century Afro-Arab scholar al-Jahiz—a Muslim—who wrote about the “struggle for existence” long before Malthus came on the scene, and whose ideas about the influence of “environmental determinism” on physical characteristics (including camouflage) are startlingly accurate precursors of Darwin’s theory. (The other writer was Patrick Matthew, whose description of natural selection in a 1831 book on navel timber Darwin himself called “complete.”)

This is not to call Darwin out as a fake; Elsdon-Baker’s general task in these early chapters is to show that Darwin’s work was far more incremental than revolutionary, in an attempt to defuse the tempting myth-making that surrounds the idea of “Darwinism,” neo- or otherwise. Darwin would likely have never come close to the theory that bears his name without the crucial work of Lamarck on adaptation and the deep scale of time evolution requires. Yet, to this day, “Lamarckism” is a term of abuse; an accusation that one is in the grips of a pseudo-science.

Part of the point of all this ledger-balancing (which I confess sometimes seems a little off-topic, though it never flags) is as a prelude to an important component of Dawkins’ ideology Eldson-Baker calls “Whig History,” after the political party of that name. This is the conviction that each progressive moment contributes a positive increase in truth and knowledge, exemplified by the assertion by Victorian British historian Thomas Macaulay that the history of Britain was the history “of physical, or moral, and of intellectual improvement.”

(Marilyn Robinson and Terry Eagleton each raised this point about Dawkins in their respective reviews of The God Delusion. When writer Laurie Taylor brought this criticism to Dawkins directly, in an interview in the New Humanist, he conceded that this outlook, rather than being rational or scientific, reduced to little more than his disposition as “an optimist.”)

There is, admittedly, a clever way Elsdon-Baker’s arguments begin to adhere: Dawkins is the public face of what is generally known today as “neo-Darwinism,” which uses the science of population genetics to redeem Darwin’s notion of natural selection as the central mechanism of evolution. Because of the implicit “Whiggish” nature of evolutionary biology, neo-Darwinism appears to be the inevitable fulfillment of plain old “Darwinism,” which in the pulp-novel version of the history of science is tantamount to the fact of evolution itself. So, to criticize “neo-Darwinism” specifically is almost invariably seen as an assault on evolution generally—perhaps a stealth move by some Creationist ideologue. This matters a great deal, because neo-Darwinism has been in crisis for a while, and there seems to be an unfortunate reluctance to talk about it for fear of giving succor to religionists.

This is the portion of The Selfish Genius—a survey of the valid standing challenges to orthodox neo-Darwinism—that I would like to praise the most highly. Accurate accounts in the popular press about the actual state of evolutionary biology are are all too uncommon. And any book on the systematic thought of Richard Dawkins should devote its greatest part to his place of greatest influence, which is gene-centric evolution and the primacy of the “replicator.” But the two chapters Elsdon-Baker devotes to this topic seem inadequate, and I find this aspect of her critique a mixed success.

Elsdon-Baker spends a considerable amount of time trying to rehabilitate Lamarck, and she is in a sense partly right to do so. The notion we have of Lamarck today is woefully simplistic; his doctrine of “use and disuse” or inheritance of “acquired” characteristics is not accurately conveyed by examples like a blacksmith passing on his bulging muscles to his sons. But even a rehabilitated Lamarck mounts little in the way of challenge to orthodox neo-Darwinism. Exceptions to the “central dogma” that information from the cell can’t travel back to alter the DNA sequence are few, and have limited impact on the role of heredity.

But Lamarckism never really offered a promising challenge to neo-Darwinism. Rather the two areas that provide the most headaches for a gene-centric theory of evolution are systems theory (sometimes called biological systems theory, or BST) and epigenetics. Epigenetics is, put simply, the study of influences on traits from outside the genome. Diet is an illustrative example. Among humans ther eis a varying genetic capacity for developing diabetes. But almost anyone can manage or even reverse the disease by dietary means. A highly glycemic diet is just as much a “cause” of diabetes as a genetic predisposition for it is.

In the classical, now deprecated view of genetics, each gene “codes for” a specific protein, which has a specific role in the cell, which contributes to various phenotypic traits. But not all genes are actively coding all the time (if they were, cell differentiation would be impossible, since each cell in the body has an identical genome. We would all be made of undifferentiated goo.) Genes alternate between activity and quiescence in a complex of activity known as gene expression. This creates obvious problems for the selfish gene/replicator model, since a gene can’t turn itself on and off any more than a lightbulb can.

Systems theory is the study of how entire cells, and groups of cells, function together, including not just influences like epigenetics and gene expression, but also “autopoesis,” which is the science of the inherent structure of biological forms that Stuart Kaufmann calls “order for free” and Conrad Waddington called “homeorhesis.” (A related concept, dubbed by Waddington “canalization,” describes the ability of the organism to preserve a phenotypic trait despite conflicting information from the genome or the environment. This principle has been demonstrated experimentally in fruit flies, and may partially explain how two species of fruit fly, D. melanogaster and D. simulans, can be nearly identical though they have significantly divergent genomes).

Further complicating the prevailing gene-centric view is that genes themselves don’t have anywhere near the autonomous existence they would need to have to function as “immortal replicators.” (Indeed some biologists, such as Evelyn Fox Keller, believe it’s time to retire the concept of the “gene” altogether.) Through a process called “alternative splicing,” a single DNA “transcript” can be translated into multiple mRNA sequences, and consequently multiple proteins—as many as 576 have been counted in a gene influencing inner ear cilia in a chick.

In light of all of this the notion of autonomous genes spreading through populations starts to sound oversimplistic, if not outright semantically dilute. Elsdon-Baker does a decent job of cataloging some of these dissident facts (including some I haven’t mentioned, such as horizontal gene transfer, or HGT). But after coming on so strong, her punches seem pulled here, and her argument tentative; perhaps because she still has the looming task ahead of her of arguing against Dawkins’ divisiveness on the matter of religion. It is one of the reasons why I think she would have been better advised to choose to address either Dawkins’ work on biology, or on religion, but not, in one book, both.

This may be a good time to mention that Elsdon-Baker—or her editor—has given The Selfish Genius the obligatory subtitle*: “How Richard Dawkins Rewrote Darwin’s Legacy.” Part I, which we’ve just discussed, sticks closely to this theme, but Part II—which goes on to take Dawkins to task for his advocacy of science as a vanquisher of both religious superstition and constructivist philosophy—feels like a case of mission creep. Whatever Darwin’s “legacy” is, or should be, it has little to do with science as an ideology.

The fiber connecting Part I and Part II is in Dawkins’ employment of Darwin as a symbol of the triumph of science over religion, through Darwin himself never took this view. (And, as Elsdon-Baker makes clear in Part I, Darwinism did not directly topple Creationism, which already had a number of contenders for the ultimate explanation of the origin of species before Darwin published his theory).

Elsdon-Baker uses this as a launching pad for a general criticism of Dawkins’ scientism. I find this criticism welcome and have made many of the same points myself in this space, but still find her ad hominem tone a distraction. I would contrast Elsdon-Baker’s approach with that of philosopher John Dupré, whose 2003 book Darwin’s Legacy is echoed in Elsdon-Baker’s subtitle. Dupré makes many of the same points as Elsdon-Baker regarding what is not implied by Darwin’s theory, and doesn’t shy from singling out Dawkins for the negative influence of his selfish-gene metaphor. But having done so, he returns to the prosecution of his thesis in its positive aspect. With just a few calibrations, Elsdon-Baker could have written such a book. Not the least of which calibrations would have been the selection of a less salacious title.

Richard Dawkins has built the late portion of his career on haphazard and philosophically naive remarks about the role and function of science. For this he has earned the opprobrium of Fern Elsdon-Baker, and many others. But negative statements (such as this review, perhaps?) are not generally remembered as long or as well as positive ones, whatever attention they might at first attract. Positive, not in the sense of sunny or pollyannish, but in the sense prioritizing the ideas that fill a cleared space over the clearing of old ideas from that space. We need new and enduring ways to think about biology and our relationship with the world, much more than we need reasons to disapprove of the old ones. Elsdon-Baker does, to her credit, roughly sketch out some of the work being done to develop these ideas, but her central placement of Dawkins as a bedeviling obstacle to this development only serves, in the end, to strengthen his influence.


* See a great take on modern publishing’s rampant subtitle-itis here.


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