Workers' Liberty #59


There's more to life than genes

Clive Bradley reviews the arguments of Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould.

Marx wanted to dedicate Capital to Charles Darwin, a fact sometimes constructed by Marxologists to suggest that the founder of "scientific socialism" saw a crude parallel between his theory of social development and Darwin's theory of evolution. In fact, of course, Marx merely recognised the enormous importance of a theory which put our knowledge of natural history on a materialist, i.e., scientific, footing, abolishing once and for all the notion of divine intervention.

Today in large parts of America it is official educational policy that Darwin be treated on the same level as the religious mumbo-jumbo of "creationism", that evolution is only a theory "some scientists" believe in. In one state, Kansas, the teaching of evolutionary theory has been banned. Nevertheless, Darwinian evolution has been probably the single most important idea in the history of science. American fundamentalism notwithstanding, very very few scientists doubt the theory of evolution.

Even so, within the scientific establishment there are, so to speak, Darwinians and Darwinians. Neo-Darwinianism, which fused Darwin's theory with modern genetics, is probably dominant, and best known in Britain through the writing of Richard Dawkins. Another well-known popular science writer, the American palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould, is Dawkins' chief opponent in modern evolutionary theory.

Dawkins is extremely influential, if not in the scientific community itself then certainly among the general public. Partly for this reason, and partly because he is a skilful and readable writer, the Tories gave him the job of chief public educator on scientific matters. As a result, the most widely read authority on questions of biology and evolution is the man who made his name as the author of The Selfish Gene, a very particular spin on the neo-Darwinian theme. The general public is thus often unaware that Dawkins' views are contentious among scientists 1.

The most commendable side to Dawkins' work is his trenchant critique of "creationism", and his corresponding atheism. Acknowledging the awesomeness of life, Dawkins sets out to show that natural selection is the only convincing explanation of its development. The titles of his books - The Blind Watchmaker, and Climbing Mount Improbable - are good indicators of his approach, which is to address a sceptical audience and prove Darwinian theory to them. In the process he reveals how fascinating biology can be.

Nevertheless, the argument from The Selfish Gene runs through Dawkins' work, and he is a point of reference for broadly right-wing thought, including for example the philosopher Daniel Dennett, whose Darwin's Dangerous Idea is virtually a companion volume. Dawkins holds that life evolves as a result of fundamental genetic imperatives, and the prime mover in evolution is the genes' drive to replicate. "We are survival machines," he writes, "robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes." As a result, Dawkins' work is a general theoretical manifesto for genetic determinism in all its forms. Moreover, among evolutionists there is a sharp debate about the "gradualism" of the evolutionary process. Dawkins (and Dennett) are popular heavyweights in favour of the slow, gradual evenness of evolution, sharply critical of Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldridge, whose theory of "punctuated equilibria" holds that long periods of "stasis" are broken by sudden (in evolutionary terms) breaks and periods of biological convulsion.

Although, characteristically, Dawkins denies any meaningful political component to this debate, he and Dennett are explicitly opposed to Gould's view because it has a political dimension - i.e., that evolution itself follows a revolutionary, rather than gradualist, pattern.

Indeed, one of the features of Dawkins' work, and of those influenced by him, is an emphasis on the neutralism and non-ideological nature of science. Dawkins is dismissive of those who accuse him of a political agenda. In this he is in marked contrast to Stephen Jay Gould, for example, who has a clear conception of the ideological parameters of science. One of Gould's books, The Mismeasure of Man, is a brilliant polemic against IQ testing, detailing the history of all attempts to measure intelligence and demonstrating irrefutably the recurring racism inherent in them2. Central to Gould's preoccupations is the idea that "science" is based on certain ideological and cultural assumptions, and is never "neutral". This is not, of course, to dismiss all science as simply false. But it would be hard to imagine Dawkins even being interested in this area of study.

The "selfish gene"?

The theory that genes explain everything is increasingly popular.

Pop-documentaries on research "proving" that there is a "gene for" everything from homosexuality to aggressive behaviour are part of regular TV programming. Far less publicity is given to alternative research, even when widely-disseminated results which have been judged definitive ignominiously collapse in the face of later studies. A few years ago the discovery of a "gay gene" was given a huge amount of news coverage (see WL 44). When this research was recently discredited, other scientists being quite unable to replicate the results, it warranted only a few small articles in the press. Meanwhile discoveries of "genes for" violent behaviour, etc., etc., etc., are made all the time - which means, of course, that money is being spent on looking for them.

Dawkins' "selfish gene" theory underlies the entire approach. If we are "robots" for our genes, this means that every aspect of human behaviour, from sexuality to anything else you care to mention, can be, in the last analysis, explained by genetic imperatives.

Dawkins, naturally, refutes the idea that his theory is reductionist, i.e., that it is an effort to explain "everything" crudely in this way, and attacks his critics for setting up straw dolls.

The biochemist Stephen Rose, in Lifelines, tackles Dawkins' defence head on. Rose's book is specifically about genetic reductionism, but he deals in passing with a more general reductionist philosophy in science. This is the view that prime explanatory power must be given to a "fundamental" level of reality - biology gives way to chemistry and chemistry to physics. He quotes Dawkins ridiculing his critics:

"The belief attributed to the 'reductionists' is exactly equivalent to the following: 'A bus drives fast, because the passengers sitting inside it are all fast runners'... I shall make a distinction between... 'two step' reductionism and 'precipice reductionism'. Precipice reductionists probably do not exist... Step-by-step reductionism is the policy adopted by all scientists with a sincere wish to understand..."

Rose responds: "But... the belief attributed to reductionists is nothing to do with the passengers... [It is that they] wish to explain why the bus drives fast in terms of its mechanical properties... and that this in turn is to do with the molecular properties of the petrol or diesel... which is in turn to do with the quantum properties of the atoms... While this is one perfectly appropriate way of describing how the bus drives fast, the why question relates to the complex framework of public and private transport, schedules, road congestion, driver skills, and so on, within which the mechanics of the bus engine are embedded..." (Rose, Lifelines, p.87).

The point here is that the argument of the selfish gene rests on the assumption that genes can be considered a fundamental "cause" of behaviour, and that - step-by-step or otherwise - an account of genetic imperatives can be considered a meaningful explanation of anything.

Like Dawkins, researchers into "genes for" behaviour usually make disclaimers, and bemoan the simple-mindedness of the media who generalise from partial conclusions. As Rose notes, in fact the scientists are usually their own most excessive self-publicists, if only because they need investment in their research and can only guarantee it if they play the PR game. But the wild claims being made about these genetic discoveries are not only scientifically spurious: they are politically dangerous.

This is true in two main senses. First, take research into the aggressive behaviour of rats. A particular hormone may be claimed to correlate with such behaviour; but what researchers fail to mention is that other features may also correspond, such as violent vomiting, but these features are simply ignored in the publicity. Thus a direct correlation is "proven" where its applicability to human beings is doubtful to say the least.

Second, the research suggests a particular policy to deal with the problem it has identified.

Rose again: "Reductionist ideology serves to relocate social problems to the individual... Violence in modern society is no longer to be explained in terms of inner-city squalor, unemployment, extremes of wealth and poverty, and the loss of hope that by collective effort we might create a better society. Rather, it is a problem resulting from the presence of individual violent persons, themselves violent as a result of disorders in their biochemical or genetic constitution." (Rose, p.296).

Dawkins' "selfish gene" theory, or more generally what is termed "sociobiology", lay the groundwork for this dangerous notion, precisely because it locates the explanation at the level of genes - molecules - rather than organisms. An organism is more than simply the sum of its genes, and as Rose notes in meticulous detail, organisms interpenetrate with their environment even at the molecular level, even choosing and affecting that environment. Dawkins' step-by-step reductionism is still reductionism, and attractive because it is so simple, and being simple, crude and therefore fundamentally wrong.

Gould has challenged Dawkins' assumption on a similar basis. Evolution, he notes, cannot operate on the level of genes, because genes are invisible in nature.

"There is no gene 'for' such unambiguous bits of morphology as your left kneecap or your fingernail. Bodies cannot be atomised into parts, each constructed by an individual gene... [S]election doesn't even work directly on parts. It accepts or rejects entire organisms because suites of parts, interacting in complex ways, confer advantages... Dawkins will need another metaphor: genes caucusing, forming alliances, showing deference for a chance to join a pact, gauging probable environments. But when you amalgamate so many genes and tie them together in hierarchical chains of action mediated by environments, we call the resultant object a body... If most genes do not present themselves for review, then they cannot be the unit of selection." (Gould, "Caring Groups and Selfish Genes" in The Panda's Thumb, p.77).

To my knowledge, Dawkins and his co-thinkers have not bothered to respond to this criticism, preferring instead to play games with the term "reductionism". But it is a devastating criticism of not only a scientific approach, but an entire philosophical world-view.

The world view is what can be called a crude materialist "atomism". It is materialist because it rejects God, and looks to biological explanations. But it is "atomism" because it seeks to find the single, smallest unit which can provide explanatory power and focuses exclusively on it - the gene (although you can, as Rose notes, take the reductionism all the way down to quantum mechanics) - not only ignoring the mediation between genes and their environments, but rendering the exploration of that mediation conceptually impossible.

The "selfish gene" is not, in Dawkins' theory, assumed to have a consciousness which motivates its action and quest for replication; genes are not literally "selfish", and the phrase is intended to be metaphorical. But metaphors injudiciously used can take on a life of their own, and there is no doubt that in the popular understanding of the theory, the "selfishness" is regarded more straightforwardly. Dawkins has done little (or nothing) to dispel this misconception of his own theory. It is, of course, a striking phrase, typical of Dawkins' vivid prose style, and no doubt played a big role in making his work so popular.

The idea is that since genes "seek" to replicate, organisms will adapt in such a way as to facilitate this rather than obstruct it. But it is intended to explain human behaviour - we are, remember, "robots" for our genes. But how can the multifaceted aspects of human behaviour, from the production of art to the development of scientific knowledge, possibly be accounted for in this simple model? Stephen Pinker, in How the Mind Works, drawing heavily on Dawkins, has attempted, unconvincingly, to account for it.


Dawkins and Dennett get very hot under the collar in criticising Stephen Jay Gould's theory of "punctuated equilibria" in evolution. There is a version of non-Darwinian theory known as "saltationism" ("leaping"), in which new species abruptly emerge in a single generation, and although Dawkins acknowledges that Gould is not a "saltationist" properly speaking, part of his objection seems to be that Gould and his co-thinkers are resurrecting this discredited theory.

Gould is a palaeontologist. Gould and Eldridge discovered that the fossil record revealed that there were long periods of time (in evolutionary theory a short time would be a million years) in which there appeared to be little "speciation" (the emergence of new species), followed by "sudden" bursts of it. They put forward an essentially factual argument, that evolution appeared to follow a pattern of "equilibria" or "stasis", broken by "punctuation" or "abrupt" change. Evolution, in other words, was not a gradual process. Dawkins considers this heresy, and in contradiction to the theory of evolution as he understands it.

What also upsets the neo-Darwinians is that Gould and his colleagues are far less bothered about the dogma of Darwinism. Gould has, for example, challenged the idea that natural selection accounts for absolutely everything. His theory of "exaptation" puts forward the idea that there can be adaptations brought about by one thing which turn out to have an accidental, but more profound, advantage for the organism.

Dawkins et al accuse Gould of giving ground to the creationists. The argument runs that the "sudden bursts" of evolutionary activity are left unexplained by Gould, and the only plausible explanation which could fill the gap is divine intervention. The only consistent theory which does not require God is the slow, gradual evolutionary model. In addition, Dawkins and Dennett claim that Gould has publicly attacked Darwin, giving grist to the creationists' mill.

The accusation is ludicrous at every level. If creationists want to find solace in Gould, they would have to avoid reading him to do so. Gould repeatedly assaults the creationists. To take just one example: creationists claim that the whale is an anomaly for Darwinians, because there are no intermediary mammals to show, as Darwinians claim, the evolution of whales and dolphins from an earlier land-based mammal. Gould (in "Hooking Leviathan by its Past" in Dinosaur in a Haystack) records recent fossil finds which prove beyond doubt the existence of such intermediary species. Gould's critique is not of Darwinism, but of neo-Darwinians like Dawkins.

Here as elsewhere Dawkins et al simply do not understand what Gould is about. Gould's work is packed with interesting, thought-provoking ideas which are far wider in range than anything in Dawkins', and his influence on contemporary scientific thought is incomparably greater. Moreover, as already mentioned, Gould is constantly aware that he is not dealing with neutral matters. An important aspect of Gould's work, for instance, is his firm, sustained attack on the popular equation of evolution with "progress". Gould rejects any notion that there is some teleological tendency in evolution towards the development of humanity, locating this belief not only in the 19th century's general belief in progress, but in its racism3. His beautiful book Wonderful Life is an account of the first forms of life, found in the famous Burgess Shale fossil deposits, which reveals many organisms utterly unrelated to those alive today. Evolution has had many false starts and dead-ends, and the contemporary world domination of mammalian hominids is a complete historical accident.

Whether or not Gould is a bit over the top here, the point I am making is that on every level he is an intellectual giant, certainly in comparison to Dawkins. The theory of "punctuated equilibria" is not of the same species, to coin a phrase, as Dawkins' "selfish gene" or Darwinian dogmatism. It is a working scientific hypothesis, based on a huge amount of empirical research. Dawkins, Dennett et al, quite contrary to their constant claims to scientific neutrality, can only grasp Gould's work as a kind of Grand Unified Theory which challenges their narrow world view. But such an approach is quite alien to Gould. Gould is indeed conscious of the challenge "punctuated equilibria" represents to the cosy certainties of the Darwinian establishment, but only in the sense - which runs through his work - that scientists tend to be unaware that their theory rests on ideological assumptions. In this case the assumption is the inevitability of gradualism, which has a political implication, and Gould is pointing out that the fossil record does not fit with the assumption.

Of course there is a political implication for Gould also. He writes: "If gradualism is more a product of Western thought than a fact of natural history, then we should consider alternative philosophies of change... The dialectical laws [i.e. official Soviet science] express an ideology quite openly; our Western preference for gradualism does the same thing more subtly." ("The episodic nature of evolutionary change" in The Panda's Thumb, pp.153-154)

Gould's method is, it seems to me, that of a real scientist able to take into account aspects of the broader picture, rather than of a vicious polemical idiot, which is how Dawkins et al tend to interpret him. Dawkins simply never asks questions about his own ideological bias, or if he asks them, only dismisses the question as absurd.

Hidden ideology in science

Dawkins has performed an important service in writing accessible books on evolution which have been read by a wide audience. To be fair, in The Blind Watchmaker, for example, he explicitly deals with his arguments with other evolutionists, including Gould. But to the extent that the general readership is unaware of the specific place of Dawkins in contemporary science, his influence is problematic.

Dawkins' work stands in the tradition, fundamentally, of those materialists who were an influence on Marx but whom Marx criticised in the Theses on Feuerbach. "The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism... is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice... Feuerbach wants sensuous objects, really distinct from the thought objects, but he does not conceive human activity itself as objective activity."

In Dawkins a material fact - the gene - is abstracted from human practical activity, such activity conceived essentially as simply caused by genetic imperatives. In Stephen Jay Gould and Stephen Rose, on the other hand, the relationship between the two, and the "objective" character of human activity and culture are clearly understood. All genetic determinism suffers from the same "basic defect".

"Our world may be," Stephen Rose writes, " - is, I would claim - an ontological unity [a unity at the level of 'being'], but to understand it we need... epistemological diversity [at the level of 'knowledge']... And if you still aren't convinced, and believe you can hang-glide off Dawkins' precipice without coming to harm, why bother reading the words, paragraphs and chapters of which this book is composed? All you need to do is examine the individual letters on the page, call in an analytical chemist to give you the formula of the printer's ink, and a microscopist to describe the fibre structures of which the paper is composed. This is why reductionism, once it ceases to be merely methodological, when experimenters can just about hang on to the edge of the precipice by their fingernails, so rapidly tumbles into ideology." (Lifelines, pp.95-96).

Even the word "selfish" in The Selfish Gene serves an ideological purpose.

The underlying thought, and certainly the use to which the theory is put, is that we are vehicles for fundamentally, implacably self-serving molecules. If the molecules are selfish, so are we - biologically, naturally, irremediably. Social organisation is an evolutionary accident, or arises only from some reproductive imperative. It is a world view in which socialism, plainly, is a utopian ideal. Dawkins et al explicitly refute the notion that the theory should be taken to have any ethical ramifications. But of course it does, ethical and beyond.

It is not merely, however, that it is politically distasteful to recognise any validity to Dawkins' theory. The theory is wrong. It is wrong in the sense that both Rose and Gould have outlined so eloquently. It reduces a complex reality, which includes social relations, to a molecule. The host of "genes for" this, that, and the other which have been "discovered" suffer from the same methodological and philosophical pitfalls.


  1. Or indeed, more than contentious. Stephen Rose, in Lifelines, describes how most of his colleagues thought it a waste of time to bother refuting Dawkins in print, as his ideas were so maverick and unrespectworthy. Rose, rightly, responded that this was precisely why they should be tackled publicly.

  2. The second edition of The Mismeasure of Man has a devastating attack on Herrnstein and Murray's The Bell Curve, the latest popular attempt to prove that black people are naturally more stupid than white. Gould's theoretical approach has interesting wider dimensions. For example, he attacks the notion that there could be a measurable "general intelligence" which is supposedly an aggregate of other types of intelligence, and simply assumed to be a "thing", an objective entity. His critique of this method applies with equal force to those who assume a measurable thing such as "violence" or "aggression", or whatever.

  3. The most graphic example of racism is the popular image of human evolution as a progression of humanoid shapes gradually becoming more upright and European. In older versions, Africans were explicitly portrayed as less evolved than white people.

Dawkins and Gould have written very extensively. This is a list of the work referred to in this article. Richard Dawkins: The Selfish Gene (Penguin 1976); The Blind Watchmaker (Penguin 1986); Climbing Mount Improbable (Penguin 1996). Stephen Jay Gould: The Panda's Thumb (Penguin 1980); Dinosaur in a Haystack (Jonathan Cape 1996, also available in Penguin). See also Daniel Dennett: Darwin's Dangerous Idea (Penguin 1995). Two books which should be read by every socialist are: Stephen Rose, Lifelines (Penguin 1997) and Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man (Penguin 1983). There is also a new book about the controversy between Dawkins and Gould, The Darwin Wars by Andrew Brown (Simon and Schuster 1999).

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