Workers' Liberty #61


There's more to books than titles

In WL59, Clive Bradley examined the arguments of Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould.

Here, Richard Dawkins replies.

I like Clive Bradley's title, "There's more to life than genes" (WL59-60). It is a point I often make myself, not least in Chapters 3 and 11 of The Selfish Gene (which incidentally is published by Oxford University Press, not Penguin). But whereas Bradley has apparently read my book by title only, I followed his article through to the end. His title proves to be the best bit.

Bradley's first paragraph perpetuates the old myth about Marx wanting to dedicate Capital to Darwin. It's quite interesting, so let me briefly clear the matter up. The legend began when a letter was found in Darwin's hand, beginning "My Dear Sir", and politely declining the dedication of an unnamed book. In fact the unnamed recipient of the letter was Edward Aveling, and the book that he wanted to dedicate to Darwin was a work on atheism. But Aveling's common law wife happened to be Eleanor Marx, and she inherited his papers. They were muddled up with her father's papers among her effects, and Darwin's letter was wrongly assumed to have been addressed to Karl Marx. This interpretation found ideological favour in Stalin's Russia, which is why it came to have wide currency in left wing circles around the world. More than twenty years after Lewis Feuer's authoritative debunking (Encounter, October 1978), it is a nostalgic treat to see the story still being dutifully trotted out.

Moving on to Bradley's second paragraph, he states that in Kansas the teaching of evolution has been banned. It has not been banned, merely removed from the compulsory syllabus. There is a difference. Now Bradley's third paragraph: "The Tories" did not give me "the job of chief public educator on scientific matters". The University of Oxford elected me to a professorship of Public Understanding of Science, with an endowment from the Hungarian American computer scientist Charles Simonyi. Neither Oxford University nor Charles Simonyi has any connection, or affinity, with "the Tories". Such mistakes may seem minor, but they accumulate to undermine confidence in a writer.

The word 'refute' does not mean 'deny'. It means successfully disprove. "Dawkins, naturally, refutes the idea that his theory is reductionistic". I am, of course, delighted with this formulation, but Bradley must have meant that I deny it! The same has to be true of "Dawkins et al explicitly refute the notion that the theory should be taken to have any ethical ramifications." My own view is that I did indeed accomplish both refutations successfully, and I invite readers to judge for themselves. OK, so Bradley flunks History and English. But how about the substance of his article? How does he fare in Science and Philosophy? "If the molecules are selfish, so are we . . ." I replied to this kind of ridiculous caricature in my 1979 paper in the journal Philosophy, 'In defence of selfish genes'. Readers of The Selfish Gene who made it past the title will know that one of its main purposes is specifically to explain the evolution of un-selfish behaviour.

Now, the canard of 'reductionism': Bradley approvingly quotes Steven (not Stephen) Rose's attack on The Selfish Gene: ". . . 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." You'd think the very absurdity of Rose's target would ring alarm bells in the mind. Since no sane person could possibly be a reductionist in this ludicrous sense, isn't it rather likely that actually nobody is? In other words the attack is obviously misplaced, the result of a gross misunderstanding (see my review of an earlier book by Rose:

Bradley's biggest misunderstanding of The Selfish Gene is his belief that it has some connection with genetic determinism, and with the spate of claims about genes for homosexuality, genes for aggression and so on. He is confusing embryology (and the false idea that genes irrevocably control us) with genetics (and the idea, which not only is true but must be true if Darwinian selection is to work, that genes make a statistical contribution to variance among individuals). Admittedly this is a common misunderstanding, and I therefore devoted Chapter 2 of The Extended Phenotype to clearing it up. It has also been admirably dealt with by Steven (not Stephen) Pinker in How the Mind Works.

Bradley quotes Stephen (yes, Stephen, well done, Clive) Jay Gould's criticism of alleged atomism in The Selfish Gene, and describes it as "a devastating criticism of not only a scientific approach, but an entire philosophical world-view." Bradley says, "To my knowledge, Dawkins and his co-thinkers have not bothered to respond to this criticism." Let me add to his knowledge. On page 271-272 of the Second Edition of The Selfish Gene, I quote the very same paragraph from Gould, and refute it (really).

Moreover, in the course of this very full reply, I quote the First Edition of The Selfish Gene as making precisely the same points, in detail, as Gould himself was later to make. Not only is Bradley happy to endorse Gould's criticism of The Selfish Gene without bothering to read the book himself; it appears that Gould didn't read it either. Ah well, why bother to read a book, if the title alone tells you it must be the sort of book you disapprove of on political grounds? "Dawkins considers this [non gradual evolution] heresy…" No I don't (least of all "because it has a political dimension." If anything, politics might make me approve it, but the point is irrelevant because nature irritatingly neglects her Aesopian social responsibility to provide political allegories for the benefit of Homo sapiens). In The Blind Watchmaker and Climbing Mount Improbable, I distinguish two kinds of non-gradual evolution, which I call (for reasons explained there) Boeing 747 and Stretched-DC8 evolution. 747 evolution is heresy by any secular standards (it amounts to sudden complex adaptive innovation, as if springing straight from the mind of God). DC8 evolution (sudden changes of large magnitude which do not include increases in adaptive complexity) is not heresy. It probably occurs from time to time.

My main criticism of punctuated equilibrium is not that it doesn't occur (it may well) but that its advocates such as Gould have confused 747 heresy with DC8 orthodoxy, and have therefore made themselves out to be more radical and revolutionary than they are. More, they did Darwin an injustice through not realising that his own opposition to saltationism stemmed from his assumption (which in contemporary terms was true of his nineteenth century opponents) that saltationists were of the 747 variety.

Ironically, the only time Bradley comes anywhere near criticising his hero Gould, Gould is right and Bradley wrong. He wonders whether Gould may have gone over the top in suggesting that the evolutionary rise of humanity is a complete historical accident. I am with most biologists in agreeing that Gould's point is so obviously true that it never needed saying. We had thought that Gould was, not for the first time, attacking a non-existent straw man. But even straw men occasionally exist, and this one appears to be instantiated in the form of Clive Bradley. You can see why it would appeal to his politics. It might be thought to appeal to Gould's politics too, but Gould is too good a scientist to let that distort his perception of nature.

I won't go on and on. If any readers were persuaded by Clive Bradley's ill-informed attack on The Selfish Gene, may I invite them to do what he apparently did not: struggle manfully past the title and actually read the book.

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