Over at the Guardian, Andrew Brown damns Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene with faint praise, noting as well that former Pope Benedict has criticized the book as science fiction.
The Selfish Gene, which has by now sold well over a million copies in a gazillion languages, is a seminal work, and has opened the eyes of millions to a gene-centered view of evolution and all that it explains: cooperation, conflict, and, in its brilliant central metaphor, the process of natural selection. I can’t count the number of people who have told me, either in person or on this site, that it changed their lives, opening them up to the wonders of science.
And this is what Brown says about it in his essay, “Ex-Pope Benedict says The Selfish Gene is science fiction. He’s half right.”
The first thing to be said about The Selfish Gene is that it is a very fine piece of pop science writing indeed. It is not as dense and thought-provoking as Richard Dawkins’s second book, The Extended Phenotype – but without it, who would had bought or read the latter? – and it is not as accomplished as The Blind Watchmaker or Climbing Mount Improbable but those early books are much better than anything he has produced in his subsequent career. Their freshness and direct force is extraordinary.
Well, that’s not too bad, though the phrase “pop science writing” makes me quail. And I do think it was far more influential than the other two books Brown mentions. But he’s entitled to his opinion, though I think it’s a matter of record that The Selfish Gene has outstripped the others in both sales and influence. But then Brown says these things:
The Selfish Gene must have inspired thousands of people to take up biology. Beyond that, it had a huge influence on the culture of nerds. There is nothing original in the biology and some can now be seen to be wrong, but that’s the fate of any 30-year-old undergraduate text (it grew out of his lectures to students).
“Nerds”? “Undergraduate text”? It’s not an undergraduate text, and the use of “nerds” is simply an ad hominem. And even if Dawkins was just explicating the results of other scientists, he did it in an original and literary way, bringing to the public important science that would otherwise have remained obscure. In other words, Dawkins’s book spread wonder through the world. It was a good thing for science education.
But Brown’s piece gets worse:
But alongside the intellectual force and drive, wrapped round it and giving it shape, as histones give shape to DNA, came Dawkins’s shadow side – the fact that he is his own greatest fan and believer. You may think the competition for this position is too great for there to be any single winner but I think it’s safe to say that not even the most devoted of his groupies have their partner read out loud from his books at bedtime, as he does. But even if he does have readers more delighted in his cleverness than he is himself, they don’t have quite the same corrupting effect on his understanding.
What is that about? It seems that what Brown dislikes is not the book, but Dawkins. And, as almost everyone knows, Dawkins’s wife, Lalla Ward, is a trained actress, and has helped coach him about how to read in public by reading his books out loud (she also, Richard says, has helped him realize that good writing should sound mellifluous when you read it aloud). It’s simply wrong, and nasty, to imply that this “reading out loud” reflects some kind of groupie-ism. It’s tutelage, and nothing more. How low of Brown to say something like this.
Finally, Brown makes the Mary Midgley-ian argument that The Selfish Gene goes astray because of the weakness of its central metaphor:
In particular, the ascription of agency to genes led him and his followers into endless confusion. The point is not merely whether genes can be selfish or generous, but whether they can be said to have any activity at all in the world. This is a point which he freely concedes and then forgets – his manner of dealing with most criticism. If a gene is defined, as he defines it, as a piece of chromosomal material subject to the pressures of selection, it is the pressures of selection which are the active and changing parts of the picture, and the DNA sequence is entirely passive.
It is still less true to imagine that genes “build” us into “great lumbering robots”. The process by which a stretch of DNA sequence becomes a protein is complicated, and determined by cellular mechanisms which are in turn reacting to pressures from their environment. The process by which proteins become bodies is even more complicated.
The Selfish Gene is a brilliant phrase. It’s also accurate, so long as you realise that “selfish” doesn’t mean selfish, “gene” doesn’t mean gene, and the definite article is a bit of an abstraction. But taken as the literal truth, it’s about as much use as “In the beginning was the word”. Given Dawkins’s hostility to everyone else’s metaphysics, this is an unfortunate weakness. “Science fiction” may not be the right term for the book but it does capture the sense in which its hold on the imagination depends on the parts that aren’t science but dazzling metaphor.
I don’t see the “endless confusion” that the metaphor caused, except by those like Mary Midgley who seemed too obtuse to realize the brilliance of analogizing the behavior of genes to some kind of “selfishness.” How many people really were led astray by this metaphor? Not many, I’d guess. And “pressures of selection” are themselves metaphorical; those are simply another word for the differential effects of different bits of DNA on reproduction—the effects that lead to natural selection. Natural selection is not an external pressure imposed on the organism, but a description of how genes replicate themselves differentially in specific environments. It’s a process of sorting among “selfish genes”.
The bit about genes not building bodies directly is, of course, something that Dawkins is aware of and has written about constantly. And it’s largely irrelevant to the whole “selfish gene” idea. Brown’s final paragraph, which implies that the part of The Selfish Gene that’s half right is the “fiction” part of “science fiction”, is simply wrong. The book educated millions of people about how natural selection works, and what kind of behaviors it can mold. That depended on the science, not on the metaphor, as the metaphor was just a way to bring the science home. When people talk about Dawkins’s book, they talk about how it opened their eyes to the wonder of natural selection, not about how clever the “selfish gene” idea was.
Poor Richard! I can imagine how frustrating it must feel to be subject to such unwarranted attacks—attacks that not only have been rebutted years ago, but are repeated endlessly by those who dislike his atheism (or his fame).
Even the Pope got into the act. As The Independent reports, ex-Pope Benedict apparently agrees with Brown. Have a look at what Ratzinger said:
The 86-year-old discusses atheism, apparently poking fun at Odifreddi’s previous statements and condemning Richard Dawkins’ writing as a “classic example of science fiction”.
In response to Odifreddi’s 2009 declaration that the church preaches conjecture, not facts, and is therefore “science fiction”, Benedict said: “There is, moreover, science fiction in a big way just even within the theory of evolution. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins is a classic example of science fiction.”
He added: “The great Jacques Monod wrote the sentences that he has inserted in his work certainly just as science fiction. I quote: ‘The emergence of tetrapod vertebrates … draws its origin from the fact that a primitive fish’ chose ‘to go and explore the land, on which, however, was unable to move except jumping clumsily and thus creating, as a result of a modification of behaviour, the selective pressure due to which would have developed the sturdy limbs of tetrapods’”.
So much for the Catholic Church being down with evolution! As for Monod’s statement about the evolution of terrestriality in vertebrates, it’s a bit extreme but not inaccurate. Terrestriality might have arisen through a behavior in which a “fishapod” that had already evolved sturdy fins to “stand” in shallow water went looking for food (or another pond) by walking ashore, and, if that behavior was successful, could have promoted the evolution of further adaptations to live on land. That’s “fiction” only in the sense that we don’t know it for sure, but it’s certainly not “fiction” in the sense that it’s deliberately untrue!
The idea that many major evolutionary changes begin with a change in behavior has been suggested by many, including the famous evolutionist Ernst Mayr. Flight may also have begun in a similar way in theropods that had already evolved feathers for other reasons.