Sunday, April 14, 2013

"The Selfish Gene" - Richard Dawkins

There are some books which have been around for so long, and which are so well known that it appears pointless to actually read them. Surely we know the entirety of their content in advance.

Reading "The Selfish Gene" for the first time I'm reminded - yet again - how wrong this prejudice is. Dawkins' writing is rational and sophisticated,  his arguments both counterintuitive and persuasive. It's deeply unfamiliar to think of plant and animal (incl. human) behaviour in terms of whatever works best to maximise a gene's (or more accurately, an allele's) inclusive fitness.

I have two quibbles. 

1. Dawkins has avoided maths in favour of a textual, metaphorical presentation - this succeeds in making his book something which can be read rather than studied. I would have appreciated, however, to have been told explicitly when there was a robust mathematical analysis supporting his many hand-wavy conclusions. 

Recall that evolutionary psychology is riddled by vaguely-plausible speculative arguments. I understand that there is a formal underpinning (population genetics) to Dawkins's book: I'd just like to know when it's being appealed to.

2. Dawkins, in common with other popularisers like Pinker, is keen to avoid the charge of genetic determinism. This leads to arguments like: 'I am not bound by my genes, I choose for example not to have children (by using contraception)'. 

This is a very sloppy argument as it's unclear what is being counterposed to the 'best interests of the genes'. It sounds like 'free will' but that isn't a concept within scientific explanation (not as long as we believe the laws of physics and discount magic). Dawkins' and Pinker's recourse to contraception is something which needs to be explained by biology, and I think it can be cast as the same kind of 'categorisation mistake' as in the adoption by a desperate mother of a genetically-unrelated child. Surely the alleles which permit it will markedly decrease in frequency in the future.

By evading a proper discussion of this point, Dawkins departs from his own high standards and is thus diminished.

"The Selfish Gene" is billed as an accessible popularisation but is not at all an easy read: the concepts are strange and counterintuitive, the argumentation is frequently sophisticated and subtle and the overall worldview driving the book unfamiliar. It requires engagement and thought by the reader, a personal growth experience which should alter the lens through which the affairs of the world are viewed. The resulting paradigm is far from conventional, let alone politically correct. 

You may observe once again how everyone pays lip service to Darwinian evolution, yet carefully avoids thinking through to the (unpalatable) consequences.