Lecture on Dawkins, The Selfish Gene

 

[This lecture, prepared by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College (now Vancouver Island University), was delivered in LBST 402 on March 27, 1997, and slightly revised with minor editorial changes in January 2005. This text is in the public domain and may be used by anyone, in whole or in part, without permission and without charge, provided the source is acknowledged, released May 1999. For comments or questions please contact Ian Johnston.]

 

INTRODUCTION

 

In a recent survey of the top 100 books of this century, a poll conducted by Waterstones Book Store and Channel 4 television in Great Britain, there were only two science books selected by the reading public: Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (number 79) and Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene (at number 91). This result indicates very little, I suspect, except that the reading public does not rank science particularly highly—certainly not as highly as it should—and that Richard Dawkins’ book captured the public’s imagination in a remarkable way. Since the publication of this book (and a number of others on similar themes) Dawkins has emerged as a leading public spokesperson on scientific issues, an eminence that has earned him a new chair at Oxford University (for the promotion of public awareness of science).

 

That is not the reason we are studying the book, however. For us, this text is the last look at a story we have been following for some time in Liberal Studies—the development of the new science from a tentative idea in the hands of a few bold practitioners up to its dominance of our cultural life. It is appropriate, therefore, at this point to look back quickly at that story and to see how this text contributes to it. That will enable us not only to get a grasp of what Dawkins is saying, but it will also help us to think about the extraordinary achievements and the limitations of what is undoubtedly Western Culture’s most important contribution to the modern world.

 

My contention here is that Dawkins’s text is a splendid illustration of the wonderful power of the new science as well as a very graphic example of its significant limitations. My reactions to this text are great enthusiasm for what he is doing as a scientist combined with a certain exasperation for what he says when moves into social and moral issues.

 

A BRIEF HISTORICAL LOOK BACK

 

Before digging into Dawkins, I would like to start with something of a retrospective summary, a quick glance over our shoulders at where this story started (at least in our curriculum). You may remember that when we began to look at the new science of the 17th century we called attention to the way in which it issued a summons to attend exclusively to secondary (efficient) causes: that is, to base our accounts of how things work, our understanding of nature, with reference to mechanical models which operate by matter in motion in ways which we can render with mathematical precision (and which thus can be explained by equations). Galileo’s and Descartes’s work was especially important in fostering this new demand.

 

This development involved a decisive turning away from explanations which sought to link natural phenomena to primary or final causes, that is, to understand the world in terms of ultimate purposes, a divine plan, or a divinely ordered structure of the cosmos, in which the model was important primarily for its moral implications. By understanding the world with reference to such models (as in, say, Dante or Hildegard) we derived, first and foremost, a sense of the pervasive moral order of the world, presided over and created by God.

 

The first and decisive step in the development of the new science was achieved by Descartes, who, you will recall, emptied the world of nature of moral purpose. He urged us to approach it as a machine, to study its efficient workings, so that we could gain power over it. And Bacon, although advocating a different emphasis in the method, endorsed a similar program. Let us abandon in our scientific inquiries questions about ultimate purposes and concentrate on morally neutral efficient causes.

 

What this new science was seeking to do, in other words, was to reverse the priorities established, among others, by Plato’s Socrates, who tells us (in the Phaedo) that, as a young man keen to understand the nature of life, he involved himself with mechanical explanations but found them unsatisfactory because they did not address the questions he considered most important and challenging: questions of moral purpose.

 

 To Socrates, for example, the important question about a home was how one came to an understanding of how one ought to live one’s life there—the moral qualities of the good life which characterized the life in the structure. Questions about the efficient causes which built the house (the carpenters, wagons, pulleys, and so on) were for Socrates trivial by comparison. For the new scientists of the 17th century, the priorities were reversed: the important question about a home was the mechanical process by which it was constructed, without reference to questions of higher purpose (e.g., what might constitute the best life for the people living in it).

 

The Christian tradition, as we have seen in Hildegard and Dante, followed Socrates: the important point about the way we understand nature and the cosmos is the moral purposiveness of a model like the Great Chain of Being or the adaptations of Aristotle’s astronomy.

 

The new scientists of the 17th century were very conscious of this turning away from the moral purposiveness of inquiry into nature, which they encouraged because for them the nature of the explanations derived from the old science was unsatisfactory for their purposes. Such explanations might generate a sense of the moral qualities of nature and the benevolence of God, but they provided no adequate power over it.

 

How did these scientists deal with the problem of abandoning moral purposiveness in their mechanical models? Well, they dealt with it in different ways. Bacon and other English scientists claimed that the diligent search into efficient causes could lead to the discovery of ultimate purposes. Descartes, more philosophically astute than his English colleagues, recognized that no attention to mechanical interacting of objective matter was going to reveal anything about higher moral purposes or the nature of God. So he reserved a portion of the world, our consciousness, our souls, for those spiritual and moral qualities of life. Both groups insisted that the new search for efficient causes should be guided by a moral purpose—the desire to relieve human poverty and suffering—but the process itself required emptying the objects under investigation of their traditional moral significance.

 

This attitude of the new science to questions of morality is wonderfully caught in Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two World Systems, when Simplicio (the orthodox traditionalist) asks rather worriedly who will provide the modern investigator with appropriate guidance once the new method takes over. Salviati (Galileo’s spokesman) assures him confidently that there is no need of such guidance in the endeavour: in the forest we need guides, he says, but we can confidently dispense with them once we are out in the open plains of the mathematically based inquiry into efficient causes.

 

Our study of this narrative also considered how the new science seemed to many people to fulfill Bacon’s hope that it would help to demonstrate moral and religious truths. The key notion here was the design argument, the notion that the intricate workings of a mechanical nature gave us reason to believe in the grand designer, God, the Architect of Everything. And we considered, all too briefly, how Newton’s great achievement, among other things, seemed to many to confirm the design argument, to provide a culminating triumph for the new science, and to reinforce religious sensibilities. This amazing and comprehensive mechanical design must have a divine designer and maintainer; there was no other possible explanation for its harmonious, mathematically precise, and (to many) aesthetically pleasing structure.

 

Last semester, we considered how Newton’s successors put his achievement onto a historical footing (something he claimed was impossible without divine intervention) and how this trend helped to erode confidence in the design argument, by calling attention to the fact that the design was only apparently stable and was, in fact, subject to constant change. This view lead to the development of Historical Science, which culminated in the work of Charles Darwin. And we spent time looking at the decisive impact Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection had on this argument, not because Darwin was the first to put evolution on the table (people had been discussing it for about a hundred years before Darwin’s book appeared) but rather because his theory rested on the claim that the historical processes at work (which he did not fully know) had to be essentially random and mechanical.

 

It is important to stress this point, because in arguments about Darwin it is commonly misrepresented. The strong and continuing hostility to Darwin’s theory stems primarily, not from evolution itself (although that certain has its critics), but from the insistence that there is no overall design, no cosmic plan, no divine intention manifesting itself: randomness governs the process Hence, in Darwin the new science reaches a point which decisively dashes all those early hopes that the new science would provide an irrefutable link to higher purpose, to final causes, to the mind of God (what we now call Intelligent Design).

 

DAWKINS: SOME INTRODUCTORY POINTS

 

I have given this rapid and incomplete survey from our reading in order to point out what I wish to stress is one of the most obvious points I derive from Dawkins’s book, the idea that whatever its scientific interest (which is considerable), it demonstrates the separation of modern science from the sorts of questions which interested Socrates. In Origin of Species Darwin is very cautious above moving off his scientific base (many of his admirers, of course, were not so hesitant); Dawkins, by contrast, is much given to moral and social commentary. Thus, in Dawkins’s book the way in which the new scientific method both enriches and limits our understanding is, in many respects, much more stark and obvious than in Darwin.

 

 In the rest of this lecture I wish to call attention to this feature of Dawkins’s text by examining a few separate points, stressing what I think is particularly strong in his argument and indicating where I think he is on much shakier ground. My purpose, as I mentioned, is to encourage us to see how this book brings out many of the most important features of the new science.

 

To start with, let me begin with the obvious point that Dawkins is a confirmed Darwinian (in fact, he is one of the staunchest defenders of Darwinian theory in the scientific community). What does this mean? Well, it obviously means that he is, like virtually all other biologists, a firm believer in evolution. And he sees the engine of evolution in the basic Darwinian terms: the differential survival rates of random variations produced in living organisms (natural selection). Finally—and most contentiously for his colleagues—he, like Darwin, sees natural selection operating at the level of the individual (rather than at the level of the group). In fact, this book owes its fame to the apparently startling thesis that natural selection takes place at the level of the gene, for which the individual is just a robotic programmed carrier. The purpose of life is to provide survival and reproductive sites for genes.

 

There is another important sense in which Dawkins’s text is like Darwin’s. He cannot directly demonstrate the truth of his theory: that is, he cannot invite us to watch a selfish gene in operation, any more than Darwin could invite us to see one species change into another. His theory is derived from observations and serves as a possible explanation for those observations. But, like Darwin, Dawkins believes that the explanatory power of his theory of the selfish gene will atone for any experimental shortcomings. This method was an important problem for Darwin, since in his day many people understood science as requiring repeated experimental confirmation through direct observation (something Darwin could not provide, at least to satisfy the major demands of his theory). Nowadays, with the example of Darwin to work from, we recognize in this procedure an important and legitimate scientific practice.

 

THE APPLICATION OF THE SELFISH GENE HYPOTHESIS TO SCIENTIFIC DATA

 

Dawkins is particularly strong when he sticks to the scientific work of demonstrating the explanatory power of his hypothesis in the face of known biological evidence. For me the text is particularly interesting here for two reasons: (a) the material is inherently fascinating (all those details about homocoprophagous [mutual turd-eating] moles, or hermaphrodite fish, or crab-castrating fungi, and so on—the sort of material that gives the biologist such amazing material to work with) and (b) his scientific explanations of particular phenomena are often very persuasive.

 

Dawkins, for example, is especially effective at dealing with rival theories (e.g., those of the Group Selectionists). These, it is true (by his own admission) are something of a straw horse, since by the time of this text they have fallen into considerable disrepute. But his use of them is an insightful look at how scientific arguments work to explain the epididic displays of birds or the amazingly complex behaviour in the social insect colonies. Here Dawkins is playing from his strongest suit, his informed scientific intelligence about biology in the service of an interesting theoretical possibility. The theory is, like so many important scientific explanations, powerfully reductive. But he takes us through the problems and their explanations clearly and persuasively.

 

For me the most exciting part of the text is his treatment of the Hymenoptera—the bees and ants. To these creatures he applies his theory, explaining very strange and apparently contradictory behaviour, suggests predictions about what, on the basis of this theory, we should observe elsewhere (about sex ratios), and delivers the information needed to show that the selfish gene theory not only serves as an explanation but also as a theory on the basis of which one can make testable predictions. This is, so far as I understand it (and I’m assuming his facts are correct), the appropriate way to proceed. So long as Dawkins sticks to this line of argument, which is basically what Darwin does best in the Origin of Species, I find the text compelling.

 

On the basis of these solid contributions to our understanding of natural selection at the level of gene, Dawkins engages throughout the book in a good deal of speculation which is much less solidly based. That is, much of the time he is offering very hypothetical explanations without any supportive evidence to substantiate how this might or might not endorse his theory. This, of course, is a perfectly legitimate scientific procedure, to the extent that it provides important clues as to where research might be directed in order to understand a particularly puzzling aspect of animal behaviour.

 

For example, in discussing the very strange genetic suicide of some ants who serve a rival queen who has entered the nest and killed the original queen, Dawkins speculates that this behaviour, which apparently contradicts his theory, must be controlled by something or other, probably some chemical. Here he has very little to go on, but the suggestions are fertile, because they do point to where one would have to go in order to pursue the selfish gene theory. If one of the important features of a scientific theory is that it opens up directions for future research, Dawkins’s theory certainly has that characteristic, even when his factual grounding is less firm than it is with the Hymenoptera.

 

THE EMPTINESS OR CIRCULARITY OF THE SELFISH GENE THEORY

 

There are times, however, when the speculation seems at times to become empty or circular, when, that is, the argument goes something like this: all animal behaviour is caused by selfish genes which program the animals like robots; here is some apparently unselfish behaviour; therefore there must be some individual selfish gene at work.

 

When I run into this kind of writing, I do begin to wonder about just what might or might not be proved by the selfish-gene theory. At times it sounds so all inclusive that it can account for anything, but not in a way which can be (as in the examples I have referred to above) easily confirmed or refuted. So I do find it more than a little interesting that when Dawkins runs into a rival theory like the Zahavi-Grafen theory of handicaps, which has the same all-inclusive characteristics, he sounds very vexed:

 

I find the prospect rather worrying, because it means that theories of almost limitless craziness can no longer be ruled out on commonsense grounds. If we observe an animal doing something really silly, like standing on its head instead of running away from the lion, it may be doing it in order to show off to a female. It may even be showing off to the lion. (313)

 

I can see why the handicap theory might cause these sorts of problems, but there are places when I feel like making the same objection about Dawkins’ own theory. After all, what is the difference between explaining this behaviour as showing off to the ladies and ascribing it to some as yet undetected selfish gene which makes the animal, say, amazingly horny and thus a better reproductive robot?

 

Another way of saying the same this is to point to Dawkins’s claim that he is proposing a fundamental law of biology: gene selfishness. In what sense is this a law? At his best, Dawkins can give this principle an explanatory force which seems to confer upon it something of the status contained in the notion of a natural law; at other time, gene selfishness sounds like something very far from a law, more like a tautological explanatory trick (as Dawkins himself says, “What I have now done is to define the gene in such a way that I cannot really help being right!):

 

Similarly, if crossing-over benefits a gene for crossing-over, that is a sufficient explanation for the existence of crossing-over. (44)

 

In the same way, at times I have trouble sorting out just how selfish Dawkins’s genes really are. If, as he claims, “selection has favoured genes that cooperate with others,” then why not call the book The Cooperative Gene? To use one of Dawkins’s favorite analogies, if the genes are like rowers in a boat, they may all be fiercely competing for places, fame, continuity, sexual activity, or whatever, but the first characteristic they all have to display is the ability to row together obeying the rhythm set by their cox.

 

THE PROBLEM OF CONSCIOUSNESS

 

My admiration for Dawkins the scientist changes, however, to occasional irritation when he seeks to speak out on social and public issues, especially when he wants to offer his observations on moral questions. This irritation makes the book interesting at times, however, because it highlights the extent to which Dawkins’s scientific method is incompatible with the moral issues of modern life.

 

This problem emerges very quickly in the book, in the first paragraph where Dawkins sets out a very aggressive agenda:

 

. . .it was Darwin who first put together a coherent and tenable account of why we exist. Darwin made it possible to give a sensible answer to the curious child whose question heads this chapter [Why are people?] We no longer have to resort to superstition when faced with the deep problems: Is there a meaning to life? What are we for? What is man? After posing the last of these questions, the eminent zoologist G. G. Simpson put it thus: ‘The point I want to make now is that all attempts to answer that question before 1859 are worthless and that we will be better off if we ignore them completely.’

 

This claim seems astonishingly arrogant, until we realize that all it is really saying is that if the reason for human existence is not mechanical, in line with the developments of the new science, then it’s not worth a hill of beans. In other words, the only explanations that count are non-moral ones and that, thus, we shall be better off (an interesting choice of words) if we ignore traditional notions of good and bad.

 

Even if we accept Dawkins’s scientific argument as a very persuasive account of the random mechanical processes at work in our biological history, we might argue that he has not come close to what is really worth knowing in the “Why” of human existence. We might assert, with Socrates, that if all you are going to tell me is the mechanical process by which I got here, you haven’t addressed anything about those things I most want to know. You have told me about how the house came to be built, but you offer me nothing at all by way of insight into how I ought to live in the house or why I ought to live here rather than somewhere else. In fact, Dawkins’ method makes clear that his explanation cannot, by its very nature, even begin to address such questions.

 

Of course, by the end of the book Dawkins has seriously qualified that in-your-face unequivocal opening, by his repeated emphasis on how human beings really are different. We have consciousness, and that requires us to fight our genetic inheritance—we have a moral obligation, an “ought,” to counter the influence of our genes. And, equally important, we have the power to do so. About what we might base our program to fight our genes upon, Dawkins is silent. His scientific procedures, by their objectification of nature, provide no help to him or to us. By his own admission he is no philosopher, and in his own speculations about political and moral questions his non-scientific ruminations are simple and evasive.

 

The problem is that Dawkins doesn’t quite know what to do about human consciousness and culture. So once he comes to consider human life, all of a sudden the very strong case for the selfish gene he has been making in his animal examples and in many casual remarks about human beings becomes something very different: culture is overwhelmingly more significant than genes in shaping our consciousness, which can and, he urges, should, fight our genes—in fact, it lays upon us an obligation to do so, in spite of the fact that we are survival machines containing selfish genes, whose preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence (20).

 

At times the talk about programmed robots goes very much on the back burner, and we are left with the distinct feeling that the genetic case Dawkins has been making is, well, something a lot less important than we had been led to believe. Somehow the “biology of altruism” doesn’t seem all that relevant to human experience. One begins to have an appreciation for why Darwin left human beings out of the Origin of Species.

 

Let me illustrate my problem. Dawkins accounts for our development as a logical consequence of the outcome of the mechanical operation of the selfish gene:

 

Genes are the primary policy makers; brains are the executives. But as brains became more highly developed, they took over more and more of the actual policy decision, using tricks like learning and simulation in doing so. The logical conclusion to this trend, not yet reached in any species, would be for the genes to give the survival machine a single overall policy instruction: do whatever you think best to keep us alive. (60)

 

I’m not sure how this squares with the clear opposition Dawkins mentions many times between the human consciousness and the interests of the selfish genes. If, as the above quotation suggests, the genes are handing over more executive decision-making to brains in the interests of the immediate survival of the selfish gene, then it would seem that that is a recipe for genetic suicide, if the role of consciousness is to go against the interests of the genes, as Dawkins urges.

 

This ambiguous treatment of human consciousness has led some critics of Dawkins to point out that here we are back with the old Cartesian dualism between a free consciousness and a genetically determined animal nature. Dawkins is piqued at this criticism and tries to answer it on p. 331, but the explanation is not really very helpful. If we are the result of a long history of evolution on the materialistic random principles of the selfish gene and if our consciousness has developed as a result of that genetic evolution (as Dawkins stoutly maintains), then it remains to be explained how a selfish gene can give rise by mechanical processes to something which counters its wishes, which can, in effect, ignore many of its demands. Dawkins, in other words, has to explain the connection between mind and body, and the way the former arises out of the latter and yet gets detached from it and, like some genetic Frankenstein’s monster, sets out to wreck havoc on the genes with unnatural things like the welfare state or contraception. He may not like to call this a return to the old Cartesian dualism, but he recognizes the trouble clearly and confesses his own inability to resolve it.

 

The evolution of the capacity to simulate seems to have culminated in subjective consciousness. Why this should have happened is, to me, the most profound mystery facing modern biology. (59)

 

Yes, indeed. And unless he is prepared to deal with this mystery, it is hard to see how any hard-headed materialist like Dawkins can avoid the Cartesian problem. The various analogies to computers Dawkins introduces to clarify just where he stands on the question of consciousness in a genetically determined world are interesting but not very instructive. And obviously they are of no help at all if we want some clues about the various reasons why we ought to control our genes.

 

And if our brains and our consciousness have evolved naturally, then I don’t see on what basis one can call their decisions unnatural. And how can human decisions, all of which are ultimately determined by a selfish-gene, even those Dawkins tells us we ought to make to combat our genes, be “unnatural.” So statements like “The welfare state is unnatural” or “We fight our genes every time we engage in contraception” (an example Dawkins is particularly fond of) seem to involve complex questions which Dawkins is unwilling to unravel for us.

 

To add a parenthetic random thought, it strikes me that if one wants to get past the corner Dawkins feels stuck in here and, armed with the selfish gene theory in one hand and Occam’s razor in the other, to suggest a theory for the development of aspects of consciousness which apparently counter the actions of such genes, one could do worse than explore the issue as one of those phenomena Stephen Jay Gould has called a spandrel, or, if invoking Gould’s name is heretical, then apply the term Darwin favoured, “a correlation of growth.” That certain basic mental faculties are helpful to survival is beyond dispute, and it seems entirely reasonable to see natural selection as the engine which produced them. But the development of these powers may well have led to the appearance of nonadaptive characteristics and powers, which have little to do with the survival of the gene and which may even work against that biological imperative. Following Dawkins’ lead, let me offer a computer analogy (not all that apt, but perhaps useful to illustrate the point): To judge from the time people spend playing computer games, one would think the machines had been developed for that purpose, and yet the game playing possibilities are an accidental byproduct of the process which produced these machines for other purposes.

 

DAWKINS THE SOCIAL AND CULTURAL CRITIC

 

The part of Dawkins’s text with which I have the most difficulty (i.e., where I get the most irritated) are those passages where he steps out of his area of expertise and offers us his reflections and ideas about culture, human morality, religion, and other matters quite outside the concerns of his materialistic, value free, reductive scientific methodology.

 

This concern of mine is most apparent in Chapter 11, “Memes: the New Replicators.” What Dawkins wants to do here, as he says, is to extend Darwinism into the area of culture, because “Darwinism is too big a theory to be confined to the narrow context of the gene.” And so we get the Darwinian cultural replicator, the meme.

 

I am at a loss to understand what exactly Dawkins wants us to understand by the term meme, which he never defines with specific clarity. At first it seems to be more or less equivalent to the term idea, and Dawkins uses the phrase idea-meme. If so, then Dawkins is surely here undertaking an unnecessarily complex and in places painful elaboration of the already obvious: that ideas have a life in culture, that they are capable of lasting, of being altered, of being misrepresented (and passed on in misrepresented form), and so on. At this point I am tempted to misquote Hamlet: “It needs no ghost writer, my lord, come from the dead to tell us this.” I suppose I have just engaged in a meme mutation which, if it is fertile, will parasitize your brains, tuning them into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanisms of a host’s cell.

 

 I don’t mean to be overly critical here, but what is one to make of something like this:

 

Consider the idea of God. We do not know how it arose in the meme pool. Probably it originated many times by independent ‘mutation’ In any case, it is very old indeed. How does it replicate itself? By the spoken and written word, aided by the great music and great art. Why does it have such high survival value? Remember that ‘survival value’ here does not mean value for a gene in a gene pool, but value for a meme in a meme pool. The question really means: What is it about the idea of a god that gives it its stability and penetrance in the cultural environment? The survival value of the god meme in the meme pool results from its great psychological appeal. It provides a superficially plausible answer to deep and troubling questions about existence. It suggests that injustices in this world may be rectified in the next. The ‘everlasting arms’ hold out a cushion against our inadequacies which, like a doctor’s placebo, is none the less effective for being imaginary. These are some of the reason why the idea of God is copied so readily by successive generations of individual brains. God exists, if only in the form of meme with high survival value, or effective power, in the environment provided by human culture.

 

What on earth does this mean other than that human cultures have developed beliefs in God for their own purposes? What on earth does the introduction of the meme concept add to what is already obvious to anyone? To claim that he has provided reasons “why the idea of God is copied so readily by successive generations of individual brains” is to explain nothing at all beyond William James’s more common-sense claim that we use ideas from the culture we inherit to suit our own purposes, retaining them if they work for us, and altering or abandoning them if they don’t or if we find better ones. And we pass them onto our children.

 

The digression into the meme does enable Dawkins to do what he really seems to enjoy a great deal—take a lot of cheap shots at religion for providing what he calls “superficially plausible” answers to deep and troubling questions about existence to which his theory of the selfish gene cannot offer any answers at all.
Here’s another example:

 

To take a particular example, an aspect of doctrine that has been very effective in enforcing religious observance is the threat of hell fire. . . . This is a peculiarly nasty technique of persuasion, causing great psychological anguish throughout the middle ages and even today. But it is highly effective. It might almost have been planned deliberately by a machiavellian priesthood trained in deep psychological indoctrination techniques. However, I doubt if the priests were that clever. Much more probable, unconscious memes have ensured their own survival by virtue of those same qualities of pseudo-ruthlessness that successful genes display. The idea of hell fire is, quite simply, self perpetuating, because of its own deep psychological impact. It has become linked with the god meme because the two reinforce each other, and assist each other’s survival in the meme pool.

 

Passages like this lead me to urge Dawkins to heed his own advice and learn some humility (perhaps by being infected with the meme for the idea), and I’m tempted to read his new concept as a ME-ME.

 

Whatever we think of the doctrine of hell fire, our understanding of its complex transmission in culture is not in the slightest advanced by this notion of a meme, which, as I mentioned, seems to be aimed at claiming for Darwin’s powerfully reductive ideas an application to areas where they don’t really belong, as Dawkins acknowledges when he reveals his commitment to rational progress in the realm of ideas, a concept which Kant explained far better than Dawkins can.

 

Of course, as James pointed out, the attraction of certain ideas (religious and otherwise) is closely linked with our psychological needs. And historians of ideas have long been aware of the various complex forces and accidents which shape our adoption, changes to, and new combinations of ideas. I don’t see how this notion of a meme adds anything new: on the contrary it seeks to take a very complex value-laden subject and reduce it to a mechanical reductive process analogous to what goes on with the selfish gene. I don’t see how this enlightens our understanding of ourselves or of our culture in any significant way.

 

While on this subject of Dawkins’ liking for polemical but superficial cultural judgments, I’d like just to mention again his obvious hostility to religion. I have never understood the extreme irritation many orthodox biologists display towards religion (although I can understand why they may get testy about many of the comments and ignorant arguments directed aim at them), since it seems to me quite elementary that a refusal to replace a religious belief with a faith in Darwinian evolution could have a high survival value. Instead of seeing in religious believers arch enemies, surely evolutionary biologists could see in their refusal to accept Darwin a confirmation of natural selection, since a predisposition to religious belief is easily explicable in terms of the selfish-gene theory (it may well be the case that a predisposition to religious belief is part of the biological inheritance we obtain from selfish genes).

 

Faith cannot move mountains (though generations of children are solemnly told the contrary and believe it). But it is capable of driving people to such dangerous folly that faith seems to me to qualify as a kind of mental illness. It leads people to believe in whatever it is so strongly that in extreme cases they are prepared to kill and to die for it without the need for further justification. (330)

 

Dawkins’s goes on in this vein (speaking about religious faith) to endorse the term memeoids for “victims that have been taken over by a meme to the extent that their own survival becomes inconsequential.” What sort of intellectual clarity is served by this renaming of an old phenomenon, adequately covered by the word zealot. And if Dawkins wants to offer a mature reflection of the effects of zealotry on inhumanity, he might want to consider some of the ways in which scientific or nationalistic or atheistic zealots have proven themselves every bit as capable of inhuman destructiveness as all other types. That, of course, might require him to abandon his desire to flog religion at every opportunity. In saying this, of course, I am not defending a religious view of life, merely objecting to a feature of Dawkins’ writing which is unnecessarily vituperative.

 

A FINAL WORD

 

I don’t want to suggest that what I have said above about Dawkins’s handling of his concept of a meme is the last word on the book. That chapter is irrelevant to the main purpose of his text, which is, as he tells us, to provide a biological account of altruism. And my dissatisfaction with the meme business takes nothing away from the wonderful clarity and interest of the scientific argument. I don’t want my sense of the limitations of Dawkins’s book to detract from its very obvious merits.

 

Before closing, however, I do want to stress again the point I made at the start, the sense I get from this book about how the enormously powerful explanatory might of the new science has little to offer us by way of clarifying some of the really important questions of life. If we want to reduce all human life to the level of mechanical biological explanations, then Dawkins is correct: Darwin’s method is the answer to everything. If, like Socrates, we still have questions about justice, morality, traditional concerns about the good life, and so on, we will have to turn elsewhere.