Misunderstanding Richard Dawkins
Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene is the kind of book
that changes the way that people look at the world. Its importance
is that it articulates a gene’s-eye view of evolution. According
to this view, all organisms, including human beings, are ‘survival
machines’ which have been ‘blindly programmed’ to preserve their
genes (see The Selfish Gene, p. v). Of course, extant
survival machines take a myriad of different forms – for example,
it is estimated that there are some three million different species
of insect alone – but they all have in common that they have been
built according to the instructions of successful genes; that
is, genes whose replicas in previous generations managed to get
At the level of genes, things are competitive. Genes that contribute
to making good bodies – bodies that stay alive and reproduce –
come to dominate a gene pool (the whole set of genes in a breeding
population). So, for example, if a gene emerges which has the
effect of improving the camouflage of stick-insects, it will in
time likely achieve a preponderance over alternative genes (alleles)
which produce less effective camouflage. There are no such things
as long-lived, altruistic genes. If a gene has the effect of increasing
the welfare of its alleles to its own detriment, it will in the
end perish. In this sense, then, all long-lived genes are ‘selfish’,
concerned only with their own survival – and the world is necessarily
full of genes which have successfully looked after their own interests.
There are good reasons for seeing evolution as operating at the
level of genes. Alternative theories are either unworkable (group
selectionism) or not as successful (individual selectionism).
However, despite the fact that the central message of The Selfish
Gene has become scientific orthodoxy, the book, and the ideas
associated with it, have gained something of a reputation for
extremism. In part, this is because they been subject to sustained
criticism by a number of high profile, often media friendly, people
working in the sciences and humanities. On the science side of
things, critics have included Steven Rose, Richard Lewontin and
Stephen Jay Gould. On the humanities side, there have been, amongst
others, David Stove, Hilary Rose and, perhaps most notoriously,
Mary Midgley first turned her attention to Richard Dawkins’s
ideas in her 1979 article ‘Gene Juggling’, published in the journal
Philosophy. On the first page of the article, she had this
to say about Dawkins and The Selfish Gene:
His central point is that the emotional nature of man is
exclusively self-interested, and he argues this by claiming
that all emotional nature is so. Since the emotional nature
of animals clearly is not exclusively self-interested, nor
based on any long-term calculation at all, he resorts to arguing
from speculations about the emotional nature of genes, which
he treats as the source and archetype of all emotional nature.
(‘Gene Juggling’, pp. 439-440).
Unfortunately, as Andrew Brown – who, incidentally, is usually
sympathetic to Midgley – points out in his book, The Darwin
Wars, this is just about as wrong as it is possible to get
about selfish gene theory. It is wrong on
a number of counts.
First: Dawkins makes it absolutely clear in The Selfish Gene
that he is not using the word ‘selfishness’ – or its opposite
‘altruism’ – to refer to the psychological states, emotional or
otherwise, of any entity. Rather, as he pointed out in his reply
to Midgley (‘In Defence of Selfish Genes’), he gives the word
an explicitly behaviouristic definition:
An entity…is said to be altruistic if it behaves in such
a way as to increase another such entity’s welfare at the
expense of its own. Selfish behaviour has exactly the opposite
effect. ‘Welfare’ is defined as ‘chances of survival’….It
is important to realise that the…definitions of altruism and
selfishness are behavioural, not subjective. I am not
concerned here with the psychology of motives. (The Selfish
Gene, p. 4)
There are no grounds, then, for supposing, as Midgley did, that
the central message of The Selfish Gene has anything to
do with the emotional natures of man, animals or genes.
Second: the very idea that Dawkins might think that genes have
an emotional nature is so bizarre that it is hard to know what
to make of it. One would be tempted to conclude that Midgley didn’t
really mean it, except that she started her article in a similar
Genes cannot be selfish or unselfish, any more than atoms
can be jealous, elephants abstract or biscuits teleological.
This should not need mentioning, but…The Selfish Gene
has succeeded in confusing a number of people about it… (‘Gene
Juggling’, p. 439)
Whatever she meant, two things are clear: (a) no reputable biologist
thinks that genes have an emotional nature; and (b) genes can
be selfish in the sense that Dawkins – and other sociobiologists
– use the term.
Third: Midgley was confused about levels of analysis. It isn’t
possible to make straightforward claims about the behaviour of
organisms from the fact that their genes are selfish. There is
no requirement for individual organisms to be selfish in the service
of their genes. Indeed, one of the central messages of The
Selfish Gene is precisely that it is possible to explain the
altruistic behaviour of individual animals in terms of
selfish gene theory.
These kinds of mistakes are typical of Midgley’s article as a
whole. Dawkins, in his response, claimed that the article had
‘no good point to make’ and argued that the details of her criticisms
were incorrect because they were based on a misunderstanding and
misapplication of a technical language. This conclusion is echoed
by Andrew Brown, who states: ‘It has to be said that by the end
of Dawkins’s piece…any impartial reader will see that she misunderstood
him.’ (Darwin Wars, p. 92) Indeed, Midgley herself has
conceded that she should have expressed her objections to The
Selfish Gene ‘more clearly and temperately’. (‘Selfish Genes
and Social Darwinism’, p. 365).
What’s going on?
It is possible to tell a very complicated story in order to explain
how it is that Dawkins’s ideas, and those of other sociobiologists,
provoke the kinds of extreme reaction and misunderstanding characterised
by Midgley’s ‘Gene Juggling’. At its most convoluted, this tale
would include episodes dealing with: scientism; biological determinism;
reductionism; metaphor; motives; moral theory; modes of explanation;
levels of selection; and more. Happily, though, there is an alternative
story to tell, less comprehensive, but with the advantage of clarity.
It also gets to the heart of an important aspect of the worries
that people have about sociobiological ideas. It is a story about
moral and political commitments.
The proper starting point of this story is the constellation
of ideas associated with what has become known as social Darwinism.
The most general claim of the social Darwinists was that it is
possible to make use of Darwinian concepts in order to understand
society and the relationships that people have with each other.
Specifically, they argued that societies progress because people
aggressively pursue their own self-interest in competition with
other people doing the same thing. They are competing primarily
for economic success, and the ‘fittest’ – those people most adapted
to the demands of competition – deservedly rise to the top. If
a person is not successful, it indicates a lack of ‘fitness’,
and, by extension, that they are not deserving of the rewards
that fitness brings.
The nineteenth century social theorist Herbert Spencer is probably
the best known exponent of social Darwinist ideas. In his view,
social Darwinism translated naturally into a celebration of the
individualistic, competitive ethos of laissez-faire capitalism.
Spencer thought it quite natural that there were economic winners
and losers under capitalism. He opposed social reform and government
intervention to help those disadvantaged by the system, on the
grounds that there should be no interference in what was a natural
mechanism for sorting out the fit from the unfit. Not surprisingly,
Spencer’s ideas were enthusiastically adopted by many capitalists
at the end of the nineteenth century, particularly in the United
States, as a means to justify their wealth and resist the call
for social reform.
This kind of crude social Darwinism was relatively short-lived.
Indeed, even by the first decade of the twentieth century, Spencer’s
ideas were beginning to fall into disrepute. Nevertheless, social
Darwinism remains a factor in the way in which people think about
sociobiological ideas. Perhaps the major reason for this lasting
impact is that the history of social Darwinism is tarnished by
its association with some of the more shameful episodes of the
twentieth century. Not only, as we have seen, was it used to legitimate
the painful consequences of untrammelled capitalism, it was also,
for example: (a) implicated in the emergence of eugenics movements
at the beginning of the century, something which led directly
to compulsory sterilisation programmes in the United States and
indirectly to Nazi concentration camps; (b) integral to ‘scientific
racism’, which sought to ground racial discrimination in notions
of biological superiority and inferiority; and (c) a contributor
to an atmosphere of ‘war apologetics’ that was prevalent in Europe
in the period leading up to the 1914-1918 war.
However, it is important to note that people tend now not to
talk specifically about social Darwinism in relation to sociobiology.
Rather, its impact is felt through people’s concern with a constellation
of ideas which are linked by the fact that they are presupposed
by social Darwinism. Of these, perhaps the most significant are:
(a) the notion that the behaviour of human beings is solely determined
by their biology (what is now called biological or genetic determinism);
and (b) the idea that it is possible to invoke biology in order
to justify particular social or political arrangements
(as, for example, extreme right-wing political parties will, in
order to justify their racist agendas).
Dawkins and social Darwinism
Is it the case, then, that Richard Dawkins’s ideas in The
Selfish Gene amount to a kind of social Darwinism? The answer
to this question is a simple no. There is nothing in Richard Dawkins’s
work which remotely adds up to social Darwinism. There are three
main reasons why this conclusion is easy to draw.
First: Dawkins says clearly that he is not, unlike the social
Darwinists, advocating any particular way of living. He puts it
this way in The Selfish Gene:
I am not advocating a morality based on evolution. I am saying
how things have evolved. I am not saying how we humans morally
ought to behave.… My own feeling is that a human society based
simply on the gene’s law of universal ruthless selfishness
would be a very nasty society in which to live. (The Selfish
Gene, p. 2-3).
What Dawkins is doing here is flagging up the ‘is/ought gap’;
that is, the fact that it is not possible to derive moral statements
about how things ought to be from statements about how things
stand in the world. For example, if it turns out that we are genetically
disposed towards murder, it does not follow that we should, therefore,
go around murdering people. Biological facts do not entail moral
facts – a point, incidentally, which is ruinous for social Darwinism.
Second: Dawkins explicitly disavows irrevocable ‘genetic determinism’;
indeed, he has called it ‘pernicious rubbish on an almost astrological
scale’ (The Extended Phenotype, p. 13). Genes affect behaviour.
If you want to do Darwinian theorising, then you’ve got to look
at the effects of genes. But there are no grounds for thinking
that these effects are any more inexorable than the effects of
the environment. Inevitability is not part of the equation. This
is how Dawkins puts it in The Extended Phenotype:
Genetic causes and environmental causes are in principle
no different from each other. Some influences of both types
may be hard to reverse; others may be easy to reverse. Some
may be usually hard to reverse but easy if the right agent
is applied. The important point is that there is no general
reason for expecting genetic influences to be any more irrevocable
than environmental ones. (The Extended Phenotype, p.
Third: Dawkins’s work is rarely specifically about human beings.
Rather, he is dealing with general questions to do with evolutionary
theory, many of which are only marginally relevant for understanding
human behaviour. Moreover, he is on record as saying that he has
little interest in human ethics and does not know a great deal
about human psychology. (‘In Defence of Selfish Genes’, p. 558)
Of course, the argument here is not that Dawkins’s work
never has implications for understanding human behaviour. Rather,
it is that where it does, it is not usually because human beings
are specifically his subject, but because humans are evolved animals,
and evolution is his subject.
Politics, morals and biology
If the ideas of Richard Dawkins cannot be construed as a kind
of social Darwinism, what has social Darwinism got to do with
the extreme reactions and misunderstanding that his work provokes?
The answer is that it is the measure against which many
people assess the merits of those biological theories they judge
to have implications for the understanding of human behaviour.
To appreciate the significance of this point, it is important
to recall that social Darwinism remains a factor in people’s thinking
because of its association with the horrors of things like racism,
war and eugenics. Consequently, for many of those people whose
political and moral inclinations are structured by notions of
equality and common humanity, social Darwinism is a wickedness
to be sought out and then vigorously contested wherever it might
The consequence of this injunction to combat social Darwinism
has been the emergence of a mindset amongst certain sectors of
the educated public which undermines the proper examination of
sociobiological arguments. It is a mindset which subjugates science
to political and moral commitments. It results in sociobiological
texts being read from a default position of suspicion. Any perception
that the arguments they contain might conceivably be co-opted
for the purposes of articulating a social Darwinist agenda – however
this is construed – is taken as confirmation that this is where
the sympathies of the author lie. And the scientific merit
of sociobiological arguments is assessed in terms of the extent
to which they fit with a political and moral agenda governed by
notions of equality and common humanity.
It is easy to point to instances where this mindset prevails.
For example, it is involved:
- In Mary Midgley’s confusion about selfish genes and selfish
individuals; in her accusation that Dawkins’s ‘crude, cheap,
blurred genetics….is the kingpin of his crude, cheap, blurred
psychology’ (‘Gene-Juggling’, p. 449); and her statement that
her main aim is ‘to show people that they can use Darwin’s methods
on human behaviour without being committed to a shoddy psychology
and a bogus political morality’ (‘Selfish Genes and Social Darwinism’,
- In Steven Rose, Leon Kamin and Richard Lewontin’s claim that
‘Science is the ultimate legitimator of bourgeois ideology’
(Not In Our Genes); and their argument that ‘…universities
serve as creators, propagators and legitimators of the ideology
of biological determinism. If biological determinism is a weapon
in the struggle between classes, then the universities are weapons
factories, and their teaching and research faculties are the
engineers, designers, and the production workers.’ (Not In
- In Hilary Rose’s claims, in Red Pepper, that fundamental
Darwinists, ‘with their talk of biological universals on matters
of social difference are a political and cultural menace to
feminists and others who care for justice and freedom’; that
they are ‘obsessed by the desire to reduce organisms (including
humans) to one determining entity – the gene’; and that sociobiology
‘has a history which varies from the dodgy to the disgusting
on sexual difference’. (Red Pepper, Sept 1997, p. 23).
- In the furious reaction that greeted the publication of Edward
O. Wilson’s 1975 book, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis,
which saw: the American Anthropological Association debating
a motion to censure sociobiology; a group of Boston scientists
– including Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin – forming
‘The Sociobiology Study Group’, and noting in The New York
Review of Books that theories that attempted to establish
a biological foundation to social behaviour provided an ‘important
basis…for the eugenic policies which led to the establishment
of Gas chambers in Nazi Germany’; and Wilson himself being drenched
with water by protestors at a meeting of the American Association
for the Advancement of Science in early 1978.
Richard Dawkins’s ideas, and those of other sociobiologists,
then, provoke extreme reactions and misunderstanding because their
critics believe them to be in conflict with the moral and political
commitments that they hold. This fact stands independently of
any considerations about the merit of the kind of science that
Dawkins, and his colleagues, are doing. Of course, it is not unusual
for ideology to affect the judgements that people make about scientific
theories, and where these theories have implications for understanding
human beings it is especially commonplace.
But what it has meant in the case of sociobiology is that the
public space for the debate about evolutionary ideas has
become polluted by the hyperbole that almost inevitably occurs
when the politically engaged feel their baseline commitments to
be under threat.
However, for those people who prefer their science to be driven
by a desire to uncover the fundamental nature of things, and not
by a desire to find spurious support for political and moral values,
there is still some hope. For, according to Edward O. Wilson,
the controversy surrounding sociobiology is essentially over.
‘The contrarians are ageing,’ he told Ed Douglas, in a recent
Guardian interview. ‘No young scientists are joining. They
are not handing on the torch but passing it around a smaller and
smaller circle.’ If Wilson is right, perhaps there is hope for
a future where articles like Mary Midgley’s ‘Gene Juggling’ don’t
get published in reputable journals.
1 This is echoed by J. L. Mackie, whose original
article in Philosophy, ‘The Law of the Jungle’, had motivated
Midgley to write ‘Gene Juggling’. In a follow-up article he wrote:
‘Mary Midgley’s article is not merely intemperate but misconceived.
Its errors must be corrected if readers of Philosophy are
not to be left with false impressions, for it rests on a complete
misunderstanding both of Dr Dawkins’s position and of mine.’ (‘Genes
and Egoism’, p. 553).
3 Social Darwinsim is something of a contested
concept. Consequently, there will be those who disagree with the
way in which I use the term in this article. There is also disagreement
about the history of social Darwinism. For an alternative treatment
of this phenomenon, see Robert Bannister’s Social Darwinism:
Science and Myth in Anglo-American Social Thought.
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