Genes, Yanks, Ethics

When I have an odd moment, or forty five of them, I listen to archived editions of BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week. Yesterday I listened to this one from February 10, with Richard Dawkins and Janet Radcliffe Richards, as well as Robert Harvey and, finally extricated from a traffic jam, Andrew Roberts. This is a highly interesting show which touches on a number of issues we are interested in at B and W. Just for one thing, we get to hear Andrew Marr tell Richard Dawkins ‘You’re not a genetic determinist, are you,’ and Dawkins reply that he’s long been plugging that line: that the way we have evolved does not determine the way we have to be. The brain has evolved, he explains, to over-reach what the genes would want if genes could want anything. He cites contraception as the most obvious example of our doing what our genes wouldn’t ‘want’ us to do. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, he elaborates: it can be difficult to wean ourselves off things that have come to us from our Pleistocene past. In reply to a question from Robert Harvey, Dawkins draws a distinction between what Darwinism can tell us about what we ought to do, which is nothing, and where we get our ethical feelings, which is something. Janet Radcliffe Richards adds that a Darwinian understanding of where we get our ethical feelings tells us nothing about which ones we should follow, that’s an entirely separate question, and Dawkins says ‘Exactly’.

So: there you are then: Richard Dawkins is not a genetic determinist. So it’s time for people to stop calling him that.

The discussion then gets into the equally fascinating territory of why panels and committees that are convened to discuss ethical issues such as cloning always include religious figures. It’s not, Dawkins points out, because they’re especially good at reasoning or arguing, it’s not because they’ve earned a place in such discussions, it’s simply because they represent a tradition, and what an odd reason that is for including people. Indeed. There is also some rather painful chat about how weird Americans are, at which I burst into tears and sobbed ‘Not all of us!’ But I can hardly blame anyone for thinking so.

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