This site is not maintained. Click here for the new website of Richard Dawkins.

A New Flea: The Selfish Genius: How Richard Dawkins Rewrote Darwin's Legacy by Fern Elsdon-Baker

Thanks to Gregory for the link.

The Sunday Times review by Philip Ball

One of the hazards of being a public intellectual is that sooner or later someone will write a book disputing everything you’ve said. And Richard Dawkins is not just any public intellectual but the cream of the crop, voted in 2004 the foremost of that disparate ilk by readers of Prospect magazine. A prime target, then, for the wet-sponge treatment.

That, in a polite and measured way, is what Fern Elsdon-Baker, a specialist in the history and philosophy of evolutionary theory, delivers in The Selfish Genius. She takes issue with just about every aspect of “Dawkinsism” — on Darwin, religion and the nature of scientific understanding — arguing that in both style and content it may be harming the image of science.

This is not the first such attempt to knock Dawkins from the pedestal. Husband-and-wife team Alister McGrath and Joanna Collicutt McGrath, respectively a biophysicist turned theologian and psychologist turned deacon, had a shot in 2007 with The Dawkins Delusion, a response to Dawkins’s bestseller The God Delusion. But while critics of Dawkins’s views on religion abound, nobody has previously dared a direct challenge to his science. He famously fell out with the equally eminent American paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould over the question of how evolution happens — gradually, in Dawkins’s view, in spurts according to Gould. But that always looked like an academic spat, and Dawkins’s scientific reputation, built on the gene-centred view of Darwinian evolution, seemed secure.

Elsdon-Baker admits that her title, an allusion to Dawkins’s epochal The Selfish Gene (1976), is nothing more than a little wordy mischief. She doesn’t suggest that he is any more selfish than the next person, and, in fact, she agrees with much of what he says about evolution, not least that it is driven mostly by Darwinian natural selection. An attack on Dawkins, she insists, is not an attack on Darwin.

Indeed, that is her main point. She accuses Dawkins of appropriating and, in the process, distorting Darwin’s message. The selfish-gene hypothesis, which makes the gene the autonomous agent of ­evolution that seeks implacably to replicate itself, has little to do with Darwin, she says, and not just because Darwin knew nothing of genes. The common view is that, once the work of the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel pointed to inheritable character-defining factors that became known as genes, the Achilles heel of Darwinism — lack of a fundamental mechanism — was healed. Genes that confer good survival prospects in the organism get passed on preferentially.

In the 1960s, the British biologists William Hamilton and John Maynard Smith showed how natural selection at the level of the gene could account for many behavioural and breeding habits of populations. It is this theory that The Selfish Gene popularised with wonderful clarity (and with clear acknowledgment of its intellectual debts). Here Dawkins memorably argued that we and all other organisms are just the “survival machines” of genes.

But Elsdon-Baker says that this so-called neo-Darwinian model diverges from what Darwin himself thought, stemming ultimately from the views of Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of natural selection, and the German biologist August Weismann. Darwin’s friend George John Romanes called their perspective neo- Darwinism not because it was a version of Darwin’s theory but because it was different.

That might in itself seem like a historical quibble. But Elsdon-Baker argues that research in genetics over the past decade has revealed evolution to be a far more complex matter than the selfish-gene model can accommodate, sometimes in ways that look closer to Darwin’s thoughts than to neo-Darwinism. For example, genes can be passed “horizontally” between species, rather than just being inherited by offspring, thanks to the genomic cut-and-paste antics of viruses. And characteristics acquired during an organism’s lifetime can be inherited, in a process called epigenetics that seems (superficially) to echo the much-derided views of Darwin’s precursor Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. In fact, there is no longer even a consensus about what a “gene” is.

All this implies that Dawkins’s selfish-gene view of evolution is incomplete and outmoded. But while he himself has been mostly silent about these newly revealed complexities in the workings of the genome — perhaps because he is disenchanted with the mess they have made of his neat picture — they have been explained in plenty of pop-science forums and are widely acknowledged by evolutionary biologists. As Elsdon-Baker says, some of these biologists see Dawkins “as part of the old guard, ready to be replaced by new models and ways of understanding evolutionary processes”.

As a science historian, the author is also troubled by the rewriting and editing of what Darwin actually said because it exemplifies the way scientists routinely traduce history. At the start of The Selfish Gene, Dawkins appears to invite us to approve of the comment by the zoologist George Gaylord Simpson that all attempts to answer the question “What is man?” before The Origin of Species “are worthless and we will be better off if we ignore them completely”. Not only does this remark imply (wrongly) that Darwin somehow escaped the limitations of his context to voice a pure and timeless truth, but it squashes curiosity about the history of ideas and asks us to see science only in terms of those ideas deemed correct today. This Whiggish view still prevails among the old wave of science popularisers, some of whom view with horror attempts to contextualise the evolution of scientific thought, and Elsdon-Baker is right to call time on it.

All the same, I’m left in the curious position of agreeing with nearly everything she says while finding the sum rather unconv­incing. By focusing on Dawkins she must let him call the tune, so that we must hop around his own fixations rather than get a coherent theme. Each of these topics demands more depth than an ad hominem approach permits. The criticisms of Dawkins’s comments on religion — that they are alarmist, dogmatic, polarising, alienating, philosophically suspect, indiscriminate and unrepresentative of scientists generally — are not unjustified, but they have all been made elsewhere. Elsdon-Baker rightly laments the way Dawkins has been allowed to dictate the tenor of the debate between science and religion, but her format makes it hard to avoid letting the same thing happen here.

Science communicators today owe a huge debt to Dawkins for bringing the discipline back into popular discourse. Many will also agree that in both style and content he is starting to look out of date now. But Elsdon-Baker’s complaints are perhaps occasioned more by a lazy media that refuses to see how times have changed and continues to position Dawkins as the public voice of science. His accounts of evolution provide a beautifully drawn base that it must now be the job of others to modify and update.

The Selfish Genius by Fern Elsdon-Baker
Icon £8.99 pp288

Also see: (thanks to Layla)



Planet of the apes

Stephen Cave - Financial Times Comments

What we really know about our evolutionary past – and what we don’t

Magic at Every Age A review of Richard...

Stacy L. Memering,Viviana A.... Comments

Magic at Every Age
A review of Richard Dawkins, The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True

The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins

Oliver Kamm - The Times Comments

Review of The Magic of Reality

Dear believers: Blasphemy is good for...

John Gray - The Globe and Mail Comments

A review of The Future of Blasphemy Speaking of the Sacred in an Age of Human Rights
by Austin Dacey

How the Blind Watchmaker Made Eyes

Donald Prothero - eSkeptic Comments

How the Blind Watchmaker Made Eyes

South Carolina’s Secular Crusader

Laura Paull - Tablet Comments

In a new memoir, Herb Silverman recounts his legal battle against a state ban on atheists seeking public office



Comment RSS Feed

Please sign in or register to comment