|The Early Days of a Better Nation|
Friday, February 25, 2011
A few months ago Chris Williams, an OU history lecturer and political activist whom I've known for years online, asked me to give this year's Darwin Memorial Lecture to the Leicester Secular Society. I suggested the topic of 'Darwin, Dawkins, and the Left' because, a couple of years earlier, I'd put together a stash of notes and links for a blog post that I'd never quite got around to writing.
The event, at the Society's splendid Victorian red-brick Secular Hall on 13 February 2011, drew a large and lively audience, from that cross-section of radical England that you so often find in its socialist, secularist and peace movements. Their searching and informed questions often had me thinking fast on my feet, and have improved the talk I actually gave into the version that follows. It's a combination of the talk I didn't give with the post I didn't write. I've left for another post what I said about my creationist upbringing and how I got over it.
The first questioner, after my talk, pointed out that all the examples I'd given of people on the left misunderstanding or misrepresenting Dawkins came from what the questioner called 'the ultra-left', mainly the Socialist Workers Party. It's a fair cop. In my defence, I said that the SWP is the largest Marxist organization in Britain; that Alex Callinicos is a respected academic, public intellectual, and prolific author; and that Richard Seymour's blog Lenin's Tomb is (quite rightly) one of the most widely-read and influential far-left blogs.
I also pointed out that the tropes I was talking about are found well beyond the SWP's orbit. A couple of years ago, a reviewer in the Scottish Sunday Herald ( 12 July 2009), wrote:
And science is no more immune to opinion, fashion and political bias than any other endeavour of humankind. (Evidence of that, I would suggest, is Dawkins's 1976 The Selfish Gene, ushering in the Thatcherite era. The clue is in the title.)So while my examples were mostly from the far left rather than the broad left, I don't think they're thereby irrelevant.
However, in honour of my main foil in this over-long ramble, I've changed the title of the post from the one I used for the talk.
From 1972 - 1976 I studied biology and then zoology at Glasgow University, and read popular works about evolution - Konrad Lorenz's On Aggression, Desmond Morris's The Naked Ape, Robert Ardrey's African Genesis and The Territorial Imperative, Lionel Tiger's Men in Groups and I think Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox's The Imperial Animal. I soon found out that my teachers in biology and zoology didn't think much of these books, and that the message of most of these books was pretty conservative. They seemed to be saying, and quite often explicitly did say, that human nature was rooted in animal behaviour and was unchangeable. At the same time as I was learning about Darwin and evolution, I was learning about Marx and revolution. At that time, in the early and mid-1970s, there were very intense struggles going on in society, and an argument that was very much used by the conservative side in those struggles was precisely that the hopes of the left were futile and destructive because human behaviour was rooted in biology. This genetic determinism was quite prevalent and was linked to the argument that intelligence was genetically determined, and that the social inequalities between classes and races and sexes and nations were a straightforward consequence of differences in their genetic endowment. Workers and women and blacks and the Irish were just thick, and that was why they were what the left called oppressed, and that was that.
There were, of course, answers to these arguments from the left, some of them from distinguished psychologists and biologists, and I read them and listened to my lecturers who explained why the likes of Robert Ardrey weren't quite sound on evolution. This may help to explain but not excuse why, when I saw a copy of The Selfish Gene in the bookshop of Brunel University in 1976, I didn't read more than the title. I thought it was just more of the same.
Some time in the 1980s I read The Blind Watchmaker and was impressed enough to go and read the The Selfish Gene, and found that it was not at all what I'd thought.
The 'selfish' gene is, among other things, an explanation of how genes for 'unselfish' traits - traits that work against the individual organism's own reproductive fitness - can emerge and persist. It's because it doesn't matter to the gene's prevalence that its copy in one particular body is, let's say, eaten by a predator - as long as other copies of the same gene thereby get a better chance to be reproduced. To take a simple and familiar example, the 'gene for' the scut: the white underside of rabbits' tails. The white scut flashes like a warning light whenever a rabbit runs, and presumably makes the fleeing rabbit more visible to the fox. But it also makes copies of the same gene (or genes) in all the other rabbits more likely to get away.
The earlier 'group selectionists' explained this sort of thing - and there's lots of this sort of thing in biology - by arguing that behaviour or characteristics that benefited the group but not the individual were selected for because they helped the group survive. What the gene-selectionists showed mathematically was that this was unstable - that if selection took place at that level, genes that helped the individual to survive at the expense of the group (e.g. a rabbit without a white scut) would tend to spread through the population.
But over the years and right up to today, some people on the left still haven't read past the title. I remember some time in the early 1990s an article in Socialist Worker claimed that The Selfish Gene provided scientific cover for Thatcherism by saying that we were genetically programmed to be selfish.
A few years later, Alex Callinicos, a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party, took to task the materialist philospher Daniel Dennett for drawing on Dawkins's dangerous ideas. He wrote in the Summer 1996 issue of its journal, International Socialism
[Sociobiology's] ideological implications are made evident by the very title of one of sociobiology's founding texts, Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene (1976).But this doesn't mean that Callinicos hadn't read past the title. He goes on to say:
Dawkins declares, 'We are survival machines - robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.'So he'd read at least the first page of the preface. The impression of progress, however, is at once dashed:
Human beings must thus be seen as essentially the bearers of their genes, who use them as means to maximise their reproductive chances. The reactionary uses to which this idea can be put were made clear in Richard Hernstein's and Charles Murray's recent book The Bell Curve, which argues that black Americans' poverty can be explained by their biologically determined inferior intelligence as measured in IQ tests.See what he did there?
Reading this made my blood run cold.
In 2000, Julie Waterson, reviewing The Natural History of Rape wrote:
They want us to believe that theirs is a science book, using objective rules and laws. In fact it is a political book--similar to those used to justify capitalist greed (Dawkins' The Selfish Gene) and to condone racism (Murray's The Bell Curve).
A 2009 article and long comments thread on Lenin's Tomb, in which I participated, had a few highlights. In one comment, Seymour wrote:
Because Gould posits a much less reductionist model, much more pluralist in the way that selection works; and because he sees the struggle for survival as taking place at the level of the organism and not the 'selfish gene', he can argue that cooperation and mutual aid can be just as succesful pathways to reproduction as struggle and selfishness. Organs struggling against their environment can arguably do better by cooperation, depending on the organs in question and the environment in question. He doesn't have to explain altruism by reference to an altruism gene. For Dawkins, the sole unit of selection is the selfish gene, and the only route to reproductive success is selfish behaviour. The two views could not be more different. Dawkins offers a reductionist model that sees our morally laudable behaviour as a challenge or an affront to a natural order that is not just "non-moral" as Gould has it, but actually has immoral consequences by Dawkins' lights. Gould's conception allows for a great deal of flexibility, and Dawkins' doesn't.I like the image of 'organs struggling against their environment'. I've had mornings like that. But seriously, this paragraph seems to get things entirely the wrong way round: if the unit of natural selection was the organism and not the gene, you would expect more selfish behaviour by individual organisms, not less!
In response to my hint that he might not have read the book, Richard responded:
It would be pathetic to rise to such baiting, and I considered it far better to just talk about the book in such a way that you might come away with the impression that perhaps you had pre-judged matters. So much for that. I certainly haven't read it 'cover to cover', but I've read enough of it to understand what it actually says.I think that means 'No'.
The discussion sent me on a long and rather depressing trawl through other Marxist websites. In all fairness, some in the SWP have written reasonable and knowledgeable summaries of the debates in evolutionary theory. The most entertaining thing I found was a gem of an exchange on the website of one of the SWP's smaller competitors, where Clive Bradley trotted out all the usual pious objections, and Richard Dawkins quite unexpectedly responded, 'roasting [him] alive', as Bradley later acknowledged. It's well worth reading.
The more traditional Trotskyists Alan Woods and Ted Grant, in Reason in Revolt, their dialectical materialist guide to life, the universe, and everything, make heavy weather of Dawkins' metaphors:
According to Dawkins child adoption is against the instincts and interests of our "selfish genes." "In most cases we should probably regard adoption, however touching it may seem, as a misfiring of an in-built rule," says Dawkins. "This is because the generous female is doing her own genes no good by caring for the orphan. She is wasting time and energy which she could be investing in the lives of her own kin, particularly future children of her own. It is presumably a mistake which happens too seldom for natural selection to have ‘bothered’ to change the rule by making the maternal instinct more selective."You'd never guess that Dawkins was writing about monkeys.
A likewise firm grasp of the wrong end of that very same stick was shown by Richard Seymour, in the thread I referenced earlier :
[Dawkins] tells you, for example, that natural selection favours lying, cheating, stealing children. He tells you that it favours a 'battle of the sexes'. He tells you that it favours competitive, selfish behaviour in such a way as to make, eg, the welfare state 'unnatural'. Now I am aware that he does not necessarily or wholly disapprove of the welfare state, and that he probably isn't a sexist or someone who looks unkindly upon children - but the point is that his inferences about human behaviour do have powerful ideological consequences even in the text's own terms.
Grant and Woods go on to raise the philosophical tone:
For Dawkins, human nature and motivation are to be understood by analysing human DNA. The same is true of James Watson (the discoverer, with Crick and Franklin, of the double helix) who said "What else is there but atoms?" They never allow the existence of either multiple levels of analysis or complex modes of determination. They ignore the essential relations between cells and the organism as a whole. This empirical method, which emerged with the scientific revolution at the birth of capitalism, was progressive in its day, but has now become a fetter on the advancement of science and the understanding of nature.The fetter of the empirical method is certainly broken here.
And so on and on, right up to 2011, it goes:
I think it is well arguable that the bio-reductionism of Dawkins has always been inter-woven with a Thatcherite project of vicious, competitive individualism, egoistic bourgeois self-interest, and authoritarian national chauvinism, and now grounds an avowedly 'secularist' agenda which is a major vector for the revival of racism among middlebrow liberals who have already swallowed the neoliberal kool aid.To be fair, this outburst is in response to a remark by Dawkins in support of Pat Condell, an online comedian whose hostility to Islamism seems to have morphed into hostility to Muslims as such - but while Dawkins can well be criticised for that comment, it has no connection whatever with his advocacy of the gene-centred model of evolution.
What we see, over and over, is an apparent inability to grasp two simple points:
(i) that the selfish gene is not a gene for selfishness
(ii) that the gene-centred model of evolution is not about genetic determination or genetic determinism.
The perpetrators of this misapprehension also seem unaware that, as the radical anthropologist Chris Knight points out, the 'group selection' theory, which the 'selfish gene' theory displaced, was in fact the basis for the arguments advanced by some of the conservative popular biology works of the 1960s and 1970s - those of Ardrey, for example. These authors saw natural selection taking place at the level of societies, and argued that Western societies were losing out in the competition.
I suggest that part of the reason why geneticists and population-geneticists are not at all impressed by left-wing criticism - including criticism by left-wing scientists such as Gould, Rose, and Lewontin - is that several key figures in the development of these disciplines, notably J. B. S. Haldane and John Maynard Smith, were themselves on the left in 1940s and 1950s and had heard this kind of thing before. As Communists, Haldane and Maynard Smith had been severely burned by the Lysenko affair. In the Soviet Union at that time, mainstream genetics had been smeared as complicit in class privilege and racism. Lysenko wrote that all knowledge, including science, had a class basis. Not even Stalin fell for that. Looking over Lysenko's draft, Stalin scribbled in the margin: 'Ha-ha-ha! What about mathematics? And Darwinism?'
And it was indeed mathematics and Darwinism that buried Lysenkoism, as they also did for group selection.
The lesson, for a generation of left-wing scientists in Britain, was to regard dialectical materialism as irrelevant or dangerous to science. Decades later, the merest hint of it could still make their hackles rise. I well remember how one of them, the great entomologist and systematist R. A. Crowson, snapped 'That's irrelevant!' at me when I ventured a remark about speciation being an instance of 'quantity changing into quality'.
The lesson is unlikely to have been lost on the generation of geneticists and evolutionary theorists who were Haldane's and Maynard Smith's students. Nor was it lost on the 'mainstream' Communist parties. It may, however, have been lost on scientists from other disciplines (such as palaeontology, in the case of Gould
In conclusion, I put it that the only kind of 'genetic determination' that Dawkins sees as possibly relevant to human social orders is 'kin selection and selection in favour of reciprocal altruism', which may have had powerful effects in the small, closely-related social groups of humanity's pre-history. And (as Chris Knight has also pointed out) if kin selection creates a biological basis for any human trait, it's fraternity.
So, brothers and sisters, why worry about it?