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Based at The University of Edinburgh, the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum is part of the ESRC Genomics Network and pioneers new ways to promote and communicate social research on the contemporary life sciences.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Darwin, Dawkins and the Left

By Ken MacLeod - Genomics Forum Writer in Residence

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 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.
Here's the gist of what I said - a longer version will no doubt appear on my own blog.

I grew up in a household where evolution was considered unsound, and where we got a constant supply of creationist tracts and books. By the time I went to university I was a convinced atheist, but I still thought that the anti-evolution tracts had made some telling points. This misconception didn't survive a reading of the first chapter of the first-year biology textbook, Keeton's Biological Science. Reading Darwin's The Origin of Species, I saw for myself how it had been misrepresented by creationists - mainly by what later became known as quote-mining: taking a quote out of context or mangling it, so that it seemed to be conceding a point against evolution. I also 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 Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox's The Imperial Animal.
I soon found 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: that human nature was rooted in animal behaviour and was unchangeable. In the early and mid-1970s, there were very intense struggles going on in society, and an argument 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 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 1976, I didn't read more than the title. I thought it was just more of the same.
Many years later I read the book and discovered 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 flleeing rabbit more visible to the fox. But it also makes copies of the gene 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 I also discovered that over the years and right up to today, some people on the left (I gave some hair-raising examples) still haven't read past the title! They seem quite unable 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.
They also seem unaware that 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. They 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 did for Lysenkoism, and also did for group selection.
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', which may have had powerful effects in the small, closely-related social groups of humanity's pre-history. And if kin selection creates a biological basis for any human trait, it's fraternity.
So, brothers and sisters, why worry about it?

1 comment:

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