and Social Darwinism
views in Philosophy with a two-year time-lag is getting rather
like conversation with the Andromeda Nebula. I am distressed that
my reply to Messrs Mackie and Dawkins, explaining what made me write
so crossly about The Selfish Gene, has been so long delayed.
Mr Mackie’s sudden death in December 1981 adds a further dimension
to this distress.
is due, not only for the delay but for the impatient tone of my
article. One should not lose one’s temper, and doing so always makes
for confused argument. My basic objections remain. But I certainly
ought to have expressed them more clearly and temperately. This
reply must, I think, concentrate simply on explaining the background
of reasons why these objections matter. I shall have very little
to say directly about Mackie’s argument,
since it was chiefly just a very fair and sympathetic exposition
of Dawkins' views. Mackie himself drew only very modest conclusions
from them, and avoided the excesses of psychological egoism, as
of course he also does in his own book. But this still leaves two
serious worries. In the first place I do not think that The Selfish
Gene itself, on any natural interpretation, does avoid those
excesses. In the second, even when modestly interpreted, I think
it is far too one-sided a book to be picked out and used in isolation
for the re-education of moral philosophy in the biological facts
own central philosophic concern - which I think Dawkins shares -
is to make possible a more realistic attitude about the place of
Homo sapiens in the world. I think we need to see, far more
clearly than we now do, how small and transient a phenomenon we
are in the cosmos. We need a much more realistic idea of our own
mental and physical inheritance, of the constitution which relates
us so closely to the other animal species of this planet. And since
Darwin’s theory of natural selection, incomplete though it is, is
much the best guide we have to understanding that constitution,
it is urgent to try to use it fully for that purpose. I therefore
wholly agree with Dawkins in wanting people as fully informed as
possible about the workings of evolution. And I welcome those parts
of his book which simply explain them. Why, however, has this project
not so far been more successful? The unwillingness of many educated
people to accept evolutionary concepts fully and apply them to Homo
sapiens does not just flow from lack of information, which could
be remedied by a good clear textbook. It flows from that early,
widespread and deep-rooted bunch of misunderstandings of Darwin’s
ideas, which is called (somewhat misleadingly) Social Darwinism.
This consists in supposing that evolution endorses the simple social
ethic of devil-take-the-hindmost. That ethic was in fact already
provided with a theory long before Darwin wrote, as a spin-off from
free-enterprise economics. But since the word fit can unfortunately
mean deserving or suitable as well as healthy, Herbert
Spencer’s concept of the ‘survival of the fittest’ seemed to slot
admirably into this framework, and to supplement what had before
been merely prudential advice by deriving it from a universal law
of life. Darwin himself, though he accepted the phrase, rejected
such applications. But Spencer had full confidence in them, and
toured the United States giving the explicit scientific blessing
of evolutionary theory to the wilder excesses of free-enterprise
capitalism. The damage was deep and lasting.
It remains to plague us today. And sociobiological thinking, especially
in its Dawkinsian form, actually reinforces Social Darwinism, both
by its language and by some of its substance. This, and not some
mysterious personal spite, was what made me indignant.
of a vast range of possible examples I select a case which brings
out specially well the fatalistic side of the error:
of the Spencerian philosophy brought with it a paralysis of the
will to reform. Youmans (an influential American popularizer of
H. Spencer’s views) in Henry George’s presence denounced with great
fervour the political corruption of New York and the selfishness
of the rich in ignoring or promoting it when they found it profitable
to do so. ‘What are you going to do about it?’ George asked. Youmans
replied ‘Nothing. You and I can do nothing at all. It’s all a matter
of evolution. We can only wait for evolution. Perhaps in four or
five thousand years evolution may have carried men beyond this state
of things.' 
Dawkins may very well by now have grasped this point as far as it
concerns Fatalism. The Extended Phenotype contains an admirable
chapter on what is called ‘Genetic Determinism’ in which he spells
out well the difference between determinism and fatalism, and points
out that genetic determinism is no worse than the sociological kind.
He now sees, he says, that he has unwittingly stumbled over
a myth. But of course what is involved is much more than a myth.
It is a whole coherent web of powerful political and psychological
ideas, rooted in large and bloody historical facts. To sidestep
it demands more than tact. It calls for rethinking.
way of regarding evolution has not died. Indeed, it has been plausibly
said that Social Darwinism is still the unofficial religion of the
West. The amount of reasonable alarm which this raises becomes clear
to anyone who reads the indignant responses of people of radical
or liberal sympathies, particularly in the social sciences, first
to ethological thinking and then to sociobiology, whenever those
methods are applied to man. A kind of truce was maintained in the
early part of this century - helped out no doubt by the bizarre
Lamarckism of Freud - which allowed Darwin's ideas to apply in theory
even to human beings, provided that no one actually suggested in
detail how they might work. But any attempt at such specific suggestions
was at once seen - not universally but surprisingly widely - as
Social Darwinism. The accusation is mostly now phrased as one of
‘biological determinism’, which sounds metaphysical. But the quotations
and examples show that the real objection is political and moral.
The real opponent is still Spencer. So strong is this expectation
that the slightest carelessness of language is enough to confirm
cannot exorcize this trouble merely by disclaiming the intention
of drawing moral conclusions.  This
cannot help, because the central doctrine at issue is not moral
but factual. It is that conflict is universal and is in fact the
only kind of interaction which is possible for us. To correct this
error, what is chiefly needed is attention to the sociality of the
higher animals, which shows us the roots of human co-operation,
without in any way compromising the uniqueness of the tree which
has grown from those roots. It then becomes possible for us to see
ourselves, without distortion or reduction, as part of the animal
creation. I have some sympathy with Dawkins when he repeatedly disclaims
interest in human psychology, and wants its complications kept out
of the way of evolutionary theory. But this is scarcely possible.
In the first place he actually invites a human application. In the
second, readers of a given species must naturally apply such theories
to their own case, even if they were not asked to, and they have
a right to expect that it will make sense there. If they are inclined
to suspect before they start that everything good in their own species
is exclusive to it, accounts of evolution which emphasize only what
they regard as evil are bound to confirm their opinion. Any writer
who lays all the emphasis on conflict is inviting misunderstanding.
And if he adds to this a language like the sociobiological one,
drawn from everyday morality, he guarantees it.
among the snags of this sociobiological language is the equivocal
use of words like ‘selfish’, ‘altruistic’, ‘spite’ and ‘manipulate’,
a use which not only suggests psychological egoism to the surrounding
peasants, but clearly at times misleads the writers themselves.
It is because the word ‘selfish’, with this sense, is the key term
of The Selfish Gene, and receives a poetic celebration there
unparalleled in other sociobiological writings, that the book struck
me as exceptionally likely to block the acceptance of Darwinism.
Since my main controversial business is to prevent this blocking,
and 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, this upset me, and doubly so when I found this particular
book-out of the enormous wealth of books now available on evolution
- being recommended on its own as a source for moral philosophy.
this language however a mere formality? Dr Dawkins tells us that
he is obviously not using the word selfish in any sense which
could excuse this interpretation. It is, he says, a harmless, well-known
technical term, referring only to behaviour, viz, to that which
in fact increases an entity’s own chance of survival. Selfish,
then, means here something like ‘actually self-preserving in
the long run’. He correctly points out that biologists writing on
evolution do now use the term in what he calls this ‘special, restricted
sense’. Accordingly, ‘a philosopher who wishes to understand biologists
must therefore learn this basic feature of biological language’
(IDSG, 558). He wants us to treat such redefinition as normal, since
‘philosophers of all people know that words may be redefined in
special ways for technical purposes’(557).
question whether this usage is a bad one must be separated from
that of what we can do about a bad usage once it exists. Is it a
bad one? I suggest that it plainly is. It is true that philosophers
are used to special technical definitions. But that does not mean
that no standards apply to their manufacture.
restricted sense ought to be one which forms part of the
normal meaning of the word. It cannot be one which falls, as this
does, right outside it. When it does that, it becomes reasonable
to ask, why use that word rather than a more suitable one? It is
true (and I should have made it clearer) that this question should
be put here to a whole school of biologists, not just to Dawkins,
though most of them do not rest anything like so much weight on
this particular word. But the question ‘why say selfish rather
than self-preserving or self-replicating or self-perpetuating
or competitive or the like?’ is still serious. The use
is a specially unlucky one for people who really do not want to
talk about motivation. As B. F. Skinner rightly remarked, 
behaviourists in general do well to avoid using terms suggesting
motives. And the term selfish is one which centres its normal
meaning on motive, not on a fixed range of acts. In any case, however,
as Dawkins himself now remarks (558) the taboo on taking animal
subjectivity into account when discussing motivation is at present
breaking up, because the attempt to explain action in puritanically
behaviouristic terms has proved so disappointing. The use is probably
doomed along with other perverse behaviouristic uses. So it can
scarcely be a ‘basic feature of biological language’. And it is
certainly a real question why such rankly misleading language was
ever chosen. One could of course attribute it merely to clumsiness.
But it has always seemed to me more plausible, as well as politer,
to suppose that a real bias towards psychological egoism made this
use seem actually enlightening and suitable.
the use remains, however, it poses a problem of a familiar kind
for biologists who want to talk to the general reader, to whom The
Selfish Gene is explicitly addressed. It is by no means enough,
in such cases, simply to give a new definition and repeat it from
time to time. When a term is drawn from everyday speech like this,
the force of habitual usage is far too strong for that. (It can
be seen at work for instance in the tendentious use sometimes made
by crusading economists of terms like freedom. But this case
is much less extreme, since the special economic sense of such terms
is only a restricted one, not a total change of meaning.)
To minimize the danger of misunderstanding in these cases, there
are some obvious precepts which writers normally follow. For instance:
avoid all emotive uses. Do not combine the word with others which
must fix it in the everyday sense (as in ‘ruthless selfishness’
(p. 2), ‘tyranny of the selfish replicators’ (p. 3), etc.). Avoid
doing this with particular care at the outset of the book, before
the special definition has yet been introduced. (It appears on p.
4.) Instead, constantly correct the reader’s inevitable bias by
adding near-synonyms which take out the heat and move the meaning,
if anything, the other way. Avoid examples which can conceivably
look like examples of the everyday sense. If you feel a purple passage
coming on, make sure that you keep this word out of it. And, above
all, do not use it in your title.
these and similar precautions, many biologists do contrive to use
this language without disaster. But one thing which they cannot
effectively do in it is to talk about man. Any writer who attempts
this runs into impossible difficulties. He has returned the transplanted
language to its home ground. This means that it cannot possibly
avoid taking on again the familiar sense which was supposed to have
been purged away from it. Enormous problems arise. Nobody wants
to deal with them. The effect is that the evolution of human traits
is becoming increasingly unthinkable and indescribable, cut off
by this linguistic reinforcement of its Wilberforcian barrier from
the terms used to describe the rest of nature. Biologists who don’t
want trouble simply avoid the topic.
this is not Dr Dawkins’s practice in The Selfish Gene. Without
wasting time illustrating this again at length, I mention only the
last point, the title. Would it be a good idea for a physicist to
publish a book called The Charm and Strangeness of Quarks? Dawkins
gives the example of charm in his justification and it is
an interesting one (IDSG, 557). Physicists can only use these
terms because their new use is so far removed from their old one
that there can be no possibility of interpreting their sentences
in the old sense. So far from this being the case with selfishness,
many if not most of the remarks made about it in the new sense admit
of an interpretation in the old sense which sounds, not only intelligible,
but attractively familiar. They read as ordinary statements and
developments of psychological egoism. I am entirely prepared to
believe that these interpretations come as a complete surprise to
Dawkins in his capacity as Dr Jekyll, the honourable and single-minded
expounder of biological truths. Jekyll writes about half the book,
and I ought to have paid tribute to him before, for doing it so
well. Instead, perversely enough, I not only took him for granted
but thought that his presence actually made things worse. How can
a writer who can do this work so admirably then go on to spoil it
with irrelevant rhetoric? And how is it possible for readers to
feel that, with those powers of exposition, he does not know what
he is saying?
of Dr Dawkins’s reply is devoted to spelling out fully the technical
meaning of what he has said, and to claiming that I have misunderstood
it in bringing non-biological objections. Is his purpose then actually
just a scientific one? Is the book really just an unpretentious,
neutral textbook of evolutionary biology, which my lurid imagination
has no right to saddle with any wider implications? Is the non-technical
part of it just a bit of standard flannel, used to wrap popular
science for the benefit of publishers, and meant to be ignored by
serious readers? It is printed without any health warning to the
reader not to swallow it, and accordingly my criticisms, however
ill-expressed, become relevant. Arguments which would be perfectly
in place in purely theoretical biological discussions (such as those
of John Maynard Smith) have a quite different function here. Points
such as the bias of examples and the over-abstractness of models
now come under a quite different standard of criticism. The claims
being made are immensely larger, and gaps in the argument are therefore
far graver. What then actually are these claims?
book’s first chapter, called ‘Why are People?’ opens with this remarkable
life on a planet comes of age when it first works out the reason
for its own existence… We no longer have to resort to superstition
when faced with the deep problems: Is there a meaning to life?
What are we for? What is man? After posing the last of these
questions the eminent zoologist G. G. Simpson put it thus: ‘The
point I want to make now is that all attempts to answer that question
before 1859 are worthless and that we will be better off if we ignore
them completely’ (p. 1 my italics).
of course, was talking about the causal story, which does not involve
the first two questions. But Dawkins, though he does not discuss
or analyse these questions, does repeatedly answer at least the
second of them in his book, and he would scarcely mention the first
if he did not think that his answer served for that as well. He
must mean that all of them received in 1859 a new and revolutionary
answer. In response to my complaint about loose use of metaphor,
he now emphatically repeats what he takes this answer to be. It
are survival machines - robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve
the selfish molecules known as genes. This is a truth which still
fills me with astonishment (p. ix).
now comments ‘That was no metaphor. I believe it is the literal
truth, provided certain key words are defined in the particular
way favoured by biologists’ (IDSG, 572-573) (This caveat can apply
only to gene and selfish, since the other words have
not been discussed. The ones that really need attention, of course,
are machine, vehicle and blindly programmed.)
concerns me is the meaning of this and the argument by which it
is supposed to follow from the theory of evolution. As to the meaning,
one quite sensible point emerges, but it is a small one - namely,
that we have not programmed ourselves. We are not self-creating
beings inventing our own destinies from scratch. We are weak, ignorant
and self-deceiving, and ought to make a much greater effort to understand
our limitations. True. But this point cannot be made in the language
of fatalism, which declares that all human effort is useless, since
we are only pawns in the grip of an alien power. And fatalism of
the most extreme sort seems central to the meaning of these numerous
is this fatalism really intended? Can it be read as mere determinism,
a scientific belief in regularity with all reference to the distinctive
agency of the genes removed? It will not normally be so read, because
fatalism is one of the strongest and most seductive of popular thought-schemes.
And to say that the remark about survival machines is ‘literal truth’
seems to put the matter past doubt, since literal programming can
only be done by agents, and conscious ones at that. The fatalistic
point, of course, is not that a new, conscious external agent has
been found, but that those who have so far believed themselves to
be agents are shown not really to be so. The personification
of the controlling force is merely a way of dramatizing their helplessness.
The message which any unsophisticated reader must receive is that
he is a helpless pawn in the hands of his physical inheritance and
can therefore stop trying, because he has a universal excuse. Or
- to look at it another way - any states of discouragement and depression
which may overwhelm him are veridical. What he feels when in their
grip is the truth. He really is not capable of acting, and the sense
of agency which he has at other times is a delusion. Paralysis of
the will is his real condition. Since people sometimes believe the
books they read, this seems a message which one should think twice
this unofficial message we must return. The official one concerns
the units of selection. It is best approached by considering what
it means to call organisms ‘survival machines’ for genes. The language
of ‘mechanisms’ and the like is of course common in science, but
it is usually used to describe the relation of parts to whole organisms.
The survival or other benefit of those organisms then supplies the
purpose needed for all mechanical talk. Outside that context, this
language gets obscure. To a certain extent it can be used in wider
contexts, in phrases like ‘the mechanisms of evolution’. But this
use depends on taking some larger unit, such as the biosphere or
a part of it, as the whole whose part is in some sense its ‘mechanism’,
working for its good. This use is not entirely clear, but it is
a lot clearer than the reversed one in which genes, which are parts,
use their wholes as survival machines or ‘vehicles’ - like people
buying cars. People, after all, are contingently related to their
we are merely expounding determinism, why should we pick out genes
from the rest of the causal process? Genes are pieces of matter,
‘programmed’ along with the rest of the organism - that is, taking
shape and acting in a particular way as a result of environmental
pressures, of the physical and chemical forces working within them,
and of the behaviour of previous organisms. The point of describing
them as programmers must be to pick them out as originators,
as in some sense the starting-point of explanation. (‘Genes
exert ultimate power over behaviour’, p. 64.) But determinism allows
of no such ultimate power.
meaning can be found for this special status, but again it is rather
a small one, and this time it is involved in current controversy.
It can mean simply that genes are specially useful in causal
explanation. This claim has two stages. First, evolutionary selection
has formed our nature. (This seems to me plainly true and important,
though many people still dispute it.) Second, ‘what evolution selects’
is not individuals or groups, but genes.
think it is clear that this controversy about ‘units of selection’
has slipped, in its later stages, into a piece of mistaken metaphysics.
It is not obvious why there should be any contest between individuals
and genes; both are ‘selected’, though in slightly different senses.
About groups, however, a genuine mistake was made, and real gratitude
is due to the sociobiologists who, following J. B. S. Haldane, corrected
it. The problem is about how ‘altruistic’ traits - that is, traits
which benefit others at the expense of the individual displaying
them - can evolve. It used to be somewhat casually assumed that
they would do so if they benefited the group or species (‘group-selection’).
Haldane and his followers pointed out that, if the trait was to
be genuinely inherited, this was not enough. Unless enough owners
of these traits survive to breed, the traits will be lost, however
useful they might have been. ‘Kin selection’ works only through
the survival of kin.
this was clear the notion of direct ‘group selection’ was largely
dropped except for certain special cases. A hot controversy then
developed over which entity, if not the group or species, should
be considered the fundamental ‘unit of selection’. Was it the individual
or the gene? A philosopher’s first response to this query will probably
be to wonder why any single unit should be expected. I do not know
of any good reason for this.
Hull, in a very sympathetic discussion, has pointed out that Dawkins’s
‘replicating’ unit (the gene) is far too parsimonious to be equal
to its work, and has offered to make metaphysical sense of it by
adding, to supplement it, two further units, first the ‘interactor’,
which is the organism, mediating between the gene and the environment,
and then the ‘lineage’. These additions
would make it possible to describe those aspects of biological change
which do not take place within or between genes - that is, of course,
nearly all of them. Dawkins, however, rejects this.
What, however, might all this have to do with the meaning and purpose
of life? Now in the case of kin-selection there is a clear answer.
Kin-selection has practical importance because it refutes psychological
egoism. It shows that we cannot actually be creatures designed only
to pursue each our own individual safety and advantage, because
such creatures would have become extinct as soon as they grew complex
enough for their children’s development to require a long and demanding
nurture. Since theorists like Hobbes have built a great deal of
our political theory on psychological egoism it would be a good
idea to spell out this message plainly. Instead, however, sociobiology
does its best to conceal its central discovery by cloaking it in
unsuitable egoistic language, and by hunting for an entity which
can still be made to fit the old, exclusively self-benefiting model.
The effect is to convey the notion that altruistic and sociable
behaviour is somehow an unreal facade, behind which the reality
is always competition and hostility. Thus Dawkins attacks Lorenz
and his followers, who have emphasized social motivation:
got it totally and utterly wrong. They got it wrong because they
misunderstood how evolution works. They made the erroneous assumption
that the important thing in evolution is the good of the species
(or the group) rather than the good of the individual (or gene)
(SG, p. 2).
how could there only be one ‘important thing in evolution’? Again,
he brackets Lorenz with Ashley Montagu as a soft-headed ignoramus,
unable to face the gory facts of evolution:
both of them, I think that ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ sums up
our modern understanding of evolution admirably.
redness of tooth and claw, however, does not vary by a single shade
according to different views about the units of evolutionary selection.
On all such views, the social life of animals has developed gradually
out of solitary life, and the motivation which makes it possible
has only been able to prevail because it actually promoted differential
survival, not because it met a pre-existing standard of value.
origin is disputed by no one - unless, perhaps, by surviving champions
of vitalism, to which Lorenz is implacably opposed. Neither is the
amount of destruction and waste which has accompanied the process.
What, then, has an acceptance of the undoubted bloodiness of nature
got to do with the victory of gene-selection?
insists on a pre-Socratic, black-or-white antithesis: universal
self-interest or universal altruism. This makes it impossible
to discuss the motivation of group-living creatures. Mackie, correctly
following Dawkins’s argument, quotes Kipling’s line on the Law of
strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is
he says that this has been shown to be an error, equally with the
extreme ‘red in tooth and claw’ notion of jungle behaviour. Neither
of these, he says, is ‘the law by which nature works’, since that
law actually turns upon the self-preservation of gene-clones’ (TLJ,
p. 460). This assumes that there is only a single ‘law by which
nature works’, and that Kipling’s lines are meant to formulate it.
But they are not. The lines are
simply about wolves and other equally social creatures, and they
state a principle which is entirely necessary for understanding
the behaviour, the mentality and even the physique of these animals.
Solitary hunters like jaguars are different in innumerable ways,
notably in communicative power. Mackie’s question ‘whether the good
of the group or the species would ever figure in a correct evolutionary
account’ of such creatures cannot therefore have the negative answer
which he gives it (TLJ, 456). Groups have to figure there. References
to groups do not of course have to displace those of genes
and individuals, but they do have to supplement them. There is not
‘group-selection’, meaning selection which works directly for the
good of the group. But there is kin-selection. And since most social
animals, including wolves, have groups which consist largely of
kin, this comes in practice to very much the same thing. How far
social behaviour, having developed toward kin, then extends beyond
it is something I cannot go into here. But the important thing is
that this is an empirical question about existing behaviour, which
cannot be settled in advance by any theory of selection processes.
If altruistic behaviour occurs, then it has somehow managed to develop.
Evolutionary processes must be such as to make this possible.
The Selfish Gene, however, really just a straightforward
scientific treatise on these processes, claiming no implications
about human psychology? The following passages seem relevant -
you would extract a moral from this book, read it as a warning.
Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which
individuals co-operate generously and unselfishly towards a common
good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us
try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.
Let us understand what our selfish genes are up to, because we may
then at least have a chance to upset their designs (SG, 3). We have
the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth…We can even discuss
ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested
altruism, something that has no place in nature, something that
has never existed before in the whole history of the world (215).
we take seriously the view that we are nothing but gene-machines,
the advice given seems as futile as inviting a chess-machine to
play leap-frog. Besides, and more to our present point, it must
surely be needless. The existence of altruism at an ordinary level
has been admitted throughout the book and often stressed. So it
cannot be this altruism which ‘has no place in nature and has never
existed in the world’. Nor can the point be just the cliché
that we are not generous, altruistic or co-operative enough.
Of that obvious, but not very exciting, fact psychological egoism
is the exciting, but false, overstatement. But what is really mysterious
is how, either in its mild or its extreme form, this point can be
the moral of a book which is not supposed to be about motives at
all, let alone human motives. It can only be so if the controversy
about units of selection - which really is central to the book -
is seen as also deciding the true nature of motivation. The victory
of gene-selection is taken to establish egoism, to prove that existing
forms of altruism, though present, are not what they seem, and are
really only forms of self-interest. The new kind, which we are invited
to invent, will be something completely different. The conjecture
that human beings may even be capable of this ‘genuine, disinterested,
pure altruism’ (215) is presented as a rash one. The kind we have
now, then, is a sham. Dr Jekyll, of course, disowns this view (5).
But Messrs Hyde and Hyde, the poet and moralist, cannot possibly
get on without it. In its absence, no large and dashing views about
the meaning and purpose of life would emerge at all.
it is, what are those views? As far as I can see, they can amount
only to one thing, namely, to a demand for a total distrust of feeling.
The reader is told that all his natural feelings - but particularly
those outgoing ones which seem to link him with others - are false
and misleading guides. They are not really aspects of himself at
all, but devices placed in him by alien beings in order to manipulate
him. Or, less mythologically, but no less alarmingly, they are the
physical effects produced by parasites which have lodged irremovably
in his body, and whose chemistry continually distorts his mental
processes in a way adapted only to secure their own survival.
Now for people to fear their feelings and regard them as alien forces
is nothing new. It is already one of the commonest causes of human
misery and confusion. The trouble, of course, is that all hope of
developing better feelings depends on acknowledging the existing
ones honestly as parts of oneself. But if they are not part of oneself,
this is impossible. Besides, if genes really have the ‘ultimate
power’ they are credited with, all such escape routes must surely
be blocked and all possible feelings would be equally alien. What
alternative are we supposed to turn to? We might hope to have recourse
to culture (‘let us try to teach generosity and altruism’). But
Chapter 11 explains that culture is itself a product of a further
set of alien and parasitical entities, called ‘memes’ or genes of
culture, which are just as ruthlessly selfish as genes. Nothing
seems left to us except that well-worn asset our conscious foresight’
(215), our power of planning for our own good. But since what we
count as good will depend on our natural feelings and our culture,
that is not very helpful. We have no real alternative to the paralysis
of complete despair.
University of Newcastle upon Tyne
1 See their Discussion Notes, ‘Genes
and Egoism’ by J. L. Mackie and ‘In
Defence of Selfish Genes’ by Richard Dawkins, in Philosophy
No. 218 (October 1981). These answered my article ‘Gene-Juggling’
(Philosophy N0. 210 (October 1979)), which referred to ‘The
Law of the Jungle’ by J. L. Mackie (Philosophy No. 206
(October 1978)). Initials used henceforward refer to these articles
and to Richard Dawkins’s books, The Selfish Gene (Oxford
University Press, 1976) and The Extended Phenotype (London:
W. H. Freeman and Co., 1982).
2 For this painful story, see Richard Hofstadter,
Social Darwinism in American Thought (New York: Braziller,
1959), Ch. 2, ‘The Vogue of Spencer’, and James R. Moore The
Post-Darwinian Controversies (Cambridge University Press, 1979),
Ch. 7, ‘The Vogue of Herbert Spencer’.
3 Hofstadter, op. cit., 47.
4 Chapter 2, much of which is reprinted under the
title ‘The Myth of Genetic Determinism' in New Scientist 93,
No. 1287 (7 January 1982).
5 Dawkins gives this disclaimer at SG, p. 3, but
unfortunately goes on to neutralize it. He writes: ‘My own feeling
is that a human society based simply on the gene’s law of universal
selfishness would be a very nasty society in which to live. But
unfortunately, however much we may deplore something, it does not
stop it being true.’ This seems to concede the factual point
I now discuss, not only about genes but about people.
6 See The Behaviour of Organisms (New York:
Appleton Century, 1938), Chapter 1, 6-7. Skinner adds ‘The sole
criterion for the rejection of a popular term is the implication
of a system or of a formulation extending beyond immediate observations’.
7 The most comprehensive and convenient source for
this history is Edward O. Wilson’s Sociobiology (Harvard
University Press, 1976) which gives many other sources. The latter
stages of the dispute can be followed in The Extended Phenotype.
8 ‘Units of Evolution, a Metaphysical Essay’,
in The Philosophy of Evolution, U. J. Jensen and R. Harré
(eds) (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1981). Hull’s extreme politeness,
in the remarks which Dawkins cites (IDSG, 570), does not obscure
the fact that what Hull is pointing out is a metaphysical difficulty
raised by the doctrine of gene-selection, a difficulty which,
if not cured, will sink it. It is not really too hard to commit
a single ‘act of metaphysics’. What is hard is to extract oneself
from its consequences.
9 In some parts of the new book, especially at the
opening, he concedes that gene-selectionism’ may be only one way
of looking at things, a refreshing alternative idea which does not
need to establish itself as an exclusive ruler. But most of the
time, zeal for its final victory seems to remain undiminished.
10 Dawkins seems to think that I doubt this, for
he attributes to me (IDSG, 558) ‘the old, biology A-level reflex’
of ‘explaining animal adaptations, altruistic behaviour among them,
as "for the good of the species" ‘.He bases this charge
on my remarks that ‘what is maladaptive…damages the species’ chance
of surviving’, and that ‘there is a problem about evolution which
runs "Can a species survive if each member of it sometimes
does things which do not (in fact) pay him?"' (Beast
& Man, 149). The first of these remarks seems to be a matter
of logic, and the second simply states in neutral terms the central
question of sociobiology, as it affects species. The idea that there
might be a direct, Lamarckian mechanism, ensuring that what helped
the group or species would prevail regardless of the fate of individuals,
never occurred to me, so I took no trouble to deny it. I rather
suspect that others accused of ‘group-selectionism’ may be in the
same boat, including Lorenz.
11 What Kipling gives is, he says, only ‘a few
of the laws that apply to the wolves . . . specimens of the
simpler rulings’ which Baloo gave to Mowgli (see ‘The Law of the
Jungle’ in the Second Jungle Book, and the story before it,
‘How Fear Came’).
12 This idea may seem to recall an interesting
science-fiction story by Cohn Wilson, The Mind Parasites, where
human faults are found to be the work of mental parasites which
are (I think) then eliminated by some kind of transcendental DDT,
returning the human race to the innocence which was its original
condition. But Dawkins’s idea is much more obscure than this, as
well as more sinister. It shows all contents of the mind,
equally and indiscriminately, as parasitical. Dawkins cites with
approval a colleague’s remark that ‘When you plant a meme in my
mind you literally parasitize my brain…in just the same way
that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell.
And this isn’t just a way of talking’ (SG, 207, my italics).
But the idea of parasite and host requires separate, distinct individuals.
If each individual is only a locus for innumerable warring parasites,
how is there anyone to talk of ‘my brain’ or of you as
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