The Darwin Wars
Browsing Walthamstow Library for interesting books on evolution, I refused common wisdom and grabbed this one on the strength of its cover. Its back cover, to be precise. Instead of the usual press quotes and flattering blurb, we find a collection of evolutionary theorists taking pot-shots at each other—John Maynard Smith dissing Stephen Jay Gould, Gould defending himself against Daniel Dennett—to illustrate the book’s theme. The final quote is:
I wouldn’t admit it if Andrew Brown were my friend. What a sleazy bit of trash journalism.
Having long nursed a distaste for Dennett, whose sweepingly titled tome Consciousness Explained seemed to sum up the pointless smugness of reductionism, how could I resist?
Of course we all judge books by their cover before we read them. The saying should go, "Don’t judge a book until you’ve read it" (sorry, Dennett!). Well, reading The Darwin Wars left me even more favourably impressed than the cheeky use of negative quotes.
Brown’s seems to be a fair, intelligent and sensitive assessment of the debates that neo-Darwinian theory provokes, debates which can become heated in the extreme. He achieves this in part by starting from a baseline that acknowledges how deep our personal investment is in any position we take on this subject. The "truth" of how genes may or may not affect, influence, or even control our destinies as individual organisms, and as societies of organisms, is something that touches nerves in the same way that religion does. It cuts to the heart of our fundamental beliefs about ourselves, our place in the universe, and our relationship to the universe. Any objectivity here starts with a confession of subjectivity.
Brown establishes the intensely personal and powerful nature of these apparently abstract theories with the fascinating, tragic story of George Price, the theoretical biologist whose pioneering work on equations that mapped the flow of altruism and selfishness through Darwinian processes of selection formed one of the cornerstones of neo-Darwinism. His work on these equations also contributed to a mental breakdown that led to him gradually giving away all his possessions to London’s homeless, and eventually to his suicide in a squat in Euston. From here onwards, we have no doubt that these issues are moral dynamite.
Among the important issues addressed is the unparalleled influence of Richard Dawkins’ pop-science classic The Selfish Gene—the title of which is itself a classic in demonstrating how a conceptual "hook" formed in the name of popularisation can derail the true value of the theories being put forward. It’s hard to work out whether it’s ironic or apt that this book, which introduced us the the concept of the "meme"—a hypothetical epigenetic unit of cultural transmission and evolution—should prove to be so spectacularly successful at demonstrating how the spread of memes can work independently of the spreader’s intentions. Dawkins seems to have merely dug himself deeper with his subsequent defences of the title—and the passages within the book that support it—leaving us with the very widespread misconceptions of neo-Darwinism that follow from the ideas that "genes" are genuine natural units (not "fuzzy chromosomal units", as Brown has it), and that we can safely ascribe anything remotely akin to "selfishness" to them without leaving the door open for all manner of misunderstandings about the nature of the forces driving evolution.
Dawkins’ famous loathing for religion comes under scrutiny, too. I recall seeing Dawkins at a post-9/11 night of talks and discussion, passionately arguing that fundamentalist religion is at the heart of the current problems we face. On one level, I agree wholeheartedly with him. But besides the reductionist tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater on religious issues, the fervour of faith in Science that stands at the heart of Dawkins’ position is surely as much in need of critique as the faith of religious fundamentalists. Brown does this admirably, pointing out that the scope of the scientific project is such that no single human scientist is practically capable of replicating even a small percentage of the experiments that lead to the conclusions upon which their own work is based. Thus, for all practical purposes, science involves forms of implicit trust—if not "blind faith"—just as religious beliefs do.
This is far from a diatribe against the Dawkins camp of neo-Darwinists, though. Opposing schools of thought (Stephen Jay Gould is made their figurehead by Brown) are given equal critical attention where necessary. Brown succeeds not through lambasting particular views, but in painting a comprehensible, accessible portrait of the evolution of evolutionary theory, with all the competitive unseemliness and vying for status and power laid bare. Part journalism, part scientific history, and part anthropology, The Darwin Wars reminds us that science, especially, is not free from its own conclusions about the world.
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