Prospect Magazine

May 1996

The reaction against Darwin in this century has taken two religious forms. One is to reject his theory. The other is to ransack it for objects of worship. It seems almost impossible to hold clearly in our minds the idea that we may not matter, as if it were logically impossible that anything capable of thinking and feeling unimportant should in fact be unimportant. Perhaps the clearest illustration of this, as of so many other things, is to be found in the work of Richard Dawkins.

The Selfish Gene was a book about genes, but almost everyone seems to have read it as Our Selfish Genes, a book about people. And what it said, or appeared to say, about people is not scientific but metaphysical. In fact one of the finest and clearest expressions of this message is found in a writer whose style could not be further from the tranquil confidence of Richard Dawkins' prose. In Russell Hoban's great mud-soaked post-apocalyptic novel Riddley Walker, civilisation, technology, and even English have all been smashed to bits:

" 'You know Riddley theres something in us it don't have no name ... Its looking out thru our eye hoals. May be you dont take no noatis of it only some times. Say you get woak up suddn in the middl of the nite. 1 minim youre a sleap and the nex youre on your feet with a spear in your han. Wel it wernt you put that spear in your han it wer that other thing whats looking out thru your eye hoals. It aint you nor it dont even know your name. Its in us lorn and loan and sheltering how it can.'

"It puts us on like we put on our cloes. Some times we dont fit. Some times it cant fynd the arm hoals and it tears us a part .... Iwl tel you some thing Riddley and keap this in memberment. Whatever it is we dont come naturel to it.' I said, 'Lorna I dont know what you mean.' She said, 'We aint a naturel part of it, We dint begin when it begun we dint begin where it begun. It ben here befor us nor I don't know what we are to it."

In Hoban, the greater writer, the something in us that controls us never has a name. In Dawkins, it is named as DNA. "We are survival machines, robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.", he wrote in his worst and windiest book, River out of Eden; also that "DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music."

It may seem unfair to concentrate on this sort of rhetoric over and against the bracingly clear scientific exposition that Dawkins does so well. But it is, I think, the rhetoric and not the science that has made him rich and famous. Dawkins did not reach his present eminence as God's own atheist by preaching evolution. There are plenty of practising Christian Darwinians, such as Sam Berry, the Professor of Genetics at University College London. What makes Dawkins unique is not merely the vigour and lucidity of his style, but the fact that his metaphors, like Virginia Woolf's imagination, are fitted with an accelerator but no brakes.

With the exception of The Extended Phenotype, all his previous books have been arranged around a single, dazzling phrase: The Blind Watchmaker, River Out of Eden, The Selfish Gene. Some of these have entered the language, and deservedly so. Climbing Mount Improbable is unlikely to do so; again deservedly so. It is a distillation of old themes: there is a bit of computer modelling; a bit of God-bashing (though not till page 209); and a great deal about the way in which the accumulation of very small changes can lead to very large ones. This is of course the central argument about the origin of species. Not even creationists deny evolution on a small scale; what they deny is that evolution can amount to more than small variations on a fairly fixed theme. And this position seems credible enough when you try to imagine the common ancestor of a cow and a lemur, let along the common ancestor of a fruit fly and a banana. Dawkins' huge merit is to show how unreliable a guide common sense must be when judging questions of probability over the generations.

In Climbing Mount Improbable , the central metaphor is of an escarpment of probability. At its summit stands something hugely complicated, like the human eye. The approach straight up the cliff from where we are seems quite impossible without supernatural assistance. Yet if you go around the back of the escarpment, where the slope is gentle, it is possible to reach enormous heights without wings, and almost without exertion. All you need is time; and time has been available for evolution in quantities to drown the human imagination. With the aid of computer simulations, Dawkins reckons that the eye could have evolved forty different times quite separately, and gives cogent arguments for supposing how it might have done, with each successive refinement slightly improving its bearer's chances of survival.

The same sort of point was made in The Blind Watchmaker, by his invention of Biomorphs - benevolent bugs for the Macintosh. Biomorphs breed on screen from a tiny and plain stick-insect stock into extraordinary branching shapes like crawling candelabra. They are huge fun. They make very clearly and quite realistically the point they were designed to make: that the ratcheting accumulation of small changes can amount over time to huge irreversible changes But as a device for explaining evolution, they suffer from the overwhelming drawback that they require a God. Someone must sit at the keyboard and select among them. The second, unintended, lesson of the Biomorphs is that improbability is not the real psychological objection to evolution. It is the autonomy of the process that is too dispiriting to contemplate. Life and enchantment seem to drain from a world which would go on perfectly well without us. This may be childish, but it is a childishness deeply rooted in the human spirit, as can be seen from the number of otherwise highly intelligent people who have refused to accept the fact of Darwinian evolution.

Curiously enough, a distrust and misunderstanding of evolution is more common in my experience among atheists and agnostics than among the happily religious. This is partly because real, programmatic fundamentalists are much rarer in this country than in the USA: creationism is not a serious issue in European schools. I suspect that the main reason is that the cruelty and contingency of the world are easier to look at straight if you believe there is another dimension in which they somehow balance out.

Dawkins is such a vigorous and inexhaustible controversialist against religion that it is easy to overlook the extent to which he is controversial even among scientists. These controversies are difficult to represent, partly for technical reasons; and partly because the two sides, like true believers everywhere, suppose that only those who agree with them deserve the name of Darwinians. The extraordinary venom with which Dawkins' friend and admirer Dan Dennett attacked Stephen Jay Gould, Dawkins' only rival for the title of the finest living writer on biology, in his last book, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, cannot be explained solely on scientific grounds. It is a heresy hunt, especially as close reading disclosed that Dennett was only claiming to attack certain popular misunderstandings of Gould's work, for which Gould was none the less to be held responsible.

The scientific point at issue is this: both sides agree that species arise as a result of a multiplication of small changes in DNA. They disagree over whether the species, once they have arisen, exist as entities. For Dawkins, the unit of selection is the individual gene, since it is only changes in the gene which are preserved down generations. From this perspective neither individuals nor species exist in any interesting way. "It puts us on like we put on our cloes. Some times we dont fit. Some times it cant fynd the arm hoals and it tears us a part". Now this is an odd conclusion to reach. DNA certainly didn't force him to it.

Part of the problem is that the gene can be defined as a unit of inheritance; and from this definition, all the desired qualities follow. But a gene can also be defined as a sequence of DNA; and though these two definitions overlap, they are not the same. Dawkins tends to superpose the two, so that one is never quite certain which definition he is using. But the distinction between them is crucial to separating his science from his metaphysics.

When you look for the unit of heredity in a string of DNA, things grow extremely complicated. Talking of the DNA "code" suggests that each fragment has a rigid meaning, but this is true only on the trivial level that we know which base sequences in DNA produce which amino acids. The different amino acids can be combined to make an extraordinary variety of proteins, and these proteins, in their turn, can have an extraordinary variety of different effects, not least in switching on and off sequences of DNA which will make other proteins. Genes do not speak a code, susceptible of machine translation, but something much more like a language. A particular sequence of DNA can have differing effects on the organism that contains it, depending on where in the chromosome it is found, where in the body this chromosome is, when the sequence is being expressed, and so on. It is like a particular syllable, whose meaning varies according to the word, the context, and the language where it occurs.

Dawkins of course admits this, in all his books, and in conversation. "The exact phenotype which appears is not in any deterministic way predictable from the gene, but depends on thousands of other factors which come in from the outside ... Natural selection is a statistical effect." He has said.. But the importance of this admission tends to be lost in all the talk about "genes" as if they were discrete, dependable entities despite all the ambiguities we find when looking at DNA. Genes, he says, live in an environment largely determined by other genes. It is difficult to see what he gains by putting the matter like this, either in clarity or understanding. One does not say that "syllables gain their meaning in the context of other syllables." They do, of course, but phrasing the fact in those terms doesn't much help us to understand why certain syllables occur together.

A commitment to gene-level selectionism seems to me to be very close to a determination to describe language only at the level of syllables. This is not a self-evident position. Dawkins has lots of respectable heavies on his side; but his opponents in this dispute, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin, and Niles Eldredge chief among them are not lightweights either. They see evolution as taking place in interacting hierarchies, so that natural selection works on genes, on bodies, and on species; and all these differing levels of selection interact with each other. Note that at all levels this selection is blind: genes are not selected for their usefulness to individuals; nor individuals for their usefulness to species. One of the original meanings of the selfish gene metaphor was to explain how genes for altruistic behaviour on the part of individuals could propagate through populations even though individuals carrying them would in the nature of things be killed more often than those without. But the different levels do affect and constrain one another: one effect of such gene propagation is also species propagation. Developments at species level also affect DNA. New species often arise as a result of geographical isolation, which is difficult to understand at the level of DNA as anything more than contingency yet is a perfectly clear and simple idea if you are looking higher up the hierarchy

None the less, Dawkins is entirely serious in his commitment to the primacy of DNA. The houses built by caddis flies he sees as an effect of caddis genes: given the degree to which insect behaviour is hard-wired, this seems reasonable. Then, he goes on to say, a beaver dam is an effect that beaver DNA has on the landscape just as much as the beaver is. "Natural selection consists of molecules which have a causal influence on something; which vary; and which are inherited." He said in an interview last year. This concentration on molecules, to the extent of building them into the definition of natural selection is not self-evidently scientific. Why should molecules be regarded as somehow more real, more essential - in fact, more worthy of religious consideration - than their constituent atoms, than individuals, or of species. His answer, I think, is that molecules are unchanging. In the beginning was the DNA, and it abideth forever. Individuals, species, whole phyla appear and vanish. Only the DNA remains what it was.

This distinction founders, it seems to me, because DNA in itself is not very interesting. What has effects is DNA in context, and this complex does change thorough time. The effects, the meanings, if you like, of DNA are not intrinsic to it. Information is an arbitrary property. It is not contained in DNA as a substance: it only appears when DNA is found in the immensely complicated chemical bath of a cell. To identify DNA with some kind of platonic essence of life - see River Out of Eden - is another example of the superposition of two definitions of gene. It makes for beautiful metaphors and lousy science.

This is a lot of argument about a very very small thing: you can make a complete human being from a shred of DNA measured in angstroms. But Dawkins is a popular phenomenon. He is the one Darwinian everyone knows; and his metaphors and cast of mind have been hugely influential outside his field, especially among the computerate. His new Oxford chair of the Public understanding of science was specially endowed for him by Charles Simonyi, a Hungarian who made his fortune at Microsoft. Dan Dennett, a philosopher whose whole career has been built on the prospect of artificial intelligence, and who shares Dawkins' literary talent for lucid destruction, is another fan. So is Douglas Adams. Dawkins invention of the "meme" has spread across the world like a, well, meme should. which he has now partially disowned. He himself has partially disowned it, under a storm of criticism analogous to that which I have directed against his idea of DNA: that it is extraordinarily hard to map the idea of a discrete unit of heredity onto the complicated ways that we know ideas actually combine.

Memes have another thing in common with his perspective on DNA. Both ways of looking at the world tend finally to eliminate the individual. My body becomes no more than a caddis house: a shelter for a swarm of genes; and then my mind provides shelter and sustenance for a swarm of memes. It takes a remarkable ego to contemplate a self like that with equanimity. This hostility to the individual may explain the puzzling ferocity of his continuous attacks religion. I take as much pleasure as the next man in watching a bishop humiliated and confused. But there is something unnerving about the relish Dawkins brings to the task. Some of it comes from a hostility to miracles. When you think that science can produce or discover algorithms for all the workings of the world, a miracle, suspending these algorithms, comes as a personal insult. But many scientists share his faith in reason without sharing - or at least showing - his scorn for outsiders. Dawkins' peculiar fury is directed at the argument from design, and the odd thing about that is that the argument from design plays no part in most people's religious imaginations. What they seem to work from instead, is an intuition of personal significance. They do not ask that the whole universe be designed so they can fit into it; only that their own experience should be compatible with their own existence as significant beings. This is a fairly humble, common-sensical idea of the individual. It would be easy enough to construct a just-so story of how it might have evolved among social primates. But that is not the sort of small, empirical step that appeals to Dawkins' imagination. For him it seems clear that since natural selection has produced Richard Dawkins, there is no further need for the hypothesis of God.

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