Thursday, 17 February 2000

Andrew Brown: The Darwin Wars: How Stupid Genes Became Selfish Gods (1999)

Edition: Simon & Schuster, 1999
Review number: 439

Brown's book attempts to chronicle from an impartial position what will probably be seen as the bitterest scientific dispute of our times. It is a fascinating book, revealing much about the personalities of those involved and clearly explaining the science needed to understand what is going on. The personalities are important, as much of the argument in the debate is (regrettably) ad hominem; science often takes second place to point scoring rhetoric.

The subject at the heart of the controversy is frequently called neo-Darwinism, and it basically stems from the derivation of a mathematical description of how altruistic behaviour can arise from the assumption of survival of the fittest. In other words, this is the discovery that a creature can sometimes help others to make the transmission of its own genes more likely. (Social insects are the classic example of this: complicated kinship patterns mean that the workers "do better" by enabling the queen to pass on her genes.) As soon as this result was proved, its discoverer killed himself. A committed Christian (who spent his last years making enormous sacrifices to help the homeless), George Price felt that the application of the rule to human beings implied that his own altruism had selfishness at its root.

This feeling is where the controversy stems from, for it is the application of evolutionary ideas to human beings which has always offended since Darwin's The Descent of Man. It hasn't helped the quality of the discussion that much of the debate has been carried on in popular science books, like Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene, rather than in more restrained technical publications. There at least arguments could have been presented with mathematics rather than metaphor; there at least what was to be said would have been criticised by colleagues before publication.

The important question, then, is how genetics shapes human lives, not just in the physical sense but in the social. It is the modern form of the nature/nurture debate, and is today perhaps made more serious by the way in which Nazi Germany made eugenics a dirty word (and thus provided many handy insults for just this type of debate). There are those who would claim that the genetic discoveries have made moral philosophy an empty subject; we are what we are because of the environment that shaped our ancestors. The problem is that specific arguments can be made too easily; almost anything we do can be explained by reference to some supposed evolutionary pressure. (The silliest example Brown quotes is an argument that millionaires build penthouse suites to live in because for our ancestors on the African plains a preference for high places gave a better chance for survival by making them able to see further. As Brown points out, to crouch in a hollow hides you from predators, so almost the same argument should imply that millionaires prefer basement flats.) Much that has been written on the subject amounts to a series of illustrations of the futility of arguing from effects to causes. By explaining everything, sociobiology explains nothing (at least as it is often portrayed by its popularisers).

The two most prominent participants in the debate are Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould. Brown may be slightly harder on Dawkins, but generally seems to make an effort to be impartial; Dawkins is a more tempting target, with a passion for lively debate which leads him to overstate his case and an unwillingness to admit that he could have been wrong. His utter contempt for religion, especially Christian fundamentalism, is a case in point, and gets a lengthy criticism from Brown. (The sociogenetic position can easily be turned into an attack on religion, by portraying spirituality as a construct of evolutionary utility.) Brown is himself an atheist, though by spending some years as a religious affairs journalist he has more understanding and sympathy for those who have a religious belief. Dawkins and his followers (Nicholas Humphrey in particular) have let their contempt lead them into saying some really stupid things. An example of this is a lecture to an Amnesty International conference given by Humphrey in which he says both that religion is so dangerous that it should be a crime to teach it to children and that it is so poorly thought out that teaching scientific truth causes it to wither and die. On the other hand, their statements about science, neatly demolished by Brown, lay them open to the accusation that they are making science a religion, with themselves as evolutionary fundamentalists.

I enjoyed this book, feeling that it was balanced and critical. It didn't make me want to read the books it talks about, which many science books do, but then I've never really liked Dawkins or Gould as writers anyway.

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