Richard ‘Dorkins': Professor for the Misunderstanding of Science

I'm not someone who gets easily annoyed, but The Selfish Gene is a very irritating book. And a very enjoyable one. It'...

June 26, 2003

I’m not someone who gets easily annoyed, but The Selfish Gene is a very irritating book. And a very enjoyable one.

It’s not that Dorkins view is reductionist and deterministic (which he seems to me to be “What on earth do you think you are if not a robot?”), and it’s not even that he avoids the problem-case of human beings for almost all his assertions. It’s not even that he so gleefully oversteps the domain of his expertise (which he surely does in his meme speculations). It’s that he’s alternately so unscientific and so patronising (“…all attempts to answer that question (what is man?) before 1859 are worthless.”

What really riles in here is the constant blurring of theory and fact in the name of populism (and book sales). He begins with a harmless metaphor, making the persuasive case that the ‘selfish gene’ is a good analogy for understanding the statistical predominance of certain of genes as a result of being lucky enough to get caught with evolutionarily stable strategies. So much is fair enough. He has observed an effect (successful genes) and inferred a possible cause (protective and selective behaviour from gene-carriers).

But he then takes a giant, parachuteless leap into the dark to suggest the genes somehow cause these behaviours in their own self-interest through pre-programming. His catchy metaphor has quickly becomes a license to assert, cajole and confuse the reader, imputing genes with motivation and purpose.

e.g. In relation to ant colonies: “But the same gene, finding itself in a worker’s body can propogate itself best by making the mother of that body have more daughters than sons“.

Despite using this selfishness metaphor predominantly throughout the book, he turns on his critics in hs afternotes for their “over-literal interpretations“. Instead of engaging in open-minded, scientific debate, he retreats into assertion and personal opinion. e.g. “The true explanation of co-operativeness in genes is that……”

Dorkins wants his cake and also a license to hurl it at his academic counterparts, while hiding behind a brick wall of metaphor and arrogance when his unscientific assertions are attacked.

Great book. The Selfish Gene is a lot like reading the Daily Mail. Good for your cheek muscles. Bad for the blood pressure.

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