Tag Archives: Richard Dawkins

The Selfish Gene in The Guardian

The Guardian has a little gem of a retrospective review of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene (first published 1976). The reviewer, science journalist Tim Radford, mentions that his copy of the book is the first paperback edition of 1978. Well, we have something in common – mine is a 1983 reprint of the same edition, and I must have first read it almost thirty years ago. One day, I need to broach the thirtieth anniversary edition of 2006, which has a new introduction by the author, plus other new material.

When I was young, I was struck not just by the book’s content but also (perhaps even moreso) by its beautiful explanatory clarity. This was how to write for a popular audience. The Selfish Gene made me a lifelong fan of Dawkins, not only as a thinker and a scientist, though of course there’s that, but above all as a writer. I would struggle if asked to name other non-fiction writers whose prose I enjoy so much, or who are so successful in communicating difficult ideas. Perhaps I could compare Bertrand Russell, or, in our current generation, Steven Pinker, who has a similar knack for images that organise his complex messages and convey them vividly to the reader.

Thus I’m always surprised when Dawkins is criticised for the “selfish gene” trope itself, as if it involves some kind of scientific or philosophical faux pas – as if, in fact, he were ascribing psychological motivation to tiny chemical strands, or perhaps talking about genes that code for selfishness. He is doing neither of those things, and neither of them occurred to me when I first read the book all those years ago. It’s all clear enough unless you bring your own murkiness to the text.

Genes do not, of course, have emotions or desires; they do not have interests, in anything like the sense that we do. A selfish gene is not like a selfish person who acts to advance her own narrowly understood self-interest without compassion or respect for other people. Nor does Dawkins suggest such a thing; if you read the book in this way, you are bringing in issues that are remote from what is before your eyes. Rather, the “selfishness” of genes is a small tweak on a common idea in biology, whose practitioners apply the word to behaviours that have the effect of helping the individual organism, whether or not it possesses any psychological motivation. When we tweak this just slightly, the thought is that the effect of genes on the world, when you look closely at what’s going on, is to replicate those same genes, rather than to promote the physiological welfare of anything else. In a biologist’s sense of the words, genes really can be described quite readily as selfish, as opposed to altruistic. All of this is explained in the book’s first chapter.

But we don’t need to think of such terms in any technical way to get Dawkins’ point. That is, we needn’t begin with any training in biology to “get”, intuitively, the relevant idea of selfishness. It’s clear throughout that we can begin with an everyday understanding of “selfishness”, which we can then deploy as a metaphor. Though sequences of DNA are not the kinds of things that can possess desires, or any psychological makeup at all, they act as if they were sentient things devising strategies to replicate themselves in successive generations. The process by which life continues and evolves is well explained at the level of what is needed for genes to achieve this “selfish” goal.

So, I’m bemused by all the misunderstandings, and I don’t think they relate to any lack of clarity in the text itself. Perhaps they highlight the intrinsic difficulty of the concept – but how hard is it really? – or perhaps it is simply the anxieties that some readers bring with them. We all have a tendency to interpret via our anxieties, which can get in the way of what is in front of us.

Radford is similarly bemused:

A few years later I heard a distinguished, elderly science historian rather brusquely describe it as a prime example of a metaphor out of control.

That barb was not just misguided, but wildly unfair. Dawkins was always clever with metaphors, but his recurring imagery of a gene concerned only with its replication and survival is tightly controlled: in every chapter, we are reminded that it is a metaphor, an analogy, an “as if”, a useful way of thinking about how behaviours, strategies and responses might have emerged from the mix of ever-renewing chromosomes and the disorderly experience of life.

The book does, in fact, get to issues about sociality, and of altruism at the level of organisms, but that is in the second-last chapter. To be sure, Dawkins does suggest that you’d expect genes to code for organisms that are, in turn, selfish – this is because genes are most likely to be passed down by organisms that are programmed to do what is needed for their own survival, at least until they can reproduce. Nonetheless, he seeks to explain how altruism, in the biological sense, could arise. (Behaviour that benefits other organisms may, in some circumstances, be most effective at passing down the individual’s genetic code.) At the end Dawkins picks up an idea planted in the opening pages: how far human beings are capable of a pure disinterestedness that goes beyond biologically altruistic behaviour.

Thus, the relationships between the selfishness of genes, the biological selfishness of individual organisms, biological altruism, and what we call a true altruism, or unselfishness, are all made clear. Actual selfishness is never advocated, whatever some of Dawkins’ most obtuse detractors might think. Let me add, on this subject, that Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker is not actually about the art of making small chronometrical devices, and nor is his Climbing Mount Improbable a textbook in the skills of mountaineering.

All this, however, is more or less by the by. The Selfish Gene is a lovely explanation of a gene’s-eye view (though of course genes don’t have actual eyes) of life, its functional, bizarre, splendid (and sometimes horrible) intricacy, and how this has come about. The book is also a pleasure to read and a fine model for other writers. Radford, too, deserves praise: in a short space, he has done the book justice, seeing and appreciating it for what it is.

[My Amazon author page.]

On Torture, Ticking Bombs & Sam Harris

I’m sure most people reading this will be aware that Sam Harris has received quite a lot of pushback for his views on torture – see here & here for recent examples (plus read the comments), and see here and here for Harris’s and Richard Dawkins’s response to the often vitriolic nature of the pushback.

I don’t particularly want to get into the debate here – though if other people wish to do so in the comments below, no problem – but I thought it might be interesting to flag up some data I’ve collected via this activity at my Philosophy Experiments web site:

Should You Kill The Fat Man?

This activity has been completed by more than 100,000 people, and it includes a “ticking bomb” torture scenario that people are asked to judge. (If you haven’t completed the activity, I suggest you do so now before reading any further). I’m not going to detail the scenario here – it’s fairly standard – but what the responses show is that given this particular setup a large majority of people think that torture should be used (75% say “Yes”, 25% say “No”). This is the case for males and females, and across different countries.

Here’s a link to the data (which also shows details the precise form of the scenario).

A few points:

1. The only significant difference in how people respond is between males and females. More males than females think torture is justified given this particular setup (77% to 71%) – this difference will be statistically significant (albeit I’ve not actually done a chi-squared test).

2. I’m fully aware that people will consider my ticking bomb scenario – and maybe all ticking bomb scenarios – to be unrealistic. My view is that this criticism misses the force of the “ticking bomb” thought experiment. I think it is best understood as a “wedge” that attempts to show that whether torture is ruled out on any particular occasion is an empirical question rather than a matter of principle.

3. It’s almost certainly the case that nothing follows about the morality of torture from the fact that the practice is endorsed by a large majority of people in some particular (hypothetical) circumstance – not least, because it’s easy to think of examples where a large majority of people endorse some practice we’d consider to be immoral (think slavery, for instance).

4. However, this data does show that most people do not find the sorts of views espoused by Sam Harris to be particularly counterintuitive.

Can Atheism Be Proven Wrong?

A friendly debate has come up between the atheists Jerry Coyne and PZ Myers. The question under debate is, “Can atheism be proven wrong?” On the one hand, Jerry Coyne has argued that his atheism is, and should be, capable of being defeated by evidence. On the other hand, PZ Myers has argued that religious claims are incoherent, and so it’s pointless trying to refute them in that way. Even if seemingly divine events did happen, we could explain them as hallucinations, or of the intervention of aliens — there’s no need to talk about God.

On behalf of Team Coyne, Greta Christina has argued that Myers is right to say that religious claims are bullshit, but that Coyne is right to insist that atheism can be defeated by evidence. However, on behalf of Team Myers, Diaphanitas has argued that Christina has missed the point: if you think that religious claims are incoherent, then you can’t think that they can be defeated by the evidence. In order for a claim to be capable of being defeated by evidence, it has to be a coherent claim in the first place. (Edit: Or, at least, that’s the cliff’s notes version. I’m going to be a naughty blogger by not giving more of a summary than that. If you’re interested in the full conversation, click the links above.)

I’ll argue that Christina is right, hoping to score points for Team Coyne, and hopefully be the hero to capture Team Myers’s filthy squid-adorned flag. Specifically, I’ll be arguing against some of Diaphanitas’s core claims. (I’ll avoid the stuff about NOMA, because I want to avoid complaints of tl;dr.) In other words, some interpretations of atheism and theism can both be shown to be wrong according to the evidence, and that’s the only point worth making.


The sticking point between Christina and Diaphanitas is what I’ll call “the semantic principle of bullshit”. Since religious claims on the whole do not hold themselves to common standards of evidence, we have to say that religious sentences are epistemically unstable. Hence, they’re not the sorts of things that can or should be evaluated in terms of evidence.

And it seems to me that, as a matter of fact, the principle of bullshit is correct — religious sentences, when taken on the whole, don’t know whether they’re coming or going. (It doesn’t matter to my argument if you don’t agree; you can just assume it for the sake of seeing my point.) Since atheism is the rejection of theism, endorsements of atheism have an equally small burden. As Hitchens says: “What can be asserted without evidence, can be rejected without evidence.”

Unlike Diaphanitas, I don’t think the principle of bullshit makes any difference to Christina’s point. For bullshit claims can be plausibly interpreted in a literal way, if our aim is to understand the intentions and beliefs of some mainstream religious persons. It seems to me that the only way to defeat a bullshit claim is for us to round up all of the most plausible interpretations of the claim, and then show how each interpretation is false. Hence, you have to refute every plausible use of the sentence: by treating it as a God Hypothesis, and then as an allegory, and then as an expression of self-assertion, and so on.

So that will mean that eventually atheists will have to get around to showing that the best explanation of the evidence does not include reference to any Gods, and hence theistic claims are improbable. In other words: atheists will have to make the argument that Richard Dawkins makes in the first half of the God Delusion (or something like it). And to the extent that you’re arguing in terms of facts, you must also think of yourself as open to criticism on the basis of the evidence. As far as I can tell, this doesn’t mean that atheists like Coyne and Christina are “obsessed with the evidence”. It means that they insist that the examination of the evidence is essential when you’re in the business of interpreting sober, factual claims. If that’s an obsession, it’s a healthy one, as Diaphanitas admits.


So where’s the beef? Evidently, it has something to do with paradigms.

Diaphanitas thinks that evidence plays a limited role in the history of science (and hence, presumably, an even more limited role in the history of atheism and religion). For Diaphanitas, Thomas Kuhn‘s historiography of science is the best way of understanding the relationship between evidence and scientific change.

The spectre of Thomas Kuhn rises often, but it really needs to behave itself when it does. For while it’s true that Kuhn thought that a change in worldview involved a kind of “conversion” or “theory choice”, it’s also true that Kuhn argued that “objectivity ought to analyzable in terms of criteria like accuracy and consistency”. On my reading of Kuhn, these virtues were necessary for scientific practice, though not sufficient. If this means Kuhn was “begging the doxastic question”, then let’s also blame him for getting us to care so much about accuracy.

Diaphanitas, like Kuhn, wants to say that we’re doing more than just consulting the evidence — we’re making a choice, too. That’s fine — but it’s also a very weak claim, and it is consistent with the idea that evidence has to play a central role in scientific inquiry (and factual discourse). To my knowledge, there is nothing in Kuhn that helps us to say that religious claims in the 21st century world are plausible candidate explanations of the evidence. (As survivors of the Great Lisbon Earthquake could tell us, the Argument from Design is simply not consistent with the evidence.) And when you argue in favor of the Abrahamic God using the Argument from Design, you are committing yourself to a kind of game that involves checking the facts — those are the rules that the proponents of the Watchmaker God are committed to. In that sense, contrary to Diaphanitas’s claim, the naturalist and the Watchmaker God are “in the same playing field”. They’re both responsive to the evidence.


Still, Myers and Diaphanitas are correct in the following sense. If the principle of bullshit is right, then that means that it is wrong to think that religious claims must be read as expressions of a kind of unique content. So, any theists who say “The Bible is just an allegory” are wrong, and any who say “The Bible must be taken literally” are wrong too. It’s either one, and more besides. The argumentative atheist has to use the shotgun method, taking aim at one interpretation after the other.

The moral of the story is this. Just because religious claims are unstable, doesn’t mean that the uses of the claims have to be up in the air. One use of religious claims involves the Argument from Design; and the argument from design is perfectly coherent, perfectly stable, and perfectly worthless. Hence, any atheism concerned with the Abrahamic Watchmaker God is supported on the basis of the evidence. If evidence turned the other way — e.g., if a credible argument could be made that the problem of evil was just a pseudo-problem — then the only responsible option for a Watchmaker critic would be to reconsider their atheism.

*Edited for clarity.

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