Dawkins wars (1)
“(Dawkins) is wrong in so far as he lets it be suggested that human social behaviour is genetically determined”. Just not true! In fact in the endnotes to The Selfish Gene (Oxford UP, 1989) his sub-headings reads: We, Alone on earth can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators. He continues, in the text that follows, ” . . . genes exert a statistical influence on human behaviour while the same time . . . this influence can be modified, overridden or reversed by other influences”. He illustrates his point by pointing out that our sexual desires originate in our genes, but that we, most of the time (?!), have no difficulty curbing our natural desires within the social situation (pp. 331-2). Much more recently, he makes the same point in his introduction to Blackmore’s The Meme Machine (Oxford UP, 1999): “Every gene in a gene pool constitutes part of the environmental background against which the other genes are naturally selected, so it’s no wonder natural selection favours genes that “co-operate” in building those highly integrated and unified machines called organisms” (p. xv). Dawkins tells us that genes are instructions for building proteins and the results of this protein synthesis are influenced at every state by the available raw materials and the nature of the environment. Nothing is purely genetically determined and nothing is purely environmentally determined. We, humans beings, like all other creatures, are a complex product of both—this is true of our behaviour as well as the shape of our legs!
The argument with Gould on “progress” is, I think, to do with definition of the term. He is correct rule out progress towards anything. This is where we would differ with the god-believers—and is the whole point of Darwin’s inspiration—there is not master-plan, no “objective”, no designer. But there is progress in the sense that we live in a world full of complex creatures of all kinds, when a few billion years ago there was only a primeval soup . . . and perhaps some pre-cellular replicators.
You are free to “take sides” in the “dispute” between Gould and Dawkins. But your writer might do himself a favour and read Dawkins with more care before launching into an assault on his ideas.
Bob Potter, Hove, Sussex
We never launched an assault on Dawkins’s ideas. In fact his book The Blind Watchmaker, in which he brilliantly refutes the Creationist argument for God that nature must have had a designer, has been highly regarded by Socialists. What we criticised was his choice of title of The Selfish Gene for his most well-known book on the grounds that this could be misunderstood as suggesting that there was a human gene for selfishness which “as a biologist Dawkins knew to be nonsense but he nevertheless let the title stand”.
The endnotes from which you quote were added by Dawkins to the second edition of 1989 precisely to try to dissipate the impression he had created, partly by the title he had chosen, of being some sort of genetic determinist as far as human behaviour was concerned. Incidentally, the second quote is about “co-operation” between genes within an organism not about co-operation between organisms.
Of course our genetic make-up plays a part in human behaviour. We are “genetically programmed” for flexible, adaptive behaviour, which means we can adapt to living in all sort of cultures and societies. It also means that in our behaviour we are far, far less the prisoner of our genes than any other organism.—Editors.
The article on the Gould/Dawkins controversy in your October issue raises a fundamental point. The Dawkins view that individual genes, like people, compete and struggle to survive is not just misleading. Genetic structures “evolve” and the real danger is that the greed, selfishness and aggression endemic in money systems, particularly in capitalism, will become genetically imprinted, making it impossible for societies to advance and eventually for the human species to adapt and survive.
M.B.A. Chapman, Bath
Fortunately, you’re wrong. Acquired characteristics aren’t incorporated into our genetic make-up. Lamarck thought that and Darwin proved him wrong. Even less can acquired behaviour patterns such as “greed, selfishness and aggression” be inherited. They are transmitted culturally through being taught and learned. So, don t give up, humans can equally learn to live in a non-competitive, non-monetary system as they have learned to live in capitalism and in the past in feudalism and tribal communism.-Editors.
Two events recently have given me some hope:
(I) John Lennon’s ‘lmagine’ was voted as having the best song lyrics of all time, This appears to confirm to me that despite the 24-hours a day propaganda of capitalism, people still aspire to a better world and instinctively recognise that true socialism would provide it.
(2) The decision by Callnet to introduce a free internet access service in Europe—no telephone charges. no monthly fee. Providing near-universal access to the internet—at least in Europe—provides a great opportunity for ordinary people to communicate and organise across national boundaries. An essential requirement for the growth of world socialism.
Two events recently have caused me to despair:
(I) Tony Blair’s decision to back away once again from banning hunting. This is clearly against the wishes of the majority of the people, but more importantly it underlines once again just how remote the existing government is from the aspirations of the people who elected it. Of course we all knew that a Labour government would disappoint us but can even you—the editors of Socialist Standard—have truly anticipated just how right-wing the current government would turn out to be, following joyously in the footsteps of Thatcherism.
(2) Emphasising the above, Gordon Brown’s decision to create tax breaks of up to £100,000 each for the top ten directors in any company as part of the Enterprise Management Scheme. This is so grossly elitist that it leaves me speechless.
ANDREW STEPHENSON (by email)