Dawkins and Midgley, from comments

Jeremy Ahouse writes:

Our host points us to Dawkins’ unburying the hatchet in a recent post. Andrew himself admirably covered this episode between Midgley, Dawkins and Mackie (7, Chapter 5) from the late 70s-early 80s. For fun I reread those articles from Philosophy this weekend [Here are all the full references if you would like to do the same, 1-6]. This was a surprisingly pleasant experience.

I am not sure why there is such willingness to pile on Midgley. Her article stands up well. Given where people have run with the ball that Dawkins claims doesn’t exist since that time suggests that her cautions should have been heeded.

It would take a pretty big man to take her sharp criticisms and not get a little defensive. Though interesting, to me, Dawkins seems to concede every single one of her points. The key claim that The Selfish Gene isn’t about selfishness or genes seems to be accepted. Dawkins admits to be shifting to using “replicator” rather than “gene” so as not to confuse others further. And while he grandstands about how biologists talk, this seems a pretty weak defense. Selfishness here is at best a colorful choice and at worst all the things Midgley says. Along the way, he admits that he isn’t a geneticist or a molecular biologist (obvious or painfully obvious depending what you hoped to get from his book) but rather an ethologist. Thanks to the big and generous tent that is biology he gets to be a biologist too. But this is all too much boundary maintenance behavior for me. And he seems to reinforce and accept Midgley’s point that ambiguity can be a problem. Though I sense a bit of disengenuousness on Dawkins’ part about not expecting than anyone might think this was about people and their motivations or fate. His language just drips with moral implications and while he invites us to stand with him to fight against the selfishness of our genes this does sound a little too cinematic for my taste.

And given that he ends his piece with absolute weirdness about being committed to the literal truth of his metaphor he buries himself in Midgley’s point about the abuse of metaphor. Interesting, given his current obsession with the religious impulse that he doesn’t have more sympathy for those who would apply the words “literally true” to a metaphor [8].

In any case it isn’t clear what exactly Dawkins wants. Sometimes it sounds as if he doesn’t think non-biologists should comment, which as I mentioned given his expansive sense of biologist doesn’t really exclude that many, though I guess he wanted Midgley to back off. She says that she didn’t think his book had enough relevance for her concerns to comment until a philosopher, Mackie [1], exemplified using it in just the direction that Dawkins assures us his readers wouldn’t. How many examples should she have gathered before putting pen to paper. At other times you get the sense that he does want to engage the world. There is a nice section in his rebuttal attempting to explain “gene for” language. Midgley’s rejoinder is very good on most of these points [5].

I am actually very sympathetic to the need to use words loosely when constructing a scientific programme. The words we use are provisional place holders and should work for us, not the other way round. They serve to let multiple interests be bound together into funding streams, conference attendance and professional networks. Clearly the many faces of the “gene” have served this role in the sociology of science. We can recognize this and accept it and still feel a little sea sick when gene becomes the tautological truth at the center of Dawkins’ story making.

Of course we know, with hindsight, that it got much worse/more pervasive. As the gene became the science word of the 90s and has now entered the public sphere and as the hero of the genome projects and much more. Dawkins happily drafted behind these big trucks (and even previews this with his ready willingness to take pleasure in ‘selfish gene’ being used in a different context by molecular biologists studying genome dynamics). But some things did change in the 80s. The incredible amount of protein homology (not sequence similarity) between organisms that share common ancestor more than 600MYA was not expected [9].

Frustratingly, the distance from gene to phenotype (to pharmaceutical) turned out to be very much further than many of us hoped when lots of companies were built to exploit the genomic information to identify targets and make drug cheaper, faster and better.

But why does a 25 year old controversy return now? However wonderful to return to this topic on a lovely Fall weekend in New England. I don’t think they brought it up for me.

It comes because Midgley has again skewered him. Pointing out that some folks will not be drawn into the majesty and glory and awe of science if you tell that their traditions are foolish. But why is Dawkins’ posse trashing Mary Midgley? In a way I feel for Dawkins as he can’t see his own limitations, in that sense he is an object lesson for us all.

Still, too much of the debate about the debate of creationism/neo(?)-atheism degenerates into a I did not say that, never, no, wasn’t me… on both sides. And everyone loses. We all speak differently to the choir than to a hostile crowd. So Dawkins et al. crow to their fellows and caricature an opposition and so do the preachers. How to shake this off and find a way to talk freely, plainly, honestly with people with whom we disagree. The idea that we needn’t engage, or should merely play to the base, plagues us in the US these last few years. Not talking with those with whom we disagree does seem to be a part of the Zeitgeist. I have been reading Mary Midgley’s The Myths We Live By and am struck by how wonderfully careful she is. But I suppose the commentators that inhabit Dawkins’ penumbra wouldn’t have eyes to see or ears to hear what I do in her book. And to be fair, I lack the sensitivity to find the nuanced hero they discover in Dawkins’ writings.

As Brown points out Dawkins and Midgley really ought to be on the same team, caring to include what we know about biology in how we think about humans and not use make believe ideal rational (prefectly spherical?) actors in our moral or biological theories. If these folks can’t find a way to talk then we may have an even tougher challenge when talking across larger gaps.

1. Mackie, J.L. (1978) “The Law of the Jungle: Moral Alternatives and Priniciples of Evolution,” Philosophy 53: 455-464.
2. Midgley, M. (1979) Gene Juggling, Philosophy 54: 439-458.
3. Mackie, J.L. (1981) “Genes and Egoism,” Philosophy 56: 553-555.
4. Dawkins, R. (1981) In Defense of Selfish Genes, Philosophy 56: 556-573.
5. Midgeley, M. (1983) “Selfish Genes and Social Darwinism,” Philosophy 58: 439-458. (unfortunately I don’t have a link for this one)
6. Rodd, R. (1987) “The Challenge of Biological Determinism,” Philosophy 62: 84-93.
7. Brown, A. (1999) The Darwin Wars: How Stupid Genes Became Selfish Gods. Simon and Schuster UK.
8. Final paragraph from [4] above;

Let me not end on a negative note. Midgley has a lot to say about metaphor, and I can end constructively by explaining why it was unnecessary for her to say it. She thought that I would defend my selfish genes by claiming that they were intended only as a metaphor, and assumed that I was speaking metaphorically when I wrote, ‘We are survival machines-robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. This is a truth which still fills me with astonishment’ (The Selfish Gene, p. ix). But that was no metaphor. I believe it is the literal truth, provided certain key words are defined in the particular ways favoured by biologists. Of course it is a hard truth to swallow at first gulp. As Dr Christopher Evans has remarked, ‘This horrendous concept – the total prostitution of all animal life, including Man and all his airs and graces, to the blind purposiveness of these minute virus-like substances – is so desperately at odds with almost every other view that Man has of himself, that Dawkins’ book has received a bleak reception in many quarters. Nevertheless his argument is virtually irrefutable’ (The Mighty Micro, London: Gollancz, 1979, 171). For my part, what has gratified me is that the anticipated bleak reception has, in the event, been confined to so few quarters, and such unpersuasive ones.

9. Ahouse, J. (2002) Are the Eyes Homologous in Gene Regulation and Metabolism: Post-Genomic Computational Approaches. Edited by Julio Collado-Vides and Ralf Hofestädt. MIT Press.

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2 Responses to Dawkins and Midgley, from comments

  1. BullInTheHeather1 says:

    I am continually baffled that someone as intelligent as Midgley can misunderstand Dawkins’ ideas so thoroughly , and furthermore that her arguments are exactly the same as those which were, I’m afraid , utterly demolished over 25 years ago. I really cannot explain the baffling inanity of the arguments she makes – they are so specious and skewed and involve so much strawmandering and cherry-picking that one has to impute on the part of Midgley either stupidity(and she’s not stupid) or simple intellectual dishonesty. I find it hard to say this because Ireally don’t agree with quite a lot of Dawkins’ wider views – my occasional unease about Dawkins is irrelevant to this topic however because Midgley’s deeply odd caricaturing of his work is so divorced from reality, and her flogging of a dead horse so contemptible that it deserves to be exposed.

  2. Drew Zimick says:

    When I initially commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get three emails with the same comment. Is there any way you can remove me from that service? Cheers!

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