Dawkin's DNA

An elite coterie of mathematicians and scientists in the West have become famous by writing books and making programmes aimed at the mass market.  Einstein may have started the trend when he published his little book on Relativity for the "general reader" in 1916. My copy contains his"Note to the fifteenth edition" dated 1952 - evidence enough of the work's success.  Twenty years later,  Jacob Bronowski reached an even larger audience with his magnificent  Ascent of Man, broadcast by the BBC in 1973.

I doubt whether either of these noble figures earned - or expected to earn  - much from their  popularizing efforts. Several of those who followed them, however, certainly did; men like Carl Sagan, Stephen J. Gould, Stephen Hawking and...well the list has a degree of elasticity. One scientist who unquestionably belongs on it is the zoologist Richard Dawkins, an Oxford don who has published a stream of bestsellers with engaging titles like ""The Selfish Gene", The Blind Watchmaker",  "River out of Eden", and Unweaving the Rainbow". These works are a publisher's dream; each a reworking of Darwin's Theory of Evolution but with lots of  exciting examples, fresh proofs and the occasional clever aperçu. 

Unlike Darwin, however, and in common with a rather disagreeable line of  neo-darwinian political and social thinkers - fascists prominent among them - Dawkins draws political and moral conclusions from the theory.   Humans have a rather endearing tendency to assume that welfare means group welfare, the future well-being of the species or even of the ecosystem, he writes, ....But group welfare is always a fortuitous consequence, not a primary drive. This is the meaning of the 'Selfish Gene'.1  What about morality? "Nothing to do with me guv," Dawkins protests, "That's just the way we are."

Such thinking seemed to me so shallow, woolly and unperceptive of the complexity of human motivation - so blind to the obvious question of why we think as we do (why our "endearing tendencies" are not also a genetic disposition) - that I decided to write Dawkins a letter pointing out some less-than-convincing elements in his argument. I had no expectation of gain or personal satisfaction. Nor did I imagine that the learned professor would pay much attention to the category of reader to which I belong - namely the one for which he writes his paperbacks. "General" readers are not expected to have anything useful to say to academic luminaries. Our role is simply to consume: first to buy their books and then, if we are so inclined, to digest the contents. In neo-darwinian terms, writing to Richard Dawkins with a suggestion that in moving from genetics to human behaviour he might have strayed beyond his field of competence, qualifies as a misuse of energy, a failure to adapt to circumstance, an evolutionary cul-de-sac.

Still, I pressed ahead and - doing my best to seem respectful of his reputation - wrote as follows.
<<<Dear Professor Dawkins:

I would like to take issue with you on a couple of points; and, in particular, on your contention that humanity dances, willy-nilly, to the music of DNA.  You make a compelling case for Darwin’s theory, of course; and I am not about to dispute its main tenets. Your application of the theory to homo sapiens, however, seems to me too rigorously schematic, too concerned with fitting facts to the Darwinian framework, at the expense of dealing with large areas of human experience that the framework does not readily accommodate.

Theories work best within the dimensions for which they were conceived; just as Newtonian physics remains in many ways of greater practical value on Earth than Einstein’s more exact (and exacting) revisions. I believe the Darwinian paradigm crumbles at the edges when it meets human strategies that give preference to purposes other than - and sometimes contrary to - the perpetuation and replication of DNA.

One of the distinguishing features of our humanity has been the effort to shake off what we might call the chains of instinct, the blind force - DNA if you like - that governs the behaviour of living things. I would argue that the foundations of human morality lie in the desire to tame our own nature, to triumph over it, and to liberate ourselves from it. Throughout history, concepts of God and religion have been coopted into the struggle. This is the meaning of Voltaire’s famous remark: Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer.2

Social legislation, the codification of moral concepts into laws, is the practical counterpart to the eschatological underpinning of the world’s religions. In the Judaic tradition, Moses’ descent from the mountain with the tablet of God’s commandments symbolically represents the relationship between the laws of God and Man. Much of the Pentateuch is devoted to  the social and political organization of Israel. Procedures are laid down for settling disputes about property, cattle-dealing, debt and the rate of interest, as well as details on the political and judicial organization of the fledgling state. Its pages abound with laws attributed to God but which must, as we know, have been drafted by men.  What was the purpose of all this regulatory discipline if, as Darwinians imply, DNA performs the job of ensuring its own survival? Are the world’s bibles simply part of a subtle DNA strategy for keeping the species going? If so, it’s hard to argue at the same time that the belief system that engendered it has no validity. With Darwin at your side, it is easy to dismiss the existence of God, if you fail to consider that God owes His or Her origins to human beings. You may contend that God has been invented as a means of providing comfort in the face of the unknown, of explaining the seemingly inexplicable. Possibly. But what need would such a God have of law-making? Or of ideas of earthly morality that could hardly be of relevance to heaven? What if we follow Plato rather than the Mishnah, and interpret God as an idealized form of humanity? Why should God not then exist, if Man created Him?

You argue that the “problem of evil” and the related “problem of suffering” can be dismissed if we lay misfortune (and good fortune, of course) at the feet of an indifferent world of “blind physical forces”. If so, then the moral codes by which we regulate our own comportment must also disappear. It is possible to argue that laws (both moral and judicial) serve to protect the safety and security of society which, in turn, constitutes the bed-rock of human survival. But how are we to treat phenomena such as the Holocaust - the attempt by nazi Germany to industrialize a process of racial extermination? Is this, to use your own words, “exactly what we should expect “ of a “meaningless universe”?

I believe we have no need to refer to God in order to offer a negative answer. Humanity at large - by which I mean most of us - have rejected such behaviour with both hands. We recognize it as an aberration - not because a Darwinian may be able to point out that nazi-style racial extermination policies are a dangerous strategy for survival on account of the fact that they provoke hostility among enemies and the likelihood of human (not divine) retribution - but because we have decided, collectively, that human life cannot be rendered meaningful in a world that accepts such atrocities. This doesn’t mean that ethnic cleansing, as it is now known, has been eradicated; only that it is incompatible with our “human” aspirations.

The conflict between the “human” and “bestial” parts of our nature is neither new nor imaginary. Competition has always reigned between the two forces - evil and good, animal and human, God and the Devil (the latter also known revealingly,  as “The Beast”), which is one reason why human history contains so many accounts of military, social and political discord.  All societies, even those that tradition or history might condemn as barbarous or degenerate, have behavioural rules codified in a religious or quasi-religious systems of belief. These are the external manifestations of an attempt by humans - tyrants notwithstanding - to regulate their own activity. A dichotomy exists between the untrammeled pursuit of individual desires - our “natural” impulses - and our need to have forms of social restraint. We should be clear about what this means. Laws and regulations may well offer a better survival strategy than natural instinct. No doubt they add harmony to human life. But DNA did not compose the score. Restrictive in their purpose, laws nevertheless aim at providing forms of liberty unattainable in any other way, namely by freeing Mankind from the tyranny of nature itself.

So, we continue to search for the best way to organize our conditions of life, an issue with which humans, alone of all the inhabitants of the earth, are preoccupied. Lions do not fret about the morality of killing other creatures for food or territory. We do. Seen in this light, evolution appears to have produced a creature unwilling to submit to its dictates.

I don't believe that the desire to control ourselves either through laws or forms of social restraint arises originally from the musings of religious leaders or philosophers or politicians (though all have used and misused them in the name of and for the sake of gaining or exercising power). Misgivings about human instinct appear to derive from a more deep-seated need to struggle with any impulse over which we may have lost - or never gained - control. Shakespeare, hardly shy about sexual pleasure, still found distemper in the idea that lust (the quintessential DNA vehicle) may be sovereign over us:

Enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight
Past reason hunted, and no soon had,
Past reason hated as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad...

What was he writing about? No one could seriously contend that he shied away from sex, or suffered from “Victorian” repressions. Leaving aside the anachronism of supposing him prey to the neuroses of a later age, what evidence we have of his sexuality - mainly, though not entirely, from his writings - shows him to have been healthily robust. His problem was not one of desire, but of desire’s dominion, not the act itself, but what the act makes us feel. That, surely, is the import of Lear’s diatribe:

The wren goes to ‘t, and the small gilded fly
Does lecher in my sight...
But to the girdle do the gods inherit,
Beneath is all the fiends’...

Well the problem remains with us as strongly as ever; and since we can’t get rid of it - and don’t want to because, after all, it’s a source of much pleasure - we’ve come up with methods of defeating its purpose. In the bard’s time, babies came as a predictable consequence of passion; now they arrive in numbers and at times of our own choosing. If he were alive today, Shakespeare might still be outraged by lust’s power, but it might not worry him as much.

Contraception can stop DNA in its tracks by divorcing the pleasure of sex from its procreative purpose.We know that, in the most advanced societies, the average family size is the smallest in recorded history. Darwinians might claim that birth-rates and family size are lower because the chances of infant survival are higher, or because such trends represent an improved strategy for survival in a world of limited resources. The weakness of these arguments lies in the fact that in the richest regions, resources are not especially limited; and where they are least limited is where birthrates are lowest. In some, moreover, the natural rate of population ‘increase’ is at or below replacement level. Many adults in countries like Canada, France, and the U.K., now choose not to procreate at all. Could it be that they prefer to keep all the resources available to them rather than share them with children? Could our conscious selfishness be even stronger than the “blind” selfishness of our genes?

The human effort to divorce sexuality from its “natural” consequences began long ago. With the 20th century  refinements of contraceptive technique, DNA has lost its dominion over our reproduction: the child has defeated the parent as Zeus defeated Kronus.

Sex for pleasure can bring its own difficulties, of course. But the physical maladies of sex -  AIDS being the latest scourge - come into a category of misfortune that we have long expected to defeat. Wonders are many, and none is more wonderful than man;........he has resource for all;...only against Death shall he call for aid in vain; but from baffling maladies he has devised escape.  So wrote Sophocles - and most of us wouldn’t change a word of that statement of faith in our scientific ability.

Humanity’s skill in controlling the reproductive process has closely paralleled the rise of conspicuous consumption as an element of human development. I would even contend that the two are facets of the same phenomenon: the triumph of existence over survival. In Darwin’s world, the present nourishes the future through continuous adaptation. The process is random, subject to individual extinctions, but over time it has ensured that living things - all constructed from the DNA feedstock - continue to inhabit the earth. Homo Sapiens alone has learned to treat the future neither as a random set of unknowns, nor as a repetitive cycle demanding instinctive responses like the annual hibernation of bears or  migrations of birds, but as a resource that can be consumed, and to some extent fashioned. Money, a concept dependent on the possibility of debt and the existence of interest - could not come into being in a world where the future seemed either entirely random or where it seemed entirely predictable. In the former it could have no value, and in the latter no purpose.

We have set ourselves against randomness (the DNA catalyst) and purposelessness. Instead, we have come to believe in predictability (scientific method depends on it). From the sex of babies, to the weather, to the behaviour of national economies, to the future of the universe, we are striving not simply to understand the circumstances of our life, but predict its progress and to respond to those predictions. At the same time, just as we have discovered the pleasure of sex without procreation,  we have also discovered the joys of consumption beyond any possibility of need. Ironically, the more we learn to understand and control the future, the more we are in a position to ignore it. This too works against the preservation of DNA. Despite the warnings of conservationists, we gobble up the earth’s resources as if they gushed, like a form of manna, from an inexhaustible spring; and the warnings of scientists about the dangers of polluting the planetary environment with our waste go unheeded by anyone who has entered fully into the global race to consume. Theory holds that evolution has engineered not simply a struggle between life forms, but also a balance between them, a mutual dependency. Only the fittest have survived, but fitness has come in many forms so that, until the advent of humanity, no single species could aspire to dominate the others. Our present dominance means that we have the power to wipe out every other form of life with the possible exception of viruses and bacteria. Destruction may not be our purpose, but the effect of our desire to grab what we can while we can carries a powerful punch of its own  - and we are careless of its obliterating impact. For many life-forms including our own children, carriers of our genes, the future lies at our mercy. Can we be sure of leaving enough resources for their survival? Enough clean air and water? Enough forest? Enough space? Even - let’s be pragmatic - enough money?

This last question offers a partial paradigm for the entire consumption dilemma. Most children of the new millennium will be born - and grow up - with negative net assets. They will inherit debts - largely incurred by the one or two generations that immediately precede them. Accountants tell us that debts have to be balanced by credits, debtors by creditors: one person’s loss is another’s gain. Unfortunately, as far as concerns the future, this is where the financial analogy breaks down. We are incurring debts to the future - but we don’t know if anything exists on the credit side of anyone’s balance sheet. By exhausting the clean air and water - or  the beauty of the world  - in exchange for present profit, we are eroding the assets at the same time.  We enjoy the fruits and our descendants get to pay for them. This works fine as a strategy for maximizing our present benefits (to use the bafflegabble of economists); but it surely stinks if our purpose is to secure the best possible survival opportunities for our genes .

On the other hand, the havoc wrought by our demonic combination of power and greed does not proceed without protest. Voices - some in the world, some in our own minds - tell us that the destruction of other creatures, of pristine habitats, of flora as well as fauna somehow diminishes us. And so we have a contrary movement of thought, that urges restraint, conservation, respect for non-human forms of life and for inanimate features of the environment like landscapes, rock formations, forests and grasslands. I do not believe that the widespread concern for conservation and preservation aims directly at our biological survival.  Rather, it seems to indicate that mere survival cannot alone satisfy us; not even survival in comfort, surrounded by material superfluities. Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only, Thoreau tells us. Money is not required to buy one necessary for the soul.

Our delight in other creatures, and in the beauties of nature - increasingly acute perhaps as our sophistication grows - seems to stem from an aesthetic source.  Wordsworth heard in nature the still sad music of humanity. Shelley found there a symbol of human aspiration when he wrote of his love for:

... all waste
And solitary places; where we taste
The pleasure of believing what we see
Is boundless, as we wish our souls to be...

Darwin’s theory might well lead us some distance along this road. We might, for example, wish to conserve those creatures and plants that we wish to eat, or whose presence on earth afforded us some material benefit. Horses might  fit in as a risky means of enrichment via the racing circuit. But why would any creature strive to preserve a landscape simply because it is beautiful?  Or see in that landscape a symbol for some supreme quality of soul? And then, it is one thing to write a poem about one’s enjoyment of nature, quite another to expend energy on preserving it for what we might call “its own sake”. Sometimes, it seems, we suppress the promptings of DNA, to whose tune you would have us dance, for reasons that have nothing to do with self-replication, or with our genetic afterlife.

I will return to aesthetics in a moment, but first, I want to extend the above thought to touch on another aspect of human action that demonstrates the degree to which, under certain circumstances, we can confound the promptings of DNA. I mean the human capacity for self sacrifice, some of whose most extreme manifestations end in death.

Suicide, or deliberate risk-taking under the influence of drugs or extreme emotion do not fall into this category. The cases I refer to here are those where people have given their lives freely for the sake of some ulterior purpose. A neo-Darwinian might, perhaps, distinguish between the propensity for sacrifice after having children and before having them.  But this does not seem to me to be a decisive point. Acts of supreme bravery in the face of danger have never been confined to fathers and mothers

Where the Darwinian approach runs into difficulty is when we come to instances of sacrifice for an ideal. The Jews at Masada and in the medieval tower at York cut their own throats so as not to surrender themselves to another set of beliefs. How many people have died for liberty? For their country? For their monarch? For their church? In your writings, you make play with the random nature of tragedy - because it suits the neo-Darwinian interpretation of the world. But wouldn’t life as a slave be better for DNA than death in the name of freedom? When a Palestinian boards a bus in Tel Aviv with a bomb strapped round his waist, his DNA doesn’t stand much chance. This is not a frivolous issue.  You may think he is a fool, that his ideals are mistaken. But you can’t claim that he is ruled by a need for biological survival. Nor that his sacrifice materially increases the survival chances of his fellows. It might and it might not. His thoughts, like those of the kamikaze pilots of World War II, are not about survival at all in the genetic sense, but more likely about joining himself to his God and gaining “eternal life”. This is Pascal’s Wager, not Sophie’s Choice.

Just as we have always fought to gain control over ourselves, so we have put much energy into forging our own forms of survival in the shape of artefacts of various kinds. There is arrogance, perhaps, in this effort, as Shelley’s Ozymandias reminds us. On the other hand, a work of art - though difficult to produce - might well stand a greater survival chance than our genes. So might other products of human ingenuity: contributions to knowledge, for example, or inventions that give rise to new forms of thinking and behaviour.  Your American  sidekick Daniel Dennett, in his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, trivializes these artefacts of human effort by reducing them to a something he calls a subset of design spaceBach is precious, he tells us, not because he had within his brain a magic pearl of genius-stuff......but because he ...contained an utterly idiosyncratic structure of cranes.... As well as being hideous English, this is a pristine example of neo-Darwinian reductionism. In  reality, it tells us nothing at all about why “Bach is precious” and much about how easy it is to be blinded by an intemperate faith in one’s own view of the world. The entire passage (page 512 in the American edition) is full of emotive, value-laden phrases: His brain was exquisitely designed.... he was lucky in his genes...the beneficiary of one serendipitous convergence....out of all this massive contingency came a unique vehicle... etc. etc. In fact, Bach’s music is precious to human culture because successive generations have found it so. He survived through  his music during his lifetime because that was how he earned his living and kept his family. Now he survives in us, not genetically, but through the fact that we treasure his legacy and have absorbed it as a part of our culture. But  what is it that allows Bach to survive? What are the human response mechanisms that permit this form of survival to take place? To what element in human nature does Bach’s music appeal? Whatever may be the answers to these questions, I believe that they will include an admission that such artefacts are an indispensable element of human existence, not in consequence of some genetic or Darwinian principle of first causes, but because our capacity for overriding DNA has given rise to a need for other, more varied forms of expressing and perpetuating ourselves.

Increases in our ability to survive by non-genetic means (which you seem to visualize as a possibility in the last chapter of “River Out of Eden”) are not increases in the thing displaced. DNA loses importance as a mechanism of human survival as we diversify our means of establishing our presence in the universe. If we ever come to building computerized replicas of ourselves, more advanced models even, capable of reproducing themselves by some other means than genetically, then the role of random evolution will have come to an end as we know it, for DNA will have given way to something else. This is not a prediction. Personally, I reckon that DNA will always be here as long as we are; but it will not be alone, indeed has not been alone since the dawn of human consciousness.

In other words,  we have found a means of bending the Darwinian rules. The advent of consciousness is akin to what physicists call a singularity - a point at which the usual laws become inapplicable. All theories meet a wall beyond which they don’t work in quite the “legal” way. Humanity is DNA’s wall. Hence why our development is no longer dependent uniquely on what the future may bring; for, to some extent, the future depends on what we bring to it - not unconsciously via the random procedures of evolution - but with our eyes open and all our faculties to the task.

The phrase "to some extent" in the previous paragraph is deliberate and deliberately vague. We learn from you that nature is highly efficient.  Like Henry Ford, the pioneer of built-in-obsolescence, who made sure that all the components of his Model T were equally mediocre,  natural selection favours a leveling out of quality in both the upwards and downwards direction until a proper balance is struck over all parts of the body.3

Ford's solution worked fine for a time, until a predator - the Japanese car industry - came up with models as cheap as Ford but made with components of Rolls Royce quality. US car manufacturers have never recovered from the shock, and will likely never regain their former market dominance. Threats from "outside" - known in the trade as exogenous shocks - throw a spanner into your efficiency theory of evolution. Specialized adaptation to a particular environment works fine when conditions are stable or subject only to gradual change, but it can make survival more difficult or impossible when upheavals occur.  That's when inefficiency comes in handy: stomachs ready to digest unfamiliar foods, spleens able to resist new diseases - formerly "superfluous" capabilities that suddenly turn out to spell the difference between life and death. Maybe the dodo would still be with us if it had taken the precaution of growing better wings. The mass extinctions that have taken place throughout the history of the planet suggest that instability has played an important role in deciding who and what survives and for how long. What you call redundant quality (a Rolls-Royce component in a Model T Ford) may turn out be a key to survival. Could it be that the size and complexity of the human brain is not just a conventional adaptation to immediate needs (we could probably exist well on less brain power), but a response to the chaotic nature of experience - a survival strategy that permits us to contemplate the unknown and deal with the unexpected?

Suddenly, we are a step away from wondering about the source of and reason for human creativity. Can original thinking be a simple consequence of evolution? Do philosophy and quantum physics merely exemplify Darwin's theory?  If so, what is their evolutionary purpose? If not, are we then to conclude  that they are - in your terms - redundant? As I suggested at the beginning, I think you will have a hard time fitting humanity into your scheme. We have a habit of non-conformity, of resistance to being pigeon-holed. Maybe that's also genetic?  >>>

Apart from a few pleasantries, the letter ends here. 

By way of conclusion, I'll add the following footnote.

In 1953, Isaiah Berlin published a celebrated essay inspired by a fragment of the Greek poet Archilochus that runs: the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.4 Applying the idea to thinkers, Berlin defined as hedgehogs those who propose a single central vision in terms of which they expect to explain everything, and as foxes those who see life in a variety of different ways, accept no single answer, and seek a multiplicity of explanations for the phenomena they observe and experience.

Neo-darwinists - wedded to the idea that evolution explains pretty-well everything that's worth knowing -  tend to be hedgehogs. Nevertheless, more than a few of them like dressing up as foxes. Thus disguised,  they carry their certainties into unfamiliar territory apparently unaware that real foxes - keen-nosed and fleet of foot - will smell them out.

Did Professor Dawkins answer my letter? Yes, he answered; but  he didn't respond. 

1River Out of Eden, Phoenix Paperback, London 1995, p 142.  The Selfish Gene is the book that made Dawkins name.

2 If God didn't exist, we'd have to invent Him.

3 River out of Eden, p 145.

4 The Hedgehog and the Fox, New York 1953