Sexton, E. (2001)
Dawkins and the Selfish Gene
Icon Books, Cambridge (review)

Here's a defence of Dawkins Selfish Gene (compare with Midgley). The majority of this short text is a summary of Dawkin's basic idea. No problems with this, the desciption seems sound (although it has been some years since I read the original). The last section of the book and various subsections within it are devoted to tackling those who have accused Dawkins of being a morally bankrupt, anti-religious, biological determinist. In particular the text cites the views of Merryl Wyn Davies as one such opponent of Dawkins.

The book (I feel reasonably) recommends Dawkins' Selfish Gene idea. It is indeed a powerful and helpful way of viewing evolution and the "vehicles" that are the result of its presence. The book also acknowledges that Dawkins' own rhetoric, at times, does not serve him well. This is where I feel Midgley had a valid bone to pick with Dawkins. Specifically, it is all very well to make statements that a theory or view you are offering says nothing about morals, i.e. the theory is about "what is" not "what should be"... but one must not spin around such a belief a sensational view that "genes are selfish" and be surprised that people take you to task over your use of such an evocative term. Certainly this will help sell your theory (and your books), but the term is loaded with baggage that will be (has been) snatched up by the media and your opponents. It matters not one wit that the term may be used in some "special, restricted sense", especially if the text you write is a book for general consumption, and not a scientific paper for a special, restricted audience within your specialist field.

Remarks that indicate that in teaching humans altruism one should not expect any help from nature (because we are essentially selfish), just add to the furore. Of course they do! So whilst Dawkins' idea is helpful, and important, he (and any other scientist) remains morally responsible for the way in which others interpret his words. It is no use arguing after the fact that "of course" any reasonable person can see that X was meant, not Y. Certainly any idea can be twisted and turned against its initiator. But one is never able to make a statement that has no moral implications, despite what Dawkins might wish. So to make matters worse by inserting remarks that fuel the flames he can expect to (i) raise the profile of his idea (ii) sell more books (iii) require a large investiture of resources in retaliation that might otherwise have been avoided... had the author wished to do so.

From the online text by Midgely, citing Dawkins...

"If you would extract a moral from this book, read it as a warning. Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals co-operate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have a chance to upset their designs (SG, 3). We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth…We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism, something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world (215)."


Anyway, as a summary of Dawkins' idea, this text by Sexton is fine. I don't feel that it really has much to say to counter the arguments of Dawkins' opponents, at least in the case of Midgley. Really the only claim Sexton seems to make is that Dawkins has been repeatedly misunderstood. To me this seems to have been largely Dawkins own fault.

Apart from the selected quotes by Merryl Wyn Davies I'm not familiar with her arguments so I'll have to leave more detailed comment on this matter for a later date.

Alan Dorin, 19 May 06

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