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Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #6

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In the last few pages of Chapter 3 (ATHEISM CALMLY CONSIDERED), Antony Flew trots out his version of the ‘genes can’t be selfish – only people can’ argument.

Sixth in a series responding to Antony Flew’s There is a god: How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind. 1

See also:

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #1

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #2

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #3

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #4

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #5

Antony Flew: There is a God

Antony Flew: There is a God

Naughty selfish gene

Is there anyone out there who has any idea what Flew is referring to in the statement below?

Dawkins… labored to discount or depreciate the upshot of fifty or more years’ work in genetics – the discovery that the observable traits of organisms are for the most part conditioned by the interactions of many genes, while most genes have manifold effects on many such traits.2

I cannot remember coming across anything in any of Richard Dawkins‘ books that remotely suggests he’s unaware of this ‘discovery’. Flew goes on to say that, for Dawkins,

…the main means for producing human behavior is to attribute to genes characteristics that can significantly be attributed only to persons.

…Genes, of course, can be neither selfish nor unselfish any more than they or any other nonconscious entities can engage in competition or make selections.

This reads less like a counter-argument or counter-evidence than a deliberate refusal to acknowledge or understand the logic of Dawkins’ own argument – and therefore why Dawkins coined the label ‘selfish gene’3 to summarise and depict it.

Dangerous metaphor

Dangerous metaphor

If ‘selfish’ necessarily has connotations of conscious intent to protect and further one’s interests, then of course a gene cannot be literally selfish. The sun does not literally ‘rise’ in the morning. Relative to the earth it is static, so it would be more literally true to say the earth ‘falls’ in the morning. An idea literally does not ‘dawn’ on me. An idea is a concept or a thought, not a morning. The moon does not literally ‘hide’ behind a cloud, not the way a child does when playing hide and seek. A heat-seeking missile does not literally ‘seek’ heat. A fierce wind isn’t really fierce like a tiger. And so on and so on. Pu-lease: this is the English language we are talking about – and with. Metaphor is its beating heart. Sorry – I don’t mean a real heart…

A gene is a section of material which, for present purposes, has four principal features. First, it can replicate – generally in combination with other genes, and generally accurately. Secondly it has, again generally in combination with other genes, and generally consistently, one or more manifestations in physical characteristics and/or behaviour. Some manifestations will increase the likelihood that the gene (or genes) causing (or contributing to) the manifestation, will replicate, such that relatively more copies of those gene(s) get made – at the expense of other genes, which cause or contribute to other manifestations.

The third feature could be seen as implicit in the other two, but it is worth making explicit. A gene exists within one or more ‘vehicles’, which is the collective manifestation of a set of genes. The successful manifestation and replication of the gene depend on the survival and replication of this vehicle or vehicles. The vehicle could be a single functioning entity – an organ or an organelle or an organism – or it could be a whole ecosystem or part of one. (Hence one or more ‘vehicles’: as in the examples just given, one vehicle may be ‘inside’ another.)

Richard Dawkins: The Selfish Gene

Richard Dawkins: The Selfish Gene

The fourth feature is implicit in the way the first was worded, but again it is best to make it explicit. The replication is not 100% perfect, so sometimes there are variations. Sometimes the variations are detrimental to survival; sometimes they are advantageous. The detrimental variations tend to outweigh the advantageous ones, not that this is particularly relevant here.

There may be other things which need to be true for these four features to be sustained, but they are also not relevant to understanding what ‘selfish’ does and does not mean in relation to genes. We only need to focus on the four principal features. We do not even have to define how big a stretch of material the gene is, as long as it has a definite causal relationship (singly or in combination with other genes) with one or more manifestations in the vehicle(s) – these manifestations are the gene’s phenotypic effects.

‘Selfish’, in its application to ‘gene’, means no more and no less than what these four features entail, in an intensely competitive environment. A gene which has phenotypic effects which, relative to other genes, promote the survival and replication of its vehicle(s) will make more copies of itself relative to those other genes. This is virtually true by definition, from the way the four features are formulated.

According to modern theory, this is the principal engine of evolution and of biological diversity.

So in order to understand how a particular feature, or species, or behaviour evolved, a useful perspective is to look at biological diversity generally from a gene’s ‘point of view’ – not literally: genes don’t really have eyes – as if the gene were (please note the subjunctive) a selfish entity whose only priority was to make more copies of itself. This is not because the gene has anything about it or in it which makes it actively and intentionally pursue its own interests of indefinite replication. It is because the genes which happen to have phenotypic effects which lead to relatively higher rates of survival and replication are the ones which do survive and replicate, while genes with phenotypic effects leading to relatively lower rates of survival and replication fall by the wayside.

This is what the phrase/image/metaphor/label ‘selfish gene’ refers to, no more and no less. So when Flew tells us that ‘[g]enes, of course, can be neither selfish nor unselfish’ he is reminding whoever might need reminding that the phrase is ultimately metaphorical; but missing the crucial algorithmic insight which the phrase expresses.

There are times when philosophical and linguistic analysis is hugely valuable, for example in exposing logical fallacies of the form ‘all ravens are black, therefore all black things are ravens’ which so often get smuggled inside political rhetoric. Those are contexts where exposing the fallacy correctly undermines the argument.

But the deconstruction of ‘selfish gene’ which Flew and others have attempted is not one of those, because it leaves the argument untouched. It does not unearth a category mistake and so expose false logic. It only objects to the language the argument is expressed in. (You mean dig a category mistake out of the soil – with a shovel?)

None of this means of course that the ‘selfish gene’ theory is self-evidently true. The way to attack it is to question whether the theory actually matches reality – for example testing whether the four principal features are actually found in nature as described. Not so easy doing that from an armchair.

Follow the evidence…


1 Antony Flew (with Roy Abraham Varghese), There is a god: How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind, HarperCollins, 2007.

2 Antony Flew, 2007: 1 above.

3 Richard Dawkins, The selfish gene, 1976.

© Chris Lawrence 2009.


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