thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

When Kathleen met Richard #3

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Margaret Thatcher in 1975

Margaret Thatcher in 1975

Apparently The Selfish Gene was successful because of apes and Margaret Thatcher.

Third in a series responding to Kathleen Jones’s Challenging Richard Dawkins: Why Richard Dawkins is wrong about God1

See also When Kathleen met Richard #1 & #2

Richard’s politics 

Kathleen Jones can think of two reasons why The Selfish Gene was so popular:

One is that the general public had become very interested in apes as a result of the writing and television presentations of Desmond Morris, who was the curator of the London Zoo. …The second reason was that The Selfish Gene was timely in political terms. In 1976, Margaret Thatcher had recently become leader of the Conservative Party, Britain was nearly bankrupt, and the welfare state was very much under attack. People were ready to be told that survival is the name of the game, self-interest is good, and the weak inevitably go to the wall. Richard Dawkins was pressing all the right buttons… [Emphasis added.]

She goes on:

Political values have changed since The Selfish Gene was first published. Richard Dawkins had an opportunity to revise the text when he published the thirtieth-anniversary edition, but he published it unaltered…

The success of the book may have taken him by surprise. There is no indication in his writing that he thinks much about politics.

So Oundle-educated Dawkins is at best politically apathetic, and at worst a right-wing Tory?

We need to stir a bit more in. She describes a visit he took back to East Africa in 1994 to try to find his old home:

He was only there for a week, and he spent it on safari. He does not seem to have been interested in the problems of modern East Africa – the devastation of AIDS, the political corruption, the desperate poverty and the hungry children; but he was there as a child in the late colonial period, the 1940s.

Richard Dawkins: The Selfish Gene

Richard Dawkins: The Selfish Gene

Now let’s see what he actually wrote. Two pages into Chapter 1 of The Selfish Gene:

I am not advocating a morality based on evolution. I am saying how things have evolved. I am not saying how we humans morally ought to behave. I stress this, because I know I am in danger of being misunderstood by those people, all too numerous, who cannot distinguish a statement of belief in what is the case from an advocacy of what ought to be the case. My own feeling is that a human society based simply on the gene’s law of universal ruthless selfishness would be a very nasty society in which to live. But unfortunately, however much we may deplore something, it does not stop it being true. …Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. [*]2

* Remember this was written in the mid-1970s, before the publication of Robert Axelrod’s work on the evolution of reciprocal altruism3 4, which prompted Dawkins’ to add one of two additional chapters (Chapter 12 ‘Nice guys finish first’) to the 1989 edition of The Selfish Gene5

In an end note to that same 1989 edition Dawkins amplifies his statement ‘I am not advocating a morality based on evolution’:

I must add that the occasional political asides in this chapter make uncomfortable rereading for me in 1989. ‘How many times must this [the need to restrain selfish greed to prevent the destruction of the whole group] have been said in recent years to the working people of Britain?’ makes me sound like a Tory! In 1975, when it was written, a socialist government which I had helped to vote in was battling desperately against 23% inflation, and was obviously concerned about high wage claims. My remark could have been taken from a speech by any Labour minister of the time. Now that Britain has a government of the new right, which has elevated meanness and selfishness to the status of ideology, my words seem to have acquired a kind of nastiness by association, which I regret. …Actually, it is probably best not to burden a scientific work with political asides at all, since it is remarkable how quickly these date. The writings of politically aware scientists of the 1930s – JBS Haldane and Lancelot Hogben, for instance – are today significantly marred by their anachronistic barbs.6

So much for pressing all the right buttons while not thinking much about politics.

Next time we do the missing link…


1 Kathleen Jones, Challenging Richard Dawkins: Why Richard Dawkins is wrong about God, Canterbury Press Norwich, London, 2007.

2 Richard Dawkins, The selfish gene, OUP, 1976.

3 Robert Axelrod, The evolution of cooperation, Basic Books, New York, 1984.

4 Robert Axelrod and W D Hamilton, ‘The evolution of cooperation’, Science 211, 1390-6, 1981.

5 Richard Dawkins, The selfish gene, second edition, OUP, 1989.

6 Richard Dawkins, 1989: 5 above.

© Chris Lawrence 2009.


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