Biology, Freedom, Determinism

Steven Rose

Penguin, London, 1998.

Some trepidation is felt at the idea of reviewing such an erudite work, but once again here, there seems to be an anti-Dawkins rhetorical effort carried out partly by misrepresentation.

Take this reference to Dawkins' "The Extended Phenotype":

"In some ways this is not a bad concept - provided one recognizes that it carries with it the seeds of destruction of the individualistic gene's-eye view, for such an environmental phenotype is by definition the shared phenotype of many genotypes." (p.246)

Rose gives stern warnings about metaphors at various points in his book, but is happy enough to write things like "the seeds of destruction of the individualistic gene's-eye view" in this dismissive passage. Here's a pertinent quote from Dawkins:

"Coaction among genes in different organisms is not fundamentally different from coaction among genes in the same organism. Each gene works in a world of phenotypic consequences of other genes. Some of these other genes will be members of the same genome. Others will be members of the same gene-pool operating through other bodies. Yet others may be members of different gene-pools, different species, different phyla." (op. cit., p.245)

Similarly, we find "ultra-Darwinists" like Dawkins accused of ignoring the presence of selfish DNA (p.221), yet half a chapter of "The Extended Phenotype" concerns this very subject. By contrast, another critic, Stewart, thinks that the selfish gene theory is about explaining selfish DNA.

In Rose's chapter called "Origin Myths", we find this:

"...the co-operative symbiogenesis by which life as we know it today must have evolved provides an important alternative perspective to the ruthlessly individualistic competitive metaphor which underlies the ultra-Darwinist, replicator's-eye view of the world." (p.269)

In "The Selfish Gene", Dawkins says ruthlessly individualistic things like this:

"Symbiotic relationships of mutual benefit are common among plants and animals." (p.181)

"In general, associations of mutual benefit will evolve if each partner can get out more than he puts in." (p.183)

There is even a chapter in "The Selfish Gene" about altruism, which concludes with consideration of blood-sharing in vampire bats. He ends it thus:

"Vampires could form the vanguard of a comfortable new myth, a myth of sharing, mutualistic cooperation. They could herald the benignant idea that, even with selfish genes at the helm, nice guys can finish first." (p.233)

Rose is typically meticulous in most of his book, but occasionally wobbles. Discussing the problem of improper quantification, he refers to Charles Spearman's positing of the quantity of general intelligence, given "a special symbol, g". He asks:

"is it only coincidence that this is also the symbol for one of the most hallowed of physical forces, that of gravity?" (p.284)

Is it only coincidence that this kind of rhetorical question is all too often found in postmodernist imputations and New Age make-believe?

There is much that is well worth grappling with in this book, not least the question of that favourite bugbear, reductionism. As time allows, this theme will be pursued hereabouts.



Paul Taylor 2001