The bigger picture

Poltics and personal life, science and religion

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg
Rochester, New York, US
June 20
I am a writer ("The fiction of a thinkable world: Body, meaning, and the culture of capitalism" [Monthly Review Press 2005]; "A new biology of religion: Spiritual practice and the life of the body" [Praeger, 2012]; "Enlightenment Interrupted: The lost moment of German Idealism and the reactionary present" [Zero Books, 2014]) and an attorney. I'm most interested in how we got into our present-day mess and how we can't separate our self-image from the experience of the world.

OCTOBER 6, 2010 8:08PM

Not-so-selfish genes

Rate: 0 Flag
Miriam Markowitz's piece in the Nation on altruism, genetics, and George Price has been getting a lot of attention, and deservedly so. It's rare to see someone bucking the governing orthodoxy in matters of evolutionary theory. It's especially refreshing to read such a cogent critique of evolutionary explanations of behavior and social structures, today's version of "because the Bible tells me so."

Richard Dawkins, in particular, comes in for some hard knocks. This is surprisingly rare, perhaps, as Markowitz suggests, because there's been a closing of the ranks among many scientists in today's fundamentalist-friendly climate. But rank-closing is always a bad idea. Better to tell the truth and be damned. Science will be better for it.

In fact, you don't need to be much of a scientist to see some of the flaws in Dawkins' ideas. Take the famous "selfish gene." This isn't like the normal "good mutation," where, for example, a finch born with a beak especially well suited for cracking seeds will outperform and out-reproduce other finchs. The selfish gene does nothing for the organism. All it does is increase its own chances of being present in the next generation.

But a selfish gene which doesn't code for any other advantage is self-defeating. Dawkins' theory comes up against the fallacy of composition, which is the fallacy behind standing up at a concert; if you're the only one who stands you get a great view, but if everyone follows your example you all might just as well have stayed in your seats.

The selfish gene is supposed to generate strategies that get more of my genes (assuming I'm a carrier) in the next generation than any of my friends' and neighbors' do. But if it's the strategy coded by the selfish gene that accounts for my success, each generation of my descendants will find themselves in an more competitive world. A “winning” selfish gene will end up in more people with every go-round. That means that a bigger percentage of the population will use the genes' strategies, and sooner or later there will be so many people using the same strategies that their advantages will cancel each other out. A better beak will eventually be found on every finch, but the merely selfish gene confers a smaller and smaller advantage with every new generation until it loses effectiveness.

Finches with the better beak will produce more young than those with the less efficient model simply because they use less work to get the same nutrition and live longer, healthier lives. They get more out of the environment than their ancestors and thus live in a more abundant world. This will be true no matter how many seeds there are to crack and eat. It's only when there aren't enough seeds to go around that the battle of the beaks becomes a competition among finches—and it may not even then. (There are too many complex factors here to consider this in detail.)

The selfish gene scenario, by contrast, sees evolution as a zero-sum game. My victory is your loss. But it's such a poor strategy in the long run that it will always get trumped by actual improvements in the way the species makes use of resources. Selfish genes not only have to contend with their own success and with competing genes; they're all too likely to be left in the dust by a more efficient use of the environment

There are other problems with Dawkins' gene-centered view of life. But this one, at least, should have been obvious from the beginning.

Author tags:

dawkins, science. evolution

Your tags:


Enter the amount, and click "Tip" to submit!
Recipient's email address:
Personal message (optional):

Your email address:


Type your comment below:
some ok points but you did not get the worst mistakes in miriam's article. please see the reader letter below which The Nation refused to publish neither in print nor online (tell me about esprit du corps!).

Miriam Markowitz did not do her home work for an article that contains way too many platitudes imported from secondary sources. Just two examples.

A) Markowitz writes that Darwin’s “only explanation for the evolution of sterile insects was the good of the group.” This is a lie long peddled by Hamilton and his sycophants. In the The Origin of Species, Darwin wrote clearly that “This difficulty, though appearing insuperable, is lessened, or, as I believe, disappears, when it is remembered that selection may be applied to the family, as well as to the individual, and may thus gain the desired end. Breeders of cattle wish the flesh and fat to be well marbled together. An animal thus characterized has been slaughtered, but the breeder has gone with confidence to the same stock and has succeeded” []. Here “the family” does not stand for the mafia and “stock” does stands for a kin group. These passages and others by Darwin about “kin selection” are highlighted and justly celebrated in DJ Futuyma’s textbook of reference Evolutionary Biology and in EO WIlson’s Sociobiology. This intellectual heist by the late Hamilton and his sycophants is perhaps the most brazen ever, since it’s literally Darwin whom they insist(ed) in trying to rob!

B) Markowitz treats Dawkins as a scientist but he is not. In the said “Evolutionary Biology” textbook, e.g., Dawkins’ popular-science books are cited for the metaphoric syllogism about genes with intentionality; otherwise there is only a citation for a paper with trivial applied-math. Dawkins indeed has never made a discovery. Had Markowitz talked to say E.Sober or even Futuyma, she would have written a much better article.

Given the above and much much more, Nation readers stand warned that almost nothing in Markowitz article has any depth, especially her cheapo-melodramatic pieties towards the end (albeit certainly not because Dawkins and Co. are right about anything).