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The Selfish Gene: Thirty Years On


The toughest ticket in London's West End last week wasn't for a new mega-hit musical from Cameron Mackintosh, or a new play by Tom Stoppard. The people who flocked to The Old Theatre were greeted by famed British radio and television presenter Melvyn Bragg ("Start the Week") with the following opening words:

"They are in you and me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence. They have come a long way, those replicators. Now they go by the name of genes, and we are their survival machines."

The words are from The Selfish Gene, by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. And the evening was a celebration of the thirty year anniversary of the publication of his classic book. As I was unable to attend, I asked Helena Cronin, the founder and director of Darwin@LSE, (and the author of The Ant and the Peacock), to guest edit this special edition of Edge, and she has kindly provided us with the complete audio of the event as well supervising the editing of the transcribed text. Edge is extremely grateful to her for her efforts.

Of this event, philosopher Daniel C. Dennett noted:

"The illumination of Dawkins' incisive thinking on the intellectual world extends far beyond biology. What a treat to see so clearly how matter and meaning fit together, from fiction to philosophy to molecular biology, all in one unified vision!"

For cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, writing in The Times:

"The significance of Dawkins' ideas, for me and many others, runs to his characterization of the very nature of life and to a theme that runs throughout his writings: the possibility of deep commonalities between life and mind."

Physicist and computer scientist W. Daniel Hillis has noted:

"Notions like Selfish Genes, memes, and extended phenotypes are powerful and exciting. They make me think differently. Unfortunately, I spend a lot of time arguing against people who have overinterpreted these ideas. They're too easily misunderstood as explaining more than they do. So you see, this Dawkins is a dangerous guy. Like Marx. Or Darwin."

Part of Dawkins' danger is his emphasis on models derived from cybernetics and information theory, and that such models, when applied to our ideas of life, and in particular, human life, strike some otherwise intelligent people numb and dumb with fear and terror. Some have called the cybernetic idea the most important in 2000 years...since the idea of Jesus Christ. And that would make it one of the most dangerous ideas.

Pinker eloquently writes about how information theory fits into Dawkins' ideas, and implies why some may find these ideas troubling:

"Dawkins's emphasis on the ethereal commodity called "information" in an age of biology dominated by the concrete molecular mechanisms is another courageous stance. There is no contradiction, of course, between a system being understood in terms of its information content and it being understood in terms of its material substrate. But when it comes down to the deepest understanding of what life is, how it works, and what forms it is likely to take elsewhere in the universe, Dawkins implies that it is abstract conceptions of information, computation, and feedback, and not nucleic acids, sugars, lipids, and proteins, that will lie at the root of the explanation."

The world has changed and the biggest change is the accelerated rate of change. On the front page, the news pages, and the OpEd page of The New York Times on any given day you will read about stem cell research, therapeutic cloning, synthesizing genes, Web 2.0, Internet 2, quantum computation, branes, extra dimensions, the Landscape, etc. This is evidence that third culture is the culture, that science is the culture.

In the mid-1970s, as a graduate student at Harvard, Robert Trivers wrote five papers that opened the door to the scientific study of human nature. (Trivers also wrote the introduction to the original 1976 edition of The Selfish Gene, restored in the 30th anniversary edition). Since that time, Dawkins, by building on the work of John Maynard Smith, William Hamilton, George C. Williams, and Trivers, and by adding and incorporating his own original, ingenious, and mind-bending ideas, has revolutionized the way we think about science and redefined the role of the public intellectual in western culture. It's not just about science: it's who we are, how we are, and even, how we think.

It's not surprising that some people want it all to go away. Around the fifteenth century, the word "humanism" was tied in with the idea of one intellectual whole. A Florentine nobleman knew that to read Dante but ignore science was ridiculous. Leonardo was a great artist, a great scientist, a great technologist. Michelangelo was an even greater artist and engineer. These men were intellectually holistic giants. To them, the idea of embracing humanism while remaining ignorant of the latest scientific and technological achievements would have been incomprehensible.

In the twentieth century, a period of great scientific advancement, instead of having science and technology at the center of the intellectual world -- of having a unity in which scholarship included science and technology along with literature and art -- the official culture kicked them out. Traditional humanities scholars looked at science and technology as some sort of technical special product. Elite universities nudged science out of the liberal arts undergraduate curriculum -- and out of the minds of many young people, who, as the new academic establishment, so marginalized themselves that they are no longer within shouting distance of the action.

Yet it's the products of this educational system that go straight from their desks at university literary magazines to their offices in the heart of the cultural establishment at our leading newspapers, magazines, and publishers. It's a problem that's systemic and not individual. Unless one is pursuing a career path in science, it is extremely difficult for a non-science major at a top research university to graduate with anything approaching what can be considered an education in science. I recently talked with a noted Italian intellectual, who is as familiar with string theory and as he is with Dante, and writes about both in his philosophical novels. In appraising this situation, he argued for restraint and compassion. "They just don't know," he sighed, "they just don't know." He might well have added, they don't even know that they don't know.

Somebody needs to tell them. Otherwise, we wind up with the center of culture based on a closed system, a process of text in/text out, and no empirical contact with the real world. One can only marvel at, for example, art critics who know nothing about visual perception; "social constructionist" literary critics uninterested in the human universals documented by anthropologists; opponents of genetically modified foods, additives, and pesticide residues who are ignorant of genetics and evolutionary biology.

As examples, one need only read with astonishment, but not surprise, recent essays in The New York Times Book Review coining pejoratives such as "evolutionism" and "scientism" to critique the set of ideas that inform this edition of Edge. These essays appear not to be driven by any apparent scientific knowledge or expertise, but by a need in the writer to confirm deeply felt superstition-based ideas and/or pre-conceived political models. The message: science is not welcome. But apparently what is welcome is that which writers ignorant of science don't know about their subjects.

And, according to Daniel C. Dennett, such pieces are examples of the sin of Xism:

"When you can't stand the implications of some scientific discipline X, but can't think of any solid objections, you brand them instances of the sin of Xism and then you don't have to take them seriously! What next? A review that warns about the pernicious ''meteorologism'' that keeps scolding us about global warming, or the ''economism'' that has the effrontery to inform us that the gap between rich and poor is growing?"

Social-constructionist 'intellectuals,' and perhaps even the 'radical ism-ists' culture warriors of The New York Times Book Review might counter that science itself is but one more 'superstition.' But as Sir John Krebs points out below, Dawkins won't have any of this cultural relativism. Krebs quotes one of his favorite passages, not out of The Selfish Gene but from the book River Out of Eden:

Show me a cultural relativist at thirty thousand feet and I'll show you a hypocrite. Airplanes are built according to scientific principles and they work. They stay aloft and they get you to a chosen destination. Airplanes built to tribal or mythological specifications such as the dummy planes of the Cargo cults in jungle clearings or the bees-waxed wings of Icarus don't.

Here you will find:

(a) the complete 1 hour and 22 minute audio, available in two formats. You can listen to it as online streaming audio, or you can download it as an mp3 (75 MB) file and play it on your computer, iPod, etc.

(b) the 12,000-word transcript of the audio which each of the participants has lightly edited.

Stream it. Download it. Listen to it. Print it out. Read it.