Books: Gigantic lumbering metaphors
by Andrew Brown
Simon & Schuster pounds 12.99
Darwin has conquered all in recent years. The bookshelves groan with works that tell us about how we got here and what makes us tick: The Selfish Gene, Wonderful Life, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, How the Mind Works ... the list drags on. We, the public, seem happy to buy anything that mentions evolution in the blurb.
But Darwinian evolution is far from being a unified, harmonious body of theory. For years now a war has been raging between two camps whose most prominent figures are Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould. In the autumn of last year the conflict hit the headlines - if only quite small headlines on the inside pages of the Sunday broadsheets - after a public lecture by Dawkins in which he was quite shockingly rude about Gould.
Precisely what is under dispute is not easy for the layman to sort out, partly because the issues involved are complex, partly because the rhetoric surrounding the issues has become more aggressive and hyperbolic. The task is not made any easier when each side is claiming that the other side has misrepresented its position, and that the argument is about something else altogether. What anybody can gather is the import- ance of the debate: at bottom, these are arguments about what it is to be human - how far we decide our fate, how far it is decided by our genes.
Given the weight of the issues and the celebrity of the authors, there is room for somebody who will step in and explain in layman's terms what all the shouting is about. This is what sets out to do; and while it does not, in the end, succeed, it does clear away a lot of nonsense.
To begin with, Brown performs the important service of sorting out who is on what side. He calls the two camps "Gouldians" and "Dawkinsians", while noting that "This won't please anyone involved". What defines the Gouldians - a band that includes the biologists Richard Lewontin and Steven Rose and the philosopher Mary Midgley - is not their faith in Gould, but their loathing of Dawkins; the reverse is true of the Dawkinsians - Steven Pinker, John Maynard Smith, Daniel Dennett et al.
Roughly speaking, the Dawkinsians believe in the supremacy of Darwinian selection and adaptation as motivating forces in natural history. Organisms are adapted to a particular way of life, and this is as true of thinking beings like us as it is of any other animal: Dawkinsians such as Pinker have tried to show how features of our mind were determined by our species' past life on the savannas of Africa. Gouldians, on the other hand, acknowledge that Darwinian processes are important, but emphasise the role of other factors: historical contingency, biological constraints and, in the case of humans, cultural transmission. So they would argue that even trying to come up with a Darwinian explanation of the way our minds work is misguided and futile.
There are few differences over matters of fact here; it is more a matter of style and emphasis - as Brown remarks, "The characteristic reaction of one side to some assertion by the other is not so much `That can't be true' as `Of course, it's true. So what?'." The closeness of the two sides' positions is disguised by the windiness of their rhetoric, though, and Brown is good at dissecting that. He is scathing on Dawkins's penchant for metaphor: in his sober moments, Dawkins ridicules the notion that our selfish genes determine our behaviour, and talks as though only an idiot could believe he thought that. But at other times, carried away by language, he talks of our genes as "safe inside gigantic lumbering robots ... manipulating [the outside world] by remote control". Is it any wonder, Brown asks, that people get the wrong idea?
But, as I say, the book does not come off. For one thing, Brown lacks the depth of understanding that would enable him to reduce ideas to their simplest terms - if you have trouble understanding evolutionary arguments as presented by Dawkins and Gould, you are unlikely to find relief here. He also has a bad tendency of his own to get carried away by a good metaphor or, more often, a bad joke.
More seriously, though, while he claims to offer an overview, he is really a closet Gouldian, in as much as he accepts a Gouldian definition of what the debate is about. In Brown's view, Dawkinsians reckon that evolution can explain everything, or at least everything interesting, about life. I think it would be fairer to say that Dawkinsians believe that evolution can have a damn good try at explaining everything, even if, ultimately, there are bound to be things it cannot explain. The objection to the Gouldians is that they want to decide what those things are a priori.
With those caveats, is written with enthusiasm and is a pleasingly slim volume. Whether those qualities will fit it to survive in the jungle of pop evolution is another matter.
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