Books: Gigantic lumbering metaphors

The Darwin Wars

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there