Book Review from the June 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard
The Selfish Genius. How Richard Dawkins Rewrote Darwin’s Legacy. By Fern Elsdon-Baker. Icon Books. £8.99.
This is an attack on Dawkins’s claim that the views he put forward in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene are the only one and true form of Darwinism. In this notorious book Dawkins advanced the view that the unit of natural selection is not the species nor a group within a species nor the individual organism but the individual gene. It’s a theory but it wasn’t Darwin’s, if only because Darwin had never heard of genes. So, Elsdon-Baker argues, it is perfectly possible to be a “Darwinist” without accepting the “selfish gene” thesis.
Darwin’s contribution was to collect a mass of evidence to show that the various different species of life came about through a process of natural selection (akin to the artificial selection of animal breeders, pigeon-fanciers and flower growers, but unplanned and over a much much longer period, as environmental factors changed). Darwin was scrupulously honest and admitted that he did not know what caused the variations between individuals that the process of natural (and artificial) selection worked on. He suspected that it might have something to do with unknown “particles” governing the inheritance of an organism’s features. Later, after his death, such particles were identified (even though they didn’t have all the features Darwin had speculated they might have) and called “genes”.
Elsdon-Baker outlines developments within biology since the publication of Dawkins’s book which in her view undermine his view of genes as the only unit on which natural selection operates – so-called “junk DNA” may also play a role and genes can be modified by other natural factors than natural selection. But even if these developments undermine Dawkins’s position, they don’t challenge Darwin’s basic conclusion that it is through natural selection that species evolved.
Elsdon-Baker also criticises Dawkins for linking his personal militant atheism with science, seeing this as counter-productive and unscientific. She claims that it cannot be said that it is a scientific fact that “God does not exist”, on the grounds that it cannot be proved that a non-interventionist god does not exist. Maybe but this depends on what is meant by “exist”.
A non-interventionist god, precisely because it did not intervene in the world of observable phenomena, could not be detected and so to all intents and purposes does not exist in any meaningful sense of the word. As to an interventionist god, as the mathematician and astronomer Laplace is supposed to have said to Napoleon, science does not need that hypothesis to explain the world of phenomena. Having said this, whether militant atheism (as opposed to practical, matter-of-fact materialism) is useful has been debated amongst socialists as well as scientists.