By Kyle | September 19, 2011
It’s kind of hilarious to read all about how evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins is an insistent statist, Obama fan, etc. Because on the subject on which he is actually an expert, it’s a different story:
Professor Dawkins’s voice slides playfully into High David Attenborough style as he mimics the mellifluous tone of BBC documentaries of the time: “The dung beetle is the refuse collector of the natural system, and where would we be without them? And male deer fight but take care not to kill each other.”
He stops. “That sort of thinking was pretty dominant in the culture.” Artful pause. “And it’s plain wrong. I wanted to correct that ubiquitous misunderstanding.”
Genes, he says, try to maximize their chance of survival. The successful ones crawl down through the generations. The losers, and their hosts, die off. A gene for helping the group could not persist if it endangered the survival of the individual.
Such insights were in the intellectual air by the mid-1960s. But Professor Dawkins grasped the power of metaphor — that selfish gene — and so made the idea come alive. Andrew Read, a professor of natural history at Penn State, recalls reading “The Selfish Gene” and feeling his world change.
“Gone in a stroke was the intellectually barren ‘it just is’ hypothesis,” he wrote in an essay. “ ‘The Selfish Gene’ crystallized it and made it impossible to ignore.”
Not everyone bought the argument. The moral implications proved deeply troubling, suggesting that altruism disguised selfish, gene-driven behavior. “Many readers experienced the book as a psychic trauma,” wrote Dr. Randolph Nesse, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan. “It turned their moral worlds upside down.”
Prominent scientists and intellectuals cast Professor Dawkins as the herald angel of a selfish culture, accusing him and his fellow sociobiologists of setting the cultural stage for the “I got mine” age of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.
Dawkins knows ruthless competition and individualism are the way the world works, always and forever, yet he votes for politicians who hold the opposite philosophy. As Robert Conquest said, “Everybody is reactionary on subjects he knows about.”