Skip to main content

No room for the 'selfish gene'

LIFELINES. By Steven Rose. Penguin Books Pounds 20.

Lifelines is a critique of an approach to biology which Steven Rose calls "ultra-Darwinism", which, he says, is not just poor science but has philosophical foundations that are socially and politically dangerous. Rose identifies adherence to the "selfish gene" theory as the primary weakness of ultra-Darwinism and argues for "a more holistic, integrative biology". He suggests that the concept of a "lifeline", which is the unique space-time trajectory that an organism traverses from birth to death, provides the basis for such an integrative biology.

Although Lifelines is supposed to be a "within-biology discussion", the key to understanding the book is not science but ideology. Rose argues that ultra-Darwinism rests on "shaky empirical evidence, flawed premises and unexamined ideological presuppositions", but the real villains of the piece are Rose's own preconceptions and ideology. These lead him to misrepresent and caricature the views of those he wishes to oppose.

Consider Rose's account of who the ultra-Darwinists are and what they say.He singles out the zoologist Richard Dawkins and the philosopher Daniel Dennett as prime examples. According to Rose, ultra-Darwinists make three fundamental claims: first, that the purpose of life is reproduction; second, that the gene is "the unit of life"; and, third, that every aspect of the phenotype of an organism, that is the structure built by the genes, is adaptive. Neither Dawkins nor Dennett makes any of these claims.

According to the neo-Darwinian synthesis on which their ideas are based, reproduction is the engine of natural selection, not the purpose of life, the gene is the unit of selection, not the unit of life, and phenotypic characters may be adaptively neutral or maladaptive.

An example which is supposed to demonstrate the shaky empirical evidence for ultra-Darwinism is the topic of sexual selection. Darwin considered sexual selection to be important enough to merit a whole volume. In it he postulated the modification of human male characteristics as a result of female choice. Rose, however, asserts that the theory of sexual selection cannot be applied to the investigation of human sexual preferences because it "simply cannot encompass the rich diversity of human experience". He adds that theorists who investigate sexual preference in Darwinian terms "largely ignore" cultural variation and treat Western norms as human universals in studies which are often nothing more than crude "sexist caricatures". Rose ignores, among others, the study carried out by David Buss and his co-workers in more than 30 countries which provides excellent evidence for the existence of universals in human mate preferences.

Why does Rose consistently misrepresent, caricature and ignore serious applications of Darwinian theory to the study of human sociobiology? The reason seems to be his belief that the gene-centred view of theorists like Dawkins and Dennett threatens the social fabric by absolving individuals from responsibility for their actions. But the theorists with whom Rose takes issue do not believe that the gene-centred view removes humans from the moral realm. Dawkins, for example, is always at pains to stress just that point.

Steven Rose stands on one side of the debate about biology and the human mind. Lifelines is a critique of the other side. Readers who seek a balanced perspective on the debate should also read Dawkins's The Selfish Gene or Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea.

Dr Andrew Wells is lecturer in psychology at the London School of Economics and Political Science

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you