Swept away by the current

River out of Eden
June 16, 1995

Welcome to the new vitalism! In this latest instalment of Richard Dawkins's exploration of the Darwinian principle we find him hard at work driving the final nails into the coffin of the ancient belief that living things are animated by a mystical vital force. The result, however, is as odd as it is unexpected. For there rises from the pages of this book, like a phoenix from the ashes, a version of Darwinism more suffused with vitalistic imagery than anything we have witnessed heretofore. Born again in the shining armour of molecular biology and information technology, the new vitalism imagines life as a flowing river - but it is a river of DNA, and DNA is "pure information".

It is worth recalling the words of one of the great vitalists of our century, the philosopher Henri Bergson, whose notion of the elan vital electrified a generation until it was short-circuited by the revival of Darwinism under the umbrella of the "modern synthesis". In his Creative Evolution of 1907, Bergson likened life to a "current passing from germ to germ through the medium of a developed organism". Flowing ever outwards from its point of origin, Bergson thought, the current of life continually congeals into novel forms, through which it is handed on, relay fashion, to their evolutionary successors. Some six decades later another Frenchman, the distinguished biochemist Jacques Monod, was able to claim that advances in molecular biology - above all the discovery of DNA and its role in the synthesis of proteins - had finally put paid to Bergsonian vitalism. In his Chance and Necessity (1970), Monod insisted that evolution is not a life process. For the life of the organism is expended in the replication of its genes, and it is the latter alone that are transmitted to successors. Evolution occurs because of imperfections in the very mechanism of molecular conservation upon which life itself depends.

Enter Dawkins. His argument, like Monod's, is starkly mechanistic. Organisms are constructed by genes as machines to secure the latter's replication. Yet his imagery, with its river of life "majestically flowing through geological time and splitting into three billion branches", seems to come straight out of Bergson. Evolution, for Dawkins, is a life process after all. But he pulls off this trick by attributing a vital impulse to DNA itself. Indeed, if one were to substitute DNA for the elan vital, then much of Bergson's rhetoric, in Creative Evolution, would slot seamlessly into Dawkins's new book. It is the genes themselves, Dawkins tells us, that are alive and "at work" within the bodies they inhabit. Life, in short, is not a property of organisms at all, for organisms simply provide the conduits along which it flows: they are the banks of the river of digital information.

In reality, of course, DNA is just a molecule, and a remarkably inert one at that. It does not do things, or make things, or build things. Nor does it flow. It is not an agent at all, but a reactant. Within the context of the living cell, a number of reactions are set in train, including that which leads to the synthesis of further copies of the molecule itself. In what sense, then, can we regard strands of DNA as "information"? Dawkins himself offers an allegorical piece of science fiction that goes to the heart of the matter. A certain Professor Crickson has been kidnapped by the evil empire to work in its germ warfare laboratories. He desperately needs to send a message to the outside world. Lacking other means, he codes his message into a DNA sequence that is artificially inserted into one of the laboratory's influenza viruses. He then injects himself with the altered virus and deliberately starts an epidemic. Scientists on the other side of the world, searching for a vaccine to stem the outbreak, sequence the virus's DNA and discover a peculiar pattern. Using codebreaking techniques they soon uncover the professor's message. The information has been safely carried by the DNA, through countless replications. Civilisation is saved.

Now if the DNA of Crickson's 'flu stood for his message, what does the DNA of ordinary, real-world organisms stand for? If genes carry information, they must stand for something. Or in more formal terms, there must be some context-independent decoding that would yield the "message" that the DNA is supposed to carry. Just as Crickson's fictional message originated in his own mind, so there can be only one place for this decoding, namely as an ideal construct in the minds of biologists. Conventionally, this construct goes by the name of the "genotype" (not to be confused with the actual DNA of the genome). It is an artefact not of nature but of scientific reason, derived by analytic abstraction from the observational contexts of real life. But the logic of natural selection, inverting the relation between reason and nature, instals the genotype at the heart of the organism, as a kind of inner intelligence, from where it is supposed to direct the organism's affairs.

But in reality DNA can stand for nothing but itself. It is simply there, and while it has consequences for the organisms in which it is found, these consequences will depend critically on the circumstances they encounter during their lifetimes. Organisms, in general, are not genetically preformed, nor, strictly speaking, can form be understood as a result of the interaction of genetic instructions and environmental constraints. Rather, it is a property of the total developmental system of which genes and components of the environment, both internal and external to the organism, are equally a part. One way of putting this is to say of any aspect of the form of a developed organism, that it is 100 per cent genetic and 100 per cent environmental. Another way, perhaps more sensible, is to stop thinking as Dawkins does, of genes as pure information that is somehow injected into the formless material of nature whenever a new life-cycle is initiated.

Ever since the notion of evolution was co-opted to refer to the process that Darwin had originally called "descent with modification", evolutionary biologists have been in a hopeless muddle over what they have actually managed to explain. It does not help to be told that evolution is a fact if we are given no clear or consistent indication of what that fact is supposed to be. Does it refer to changes in the DNA, or to changes in morphology and behaviour - what Dawkins calls "ways of making a living"? Like most committed neo-Darwinists, Dawkins assumes that the latter follow directly and unproblematically from the former, by a kind of translation process, as though the record of genetic change were itself tantamount to an account of morphological and behavioural evolution. But to make this assumption is automatically to privilege the genome as the locus of organic form. Faced with the objection that form is not thus prefigured but the outcome of a developmental process, neo-Darwinists habitually resort to the default position that evolutionary theory is simply about changing gene frequencies in populations of organisms, and that it remains entirely open on questions of development. But if that were the case the theory could tell us absolutely nothing about the evolution of form; indeed it would short-cut the organism altogether. There is a clear desire on the part of evolutionary biologists, Dawkins included, to have it both ways, leaving the rest of us understandably confused.

Dawkins writes, as ever, with great conviction and panache. Not for him the image of the scientist as one tormented by doubt and uncertainty. Darwinists are right; creationists, cultural relativists, primitive tribesmen and assorted others who have a different view of things are wrong. Period. The difference is likened to that between building an aeroplane that will fly and one that never even gets off the ground. There is no room for debate here. It seems that some of the zealotry of Dawkins's fundamentalist opponents, as well as their penchant for allegory, has rubbed off on the man himself. Moreover Darwinism is elevated into a principle of awesome power, sustained by the digital genetic system "over eons of geological time". It is most awesome of all in its sheer, heartless indifference. "DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music."

But Dawkins both knows and cares. He knows a lot and cares a great deal about what he writes. If it is not too personal a question, I think we are entitled to ask: what is the relation between Dawkins's DNA and his book?

Tim Ingold is Max Gluckman professor of social anthropology, University of Manchester.

River out of Eden

Author - Richard Dawkins
ISBN - 0 297 81540 7
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price - £9.99
Pages - 166

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