The Genial Gene: Deconstructing Darwinian Selfishness

A riposte to the biological determinism of Richard Dawkins leaves Janet Smith frustrated

October 29, 2009

Joan Roughgarden has a valid point: there has been, and still is, a lot of anthropomorphism in the reporting of biological findings in the field of sexual selection. Under the lurid heading "vocabulary poison", she castigates the language used in peer-reviewed journals to describe the sexual behaviour of animals, comparing it to "an orgy of dime-store novels". Her examples include males described as "cuckolded" or "gigolos", and females as "faithful" or "promiscuous". Unfortunately, in developing her thesis, she is guilty of many equally anthropomorphic interpretations of biological fact.

This is a curious book, and is, perhaps even deliberately, confusing to read. It claims to present an argument for overturning what Roughgarden describes as the theory of sexual selection and replacing it with one named "social selection", the idea being that the evolutionary process pertaining to reproductive success is one of "genial genes" rather than "selfish genes".

The latter, of course, is a term coined by Richard Dawkins in the 1970s. Dawkins is explicitly and implicitly a key target of this book. Roughgarden sets out her stall in the introduction: "This book is about whether selfishness and individuality, rather than kindness and co-operation, are basic to biological nature."

A charming idea, but as Roughgarden herself is fond of saying, is it true? What is the evidence? Indeed, is the process of co-operation she describes, based on a mathematical-modelling paper and the metaphor of high finance and coercion, really such a benign and genial process after all?

For a book that emphasises the co-operative, its style is somewhat gladiatorial. Roughgarden wants us to know that she is being controversial, so the book is strong on catchy phrases, baseball metaphors ("three strikes", "stepping up to the plate") and the occasional good one-liner ("male bodies are more than testes with guns"). But it is short on real detail and cogent analysis.

Instead, there is a zoo of examples and "exceptions"; tantalising titbits that turn out to be a bit mundane; extraordinary claims ("the practicality of an egalitarian society depends on whether a rational rejection exists for sexual selection") interspersed with shock statements ("sexual selection is dead in the water") that tell us what to think about it all.

The idea of writing a riposte to Dawkins' The Selfish Gene is a nice one but, in my view, Roughgarden fails on two counts. One, despite her attempt to court controversy, she, like Dawkins, is a biological determinist; someone who believes that our biology governs our every action, hence her statement "If sexual selection is indeed true, then so be it; and the prospect of an egalitarian society is an unrealistic mirage." Two, her scattershot approach to supportive evidence is not convincing and is, in many places, contradictory. For example, having earlier published a mathematical testing of the "cost of meiosis" using her preferred behaviour model, the "portfolio hypothesis", she then dismisses the result on the basis that "the cost of meiosis is simply a sexist assumption". This mix of experimental data serving a sociological interpretation is typical of the book.

She has some interesting things to say about individuality and about the use of language, but there is surprisingly little to really get your teeth into. And ultimately, her new thesis is not much more than a rewriting of the old stuff; the term social selection has been used by others to describe the selective forces "described by Darwin (which) apply as well for social competition for resources other than mates". Throughout the book she conflates an essentially political-semantic debate around language with an interpretation of reproductive, behavioural mechanisms.

Roughgarden is not a creationist, but she does have a political agenda and carefully picks her examples to suit her case. Although it is not clearly stated, this agenda emerges early in the book when she asserts that, unlike Herbert Spencer (who coined the term "survival of the fittest") and the "neo-Spencerists" such as Dawkins (who "push selfishness and sexual conflict as the social message of neo-Darwinism"), the writings from "the founders of neo-Darwinism (what Darwinism has been called since the advent of genes), such as mathematical geneticists R.A. Fisher, J.B.S. Haldane and S.E. Wright ... in the 1930s and later, are relatively free of ideology". Roughgarden does not mention that Fisher was president of the Eugenics Society during the 1930s and was a devout, conservative Anglican who also wrote for church magazines; as such, he is a curious choice for a model of objective apoliticism.

It is difficult to see who this book is for, as the dense, elliptical style is not an easy read for either lay or more specialised reader. Throughout, the science is basic and frustratingly one-sided, references to recent papers are very few in number and quoted only if they appear to support the author's thesis, and much is omitted or misrepresented. Only in the extensive sections devoted to Roughgarden's mathematical modelling paper is there detail: lots of it, interspersed with tabloid headlines and bold assertions, but with virtually no lay explanation of the science and no context with similar work reaching a different conclusion.

The Genial Gene: Deconstructing Darwinian Selfishness

By Joan Roughgarden

University of California Press

2pp, £16.95

ISBN 9780520258266

Published 17 April 2009

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