The Selfish Genius: How Richard Dawkins Rewrote Darwin’s Legacy

December 17, 2009

Fern Elsdon-Baker’s book begins with a quote from Oscar Wilde: “Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live; it is asking others to live as one wishes to live.” The quote speaks very clearly to her central theme. This book is mainly about one man, Richard Dawkins, and his controversial and confrontational advocacy of “gene-centric” natural selection as a mechanism underlying the theory of evolution, the latter of course being a central tenet of modern biology.

She writes well and the book is an enjoyable read. It is well organised, clear and, apart from a modicum of repetition in later sections, not too long. Written largely from the perspective of a historian and philosopher of science, it is at its strongest and most detailed in earlier sections that address the historical context of evolutionary theory. Perhaps not surprisingly, in chapters on molecular biology and genetics, Elsdon-Baker is less sure-footed and a little vague. The book opens with a cogent introduction explaining her main arguments and concludes: “I am a great admirer of Dawkins and his work… but I think it is vitally important to put his work in context, or we do science a great disservice.” She seems inclined to disown the book’s title – “Dawkins may not be especially selfish or a genius” – but then notes “every living organism, Dawkins contended, is simply a vehicle built entirely by and for the survival of its pertinacious genes”. She suggests he also intended the word as a metaphor and that it chimed with the “rampant individualism” of the Britain of Margaret Thatcher (“no such thing as society”) to think of the gene as having a mind with selfish motives. She continues by explaining “it is in the same spirit that I use the word ‘selfish’ in the [book’s] title”.

Elsdon-Baker’s main beef with Dawkins (and largely I agree with her) is that she thinks he over-simplifies the scientific view of natural selection in his own version of “pure Darwinism”.

She suggests he conflates atheism with evolutionary theory in a manner that is neither accurate nor helpful and that in fact, she asserts, generates a dichotomy between “science” and “religion” that does not exist now, and neither did it exist in Darwin’s time. She provides a wealth of interesting background and colourful “Dawkish” quotes to back it up.

The theory of evolution clearly makes a literal reading of the Bible somewhat difficult but as Elsdon-Baker, herself an atheist, points out, it does not say anything at all about the existence or non-existence of a God. By integrating the histories of the natural sciences with those of theology, philosophy, economics and other strands of Western (and occasionally Eastern) thought current in the 17th and 18th centuries (and before), she very clearly and easily conveys that this was also true, and well recognised, in Darwin’s day.

The Selfish Genius is nicely organised, and the first third is an interesting and refreshing look at the history and “evolution” of the theory of evolution. Elsdon-Baker offers a cast of thousands of sung and unsung heroes and some great little stories that make it clear that Darwin’s big idea did not spring out of nowhere but was built on an existing science, one in which the ideas of “mutability” (of species) and an ancient Earth were already present – and without much challenging the faith of its proponents. Examples cited include the “Neptunism” theory espoused by German geologist Abraham Werner in the late 18th century and the work of his near-contemporary, English surveyor William Smith, who matched ages of rocks by their fossil types, as well as Charles Lyell’s 1830 book, Principles of Geology, read by the young Darwin while on his HMS Beagle voyage. All of these under the title “Rock of Ages” – typical of Elsdon-Baker’s witty little section headings, which are occasionally corny but always apposite.

In charting the history of “Neo-Darwinism” from Alfred Russel Wallace’s writings shortly after Darwin’s death, Elsdon-Baker argues that, although the theory of evolution itself was accepted quite quickly (even among “diehard clergymen”), natural selection took a long time to gain acceptance, owing largely to scientific differences of opinion rather than religious opposition. She contends this is still true today, and that there is growing evidence to support a more nuanced understanding of the process of natural selection: “The shift has been so dramatic that I do not know of many practising evolutionary biologists who are now committed ‘gene-centrists’ in the Dawkins mould.”

Elsdon-Baker also suggests that Dawkins’ entrenched and adversarial view and dominance of the public debate not only falsely fuels the perception of an “arts/science split” but also stifles scientific debate and progress. “It presumes a dichotomous debate with no room for middle ground between the ‘sciences’ and the ‘humanities’.” And who can argue with that?

The Selfish Genius: How Richard Dawkins Rewrote Darwin’s Legacy

By Fern Elsdon-Baker
Icon Books
288pp, £12.99
ISBN 9781848310490
Published 2 July 2009

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