Yet we get tremendously increased phenotypic variation … because the form and variation of cells, what they produce, whether to grow, to move, or what kind of cell to become, is under control of a whole dynamic system, not the genes. (Richardson, 2017: 125)
In 1976 Richard Dawkins published his groundbreaking book The Selfish Gene (Dawkins, 1976). In the book, Dawkins argues that selection occurs at the level of the gene—“the main theme of his book is a metaphorical account of competition between genes …” (Midgley, 2010: 45). Others then took note of the new theory and attempted to integrate it into their thinking. But is it as simple as Dawkins makes it out to be? Are we selfish due to the genes we carry? Is the theory testable? Can it be distinguished from other competing theories? Can it be used to justify certain behaviors?
Rushton, selfish genes, nationalism and politics
JP Rushton is a serious scholar, perhaps most well-known for attempting to use r/K selection theory to explain human behavior (Anderson, 1991). perhaps has the most controversial use of Dawkins’ theory. The main axiom of the theory is that an organism is just a gene’s way of ensuring the survival of other genes (Rushton, 1997). Thus, Rushton’s formulated genetic similarity theory posits that those who are more genetically similar—who share more genes—will be more altruistic toward those with more similar genes even if they are not related and will therefore show negative attitudes to less genetically similar individuals. This is the gene’s “way” of propagating themselves through evolutionary time. Richardson (2017: 9-11) tells us of all of the different ways in which genes are invoked to attempt to justify X.
In the beginning of his career, Rushton was a social learning theorist studying altruism, even publishing a book on the matter—Altruism, Socialization and Society (Rushton, 1980). Rushton reviews the sociobiological literature and concludes that altruism is a learned behavior. Though, Rushton seems to have made the shift from a social learning perspective to a genetic determinist perspective in the years between the publication of Altruism, Socialization and Society and 1984 when he published his genetic similarity theory. So, attempting to explain altruism through genes, while not part of Rushton’s original research programme, seems, to me, to be a natural evolution in his thought (however flawed it may be).
Dawkins responded to the uses of his theory to attempt to justify nationalism and patriotism through an evolutionary lens during an interview with Frank Miele for Skeptic:
Skeptic: How do you evaluate the work of Irena”us Eibl-Eibesfeldt, J.P. Rushton, and Pierre van den Berghe, all of whom have argued that kin selection theory does help explain nationalism and patriotism?
Dawkins: One could invoke a kind “misfiring” of kin selection if you wanted to in such cases. Misfirings are common enough in evolution. For example, when a cuckoo host feeds a baby cuckoo, that is a misfiring of behavior which is naturally selected to be towards the host’s own young. There are plenty of opportunities for misfirings. I could imagine that racist feeling could be a misfiring, not of kin selection but of reproductive isolation mechanisms. At some point in our history there may have been two species of humans who were capable of mating together but who might have produced sterile hybrids (such as mules). If that were true, then there could have been selection in favor of a “horror” of mating with the other species. Now that could misfire in the same sort of way that the cuckoo host’s parental impulse misfires. The rule of thumb for that hypothetical avoiding of miscegenation could be “Avoid mating with anybody of a different color (or appearance) from you.”
I’m happy for people to make speculations along those lines as long as they don’t again jump that is-ought divide and start saying, “therefore racism is a good thing.” I don’t think racism is a good thing. I think it’s a very bad thing. That is my moral position. I don’t see any justification in evolution either for or against racism. The study of evolution is not in the business of providing justifications for anything.
This is similar to his reaction when Bret Weinstein remarked that the Nazi’s “behaviors” during the Holocaust “were completely comprehensible at the level of fitness”—at the level of the gene.” To which Dawkins replied “I think nationalism may be an even greater evil than religion. And I’m not sure that it’s actually helpful to speak of it in Darwinian terms.” This is what I like to call “rampant adaptationism.”
This is important because Rushton (1998) invokes Dawkins’ theory as justification for his genetic similarity theory (GST; Rushton, 1997), attempting to justify ethno-nationalism from a gene’s-eye view. Rushton did what Dawkins warned against: using the theory to justify nationalism/patriotism. Rushton (1998: 486) states that “Genetic Similarity Theory explains why” ethnic nationalism has come back into the picture. Kin selection theory (which, like with selfish gene theory, Rushton invoked) has numerous misunderstandings attached to it, and of course, Rushton, too, was an offender (Park, 2007).
Dawkins (1981), in Selfish genes in race or politics stated that “It is annoying to find this elegant and important theory being dragged down to the ephemeral level of human politics, and parochial British politics at that.” Rushton (2005: 494), responded, stating that “feeling a moral obligation to condemn racism, some evolutionists minimised the theoretical possibility of a biological underpinning to ethnic or national favouritism.“
The main premise of Dawkins’ theory is that evolution is gene-centered and that selection occurs at the level of the gene—genes that propagate fitness will be selected for while genes that are less fit are selected against. This “genes’-eye view” of evolution states “that adaptive evolution occurs through differential survival of competing genes, increasing the allele frequency of those alleles whose phenotypic trait effects successfully promote their own propagation, with gene defined as “not just one single physical bit of DNA [but] all replicas of a particular bit of DNA distributed throughout the world.“
Noble (2018) discusses “two fatal difficulties in the selfish gene version of neo-Darwinism“:
The first is that, from a physiological viewpoint, it does’t lead to a testable prediction. The only problem is that the central definition of selfish gene theory is not independent of the only experimental test of the theory, which is whether genes, defined as DNA sequences, are in fact selfish, i.e., whether their frequency in the gene pool increases (18). The second difficulty is that DNA can’t be regarded as a replicator separate from the cell (11, 17). The cell, and specifically its living physiological functionality, is what makes DNA be replicated faithfully, as I will explain later.
Noble (2017: 156) further elaborates in Dance to the Tune of Life: Biological Relativity:
Could this problem be avoided by attaching a meaning to ‘selfish’ as applied to DNA sequences that is independent of meanings in terms of phenotype? For example. we could say that a DNA sequence is ‘selfish’ to the extent which its frequency in subsequent generations is increased. This at least would be an objective definition that could be measured in terms of population genetics. But wait a minute! The whole point of the characterisation of a gene as selfish is precisely that this property leads to its success in reproducing itself. We cannot make the prediction of a theory be the basis of the definition of the central element of the theory. If we do that, the theory is empty from the viewpoint of empirical science.
Dawkins’ theory is, therefore “not a physiologically testable hypothesis” (Noble, 2011). Dawkins’ theory posits that the gene is the unit of selection, whereas the organism is only used to propagate the selfish genes. But “Just as Special Relativity and General Relativity can be succintly phrased by saying that there is no global (privileged) frame of reference, Biological Relativity can be phrased as saying that there is no global frame of causality in organisms” (Noble, 2017: 172). Dawkins’ theory privileges the gene as the unit of selection, when there is no direct unit of selection in multi-level biological systems (Noble, 2012).
In The Solitary Self: Darwin and the Selfish Gene, Midgley (2010) states “The choice of the word “selfish” is actually quite a strange one. This word is not really a suitable one for what Dawkins wanted to say about genetics because genes do not act alone.” As Dawkins later noted, “the cooperative gene” would have been a better description, while The Immortal Gene would have been a better title for the book. Midgley (2010: 16) states that Dawkins and Wilson (in The Selfish Gene and Sociobiology, respectively) “use a very simple concept of selfishness derived not from Darwin but from a wider background of Hobbesian social atomism, and give it a general explanation of all behaviour, including that of humans.” Dawkins and others claim that “the thing actually being selected was the genes” (Midgley, 2010: 47).
Developmental systems theory (DST) explains and predicts more than the neo-Darwinian Modern Synthesis (Laland et al, 2015). Dawkins’ theory is not testable. Indeed, the neo-Darwinian Modern Synthesis (and along with it Dawkins’ selfish gene theory) is dead, an extended synthesis explains evolution. As Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini (2010a, b) and Fodor (2008) state in What Darwin Got Wrong, natural selection is not mechanistic and therefore cannot select-for genes or traits (also see Midgley’s 2010: chapter 6 discussion of Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini). (Okasha, 2018 also discusses ‘selection-for- genes—and, specifically, Dawkins’ selfish gene theory.)
Dawkins’ theory was repurposed, used to attempt to argue for ethno-nationalism and patriotism—even though Dawkins himself is against such uses. Of course, theories can be repurposed from their original uses, though the use of the theory is itself erroneous, as is the case with regard to Rushton, Russel and Wells (1984) and Rushton (1997, 1998). Since the theory is itself not testable (Noble, 2011, 2017), it should therefore—along with all other theories that use it as its basis—be dropped. While Rushton’s change from social learning to genetic causation regarding altruism is not out of character for his former research (he began his career as a social learning theorist studying altruism; Rushton, 1980), his use of the theory to attempt to explain why individuals and groups prefer those more similar to themselves ultimately fails since it is “logically flawed” (Mealey, 1984: 571).
Genes ‘do’ what the physiological system ‘tells’ them to do; they are just inert, passive templates. What is active is the cell—the genome is an organ of the cell and is what is ‘immortal.’ Genes don’t “control” anything; they are used by and for the physiological system to carry out certain processes (Noble, 2017; Richardson, 2017: chapter 4, 5). There are new views of what ‘genes’ really are (Portin and Wilkins, 2017), what they are and were—are—used for.
Development is dynamic and not determined by genes. Genes (DNA sequences) are followers, not leaders. The leader is the physiological system.