Debate Goes On

The Mail

To the Editors of The Crimson:

The attack is starting. "Let's see," someone said. "We need a cause for the next few years, something we can work ourselves into a really indignant rage over. Hey, here's one that's perfect. It's an entirely new field, so it'll be in a crude state, open to lots of misinterpreation and distortion, and no one will know anything about it so they'll believe what we tell them. I think they call it 'sociobiology'."

J. Wyatt Emmerich's April 11th review of Richard Dawkins's book, The Selfish Gene, is a masterpiece, even for The Crimson, of inaccuracy, purposeful misinterpretation, and downright untruth. Emmerich shows a profound ignorance of the book, evolutionary theory in general, and the aims and structures of the "sociobiological" camp.

Emmerich brings Dawkins to task for speaking as if genes were conscious, scheming entities. Dawkins does so, but he also consistently reminds the reader that this is just a metaphor that he uses to elucidate the phenomena he is discussing. At one point he admonishes himself and the reader "not to get carried away with subjective metaphors." I suppose if Dawkins had been acquainted with the average Crimson writer he would have put a large sign on the book saying "WARNING: Metaphors contained within. Those who have trouble distinguishing between concrete and figurative language should avoid this book."

Dawkins clearly does not think that genes are conscious beings. He does, however, think they are selfish, in the particular and welldefined sense in which he uses the word. Any student who has progressed beyond a superficial understanding of natural selection can understand what Dawkins is driving at. They might not agree, but they would not produce the distorted, fanciful account of the book that Emmerich has dreamed up.


It seems these days at Harvard that doing anything in the name of a good, kosher, leftist cause makes it all right, no matter what kind of lies and slander are involved. Dawkins is not a racist and he is not a fascist. He says (it's on page three, J. Wyatt, look it up):

I am not advocating a morality based on evolution. I am saying how things have evolved. I am not saying how we humans morally ought to behave. I stress this, because I know I am in great danger of being misunderstood by those people, all too numerous, who cannot distinguish a statement of belief in what is the case from an advocacy of what ought to be the case...Be warned that, if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from our biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.

Social scientists have said much the same thing for many years, without being accused of crimes against humanity. I guess Dawkins' mistakes was that he assumed those who would review his book would read it first, at least up until page three.

There are several other weapons Emmerich has in his arsenal. He cites Dawkins' use of an analogy he borrows from a science fiction story, without explaining why and how Dawkins used it in the slightest. After doing so he uses this analogy to poke fun at Dawkins. This is a nifty technique for making someone look bad but it isn't very helpful to those who want to know what the book is about.

Emmerich claims that Dawkins "can't admit that cultural and environmental factors also affect behavior." Hogwash--Dawkins would hardly be qualified to lecture at Oxford if he were that stupid. His book is not about culture--it is about natural selection and genetic behaviorism. He is not denying the existence of human culture, he is simply discussing a factor which goes into the making of culture. Admittedly, he is giving this factor a far greater causal role than it has ever been credited with in the past. But isn't this what scientific debate is all about? Many folks were outraged when someone dared suggest that Noah's flood was not responsible for all those fossils. But that was way back in the 19th century. We know the truth, now, so we can laugh at and make fun of anyone who tries to suggest that we might still be a little bit off track.

What all this comes down to, though, is Emmerich's last three paragraphs. This whole debate is shaping up into one more in the "man is the center of the universe" series. Copernicus got it, Galileo got it, Darwin got it. Anyone who dares to suggest that the universe is not divided into three parts--matter, life, and Man, with Man at the top--is accused of the most dreadful heresy.

"We are not animals, we are human beings," says J. Wyatt. Well, I can't argue with that. The point is that this person, in 1977, still thinks that this implies that we are completely different and completely "better." Any evolutionist would laugh himself silly at the notion of "farther down on the evolutionary scale," a notion Emmerich makes use of, but you can bet that Professor Lewontin isn't going to tell Wyatt that, because he is attacking someone who needs attacking "for the good of the people."

Yes, it's true, the kind of material that Dawkins works with can be distorted and misused. This is not exactly new. J. In fact, guess what? Nuclear physics can be harmful without distortion. You don't even have to misinterpret physical science to build a thermo-nuclear bomb. And the same for recombinant DNA research. When the neoplague starts leaking through that faculty gasket in the p-3 facility, it won't be distored theory that's at fault.

For God's sake, everyone, stop this twentieth century Inquistion. It is not anyone's job to control and censor the scientific community. If the theories of Dawkins, Wilson, (cute, J., the way you connect him with Shockley when there is no connection) DeVore and Trivers are that ludicrous, leave them alone. They'll go away like all ludicrous theories do. When people start telling The New York Times that they lynched someone or stole someone's food after reading The Selfish Gene, the matter will have to be considered further. But for now the rampant paranoia and vigilanteism at this university must cease. It is the other side of the fascist coin.

If you disagree with a theory, say so. Learn about it so you can fight it better. (Any Nat Sci 4 student could tell you that there is a required article this semester which denies any significant genetic differences between races.) But don't slander it, distort it, and try to wipe it from the face of the earth.

And, if you come across a book that you don't understand, find someone who does to explain it to you, or leave it alone--even if you are a book reviewer for The Harvard Crimson. Robert Binstock '80