More of the Same

The Mail

To the Editors of The Crimson:

I write, without glee and thinking that I'm probably wasting my time, to complain about a review by J. Wyatt Emmerich that appeared in the April 11 Crimson. It is not opinion that I criticize, but misrepresentation of the book, Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene.

"Dawkins," says Emmerich, "writes as though genes are conscious entities" and goes on to explain, as if Dawkins did not, that genes are not conscious and that "what Dawkins is really talking about" is simple evolution. However, Dawkins states explicitly "selfish genes are unconscious, blind, replicators" (p.215). He explains early (p. 48) that "evolution is the process by which some genes become more and others less numerous in the gene pool" and that "at times, gene language gets a bit tedious, and for brevity and vividness we shall lapse into metaphor."

States Emmerich, "there is no such things as a 'selfish gene'." Of course, as Dawkins says, genes are not conscious, and, as he repeatedly emphasizes, he is not talking about motives in behavior, but of practical effects. Those genes that created local environments that perpetuated their own survival were those that survived. It is clearly in this sense that genes are truly selfish.

"Dawkins," writes Emmerich, "has gotten too wrapped up in his theories of genetic determinism to admit that cultural and environmental influences also affect behavior" and says that it is not until the last chapter that Dawkins "finally acknowledges that humans can 'rebel' against their 'selfish genes'." But, on page three, Dawkins states:


It is a fallacy to suppose that genetically inherited traits are by definition fixed and unmodifiable...Among animals man is uniquely dominated by culture, by influences learned and handed down. Some would say that culture is so important that genes, whether selfish or not, are virtually irrelevant to the understanding of human nature. Others would disagree...this not an advocacy of one position or another in the nature/nurture controversy...If genes really turn out to be totally irrelevant to the determination of modern human behavior, if we are unique among animals in this respect, it is, at very least, still interesting to inquire about the rule to which we have so recently become the exception.

The book is not so much 'this is the way we are' as 'this is the way we got here and this is the way animals generally act.'

Neither is Dawkins saying "that there must be complex genetic traits for altruism and aggression in man." Instead, he states, "We are saying nothing about the question of whether learning, experience, or environmental influences enter into the development of the behavior. All you have to concede that it is possible for a single gene, other things being equal and lots of other genes and environmental factors being present, to make a body more likely to save somebody than its allele would."

Thus, Emmerich states repeatedly that Dawkins distorts the truth when in fact Dawkins, under the watchful eye of such biologists as John Maynard Smith and Robert Trivers, is careful to qualify his statements to keep them honest. Is it not Emmerich who is distorting the truth when he asks, "and didn't distortions of Darwin's theory of 'survival of the fittest' and belief in inherent genetic inferiority lead once to the death of six million Jews?" (Dawkins never mentions race.) Does Emmerich suggest Darwin should not have published his theory, because it could be so abused? If distortions of the little hard knowledge and, more plausible though unsubstantiated theory that sociobiology is composed of are presented as justification for reactionary social policy, then, as always should be the case, they should simply and quietly be confronted with the truth of the matter, inquiries into which Dawkins's book fairly presents. Gregory H. Enders '79


The main problem with The Selfish Gene is that it distorts a subject which is controversial enough when dealt with honestly and factually--as I said in my review. If Dawkins doesn't think genes are "selfish in the sense that the dictionary defines the word," then why does he insist on naming his book "The Selfish Gene"? Why didn't he call his book "Interpretations of Natural Selection" and cut out the non-scientific, agitating rhetoric that makes his book sell and that makes his book likely to be misinterpreted by people who do know enough genetics to separate what is fact and what is speculation in Dawkins' book?

As I said in my review, Dawkins apologizes several times for this and warns that his analogies should not be taken "too seriously." But this does little to counterbalance the other 210 pages which lead a reader to believe that humans might not actually be able to conquer their genes in the long run.

Much of Dawkins' book is accurate, boring, and unoriginal. I criticize Dawkins for those chapters in his book which are distorted, interesting, and original. Dawkins can write whatever he wants to write. But until he polishes up his presentation of his view toward the nature V. nurture question, and treats it less controversially and with more objectivity and sophistication, I will continue to look with disfavor on his books.