Sunday, February 9, 2014

Librarian genes overcome their selfishness

It would not be strange to find that Richard Dawkins is not on the side of the angels (as he undoubtedly does not believe in their existence) but it is to find that he is not on the side of 'nature' either. But this is one of the themes of Colin Tudge's excellent "Why Genes are not Selfish and People are Nice: A Challenge to the Dangerous Ideas that Dominate our Lives".

The rhetorical flourish of the 'selfish gene' is precisely that a literary flourish with only a minor strand of substance to give it factual weight and yet it is the bearer of a long history in thinking about evolution. Thinking that is grounded in political and philosophical speculation about the nature of the human rather than in the experience of the actual texture of nature. That thinking has tended to imagine that 'at bottom' the world is rooted in competitive struggle, of nature battling it out 'tooth and claw' (an image coined, as it happens, by a poet, Tennyson) and that was endorsed tentatively by Darwin, more enthusiastically by Huxley.

Yet, as Tudge repeatedly shows, this image, borrowed from certain habits of 'Enlightenment' thinking (and early nineteenth century history), is, at best, a limited picturing of how the world actually unfolds and, at worst, a severe and debilitating distortion. We are much more the fruits of collaborative, co-operative endeavour than of struggle, indeed our very bodies came into existence as different kinds of cell began to cumulatively interact, collaborate and specialise. We are co-operative assemblies, both within and without our skin.

Why should this matter outside the portals of biological knowledge? Because, of course, ideas have a habit of spreading beyond their domains, reinforcing certain habits of imagination and of argument.

If nature tells us we are inherently competitive and it is from this we gain our principal advantages, then we will be tempted to draw up our economic and social arrangements on that basis. If, however, our coming to be is a process grounded in widespread co-operation and it is this that grounds our mutual best outcome then we might be encouraged to explore different paths for our 'economy' - our common home.

Tudge's book is a clear sighted, and compellingly argued, challenge to do precisely this - to revision our understandings of what counts as who we are - both on natural and metaphysical grounds - so that we might align our human society on better grounds more likely to yield sustainable and lively outcomes.

For me, the case has always been unarguably so, and when I might be tempted to doubt it, I take the simple expedient of considering my journey to work that day. What does it most closely resemble (even if it included a stuffy underground journey)? A collaborative endeavour made possible by the labour of many co-operating hands or a competitive struggle? That there are elements of the latter is a truism, especially within the stresses of our modern age, but as an underlying account of how it comes to be possible co-operation is only possible way to go.

Meanwhile, I loved Tudge's re-visioning of 'genes' not as selfish manipulators, in charge of their robotic hosts, securing the best outcome for themselves but as 'librarians' that carry information that each part of the system needs to perform certain key tasks. In a sense both are 'rhetorical' flourishes (and anthropomorphic) but I know which one chimes more closely with my felt sense of the nature of things!

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