Evolution and organization, part 1: Sloppy language and dodgy metaphysics

Image result for the god delusionA few days ago, a scientist friend remarked that he was reading Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. What’s more, he was really enjoying it. It really spoke to him, he averred. This awkward conversational moment set me thinking once again about a topic that I’ve been pursuing on and off for the last couple of years: trying to get a hold of the reasons for importing evolutionary thinking into management thinking. It strikes me as odd when a firm can describe its ruthless annual cull of the weaker performers (as identified by colleagues through anonymous feedback mechanisms, which sounds a very fair and reasonable method to me) as ‘purposeful Darwinism’. Not just as odd, but also morally charged and strategically dishonest, as if ruthless pursuit of shareholder interest can be justified by the subliminal message that those under-performers – the weak! – are dull herbivores, contentedly fattening themselves up until something more leonine, in this case the go-getting manager – the strong! – comes along and scoffs them. Mind you, this week in politics has testified, among other, darker things, to the enduring image of the strong-man in the popular imagination.

Richard Dawkins, of course, is at the epicentre of this particular earthquake of popular thinking. But I was struck by my friend’s comment because the God Delusion is a truly bad

book, by whatever yardstick you choose. The title is patronising. The prose is overblown and verbose. There are sentences, whole paragraphs even, that don’t make sense. I remember the huge relief on reading McGrath’s slim rebuttal The Dawkins Delusion and being reassured that the cause of my difficulties wasn’t simply my inability to understand written English. The God Delusion is bad because it is a diatribe on not one but two fronts – against members of the scientific community whose view on technical points differs from Dawkins’ own, and against anyone who might look at the stars and see the wonder of God’s creation. (I’d like to go on record here and, for the avoidance of doubt, say that I am a fully paid-up believer in scientific explanations for why the stars shine in the sky, why we are here, and why we won’t be here much longer if we’re not careful.) But people can hold complex and sometimes contradictory opinions and we shouldn’t always harangue them for doing so. The God Delusion does just this because it is an intolerant, ignorant bully of book. Terry Eagleton’s review opens with a memorable put-down that harbours a serious point:

‘Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill informed their criticisms of it tend to be.’

Dawkins will always have his defenders in the scientific community. It seems that criticising Dawkins is a synecdoche for criticizing science: it is impossible to say that The God Delusion is a terrible book without painting oneslf as a creationist. Perhaps that is exactly the point – like Trump’s garbled rhetoric, Dawkins’ slackness with the actualite creates a space that anyone can fill with their own opinion. But his sloppiness is more than a tabloid-style overlooking of inconvenient ‘facts’. It’s a tricksiness with language that simultaneously persuades and precludes reply.

It’s a trick that has worked for Dawkins since he first suggested that genes are selfish. To Image result for the selfish genemy mind that claim is a pivotal moment in the passage of evolutionary ideas from science to society and so it’s worth taking a closer look. The philosopher Mary Midgley has tried hard to hold Dawkins to account on this point. Her 1979 review of The Selfish Gene nails him in the opening few lines:

‘Ít is natural for a reader to suppose that his over-simplified drama about genes is just a convenient stylistic device, because it seems obvious that the personification of them must be just a metaphor. Indeed he himself sometimes says that it is so. But in fact this personification, in its literal sense, is essential for his whole contention; without it he is bankrupt.’ (p439).

Later, she is more fulsome:

‘He wants to relate the workings of natural selection in a simple and satisfying way to those of motivation by finding a single universal motive, and there is no such motive. Having picked on selfishness for this role, he personifies genes in order to find an owner for it. It may indeed seem that he must just be speaking metaphorically, as he sometimes claims. But the trouble about these admissions is that Dawkins seems to have studied under B.F. Skinner in the useful art of open, manly self-contradiction, of freely admitting a point that destroys one’s whole position and then going on exactly as before. When ruin stares him in the face, he withdraws into talk of metaphors, but he goes on afterwards as if the literal interpretation still stood.’ (p446).

Midgley harangues Dawkins not for bad science but for bad writing. She sees that Dawkins does metaphysics on the sly and gets away with it through dodgy metaphor. (Though Dawkins replies, of course, that she has simply misunderstood the science, rather proving Midgley’s point). He has, in a much quoted passage, persuaded us that ‘we are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes’. He here gives genes sentience and purpose, anthropomorphising the gene while suppressing the agency of its robot carrier. But it is all a metaphor, surely? Not quite. Without the literal sense he is bankrupt.  Midgley spots how the conjurer’s trick is done – by allowing the metaphorical attribution of consciousness to genes to linger a moment, distracting his audience with a blur of verbal misdirection, Dawkins is able make the switch to human intention. ‘You’ll like this, not a lot’, he might have quite truthfully have said, before finding an orange under his hat.

Dawkins has never been able to keep his obsessions – for that is what they are – out of his scientific communication – if, indeed, that is what it is. His second book, The Extended Phenotype, is commonly held to be his best scientific-communication work. Yet one soon finds a disquisition on the difference between ‘Cavaliers’ and ‘Roundheads’, not the warriors of the English Civil War, but a changing room taxonomy from Dawkins’ boarding school days. The changing room episode might be of interest to those whose imagination takes a more sociological turn, but as the God Delusion shows, being bothered about something does not mean being willing to spend time boning up on it, and it turns out that Dawkins doesn’t know anything about sociology either. For him, society is just a collection of  ‘memes’, the parasitic self-replicating thingumybobs that Dawkins invents in chapter eleven of The Selfish Gene (Teens guffawing over ‘dank memes’ on facebook will be delighted to know that Dawkins, never patronizing, gave us a cod-etymology and a guide for pronunciation. It comes from the Greek, or if you prefer, the French, and pronounced rhyming with ‘cream’.)

This meme is a most mischievous creature, a self-perpetuating unit of culture that accounts for the growth of every social structure we have. It does not struggle with scale: catchy pop songs are memes, as is ‘religion’. Here too Dawkins’ sloppiness with language once again helps him out of a few tricky problems. His words are metaphors and non-metaphors at the same time. So he says:

‘Memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain in a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation … when you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle of the meme’s propagation in the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of the host cell.’ (p.192, my italics)

Memes swim and breed in a pool, they leap, they are planted in fertile soil. There is a ‘literally’ here. It’s not meant as a comic non-literal literally. It is a literal literally, in a context that is clearly and obviously metaphorical. As a result we are so tangled up in the linguistic double bind that we fail to ask the obvious question: how do they do that?

Not asking how is a serious omission. The really exciting thing about the scientific understanding of evolution is that it tells us how. It explains the mechanisms of copying fidelity and inheritance in dazzling technical detail. The meme-idea has nothing to offer us here apart from vague definitions of copying, which is why we need words like ‘literally parasitize’ to get us through to the end of the argument.

Moreover, just as the gene’s-eye take on evolution requires scientists to ask what a gene Image result for scottish dancing adultgains from a certain attribute that it engenders in its hosts, so we must ask what we do for a meme and not what a meme does for us. Let’s try that trick with a peculiar local (to me) phenomenon: Scottish country dancing. What does dancing qua meme have to gain from those characteristics engenders – causing grown men to skip round in skirts, or whoop, inducing the compulsion to hammer out reels on fiddles and accordions. Its own survival, of course! The whole dancing thing is just a side effect of the dancing meme’s determination not to die. Heaven forbid that there might be other things at work here, the acting out of national identity, say, or even people having a good time. Aha, says Dawkins, cultivation of politics and enjoyment is all part of the meme’s cunning survival plan. And here we see how ridiculous the whole gig is: global domination by ceilidh band. A thinking, intentional Scottish Country dance is needed to make the narrative hold together, and that, thank goodness, can only exist in metaphor.

Dawkins can take some comfort in the fact that he is only one in a long line of high-calibre Image resultintellectual nutcases who have attempted to provide evolutionary explanations for the society. Frederick Hayek springs to mind, arguing that society self organises in the same way as crystalline structures self organise. He calls this a catallaxy, although from recollection I don’t think he provided an etymology for his somewhat more sophisticated neologism. More recently, Susan Blackmore has taken the meme-meme to an extreme, writing ‘Memes are instructions for carrying out behaviour, stored in brains (or other objects) and passed on by imitation. Their competition drives the evolution of the mind.’ (The Meme Machine, p17, my italics)

Dawkins’ meme, then, exists in a kind of linguistic Neverland, neither metaphor nor real thing. To say that religion exists because it is an idea that is copied is true, but trivially so. It has roughly the same explanatory clout as my telling a small child that they are here because mummy and daddy love each other very much. It seems unfortunate that many of my scientific friends, though assiduous in their professional devotion to the search for complex answers, seem unwilling to apply the same standards of critical investigation to such prosaic questions of society, culture, or even organisation. Which is what I intended to talk about in the first place, but will have to wait for next time.

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