Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Interesting interview with Richard Dawkins on the political implications of "The Selfish Gene" and the "God Delusion"

Here is an interesting interview with popular science writer and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, famous for his book "The Selfish Gene" from 1976, which revolutionized the general public's view about the evolutionary process, in particular the role of gene selection, as opposed to naive group selection.I found this video as I was looking for material for an undergraduate course that I am teaching entitled "Human Biology & Evolution". 

It is worth watching, particularly since Richard Dawkins clearly explains what selfish genes are, and what they are not. In particular the crucial notion that selfish genes do not imply that individuals must be selfish, but rather the converse: selfish genes might often results in altruistic individuals. This crucial point has apparently been missed by the many right-winged libertarians and free-market ideologists, who wrote many letters to Richard Dawkins after the publication of his book to express their admiration and support. In this video, Richard Dawkins is very clear about his own view about such political idéas, which are strong in the right-wing segment of the US population: he does not support them at all.

As Dawkins states in the video above: "I have voted to the left in Britain in  my whole life". Selfish genes do thus by no means justify unregulated marked capitalism, although many wishful thinkers on the right side of the political spectrum have tried to exploit the title of his book for their own ideological purposes. As a matter of fact, Richard Dawkins have even stated that an alternative title of his book could very well have been "The Altruistic Organism".

It is important to be fair to Richard Dawkins, as there is actually some serious criticism that can be directed to both his idéa about the overall importance of gene selection, and his rather dogmatic dismissal of higher-level selection, such as at the level of groups, populations or species. Here, I think he is wrong, and there are many leading evolutionary biologists and population geneticists who would agree that group selection can indeed work in many ecological situations, including David Sloan Wilson and Michael J. Wade. 

There are many conceptual problems with Richard Dawkins strict separation between "replicators" (genes) and "vehicles" (organisms) that forms the basis of his whole argumentation that gene selection will always outpower higher-level selection, and some of these problems and logical pitfalls are discussed here.

Personally, I do als think that Dawkin's stance on religion is both unproductive and not very sophisticated, in terms of the nature of the criticism, as expressed in his too hyped book "The God Delusion". Apparently, Dawkinshas also recently stated that he partly regrets that he wrote this book (or should I say pamphlet?). The God that he describes in that book is more of a charicature of religion as he perceives it, than actually depicting the true beliefs of most religous people.

My own personal view, as an atheist, is again much closer to my fellow atheist David Sloan Wilson's view that religion has evolved for some reason, and hence can be treated as a problem that one can study in the light of evolutionary theory. That view strikes me as being a more intellectually fruitful and interesting approach towards understanding religion than just pointing fingers and treating it as a disease, which Dawkins tends to do.


  1. Excellent to see that you keep a scientific blog. Looking forward to this one.

    Do you do requests? I would love if you wrote about the lack of evidence for differences in allele frequencies btw different (socioeconomic) populations; a common missconception on the right.

    For example, here is your typical right-wing economist trying to do make evolution fit his view of the world (and my attempts to debuke him). http://www.jasoncollins.org/2011/09/the-genetic-and-social-lottery/ Go get him.

  2. David Sloan Wilson's view of religion more "sophisticated" than Dawkins' view? Come on. That needs some backing up.

  3. Åsa:

    Interesting suggestion, maybe we will follow up this, although I am not as intense blogger nowadays as I used to be. We will see.


    That needs some backing up, indeed, and I will see if I have time to return to it. I do not necessarily after with David Sloan Wilson in all respects, but I definitely thinks his criticisms of Dawkins gene-centred reductionism and dogmatic dismissal of group selection has a lot of good points. Even a staunch gene selectionist such as R.A. Fisher did not dismiss group selection,only questioned its strength.

  4. hmmm... It is perhaps easy as a swede, with its nice moderate liberal church =), to say that Richard does not describe religion accurately.

    jag kommer fran usa.

  5. God is not going to sweat this book, but it nonetheless delivers us mere mortals lots of food for thought and is well worth a read, even if you know in advance how it ends.