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" A good traveller has no fixed plans,

and is not intent on arriving "

Lao Tzu

I Can Dispose of Richard Dawkins in Five Minutes

August 6th, 2010

When a friend (a Professor of Physiology at one of England’s finest universities) said this to me, I knew he wasn’t proposing anything illegal. He meant, of course, that he could easily refute Richard Dawkins’ ‘Selfish Gene’ theory. “How?” I asked. I then wished I had grabbed a video camera or voice-recorder because soon the five minutes were up and – not being a biologist – I couldn’t retain most of what he said. I moaned. He told me to read Denis Noble’s book The Music of Life. “It’s all explained very well in there.” I shall read it. Meanwhile a quote from The Guardian’s review of it:

Steven Poole on The Music of Life by Denis Noble (Oxford, £12.99)

In this highly evocative essay, eminent physiologist Noble argues that a dominant metaphor in biology is blocking the path to further understanding. This is the notion that genes are the “program” of life and that they are its fundamental unit. Instead, the author shows, genes are merely a database and cannot do anything without other systems interpreting them, and there is ample evidence for “downward causation”, in which higher-level systems and the environment affect the way genes work. Further, genes rely for their effect on chemical, physical and other properties of the natural world, which we all “inherit”. (So much, Noble concludes poetically, for the notion of inheritance being solely via genes.)

The book begins with a stirring inversion of Richard Dawkins’s famous “selfish gene” metaphor (we are the point of the genes “imprisoned” inside us, he insists, not vice versa) and works through some fascinating examples in Noble’s own specialism of cardiology: the heart’s rhythm, for example, is not predictable from our genes or even at the molecular level.

Stop thinking about computers: the better metaphor for life, he concludes, is that of polyphonic music.

3 Responses to “I Can Dispose of Richard Dawkins in Five Minutes”

  1. Fascinating post, Philip!… and yes, Noble’s book is indeed terrific, a great resource…and, I might add (as a non-scientist) I had found it a good one to check out from the musicology research side of things as well, so it wasn’t too intimidating overall, all v. readable, really.

    A biologist had originally told me about this book; it was definitely worth looking at overall, even though I was coming at this topic from the musical (and spiritual) side, etc…(yes, even including faery music, the Otherworld, etc!)….but yes, many more scientists and others are now continuing to question the old pardigm which is breaking down in our midst….

    re: music as a symphonic metaphor for a new way of seeing humanity and nature — here’s a little ‘gem’ I ran across from the groundbreaking medical doctor Larry Dossey, M.D., who commented at one point to a Darwinian scientist in the US a few yrs ago that, in fact, he believed that the natural world is very much akin to a giant symphony, all with interdependent parts (or, ‘notes’?!); i.e., Dossey (as a doctor) was using music as a universal metaphor, a new way of seeing humanity in relation to nature:

    ….. “instead of sitting imperiously on top of the evolutionary chain, we might see ourselves as simply occupying the ‘first chair’, dependent on our colleagues to flesh out the score and enrich the performance. We might even begin to think of the Absolute not as a blind watchmaker who fashioned a mindless machine, but as the Maestro who wrote the melody and interwove all the harmonies.”

    (from ‘The Body as Music’, in Don Campbell’s (ed.) Music and Miracles, Quest Books, Wheaton, IL, 1992, p 57)

    So — lol! – given our rapidly changing times, it might soon take even less than ‘five minutes’ re: Dawkins’ selfish gene theory and so on….given the inherent interconnectedness of all humanity and all life on a deeper level, the great Cycle continues on… once we all begin to further ‘resonate’, so to speak…. the Song of the earth can finally sound again, a type of ‘music of the spheres’ concept, with science and the arts/humanities no longer ‘at war’ with each other, either, even in academic contexts, too.

    Such a ‘musical/harmonic’ vision is an age-old ideal, of course, perhaps a bit more like an ultimate ‘Unselfish gene’ idea!

    But in spite of all of the negativity in the headlines…a more positive global Vision, a symphony of love, kindness, and understanding, in harmony with nature and ourselves….may well be unfolding in our world right now, the ‘green shoots’ under the old, ‘dead’ leaves of the past….providing dark, fertile soil indeed for the future. imho… Everyone has their own ‘note’, a special contribution to make to the larger ‘symphony’ of life…

    So it will be interesting to see what more of the scientists say re: Noble’s book, but the title itself – the Music of Life – is worth noting, too!

  2. The important thing to understand about Dawkins’ ‘selfish gene’ idea is that it is really just a metaphor. Dawkins is not suggesting that the individual organism is selfish, and certainly not that we should be (or naturally are) selfish in our moral lives. Rather, at the basic level of DNA, the gene is ‘selfish’ since it exists to make replicas of itself. This ‘selfishness’ is perhaps a poor choice of words, but Dawkins does not intend to attach any moral judgement to the term.

    Yes, this view is reductionist, but it is so necessarily, because Dawkins is attampting to take a big, complex idea (genetics and evolution) and boil it down to a memorable soundbite which can be understood by the layperson.

    The metaphor of ‘selfish gene’ and the metaphor of ‘music of life’ need not stand in opposition, and, as they are both allegorical, one cannot be said to ‘refute’ the other, rather, they show us two different sides to evolution.

    Darwin himself understood this. His theory shows that all life is engaged in a constant, bloody, war for survival. Yet at the same time he was awe-struck by the beauty and complexity of the natural world, and wrote ‘There is grandeur in this view of life’ (Origin of species, 1859).

    As an aspiring Druid, I revere and love the vast, complex, wonderful symphony of life. As a rational person, I accept Darwinian evolution, including its ‘darker’ elements, since all the evidence points to that theory as fact. Beauty and horror can and do coexist in nature.

    I am unclear as to what ‘downward causation’ can mean in this case that is not already covered by natural selection, which already takes into account all the various environmental and sexual selection pressures on a species.

    Understanding evolution does not detract from my sense of wonder at the world, but adds to it, since it shows unequivocally that all living thigs are related, we are all branches of the same great Tree of Life.

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