Friday, February 12, 2010

What Darwin Got Wrong

The explanation for this might be the seductive myth that underlies it. That myth had its roots in Victorian social Darwinism but today it flows largely from two books – Jacques Monod's Chance and Necessity (1971) and Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene (1976). Both these books, of course, contain lots of good and necessary biological facts. But what made them bestsellers was chiefly the sensational underlying picture of human life supplied by their rhetoric and especially their metaphors. This drama showed heroic, isolated individuals contending, like space warriors, alone against an alien and meaningless cosmos. It established the books as a kind of bible of individualism, most congenial to the Reaganite and Thatcherite ethos of the 80s. Monod first showed humans in Existentialist style as aliens – "gypsies" in a foreign world – and, by expanding the role of chance in evolution, concluded that our life was essentially a "casino". Dawkins added personal drama by describing a population of genes which – quite unlike the real ones inside us – operate as totally independent agents and can do as they please. It is no great surprise that these images caught on, nor that they can now persist whether or not the doctrines linked to them turn out to be scientific.

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