Pinker on Dawkins

The Times March 04, 2006


Yes, genes can be selfish

Review by Prof. Steven Pinker

To mark the 30th anniversary of Richard Dawkins’s book, OUP is to issue a collection of essays about his work. Here, professor of psychology at Harvard University, wonders if Dawkins’s big idea has not gone far enough


by Richard Dawkins,

OUP £14.99, 384pp;

US television talk-show host Jay Leno, interviewing a passer-by: How do you think Mount Rushmore was formed?

Passerby: Erosion?

Leno: Well, how do you think the rain knew to not only pick four presidents — but four of our greatest presidents? How did the rain know to put the beard on Lincoln and not on Jefferson?

Passerby: Oh, just luck, I guess.

I AM A COGNITIVE SCIENTIST, someone who studies the nature of intelligence and the workings of the mind. Yet one of my most profound scientific influences has been Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist. The influence runs deeper than the fact that the mind is a product of the brain and the brain a product of evolution; such an influence could apply to someone who studies any organ of any organism. The significance of Dawkins’s ideas, for me and many others, runs to his characterisation of the very nature of life and to a theme that runs throughout his writings: the possibility of deep commonalities between life and mind.

Dawkins’s ideas repay close reflection and re-examination, not because he is a guru issuing enigmatic pronouncements for others to ponder, but because he continually engages the deepest problems in biology, problems that continue to challenge our understanding.

When I first read Dawkins I was immediately gripped by concerns in his writings on life that were richer versions of ones that guided my thinking on the mind. The parallels concerned both the content and the practice of the relevant sciences.

A major theme in Dawkins’s writings on life that has important parallels in the understanding of the mind is a focus on information. In The Blind Watchmaker Dawkins wrote: “If you want to understand life, don’t think about vibrant, throbbing gels and oozes, think about information technology.” Dawkins has tirelessly emphasised the centrality of information in biology — the storage of genetic information in DNA, the computations embodied in transcription and translation, and the cybernetic feedback loop that constitutes the central mechanism of natural selection itself, in which seemingly goal-oriented behavior results from the directed adjustment of some process by its recent consequences. The centrality of information was captured in the metaphor in Dawkins’s book title River Out of Eden, the river being a flow of information in the generation-to-generation copying of genetic material since the origin of complex life. It figured into his Blind Watchmaker simulations of the evolutionary process, an early example of the burgeoning field of artificial life. Dawkins’s emphasis on the ethereal commodity called “information” in an age of biology dominated by the concrete molecular mechanisms is another courageous stance. There is no contradiction, of course, between a system being understood in terms of its information content and it being understood in terms of its material substrate. But when it comes down to the deepest understanding of what life is, how it works, and what forms it is likely to take elsewhere in the universe, Dawkins implies that it is abstract conceptions of information, computation, and feedback, and not nucleic acids, sugars, lipids, and proteins, that will lie at the root of the explanation.

All this has clear parallels in the understanding of the mind. The “cognitive revolution” of the 1950s, which connected psychology with the nascent fields of information theory, computer science, generative linguistics and artificial intelligence, had as its central premise the idea that knowledge is a form of information, thinking a form of computation, and organised behaviour a product of feedback and other control processes. This gave birth to a new science of cognition that continues to dominate psychology today, embracing computer simulations of cognition as a fundamental theoretical tool, and the framing of hypotheses about computational architecture (serial versus parallel processing, analogue versus digital computation, graphical versus list-like representations, etc) as a fundamental source of experimental predictions.

Another shared theme in life and mind made prominent in Dawkins’s writings is the use of mentalistic concepts (ie, the explanation of behaviour in terms of beliefs and desires) in biology, most boldly in his title The Selfish Gene. The expression evoked a certain amount of abuse, most notoriously in the philosopher Mary Midgley’s pronouncement that “genes cannot be selfish or unselfish, any more than atoms can be jealous, elephants abstract or biscuits teleological” (a throwback to the era in which philosophers thought that their contribution to science was to educate scientists on elementary errors of logic encouraged by their sloppy use of language). Dawkins’s main point was that one can understand the logic of natural selection by imagining that the genes are agents executing strategies to make more copies of themselves. This is very different from imaging natural selection as a process that works toward the survival of the group or species or the harmony of the ecosystem or planet. Indeed, as Dawkins argued in The Extended Phenotype, the selfish-gene stance in many ways offers a more perspicuous and less distorting lens with which to view natural selection than the logically equivalent alternative in which natural selection is seen as maximising the inclusive fitness of individuals. Dawkins’s use of intentional, mentalistic expression was extended in later writings in which he alluded to animals ’ knowing or remembering the past environments of their lineage, as when a camouflaged animal could be said to display a knowledge of its ancestors’ environments on its skin.

The proper domain of mentalistic language, one might think, is the human mind, but its application there has not been without controversy either. During the reign of behaviourism in psychology in the middle decades of the 20th century, it was considered as erroneous to attribute beliefs, desires, and emotions to humans as it would be to genes, atoms, elephants or biscuits. Mentalistic concepts, being unobservable and subjective, were considered as unscientific as ghosts and fairies and were to be eschewed in favour of explaining behaviour directly in terms of an organism’s current stimulus situation and its past history of associations among stimuli and rewards. Since the cognitive revolution, this taboo has been lifted, and psychology profitably explains intelligent behaviour in terms of beliefs and desires. This allows it to tap into the world of folk psychology (which still has more predictive power when it comes to day-to-day behaviour than any body of scientific psychology) while still grounding it in the mechanistic explanation of computational theory.

In defending his use of mentalistic language in biological explanation, Dawkins has been meticulous in explaining that he does not impute conscious intent to genes, nor does he attribute to them the kind of foresight and flexible cleverness we are accustomed to in humans. His definitions of “selfishness”, “altruism”, “spite”, and other traits ordinarily used for humans is entirely behaviouristic, he notes, and no harm will come if one remembers that these terms are mnemonics for technical concepts rather than direct attributions of the human traits.

I sometimes wonder, though, whether caveats about the use of mentalistic vocabulary in biology are stronger than they need to be — whether there is an abstract sense in which we can literally say that genes are selfish, that they try to replicate, that they know about their past environments, and so on. Now of course we have no reason to believe that genes have conscious experience, but a dirty secret of modern science is that we have no way of explaining the fact that humans have conscious experience either (conscious experience in the sense of raw first-person subjective awareness — the distinction between conscious and unconscious processes, and the nature of self-consciousness, are entirely tractable scientific topics). No one has really explained why it feels like something to be a hunk of neural tissue processing information in certain complex patterns. So even in the case of humans, our use of mentalistic terms does not depend on a commitment on how to explain the subjective aspects of the relevant states, but only on their functional role within a chain of computations.

Taking this to its logical conclusion, it seems to me that if information-processing gives us a good explanation for the states of knowing and wanting that are embodied in the hunk of matter called a human brain, there is no principled reason to avoid attributing states of knowing and wanting to other hunks of matter. To be specific, nothing prevents us from seeking a generic characterisation of “knowing” (in terms of the storage of usable information) that would embrace both the way in which people know things (in their case, in the patterns of synaptic connectivity in brain tissue) and the ways in which the genes know things (presumably in the sequence of bases in their DNA). Similarly, we could frame an abstract characterisation of “trying” in terms of negative feedback loops, that is, a causal nexus consisting of repeated or continuous operations, a mechanism that is sensitive to the effects of those operations on some state of the environment, and an adjustment process that alters the operation on the next iteration in a direction, thereby increasing the chance that that aspect of the environment will be caused to be in a given state. In the case of the human mind, the actions would be muscle movements, the effects would be detected by the senses, and the adjustments would be made by neural circuitry programming the next iteration of the movement. In the case of the evolution of genes, the actions would be extended phenotypes, the effects would be sensed as differential mortality and fecundity, and the adjustment would be made in terms of the number of descendants resulting in the next generation.

This characterisation of beliefs and desires in terms of information rather than physical incarnation may overarch not only life and mind but other intelligent systems such as machines and societies. By the same token it would embrace the various forms of intelligence implicit in the bodies of animals and plants, which we would not want to attribute either to fully human cogitation nor to the monomaniacal agenda of replication characterising the genes. When the coloration of a viceroy butterfly fools the butterfly’s predators by mimicking that of a more noxious monarch butterfly, there is a kind of intelligence being manifest. But its immediate goal is to fool the predator rather than replicate the genes, and its proximate mechanism is the overall developmental plan of the organism rather than the transcription of a single gene.

In other words the attribution of mentalistic states such as knowing and trying can be hierarchical. The genes, in order to effect their goal of making copies of themselves, can help to build an organ whose goal is to fool a predator. The human mind is another intelligent mechanism built as part of the intelligent agenda of the genes, and it is the seat of a third (and the most familiar) level of intelligence: the internal simulation of possible behaviours and their anticipated consequences that makes our intelligence more flexible and powerful than the limited forms implicit in the genes or in the bodies of plants and animals. Inside the mind, too, we find a hierarchy of sub-goals (to make a cup of coffee, put coffee grounds in the coffeemaker; to get coffee grounds, grind the beans; to get the beans, find the package; if there is no package, go to the store; and so on).

Computer scientists often visualise hierarchies of goals as a stack, in which a program designed to achieve some goal often has to accomplish a sub-goal as a means to its end, whereupon it “pushes down” to an appropriate sub-routine, and then “pops” back up when the sub-routine has accomplished the sub-goal. The sub-routine, in turn, can call a sub-routine of its own to accomplish an even smaller and more specialised sub-goal. (The stack image comes from a memory structure that keeps track of which sub-routine called which other sub-routine, and works like a spring-loaded stack of cafeteria trays.) In this image, the best laid plans of mice and men are the bottom layers of the stack, and above them is the intelligence implicit in their bodies and genes, with the topmost goal being the replication of genes that makes up the core of natural selection.

It would take a good philosopher to forge bulletproof characterisations of “intelligence”, “goal”, “want”, “try”, “know”, “selfish”, “think”, and so on, that would embrace minds, robots, living bodies, genes and other intelligent systems. (It would take an even better one to figure out how to reintroduce subjective experience into this picture when it comes to human and animal minds.) But the promise that such a characterisation is possible — that we can sensibly apply mentalistic terms to biology without shudder quotes — is one of Dawkins’s legacies. If so, we would have a deep explanation of our own minds, in which parochial activities like our own thinking and wanting would be seen as manifestations of more general and abstract phenomena.

The idea that life and mind are in some ways manifestations of a common set of principles can enrich the understanding of both. But it also mandates not confusing the two manifestations — not forgetting what it is (a gene? an entire organism? the mind of a person?) that knows something or wants something, or acts selfishly. I suspect that the biggest impediment to accepting the insights of evolutionary biology in understanding the human mind is in people’s tendency to confuse the various entities to which a given mentalistic explanation may be applied. One example is the common tendency to assume that Dawkins’s portrayal of “selfish genes” implies that organisms in general, and people in particular, are ruthlessly egoistic and self-serving. In fact nothing in the selfish-gene view predicts that this should be so. Selfish genes are perfectly compatible with selfless organisms, since the genes’ goal of selfishly replicating themselves can be implemented via the sub-goal of building organisms that are wired to do unselfish things such as being nice to relatives, extending favors in certain circumstances, flaunting their generosity in other circum- stances, and so on. (Indeed much of The Selfish Gene consists of explanations of how the altruism of organisms is a consequence of the selfishness of genes.) Another example of this confusion is the claim that socio-biology is refuted by the many things people do that don’t help to spread their genes, such as adopting children or using contraception. In this case the confusion is between the motive of genes to replicate themselves (which does exist) and the motive of people to spread their genes (which doesn’t). Genes effect their goal of replication via the sub-goal of wiring people with goals of their own, but replication per se need not be among those sub-sub-goals: it’s sufficient for people to seek sex and to nurture their children. In the environment in which our ancestors were selected, people pursuing those goals automatically helped the relevant genes to pursue theirs (since sex tended to lead to babies), but when the environment changed (such as when we invented contraception) the causal chains that used to make sub-goals bring about superordinate goals were no longer in operation.

Edited extract from Richard Dawkins: How a Scientist Changed the Way We Think edited by Alan Grafen and Mark Ridley, published on March 16 by OUP, £12.99, offer £11.69 (in p&p)


4 thoughts on “Pinker on Dawkins

  1. Read books by Richard Dawkins + Steven Pinker + Paul Gribbin + VS Ramachandran + Ernst Mayer + a few others = Intelligent Person who knows the differnce between sense and nonsense. Dawkins certainly come first in expolding myths.

    Read Religious books (those sections which asserts about origins, earth and other things) + Pat Robertson + Other Evangelist + Mullah (if u r a Muslim) = Rigid closed eyed frog who thinks earth was created in 7 days.

    I read an ariticle in one of the Indian newspapers which was a reproduction of an article attacking Dawkins in Gaurdian. It was by some one called Madeline Bunting, who ever it was!

    I wrote back my comments to the editor newspaper which of course did not publish it. Maybe my English was too bad or the it was quite big.

    It seems Madeline Bunting had made a least synonymous reference for what that maybe called as shrill, loud etc. The writings and expositions of Richard Dawkins are certainly not in that category and its no less an irony that Madeline Bunting uses statements as such which otherwise should have been directed towards those who simply thrive by making a buck on people’s credulity.
    Imagine an Isaac Newton or a Galileo being castigated by Flat Earth society members (I am not sure if such a society exists, but going by the state of matters, there might be some) for trying to suggest that heavenly bodies such as our earth work based on certain decipherable laws and that which can be proved by mathematical equations, observations and experimentations. Naturally Newton’s assertions or rather the facts will sound shrill when compared to the ranting of the society member who might believe its all held by Tortoises all the way down or something like that depending on which denomination he or she belongs to.
    Such blabber is certainly not a fact whereas talking about Gravity by a professor of Physics and asserting that any other explanation shall not be accepted till it undergoes the rigors of experimentations is certainly not a shrill sweeping generalization made out of anecdotal evidence.
    Saying that one cannot see or feel an Angel flying opposite his or her house is not an unsubstantiated assertion. On the contrary its so if one says he or she has seen or felt it. That’s exactly what Dawkins had been saying so far and I guess this documentary should just be an extension of that.
    The point of Richard Dawkins had always been that if the basic premise of all the religions and beliefs are such, which it undoubtedly is and varying only in the degree of fantasy, the system built over it and that which engulfs whole populations down to the level of the most personal activities, would definitely turn out to be an inadvertently harming entity. History has shown this to be true.
    Yet, as Daniel Dennet says, I am not sure if the bad effects of religion out weigh the good effects! I am still unable to come to a conclusion.
    Hence I am unable to state forthwith that this alone can be root of all evil but it might be that its one of the plausible causes and hence a prime candidate.

  2. Well, my concern here is not so much with Dawkins’s stance on religion as with his major scientific contribution.

    But I will say a couple of things 1)I think the Bunting article deserves a closer look. Personally I think Newton would be pretty silly if he merely harrangued and villified those who didn’t accept his views of the universe.

    And it is quite possible that religion is not the root of all evil, but rather the excuse for many evils that would probably have occurred otherwise (because other drivers: territoriality, xenophobia, natural aggression, whatever) made them necessary.

    Secondly . . .well, I was going to recommend the Guardian’s comment option, but I see Bunting’s article doesn’t offer one. A pity.

  3. If you would have read Dawkin’s article after the Sep 11 attacks, it ends something like this!

    Religion might not be inherently harmful but is the best labeling devices to place us against them! …. ..especially the Abrahamic varieties which are like loaded guns left lying on the road…don’t be surprised if they are used…

    The last line was edited out of the Devils Chaplain. Maybe Dawkins would have thought later that when it comes to attack, take them all, Abrahamic or any other.

    The point my friend is that theology and religious talk is the most simplest as it requires minimum integrity in thought process! Just Faith. That’s it! I believe and so it’s the truth!

    Such moronical harangues are to heard to be believed. I have seen many such and it is difficult to understand why perfectly normal and good people become crusaders when coming to the aspects of faith.

    What option that it leaves for some one like Dawkins? Nonsense cannot just be countered with sense and that too if its called faith and has a critical mass supporting it. You have to be shrill and devastating in your points. It might not be the tone and tenor of Dawkins that one would find difficult to accept, but the facts that pull the rug out of your long held beliefs.

    There is a difference between a Stalin or a Lenin ridiculing religions and blowing up places of worship and a Dawkins or a Russell countering religions with sheer intellect, abundant, obvious and decipherable evidence! While the former is as bad as what it wants to defeat the latter is something that needs to be challenged only with evidence to the contrary.

    Unfortunately in the latter’s case, it simply doesn’t seem to exist.

    Some one asked Issac Asimov (an Atheist) as to what he would do if he indeed encountered God after his death. Asimov’s reply as per him would have been “ Sorry Lord, you did not leave enough evidence!”

    Till the Lord is kind enough to set the evidence up for both his presence and his ways which otherwise are called as religions by various peoples, Dawkins questions and assertions cannot be considered as empty rhetoric!

  4. Well, I’m about as interested in arguing about the existence of God as I am in arguing about the exitence of the tooth fairy.

    The point is that if the point of public speech is to persuade and not to merely register one’s righteousness, then there is reason to question the way Dawkins sets about making his arguments–some of which are so simplistic as to be fine counterparts to those advanced by creationists.

    He’s right. I just don’t think he’s doing any good.

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