Maybe genes really are selfish, says Stephen Pinker, in a short essay published recently in the Times. The piece is one of a collection which OUP will be publishing as a tribute to Richard Dawkins, though the idea that the selfishness of genes might be more than just a metaphor seems a slightly ambivalent choice of theme in this context. As Pinker points out, since coining the phrase 30 years ago (yes, it really is that long) Dawkins has spent a fair amount of time carefully and repeatedly explaining that no, he doesn’t suppose genes have tiny brains and personalities, it’s simply a metaphor, albeit a vivid and useful one. Dawkins has reacted good-humouredly in the past when some of his ideas were taken rather further than he might have wanted to go with them himself – notably in the case of Susan Blackmore’s bold extension of the idea of memes into a full-blown theory of consciousness. But Pinker’s suggestion surely puts him in a difficult position: he either has to disown the friendly tribute and seem ungrateful or risk looking inconsistent.
What is Pinker on about anyway? He praises Dawkins for seeing life and evolution as matters best understood though ideas about information and computation, and suggests a similar perspective has shaped modern views about cognition. Another common feature between Dawkinsian biology and recent cognitive science, he suggests, is the use of a ‘mentalistic’ vocabulary. That rather glosses over the point that cognitive scientists try to keep mentalistic terms out of the business end of their theories – if an explanation of mentalistic concepts uses mentalistic concepts itself, we obviously still have work to do.
It also picks on the very feature of Dawkins that I personally like least. OK, so the selfishness of genes is a metaphor. But a good one? If we are to think of ourselves as lumbering gene carriers, we have to assume that the passengers designed a craft which randomly minces some of them every time they change ship, and seeks a better class of passenger for the next generation rather than offering its own original genes continued safety. I wouldn’t build a vessel like that for myself. But worse, the metaphor hides from view the cardinal virtue of Darwin’s theory, namely that it does away with the need to invoke intentions and conscious design: that elegant economy of means is the prime reason why Darwin’s version of evolution is better than all the others. It’s as though Dawkins were to explain Newton to us in terms of angels wanting to push masses together: altogether better, if you can, to make the small effort required to describe things the way the theory says they actually are.
Pinker, however, argues that we can safely – in fact correctly – use mentalistic terms about genes and the camouflage patterns of animals (which embody ‘knowledge’ about the environments of the animals’ ancestors). After all, when we use such terms about human beings, they aren’t about phenomenal conscious experience, because nobody understands that anyway: they’re about the other, computational stuff, and all that is an ‘entirely tractable’ scientific topic.
That seems rather breezy. Of course there are those who think intentionality, meaningfulness, can – ultimately – be reduced to computation or information processing theory, but we haven’t yet reached the stage where that view is uncontroversial: and indeed, it isn’t clear to me in any case that all such theories abolish the distinction between the ‘design’ of a leopard and the design of a battleship. In my own view, the core mystery of intentionality is just about as intractable as the mystery of qualia.
In fairness, it is true that it is sometimes hard to talk about complex organisms without relapsing into ‘mentalistic’ or teleological terms: it’s hard to say that when a baby bird hatches, its wings don’t embody some kind of expectation of flying. But I would argue we need a new vocabulary for this kind of thing, along the lines of the ‘natural meaning’ of H.P.Grice (‘those spots mean measles’). Indeed, on another occasion I’ve suggested we could co-opt the word ‘point’, conflating two of its senses: the point of wings is flying, and wings point to flight. But while I sympathise with Pinker’s thesis to that extent, I think it would be confusing and unhelpful to apply ordinary ‘mentalistic’ terms where they don’t strictly belong in anything other than a metaphorical sense.
Of course, it is true that in ordinary usage we do attribute intentions and design to natural objects – but not necessarily in the way Pinker would want. He, I think, would expect us to talk about how the leopard’s spots derive from the knowledge it, or its genes, have: but it would be more normal to talk about how perfectly designed for its lifestyle the creature is, or how well Providence has equipped it for its role. I can see the proponents of Intelligent Design patting Pinker on the back: “That’s right Steve: of course we should talk about the aims of organisms and the thinking behind their design: we won’t say it’s G__, but we agree with you it’s more than a metaphor…”