From Skeptic vol. 3, no. 4, 1995, pp. 80-85.
The following article is copyright © 1995 by the Skeptics Society,
P.O. Box 338, Altadena, CA 91001, (626) 794-3119. Permission
has been granted for noncommercial electronic circulation of this
article in its entirety, including this notice.
DARWIN'S DANGEROUS DISCIPLE
An Interview With Richard Dawkins
By Frank Miele
Richard Dawkins, fellow of New College, Oxford, is one of the leading
thinkers in modern evolutionary biology. He is also one of the best writers on
the subject. His books The Selfish Gene (1976; expanded, 2nd edition,
1989), The Extended Phenotype (1982, 1989), The Blind
Watchmaker (1986), and now River Out of Eden in the Brockman
Science Masters Series (Basic Books, 1995), have introduced the terms "Blind
Watchmaker," "Selfish Genes," "Memes," "Green Beards," "Biomorphs," "Arms Races,
Sheriff Genes, and Outlaw Genes," and "Mind Viruses" to both professional and
popular audiences. The New York Times has described his books as "the
sort of popular science writing that makes the reader feel like a genius." While
in California this summer, Dawkins spoke before the Human Behavior and Evolution
Society on the "Evolution of Perceptual Models," and at the Skeptics Society on
the "Fallacies of Creationism." He also took time to speak with Skeptic
magazine on the triumphs, limitations, uses, and abuses of Darwinism. Never one
to shy away from controversy, here is what the man Wired magazine termed "the
Bad Boy of Evolution" had to say to Skeptic about Darwinism, extra-
terrestrial life, religion as a virus of the mind, morality, politics,
punctuated equilibrium, and the future of evolutionary biology.
In your latest book, River Out of Eden, which is a best seller in the
UK, you use deep-sea bacteria that metabolize sulfur (rather than oxygen) to
illustrate how evolution takes place in a series of successive steps. Does the
existence here on Earth of an alternative metabolic "fuel," in some sense make
it more probable that there could be life elsewhere in the universe, perhaps
using a different base than carbon?
That's surely got to be right, hasn't it? You can speculate in a science fiction
way about alternative biochemistries for life, but if you couldn't find anything
on Earth moving ever so slightly towards an alternative biochemistry, that would
argue against the idea. But when you do find an alternative biochemistry for
life here on Earth, that makes it more plausible that somewhere else in the
universe there's got to be an alternative form of life.
What then is the sine qua non of life? What raw materials and conditions are
necessary for life to exist?
Well, you need raw materials that can self-replicate. I would have to be more of
a chemist than I am to know how likely it is that you are going to get such
molecules. I should very much like to direct chemists toward devising an
alternative hypothetical chemistry that supports self-replication, a whole
alternative system that could, in principle, give rise to life. The fundamental
principle that will be required is self-replication. Chemists have begun to look
at auto-catalytic functions in chemistry where at least some of the
prerequisites are present. The sine qua non, as you say, is self-replication. I
don't know how difficult it would be to achieve that chemically.
How likely do you think it is that "intelligent" life exists somewhere else in
At first glance, one might think that the really difficult step is getting life
at all. Then once natural selection has gotten going (since the origin of life
is really the origin of natural selection), you can proceed by an orderly
progressive sequence through the evolution of some kind of information
processing apparatus on to intelligence. On the other hand, if you look at
what's actually happened on this planet, it probably took less than a billion
years from the origin of the planet, under fairly unfavorable initial
conditions, to produce life. But intelligence of a high order has only come
about in the last couple of million years, perhaps. So it does seem that on this
planet at least there has been a rather short interval from the origin of the
planet to the origin of life and then a very, very long interval between the
origin of life and the origin of intelligence.
Are you then saying that the origin of intelligence is the bigger step?
It's not my inclination to say that, but this disparity in time scale is the
only data we have. We only have one sample--life on this planet. But for that
fact, my personal inclination would have been to suggest that the origin of
intelligence is not that difficult once you've got life. I'm quite intrigued by
the thought that maybe it's the origin of life that's not that difficult.
If so, what are the defining qualities of such "intelligence?" I'm thinking here
of concepts such as Immanuel Kant's list of apriori ideas--time and space,
number, cause and effect. Could, for example, a form of life evolve in whose
mental map time's arrow went backwards, or in no specific direction?
As for what one means by intelligence, I haven't really thought about that. You
posed the hypothetical question, "Could there be a life form whose concept of
time goes backward?" I can't imagine what that would look like. But I haven't
thought about it enough.
Of other species we know about here on Earth, we're very familiar with cats and
dogs. I was always amazed (and delighted) how my dogs could coexist with me
given that their set of sensory inputs was so different from mine--they see in
black and white, not in 3D; they use scent and vision in approximately opposite
proportions. Yet they can come up with an equivalent map of the world so that
they can fetch the paper, protect us from intruders, comfort us in distress.
What does this tell us about the evolutionary process and how it molds not only
the bodies but the cognitive maps of different species?
That's an intriguing point. One thing you could say about dogs is that they have
been domesticated, and a good deal of the domestication has been an inadvertent
selection for coexisting with humans. While their wild ancestors, the wolves, do
have facial expressions and other gestures which they use to communicate with
each other, it's probable that domestic dogs have been selected to have more
human feelings and facial expressions. So while dogs don't smile, they do other
things with their eyes that appeal to humans. Maybe they have been shaped to be
a bit less wolf-like and a bit more human-like, not by deliberate artificial
selection, but by artificial selection nonetheless.
In the 1930s, von Uexküll used the term Umwelt to describe the different
"real worlds" that animals construct based upon their differing sensory systems.
He even built mechanical devices to try and create their perceptual
Weltanschauungen. He manufactured optical devices to simulate the compound eyes
of insects to allow one to see "what they saw." With virtual reality now a
reality, we could certainly do such things at a more sophisticated level than
von Uexküll did. Do you think this might be a potentially valuable line of
Von Uexküll used the concept of the Umwelt to explore the differences
between the perceptual worlds of different animals. He tried to find a way to
"think himself into" the Umwelt (the perceptual world) of a bee or a bat, for
example, by seeing the polarization of light or by seeing into the ultraviolet
range of the spectrum and thus probably not seeing images as we see images at
all. I think it' s a very important thing to do that, partly as a metaphor for
"getting outside yourself" and seeing another point of view. We have an
immensely human-centered view of things such as ethics and morality. Even if we
pay lip service to being evolutionists, many people still think according to the
Judeo-Christian view that all things have been put on Earth for the benefit of
humanity and that the only justification for scientific research is if it
benefits humanity. I think it's a salutary lesson to try to "think yourself
into" the Umwelt of another species. But as I said in my talk last night before
the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, I suspect that the perceptual world of
other species possibly may not be as different from our own as you might think,
even though they get their information through different physical media.
So then doesn't natural selection force us to assume that time's arrow flies in
a certain direction? Doesn't natural selection force us to operate on the basis
of Kant's a priori ideas and Piaget's operations?
Yes, I agree with that.
In your speech the other night you said that the perceptual systems of animals
represent the world as their near, or possibly even far, ancestors constructed
them based upon natural selection. Can the world evolve faster than the sensory
systems of the animals? Are many animals living today in a sensory world that no
longer exists, as when the moth flies into the candle flame?
When a moth flies into a candle flame presumably it is responding to the candle
flame as if were a celestial object at optical infinity and acting appropriately
to that situation, not the one it is in fact currently facing. It frequently
happens that the real world evolves faster than an animal's cognitive map of it.
Does that ever happen to human beings?
Human beings are completely surrounded by the equivalent of "candle flames."
Notorious examples are our desire for sugar and fat--in nature the rule is,
whenever you can get them, eat them. But when there's a surplus of those
substance, they become bad for you. Most of what we strive for in our modern
life uses the apparatus of goal seeking that was originally set up to seek goals
in the state of nature. But now the goal-seeking apparatus has been switched to
different goals, like making money or hedonistic pleasures of one sort or
another. Natural selection equips us with "Rules of Thumb," which in a state of
nature have the effect of promoting the survival of our selfish genes. The Rules
of Thumb go on, even though in this world of "candle flames" they no longer
promote our inclusive fitness.
Would you consider increasing population and war to be examples of candle
Increasing population itself is not an individual behavior pattern. It's a
consequence of many things which are manifestations of individual behavior in a
collective environment. To take a much simpler case, the dominance hierarchy is
a manifestation of attacking and subservience between pairs of individuals, but
the dominance hierarchy itself is not something that natural selection favors or
disfavors. What natural selection favors or disfavors is the individual behavior
of which the dominance hierarchy is a manifestation. I would put war and
overpopulation in that category.
In River Out of Eden, you also say that, "Science shares with religion
the claim that it answers deep questions about origins, the nature of life, and
the cosmos. But there the resemblance ends. Scientific beliefs are supported by
evidence, and they get results. Myths and faiths are not and do not" (p. 33).
But doesn't one first have to make the choice or decision to use pragmatism as
the standard by which we judge? That is, we must first agree to base our
decisions on what works, rather than on revelation or intuition. Isn't the most
we can ask of the religious crowd, "Either lay hands on flat tires and pray for
the sick, rather than taking them to a mechanic or a doctor, or if you are not
willing to be consistent, just shut up and go away?" Doesn't the religious view
amount to, "When we're afraid, we seek God. When God doesn't answer our prayers,
blame it on the Devil?"
Yes, it's a kind of pathetic, childish response to some failure.
Then could you say that the reason that evolutionism is resisted so strongly is
that our minds evolved to think in terms of personalities and entities rather
than in terms of processes?
Yes, it's the idea that somebody has got to be responsible. It's what children
do--the petulant throwing the tennis racquet on the ground, blaming it for their
bad shot. So is the reflex to sue somebody when you slip on the ice and sprain
your ankle. Again, somebody has got to be blamed. It doesn't occur to many
people that nobody's to blame, there's just ice and it's slippery and you fell
Along that line, you have the following passage in River Out of Eden:
In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are
going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any
rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely
the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose,
no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference (p.133).
This sounds rather like physicist Steven Weinberg's, "the more the universe
seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless" (The First Three
Minutes), or William Shakespeare's "a tale told by an idiot, filled with
sound and fury, signifying nothing." Is that in fact your position?
Yes, at a sort of cosmic level, it is. But what I want to guard against is
people therefore getting nihilistic in their personal lives. I don't see any
reason for that at all. You can have a very happy and fulfilled personal life
even if you think that the universe at large is a tale told by an idiot. You can
still set up goals and have a very worthwhile life and not be nihilistic about
it at a personal level.
Well, if we don't accept religion as a reasonable guide to "what is" or even a
reasonable guide to "what ought to be," does evolution give us such a guide? Can
we turn to evolution to answer not what is, but what ought to be?
I'd rather not do that. I think Julian Huxley was the last person who attempted
to. In my opinion, a society run along "evolutionary" lines would not be a very
nice society in which to live. But further, there's no logical reason why we
should try to derive our normative standards from evolution. It's perfectly
consistent to say this is the way it is--natural selection is out there and it
is a very unpleasant process. Nature is red in tooth and claw. But I don't want
to live in that kind of a world. I want to change the world in which I live in
such a way that natural selection no longer applies.
But given the clay from which we are made, doesn't natural selection make it
relatively unlikely that some things will work? Doesn't Darwinism undercut the
great socialist hope, "Why, because we will it so!"?
Some goals may be unrealistic. But that doesn't mean that we should turn around
the other way and say therefore we should strive to make a Darwinian millennium
But then isn't what we ought to do (as David Hume argued long ago) just a matter
of preference and choice, custom and habit?
I think that's very likely true. But I don't think that having conceded that
point, I as an individual should then be asked to abandon my own ethical system
or goals. I as an individual can adopt idealistic or socialistic or unrealistic
or whatever sort of norms of charity and good will towards other people. They
may be doomed if you take a strong Darwinian line on human nature, but it's not
obvious to me that they are.
I think that you are saying that many of the lessons of evolutionary biology
about morality or ethics are contrary to what we might normally call morality or
ethics in ordinary discourse. When we look back at the Old Testament and the New
Testament, it seems there's a lot about how to maximize one's inclusive fitness.
If that's the case, do such religious views have anything to tell us?
If it is true that some of the morality of the Old Testament, say, maximizes
somebody's inclusive fitness, I don't think that has anything to tell us about
what we ought to do.
Then wouldn't we be better to throw out all this half-baked religious mumbo
jumbo and move on to something else?
Well yes, but that's obvious!
Do you think that group fitness is a meaningful concept in evolutionary biology?
If so, does it play a role in discussions of evolution and morality?
I think it's logically meaningful, but I don't think it plays a role in
evolution in the wild and therefore it doesn't play a role in anything else. I
think it's of no importance.
Can we use Darwinism and natural selection to analyze other events in history?
To put it in its crudest form, if Hitler had won WWII would that have proved
that his system was better (in a Darwinian sense) than that of the Allies? Or
does the fact that the Soviet Bloc crumbled tell us anything about the relative
fitness of market-based economies versus command economies. If might (or at
least survival and reproduction) doesn't make right (as well as everything
else), what does?
I think it is not helpful to apply Darwinian language too widely. Conquest of
nation by nation is too distant for Darwinian explanations to be helpful.
Darwinism is the differential survival of self-replicating genes in a gene pool,
usually as manifested by individual behavior, morphology, and phenotypes. Group
selection of any kind is not Darwinism as Darwin understood it nor as I
understand it. There is a very vague analogy between group selection and
conquest of a nation by another nation, but I don't think it's a very helpful
analogy. So I would prefer not to invoke Darwinian language for that kind of
The publication of the controversial book, The Bell Curve, has set off
yet another round in the seemingly never-ending nature-nurture (or heredity-
environment) controversy. Is this in fact a false dichotomy? You had this
passage in The Selfish Gene (1989, p. 37):
No one factor, genetic, or environmental, can be considered as the single
'cause' of any part of a baby. All parts of a baby have a near infinite number
of antecedent causes. But a difference [original emphasis] between one baby and
another, for example a difference in length of leg, might easily be traced to
one or a few simple antecedent differences, either in environment or in genes.
It is differences that matter in the competitive struggle to survive; and it is
genetically-controlled differences that matter in evolution.
Doesn't a passage like this indicate why E.O. Wilson's Sociobiology,
The Bell Curve, and your own writings automatically set off a vehement,
moralistic, and often hysterical reaction from a cadre of left-wing scientists?
On the face of it, I don't know why you lump those three books together. When I
was talking about genetic differences as being analyzable, that's the position
of any geneticist. All I was saying was that when you look at something like eye
color in Drosophila (or indeed in humans), although there are hundreds
of genes and environmental factors that enter into making an eye, nevertheless
if there's a one gene difference at a particular locus between two individuals,
that can be the determining factor as to why that particular individual has a
pink eye rather than a black eye. That is just straight genetics. You can't get
away from that. The reason why left-wing ideologues attack books like The
Bell Curve has nothing to do with that. Those critics are concerned with
issues like race and I never mention race. I don't mind mentioning race, but it
has nothing to do with what I was talking about.
But those same left-wing critics also attack your books.
But they don't read them!
Well, you document examples of such attacks in the end notes to the 1989 edition
of The Selfish Gene. Isn't it just as ideological for Marxism to be
brought in as an argument against genetic differences as it is to bring in
Biblical fundamentalism as an argument against Darwinian evolution? Aren't we
dealing with religion, rather than science here?
I suspect that we may be. The reason I think so is that the criticisms in some
cases just seem to be silly. They seem to be a hysterical reaction to a
misunderstanding. It's as though some people think that any mention of genes in
the context of human behavior is somehow tainted with the tar of Social
Darwinism and all the horrors that social scientists see in the history of their
subject. So instead of just calmly and peacefully sitting down and thinking
about what actually is the truth--"Are there genes that influence behavior?,"
the immediate response is to flame up old fires of what once upon a time were
important political issues. That kind of thing bores me rigid! I care about
what's actually true.
In a Darwinian sense, isn't it somewhat meaningless to argue about any supposed
displacement of "superior" beings by "inferior" beings, or that evolution "is
going backwards." Don't such arguments turn Darwinism on its head ?
Because whatever evolves is, by definition, superior? There's nothing
nonsensical about saying that what would evolve if Darwinian selection has its
head is something that you don't want to happen. And I could easily imagine
trying to go against Darwinism. I don't see why that's inconsistent. I can
easily imagine saying that in a Darwinian world, the fittest, by definition, are
the ones that survive and the attributes that you need to survive in Darwinian
sense are the attributes that I don't want to see in the world. I can easily see
myself fighting against the success of Darwinism prevailing in the world.
Shortly after publication of The Selfish Gene, you wrote a letter to
the editor of Nature [the leading British science magazine, similar to
Science here in the US], in which you stated that kin selection theory in no way
provides a basis for understanding ethnocentrism. You said you made this
statement, in part at least, to counter charges that were being made in the UK
at that time by Marxist critics that Selfish Gene Theory was being used by the
British National Front to support their Fascist ideology. In retrospect, do you
think you went too far in trying to distance yourself from some would-be and
very unwanted enthusiasts, or not far enough?
As to distancing myself from the National Front, that I did! The National Front
was saying something like this, "kin selection provides the basis for favoring
your own race as distinct from other races, as a kind of generalization of
favoring your own close family as opposed to other individuals." Kin selection
doesn't do that! Kin selection favors nepotism towards your own immediate close
family. It does not favor a generalization of nepotism towards millions of other
people who happen to be the same color as you. Even if it did, and this is a
stronger point, I would oppose any suggestion from any group such as the
National Front, that whatever occurs in natural selection is therefore morally
good or desirable. We come back to this point over and over again. I'm
definitely not one who thinks that "is" is the same as "ought."
How do you evaluate the work of Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, J.P. Rushton, and
Pierre van den Berghe, all of whom have argued that kin selection theory does
help explain nationalism and patriotism?
One could invoke a kind "misfiring" of kin selection if you wanted to in such
cases. Misfirings are common enough in evolution. For example, when a cuckoo
host feeds a baby cuckoo, that is a misfiring of behavior which is naturally
selected to be towards the host's own young. There are plenty of opportunities
for misfirings. I could imagine that racist feeling could be a misfiring, not of
kin selection but of reproductive isolation mechanisms. At some point in our
history there may have been two species of humans who were capable of mating
together but who might have produced sterile hybrids (such as mules). If that
were true, then there could have been selection in favor of a "horror" of mating
with the other species. Now that could misfire in the same sort of way that the
cuckoo host's parental impulse misfires. The rule of thumb for that hypothetical
avoiding of miscegenation could be "Avoid mating with anybody of a different
color (or appearance) from you."
I'm happy for people to make speculations along those lines as long as they
don't again jump that is-ought divide and start saying, "therefore racism is a
good thing." I don't think racism is a good thing. I think it's a very bad
thing. That is my moral position. I don't see any justification in evolution
either for or against racism. The study of evolution is not in the business of
providing justifications for anything.
In The Extended Phenotype you talk about the Green Beard Effect, and
last night Napoleon Chagnon, the President of the Human Behavior and Evolution
Society, actually dyed his beard green before introducing you. What is the Green
Beard Effect and why do you mention it only to then dismiss it as being too
improbable to be a factor in evolution?
I use The Green Beard Effect as a way of explaining kin selection. If you
imagine a gene that has two pleiotropic effects that apparently have nothing to
do with each other (and in practice that's common enough), if one of its effects
is to give somebody a label, such as the Green Beard, and the other is to give
somebody a propensity to act altruistically towards individuals so labeled (that
is, Green-Bearded individuals), then theoretically that gene will spread. The
Green Beard Effect is a way in which a would-be selectively altruistic gene can
recognize copies of itself in other individuals. That means that the gene can
propagate itself by looking after copies of itself when it has the opportunity
to do so. That's relatively easy to understand. But as far as I know, in
practice Green Beards don't exist. But kinship is a kind of statistical Green
Beard. Although your brother is not guaranteed to contain the gene that's making
you practice "fraternal" behavior towards him, the odds that he has that gene
are statistically higher than the odds that a random member of the population
has it. Kinship is therefore a statistically watered down version of the Green
Beard Effect that actually works.
Could there be selection for a mechanism that would operate like this--"those
who look like me, talk like me, act like me, are probably genetically close to
me. Therefore, be nice, good, and altruistic to them. If not avoid them?" And
could that mechanism later be programmed to say "be good to someone who wears
the same baseball cap, the same Rugby colors, or whatever?" That is, could
evolution have a produced a hardware mechanism that is software programmable?
I think that's possible.
In his book, Complexity, Roger Lewin includes interviews with a number
of evolutionary biologists. One of the topics they examine is progress. Is there
a general tendency towards progress in terms of say, increasing neural
complexity, increasing brain size, or increasing behavioral plasticity over the
course of evolution? Or is this, as Stephen Jay Gould has termed it, a rather
noxious concept that we should read out of evolutionary thinking?
I think that there has been an almost hysterical over-reaction against the
concept of progress. I've been as against some mistaken interpretations of the
concept of progress as anybody. I very, very strongly object to the idea that
living creatures can be arranged on a ladder, a kind of phylogenetic scale, with
humans at the top. Not only should we not treat humans as being on the top, we
should not see the animal kingdom as being layered as we often do. All zoology
textbooks present their chapters in the same order--you start with protozoa,
then you move through the coelenterates, then the flatworms, then the round
worms and so on. Certainly that interpretation of progress is just a logical
error. Evolution is a branching tree and that's all there is to it.
However, it is another matter to say that there is no progressive evolution
within one lineage as you go from the distant past, through the more recent
descendants, up to the present. There very well could be such progress. To the
extent that adaptation is to the a-biotic environment (such as the weather), you
would expect no progress. Evolutionary change would simply track the weather. If
it gets cold, you get a thick coat. If it gets hot, you shed your thick coat,
and so on. To the extent that adaptations are to the biotic environment (that
is, other organisms, rather than natural conditions), then it seems to me quite
plausible that there is in fact a progressive arms race as I term it. The better
a predator gets at running down prey, the more it pays the prey to shift
resources into anti-predator adaptations and out of other aspects of life. There
are always trade-offs in the economy of life. If the predators are getting
really good at their job, it makes sense for the prey to shift resources (which
admittedly could have been put into making more offspring), into making better
legs for running or better sense organs for detecting the predators. The
predators then shift their resources accordingly.
Given the extraordinary elegance and beauty and complexity of the
adaptations that we see all around us in living creatures, I think it's
ludicrous to deny that those are the result of progressive evolution. There has
In your most recent book, River Out of Eden, you try to clear up some
misunderstandings about the First Mother and the First Father. Would you like to
I refer to things like the belief that Mitochondrial Eve was, like the mythical
Biblical Eve, the only woman on Earth. Nonsense, she could have been the member
of a huge population. She's simply the common ancestor of all living humans.
Another error is to think that Mitochondrial Eve is our most recent common
ancestor. She most certainly is not our most recent common ancestor. That
distinction much more likely goes to a male. The reason for that is pure logic
and it's spelled out in River Out of Eden.
A few years ago, you and Stephen Jay Gould got in to a bit of an intellectual
row about the question of punctuated equilibrium. By the time you wrote The
Blind Watchmaker you seemed to say that more was made of the controversy by
journalists than was warranted. What is your current position on this
I think that punctuated equilibrium is a minor wrinkle on Darwinism, of no great
theoretical significance. It has been vastly oversold.
That's a matter of individual psychology and motivation and not my province.
You also took a bit of flak for likening religion (I think specifically
Catholicism) to a virus? Is that still your position?
Yes. I come to it through the analogy to computer viruses. We have two kinds of
viruses that have a lot in common--namely real biological viruses and computer
viruses. In both cases they are parasitic self-replicating codes which exploit
the existence of machinery that was set up to copy and obey that kind of code.
So I then ask the question, "What if there were a third kind of milieu in which
a different kind of self-replicating code could become an effective parasite?"
Human brains with their powerful communication systems seem to be a likely
candidate. Then I ask, "What would it feel like if you were the victim of a mind
virus?" Well, you would feel within yourself this deep conviction that seems to
come from nowhere. It doesn't result from any evidence, but you have a total
conviction that you know what's true about the world and the cosmos and life.
You just know it and you're even prepared to kill people who disagree with you.
You go around proselytizing and persuading other people to accept your view. The
more you write down the features that such a mind virus would have, the more it
starts to look like religion. I do think that the Roman Catholic religion is a
disease of the mind which has a particular epidemiology similar to that of a
But couldn't the Pope (or Evangelical Protestants for that matter), reply,
"Look, we just have a terrific meme. It's winning what you would describe as a
Darwinian battle and you're angry because you just don't like it."
Religion is a terrific meme. That's right. But that doesn't make it true and I
care about what's true. Smallpox virus is a terrific virus. It does its job
magnificently well. That doesn't mean that it's a good thing. It doesn't mean
that I don't want to see it stamped out.
So once again the discussion goes back to how do you determine whether something
is good or not, other than by just your personal choice?
I don't even try. You keep wanting to base morality on Darwinism. I don't.
Given the number of popular and scientific controversies in which you have been
involved, is there anything on which you have changed your mind, on which you'd
like to correct the record, or which you see differently now than you did when
you first became a household name?
Well, my second book, The Extended Phenotype, published in 1982 and
summarized at the end of the second edition of The Selfish Gene, does
downplay the role of the individual organism as the only vehicle of the genetic
replicators. Previously, I rather blurred the distinction between vehicle and
replicator. In The Extended Phenotype, I emphasize the distinction. I
think I was right to say that fundamentally what is going on in natural
selection is the differential survival of replicators. Replicators survive by
virtue of their phenotypic effects upon the world. As it happens, it is a
contingent fact that most of those phenotypic effects tend to be bound up in the
vehicle (the particular individual body) in which the replicator (the gene) is
housed. But that doesn't have to be so. I use the didactic device of looking at
animal artifacts like beaver dams, the effects of parasites on hosts, animal
communications, and indeed all of the interactions in ecosystems as
illustrations of the ways in which genes might in principle and sometimes in
fact do insure their survival by exerting phenotypic effects outside of the body
in which they reside. That's a kind of change of mind.
My original purpose in introducing the concept of memes really was not to
produce a theory of culture, but rather to say that Darwinism doesn't have to be
tied to genes. It can work wherever you have a self-replicating code. We should
actively be looking around for other examples of self-replicating codes which
are "doing the Darwinian thing." The important thing is not to get too hung up
on genes when you're doing your evolutionary biology.
What are the areas in biology into which Darwinism should be extended?
Sex is one that is being actively worked on. That is, the question of why it
Then there's the embryological gap. In our Darwinism we postulate that there are
genes for this and genes for that. We just leave the embryological causal link
between genes and phenotype as a black box. We know that genes do, in fact,
cause changes in phenotypes and that's all we really need in order for Darwinism
to work. But it would be nice to fill in the details of exactly what goes on
inside the black box.
To me, human consciousness is a deep, philosophically mysterious
manifestation of brain activity and is in some sense a product of Darwinian
evolution. But we don't yet really have any idea how it evolved and where it
fits into a Darwinian view of biology. I don't know whether it will yield to a
sudden flash of enlightenment, whether it will become one of those rather messy
problems that never really get a proper solution, or whether it will eventually
turn out that there never was a problem at all and that we were actually making
up problems where there really weren't any. From where I sit, it seems to be a
deeply difficult problem that has always been a philosophical problem but which
I think is ripe for a take-over by evolutionary biology once we think how to do
Thank you very much.
- ALLELE(S)--the alternative forms of a gene that can exist at a particular
locus. Thus, A, B, and O are the alleles of the ABO blood group system; positive
and negative are the alleles of the Rh system.
- GREEN BEARD EFFECT--a term coined by Dawkins for the situation in which a
gene has two effects (pleiotropy), one of which produces a recognizable
phenotypic trait (the hypothetical Green Beard) and the other produces the
tendency to manifest altruistic behavior toward others who also manifest that
- GROUP SELECTION (THEORY)--the theory that natural selection also operates at
the level of the group and not just the individual organism.
- INCLUSIVE FITNESS--the total reproductive success of an individual,
including the proportionate success of his relatives based on the percentage of
genes they share in common (100% for identical twins, 50% [on average] for
siblings, parents, or offspring, 12.5% for first cousins, and so on).
- KIN SELECTION (THEORY)--the selection of genes so as to cause individuals to
favor their close genetic relatives as they are statistically likely to share
genes in common. Often invoked to provide a neo-Darwinian explanation of
behaviors such as altruism.
- MEME(S)--a term coined by Dawkins for units of cultural inheritance,
analogous to genes (the units of genetic transmission), which are acted upon by
- MITOCHONDRIA--the cell organelles that are the site of energy-releasing
biochemical reactions. Mitochondria have their own DNA, which is passed through
the female line only and thus is often used in tracing genetic lineages.
MITOCHONDRIAL EVE, believed by some to be the common ancestor of all humans, was
determined by analysis of mitochondrial DNA.
- PHENOTYPE--the observed trait, morphological or behavioral, manifested by an
organism. It is the product of the organism's genotype and the environment in
which the organism has developed.
- PLEIOTROPY (-IC, -ISM)--the condition in which one gene produces two (or
more) different phenotypic traits.
- PUNCTUATED EQUILIBRIUM (THEORY OF)--the theory proposed by Stephen Jay Gould
and Niles Eldridge that evolution can consist of long periods of stasis (no
change), punctuated by short periods of rapid change (speciation events), rather
than a steady series of small, incremental steps.