The Philosopher as Biologist, Review of Rolston’s “Genes, Genesis, and God”

The Philosopher as Biologist, Review of Rolston’s “Genes, Genesis, and God”

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Review of: Genes, Genesis and God: Values and Their Origins in Nature and Human History, Holmes Rolston III, 1999 Cambridge University Press, 432 pages, $59.95 hardcover, $18.95 paperback

Holmes Rolston III is a philosopher, and Genes, Genesis and God derives from his set of Gifford Lectures, a distinguished series given at the University of Edinburgh on the subject of natural theology.  Rolston’s presentation of his own natural theology, wherein the Spirit of God, both immanent and transcendent, infuses our evolutionary and cultural history with purpose and creativity, is beautifully articulated at the conclusion of the volume and will be deeply meaningful to those who seek or hold this orientation.

But in order to get there, he needs to deconstruct two sets of arguments: the perspective that genetic processes are “blind, selfish, and contingent,” as articulated by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, Jacques Monod, and E.O. Wilson, and the claim that antecedents for human social behavior can be located in our evolutionary history, the program of sociobiology and its synonyms.  Not surprisingly, he applies the tools of philosophy to this project, quoting the perspectives offered by proponents of these ideas and then attempting to expose their logical inconsistencies, their “category mistakes,” their linguistic ambiguities.

I quickly lost track, for example, of how many times he pounds Dawkins for using the adjective “selfish” to modify the noun “gene” (although he is comfortable with “searching gene” and “sharing gene,” p. 49), and he even resorts to dismissive insults, as in [p. 79], “Dawkins finds himself unable to think any other way (except a bottom-up approach)…but for those able to entertain a more comprehensive view, the truer picture is a top-down approach.”  He supports his own perspectives with a collection of quotes from biologists whose points of view are “truer,” and builds a dense, tightly constructed 350-page treatise to support such theological positions as the notion [p. 368] that “chance is an effective mask for divine action…God could be slipping information into the world” or the posit [p. 364] of “God as a countercurrent to entropy, a sort of biogravity that lures life upward…(and) elevates the creatures along their paths of cybernetic and storied achievement.”

The first two chapters consider molecular genetics and evolution, and Rolston has clearly read a number of books on the subject, but it soon becomes apparent that he is not addressing, nor is he obviously interested in, the molecular data that led Monod, for example, to view life as an interplay of Chance and Necessity.  Instead, he focuses on the language/metaphors being used by scientist-writers to convey such concepts to the public, criticizing those he disagrees with and citing uncritically those that take him where he wants to go.  It’s something like writing a critique of 20th century philosophy using only secondary sources-evaluating the evaluators and not the original works.  It also smacks of blaming the messengers for the message.

But this raises a question.  To what extent are the Monods and the Goulds “responsible” for the explanations they craft?  If a philosopher reads and misinterprets the metaphor of the selfish gene-as I believe Rolston has done-is this because Dawkins was sloppy or reckless in articulating the metaphor, or is it because it is in the interest of Rolston’s treatise to misunderstand it?  Not wishing to attribute guile to Rolston nor incompetence to Dawkins, I offer a third possibility, which is that the reading of secondary sources can yield misinterpretations if one is unfamiliar with the original works.  Those of us in the genetic/evolutionary sciences who have read The Selfish Gene have had no inherent problem with the concept because, I would argue, we inhabit the molecular world at an experimental and hence experiential level-we live it and breathe it-and while we may think Dawkins went too far here or not far enough there, the metaphor works.

Going further, we understand what Dawkins is about because we do the same thing every day: we draw enzymes on the chalkboard as squiggly blobs and signify complex pathways with linear arrows and talk about certain genes being “dominant” or “maternal” or “drifting.”  The point of these metaphors is to help us think and understand.  It is not, as onlookers often seem to believe, to suggest that the cartoons and the anthropomorphic language represent realities, particularly realities that can be challenged with syllogisms.  (Nor, it should be added, is it the case that reductionism is the only operation we know how to perform.  Rather, it is the operation that constantly monitors whether our understandings work all the way down.) 

So what is to be done?  One solution, of course, would be to ask that philosophers of molecular genetics spend 5 years at the lab bench, after which time there might emerge more common semantic ground.  But until then, it is to be hoped that our articulate scientists continue to venture into the realm of popularization even if they run the risk of being misunderstood or disparaged.  The alternative-silence-would be a far deeper calamity.

If selfish-gene/contingent-evolution thinking is the whipping boy of the earlier chapters, the later chapters, on such human institutions as culture, science, ethics, and religion, have a second target, namely, the claim that genes influence such traits as human altruism-or, more generally, the sociobiological perspective.  Here the straw men are quotes, of which Rolston has clearly amassed a thick file, suggesting that genetic self-interest may figure in ethical decisions or religious sensibilities.  To be sure, some of the quotes sound pretty strong given our rudimentary understanding of human psychology.  But I worry about their being offered out of context-Wilson, for example, sounds a lot starker than I remember-and I worry as well about the equally strong claims that Rolston is making for there being little “genetic leashing” on our cultural activities.  Surely it will turn out that both perspectives have merit-some of our social behavior will prove to be genetically influenced and some culturally transmitted-and it seems quite unfortunate that social scientists these days seem to be so absorbed in taking polar positions on these matters rather than listening to one another.

One of the key things Rolston is trying to do throughout the book-he returns to it again and again-is to insist that living creatures and human culture have value, and he has some wonderful ways of saying this, such as “reproduction is the transmission of intrinsic value, instantiated in the organism as somatic value and transmitted as genetic value” [p. 285].  Given his style/training, he too often (for my taste) starts by quoting someone who is allegedly arguing that living creatures are without value, and then chips away at those arguments.  Nonetheless, one gets the sense that Rolston is a very kind man who genuinely treasures the Earth and its creatures, who is genuinely distressed by the negative implications he finds lurking in our genetic understandings, and who hopes that he can somehow stave these off by philosophical reasoning followed by the proposition that the presence of a Creator “is as plausible an interpretative framework as any and is an explanation adequate to the results” [p. 314].

One hopes that with these lectures behind him and his files emptied, he will, in his next book, offer up his deep understandings of the human condition and the poetry of his theological sensibilities without pages of exposition on determinism and kin selection.  “There is,” he poignantly writes, “a deep puzzlement about what we ought to do, and the grounds of its justification…The value questions in the twentieth century remain as sharp and as painful as ever in our history.”  [pp. 214-215].  Indeed.