Evolutionists Red in Tooth and Claw
by David L. Hull
ust-jackets are frequently adorned by quotations from famous
people praising the book. At first glance, Andrew Brown's
Wars is no exception. Pithy quotations from Steve Jones, Richard
Dawkins, John Maynard Smith, Stephen Jay Gould and Daniel Dennett. Who could
ask for more? However, on closer inspection these quotations turn out not to
be about Brown's book at all, but quotations that Brown uses in his book.
Only Dennett's blurb refers to one of Brown's own publications: "What a
sleazy bit of trash journalism."
The Darwin Wars chronicles the battles over the past 25
years among warring factions in evolutionary biology the Dawkinsians versus
the Gouldians, as Brown dichotomizes the conflict. In his narrative, Brown
interweaves interpersonal relationships with issues of substance. For example, E.
O. Wilson was especially hurt when colleagues whom he considered long-time friends
viciously attacked his book on sociobiology, generating years of nasty exchanges
in The New York Review of
Books, the form of fisticuffs preferred by American academics.
Brown also details the issues that separated the combatants.
For example, he discusses at length David Haig's work on the warfare between a
mother and her fetus, Elaine Morgan's aquatic ape theory, Napoleon Chagnon's
warring Yanomamö, Margo Wilson's explanation of why children are more often
murdered by their mother's new boyfriend than by their biological father, and
John Tooby and Leda Cosmides's arguments against the mind being a general-purpose
tool. He devotes an entire chapter to the adaptive advantages of religious beliefs.
In each case, Brown reiterates the familiar message that adaptationist claims are
extremely difficult to check. If we accept evolutionary theory, as everyone in
this book does, then some adaptationist claims must be true. The problem is
deciding which ones.
Brown is a freelance journalist, a precarious way of making
a living. As a journalist he must write well, at least well enough to keep his
readers turning the pages of his books. From my perspective, Brown's first
chapter contains his most successful prose. He relates a tragic story of the
intellectual and personal relationships between three highly original
evolutionary biologists, two well known and one obscure. In the late 1950s,
William Hamilton studied with John Maynard Smith at University College London.
Maynard Smith hardly noticed Hamilton. A decade later, both men independently
came to realize how original the ideas of an amateur biologist named George
Price were. Price had worked out a mathematical argument showing that altruistic
behaviour is possible but that it is not in the least bit noble. According to
Brown, this proof sent Price into a deep depression that was lifted only by a
religious revelation that was visited upon him just north of the BBC
Broadcasting House. Thereafter, Price tried to combine his work on the
evolutionary process with ministering to the down-and-outs in London's back
streets. It was not long before he had joined his charges as he descended into
near madness. In the winter of 1974 Price killed himself in a squat near Euston
Station, driven to suicide, as Brown sees it, by his work on the evolution of
altruism and selfishness.
respects, The Darwin Wars is a remake of the tired old nature-nurture
scenario. Back in the 1930s the environment was in the driver's seatno
matter how horrific the crime, the response among the literate public tended to
be reform and counselling. It was not his fault: his environment made him do it.
More recently, genes have caught the imaginations of journalists and popularizers.
It was not his fault: his genes made him do it. Today all sides agree that both
nature and nurture are important in making us what we are, but the Dawkinsians
emphasize the role of genes while the Gouldians emphasize culture. Hence, on the
surface, the issue in The Darwin Wars is the relative mix of genes and
But the deeper issue is not nature-nurture at all, but free
will. Can our environment and genes gang up on us so that we are forced to follow
their dictates? All sides answer that they can't, but exactly how such resistance
is possible is not easy to say. Brown reveals himself as a closet Gouldian when
he explains Price's madness in terms of his environment, not his genes. Although
Brown acknowledges that "one cannot say exactly what drove Price mad", he
attributes his mental disintegration and suicide to his failure to come to terms
with Hamilton's equations. The primary cause might just as well have been genes.
Brown makes a mistake or two. For example, he identifies
"being a woman" with "possessing a Y chromosome". In relating the early history
of Mormonism in the United States, he mentions how Joseph Smith founded Nauvoo
in Illinois on the banks of the Missouri river. Make that the Mississippi
riverI know, because I was born only a few miles from Nauvoo, and some of
my ancestors were part of the "lynch mob" that shot Smith.
One of the strengths of Brown's exposition is that he does
not pretend to be a disembodied intellect hovering above the fray. In similar
circumstances he is likely to behave in similar ways. One thing that does come
through is that the scientists Brown discusses really care about their science.
The combatants "write from conviction, not for hire". That is why their disputes
become so acerbic. If you attack mine, you attack me. Is Brown's book one more
"sleazy bit of trash journalism"? I don't think so, but my judgement might be
coloured by the fact that Brown treats my work very gently and relates no
painful stories about me and my professional friends.
[ David L. Hull, "Evolutionists Red in Tooth and Claw,"
Nature 398 (April 1999): 385. ]
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