Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Selfish Metaphor: Conceits of Evolution

January 31, 2011

Many people dismiss metaphors and imagery as surface polish. But just look at the way they have hijacked our thinking on evolution.

SELFISH genes, survival of the fittest, competition, hawk and dove strategies. Like all theories, Darwinism has its own distinct vocabulary. So distinct, in fact, that we end up asking how else we can talk about evolution? After all, isn't competitive evolution the only possible context for explaining the biological facts? The drama implied by competition, war and selfishness passes unnoticed because people are used to this rather hyped-up way of talking even about current scientific beliefs.

The trouble with metaphors is that they don't just mirror scientific beliefs, they also shape them. Our imagery is never just surface paint, it expresses, advertises and strengthens our preferred interpretations. It also usually carries unconscious bias from the age we live in - and this can be tricky to ditch no matter how faulty, unless we ask ourselves how and why things go wrong, and start to talk publicly about how we should understand metaphor.

Evolution has been the most glaring example of the thoughtless use of metaphor over the past 30 years, with the selfish/war metaphors dominating and defining the landscape so completely it becomes hard to admit there are other ways of conceiving it. In How The Leopard Changed Its Spots, biologist and complexity theorist Brian Goodwin suggested the kind of correction needed, remarking mildly that humans are "every bit as co-operative as we are competitive; as altruistic as we are selfish... These are not romantic yearnings and Utopian ideals, they arise from a rethinking of our nature that is emerging from the sciences of complexity". But that was in 1991 - and few were listening.

From the merest glance at a wider context, it becomes clear that competition cannot be the ultimate human reality, still less (as philosopher Daniel Dennett argued) the central creative force behind the universe. Entities complex enough to compete cannot exist at all without much internal cooperation. To create cells, organelles must combine; to create armies, soldiers must organise. Even the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins pointed out on the 30th anniversary of publication of his iconic book, The Selfish Gene, that genes are actually cooperative rather than egoistic.

So why has this imagery become so prevalent? Because it expresses deep conflicts originating in 17th-century England which are still unresolved in the western world. The central clash is between communal and separatist views of human nature. It rose out of the English civil war, which shifted the world picture from a feudal, communal pattern towards the more individualistic, pluralistic model we officially follow today. Ideals of personal allegiance, heroic warfare and the divine right of kings began to yield to civilian visions based on democracy, technology and commerce.

That individualistic, post civil-war world view has always been seen as scientific. This was largely because Newtonian physics viewed matter atomistically, as composed of hard, billiard-ball-like particles bouncing off each other in complex patterns - patterns which, under God, shaped that huge clock, the classical universe. Billiards, fashionable at the time, may have helped shape this view, while the vision of a vast, regular, unchanging cosmic machine was certainly reassuring.

The reality, however, was that society was changing unpredictably and would need other, very different kinds of metaphors and images, ones better able to reveal shifts and clashes of interest. To fill this need, philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau devised a kind of social atomism, along with the colourful individualistic metaphors it inspired and still inspires. Through this lens, people no longer appeared as parts of a machine: they were still atoms, but distinct, active, independent units.

But the philosopher Thomas Hobbes's claim that the natural state of humans was "a war of all against all" (put forward in a bid to stop people supporting misguided governments) accidentally launched a wider revolt against the notion of citizenship. The slogan made it possible to argue later that there is no such thing as society, that we owe one another nothing. This thought also inspired campaigns for admirable things like easier divorce and universal suffrage and it is still strong today, even though physicists themselves no longer see their particles as radically disconnected.

In the 18th century, economists eagerly applied individualism to commerce, arguing that free competition always serves the general good. Its champions could thus believe they were being scientific while still acting as good citizens. And its emphasis on conflict reassured them they were still heroes, that bourgeois life had not corrupted their machismo. So atomistic thinking, originally drawn from physics, acquired a social meaning in economics and was then returned to science as ideas of competition began to dominate 19th-century biology. The resulting jumble of atomistic ontology, laissez-faire economics and warlike noises came together fully in the theories of 19th-century "social Darwinists" like Herbert Spencer.

Charles Darwin actually hated much of it, flatly rejecting the crude, direct application of natural selection to social policies. In The Descent Of Man he insisted that humans are a deeply social species whose values cannot be derived from selfish calculation. Yet, as a man of his age, he still shared Spencer's obsessive belief in the creative force of competition. He ruled that natural selection was indeed the main cause of evolutionary changes, And - apart from sexual selection - he could not suggest any other possible source.

He was sure, however, that natural selection could not be their sole cause. He must be right: natural selection is only a filter and filters cannot be the sole cause of the coffee that comes from them. "Evolutionary coffee" - genuine new developments - could not emerge unless the range of selectables has somehow been shaped to make it possible. If that range were indefinite only randomness could follow, however much time elapsed.

Biologist D'Arcy Thompson pointed this out in On Growth And Form in 1917, noting the striking natural tendencies which contribute to evolution - the subtle, natural patterns such as Fibonacci spirals that shape all manner of organic forms, and the logic underlying patterns such as the arrangement of a creature's limbs. Thompson's work was little noted in the 20th-century's concentration on natural selection, but more recently biologists such as Brian Goodwin, Steven Rose and Simon Conway Morris have developed his work, showing how natural selection is supplemented by a kind of self-organisation within each species, which has its own logic.

Now the old metaphors of evolution need to give way to new ones founded on integrative thinking - reasoning based on systems thinking. This way, the work of evolution can be seen as intelligible and constructive, not as a gamble driven randomly by the forces of competition. And if non-competitive imagery is needed, systems biologist Denis Noble has a good go at it in The Music Of Life, where he points out how natural development, not being a car, needs no single "driver" to direct it. Symphonies, he remarks, are not caused only by a single dominant instrument nor, indeed, solely by their composer. And developing organisms do not even need a composer: they grow, as wholes, out of vast and ancient systems which are themselves parts of nature.

Recognising the cultural origins of evolution's metaphors and that we are slowly, painfully, creating new ones takes the drama out of things, but it does mean we will learn how to think about metaphors and their philosophical underpinning. We will discover we need them to serve us as thinking tools, not to turn us into slaves of our own conceits.

Mary Midgley describes herself as a freelance philosopher, specialising in moral philosophy. She studied at the University of Cambridge during the second world war alongside Mary Warnock and the writer Iris Murdoch. This essay was developed from her latest book "The Solitary Self" (Acumen).
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