Friday, January 16, 2004
Some Thought On Genes Vs Culture
Peter C has been writing about sociobiology. Moderate centralist that I am, I have to say that I hate sociobiology - if only because it's roots are in evolutionary biology, which often seems to be more a game than a discipline. Why are Scots red-haired ? Simple, it's so when they were out hunting in groups they could see each other easily against the green background. Is that a real theory ? No, I just made it up - just like half of evolutionary biology appears to be.
Besides, telling the Liberals that humans are naturally Conservative will only encourage them. Even today, Liberals are so in love with rebel posturing they act as though being a Lefty in Academia is like being in the resistance in occupied Norway. Tell them they're rebelling against nature and they'll develop an even greater 'Neo' complex. What's more the Left has always tried to prove Conservatism is a pathological condition, so telling them Conservatism has a genetic basis will just be used to confirm that we're an evolutionary dead end.
Anyway, as Dawkins would say, it's all about memes not genes. Biology can do what it does, but it's funny how there's more variation in the dress sense of successful civilisations than in how they define marriage. That's why so many Social Liberals are Multicultis - you'd claim all cultures are equally valid if all the ones closest to your ideal are also those that are the biggest trainwrecks.
'The Selfish Gene' is mostly an attack on 'Group Selection' - the idea that evolution works at the level of the species. This holds that, for example, bird alarm calls have evolved despite endangering the caller because they make it more likely that fellow members of his species will survive. Dawkins shows that this can not hold - evolution works at the level of the gene not the species. In fact, Dawkins hypothesises that genes may even act in ways that are harmful to their host, providing it helps them spread. As an example of this, Dawkins suggests a reason for the prevalence of Down's syndrome in older mothers. Down's syndrome occurs where the child inherites both, instead of one, copy of chromosome 21 from the mother. Dawkins hypothesises that, in older mothers, the chromosome that should be left behind says (metaphorically) 'screw this, this is my last chance to copy myself' and jumps aboard. Needless to say, all the usual caveats about evolutionary biology can be applied to this theory, but it does illustrate the long reach of the selfish gene model.
What all of this means is that altruism makes no sense biologically. Bird alarm calls have evolved because it's so advantageous to the caller to manipulate his fellows that it's worth the risk of calling, and so on. This is where genes and memes diverge.
We know humans can be altruistic - there's evidence everywhere from blood donors at the village hall to life donors at the Somme. In fact, it may be argued that cultures are subject to a kind of group selection. Can it be a pure coincidence that the world's only superpower has as its motto 'From many, one' ? Or that the US Army places such a premium on its troops that soldiers will take extreme risks merely to recover the bodies of fallen comrades ? Equally, far be it from me in these post-Kilroy days to say that the Arab world is anything less than an Earthly paradise, but it's interesting to note the Arab proverb 'My brother and me against my cousin, my cousin and me against the world'. Maybe the short duration of Gulf War II wasn't just a weapons thing after all.
I suppose what I'm trying to say is that the book Social Conservatives should be reading is 'Starship Troopers' not the 'The Selfish Gene'. History tells us which forms of society, with which moral codes, are liable to flourish and which will fail. Liberalism's obsession with revolution, Year Zeros and the like is an attempt to remake the world into somewhere where two plus two can equal five provided you re-educate enough people - or shoot them. In fact, history provides us with at least one fundamental law: same old horses, same old glue. In contrast, for all the accusations that Social Conservatism has had thrown at it, it has this unique advantage: it works.