From time to time, I analyze pop science and pop psychology articles that try to infer in current mores the echoes of primordial genes trying to propagate themselves through the selfish behavior of the animals containing them. On any number of occasions I have demonstrated that these little Darwinian myths or fairy tales are pure speculations that reflect the belief system of the writer and by implication of the publication. These myths always uphold conventional beliefs, e.g., that men like to play around while women want one mate or that women find dumb but athletic men more sexually attractive. See for example, my blogs of December 22, 2009, February 25, 2011 and November 17, 2009.
Tim Flannery, the Australian scientist and global warming activist makes the same point in his latest book, Here on Earth, when writing about Richard Dawkins, who was the first to propose the concept of the selfish gene, i.e., the idea that we are just shells for the replication of our genes, which are engaged in a brutish battle for survival with all other genes and therefore always act selfishly.
Here is Flannery’s entire paragraph:
We have a tendency to use ideas such as selfish gene theory to justify our own selfish and socially destructive practices. It’s significant, I think, that Dawkin’s book received wide acclaim on the eve of the 1980s—the era when greed was seen as good, and when the free market was worshipped. As our experience with social Darwinism illustrates, we need to be eternally on guard against the siren song of self-interest if we wish to live in a fair and equitable society.”
Compare Flannery’s paragraph with what I posted on OpEdge earlier this year: “The first thing we notice is that selfishness is equated with both the natural and the good. Selfishness is the reigning spirit of state-supported capitalism and justification for an inequitable distribution of wealth. Thus the hidden ideology of all Darwinian myths is the glorification of free-market capitalism. It is no coincidence that the proliferation of these Darwinian myths in English and American popular science began around the time Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan took office. It was, and unfortunately remains, the zeitgeist.”
I’ll take Flannery on my side of an issue any day. He is one of the most articulate and right-thinking scientists around, and I’m surprised that he hasn’t taken over the Carl Sagan role of “Mr. Science” in the mainstream news media. Perhaps it’s because the mainstream news media is so in thrall to the right-wing that it really doesn’t want to call attention to science by having a universally recognized expert.
I recommend any of Flannery’s books to anyone, but in particular, The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America, which plays out the history of North America as a long series of successive invatisions from other parts of the earth, each invasion dramatically changing the ecosystem of the continent.
As usual, I can’t criticize the pop science of Darwinian myths without stating unequivocally that I believe in the theory of evolution because all the facts support it. What I object to is the attempt by some to spin scientific myths in support of ideology and in particular the false ideology of selfishness. I’m delighted that Flannery agrees with me about both the theory of evolution and its ideological misuse.