Currently Reading:

Desert Solitaire
by Edward Abbey

The Selfish Gene

The Selfish Gene
The Selfish Gene has been much (and often unfairly) maligned on the ground that it advocates a type of genetic determinism. The fault is surely attributable in part to Dawkins’ choice of words. He often describes the organism as a “robot” programmed by its genetics. So it’s at least understandable when Dawkins’ critics level charges against him of providing gene-level vindication of a host of crimes like racism, fraud, sexual assault, etc. Without actually reading the book, it would be very easy to make such criticisms based on excerpts from the text. But reading the whole book makes it quite clear that Dawkins is not in fact a determinist. He would be better characterized as a “predispositionist”. Dawkins surely would argue that humans are indeed organisms developed by geneplexes that exist solely as self-replicators, and that the drive for the genes to replicate potentially predisposes the organism toward a host of unsavory behaviors. But he’s also quite explicit that the human animal is in a (probably) unique position of self-awareness, and thus often able to override our genetic programming, at least as far as behavioral traits are concerned. A gene “for” a violent disposition (if something so simple as that were to exist) doesn’t necessitate violent action on the part of a self-aware organism. It may however make the organism less naturally inclined to to choose non-violent resolutions.
Cuckoo Egg
Dawkins’ choice of language was no doubt intentionally sensationalistic. He was a relatively young scholar when The Selfish Gene first saw print, and the idea it proposed was relatively new. Dawkins himself says in the footnotes that some of his youthful linguistic indiscretions were due largely to his excitement over the material. I expect Wilson’s Sociobiology has taken most of its beatings on similar grounds (although I’m less familiar with it).
For me , much of the joy of reading The Selfish Gene comes less from the genetics than from the examples drawn from Dawkins’ experience as an animal behaviorist. One could approach the book almost solely as a behavioral freak show of the bird and insect worlds. From infant cuckoo birds pushing the rival eggs out of their surrogate nest to Thisbe irenea caterpillars drugging ants into serving as bodyguards, the biological examples are fascinating, and serve well to bolster Dawkins’ argument. The book is well worth reading for these anecdotes alone.
As for me, there seems to be strong evidence to suggest that I’m genetically predisposed toward pinball, ice cream, and lousy handwriting. I’m disinclined to overcome any of these predispositions.

Foucault’s Pendulum

Foucault's Pendulum
Something about the modern American mind seems naturally inclined toward theories of conspiracy. I’m not sure what causes that, but I would guess that it has something to do with most people finding their existence desperately mundane. Get up, go to work, watch television, go to bed. Repeat that for twenty or thirty years, and you’re bound to start thinking that there must be something more, some secret information or secret way of living to which you’ve not been granted access. So the conspiracy theories start rolling out. I must be dull and lazy because the chemtrails are making me dull and lazy in the name of the New World Order. They killed Kennedy, they cause global warming, they keep us poor, keep us quiet, keep us helpless. Because the alternative — that the world is generally run by slow-moving committees of bueracrats nearly as lazy and incompetent as we are — is just too boring to accept.
The danger suggested by Foucault’s Pendulum is that nature abhors a vacuum. Create a conspiracy theory, create a mythical place of power that is by nature of unknown occupancy, and before too long someone will come along and occupy it, and your conspiracy becomes real. There’s a chilling amount of sense to the proposition. Call me a crook, treat me like a crook, and then tell me that you’re a helpless victim to my crookery, and it’s not going to be too long before I take advantage of it. It’s also not going to be long before somebody else smells the money and offers to sell you a way out of the conspiracy. Protects against chemtrails, aliens, abductions, and demons, all for only $21.99! Hooray!
Naturally, I’m all for reintroducing a little magic into our otherwise mundane world. But I’m not so sure that wearing orgone power pendants to fend off the New World Order is really the way to go. There’s a whole lot that most people could do to make their lives a lot more interesting, and not just in the tin-foil-helmet sort of way. But I suppose that’s just the mind control talking.