For those that don't remember the Mary Whitehouse Experience, it was one of those rare things, a cult radio comedy series that transferred from BBC Radio 1 (the music channel) to BBC2, the more highbrow of the BBC TV channels of those days. It was required listening and viewing. Decide for yourself.
Be that as it may. Newman and Baddiel became huge stars, selling out Wembley Arena and making comedy the new cliche of the day. That was then, this is now.
For some unknown reason, Newman has been touring and is now on BBC Radio 4 with a piteously unfunny show entitled Robert Newman's Entirely Accurate Encyclopaedia of Evolution, a title correct in almost none of its words. The radio version, available here (though I don't know for how long), is a series of lectures on the subject of evolution with a distinctly group selection bias and a distinctly anti-Richard Dawkins theme. There is, however, an enormous problem.
To get a flavour of the problem, let's look at some interviews and reviews of the stage show. First up, the venerable Daily Telegraph had a piece entitled "Robert Newman: 'The Universe Richard Dawkins Imagines Couldn't Exist For Five Seconds' (archived because of the Telegraph pay wall). You might be able to tell just how sweeping that statement is. And just how tiny a dent Newman puts into even his faulty understanding of Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene.
“Darwin’s theory of evolution has been hijacked by quite a narrow individualist philosophy that derives from Hobbes and I think it’s having a terribly negative effect. It’s giving people a very pessimistic idea of human nature. What I think Dawkins has done is brought back a particularly virulent form of original sin. He’s actually a deeply religious thinker – ‘We are born selfish therefore let us try to teach altruism’, 'If your genes are selfish, you are.' Not true." Warming to his theme, he continues: “It’s a virulent repudiation of Darwin. What Darwin says is that those communities which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best and produce the most offspring.”Oh, dear. We have a comedy writer straying into the arena of science and thinking they know more about science than the scientists do. Here's what Jerry Coyne had to say on group selection:
Group selection isn’t widely accepted by evolutionists for several reasons. First, it’s not an efficient way to select for traits, like altruistic behavior, that are supposed to be detrimental to the individual but good for the group. Groups divide to form other groups much less often than organisms reproduce to form other organisms, so group selection for altruism would be unlikely to override the tendency of each group to quickly lose its altruists through natural selection favoring cheaters. Further, little evidence exists that selection on groups has promoted the evolution of any trait. Finally, other, more plausible evolutionary forces, like direct selection on individuals for reciprocal support, could have made humans prosocial. These reasons explain why only a few biologists, like [David Sloan] Wilson and E. O. Wilson (no relation), advocate group selection as the evolutionary source of cooperation.Jerry Coyne has recently retired as a biology professor at the University of Chicago. He has written the widely admired Why Evolution Is True and the even more admired Speciation. He has more of a clue than Robert Newman. He has steeped a lifetime in understanding evolution. Newman is just skimming the surface.
More Newman from the earlier piece:
I’m arguing that cooperation drives evolution as much as competition – I’m not discounting competition but cooperation is there as well. Dawkins is a reactionary thinker and he does a lot of damage. The universe he imagines couldn’t exist for five seconds. People say “It’s the law of the jungle isn’t it?” “It’s dog eat dog.” Well dogs don’t eat dogs - very rarely. Look at African hunting dogs - if they don’t share they get rolled in the dust and made to. [Peter] Kropotkin – responding to Darwin - saw how if a buffalo falls in a ditch the rest of the herd make efforts to rescue it. Contrary to what male primatologists were saying in the mid-70s about baboons, it’s not about a dominant male with his harem of submissive female. They organise around a female kinship network. If a male wants to join the group he has to know a female and even then has to serve a probationary period in which he proves his work by performing foster care – looking after offspring that are not his genetic material. You can look at sterile female ants too…”I am not sure what Newman has been reading, but I don't think he has actually read too much modern evolutionary thinking. Rather he has chosen, witness Kropotkin, to take an ideological viewpoint. He wants cooperation to be the dominant driver of evolution without realising what competition means here. There are technical scientific meanings to these terms that merge into the public consciousness with the more general meanings overlain upon them. Newman appears to take the non-scientific meanings for the scientific ones. This clearly generates a problem. By using non-scientific cliches, he allows the invalid thinking to dominate.
In a review in the Guardian, the ideology is even more evident.
He starts by asking why Herbert Spencer's view of evolution ("survival of the fittest") has prevailed over Darwin's more nuanced take. It's ideology, says Newman: big business wanted to roll back the gains of postwar social democracy, and selfish-gene theory offered them scientific legitimacy. But nature is just as rich in examples of selflessness as ruthlessness. Newman is armed with dozens of them.A reading of The Selfish Gene should demonstrate that there is no scientific support to be found there for turning back social democracy. The change from optimistic, wide eyed society of the sixties to the more pessimistic, more cynical version of the eighties is more likely to be found in the growing environmental movement as technology and industry were found to cause problems as well as solve them. and the economic crises resulting from the oil price increases in the mid-seventies. We may have landed on the Moon but we also caused global warming.
In The Big Issue, Newman's thesis is summarised thus:
Newman thinks that Richard Dawkins and other ‘neo-Darwinists’ are wrong: genes aren't selfish, and believing they are distorts our thinking. He insists that modern experts and the author of the Origin of Species are on his side.
The comedian has the scientific chops to refute three myths of the age: that fighting is creatures’ natural state; that women are biologically ‘domestic’; and that individual animals are just conduits for passing on genetic material. He uses baboons, vampire bats and single-celled organisms to make his case.
Dawkins’ theories celebrating competition, says Newman, are in vogue because they assist the dogma of free-market capitalism. Meanwhile, the natural world is in crisis.Scientific ideas are not in vogue because they are fashionable. They stand or fall on the evidence given for them, and just because we can find plenty of examples of altruism, that doesn't mean we should dismiss the ideas that Dawkins espouses. And those "myths", strawmen more like.
The clearest exposition of Newman's lack of scientific realism comes in an interview in the New Left Project:
The dog eat dog version of evolution which now dominates the discourse has had a disastrous effect on morale, on how we see ourselves, how we see our place in nature. It has given us what I call Anthropophobia, a fear of our own humanity.There's lots here. Disastrous effect on morale - really? Cardboard Darwinism - I guess he doesn't even know that Dawkins is a very strong Darwinist. I can only assume he hasn't read The Extended Phenotype, River Out Of Eden, The Blind Watchmaker, The Ancestor's Tale or The greatest Show On Earth. Or if he has, he didn't understand a word.
I argue that Richard Dawkins's Cardboard Darwinism is profoundly opposed to Charles Darwin's central ideas such as the one about how we are born with 'social instincts'. Dawkins repudiates this when he writes: "We are born selfish". This doctrine derives not from Darwin but from the central dogma of the Protestant Reformation – Original Sin.
But then he claims original sin comes from the central dogma of the Protestant Reformation, which happened about a thousand years after the concept became theologically founded. Not something to inspire confidence.
Well, it's no coincidence that There Is No Such Thing As Society comes at the same moment as Selfish Gene in the UK and EO Wilson’s Sociobiology in the USA. I don't think that these things are a backlash to the sixties so much as a backlash against the spirit of ‘45 and the historically unprecedented social equality and social mobility.But of course it could easily be a coincidence. Dawkins Selfish Gene was based on work that had gone on through those hippy dippy sixties, and Wilson's foundation of sociobiology was his intimate understanding of ants, something he had been researching throughout the sixties. Like I said, it was more than likely a coincidence.
In the show I argue that the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act unleashed a reaction from male primatologists, social anthropologists and biologists who sought to prove that gender roles in childcare are biologically determined. The arguments were best countered by the female primatologists who at the end of the seventies went into the Congolese jungles and discovered that, say, baboon troops are not organised around dominant alpha males but female kin networks. The nearly forty years since the publication of Selfish Gene in the UK and EO Wilson’s Sociobiology in the US have not been kind to genetic determinism, nor to the idea that DNA is destiny.This stretches it somewhat. And, as ever, outsiders seem to think scientific books are set in stone whereas a scientific book that lasts more than a few years is rare. Science builds on what is already known. New discoveries are made. Sociobiology has moved on, and many discoveries have been made.
This exchange shows there is a deep flaw in Newman's research:
It’s clear you have done a huge amount of research for the show. If someone wanted to explore the topic further which texts would you recommend they read?
Well, pretty much any Stephen Jay Gould essay collection, An Urchin In the Storm, say. Mary Midgley's The Solitary Self – Darwin and the Selfish Gene. There's some great free downloads on I-Tunes such as Simon Blackburn's How Are We to Think About Human Nature.
I shall admit ignorance of Simon Blackburn [actually, I have read some of his work without remembering until I looked him up, so it clearly didn't make much impression] but not of Gould or Midgley. Odd that Newman should have chosen An Urchin In The Storm, the worst of all his anthologies, being a collection of book reviews. And as for Midgley, perhaps the less said the better for someone who wrote a book called Evolution As Religion and still claims to be a philosopher.
Adam Rutherford, science broadcaster, makes a comment at New Left Project which deserves to be quoted in full:
I think that rather wraps it up. Newman is wrong but convinced he is right. An evolution denier, a sort of natural selection lukewarmer in that he agrees with Darwin (or at least the bits he likes) and denies selection at the level of the gene. And it is clear that the desire to accept group selection is not because Newman has assessed the scientific evidence fully but has been led by his wishes. If only everyone got on with one another, was kind to his neighbour and not so beastly to other people, wouldn't that be wonderful.
- As someone who has studied, researched and written about genetics and evolution for the whole of my adult life, I recognise very few of the arguments represented here. First, I don’t really understand what is meant by the ‘dog eat dog version of evolution’. Competition is certainly a powerful Darwinian force, but population genetics and the emergence of the understanding of the gene (poorly defined itself) as the central unit of selection I populations also forcefully contributes to widespread observations of altruism and cooperation throughout the biological realm. Certainly, Dawkin’s popular work focuses not around behaviour as selfishness, but the central idea that genes are replicating bits whose own behaviour in consort with others in the same organism and family, and with the environment, conspires to replicate themselves efficiently. Dawkins has made this point on countless occasions, and expressed regret that the title the Selfish Gene has been misconstrued so often, as appears to be the case here. Indeed, Midgley seems persistent in recent years in misreading Dawkins. I believe he argues strongly against biological determinism (as does pretty much every evolutionary biologist and geneticist I’ve encountered for several decades), and that an evolved ability to act differently from a biological imperative is critical to our survival.
I am desperately unclear what point there is to be made about transposable elements, epigenetics and reverse transcription. These are Darwinian, and specific aspects of the molecular biology of inheritance, and it’s hard to see that they can be used to make a political argument about the nature of natural selection. I suspect that it is in fact a total coincidence ‘that There Is No Such Thing As Society comes at the same moment as Selfish Gene’. Most of the ideas expressed in popular form by Dawkins in 1976 and subsequently had been described at least a decade earlier by Bill Hamilton in the 60s, and indeed the emergence of modern evolutionary thought by the founders of the modern synthesis.
I am not so naive to think that science exists in an apolitical bubble, but I think it’s very dangerous to use pure science texts to make such precise political points, when they are not inherent in the source material. I’m sure science-influenced biological deterministic arguments have been used over time, but just like nature versus nurture has not been an academic debate for several decades, it has not been a serious discussion amongst scientists for years.
Well, yes, of course it would. But that isn't what cooperation and competition and selection and selfish genes and so on actually means in scientific terms.
And, in true Stephen Jay Gould fashion, I turn to my main point. Robert Newman read English at Cambridge University. He is an intelligent man who seems to have an inquisitive nature. However, he seems to lack the scientific skills to be able to understand scientific debates correctly. I am pretty certain that I couldn't make literary insights into the writings of, for example, Coleridge, or Hardy or Virginia Woolf. It doesn't mean I can't enjoy either those authors or the writings of the critics. But I am not in a position to cast a new theory of, say, Woolf's interior monologues. I haven't read enough nor understood enough to be able to do so. I would not be so arrogant to claim I could.
But Newman has done just that in a field of science that has such a large pile of evidence in its favour. He makes the mistake of thinking that a few hundred hours of study (about the length of an couple of undergraduate science units) is the equivalent of the thousands of hours that scientists like Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, Stephen Jay Gould, Steve Jones, Nick Lane, Neil Shubin and so on, have put in. The disagreements and discussions with fellow scientists over coffee in the common room, the rejected papers with their lengthy lists of improvements from the referees' report.
We see this all the time in the world of denial. With a laptop and Microsoft Office, access to the Internet and a misplaced confidence in their own ability, we see plenty of non-scientists treading on the toes of scientists. Do we see the same thing in the world of English literature? I don't know. Perhaps I'll do that. Look out for my next post: William Blake's Tyger is about fish really.