individual vs gene ?

Sat Aug 5 00:57:42 MDT 1995

Dear Paul C,
Aha!  Now we are getting beyond "technicalities".  Perhaps quibbling
about when to use what kind of analysis, and what part of the system
or aspect of the individual/gene dialectic to focus upon is not going
to get anywhere, because you are not really coming from a point of
view *within darwinism* at all, and your concerns are not about how
to do better science.

I confess a lack of detailed knowledge of Dawkins' extended phenotype
gambit but I don't think it would help us, because I don't think that
your concerns are likely to be met by *any* technicalities *within*
evolutionary biology.  I think Dawkins had a point that was well
taken within the field, and which in no way invalidates work done on
the analysis of individual morphology or behavior.  I suspect he
wanted to broaden the picture, but not chuck the literally living
creatures clear out of it.

As soon as you start talking about "ideological theories", "subjects"
and "what events mean", we are not even in the land of darwinism any
more, not to me.  As for phrasing things in terms of subjects doing,
or being done to, or using the passive voice, I can say it any way
you want, but it makes no difference in my mind.

I was enjoying the freedom to metaphorically attribute "subjectivity"
or "agency" to any damn thing, following Dawkins' use of language in
"The Selfish Gene" and time-honored practice within evol-biol.  A
chicken is an egg's method of reproducing itself, i.e. making more
eggs, darwinian selection has "designed" this or that, "selection"
itself is a metaphor - who selects? with what intention and on what
basis? a cell is a group-of-genes' way of cooperating in order to
reproduce themselves, etc.  We insiders all know what we mean by such
talk, and we certainly don't mean that DNA molecules have plans,
intentions and hopes.  I am sorry if I incorrectly interpreted your
mention of Dawkins to mean that you were with me from the beginning
on that.  Otherwise, I would have been more careful.

I am most sympathetic to concerns about some kinds of language which
I understand to perpetuate abusive concepts, but to do away with the
very term "individual" within biology, or stop the use of the concept
and find it irrelevant to darwinian selection??  This is most
puzzling to me.

This is not to naively say that biology is independent of society, or
anything silly like that.  What I am looking for, when I hear these
kinds of objections raised, is specific suggestions of how to
approach your concerns while still meeting the analytical rigor
required of me within my field, and generating insights into behavior
that help to understand its patterned variations.  Since a gene
cannot literally "behave", must not an individual of at least one
cell enter the discussion?

In other words, how can I address your concerns and still do
evolutionary/behavioral science?  Do we have to shut down all the
zoology and animal behavior programs and do only population genetics?

Do you want me to change the way I do science in order to try to
pre-empt some potential abuse or in order to generate some particular
ideological or political implication?  I doubt that vocabulary
substitution would help.  I mean, "temporary association of a set of
gene copies in one cell" [to avoid certain technicalities] would
still mean "individual".

Couldn't the reactionary ones twist population genetics language to
their ends as well as any other language?

Regarding technical points, I certainly grant that some genes are
deleterious (for their bearer and therefore themselves) in any
combination, some in specific combinations, with other alleles at the
same loci or at other loci and that selection often fails to
eliminate them: I think we do agree on this concept even if I can't
follow your example, but I still don't see how that means that
analytical focus upon the individual is incorrect within the terms of
evolutionary biology itself!  (Can the series ss[normal] sS, SS be
properly said to have a monotonic effect, when SS is lethal to the
bearer?  There are only two states possible one with effects of S and
one without.  Well, I don't think it matters to the issues at hand.)

By the way, if "body" raises issues in your mind regarding ova,
pollen, whatever, we could translate the whole discussion to deal
strictly with bacteria from the beginning, and I'm sure that *all the
same issues would apply* except for sex [but even bacteria do swap
DNA around between "individual" cells a bit].

I can also say that the definition of "individual" has a flexible
status in biology, it can be used any way you want if one explains it
and it serves an analytical purpose.  Various ["individual"] workers
may specialize in one method or another, but the field is
methodologically eclectic within its own general framework.  The
typical usage of the word is "commonsensical", but again I don't see
a biological problem with this issue anyway.

But what is the connection between the status of the biological
definition of an individual and the "justif[ication of] attaching
ideological weight to it" ?  I don't know of any truly scientific
justification of any ideology.  I guess this is back to what others
try to claim on the alleged basis of biology.

For a new [to this thread] example of clashing genes, notice that
various lion genes are able to recombine with each other at every
mating and usually make lion-bodies that work, and the same for
tigers as they shuffle their genes together and deal out a new hand
to each offspring - BUT the hybrid between the two [called tion or
liger] rarely lives to adulthood and never breeds successfully.  Why?

Probably because the two species/sets of genes have been apart for so
long and become different enough that they don't seem to be able to
coordinate with each other well enough to build a body through/by
which they could be reproduced even though every single gene ought to
be "selfishly" "interested" in so "reproducing itself".  Therefore
those particular gene-copies are eliminated.  (Yes, this is the very
definition of "different species", though it's often problematic.)

Thanks for stimulating posts.  This thread has descended from only
one part of your original post, so we've got plenty other places to
go whenever we're done with this one.


>>> Paul Cockshott <wpc at>  8/2/95, 10:26pm >>>
Our postings on this have become a bit technical but...
I view the use of the term 'individual' or the metaphor of
'selfishness' in biology as a hangover from bourgeois economic
ideology .... The use of the same words 'individual' or 'selfishness'
has made it easier for right wing ideology to appropriate the
authority of biology for what are essentially reactionary social
What I have been trying to argue is that the term 'individual' no
longer has a sufficiently well defined status in biology to justify
attaching ideological weight to it.
It is only by making the self reproduction of information the focus
of study, rather than the individual, that this shift in view occurs.

     --- from list marxism at ---


More information about the Marxism mailing list