individual vs gene ?

wpc at wpc at
Tue Aug 8 08:38:57 MDT 1995

Lisa says that my objections are unlikely to be
satisfied by any arguments within evolutionary biology
and that my concerns are not about how to do better science.
Further, she was enjoying the freedom to metaphorically
attribute "subjectivity" or "agency" to any damn thing.

Her objection is in part justified, as how to do better
science was not my direct point, though I would hope that
the viewpoint that I am advancing has that side
effect. My objections are in a sense philosophical because
they deal with the interface between a science,
biology, and the political and ideological uses to
which it is put.

I would say that once you start talking about a possible
genetic basis for individual self interest you are
standing on the borderline between science and moral
philosophy. For such a borderline to exist, there have
to be elements of a common language between the two

I am quite ready to conceed the pragmatic
or heurisitic value of Dawkins using a word like
'selfish' when applied to genes in order to get his
point accross. Within the structure of his own arguments,
as opposed to the connotation it may have outside
biology, it is clear that what he means is something
quite different from the normal usage of the word.
In fact, by its focus on a small sub-component of the
total genome, it subverts what we normally mean by
selfishness and self-interest.

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?

I tend to be particularly interested in the population
genetics approach, since, insofar as genetics touches
on my area of study, it is this that is relevant.
However, I also suspect, that with the passage of time,
researchers using the framework of evolutionary
concepts, will increasingly find themselves compelled
to express them in the more rigorous language of
population genetics. Among other things, the ability
to express a hypothesis in this way, provides a way of
performing an initial test on its coherence, prior to
devising observational tests.

On the question of the sickle cell mutation, I forget
exactly what the metabolic product of the gene in
question is ( is it a modified form or haemoglobin
or something else which alters erythrocyte elasticity ?),
but heterozygous individuals will produce both forms
of the protein. There is thus one underlying mechanism,
and two effects - one on the permeability of capillaries
and the other on ability of cells to resist infection.
There are three possible concentrations of the mutant
metabolite rather than two, allowing one to speak
legitimately of the mechanism being monotonic.

     --- from list marxism at ---


More information about the Marxism mailing list