Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: language

The Self-Sacrificing Gene

I am no expert in biology but something struck me recently. As I understand it there is a natural process of change which goes by the name ‘evolution’. It is by this process of evolution that plants and animals change from generation to generation and how new kinds species come to exist – new kinds of being.

It also is by this same process that some kinds of being stop existing – become extinct.

For many hundreds of years human beings have realised that evolution is real – but in more recent years we have started to believe that we have now come to a deeper understanding of how this process works.
The survival of the ‘fittest’

Darwin proposed that organisms compete for resources. Organisms – are deemed successful if they can find a way of surviving in any given environment. This process can even be imagined as a kind of competition. For resources are finite and some organisms seem to be more effective at seizing these resources: light, minerals, water, vegetables, meat. [Although, interestingly, ‘taking’ is actually a process of transformation into food, energy, growth – not taking to hold.]

However to call this a competition is peculiar; for the goal of this supposed competition is not to win anything, not even to survive, but merely to generate others beings who are as similar to yourself as possible. An ape that has become extinct on the way to creating humanity is deemed to have failed; while humanity, who so far has only evolved into more of humanity, is deemed to be a success.

So, paradoxically, this means that success in these terms means not evolving – just outlasting other kinds of organisms

More recently scientists have identified a certain molecule that exists in all living organisms – DNA. This molecule is very important because it seems to hold the information which defines what kind of organism it will go on to create.

As far as I can understand it there seem to be a number of ways in which DNA and the genetic information it holds can change over time. But all of these seem to involve the destruction of the original molecule. Not just evolution, but life and growth, all seem to depend on a process of destruction, of the very materials from which it starts.

So, again, it is somewhat strange that a term like the ‘selfish gene’ has become so dominant. For it seems rather that it is a process of dramatic self-sacrifice that underpins life – not the selfishness of the gene. Similarly, while we might say we have children in order that we can somehow, reproduce ourselves – in fact we are not reproducing ourselves at all. We are creating something new and different – and where sex is involved we are creating something which is inevitably different because it is also going to be like our partner.


As I write this I can almost hear all true scientist groaning at my seeming incomprehension:

Of course this is not really ‘competition’. Of course this is not really ‘selfishness’. These are just metaphors – we are appealing to concepts with which people are familiar in order to explain complex natural phenomena.

But it is surely worth asking why these metaphors were chosen. Darwin could have talked about the Christian nature of reality –  life being intimately bound up with love, self-sacrifice and rebirth. Or he could have taken a more pagan perspective – the fragility and creativity of life, creating new and diverse forms of life out of the old. Similarly, Dawkins could have talked about the heroically altruistic gene – an object that destroys itself for the sake of others.

As Hegel, Lewis and many others have noticed – all language is in fact rooted in metaphor – strange as that seems. There is no pure non-metaphorical language, and how we choose to describe reality is important and reflect our underlying values and assumptions. The wonderful writer, Marilynne Robinson writes of this issue:

The notion of “fitness” is not now and never has been value neutral. The model is basically physical viability, or as the political economists used to say, physical efficiency. 

She goes on to cite Darwin:

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed and the sick; we institute poor laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of everyone to the last moment. There’s reasons to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands who from a weak constitution would formally have succumbed to small pox. Thus the weak members of civilised society propagate their kind. No one who attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but expect in the case of man himself, hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

Robinson demonstrates that, contrary to many modern accounts, eugenics – the barbaric notion that human beings should be bred towards some madman’s notion of perfection – was always part of Darwin’s thinking. It was not just the result of the twisted thinking of Francis Galton – Galton was just putting Darwinism into practice.

I have written elsewhere of the dangers of eugenics – and of how likely we are to see its resurgence. I will not repeat these warnings here. Instead I’d just like to offer the thought that we don’t need to reject evolution in order to reject the metaphorical (and metaphysical) wrappings provided by Darwin, Galton and Dawkins. Again Marilynne Robinson’s observation is acute:

The Creationist position has long been owned by the Religious Right, and the Darwinist position by the Irreligious Right. The differences between these camps are intractable because they are meaningless. People who insist that the sacredness of Scripture depends on belief in creation in a literal six days seem never to insist on a literal reading of “to him who asks, give,” or “sell what you have and give the money to the poor.” In fact, their politics and economics align themselves quite precisely with their adversaries, who yearn to disburden themselves of the weak, to unshackle the great creative forces of competition. The defenders of “religion” have made religion seem foolish while rendering it mute in the face of a prolonged and highly effective assault on the poor. The defenders of “science” have imputed objectivity and rigour to an account of reality whose origins and consequences are indisputably economic, social and political.

Those of us who care about justice and truth – whether or not we are Christian, atheist or of some other faith – do not need to pick between the idiocies of the “Religious Right” or the “Irreligious Right”. We are beings whose essence is love, and who must live together with love, if we are to live at all. We are beings whose essence is dependence, and who must respect the world from which we draw life, and which demands our attention and care. We are beings who are wonderfully diverse in our being, and who must celebrate and nurture that diversity within ourselves and others.

Instead of rejecting evolution we must treat it as an aspect of the moral universe in which we live.

Why We Create Jargon

People could object to our arguments on this issue, saying, yes, you do have an audience in the West, but these people don’t understand anything because their aren’t speaking the same language as you. My answer to that is this: no one speak’s anyone’s language! Even when your wife speaks to you, she isn’t speaking your language! When you talk to your wife you adapt. You adapt to your friend. In each situation you attempt to create a special jargon. Why do jargons exist? Why are there all kinds of professional terminologies? Because people know that they are all different animals, but they try to shield themselves from this rather terrifying fact by creating a certain common idiom that can be a code language for “your own kind.” This is how you create the illusion that you are among your own kind, that in this certain group they understand you.

Joseph Brodsky, in conversation with Solomon Volkov

After Wittgenstein philosophers have tended to become impatient with arguments that allow for any kind of solipsism – the idea that we are each an independent consciousness, one which in principle could be thought of as radically singular – even utterly alone in the universe – cut off from others. The implication of Wittgenstein’s thought (although he is less dogmatic than his followers) seems to be that as language is a shared and public ‘game’ – and one that cannot be conceived otherwise – so we cannot conceive of ourselves as radically really cut off from each other or from the world of things about which we talk.

Consciousness requires language, language requires other people.

However Brodsky’s point seems to slightly relax the rigour of this position. The flip-side of our shared public language is the inevitably uncertain status of our shared understanding. We are talking, communicating even, and we are certainly talking about something real. But do we really understand each other?

I live in a world where I can see red things, I know what I mean by red and I can talk to other about my experience. But I can still be uncertain that what you mean by red is quite the same as what I mean by red. I still cannot see the world through your eyes.

Brodsky implies that we fear solipsism and that we fight against this fear with jargon. It is, on this analysis, not that language guarantees the reality of a shared public world – rather language is the means by which we battle (often without resolution) to assure ourselves that we are not alone, that we are at one with others. However this ability to construct a new code, a code just for us, is also an admission of the weakness of that shared code. It does not guarantee understanding – and if it did why we would we have to build a fresh and keep building.

We construct language in the hope that we will be understood; but this is a hope, not a fact.

Jargon is a special version of this language; jargon sacrifices intelligibility for shared social warmth.

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