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Based at The University of Edinburgh, the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum is part of the ESRC Genomics Network and pioneers new ways to promote and communicate social research on the contemporary life sciences.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Addicted to Pretty Things

Talk to a biologist about goodness, and they'll talk about "Levels of Selection".

At least, that's what happened at our last meeting on Thursday, when I'd brought along various materials that had caught my eye on the history of "The Goodness Problem" in evolutionary thought. JF Derry, who's been a regular attender, insisted that we talk about selfish genes, selfish organisms, selfish kin, selfish groups, selfish species...because that hierarchy of self-interested behaviour is the governing paradigm within which science currently talks about the stuff we used to talk about in Church.

Natural selection is the cornerstone of This View of Life...therefore all behaviours MUST make sense within its parameters.

"The Selfish Gene", of course, is Richard Dawkins Ur-text, and was itself in some ways an expansion upon the work of Bill Hamilton, whose altruism equation I quoted a couple of blogs back.

To me, however, what matters most, I think, about "The Selfish Gene" is that it's an an extraordinarily powerful metaphor...as is "Evolution" itself.

I'm still processing what we talked about, and what I'm reading...but (and forgive me if this is obscure) I think it is the persuasive and political power of metaphor around which my thoughts, such as they are, are coalescing.

Let's face it, for most of us, metaphor is what science is. It is the prettiest of ideas...like Einstein's mass energy equivalence...that we latch onto...our scientific judgement is aesthetic.

(And Darwin was on about the heritability/adaptation of beauty back in 1871....)

Or Jeff Goldblum as James Watson in the fantastic BBC dramatisation of the modelling of DNA "Life Story" years back, saying "It's got to be pretty".

George Price's covariance equation, now widely used in the study of animal behaviour, neatly and prettily conjoins evolutionary notions of fitness and inheritance with pseudo-moral ideas of benevolence to make a case that "goodness", "self-lessness", "altruism"...or whatever is your metaphor of choice...MUST be itself heritable...that there must be a benefit attached to selfless behaviour, which means that selflessness, paradoxically, is naturally selected.

At the level of genes, cells, organisms, kin groups, species...maybe even life itself.

His equation has been described, however, as a tautology...Its critics argue that if something so neatly describes all possible behaviours, it is ipso facto meaningless, unfalsifiable, unscientific...

But addictive. Like Price himself, addicted to his own ideas of goodness that led him into some very dangerous acts of altruism among the homeless of London...finding miracles in his own mind. All this as detailed in Owen Harmon's splendid biography, which is being featured as a Genomics Forum Event at this year's Edinburgh Book Festival.

Like I say, I have no conclusions yet, but I do have the growing conviction that the play I end up writing is going to have the power, beauty and seduction of metaphor at its heart.

For an overview of the "levels of selection" problem, see Samir Okasha in Human Nature Review Vol 3, 2003. http://human-nature.com/nibbs/03/okasha

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