Ye Olde Natural Philosophy Discussion Group

Reviews and comments on
Mark Ridley:
The Cooperative Gene: How Mendel’s Demon Explains
the Evolution of Complex Beings

      Our group gave this book some mid-range ratings, with an average rating of 6.0 on a scale of 0 to 10. Several people didn’t finish reading it, for reasons of time or because of loss of interest.

      Kirby remarked that “there are so many things bad with this book and so many things good.” He didn’t like the theology references for example. But he did like the overall topic. “It doesn’t really make sense that complex beings evolved”, he said, and so the book “made me think a lot.” Kirby thought the explanations in the book were easy to understand, but that some of the things claimed can’t be right. He felt that a lot of the book was speculation.

      Ron said that some things in the book rubbed him the wrong way. He thinks Ridley’s conjecture that gender differences (as opposed to sexual reproduction) are probably an evolutionary accident is wrong and that gender must have evolved for good evolutionary reasons too. (The virtually universal existence of major gender differences where there is sexual reproduction seems to strongly back up Ron’s position here!) In general Ron thought Ridley stated things well and backed up his views pretty well. He added that Ridley “talked about a number of things I hadn’t thought about before.”

      Scott found the book interesting, but was dissapointed with it for not being the major corrective to Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene (1976) that he hoped it would be. Instead, Ridley seems to have accepted Dawkins’ naive viewpoint and seeks merely to explain how evolution has managed to get around potential problems with “selfish genes” in two secondary cases, namely, 1) potential genetic conflicts between the genes in mitochondria and chloroplasts vs. the far greater number of genes in the cell nucleus, and 2) potential “conflicts of interests” between the genes in the mother and those controlling the developing fetus and the placenta. His theories in these cases are interesting. But of course the central problem with the whole notion of the “selfish gene” is how all these supposedly “selfish” genes in the cell nucleus itself manage to cooperate for the good of the cell and the whole organism! But Ridley has nothing at all to say about that much more central issue.

      [The basic answer, according to Scott, is that the notion of “selfish genes” as the “real” fundamental unit of evolution is wrong to begin with. Yes, evolution can and does work at the level of individual genes, as well as at the level of chromosomes, organelles, cells, organisms as a whole, and even populations of organisms, entire species, and quite probably ecological conglomerations of multiple species! (Any unit that more or less reproduces and is subject to some form of natural selection can evolve.) But it is wrong to focus so much on what is actually one small and generally overpowered aspect of this, the “selfish” (or independent) evolution of genes. All these levels of evolution work (at least in large part) through some variations of specific genes surviving while other variations disappear. The “selfish” (or independent) evolution of specific genes is overall swamped and controlled by the force of changes imposed on genes by evolution at all these other levels.]

      Scott agrees with what Kirby and other folks said about the large amount of speculation in the book. But he thinks Ridley did try to label things that haven’t really been proven yet as “theories”. Scott didn’t like the religious and business-management analogies that abound in the book. Much of our thinking is via analogies; therefore the particular sorts of analogies we are prone to using say a lot about how we think and who and what we are. Ridley’s Christian and bourgeois analogies speak poorly of his thinking. In particular, Scott felt the last chapter, which speculates about various possible future evolutionary changes in human beings by making analogies to “angels” was a complete blight on the book.

      Kevin S. thought the book was exceptionally hard to read. He also objected to the annoying analogies with business, and just generally did not like the style. He also felt that the book should have been condensed down, and just did not enjoy reading it. Similarly, Rich thought the book was quite tedious, and didn’t get very far into it.

      Barbara too said she didn’t enjoy reading the book, and didn’t finish it. She thought Ridley repeated himself a lot, but still found the book confusing. Rosie is still reading the book and will probably have some comments to add here when she’s done. For now, though, she disagrees with Scott’s claim that Ridley bases himself on, and agrees with, Dawkins’ conception of the centrality of “selfish genes”.

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