Tuesday, 7 June 2011

The Post-Politics of the Selfish Gene.

You may have read of the New College of the Humanities which AC Grayling is eager to set up, which will charge £18,000 a year for a course and has £10 million in private capital to back up the scheme. The major selling point being the staff of money-grubbing dons which includes Richard Dawkins, Peter Singer, Steven Pinker and Niall Ferguson among others. These are the intellectuals whom Grayling designates as "pink around the gills and a little bit left of centre", which might just be a sign of delirium on his part. Grayling argues that the decision came in response to the slashing of public subsidies to the humanities and the hike in tuition fees. It looks more like brash opportunism to me, but that would not contradict Grayling's claim. Appropriately, Richard Dawkins will be teaching evolutionary biology and science literacy at the New College as he is the prominent author of several books on the subject including The Selfish Gene.

For those who have been following the latest documentary by Adam Curtis you will know that Richard Dawkins was a student of Bill Hamilton and George Price, he had also been a computer programmer before he studied science. The work of these biologists had led to the conclusion that the human race are basically automata capable of self-reproduction, the actions of human beings are guided by the genetic codes which adhere to a rational strategy of which the aim is to pass on copies of themselves. The individual is only the temporary host to such genes, which calculate our behaviour even in a way which Price understood as the workings of a computer. Hamilton argued that the calculations went as far as to produce altruism as a survival strategy. The radical conclusions of Hamilton and Price brought down the Enlightenment view of humanity as distinct from animals and nature. It also undermined the role of religion in society and thus Dawkins has played a leading role in the rise of New Atheism in the 21st Century.

George Price and Bill Hamilton were each affected by the revelations in different ways. Price was an obsessive rationalist at first and yet he attributed the equations to God and had a religious awakening, which led him to devote his life to helping the homeless and then killed himself in 1975. Hamilton went on to become one of the most famous scientists in the world and was given the highest honours from the scientific establishment. He later traveled to the Congo where he looked for evidence that AIDS was the result of experiments by American scientists on chimpanzees. The chimpanzee version of HIV was then transmitted to humans through vaccinations for polio, Hamilton died of a gastrointestinal hemorrhage in 2000. Importantly, Hamilton always held that Price's religious awakening was superstitious and he would have been better off to continue his work in genetics than helping the homeless.

Years before his awakening George Price had worked for IBM and helped construct the first mainframes of computers, for him the equations of Hamilton could be understood in computing terms. Price was a free-lance science journalist dedicated to smash superstitious myths in order to promote rationality. For him computers and mathematics were the key to saving the world, we can measure happiness and contain Communism with mathematical equations and computer technology. When Price discovered the work of Bill Hamilton he concluded that the human being was simply a soft machine controlled by an on-board computer. The mathematical conclusions of Price explained murder, warfare and genocide as strategies undertaken by the genetic codes which control human behaviour. Some people may even be wired to be murderers, we might kill distant relatives in order to secure close relatives for the sake of our genes.

By the time of his death Bill Hamilton had written a series of books which took the logic of Darwinian ideas like natural selection to an extreme conclusion. He argued that Western scientific innovations should not be utilised to prolong the lives of the genetically inferior. Nothing should be allowed to interfere with the strategies of the genes. We should take a stand against the slide into degeneration and against the scientific establishment, which he thought had covered up its own part in the creation of AIDS. He believed that the desperate struggle of everything to pass on its genes explained everything. For him there was no room for altruism and the weak should be left to die. Hamilton died after he contracted malaria, refused to take the proper medication and instead took aspirin which caused his gut to hemorrhage. As he died Hamilton knew he would live forever as a genetic code which he had transmitted in his life time.

With the particular brand of evolutionary biology, promulgated by these men, Richard Dawkins went on to dismiss the exaggerated notion of free-will and in much more vivid language which the scientific establishment could not marginalise as easily. As a result these ideas were able to seize the public imagination. Dawkins argued that the behaviour of human beings is guided by genetic codes, which are almost like an on-board computer. We are simply machines which are interconnected and constitutive of a higher order. Each of us play tiny roles in a vast strategic game in which different genetic codes compete with one another and have done for centuries. For Dawkins the individual is a machine for passing on genes, he would emphasise it is the selfish gene but not the selfish individual. For it is the selfish gene is the immortal replicator, not the selfish individual and so there is room for plans to do what is conducive to the happiness of the largest number of people.

In spite of the strenuous rationalism of George Price, Bill Hamilton and Richard Dawkins, the three of them had recreated the idea of the soul as the genetic codes of human beings. These codes are immortal and will survive us into eternity with no distinction between good and evil. The existence of the individual is lesser than the genetic code which will surpass us and ultimately carries greater significance than us. At his most un-Christian moment Dawkins declared that we are descendent of a "tiny elite of successful ancestors", we carry the ancient "wisdom" of that elite with us in the form of DNA which is a lot like a computer code which has archived all that was good about the past. For Dawkins our ancestors were "winners" which might explain why he oozes complacency and smugness when he claims that the people alive in the 21st Century are more moral than the people who were alive in the 1920s. It would seem he is devoid of a sense of tragedy or even the most elementary form of moral realism.

It should also be noted that Richard Dawkins adheres to the Enlightenment conception of history as Progress, which Christopher Hitchens and numerous other New Atheists are also ensnared. The Progressive view (in the Herbert Spencer sense) of history was also shared by Bill Hamilton, which would be why he thought there is no need for radical change and we should just leave the "losers" to rot. The obvious moral outlook for Dawkins is utilitarian as he seems to have a bit more compassion than Bill Hamilton, but not enough to see that the New College of Humanities is a thoroughly disgusting proposal. Though it is the bourgeois self-interest proposed by Hamilton which is much more in line with the trajectory of their Darwinian outlook. It is clear that the bio-reductionism of Dawkins' work comes with the Thatcherite project interwoven into it, in a manner which is a lot like a genetic code funnily enough. It would seem that it is not coincidental that the liberals have become obsessed with matters of secularism whilst the radicals have started to look into theology more and more.

We should take note that the Fascist promise of an alternate modernity has changed a lot over the decades and the liberals have managed to shape it along the way. Though not in specific relation to Dawkins, but in relation to the post-political theories of genetics and technocratic liberal ideas favoured by the New Atheists. There is the permissive quality in postmodern nationalism today that claims it wants to restore free-speech by giving you the right to call coffee black which also allows us to call black men niggers. There is also a new affinity for technocracy and evolutionary economics among the radical Right. This would explain the alliance between the EDL and the Tea Party against Islam, let alone the support of the EDL for the spending cuts in Britain. It is clear that these crypto-fascists do not offer a 'social revolution' to buy-off socialism just before it could be killed off with the untermenschen.

In the last twenty-0dd years political struggles have been castrated as politics has been transformed into nothing more than management of society. The end of the Cold War supposedly marked the End of History as liberal capitalism went global. The old politics of grand narratives were then tossed aside, the world was beyond 'big ideas' now and the new politics would be managerial and pragmatic. But the evolutionary ideas of Hamilton and Price remain influential in our society to this day, above all the idea that human beings are automata controlled by genetic codes and we may have embraced that idea because we live in a world in which everything we do either good or bad seems to lead to terrible consequences. We have no idea what to do about the problems in the world in order to provide a comforting answer, a fatalistic philosophy, to excuse our failure to change the world no matter what we do. It also fits in neatly with the ideological constellation of our times.


peter scholten said...

you have obviously seen adam curtis' programme all watched over by machines of loving grace - and you have borrowed his narrative from the 3rd episode of his series - why do you not mention this?

J.T. White said...

Actually if you look at the tags of the article you will find the word 'documentaries' and if you follow me on Twitter you will find that this article is presented as part of two articles written about Episode 3 of All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. There's even a hyperlink set up to the full episode on YouTube. In the second article I wrote on the documentary I clearly refer to the last installment. So it has been mentioned... I guess I assumed that all of these "clues" would have been enough for readers, but just for you I'll edit the article so it has a CLEAR reference to Adam Curtis.

Anonymous said...

Who do you like, Real or Barcelona?