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The Human Nature Review Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 500-502 ( 1 November )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/genes.html

Book Review

Genes: A Philosophical Inquiry 
by Gordon Graham
London: Routledge, 2002

Reviewed by Neil Levy, Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, University of Melbourne, Parkville, Victoria 3010, Australia.

Few developments over the past few years have raised as many hopes and as many fears as the recent rapid accumulation of genetic knowledge and the ability to manipulate the genome. In these advances, many people see solutions to some of our most pressing problems, whereas others see only threats to human freedom, well-being, and even to life itself. Yet debate on these questions is remarkably ill-informed, with neither the boosters nor the detractors of genes and genetic technology having much of an idea about what genetic claims mean, or what we can hope to achieve using our new knowledge.

This book has two objectives. First, it aims to provide the background knowledge conspicuously lacking in this debate. Second, it aims to use this knowledge to shed light on the important questions which our genetic science and technology open up. Unfortunately, it fails in both objectives. It spreads confusion, and not illumination, because its author has not grasped the scientific information he aims to expound. Rather than providing readers with the background against which the ethical claims can be understood and evaluated, Graham succeeds only in burying himself further in the morass of half-truths and misinformation characteristic of the public debate over genes.

In his preface, Graham claims that his fundamental aim is to attempt to evaluate the claim that ‘It’s all in the genes’ (ix). For a philosopher, he notes, this is a statement that requires unpacking: ‘What’s all in the genes? And what does it mean to say that it’s all in the genes?’ (ix). Good questions, certainly, but there are more fundamental questions to be asked: just what are genes, and what do they do? Graham seems unaware that these are matters of some controversy. We shall find no discussion here of the various gene concepts that have been defined and criticized, by philosophers like Paul Griffiths or historians of science like Evelyn Fox Keller. Nor do we find any discussion of gene action and interaction: no mention of norms of reactions. Instead, his chapter on genetic explanation is devoted in the main to evolutionary biology and its critics.

This would seem relatively unpromising ground to till, if what we want is knowledge of how genes (supposedly) are responsible for the phenotypic properties of organisms. In any case, if we are to shed any light on genetics by this route, we shall need to get the claims about evolution right in the first place. Graham makes a crucial error here: he takes the Dawkins’ view of evolution to represent the consensus in the field. Thus, for instance, he takes the claim that ‘the process of evolution has been gradual, a long sequence of tiny changes’ (35), as part of the definition of natural selection. Punctuated equilibrium is ruled out a priori, on this view. It may well be the case that Dawkins is entirely right in his debate with Gould, but we cannot settle the question just by juggling words. Of course, Graham has not intended to do anything like that: he has made this error simply because he is unaware that the debate exists.

Graham is equally unaware that there is any debate over group selection. Here, as everywhere else, he takes Dawkins’ views as representative. Moreover, his discussion of group selection and its alternatives is riven by confusions. Indeed, the individual selectionist model he claims to be presenting is clearly nothing but group selection. He tells us that the ‘the gene pool operates […] within populations (not groups)’ (55), but unless he gives us some means of distinguishing populations from groups, this is not illuminating. Ever since Hamilton, biologists have explained the apparently altruistic behaviors with which Graham is here concerned using the notion of inclusive fitness; Graham does not have recourse to this idea, and without it, his explanation is simply group selection under another name.

This mistake is just one of many that Graham makes in setting out what he takes to be the claims of evolutionists. These mistakes matter, because Graham is concerned with evaluating these claims, as well as setting them out. He believes that he can show that claims about genes are often exaggerated, by exposing flaws in claims about the power of natural selection. His target here is once again Dawkins and his supporters, like Daniel Dennett (though again he makes the mistake of thinking that their views are broadly representative). Dawkins claims that the power of natural selection is limitless. But he is wrong, Graham says; the reason the dinosaurs died out has nothing to do with their fitness. They were very fit, relative to one environment, but the environment suddenly changed. We must therefore explain their demise by reference to ‘a factor that has nothing whatever to do with genetics, namely geological and climactic history’ (48).

As a criticism of the claims of evolutionists, this is just bizarre. Fitness just means possessing traits with a high survival value in a particular environment. Environmental changes are grist to the evolutionists mill, not factors which they forget to take into account. Similarly, Graham’s strictures against sociobiology and evolutionary psychology are also off the mark. Especially confused is his charge that evolutionary psychologists are guilty of ethnocentrism in assuming that contemporary hunter-gatherers have the same (primitive) mentalities as their forebears 40,000 years ago. The evolutionary psychological claim, of course, is that we all have the same mentality; that there has not been enough evolutionary time for us to have adapted to the sedentary lifestyle of the agriculturalist. Hunter-gatherer society is supposed to reveal to us the conditions under which we evolved, not give us a window into a mind that is no longer ours.

These mistakes matter, because Graham takes his criticisms of evolution to show that its explanations are only partial. He does not show this, of course, simply because he is shooting his arrows in the dark. We could continue to multiply the errors, but it is more important to see how they lead Graham astray when it comes to the discussion of concrete ethical issues. Graham takes the discussion of the (supposed) evolutionary basis of homosexuality to show that there must be a gene for it. Now, he asks, armed with this knowledge mightn’t we set out to eliminate this gene? We could not, he claims, because if homosexuality is a trait that appears only in individuals who are homozygous for the relevant gene, then 50% of the population will be heterozygous for the gene. Thus, we cannot hope to eliminate the gene from the gene pool (112)! This is breathtakingly ill-informed. There is no evidence whatsoever for the claim that homosexuality is caused by two copies of a particular allele; even if there were, there is no reason whatsoever to think that 50% of the population are heterozygotes for that allele. This should never have been allowed to go into print.

It is unfortunate that there is so much misinformation in this book, and so many confusions, for sometimes Graham is genuinely illuminating about ethical issues. His discussion of the topic of the availability of insurance to those who test positive for some genetic defect is refreshing, as is his focus on the wider social impact of the choices we make about genetic screening. These views deserve wider attention. They shall not receive it, however, when they are embedded in a book which contains so much else that is plain wrong.

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© Neil Levy.


Levy, N. (2002). Review of Genes: A Philosophical Inquiry by Gordon Graham. Human Nature Review. 2: 500-502.

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