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227. Splitting apart (V)

Richard Dawkins relates a story where a teenage girl, around the time he first published The Selfish Gene, approached him and described how upset she was that the book reduced humans to robots for genes. We are just, in this metaphor, puppets for the genes inside us. Dawkins regarded her with scepticism: the poor girl could not grasp the cold and rational approach provided by science. She needed to lose these foolish emotions and accept that she was a meat puppet—a rather ugly phrase for a girl.

His metaphor is bullshit. It is just a question of levels: I could just as well say that the genes are the protein puppets of sub-atomic particles—just as Newton could have said we are all meat puppets of the laws of gravitation. To speak in this way is to confuse the levels of reality, the levels of reality being—in a sense—chunks, if not chunks of meat then chunks of something; chunks of dreams, perhaps.

We live at the level where people have hopes, aspirations, and intentions and this level is as real as our DNA, molecules, and the forces of gravity; it is the operative shorthand for reality, and it seems to work quite nicely. If I go down to the DNA level then I cannot negate the DNA through an appeal to subatomic particles: “Oh DNA, what sentimental nonsense! The real thing happens many levels down! If you’re not talking about neutrinos you’re just talking mumbo-jumbo. You, Professor Dawkins, have some sentimental attachment to ‘DNA’, perhaps a professional interest in keeping the racket going—just like the priests. Completely unscientific garbage!”

So far as I can tell, the people I interact with are not “meat puppets”—although, I must admit, since I live in England, it is sometimes difficult to tell. Generally, they seem to have hopes, dreams, and intentions of various sorts. They are somewhat predictable, but not completely predictable. I lack the complete information to predict their behaviours; and the complete information would surpass their DNA, anyway. If we take a “robot” to be a machine that has a limited, repetitive, and predictable repertoire of behaviour, then the humans I meet are not robots; even people as cynical as I am are sometimes surprised by what people do.

With his metaphor, Dawkins repeats an error similar to one made by Marx. Marx asserted that value is created by labour—capitalists steal labour value from the masses. Yet labour must eat; so perhaps the ultimate source of value is grain? Yet grain must photosynthesise, so perhaps the ultimate source of value is the Sun? Perhaps the capitalists really expropriate the labour value of the Sun, not the proletariat? Those of us who are children of the Sun may well agree that the Sun truly is the source of all our value; but the Marxists would be disappointed. They stop on the level of analysis that suits them and elaborate a metaphor, as does Dawkins.

The problem is that Dawkins is an influential celebrity, especially among middle-class people. Yet what he promotes is a kind of nihilism with a scientific veneer; he is someone—as with previous scientific fads, Freudianism and behaviourism—who looks down; everything is reducible to proteins or sexual drives or conditioned responses. These people never look upwards; they have no higher vision, only a pseudo-rational “down” that they have invented to deny human reality and higher constraints. They want teenage girls to feel that life is meaningless and that their actions as a person are guided by an invisible robotic hand. You say we are meat puppets for proteins; well, if you want to go down a level then I shall go up a level: we are playthings of the gods—of angels and demons. You move towards the dust, I move towards the Sun; and I am the more rational, for to live at this level of reality angels and demons are very much required—and very much present.


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