Evolutionists red in tooth and claw

1 April 1999 Nature 398, 385 (1999) © Macmillan Publishers Ltd.

Dust-jackets are frequently adorned by quotations from famous people praising the book. At first glance, Andrew Brown's The Darwin Wars is no exception. Pithy quotations from Steve Jones, Richard Dawkins, John Maynard Smith, Stephen Jay Gould and Daniel Dennett. Who could ask for more? However, on closer inspection these quotations turn out not to be about Brown's book at all, but quotations that Brown uses in his book. Only Dennett's blurb refers to one of Brown's own publications: "What a sleazy bit of trash journalism."

The Darwin Wars chronicles the battles over the past 25 years among warring factions in evolutionary biology -- the Dawkinsians versus the Gouldians, as Brown dichotomizes the conflict. In his narrative, Brown interweaves interpersonal relationships with issues of substance. For example, E. O. Wilson was especially hurt when colleagues whom he considered long-time friends viciously attacked his book on sociobiology, generating years of nasty exchanges in The New York Review of Books, the form of fisticuffs preferred by American academics.

Brown also details the issues that separated the combatants. For example, he discusses at length David Haig's work on the warfare between a mother and her fetus, Elaine Morgan's aquatic ape theory, Napoleon Chagnon's warring Yanomamö, Margo Wilson's explanation of why children are more often murdered by their mother's new boyfriend than by their biological father, and John Tooby and Leda Cosmides's arguments against the mind being a general-purpose tool. He devotes an entire chapter to the adaptive advantages of religious beliefs. In each case, Brown reiterates the familiar message that adaptationist claims are extremely difficult to check. If we accept evolutionary theory, as everyone in this book does, then some adaptationist claims must be true. The problem is deciding which ones.

Brown is a freelance journalist, a precarious way of making a living. As a journalist he must write well, at least well enough to keep his readers turning the pages of his books. From my perspective, Brown's first chapter contains his most successful prose. He relates a tragic story of the intellectual and personal relationships between three highly original evolutionary biologists, two well known and one obscure. In the late 1950s, William Hamilton studied with John Maynard Smith at University College London. Maynard Smith hardly noticed Hamilton. A decade later, both men independently came to realize how original the ideas of an amateur biologist named George Price were. Price had worked out a mathematical argument showing that altruistic behaviour is possible but that it is not in the least bit noble. According to Brown, this proof sent Price into a deep depression that was lifted only by a religious revelation that was visited upon him just north of the BBC Broadcasting House. Thereafter, Price tried to combine his work on the evolutionary process with ministering to the down-and-outs in London's back streets. It was not long before he had joined his charges as he descended into near madness. In the winter of 1974 Price killed himself in a squat near Euston Station, driven to suicide, as Brown sees it, by his work on the evolution of altruism and selfishness.

In many respects, The Darwin Wars is a remake of the tired old nature-nurture scenario. Back in the 1930s the environment was in the driver's seat -- no matter how horrific the crime, the response among the literate public tended to be reform and counselling. It was not his fault: his environment made him do it. More recently, genes have caught the imaginations of journalists and popularizers. It was not his fault: his genes made him do it. Today all sides agree that both nature and nurture are important in making us what we are, but the Dawkinsians emphasize the role of genes while the Gouldians emphasize culture. Hence, on the surface, the issue in The Darwin Wars is the relative mix of genes and environment.

But the deeper issue is not nature-nurture at all, but free will. Can our environment and genes gang up on us so that we are forced to follow their dictates? All sides answer that they can't, but exactly how such resistance is possible is not easy to say. Brown reveals himself as a closet Gouldian when he explains Price's madness in terms of his environment, not his genes. Although Brown acknowledges that "one cannot say exactly what drove Price mad", he attributes his mental disintegration and suicide to his failure to come to terms with Hamilton's equations. The primary cause might just as well have been genes.

Brown makes a mistake or two. For example, he identifies "being a woman" with "possessing a Y chromosome". In relating the early history of Mormonism in the United States, he mentions how Joseph Smith founded Nauvoo in Illinois on the banks of the Missouri river. Make that the Mississippi river -- I know, because I was born only a few miles from Nauvoo, and some of my ancestors were part of the "lynch mob" that shot Smith.

One of the strengths of Brown's exposition is that he does not pretend to be a disembodied intellect hovering above the fray. In similar circumstances he is likely to behave in similar ways. One thing that does come through is that the scientists Brown discusses really care about their science. The combatants "write from conviction, not for hire". That is why their disputes become so acerbic. If you attack mine, you attack me. Is Brown's book one more "sleazy bit of trash journalism"? I don't think so, but my judgement might be coloured by the fact that Brown treats my work very gently and relates no painful stories about me and my professional friends.

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