Ex-Pope Benedict says The Selfish Gene is science fiction. He's half right

The former Pope Benedict XVI has
referred to The Selfish Gene as
science fiction in a long letter to an
Italian atheist, published in La
Republicca. This is not really fair to
the book, nor to science fiction, but
does capture an important point
about popular science. What sells is
not the stuff about science, but the
stuff about human beings.
The first thing to be said about The
Selfish Gene is that it is a very fine
piece of pop science writing indeed.
It is not as dense and thought-
provoking as Richard Dawkins's
second book, The Extended Phenotype
– but without it, who would had
bought or read the latter? – and it is
not as accomplished as The Blind
Watchmaker or Climbing Mount
Improbable but those early books are
much better than anything he has
produced in his subsequent career.
Their freshness and direct force is
extraordinary.
The Selfish Gene must have inspired
thousands of people to take up
biology. Beyond that, it had a huge
influence on the culture of nerds.
There is nothing original in the
biology and some can now be seen to
be wrong, but that's the fate of any
30-year-old undergraduate text (it
grew out of his lectures to students).
What makes it so powerful is the
vision of algorithmic biology: the idea
that there are mathematical laws
governing the development of living
things which can be seen working
themselves out over time and could, if
you wanted them to, be modelled in
computers.
Of course, the idea of mathematical
regularities emerging through the
operations of natural selection over
the course of evolution isn't new or
original to Dawkins. It is the
fundamental matter of theoretical
biology. The whole of the British
school of population genetics, from
Ronald Fisher, down through JBS
Haldane to John Maynard Smith,
worked with this stuff. But no one
before Dawkins had brought this
vision into the wider culture, and no
one except him could have done. The
nearest approach is perhaps Olaf
Stapledon's Last and First Men which
is infused with a Darwinian vision
but which – as a work of science
fiction – entirely lacks Dawkins's gift
for the anchoring anecdote or
biological fact. I think it's reasonable
to claim that no one except perhaps
William Gibson furnished more of the
imaginations of Silicon Valley than
Dawkins did.
But alongside the intellectual force
and drive, wrapped round it and
giving it shape, as histones give shape
to DNA, came Dawkins's shadow side
– the fact that he is his own greatest
fan and believer. You may think the
competition for this position is too
great for there to be any single
winner but I think it's safe to say that
not even the most devoted of his
groupies have their partner read out
loud from his books at bedtime, as he
does. But even if he does have
readers more delighted in his
cleverness than he is himself, they
don't have quite the same corrupting
effect on his understanding.
In particular, the ascription of
agency to genes led him and his
followers into endless confusion. The
point is not merely whether genes
can be selfish or generous, but
whether they can be said to have any
activity at all in the world. This is a
point which he freely concedes and
then forgets – his manner of dealing
with most criticism. If a gene is
defined, as he defines it, as a piece of
chromosomal material subject to the
pressures of selection, it is the
pressures of selection which are the
active and changing parts of the
picture, and the DNA sequence is
entirely passive.
It is still less true to imagine that
genes "build" us into "great lumbering
robots". The process by which a
stretch of DNA sequence becomes a
protein is complicated, and
determined by cellular mechanisms
which are in turn reacting to
pressures from their environment.
The process by which proteins
become bodies is even more
complicated.
The Selfish Gene is a brilliant phrase.
It's also accurate, so long as you
realise that "selfish" doesn't mean
selfish, "gene" doesn't mean gene, and
the definite article is a bit of an
abstraction. But taken as the literal
truth, it's about as much use as "In
the beginning was the word". Given
Dawkins's hostility to everyone else's
metaphysics, this is an unfortunate
weakness. "Science fiction" may not
be the right term for the book but it
does capture the sense in which its
hold on the imagination depends on
the parts that aren't science but
dazzling metaphor.