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A New Religion
David Stove

"Philosophy" 1992. 


Dolphins and some other animals have lately turned out to be more intelligent than was formerly thought, and present-day computers are capable of some amazing things. Still, if the question is asked, what are the most intelligent and all-round-capable things on earth, the answer is obvious: human beings. Everyone knows this, except certain religious people. A person is certainly a believer in some religion if be thinks, for example, that there are on earth millions of invisible and immo= rtal nonhuman beings which are far more intelligent and capable than we are.

But that is exactly what sociobiologists do think, about genes. Sociobiology, then, is a religion: one which has genes as its gods.

Yet this conclusion seems incredible. Was not religion banished from biological science a long time ago? Why, yes. And is not sociobiology a part of biological science (even if a very new part, and a controversial one)? No. Sociobiologists really are committed to genes being gods, as I will show in a moment.

But first consider the following. We would all say, because we all know it to be true, that calculating-machines, automobiles, screwdrivers and the like, are just tools or devices which are designed, made, and manipulated by human beings for their own ends. Now, you cannot say this without implying that human beings are more intelligent and capable than calculators, automobiles, screwdrivers, etc. For if we designed and made something as intelligent and capable as ourselves, or more so, it would be precisely not just a tool which we could manipulate for our own ends: it would have ends of its own, and be at least as good at achieving those ends, too, as we are at achieving ours. Similarly, suppose someone says that human beings and all other organisms are just tools or devices designed, made and manipulated by so-and-so's for their own ends. Then he implies that so-and-so's are more intelligent and capable than human beings.

With that in mind, consider the following representative statements made by leading sociobiologists. Richard Dawkins, easily the best-known spokesman for this movement, writes that we are . . . robot-vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes',[1] and again that we are manipulated to ensure the survival of [our] genes.[2] The same writer also says that the fundamental truth [is] that an organism is a tool of DNA.[3](That is, of the DNA molecules which are the organism's genes.) Again, Dawkins says that living organisms exist for the benefit of DNA.[4] Similarly, E. O. Wilson, an equal or higher sociobiological authority, says that the individual organism is only the vehicle [of genes], part of an elaborate device to preserve and spread them The organism is only DNA's way of making more DNA.[5]

I will mention in a moment some other passages in which sociobiologists imply that genes are beings of more-than-human intelligence and power, but that implication should be clear enough already from the passages just quoted. According to the Christian religion, human beings and all other created things exist for the greater glory of God; according to sociobiology, human beings and all other living things exist for the benefit of their genes. The expression their genes' is probably not perfectly orthodox, from the strict sociobiological point of view; being rather too apt to suggest that genes are part of our equipment, whereas (according to sociobiology) we are part of theirs. All the same, the religious implication is unmistakable: that there exist, in us and around us, beings to whom we stand in the same humble relation as calculators, cars, and screwdrivers stand in to us.

It must be admitted that sociobiologists sometimes say other things which are inconsistent with statements like the ones I have just quoted. Dawkins, for example, sometimes protests that he does not at all believe that genes are 'conscious, purposeful agents.[6] But these disclaimers are in vain. Of course genes are not conscious purposeful agents: everyone will agree with that. Where sociobiologists differ from other people is just that they also say, over and over again, things which imply that genes are conscious purposeful agents; and agents, at that, of so much intelligence and power that human beings are merely among the tools they make and use.

It is in Richard Dawkins book, The Extended Phenotype, that the apotheosis of genes has been carried furthest. Manipulation is the central idea of this book (as the author himself acknowledges),[7] and more specifically, manipulation by genes. Genes are here represented as manipulating, in their own interest, not only the bodies and behaviour of the organisms in which they sit, but just about everything under the sun.

Genes manipulate external objects. For example, spider-genes (not spiders) manipulate webs, termite-genes (not termites) manipulate mud to make their mounds, beaver-genes (not beavers) manipulate logs and water to make a dam, and so on.[8] Action at a distance, something which is usually considered to be difficult or impossible, is no trouble at all to genes.[9] No job is too big for them, either: beaver-genes can easily build a lake miles wide.[For example, a certain kind of cuckoo deposits its egg among the eggs laid by a reed-warbler. Once the eggs hatch, the exceptionally loud begging-cry of the young cuckoo, and its exceptionally colourful 'gape, induce the parent reed-warblers to give it more food than they give to their own young. According to Dawkins, this is a case of the genes of the cuckoo-parents manipulating the behaviour of reed-warbler parents, to the advantage of the former and the disadvantage of the latter.[11]

Now, think what this kind of description commits the user of it to. Just as maternity implies parenthood but not conversely, so manipulation implies causal influence but not conversely. The moon causally influences the tides, but it cannot manipulate them. Even if causal influence results in some advantage to the influencing agent, that is still not enough to constitute manipulation. If you and I are competing to catch the greater number of fish from our boat, and I by accident knock you overboard, then I influence your behaviour but do not manipulate it, even though your mishap improves my chances of winning the competition. To constitute manipulation, there must be the element of intended purposeful causal influence.

Most biologists would see, in a case like nest-parasitism, nothing more than an extremely complex example of causal influence. They might ascribe to the genes of the cuckoo exactly the same causal influence as sociobiologists do. What distinguishes the sociobiologist's description of the case is his insistence that those genes are manipulating the reed-warblers behaviour for their own benefit. Well, cuckoos do benefit, and reed-warblers lose, by nest-parasitism. But, as we just saw in the boat case, causal influence plus resulting advantage are not enough to constitute manipulation. The causal influence must also be purposeful or intended. But is that condition satisfied in this case?

If the nest-parasitism of cuckoos is a case of manipulation, it is certainly a staggeringly-clever one: far too clever for cuckoos, in particular, to be capable of. Can a cuckoo have a purpose as complicated as that of it-feeds-its-own-young? That must be extremely doubtful. Still, let us suppose that a cuckoo is clever enough for that. He would need to be cleverer still, to be able to think up a way of achieving this purpose. In particular, could he think up a way of achieving it which did not involve any cuckoo's ever going even within a mile of a reed-warbler? No: there is no one who will credit cuckoos with so great an intellectual feat. Yet even if a cuckoo could manage that part too, the hardest job would still lie ahead of him. For he would need, not just to have this brilliant idea, but to be able to implement it. But how is a cuckoo to do whatever engineering is required? He has no hope. Manipulative ability of any kind is not highly developed in birds, and cuckoos are distinctly below the bird-average in this respect. After all, hardly any of them can even build a nest.

But the feat of manipulation in question would not only be too hard for cuckoos: it would be too hard for us.

Suppose that nest-parasitism has not yet evolved among birds, and that young cuckoos have not yet acquired their special adaptations for it. Cuckoos (we will suppose) raise their own young, but are extremely slapdash parents. In these circumstances, we might become anxious about the survival of cuckoos, and decide to take steps to improve their reproductive performance.

Now, would you or I be clever enough to think of nest-parasitism as a means to this end? I know I never would; but perhaps you would. But would even you be able to think of a way of getting the host-birds not only to feed the young cuckoos, but to feed them better than their own offspring? A way, at that, which does not require any human cuckoo-helper ever to go near a member of the host-species? With all due respect to human intelligence, this seems hardly possible. Still, let us suppose that we did think up such a way, and that in particular we came up with the brilliant idea of endowing young cuckoos with exceptional voice and gape. Even then, the hardest part of the job would still remain: that is, to implement this idea. Well, human beings are as pre-eminent on earth for engineering ability as they are for intelligence, but we could not do this. We cannot build young cuckoos, or breed them, to precise specifications. And no genetic engineer could as yet undertake this particular task with rational confidence of success.

It would, then, be a feat of manipulation, not only far beyond cuckoo capabilities, but beyond present human capabilities, to prevail on reedwarblers, without having to go near them, to feed cuckoo-young at the expense of their own young. Yet this feat is one which, if Dawkins is right, cuckoo-genes first performed long ago, and have practised ever since without the smallest difficulty. The implication could hardly be plainer: cuckoo-genes are more intelligent and capable than human beings. The same presumably holds a fortiori for human genes.

The only way in which sociobiologists could avoid this implication would be, if they used the word manipulation, when they ascribe manipulation to genes, in some sense which does not imply purpose, as its ordinary sense does. But they do not do any such thing. Dawkins, for example, makes no distinction whatever between the manipulation which he ascribes to genes, and the ordinary sense of the word, in which he says (as we all say) that pigeons manipulate twigs and other nest-materials, beavers manipulate logs to build a dam,[12] and so on.

Gods, in addition to being thought of as more intelligent and powerfu l than we are, are always thought of as being immortal. It was therefore to be expected that sociobiologists would wish to ascribe this attribute too, to genes. Here is a passage from Richard Dawkins on this subject. The gene does not grow senile; it is no more likely to die when it is a million years old than when it is only a hundred. It leaps from body to body down the generations, manipulating body after body in its own way and for its own ends, abandoning a succession of mortal bodies before they sink in senility and death. The genes are the immor tals'.[13]


Most people would like some religion to be true. This may seem strange, when you consider that every religion is and must be more or less terrifying. But then, there are various things which can outweigh terror. One of them is depression, and if religion is terrifying, atheism is depressing. It is an intensely depressing thought that the brightest and best things the universe has to show are certain members of our species.

The trouble is, though, that every religion (or at any rate every one I know of) is incomprehensible when it is not obviously false. Of course, something which is incomprehensible to us might nevertheless be true, and religious people often remind the non-religious of this fact. But, though it is a fact, it is no help, because there are always many competing incomprehensibilities, from religious and other sources, vying for our acceptance. Tertullian said that he believed the Christian religion because of its absurdity. But alas, every other religion possesses the same claim on our belief (if absurdity really is a claim on our belief).

Sociobiology is not incomprehensible, but it is one of the religions which are obviously false. The only part of it that is true is the doctrine that genes are invisible. But this is not something peculiar to sociobiology. Everyone agrees that genes are invisible, at least to the naked eye and  to old-fashioned microscopes. Given present-day microscopy, however, any invisibility which genes can still be said to possess is invisibility of no very deep or interesting kind. (It is not at all like the invisibility of numbers, for example.)

Sociobiologists have consciously and avowedly revived the doctrine of the immortality of the germ-plasm (or of the germ-line), which August Weismann first published about a hundred years ago. (Dawkins, indeed, correctly describes his own overall position as extreme Weismannism' [The extinction of a species (that is, its last member dying), is a common-enough occurrence in evolutionary history; and every time it happens, every gene-line peculiar to that species comes to an end too. When you die, that is also the end of every gene-line which any cell of yours had been carrying-on until then. If a man has no sons, then many of his genes - namely, at least all the ones on his Y-chromosome - are not transmitted any further. If you have no children at all, you are not a node on any gene-line which extends into the future. Not a very robust kind of immortality, this! In fact I would be thinking seriously, if I were a gene, of bringing a suit for misleading advertising against Richard Dawkins and the Weismann estate.

The immortality of genes or of gene-lines, then, if not an obvious falsity, is an exceedingly misleading expression. (Dawkins himself, having said in the passage quoted earlier, that the genes are the immortals, was prudent enough to add at once that they are not really. The main reason, however, for thinking that sociobiology is false, is the simple one I gave at the beginning: that it is obvious that human beings are the most intelligent and capable things on earth. But genes are not human. Therefore (etc.).

Genes are so far from being the winners in the intelligence-capability stakes, that they are not even starters. They are just molecules of DNA, after all, and DNA molecules have exactly as much intelligence and purpose as (say) H2O or NaCl molecules: namely none. They differ from almost all other molecules in having a strong tendency to produce copies of themselves. But then, ever since we first noticed that the offspring of human beings are human, that the offspring of mice are mice, etc., we might have known that there must be some physical mechanism by which parental characters are transmitted to offspring. It need not have been gene-replication, but it did have to be some sort of machinery for producing the-same-thing-again. Of the details of this machinery, a great deal is now known. But this part of science has not brought any gods to light. On the contrary, like every other part of science, it has only served to drive those elusive beings still further into the shade.

Genes, even if they were alive, and did possess intelligence and purpose, would still be hopelessly miscast in the role of the world's greatest manipulators. Manipulation requires, not only influence and intention-to-influence, but means. Yet what means of manipulation have genes got? They are sans limbs, sans organs, sans tissues, sans nerves, sans brains sans everything. If they were capable, under these crushing handicaps, of any sort of manipulation, they really would have a good deal of the god about them.


It is logically possible (as should go without saying), that the sociobiologists are right and I am wrong. There is nothing objectionable a priori, or philosophically, about the proposition that genes are the most intelligent and capable things on earth. It is a question of fact, and nothing else, whether they are or not.

If they are, it will be an immense historical irony. Religion, which was driven out of biology by nineteenth-century Darwinism, will have been put back by - of all people - the extremists of neo-Darwinism.

This seems hardly conceivable, because for more than two thousand years science has been at war with religion. Yet if the sociobiologists are right, science has actually now brought us what the human heart has always yearned for but never before achieved: knowledge of beings which, in virtue of their immense superiority to ourselves, are proper objects of our reverence and worship.


  1The Selfish Gene (Oxford University Press, 1976, reprinted in Paladin Books, 1979), p. x.
  2 Op. cit., 185.
  3The Extended Phenotype (Oxford and San Francisco: Freeman & Co, 1982), 158.
  4The Blind Watchmaker (Longman, 1986), 126.
  5Sociobiology: the New Synthesis (Harvard University Press, 1975), 3.
  6The Selfish Gene, 210.
  7 See The Extended Phenotype, 57.
  8 Op. cit., ch. 4.
  9 Op. cit., ch. 13.
10 Op. cit., 200.
11 Op. cit., 68-70.
12 Op. cit., 59.
13The Selfish Gene, 36.
14The Extended Phenotype, 164.
15The Selfish Gene, 36.

Oryginal:  http://www.royalinstitutephilosophy.org/articles/stove_new_religion.htm