Current Genres of Fate: The New Immortal

by Paul North

Sketch of the DNA Double Helix by Francis Crick

Sketch of the DNA Double Helix by Francis Crick

Natural science is as valuable as its expression. What does this mean? An analogy with the economy will help. When we work, our working has to produce benefits for us beyond just the work itself. Those benefits can be called the expression of the work. Mostly they take the form of money—but not always. Natural science is similar. To be valuable it has to express itself in other forms, just as work does.

Even where natural science gives us a big new truth, like the theory of relativity in physics or the theory of evolution in biology, this truth—which may be compelling and very simple to grasp, or very complex and difficult and require some convincing before we believe in it—its truth is not its expression. Truth is one thing, expression another. Natural science has all sorts of expressions. We tend to think of it as a closed club with secret goings on in hidden chambers. Nevertheless, it periodically sends out bulletins that concern us all. This is part of what I mean by “expression.” Natural science—physics, biology, chemistry, both the theoretical and the empirical kinds—sends out messages about life and history to a very large audience.

Natural science has many expressions. To be sure, its earliest and most secretive expression is the technical papers shared among scientists, which journalists misquote and the NSF decodes for the purposes of giving grants. But of course these technical documents are only as good, as useful, as praised and as prized—ultimately—as their capacity for wider expression. They should produce conferences and volumes. They should change the practices of other scientists and they should eventually change the goals of science, by a little or a lot. Such expressions remain within the non-public confines of scientific circuits however. Science has its own internal public, but intellectual sectors like natural science always aim at a greater public. This does not mean that science follows fads and fashions. Quite the contrary: it exists to remake the popular sphere in its own image, just as art does, or entertainment, or the military or other kinds of politics. So what are the greater effects of natural science? What are its widest expressions?

Some are very familiar. Weapons are common expressions of natural science, and their effects are very broad. Deaths and destruction and the political changes that result from the use of those weapons are to a certain degree expressions of natural science. Commodities are expressions of natural science. They seem to take up an ever bigger share of the economy these days. I won't use the term “technology” here, because technology simply means the public and widely accessible expression of esoteric scientific knowledge. All science is technological to the degree that it is meant to be translated to wider uses at some point. Another public expression of science, harder to understand, is education. Sure, science is a subject within education. Every primary school has a science teacher. A primary school science teacher communicates the truths of science to the up-and-coming generation. In this way you could think of the science teacher as an extension of the scientist and the lab. Through her, successful, agreed-upon scientific truths enter the curriculum. Yet, the real expression of science in education is the formation of the student. Some students go into science, no doubt, and they will need facts and theories. The majority, however, go into other areas. They carry with them beliefs about the world they formed and which formed them in science class. Formed by science they will to some degree form their social and political world in its image.

A powerful expression of natural science is the citizen formed by scientific thinking—its methods, its doctrines, its view of life and the possibilities for living. It is strange to think of people you know as expressions of a way of thinking, but in many senses they are, we are. We are expressions of the sentences that describe the world to us so that we can move around in it and accomplish what those sentences tell us we can or should be doing. In this one sense, natural science is no different than political theory or for that matter Abrahamic religions. It tells a story about “everything and the whole,” which people come to depend on in order to carry out meaningful activities. Science gives us these sorts of stories. So, one of the widest expressions of science would be primary and secondary education and the stories we learn there. Another would be what used to be called “popular science,” but which is now so diffused throughout our discourses that whole divisions of society have become totally absorbed in it—journalism for example. It is hard to find an article about politics or culture, the choice of a mate or the choice of new socks, for instance, that doesn't turn to evolutionary theory for an explanation. It wouldn't be amiss to say that, in its popular form, the theory of evolution is the basis of explanation today for nearly everything. Without even beginning to talk about the theory itself—the “theories,” in fact: there are many—we can say that the popular image of evolution raises the specter of a new fatalism.

Are scientists responsible for the popular versions of their theories? Are they liable for the public image of what they in their removed, sophisticated societies think? Though you might not believe it, one of the most widely quoted biologists these days once made shocking statements about the relationship between scientists and the public expressions of their theories. Richard Dawkins, in the preface to the second edition of The Selfish Gene, wrote: “I prefer not to make a clear separation between science and its ‘popularization'.” And: “Einstein himself was no mean popularizer, and I've often suspected that his vivid metaphors did more than just help the rest of us. Didn't they also fuel his creative genius?”

Dawkins began his work as an ethologist, a biologist who studies animal behavior under natural conditions (not in the lab). By the time he wrote the preface to the second edition of his infamous book, Dawkins had already seen its wild popularity and heard scientists' criticisms of its analogies and metaphors. The shocking thing is that he stands up for the metaphors not only as translations of technical science for a wider public, but also as important for science itself. Metaphors important for science? Did Einstein get ideas for relativity from thinking about clocks and trains? Note here the strong acknowledgment, by a scientist and popularizer, of the importance of a scientific theory's expression. Popularization can produce a “change of vision” for the world and for science. “…a change of vision can, at its best, achieve something loftier than a theory. It can usher in a whole climate of thinking, in which many exciting and testable theories are born, and unimagined facts laid bare.” Much of Dawkins effort after this book has been directed at producing a change of vision in both the general reading public and in scientists. We can learn from Dawkins one crucial thing. A popular, accessible version of a theory does not only come after the technical, closed version. A story accessible to all can come before the technical, private world of science; scientific theories may be fueled by them.

In The Selfish Gene, the “change of vision” Dawkins hopes to generate is complex. At times it is at odds with itself. Let us judge the theory, or some parts of it, by Dawkins' own standard of “a change of vision.” He intends to change our view of evolution. We should no longer see the individual as the object of evolutionary forces. Instead, we should see the gene. He will give, he says, a “gene's eye view” of evolution. And we know that the gene is “selfish.” That is to say that life is organized such that evolutionary changes to individuals and to species serve to perpetuate particular genes. All phenomena of life are effects of genes trying to perpetuate themselves. For the moment I am not interested in his claims about genes. What interests me is how the gene theory reintroduces several varieties of fatalism back into the theory of evolution.

When we think of fate, we think there is some force at the end of life that attracts all our actions to it. In modernity however fate seems to affect the beginnings rather than the ends of things. Destinal forces emanate from the past, rather than the future. They control the course of events from the past forward. Instead of a fully fixed future that, looking backward, shapes the chaos that precedes it, we find, beginning somewhere in the 16th century, a new general framework in which the mechanisms of determinism happen from the past forward. The future looks indeterminate, and its details are gradually filled in by actions that precede it. One mode of this past to future determinism is causality. Fateful thinking, in the modern period, hides in concepts of causality, probability, and complexity. If we look for a single god or a designer controlling the course of our lives or of life in general, we will be disappointed. Fate now comes in tiny bursts, from many directions at once, and has to add up to destiny. These less obvious forms of fatality linger within seemingly revolutionary, anti-fatalistic theories and world pictures. In them, fate looks like causality and other necessary connections, automatism, lethargy, small distributed forces of control, “hard wiring.”

“The argument of this book is that we, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes.” So wrote Dawkins in 1976. Again, I am interested not in the technical correctness of the gene theory of evolution, but in the popular expression of the theory, which Dawkins himself considers of paramount importance both for us and for future science. “We are machines”—here is the “change of vision” Dawkins the scientist was preparing for us, the living. Individuals, species, and communities are automata controlled by genes. True, a gene doesn't control us like a puppeteer controls a marionette. It controls what creatures like us are and what they can do over very long periods of time. No doubt Dawkins is sincere when he argues strongly here and elsewhere that human altruism is not incompatible with the selfish gene. Still, the message for the public, the widest expression that gives this science its value, is that fate is back, and we have to reframe our values and activities accordingly.

“My own feeling is that a human society based simply on the gene's law of universal ruthless selfishness would be a very nasty society in which to live. But unfortunately, however much we may deplore something, it does not stop it being true.” The truth of evolution is our fate. We can only live with it, or deplore it, or perhaps struggle against it. As in a Greek tragedy, there is a hero (the individual) and a divine force (the gene), and the one tries in vain to overcome the other, fighting literally to the death. The drama is designed to show us the vanity of fighting forces beyond your control. There are other forms of fatefulness in the book as well. The automatism of individuals with respect to genes is only one. There is also the fixed limit of “fitness,” the absolute criterion for survival. If an individual is not adapted to survive in its environment, it will not, and its mutation will disappear forever from history. This is standard Darwinian fatalism. In Darwinian fatalism however, life is highly dynamic. The struggle for existence goes on in so many dimensions that it is hard to imagine life has any continuity whatsoever. Life is a wild dance party of transformations.

The neo-Darwinian synthesis, as they call it, is basically Darwin plus genetics. Genes become the focus of evolutionary change. For Richard Dawkins in 1976, more important than survival of the fittest was survival of the “stable,” and the thing that is stable is the gene. More than stable‑genes survive death. We know that no particular gene ever lives on materially, just as no individual does. You won't find the same gene in us as in early hominins, for example. But you will find a copy. Genes live on through and in their copies. Instead of material continuity, a gene has an immaterial, formal existence that transcends any particular material instance of it. Rather than beginning with a plan or design—with destiny, a fixed future—life begins in chaos and slowly, through the law that what survives must have had something that allowed it to survive, becomes more and more determined until some genes achieve quasi-permanence. This form of fate says: out of chaos and randomness emerges determination and stability. In the new immortality, according to the new “will of Zeus,” “the 'double helix'” of DNA becomes, as Dawkins calls it, “the 'immortal coil'.”