Book Review: The Genial Gene

The Genial Gene: Deconstructing Darwinian Selfishness by Joan Roughgarden

In The Genial Gene Joan Roughgarden seeks to replace the competitive understanding of evolution, known as sexual selection, with a cooperative one. The first sentence of her book reads, “This book is about whether selfishness and individuality, rather than kindness and cooperation, are basic to biological nature” (p. 1).

So what is the argument? Taking this first line, she wants to conclude something about basic biological nature. To do this, one can either define what basic biological nature is and then use that definition to derive conclusions, or else survey the natural world and find the best interpretation for whatever empirical results were found. She opts for the latter strategy.

To this end she first surveys and compiles examples of what people consider to be evidence for sexual selection and argues that this evidence has been misconstrued or simply does not support the theory of sexual selection. Then she offers a few logical arguments against sexual selection with the aim to highlight contradictions within the theory.

She then develops her alternative, called Social Selection. Social Selection is fundamentally based upon cooperation, not competition, and she proceeds to reinterpret the empirical research with respect to cooperation. Given the results of this reinterpretation, she concludes that the cooperative approach provides a more accurate picture of the empirical data than the competitive approach. Therefore social selection, not sexual selection, is fundamental to biological nature.

Can this argument be maintained?

Her argument fundamentally turns on the interpretation of the empirical research. (If her logical arguments were strong enough to undermine sexual selection on their own, she would have dedicated more space to them. At best, in my opinion, they could raise questions about sexual selection, but are not inherently damaging enough, even if they are accepted uncontested, to force a major revision to sexual selection.) She interprets the research in terms of cooperation and her opponents are those who interpret the research in terms of competition. Roughgarden claims her interpretation is the correct one.

Insofar as she is making an inference saying her interpretation is the best conclusion, her argument fails. She readily admits that the defenders of sexual selection are able to consistently create explanatory fixes for apparent contradictions in the empirical research. Since they are able to explain the data, the fact that she is unsatisfied by their explanations (and likes her own better) is no grounds for convincing her opponents to give up their explanations. After all, they have history and authority on their side. Her coming up with better numbers, that is, having formulas that (she says) more accurately represent the research, is not a sufficient reason for discarding a theory that has held up for many years, especially one that continues to be an area of active research. So, she has not successfully argued that social selection should replace sexual selection.

However, if we consider a more modest conclusion, then Roughgarden may be able to maintain part of her argument. She makes the point that the core Darwinian theory does not include sexual selection; it is a later contribution (ppg. 3-4). This suggest that there may be theoretical room for cooperation in addition to competition. But how much room?

Now the interpretive problem that she set up cuts the other way. Instead of her trying to convince us that her cooperative interpetation of the empirical research is the correct one, we ask the competitive interpretation why it is the best one. Empirical research alone cannot support one conclusion over another: the data must first be interpreted before a conclusion can be reached. As mentioned above, sexual selection has history and authority on its side, but age and endorsements are not arguments for being the sole fundamental methodology of biological nature. Without history and authority, sexual selection proponents only have their ability to explain bioogical research, which is no more than Roughgarden has. Therefore, advocates of sexual selection have no further theoretical resources to support their claim that sexual selection is the fundamental method working in evolution.

This means that Roughgarden does succeed in part. Based on the arguments she provides she is unable to maintain that kindness and cooperation underpin evolution, but she is able to cut sexual selection down to her size. She has shown that it is possible to reinterpret biological research in terms that do not rely upon competition and that sexual selection has no special theoretical privelege. Therefore sexual selection proponents can no longer claim to be fundamental biological reality: even though Roughgarden was unable to fell their theory, they won’t be able to down her either, and so she has established theoretical room for cooperation in Darwinian theory.

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