Dawkins is the kind of scientist who disapproves of philosophy but can’t stop himself trying to do some. That’s quite a familiar syndrome. I should say a few words about what I’m afraid he takes to be the philosophical chapters of his book. They are, in my view, a lot less interesting than the biology. Dawkins says, rightly, that Darwinism teaches us that the biological population of the world wasn’t made for our comfort, amusement or edification. ‘We need, for purposes of scientific understanding, to find a less human-centred view of the natural world.’ Right on. But then he spoils it by asking, in effect, if it’s not all for us, who (or what) is it all for? This is a bad question, to which only bad answers are forthcoming.
The bad answer Dawkins offers in the present book follows the same line that he took in The Selfish Gene: it’s all in aid of the DNA. ‘What are living things really [sic] for … The answer is DNA. It is a profound and precise answer and the argument is watertight.’ The idea is that, from the gene’s point of view, organisms are just ‘survival machines’ whose purpose is to house and propagate the DNA that shaped them. A creature’s only function in life (or in death, for that matter; see Dawkins’s adaptationist treatment of the evolution of altruism) is to mediate the proliferation, down through the generations, of the genes that it carries. Likewise for the parts of creatures: ‘The peacock’s beak, by picking up food that keeps the peacock alive, is a tool for indirectly spreading instructions for making peacock beaks’ (i.e. for spreading the peacock’s DNA). It is, according to Dawkins, the preservation of the genetic instructions themselves that is the point of the operation.
But that doesn’t work, since you could tell the story just as well from the point of view of any other of the creature’s heritable traits; there’s nothing special, in this respect, about its genetic endowment. For example, here’s the Cycle of Generation as it appears from the point of view of the peacock’s selfish beak:
Maybe genes think what beaks are for is to help make more genes, but what do they know about philosophy? Beaks see life steadily and they see it whole, and they think what genes are for is to help make more beaks. The apparatus – a survival machine, if that amuses you – works like this: beaks help to ensure the proliferation of peacocks, which help to ensure the proliferation of peacock DNA, which helps to ensure the proliferation of instructions to make more peacocks’ beaks, which helps to make more peacock beaks. The beaks are the point; the beaks are what it’s all ‘for’. The rest is just mechanics.
What’s wrong with this nonsense is that peacocks’ beaks don’t have points of view (or wants, or preferences), selfish or otherwise. And genes don’t either, not even ‘unconsciously’, though Dawkins is often confused between denying that evolutionary design is literally conscious and denying that it is literally design. It’s the latter that’s the issue. All that happens is this: microscopic variations cause macroscopic effects, as an indirect consequence of which sometimes the variants proliferate and sometimes they don’t. That’s all there is; there’s a lot of ‘because’ out there, but there isn’t any ‘for’.