Michael White made a comment in response to a poorly explained point I made about behaviours in the original version of Twelve Misunderstandings of Evolution, but in his haste to present his own take on the issue he added this: “The reason tigers hunt alone and lions hunt in packs is genetic. Anyone who doubts that should propose what kind of environmental change would make tigers, as they are now genetically, hunt in packs.”

I think it’s safe to assume that most readers would find nothing to criticize in that statement. The influence of the gene-centric view of evolution and of life has been so overwhelming that statements of that type provoke no doubts at all; they are accepted as being totally uncontroversial. But the statement is wrong.

Interesting things have happened in the months since the article was published and the comment made. Not only has my understanding of the subject matter matured just a little, (no jokes please Mike) but data has been recorded that sheds light on big cat behaviour.

Shortly after the article was published I saw a documentary about two tiger cubs, raised in captivity, that were taken to South Africa to be taught survival skills in preparation for a return to the wild. At the time the documentary was shot the progress of the cubs had been remarkable, but the most remarkable thing was not the substantial size of the prey they were hunting, but that they hunted as a team, in exactly the manner we would expect lion cubs to hunt that were raised under similar circumstances.

So there we have the environmental change for which Mike was looking. Or rather, that he was not expecting. And it does not even matter if the cubs later developed more solitary habits. The indisputable fact is that animal behaviours are so complex, and so heavily influenced by environmental and cultural factors, that behaviours can only be accurately described as phenotypic. It’s just plain wrong to say that the reason for a hunting habit is genetic. It’s like saying that the reason for speech is phonetic. There is a genetic component to hunting behaviours, but that is not what was stated, or implied.

And it shows what a lack of imagination there is behind the gene-centric view of life. Anyone giving more than five minutes thought to the hunting habits matter can come up with reasonable alternatives. For example, it’s well-known that tigers are quite a bit larger than lions. If the prey hunted by tigers is, on average, smaller than that of lions then the need for team hunting would not be as great. (Evidence that behaviours are phenotypic, not genetic.)

But of course the origin of the gene-centric view should have been enough to alert thinking people to its dangers. Its origins were the misuse of science in the search for evidence to support the fervent hope, prevalent in 19th Century Britain, that certain people are born with a predisposition for poverty and criminality. Because that is the conclusion of the gene-centric view. That behaviours are genetic. And it’s wrong.

The foolishness of a genetic basis for behaviours really stands out when it’s understood that genes are not even the basis of more simple traits. Let’s break the hunting technique down into smaller segments. One factor a little less complex would be speed. As I pointed out in Twelve Misunderstandings; “The case of speed in a predator is an interesting one. It is dependent on so many factors- physical structures and their relationships, metabolism for fast access to energy or the storage of it, emotional factors in the will to push to the limits, and the developmental factors behind all these, that speed cannot be regarded as a genetic trait. It has moved beyond that, through genotypic, to become a phenotypic trait for which mention of genes is useful only as background information. It follows from this that in discussions of natural selection and evolution, which also deal with phenotypes, mention of genes is again only useful as background information.” (Mike made no mention of that argument in his lengthy response to the article, so perhaps he agrees with it. Or perhaps not.)

But let’s break the hunting down to a far simpler segment – hair colour. Colour is important for predators in avoiding detection, and it’s commonly assumed that the basis of hair colour is genetic. But as David S Moore pointed out in The Dependent Gene, (ya gotta luv a title like that!) “...because genetic factors can do no more than specify amino acid sequences, and because hair colours are not themselves amino acid sequences, such (genetic) factors cannot single-handedly determine hair colour.” He went on to explain that hair colour is related to processes in the cell that breakdown tyrosine, which produces melanin, the levels of which are related to copper concentrations in cells, the copper level being determined by diet. We could add that diet is determined by a host of other factors, geography for a start. So we see that a simple trait is not a simple thing. All traits are the outcome of chains of relationships, causes, effects, and interdependencies. And as hair colour depends on other functions being performed by other genes, we see that all traits are phenotypic, not genetic. Because a trait belongs to the organism, not to a particular component of the organism.

So the bottom line is this. It might be legitimate to look for a genetic component in a behaviour, but it is not legitimate to look for, or talk of, a genetic basis of a behaviour.

The reason the gene-centric view is so unrealistic and has come up with so many wrong conclusions, is that it promotes an ideology. It pushes the line of individuality, of separateness, of otherness, of fear and uncertainty, of nature red in tooth and claw, of constant scarcity, and of course, independence from nature. And all the time trying desperately to avoid confronting the reality that because organisms share genes, genes are not special to individual organisms. They are special to life itself.

That is the really exciting thing about genes, but that line of thought cannot be followed because the gene-centrics are afraid of life; they are afraid of a concept they do not understand.