I’m reviewing a book by philosopher of science Peter Godfrey-Smith entitled “Darwinian Populations and Natural Selection.” (This is not the book review, forthcoming.) Godfrey-Smith makes an excellent argument at some point in the book (chapter 7, on the gene’s eye view) that genes are not at all the sort of things Richard Dawkins and some other biologists think they are.

For instance, contrary to the standard view, genes are not “unities of heredity” (and therefore do not last as “individuals”) for the simple reason that crossing-overs (the molecular processes that shuffle bits and pieces of genetic material, the real reason for sex) do not respect gene’s boundaries, but rather cut genes into pieces and shuffle them.

Indeed, as Godfrey-Smith points out, for this and other reasons sophisticated theoretical biologists are abandoning talk of “genes” altogether, referring instead to the more diffuse concept of “genetic material.” As PGS puts it, this is “a stuff, not a discrete unit.”

The interested reader will have to read PGS’s book or wait for my review (forthcoming in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews) to learn more about the issue of the nature of genes. But what struck me toward the end of that chapter is Godfrey-Smith’s unusual (and, I think, rather compelling) argument that talk of selfish genes (and memes) is one example of a broader “agent-positing” discourse that is shared, of all people, by some evolutionary biologists (though by all means not all, yours truly being one of many exceptions) and theologians!

Here is how PGS himself has characterizes the phenomenon: “Two explanatory schemata can be distinguished within the general agent-positing category ... The first is a paternalist schema. Here we posit a large, benevolent agent, who intends that all is ultimately for the best. This category includes various gods, the Hegelian ‘World Spirit’ in philosophy, and stronger forms of the ‘Gaia’ hypothesis according to which the whole earth is a living system. The second schema is a paranoid one. Now we posit a hidden collection of agents pursuing agendas that cross-cut or oppose our interests. Examples include demonic possessions narratives, the sub-personal creatures of Freud’s psychology (superego, ego, id), and selfish genes and memes.”

I must say that I am rarely struck by a novel enough idea that my first reaction is “wow.” This is one of those instances. There is something profoundly intellectually satisfactory in suddenly seeing disparate phenomena like Augustine’s god and Dawkins’ memes as different aspects of an all-too human tendency to project agency where there is none. Not to mention, of course, the admittedly wicked pleasure I’m getting from imagining Dawkins cringing at the comparison.

Godfrey-Smith refers his readers to another author, Richard Francis, who talked specifically about “Darwinian paranoia” in his 2004 “Why Men Won’t Ask for Directions: The Seductions of Sociobiology,” and points out that there are other ways of thinking about natural phenomena that do not require what Daniel Dennett called the intentional stance. Quoting Dennett: “Here is how it works: first you decide to treat the object whose behavior is to be predicted as a rational agent; then you figure out what beliefs that agent ought to have, given its place in the world and its purpose. Then you figure out what desires it ought to have, on the same considerations, and finally you predict that this rational agent will act to further its goals in the light of its beliefs. A little practical reasoning from the chosen set of beliefs and desires will in most instances yield a decision about what the agent ought to do; that is what you predict the agent will do.”

The intentional stance works well when it comes to predict what are people might do (and in fact is at the basis of Dennett’s work on free will and consciousness), but it is treacherous when applied to things that do not have (conscious) agency.

Again Godfrey-Smith on how to pursue research in biology while bypassing Darwinian paranoia altogether: “This is the kind of investigation where someone asks: suppose a population was like this, and such-and-such a mutation appeared, what would happen to it? Thinking this way does not require the idea that genes are ‘ultimate beneficiaries’ of anything.”

And, I might add, would save us from a lot of unnecessary misunderstandings and acrimony generated by people who use agent-centered language much too easily and way too loosely.