PW: How long have you been contemplating the rebuttal to the "selfish gene" theory you present in Why We Do It?
Niles Eldredge: When Richard [Dawkins] came out with his idea in the '70s, I was still developing punctuated equilibrium with Stephen Jay Gould. Steve took on these guys long before I did, while I was content to just tend my own field as it were. In the early 1990s, I wrote a book with Marjorie Grene about sociobiology and genetic determinism [Interactions: The Biological Context of Social Systems], but it was a very academic thing.
PW: You discuss how the media have embraced the idea of genetic determinism, popularizing it for many readers.
NE: I think a lot of it was a reaction to, or reflection of, the molecular revolution of Watson and Crick. Genes became all the rage. They still are. And genes are very much a part of the real progress in biological understanding, so the impulse to translate that into an evolutionary context was natural. I think it was distorted, as I say in the book, but natural.
PW: We've spent a lot of time and money trying to link just about every aspect of human behavior to genes.
NE: Edward O. Wilson was one of the guys who really developed that, in Consilience, saying that, sure, you have culture, but underneath all that, the most fundamental aspect driving everything is genes. Religion, music... it's all got something to do with genes. But nobody's done the work to actually link up particular genes with these items of behavior. There's no gene for religion that anybody's found yet.
PW: When critics point out that these behaviors don't appear to serve any evolutionary function, one common defense is to say, "Well, not now...."
NE: Yeah, what I call the "Pleistocene cop-out." Like rape; some people will argue that it's not acceptable to do it now, but it used to be. Well, there's no evidence that it used to be, and you can sort of get at that because we do have records of how hunter-gatherer tribes behave, which would be a sort of signal perhaps of how humans in the Pleistocene era behaved. And there's no evidence of rape among the great apes, either; there's a lot of indiscriminate sexual behavior, particularly in bonobos, but it doesn't qualify as rape. Nor is there any evidence for a disproportionate amount of babies born from men who go around raping women as opposed to those who don't.
PW: Your refutation of the rape thesis in the book struck me. I don't think I've ever seen a scientist actually describe a theory as "stupid" before in print.
NE: When I was looking at the book a couple weeks ago, I saw that and said to myself, "Wow, that's a really strong word." But that's just the mood I was in when I was thinking about that theory and writing those lines, so I left it.
PW: While determinists claim that genes compel us to have sex in order to reproduce, you (and Gould) propose that their function is not quite so active.
NE: There's no question that genes are active in the sense that they're the instructions for building an organism's body. But when you go from generation to generation, the genes that survive, the combinations of genes that survive, the frequencies of genes that survive, reflect the fate of the organisms that carried them. How well they did economically, how well they "worked" as combinations of features that enabled organisms to make a living. That has a statistical effect on the probability that organisms will be successful in reproducing, which is what natural selection is. In that sense, the genes are passively recording what worked better than what didn't. There's a lot of discomfort in accepting that, but it's the way Darwin looked at it, and I think he was fundamentally correct.
PW: What are you working on next?
NE: Lots of things. Every Tuesday, I go to the Science Times [section the New York Times] to see if they've run the article on me and my study of the evolution of material culture through the example of the cornet. I'm also writing a book on Darwin and what's happened to Darwinian thinking over the years, and I've got another project about New York as a microcosm for cities and how they relate to the natural world. It gets into the destructiveness of building a city versus the basic goodness that comes from its educational and financial resources.