Footnote on Dawkins

An outtake from a work in progress:

DNA-centrism, as formulated in Crick’s “central dogma of molecular biology,” may well be mechanistic and reductive in theory; but in practice it turns into something else. According to Jessica Riskin’s revisionist account of the idea of mechanism in biological thought, the real issue dividing biologists has never been one of mechanism versus vitalism; the struggle has always been between two different accounts of mechanism, each of which is shadowed by its own sort of vitalism. One account sees mechanism as entirely passive and reactive, because its animating force comes from the outside (the human craftsman who makes a clock, or God as the originator of the clockwork of life). The other account sees the mechanisms of life as themselves intrinsically endowed with “various forms of agency: living forces, sensitive capacities, vital fluids, and self-organizing tendencies,” all or any of which “originate within the natural form in question” (The Restless Clock). The first account sees matter as intrinsically lifeless, and entirely passive and reactive, but at the price of positing a external, transcendent principle of order, as in the eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century “argument from design.” The second account embraces immanence; matter itself is already at least potentially agential or vital. Today, however, biologists find themselves in the paradoxical position of endorsing the first alternative while also seeking to deny any sort of transcenence. As Riskin puts it, contemporary biologists generally agree that

naturalism precludes treating agency as an elemental feature of the natural world, or indeed as anything beyond an irresistibly compelling appearance. To violate this ban has seemed tantamount to lapsing right out of scientific explanation into a religious or mystical one. Yet we have seen this core principle of modern science—banning agency from natural processes—emerge historically from a tradition that denied agency to nature in order to ascribe it instead to a designer God. (The Restless Clock)

This paradox is evident, for instance, in the writings of Richard Dawkins, probably the best-known biological theorist working today. Dawkins convincingly argues that no driving force of life is necessary, because natural selection is only a “blind watchmaker,” making the clockwork mechanisms of life without intending to (The Blind Watchmaker). and animal bodies are little more than “survival machines — robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes” (The Selfish Gene). Dawkins’ lurid metaphor is often taken as the ne plus ultra of scientistic reductionism; but it has always struck me as having more in common with the novels of William S. Burroughs and the early films of David Cronenberg than with any sort of scientific naturalism. That is to say, Dawkins’s vision, even against his own intentions, is unavoidably a sort of vitalism — albeit one centered on viral contagions and zombie reanimations, rather than on the supposed generosity of some superabundant life force.