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Are We Robots?

In response to:

What Can't the Computer Do? from the March 15, 1990 issue

To the Editors:

John Maynard Smith, in his recent review of Penrose’s The Emperor’s New Mind [NYR, March 15], has made a couple of remarks about the recent history and sociology of biology that need to be challenged both as factual claims and as descriptions of motivation.

In explaining the probable resistance to Penrose’s ideas among biologists as probably a consequence of the difficulty of the physics, he writes that: “Sociologists are hostile to sociobiologists for the same reason: if E.O. Wilson is right, they will have to learn some genetics.”

First, the fact: “Sociologists” are not hostile to sociobiology. Many are but many were quite positive toward the theory from its inception, and not only sociologists, but political scientists, cultural anthropologists, economists and other social scientists as well. My reprint files are filled with papers by social scientists explaining every human social phenomenon from aggression to zealotry using the theory of inclusive fitness. Second, the ascribed motivation: The implication that if only social scientists had the intellectual leisure to learn genetics they would embrace sociobiology, or at least give it a serious hearing, misses the point. I am not as ready as Maynard Smith to say where the ignorance of genetics reaches its greatest depths. The retreat of some early enthusiasts from sociobiological theory, and its rejection by many social scientists from the beginning, do not come from their ignorance of the facts of history, but from their knowledge of the phenomena of human social existence. By its very nature, sociobiological theory is unable to cope with the extraordinary historical and cultural contingency of human behavior, nor with the diversity of individual behavior and its development in the course of individual life histories. Sociobiological theory depends upon typologies (“men would rather believe than know,” “sociologists are hostile to sociobiology”) which fail to correspond to actual contingencies. Sociologists who have rejected sociobiology have done so because it cannot be cashed out. It is too theoretically impoverished to deal with real life. My guess is that those social scientists who remain committed to the theory do so in the mistaken belief that a simplistic biological theory will do what simplistic social theories have not.

A bit further on in his piece, Maynard Smith again juxtaposes a “fact” about people with an assumption of motivation. “The people who are going to like this book best, however, will probably be those who don’t understand it. As an evolutionary biologist, I have learned over the years that most people do not want to see themselves as lumbering robots programmed to ensure the survival of their genes.”

Unless he has been carrying out a stratified sampling poll of Great Britain, John surely means “most literate and educated people, professors, students and people who write letters to the editors” since those are the people that he, and I, mostly know and hear from. But if what he says about them is true, then they are extraordinary masochists as well. They have made a best-seller out of The Selfish Gene in which the robot metaphor first appeared, and a popular intellectual figure and modest academic success out of its previously undistinguished author, Richard Dawkins, With enemies like these, people have no need of friends. Of all the vulgar errors about biology presently circulating. the notion that we are “lumbering robots blindly programmed” by our genes which “control us body and mind” (Dawkins’ original dictum) is surely the most popular by a long shot.

Is Maynard Smith suggesting that if only people could conquer their irrational dislike of the idea and understand it better, they would see that we really are such robots? He is among the world’s best biologists, and he knows as well as I do that every individual in every species is the unique consequence of a developmental process that is, at every moment, an interaction between the internal and external, between genes and environment. No organisms, not even ants, but certainly not human beings are robots controlled by their genes. But perhaps the ambiguity of his prose has misled me into asking whether he holds a view he does not have.

So for the sake of the “people,” let’s have a clear and unmistakable declaration. Putting likes and dislikes aside, and speaking as an eminent biologist, tell us, John, are we robots or aren’t we?

R.C. Lewontin
Cambridge, Massachussetts

John Maynard Smith replies:

Dick Lewontin wants to know whether I think that we are robots. I do not think that our behavior is determined by our genes, independently of our individual history. I agree with him that each of us is a unique consequence of interaction between genes and environment. But I do think that our behavior is to be explained by physical causes. There is not some additional cause for our behavior, a soul or spirit or will, independent of the physical events in our brains. This was the point I raised in my review of Penrose’s book. Penrose spoke of consciousness “doing something.” This seemed to imply that consciousness was an additional cause of behavior, over and above the physical events in the brain. I could not understand how Penrose could think this, or, if he did, why he bothered to write his book, which was an attempt to explain the brain in physical terms. Of course, I may have misunderstood Penrose’s position. However, I think that Lewontin would agree with me: I doubt if he believes that he and I have souls. Why, if I am not a genetic determinist, but only a materialist, did I mention Dawkins’s “lumbering robots” programmed by their genes? The point I was trying to make was that there can be a temptation, which should be resisted, to reject an idea because, to understand it, one will have to acquire knowledge that one lacks. My reason for making this point was to declare a prejudice of my own—and many other biologists—against Penrose’s ideas: if he is right, we will have to learn some hard physics, just as, if E.O. Wilson is right, sociologists will have to learn some genetics. Lewontin and I clearly differ in our perception of the attitude of human scientists toward sociobiology. This may have something to do with the difference between Boston and Brighton: it is hard to find human scientists sympathetic to sociobiology in Britain, although they do exist. I am, however, highly critical, not of the rejection of human sociobiology—I have been critical of it myself—but of the grounds on which it has sometimes been rejected. Often, it seems to me, it has been rejected by people who have not understood the ideas that they are rejecting. This is not a universal complaint: for example, Kitcher’s Vaulting Ambition was based on a serious attempt to understand the arguments. But, in discussion with human scientists, I often find myself agreeing with their opinions, but deeply deploring their methods of reaching them.

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