Richard Dawkins: How a Scientist Changed the Way We Think : Reflections by Scientists, Writers, and Philosophers

By Alan Grafen; Mark Ridley | Go to book overview

SELFISH GENES AND
FAMILY RELATIONS

Martin Daly and Margo Wilson

WHAT did research on human family relations look like before Richard Dawkins made the advantages of taking a 'gene's eye view' clear and widely accessible? We'd like to say that it's hard to remember but, alas, it's all too easy, for this field is still largely pre-Dawkinsian, indeed pre-Darwinian. The result is not a pretty picture. Whereas true scientific theories are reductionistic efforts to predict and explain phenomena from more basic facts and principles, what passes for theory in family studies is often just re-description with a veneer of jargon. When mothers are seen to differ from fathers in behaviour or sentiments, for example, the differences are routinely attributed to distinct maternal and paternal 'roles', as if relabelling the observations in this way somehow explained them. One is reminded of the Monty Python sketch in which a Miss Elk (John Cleese) proclaimed her 'new theory of the brontosaurus' as follows: 'All brontosauruses are thin at one end, much thicker in the middle, and then thin again at the far end.'

Fortunately, beyond the walls of the Family Studies departments and their professional journals, there is a lively and growing body of evolution-minded theory and research on fundamental issues. The crucial missing element, which the gene's eye view provides, is an appreciation that husbands, wives, and children have some basic commonalities and conflicts of interests whose distal origins reside in the substantial but imperfect overlap of their prospects for genetic posterity ('fitness').

In human beings, as in other sexually reproducing creatures, children are the fitness 'vehicles' of both parents, and natural

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