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Save Us From Ignorant Reporters

Paul Fidalgo flags an interview in the New York Times with Bill and Melinda Gates by a reporter named Claudia Dreifus, who clearly has no idea what Richard Dawkins’ selfish gene theory is about. She has the following exchange with them in the interview:

B.G. That was a fun day. You know, sometimes, when I come back to New York, I think about that day because it was an amazing thing… Warren had experienced a tragedy only a couple years before that. His wife had passed away. And that forced him to think about philanthropy. You know, Warren was thrilled about it. He made it fun. I gave him a copy of “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” which is the Adam Smith book that predates “The Wealth of Nations.” It’s got the idea that generosity is sort of this inherent characteristic of mankind.

Dreifus: So you don’t hold with Richard Dawkins about the “selfish gene”?

B.G. Well, I believe in most things Richard Dawkins says.

But there is absolutely no conflict between the idea that humans have an innate sense of altruism and Dawkins’ selfish gene idea. The selfish gene doesn’t mean a gene for selfishness. In fact, the selfish gene concept helps explain altruism and its tendency to be stronger within one’s family and tribe than with people one is not related to. Unfortunately, the reporter here is asking a question based on a premise she simply doesn’t understand.

Comments

  1. Artor says

    But Dawkins said atheists are genetically selfish! That fits with my preconceived notions, so that’s what I assume his book is all about. It’s only been out for less than 40 years, and I never bothered to check, but I’m right, right? Right?

  2. jesse says

    She plainly hasn’t read the book, (The Selfish Gene) and obviously as a result doesn’t understand the theory. But in that sense she’s probably no different from a lot of other people. Or maybe she read it 20 years ago and forgot the thrust of it.

    That said — this was one of those things that as they were editing the interview would have been seen if someone in the chain had known more than the title of Dawkins’ book. I don’t know if Bill or Melinda Gates read it either. Silly mistake, it makes the interviewer look bad to anyone who knows the text. I don’t know Claudia Dreifus except through her work. She interviews a lot of scientists, so in her case the ignorance is a little less excusable, especially since she’s been in the business 30 years.

    She isn’t hard to find, so you an always write her a note and let her know. I doubt she’d be too upset.

  3. Larry says

    Pssssttt. Claudia. I’ll let you in on a little secret. Book titles don’t always reveal what the book is actually about. Sometimes, you have open up the book and, you know, read it. Or, if that is too hard, at least read the dust jacket flaps. Those often provide a synopsis of the contents. And if even that taxes your brain, stop quoting the title as if you know what the fuck you’re talking about.

    It reminds me of a Simpsons episode where Bart is called to give an oral book report on Treasure Island. His report is solely based on the book jacket. “It’s about pirates. Pirates with parrots on their shoulder.”.

  4. exdrone says

    Claudia, I know you couldn’t be bothered reading the book, but I congratulate you for taking the time to at least read the title. Baby steps. Next, try opening the cover. I know it’s heavy, and you risk getting a papercut, but you can do it. Atta girl.

  5. matty1 says

  6. says

    That’s funny, my dearly-loved Nana (from a long line of East London fishmongers) told me she thought it was about our family: the sell-fish gene.

    Too bad she’s gone and all burnt up now, so she can’t enjoy that other people are being exposed to her terrible puns. :)

  7. observer says

    “Save us from ignorant reporters.” Ha. You may as well ask to be saved from the earth’s rotation.

  8. blindrobin says

    Lesson twelve in the punditry handbook : The fine art of advanced book title interpretation relegates the reading of books unnecessary for the purpose of demagoguery.

  9. Steve Caldwell says

    left0ver1under wrote:

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but dramatic arts is not actually a scientific field, is it? Small wonder she’s not read Dawkins.

    You are correct that theater and dramatic arts isn’t a scientific field. But some schools do label their theater/dramatic arts degrees as B.S. degrees.

    My daughter graduated from Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana. Her degree and the other degrees offered by the Theater and Dance Department is a B.S. degree. I don’t know why the school classified this degree program this way but some of the theater concentrations do get into technology stuff — lighting design, sound tech, drafting/design, etc. There’s even a bit of high school shop class stuff thrown in (wood shop, metal shop, working with power tools, etc).

    Even if it’s not a scientific field, there is more technology in this degree than one would find in an English literature degree.

  10. nathanaelnerode says

    Good grief. You don’t even have to have read the book. The *back cover* of _The Selfish Gene_ (or the jacket flap) explains quite clearly what the idea is, and I believe the Amazon description is sufficient too.

    The *gene* is selfish and doesn’t care about its host (the human).

    This “reporter” clearly knows nothing more than the title.

  11. Ichthyic says

    My daughter graduated from Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana. Her degree and the other degrees offered by the Theater and Dance Department is a B.S. degree

    must be a local thing.

    in CA, even a full biology degree only warrants a B.A. You have to have a minor/major in either chemistry, physics, or mathematics to get a B.S.

  12. eric says

    @6 – Nice. Evidently Ed was doing her a favor by excerpting, because the full quote makes her look even stupider.

    In fact, the selfish gene concept helps explain altruism and its tendency to be stronger within one’s family and tribe than with people one is not related to.

    It could lead to that result, but not necessarily. Personally I think its much more likely that we evolved a relatively indiscriminant tendency towards altruism. Living in a stone age tribal culture, that adaptation would have been effectively identical to an adaptation where you help your relatives – because pretty much everyone you contact in nature is your relative. And it’s less complex, because it doesn’t require the co-evolution of some way to tell family from foreigner.

    Its kinda like baby duck imprinting. They evolved a generalized “imprint on the first large animal you meet” rather than the more discriminating “imprint on momma,” because the former is a less comlicated adaptation which, most of the time in nature, works just as well. I think our tendency towards altruism is a similar short cut.

  13. says

    So to you other kids all across the land / There’s no need to argue, newswriters just don’t understand.

    eric “Its kinda like baby duck imprinting. They evolved a generalized ‘imprint on the first large animal you meet’ rather than the more discriminating ‘imprint on momma,’ because the former is a less comlicated adaptation which, most of the time in nature, works just as well.”
    Sure, it sounds simple, but when I tried it I’d barely started imprinting before the Department of Animal Services stepped in and shut down my impresses.

  14. Pieter B, FCD says

    Apparently the Selfish Gene has joined the Ugly American as a meme that’s completely at odds with the the text of the book.

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