Who is in control? YOU? Or your Genes?

A man is charged with first degree murder. His attorney agrees the man committed the crime… but argues that the killer is innocent because wasn’t in control of his own actions. That the killing was a result of him being, as Richard Dawkins argues in The Selfish Gene, a lumbering robot programmed by his genes.

Does this reasoning make sense?

Denis Noble of Oxford University, author of Dance to the Tune of Life: Biological Relativity and The Music of Life explores the consequences of reductionist philosophy at Oxford’s Rhodes House lecture.

What do YOU think? Post your comments below –


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4 Responses

  1. Jon Perry says:

    Noble seems to be labeling Dawkins as a “nature only” guy in the nature/nurture debate. I don’t think that’s accurate.

    In Dawkins’ book he carefully explains that genes don’t control our thoughts and actions directly like “fingers on puppet strings… pg 52”, instead they give us pre-determined tendencies with great levels of plasticity/ability to learn. This is in contrast to both the nature only concept Noble puts forth in his talk, and the blank slate idea which claims that everything – from gender roles to our love of music – come only from culture.

    • Denis Noble says:

      Not really so. The accused realises that genes only act indirectly, e.g through his brain, which of course is also influenced by his environment. Hence the use of the Libet experiment to go a stage further to think that his brain makes him do what he does. Dawkins frequently uses the Libet experiment to draw this conclusion, e.g. in his debate with Rowan Williams in Oxford. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jzqa6VMI0UQ

  2. Jon Perry says:

    Dr. Noble, I may have misunderstood your argument. I initially thought your issue with Dawkins is that you think he puts too much emphasis on nature (genes) vs nurture (experiences and beliefs). Was I correct or is your concern based more on the question of free will?

    The traditional nature vs nurture debate doesn’t seem to account for free will as a real active force, instead, the debate assumes nature and nurture are the only two real players. It probably is safe to say that Dawkins dismisses free will in the Selfish Gene but it is not safe to say he dismisses the importance of nurture in the book.

    In the Selfish Gene, Dawkins writes a great deal about the importance of nurture. He describes the plasticity of the brain and takes care to explain that our genes are not driving us directly like puppets. That part starts on page 52 with the quote I mention above if you’d like read it.

    • Denis Noble says:

      Exactly. You have it right. Richard Dawkins is very careful to include nurture. But I think he is not happy with the concept of freewill. That is why he quotes the Libet experiment in his debate with Rowan Williams. Actually, I am not happy with ‘freewill’ either. I think the word ‘freewill’ can be misleading. Whatever ‘freewill’ is it is not just acting at random. It can’t be entirely ‘free’ or it wouldn’t be us exercising it.

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