change of vision
I’ve been reading Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, which is a well-written and engaging book. I read it mostly for the chapter that introduced the concept of memes, but I’ve also really enjoyed the discussion of evolution from the point of view that it’s the genes that struggle for survival, using us as survival machines that simply make it easier for the genes to survive. A few paragraphs from the introduction to the 1989 edition particularly intrigue me, for they speak of this inversion as a method. “A change of vision,” he writes, “can, at its best, achieve something loftier than a theory. It can usher in a whole new climate of thinking, in which many exciting and testable theories are born, and unimagined facts laid bare.”
Here’s the context:
The selfish gene theory is Darwin’s theory, expressed in a way that Darwin did not choose but whose aptness, I should like to think, he would instantly have recognized and delighted in. It is in fact a logical outgrowth of orthodox neo-Darwinism, but expressed as a novel image. Rather than focus on the individual organism, it takes a gene’s-eye view of nature. It is a different way of seeing, not a different theory. In the opening pages of The Extended Phenotype I explained this using the metaphor of the Necker cube.
This is a two-dimensional pattern of ink on paper [pixels on screen], but it is perceived as a transparent, three-dimensional cube. Stare at it for a few seconds and it will change to face in a different direction- Carry on staring and it will flip back to the original cube. Both cubes are equally compatible with the two-dimensional data on the retina, so the brain happily alternates between them. Neither is more correct than the other. My point was that there are two ways of looking at natural selection, the gene’s angle and that of the individual. If properly understood they are equivalent; two views of the same truth. You can flip from one to the other and it will still be the same neo-Darwinism.
I now think that this metaphor was too cautious. Rather than propose a new thoery o runearth a new fact, often the most important contribution a scientist can make is to discover a new way of seeing old theories of facts. The Necker cube m odel is misleading beacuse it suggests that the two ways of seeing are equally good. To be sure, the metaphor gets it partly right: ‘angles’, unlike theories, cannot be judged by experiment; we cannot resort to our familiar criteria of verification and falsification. But a change of vision can, at its best, achieve something loftier than a theory. It can usher in a whole climate of thinking, in which many exciting and testable theories are born, and unimagined facts laid bare. The Necker cube metaphor misses this completely. It captures the idea of a flip in vision, but fails to do justice to its value. What we are talking about is not a flip to an equivalent view but, in extreme cases, a transfiguration. (Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, Oxford University Press 1989, pages x-xi)
I think what I like most of all about this is Dawkin’s admission of having been too cautious, of his having simply claimed that two perspectives are equal, but that now he’s willing to say no, this is important. This can change the way we think. This might be a change in paradigms.