An unacknowledged letter to Dawkins

Professor J.M.THODAY F.R.S.,


I have just finished reading the God Delusion and have one comment that may interest you. I found myself puzzled by your evident feeling that religion was difficult to explain as an outcome of natural selection. You seem to have missed the equivalent in biological evolution, which is coadaptation. The work we did in the fifties and sixties, to explain the function of sex and the problem of in-breeding depression led to the conclusion that a well adapted population comprised a multitude of coadapted genomes. In my attempts to define biological progress without falling into the trap Darwin and the Huxleys fell into of assuming what actually happened had to be progressive, I wrote of stability and flexibility, Dobzhansky of adaptedness and adaptability. Mather, who developed the concepts of fixation and freeing of variation, used fitness and flexibility.

This outlook is not in conformity with theoretical population genetics which is essentially the theory of comparatively stable environments fully occupied by well adapted populations. Instead, or as well, we considered long term fitness, taking into account the need not only to preserve adaptation, but also adaptability to future unpredictable environments. Waddington was nice enough to call it 'Thodayan fitness'. When theoretical geneticists were asked why not take these realistic questions into consideration the usual answer was 'Then I couldn't do mathematics'

Co-adaptation allows for the maintenance of genetic flexibility without equivalent concomitant deleterious segregants, recombinants etc. (I think it may come up again in explanation of recombinant 'hotspots'.) The variation is only freed when an environmental change or opportunity turns up as with recession of ice, formation of new Islands, after mass extinctions or by plant breeders, or in artificial selection programmes. In each of these the variants are protected from competition with or mating with their more normal relatives. Otherwise stabilising selection, through competition between close relatives, damps out the tendency to change.

The equivalent in social evolution is 'Political Correctness' of which religion is but a form. Innovators must not be allowed to upset the apple cart. Hence what Darlington, from whose seminal book 'The Evolution of Genetic Systems' these ideas essentially sprang, called 'The Conflict between Science and Society' in his 1946 Conway Memorial Lecture.

Of course when religions meet the apple cart is upset just the same, and we have learnt, thanks to Socrates who took hemlock rather than temper his teaching to the politically correct, that free discussion is the source of social progress as well as of disruption. That leaves the same problem of where the balance between stability and flexibility should to be set.

I am copying this by letter in case your e mail is overwhelmed. Subject to your approval I will in due course put it on my website.

© J M Thoday