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David Haig

From Darwin to Derrida

Selfish Genes, Social Selves, and the Meanings of Life

MIT Press 2020

New Books in Big IdeasNew Books in Intellectual HistoryNew Books in Religion & FaithNew Books in ScienceNew Books in Science & TechnologyNew Books in Science, Technology, and SocietyNew Books in Secularism September 10, 2020 Carrie Lynn Evans

In his book, From Darwin to Derrida: Selfish Genes, Social Selves, and the Meanings of Life (MIT Press), evolutionary biologist David Haig explains how...

In his book, From Darwin to Derrida: Selfish Genes, Social Selves, and the Meanings of Life (MIT Press), evolutionary biologist David Haig explains how a physical world of matter in motion gave rise to a living world of purpose and meaning.

Natural selection is a process without purpose, yet gives rise to purposeful beings who find meaning in the world. Haig proposes that the key to this is the origin of mutable “texts” that preserve a record of what has worked in the world, in other words: genes. These texts become the specifications for the intricate mechanisms of living beings.

Haig draws on a wide range of sources to make his argument, from Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy to Immanuel Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgment to the work of Jacques Derrida to the latest findings on gene transmission, duplication, and expression.

Genes and their effects, he explains, are like eggs and chickens. Eggs exist for the sake of becoming chickens and chickens for the sake of laying eggs. A gene’s effects have a causal role in determining which genes are copied. The gene persists if its lineage has been consistently associated with survival and reproduction. Organisms can be understood as interpreters that link information from the environment to meaningful action in the environment.

Meaning, Haig argues, is the output of a process of interpretation; there is a continuum from the very simplest forms of interpretation, found in single RNA molecules near the origins of life, to the most sophisticated, like those found in human beings. Life is interpretation—the use of information in choice.

David Haig is George Putnam Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University. Because he is a theorist, his research is wide and varied, working on everything from maternal-fetal conflict in human pregnancy to the evolution of plant life cycles. He has a particular interest in genetic conflicts within individual organisms, as exemplified by genomic imprinting.


Carrie Lynn Evans is a PhD student at Université Laval in Quebec City.