Books: The Selfish Gene (Part 1 – Genes)

August 29, 2010 |  by

by Richard Dawkins, 1976

This is where it all started. Richard Dawkins’ bestseller popularized the theory of the gene as the unit of Darwinian natural selection – then originated the concept of the meme in its final chapter. “The argument of this book,” says Dawkins, “is that we, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes.” Agree or not, The Selfish Gene had a huge impact on science.

The gene theory is important because it shifts the evolutionary focus from the organism (you, me) to the gene (TNFRSF1B or ARHGAP26, for example). In other words, you and I are just “vehicles” for the replication and spread of our genes. According to the gene theory of evolution, you and I (individuals) don’t really matter – it’s the gene that counts and will live on (ARHGAP26). Keep in mind, the gene-centered view is only a theory – it’s never been proven – despite its popularity.

The first 10 chapters illustrate the theory in fine detail. Everything from generic altruism to caring for our brothers, sisters and parents, decisions on having children and questions of faithfulness (cheating or fidelity) are explained as consequences of our genes’ “selfish” interests. For our genes, everything is a statistical probability of survival, down to the last fraction. So The Selfish Gene offers us equations like this:

Net benefit of my behavior = Benefit to me – Risk to me + ½ Benefit to brother – ½ Risk to brother + ½ Benefit to other brother – ½ Risk to other brother + ⅛ Benefit to first cousin – ⅛ Risk to first cousin + ½ Benefit to my child – ½ Risk to my child + etc.

According to Dawkins, this is how genes “think.” And so, as a vehicle of my genes, this is how I act. It’s all a cost-benefit analysis, performed automatically in the nanosecond and ruled by the genes (the reason for the fractions: my brother and child contain a ½ set of my own genes, my first cousin a ⅛ set, so I will factor them into my decisions to the degree which they share my own genes). One interesting outcome of the theory is that it would be in the interest of mothers to have their babies adopted. The mothers’ genes would remain in the population, while the mothers would be freed to rear new babies (further spreading the mothers’ genes).

You also get classic lines like:

To a survival machine, another survival machine (which is not its own child or another close relative), is part of its environment, like a rock or a river of a lump of food. It is something that gets in the way, or something that can be exploited. It differs from a rock or a river in one important way: it is inclined to hit back.

If B is…my baby brother, then I should care for him up to half as much as I care for myself, and fully as much as my own child.

I am treating a mother as a machine programmed to do everything in its power to propagate copies of the genes which reside inside it.

I love how Dawkins refers to the mother as “it.”

Anyway, this is the gene-centered view. If you object, you will be chided by The Selfish Gene for sentimentality and blindness to the truth of gene selection. But maybe there is more going on. Maybe we don’t object because we’re sentimental – but because something about the theory seems untrue. As in: it doesn’t reflect reality.

At least not human reality.

The reality described by The Selfish Gene is on the biological level. However, as humans, we’re also influenced by two other levels: cultural and individual. Attempts to explain behavior solely on biological factors are going to fall short. In fact, it says a lot about how we define evolution. Traditionally, whenever we’re speaking of evolution, we’re talking about biological evolution. But we are evolving culturally as well. And individually.

Dawkins says as much himself: “We biologists have assimilated the idea of genetic evolution so deeply that we tend to forget that it is only one of many possible kinds of evolution.”

The meme is Dawkins’ attempt to explain cultural evolution. In Part 2 of this review, we’ll examine where he succeeds and fails.

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