Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Selfish Gene


Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Print.

Reviewer’s Preface

I have attempted to read this book several times in the past, and of the corresponding abandonments of the text, there are two distinct and overarching reasons: (1) loss of interest, typically at the hands of other books begging my attention; and (2) inability to relinquish predispositional baggage--the latter reason being chief. Whether these predispositions be my own (meaning, birthed in my own mind) or adopted from the onslaught of extraminutiae (my word for all the little things we see and hear throughout each day) that homogenize into judgements, I wanted to be the best reader possible. The best reader being, as Bacon defines, one who reads not to refute and argue but rather to weigh and consider. And I take this weighing and considering to imply taking as objective a stance as possible. So, now that I find myself in the ideal frame of mind, I shall keep the hotbed of contention surrounding this book and its author at bay and dig in!

I own a paperback copy of the Oxford University Press publication of the 30th anniversary edition, replete with Dawkins’s introduction to the 30th anniversary edition, a preface to the second edition, a foreword to the first edition (by Robert L. Trivers), and a preface to the first edition. In my usual fashion, I choose to save these prefatory matters for last; I want to see how well I absorbed the original text first. Though I have never read this book before, I’ve read enough opinions (good and bad) in other books to feel as though I’ve read it. I also choose to dismiss all of these interpretations in favor of forming my own. The one premise I take into this journey is that the book presents a theory of evolutionary biology. Full stop.

Chapter 1: Why are people?

As with any quality academic work, the first chapter sets the stage for the book’s main thesis, its objectives, and basic premises. When I read on the first page that “My purpose is to examine the biology of selfishness and altruism” I settle on the word biology, not the following and last two nouns. The context of the book is biology. Biology, of course, branches into various specialization, and I take Dawkins’s to be evolutionary biology. Thus we’re going to be dealing with a sort of calculus of life (note that we must not immediately construe life as the complex organism called man, necessarily) as it evolves towards the concepts we call selfishness and altruism. In addition, Dawkins points out that previous studies of such modes of behavior have failed because “...they misunderstood how evolution works” (2).

The first component in this misunderstanding of the evolutionary biology is thinking that the “...important thing in evolution is the good of the species (or the group) rather than the good of the individual (or the gene)” (2) It is important to note that when Dawkins speaks of the individual, he is thinking of the gene--these will be the constituents with which we deal in this book; and, indeed, the title should have made that clear enough. This view, a refutation of what is still taught in classrooms, is in contradistinction to one of my favorite lines from the movie Interstellar. In the movie, the aging professor states that we must stop thinking as individuals and start thinking as a species if we want to survive. And yet, to be clear, this is not to refute Dawkins’s claims. Remember, the statement in Interstellar is toward a deliberate attitude that we as complex humans must cultivate; Dawkins is on a much, much lower level of life, looking at how our basic parts so “think.”

Yes, Dawkins takes the view that “we, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes”--but before we jump straight into moral judgements (probably at the provocation of the word machine), we should note that he is not “advocating a morality based on evolution” (2). In fact, Dawkins follows with this: “My own feeling is that a human society based simply on the gene’s law of universal ruthless selfishness would be a very nasty society in which to live” (3). And, of course, sure, he does add that however much we don’t like the face of something, that alone doesn’t stop it from being true. In any case, let’s choose to take him at his word and throw off our predispositions. Let us attempt to step into the mind of a biologist. Let us begin to go back in time and become a gene, competing for survival. What sort of character would it take to survive? Along with this book not being a position on morality, it is also not a statement on the nature versus nurture debate; and it is also not an “...account of the detailed behavior of man….” (3). In sum, The Selfish Gene aims to show how individual selfishness and individual altruism can be explained by what Dawkins calls gene selfishness.

Chapter 2: The replicators

“In the beginning was simplicity” (12). Taken one way, this second chapter can stall out any and all efforts to grasp the science-based arguments of the book. One cannot help but acknowledge Dawkins’s swapping of “God” and “the Word” for “simplicity” in the beginning verses of the books of Genesis and John. This is also a foretaste of what would become a central tenet of Dawkins’s argument against the existence of God (or, to be more exact, an Intelligent Designer) in his book The God Delusion. But I here cease with theological discussion and choose to take this opening sentence as a reliable way to arrest the reader’s attention. His point, based on a mix of Occam’s razor and reductionist methodology, is that, based on evolutionary processes it doesn’t make sense to begin with something complex; it rather makes sense to begin with something simple.

Although Darwin is an influencer of Dawkins, Dawkins sheds more light on the distorted subject of natural selection and extends the argument lucidly. A key point is made in the substitution of “survival of the stable” for “survival of the fittest.” We must scale our thinking about these points way down from you and I working and travelling and eating nice meals and making coffee and “socializing” on Facebook to the “primeval soup.” In Dawkins’s own words, “ does not follow that you can explain the existence of entities as complex as man by exactly the same principles….” (13-14). Atoms are linking and forming molecules. Unstable molecules pass away; stable ones remain. And using the example of haemoglobin, we make the amazing discovery that some of these molecules are replicators: that is, they make copies of themselves.  

These replicators were the early forms of what we now know as genes. They made copies of themselves, replete with flaws as one would expect in any repetitious copying process. And as they fought to survive, they built protective machines in which to live. These machines are, of course, you and me. And “...their [the replicators’] preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence.” (20) If you find yourself becoming agitated, flip back six pages: “The account of the origin of life that I shall give is necessarily speculative; by definition, nobody was around to see what happened” (14). Fair enough? Let’s move on and reap the benefits of this brilliant scientist’s labor.

(Special note: I know I keep saying I will stave off the temptation to delve into any form of theological discourse, but I must point out the wit of Dawkins’s footnote that reads, “Actually it is a pleasure [to respond to letters demanding proof of a biblical error], for scientists can’t often get satisfyingly dusty in the library indulging in a real academic footnote” (270). The wit of this statement caused me to literally laugh out loud; and the multileveled implications caused me to nod my head, wipe library dust from my own nose, and say, “Well played, sir.”)

Chapter 3: Immortal coils

(First off, what a great moniker for genes: immortal coils. The poet in me savors the assonance of this word pair. Also, I’ve always wanted to start a paragraph with a parenthetical side note.) Having laid out the scope and thesis of the book, Dawkins now moves into a deeper definition of the gene, including its history, its development, and its modern functions (meiosis, mitosis, and crossing-over). He points out that “...there is no universally agreed definition of a gene” and submits his own, in debt to G. C. Williams: “...any portion of chromosomal material that potentially last for enough generations to serve as a unit of natural selection” (28). This definition sets up for a reinforcement of the main thesis: “ the gene level, altruism must be bad and selfishness good”; therefore “[t]he gene is the basic unit of selfishness” (36).

Again, we need not let our minds leap to the whole individual (e.g. human being). We are at the gene level. Dawkins uses this chapter to revive dormant memories from college biology, at least for this reviewer. Most of us are familiar enough with “thinking” in terms of inheriting genes and genes controlling the way we turn out, but in a mere fifteen pages Dawkins does a stunning job of clearly fine-tuning our conception of the gene, including debunking a couple myths (e.g. there is no gene that controls eye color). And boy does this guy have a knack for metaphor! In sum, humans (and other animals and plants) are likened to machines, so-called “survival machines,” that genes have constructed for themselves. Formerly, this survival machine for the gene was the primeval soup; now, it is you and me. If we continue to zoom in from the machine level, we get to the gene level, then the cell level, then the DNA molecule level, and then the nucleotide level. DNA molecules are comprised of linked nucleotides (A, T, C, and G, which may be familiar to most of us in the post-Human Genome Project era). DNA are distributed across our cells, and every cell contains a complete copy of that body’s DNA.

This was dormant information for me, but the way it is clearly laid out in this book was rather stimulating. It continues. These nucleotides are the same in all plants and animals! Here is where we can pause and re-assess the topic of evolution, typically thin-sliced down to just the “I don’t come from a monkey!” argument. It is not that we were once all monkeys; we all stem from the same primeval-soup genes. Hence why there are still monkeys around. Same original replicators; different sequences.. As Dawkins says, the important thing in evolution are differences. Truly, this is fascinating stuff!

We learn about genes and their rival allels (opposing genes) and the struggle to march on from survival machine to survival machine through the mixing up of sexual reproduction, and a question begins to arise--why does natural selection not favor survival genes and gene units that would result is the survival machine (our bodies) living longer (i.e. being stronger and healthier)? As Dawkins puts it, “Individuals are not stable things, they are fleeting” (35). And, “The genes are not destroyed by crossing-over, they merely change partners and march on” (35). This is a very interesting and important point in that it bolsters Dawkins’s criteria for a unit of natural selection: “longevity, fecundity, and copying-fidelity” (35). Human beings, as a composite whole, do not exhibit these traits.

Chapter 4: The gene machine

Now we step back up a layer, from the gene to the machine (our body). Using the analogy of a machine, replete with pulleys, cams, gears, etc., Dawkins eloquently sweeps through a foundation on the building blocks genes developed around themselves (in the machine) to improve their survival. Muscle development, nerves, senses, and so on, all culminating in that glorious and mysterious object known as the brain. But this chapter is not about showing how all of the aforementioned stems from genes; it is rather about behaviour, defined as “...the trick of rapid movement which has been largely exploited by the animal branch of survival machines” (47).

Behaviour at this point should not be construed with a moral judgement attached to it. This rapid movement is the muscle reaction to stimuli. But what is fascinating to me is how Dawkins develops the argument from the need to create muscles with which to achieve movement all the way to what is perhaps our most debated and undecided phenomena: consciousness. The final stage of this discursive trajectory hinges on the concept of “purposiveness.” In Dawkins’s words: “When we watch an animal “searching” for food, or for a mate, or for a lost child, we can hardly help imputing to it the subjective feelings we ourselves experience when we search” (50). How true this is! My daughter and I were watching a BBC Earth series called Life Story, and we marveled at how “aware” and “thinking” some of the animals were. Indeed, for certain moments, it were as if we could hear the animals’ thoughts. And, ergo, these “subjective feelings” we have bespeak the development of consciousness.

At this point I began to feel that a contradiction was emerging. Did not Dawkins earlier state that no one gene creates a certain feature and that we had to be careful not to leap from the genes to the overall machine behaviour? Well, as quickly as the questions arose, the answer came--yet again in the form of a beautifully rendered analogy. This book was first published in 1979, yet the analogy is prescient: a computer program. A programmer codes a set of instructions in a program, compiles it, and runs it. At that point, while the program is running, the programmer has no control. Likewise, the genes are likened to both the programmer and the program (very intriguing!), in that, once they are in an active gene machine they cannot be amended. “All [the genes] can do is set [up the rules] beforehand; then the survival machine is on its own, and the genes can only sit passively inside” (52).

This analogy prompted another question, and I even wrote it in the margin of my book (then, of course, I soon had to go back and append a note to my note: “read on!”). Why wouldn’t genes respond to stimuli and improve themselves more rapidly? The answer is summed up in the term “time-lag”: “Genes work by controlling protein synthesis. This is a powerful way of manipulating the world, but it is slow” (55). So how have they improved given that the world seems to present more eventualities than this time-lag makes possible to cover? The answer is delicious. “[T]he genes have to perform a task analogous to prediction” (55; credited to J. Z. Young). Thus, genes are perhaps the first business intelligence professionals, dealing with big data and predictive analytics!

Though Dawkins does not veer into the territory of philosophy of mind and cognitive science, he gives this reader enough stimulus to begin to question the role of organic genes in computers. My nascent argument is that, given that Dawkins is right that genes are the building blocks of natural selection that led to forms of awareness, would it not follow that we would need computers/programs built (evolved?) from organic replicators (or artificially organic replicators)? Admittedly, I am vastly ignorant of the field of biology, but I will tuck this line of thinking away for further research. My apologies in advance to my wife. I will be buying more books, it seems.

Chapter 5: Aggression: stability and the selfish machine

Chapters five through seven I read in a single sitting on a late Friday night. I told myself I would limit myself to a chapter a day with this book, but I couldn’t help myself with these three chapters--I was both utterly fascinated and striving for clarification. My snag was in separating in my mind the perspective of gene-selfishness and individual-selfishness. Dawkins has taken pains in the text to reiterate the point that the individual is a survival machine that the genes within have constructed to keep themselves alive, yet time and time again I find myself unable to dispense with thinking of selfishness in terms of the deliberate moral actions of a composite conscious individual operating in a world of other composite conscious individuals. The question looms for me: What is the difference in saying that genes are selfish and individuals (as most of us think of them) are behaviorally/morally selfish?

I believe the means of clarification is found, again, in thinking of genes “as a whole” and not as a single gene mapped to a single property: “We shall continue to treat the individual as a selfish machine, programmed to do whatever is best for its genes as a whole” (66; emphasis added). On the flip side, we must also discard the common evolutionary misunderstanding that natural selection favors the species and not the individual, another point that Dawkins is at pains to drill into his readers’ heads. Indeed, were I able to achieve a tabula rasa in my mind before reading seminal books like this, I believe the journey would be much easier.

Dawkins builds on the concept of our genes being pre-programmed with policies for survival and introduces the concept, credited to Maynard Smith, of an evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS). “An evolutionarily stable strategy is defined as a strategy which, if most members of a population adopt it, cannot be bettered by an alternative strategy” (69). Dawkins then simplifies the point: “...the best strategy for an individual depends on what the majority of the population are doing” (66). This concept spearheaded, at least for me, the path to grasping how to thinking about selfishness in the contexts and terms Dawkins elucidates. What follows from this introduction of ESS are various examples of the complexity of how these policies are developed and fine-tuned over time. The examples are written out like qualitative decision trees, showing how the policies cannot be as simple as “kill every adversary on sight.”

As expected with an evolving system of policies that  ensure the betterment of the majority, it is virtually impossible to ensure (remember, policies are basically predictive) the betterment and stability of the whole. Just think about policies and processes used in the workplace! There can be oscillation in effects and even a breakdown. Supposing a gene is introduced to the gene pool that disrupts an achieved ESS, there will be a time of temporary instability.

All this is well and good, very intriguing, but my “human, all too human” brain cannot help but think in terms like, “Well, all right, I’m getting this about gene selfishness and ESS and all, but, look, I’m human. I’m complex. I have a will and consciousness. Can I not just override my gene pool with deliberate action and will power?” As usual, Dawkins has anticipated this thinking and addresses it a couple of pages after the thought bubbles up in my mind: “It is possible for humans to enter into pacts and conspiracies that are to every individual’s advantage, even if these are not stable in the ESS sense. But this is only possible because every individual uses his conscious foresight, and is able to see that it is in his own long-term interests to obey the rules of the pact” (73). So, Dawkins affirms that presence of advanced consciousness for our species, but then shows how this would imply a form of selfishness! Well played. Furthermore, by “not stable in the ESS sense” he means not “immune to treachery from within,” in that, it is highly likely that an individual within the pact could benefits short-term from breaking the pact.

I can feel my former thinking challenged, and that is the mark, in my opinion, of a great theory/work/book.

Chapter 6: Genenship

That last point I touched on from the previous chapter is picked up in this chapter: “...a gene might be able to assist replicas of itself that are sitting in other bodies. If so, this would appear as individual altruism but it would be brought about by gene selfishness” (88). Gene selfishness can cause perceived altruism! This bit, found at the end of the opening paragraph of the sixth chapter, is perfectly timed and caused me to take a deep breath and relax. It is the key to my overarching questions. Since reading this, my mind has been reeling with examples (much more elementary than Dawkins’s copious selection of examples, of course), but I must place limits around my ruminations, lest I become more cynical than I am already.

On cynical thought that bubbled up is along the lines of how we interact with our family members. Are our familial relationships at base truly bound by Rousseau’s contrat social? Surely not. I rejected this when I first read it in Rousseau’s eponymous book. This thinking delves into the area of kin selection, which Dawkins has some important points to make. His first point is that, in line with my thinking, “Kin selection accounts for within-family altruism; the closer the relationship, the stronger the selection” (94). Of course, we need to properly construe the phrase “the closer the relationship” in terms of shared genes, not in terms of how socially healthy or intimate the relationship is. Indeed, I am bound to my parents and my grandparents because we share common genes, albeit selfish genes that assist each other in survival.

Chapter 7: Family planning

We enter this chapter with an understanding of kinship altruism (Dawkins, remember, does not define kinship in terms of the group). I have a better grounding on the altruism within my close family, and, at least in my opinion, it settles my concern about the human-level selfishness at play versus the described gene-level selfishness at play. But what about relationships outside of my kin? Taking the intriguing thought of genes assisting their replicas in other bodies, how do we reconcile this with the possibility of those other bodies being outside of our immediate family? Based on information from previous chapters (I cannot easily locate it; I wish I had made a note when I first came across it), it seems possible that the same replicators can be found in other bodies of the aforementioned qualification. Dawkins tackles this argument by dividing altruistic decisions into two categories: “bringing new individuals into the world” (child-bearing) and “caring for existing individuals” (child-caring) (109). Decision, in this context, is defined as an “unconscious strategic move” (109). The term “unconscious” is crucial for reading this chapter, perhaps the whole  book for that matter.

Chapters 8-10: Battle of the generations; Battle of the sexes; You scratch my back, I’ll ride on yours

This chapter, and, indeed, the next two chapters, left me with the feeling of awe (e.g. honey-pot ants have a caste of workers that serve only as food pods to other ants (171)) and, admittedly, information overload. In these four chapters, Dawkins responds to the interesting questions presented at the end of the seventh chapter. I will do the book an injustice with this summation, but I cannot possibly blanket the wealth of examples, cause-and-effect analysis, and conclusions Dawkins provides here. In the end, however, we find familiar themes: “...there is no genetic reason for a mother to have favourites” (125). “There general answer to the question of who is more likely to win the battle of the generations” (139). Even though I did get a bit bogged down with all of the ever-branching propositions in these chapters, they are some of the most thought-provoking pages I’ve ever read. Dawkins seems to have anticipated this response (though, to be clear, he is here referring specifically to speculation about reciprocal altruism within our own species): “...I leave the reader to entertain himself” (188).

Chapter 11: Memes: the new replicators

Way to end on a high note! Want a reason to read this book? For this chapter alone. But don’t just read this chapter on its own--the full impact of its original thought comes from the force of all the pages that lead up to it. Now, that’s not to say that I objectively view the concept of the meme and the meme pool as Dawkins’s crowning achievement in this text, but for this lover of culture and communication and art and language it is well near a crowning achievement.

Yes, Dawkins coined the term meme, the same word we use for those silly images and text we send flying all over the Internet. But this limits the original definitions, which Dawkins has as “a unit of cultural transmission” which can take the form of “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches” (192). The idea here is that the meme is the “new replicator,” but that’s not to say it has usurped the gene. The gene is still the biological replicator. But the meme is a cultural replicator, and they “propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain” (192). As with genes and natural selection, there are good memes and bad memes. Good memes will take hold in the mind and continue their high-fidelity copying.

The more one thinks through these conclusions, there more one appreciates this concept of the meme, which serves to beautifully underscore the concept of the selfish gene.

Author’s Final Note: Is this book worth reading?

Yes. But heed this disclaimer from John Maynard Smith: “If you are not interested in how evolution came about, and cannot conceive how anyone could be seriously concerned about anything other than human affairs, then do not read it: it will only make you needlessly angry” (359).


Here are some various thoughts that have continued to simmer after reading this book.

  1. Free will versus determinism. A popular debate, of course; and The Selfish Gene presents what I believe to be a great way of thinking about the two seemingly mutually exclusive/conflicting philosophies. Our genes are deterministic, pre-programmed and unchanged from the start (in terms of a single human life); yet our consciousness has evolved to the stage where we can override the determinism of our genes via free will.
  2. Reductionism versus collectivism. A basic premise in reductionist frameworks is that breaking down an object or a phenomenon into its basic parts and understanding those basic parts will tell us everything we need to know about the complete object. In other words, if we understand an object's parts, we gain a better understanding of the object. Thoughts and examples presented in this book, however, offer a nice provocation to this premise. The gene on its own versus within a group of genes (or chromosomal unit) can present quite different behaviour.

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