A Review of “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins

In the beginning was the gene.

On 27 December 1831, a young naturalist by the name of Charles Robert Darwin set upon a voyage of discovery on the HMS Beagle which was to last five years and take him all over the globe. He came back with a lot of specimens, copious scientific notes and an explosive theory which was to rock the world of ideas: the theory of evolution by natural selection. Suddenly, God became an unnecessary and unlikely hypothesis: man was pulled down from his high throne as the master of creation: and existence became a cacophony of chance events rather than a carefully co-ordinated orchestra. Naturally, the religious establishment rebelled. But like all ideas whose time had come, evolution hung on with great tenacity to become the widely accepted idea it is today.

I have been fascinated with the idea ever since I was introduced to it in high school. As far as I am concerned, the very argument that theists put forward against evolution is its greatest strength; viz. the complexity of the natural world. According to the believer, such a complex and “perfect” (whatever that means!) system has to have an architect behind it. But the fact is that it is not “perfect” – nature is dynamic. What we perceive as stability is homeostasis, a seething mass of life, eating one another and being eaten; and as nature shifts her stance, so does life, whole species dying out (like the dinosaurs) to make way for others.

But wait! Humans are different, aren’t we? We compete, true: but we also show altruism. People lay down their life to protect their progeny, their brothers and sisters, their countrymen… if we were selfish survival machines, why would we do this? It means we have the spark of divinity within us, doesn’t it?

Well… not exactly, according to Richard Dawkins. It only means we have the “Selfish Gene” within us.

The Selfish Gene needs no introduction. This is one of those iconic “pop” science books which everyone seems to have read, like The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris. I was a bit late (well, about 37 years!) in getting to it. However, the book has lost none of the charm, and the idea any of its power, due to the ravages of time: if at all, it has become stronger.

What is a gene?

Dawkins confesses that there is no universally agreed definition of ‘gene’. We now know that the blueprint for building of each human being is coded in 23 pairs of chromosomes, one of every pair being inherited from each parent. The code inside the chromosome is written in DNA molecules, the famous ‘Double Helix’ that Dawkins terms the ‘Immortal Coils’.

The DNA molecules are replicators. They replicate themselves; they also manufacture proteins, the basic building block of life as we know it. These DNA molecules (some version of them) were the original “life” in the “primeval soup”: they reproduced themselves and competed with one another to survive. Natural selection defined which lasted and which died away.

Dawkins defines a gene (a definition borrowed from G. C. Williams) as “any part of chromosomal material that potentially lasts for enough generations to serve as a unit of natural selection”. In other words, a gene is a copier with high “copying-fidelity”: that is, it ensures that it copies itself without mistakes so that longevity in the form of copies is ensured.

So in the primeval soup, these genes went on happily competing with each other, evolving newer and newer ways of surviving in an environment which got increasingly complex. As part of survival technology, the genes built a lot of machines, bunching together to form gene complexes in the context. The machines got more and more complex, from the single-cell amoeba to the human being.

Dawkins starts the book with the question “Why are people?” This is his answer – so that the gene can survive and replicate. We are nothing but vehicles for the genes, who exist to ensure their survival.

Pretty disillusioning, isn’t it? But Dawkins is far from done. After pulling down humanity from its pedestal as the “pinnacle of creation”, he proceeds to explain all the lofty sentiments such as love, altruism, sacrifice etc. as the result of strategies for gene survival – extremely selfish strategies at that. It is very difficult to stomach for a generation which has been trained to behold human beings as somehow special, and the above sentiments as the proof of their exclusivity which separate them from the “lower” animals. As one disgusted poster said in one of the fora where this book was discussed: “So altruism is like going to the potty? Oh dear!”

But even though disheartening at first, as Dawkins begins to back up his arguments with solid scientific reasoning, it is difficult to dispute him, and difficult not to get excited when he presents his theory with mathematical precision.

Aggression and Stability

One of the most common arguments put forward against evolution is that an uncontrolled state of aggression will lead to a free-for-all and the “stable” environment we see cannot exist. Dawkins explains this with the concept of an ESS (Evolutionary Stable Strategy), which leads to a dynamic equilibrium or homeostasis: he posits a theoretical society populated by pure aggressors (“hawks”) and pure pacifists (“doves”), and proves logically that over a period of time, the number of hawks and doves will stabilise in roughly equal proportion. This is because it is not the survival machines which are having the final say on who will win: it is the genes. This concept is further expanded with fine variations on the behavior – ultimately, every time, a dynamically stable configuration results.

In Chapter 12, ‘Nice Guys Finish First’ (added as part of the second edition), Dawkins takes this theory further and presents a varying set of evolutionary strategies, modelled on Game Theory. It describes in detail various evolutionary stratagems he tried out on his computer (with contributions from a lot of scientists) and the outcomes. This is a fascinating analysis and in my opinion, the most interesting part of the book – but that may just be the engineer in me, who loves anything mathematical!

Altruism

Oh yes. The old stumbling block. The favourite saw of the creationists. If we are all selfish, how does altruism come into the picture? Why do parents sacrifice themselves for their children, why do siblings do the same for each other, why do we co-operate at all? Should we not be at each other’s throats, all the time?

No, according to Dawkins. If we look at it from the gene’s point of view, it all makes perfect sense.

When we are talking of genes, we are talking of gene pools here: a group of genes working together so that the survival of each is maximised. Dawkins makes a brilliant analogy to a rowing team. If a coach is choosing a team, he would over a period end up with a group who can pull in such a way that the winning chance is maximised – an individual rower, however brilliant he is, would find no place in the team if he did not contribute to the group effort. In the case of genes, natural selection plays the role of the coach. Those genes which could not co-operate simply get discarded in the evolutionary race over a period of time.

Also, one should bear in mind that a gene is not a single physical bit of DNA; it is all replicas of a particular bit of DNA, distributed throughout the world. A gene might be able to assist replicas of itself that are sitting in other bodies. If so, this could be the origin of altruism. Dawkins calls it ‘genesmanship’. He spends four chapters explaining how it applies to siblings, offspring, lovers and apparent strangers. In the last chapter (‘The Long Reach of the Gene’), Dawkins extrapolates the above argument to how the gene in one species can extend its reach to another species, possibly to the detriment of the latter, to explain parasitism.

One may take it or leave it, but the arguments are well thought-out and presented with great clarity; with cold, scientific logic. There are no opinions here. It makes fascinating reading, even though the mathematical analysis may put some off!

Memes

The concept of the ‘meme’ is possibly the most revolutionary one expressed in this book. Dawkins defines a meme as a unit of cultural transmission, a basic idea which gets replicated in human brains, in the ‘primeval soup’ of human culture; which, according to him, is in the same state as the biological ‘soup’ was at the dawn of life on earth. To quote the author himself:

Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.

According Dawkins, all prevalent ideas (including the idea of God!) is a meme: the meme survives because it has a survival value in the meme pool. If we subscribe to this idea, the whole intellectual arena is nothing but a group of memes grappling for survival – not a very edifying thought. It seems Dawkins appreciates this, because he ends the chapter on memes with the speculation that man has the capacity for genuine, disinterested, true altruism. He says “We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.”

I, as a fan of the Jungian idea of the Collective Unconscious, could not help speculating on whether the meme could be embedded way down in the gene itself? Maybe the Collective Unconscious is nothing but little bits of consciousness, embedded inside the DNA, which guided the process of survival? If so, it could be case for Intelligent Design – or rather, Intelligent Evolution.

This is one of those ‘pop-science’ books which are enlightening and enjoyable at the same time. A must-read.

 

 

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3 comments on “A Review of “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins

  1. Pingback: The Selfish Gene | Science Book a Day

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