Sunday, April 4, 2010

93 / Selfish

Dawkins' book, The Selfish Gene, is a classic of science writing. His thesis, as I get it, is that our current evolutionary status is a result of "selfish" genes trying to perpetuate themselves. We, and other living creatures, are simply the "gene survival machines" that our genes have employed to accomplish their goal. The future, according to Dawkins, will be much of the same.

Dawkins' thesis, at the level of evolutionary theory, is more or less the equivalent of the concepts advanced by Adam Smith, in his writings on moral philosophy. The "group" advances as each individual pursues his or her own selfish interest. Dawkins spends a good bit of time debunking the theory that our seemingly "altruistic" behaviors are intended to be good for the group as a whole. It's all about the individual (gene), according to Dawkins.

He may be right. It's a very convincing presentation. I'm worried though, when I look ahead, instead of back. In other words, I'm worried when I think about the implications of the "selfish thesis" going forward. It may be a great explanation of how we got where we are, but is this still the course we want to pursue?

On the level of moral philosophy (and economics; and politics; and government), it's obvious that we have the innate freedom to decide what we want to do. On that level, a question like, "is this still the course we want to pursue?" has a real meaning. A real question is posed, and how we answer it might change our behavior, and therefore change the future. In the realm of human affairs, in the world we create, we are "actors," not mere "spectators." In other words, we don't have to keep on doing what we have always done. We can change what we do, and thus create a new reality.

Dawkins, though, doesn't allow that "change" can occur by a change in "thinking." Change occurs when the past genetic behaviors don't work, in terms of gene survival, so that those practicing alternative approaches prevail in the race to survive and procreate.

If our ability to survive as a species now depends on our ability to put the "group" first (as I suspect it does, in a time of global warming), what's the conclusion we can draw from Dawkins' book?

It doesn't seem "cheery," as an Easter message!


  1. It's a great book. Two points:

    1. Dawkins, like many atheists, opposes what they call the "naturalist fallacy," the fallacy that nature is the guide that should be used for human morality.

    2. His discussion of memes suggests that memetic evolution can outweigh genetic evolution. Others have continued to work on that idea.

    BTW, nice blog, Gary! Just ran across it now for the first time.

  2. Brian:

    Thanks for this nice comment. I agree with what Dawkins says about memes, and I'm trying to get my head around what that means for the kind of issues I'm trying to work through mentally! Best to you.


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