The Selfish Gene
by Greg Miletic

© 2006 Greg Miletic

Originally Submitted for Honors 212: Biotechnology and Philosophy
Professor Les Erickson and Joerg Tuske

            “When it’s all over, it’s not who you were. It’s whether you made a difference” (Quotes). This quotation from Bob Dole offers an optimistic, somewhat uplifting feeling about the world and life in general. It can be inferred from these words by Dole that in his mind, the meaning of life is for one to simply not to be apathetic and to be active and involved in things, so one can make a difference. Whether making a difference means impacting a small group of people or many, the important thing is that a difference was made. But is this really why we are here on earth today? Do our lives actually have meaning if we make a difference during them, however big the difference may be? Many people would like to think that this is true because it gives us, as individuals, a sense of belonging in this massive world. In The Selfish Gene, however, Richard Dawkins presents to us his viewpoint as to why humans, or any living organism for that matter, are here on earth today.

            In his book, Dawkins tries to offer a view of the world that makes sense in an evolutionary context. While he states in the beginning that his book is not intended to be a “general advocacy of Darwinism” (Dawkins 1), he conveys his opinion that evolution is correct without question. His interpretation of Darwin’s theory of evolution is that the basis of this theory rests on the fact that genes are selfish. A gene simply replicates over and over again in organisms that give it the best chance to do so. If the gene has changed or if it has failed to replicate and continue on into existence, then it has failed. A gene also competes against other alleles in the strive for survival.  Dawkins also points out that this desire to replicate is unintentional; the gene does not consciously think about how it can survive for as long as possible. This leads to the main point that Dawkins says as to why humans are exist, in other words, the meaning of our lives: we are here on earth, as are all other living organisms, to serve as “survival machines” for the genes. The genes use our bodies for the purpose of continuing on, and when we reproduce, the genes replicate and survive on through another generation. And as stated before, genes do not intentionally use our bodies for this purpose. We are just the product of years of evolution, being the best thing available for genes to use as a means of survival. While Bob Dole’s quotation about the meaning of life carried positive connotations, Dawkins’ view is certainly grim and not uplifting.

            Even though Dawkins’ view is somewhat depressing and not particularly pleasant to think about, this does not mean that it is not right. After thinking long and hard about possible counterarguments to this theory, it has proven difficult to come up with any strong positions to go against it. Those who are religious and believe in creationism would undoubtedly be opposed to this evolution idea, as they believe that God created all living things and is the force behind how things develop. They believe that things are the way they are today because this is how God wants it and all of the accomplishments and successes of humans today prove that we are blessed and under the care of God. This religious viewpoint has been around for many years, but just because people have done something and believed something for so long does not make it right. One can simply look back to when people thought the earth was flat, or when slavery was an accepted practice. Also, in the terms of our achievements as a human race, Dawkins would question what makes humans so successful anyway? Just because we view ourselves as the dominant species does not necessarily mean that this is the right way to think. If one was to measure the success of an organism in how well it reproduces and replicates, then bacteria and rabbits would be far more successful than humans. To say that all of our advances in technology are simply just a side effect of our genes and their ability to survive is dejecting, but it does make sense in relation to Dawkins’ ideas about evolution. One cannot argue that genes have not been around since there has been life on earth and they continue to replicate and live on. As humans we have been around for such a relatively small amount of time on earth; we very well could be just another mutation of a survival machine for genes.

While gene replication serves as Dawkins’ main view of evolution, he came up with another idea of his own that does not directly have to do with non-physical evolution. Dawkins created the term “meme” for information that can be transferred from one person’s brain/mind to another. Wikipedia Encyclopedia explains how memes can include “thoughts, ideas, theories, practices, habits, songs, dances, and moods.” Dawkins explains how different theories and ideas, for example, can be passed on from scientists to teachers and from teachers to students. As long as the idea or theory is stays in someone’s mind, then it is surviving, or replicating. The memes that have the greatest use to or are most psychologically appealing to their host will naturally survive longer, as the host will recount the meme to other people and future generations.  Dawkins also brings up the controversial issue of the idea of God being a meme. What Dawkins says about this is, “The survival value of the god meme in the meme pool results from its great psychological appeal. It provides a superficially plausible answer to deep and troubling questions about existence” (193).  This shows that Dawkins believes that the reason that  the idea of God, and all of religion for that matter, has been around for so long is because it reaches out to so many people and is constantly being taught from one generation to the next. Dawkins would say that humans are simply complex survival machines for genes, and as a side effect this complexity leads to the development of complicated memes.

These views of Dawkins bring up some philosophical questions, an obvious one being whether or not a god really exists. Is the idea of God really a meme that has been developed by machines used by genes to survive? As stated in the previous paragraph, people who believe in creationism would argue that Dawkins’ ideas are nonsense because they leave no room for the idea of creation. His ideas also go against the Intelligent Design Theory because this theory states that since the universe has design, there had to have been a designer. Dawkins would argue that all of the designs around the universe today have design because they have evolved into them and have had billions of years to do so. The current design in the universe may be the most stable for our genes to keep on existing, and Dawkins presents this idea of genes affecting things outside of their hosts through his “extended phenotype.” This idea of the extended phenotype basically explains how a gene survives in a particular host and influences its behaviors, and the host behaves in a way that manipulates its environment. All of this is done to allow the host to have the best chance at reproducing, thus ensuring the survival of the gene. Therefore, in this way the gene’s effects are prevalent beyond its host. These ideas then naturally do not leave room for a god to exist. If the genes simply create hosts to be used for survival, and the world is influenced by the numerous hosts according to their genes, then there would be no guiding needed to be done by a god; hosts are ultimately guided by their genes.

This “guiding” done by the genes brings up the philosophical issue of free will. If genes have programmed us to work in a certain way, as Dawkins believes they have, then are we as human beings really free to act in other ways not beneficial to genes? Dawkins states that, “Brains may be regarded as analogous in function to computers,” and he believes that the way they, “contribute to the success of survival machines is by controlling and coordinating the contractions of muscles” (49). Dawkins also expands this analogy and compares our brain to computer chess programs. What this analogy means is that we are programmed by our genes (once again this is not a conscious action of the genes, it has been done by trial and error) to make certain moves and react in certain ways. These moves and reactions are made for the fundamental purpose of keeping the genes “alive.” This information could be taken in the sense that since the genes have programmed us in this way, then we do not have free will. However, since the genes have figured out that it is advantageous for their hosts to process things and move, complex organisms, like humans, have evolved. The definition of free will is a person being able to say truthfully, “I could have done otherwise.” Even though an individual who has had sex and has children, this person was not forced to reproduce; he or she could have done otherwise. As humans, we have evolved to the point where we can indeed destroy all genes if we actually wished to do so. We all have urges and desires to have sex and reproduce, but these urges can be repressed if the individual so chooses. Also, contraception and abortion are actions that do nothing to help the survival of one’s genes, but humans can choose to do these things anyway. It is because of these choices that we are able to make that we do in fact have free will. As Dawkins writes in The Selfish Gene, “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” (201). So even though, as individuals, it would be impossible to stop the replication and survival of genes from generation to generation, free will does still exist. Each individual could, if he or she so chooses to do so, go against the influence of our genes.

            Since this theory describes genes as being selfish, and we are merely “survival machines” for these genes, another philosophical question must be dealt with. Can morality exist if the genes of all living organisms are selfish? Dawkins believes that even though our biology makes us selfish, we do not have to lead selfish lives. He believes that morality and biology do not go hand in had, therefore it is possible for morality to exist in the world. Dawkins even provides examples of how different species display altruistic, unselfish behavior toward other members of their species. One such example is how many small birds will give some kind of alarm call when a hawk is present. This alarm call warns the other small birds that danger is at hand and it even puts the bird who did the alarm call at more of a risk than the other birds (6). Altruistic behavior like this is present in many different species, and it actually works to help the genes’ selfish “desires.” If individuals in a given species act morally right and unselfish by protecting other members of the species, then the species as a whole has a better chance at surviving, thus passing on genes to future generations. So it is interesting how moral and altruistic behavior can benefit selfish motives, but nonetheless morality does exist.

            As stated earlier in the paper, Dawkins’ ideas are not uplifting and fulfilling. It is discouraging to think that we are only here for our genes, and we are “successful” if we pass them on. And tying in with this idea, because the passing on of our genes means is why we exist, anything else we do doesn’t really matter and is nothing but a side effect. But as alluded to before, the depressing reality of Dawkins’ ideas does not necessarily thwart them. In my opinion, this theory simply makes too much sense to disagree with. A lot of the religious beliefs and ideas that are in contradiction with this theory of evolution seem to be irrational themselves. Religion is a thing that cannot be scientifically proven; it is based on a belief and faith. And because it is based on these intangible things, then the people that do believe in religion can always argue that you have to “believe” even if you cannot “see.” This means that there are always questions left unanswered, but these unanswered questions are justified because the people are not supposed to know the answers. Dawkins admits that many of the points that he brings up have not been scientifically tested or proven, but it cannot be argued that all living organisms do carry on genes, and genes have been around since the first living organism. Even though there are many complexities and intricacies behind this theory, as a whole it is simple enough to understand and clearly answers the question as to why we are here. This is why I find myself agreeing with Dawkins’ theory.

However, while I do agree with this theory, I do not get depressed because of the issue of free will discussed earlier. If I accept the fact that I am here simply to pass on genes to the next generation, then why not make the most of my life while I do it. Even if my life does not have any real meaning in the long run, I still feel that I can make my own choices regardless of what my genes “want” me to do. With that said, I am not going to consciously rebel against my genes and become a hermit and not reproduce because I would not enjoy doing that. I do see myself having a family, which means I will have passed on my genes, and this is not a bad thing. My point is that I can still enjoy my life, even if do succumb to my selfish genes’ will. That is why this theory makes sense and after dissecting it and thinking about Dawkins’ view of evolution, possible counterarguments to it, and philosophical questions that arise, it is not hard to accept.

Works Cited

Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. New Ed. ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1976.

"Quotes On the Meaning of Life." About. 2006. The New York Times Company. 15 Mar. 2006 <http://quotations.about.com>.

"The Selfish Gene." Wikipedia: the Free Encyclopedia. Mar. 2006. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 15 Mar. 2006 <http://en.wikipedia.org>.

Bibliography

Dawkins, Richard. “Reply to Fix and Greene.” JSTOR. 1978. American Sociological Association. 14 Mar. 2006 <http://www.jstor.org>.

Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. New Ed. ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1976.

Fix, Alan G. "Genocentric Social Theory." JSTOR. 1978. American Sociological Association. 14 Mar. 2006 <http://www.jstor.org>.

Greene, Penelope J. “From Genes to Memes?.” JSTOR. 1978. American Sociological Association. 14 Mar. 2006 <http://www.jstor.org>.

"Quotes On the Meaning of Life." About. 2006. The New York Times Company. 15 Mar. 2006 <http://quotations.about.com>.

"The Selfish Gene." Wikipedia: the Free Encyclopedia. Mar. 2006. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 15 Mar. 2006 <http://en.wikipedia.org>.

 

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