The Selfish Gene

The Selfish Gene does not refer to a gene that makes us selfish. It does not in any way seek to carry a moral connotation that we are inherently selfish (though that may be true).

The emphasis is on the second word.

The point of the selfish gene is that it is the gene that is trying to replicate, trying to see its descendants in future generations, trying to out-compete its fellows. In this view individual creatures are just bundles of genes from an evolutionary point of view. We are vehicles for the real actors. The competition at the creature level is just a manifestation of the competition among genes. This approach is why creatures cooperate with their family members more than other individuals: because they share more genes.

So can we not use “selfish gene” as if it was a scientific doctrine of original sin?




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29 responses to “The Selfish Gene

  1. Ha! definitely not. The gene is something that reproduces itself. It has neither motivation nor self-awareness. It just is. Mindless. It is only ‘selfish’ by human imaginative projection. Time and origin require rethinking. It is not hard to see sin in the human community at any time. Just consider the wars, pogroms, and prejudices we live with. Regardless of any proposition we might have about God, we sin against each other. Mechanically, this is a consequence of resources, competition, and capability. Survival of whoever survives and replication again – without consciousness. There’s the rub – why do we think we are conscious when we postulate that none of our parts is conscious? The myth of the garden is about the sin we find within us – not in a linear temporal sense but just because that’s what we find – consciousness of fear. Is there any solution? The great unknown of gravity relates to this – gravity – time – and consciousness seem to me to be the trinity of scientific imponderables – perhaps they will find themselves resolved in a large scale quantum theory. Our sin might decrease if we stopped judging each other (just what the Bible suggests – funny – and even funnier that we fail to do it).

  2. “The point of the selfish gene is that it is the gene that is trying to replicate, trying to see its descendants in future generations, trying to out-compete its fellows.” — Ian

    (0) I put this as “zero” because I know you agree, but it is necessary for evolutionarily naive readers: genes have no intention. But actually, since humans think in intentional terms, this idea sneaks in even on evolutionary sophisticates.

    (1) I don’t think the genes are “trying to out-compete its fellows.” It is not a zero-sum phenomena. Sometimes, competition is part of what is necessary for replication, and sometimes not.

    (2) I don’t think “seeing its descendats in future generations” is in there either. Objects that create successful offspring propogate. They have no desires and it maters not if the next generation looks like or even carries on the same genes as the ancestors. All that matters is propogation — replication is not even important.

    Thus, “Selfish” is even a more infortunate choice of words because in normal parlance it implies intention, self-ness and goal. None of these are what happens in evolution. We look back at propogating phenomena and add all that on it.

  3. Pray tell, what motivated this post? And what is “kthxbai” at the end of your post? Is it some evil internet gene meant to invade those of us with much purer blogs and good intent?

  4. I’m a fan of Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene”, and am always amused at just how much of an idiot Mary Midgley made herself look when she wrote a “review” without having read the book (or, more charitably, without having understood a single word of the book).

    But it all boils down to a simple truism – informational structures that possess characteristics that enable them to leave more “descendant” copies become increasingly prevalent in the overall pool. That is pretty much all there is to it, and all that is meant by “selfishness”.

    So do we even need to go near the tired old fallacy of “original sin”? It is the original characteristic of “successful” information, and as informational creatures, we ought to value it and vaunt it – it is the engine that drove our evolution. But if you’re saying that evolution itself is a “sin”, you could be right – what could be a worse sin than actually killing god, then hopping gaily over his twitching corpse? Yet such is our destiny. We have completed the job begun by those doughty architects at Babel, and, fish in ear, there wasn’t a darned thing god could do about it.

  5. Sex was all about not carrying that duplication happened — just propagation.
    Numbers are a good way to win, but niche-fitness works well too. No?

    Renaming “Original Sin” has been a favorite for thousands of years, eh?

  6. Ian

    @Bob – “The great unknown of gravity relates to this – gravity – time – and consciousness seem to me to be the trinity of scientific imponderables – perhaps they will find themselves resolved in a large scale quantum theory” You completely lost me at that point. I tend to think “sin” is a particularly loaded term. I associate it with phrases like “homosexuality is a sin” (not projecting that on you, just the kind of connotation the word has for me), so I don’t like it generally.

    @Bob & Sabio – Yes I am aware (as is Dawkins, for he, of course, coined the term) that there is no intention. But when you talk about purpose, particularly in evolution, it is hard not to use teleological language. The same objections are often made about lots of writing on evolution, Dawkins included. I’d respectfully refer you to Dawkins book where he spends far longer actually unpacking what the phrase means.

    @Sabio – point 1 – yes “fellows” suggests other genes on the same genome – I was thinking more of alleles here – the book delves much deeper into these kinds of issues. point 2 – again it is the language of intention because it is easier to write in the language of teleology. I agree it is inaccurate if taken literally. But my excuse is that I was drawing the contrast to the alternate use of the term as being “gene for selfishness” which is a mistake. Your second comment – an email exchange with a Christian who claimed that the selfish gene is proof of original sin. Its an argument I’ve heard several times now.

    @Shane – Yes, exactly. A replicator that is better at replicating will have more copies. In the classical model of evolutionary dynamics you need one further constraint, which is limited places in the pool. Without that the number of descendent copies is dependent on the number of original copies only (idealising differences in replication rate, of course). In fact under certain (pretty broad) realizations of those criteria, there are closed form mathematical solutions that predict the outcome of evolution based on a purely information theoretic formulation*.

    I love your interpretation about original sin. Evolutionary theory *is* original sin, because it shows how we can have human origins without God (and as any good Christian knows, the very definition of sin is actions made independent of God). Funny 🙂

    * Schmitt, Lothar M (2004), Theory of Genetic Algorithms II: models for genetic operators over the string-tensor representation of populations and convergence to global optima for arbitrary fitness function under scaling, Theoretical Computer Science 310: 181–231

  7. Ian

    Oh, and kthxbai? Lolspeak, I’m afraid.

  8. Ian

    “Sex was all about not carrying that duplication happened — just propagation.
    Numbers are a good way to win, but niche-fitness works well too. No?”

    Did you mean caring in the first line? If not I don’t understand.

    Sex is generally thought to be a mechanism that more efficiently allows fit genes to associate in a population. So imagine if you have a bacterium that evolves resistance to antibiotic. It does well. At another point in the population you have another bacterium with a mutation that enables it to aerosolize in sneezing. Well, because bacteria are asexual, there’s no way those two genes can come together in one individual unless a descendent of one or other independently evolves the other gene.

    With sex, however, two independent beneficial mutations spread through the whole population very quickly. Fischer’s Markov models show just how fast this can be.

    So sex is efficient. In animals, plants and fungi sex is associated with reproduction, because sexual interchange happens between the gametes at fertilization. In some species, however, this isn’t the case. Some Protists have separate sexual recombination and reproduction with relatively complex behaviour. Many bacteria can also undergo recombination through various processes, such as “transduction” via bacteria-targeting-viruses (an example of recombination through a vector).

    [Edit – a little jargon trimming]

  9. Ian – re gravity, time and consciousness, I have perhaps thrown my grappling hook too high and I lost the end of the rope. If you are already on the other side of the wall I was climbing, take care that it doesn’t fall on you. 🙂

    But re ‘sin’ – yes I agree with you that one cannot say x is a sin and do anything but damage. Paul says whatever is not of faith is sin. That is almost the conclusion of Romans. I don’t find the doctrine of ‘original sin’ helpful. I think it oversimplifies the myth of the garden. I see the disobedience of the garden as the birth of humanity as we know it. This is also metaphoric thinking so I can enter into the idea that I go after things for myself – food, wisdom, and power. The problem is, we are here – what do we make of the way we treat each other? Sometimes well, sometimes poorly. How do we deal with it? Does Law work – or do we need a change of heart? What is that human like that is whole?

  10. Ian

    “What is that human like that is whole?” Is there a typo here? I couldn’t parse it.

    “Does Law work – or do we need a change of heart?” Well, does a purported change of heart work (or has it ever, on more than an individual and anecdotal level?). Or do we need laws?

    You see I’m with you up until that point. But I think it is far, far too easy to posit a mythical solution to the problem in the end. You know I could say “we’ve tried through millenia to make laws to regulate our behaviour, yet still evil exists and more and bloodier wars are waged – at some point humanity needs to realise that only total submission to the will of Allah will solve our problems.” Or any other ending “only by eating spaghetti in full mindfulness of the Flying Spaghetti Monster”, and so on into farce.

    “Change of heart” isn’t a solution to the evils of the world – it is the inside of a greetings card 🙂

    “Paul says whatever is not of faith is sin.” Which is what worries me. I look through the history of Christian faith and a huge amount done in faith is what I would call evil, and a huge amount condemned for its independence from faith is what I would call moral. So I have to conclude that, on balance, sin is a very poor predictor of what is moral: what is good and what is evil.

    At that point, for me, sin is an irrelevant concept. I would be quite happy to see a great increase in sin in the world, if it was sin that is good. I would be quite happy to see a great decrease in righteousness, if that righteousness is what is evil. If sin really only means “connected with a faith in [as I see it] an imaginary being” then it is a ridiculous category.

    So I think you can’t stop at Paul. For “sin” to mean more than “whatever some particular Christian disagrees with”, we have to at least have some kind of statement about what kinds of basis it has. You could say that it has a deontological basis, for example (i.e. it is rooted in duties), but you’d have to say what those duties / rules are. You could give a consequentialist view of it (i.e. it is rooted in effects), but you’d have to say what effects are more valuable. Or you could give a virtue account of it, but you’d have to say what constitutes those virtues.

    Paul, who seems to have a deontological stance, is very happy to provide this kind of breakdown. Most liberal Christians I meet are not. I cannot tell from moment to moment whether sin for them is just identified with contemporary humanistic morality, with the golden rule (a deontological stance) or with the absence of the virtue of being justified by faith.

  11. Thanks Ian – excellent questions
    The sentence is parseable – what is (question) that human (object) like (comparative) that is (apposition) whole (adjective) – tam – complete – like Job, complete and upright – I love Job – I spent 5 months with it doing a concordant translation and a dramatic miniseries which we read over 5 hours with ordinary folk. It was transformational for them. They could see the questions. It is a marvelous parable.

    And I agree with your difficulties – everything you say. I once tried to read a book on values – very difficult. I was just asked in my heart (ha!) about conflict (a specific one that has been running for c 4000 years) – and I responded – “I have no opinion but it would be better if they loved each other” – and then I added, “but they are terrified of their tenderness and they want control over their women. Same problem the RC church has.” As Qohelet says – they haven’t a clue that what they do is evil. Of course when they played music together each side in the conflict discovered the other was lovable – the young players did, but not the politicians.

    On this I am with Augustine: Love God and do what you will. You see – your questions are the right ones. That is most important. Who will answer them – better they remain unanswered and endure refinement while we live.

  12. Ian

    Ah, got ya, thanks. something like “What qualities would a human possess if he or she could be said to be ‘whole’.”

    Thanks for the rest of the follow-up too. Great to have such a distinctive voice in the comments on here.

  13. i was thinking of this, of course without reading the book itself, as well. i think it lines up with the doctrine of original sin as understood by Irenaeus, where it is a fall “upwards.” we start as animals and slowly, over time, we grow to perfection. the selfish gene being the start as we move towards altruism. seems fair enough, but i will have to read the other commenter’s objections as well.

  14. Ian

    Hey Zero1 welcome, good to see you around.

    The selfish gene doesn’t mean we are selfish. It isn’t a gene for selfishness in the same way you might say the ‘brown eyed gene’ or the ‘tall gene’. Dawkins emphasis is on the gene: it is the gene, not the individual that is the unit of replication. It is the gene that is the individual evolving.

  15. hey Ian,

    so if we’re made up of genes, and largely driven by them in ways we don’t fully understand yet, wouldn’t it be fair to say that we are indeed selfish? a=b=c then a=c? maybe i’m missing something…

    i think we are. we are also capable of great feats of altruism and self-sacrifice as well. but on a per-day basis, we’re pretty darn selfish. oft times our selfishness is wrapped up and intertwined with good things, like love, caring, charity, etc. that doesn’t mean that being selfish is inherently bad, but kinda sets us leaning towards bad as a species if we don’t realize the full extent of our motivations for our actions. As R. Niebuhr put it, “There is nothing that modern psychologists have discovered about the persistence of ego-centricity in man, which has not be anticipated in the insights of the great mystics of classic religion.” (Moral Man page 54)

    btw, this is my new blog and name, you may remember me as Luke. i have this ID to be more discreet from my professional life. but i thought you should know.

  16. Ian

    Ah, makes sense, there was a vague recollection there: I liked you while simultaneously disagreeing with what you said 🙂

    Yes, evolution is a selfish process. We are the end of a long line of individuals who out-competed their rivals for reproductive success.

    My point in this piece is that the selfish gene is not a gene for selfishness. As if we could remove that gene and be unselfish, or as if selfishness has a simple genetic basis that condemns us to selfishness as a species. The phrase “the selfish gene” is sometimes used as if it meant “original sin” which I think is a big misunderstanding of the term.

    One can say that we have been selected for our ability to compete, certainly, and that the traits that made us successful as small-group primates do not make us successful in a global urbanized community. One could also say that the animal heritage we have is a form of “original sin” (as I said above, sin is a term I find terminally problematic). Yes. But I’d object if you think that’s what Dawkins means when he says “selfish gene”. Dawkins thesis is much more sciency and more fascinating, it asks us to look at a model where creatures are just vehicles for the replication of genes. That we should look at individual genes as replicating individuals. And when we do that, we can go the other way further and see that an ‘individual’ doesn’t stop at the boundaries of skin, but extends to everything those genes influence (the “extended phenotype” in Dawkin’s nomenclature).

    So sorry if I’m not being drawn on a debate on original sin, or selfishness. But the point I’m making is really poorly understood: when Dawkins wrote “the Selfish Gene” he did not mean that we have a gene for selfishness, in the way we might have a gene for green eyes, or one for susceptibility to diabetes.

  17. haha, nice opening line 😉

    yet i don’t believe we are JUST a vehicle for the replication of our genes, although that’s part of it. here is where i mourn the separation of science and philosophy, i need ppl like Dawkins to take that next step to say “here’s what that means for life today” and i haven’t got the sense of it yet. albeit i have the book coming to me from a friend, so i’ll check it out first hand.

    i think an individual is a feedback loop of culture, genetics, conditioning, archetype, and socio-familial background. and more. i get the argument and i agree with it to some extent, the next question is “so what?”

  18. Ian

    Now we agree!

    No, I don’t think we are either. Well, let me nuance that.

    I do believe that we are “just” atoms, just fundamental particles, just quantum effects. I believe we are “just” chemical reactions, “just” cells, and so on. But when you practice reductionism you also have to be aware of complexity. We could, if we wanted to, model a human being purely as the interaction of atoms. But to do so would be so complex that we’d never get any useful information about how a person’s biology is working, let alone psychology. So we make abstractions. We put an abstraction at a particular level and we can describe the properties and dynamics at that level. We do that at the chemical level, for example, thinking about proteins and catalysis, about nucleic acid replication and so on. We ignore the dynamics of quarks for this. We don’t solve quantum equations to do so. That doesn’t mean those equations are wrong or unimportant, just that they are at a different level of abstraction.

    Similarly if we want to talk about human behaviour, what it feels like to be a human being, and so on, then we have to get way up past the microbiology level. Sure the microbiology is responsible for our behavior, but it is very rarely a suitable level of abstraction for thinking about it. Instead, we need to make observations about psychology, about behavior, about culture and society.

    So while I’d say you are 100% the product of your biology, actually that means virtually nothing, because the interactions that did the production were so complex, so reliant on external influence and so unrepeatable, that you can draw almost no information from that. Instead you may as well say you are 100% product of your upbringing, which because it is psychological, is at least at a nearer level of abstraction. If you really wanted to go down to your genes, why stop there? You are 100% the product of your sub-atomic particles too. But by and large we all see why that is a silly thing to say.

  19. i think we largely agree. there is an interesting article in Seed Magazine called Beyond a Theory of Everything which i think is helpful to this conversation. esp. this quote:

    Scientists who try to understand why flows go turbulent, how taps drip, or why waves break, treat the fluid as a continuum: Subatomic details are irrelevant. Even if we could solve Schrödinger’s equation for all the atoms in the flow, the solution would offer no insight into turbulence. We can predict with confidence that an albatross will return to its nest having wandered 10,000 kilometers or more over the southern ocean. Such a prediction would be impossible — not just in practice, but even in principle — if we considered the albatross as an assemblage of electrons, protons, and neutrons. Animal behavior is best understood in terms of goals and survival rather than any concepts used by physicists or chemists.

    which makes me think of art. why the hell do we have it? it serves no evolutionary purpose, it isn’t genetic driven, it is largely useless unless one has a practical application to it like to diagram something, build something, or sell something. while humans CAN be reduced to basic genes and such, it doesn’t really help understand or behavioral biology. somethings are MORE than behavioral biology, sometimes we get quantum leaps in thinking or creativity that seemingly come from no where and can’t be rationalized.

    as Voltaire stated “Man [sic] is not a rational animal, but an animal capable of reason.” we are more than the sum of our parts and we can never fully understand ourselves or each other. but we can get an approximation. so genetics and such are important, but all of it may or may not add up to anything useful.

  20. my quote tag didn’t work… sorry it looks crappy.

  21. Ian

    [Fixed the blockquote]

    “while humans CAN be reduced to basic genes and such, it doesn’t really help understand or behavioral biology”

    Yes, absolutely.

    “somethings are MORE than behavioral biology, sometimes we get quantum leaps in thinking or creativity that seemingly come from no where and can’t be rationalized”

    I don’t think they are MORE than biology, or psychology. But they may not be usefully explainable in those terms. I think an amazing leap of imagination doesn’t mean that the fundamental particles that make you up have suddenly taken to obeying different rules. But it is true that, whatever level of abstraction you pick, there will be higher level behaviors that are just unexpected. And this goes beyond the individual. You would never guess the dynamics of a flock of sparrows from studying the behavior of a single sparrow, for example.

    There are mathematical ways to show what you have good intuition for here. There are limits to what we can predict, even if (as I would contend) those higher level behaviors are completely and totally made up of dynamics at the lower level.

    The dynamics of complex systems, I think, means you don’t need to introduce MORE or other things to explain creativity, or fascism, or economics or art. They are all phenomena that are just about psychology. But that doesn’t mean a base psychological theory could ever predict them, or even give explanations that are in any way useful or compelling.

    A Van Gogh painting isn’t MORE than just an assembly of atoms. There isn’t some extra secret sauce that gets injected. But trying to understand the painting in terms of the atoms that comprise it misses the point entirely.

  22. Ian

    Fundamentally I don’t think we are more than the sum of our parts.

    We just lack a good understanding of what happens when you put things together. Certain configuration of simpler elements produce massive increases in complexity, that complexity isn’t more than the sum of its parts, it is exactly the sum of its parts. But to understand the complexity it doesn’t help to understand the parts. And that is not a philosophical argument, but one with a firm mathematical basis.

  23. “A Van Gogh painting isn’t MORE than just an assembly of atoms.”

    but it is. you can look at the “facts” of the painting, like Starry Night has this much cobalt blue, has these brush strokes and techniques… but it’s the MEANING that is so hard to pin down. that’s what i mean by more than the sum of the parts. there are intangibles, and while i have more of a “supernatural” bent than other commentors on here, i’m not going to argue that. i’m arguing as basic as you can get here, and that is “we are not formulas.”

    we’re not obeying different rules, or going against nature so to speak (i’m not that type of theist) but there is an element of radical reinterpretation of those rules of nature. art being one example. how humans make meaning of their environs is another.

    for humans, the math is inherently much more complex and it seems we’re always dividing by irrational numbers. i don’t think we’ll ever understand the entire sum of our parts nor will we find it necessary. but i’m coming at it from a much different point of view. we are so rarely dealing with the facts when it comes to human interactions and behavior, we’re dealing with meaning. and to that, it is radically complex, subjective, and irrational.

  24. Ian

    Hmm… I’m struggling to communicate with you, I think.

    Because I agree with your conclusions. But I don’t see why that means that the painting isn’t a configuration of atoms. To me the painting is a configuration of atoms, when considered at that level of detail. It is also a highly meaningful, psychological and aesthetic artefact at another level of abstraction. But something ‘extra’ hasn’t slipped in. It is still just atoms.

    We don’t need to radically reinterpret atomic theory. We just need to recognize that atomic theory isn’t going to provide us with any useful insights into the psychology of the painting.

    Incidentally, dividing by irrational numbers isn’t a problem. Heck, we can even divide by imaginary numbers with no problem. log(-1) divided by the irrational number pi, for example, gives you the imaginary number i 😀

  25. you’re not struggling to communicate, you’re doing fine. i’m struggling to articulate.

    while it’s true the painting is just a configuration of atoms, it points beyond itself to something else, that is abstract and intangible. sure it depicts a scene, but it can be viewed as peaceful, serene, or wild and chaotic. i think you’re saying the same thing, but i add the nuance that it points to something beyond itself that can’t be measured or fully understood. just like us. that we are more than the sum of our parts… but i can’t seem to articulate it without sounding too Platonic. but maybe i am. i’m going to have to wrestle with it.

    on a side note, this would rule out things like “soul” and “ESP” and such right? i’m posting something on ESP on thursday and would like your thoughts on it. it will also be in a similarly confused style 😉

    sweet math metaphor btw!

  26. Wee point to throw in here about the “sum of parts” – we tend to think of the “sum of its parts” meaning just the list of elements that make something up. However, if you think of a car, you can see how it IS the sum of its parts, but the important stuff is in the relationships between those parts.

    Systems, folks, that’s what we’re talking about here. Systems.

    I have a brief muse on the topic over on my blog here:

    See, you could say that a chair is the sum of its parts, but you could make a chair that served its purpose perfectly well from wood, aluminium, steel, plastic or kryptonite. It isn’t really the ATOMS that are doing the chairy things – it is the relationships between those atoms; the systems that those atoms can participate in, and as we can see, wildly different atoms can participate in systems that have broadly similar outputs.

    It’s teh profowndz.

  27. Ian

    Yup, us system folks definitely need to stick together!

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