The Selfish Gene in The Guardian

The Guardian has a little gem of a retrospective review of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene (first published 1976). The reviewer, science journalist Tim Radford, mentions that his copy of the book is the first paperback edition of 1978. Well, we have something in common – mine is a 1983 reprint of the same edition, and I must have first read it almost thirty years ago. One day, I need to broach the thirtieth anniversary edition of 2006, which has a new introduction by the author, plus other new material.

When I was young, I was struck not just by the book’s content but also (perhaps even moreso) by its beautiful explanatory clarity. This was how to write for a popular audience. The Selfish Gene made me a lifelong fan of Dawkins, not only as a thinker and a scientist, though of course there’s that, but above all as a writer. I would struggle if asked to name other non-fiction writers whose prose I enjoy so much, or who are so successful in communicating difficult ideas. Perhaps I could compare Bertrand Russell, or, in our current generation, Steven Pinker, who has a similar knack for images that organise his complex messages and convey them vividly to the reader.

Thus I’m always surprised when Dawkins is criticised for the “selfish gene” trope itself, as if it involves some kind of scientific or philosophical faux pas – as if, in fact, he were ascribing psychological motivation to tiny chemical strands, or perhaps talking about genes that code for selfishness. He is doing neither of those things, and neither of them occurred to me when I first read the book all those years ago. It’s all clear enough unless you bring your own murkiness to the text.

Genes do not, of course, have emotions or desires; they do not have interests, in anything like the sense that we do. A selfish gene is not like a selfish person who acts to advance her own narrowly understood self-interest without compassion or respect for other people. Nor does Dawkins suggest such a thing; if you read the book in this way, you are bringing in issues that are remote from what is before your eyes. Rather, the “selfishness” of genes is a small tweak on a common idea in biology, whose practitioners apply the word to behaviours that have the effect of helping the individual organism, whether or not it possesses any psychological motivation. When we tweak this just slightly, the thought is that the effect of genes on the world, when you look closely at what’s going on, is to replicate those same genes, rather than to promote the physiological welfare of anything else. In a biologist’s sense of the words, genes really can be described quite readily as selfish, as opposed to altruistic. All of this is explained in the book’s first chapter.

But we don’t need to think of such terms in any technical way to get Dawkins’ point. That is, we needn’t begin with any training in biology to “get”, intuitively, the relevant idea of selfishness. It’s clear throughout that we can begin with an everyday understanding of “selfishness”, which we can then deploy as a metaphor. Though sequences of DNA are not the kinds of things that can possess desires, or any psychological makeup at all, they act as if they were sentient things devising strategies to replicate themselves in successive generations. The process by which life continues and evolves is well explained at the level of what is needed for genes to achieve this “selfish” goal.

So, I’m bemused by all the misunderstandings, and I don’t think they relate to any lack of clarity in the text itself. Perhaps they highlight the intrinsic difficulty of the concept – but how hard is it really? – or perhaps it is simply the anxieties that some readers bring with them. We all have a tendency to interpret via our anxieties, which can get in the way of what is in front of us.

Radford is similarly bemused:

A few years later I heard a distinguished, elderly science historian rather brusquely describe it as a prime example of a metaphor out of control.

That barb was not just misguided, but wildly unfair. Dawkins was always clever with metaphors, but his recurring imagery of a gene concerned only with its replication and survival is tightly controlled: in every chapter, we are reminded that it is a metaphor, an analogy, an “as if”, a useful way of thinking about how behaviours, strategies and responses might have emerged from the mix of ever-renewing chromosomes and the disorderly experience of life.

The book does, in fact, get to issues about sociality, and of altruism at the level of organisms, but that is in the second-last chapter. To be sure, Dawkins does suggest that you’d expect genes to code for organisms that are, in turn, selfish – this is because genes are most likely to be passed down by organisms that are programmed to do what is needed for their own survival, at least until they can reproduce. Nonetheless, he seeks to explain how altruism, in the biological sense, could arise. (Behaviour that benefits other organisms may, in some circumstances, be most effective at passing down the individual’s genetic code.) At the end Dawkins picks up an idea planted in the opening pages: how far human beings are capable of a pure disinterestedness that goes beyond biologically altruistic behaviour.

Thus, the relationships between the selfishness of genes, the biological selfishness of individual organisms, biological altruism, and what we call a true altruism, or unselfishness, are all made clear. Actual selfishness is never advocated, whatever some of Dawkins’ most obtuse detractors might think. Let me add, on this subject, that Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker is not actually about the art of making small chronometrical devices, and nor is his Climbing Mount Improbable a textbook in the skills of mountaineering.

All this, however, is more or less by the by. The Selfish Gene is a lovely explanation of a gene’s-eye view (though of course genes don’t have actual eyes) of life, its functional, bizarre, splendid (and sometimes horrible) intricacy, and how this has come about. The book is also a pleasure to read and a fine model for other writers. Radford, too, deserves praise: in a short space, he has done the book justice, seeing and appreciating it for what it is.

[My Amazon author page.]

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  1. The Selfish Gene is a classic and the misunderstanding on assigning teleological intent to a physical process well known. It seems to me the debate (if we can call the argument that) between E O Wilson and Dawkins about the role of group selection is hard on to this issue. Can we have “good beliefs” (e.g., altruism) that benefit the group of phenotypes over the kin group of the genotypes. If so is “goodness” an emergent phenomenon within the group, or is it truly relative?

  2. Part of the misunderstanding of the title has to do with the date it appeared, 1976, only a few years before the beginning of the Thatcher-Reagan neoliberal counter-revolution in the socio-economic zeitgeist.

    Lots of people, mistakenly, associated the book’s title with a justification or rationalization of the neoliberal positive stress on individualism, competitiveness and “selfishness”, whatever that means.

    That has nothing to do with Dawkins’ political views or how he votes (I gather that he’s center-left on most issues), but may be a strange Hegelian trick that History plays on us.

  3. There are some interesting details here concerning Philosopher Mary Midgely’s misunderstanding of Dawkins’ book. I am not sure if she has ever climbed down completely concerning the somewhat acrimonious dispute between them. The fact that I am just a vehicle for the propagation of genetic material I find enthralling, and greatly thought provoking.

  4. Dawkins does upset a lot of academics it seems, Mary Midgely, E O Wilson, Stephen Jay Gould, Michael Ruse, Thomas Nagle, Sir Martin Rees etc.

    I tend to agree with Mark Vernon of the Guardian who wrote (referencing Dawkins caustic remarks over Rees as a “quisling” for accepting the Templeton prize)…

    “When the cultural history of our times comes to be written, Templeton 2011 could be mentioned, at least in a footnote, as marking a turning point in the “God wars”. The power of voices like that of Dawkins and Sam Harris … may actually have peaked, and now be on the wane. Science could be said, in effect, to have rejected their advocacy.”

  5. No doubt it’s bad form to mention one’s own writings, but I once wrote a piece on the whole Dawkins/Midgley “dispute”:

  6. An academic who doesn’t in some way upset other academics is probably wasting their time.

  7. Martin, Seriously- you think Mark Vernon has a point? Why? How could “science” reject anything of the kind?

    I still have my 1978 paperback – I had my high school advanced biology students read it starting in 1981. I wanted them to discover the simplicity of evolutionary thinking in an attempt to counteract all of the creationist nonsense going around the community.

  8. @Michael,

    I’m no creationist and I think the Selfish Gene is a classic and I applaud your initiative in bringing it to your students.

    Though none of that detracts from the point that Dawkins has a knack of annoying people and insulting them with a lack of charity and professional respect. Calling Ree’s a “quisling” for accepting the Templeton prize case in point.

    It is possible to have a spiritual sensitivity, say of an Einstein sense of meaning in the harmony of the laws of physics, and nevertheless be completely scientific in outlook. Dawkins has admitted that as such.

    It does not take much to then add to that sensitivity a religious sense, say of Spinoza and Pantheism, or indeed into Deism, or a modest Theism that has a concept of a transcendent God as the root of the Logos, that influences sentient/sapient moral agents in a subjective sense through the totality of their “Being”, a kind of Christian Existentialism/Theistic Evolution perhaps.

    None of the above is necessarily in conflict with reason and the scientific method.

    I feel that Vernon’s point is Dawkins is an old type of culture warrior. Earning a good living out of populist and positivist view of conflict between Secular Humanism and Religion. Feeding the passions of people who have a negative realtionship with Religion.

    But this style is driving away from science many who would welcome it if it allowed people to rationalize their religious sensitivities and after some rational modulation accommodate them without compromise. Such position is what I think will develop over time – for the good of science and reasonable religious sensitivities alike.

    See this video of an interview with Michael Ruse (an Philosopher and Atheist) who nevertheless advocates a respectful dialog between people of science and faith, and challenges the New Atheists as being counter-productive.

  9. Ah the problem with words and how people’s associations cause them to react, rather than analyze what is being said!

    I believe Dawkins himself may be guilty of this, when it comes to religion. I believe in spirituality, which means I don’t go to church or follow any particular religion but pick and choose the wisdom and sense I see in any particular text. I believe Monty Python’s Life of Brian parodied this nicely, where people followed the letter of the law rather than the sense. I believe the word God exists to describe a particular phenomena, which even Mr Dawkins would recognize as awe. It is the feeling when discovering something new as opposed to dogmatically holding onto and defending something old. Yet even this is a phenomena worth investigating scientifically to understand its cause, rather than denying or dismissing its significance (To me Go(o)d is unity as evil is disunity – in other words these are terms that can be measured, through construction or destruction of ideas and material).

  10. Re Tony Sandy
    “It is the feeling when discovering something new as opposed to dogmatically holding onto and defending something old.”
    I am wondering if you could give a short detailed example here, from your own experience.

  11. Will try. Recently I tried downloading some poster designs for a site where I hope to sell them. I got angry because some of them were sloped to the right or left, so I blamed the printer for being ‘trash.’ Then I remembered that I’d had problems with not adjusting the menu, to take card as opposed to paper. This led to me having to manually remove the jammed card, which probably messed up the rollers, leading to them being loose and hence the squint prints, so to speak.

    In other words my old prejudices came up in the form of blaming the tool, rather than the tool handling the tool (ego & projection as opposed to ego-less state of introspection and examination, leading to fresh insight – that ‘Eureka!’ moment).

    Hope that is detailed enough (pilot error). Who says philosophy is dead and has no relevance to real life (or maybe it’s psychology?)/

  12. Julie Chovanes

    I am a little bit of a latecomer to this but in philosophy it isn’t all that long. I must confess I have no idea what the blog author is writing about. Dawkins says the following in his blog, which the author ignores; to his peril it seems, as Dawkins whole theory is shown in the quote to be a “metaphysical extraction of an emergent property (“selfishness” of a gene) to an organism. Emergent properties of course are something reductionism of Dawkins sort would not countenance, yet are the basis for his micro theory and expansion to macro theory: [Let us try] to build a society in which individuals co-operate generously and unselfishly… you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then have a chance to upset their design, something which no other species has ever aspired to.”

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