Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene is a landmark in popular science writing. Since this is a science work, I would consider it “older”, as having originally been published in 1976. Thus, I strongly recommend reading the up the 30th anniversary edition, or any editions that will be subsequently published. The 30th anniversary edition includes updated notes and additional material, written by Dawkins that help to bring this work up to date. Consequently, one should read all the endnotes; these are informative, interesting and sometimes funny. The notes serve as an extension and update to the text. If one does this, Dawkins’s work seems surprisingly fresh.
The main idea here is Dawkins’s interpretation of the theory of natural selection. Dawkins postulates that natural selection is not actually something that occurs on the level of species or individuals, as we often think, but happens for individual genes, or replicators. The fact that it is the genes that are driving replication of themselves, has interesting implications. For instance, evolution is not always aimed toward the survival of the individual, group or species. A gene that is contained in me, might push me to sacrifice myself, if that sacrifice helps to perpetuate the same gene in other individuals.
All plants and animals are just vehicles for these replicators. These vehicles, that we call organisms, or more specifically, ants, oak trees, cats, lizards, whales, people, etc. are described by Dawkins as “lumbering robots” designed to facilitate the spread of genes. In the process of explaining all this, Dawkins provides a tour de force of evolution, and its mind-boggling and sometimes bizarre results.
This is a marvelous work for many reasons. For me, the most enlightening point of the book was, as Dawkins’s points out, originally not one of his primary themes, but a moderately important side note. Dawkins’s text points to the fact that in humans something other then genetics is influencing us. Human culture and ideas have become a driving force in our world that is partially independent of the effects of genes.
Dawkins revolutionary idea is that human thought is evolving through the process of evolution and natural selection, but genes are not the mechanism of this evolution. The Selfish Gene first proposed the now somewhat popular concept of the Meme. A Meme is simply an idea that evolves based upon the laws of natural selection. Dawkins’s argues convincing that human ideas, like genes, are subject to replication, competition and the laws of natural selection Some ideas are better then others at reproducing themselves at the expense of other ideas. Ideas evolve over time. Some thrive, some become extinct. Some work together in families or associations. The laws of evolution apply to Memes just as they apply to genes.
For instance, the Meme that “God exists” and related ideas, have been extremely successful in perpetuating themselves. Holders of these Memes spread it to their children, family and friends. Related Memes lead believers to pressure non - believers to accept this set of Memes. Throughout history, this “family” of Memes included the Meme that it was acceptable to kill and torture persons who did share these beliefs, thus eliminating competing Memes such as “God does not exist.” We can extrapolate some of Dawkins ideas to think about how these Memes have evolved over time. First there was ”there are many Gods”. This evolved into into “there is one God” which later became “there are three Gods who are really one God”. Before we know it, there are thousands of competing ideas on the nature of God and religion.
Memes are often a positive force. For instance, Dawkins’s speculates that some aspects of human altruism, such as donating blood, may not be connected to gene based survival strategies and are therefore driven by Memes that encourage us to help others, even when there is no benefit to ourselves.
Dawkins is very persuasive in arguing that in some ways, Memes are acting independently and are evolving apart from our genes. The “God exists” family of Memes may have no survival benefit. These thought-based replicators are taking human evolution to a new level and in some ways transcending our gene driven behavior.
All this may seem obvious to many. Perhaps I may have fallen too much into the mindset of “everything that people do is ultimately traceable to some survival strategy developed in the course of evolution” (This thought is itself a Meme!). It could be that this belief is too extreme. After all, if Dawkins, one of the worlds premier authorities on genetics based upon natural selection, believes that something else is going on, it seems likely that something else is going on. Humans may be partially moving beyond chemical based evolution to an evolution of thought.
I am also beginning to ponder the possibility that, because of Memes, people are special among the organisms of the earth. This is a line of generally accepted reasoning that I have been skeptical about. My thinking on this matter has been partially influenced by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, who argue against the idea of human “specialness” in Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. It does seem however that Memes are a characteristic that is unique to humans and that they are leading humans to behave in all sorts of unique ways.
We are still enormously influenced by our genes. Many aspects of our human behavior, good, bad and in between, can be closely or not so closely ascribed influence of these chemical replicators. Dawkins even points out that most instances of altruism are connected to animal and human survival strategies. Perhaps however, these newer replicators called Memes are taking us further.
Another worthy book, Daniel C. Dennett’s Consciousness Explained further develops the idea that Memes, in the form of human thought and culture have effectively created a new “software” that makes us who we are. This “software” of culture and learning is running on the hardware that is the human brain, which has been developed by millions of years of evolution.