Friday, March 2, 2012

The Selfish Gene - Richard Dawkins

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.


Miguel said...

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.

Alfred Korzybski studied this matter in the 1930s; he called it time binding: mankind's ability to pass on its knowledge from generation to generation, accumulating culture, so that it needn't start from zero, like other animals.

Brian Joseph said...

I was not aware of Korzybski's thinking before I read your comment. I have been reading a little bit about him and his theories online this morning. His work is fascinating. It does appear that his ideas were a precursor to the concept of Memes.

Furthermore, I now see that some of Daniel Dennett's ideas on human conciseness have been influenced by Korzybski. Dennett believes that the human mind perceives reality by creating ever changing "drafts," like a writer who continues to revise a story. These "drafts"may or may not reflect what is really going on. This idea seems to be influenced by Korzybski's theory on General Semantics.

Sarah (Rat in the Book Pile) said...

The 'meme' theory caught my eye, too. It is difficult to prove that humans are somehow 'other' and distinct from our fellow animals, a point I have occasionally argued with a philosophically inclined metaphorical sparring partner. 'Memes' is an interesting way to go.

Brian Joseph said...

IAs I mentioned above, the Sagan - Druyan book heavily influenced my thinking for many years. I used to play a game and pick a human behavior, such as watching TV, going to church , etc., and try to figure out how the behavior related to a survival strategy. Some things that we do (such as writing a blog:) are very difficult to reconcile with evolution. If we accept the theory of Memes, we do not need to explain all human behavior in this context.

Miguel said...

Well, a book that tries to explain why humans are so special, from a neurological perspective, is V.S. Ramachandran's The Tell-Tale Brain. The chapter on art is especially interesting.

Now, Brian, since you've read Dawkins, you may want to read his nemesis too: British philosopher Mary Midgley. She's a lucid, intelligent and witty thinker wh's been rebuking Dawkins' ideas for decades. Her latest book is actually The Solitary Self: Darwin and the Selfish Gene.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for the tips Miguel. Ramachandran's work looks very interesting. i am particularly interested in the workings of the human brain.

I like Dawkins, but he has a grouchy or even a nasty streak that I do not always approve of. In the notes of the 30th anniversary addition (page 278) he takes a shot at Midgley and her writing that is a little personnel. All the more reason to read her!

Violet said...

Hmm. Don't other sentient creatures pass on memes? From what I've seen and read other species teach their young how to obtain food, how to socialise within a group, what to fear, etc. And what do the sounds they make mean? Can we be sure they don't communicate with "language" and pass along "knowledge" this way too?

I think Dawkins is brilliant, but his brand of atheism is too sneering for my liking.

Brian Joseph said...

If I recall from the book, I believe what Dawkins ascribed to what animals do as being inherited through genes, even when they "teach" their young some behaviors. However, I am thinking it could be that there may some basic Memes involved with animal behavior. Maybe the Sagan/Druyan belief system can be salvaged.

Speaking of Carl Sagan , in his "Demon Haunted World", he presents a criticism of religion that is much less angry and respectful of other ideas then does Dawkins in his writings. I really much prefer Sagan's approach.

Max Cairnduff said...

I think the idea of the meme is a joint development between Dawkins and a female British scientist whose name suddenly escapes me. Hers is an interesting tale, as she had an apparent out of body experience in university and went on to study parapsychology. Years in that field eventually persuaded her that what she'd experienced wasn't a psychic phenomenon, but rather a perceptual one related to how the body maps its sense of self into space - put another way she came to the view that what people were interpreting as pychic events were in fact flags as to anomalous states of consciousness that lay entirely within our understood physical laws but which if studied might shed light on how consciousness worked by looking at what happened when it wasn't working.

Susan something, agh. She's now well regarded, my wife is studying neuroscience as one of her medical degrees and this person's text is one of the recommended ones. Her past in parapsychology is now largely ignored, though she doesn't hide it (of course the fact she no longer believes in it probably helps her credibility).

The Selfish Gene (and The Extended Phenotype) is extraordinary in the power of its core idea. So simple, yet explaining so much. Dawkins' later work I tend to find simplistic (he's very fond of attacking straw men that nobody is defending) and some very recent work outright bigoted (his comments on Muslims are deeply unpleasant), but here he's at the height of his powers. Glorious stuff.

Max Cairnduff said...

On the animals and memes point, you're right to be suspicious of any argument as to human exceptionalism. There's evidence of cultural transmission of behaviour in some ape species, definitely in dolphins and I believe in some species of parrot.

My main problem with the theory of memes is an issue I have with much neodarwinism. How is the theory to be tested? Is it falisfiable? If not it becomes less a matter of science, and more of faith and at that point I'm not sure how much use it is.

Evolutionary theory has massive experimental and observational evidence to back it up. It is falisfiable, but stands up to every test thrown at it. Memetic theory may be falsifiable, but if so it's not clear to me how nor is it clear that it's more than a "just so" story - an assertion which sounds convincing but is impossible to test.

Finally, if you like Dennet and you have any interest in SF, if you haven't already discovered him you really should check out Greg Egan.

Brian Joseph said...

You raise a good point about the theory of Memes being very difficult to test. It also certainly is no-where near as established or supported by evidence and observation as the theory of evolution. I suspect that someday, if not already, researchers will come up with experiments or observations that will attempt to support or refute it.

We are going into directions that I admit are a little beyond me, so please forgive me if I make a make misstep here, but I believe that certain scientific models, for instance, theories on star formation, that are based upon observation as opposed to experimentation. Memes may be easier to observe then to experiment with.

On the other hand, maybe the idea of Memes it really is not a theory or a reflection of fact but more of a mental tool or analogy to think about human culture and ideas. Just like we use terms such as “Society” or ‘Culture”. If this is the case however, I agree we should not call it a theory. I would not call it faith however.

Brian Joseph said...

While I feel that Dawkin's later writings are often insightful, he does exhibit a certain close mindedness and intolerance toward those who do not share his views. This is unfortunate for such a great mind.