Selfish Gene

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Selfish Gene

The term selfish gene was coined by Richard Dawkins (b. 1941) in his 1976 book of that name to convey the central sociobiological idea that it is reproductive success, rather than individual excellence, that determines the course of evolution. Thus "the survival of the fittest" does not really mean the survival of outstanding individuals themselves. It means the prevalence of their type in later generations through increasing numbers of descendants.

Biologists such as J. B. S. Haldane (18921964) had suggested this understanding of evolution as a solution to the "problem of altruism"that is, the question how it was possible for animals often to act in ways that sacrificed their own individual interests to those of others around them. This undoubtedly happens, not only in the care of the young but in many other social activities. How had the trait developed? The answer lay in reproduction. Tendencies to act altruistically can survive and spread through a species, even if they shorten the life of their first owners, provided that those owners have first transmitted them to a sufficient number of descendants. Thus it is the geneticallydetermined trait rather than the individual that, in some sense, is selected and survives.

Dawkins's contribution to this approach was to dramatize it by depicting the gene involved as a kind of counter-individuala hidden agent exploiting the organism it rides in:

We are survival machinesrobot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. . . . We are machines created by our genes. Like successful Chicago gangsters, our genes have survived, in some cases for millions of years, in a highly competitive world. This entitles us to expect certain qualities in our genes. I shall argue that a predominant quality to be expected in a gene is ruthless selfishness. . . . A gene leaps from body to body down the generations, manipulating body after body in its own way and for its own ends, abandoning a succession of bodies before they sink in senility and death. The genes are the immortals. (pp. x, 2, and 36)

This powerful image certainly conveyed the point about the importance of reproduction. But the cost in clarity has been heavy.

The dramatic picture of genes as freeloading individualists is not actually compatible with serious genetics. Genes are not fixed units at all. They are varying lengths of DNA, and they cannot take effect without cooperating in highly complex groupings. Nor, of course, are they immortal, since each gene dies with the cell that it belongs to. It is only their type that survivesjust as a species survives the death of its individual members. This may not be a very interesting kind of immortality

However, the most substantial scientific question that does arise here concerns the level at which natural selection takes place. Sociobiologists resisted earlier suggestions that new developments were directly determined by the interest of the group or of the species. They rightly pointed out that, in order for inherited traits to change, there must be changes at the genetic level. Gene-selection must therefore indeed operate.

It is not, however, obvious that gene-selection excludes selection at other levels also. At the individual level, organisms are not powerless vehicles. An individual animal can influence the evolution of its species by, for example, exploring a new habitat or finding a new source of food. At the level of selection between groups, social tendencies can have considerable effect on species-survival, though in less direct ways than earlier theorists had supposed.

These scientific issues are still being discussed, although they may not have much direct relevance to the relation between science and religion. What does make the topic relevant here is Dawkins's rhetoric: His personification of genes as forces ruling helpless humans seems to involve a sort of fatalism, and his choice of the word selfish, instead of some neutral term such as selectable, to describe the part that genes play in evolution gives this fatalism a personal twist by appearing to credit these forces with a motive. This is recognizable religious imagery.

What is the point of the colorful metaphor? Readers often see in it the familiar doctrine of psychological egoismthe view that selfishness, in the literal, everyday sense of self-interest, is the sole motive determining the behavior of all organisms, including humans. This, however, cannot be right, and it is not what Dawkins is technically saying. He, like other sociobiologists, is trying to solve the problem of altruismthat is, to explain why animals often act against their own interest. Dawkins's explanation is that they are pawns, being manipulated in the interests of the genes. Yet he often writes as if he did attribute the selfishness to the organisms themselves:

Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, 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 at least have the chance to upset their designs, something which no other species has ever aspired to. (p.3)

In this and similar passages there is a radical confusion between attributing selfishness to genes in a technical sense, as a causal property in population genetics, and using the word with its normal meaning to describe a motive attributed to individual organisms. Other sociobiologists such as Edward O. Wilson (b. 1929) also constantly slide into this ambiguity between the technical and the everyday sense of the word, though most of them use it only for organisms, not, like Dawkins, for genes.

The confusion is perhaps a natural consequence of choosing to use such a highly emotive everyday word as selfishness as a technical term. In any case, it seems plain that the official, scientific message of sociobiology does not actually give any kind of support to psychological egoism. As for Dawkins's alarming suggestions of fatalism, the last sentence of the passage just quoted implies that they are meant rather as melodrama than as serious determinist metaphysics.

See also Altruism; DNA; Evolution, Biological; Genetics; Natural Selection; Nature versus Nurture; Sociobiology


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goodwin, brian. how the leopard changed his spots: the evolution of complexity. london: weidenfeld and nicolson, 1994.

haldane, j.b.s. the causes of evolution. london: harper and brothers, 1932.

midgley, mary. evolution as a religion: strange hopes and stranger fears. london: methuen, 1985.

midgley, mary. beast and man. ithaca, n.y.: cornell university press, 1978.

rose, steven. lifelines: biology, freedom, and determinism. london: penguin, 1997.

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wilson, edward o. sociobiology: the new synthesis. cambridge, mass.: harvard university press, 1975.

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mary midgley