Australian politics, society & culture


The selfish gene

Richard Dawkins published The Selfish Gene in 1976, the book that established his reputation and which, his closest supporters maintain, ‘takes pride of place among his achievements’. With it, he helped popularise the idea that not only the human body but all behaviours, beliefs and emotions are, to a large extent, products of evolution.

Dawkins came to believe that his argument – that the ‘predominant quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness’, and that ‘gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behaviour’ – might have been expressed differently. But his frustration with the ‘selfish’ metaphor arose from the way it was misrepresented and misunderstood, rather than because of any error in the theory itself. Dawkins’ point was not that human beings are always selfish, but that altruistic behaviour remains the unlikely act which goes against humanity’s essential nature:

... we must expect that when we go and look at the behaviour of baboons, humans, and all other living creatures, we shall find it to be selfish. If we find that our expectation is wrong, if we observe that human behaviour is truly altruistic, then we shall be faced with something puzzling, something that needs explaining.

This perspective on human nature is similar to that of Saint Augustine (who formulated the doctrine of original sin and is the Father of Western Christianity) – but given that Dawkins is one of the world’s most prominent atheists, how does his teaching relate to the Western spiritual tradition? Dawkins is certain that his claims are based on empirical science alone. But is he right? Has his expertise in evolutionary biology meant that he has achieved what even Darwin and Freud could not: culture-free knowledge about what it means to be a human being?

To his credit, Dawkins, unlike some of his colleagues in evolutionary psychology, has never claimed that gene-driven evolution could explain the rapid changes in human society over recent millennia. In The Selfish Gene, he openly acknowledged that: ‘Among animals, man is uniquely dominated by culture, by influences learned and handed down.’ However, this was not, as one might expect, a diminution of the role played by evolution. Instead, Dawkins maintained that:

... a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet… It is still in its infancy, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup, but already it is achieving evolutionary change at a rate that leaves the old gene panting far behind. The new soup is the soup of human culture…

The term Dawkins chose for the new replicator was ‘meme’. Examples of memes include ‘tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes, fashions, ways of making pots or building arches’. In fact, almost everything that can be called a shared idea (and what idea isn’t to some degree shared?) is seen to be a meme, including Darwinian science itself:

[M]eme transformation is subject to continuous mutation, and also to blending ... when we say that all biologists nowadays believe in Darwin’s theory, we do not mean that every biologist has, graven in his brain, an identical copy of the exact words of Charles Darwin himself. Each individual has his own way of interpreting Darwin’s ideas … Darwin if he read this book would scarcely recognise his own original theory in it ... Yet, in spite of all this, there is something, some essence of Darwinism, which is present in the head of every individual who understands the theory ... The meme of Darwin’s theory is therefore that essential basis of the idea which is held in common by all brains that understand the theory.

Except insofar as Dawkins presented the meme as analogous to the gene in the way that it behaves and mutates, this was not a controversial or novel explanation of cultural transmission. But nor was Dawkins’ memetic/genetic explanation of human development scientific, in the usual sense of the term. There is no observational evidence that memes exist, and the transmission of culture can be explained equally effectively without them. Furthermore, there is no conceivable way that the claims he makes can be proved or disproved – the same objection that is made to the science of Freud.

Dawkins’ discussion of memes is largely confined to one chapter in The Selfish Gene, but in 2013 he emphasised that the concept was critical to his objective to ‘push universal Darwinism’. In his memoir, Dawkins explained that precisely because ‘the rest of the book thrust the gene to centre stage as the starring replicator in the evolution of life, it was important to dispel the impression that the replicator had to be DNA’. He is certain that evolution can potentially explain everything, but for it to do so, the meme, and probably other replicators as well, must support the slowly evolving gene. 

Dawkins has conceded ‘that we don’t know what memes are made of, or where they reside’. But the speculative status of memes, and Dawkins’ admission that human behaviour is largely determined by cultural influences, mean that the question of where his understanding of human nature comes from has been left unanswered. He gives no suggestion that this is an argument based on historical or anthropological knowledge. His view that the meme is another selfish replicator is assumed rather than explained.

Dawkins is well aware of the doctrine of original sin, which, as the ‘main doctrine of Christian theology’, he employs to open people’s eyes to the ‘mental illness’ of religious faith. But despite, or perhaps because of, his conviction that the ‘belief that everyone is born in sin, inherited from Adam ... is one of the very nastiest aspects of Christianity’, he seems unaware of the continuity between his own understanding of human nature and the ancient teaching of Augustine.

The memic similarity is most obviously manifest in Dawkins’ assertion of the selfishness innate to human beings, but it is equally evident in his hope that we might transcend the nature that we are born with. Dawkins presents two grounds for his ‘qualified hope’ that human beings can choose to be independent of their selfish nature. The first is ‘conscious foresight’, or ‘our capacity to simulate the future in imagination’, which provides ‘the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination’ and pursue long-term interests. The second basis of hope might be called a matter of ‘faith’, defined by Dawkins as a ‘blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence’:

We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism – something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world. We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.

But why would the human brain ‘rebel’ against its meme- and gene-given nature? Is the brain also not part of who we are? Dawkins rejects the dualist implication of his argument, but nevertheless seems to have absorbed the idea that there is a dimension to human beings, traditionally called mind, consciousness or soul, which exists independently of the biologically and culturally derived side of human nature. Dawkins can surely be excused for not being clear about what this is, but it leaves him with the challenge of either admitting to the limits of the capacity of evolutionary theory to explain the human condition, or explaining on what basis readers can be expected to share his speculative hope that the limits of human nature might be transcended.

There is another, more definitive source of hope presented in The Selfish Gene: death is not the end of life because the human body is but a temporary carrier of the potentially immortal gene. Indeed, Dawkins now believes that the title The Immortal Gene would have conveyed the meaning of his book more clearly. Is this another mutation of the meme of original sin? Human bodies are flawed and limited, with an inherent tendency to selfishness and decay, but what is most essential to a person can potentially live forever.

The final way in which Dawkins’ thought seems to echo his culture’s spiritual tradition is his certainty that there is only one legitimate way of understanding the purpose of existence. In the revised edition of The Selfish Gene, published in 2006, Dawkins vigorously upheld his claim that, until Darwin published On the Origin of Species, ‘all attempts to answer’ questions on the ‘meaning to life’, such as ‘What are we for?’ and ‘What is man?’, were ‘worthless’. He concluded that ‘we will be better off if we ignore them completely’. In The God Delusion (2006), which has sold more than two million copies, Dawkins set out the implications of this. His judgement on Australian Aboriginal culture, for example, was unambiguous:

On the one hand aboriginals are superb survivors under conditions that test their practical skills to the uttermost ... [but] the very same peoples who are so savvy about the natural world and how to survive in it simultaneously clutter their minds with beliefs that are palpably false and for which the word ‘useless’ is a generous understatement ...

At least Aborigines were not singled out: ‘Though the details differ across the world, no known culture lacks some version of the time-consuming, wealth-consuming, hostility-provoking rituals, the anti-factual, counter-productive fantasies of religion.’

Few people, atheist or not, would be so certain that Australia’s fifty-thousand-year-old culture, not to mention those of the Chinese and Indian civilisations and of myriad other nations and peoples, have been ‘useless’ at grappling with questions of meaning. Indeed, it is the manifest falsity of Dawkins’ claim here which tells us that, at some point, his logic has gone terribly wrong. In the thirtieth anniversary edition of The Selfish Gene, Dawkins acknowledged that some people were concerned by his assertion that all attempts to answer questions on the purpose of existence before 1859 were ‘worthless’, but his response – a demand to ‘show me’ examples where this was not the case – only highlighted how culturally constrained was his conception of truth. Church history provides proof enough that when you insist with non-negotiable certainty that there is only one way of understanding what life is about, it is then not possible to be shown any other.

Through their determination to expose and transcend the dark hidden truth of human nature and to proclaim a single way to inquire into the meaning of life, Dawkins’ ideas are related to those of Augustine in much as the same way as they are to those of Darwin. Obviously, Dawkins’ thought is not an ‘identical copy’ – if Augustine were to read Dawkins, he ‘would scarcely recognise his own original theory in it’ – and yet ‘in spite of all this, there is something, some essence’ of Augustinianism clearly evident in the ‘essential basis of the idea’.

Recently, Dawkins reflected that in a previous age he might have been a priest, given that his interest was always in the ‘deep questions of existence’. He admitted that his ‘interest in biology has been largely driven by questions about origins and the nature of life, rather than – as is the case for most young biologists ... by a love of natural history’. Even as a child, Dawkins recalled, he ‘was drawn to questions that grown-ups would have called philosophical. What is the meaning of life? Why are we here? How did it all start?’ Dawkins’ approach to biology is commendable and at times awe-inspiring, but when he presents all attempts to consider the meaning of life from a non-evolutionary perspective – pre- and post-Darwin, and in both in Western and non-Western cultures – as dangerous distractions which deny people access to the single source of salvation, he sounds more like a missionary than a scientist.

This is an edited extract from Born Bad: Original Sin and the Making of the Western World by James Boyce, published by Black Inc. On sale now in print and ebook.

About the author James Boyce

James Boyce is the author of Born Bad: Original Sin and the Making of the Western World (2014), 1835: The Founding of Melbourne and the Conquest of Australia (2011), which won the Age Book of the Year Award, and Van Diemen's Land: A History (2008). He has a PhD from the University of Tasmania, where he is an honorary research associate of the School of Geography and Environmental Studies.