Jul 01, 2017 - 6 minutes
In 1859, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published, forever changing our understanding of life. As revolutionary as it was, parts of it were wrong, and for a good reason. Darwin, 150 years ago, was ignorant of the existence of DNA, and of genes. Had he been alive today, his theory of Natural Selection—which took 20 years to develop!—might’ve looked very different. Darwin’s dead, though, so thank nature for Dawkins.
The title of this book has caused Richard Dawkins a great deal of unwanted trouble. He has, on many occasions, expressed regret over not calling it by a different name, such as “The Immortal Gene”. If you haven’t read the book, I’d suggest that you avoid coming to conclusions based on the title alone.
Dawkins postulates that the basic unit of selection in nature is the (immortal) gene, not the organism. Genes in your body need to survive and propagate themselves, for the benefit of themselves, not for the benefit of you. It doesn’t matter if you live or die; although it’s best if you die after you reproduce, so your genes get a chance to move along. In essence, we are all just disposable vehicles for gene survival. I’m OK with that. And also a little flabbergasted.
Richard Dawkins is one of my favorite authors, and I cannot speak enough about how much of an amazing writer he is. I owe much of my understanding of the world to this incredible scientist, and I’d recommend anything written by him in a heartbeat.
Let me begin with some second thoughts about the title.
It was created inside one of your father’s testicles.
‘A chicken is the egg’s way of making another egg.’ – Peter Medawar, Review
Perhaps consciousness arises when the brain’s simulation of the world becomes so complete that it must include a model of itself.
‘The rabbit runs faster than the fox, because the rabbit is running for his life while the fox is only running for his dinner.’ My colleague John Krebs and I have dubbed this the ‘life/dinner principle’.
One of the dominant messages of The Selfish Gene (reinforced by the title essay of A Devil’s Chaplain) is that we should not derive our values from Darwinism, unless it is with a negative sign. Our brains have evolved to the point where we are capable of rebelling against our selfish genes. The fact that we can do so is made obvious by our use of contraceptives. The same principle can and should work on a wider scale.
I am not advocating a morality based on evolution. I am saying how things have evolved. I am not saying how we humans morally ought to behave. I stress this, because I know I am in danger of being misunderstood by those people, all too numerous, who cannot distinguish a statement of belief in what is the case from an advocacy of what ought to be the case. […] Let us try to teach generosity and altruism […..] it is a fallacy—incidentally a very common one—to suppose that genetically inherited traits are by definition fixed and unmodifiable.
The feeling that members of one’s own species deserve special moral consideration as compared with members of other species is old and deep. Killing people outside war is the most seriously-regarded crime ordinarily committed. The only thing more strongly forbidden by our culture is eating people (even if they are already dead). We enjoy eating members of other species, however. Many of us shrink from judicial execution of even the most horrible human criminals, while we cheerfully countenance the shooting without trial of fairly mild animal pests. Indeed we kill members of other harmless species as a means of recreation and amusement.
A human foetus, with no more human feeling than an amoeba, enjoys a reverence and legal protection far in excess of those granted to an adult chimpanzee. Yet the chimp feels and thinks and—according to recent experimental evidence—may even be capable of learning a form of human language. The foetus belongs to our own species, and is instantly accorded special privileges and rights because of it.
Genes do indirectly control the manufacture of bodies, and the influence is strictly one way: acquired characteristics are not inherited. No matter how much knowledge and wisdom you acquire during your life, not one jot will be passed on to your children by genetic means. Each new generation starts from scratch. A body is the genes’ way of preserving the genes unaltered.
The gadget that animals evolved to achieve rapid movement was the muscle. Muscles are engines which, like the steam engine and the internal combustion engine, use energy stored in chemical fuel to generate mechanical movement.
Fireflies (which are really beetles) attract their mates by flashing lights at them. Each species has its own particular dot-dash flashing pattern, which prevents confusion between species, and consequent harmful hybridization. Just as sailors look out for the flash patterns of particular lighthouses, so fireflies seek the coded flash patterns of their own species. Females of the genus Photuris have ‘discovered’ that they can lure males of the genus Photinus if they imitate the flashing code of a Photinus female. This they do, and when a Photinus male is fooled by the lie into approaching, he is summarily eaten by the Photuris female.
There are honeyguides who, like cuckoos, lay their eggs in the nests of other species. The baby honeyguide is equipped with a sharp, hooked beak. As soon as he hatches out, while he is still blind, naked, and otherwise helpless, he scythes and slashes his foster brothers and sisters to death: dead brothers do not compete for food! The familiar British cuckoo achieves the same result in a slightly different way.
I have already suggested that a female might refuse to copulate with a male who has not already built her a nest, or at least helped her to build a nest. It is indeed the case that in many monogamous birds copulation does not take place until after the nest is built. The effect of this is that at the moment of conception the male has invested a good deal more in the child than just his cheap sperms.
The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to ‘memory’, or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream’.
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