The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins

What a misfortune, for all concerned! I recently adopted the skeptical stance of refusing to believe anything I needed maths to understand. And now, just a few weeks later, I undertake to review Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene”! Dawkins and his primary sources, his “Bad Boys,” George Williams, W. D. Hamilton, John Maynard Smith and Robert Trivers all follow in the tradition of the statistician Ronald Fisher, and the master of them all, Darwin himself. This is maths septupled! Dawkins: “So long as it is formulated only in words, we cannot be sure whether it will work or not. We get a better idea of how feasible such a theory is when it is rephrased in terms of a mathematical model.”

Since I can’t critique the maths, or simply accept what it’s supposed to mean, I can only critique the assumptions, expressed in Dawkins’ words, that the maths incorporates. The overarching assumption, that the Bad Boys inherited from Darwin, is that evolution requires there to be competition for survival--whatever makes the victors victorious will get represented in the gene pool as often and for as long as possible. Here’s how Dawkins and his Bad Boys elaborate on that assumption: “The critical question is which level in the hierarchy of life will turn out to be the inevitably ‘selfish’ level, at which natural selection acts?” To answer this question, “we begin by identifying the properties that a successful unit of natural selection must have. In the terms of the last chapter, these are longevity, fecundity, and copying-fidelity…. What I have done is to define a gene as a unit which, to a high degree, approaches the ideal of indivisible particulateness… define the gene in such a way that I cannot really help being right!”

That’s the assumption Dawkins’ Bad Boys express in mathematical form. Dawkins contribution was to inform us that the process of evolution had been subject to a more penetrating analysis and given more elegant form, and tell us what the maths implied. Turns out, not surprisingly, the implications Dawkins drew out of the maths are pretty much the same as the assumption that went in. What natural selection works on is not individual living creatures but their genes. So it’s genes that evolve. And they evolve to favor their own representation in the gene pool, not ours. So when there’s a clash between their interests and ours, the genes have evolved to put themselves first. If my home is threatened I may sacrifice myself to save my family, but this won’t be selfless altruism on my part, it will be my genes demanding I sacrifice myself to save my genes’ greater representation in all the rest of my family members. “… individuals in a Darwinian world are assumed to be making an as-if calculation of what would be best for their genes…. The minimum requirement for a suicidal altruistic gene to be successful is that it should save more than two siblings (or children or parents), or more than four half-siblings (or uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces, grandparents, grandchildren), or more than eight first cousins, etc. Such a gene, on average, tends to live on in the bodies of enough individuals saved by the altruist to compensate for the death of the altruist itself.”

This new insight is summed up in two new terms—replicators, and vehicles. “Replicator” stands for whatever it is natural selection works on to drive evolution. Vehicles are what house the replicators. “A body, then, is not a replicator; it is a vehicle. I must emphasize this, since the point has been misunderstood. Vehicles don’t replicate themselves; they work to propagate their replicators.” Vehicles are whatever the replicators reside in. Us, for example. In a single generation what natural selection selects for is the more successful individuals, but over vast numbers of generations it is the replicators within us, that account for our success, that natural selection picks out and judges for success in replicating. The replicators in living creatures will be various forms of a gene, alleles, they may be clusters of genes that work together, or even parts of genes. They are whatever it is that natural selection can most clearly distinguish as a successful competitor in comparison with other potential replicators. “‘Good’ genes are blindly selected as those that survive in the gene pool. This is not a theory; it is not even an observed fact: it is a tautology.”

Does Dawkins make a value-judgment between replicators and vehicles? “…when you are actually challenged to think of pre-Darwinian answers to the questions ‘What is man?’ ‘Is there a meaning to life?’ ‘What are we for?’, can you, as a matter of fact, think of any that are not now worthless except for their (considerable) historic interest? There is such a thing as being just plain wrong, and that is what, before 1859, all answers to those questions were…. It requires a deliberate mental effort to turn biology the right way up again, and remind ourselves that the replicators come first, in importance as well as in history…. Their preservation is the ultimate rationale of our existence.”

If what needs critiquing is not the maths but the assumption behind them, going back to Darwin himself, where can we find a source of alternative assumptions to compare it to? I find that source in an alternative fount of wisdom, Roman Stoicism. Stoics believed in an “element,” conscious, intelligent, creative and volitional, that pervaded and maintained the natural order. Let’s restrict this element to everything with genomes in it, even consider genomes as serving as brains to support this intelligence. In a Stoic theory of evolution it would be this intelligence that created all living creatures, including us. It’s from this element that we’d get our mental powers, though on a smaller scale. We are, as it is, persons. Our relation to it is not as its atoms, but as related persons, microcosm to  macrocosm.

According to this updating of Stoicism, evolution has nothing to do with us competing to pass on our genes. Natural selection will figure only as a tool this element might or might not employ. The point of existence is, at a first approximation, existence itself. There just is a natural world, of species, groups, individuals, genes, all playing their parts, whatever those parts are in such a natural order, without distinction between replicators and vehicles. No part of the Dawkins’ Bad Boys’ assumption apply to life seen through this glass.

Who is right? Dawkins is confident: “What I am always trying to get over is something about the fundamental properties that must lie at the heart of any good theory of the origin of life on any planet, notably the idea of self-replicating genetic entities.” “…no sane person thinks DNA molecules have conscious personalities, and no sensible reader would impute such a delusion to an author.” Does the strength of his convictions give Dawkins’ interpretation priority over Stoic wisdom? 

That depends on where Dawkins get his wisdom from. It turns out to come from the other great tradition of wisdom in the ancient world, Epicureanism or, as we are more familiar with it, atomism. Revived and given mathematical form it became the primary form of explanation in the scientific revolution four centuries ago. It consists of accounting for something complex or mysterious in terms of simple atoms, each with a few properties you could give numerical values to, that you supposed the complex thing to consist of. Then you came up with maths “explaining” the complex thing in terms of your simple atoms. It didn’t matter if your atoms were real, just being able to model something in mathematical form meant you “understood” it. Newton “explained” the colors of a rainbow by supposing light to consist of particles, different-weight particles being bent at different angles. Not true, but now you felt you “understand” the rainbow. 

Darwin got his atomic theory from Thomas Malthus. Malthus “explained” why charity was pointless by defining individual city residents as atoms, each taking up so-much space and needing so-much food.  Extra food could be obtained only at the city’s boundary while space needed for extra residents increased in proportion to the square of the boundary. So cities were always straining against limits to growth; saving one person meant someone else had to die. Darwin adopted this atomic model and turned it into natural selection: since in every generation more creatures of a species were born than its environment could support, only the most fit would survive, passing their values for the species’ characteristics on to future generations. Now everyone could “understand” how evolution worked, provided you regarded individual living creatures as atoms with a few characteristics that varied only in numerical value.

From there on, progress in evolutionary theory consisted of breaking how creatures varied into smaller and smaller atoms, rather as physicists have done in theorizing about fundamental particles. For Darwin, creatures just came varied. Ronald Fisher broke variation down into how individual genes varied--atoms of “mutation.” Then Dawkins’ Bad Boys broke down what mutated into just those fragments of genes that survived in our chromosomes over evolutionary-time.

“The gene’s-eye view of Darwinism is implicit in the writings of R. A. Fisher and the other great pioneers of neo-Darwinism in the early thirties, but was made explicit by W. D. Hamilton and G. C. Williams in the sixties. For me their insight had a visionary quality…. Meanwhile the theory had been extended, notably by John Maynard Smith and Robert Trivers. I now see that it was one of those mysterious periods in which new ideas are hovering in the air. I wrote The Selfish Gene in something resembling a fever of excitement.” For those enchanted by the dance of atoms, "The Selfish Gene” has the power of revelation--Dawkins’ account must be true because his Bad Boys have accounted for evolution in terms of even smaller atoms, each with even fewer characteristics and variants, or alleles.

What do you choose? Do you choose to think of yourself as a person, or an atom? Here’s a sample of how we appear to our genes: “A decision to bear a new child is usually followed by a decision to care for it. It is because bearing and caring so often go together in practice that people have muddled the two things up. But from the point of view of the selfish genes there is, as we have seen, no distinction in principle between caring for a baby brother and caring for a baby son.” 

Truth is, we don’t have a referee qualified to decide this contest for us, our science is still dominated by the atomic model. But Stoicism underwent development from the time of Aristotle well into the Christian era, for just as long as the atomic philosophy, far longer than modern science has existed. We don’t have any authority sufficiently qualified to declare either invalid. So maybe we have to choose from what Dawkins says in his book. 

Some quotes:

The argument of this book is that we, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes…. We are survival machines— robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes…. the human importance of this subject is obvious. It touches every aspect of our social lives, our loving and hating, fighting and cooperating, giving and stealing, our greed and our generosity.

Natural selection has built us, and it is natural selection we must understand if we are to comprehend our own identities…. If you look at the way natural selection works, it seems to follow that anything that has evolved by natural selection should be selfish. Therefore 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…. I think ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ sums up our modern understanding of natural selection admirably…. My own feeling is that a human society based simply on the gene’s law of universal ruthless selfishness would be a very nasty society in which to live. But unfortunately, however much we may deplore something, it does not stop it being true. 

My purpose is to examine the biology of selfishness and altruism…. Much as we might wish to believe otherwise, universal love and the welfare of the species as a whole are concepts that simply do not make evolutionary sense…. To a survival machine, another survival machine (which is not its own child or another close relative) is part of its environment, like a rock or a river or a lump of food. It is something that gets in the way, or something that can be exploited…. The logical policy for a survival machine might therefore seem to be to murder its rivals, and then, preferably, to eat them. 

Dawkins does concede that we can challenge our genes. “Throughout this book, I have emphasized that we must not think of genes as conscious, purposeful agents. Blind natural selection, however, makes them behave rather as if they were purposeful, and it has been convenient, as a shorthand, to refer to genes in the language of purpose.” But “we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.” We don’t learn from him where we get those powers from, if not from our genes—without that I found his reassurances unconvincing.  

For brevity we shall again use the convention of thinking of the individual as though it had a conscious purpose. As before, we shall hold in the back of our mind that this is just a figure of speech. A body is really a machine blindly programmed by its selfish genes.

Now I remember what made me skeptical about anything you needed maths to understand! Reading the text of Ronald Fisher’s “Genetical Theory of Natural Selection” I found he omitted a key equation, one that summed up the much larger negative contributions to fitness of masses of harmful mutations and the lesser positive contributions of occasional beneficial mutations. Only if the result was positive could such an equation “prove” natural selection worked. But, rather than linger over such a cacluation he goes on instead to use his “population statistics” to make a case for eugenics. Hmmm! It does pay to check the maths.

This review is of the Kindle Edition of the 30th Anniversary edition. Published by Oxford University Press.