It’s been over 2 years since I first read “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins, and in the meantime I have forgotten quite a bit of it. The basic idea of evolution is simple, but once you start studying it, lots and lots of details emerge, and these are quite complicated. No other book has influenced my worldview as much as this book has and I know that if I simply only read it again, I will probably forget a lot of it in another couple of years. So I thought, this time, I would note down whatever I learn as briefly and succinctly as possible and create a “The Selfish Gene for Dummies” if you will. I am not a biologist, scientist, or an English language expert, so any comments or suggestions pointing out my mistakes are very welcome indeed.
This will be a short post as I start reading the first chapter titled
“Why Are People?”
The theory of evolution is a fact. There is no denial among real scientists that evolution is true. In common parlance, however, a theory has a different meaning. It means something which can be easily doubted. In science, however, a theory means something that is supported by facts and evidence, and is a valid explanation for whatever question the theory attempts to answer. In the scientific world, the theory of evolution has the same standing as the theory of gravity, it is the best explanation of the how and why of life. In fact, maybe even a greater standing, since the theory of gravity breaks down at speeds approaching the speed of light.
Evolution is survival of the fittest genes, not the fittest animal, nor the fittest group of animals i.e species.
The genes are ‘selfish’, not the organism that the gene is part of. This is why having selfish genes does not necessarily mean we are selfish too. The gene’s selfish ‘agenda’ is to survive as a gene through replication. Now genes do not really have thought or purpose, so what the ‘agenda’ above really means is that genes which replicate will survive and those that don’t replicate will not. The ‘selfish’ refers to the fact that the replication of the genes is at the gene level i.e a gene of type A, when it replicates, will only make copies of gene A, and not of gene B. That is why it is selfish, and not altruistic.
Altruism exhibited at the individual level is still selfish at the gene level. This, to me, is a very good explanation of why we “treat others as we wish to be treated ourselves”. Not because some stupid book says so, but because if we treat each other well, and not kill each other, our chances of survival increase, and hence the chances of survival of the genes that are part of us, also increase.
Speciesism is distinguishing between organisms based on their species, just as racism is distinguishing among people based on race. If we were to derive our morals based purely on biology (There is no suggestion we should), then there is no basis for thinking that a human fetus is more privileged or precious than a chimpanzee.
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 that no other species has ever aspired to.