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Is the "Selfish Gene" a Failed Metaphor?

Ville Kokko

Posted on May 20, 2018 05:43

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Richard Dawkins's famous metaphor that genes are "selfish" works very well when it's understood correctly, and it shouldn't be judged negatively for all the times that people have misunderstood it. Or should it?

The Selfish Gene is the title of Richard Dawkins's important 1976 book on evolution. The selfish gene is also a metaphor for the book's central idea: that the survival of genes is the only thing that natural selection really enforces.

I love this metaphor. It's memorable, simple and subtle at the same time, and makes a good point. That's provided it's understood properly, of course. But I like it all the more for the level of intellectual sophistication and stimulation involved in applying it.

The basic idea is that since genes are what survives to the next generations, it's genes that are selected by natural selection. If this is true, then natural selection always chooses those genes that are best at surviving (at least on the relevant time scale). Nothing else matters. If we look metaphorically at what genes are "trying" to do in this scenario, the answer is that each gene is only trying to get passed on, "selfishly."

A number of things follow from this and, put the other way around, a number of things seen in nature can be explained through this knowledge. In an example that Dawkins uses in The Greatest Show on Earth, trees waste resources growing to be tall because they're all competing with each other for sunlight. If they could all "agree" to be shorter, they'd be better off. But if the trees were shorter, then a mutant that grew taller would have an immediate advantage, getting more sunlight. Thanks to natural selection, genes can only be "selfish," as well as short-sighted sometimes.

The same does not apply with humans and many other animals, however, and here's where the misconceptions come in. People are different from their genes, and their intentions are different from the laws of natural selection. So we are not selfish, or only trying to breed. Dawkins makes this pretty explicit in discussing the origins of morality. Yet somehow, the idea that selfish genes causes or even justifies selfishness has got out there.

I have read of the metaphor of the selfish gene being misunderstood and misused so many times that my guess is that it happens often. It sounds like a typical example of how ideas decay into more easily digestible caricatures of themselves.

I find it very irritating when people take this beautiful, insightful metaphor and dumb it down into a simplistic, factually incorrect, even morally distasteful idea. Before, I would have been inclined to say that it's still a good metaphor, and the problem is with people misusing it. But I have to admit that, if the metaphor is misunderstood so easily, even usually... Then maybe it just wasn't a good metaphor to use. Because if it often misleads, then it kind of is misleading. And the misunderstanding about "selfishness" feeds some of the most dangerous misconceptions about evolution.

Mind you, I'm not sure what Dawkins could have done instead. Just not use the metaphor? And aren't subtle point easily misunderstood regardless?

Ville Kokko

Posted on May 20, 2018 05:43

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Richard Dawkins, founder of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.

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