7: The Selfish Gene

Genes and memes. Breeding and beheading. Penises and poo-eaters.

How does something as complex as a horse, or even an amoeba, come into existence? Why are there so many kinds of organisms, and why are some suspiciously similar? These questions were answered by Darwin, and new ones sprung up after him: if complex organisms are the product of variation and selection, how does the variation work? How does the selection work? What is being varied and selected? Individual bodies? Groups, like families and species? Something else entirely? These questions (and many more) are the subject of The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins.

The answers all flow from one idea: genes are the subject of variation and selection. Not individuals. Not groups. One of the most important consequences of this view is that genes often prosper at the expense of individuals and groups. For instance, a male might live longer if it never fought for mating opportunities. But, a gene for safe celibacy dies with its holder. Genes for dangerous promiscuity don’t - they spread. Similarly, if a gene helps one individual reproduce more than its competitors, it will spread, even if it harms the species as a whole (e.g. by reducing its population).

But what do I care? I’m interested in how the human mind works, and how to build one!

Well, though Darwin just wanted to explain the creation of complex organisms, he accidentally discovered something far more general: a theory that explains the creation of all knowledge, not just genetic knowledge (e.g. like how to build reliable anuses). This was made clear by the philosopher Karl Popper, who developed an evolutionary theory of knowledge. He argued knowledge is created by conjecture and criticism - variation and selection.

Evolution, then, isn’t really about biology. Like the mind, it’s about knowledge-creation.

This is why I’m interested in evolution in all its forms, and why I decided to read The Selfish Gene. By learning about biological evolution, I hoped to learn something about how human ideas evolve. I think I succeeded, and I learned lots more besides. In fact, here’s a Twitter thread full of interesting excerpts from the book, and thoughts I had while reading it. (Btw, make sure to read the out-of-context quotes like, “...sawing off heads is a bit of a chore.”)