On The “Social” Gene

From the beginning of the theory of evolution there have been those who have sought to use the biological evolutionary process of “survival of the fittest” to justify social, economic and political policies that favour economic competition, individualism and show no sympathy for those unable to support themselves.

The first manifestation of this arose in the second half of the 19th Century and was called Social Darwinism. The resulting Malthusian was brutally lacking in compassion and led directly to the now discredited theories of eugenics and certainly to Nazi ideology that focused on power. In the Eighties, after 40 years of a social democratic consensus, these views again became popular as represented by Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good” speech in Oliver stone’s 1987 film, Wall Street.

Many believe that Richard Dawkin’s book, The Selfish Gene, published in 1976 was one of the key texts that provided the theoretical underpinning of the Thatcher/Reagan years – or at least the title of the book did, because many more people used the book to justify their brand of selfish hyper-capitalism than had ever read the book. Indeed, Dawkins himself has come to regret the title and is at great lengths to try to distance himself from the sort of free market political theories that use Social Darwinism as a justification.

But surely it is not credible to believe that Dawkins did not understand what he was doing in choosing the title he did. I think it is highly likely that he knew very well the rhetorical power of his metaphor, especially in light of his bizarre theory of Memes that suggests a “survival of the fittest” mechanism in human culture.

I would go so far as to suggest that Dawkin’s knew exactly what he was doing and that his choice of title was scientifically misleading and morally reprehensible.

The ideological hyper-capitalism of the 80’s and 90’s has exacerbated inequality across the world and intensified the rampant exploitation of the planet’s resources – all of this based on the idea of human-beings as ruthless competing individuals and “someone has to win in the human race and if it isn’t me it has to be you.” Alan Price, O Lucky Man.

The truth that Dawkin’s himself now goes to great pains to emphasise, is that genes are not selfish or altruistic or anything else for that matter. Gebes do not even have a ‘desire’ to reproduce. They have no emotional or thought processes at all – which means they do not even have purpose because purpose implies self-conscious direction. Genes are microscopic molecular systems and they only have function.

Briefly put the traditional theory of Darwinian evolution goes something like this:

  1. During the process of reproducing an organism a random mutant gene is produced.
  2. Coincidentally this mutation produces in the host a capacity, attribute or behaviour that increases the host’s likelihood to survive long enough to successfully reproduce.
  3. Due to the inherited aspects of reproduction the mutant gene is reproduced in the host’s off-spring.
  4. Thus they too have an increased likelihood to survive long enough to successfully reproduce.
  5. Over time the off-spring that carry the mutant gene multiply until all off-spring in the species carry the mutant gene.

None of this implies purpose. The initial mutant gene is a mistake, a random mutation caused by some error in reproduction. The benefits to the host are purely coincidental. Indeed most mutant genes provide no benefit and thus die out.

The very way I have described the process in this linear fashion implies an integrated system but the integration is being supplied by me. In reality a number of distinct functions occur that just so happen to produce a particular outcome.

This is not to deny evolution merely that Dawkin’s metaphor described evolution in a way that is purely subjective and that is loaded to the gunnels with social and political assumptions.

Any simplistic account does not really represent the real-life process of evolution in which many thousands of genes are reproduced to inter-act in irreducibly complex biological systems. The effect of a single gene is always mediated by its relationship with other genes.

Metaphorically one could even go so far as to suggest that genes are in fact social. They do not act alone, they could not even survive alone – a gene without a living host made up of many thousands of genes and a myriad of other types of molecular structures, is just a tiny piece of rotting organic matter. A gene is completely and utterly dependent.

Genes themselves are not selfish, or independent or ruthless or anything else. They are not trying to survive or overcome their rivals. They just are and all they are is function without aim or purpose – unless we propose some sort of spiritual purpose to the universe – something Dawkins in particular seems vehemently opposed to.

So Dawkins ‘Selfish Gene’ is a fundamentally mistaken metaphor. And its application in social and economic life is no less flawed. To equate the mindless functionality of a gene with a human being is simply wrong, even as a metaphor.

Human Beings do have purpose; they do have wants, needs and responsibilities and they have evolved to live in close proximity to others of the species.

Inter-dependence and mutual interest is an evolved survival mechanism in much of the animal world. From ants & bees through antelope, lions, wolves, Elephants, Birds, fish. It could be argued that it is solitary living that is unusual in the natural world; If all of us lived entirely by the maxim of ‘The survival of the fittest’, at best there would be untold human slaughter and oppression, at worst the species would become extinct.

Cooperation is fundamental to human survival and prosperity. If a dozen of us were shipwrecked on a desert island our only chance of long-term survival would be to cooperate. If we simply fought each other to the death for control of scarce resources then eventually all would die. Why? Because the last man standing would be alone and as soon as he injured himself or became ill he would be unable to feed him self and he would die. His best chance of survival is to keep as many of the 12 alive so that they can cooperate in providing food, shelter and pastoral care for each other. So the interests of each of the survivors is intimately linked to the survival of all the others.

This is the complete antithesis of the ‘Survival of the Fittest’ metaphor; you could go so far as to call it ‘Survival of the Friendliest”.

I Am Not A Number

Political and Philosophical Dispatches From An Individual Living In A Society


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