The Selfish Gene Illusion

Richard Dawkins with a 3D model of a Necker Cube.

Richard Dawkins with a 3D model of a Necker Cube. Royal Institute Christmas Lectures 1991

Richard Dawkins regards evolution as a process which is driven by and operates for the benefit of  genes. He expressed this fairly clearly in The Extended Phenotype.

The thesis that I shall support is this. It is legitimate to speak of adaptation as being ‘for the benefit of’ something, but that something is best not seen as the individual organism.  It is the smaller unit which I call the active germ-line replicator.  The most important kind of replicator is the ‘gene’ or small genetic fragment.  

Richard Dawkins The Extended Phenotype Chapter 1 1982

Evolution is like the water cycle,  a natural process, and it is no more rational to speak of its effects being for the benefit of genes, than it is to speak of the effects of the water cycle as being for the benefit of raindrops. This is true even if you put the claim in speech marks. Both processes operate in a way that causes reproduction, in one case of  genes in the other raindrops. But to describe either raindrops or genes as the beneficiaries of the processes which produce them is to take quite a lot of poetic license, the kind of license which is more appropriate for an Enid Blyton tale than a work of science.

Richard Dawkins has illustrated his argument by referencing the Necker Cube.Necker_cube.svg

There is a well -known visual illusion called the Necker Cube. It consists of a line drawing which the brain interprets as a three-dimensional cube. But there are two possible orientations of the perceived cube, and both are equally compatible with the two-dimensional image on the paper. We usually begin by seeing one of the two orientations, but if we look for several seconds the cube “flips over” in the mind, and we see the other apparent orientation. After a few more seconds the mental image flips back and it continues to alternate as long as we look at the picture. The point is that neither of the two perceptions of the cube is the correct or “true” one. They are equally correct. 

Richard Dawkins The Extended Phenotype Chapter 1 1982

What I find interesting here is that neither of the two perceptions is correct.They are both illusions, as is the notion that adaptations are “for the benefit” of either the individual organism or the gene.

A successful adaptation increases the probability that the organism which bares it will reproduce, and therefore propagate the genes which are part of the cycle necessary for this adaptation to exist. If you consider reproduction as a benefit, a successful  adaptation works for the benefit of both the genes that are part of its chain of generation, and the individual organism that carries it.  And it similarly works for the benefit of the species; successful adaptations within a species work to decrease the probability of a species becoming extinct. There is however nothing operating within the system that makes it rational to claim that adaptations exist “for the benefit” of  any of those things: they are a part of the cycle of life, which like the rain cycle is a consequence of the blindly operating forces of nature.

 What Richard Dawkins should be saying, is that it is genes rather than organisms which have a chance of surviving through time, and they are therefore the units on which natural selection works. If they code for successful adaptations they remain constant or increase proportionally within the species gene pool. If they are less successful they decrease or even get wiped from the gene pool. Their roll is passive.  Rather than selfish manipulators, they are the poor bloody infantry.  They are only selected for if they are part of the cycle that results in the production of successful adaptations, for example, legs, kidneys, or the fight or flight instinct.

And  this is  in fact what he is saying, except when it comes to setting out the position he is advocating or drawing conclusions, when suddenly the gene becomes, instead of the passive victim of natural selection, a selfish manipulator working to ensure its own survival.

The following passage is the conclusion to the final chapter of The Extended Phenotype – Rediscovering the Organism.  Note how the gene (replicator) changes from the passive object of natural selection, to an active agent acting to ensure its own survival by selfishly behaving cooperatively.

The integrated multicellular organism is a phenomenon which has emerged as a result of natural selection on primitively independent selfish replicators.  It has paid replicators to behave gregariously.  The phenotypic power by which they ensure their survival is in principle extended and unbounded. In practice the organism has arisen as a partially bounded local concentration, a shared knot of replicator power.  

Richard Dawkins The Extended Phenotype Chapter 14 Rediscovering the Organism 1982

In The God Delusion Richard Dawkins links misapplied intentional stance with religious belief.

The design stance and the intentional stance are useful brain mechanisms, important for speeding up the second-guessing of entities that really matter for survival, such as predators or potential mates.  But, like other brain mechanisms, these stances can misfire. Children and primitive peoples, impute intentions to the weather, to waves and currents, to falling rocks.  

Richard Dawkins The God Delusion 2006

He in his own writing imputes intentions to Selfish DNA.

The story that he is telling of how selfish replicators working for their own ends overcame the forces of ancient chaos, has parallels in ancient mythologies, notably the Enuma  Elish, the scripture of ancient Babylon.

In this scripture Marduk, the god of ancient Babylon, achieved chief place in the pantheon of the gods, by right of conquest.  He slew the mother of all gods, Tiamat, ancient chaos.

Richard Dawkins Selfish Gene is a reworking of the tale that theologian Walter Wink has described as the myth of redemptive violence.

This Selfish Gene Myth has a characteristic that Richard Dawkins associates with the early stages of a religion’s evolution.

In the early stages of a religion’s evolution, before it becomes organized simple memes survive by virtue of their universal appeal to human psychology.

Richard Dawkins The God Delusion 2006

At the top of this post there is a picture of Richard Dawkins with a wire framed cube.  Despite the labelling this is not a Necker cube.  If you look at the cube the flip will occur, but only one of the shapes seen looks like a cube.  The other does not.

The point I want to make here is that only one of these perceptions is correct, and so it is with the Selfish Gene. It appears to be a scientific theory, but the reality is otherwise.

Richard Dawkins by his own account lost his belief in the existence of God at the age of 15, because of his exposure to the theory of evolution. While I would very much like to say, “See irrational beliefs aren’t just a religious phenomenon,” I don’t think Richard Dawkins’ case can be used to argue that.  He has replaced belief in a single creator acting intentionally and intelligently, with belief in lots of selfish little creators acting intentionally but without foresight.  For him evolution has completely filled the role of religion,  including  giving purpose, and rather than being an atheist, he is a polytheist, admittedly one who  is arguing for revolt against the selfish but stupid little creators, who have made us to serve their interests, but a polytheist nonetheless.

The term, survival of the fittest, was coined by Herbert Spencer, not Darwin, and is misleading.  It allowed evolutionary success to be understood as survival of the powerful, with victory going to the alpha male, the Übermensch.  It allowed people to interpret the theory of evolution as scientific vindication for the myth of redemptive violence. (The more accurate description, survival of those best fitted to their environment, just doesn’t have the same myth building appeal.)

It is this idea of successfully  competing individuals that Richard Dawkins incorporated into new synthesis biology, as  Selfish Genes; the little Übergensch that overcame the primal chaos, and brought organisms into being, to serve their lust for survival, their will to power.

Within his belief system, our role as humans, is to use the gift of clear thinking and intelligence which the Übergenes have made the mistake of gifting us with, to overcome the selfish goal-seeking mechanisms, which they have put in place to further their own interests.  See Richard Dawkins Atheists for Jesus 2006 That is we, some of us anyway, have the intellectual power to defeat our genes and become  Übermensch and Überwensch.

The Real Replicator


I hope I have managed to convince you that Richard Dawkins is not quite as clear-sighted as he thinks he is.  Up until very recently I would have argued that Richard Dawkins was the victim of  a, metaphorically speaking, prank  performed by a deceptor gene. A gene operating to deceive us, in  a way that has worked to increase the average reproductive fitness of those carrying it in times past.

I had accepted that genes were what survived the natural selection process, and that therefore genes were the unit of selection, the individuals that appeared time after time. It is the  information in the following passage that over the course of producing this post  has caused me to change my mind.

 The thesis that I shall support is this. It is legitimate to speak of adaptation as being ‘for the benefit of’ something, but that something is best not seen as the individual organism.  It is the smaller unit which I call the active germ-line replicator.  The most important kind of replicator is the ‘gene’ or small genetic fragment.  

Richard Dawkins The Extended Phenotype Chapter 1 1982

It occurred to me that it isn’t just the genes that live across many generations of lots of different organisms, the adaptations do as well.  Adaptations like eyes, kidneys and hind legs are reproduced time after time.  The unit of selection isn’t the gene, but the whole cycle of interconnections that lead from fertilized egg to successful adaptation and back again. It is this unit that is the replicator, and it is this unit that Dr Dawkins’ use of the Necker Cube illustration managed to hide from him.  The story of how eyeballs and hind legs have manipulated us in their selfish pursuit of survival, just doesn’t have the same mythic resonance as the Selfish gene.

It is ridiculous to imagine kidneys and hind legs manipulating us to further their own selfish ends, this  doesn’t mean that the same  is true of all adaptations. Instincts work by manipulating organisms in ways that have at least in times past increased the average reproductive fitnesses of the manipulated organisms.  Note the use of the word average here, it is entirely possible for an adaptation to lower the reproductive fitnesses of the majority of the organisms affected by it, and yet increase over time in the general population; so that an instinct for risk taking for instance could succeed if the reproductive payback for the successful organism was great enough to compensate for the failure of the unsuccessful. Even before taking into account the fact that the conditions under which the adaptation developed are likely to be significantly different from the conditions now in operation, it is dangerously naive to assume that instincts operate for the good of the person manipulated by them.

Richard Dawkins’  behaviour is consistent with what theologian Peter Rollins identifies as belief in the Big Other. This Big Other seems to be, at least in part, an anthropomorphic representation of the drive for social conformity.  We develop an image of what is socially expected of us and then act so as to conform ourselves to that image. So that if you are in a nightclub you are supposed to be enjoying yourself and that is the way you will act regardless of your feelings.  If you don’t conform to expectations then those around you are likely to remind you of your social responsibility, to behave appropriately, e.g. “Cheer up love.”

Richard Dawkins views himself as a scientist and has therefore worked to conform himself to his image of a scientist – a rational atheist.  The trouble with this view is that we humans are not that rational and as he acknowledges we have a strong and probably adaptive tendency to see purpose where there is none. The rational position would be to say yes, I do instinctively believe that events have purpose external to the human will, but I know that this instinct is not rationally based. It is this part of the real nature of being human and being an atheist, that  the  very intelligent, funny and irreverent Irish comedian Dave Allen sent up in his joke, “I’m an atheist, thank God,” and his discussion about why God prefers atheists.

But to acknowledge that one is from time to time irrational is to deviate from the self-image of a rational scientist.  Richard Dawkins has solved the problem a different way, he has placed purpose within the natural world – we exist to reproduce our genes.  Right at the heart of Richard Dawkins’  belief system there is this major irrationality, this stunning piece of unacknowledged magic thinking,  the attribution of intention, to little bits of DNA.

Similar self-image confirming mechanisms can be found in the more conventionally religious.

In a light-hearted but personal interview in front of hundreds of people in Bristol cathedral last weekend, Justin Welby said: “There are moments, sure, where you think ‘Is there a God? Where is God?'”Welby quickly added that, as the leader of the world’s 80 million-strong Anglican community, this was “probably not what the archbishop of Canterbury should say.”

Matthew Weaver  Archbishop of Canterbury admits doubts about existence of God 18th September 2014  

Within just three minutes in this interview  you can observe Justin Welby twice deny the reality of his doubt, in a way that makes  what he says a better fit with the social expectations that his audience, and the young woman, interviewing him would be expected to have of an evangelical archbishop.

As Peter Rollins has pointed out this could be interpreted as intellectual dishonesty, or a desire to fool some Big Other.  But it is also consistent with an empirically demonstrable human behaviour pattern, a drive to conform to social expectations or stereotype. An instinctive behaviour pattern that operates  largely at the level of the unconscious.

In response to the interviewers question about whether he ever had doubts, Justin Welby said  “There are moments, sure, where you think ‘Is there a God? Where is God?'”

When he made this statement Justin Welby was being given the my hero treatment by a gushing interviewer and speaking in a situation where it would be reasonable to expect the audience to be believers i.e. a situation that would have put him under social pressure to conform to stereotype. It is in that situation that he redefines the nature of his doubt to something  that it is not.  He relates his doubt to the feelings expressed  in Psalms 88, 44, and 22, and treats it as consistent with the feelings expressed there.  Only these Psalms are not about rational doubt of the existence of God, they are hymns expressing the feelings of abandonment or even persecution by God, of those whose lives have become hell on earth..  Rather than acknowledge the true nature of the doubt he has just expressed, he is identifying it not as rational doubt, about the existence of God, but as a feeling that is not inconsistent with certainty that God exists.

Please note that I am not saying that Justin Welby was being intentionally dishonest. Just that he was in the type of situation that is likely to kick off a social status preserving instinct, an instinct that has increased its own reproductive fitness in times past by ensuring that people don’t let their search for truth undermine their social status.

After that he went into a story about praying while going for a morning run with his dog. He related how he found himself saying to God, “Isn’t it time you did something, if your’e there?”  Straight after this he reminded himself of his social role,

 “probably not what the archbishop of Canterbury should say.”

 At this stage the interviewer, Lucy Tegg, broke in, with what appears to be an attempt, to  reassure him that he was still her hero and that his honesty was an inspiration  to other lesser Christians.

“But it’s  quite reassuring to people who think to themselves I don’t feel a presence, or at least I don’t feel it all the time.”

This is Justin Welby’s response..

“It’s not about feelings. Its about the fact that God is faithful, and the extraordinary thing about being a Christian is that God is faithful even when we are not.”

.Reminding himself that he is the Archbishop of Canterbury has had an extraordinary affect. Dog walker Justin Welby  had doubts about the existence of God, but  Archbishop Justin Welby has certainty about not only the existence of God but His Nature as well.

As the Archbishop he is able to ignore his rational doubts as mere feelings, and this would be funny if his own rational doubt was the only doubt that he was dismissing.  However as he linked his rational doubts with the real human suffering of people who because of the horrendous situations they are in have felt abandoned by God, he is also dismissing their doubts. And is like one of Job’s comforters encouraging the victims to feel guilt, for not being faithful to God.

I suspect that confronted with someone who was experiencing a horrendous life situation, Justin Welby would conform not to his image of archbishop, but of decent human being, and therefore  wouldn’t try to load them with guilt.  But in a situation where he is not being confronted by immediate human reality, he is happy to express the values of magic pixie land, those which he feels match the stereotype that is socially expected of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The very intelligent, very funny, and very irreverent  Dr Jonathan Swift recognized the dangers of conforming to stereotype, and he was especially incensed by the stereotype of man as a rational animal. The following satirical passage is taken from a letter he wrote to his friend Alexander Pope, in which he expresses his disgust with stereotypes.

  I have ever hated all nations, professions, and communities, and all my love is toward individuals: for instance, I hate the tribe of lawyers, but I love Counsellor Such-a-one, and Judge Such-a-one: so with physicians—I will not speak of my own trade—soldiers, English, Scotch, French, and the rest. But principally I hate and detest that animal called man, although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth. This is the system upon which I have governed myself many years, but do not tell, and so I shall go on till I have done with them. I have got materials toward a treatise, proving the falsity of that definition animal rationale, and to show it would be only rationis capax. Upon this great foundation of misanthropy, though not in Timon’s manner, the whole building of my Travels is erected; and I never will have peace of mind till all honest men are of my opinion.

Jonathan Swift  A Letter to Alexander Pope September 29th 1725

Swift died without achieving peace of mind, and nearly 300 years after this was written, honest men, and I have no doubt that both Richard Dawkins and Justin Welby are honest men, who thought they were telling the truth, can have their brains noodled with and be made fools of at the behest of an instinct for social conformity.

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