The Selfish Gene

Richard Dawkins discusses in his book “The Selfish Gene” if we are using our genes to propagate ourselves, or if maybe our genes are using us to propagate themselves.

According to Dawkins life may very well have begun a long time ago, in the primordial soup, when simple clumps of amino-acids became self-replicating. This self-replication started a kind of war between competing replicators and who was on top (or in the majority) in the soup probably changed many times until one kind of replicators using a protective layer of matter came out the winner (one cell organisms).

Soon the replicators became so complicated they needed to share the different types of work needed to be done between several cells (or as Dawkins calls them, survival machines[1]) and thus multi cell organisms were born.

The reason the book is called “The Selfish Gene” is among other things (there is a whole theory called “Selfish Gene Theory”) Dawkins debunking of Group Selection. In the Selfish Gene Theory groups are not selected, but genes are. Then if several different kinds of genes happen to be successful (reproduce a lot) when working together, then that is simply because each gene in itself earn from the cooperation with other genes, not because they are selected as a group.

The Selfish Gene Theory causes some dilemmas for anyone that wishes to believe in the inner good of mankind, after all, how much inner good can there be if every one of us is genetically programmed to be selfish?

Dawkins actually answers this question with Game Theory. Simply put, there are selfish reasons for cooperating with others. (Some one, I think it may even have been Dr. Phil, said — or if it was Dr. Phil, then I think he wrote it — that everybody has a selfish reason for what they do, it may not be the only reason but there is at least a little bit of selfishness behind all actions in the world).

I feel that the Selfish Gene Theory may work in explaining the behavior of simple animals, but I believe it could be potentially dangerous to look at humans in the sense of being controlled only by selfish genes. When I studied psychology I learned one thing, all kinds of behavior have the following three main influences: psychology — what happens in your head, thoughts, expectations, prejudices; biology — how your head is constructed, transmitter substances, perception abilities, reaction speeds, cognition capabilities; and finally environment — what’s going on around you, perceptions of vision, sound, influences from the outside, other people, customs, traditions, culture.

If we were to explain the whole world with Selfish Gene Theory alone, we would lean very heavily on the biological leg without taking the psychological and environmental into consideration, and in my book, that would be a halting explanation for the world. On the other hand, if Dawkins is right and we’re here today because our genes have been selfish from the first time they started to replicate in that primordial soup some billions of years ago, then we might have to be aware we might need some training before we can become altruistic, and we may also be able to understand that altruism is not an integral part of human behavior, but something one has to learn.

And then again, I think even such great people as Gandhi or Mother Theresa had at least a few selfish motives to what they did. The difference between them and people like Hitler and Stalin was that they, in a contrary to Hitler and Stalin, found helping others rewarding.


[1] Actually, he calls both single cells and whole bodies (like yours and mine) the genes’ survival machines.

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