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The Selfish Gene

May 21, 2017

I just read The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins.  I’ve never read this book before, although I’ve certainly heard of it.  A few weeks ago, I read How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker.  One of his sources was The Selfish Gene.  It had the reputation of being a radical and perhaps illogical scientific work.  I decided to find out for myself.

Charles Darwin searched for the mechanism of evolution, and told us that natural selection was it.  He also told us that perfection of design in natural organisms was the result of millions of years of evolution by natural selection.

Richard Dawkins extends this idea by telling us that genes are the actual subjects of natural selection, not individuals or species.  He also tells us that genes are the real designers of natural organisms.  Their purpose is always to benefit themselves by designing better organisms.  They are naturally selfish.

Dawkins has two main arguments.  The first is to convince us that genes are more important in evolution than individuals or species.  Of course, anything that is the subject of natural selection, and that is refined over many generations of organisms, has to be selfish.  There’s no other way for such an entity to survive in evolution.

His other argument is to explain to us how apparently unselfish behavior by organisms will still benefit the genes.  Some animals invest a great deal of time and effort in caring for their children, for example.  Children are the next generation, carrying the genes that need to survive into the future.  It’s a good strategy for parents to care for them.

Dawkin’s book was not at all what I expected.  His arguments are compelling.  I’m convinced that genes are indeed the units of evolution.  I’m also convinced that we humans are not controlled by our genes, not at the mercy of them.  All that genes can do is to design our bodies and minds, and to regulate our development in the embryo.  Our genes also give us conciousness, a mind that can think for itself, and the ability to behave in any way that seems reasonable to us.  We take responsibility for our own actions.  Our genes created us and designed us, but left us free to make our own choices.


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