Derek Sivers

The Selfish Gene - by Richard Dawkins

The Selfish Gene - by Richard Dawkins

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About evolution and the theory of natural selection, proposing the idea that it's not creatures that are looking to replicate, but individual genes.

my notes

I am saying how things have evolved. I am not saying how we humans morally ought to behave. I stress this, because I know I am in danger of being misunderstood by people who cannot distinguish a statement of belief in what is the case from an advocacy of what ought to be the case.

Evolution is blind to the future.

The nation is a major beneficiary of our altruistic self-sacrifice, and young men are expected to die as individuals for the greater glory of their country as a whole. Moreover, they are encouraged to kill other individuals about whom nothing is known except that they belong to a different nation.

There is the greatest scorn for those who have gone a little further in widening their altruism, so that it includes other species. If I say that I am more interested in preventing the slaughter of large whales than I am in improving housing conditions for people, I am likely to shock some of my friends.

Lions and antelopes are both members of the class Mammalia, as are we. Should we then not expect lions to refrain from killing antelopes, ‘for the good of the mammals’?

There is no need to think of design or purpose or directedness. If a group of atoms in the presence of energy falls into a stable pattern it will tend to stay that way. The earliest form of natural selection was simply a selection of stable forms and a rejection of unstable ones. There is no mystery about this. It had to happen by definition.

The scholars of the Septuagint mistranslated the Hebrew word for ‘young woman’ into the Greek word for ‘virgin’, coming up with the prophecy: ‘Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son…’

Nothing actually ‘wants’ to evolve. Evolution is something that happens, willy-nilly, in spite of all the efforts of the replicators (and nowadays of the genes) to prevent it happening.

Human suffering has been caused because too many of us cannot grasp that words are only tools for our use, and that the mere presence in the dictionary of a word like ‘living’ does not mean it necessarily has to refer to something definite in the real world.

Whether we call the early replicators living or not, they were the ancestors of life.

What was to be the fate of the ancient replicators? They did not die out, for they are past masters of the survival arts. But do not look for them floating loose in the sea; they gave up that cavalier freedom long ago. Now they swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by tortuous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control. They are in you and in me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence. They have come a long way, those replicators. Now they go by the name of genes, and we are their survival machines.

Every one of those cells contains a complete copy of that body’s DNA. This DNA can be regarded as a set of instructions for how to make a body, written in the ATCG alphabet of the nucleotides. It is as though, in every room of a gigantic building, there was a book-case containing the architect’s plans for the entire building. The ‘book-case’ in a cell is called the nucleus. The architect’s plans run to 46 volumes in man - the number is different in other species. The ‘volumes’ are called chromosomes. They are visible under a microscope as long threads, and the genes are strung out along them in order.

But if the DNA is really a set of plans for building a body, how are the plans put into practice? How are they translated into the fabric of the body? The DNA indirectly supervises the manufacture of a different kind of molecule - protein. The haemoglobin is just one example of the enormous range of protein molecules. The coded message of the DNA, written in the four-letter nucleotide alphabet, is translated in a simple mechanical way into another alphabet. This is the alphabet of amino acids which spells out protein molecules.

Genes do indirectly control the manufacture of bodies, and the influence is strictly one way: acquired characteristics are not inherited. No matter how much knowledge and wisdom you acquire during your life, not one jot will be passed on to your children by genetic means. Each new generation starts from scratch. A body is the genes’ way of preserving the genes unaltered.

Each individual is unique. You cannot get evolution by selecting between entities when there is only one copy of each entity!

Chromosomes too are shuffled into oblivion, like hands of cards soon after they are dealt. But the cards themselves survive the shuffling. The cards are the genes.

At times, gene language gets a bit tedious, and for brevity and vividness we shall lapse into metaphor. But we shall always keep a sceptical eye on our metaphors, to make sure they can be translated back into gene language if necessary.

A gene might be able to assist replicas of itself that are sitting in other bodies. If so, this would appear as individual altruism but it would be brought about by gene selfishness.

Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.

If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain.

Qualities that make for high survival value among memes: longevity, fecundity, and copying-fidelity.

The meme for blind faith secures its own perpetuation by the simple unconscious expedient of discouraging rational inquiry.

When we die there are two things we can leave behind us: genes and memes.