Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene
Summary of:
Dawkins, R. (1990). The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press, 11, 189-210.
Panel Members: Coco Gutilla, Sylvia Joo, Joe Svec, Natalie Zepeda

This is the first chapter where Dawkins mentions man. He discusses the reasons that the human species is unique. He sees culture as the most unusual thing about man and the main thing that sets them apart from animals or plants. Just like genetic transmission, culture can be evolutionized. For example, language evolves by means of culture. It is not genetic and is faster than genetic evolution. Other examples are fashions of dress and diet, ceremonies and customs, art and architecture, and engineering and technology. All of these evolve quickly in historical time. Like genetic evolution, changes can be progressive. The main difference however is that cultural evolution is much speedier. Regarding cultural evolution, Dawkins claims, “There is a sense in which modern science is actually better than ancient science. Not only does our understanding of the universe change as the centuries go by: it improves.” He compares this change to the Renaissance. After a period of stagnation, the time of the Renaissance consisted of cultural change and improvement.

Dawkins tells about his dissatisfaction with prior explanations for human behavior. He is an enthusiastic Darwinian and doesn’t agree with his fellow- enthusiasts’s efforts to find “biological advantages” in various traits of human civilization. These theories are framed in group selectionist, but Dawkins believes the theories should be rephrased in terms of gene selection. He doesn’t think that teaching kin selection as means to alter human genes to produces our basic traits is an accurate way to explain culture. He argues, “we have got to start again and go right back to first principles. I am an enthusiastic Darwinian but I think Darwinism is too big a theory to be confined to the narrow context of the gene. The gene will enter my thesis as an analogy, nothing more.” (p. 191)

Dawkins describes the nature of the gene and what makes them so important. They are replicators and all forms of life evolve by the differential survival of these replicating entities. He presents the idea of another possible kind of replicator that has recently emerged on our planet- Culture. He claims, “it is staring us in the face. It is still in its financy, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup, but already it is achieving evolutionary change at a rate that leaves the old gene panting far behind. “ (p. 192). The new form of replication is human culture and it evolves by means of imitation. Just as genes spread themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sex cells, aspects of human culture spread themselves by leaping from brain to brain via a process called imitation. The aspects of culture that survive and are passed along are those of great psychological appeal. This kind of appeal means brain appeal and brains are shaped y natural selection of genes in gene-pools. An example of cultural evolution is the idea of God, spread through music, art, or spoken and written word. Since the idea of God provides a superficially plausible answer to deep and troubling questions about existence, it is successful in being passed from generation to generation. God promises to help us with our imperfections and because human culture makes us feel powerless, the idea of a powerful, helpful, merciful and loving God is comforting to our brains.

Dawkins understands and has sympathy with the attitude that there are genetic advantages in having the kind of brains we have. However, he also thinks it is important to dig down to the foundation of this assumption. Being able to explain biological phenomena in terms of gene advantage is vital and must not underestimate how central genes are as replicators. They are powerful and once a gene has the ability to make copies of itself, it will. Dawkins refers to this as their “own evolution” that they start. He claims, “Once this evolution begins, it will in no necessary sense be subservient to the old.” (p. 194). After the brain provided original gene-selective evolution, the faster kind of cultural evolution took off. The traits of culture that then began self-copying themselves are named “memes” in this chapter. The way that “memes” replicate is what we popularly know as “imitation”.
Dawkins discusses the fact that not all genes replicate successfully. Some genes are more favored over others in the gene pool and those are the genes that replicate successfully. Similarly, “memes” can either replicate effectively or ineffectively. The more successful they are at replicating, the more prevalent they are in the meme pool. Dawkins describes the difference in a successfully replication between a gene and a meme. A successful replication with genes means replicators that possess “longevity, fecundity and copying-fidelity” (p. 194). However, with memes, longevity isn’t as important. Cultural traits come and go quickly and may not last long. The important thing is how acceptable (or fecundable) the trait is to the population. In contrast from genes, memes may not be identical among people through generations. For example, clothing trends are passed down, but not copied identically unless the exact clothes are passed from one generation to the next. Another example is an idea. One idea may be transmitted from one brain to the other, but unless it is through written word, the idea is transmitted differently from one generation to the next.

Dawkins personifies genes, claiming they are “conscious, purposeful agents”. In Dawkins’ words, “Genes are trying to increase their numbers in future gene pools. Those genes that behave in such a way as to increase their numbers in future gene pools tend to be the ones whose effects we see in the world. Just as we have found it convenient to think of genes as active agents, working purposefully for their own survival, perhaps it might be convenient to think of memes in the same way” (p. 196).

As means of survival, Dawkins brings up the nature of competition of both genes as well as memes. While genes compete by means of alleles on chromosomes in sexual reproduction, memes compete for domination of the attention of many different peoples’ brains.

The last main point Dawkins makes is that while genes and memes reinforce each other, they also oppose each other. For example, a gene for celibacy is doomed for failure in the gene pool whereas a meme for celibacy can be very successful. Our genes are split in half when replicating to the next generation, but memes can be transmitted to the next generation fully and completely. On one hand, genes attempt to replicate and survive for the advantage of the person, however memes attempt to be replicated for the advantage of themselves.

Summary of Chapter 11, “Memes: The New Replicators”

There are some evolutionary psychologists who try to explain every aspect of human civilization through genetic evolution. However, Dawkins points out that there are aspects in culture that “evolved” and were passed on from generation to generation through non-genetic means. Not everything can be replicated through DNA. He discusses another unit similar to the gene called a meme (which is an abbreviation of mimeme). This acts as the replicator in cultural transmission. The meme can help explain why certain phenomenon occur with humans (such as the flourishing of certain religions) and with other species as well (such as the songs of saddleback birds). Dawkins stresses that evolution is not solely based on genetics; it is based on replicating units of transmission. For biological evolution, the gene acts as this unit; for cultural evolution, it is the meme. Although memes are not genetic, they do play an important role in evolution and are very much influenced by natural selection.

Dawkins explains how genes differ from memes. For one thing, genes spread in the gene pool from one body to another through sperm and egg. Memes work similarly, but they go from one brain to another through imitation. Explaining the survival of a gene and that of a meme also differs as well. Survival value of a meme is based on how much psychological appeal it has. For example, the “god meme” might have a high survival value because it provides a tentative answer to questions about one’s purpose and existence in life. Of course, some enthusiasts of evolutionary theories try to explain why a meme has psychological appeal by explaining that our brains are shaped by the natural selection of genes and that psychological appeal really is how much appeal it has to our brains. There might is a genetic advantage to having our type of brain; but as Dawkins mentioned, DNA cannot replicate everything.

Dawkins also addresses copying fidelity, a phenomenon in which something (in this case, a meme) is copied correctly and accurately. It might seem as if memes are low in copying fidelity because passing on an idea from one individual to another will eventually change the idea somewhat. (This is similar to what happens in the game of “Telephone.”) Memes are in fact passed on in altered form.

It might also seem as if memes don’t compete with each other. In sexual reproduction, it is obvious that genes compete with their own alleles. But does this apply to memes? It turns out that memes do compete with each other; certain techniques effectively increase the survival value of a meme, thus enabling it to spread within a meme pool. Perhaps a meme becomes successful because people spend a lot of time actively transmitting it to other people. This also explains why it is possible for genes and memes to butt heads. Dawkins gives the example of celibacy—a practice that is definitely not inherited genetically and does not benefit a gene. But The idea of celibacy might stay with a group of people (like priests), especially if they are convinced that it will bring them closer to God.