A special edition of Richard Dawkins’ seminal book The Selfish Gene has been issued to commemorate its 30th anniversary. I think the work is so important in the history of Popular Science publishing (a distinct genre it did a great deal to help create) that some extended comments are in order.
The book has sold over a million copies. It has sparked many debates (both within formal biological circles and the broader reading public), and it launched Dawkins’ career shift from pure academic scientist to significant cultural theorist / world author.
For anyone unfamiliar with the work, Dawkins’ central argument is that genes are the essential units, and therefore physical genetic replication is the core mechanism, which makes possible all biological organization and development (and mechanism is the key word!). This view can be contrasted with a focus on organisms, or larger units of influence and structure such as groups, colonies or hives, etc. (Famous scientists such E.O. Wilson and Stephen Jay Gould, who have also achieved very successful careers as popular science writers offer alternative / opposing perspectives.)
The Selfish Gene is “hardline” bottom-up science. Determinist. Reductionist. It represents the opposite of Holism as a point of view regarding the world, and radically denies sentience, animation, and even simply organization of other kinds at other levels.
To crudely, but I think fairly, summarize Dawkins’ thesis—we are ourselves, and exist within, a matrix of algorithms, which self-organize hierarchically in space and time to no other purpose than to perpetuate their underlying patterns.
Ironically, for such a devout materialist, Dawkins also introduces in TSG the now notorious concept of the “Meme.” The Meme has proved to be a highly successful and adaptive example of itself—but this is really just the Fallacy of Expressive Form. It explains nothing about how it works.
What he was trying to do was suggest a metaphorical analog to the gene, which operates at the level of culture. It caught on and has now turned into the field of study called Memetics (which is about the murkiest mush of psychology, anthropology, and linguistics etc. as can be imagined). What’s a meme? What’s not!
The term can be applied to any idea, concept, slogan, melody, fashion style, image, philosophy—you name it. And with that move from the reassuringly materialist biological base of the gene, to the immaterial realm of culture and communicative human behavior, he signals a great internal conflict in his argument and approach.
THE SELFISH GENE’S SECRET
But more importantly to general reading people, TSG has been viewed by many as a pointed and intentional contribution to Scientism. This is a belief system that maintains that the practice of science (and of course what’s meant is “science” emerging from the Western tradition) holds the only legitimate keys to understanding Nature and Existence. Some important practical problems emerge from Scientism, both as a social program and as a philosophical movement.
- If science is the master form of wisdom, the adjudicator of all Truth, any accepted notions of Truth must therefore be accessible to scientific discussion and investigation. If they don’t register within the scientific frame, they don’t register period. Preference is not surprisingly given to aspects that demonstrate a “favorability” (or lack of resistance) to the scientific approach (usually in its strictest and most quantitative sense). Science quietly and cumulatively becomes less inclusive in its field of examination (even if the body of scientific work compounds greatly). As a now famous eighth-grader put it, “Some things are just more scientific than others.”
- If Science is the standard by which all possible knowledge is assessed, certain sciences will at various moments in history be given higher priority, often for not very scientific reasons. Within these fields, certain reigning theories, principles, and models will take precedence. The practical result is the reinforcement of tradition and orthodoxy, which is directly counter to the self-refreshing skepticism and questioning that has been the defining hallmark of Science.
- Under social and economic pressures for government, academic, corporate, and public support, scientists have a tendency to simplify matters for general consumption. Often, vast internecine battles and professional disputes about crucial specifics within different fields are entirely glossed over, and even denied. Everything is under control. The knowledge base is secure.
- Whenever it becomes generally obvious that the “knowledge base” is very much in flux (which is actually the whole point of science), tensions and insecurities ripple out. The average person begins to think the whole thing is rigged, and scientists respond by becoming more strident in defending their boundaries, not expanding them. The problem lies in confusing the products and artifacts of science with the dynamic process that is science (cf. publishing versus literature and intellectual debate). Perhaps a sane, healthy culture needs some standards of Truth that aren’t scientifically derived or dependent. Perhaps science as an enterprise (which was arguably entirely culturally constructed) functions best within stable societies, where the currency of stability isn’t scientific.
- Finally, Dawkins’ own career is a performance in the world of the true underlying motivation and message of TSG thirty years ago. Branching forth from the biological stream of etiology, he has devoted himself in recent years ever more fully and publicly to not just the prosecution of any single religion, but to Religion at large. And no one could do it with more religious fervor than he! One ring to rule them all. Science as the One True Faith.To be fair, Dawkins has defended himself repeatedly against this charge—and if you’ve ever heard him live, you know he’s very eloquent. To his greater credit, over the years his eloquence has come to better balance his arrogance. But there’s still the fiery self-commissioned certainty. He started out as a Born Again Darwinian evangelist. Thirty years later, he’s still keepin’ it real, taking on the True Believers, as only another kind of True Believer can.
- Finally, Dawkins’ own career is a performance in the world of the true underlying motivation and message of TSG thirty years ago. Branching forth from the biological stream of etiology, he has devoted himself in recent years ever more fully and publicly to not just the prosecution of any single religion, but to Religion at large. And no one could do it with more religious fervor than he! One ring to rule them all. Science as the One True Faith.
To be fair, Dawkins has defended himself repeatedly against this charge—and if you’ve ever heard him live, you know he’s very eloquent. To his greater credit, over the years his eloquence has come to better balance his arrogance. But there’s still the fiery self-commissioned certainty. He started out as a Born Again Darwinian evangelist. Thirty years later, he’s still keepin’ it real, taking on the True Believers, as only another kind of True Believer can.