The selfish meme
Updated: Aug 25, 2021
What is The Selfish Gene (1976)? It is not a journal article, a presentation to a learned congress, a technical bulletin, nor is it even a lecture to undergraduates. It is a popular science book and an exercise in creative writing, as Dawkins admits early in the book. Dawkins says that he has taken his mode of thought from science fiction; he will personify the gene—personify mathematical formulae and models—and use an extended metaphor, a metaphor of selfishness, to do so. His work should be judged, therefore, as an attempt to convince and persuade the public that a certain worldview is correct and should be more generally adopted. I will make no comment on the mathematical models and the evidence that underpins what Dawkins writes in The Selfish Gene and I will not do so for two reasons: firstly, I have no idea or competence to comment on these things; secondly, so far as I know, nobody has refuted or successfully challenged the basic framework that underlies what Dawkins says—so far as I know what he says is as true as we can possibly know the truth about this subject up to this point. So I will assume that the skeleton is sound and confine myself to skinning Dawkins alive.
In other words, I will judge this book as an attempt to persuade millions of people to adopt a certain stance to world—just as Marx did with The Communist Manifesto or Jung did with Memories, Dreams, and Reflections—and not as a scientific work. The grounds to do so are very solid, with The Selfish Gene Dawkins makes comment on the following topics: population control, religion, the humanities, and trade unions—he seeks to use his metaphor to make a general comment on how societies should be run. He steps well beyond the role scientists typically allot for themselves—to make factual observations about reality—and draws out implications for society from the deeper research and his metaphors. This is important to note because Dawkins has a habit, not just in this book, whereby he will claim to be a scientist one moment—just making factual observations that, he admits, might upset and disturb you but are true nonetheless despite your emotional overreaction—to the position where he has made acidulous comments about religion or strongly hinted about the necessity of population control. He does this fairly often, quickly beating back to the position that his opponents are “childish”, “irrational”, or “superstitious” when they fail to agree with his more tendentious social positions. They cannot deal with the facts rationally, you see.
As Dawkins himself knows, having originated the idea of memes in this very book, propositions that people carry within them that they think to be true have implications for their behaviour and for other people. Societies where most people think to some degree—or pretend to think anyway—that the following propositions are true are different from each other, in part, because those propositions are held to be true: “The history of man is the history of class struggle.”; “Jesus Christ was our Lord and Saviour.”; “Inequalities between people are the result of historically-encoded white supremacist attitudes and institutions.”; “Man is a meat robot who serves the selfish aims of his genes.”
Now, obviously, there are always degrees to which people affirm these ideas; some people will go further than others due to their personalities, due to their inherited characteristics; just as some people became Christian hermits on hearing “the Good News” and others blandly affirmed, “Yeah, I’m a Christian or whatever I go to church once a week. Praise be.” Nonetheless, it is true—as Dawkins himself must think, otherwise why would he write a popularisation—that the way people perceive the world to be has an influence on their actions, if only through simply dismissing certain alternative options as “unChristian” or “irrational and unscientific”.
By his own admission Dawkins, said that he could have used the metaphor “the immortal gene” for the book; alternatively, “the self-interested gene” would have done as well and would have conveyed the same information without the strong moral overtones carried by “selfish”. Dawkins knows this all perfectly well and yet the basic point is so: if the book was not titled The Selfish Gene it would never have sold; it sold because it sounds like it has made an outrageous statement that a behaviour people usually think to be anti-social is normal and so it generated controversy, as it was intended to do. Nobody ever sold millions of books by making non-emotive statements about reality—if you did that you would be writing scientific papers or something.
Dawkins is quick to say that his critics have failed to read the book or understand what it actually says and that they have just jumped on the title, but actually he uses the word “selfish” throughout. Now, as Dawkins would note, in the end he concludes that selfish genetic action can lead to altruistic or quasi-altruistic behaviour in actual organisms in certain circumstances, but this is part of the wider strategy that gives the book its appeal as a purportedly scientific work. Of course, all this controversy and “misunderstanding” is the point; the book is meant to get people hopping mad because it could be taken to say that what is commonly regarded as anti-social behaviour is normal, if not normative.
Dawkins does not say people are selfish exactly or that selfishness is good; he says that a good metaphor for the way we model genes to behave is “selfishness”—he further uses the term “Chicago gangster”, so the metaphor is not merely mildly anti-social but downright criminal. Now, as noted, the actual action of the genes can lead to behaviour that appears altruistic to the outside observer of an organism—or self-interested, or plain selfish. A little depends on the environmental incentives too. So to call the genes selfish muddies the water when it is obvious a great many people will take Dawkins to mean: “Man is inherently selfish, science has demonstrated this to be so.”
Another close metaphor that could have been used instead of “selfish”: “The genes are businessmen; they drive a ruthless bargain, they seek to maximise their returns on investment: the capitalist gene.” In a more violent mode: “The genes are soldiers in an army; they are completely ruthless in their struggle to continue their existence and they use camouflage to achieve this end; we humans are the camouflage.” Both these metaphors, so far as I can tell, convey the same information about how the models and evidence show genes to behave; and both have different implications, from a memetic view, for the people who read the book.
Memes have consequences, so we have to consider whether it is desirable to live in a society where it is generally held that: “There is no God and man is a meat robot for his selfish genes (with a further general understanding that man is generally selfish).” I would submit, since selfishness is an anti-social trait and belief in God restricts it somewhat, that we would not prefer to live in that society. We would probably prefer to live in a society where it was widely held: “Man is created in the image of a divine being; however, he is severely fallen and so acts in cruel and selfish ways, but he can improve and redeem himself with discipline.” Alternatively, using my other two metaphors, if the former has too much God in it, we could conclude that man is a merchant or a warrior who strives for the best deal or to win wars. Remember, Dawkins cannot jump back and say he is only presenting scientific facts: he has presented a metaphor, and he himself concedes that the models and evidence have no personification, no emotions, and no personality.
Part of what we expect from science is a counterintuitive statement about reality that defies social conventions and decentres man. The discoveries made by Copernicus serve as a metonym for the whole of what we expect from a scientific discovery; consequently, everyone wants to achieve a “Copernican Revolution” in their field. Copernicus defied expectations about Earth’s position in the universe and decentred man with his discoveries, so changing science and the wider social world. Dawkins uses this expectation, as do popular science journalists pretty much every day, in The Selfish Gene. The basic thesis: “We are robots indirectly controlled by our selfish genes and yet, contrary to intuition and social convention, this selfish behaviour can occasionally lead to quasi-altruistic outcomes.” Here is a Copernican Revolution for the general public, a trick achieved through language and not experiment; it is only counterintuitive if dressed up in metaphorical moralised language so that people who like to look clever can say: “It’s all selfishness; it’s proven genetically and yet, here’s the clever part, this selfish behaviour in the genes leads to altruistic outcomes—how do you like that! I’m sorry if it upsets snowflakes and sentimentalists, but there you go. I’m a practical man who works with facts and logic.”
The basic model used in The Selfish Gene was described centuries ago by Mandeville in his The Fable of the Bees, a view summarised as: “Private vices lead to public virtues.” The Selfish Gene restates Mandeville but uses genes not bees—except tangentially—and claims that it represents a novel and counterintuitive discovery that decentres man, so it trades on what we expect science to do in order to appeal to us and convince us it is true; except it is not science, it is really an invitation to a worldview. Freud did something similar with psychoanalysis. The general public thinks that the family is a shelter in the storm of life; one of the few places where you are safe from a troubled world, and, further, that children are attractive because they are innocent. Freud: the family is a nest of incest and murderous desires; we are driven by repressed memories of childhood masturbation, sexual desire, and traumatic experiences during toilet training—children are sexual creatures, not innocent darlings.
Freud was quite conscious as regards reputation, mentions in his autobiography that he made a suggestion to a colleague who later developed it further to acclaim. Vanity motivates scientists as much as anybody, and Freud happened to construct a theory that looked like a Copernican Revolution in psychology. “I’m sorry you’re having trouble accepting this, but it’s what the science shows. Dr. Freud is quite certain,” said someone in around 1936, with the same tone as many people quote Dawkins today. Now, Dawkins is on firmer ground than Freud evidentially and the similarity does not mean we can discount Dawkins on these grounds, but to think in this way is one way to make “a name” as a brilliant scientist—it worked for Freud, it worked for Dawkins.
Incidentally, there is a connection between depth-psychology and the Game Theory that underlies parts of The Selfish Gene, since Game Theory, when applied to family scenarios, can produce conclusions that unsettle in a Freudian fashion; and this is because if you probe the human strategies that are dressed up in particular words, actions, and non-verbal cues you will often find that what appears to be or is presented as benevolent is self-interested; so the depth-psychologist and the Game Theorist arrive at the same conclusion by different routes—since the “calculations” used in these games could be said to take place in the unconscious, to probe the unconscious could be said to reveal the actual strategy beneath the language and metacommunication within a family group.
We can represent these games mathematically, but the actual computations a person makes do not look like that to the people who play the game—perhaps they look like our unconscious mind. So for different reasons, both Game Theorists and psychoanalysts are suspicious—possibly, as with John Nash, to the point of paranoid schizophrenia. Indeed, a conclusion from the application of Game Theory scenarios is that certain apparently benevolent actions and uses of language can, in fact, conceal a hostile intent—hence a schizophrenic’s persecutory ideas, if irrationally expressed, actually have a basis in fact. Yet the ways psychoanalysis and Game Theory reach these suspicions are pretty distinct from each other; the Game Theorist’s suspicions are not about an Oedipal drama.
To return to our main theme, our expectations about science are so strong that scientific discoveries that confirm our intuitions or customs are overlooked. Semmelweis famously demonstrated that washing hands in a hospital saved lives, and yet he was ignored for his discovery—the discovery confirms a basic intuition and social convention that cleanliness is good: “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” Further, it recentres man rather than decentring him because it suggests that what you do—hand washing—matters. Turns out you are not just a gene robot in a godless universe, it matters if you wash your hands or not. In fact, even today it is a struggle to make staff in hospitals wash their hands, and so when the science confirms what we basically suspected all along it somehow loses its revolutionary character and becomes less saleable.
So when Dawkins sets out to popularise a particular metaphorical understanding of certain scientific facts he is engaged in an act of persuasion and an attempt to bring about a particular set of social relations; neither are scientific activities, even if supported by scientific facts. He uses, as with Freud, the mode in which we expect scientific discoveries to be presented in order to be more persuasive to the public: “It must be a Copernican Revolution in gene theory.”
The Selfish Gene raised ire on the left—continues to do so—and the left dealt with it as follows: “Dawkins produced the book at a time when there was drift towards Monetarism; neoliberalism was on the horizon in the form of Thatcher and Reagan. The left was on the march and trade unions were militant. Men like Dawkins, from a colonial background, felt threatened and sought shelter in pseudo-scientific explanations for human inequality. Their idea that we are driven by ‘selfish’ genes would support the neoliberal privatisation program that was to sweep the Western world, and the suppression of working people, People of Colour, indigenous peoples…etc.”
Left-wing critics of Dawkins basically stop right there. Genetics and heredity support right-wing ideas about hierarchy and competition; therefore, these ideas are wrong—there is no more argument. As historical context, the left is not so wrong. Dawkins is not a so-called autistic scientist with such an iron commitment to the truth that he just blurts out whatever he thinks without any cognisance of the social situation. Dawkins partly presents in that way—as the cold scientist devoted to facts and logic above all—to convince people, but obviously he has a real priestly instinct. He is as much a preacher and propagandist—for atheism and secular humanism—as he is a scientist out for the truth. As Yarvin has fully explicated, Dawkins is a religious man and his religion is secular humanism. His priestly sensibility is evident in The Selfish Gene when he speaks at length in praise of models and seems less interested in the messy real world. Dawkins does not have the scientific temperament; he has less interest in experiment and more interest in the ideal model—the perfect dogma.
So his left-wing critics are not entirely wrong to situate Dawkins as a political actor in the 1970s; Dawkins is not a Robin Hanson or a Gregory Cochran—semi-obscure figures whose comments on social matters are anything if polemic—rather he is a definite public figure. Within The Selfish Gene he does mention trade unions—then a hot topic in British politics—by metaphorical extension and what he says is not sympathetic.
The left is probably correct to identify Dawkins as leaning towards the neoliberal project that was then, in 1976, just about visible on the horizon and would come into its own with Thatcher’s election in 1979. Since then, the term “neoliberalism” has been ridiculously overextended by the left to refer to everything that has happened they dislike since 1979. The reality: neoliberalism was a short-lived phenomenon that lasted from about 1979 to 1988 that attempted—and failed, substantially—to reduce the size of the Western state. It has since vanished and become a meaningless bogeyman for left-wing activists. Yet what Dawkins really is as a man, so I think, is a social conformist and status seeker. Dawkins basically keeps, as Yarvin observes, solidly in the secular humanist tradition that is Western orthodoxy; within this tradition, due to what he knows about biology, he leans relatively to the right but not by much. For example, he notes there are races of animals but is clear to state that racism in humans is a “malfunction” of certain adaptations that allow sociability and protect our group.
Even so, Dawkins is far too far to the right for many leftists; and their general contention would be that the metaphor “selfish” was part of neoliberal drift in Western societies, justified by what the left would characterise as pseudo-science, that terminated in Gordon Gekko’s catchphrase: “Greed is good.” In other words, my genes are selfish and so am I. “Dawkins? Pure boogeois ideology and boogeois science,” says the earnest leftist, as he sips his craft ale in Brooklyn.
The implications from what Dawkins says do support very right-wing ideas, but you have to dig for these. Dawkins asks us to imagine a rowing coach who must choose between a mix of rowers who are German and English; if given free rein to pick by individual ability, the coach will end up with all-German and all-English squads, and this is because such a situation facilitates cooperation better between individuals—the overall result is cohesive teams. He uses this to illustrate a point about the emergent order found in genes, but it can easily be applied to nations: homogeneous nations are superior to multiracial nations because, if given freedom to choose associates, people select associates with whom they can more easily communicate; and so homogenous nations will beat their opponents. The situation does not come about from someone sitting down and saying, “We shall force these people together.” It is just the optimum strategy, and nations that follow it more than not will beat nations that follow it less than not. I am told this is so by narcissistic far-right YouTubers, aided by recent computer modelling (trust the science).
Dawkins never develops his rowing metaphor in such a way that it would support homogeneous nations; perhaps it is implied in what he says, particularly his choice of old rivals England and Germany—perhaps not. Indeed, when he discusses the welfare state and its possible negative implications, Dawkins does not suggest that we remove the welfare state—precisely what the Thatcherites, the most consistent among them, would have advocated. Rather, he treads Hayek’s road to serfdom. Briefly, welfare states encourage people who do not know better—low intelligence, poor advanced planning—to have too many children. Should we then abolish the welfare state, since it leads to perverse outcomes? No, Dawkins hints that the state needs to take an active role in planning population; a course adopted by China in the 1980s that has led, as with all state planning, to a situation where the Chinese population is out of whack with requirements.
I tend to think Dawkins is just a social conformist who does what it takes to get ahead; so, in 1976, he knew you did not criticise the welfare state—all political parties then agreed it was a good thing—and only an insane neo-Nazi social Darwinist would say otherwise, so even if he saw it as having negative outcomes from a scientific perspective he would affirm it and defend it with more statism, with population control.
The general trend in the political pronouncements Dawkins makes is towards, in my view, totalitarianism. To rehash what I said about Freud and Hobbes in a previous post: Dawkins reaches quite dismal conclusions about man—or about what drives us—in his metaphor of selfishness. Rather like Hobbes with his violent man and Freud with his passion-driven man, Dawkins thinks that the best metaphor for what ultimately drives us is selfishness. Further, he notes that lying is prevalent and normal. As with Hobbes and Freud, this leads Dawkins towards totalitarian conclusions; especially because, as with Hobbes and Freud, he thinks there is no God; and so there are few constraints on our actions—the state must take up the slack.
Strangely, you would think that in such circumstances memes such as religion would have helped us survive by reducing anti-social tendencies; they certainly seem robust over the centuries. For Dawkins these are memetic parasites; yet what does the parasitic religion do but help us to live and reproduce? So what does Dawkins, the man who would remove the “parasite”, really want? He wants us to die, being such ugly creatures whose consequence in the universe is nil—even our genes dilute out in a few generations—perhaps we would do better to escape the selfish and awful reality permanently.
Hence Dawkins says that man could be taken to be generally selfish and we have few grounds to think he is altruistic. It might have been okay if he left it there; after all, we have produced beautiful cathedrals and paintings and ingenious machines with our selfishness—a dismal message, but we will live with it. Yet Dawkins goes one further and says that we know we are selfish, but because we know this perhaps we can teach man to be altruistic—and make him so.
This is a strange pronouncement: “Man is fallen, fallen in his very protein, yet we shall raise him up.” How shall we do that? Presumably, if the basic trend is towards selfishness and lies we are going to have to get pretty coercive—only rational, right? After all, Dawkins has a quick pop at religions because they stand in the way of population control; and, I presume, population control will involve coercion in some measure or another. At the time, as with the welfare state and the trade unions, population control was a hot topic; in the book it is the social concern Dawkins lingers on the longest, and from the way he talks about it—very much in the same vein as climate activists talk about the climate today—it sounds as if we are in terrible trouble.
Dawkins notes, in passing, that the “humanities”—his quotation marks, not mine—need to be revised in line with evolutionary thought, by which he means his thought. After all, to put the humanities in quotations like that is rather suspicious. What does he mean? The humanities do not really exist? The humanities are all fake? The humanities have been lost to ideological delusion? If I put “death camp” in quotation marks with reference to the holocaust you would demand answers; but in this, less controversial, case the quotation marks remain somewhat obscure.
Later, Dawkins says that he has tackled genes as if he were engaged in writing a science-fiction novel. This gives us an idea as to what Dawkins is at heart: a frustrated artist. His acidulous quotation marks put me in mind of Stalin at a piano clunking out some awful rendition of a Georgian folk ballad while Russia’s leading composers sat around and congratulated him. Somehow, I think that if Dawkins “revised”—my quotation marks—the humanities to be more in accord with what he calls “evolutionary theory” then the results would be somewhat similar. Later he makes a slightly bitchy comment about people who work in Classics when he coins his own word “meme”—I detect envy in the way he says it. I detect the totalitarian desire, as with population control, to reorder the humanities on a “rational” line—by which he would mean in line with the metaphors Dawkins prefers—so as to supposedly improve humanity.
Dawkins must know that his book is meme warfare; he must want his memes to displace previous memes—his metaphor replaces the God metaphor that preceded it, a metaphor, just like his, that cannot be verified scientifically. “Why, Mr. Dawkins, you claim these genes are gangsters, yet I see no relation to Tony Soprano or Michael Corleone in this protein string. What is this primitive superstition that you retail as ‘science’?” By his own admission, metaphors matter; and so it is reasonable to ask, in a psychoanalytical vein, what sort of man sees the world in terms of metaphors for selfishness, gangsterism, and lies? Rather like Hobbes, Dawkins sees man as an isolated atom because he sees the genes as isolated individuals; his rivals, those who favour group selection, would doubtless suggest that Dawkins is a “spiteful mutant”—high intelligence is associated with mutations—who is destroying group morale with his support for anti-social behaviour, individualism, and assertions that there is no God that protects the group.
If you are intelligent enough you can do almost anything you choose; hence, for example, the “evil genius” William Luther Pierce, a highly competent physicist who founded the neo-Nazi group National Alliance, produced a popular paperback thriller, The Turner Diaries, that became an underground hit; he could easily simulate what would sell to an underclass readership—he could simulate a lower intelligence level and what pleased it. Similarly, it was long known that a substantial slice of the staff at Britain’s must scurrilous tabloids were Oxbridge-educated public schoolboys who knocked out reams of copy for big-breasted beauties along the lines: “Tamara from Swindon, 23, says: ‘I dunno much ‘bout politics but that Tony Blair wants the reasonable middle ground after decades of Tory sleaze and loony-left hot air.’”
Similarly, Dawkins could, if he wished, have made a name as a romance novelist and turned out bodice-heavers and the like; but what really pleased him was to turn preacher, a preacher for atheism and a dismal worldview. This is his real nature and he is quite an orthodox preacher with sympathies slightly to the right in that orthodoxy—hardly the social Darwinist bogeyman the left attacks—who has now, with the progression of ideology leftwards, been consigned to the edge of the right.