Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Selfish Gene and The Fertile Meme

I just finished reading Richard Dawkins's famous book, The Selfish Gene, and my mind is reeling. This is no cold, wonderless mechanistic description of life, but a  collection of some of the most astonishing stories known to humankind. Truth (in the form of science), as has many times been noted, is stranger than fiction. One of the more mind-expanding ideas Dawkins explores in this book is the question of why, in the first place, replicators (genes) have come to cluster into bodies (survival machines) at all. Why did they not simply float in the primordial soup and fend for themselves in the great choreography of survival-replication? In an attempt to answer this basic question with which he begins and ends the book, "Why are People?", Dawkins also explores the question of "What are People," i.e., to what extent does it even make sense to see ourselves as discrete complete separate organisms. A body (plant, animal, human) is, in Dawkin's view, basically a vehicle for the many genes which cooperatively cluster together in their own interest (which consists in making it out of the body on the bottleneck of egg or sperm so that they can each reproduce themselves). The body, which thinks of itself as a solid entity of sorts, is made up of many different organisms which cluster together, each only interested in the body's health and well being insofar as it enables reproduction. He even suggests that what is now a complete system of a body may at one time have been a parasite (or many parasites) interacting for mutual benefit within the survival machine. Parasite and host unite over time and become one. Viruses, apparently, are rogue chromosomes splitting off from inside bodies and traveling on coughs and sneezes to infest other bodies and hopefully make a home and nest therein. A stranger's cough is a gene's attempt to invade your body and eventually become one with your other genes, your phenotype. The world around us, not just other bodies, is also part of what Dawkins calls the extended phenotype. Not only the natural essences of bodies, like snail shells or hair, but also things that our bodies make, like beaver dams and, possibly, though he doesn't say this, art. There is, in a sense, no separation between body and body, body and world, except at the individual cellular level. Every living replicator is interacting with other replicators and with the changing environment in really complex ways to respond to and create ideal situations, or Evolutionary Stable Strategy (ESS), for generation. That the gene is selfish, i.e, wants its own reproduction above all else, need not mean that its vehicle is selfish, especially when it comes to humans who have, Dawkins notes, the ability of conscious foresight and of overruling the interests of the gene and natural selection (consider both birth control and the welfare state, the latter ensuring that the gene for having more children than can be cared for is unnaturally allowed to survive and proliferate).  While it is distinctly not natural and has, he notes, never been done, there is no reason why humans could not choose to create an entirely altruistic society. The meme, a word coined by Dawkins, is the replicator that takes over the gene's role when it comes to society and culture. It too is a replicator and it too ensures its survival unconsciously through proliferation in survival machines which themselves do not replicate but only carry genes and memes. Are memes the same as social constructs? What does it take for a meme to survive? According to Dawkins, the proliferating meme needs to have the same qualities that a proliferating gene has: longevity, fecundity, copying fidelity (they don't get changed too much over time). Some memes, like celibacy or self-sacrifice for one's country, work against the interest of genes. Some, like blind faith, or God, seem to provide no apparent biological advantage (though some of Dawkins's colleagues disagree with him on this). The meme need not be in harmony with natural facts, but it probably does serve some human need (Dawkins gives the example of the belief in afterlife, which comes naturally out of a human fear of death and the unknown). The ones that catch on, that are fecund, long-lasting, and have copying fidelity, do so for a combination of reasons including human psychology, the particular social and natural environment at the time, the other competing memes in the meme pool. Genes too interact with their environments in the attempt to reduplicate and survive (which reminds us of the nature/nurture debate), and, as such, we can see that while what is genetic is extremely influential upon who we are, the benefits or drawbacks of particular gene-characteristics depend to a large degree on the particular social contexts that the survival machines housing the genes live in. We (or shall I say, the individual genes which have clustered inside of and built their vehicles, which we call our bodies and conscious minds) have come a long way from the primordial soup. Our ideas about the world, and the meanings we ascribe to it, are determined by many different factors, biological, social, environmental, by chance. And just how the interaction functions (between what is determined and what is determinable, between what we are and what we could be, between mechanistic pre-programming and choice and creation and possibility) is one of the most exciting unanswered questions of life.