The Fallacy of the Selfish Gene Theory

In analysing the ‘selfish gene’ theory, the book in question The Selfish Gene (Richard Dawkins, OUP, 1976; Paladin, 1978), appears at first to comprise an uncritical eclectic. However, on closer inspection, the whole opus seems to be an exercise in transition from the polymathic to the polymythic. Nonetheless, the book does require to be placed in its historical and ideological context considering its original publication date. The eclectic vista of The Selfish Gene is uncritical in a number of instances. It is illuminating that the mythical element should emerge. The ‘selfish gene’ theory proposes an interpretation citing many instances – and interesting in this respect is the fact that mythology as a form of ideology is often expressed by the collecting together of many instances. Myth theory is an invention to explain seemingly inexplicable instances. With regard to the ‘selfish gene’ concept we could agree that “…no number of instances proves any theory.” (John Lewis. The Uniqueness of Man. Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1974). Myths are figurative stories or ideological allegories in narrative form. However, the analogies and semblances employed by the ‘selfish gene’ concept reflect the modern-day dualism implicit within the theory itself. It therefore betrays an element of parallelism. Whereas myth derived from oral tradition is based, we could say, on a fabric of analogies, the extrapolative enthusiasm of The Selfish Gene is based upon a matrix of analogues.

In his foreword to The Selfish Gene Robert Trivers provides some interesting insights into the role of the ‘selfish gene’ theory in its doctrinal context. Allegedly there is “…no objective basis on which to elevate one species above another.” (p vii). Therefore, by suggesting that natural selection is the sole operant factor Trivers denies the qualitative difference between humankind and other species. By suggesting that natural selection is the sole operant factor Trivers denies therefore the qualitative difference between humankind and other species. Implicit in this biologistic interpretation of natural selection is the disregard of human interactive and purposive roles in changing the environment and themselves in the process. Trivers, in preparing the way for Richard Dawkins ensuing chapters, stresses that the text contains “…an important body of theory based on natural selection…” (p vii). This admission illustrates the prior notional basis of the ‘selfish gene’ theory. In other words it is the Hobbesian and Spencerean model of vulgar determinism – Social Darwinism. The accepted concepts are thus those of sociobiology which is the new cover for an old book. Sociobiological theories are the ‘new’ Social Darwinism.

Trivers concludes his foreword by explicitly stating that “Darwinian social theory gives us a glimpse of an underlying symmetry and logic in social relationships which, when more fully comprehended by ourselves, should revitalize our political understanding.” Darwinian social theory is Social Darwinism revisited – a biological justification of the status quo. And is not the ‘revitalization’ asked for a plea for the preservation of the status quo? And, therefore, is not the ‘revitalization’ asked for a plea for the preservation of the decaying contradictory nature of bourgeois ideology? The inherent contradiction within the theory is not its seeming preoccupation with the process of evolution but its underlying support for stability and immutability. The ‘selfish gene’ theory is in many ways a functional theory – and this is part of the reason why it cannot really understand change – despite the attention paid to the structure of the genes.

Throughout the elaboration of the theory there are aspects that are contradictory and which hint at a supposed dichotomy between genes as structural components, the matter of heredity, and their assumed ‘independent’ almost ‘willful’ functional existence. Does this indicate that within the theory there is an element of dualism? Does not the enthusiastic use of analogies indicate the parallelistic nature, or essence, of the ‘selfish gene’ theory? Are genes selfish?  If they are the implication is that genes have an awareness of ‘self’. Is altruism in animals the same as in humans?  Are the innate, instinctive, first-signalling processes of animal altruism the same entities as human selfish (or selfless) behaviour? Are human beings machines? Furthermore, is the human organism a mere link, a mere vehicle, a mere shell for the transport of genes? Associated with such premises the ‘selfish gene’ theory has perforce, in order to justify its claims, to introduce a doctrine of ‘ends’. In other words the eclectic has a teleological component. With regard to the level at which the theory is applied we can thus describe the ‘selfish gene’ concept as teleological reductionism.

The eclecticism of the ‘selfish gene’ theory confuses and fuses seventeenth and eighteenth century mechanical materialism with the idealism also in vogue at the time. It infuses into the theory a loosely linked corpus of mutually exclusive interpretations of reality. It can only manage this by resorting to metaphysical methodology with the inevitable result that its inbuilt contradictions force it into a ‘closed’ system. The eclectic therefore includes a Cartesian paradigm. The ‘selfish gene’ is, literally, going round in circles. The fault of the theory can be found in its basic premises. No amount of over-inclusive rationalising and the incorporation of Kantian, Leibnizian, and Cartesian concepts can hide the fact that the ‘selfish gene’ theory fails to understand causality and necessity. Such ‘selfish’ genes, which are created with extreme ‘discreteness’, can only lead to ideas concerning evolution as ‘discretionary’ in the sense that it is according to primordial design – in other words the presence of creation and divinity. A passive acceptance of such a view is made apparent by the book’s reference to the ‘big bang’ theory. We will end up in the same cul-de-sac as Dawkins and Trivers with a theory that, in the final analysis, is very much the hand of God. The ‘freedom’ conferred on genes indicates that the advocates of the theory are looking through the wrong end of a telescope at the ‘matter’ of evolution. They fail to discriminate between thinking and consciousness, just as they fail to see the integrity of necessity and cause and effect. The avowed statement that words can mean wjatever you want them to mean is the Humpty Dumpty formula from Alice Through the Looking Glass. Moreover, the looking glass model itself is a prismatic distortion of reality. The analysis employed by reductionist is prismatic in so far as their concentration on separated ‘spectra’ ignores the organism as a whole.

For ‘selfish gene’ theorists there are apparently only instances, only events. There are only ends, but no causes. They have failed to discriminate between the determinateness of lower level processes and the purposiveness of higher conscious activity. The clue to their failure in this respect is the error in confusing ‘machine’ language with human language – reducing the human brain to a computer and the body to a mere vehicle. They thus ascribe to a single gene a series of qualities that are in sum total greater than those qualities of the human organism as a whole. They are therefore knocking at the door of the spirit world. Hence their ‘selfish’ genes, their Leibnizian-style neo-monads are, in seeking anonymity are also seeking immortality. We have from the ‘selfish gene’ not a new theory at all. We have in truth an eclectic that represents another variant of the futile search for the genetics of the soul. The ghost in the machine which itself has the malodorous breath of possession and demonology rather than genuine scientific explanation. The religious element is present in the theory – the idea of genes passing from machine (body) to machine (body) as a means of achieving immortality is a resurrectionist outlook. It is a reincarnation concept that further confirms the philosophical idealist, the theistic bias that really underpins the ‘selfish gene’ theory.

What does a gene do? It translates for a protein. That is what genes do. With regard to the ‘selfish’ gene concept where is the gene for selfishness? The fallacy of the ‘selfish gene’ theory is that genes are given a modal existence and credited with an aura of Kantian things in themselves, and by translating genes across inappropriate hierarchical levels they become imbued with a notional or quasi-spiritual existence. It is because Dawkins translated his ‘genes’ from one level to another that he found it easy to construct his meme concept. The concept of memes is a natural idealist progression from the genes as he sees them.  It appears, according to this theory, that memes are self-replicating ideas or cultural concepts. Can we therefore consider memes as existing a priori? Especially as it is claimed they can exist independently of the human mind and can be ‘inherited’. Can we therefore assume that memes are the twenty first century modalities of Leibniz’s eighteenth century monads? Are memes really monads, and is the ‘selfish gene’ theory nought but a modern-day neo-monadism? It seems that out of the fallacy of the ‘selfish gene’ theory there followed the development of the meme concept of mimetics which extends Darwinian evolution into cultural processes. Meme theory attempts to extend natural selection beyond the evolution of the species. For meme theorists human culture is therefore reduced to unitary memes. An idea only has reality if carried out in the material world. Memes in this context are disembodied ideas. The fact is humans have a biological existence but a social essence which asserts that cultural diversity is not bound up with genes but social history. The Selfish Gene-Meme concept is a doctrinal biological justification of the status quo that dehumanises and encourages social pessimism and anti-humanism.

Within the matrix of the sociobiological ‘ethic’ of the selfish gene and meme theory much is made out of the phenomenon of ‘altruism’ and selfish behaviour, as well as so-called genetic self-interest. In human reference altruism is socially determined, it is not selfish but selfless. The extrapolative nature of the ‘selfish gene’ theory compels its protagonists to confuse the individualism of suicide with the selfless act of self-sacrifice. Animals have no concept of the future, no idea of death, and in such a situation cannot commit suicide. Only human future directed consciousness can encompass the fact of death – it is not mere semantics to suggest that selfless self-sacrifice is purposive whereas individual suicide is purposeless. Suicide is a negative act but self-sacrifice is, or can be, a positive act. Self-sacrifice is linked inextricably with moral and objective considerations centred around the idea of that course of action which in the long term produces the best results. No animal could possibly envisage such a choice or manner of thought. Furthermore, Robert Trivers stressed that Richard Dawkins regards deceit as a fundamental feature of animal communication and that underlying this is selection for a degree of self-deception. Again we return to the uncritical eclectic – more specifically Bishop Berkeley’s philosophical idealism. Is not selection for self-deception mere camouflage for an alleged ‘genetics’ of solipcism? The genetics of the ‘selfish gene’ and mimetic theory is not one of just particulate inheritance – it is genetic determinism with a vengeance. No lip-service to a claimed altruistic purpose or outcome can hide the social pessimistic message of such ‘science’.

The book The Selfish Gene has to be recognised as an example of the ‘reductionist’ platform at its time. Its underlying thesis is misleading and borders on philosophical absurdity. As a reductionist opus The Selfish Gene is a part of the ‘nothing but’ trend of the 1960’s and 1970’s that included the media popularised works of the pseudo-science raconteurs Desmond Morris and Robert Ardrey. They amongst others argued that human beings were nothing-but ‘naked apes’ or ‘aggressive apes’ bent on gene-driven war and territorial imperatives– views which were demolished by John Lewis (Naked Ape of Homo Sapiens? Southern Publishing Company, Brighton. 1969). Such views which were, and still are, enthusiastically embraced by sections of the mass media, are not to be dismissed lightly. The media publicises such social pessimism and biological determinism because it is part of the ideological armoury of those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Such theories and outlooks serve upper social echelon interests in convincing the working class that we are ‘nothing but’ naked apes, and there is nothing that can be done to change things.

The ‘selfish gene’ theory is not an isolated academic phenomenon – it is symptomatic of the continuing decay and futility of bourgeois ideology during the continuing crisis of neo-conservative and neo-liberal capitalist society. In common with other reductionist heresies of the ‘nothing but’ genre, the ‘selfish gene’ theory is involved, whether intentionally or not, in diverting scientific enquiry away from progress. Reductionism, teleological or otherwise, is representative of the new nihilism and pessimistic misanthropic trends that have arisen within certain areas of the human sciences. The trend has an anti-human essence that attempts to justify and give credence to war and violence as well as inculcating ideas about the alleged futility of struggle to change things. They use the so-called struggle of nature by inverting it on its head in order to dilute the struggles of peoples for liberation, meaningful democracy, egalitarian society and socialism. The aim of the reductionists is not merely a neutral or impartial pursuit of research – it is the formulation of an ideology of reaction in the face of the advance of progressive material sciences.

The intention of this critique is to show that the theory of the ‘selfish gene’ is fallacious and has been hijacked by certain vested interests for purposes not intended by the book itself. However, the uncritical eclectic of the theory remains. Apparent in The Selfish Gene is an attempted fusion of mechanistic ideas – in so far as it is enamoured of ‘mechanomorphia’ –and other elements derived from philosophical idealism. Genes are endowed, by the ‘selfish gene’ theory, with a modal existence. They are credited with an aura of being things in themselves – this is the Kantian element of the eclectic. Real humans, however, are not blindly programmed survival machines hosting passive memes and an assortment of selfish molecules called genes. We need constantly to remind ourselves of Professor Haldane who stated succinctly that genetics is the science of differences not similarities.

First draft 3.4.1981, reprocessed 20th of May 2001, and rewritten 2.7.2013.

I have respect and good memories of Richard Dawkins who was my personal course and college tutor in ethology and genetics from 1971-1974 when I read Human Sciences at New College, Oxford.

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