The Other I

November 30, 2010

What makes numbers selfish?

Filed under: Intriguing Science — theotheri @ 4:38 pm

In an earlier post, I wondered if genes could legitimately be called “selfish” in their drive for survival.  In a following comment, Chris Lawrence suggested that Dawkins, who is the considerably accomplished evolutionist who coined the term in the title of his book The Selfish Gene, was referring to a pattern of numbers, not a moral quality. Product Details

My first thought was that this was a fair comment.  But my second thought is to wonder what makes a pattern of numbers resemble selfishness as opposed to unselfishness?  or any other characteristic which is usually used to describe ethical behaviour?  I don’t think there is one.

We don’t call atoms “selfish” when they combine with other atoms to form molecules.  We don’t call water “selfish” when it crawls into the tiniest conceivable space and lodges there.   We don’t call the universe “selfish” as it expands to encompass trillions of light years of space.  Living things, though, get to be called selfish, even by those who do not believe that invading dandelions or marauding locusts are free to choose.

No, I’m going back to my original hypothesis:  I think the use of the word “selfish” to describe the survival instinct reflected in genetic transmission is a deep-seated but unrecognized hangover from world views that taught that when things go wrong, they are somehow our fault.  Even today, preachers have claimed that recent  tsunamis and volcanoes are the result of human sinfulness.

The advantage of this teaching, of course, is that it suggests that we have some control over what happens to us.  If we would just stop sinning, we could begin to re-establish the order of the Garden of Eden.  Science also suggests that we can have some control over what happens to us, but its recommendations are quite different from typical religious admonishment.  (I do know that if I were in an earthquake, I would greatly prefer to be in a building constructed to withstand the tremors than standing next to a holy man whose virtue is unquestioned.)

But along with dismissing any human guilt for natural happenings, I’m also questioning the assumption that the drive for survival is blindly selfish.  If one wants to ascribe any moral characteristics to it at all, why not say it is unselfish?  It is trying to preserve life, even at the cost of passing it on to a younger, fitter offspring.  I can hardly fault a lion for not passing on genes to preserve a species of spiders, or a fish for failing to pass on genes for the increase of tomato plants.  Genes are not essentially destructive mechanisms, but creative ones but they are not free to pass on just any characteristic they please.

So, no, I still disagree that genes can legitimately be called “selfish.”  Not that they can essentially be called “unselfish” in the moral sense either.

But it does seem to me that the results of evolution are overwhelmingly plentiful.  Yes, disordered and chaotic too.  But absolutely marvellous.

Seriously – why does Dawkins called them selfish?



  1. What an excellent point! It makes no good sense to call it a selfish gene at all! Oh is that who I am, a bag of selfishness?

    Perhaps selfish is the descriptive word from a viewpoint not inclined to see goodness.

    I do want to describe myself, and others, in a more productive way. I would say that it’s in our very genes to choose that which brings fulfillment.


    Comment by jooliedee — November 30, 2010 @ 5:48 pm | Reply

    • Thank you so much for your elaboration of my point. You and I are on the same wave length, but as you can see from Chris’s comment following yours, he’s not uncomfortable with the term. So I’m planning on making they next post a defense of the “we aren’t necessarily selfish” proposition. It will be interesting to see if you and I are still in agreement at the end of it. I suspect we will be.


      Comment by theotheri — November 30, 2010 @ 9:53 pm | Reply

  2. Imagine genes as little entities, machines almost, which do 4 things:

    1 Replicate, ie create identical copies of themselves.

    2 Have a specific, repeatable effect on their environment – eg always attracting the same set of amino acids so that they combine to form the same protein.

    3 Vary randomly.

    4 Act together with other genes (not intentionally!) such that sometimes at least they do 1 &/or 2 &/or 3 in combination with other genes.

    Lineages of entities like this will behave ‘selfishly’, in the sense that those which behave so as to maximise the numbers of copies of themselves which themselves survive to replicate, will maximise the numbers of copies of themselves which themselves survive to replicate. I would say that to grasp the concept of the ‘selfish gene’ is to grasp the sense in which previous sentence is not quite a tautology.

    That is what I think ‘selfish’ means, in the phrase ‘selfish gene’. The gene is not selfish in an ethical sense. But if a person behaved the way a gene did, we would probably call that person selfish.

    Does this make sense? Dawkins explains it a lot better than I do!



    Comment by Chris Lawrence — November 30, 2010 @ 6:40 pm | Reply

    • Thank you, Chris. Your explanation is every bit as clear as Dawkins’, in my opinion. Actually I do understand the mechanisms of genetic transfer but what I really am questioning is the use of a word as loaded as “selfish” to describe genes.

      I don’t know, of course, what Dawkins’ himself really meant to convey, and whether or not he intended a deliberate inuendo about the fundamental nature of living organisms. But this is a book written for a popular audience and whether or not he intended it, it is impossible, in my opinion, not to hear in it some reverberations about man’s intrinsic selfishness with all the religious baggage that carries with it.

      But more profoundly than that, I think I disagree. I am not at all convinced any more that we are as intrinsically selfish as both religion and science so often suggest. And that, barring the unforeseen, is the topic of my next post. I’d be surprised if you totally agree – which means I would be particularly eager to hear any further comments you are willing to share.


      Comment by theotheri — November 30, 2010 @ 9:46 pm | Reply

      • As you probably expect I don’t share your worry about the word ‘selfish’. I think Dawkins is talking at two levels, and applying the word at both levels – both legitimate.

        At the level of the gene, as in ‘selfish gene’, ‘selfish’ is I think meant purely metaphorically. As in ‘cruel sea’ or ‘angry wind’. We’re not saying the sea is literally cruel, but if a person behaved the way the sea behaved (when the sea was behaving ‘cruelly’), we would say the person was cruel. Ditto angry wind. I cannot see how ‘selfish gene’ is any more loaded than ‘cruel sea’ or ‘angry wind’.

        The complication comes in because Dawkins then traces behavioural (or perhaps ‘behavioural’) characteristics at (eg, but not only) the organism level to what the genes are doing at gene level. ‘Behavioural’ includes human activity and emotion, but it also includes what weeds can do to a lawn. What the genes are doing is behaving ‘selfishly’ [in the purely metaphorical sense]. Some at least of the behavioural characteristics of the higher animals (including humans) can however be described as ‘selfish’ [literal sense of ‘selfish’]. But that doesn’t mean we are are only selfish [literal]. Our selfish [metaphorical] genes also drive parents to protect and nurture their children, for example.

        I don’t have the books in front of me but my recollection is that when the original 1976 edition came out the evolutionary theory underpinning reciprocal altruism was still fairly new: Robert Trivers’ first paper on the subject came out in 1971. The line Dawkins took in that first edition was that we humans are what we are (both selfish [literal] and unselfish [literal]) both because of and in spite of our selfish [metaphorical] genes: We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. Later editions have I think added more material relating to reciprocal altruism. There is now an emerging consensus that unselfish [literal] behaviour can arise from the action of selfish [metaphorical] genes, rather than being an awkward and mysterious embarrassment for evolutionary theory.

        Hope this makes sense.

        Thanks again,


        Comment by Chris Lawrence — December 2, 2010 @ 5:52 am

      • Chris – Your comparison between the metaphorical use of “angry wind” or “cruel sea” with “selfish gene” helps hugely. It seems quite obvious now that you point it out. I rather suspected that I was being distracted inappropriately by what I experience as Dawkins’ strident atheism, which is one of the reasons, by the way, I so often appreciate your alternative take on questions like these.

        So now I’m free to try to clarify my own thoughts at this point in my life about the question of human “behavioural selfishness.” In the end I know this ultimately arrives at the door of the philosophical (and unanswerable) question of free will. But before arriving at that particular end point, I find myself asking whether the scientific evidence supports the view that the survival instinct is as intrinsically and totally selfish as I have always assumed.

        Thank you again for the dialogue. I really do appreciate it.


        Comment by theotheri — December 2, 2010 @ 10:45 am

  3. […] to Dawkins’ reference to our genes as “selfish.”  In his comments on my earlier post, Chris Lawrence equates Dawkins’ use of “selfish” to describe genes with the […]


    Pingback by More wrestling with selfish genes « The Other I — December 2, 2010 @ 4:55 pm | Reply

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