Concept Exchange Society


Wednesday, May 13, 1998 6:30 pm

At Glenn Johnston's House.

Presentation: Marvin Chester

On Dawkins' Selfish Genes

Pre-Meeting Notice:

Marvin will read from a piece by Richard Dawkins culled from a Scientific American article of November 1995. It is a passionate and dramatic portrayal of his theory of the selfish gene and its profound philosophical consequences.
The read time is about fifteen minutes.
Discussion to include: What is his argument? Do we accept it? Why?


Present were Michael Shambrook (first time), Steve, Curtis, Don, Roberto, Glenn, Meredyth, Rachel and Marvin.

Dawkins concludes his essay with:
"The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but pitiless indifference."

Perhaps a valid statement - unappealing though it may be. But Dawkins fails to establish it. He does not even make clear his selfish gene idea except to suggest that he means by it "that natural selection favors those genes that replicate through many generations."

So is the total quantity of DNA in the world increasing? Is natural selection simply a way of breeding DNA? Is it true that the quantity of DNA - the mass of it in all species combined - has been growing ever greater? And if this is his thesis, why didn't he say so?

Dawkins' arguments seem disingenuous. He writes ". . nothing can stop the spread of DNA that has no beneficial effect other than making males beautiful to females" and "Genes that make males attractive to females automatically find themselves passed down to subsequent generations." But if females found attractive only males who successfully devoured their young the attraction genes would be annihilated. So attraction must, itself, arise from survival forces. Attraction is an effect of natural selection, not its cause.

Dawkins says "that genes are selfish also explains . . .why forest trees (are) so tall". But he does not execute the explanation! He doesn't show how tall forest trees contribute to DNA survival! He argues that tall trees result from competition for survival. But this is no explanation for gene selfishness. Although that's all he offers.

Marvin wondered whether he makes a proper case for his views in the grander venue of his books. Perhaps the essay is too short for the job.

Steve said he had read several of Dawkins' books and found them wanting in logical connections. Notes Steve: An interesting aspect of Dawkins' ideas is that they are applicable to self-organizing systems, in general.

Right or wrong, Dawkins is a stimulating writer. On hearing him everyone finds much to say. But in all that was said lay a familiar philosphical landscape. An impasse is reached. And this impasse derives from a single issue that divides our members. The nature of consciousness.

There are those who suppose that consciousness is a fundamental feature of the universe. On a par with physical law. But not governed by physical law. Not subsumable under physical law. Thus love or compassion or intuition or talent are not matters of mere chemistry. Because consciousness, itself, is not just chemistry. It is a force beyond chemistry. This notion provides a powerful motivation for self-improvement, for spiritual exercise, for unconventional healing practices. Consciousness, being a force outside physical law, can govern and control (manipulate!) ones physical circumstances. There is power in positive thinking say devotees. You can get what you want by spiritual exercises. You can "know" truths by revelation. Scientific investigation is not the only method of knowing. Science probes merely the physical aspect of the universe.

The other side of the philosophical chasm is this. Consciousness is a product of the physical world. Consciousness is an effect, not a cause, of physical process; an expression of nature, not the basis of its structure. So life is, indeed, all chemistry - and physics and biology. This is the reductionist point of view. Soul is a chemical product! In this view consciousness is to physics what deliciousness is to baking. Not a separate and independent ingredient. You can't add drops of deliciousness to the cake. Rather deliciousness arises from good ingredients, in critical proportions carefully processed in the bake. It emerges from the mix.

The reductionist view provides no prescription for behavior. That nature is blind to morality, to pain, to suffering, to good, to evil doesn't tell one how to behave. How, then, should one behave? In the end behavior is based on revelation! And inspiration - a form of revelation. How else are daily decisions made but on unfounded hypotheses. Evidently non-reductionist behavior has an evolutionary function. It determines our social fate.

Email comments by David Burch

May 1998
Marvin Chester

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© m chester 1998 Occidental CA