Memes, Messy Metaphors, and Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene

For those of you who are not familiar, The Selfish Gene, written by noted biologist and anti-theist Richard Dawkins (also known for writing The God Delusion) was first published in 1976. It was followed up with a later version which included extensive notes addressing some of the arguments people have made against the ideas postulated in the original, as well as a follow-up titled The Extended Phenotype which follows up on more of the same. I have not read either of those, the copy I had on hand was a 1982 paperback edition, so keep in mind that some of the questions and problems I had with this text may have been further explained or clarified in those works.

The main thesis of the book is that the gene is the fundamental unit in the evolutionary process. Dawkins has a broader definition of gene than what we would typically use, but suffice to say, what he is indicating is that evolution happens at the lowest replicating unit via natural selection rather than at the level of the species, group, or even individual. This is what’s known as a reductionist model of evolution. Many biologists to this day recognize this model as fairly standard, although there are alternative models within the scientific community that address the influence of environment and species-level behavior on the evolutionary process.

I am not at all qualified to address the validity or invalidity of any of the scientific positions taken in this book. I do, however, feel fairly comfortable addressing his rhetorical conceits. The Selfish Gene hinges on an extended metaphor of the “selfish gene” as an active agent, making conscious decisions that have a bearing on the way organisms evolve.

His use of this metaphor is—to put it simply–bad. This is bad writing.

Allow me to elaborate—consider the following quote which appears at the end of the book:

“Throughout the book, I have emphasized that we must not think of genes as conscious, purposeful agents. Blind natural selection, however, makes them behave rather as if they were purposeful, and it has been convenient, as a shorthand, to refer to genes in the language of purpose. For example, when we say ‘genes are trying to increase their numbers in future gene pools’, what we really mean is ‘those genes which behave in such a way as to increase their numbers in future gene pools tend to be genes whose effects we see in the world.’”

Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press, 1982

Let’s parse this out—it is true that at several points in the book, Dawkins makes a point to note that the gene as an active agent should not be taken literally. However, the metaphor in the text consistently describes the gene as if it is consciously promoting its own self-interest, and this actively discourages the reader from understanding the actual underlying process. Far from being a convenient shorthand it ends up being a roadblock to true comprehension. In order to really get at what he is trying to say the reader must read past the metaphor instead of understanding the principles through the metaphor. And indeed, many readers do not make it that far.

When I was preparing to write this post, I spent a lot of time reading through some of the criticisms and affirmations regarding the ideas he presents. Granted, some of the criticisms were little more than creationist drivel, and the responses to the criticisms (usually correctly) pointed out that the creationist argument was founded on taking the metaphor literally. Unfortunately, this is also something that some proponents do—and they use the selfish gene idea to promote the worst justifications of social Darwinism in a way that Richard Dawkins himself does not support and did not intend to convey in this book.

But on the other hand–he did intend to be misunderstood—at least a little. As I understand it, he addresses this in the anniversary edition, noting that the book should have perhaps been titled differently, perhaps choosing the title “The Immortal Gene”. I think that would have been much more accurate description of the concept he is trying to convey, but I don’t want to let him off the hook just because he admits this years later. He chose “selfish” as the description because he knew that the metaphor would be jarring to people. Its salaciousness would attract media and reader attention, but that attention would by necessity be fundamentally based on a literal (and therefore incorrect) interpretation of the metaphorical device. He intended for people to misunderstand—it’s just that he also intended for that misunderstanding to draw people into the actual text. But that’s not exactly what happened.

In a fascinating (and perhaps ironic) turn of events, the consequence of this literal/metaphorical dissonance actually supports Dawkins’ own meme theory—which is to say that the meme which is best at replication is what tends to persist in a population. So in this case, the feature that tends to be replicated is that which draws the most attention and therefore is more likely to be transferred between minds. Since the incorrect interpretation draws more attention, that tends to be what persists, rather than the full context of the intended message.

He’s fallen into something I like to call “The Clickbait Dilemma” which is familiar to us in the Internet Age, but which I will give some slack to Dawkins since “The Selfish Gene” was written in 1976 and he did not have the benefit we do in being able to observe this phenomenon in real time. Consider how often it is true that an article pops up on your newsfeed with a controversial title–what you often see is that people will comment on and even share based on their initial gut reaction to the title or corresponding graphic when it is clear they have not actually read the article and are not responding to its actual content. This is enough to quickly have the effect of the controversial title and the message of the assumed content overtake the message of the actual content. In an online setting this is a much more conscious choice because there is more competition in the meme pool so to speak, and additionally, the algorithms which determine exposure are more influenced by trackable engagement (i.e. clicks, likes, shares, and comments) and not whether or not an article has been read. In order to survive in the meme pool, the article must attract eyeballs—but the intended message may be lost entirely to the more “dominant” meme expression of the collectively perceived message.

There is an evolutionary competition between the idea that should be replicated and the one that is replicated. This is the danger of using pithy clickbait or incongruent metaphors—the foci of their replication lies in the emotional responses they engender rather than the value of the content itself. Like some kind of parasite, they overtake the meme they were intended to help replicate. That isn’t to say that metaphors are totally useless— “Spoon Theory” for example is highly effective, in my opinion. But the actual metaphor pretty closely works with the concept it is attempting to describe—there is no competition between the metaphor and the underlying idea. It is perfectly illustrative and advances understanding of the topic, rather than confusing or derailing the message it is trying to convey.

The selfish gene metaphor, on the other hand, actively contradicts the underlying concept of a persistent gene being the passive consequence of natural processes by encouraging the reader to anthropomorphize the gene as an active agent which determines those processes, rather than being determined by them. An uncareful reader–especially one who has not received previous education on evolutionary biology—is more likely to respond to the intuitive and emotional appeal of the metaphor without understanding what the limitations of the metaphor are. Especially in an extended metaphor, they are more likely to take metaphorical passages as literal because they lack adequate background knowledge to understand what’s meant to be metaphorical and what isn’t. A reasonably intelligent reader with minimal background knowledge will immediately understand that a gene isn’t meant to be considered literally conscious—but in the face of a gene seeming to act with forward momentum, will they also realize that evolution is a non-teleological process? I think not and judging from some of the comments I’ve seen on posts about this work that appears to be a valid concern.

Intentionally or not, by using this model, Dawkins is encouraging his readers to think about evolution in completely the wrong way. And even when he attempts to put on a disclaimer and explain that the gene does not have agency, he still muddles the message and kind of implies that it does—consider the section quoted previously:

“…those genes which behave in such a way as to increase their numbers in future gene pools tend to be genes whose effects we see in the world.”

There is a lot that is unclear about this sentence depending on what your background knowledge might be. For one thing, he maintains the illusion that the gene is acting on the evolutionary trajectory by making “those genes” the subject of the sentence which the verb modifies–the gene therefore is implied to be acting. Furthermore, the verb in this sentence is behave, which is also tricky. What Dawkins means by this is statistical behavior not literal behavior, but if you are unfamiliar with the concept of statistical behavior this sentence reads as if the gene is literally behaving in ways for the purpose of increasing its numbers in future gene pools, and that is not correct. A more precise way of putting this sentence into layman’s terms might be something like “those genes whose attributes correspond with an increase in their numbers in future gene pools tend to be genes whose effects we see in the world.”

Dawkins actively undermines his own point by using this clunky rhetorical device. He doubles down on it because it has intuitive flair and draws attention to the message, but ultimately it obfuscates the underlying point he is trying to make. This is indeed unfortunate particularly considering how influential this work has been to so many people—especially since the message that has influenced them may not be the one indicated by the text. Nevertheless, it provides an important cautionary example on how an extended metaphor can run amok.

4 thoughts on “Memes, Messy Metaphors, and Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene

  1. I think Mr Dawkins later believed he should have called his book ‘The Immortal Gene ‘ the word selfish implying that genes have human emotions.
    There is some debate as to whether true altruism exists some believing there is always some notice behind our actions. It’s far from easy to explain what makes a healthy young stranger jump into a raging sea to rescue someone and is drowned.
    We can of course drive ourselves mad trying to unravel motives so you must forgive me I can hear the strains of the moonlight sonata and I must surrender myself.

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    1. I read that as well but I don’t think it would have helped. It’s the way he personifies the gene that implies there is some kind of forward motivation and purpose to evolution that’s the problem.

      The most common misconception about evolution is that it is teleological, and Dawkins does not really clear that up in this book at all.

      Calling it “The Selfish Gene” or “The Immortal Gene” makes no difference. One may be conceived as less inflammatory than the other but if that was that was all that changed about the book the underlying problems would remain.

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    2. The other thing about the book is that it never really addresses the question of mechanism. So let’s say there is a gene for altruism, how does the gene cause altruistic behavior?

      Personally I would guess that the complex electro-chemical processes in our brains reacting to external (sensations like sight, sound, pressure, etc.) or internal (such as hunger, pregnancy, illness, etc) stimuli influence how we behave.

      What I am suggesting is, that altruism (like suicide, for example) has no evolutionary advantage but as a behavior happens to be tied to the same chemical mechanisms that also cause behaviors that are evolutionarily advantageous.

      For example, a parent chemically bonds with a child and that results in protective and altruistic behaviors towards that child. This results in the child being more likely to survive and pass on genes.

      But why does the chemical bonding kick in? It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with actual genetic relationships. Rather it kicks in by proximity, the chemical response to “cuteness” in general, etc. Adoptive parents and other caretakers treat their children similar to genetically connected parents. Hell, pet owners treat their pets like that–the response isn’t even tied to the same species. It’s just tied to the same chemical mechanisms for bonding.

      Likewise mechanisms which allow us to read a dangerous situation (an evolutionary advantage) may also evoke sympathy and empathy.

      Evolution isn’t teleological, it’s a messy, ongoing process. We aren’t evolving into some kind of perfect survival machine–qualities which are advantageous in one way can and often are disadvantageous in another. Or they may not make much of a difference at all but happen to exist in the same gene pool as something that is.

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      1. Tied to the same chemical mechanisms ; I had not heard that before but I’m just a layman who has read a few books and pondered. I like your ‘ messy ongoing process ‘ it seems to fit the muddle we are in.
        Mr Dawkins called us ‘ gene survival machines ‘ and it does seem that some genes have been around for a hell of a time. Thank you for your interesting responses they have me good for thought .

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