The Language Behind Dawkins’ Selfish Gene Theory
Brendan Cotter

 According to Michael Polanyi, our understanding of a concept depends in part on the language we use to describe it.  Connie Barlow's book, From Gaia to Selfish Genes, looks at metaphors in science as integral parts of some new biological theories.  One example is Richard Dawkins' theory about the selfish gene, where he claims that the most basic unit of humanity, the gene, is a selfish entity unto itself that exists outside the realm of our individual good and serves its own distinct purpose.  Dawkins looks at the evolutionary process, how DNA replicates in forming human life, and the possibility that there is a social parallel to genetics, where human traits can be culturally transmitted.  Dawkins, in the excerpts that Barlow has chosen, uses heavily metaphoric language to explain these scientific concepts to the general public. However, the language that Dawkins uses, while thought provoking, also carries some negative implications that extend beyond his theory.  The selfish gene theory has many positive aspects, but its metaphors detract in certain ways from the scientific message of Richard Dawkins.

The metaphor behind Dawkins' theory can best be described by his opening statement: "we are survival machines-robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes" (Barlow 193).  Dawkins links the natural behavior of unconscious bunches of nucleic acid (genes) to human behavior and personality by calling them "selfish." His use of this term conjures up the image of a separate individual, capable of making decisions to help its own good and disregarding our needs.  By calling human beings "survival machines" and "robots," Dawkins suggests some serious moral implications regarding our existence.  If we were just robots, it would seem that we would be no longer responsible for our actions, as people could attribute all evil to the gene programmers who created these robots.  Also, if our primary purpose were to serve as a "survival machine" for something else, life would seem insignificant. John Maynard Smith writes that Dawkins' book is just about evolution, and "not about morals . . . or about the human sciences" (195).  However, the attempt to disengage the selfish gene theory from its moral implications is seriously undermined by Dawkins' metaphors.
The origin of the selfish gene, and of evolution itself, began in something Dawkins calls the "primeval soup," where protein molecules, by pure chance, bonded together to form "replicators," the ancestors of DNA (198).  Even in this basic scientific background, Dawkins presents his theory in metaphor, using language like "primeval soup" to describe the contents of the seas before living things came about.  In this situation, Dawkins takes care to highlight the fact that the "struggle in the soup" between the replicators was an unconscious one: "they did not know they were struggling, or worry about it" (202).  Later, when Dawkins brings in the term “selfish” for us to understand these replicators and modern DNA, his metaphor causes confusion.  "Selfish" implies some sort of conscious control, or some entity that is able to control, actively, what it does and how it acts.  Thinking in these terms gets one in trouble, though, if Dawkins' scientific facts suggest the opposite of the metaphoric implications.  Here, the selfish metaphor doesn't hide something but is misleading and contradictory.

In the battle for survival, Dawkins believes that the replicators built, out of proteins that DNA can manufacture, "survival machines" to protect themselves, and the replicators with the most effective survival machines had the best chance to survive.  These survival machines may have started out as simple "protective coats," but over many years genes have improved upon their survival machines and in the process humankind, the most sophisticated survival machine to date, came into existence (202).  It is a scientific fact that genes, or DNA replicators, are made up of nucleic acid that codes for proteins, and could conceivably form containers around themselves that were made up of these proteins.  In this sense, Dawkins' science is correct.  Dawkins then makes the bold, and troubling, statement that "their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence" (203).  This is how he expresses his scientific idea, but it seems too loaded with outside implications. Again, a statement like this would seem to question human existence as we perceive it, and suggests the utter insignificance of life from our perspective.

For his theory to work, there has to be some scientific evidence that genes are responsible (selfishly or not) for the creation of a human being.  It would seem a large jump from creating protective protein coats in the primeval soup to building humans, even with such a lengthy time frame.  Dawkins cites DNA, which biologically has already been determined to be the building block of our bodies.  In Dawkins' theory, the "building blocks" really function indirectly as manufacturers of bodies, by making the protein that we are made of (205).  Dawkins also talks about the pairing of chromosomes and how the gene pool acts in filling up the 46 chromosomes necessary for human development.  He takes the reductionist view that genes are the basis for evolution and natural selection.  Dawkins explains evolution not in terms of the larger picture (i.e. living things, species evolution, etc.) but instead changes the perspective to the smallest possible unit, the gene.  Somewhere in his primeval soup there is scientific evidence that could explain the formation of replicating proteins.  And since proteins make up living things, it is conceivable to imagine a scientifically correct evolution based on these (early) replicators.

Dawkins, however, wants us to imagine this process as undertaken by a selfish entity, a distinct individual, that is pulling the strings of evolution for its own good.  He writes, "at the gene level, altruism must be bad and selfishness good" (213).  Does a gene possess the ability to decide between altruistic or selfish behavior?  Literally, it does not, but the point Dawkins wants to make is that metaphorically genes do possess this ability.  What exactly this metaphoric truth entails is up for interpretation.  This follows a pattern established in some of the earlier chapters of From Gaia to Selfish Genes, where the focus was more on how metaphors could get people to think differently about science instead of on the hard scientific truth of the metaphor.  James Lovelock, the man behind the Gaia metaphor, said he was unconcerned whether scientists accepted or rejected his theory, as long as it was "stimulating research" (29). Dawkins, however, may want to deviate from this pattern.  In one of the few personal views we are given of him, he states that “however much we may deplore something, it does not stop it being true" (197).  Here, he seems to be arguing that as disturbing as his theory may be, where it undermines the reasons for the existence of mankind, the "truth" of the matter exists outside of its moral implications. However, his use of metaphors seems to invite philosophic objections and overshadow any scientific truth behind the theory.

For all of these problems, Dawkins does use some metaphors that are effective in getting across the concepts of science he wants to introduce.  One of his most successful metaphors outlines how the genes go about controlling our existence for their own good.  The control here is indirect; it would be too much to suggest that there is an active robot inside of us who constantly monitors our lives. Dawkins calls the genes "computer programmers," a socially current metaphor, and his theory suggests the genes are able to program us before we become alive, but once that happens they can only "sit passively inside" and enjoy the ride (216).  This slight defect in the all-powerful gene is attributed to their slow reaction time. They may be powerful enough to create us as their survival machines, but once we are born they "lose" control and must hope they programmed us well enough.  This metaphor leads to a possible reprieve from selfish genes.

Are we indeed individuals separate from our genes, as we would like to think we are? Dawkins believes that the evolution of consciousness, something confined to mankind, has freed us from our genes.  He believes that, in our power to simulate the future, we have found a loophole in our "program" that keeps us from being literal robots.  Dawkins has no answer for how human beings developed this capacity, which he calls "the most profound mystery facing biology" (217).  So after a troubling beginning, where it seemed that genes had mankind completely under their control, his theory does suggest otherwise.  Dawkins invites further scientific research into the issue, suggesting that human consciousness had no biological reason to come into existence and wondering how it came to be.  Another positive approach occurs where Dawkins introduces "memes," which are cultural ideas (such as popular songs, an idea, building styles, etc) that can be transmitted through generations in the same manner as genes.  He makes sure to point out that memes should not be taken merely as a metaphor, but does call them "technically living structures" (219).  The idea that there can be a cultural transmission of gene-like material makes sense, and by inventing a new term, "meme," Dawkins has successfully used language to illustrate his new concept.  In memes, he also has found another way for mankind to beat their selfish genes.  Dawkins believes that a positive cultural improvement will allow us to pass on something more than just genetic material, and that depending on its success, memes can last much longer than our genes.

Throughout his selfish gene theory, Richard Dawkins makes use of metaphoric language to describe the scientific concepts he wants to introduce.  These metaphors are fundamental to our understanding of his ideas; according to Polanyi, ideas mean nothing without language behind them.  However, Dawkins may have misused the power of language in his theory.  His central metaphor, "selfish genes," has too many implications beyond science for it to work as he desired.  It conjures up a picture of a robot being inside of us, who built us solely for its benefit and has some measure of control over our existence.  To introduce this problem and yet ignore the philosophical implications is a mistake.  Granted, Dawkins' metaphor is excellent in getting us to think, but I believe it turns our thoughts in a direction Dawkins wouldn't have wanted. The theory itself is very intriguing; and judging from the "junk DNA" evidence in the final chapter, it may even turn out to be scientifically sound.  Still, Dawkins’ language takes us away from this scientific base.  Lovelock's Gaia theory, with equally meaningful metaphors, is able to direct those metaphors towards science, and encourage further research.  Richard Dawkins' metaphor, unfortunately, directs our attention away from science and onto the philosophical ideas implicit in the selfish gene metaphor.  Language may be essential in understanding technical concepts, but it can also be used to lead the reader astray, as Dawkins may have done with the selfish gene theory.

Work Cited

Barlow, Connie, ed.  From Gaia to Selfish Genes.  Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1991.