The great project of humanity, and in fact the great project of any group of self-aware creatures which value their own existence, is in three parts:
While survival is a fragile thing, and we invent new existential risks every day (e.g. global nuclear war), humanity is now the dominant living species in our sphere of existence. We are surviving.
Now, we must tackle Moloch.
Random variation and natural selection are simple ideas in reference to genes, but memes don’t quite follow the same rules. Variation occurs, and new memes are born, but calling it random seems disingenuous. Selection also occurs, but calling it natural doesn’t quite fit. Memes can be consciously controlled, which makes them interesting things; unlike genes, they are capable of spreading and mutating amazingly quickly. The internet has made that spread and mutation even faster, to the point where an idea can make it all the way around the world faster than a human being.
Selective pressure, while different, is also much harsher on memes. Not only are boring ideas forgotten, but we can explicitly choose not to pass on ideas that we consider dangerous or wrong. This gives one meaning of the “double jeopardy” in the title. The other, fascinating meaning I was referring to is the interaction of selective pressure from genetics and memetics. The popularity of a particular meme can make a particular gene more or less useful, and vice versa.
This means that for a complete understanding, we cannot study genes and memes separately. Every genetic behavioural trait influences the memes we create and are willing to accept, and every meme we use affects the survival probabilities of our genes. They are tightly interwoven, and the selective pressures between them are therefore in a state of constant feedback.
It was originally only supposed to be a single post, and this one makes three. Now I know why Dawkins originally wrote it as a book! This should (hopefully) be my last post on the selfish gene for now; next week we’ll move on to other stuff.
Given my previous points, one might realistically wonder why people aren’t simply altruistic all the time. If altruism leads to better overall genetic survival, why are people (sometimes) selfish?
Like a lot of things, the actual result is a bit of a balancing act. While human beings share a huge portion of genetic material simply be being human, nobody’s genes are exactly the same. As such, there is still some competition between different human genomes for survival.
Especially in developed society, where the human population is large and stable, and the loss of an individual is unlikely to risk the loss of a species, people are more selfish because they can afford to be. Being selfish in that environment increases the probability that your specific genes will survive, but does not realistically decrease the probability that human genes in general will survive.
The genes themselves are not doing these probability calculations of course; it is simply the case that those genes whose expressed behaviour most closely matched the actual probabilities involved were the most likely to survive. It’s all one marvellous self-balancing system of feedback.
My previous post on The Selfish Gene didn’t quite cram in all of the ideas I wanted to touch on. Or, more precisely, I didn’t articulate some of them very well (if at all). So let’s revisit them a bit more explicitly before moving on.
A common complaint against “survival of the fittest” is that on the surface it seems incompatible with altruistic behaviour. If the fittest really do survive, why do people ever make sacrifices for the greater good? Don’t those sacrifices make them less likely to survive, thus weeding out such behaviour over time? Should we not, if “survival of the fittest” were true, be seeing nearly perfectly selfish people, each aiming for their own survival at the expense of everyone else?
This is the primary complaint that Dawkins was answering in his book, and the title (though otherwise a bit misleading) does in some sense encapsulate his answer to those question. The key point to remember is that the basic unit of survival, the thing on which “survival of the fittest” actually operates, is not the individual animal. The things that are surviving according to their fitness are, in fact, our genes.
Since human beings share a substantial portion of genetic code simply by belonging to the same species, this view makes altruism much more coherent; we may sacrifice a bit of our own personal good, but if the increase in general good means many more people survive to reproduce, this is good for our genes overall (thus why Dawkins calls them “selfish”).
This also explains why we tend to be more altruistic towards close family: they share a larger percentage of our genes than some other random person.