Friday, February 27, 2009

One Nightstand: The Selfish Gene


The Selfish Gene is a 1976 book by biologist Richard Dawkins. The book generated a controversy because of its argument for a gene-centered theory of evolution. It also is owed a debt by students of culture for the establishment of the concept of the meme as a unit of cultural evolution.

The Gene-Centered Theory of Evolution

The two established theories of evolutionary biology prior to The Selfish Gene were organism-centered and population-centered. The former argued that the dynamics of evolution occurred at the level of the organism, with the outcome being the survival and reproduction of the organism. The later argued that evolution occurred at the level of the group, similarly for the survival and reproduction of the characteristics of the group.

Richard Dawkins took a position which at the time was, and somewhat until today is, a source of controversy. To Dawkins, the scientific observations associated with evolution were best explained by placing the gene at the center of the evolutionary dynamic. Evolution is a process by which genes as “replicators” increase their chance for biological survival by creating “survival machines” ranging in complexity from the amoeba to the human that best serves their purposes. Behavior of these greater survival machines can be interpreted as purposeful strategies by the genes. Referring to genes Dawkins writes
They are in you and in me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence. They have come a long way, those replicators. Now they go by the name of genes, and we are their survival machines.

The name of the book is a reference to the observed behavior of organisms which is typically called “altruistic”. Altruistic behavior, actions which are consistent with the success of others, is often cited as evidence that evolutionary processes are centered on the organism or, more likely, the group. “The Selfish Gene” alludes to the possibility that altruism may be only one strategy arrived at by genes which which serves its own, selfish, needs.

The Meme as a Unit of Cultural Evolution

The Selfish Gene has extended its impact well beyond the field of evolutionary biology and into cultural analysis. In the book's last chapter, “Memes: The New Relicators”, Dawkins introduced a cultural analog to the gene, and inspired an academic discipline which applies the principles of evolutionary biology, especially Dawkins' own ideas, to the transmission and survival of cultural ideas.

Dawkins explains the coinage of the new word:
I think that a new kind of replicator has emerged on this very planet...It's still in its infancy, still in it's primeval soup...The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a name which conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. 'Mimeme' comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like 'gene'. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme.

As examples of memes, Dawkins offers “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches”. Analogous to genetic evolution, memes “propagate themselves in the meme-pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense can be called imitation”.

Dawkins describes three qualities of a meme which can lead to successful replication. The greater a meme's “longevity”, that is the longer it exists, the greater is its opportunity be imitated by another. More important than longevity to Dawkins is the meme's fecundity or ability to reproduce. In this case, the meme of a cloying advertising jingle may replicate successfully because of the contagious nature of the tune. The third quality of a successful meme replicator is copy fidelity, the ability to create relatively, stable and faithful reproductions. It is his in discussion of this third quality that Dawkins insightfully describes how a meme may be successful not because of the overall complexity of the idea it represents, but because of the essence of its idea or the strength of one of it's parts.

The Propagation of an Idea

Of course the idea of a meme, is itself a meme, and as such will be expected to evolve and flourish or perish. The Selfish Gene inspired a new discipline in cultural analysis called Memetics. Memetics has flourished somewhat, but not without the opposition of critics. An explananation of this criticism will be left to a forum other than KultureKat.