Readers Write In #248: The Selfish Gene theory of Dawkins, simplified

Posted on August 21, 2020


(by G Waugh)

Consider the DNA in your body as a parasite. Your body is a carrier. The DNA is the one that dictates what you should do and even how. The DNA has no hidden intent other than leaving copies of the same behind even after its expiry. It just wants to multiply itself and finds the best possible way to do it. This is why the DNA is called a replicator.  You could say the same about a virus as well. The only motive for the existence of a virus is also to replicate itself. But the only thing that differentiates a DNA from a virus is that the former benefits the carrier while the latter does not.

The DNA is called a selfish organism by Richard Dawkins in his book Selfish Gene and in this essay we will try to explain a few aspects of human behavior through his ‘selfish replicator’ theory.

There are two things man enjoys undoubtedly the most – eating and sex. The development of taste buds, the fulfilment one acquires after eating, the craving for food are all linked to one cause- the presence of DNA. The DNA wants its carrier which is your body to live a long and healthy life the only means by which it could hope to create multiple copies of itself. Since eating is the only way the carrier of the DNA can remain healthy and produce healthy offspring that bears more copies of its own, all living organisms are attracted to the practice of eating.

Having explained the logic behind eating, the case for man’s craving for sex becomes easier. But the effects of DNA on the sexual drive of organisms warrant deeper examination. As one may already know, even if DNA can hope to make sexual reproduction perennial for all animals and make it a lifetime habit as to ensure its own untrammeled perpetuation which actually is its only primal motive, there are certain crucial limitations, such as the questionable durability of the human body and its tendency to die. Dawkins says that the DNA is quite aware of the limitations of its carrier, the human body and hence chooses a ‘suitable algorithm’ for its survival, if one may be allowed to use the expression. The DNA is supposed to know for how long a female can afford to take care of its children taking into account its tendency to age which might impact the survival chances of its offspring. So the DNA brings two interlinked aims with it- one the perpetuation of its own, two the production of healthy offspring which might live long enough to create another healthy generation of the same kind. But the first aim is restricted by the inability of the human bodyto rear and foster new-born ones for a longer period of time during its older age and hence the DNA tries to arrive at a magical mean- to find an algorithm with a best possible scenario. So the DNA successfully imposes a ban on female fertility once it reaches a particular age which we call menopause, preferring quality over quantity of the offspring that carries its copies. If feminists are unhappy with the bias that DNA bears against women by imposing conditions on their ability to reproduce, it may be because bringing up children has always been the domain of women traditionally and nature has allowed men to remain philanderers and irresponsible brats. But let us not be stuck with the unpleasant aspects of DNA and brood over something which we cannot change.

With Dawkins’ definition of DNA, a lot of other curious phenomena that characterize human sexuality can be explained. One is man’s obsession with curvy women especially those with copious breasts. It could be said that man’s attraction to such voluptuous women is dictated strongly by DNA which is intelligent enough to assume that women with larger breasts could produce more milk and hence take care of their offspring better. The sexual preferences of males, many psychologists argue are solely determined by the needs and compulsions of the DNA replicators and Dawkins’ theory only re-establishes their claims. Women’s preferences for men with broad shoulders, an intelligent wit and ability to master crafts for making a living are all tied up to the calculations of the DNA which go into the creation of its ‘survival algorithm’.

Dawkins’ replicator theory however throws interesting assumptions when it moves into the realm of sociology. Dawkins contends that the DNA is by nature selfish and always directs its carriers to be so. The DNA of one member of a species is always engaged in a contest with the DNA of the other member for acquiring the same set of resources such as sunlight, oxygen, nutrition and even sex which are crucial for its survival and propagation. But Dawkins says that with the evolution of organisms and societies and the creation of complex web of survival interdependencies, the DNA decided to rework its survival algorithm, may be at some indefinable point in time. It compromised on its selfishness to the extent that was mandated by survival necessities. This is manifest very much in forests where there is a linear food chain with each animal of a species dependent on some animal of a totally different species for its survival.

To explain further, the DNA of say, bisons tends to remain selfish just like those of every others. The selfishness is justified as long as all the bisons are dependent on the same areas of grasslands and water for survival. That DNA which has a higher tendency to be selfish and dictate its carrier to consume more has a higher chance of survival as it can live long enough and transfer its copies to the subsequent generations at a much better rate than others. But the bisons are not an isolated race. They turn out to be the prey for wild animals such as lions, tigers and cheetahs whose survival chances are dependent heavily on the availability of bisons to feed. And according to the arbitrary rules of nature, an isolated bison cannot stand up on its own to the challenge of a lion. Both are not equals. So the selfish instinct of the bison is a burden here. So the DNA of the bison decides to compromise on its selfishness to an extent and orders the bison to travel in herds. The chances of bisons in herds getting killed by lions is much much lesser and this gives rise to the tendency of bisons to group and work together for the benefit of all.

The selfish gene has thus taken a step back and allowed itself to get social. By becoming social, the same areas of grasslands and water will have to be shared equally without each member of the species harbouring grudges against one another and this is how DNAs adapt to changing conditions by trading one for another with a fixed long-term target – survival and replication. Needless to say, these adaptations of DNA would have had a great impact on the formation of tribes, clans and even nations among the most advanced living organisms, the human being.

Dawkins’ replicator theory not only explains larger social formations such as societies and empires but also granular ones such as families. When you care for your son and go to any extent to safeguard him from evil, Dawkins implies that there is nothing really special about it. You don’t deserve to be sung paeans on account of your love for your son since all your activities are nothing but manipulations of the replicators you carry. The DNA that you carry can easily identify its own copies that populate the body of your son and hence without its active goading you cannot become the doting father that you take so much pride from. In similar ways, man’s attachment to other filial relations can be explained enough and that is one big drawback of reading Dawkins- there is nothing around you that can be called holy or sancrosanct or preciousanymore since every emotion that man carries has a selfish component in it.

When someone like Dawkins can reduce the holiness of man’s beliefs and the loftiness of his emotions to something as naked and pedestrian as survival and replication, you understand why in a society, artists, priests and patriots on the one hand and scientists and theoreticians on the other always choose to remain at loggerheads with one other.