Thursday, May 25, 2006

Dawkins redux

It has been 30 years since Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene took the world by storm. Who would have imagined that such a thoroughly reductionist theory of who we are could become such a resounding popular success.

What Dawkins did was to show that Darwin's logic of natural selection can be applied to the fundamental units of life, the genes. To molecules! He did not, of course, attribute selfishness in a moral sense to genes, but he did show that if those molecular entities "acted" as if they were interested in nothing but their own replication, then the world of organisms that resulted might be very like the one we find ourselves in. You and I, argued Dawkins, are the upshot of "selfish" molecular replicators.

The extent to which Dawkins was right is still debated by evolutionists. Does natural selection act at the level of genes, the organism, groups of organisms? Or through some combination of them all? The answer may become clear soon enough.

So how did so a book of reductionist science compete for attention with the hundreds of self-help books that assure us we are masters of our own fates and apples of the Creator's eye?

Well, for one thing, it was 1976 when the book was published, not 2006, and rebellion against orthodoxy was in the air. For another thing, Dawkins wrote with such skill and panache that he carried us along for the sheer thrill of the ride.

In 1976, we quite happily conceded selfishness to the genes, so busy were we with ending wars, sexism, racism, religious triumphalism, corporate greed, and environmental degradation. I wonder if the book would have the same reception today, in Bush's Enron/EndTimes America, when we have so thoroughly appropriated selfishness to the organism rather than the genes?