Thursday, March 23, 2006

Thirty Years of The Selfish Gene

"We are survival machines, robot vehicles, blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes" - Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene

Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene is one of my all time favourite books. If I have to name one book which has influenced me the most in the way I look at myself and the world, that will be this book (followed perhaps by Kafka). It is almost seven-eight years since I read the book but I still remember how it affected me. I was never a believer in soul, immortality, God or some mumbo-jumbo about divinely ordained purpose but my disbelief in these things was more of indifference and disinterest. Selfish Gene showed me that you can explain life and the world in purely materialist (or physicalist) terms and provided a powerful demonstration of how reductionist thinking works. In doing so it allowed me to feel intellectually fulfilled, if not happier with myself or the life. After reading the book everything started making a lot of sense, because the book essentially forces you to shift your perspective with which we view the world. It does this by bringing the genes (or to be more descriptive, the replicators ) to the forefront and makes us see the world from their point of view rather than that from the organism's, which is essentially relegated to the level of of vehicles, whose only "purpose" is to carry as many versions of those replicators as possible to the next generation.

On the surface it will appear that this philosophy of life robs us of meaning, purpose and mystery which we use to sustain ourselves but it merely substitutes it with a different set of meanings and purpose, which are not incompatible with the truth. It just reminds me of scene from the Spike Jonze-Charlie Kaufmann movie Adaptation where the orchid guy, played by Chris Cooper, is narrating the story of life to Nicholas Cage. He says:

what's so wonderful is that every one of these flowers has a specific relationship with the insect that pollinates it. There's a certain orchid that looks exactly like a certain insect so the insect is drawn to this flower, its double, its soul mate, and wants nothing more than to make love to it. And after the insect flies off, spots another soul-mate flower and makes love to it, thus pollinating it. And neither the flower nor the insect will ever understand the significance of their lovemaking. I mean, how could they know that because of their little dance the world lives? But it does. By simply doing what they're designed to do, something large and magnificent happens. In this sense they show us how to live - how the only barometer you have is your heart. How, when you spot your flower, you can't let anything get in your way.
Yes, we just follow our instincts and the story of life just keeps going on because of that!

The Edge celebrates the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of the book with comments by Daniel Dennett, Ian McEwan, Matt Ridley and others. You can listen to the mp3 of the talk too.

Earlier I had written about Dawkins's documentary The Root of All Evil? here.


Jabberwock said...

"It does this by bringing the genes (or to be more descriptive, the replicators ) to the forefront and makes us see the world from their point of view..."

Have you read Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate? There's a similar perspective there.

Alok said...

Yes I have read Pinker's book. It is another of my favourites.

Pinker's other books How the Mind Works and The Language Instinct are classics too. If you haven't read the language book I will recommend it very highly (specially given that you are in Journalism!!)

He makes good fun of editors, journalists and other people who are finicky about rules of language and grammar. And it is very very funny.

km said...

You know you are on a true geek's blog when the blogger calls Pinker's book "very very funny".

People read Garfield for the funnies, Alok :D

Now if you will excuse me, I have some genes to preserve.

Alok said...

Heh! I don't like being called a "geek" much less a "true geek" :(

btw, Pinker's book has many garfield and calvin hobbes cartoons too!!

trayser said...

Nice blog and nice article :-)
If I may add to the list, 'The Mind's I' is also a good read. The book is a collection of short articles from a variety of thinkers including Dawkins.
You may be interested in the 'Selfish Patterns' article that I wrote recently based on Selfish Genes & Selfish Memes article in The Mind's I.

Alok said...

thanks Trayser! I have heard of the Dennett book but never got around to reading it. Will check out the book and the essay as soon as I get a chance.