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Biology 103
2003 Second Paper
On Serendip

The Selfish Gene


"We are survival machines—robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve selfish
molecules known as genes."
-- Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (1).

Can genes alone determine your DNA's place in the next generation? Are humans simply vessels for these genes?

With his provoking work entitled The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins attempts to answer such questions as he proposes a shift in the evolutionary paradigm. Working through the metaphor of a "selfish gene", Dawkins constructs an evolutionary model using a gene as the fundamental unit of selection, opposed to the more commonly accepted belief of the species as the unit of selection.

This "selfish gene", possessing a certain selfish emotional nature, acts as an independent entity fighting to ensure its replication in future generations, maximizing its number of descendents (2). Those successful in replicating have made the most of their given environment (1). For the interests of this paper, is it valid to assume that natural selection occurs at the level of DNA? Hence, what can be implied about genetic predispositions?

For Dawkins, evolution of a species is dependent upon the transmittance of this information to the next generation; the individual species is irrelevant (2). This theory is a departure from Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, which concentrates on the species. Species, to Dawkins, are "survival machines" whose purpose is to host these genes, as species are mortals and fleeting, whereas genes are not (2).

Is it valid to assume Dawkins position that humans are merely "robot vehicles"? This concept, alienating emotion, physical, and cultural growth from evolution, can be startling. By placing the importance of natural selection at the level of DNA, all humanistic aspects are removed. Inherent complexities arise, as the individual is of little importance— other than to provide shelter and nourishment, so to speak. Varying schools of philosophical and scientific thought could argue the ethic and biological counterarguments to this theory.

Dawkins' gene is a personified entity, seemingly to the extent that it is an independent being to an extent. The "machines", therefore, are subjected to programming of sorts by the genes. Capable of selfish and altruistic behavior, the gene "reaches" outside of the human body to interact with its environment (3). "With only a little imagination we can see the gene as sitting at the centre of a radiating web of extended phenotypic power," stated Dawkins (3). By granting "phenotypic power", the genotype (as determined by the interaction of genes) behaves in such a manner which dictates the phenotype, or physical expression of the gene. By following this pattern—interaction between the gene and its environment, it is arguable that the environment is actually governing genotypic behavior. By this, the environment is not merely a factor manipulated by the gene, but instead can manipulate the gene itself.

Apply the above reasoning to the concept of genetic "predisposition" to maladies and conditions. In Dawkins theory, only the "strong" genes persist. One, therefore, can perhaps assume that only the most preeminent and healthiest genes exist. Given this predilection for only the genetic superiority, then why do maladies exist? One response could be similar to the idea outline above—the environment's role in phenotypic expression is dominant to that of the gene. Alternatively, the "bad" genes leading to disease and illness are actually the dominant units. These malignant genes could be a natural mechanism of population stabilization along the survivorship curve. The environment serves a godlike position—choosing those who will carry on and who will perish (3).

Genes are malleable entities. They interact with their environment—it is tested, processed, articulated, and modified with time—responsive to necessary changes in order to maximize survival and "replication" (3). Change is inevitable and imperative. Author Oliver Morton best describes this dynamic:

Just as organisms are interpretations of genetic information within a specific environment so the use of this genetic knowledge will depend on the environments—economic and ethical, personal and political—in which that use is made. But those uses, good or ill, will surely be made. The genes that imperiously limited and permitted will be bent to human will; limits will become movable, permissions stretched. Genes have never been the complete masters of human destiny, but nor have they been humanity's servants. Until now. (3).

As humankind progresses, so does its ability to become the master of one's own fate. Dawkins theory of the "selfish gene" offers one possible version to the many reasons how humans evolve. While he offers intriguing insight by bringing the evolutionary process to the micro-level of DNA, the personification of genes is an exceptionally difficult idea to support.

When observing genetic maladies, it is difficult for Dawkins theory to hold completely—as it is not necessarily capable of fully encompassing the idea of anything more than the "superior" genes survival—it fails to explain flaw. The relationship between the genetics and their environment is best explained offering the genes as a framework for evolution, with the environment as the substantive filler interpreting how the framework will ultimately look and act.


Works Cited

1) "The Selfish Gene" , The opening pages of and selections from Dawkins work

2)The Selfish Gene Theory, Explanatory site providing overview of theory

3) The Selfish Gene?" Reason in Revolt , Genetic issues and Dawkins discussed

Works Consulted
4) In Defense of Selfish Genes , Dawkins refute to claims made about his theory by Mary Midgely

5) Selfish Genes and Social Darwinism , Counterarguments for Selfish Gene Theory

6) The Selfish Gene: The Underpinnings of Narcissism , Further discussion and implications on Selfish Gene Theory

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