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A Reductionist Viewpoint on Evolution

Tu-Anh Vu's picture

Richard Dawkins’ theory of the Selfish Gene is controversial.  His theory suggests that biological organisms are vehicles or machines that carry genes.  Genes are the replicators that create biological organism; they function to replicate themselves and as a means to acquire resources.  Dawkins argues that natural selection operates at the genetic level and not the individual organism, since individuals are just programmed carriers.  The purpose of life for the organism is to provide survival and reproductive sites for genes.  Proponents of Dawkins’ theory assert that the main point is that the gene is the unit of selection, which completes and extends the explanation of evolution given by Darwin before the mechanisms of genetics were uncovered.  Critics argue that the theory oversimplifies the relationship between genes and the organism (The Selfish Gene).  I believe that a gene-centric view of evolution is a revolutionary way to view the selection process, but it is also a useful theory to explain many biological phenomena, such as altruism. 

The Selfish Gene theory is considered “reductionistic.”  Reduction in this sense refers to the view that one should “reduce” all science, or explanations, to some lowest level, such as the molecular level or the atomic level (Dennett 326).  Dawkins said at a conference that he himself is a reductionist:

I love to reduce complex mysteries by means of simple explanations. And I suppose that makes me a reductionist, but the word means so many different things, and is to some people a dirty word. It's one thing to reduce, in the sense of trying to find simple explanations for complex phenomena, and in that sense I'm proud to be a reductionist (The Selfish Gene: Thirty Years On). 

It is not surprising that Dawkins book, The Selfish Gene, is a reductionist viewpoint on evolution, since the author is a supporter of reductionism.  Many critics view the word reduction with negative connotation to mean reducing in the sense of underestimating and demeaning the complexity of the problem.  This negative connotation has been associated with Dawkins Selfish Gene theory by opponents, which is incorrect. 

Another attack on the theory lies in its view of the gene as the unit of natural selection and not the individual organism, as Mayr and Darwin proposed.  The traditional Darwinian individual selection says that natural selection selects individuals who are adapted to their environment, so they will survive and pass on their offspring.   Dawkins refutes this by arguing that selection is not on the individual level but on the genetic level:

Genes do not present themselves naked to the scrutiny of natural selection, instead they present their phenotypic effects. (...) Differences in genes give rise to difference in these phenotypic differences. Natural selection acts on the phenotypic differences and thereby on genes. Thus genes come to be represented in successive generations in proportion to the selective value of their phenotypic effects (Cronin 60). 

The genes, as Dawkins refers to them, are selfish, meaning that the genes promote their own survival through the use of individuals as vehicles to carry genes.  His theory implies that adaptations are the phenotypic effects of genes that maximize their representation in the future generations.  An adaptation is maintained by selection if it promotes genetic survival directly, or if it allows for some subordinate goal that ultimately contributes to successful reproduction (The Selfish Gene).  Because genes are informational entities that persist for long periods of time, enough for evolutionary significance, they are the unit of selection.  Individual organisms do not survive from one generation to the next, but genes do.  Natural selection acts on what survives, thus selection ultimately is at the level of the genes. 

Understanding Dawkins’ Selfish Gene theory enables scientists to explain biological phenomena that were hard to explain without the recent discovery of genes and theories surrounding them.  The theory enables scientists to understand the mechanism of altruism.  In biology, altruism is a behavior that an individual acquires that increases the fitness of another individual while at the same time decreasing the fitness of the individual that acts on that instinct.   Scientists are puzzled by the idea that some individuals behave altruistically, which may decrease the reproductive successfulness of that individual.  This goes against Darwin’s idea of natural selection selecting the “fittest” individuals.  But Dawkins showed that altruistic behavior might increase the chances of the genes involved being replicated when the beneficiaries are also carriers of the same gene (The Selfish Gene?).  The genes are essentially aiding copies of themselves in other bodies to replicate.  The selfish action of the genes induces the individual to act selflessly.  Viewing this perspective of selection in the genetic level would explain why altruism exists in evolution.   

Dawkins’ theory of the Selfish Gene is a beneficial theory to understand the reductionist’s perspective on evolution.  It is not the “right” perspective since there are many views on evolution, but it is a helpful one that explains altruism.  Darwinian natural selection at the individual level is unable to provide a good summary of observation to explain altruism, but viewing evolution in a gene-centric view, one is able to rationalize the functioning behind this puzzling behavior.   Although it might seem depressing to know that we are just a vehicle, hence secondary to genes, it does not mean that we are not in charge of our own destinies.  Our life is what we make of it.  I feel awed to know that even though the earth began with a mindless evolutionary starting point, it ended up with loving altruistic individuals. 



Sources Cited:

  1. Cronin, H. The Ant and the Peacock. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1991.
  2. Dennett, Daniel. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1995.
  3. “The Selfish Gene.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. March 15 2007. [Online: March 19, 2007]
  4. “The Selfish Gene?” [Online: March 19, 2007]
  5. “The Selfish Gene: Thirty Years On.” Edge The Third Culture. March 16, 2006. [Online: March 19, 2007]



jeff's picture

Still problematic...

Your approach to the matter is overly simplistic and your attempts to support dawkin's dogmatic claims are rather pedantic. It is always tempting to accept simplistic (not simple) approaches to some of science's most intricate - issues as they are easy to assimilate - and you seem to be doing just that. The problem here is that you are actually trying to rationalize such behavior which exacerbates the problem even more.

You might want to have a look at the criticism of this approach made by Gould.

Anne Dalke's picture

Selfish Gene Carrier responds...


You have a resisting reader in me; I’m not a fan of “the selfish gene” (I think it mixes up levels of agency in a confusing way —so I’m particularly impressed with what you’ve done here: written a very clear and compelling account—and defense—of Dawkins’ idea.

I very much like what you have done; my comments are mostly about wanting more, about fleshing out and supporting—as well as extending some of your ideas. For starters, you could very usefully draw on Dennett’s ideas about “greedy and proper reductionism” (which I think nicely summarize the difference between Dawkins’ account of the sort of reductionism he does, and the account given of it by his detractors).

You might also spend some more time giving a fuller (and fairer!) account of Dawkins’ critics; when you dismiss their detractions as “simply incorrect,” it doesn’t seem like your story is a very even-handed one!

And finally, I’m most intrigued by your finale, your claim that the story of our being only “carriers for our selfish genes” does not mean that we are “not in charge of our own destinies. Our life is what we make of it.” Can you really go that far? This is a very complicated question, for us to talk more about. Are there really no limits (genetic or otherwise) on what we can do?