Continuing the discussion from Richard Dawkins wishes he'd named his "The Selfish Gene" book "The Immortal Gene" instead:
First of all, genes are meaningless without environmental context.
At some point in the past I came up with the following parable: A gene is discovered that almost inevitably gives women who have it an aggressive and nearly always fatal form of breast cancer. Some women who have the gene decide to get preventative mastectomies. At first this is seen as extreme, but over time more and more women decide that’s the right way to go. A generation or two later that is the norm and nearly all women are screened for that gene to get mastectomies if they have it. What does that gene do?
It is a gene that prevents breast cancer.
Then a couple of years ago Angelina Jolie decided to get a double mastectomy, so this isn’t even just an illustrative myth, it might be reality.
Similarly, hot peppers probably evolved their heat to avoid getting eaten. Now they are cultivated by humans because they are hot and humans like that. So a trait which evolved to prevent them from being eaten ended up being the trait that made them get eaten, but it just happened that being desirable food for humans is the best way for a plant to survive. There is no predicting the effect a trait will have, let alone a gene that causes that trait.
Because genes are meaningless without that context, it is silly to even talk about what any gene does or tries to do, and it is very silly to anthropomorphize them with traits like “selfishness”.
Second, the entire of idea of “selfishness” as applied to genes is just completely post hoc, while “selfishness” suggests an active trait.
Suppose I took a metal sheet and bored holes in it. Then I took a bunch of stones and put them on the sheet and shook it. Obviously the stones smaller than the holes would tend to fall through and those larger than the holes would not. What if I was then going to grind one of those groups of stones to dust? If you call genes “selfish” then you’ve have to call the group of stones that happened to be on the non-grinding side of this equation “selfish.”
Happening to be the right shape to make it through a deadly gauntlet isn’t selfish, it just is.
Third, the concept of “selfishness” itself is something that only exists in a complex social setting applying social rules.
What if there could be a gene that was completely altruistic as a gene. A gene that somehow, wherever it found itself in a genetic sequence, boosted the positive effects of those genes around it. Presumable this gene would be passed on regularly, so we would call it “selfish” after the fact because it survived. There’s a famous story in philosophy about this, the world’s only altruistic man is on a sinking ship with only one lifeboat and two other passengers. Does he altruistically give up his seat on the boat? Or does he take the only seat on the boat knowing that he can do more good for others later? When we are talking about picking the big slice or the little slice of cake we can talk about selfishness and altruism, but we need to have that social context to even make sense of the terms.
Fourth, the idea that selfishness leads to success or good results is a goddamned scourge. By saying that genes are selfish Dawkins was either caught up in or helping to create a culture that sees selfishness as nature’s law. Cooperation is nature’s law as much as selfishness is, and cooperation is better for us than selfishness.
What would any gene do without cooperation? Suppose we took a gene that was associated with being tall, extracted it from the cell nucleus it was in, put it on a rocket and sent it to the moon. It isn’t making anyone tall, it isn’t going to replicate, it is just a molecule in the cold. Only genes that play well with others ever get to reproduce themselves.
Finally, and most irritating to me, there is this thing called token-class distinction. If you start talking about gene A, you are almost certainly talking about a class of molecules of a certain form, not about a particular individual token instance of that gene (like I was in the rocket-to-the-moon example). But without people to understand it, there is no such thing as gene A to begin with. The class doesn’t exist, only the tokens. If you say I have gene A, you mean I have a molecule that is categorizes as gene A for every cell nucleus in my body. Genes that make hemoglobin are busy doing that if they are in my bone marrow, but are doing either nothing or a completely different job if they happen to find themselves in a brain cell.
Do you know what almost none of the genes in my body ever do? Reproduce. The only genes that ever get to pass themselves on to a new generation are those that are in sperm or eggs. Your body contains tens of trillions of cells, only a few million of which are even capable of becoming another organism and only a handful of which (if you are a woman) or quite likely none of which (if you are a man) will ever do so. Using our regular ideas of the words, would we say that 50 trillion things working together so that one thing that only has a 50% chance of being part of their family might have a chance of survival is selfish or altruistic?
When Dawkins wrote the “Selfish Gene” he didn’t understand genetics (no one did, and I’m sure we’ve still got lots to learn) and he definitely hadn’t thought much about the idea of selfishness. The fact that he now thinks he should have called it the immortal gene means that he hasn’t thought much about the idea of immortality either.