#14: The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

I was nervous that this book would be too dense for me, but it was fantastic. Dawkins does an excellent job of explaining aspects of evolution and drawing examples from the real world that explain his points perfectly. Rather than delve into his selfish gene theory, I would prefer to list out some quotes that stuck with me.

“This book is mainly intended to be interesting, but if you would extract a moral from it, read it as a warning. Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.”

“Human suffering has been caused because too many of us cannot grasp that words are only tools for our use, and that the mere presence in the dictionary of a word like ‘living’ does not mean it necessarily has to refer to something definite in the real world. Whether we call the early replicators living or not, they were the ancestors of life; they were our founding fathers.”

The Selfish Gene was written in 1976 and chapter 11 is titled, “Memes: the new replicators.” Given what we refer to as memes today, this was quite the interesting chapter. This chapter emphasizes the difference between humans and all other species and suggests that humans are quite unique in that we have culture. Here is how Dawkins comes to coin the term ‘meme’…

“I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet…We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Minime’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate minime to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to ‘memory’, or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream’. Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperm or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.”

So when we think of memes today, we think of photos with humorous sayings on them, but that is simply an example of a meme. There were times when this chapter was hard to read because I would find myself narrowed in on our current meme definition rather than the broad definition that Dawkins writes about. Here is one particular example of e meme that I find very interesting…

“Consider the idea of God. We do not know how it arose in the meme pool. Probably it originated many times by independent ‘mutation’. In any case, it is very old indeed. How does it replicate itself? By the spoken and written word, aided by great music and great art. Why does it have such high survival value? Remember that ‘survival value’ here does not mean value for gene in a gene pool, but value for a meme in a meme pool. The question really means: What is it about the idea of a god that gives it its stability and penetrance in the cultural environment? The survival value of the god meme in the meme pool results from its great psychological appeal. It provides a superficially plausible answer to deep and troubling questions about existence. It suggests that injustices in this world may be rectified in the next. The ‘everlasting arms’ hold out a cushion against our own inadequacies which, like a doctor’s placebo, is none the less effective for being imaginary.”

I also can’t help but share this important quote…

“Blind faith can justify anything. If a man believes in a different god, or even if he uses a different ritual for worshiping the same god, blind faith can decree that he should die – on the cross, at the stake, skewered on a Crusader’s sword, shot in a Beirut street, or blown up in a bar in Belfast. Memes for blind faith have their own ruthless ways of propagating themselves. This is true of patriotic and political as well as religious blind faith.”

While I thoroughly enjoyed The Selfish Gene, there were times, before the chapter on memes, that it brought me down a bit. While he mostly used nonhuman examples about selfishness, I couldn’t help but think about humans when considering all of his ideas. But the ending to the meme chapter helped me to regain my faith in humanity…

“It is possible that yet another unique quality of man is a capacity for genuine, disinterested, true altruism. I hope so, but I am not going to argue the case one way or the other, nor to speculate over its possible memic evolution. the point I am making now is that, even if we look on the dark side and assume that individual man is fundamentally selfish, our conscious foresight – our capacity to simulate the future in imagination – could save us from the worst selfish excesses of the blind replicators. We have at least the mental equipment to foster long-term selfish interests rather than merely our short-term selfish interests… We have the power to defy selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism – something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world. We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.”


I highly recommend this book, you don’t need to be a scientist to understand Dawkins. Enjoy!

Next up, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara…


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