Philosophy of Psychology in the Selfish Gene Term Paper

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Dawkins' Selfish Gene and the History of Psychology

In the Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins argues passionately and clearly for a challenging new approach to the study of biology and evolution. Of course, after thirty years, Dawkins' selfish gene hypothesis, which was a popularization of work being conducted in biology at the time, has become entrenched orthodoxy in some circles. This has been the result, despite continued criticism for Dawkins' argument and the sociobiology perspective. However, upon examination, we find that many of the objections to Dawkins' the Selfish Gene are based on misunderstandings or gross misrepresentations of Dawkins' original text.

When we look closer at the Selfish Gene we discover, interestingly, that Dawkins is not shy about revealing his intentions or central argument. He explains,

T]he best way to look at evolution is in terms of selection occurring at the lowest level of all [...] the fundamental unit of selection, and therefore of self-interest, is not the species nor the group, nor even, strictly, the individual. It is the gene, the unit of heredity. (Dawkins, 1976: p. 12)

This is the core thesis of the Selfish Gene. In essence, then, Dawkins is synthesizing the findings and conclusions of decades of work in diverse fields including biology, genetic, zoology, and others. He illustrates convincingly that the evolution, which is driven by the mechanism of natural selection, can be reduced to a large degree to the unwitting efforts of genes to propagate themselves and ensure their continued survival.Download full Download Microsoft Word File
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Term Paper on Philosophy of Psychology in the Selfish Gene Assignment

This thesis has stirred up a great deal of controversy since it was first introduced, largely because of the implications that some critics drew from Dawkins' central claims. On the surface, it would seem that this selfish gene hypothesis undermines the primacy of human agency, of free will, of the role of culture, and the role of individual human psychology. It would appear that Dawkins is arguing for a deterministic world of life in which living creatures are nothing more than automata constructed to fulfill their survival instincts of individual genes. Indeed at one point, Dawkins himself characterizes that all living things "are survival machines" (Dawkins, 1976: p. 22). But to conclude that this is the view of the mind, or psychology, and of science that Dawkins is forwarding would be a blatant misreading of the Selfish Gene and amount to little more than reactionary criticism against the role genetics has as a determinant in behavior.

Because that, ultimately, is the point that Dawkins is driving toward: genes influence behavior. Understand, though, that this is not a prescription that genes are the only factors that influence behavior -- even though this has been a recurring criticism of the selfish gene hypothesis. As his primary source of evidence, Dawkins relies on a discussion of the difference between altruism and selfishness and how these behavioral actions can be described in terms of genetic influence. For those who would load these terms with all manner of psychological and philosophical baggage, Dawkins explains the terms in a biological sense. Altruism, in his estimation, is an action that increases another being's welfare at the expense of one's own, while selfishness has the opposite effect. Welfare is taken to mean only a creature's changes of survival.

Further, in clarifying these terms, Dawkins writes:

It is important to note that the above definitions of altruism and selfishness are behavioral, not subjective. I am not concerned here with the psychology of motives [...] My definition is concerned only with whether the effect of an act is to lower or raise the survival prospects of the presumed altruist and the survival prospects of the presumed beneficiary. (Dawkins, 1976: pp. 4-5)

In other words, Dawkins has no intention of speaking to psychology or forwarding a new conception thereof. There is no prescription as to a new kind of conception of the mind, save perhaps that the mind itself will be affected and influenced by underlying biological constraints, by the degree to which the mind improves a creature's chances for survival.

This, however, is the core of the position on science -- specifically the science of biology and evolution -- that Dawkins forwards. It is a position that brings genetics to the forefront of discussion of behavior and challenges the belief oft-held in the humanities that human beings are somehow not the product of natural processes. Despite the overt successes of the Scientific Revolution, it has been quit difficult to utterly root out the meme -- to borrow from Dawkins -- that human beings exist above and separate from the natural world, divorced from the mechanics that affect all other living creatures. Thus, while it has been entirely appropriate to talk about the influence that genes have on behaviors in populations of lions or gazelles, it has been less appropriate to extend that argument to human beings and argue that natural selection has shaped and defined our basic behaviors. Dawkins does not claim that genes can be seen as the basis for all behaviors all of the time. However, he does argue in favor of using his the gene as the basic unit of natural selection and thus behavior has revolutionized science and how we perceive and understand the actions of individuals and groups.

As already mentioned, Dawkins work in the Selfish Gene was largely a popularization of trends and conclusions being drawn among biologists. Notable scientists publishing similar treatises at the same time include E.O. Wilson, who Dawkins pays his respects to in the Selfish Gene, though he does criticize Wilson's description and definition of kinship and its effects on behavior and the survival of genes (Dawkins, 1976: pp. 101-102). But the history of ideas that shaped Dawkins' the Selfish Gene go back much farther than that, as is evidenced by even a cursory examination of the history of psychology and philosophy.

Obvious intellectual precursors to Dawkins include Charles Darwin and Francis Gallo. Darwin, importantly, outlined the mechanism for the way in which life exists and changes over time: namely, natural selection. Darwin's influence on philosophy and psychology has been somewhat spotty, in part because of the tendency of critics and supporters to misinterpret Darwin. Concepts like social Darwinism represent some of the worst kind of derivations of Darwin's theory of evolution and natural selection to date. Regardless of this, Darwin's on the Origin of Species stands as a powerful text on the natural and impersonal processes that shape the development of all living things (Hergenhahn, 2005: pp. 262-265). For Dawkins, Darwin provides the mechanism by which life exists and takes on new forms. By incorporating modern genetics in Darwin's theory, Dawkins has concluded the gene must act as the most basic currency of natural selection -- it is through the gene and its efforts to survive into succeeding generations that all life has developed.

Francis Galton is another early contributor to Dawkins work, if only implicitly. Galton, if through no small measure of exaggeration, founded the science of behavioral genetics with his 1869 Hereditary Genius, in which he argued that intelligence has a genetic basis. His work is highly criticized because of Galton's unfounded and dubious claims about the way that intelligence passes from parents to children, particularly in his inability to account for the effects of culture and socialization (Hergenhahn, 2005: pp. 266-270). Nonetheless, Galton laid the groundwork for behavioral genetics, which has developed into the more refined fields of ethology and sociobiology, which are very closely related to Dawkins' thesis in the Selfish Gene.

Both ehtology and sociobiology consider the evolutionary advantages of certain behaviors. Ethology is specifically interested in studying animal behavior, though there is some overlap with psychology. Sociobiology, more broadly, argues that genes play a decisive role in the development of behaviors and that behaviors must be considered in terms of the evolutionary advantage that they offer individuals and species (Hergenhahn, 2005: pp. 559-565). Sociobiology in particular can be seen as the primary intelletual influence, or ally, for Dawkins in the Selfish Gene. Dawkins, too, argues that behavior must be considered in terms of its evolutionary advantage, paying particular attention to altruism and selfishness. His unique contribution to this field of study is his focus on individual genes as the most relevant building blocks of evolution and natural selection. It is not, by his characterization that people are animals that just happen to be made up of genes, but rather that genes just happened to organize themselves into people because this increased their chances for long-term survival.

Because of the intense criticism, and negative reactions, that the selfish gene hypothesis often receives, it is important to demonstrate that it has some demonstrable qualities. It is possible to show that Dawkins' thesis is tenable from both an argument from common sense and an argument from logic. An argument from common sense, while far from definitive, nonetheless is based on the idea that all things being equal we can trust our rational intellect to draw meaningful conclusions from our surroundings. Of course, this is hardly ever the case, and… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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