Term Paper: Survival Theory Richard Dawkins' the Selfish Gene

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Survival Theory

Richard Dawkins' the Selfish Gene and Jonathan Kozol's Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools

Sociobiology uses the Darwinian theory of evolution to understand human social behavior. To do so, sociobiologists make several key assumptions. First, sociobiologists assume that "traits less adapted to particular conditions of life will not persist in a population, because organisms with those traits will tend to have lower rates of survival and reproduction." (Holcomb & Byron, 2005). However, sociobiologists have expanded upon traditional evolutionary theory, by assuming that "humans, like other organisms, have behavioral control systems with particular functions whose evolutionary history can be individually traced." (Holcomb & Byron, 2005). As a result, people pass on genes, but they also pass on gene-related behaviors, and the transmission of that behavior is based upon the cultural status and relative success of certain groups.

Some sociobiologists have gone so far as to suggest the existence of a "selfish gene." In his groundbreaking book, the Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins takes the complex science of genetics and uses it to explain sociological phenomenon. Moreover, he does so in a manner described by various critics as brilliant, excellent, and easy-to-understand. (Catalano, 1996).

However, what he does not do is advocate the idea that evolution is equatable with morality. On the contrary, Dawkins divorces evolution for morality to present his theory of how evolution shapes sociology, describing activities as selfish because they further a particular gene's likelihood of survival, not because they harm others in society or even help the person with that gene. Instead, Dawkins urges an awareness of mankind's innate selfishness, so that people can be less selfish. He pleads, "Let us understand what our selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do." (Dawkins, 1989).

Dawkins explains that, in order for genese to survive, they have to be successful in competition. Furthermore, he points out that the most competition is from same-sex members of the same species, because, not only are same-sex same-species animals competing for food and other natural resources, but also for potential mates. (Dawkins, 1989). However, the killing of rivals is rare, even in the animal kingdom. Instead, "animals fight with gloved fists and blunted foils. Threat and bluff take the place of deadly earnest. Gestures of surrender are recognized by victors, who then refrain from dealing the killing blow or bite that our naive theory might predict." (Dawkins, 1989). This could be considered altuism and seems to conflict with the concept of genes as selfish; how, then, does a sociobiologist explain this apparent conflict between genetics and sociology? However, what such unrefrained killing does not take into account in the cost-benefit analysis of such killings; not only would that pose a physical danger to the victorious animal, but the death of the rival might actually be more advantageous to other rivals than to the victor. (Dawkins, 1989). Therefore, acts that are viewed, sociologically, as altruistic, are actually based in self-preservation.

Dawkins then goes on to expand upon his idea that genetics and sociology are intertwined. Dawkins posits that memes, or ideas, are the intellectual equivalent of replicating genes. Of course, Dawkins was not the first to posit "the idea that it might be possible to analyze the process of cultural evolution in terms of systems of meaningful units conveyed by symbols;" that person was "the nineteenth century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer who first pointed out that ideas are necessarily symbolic 'representation' of experienced reality -- not 'essential' aspects of the reality itself." (Hutcheon, 2004). Several philosophers after Schopenhauer posited similar theories. However, Dawkins' terminology (memes) and conception of these symobolic units is the most modern representation and fits the best with the current understanding of evolution. Evolutionarily speaking, memes replicate ideas "by being imitated in different minds." (Sullivan, 2006). As long as a new intellectual instance occurs, then one can say that a meme has spread.

However, the similiarities between genetic evolution and idea evolution and spreading may be mostly superficial:

DNA reproduction is a rather complex process: genes create bodies which eventually create new bodies, with new genes inside them. In the process those bodies may do many things: fly, hunt and eat the bodies manifested by different genes, court members of the opposite sex, or think. and, given cellular machinery designed to reproduce DNA, viruses have arisen which slip in and parasitize the system for their own propagation. Whereas it seems to me that the memetic level, while messy, is not nearly as complex. Memes are reproduced through straightforward communication and imitation, a process analogous to both RNA replication in the primeval soup and to genetic viruses - the memes exploit complex machinery designed to run things like themselves. (Sullivan, 2006).

While the spread of memes is not particularly complex, that does not mean that such spread is unopposed. On the contrary, "as a major neo-Darwinian realization was that other genes in a species themselves are part of the environment for determining the success of any gene, so other ideas in a mind or a culture will often play a key part in determining the success of a meme. And mental defense systems can be seen as analogous to biological immune systems, and these defenses may themselves be determined by transmissable memes." (Sullivan, 2006). Therefore, when a society already has well-established ideas and norms, new ideas may not be transmitted easily. This scenario may be most notable in the instances where a society has an established religious order.

In fact, some people, like Naomi Sherer, have taken Dawkins' work as a challenge to the religious-base for much of modern philosophy and society. Sherer wants "to bring Dawkins' views to a wider readership," because, "Dawkins' explanations ought to point thinking folks toward reality -- that no supernatural man or ghost is going to dissolve our difficulties in this life or sluff off grievances by promising a sweeter life after death." (Sherer, 1997). Instead of taking a religious approach to giving and altruism, which has not proven entirely effective, Sherer urges people to use Dawkins' work as a stepping stone to learning true altruism.

Other people are not so supportive of Dawkins' work. Mary Midgley worries that the Selfish Gene does not avoid the excesses of psychological egoism and is "far too one-sided a book to be picked out and used in isolation for the re-education of moral philosophy in the biological facts of life." (Midgley, 1983). Midgley's view is that humans play a really small and transient role in the cosmos, and that an understanding of scientific evolution is important. (Midgley, 1983). However, she worries about the impact that Social Darwinism has had on society's willingness to accept the idea of evolution in the human context, and points out that sociobiological thinking reinforces that impact. (Midgley, 1983). The central doctrine of Social Darwinism "is that conflict is universal and is in fact the only kind of interaction which is possible for us." (Midgley, 1983). Midgley disagrees with that premise. Furthermore, Midgley disagrees with Dawkins' use of morally-weighted words, such as the term "selfish" to describe behavior that is not psychologically-motivated. In short, Midgley appears to have a problem with anyone equating the concept of evolution with the idea that those with more resources are somehow entitled to that largesse.

One reading Jonathan Kozol's Savage Inequalities instantly becomes aware that Midgley's concerns about the moral and political implications of Social Darwinism are well-founded. While American's worry about third-world countries, the reality is that many places in the United States exhibit conditions that rival those in the third world. The inhabitants of these locales are generally non-white, and they control a negligible fraction of the vast wealth and resources that exist in the United States. Instead, people live in neighborhoods with no fire protection, no working sewer systems, and in danger of floods and chemical spills. (Kozol, 1992). Many of these people are black, and live in a system of de facto segregation, long after it was outlawed.

However, Dawkins' theories actually help explain, though they do not justify, the educational and resource disparity that plagues the United States. In fact, the deplorable conditions faced by nonwhite students in much of the United States can trace it roots to the meme of racial inequality. It is impossible to determine when mankind first became conscious of race, or even when different races develop. However, written history is replete with stories of one group punishing another "different" group for their difference. These stories share a common them; the "different" group is inferior, in appearance, in intelligence, and usually in honesty. In more recent times, this meme has become attached to people with brown skin. As colonialism spread, so did the belief that the browner one's skin, the less capable the person. The system of slavery depended upon a belief in the inherent inferiority of African-Americans; these ideas passed down among generations and became embedded in the belief systems… [END OF PREVIEW]

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