11/06/2007 12:57 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

What Do Selfish Genes, and Memes, Really Mean?

Dan Agin has boldly waved selfish genes goodbye in his report
on my article with E.O. Wilson in the November 3 issue of New
, which is a digest of a more comprehensive article
that will appear in the December issue of Quarterly Review of
titled "Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of
Sociobiology." Agin´s farewell provoked a flurry of comments
that raise the issue of what selfish genes, and memes, really

The problem with these words is that they have both a broad and
narrow meaning. Selfish genes broadly refer to all genes that
evolve by natural selection, which by definition are more fit
than the genes they replaced. Similarly, "selfish memes" broadly
refer to all traits that spread by cultural evolution. It would
be impossible to say goodbye to these definitions because, by
including everything that evolves, they come perilously close to
explaining nothing in the first place.

No one would care about selfish genes or memes if they didn´t
imply something more specific. Selfish genes were originally
regarded as a drop-dead argument against group selection, and so
they are still regarded by many. Selfish memes suggest a number
of specific implications; that culture can be atomized into gene-like bits, that they are encoded as something gene-like inside
the head, and especially that culture can be like a virus that
propagates itself without benefiting human individuals or groups.
I repeat: the broad meanings of genes and memes are not
restricted to these implications, but the narrow meanings give
the words their power to influence the way we think about the
world around us, and to which we can bid adieu.

It´s not just the general public that is confused about broad vs.
narrow meanings, but the master himself, Richard Dawkins. In
dozens of passages he cautions that selfish genes don´t really
imply selfish individuals, and in dozens of other passages he
asserts that they do. One of his most recent essays, titled
"Atheists for Jesus", is a gem for revealing the limitations
of his thought. He proclaims that "Natural selection is a deeply
nasty process" and that "From a...Darwinian point of view, human
super-niceness is just plain dumb." By human super-niceness, he
means the fact that "so many people are kind, generous, helpful,
compassionate, and nice." Notice that he is not referring to
universal niceness, which after all is extremely rare in our
species, but merely the garden variety of human niceness that
goes beyond nepotism and mutual-back scratching.

Since human super-niceness is beyond Dawkins´ imagination as an
adaptation (either genetic or cultural), he can explain it only
as an evolutionary mistake that must be perpetuated to make the
world a better place. Dawkins says:

The best I can offer is what I hope may be a
catchy slogan. 'Atheists for Jesus' would grace a T-shirt...
[P]erhaps the oxymoronic impact of 'Atheists for Jesus' might be
just what is needed to kick start the meme of super niceness in a
post-Christian society. If we play our cards right - could we
lead society away from the nether regions of its Darwinian
origins into kinder and more compassionate uplands of post-
singularity enlightenment?

A slogan on a T-shirt is our best hope for achieving peace on
earth? Sadly, Dawkins is a victim of his own limited view of
memes as little bits of culture that spread like viruses. It is
beyond his imagination that culture might take the form of
complex systems of belief and practice that adapt entire groups
to their environments, including forms of niceness that go beyond
nepotism and narrow back-scratching. The broad definition of
selfish genes and memes could be taken in that direction, but
that is not where Dawkins takes it.

But Dawkins was not
alone and was standing on the shoulders of giants who turned
group selection into a pariah concept ten years before the
publication of The Selfish Gene. Nor is it necessary to personify
ideas; there is much to recommend the gene´s eye view, once we
see the fallacy of regarding it as an argument against group
selection. And culture is manifestly important, regardless of
whether we use the word "meme." Saying goodbye to selfish genes
and memes involves questioning everything that has been
associated with these concepts and reviving what they seemed to
deny: the concept society as organism.

This means regarding most people as innately disposed to function
as team players in the pursuit of common goals, not just
consciously but to the roots of our unconscious mental processes.
It does not lead to the naive view that everything is nice,
superorganisms display the same spectrum of relationships known
for individual organisms, from extreme conflict to mutualism. It
does not automatically lend support to any particular political
ideology, but rather explains all political systems, religious
systems, and other cultural systems as roughly like species in
ecosystems. Put simply, it enables human behavioral and cultural
diversity to be approached in the same way that evolutionists
already approach the rest of life. And it leads to more sensible
recommendations for improving the human condition than slogans on
a T-shirt.