21 Jul 2006

Man, Nature, and Dawkins

The idea of 'memes' is itself a meme, derived from/associated with other memes such as evolution, rationality, science, etc. These memes may have a particular survival advantage of being 'true' in the sense of corresponding to the way the world is (or maybe not). It is also the case though, that the power to change the world that science gives to humans has led to new threats to the survival of the species through things like global warming and neuclear holocaust. So the theory of memes could be used as an argument against science and in favour of a return to a fundementalist and back to basics primitive society that is not in danger from this hubris, rather than the other way round. Just because it's true, doesn't make it conducive to our survival, and there is no room in a survivalist ethic for a romantic attachment to truth. The rise of fundementalism then could be seen as a Gaian attempt to restore the memetic and ecological balance which was destroyed by the western enlightenment and the rise of science. The clear duty (to the species) of anyone who understands this theory, then, is to give up science and promote religion.

But the whole concept of the selfish gene in the first place is just anthropomorphism gone ugly. You don't have to be a brilliant geneticist to notice that genes can only survive by cooperation, both within the organism and with the environment. Selfishness, almost by definition, is a form of myopic short-termism. Selfishness is a peculiarly human disease, which pervades the practice of science as it does every human practice, although the methods and principles of scientific enquiry are designed to eliminate this 'personal bias'. An old fashioned (non-evolutionary) psychologist such as myself, detects in the selfish-gene theory a case of gross projection, which goes a long way to explaining its popularity - our human failings become necessities of nature, and not our fault after all. I am not arguing for creationism, but there is more psychological sense to me in the idea of a fall from a state of innocence, from nature as Eden, into as state of conflict arising from self-awareness as the knowledge ofgood and evil. This self-awareness is what separates and distinguishes humanity from the natural world, and this gives rise to our contradictory relations on the one hand to God and on the other hand to Nature - our internal divisions result in a separate and separating relation to both. Our fall is out of the world, and into thought and time. What interests me is not the survival of thought as meme, or the replacement of religious with scientific memes, but the ending of thought as meme.

I think it was Steve Jones, the geneticist who said that while we share 98% of our genes with chimpansees, we also share 50% of them with the banana. It seems that the whole of the living environment is a close relative in genetic terms. If that 50% of us influenced our vaunted intelligence, we would all be radical environmentalists, like St Francis, whose brothers and sisters were birds and animals. But if genes are not selfish, perhaps there is a gene for selfishness unique to humans and closely associated with intelligence. The way we tend to think of ourselves and the way we generally behave is very much 'as if' we had different, selfish genes (or are they just memes?). The endless conflicts of class, race, nationality, religion, culture are very much based on identification of 'people like us' against 'others'. But the genetic facts deny such identifications and distinctions and cannot be used to either explain or justify them. On the contrary, the way we behave in general 'explains' why we have come up with this strange theory.
Evolutionary psychology makes great use of game theory, and gains the credibility of mathematics thereby. But game theory assumes the reality of seperate identifiable individuals with differing interests, it is not clear that it is relevant to something that is 98% chimp and 50% banana. It's not that there is no competition in the natural world - round here the squabbling of seagulls is completely commonplace - but it is misleading as a dominant metaphor for evolutionary processes, because competition is only possible on the basis of a more fundamental cooperation. In order for game theory to apply, we have already to be in agreement about playing the game.
Bananas do not want to survive; they do not compete with us or with each other. They live and develop according to their (genetic) nature, and reproduce, or not. Chimps are more complex; they seem to like their children, and look after them; they seem more consciously to compete and cooperate, but we do not attribute to them a desire to continue their 'bloodline' as we used to call it before we discovered genes. One can see how our ideas of family, tribe, nation, race self have arisen from our complex behaviour as social animals, but it does not seem useful to then use those ideas to explain how this complex behaviour came into being, let alone to explain the fundamental processes of nature.