The Language Behind Dawkins’ Selfish Gene Theory
According to Michael Polanyi, our understanding of a concept depends in part on the language we use to describe it. Connie Barlow's book, From Gaia to Selfish Genes, looks at metaphors in science as integral parts of some new biological theories. One example is Richard Dawkins' theory about the selfish gene, where he claims that the most basic unit of humanity, the gene, is a selfish entity unto itself that exists outside the realm of our individual good and serves its own distinct purpose. Dawkins looks at the evolutionary process, how DNA replicates in forming human life, and the possibility that there is a social parallel to genetics, where human traits can be culturally transmitted. Dawkins, in the excerpts that Barlow has chosen, uses heavily metaphoric language to explain these scientific concepts to the general public. However, the language that Dawkins uses, while thought provoking, also carries some negative implications that extend beyond his theory. The selfish gene theory has many positive aspects, but its metaphors detract in certain ways from the scientific message of Richard Dawkins.
The metaphor behind Dawkins' theory can best be described by his opening statement: "we are survival machines-robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes" (Barlow 193). Dawkins links the natural behavior of unconscious bunches of nucleic acid (genes) to human behavior and personality by calling them "selfish." His use of this term conjures up the image of a separate individual, capable of making decisions to help its own good and disregarding our needs. By calling human beings "survival machines" and "robots," Dawkins suggests some serious moral implications regarding our existence. If we were just robots, it would seem that we would be no longer responsible for our actions, as people could attribute all evil to the gene programmers who created these robots. Also, if our primary purpose were to serve as a "survival machine" for something else, life would seem insignificant. John Maynard Smith writes that Dawkins' book is just about evolution, and "not about morals . . . or about the human sciences" (195). However, the attempt to disengage the selfish gene theory from its moral implications is seriously undermined by Dawkins' metaphors.
The origin of the selfish gene, and of evolution itself, began in something Dawkins calls the "primeval soup," where protein molecules, by pure chance, bonded together to form "replicators," the ancestors of DNA (198).