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The Selfish Gene

Although I am a declared Atheist and Scientist many Christians do not think of me as such. Why? Because I believe in upholding morality and they believe morality comes from God. I don't argue with Religious people about the existence of God because I am more concerned in uniting with them in the fight against evil and for good. I know we don't always agree about what good and evil are but there is enough evil in the world that we do agree on and that needs sorting out, that we can afford to postpone arguments about the finer details to a later date.

Often Religious people are confused as to how a scientist can explain morality. For those people, my brothers and sisters on this earth, I shall explain it below. I shall also explain how I think science went astray in suggesting that morality had no purpose by looking at some statements of Richard Dawkin's who represents the views of many whom I believe are deeply mistaken. 

The Science


The simplest living things are structures that self replicate, vary and are selected;
  • Replicate in that new copies are created,
  • Vary in that the new copies may have some differences from their parent/s and are,
  • Selected in that some variants are more likely to reproduce than others.
These is the minimum criteria for a living organisation, called an organism.


Organisms that reproduce more effectively are described as being "fitter" than those that reproduce less effectively.

The interpretation of this term is somewhat subjective and not based on numbers or plankton would be a front runner. Also this term is misleading in that it suggests that fitness is a property of the organism its self. It is not, it is a property of the organism and its interaction with the system that selects it. In our world we talk about natural selection, selection by nature, yet the majority of us are not selected by nature but by the often man made environment in which we live. In some ways bankers are selected by banks!
Although some selection is by the organism its self, much selection is by the external structure which forms the organisms environment.

Survival of the fittest as Darwin meant it, was not that the organism that most effectively destroys others is more likely to survive. This is not the case. Forming societies, promoting others and winning their support can be far more powerful.


This environment may include other organisms. Indeed any organism may have long standing relationships to other organisms such that they form a super system. Being part of a super-system constrains the freedom of the individual organisms.

If and only if this super system meets the criteria for a a living organisation above is it a super-organism.

Clearly there is nothing to stop super-organisms linking to other organisms to form super-super-organisms. There is nothing to say that an organism cannot be composed off related sub-organisms.


For simplicities sake lets consider a two level system. A super-organism composed of organisms.

Consider some super-organisms each containing exactly the same numbers of each type of organism but formed into structurally different super-organisms.

It is likely that if there is a selective advantage in one super organism configuration then more of that type of super-organism will appear over time. However since these hypothetical super-organisms are composed of identical numbers and types of organisms, this selection is purely for the structure of the super-organism.

Thus it is structures that are selected for or against and selection cannot be said to exist only at a given level of the system, i.e. we cannot talk about the selfish gene any more than the selfish person or the selfish village. In this manner the concept of the selfish gene view does not represent reality.

Thus a system can be fit at many levels and one can talk about the fitness of the organisms or the super-fitness of the super-organism.

In this case I have simplified the argument by considering only a two level system of organisms composing super organisms. But of course in reality there can be many levels of system, super-super-organisms composed of super-organisms etc. etc.

Notice that in describing these functions of an organism I have never once mentioned genes.

The gene  is just one level of structure of the living earth and even within human society and people themselves selection takes place at many levels. Of course one could argue that the plan for all this is fully represented on the DNA and so perhaps talk about the selfish DNA strand. Again this is simply looking at the system at only one level and trying to explain everything else in terms of it. I don't think it works.

Also "selfish" is simply not a property that can be attributed to inanimate things such as genes or machines.

We are not "survival machines-robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes" as Dawkins states in the introduction to "The Selfish Gene";
  • yes we do aim to survive.
  • We are complex systems that can be explained by the scientific method but machine and robot give misleading pictures of the extraordinary nature and complexity of what we are.
  • We are far more than vehicles for the preservation of genes, as I have explained above there are many higher levels.
  • And finally Genes are not molecules and I am sure Dawkin's knows that.
Richard Dawkins was when he wrote the book an ethologist, an an animal behaviourist so to speak. I was a computer programmer having programmed in every level of language from machine code. Thus my background is in systems and information.


I stopped reading Richard Dawkin's book the Selfish Gene on page 3 when I read;

"This brings me to the first point I want to make about what this book is not. I am not advocating a morality based on evolution.* I am saying how things have evolved. I am not saying how we humans morally ought to behave. I stress this, because I know I am in danger of being misunderstood by those people, all too numerous, who cannot distinguish a statement of belief in what is the case from an advocacy of what ought to be the case. My own feeling is that a human society based simply on the gene's law of universal ruthless selfishness would be a very nasty society in which to live. But unfortunately, however much we may deplore something, it does not stop it being true."

Why did I stop? Because I felt Dawkins had, in my opinion, made two serious mistakes;
  • Firstly, if the scientific model he was proposing was recommending the rejection of morality as an optimal strategy, then if he believed the model he should reject morality not just say being immoral would not be very nice. That isn't science.
  • Secondly, it appears not to have occurred to him that if morality is here on such a large scale in reality, then it could only have come about through evolution (him and I are both atheists). Therefore if the scientific model he was proposing was recommending the rejection of morality it could not be an accurate model of the real world.
Although Dawkins explained that the apparently optimal strategy was not very nice there were plenty who chose it because they believed it to be a biologically advantageous strategy as a direct result of Dawkins' book!

The CEO of Enron was just one example. It is clear from the paragraph above that Dawkins failed totally to understand the role that cooperative behaviour (i.e. morality) plays in evolution or why evolution created it. No it is not the case that a group will perform optimally if each individual endeavours to behave selfishly unless we redefine selfishness to include cooperative behaviours also. However redefining the word selfish so that it describes all behaviour and then insightfully pointing out that all behaviour is selfish, is as stupid as redefining the word stupid to include all writing and then claiming that all writing is stupid!

Of course there are often differences in the finer details of moralities and this is the variation we would expect in an evolved system, but just as people have two legs there do seem to be certain actions that a vast majority would condemn and feel instinctively were wrong. Even those who take pleasure in such acts may well be taking pleasure in defying there conscience but they are exceptions. Of course evolution constantly experiments with human nature and so throws up a few morally unsound individuals just to see how they do.

I have written more about Morality under the heading Good and Evil but it is not necessary to read that in order to continue here.

To give Dawkins some credit he does go on to say;

"This book is mainly intended to be interesting, but if you would extract a moral from it, read it as a warning. Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own 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."

His heart is in the right place but his head is not and his plea has gone unhindered as many people in the world have used his book as their "scientific" justification for acts of ruthless personal selfishness at great cost to society. The CEO of Enron for one. Another proponent of selfish thinking was Ayn Rand who had both a selfish heart and head as far as I know and I have yet to explore her.

The Selfish Person

One serious misinterpretation by those reading Dawkin's book "The Selfish Gene" is the idea that if genes are selfish this implies humans as individuals should be also. Dawkin's talks about "treating the individual as a selfish machine programmed to do what ever is best for his genes as a whole." However Dawkin's also explains altruism as a part of the selfish gene mechanism. He says that people are altruistic for selfish reasons and as far as I am aware he does not advocate an end to altruism. However many readers have interpreted this to mean altruism is superfluous, that they should practice selfishness. 

There nothing in evolution that suggests that unrestrained selfishness is the same as "fitness". However evolution has given us selfishness as it has morality and one has to ask the question how has selfishness survived and the answer is that selfishness survives while there are victims for it to parasite upon.

Where society allows selfishness to prevail it may give the selfish some advantage over their victims and this is why unless peaceful people control selfishness they will either end up as selfish or victims.


Another serious misinterpretation by those reading Darwin's book "The Origin of Species" is the idea that "fitness" equates to brutality.

There nothing in evolution that suggests that unrestrained brutality is the same as "fitness". However evolution has given us brutality as it has morality and one has to ask the question how has brutality survived and the answer is that brutality survives while there are victims for it to brutalise.

Wolf packs are brutes that survive. Brutality can form social structures that do function and in that respect it is different from selfishness.

Where society allows brutality to prevail it may give the brutal some advantage over their victims and this is why unless peaceful people control brutality they will either end up as brutes or victims. I would suggest that my soldier's prayer is a sensible guide to the use of limited violence to oppose brutality. See Military

Game theory shows that when the brutal meet the brutal they damage each other.

The Nazis and Stalin both implemented brutal societies but the majority did not find them a pleasure to live in. There was a great waste of human life as slave labour.


There are many cases of deception in nature from the moth that appears hidden against the bark of a tree to animals that imitate the warning appearance of other more well armed creatures. It is wise only to deceive;
  • your enemies or
  • those whom you wish to become your enemies.
This is not strictly true. For example most people do not wish to be reminded that the meat on their plate is actually a part of what was another living creature.


To be part of a society one looses some individual freedom, morality is one such constraint but few are vexed by the requirement to be morel. Besides the economies of scale lead to other freedoms that are not available outside a society. (See Adam Smith's "The Wealth of Nations".) The human body is a society of living and specialised cells.

In making a compromise between individual freedom and the restraints of being part of a society, the concept of liberty emerges. The idea of sharing freedom across the society and minimising restraint while benefiting from the economies of scale. This is a libertarian society and for me it is an aspiration.

Behind the libertarian society must be basic opportunities for people in the society to advance based on the contribution they may make to the society, not the wealth of their parents.

Selfishness will always be there in society and so one has to provide a legislative containment for it to allow it to peruse benefit within set boundaries.  

Brutality also will always be there in society and so one has to provide a legislative containment for it also.

Deception must also be contained.

A society can absorb some selfish lying brutes but there are limits and these individuals can in sufficient numbers destroy the very society which provides the environment on which they prey. Some of them like to see themselves as somehow fitter then those they predate upon but in truth without victims they are not.


The Selfish Leadership

The selfish view is promoted to many people in leadership by the "Cremation of Care" ceremonies at Bohemian Grove. a regular meeting place for people of influence. Although I would not think that many take the ceremony too seriously, it is still not the kind of thing that real leaders, whose first duty is to care for others, should be inspired by.

Unfortunately there are those that see the leadership hierarchy simply as the thing to climb in advancing their own lives, rather than a responsibility of care for others. Our societies economy has now been damaged by these self centred leaders who can be bought by the financial markets and the Military Industrial Complex. They have infiltrated the mechanism of legislation intended to control them! (For more about the economic damage see 10 Profit from Failure or Military Industrial Complex)

Please realise I am not pointing a finger at the rich I am pointing a finger at selfishness lies and brutality them selves, which can be found in many places. There is no point in;
  • taking money from a self-less gentle truthful wealthy person to give it to a selfish brutal lying poor person, or
  • taking it from a self-less gentle truthful poor person to give it to a selfish brutal lying rich person
Wealth is not the point, morality is.

The Selfish State

However to make the assumption that all members of society are inherently selfish and so must be subject to rules in every aspect of life, is simply nonsense. In the UK everything has been reduced to targets and performance standards determined by central government, reducing freedom and so creative unselfish people are being suppressed. 

Adam Curtis Documentaries

These are a series of Adam Curtis (blog) documentaries where he lements the rise of the selfish documents some of the destruction but does not explain what has been discussed above.

Some have used selfish ideas to suggest that we should dispense with the health care system in societies, as it promotes the weak! I might point out to these people that we might use the same argument for the elimination of the immune system within the human body as cells should after all learn to protect themselves.

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (Ep. 1) - Full

YouTube Video

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (Ep. 2) - Full

YouTube Video

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (Ep. 3) - Full

YouTube Video

The Trap: The Lonely Robot (1 of 6)

The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom is a BBC documentary series by English filmmaker Adam Curtis, well known for other documentaries including The Century of the Self and The Power of Nightmares. It began airing on BBC Two on 11 March 2007.

The series consists of three, one-hour programmes which explore the concept and definition of freedom, specifically "how a simplistic model of human beings as self-seeking, almost robotic, creatures led to today's idea of freedom."

YouTube Video