The Shellfish Jeans Theory

In The Selfish Gene (Oxford University Press, 1976) Richard Dawkins proposed the metaphor of the selfish gene.  Under Dawkins' theory, it is not humans but our genes themselves (or more precisely their alternative forms or alleles) that are the replicators that carry out the process of evolution and natural selection.  Genes act “selfishly” in a metaphorical sense by creating beings that reproduce themselves in order to carry forward the perpetuation and spread of those genes.  Under this metaphor, genes are the mastermind of evolution.  But, of course, they have no minds and no consciousness, they simply drive forward relentlessly and blindly in their “efforts” to achieve the "success" that comes from their own propagation.

Genes of course are not beings.  They are not conscious and they cannot be selfish as they do not have any interests they are trying to fulfill or carry out.  They just do what they do. It is simply in their nature to spread themselves mechanically through their host beings.  In Dawkins’s view, this means that it is the gene replicator that drives evolution not the beings the genes create.  This is fine as a simplistic metaphor but one must keep in mind that it is just a metaphor and that genes are not really selfish.  The DNA on which they reside are simply protein replicators.  But although genes are not really selfish, the beings they produce are selfish through and through.

It is up to the beings to survive or the genes won’t.  So Dawkins treats humans as mere automatons created by genes with a view to spreading those genes.  But this theory and the metaphor are deeply flawed.  Humans don’t really care about their genes and until recent generations did not even know of their existence.  We may be designed to enjoy sex.  We may like to be comfortable and we tend to like to eat, drink and go to the beach, but one thing we absolutely do not care about is spreading our genes.  Instead we enjoy having children or families or in many cases we don’t.  Humans drive their own lives and our genes sit inside us passively even if Dawkins thinks they are steaming to get out and propagate.

Humans are not automatons created to spread genes.  They are beings who have no ability to experience anything outside of their own sense perceptions, needs and desires.  Their concerns are solely themselves and their own personal comfort and success.  Of course, they want to survive and most may want to have children but human motivations are highly individual and entirely subjective.   The idea that we are gene spreading zombies is not only preposterous, but it does not explain our behavior.  Beings have the ability to act however they like, and they usually do so.  It never crosses their mind that their purpose is to spread any particular gene or groups of genes.  The genes are sitting in the back of the bus.  They are not driving it.

It is the genes that are the automatons, not the beings they create.  Human beings may be wearing their jeans on the outside, but their genes on the inside are still not running the show.  People did not even know what genes were until the mid-20th century.  And knowing about genes did not change their behavior one bit.  Yet Dawkins has been raking in money with this “the gene is the replicator” concept for decades.  And it is an idea that was both novel and clever but wrong.

Maybe we should call Dawkins’s idea the “shellfish jeans theory”, because genes are not wearing the pants in evolutionary theory and at this point the theory itself smells a lot like a dead fish.