Wednesday, April 22, 2020

My Review of The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins - (I have but a single droning meme)

I thought that I might be able to find something in this book about why there are viruses. It doesn't seem to make sense on the face of it for a replicator to kill its host. But in the end, the question is just like asking why disease exists. The greater field for life depends on it, maybe. Behold I have my answer. Everyone should read this book!

Having a ton of respect for Richard Dawkins as a scholar, I was distressed when he practically opens his newest (40th anniversary!) edition of the book by disclaiming that "there is no universal love." I felt rather crestfallen.

Symmetry | Free Full-Text | Symmetric Networks with Geometric ...
A Necker Cube and a duck/rabbit

But then as I read along, I find that he claims not to be, or to need to be, providing any new evidence for his arguments. He is, rather, flipping a schematic - his example is the necker cube, though there could be any number of others - that could be interpreted different ways. In essence, while it would seem that evolution describes the survival of the fittest at whatever level of aggregation - the family, the group, the species, the individual - it's really about the survival of the fittest gene.

He even defines "gene" in a way that breaks some simple taxonomic rules, such as using the "periods" at the end of genetic strings of molecules as demarcations for what defines a gene. He uses a much more useful definition, based solely on which "unit" gets inherited and propagated; which persists in the global gene pool. I like that!

But he does quickly gloss over any real definition for life. For him - a nearly angry materialist - it all comes down to genes seeking stability by taking advantage of stable 'robot hosts.' And even while he repeatedly and incessantly disowns the personifications about what gene's really want, the notion of what the direction for "wanting" means gets lost along the way.
Soap Bubbles tend to be spherical because this is a stable configuration for thin films filled with gas. (In Chapter 2 "The Replicators)
Near the  outset he tosses away the line above, as though it's enough to demonstrate why genes like to persist. Both of those need to fitted into physical laws of entropy, perhaps in the way that there are backflows along the shores or in the whirlpools of rushing rivers. The overall tendency is inexorably downhill, while bubbles and life are relatively short-lived (pardon) backwaters, cosmically speaking. No more than matter wants entropy does anything want stability. Stability is just the condition for tangible existence in the first place.
Much as we might wish to believe otherwise, universal love and the welfare of the species as a whole are concepts that simply do not make evolutionary sense. (In Chapter 1 "Why are People?")
Well, I say why not just simply call the "motive" for this backwater life "love." As he makes clear elsewhere in the book, it is only a definition. Use it if it helps with sense. Universal love, if you like. I do. It does no harm at all to any of his conclusions, nor to the scientific method, anti-materialist though my flippant flip might sound.

"We can define a word how we like to our own purposes, provided we do so clearly and unambiguously," says Dawkins about his definition of genes. That's toward the end of his Chapter 3 where genes are referenced as "The Immortal Coils."

I will continue to search hard, but I don't see any contradiction between the Darwinian theory presented by Dawkins, and the supposition that the best "robot host" for selfish genes which want immortality might be a conscious host. I know this flies in the face of dogmatic denials of any direction for evolution, but if it fits the facts and satisfies Occam's Razor, then why not?

In my terms then, a conscious host would not be the robot that Dawkins seems to insist on, almost militantly, to my ears. He refers to Capek Carel, whose "robots" disturbingly had feelings. Carel was the "inventor" of the term as we now use it, but really the word "robot" already existed in Czech. It simply meant worker. And so now we are the worker bees for genes, the immortal coils.

I'm still awaiting Dawkins' apology for why he feels that it's OK for humans to fight evolution, with such necessary techniques as birth control, the welfare state, and, oh let's just say literature. I'm waiting for him to celebrate or decry the speed with which humans have become dominant on the planet following the advent of agriculture, and then with writing.

Well, I didn't have to wait long. It's in his final chapter (of the original edition)where he invented memes.

Why is it OK for humans to step out from evolution, unless that's somehow what evolution was for; what evolution "wants" for us, to imitate Dawkins' usage? And in that case, first the Christian tale and now, hopefully, a new one is what is needed. Humanity beyond the 'red in tooth and claw' field for biological evolution. I agree with Dawkins that God is hardly necessary for this move. We need something far more, ahem, up to date.

It is no mistake - no meaningless coincidence - that Dawkins' book is almost precisely as "old" as the standard model for physics. Both are in desperate need of re-definition.

Here again, "universal love" does the trick. Inertial bodies which are no longer subject to forces for their relative motion, still move (as Galileo might have said). They move in a conceptual cosmos where intersection is entailed by emotion and not by force-mediated motion. All of evolution might just as well be "present" in the instant that is me. There is no physical limitation for emotional communion - no transit time for communication at a distance. Emotion, by definition now, is always simultaneous.

A simple shift which could make all the difference if we were but to want it. Is it a duck or a rabbit? Is it a chalice or two faces? Does it even make a difference? I just wish I could find a smiling face in the face of such illusion:

2 people facing each other or a vase | Optical illusions, Optical ...
Double Alfred Hitchcock, planted? The blood of Christ?
Well, I have been laboring for about the same time as both the physicists and the geneticists, though I am working on a much simpler problem. I have been trying to disprove my own re-shifting of the definitions. So, it's not exactly a theory in the scientific sense that I propose. I can't come up with anything that the redefinition enables us to do that we couldn't do before. In other words, it provides no new material knowledge. 

And that's the beauty of it, from my (very very limited - since I have no partners in this crime yet, so far as I can tell) point of view. There is no need to trash scientific knowledge or the scientific method. There may be plenty of reason to drop the scientific method in any search for meaning (whatever that might "mean." I think "the meaning of life" is one of those phrases like "the color of four" - even though some may feel that four has a color, it is still a nonsense phrase which is possibly grammatically, but makes no sense).

The most interesting insights for me from Dawkins' book are the ways that his genetic theories inform so much compelling fiction. He provides some fine explication of the plot lines we like the best; like when siblings step in for departed parents, or when fathers raise kids. Maybe he even illuminates the flourishing of non-binary gender.

But I am still offended when he seems to glory about the extent to which he's upset people. Right up front in his introduction to the 30th anniversary edition (I'm reading the 40th) he quotes a reader:
Fascinating, but at times I wish I could unread it . . . On one level, I can share in the sense of wonder Dawkins so evidently sees in the workings-out of such complex processes . . . But at the same time, I largely blame The Selfish Gene for a series of bouts of depression I suffered from for more than a decade . . . Never sure of my  spiritual outlook on life, but trying to find something deeper - trying to believe, but not quite being able to - I found that this book just about blew away any vague ideas I had along these lines, and prevented them from coalescing any further. This created quite a strong personal crisis for me some years ago.
He goes on to re-quote other similar comments. I agree with him that there is something of progress in these and similar readers' enlightenment. As he says, you can't unsee what you have learned.

Indeed, the thrust of science is to disenchant our world.

I reject that. It is my presumption that the human remains the most complex assemblage in the known universe, and that still includes all the technological overlay on this planet. We haven't stepped out from the processes of evolution quite yet, although just now as I write, COVID 19 is providing plenty of evidence of how we are in danger of doing so. It's not the virus. It's not the shortfalls of science. It's our political system that's broken. We are in the throes of a deadly viral meme.

For sure, I don't believe that we have become quite human yet. There is a way forward into that, and for sure there is no way back to any peaceable kingdom. At the risk of repeating myself, I have to say that our trouble is that we really like things the way they are. We don't want to change. But this virus and the viruses to come are letting us know that we have to change. Our most pressing need just now is to create narratives for a future that we want. That future will be one perhaps broken free of selfish genes, but not of evolution.

Sure it's pretty obvious that soulless Republicans are more murderous than the most ruthless psychopath. But that doesn't mean that we should off them. A dose of their own medicine would do the trick, to the extent that they believe in Christ's love. They must be shown the Way.

I do believe that machines - those things which Dawkins thinks all creatures are, though by the end of the book it becomes increasingly difficult to know when he's speaking metaphorically and when he's just hoist by his own petard - are nonparticipants in universal love.

Here's a postulate: In the entire cosmos, now and future and ever past, there is no conceivable machine which can outrun life for its complexity. Corollary: We, the conscious species, are eternally unfinished. Our memes have hardly gotten started.

So I have but a single quibble with Dawkins in this aging book: the vessels for genes are precisely NOT machines. As he very succinctly points out, memes outrun genes. We are now in the throes of decidedly destructive selfish memes. Our survival strategy is as it ever has been, and it is the same as it ever has been for all of life, not just the human.

Universal Love.


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