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A Gene's Eye View

I’m doing a course at uni. It’s a philosophy course where we are studying evolution. And in the first week I was given some Richard Dawkins to read. Dawkins is a funny character. I’ve always wondered why he is so angry. Anyhow, I think I’ve worked out why. It’s because he’s bewildered at how most of us seem to find meaning in life. Even those of us not signed up to a definite faith still seem to find our lives incredibly meaningful. And I think this astounds Dawkins. I’ll explain why.

Now, Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist, as we know. But what I discovered is that he sees evolution as acting on genes, rather than organisms like us. This is called a ‘gene's eye' view. I know this doesn’t sound significant, so I’ll try to tease it apart a bit.

We travel through our lives seeing things from our perspective. But let’s change that for a moment to the perspective of our genes. So, let’s imagine I’m a gene, hanging on a chromosome. Of course, genes don’t ‘think’ in the way we do, so nothing about the process of evolution is ‘conscious’. Genes aren’t making ‘decisions’. But from this perspective of me being a gene, then this big body that I’m housed in – so you need to picture this, I’m inside a big body – is just a meat machine, some kind of robot, and it’s been designed through the process of natural selection to protect me and get me through to the next generation. I get to the next generation by making a copy of myself.

Have you got that picture so far? I’m a gene, inside a big terrestrial creature and that creature is just a dumb chunk of meat. The only reason that creature exists, its only meaning in life, is to reproduce so that a copy of me can get passed on to the next generation. This big slab of meat is not important. It will die in one lifetime. But, I can potentially live eternally by making copies of myself.

Okay, I’m assuming you saw that vividly. Now, I’m back to me being me. Of course, from my perspective, there are far more reasons for my existence than what my genes would claim – were they able to claim anything.

But, Dawkins is claiming things from the perspective of a gene. And, I think he really sees life from that perspective. Which is why he is so bewildered by the meanings that humans create for themselves. He doesn’t understand these meanings, because we are just big chunks of meat that have be designed to carry genes.

So, I image that when Dawkins sees these chunks of meat lighting candles, and praying to something invisible, he just thinks they are crazy. He doesn’t get it. And when he yells (okay, he doesn’t ‘yell’ but he gets angry) “This is bullshit, why are you lighting candles? You’re just a chunk of meat!” he can’t understand why the people lighting candles look at him a bit sadly.

I’m not here to defend religion. But I am here to champion the many meanings that we, as chunks of meat, find for ourselves. We have evolved. But if we have evolved as big chunks of meat to protect these genes, we have also evolved as incredibly encultured and social beings that live rich lives. And, while it might be the case that we create our meanings for ourselves, this doesn’t diminish their power over us.

So, I kind of feel sad for Dawkins. You can’t look at life through the eyes of a gene. You must look at it through the eyes of an embodied, emotional, psychological, perhaps spiritual being. If not, I guess it would make sense to think of yourself as some kind of robot or meat machine.

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