The Selfish Gene Vs Fierce Love
I finally got around to reading The Selfish Gene. This is Richard Dawkin’s 1976 classic that lays out a theory about the fundamental drivers (he posits they are genes) of evolution and how that impacts all life, including us humans. It’s also where he coined the word ‘meme’, positing that -like genes- memes are essentially ‘replication machines’. They are ideas that spread through culture in the same way viruses and genes spread through physical space. And they are subject to the same laws of selection pressure, being forced to evolve as the environment changes. (Including the pressures of other memes attempting to supplant them.)
My emotional state during the reading of this book could be described as inspired and invigorated. I’ve come away from it excited and energized. Which could probably be puzzling to many people. This is a book about how our bodies and brains are essentially fancy machines that genes have cobbled together over millions of years for the sole purpose of replicating themselves. How can THAT be inspiring and invigorating? I’ll tell you why.
Like all people, my worldview is composed of billions of perceptions, assumptions, biases, and beliefs. Except I always take great pains to explain that I don’t actually BELIEVE anything. Because the colloquial definition of belief inevitably adds too much certainty to the word, weighing it down with all sorts of epistemological assumptions that I don’t hold. Therefore, what I claim to have are not beliefs, but ‘ideas that are more or less convincing to me’. Everything is on a spectrum. I don’t even claim that I exist as a certainty. I’m just mostly convinced that is true. Ok, sorry that kind of derails my talk about these ideas, but it’s important to get this in, otherwise MOST people reading what follows will be spending a lot of brain cycles deconstructing my premises rather than engaging with the whole picture that I’m trying to paint. So, in the following explanation about why this book made me happy and excited, please remember, I DON’T BELIEVE ANY OF THESE PREMISES. I merely find myself to be MOST CONVINCED by them, and thus, they are the top contenders for being foundational in my world view. With that established, let me now explicitly state these premises of which I am most convinced at the moment.
1. Humans are the product of some kind of seemingly-miraculous self-organization, blindly following the rules of the universe – (physics). (This speaks nothing to teleological, ontological or theological concerns. I personally hope this process was designed by a loving creator God, but nothing about my understanding of the process necessarily includes or excludes such a being)
2. All human thought is determined by the brain, which is a physical lump of matter which is acted upon by physics. There’s no magical little ME behind my brain that is deciding what my brain will think or say next. (Even if there WAS one, what even-littler ME is deciding what THAT little ME is going to think or say next? I can’t get on board Free Will as a concept because of this infinite regress. Adding a spiritual dimension doesn’t solve that problem.) (Also this does not exclude the possibility of a ‘soul’ whatever that means to you, especially if a ‘soul’ is the aggregate of the output from the physical brain.)
3. The ideas of 1 and 2 lead me to posit that there are RULES that have emerged from the incredibly complex interweaving of physics with the matter that composes our perceptions of reality. And when I think of RULES I think of GAMES. (That couldn’t possibly be because I’m a game designer, could it?) If I interpret the world (the physical matter that composes our perceptions of reality + our cultural adaptations to it) as a game board, then the rules we use to ‘play’ that game will work best when we know what the game board actually is. (as opposed to guessing it incorrectly) I’m going to come back to this in a moment.
4. As humans, we have VALUES. These are the emotional weights that motivate us towards or away from things. In the context of a game, a value can be roughly translated to a GOAL. Humans seem to be most at peace when they are living out what they presume to think their values are. Players are having the best time when they are succeeding at progressing towards their goal.
5. Both the genes and the memes that create our physical and cultural world have determined the state of the game board. Throughout history, different theories (memes) have been generated and proposed to be the best ‘rules’ for the ‘game’. These theories are generally categorized as philosophical, moral or religious belief-sets. (Like genes, most memes are networked, and many only work when they travel together.)
6. There’s something special about the time we live in compared to all of history. Technology and science has shed new light on reality (the game board) such that we can perceive elements better, and see new ones we never could have known existed. (Like genes!) Naturally, our CURRENT understanding is massively incomplete, and it would be ridiculous to say that our picture of reality is even close to being ‘known’. BUT, the difference between what a Socrates can know, and what a Dawkins can know is so massive that it would be grossly inappropriate to say that scientific insights shouldn’t radically change our worldviews, challenge traditional memes, and change many things about how we play the game of life.
7. Most people aren’t happy with the human condition. I’M certainly not. I’d love to find a way to make all suffering be an opt-in only affair; or at least put it on a sliding scale. (Suffering seems to be a mandatory ingredient for growth, so cutting the feature altogether doesn’t seem like a good idea to me.) So while genes and memes set up the game board, if we follow the rules precisely, all we are given as a win-state is the ability to propagate more genes. Turns out, most people want more. Most people don’t derive their meaning and motivation from replicating specific segments of their DNA. However, many of us DO derive our meaning from spreading memes that we find important. I certainly do. (Here’s a specific example of my attempt to spread my memes to my kids: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1WOZx1TYuqE )
8. The better we understand the game board we’re on, the better we can tweak the rules to create a better win-state for humanity. THAT is what I find inspiring, exhilarating and energizing about The Selfish Gene. I feel like this book helps me to understand the game board better. Which empowers me to play the game better and help others to do the same. But what does that mean? What does that look like?
Well I’ve got my theories. Everyone’s got theories. But if, for example, the physical universe has created the game board for, say, Monopoly, but throughout history humans have been trying to play Candy Land or Shoots and Ladders with the Monopoly set, we should be able to point at specific rules they’ve been employing and see how those rules run contrary to their perceived win-state. They might have been able to see the houses and hotels, but used them as player tokens. Or they thought the little scotty dog was the WHOLE POINT of the game and just decided to worship it. Maybe they couldn’t see the rainbow-colored money because they didn’t have the right scientific equipment yet, so the whole financial aspect of the game was completely overlooked! I don’t think viewing culture exclusively through the lens of economics is healthy, but to the extent that Marx pointed out that it’s an incredibly powerful perspective… Great! Now we know more about it!
I think humans always try to interpret the board game in the way that allows them to play whatever their favorite game is. Some humans will be luckier than others in that the game they want to play is in closer alignment with the game board that actually exists. (Which no one actually has complete knowledge of yet) But many more people will be stuck in the unenviable position of playing with rules that run counter to almost everything that is true about the game board. This would be a matter of being the victim to meme-families that propagate no matter how miserable they make the host. A perfect example of such a meme-family is what is often referred to as ‘toxic masculinity’. This family is composed of memes such as: “Real men don’t cry.” “Control your woman.” “Only a pussy tells their friend that they love and admire them.” etc. Cultures that play with that rule set end up creating untold and unnecessary suffering because it doesn’t fit the actual game board. Or it works well in SOME contexts, but not ALL contexts.
On the other hand, the meme I would love to spread is self-sacrificial love, or as I like to call it: Fierce Love. It’s embedded in a family of other memes as well. For example, self-sacrifice is only meaningful and healthy if it’s accompanied by the meme of Healthy Boundaries. An abused spouse is not meaningfully embodying self-sacrifice because they don’t have any boundaries set as to what real love and respect looks like. They aren’t helping themselves or their spouse by staying in the abusive relationship. (This is what I meant when I said memes are usually networked and only operate properly within that network)
So given the 8 premises I outlined above, how do I go about playing the best approximation of the ‘game’ that is reality, in order to achieve my win-state? (Which is spreading my meme of Fierce Love.) Well, if you’re like 99% of humans, you’ll be massively hung up on my second premise: the one about free will. You’ll be thinking: “Josh, why bother doing ANYTHING if everyone is just determined by physics to do whatever physics tells them to do?” Then I’ll sigh long and hard, as I think back to the hundreds of hours of research, reading and contemplation that got me to my current opinion, and realize there’s just no way to get you to where I am with a pithy slogan or a couple paragraphs of heady thoughts. Instead, I’ll simply entreat you to follow this line of thinking I’m developing, given the premise that you probably disagree with. I honestly don’t know how important that element is to the big picture anyway. I only know that as a finite human with a very finite brain, I’m sure it plays into my theories in ways I can’t ever recognize or know, so it needs to be explicated to ensure that that the maximum number of my potential premises are available for interrogation. I care a lot about communicating deeply, and premise explication is the best method I’ve found for doing so. Though it sadly inflates the length of my writing, which then severely limits the potential audience. I clearly have yet to find the right balance.
Ok, that was a tangent so I’ll restate my question. Given the 8 premises I outlined above, how do I go about playing the best approximation of the ‘game’ that is reality, in order to achieve my win-state? (Which is spreading my meme of Fierce Love.)
So far my best guess has to do with cognitive biases. I have a growing fascination with these ‘rules’ that guide human thought. They are especially fascinating to me because they are not always bad, and indeed, I think many are necessary for human flourishing. And yet, they cause SO much needless suffering. According to Dawkins -and most evolutionary psychologists- these biases have emerged via natural selection. In other words, our distant ancestors who had these biases, propagated the genes responsible for them more often than those with different biases. (If you’re religious you can blame free will and The Fall or whatever) There’s an interesting debate about how powerfully Culture could -or did- impact this process, but I don’t think that’s important in my application of meme-spreading. What’s important is that here we are, in our various cultures, with this ever-growing list of cognitive biases that push our thoughts around in countless subconscious ways. But the exciting thing is that as we identify them, they can’t stay subconscious at all times! And THAT means we can understand the game board better. We can start to untangle our motivations and recognize the mistakes we were making in order to experiment with ways to exist together better. Granted, most of those new ways will also be mistakes. But SOME of them will lead to better innovations that will stick. Our biases distort our perception of both the game board and the state of the pieces. Recognizing and/or overcoming those biases will facilitate understanding the game board and the actual state of the pieces, which I believe will enable better decisions.
For example, here’s some of the biggest drivers behind most of humanity’s problems.
The Prisoner’s Dilemma (How do we build and maintain trust when we can’t know the other’s intent?)
The Free Rider Problem / The Tragedy of the Commons (How can we work together to create shared resources that are not misused or hoarded?)
Inappropriate or Unnecessary Application of Zero-sum game-thinking (How can we convince more people that cooperative action and resource allocation can benefit everyone?)
These come about from a confluence of cognitive biases that drive maladaptive values. Values like: Short-term-gain-at-long-term-loss. Emotion-denial-to-maintain-perception-of-power. Act-to-help-myself-and-my-kin-at-the-expense-of-non-kin. And many more. These values build the current rules of the game we’re all playing. And as a result of these rules, most people lose. Especially those with values contrary to the maladaptive values from which the rules emerge. It’s a classic positive feedback loop. (the bad kind of positive) Sometimes referred to as a vicious spiral or downward spiral. In order to “succeed” in this game, I need to out-compete others by embracing the maladaptive values that make the rules so awful. And when I do that I’m further reinforcing the awful rules, thereby forcing anyone else who wants to succeed to embrace those maladaptive values even more.
The tragedy of this process is that it squanders untold human potential for virtue. The incentives are aligned in such a way that being honest, kind, trusting, open minded, etc. are often punished both financially and relationally. I think this is why my meme of Fierce Love HAS to be Fierce. It has to break the awful rules. It has to take risks. And it will inflict pain on anyone attempting it.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that we as a society are starting to recognize the fact that these biases exist and that they are actively damaging us. More good news is that we are starting to understand how social change can happen. (This just reminded me that I need to read The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, by Malcom Gladwell) I’m hoping that as the culture becomes more literate concerning cognitive biases and logical fallacies, the mechanisms for peaceful social change will develop, facilitating the spread of my Fierce Love meme.
This is what is exhilarating to me about reading The Selfish Gene. I feel like we are on the cusp of understanding ourselves and the sick games our genes have set up. To understand it just well enough to start tweaking the rules. We started this process hundreds of thousands of years ago with language, then agriculture. We screwed up the game real bad in a lot of ways. But also, without those screw-ups we never would have got to the point where we could re-write the rules in INTENTIONAL ways, guided by values that seek to bring justice and Love to all people. That is SUPER exciting, and I’m all fired up about it. This mission pervades my life and my plans for the future. It animates and directs the decisions I’m making about building a company with the goal of spreading the Fierce Love meme. I’m going to do it wrong. I’m going to listen to feedback. I’m going to adjust, iterate, try again. That’s how you learn a game. That’s how you master a game. I want humans to fill as much of their potential for virtue as possible. I want us all to master this game!