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Immortal instead of selfish?

I did not know this:

Dawkins began writing the book in 1973, and resumed it in 1975 while on sabbatical. At the suggestion of Desmond Morris, the zoologist and author of The Naked Ape (Jonathan Cape, 1967), Dawkins showed some draft chapters to Tom Maschler of Jonathan Cape, who strongly urged that the title be changed to ‘The Immortal Gene’. Today, Dawkins regrets not taking the advice. It might have short-circuited the endless arguments, so beloved of his critics and so redolent of the intentional stance (in which we tend to impute mental abilities to unconscious things, from thunderstorms to plants), about whether selfishness need be conscious. …

That is Matt Ridley writing In retrospect about Dawkins and The Selfish Gene.

“Immortal” would certainly have been accurate in a way that “selfish” was not. But perhaps having what was arguably a mistake in the title caused heat as well as light in the responses to The Selfish Gene, and thereby enabled this great book, in the end, to spread more light than it might have done if more precisely titled.

Ridley continues:

… It might even have avoided the common misconception that Dawkins was advocating individual selfishness.

Indeed. Actually, Dawkins has rather orthodox leftist views about such things as individual selfishness (unlike Matt Ridley). But by incurring the ignorant wrath of PC-ers, Dawkins has, I think, been driven away from unthinking leftism, towards more thinking non-leftism, of the sort that Matt Ridley espouses. He is certainly not a member of the PC tribe.

This is a common story. Oafish PC virtue signalling has caused many a good leftist to find himself on the wrong end of his own opinions, and thus to learn at least some of the errors of his ways.

Had he called The Selfish Gene instead The Immortal Gene, might Dawkins have remained, or been allowed to remain, a more orthodox leftist? And if he had, would he, for instance, have been so ready to denounce Islam as strongly as he has, alongside his denunciations of Christianity? Would he now be so ready to mock feminism, and thereby incur yet more PC wrath? (“We believe strongly in freedom of speech … However …”) Dawkins probably would have got involved in such scraps anyway, but he might have had more to lose.

Matt Ridley’s central point is that, whether correctly titled or not, The Selfish Gene combined being original science with successful scientific popularisation in a way that is very rare.

31 comments to Immortal instead of selfish?

  • Stonyground

    The title did allow for easy identification of those who cited the book without having read it.

  • Mr Ed

    The entire notion of a gene being ‘selfish’ as it is sometimes put would be in fact a form of animism, the title is meant to refer to considering the effect of genes as if they were endowed with selfishness. A gene, (and I simplify), encodes for RNA which is used to make a protein, and the protein structure is ‘coded’ for by the gene (along with RNA splicing and a lot more besides). So the protein is the ‘chicken’ from the gene ‘egg’, and the proteins act in a cell (viroids etc. apart) (which may itself interact with other cells) to ensure that other cells are made, and that the information needed for the cell to make the protein (and its allies) again, is ‘stored’ in DNA.

    Whilst the effect of a gene’s acting* ‘selfishly’ is to seek to perpetuate its own existence, as if the individual gene were one unit that happens to be sharing the same cell as many others, equally one might ask if it is the proteins that are using DNA to store the instructions for their manufacture, and by introducing the odd error, or failing to repair damage ‘properly’, adding in a bit of variety, although the nature of chemistry itself is that a biological process will have a certain error rate, meaning that mutations are inevitable.

    One of the issues Dawkins raises is whether genes act as if the current living host is simply disposable, so long as the genes get passed into a new organism and can start again, e.g a praying mantis male getting its head bitten off after a bit of hanky-panky with the female. Whoops!, but job done, the genes have a new generation in which to start. And overall, it doesn’t matter from the point of view of the species if any individual dies, so long as reproductive success is achieved. But then again, that there are outcomes consistent with survival is hardly surprising as those outcomes that are not have disappeared. So by the very nature of living things, we look at things the vast majority of which are viable in terms of being able to survive and reproduce.

    The same is true with socialism, any sufficiently nutty socialist society will destroy itself or be destroyed, sometimes in the excruciatingly painful long run, but destruction is inevitable once the plundering is no longer enough.

    * A gene does not really act, so much as be, acted upon by proteins so as to allow the cell to replicate other proteins, which make lipids, sugars, and a host of other chemicals and keep the show on the road.

  • James Strong

    While not dealing with cutting edge science,’The Blind Watchmaker’, which deals with the way evolution dispenses with the need for the idea of God, is a very good book.
    Some of his later work is just hack work,the same ideas again and again.

  • People can subtly change their focus over the years. “The Selfish Gene’ indicates reasonably well the idea Dawkins was focussed on back then. I can believe ‘The Immortal Gene’ (literally,’The Long-Lived Gene’ – I’m sure he does not think they’d survive the sun going nova or similar) better expresses his focus now. I daresay he would choose ‘The Immortal Gene’ now but I suspect it was not quite an accident that he chose ‘The Selfish Gene’ back then.

    I’m inclined to attribute Dawkins refusal to cringe to lefty rules on islamophobia more to his fanatic hatred of religion than his long ago accidental run in with a past generation of lefties. Most PCers just hate Christianity, just as most PCers only hate racism when it is practiced by whites. Dickie D is more consistent, but also, one may fairly say, more monomaniac – the two perhaps being related. He insists religion is the root of _all_ evil – not the easiest case to make given some incidents in the 20th century. After a travesty of a historical argument in ‘The God Delusion’, Dawkins concludes that “Stalin was probably an atheist” and “Hitler was probably a believer”. Saying that Stalin was _probably_ an atheist is exactly like saying Richard Dawkins is _probably_ an atheist – one would not want to be unreasonably certain of it. 🙂 Likewise, saying that Hitler was probably a believer is exactly like saying Richard Dawkins is probably an believer. 🙂

    The Blind Watchmaker is readable but its final pages assert the theory of evolution, a high-entropy early universe, and the second law of thermodynamics – not a possible combination. Dawkins knows his biological research; physics, not so much.

  • Mr Ed

    One should bear in mind that Professor* Dawkins is not a scientist, but rather a theoretician, a word which happily or not, has a certain ‘Soviet’ resonance. He is also, I would say, a God-fearing atheist.

    * His Chair was ‘Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science’, i.e. he was not made a Professor because, like a scarecrow, he was outstanding in his field, but because of his ability to be noticed and on account of His Eminence.

  • Stonyground

    ” He insists religion is the root of _all_ evil…”

    Actually he doesn’t. The phrase was used as a title for a TV show featuring Dawkins but he stated plainly that he believed that it was quite obviously not true.

  • Laird

    Mr Ed, I think what you are driving at in that last paragraph is “sooner or later you run out of other people’s money.” I think someone may have said that once before.

  • Mr Ed


    Money? money? The true believers are happy to run out of bourgeois money, the problems really start when the food runs out, and remember that kulaks are on the menu, and even then, the socialists keep going.

  • Cristina

    “He is also, I would say, a God-fearing atheist.”

  • Re the “Religion the root of _all_ evil” discussion above: Dawkins position around the time he wrote “The God Delusion” was extreme – as his trying to argue about Stalin’s and Hitler’s beliefs, instead of just accepting them as non-religious evils, shows. His books and statements around that time make the TV show’s choice of headline understandable. If the experience of trying to argue that corner had made him genuinely back away a bit from his prior attitudes by the time of the programme, well and good. He may instead have merely been clarifying that he thought it the cause of almost all evil, but not quite all. (One ‘not quite all’ he has always granted – Dawkins has always been OK with historic art and architecture funded, as so much was, by the church; he does not channel the Oriel college students – or ISIS – about old statues and suchlike..)

  • Lee Moore

    My recollection from a book on the young Stalin is that he was being educated in a seminary, and then read the Origin of Species which convinced him of the non existence of God.

  • I don’t think The Immortal Gene conveys the central idea nearly as well as The Selfish Gene. As with that Invisible Hand, there’s a small problem with the metaphor implying intention where there is none, only an effect which seems like intention. But this is really only going to confuse naifs, in the same way as that non existent Hand can confuse naifs. To anyone with a smidgeon of understanding, the “as if” is obvious in both cases.

    What Dawkins is trying to explain is why we observe behaviour from organisms which appears not to benefit the organism. And the answer is – why would you expect anything else ? “Cui bono ?” is a necessary and sufficient reason. Dawkins is explaining that the gene acts in whatever way assists the replication of the gene. If it assists the organism, fine. If not, also fine. The gene has no intention. But genes that have effectively promoted their own replication have survived and genes that haven’t, haven’t. There’s a lot of explanatory power in that idea, and none of it is captured by “The Immortal Gene.” But the Selfish Gene neatly captures the point – “what would a gene do if it was promoting its own interests – in the form of making copies of itself – so let’s not be surprised if we find that’s what genes actually do.”

  • Rosenquist

    The principle of individual agency is pretty much central to libertarianism, which would very much put it at odds with Dawkins own hardcore material determinism. To take an example of Dawkins radical anti-individualism here is a quote from a 2006 essay:

    “But doesn’t a truly scientific, mechanistic view of the nervous system make nonsense of the very idea of responsibility, whether diminished or not? Any crime, however heinous, is in principle to be blamed on antecedent conditions acting through the accused’s physiology, heredity and environment. Don’t judicial hearings to decide questions of blame or diminished responsibility make as little sense for a faulty man as for a Faulty car?

    Why is it that we humans find it almost impossible to accept such conclusions? Why do we vent such visceral hatred on child murderers, or on thuggish vandals, when we should simply regard them as faulty units that need fixing or replacing?”

  • Rosenquist

    My recollection from a book on the young Stalin is that he was being educated in a seminary, and then read the Origin of Species which convinced him of the non existence of God.

    I think that Marx himself saw in the Darwinist material conception of natural history a parallel to his own materalist conception of human history. Not that this is Darwins fault of course.

  • Mr Ed

    “But doesn’t a truly scientific, mechanistic view of the nervous system make nonsense of the very idea of responsibility, whether diminished or not? Any crime, however heinous, is in principle to be blamed on antecedent conditions acting through the accused’s physiology, heredity and environment. Don’t judicial hearings to decide questions of blame or diminished responsibility make as little sense for a faulty man as for a Faulty car?

    ‘…Counsel for the convicted Defendant thus pleads for clemency, if not total absolution, for his guilty, murderous client, on the basis that even though the Court has found, in the face of the overwhelming evidence, that he did the foul deed, he is not to be blamed. And we concur with Counsel that the fact that his client denied the charge, and sought to blame others, is hardly a factor to hold against him, for he is nothing more than a ‘faulty’ man. We agree with Counsel, who has persuaded us that these malignant forces, operating to overwhelm human will, are what led to this offence, and we agree that his client is only ‘blameworthy’ to the extent that Counsel makes out. However, we find that those same malignant forces that caused the Defendant to act as he did, in this foul murder, cause us, however much we may seek to resist, to impose on the Defendant the harshest sentence that this Court can pass. Take him away.’

  • Myno

    Mr. Ed… excellent sauce for the gander!

  • Cristina

    “The malignant forces” compelling the harshest sentence for the defendant are absent in the “faulty car” metaphor. Unless those malignant forces are the physiology, heritage, and the environmental antecedents of the Court.
    Why those malignant forces, i.e., the conditional antecedents of behavior, have a different end result on the Court and the defendant?

  • Nicholas (Andy.royd) Gray

    Do we have to believe in Free Will? Or do we have a choice?

  • JohnK

    The capacity of crazed leftists to attack each other for perceived deviation from the current groupthink is indeed amusing and instructive. The most obvious recent case are the attacks on Dr Germaine Greer for the thoughtcrime of believing that a person in full possession of a cock and balls is not actually a woman just because he says so. For this crime Dr Greer has been “no platformed” by priggish student unions as if she had been favour of the Vietnam War in the 1960s or South Africa in the 1970s.

    Poor Dr Greer perhaps thought that her impeccable record of progressive feminist thought might have accorded her views some respect, but that is not the way leftists work. She has probably worked it out now, but too late, she is the Bukharin de nos jours.

  • AngryTory

    ‘Take him away’ and shoot him and his entire family.

    thus removing those malicious genes the way a surgeon removes a cancer.

    Sounds pretty damn good to me. Sounds like common sense.

  • Mr Ed


    The Court acceeded to the arguments for the Defence, but found that the degenerate Marxoid class relations and resultant forces thus unleashed caused it to act as it did.

  • Roue le Jour

    Mr. Ed 5:46

    Dawkins is not a scientist.

    He may not be now but he most certainly was. Try “The Extended Phenotype”.

    The term “philopause” has been suggested for eminent scientists becoming obsessive about God, reactionless drives, vitamin C, etc.

  • Mr Ed

    Dawkins is not a scientist.

    He may not be now but he most certainly was. Try “The Extended Phenotype”.

    No, that book is just comment, and your quote is a partial one out of context.

  • Nowadays, Dawkins does appear to have partly or wholly abandoned the role of researcher for that of publicist – a somewhat intemperate publicist – of his philosophical opinions. When I was at Oxford (a millennium ago 🙂 ), and had some knowledge of Dickie D through acquaintances, he was doing theoretical biological research and had as legitimate a claim to the term ‘scientist’ as many who wear it. He was never great shakes at maths or statistics – he had people in the team to help him with that, insofar as his theorising needed those subjects – nor at physics, as his more recent publicist activities sometimes reveal – but you’d need a very stern definition of the word scientist to deny it to him back then, and I’m not sure I’d ever have qualified under that stern a definition.

    Let us be just in our criticism.

  • Mr Ed

    Let us be just in our criticism.

    Indeed, and let us be accurate in what we are responding to:

    Professor* Dawkins is not a scientist, but rather a theoretician

    The good Professor is not doing experiments and testing, but rather looking at past ‘experiments’ in survival, viz. the biological world, and theorising about them. Unless and until he engages Slartibartfast, he will not be doing science. He is looking at Rutherford’s category of ‘stamp collecting‘ and seeking to explain it.

  • Stuck-record

    Mr Ed

    Those leftists who argue that X is not responsible for their criminal actions because of Y are noticeably silent, when the crime is rape*.

    * Unless the criminal is a Muslim of course.

  • Christine McNulty

    “Immortal” is right. The technology that enabled computerised genome mapping revealed the surprising discovery that life-forms all use the same genes. They just use them in different ways. It also revealed unexpected epigenetic ((influences outside the nucleus) effects.

    Today, a technique for artificial gene editing using CRISPR (molecular scissors) which happens to be the real, sharp end of evolution, was sanctioned by the Human Fertilisation and Embriology Authority.

    “It’s the first time the technology, which has taken the medical world by storm, has been sanctioned for use on human embryos.”

    The ‘Central Dogma of Molecular Biology’ has been superceded by the technology of Gene Editing.

    All those ‘selfish gene’ proclaimers and genetic determinists should eat their words.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Speaking of Slarti, what has become of him? :>(

  • Lee Moore

    Not sure I followed your point, Christine.

    1. “selfish” is how genes behave in the wild – what new things do technical advances in the ability to artificially change genomes tell us about the behaviour of genes in the wild ?

    2. I don’t think there are any genetic determinists – or ever were. But there are certainly genes-are-at-least-as-important-as-environmenters. We’ll call them genetic importantists. How does the ability to artificially amend a genome either at the sex cell stage or very early on in an organism’s life allow us to escape from genetic importantism ? Is it suggested that we can influence height, weight, personality, intelligence etc of a human by gene snipping later in life ? Genetic importantists would simply tell you that your genes are important however you got them – naturally or by snipping.

    3. Moreover, I’m not sure that one can refute the arguments of genetic importantists by saying that we are now clever enough and powerful enough to alter genes. Doesn’t that merely reinforce the idea that genes are important ?

    4. Genes. of course, only have their effects by making proteins. So if you really want to influence humans in later life, after that initial gene handout stage, you need your microbiologists to focus on creating the right proteins in the lab to be injected into the right place at the right time.

    Anyway, I’m struggling with why you think these technical advances require anyone to start eating their words.

  • Christine. London

    Genes are not alive!