I’ve been reading Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, which is a well-written and engaging book. I read it mostly for the chapter that introduced the concept of memes, but I’ve also really enjoyed the discussion of evolution from the point of view that it’s the genes that struggle for survival, using us as survival machines that simply make it easier for the genes to survive. A few paragraphs from the introduction to the 1989 edition particularly intrigue me, for they speak of this inversion as a method. “A change of vision,” he writes, “can, at its best, achieve something loftier than a theory. It can usher in a whole new climate of thinking, in which many exciting and testable theories are born, and unimagined facts laid bare.”

Here’s the context:

The selfish gene theory is Darwin’s theory, expressed in a way that Darwin did not choose but whose aptness, I should like to think, he would instantly have recognized and delighted in. It is in fact a logical outgrowth of orthodox neo-Darwinism, but expressed as a novel image. Rather than focus on the individual organism, it takes a gene’s-eye view of nature. It is a different way of seeing, not a different theory. In the opening pages of The Extended Phenotype I explained this using the metaphor of the Necker cube.


This is a two-dimensional pattern of ink on paper [pixels on screen], but it is perceived as a transparent, three-dimensional cube. Stare at it for a few seconds and it will change to face in a different direction- Carry on staring and it will flip back to the original cube. Both cubes are equally compatible with the two-dimensional data on the retina, so the brain happily alternates between them. Neither is more correct than the other. My point was that there are two ways of looking at natural selection, the gene’s angle and that of the individual. If properly understood they are equivalent; two views of the same truth. You can flip from one to the other and it will still be the same neo-Darwinism.

I now think that this metaphor was too cautious. Rather than propose a new thoery o runearth a new fact, often the most important contribution a scientist can make is to discover a new way of seeing old theories of facts. The Necker cube m odel is misleading beacuse it suggests that the two ways of seeing are equally good. To be sure, the metaphor gets it partly right: ‘angles’, unlike theories, cannot be judged by experiment; we cannot resort to our familiar criteria of verification and falsification. But a change of vision can, at its best, achieve something loftier than a theory. It can usher in a whole climate of thinking, in which many exciting and testable theories are born, and unimagined facts laid bare. The Necker cube metaphor misses this completely. It captures the idea of a flip in vision, but fails to do justice to its value. What we are talking about is not a flip to an equivalent view but, in extreme cases, a transfiguration. (Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, Oxford University Press 1989, pages x-xi)

I think what I like most of all about this is Dawkin’s admission of having been too cautious, of his having simply claimed that two perspectives are equal, but that now he’s willing to say no, this is important. This can change the way we think. This might be a change in paradigms.

9 thoughts on “change of vision

  1. Tama

    Jill, I wonder if Dawkinsí work really does constitute a paradigm shift at all, or if he is slipping back into the realm of dangerous rhetoric that can very easily be twisted. If genes or memes are the dominant purposeful universal replicators, doesnít this come perilously close to re-introducing a kind of eugenic perspective where genes/memes override social concerns and mutates social justice into a survival of the meme-est?

    That might not be all that clear, but I guess Iíd trying to echo N. Katherine Hayles when she argues ëDawkinsís rhetoric attributes genes human agency and intentioní, displacing motivations which ëproperly belong to the human domainí.

    Food for thought!

  2. Jill

    Googling that phrase, I see Hayles writes it in her chapter on “Narratives of Artificial Life”. She only has a couple of lines on Dawkins and it looks to me as though she’s setting him up as a bit of a strawman argument. It’s a misreading of Dawkins. Dawkins repeatedly points out that while he does use the metaphor “the genes want…” this is only shorthand for “genes that happen to produce such and such an effect have a higher survival rate and therefore become increasingly common” (my paraphrase).

    Do you think there is ANY scientific theory or anything, really, that cannot be twisted? A lot of evil has been done and is still being done based on religious doctrine as well as scientific “facts”. Marxism has a lot of good, ethical ideas but was twisted to evil; Christianity and Islam both have sound, ethical foundations but have each been used to justify terrorising people who believe otherwise or don’t fit in.

    Let me just quote Dawkins to show you that he DOESN’T present genes as conscious, purposeful entities controlling the world. This is from the end of the chapter on memes, which in the original edition was also the end of the book:

    One unique feature of man, which may or may not have evolved memically, is his capacity for conscious foresight. Selfish genes (and, if you allow the speculation of this chapter, memes too) have no foresight. They are unconscious, blind, replicators. The fact that they replicate, together with certain further conditions, means, willy nilly, that they will tend towards the evolution of qualities which, in the special sense of this book, can be called selfish. A simple replicator, whether gene or meme, cannot be expected to forgo short-term selfish advantage even if it would really pay it, in the long term, to do so.


    The point I am making now is that, even if we look on the dark side and assume that individual man is fundamentally selfish, our conscious foresight – our capacity to simulate the future in imagination – could save us from the worst selfish excesses of the blind replicators. We have at least the mental equiptment to foster our long-term selfish interests rather than merely our short-term selfish interests. We can see the long-term benefits of participating in a “conspiracy of doves”, and we can sit down toegther to discuss ways of making the conspiracy work. We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism – something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world. We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.

    For the examples in each chapter, see for instance pages 50-51 on what exactly he means when he says that the genes “design” plants and animals as survival machines, and how designing a machine doesn’t necessarily mean you control it. There’s an interesting discussion here too of the related idea that computer programs, for instance, don’t really play chess because they’re only doing what a human programmed them to do. In the following pages there’s more discussion of the ways in which genes do influence and “control” organisms. Very, very slowly.

    Maybe I should read up on the origins of “social darwinism”, but I doubt many darwinists would see much of a connection from the theory of evolution to “social darwinism” or eugenics.

  3. Tama

    I completely agree that most scientific theories are open to varied use and mis-use and Iím certainly not suggesting that Dawkins is advocating a eugenic platform! However, I would argue that the use of his selfish gene theory (which, I agree, does more than simply rearticulate Darwinís existing thesis) has certainly been used in a way which privileges the gene above all else, and in doing so Dawkinsí qualification that social context can temper genes tends to get lost quite easily. A lot of sociobiology in particular uses Dawkins as a core text and casts genes in the driving seat in terms of human development and identity (and thus ignoring or trivializing the social and context/environment). My own perspective on Dawkins is probably a little skewed since I examined him after seeing his theories at use in Artificial Life design (which doesnít really allow, as yet, any space for social tempering). My fear is that Dawkins is easily appropriated for a genetic determinist argument, even if that was not his intent. Also, since I seem to be stumbling over words today, a far more eloquent expression of the uses and fears Iím alluding to are found in Sarah Kemberís recent book Cyberfeminism and Artificial Life, if you (or anyone reading this) sought another point of view on Dawkins that isnít clouded by my rather poor lacking-in-sleep language! 🙂

    PS When I was reading your reply to my comment in the popup window I saw the version which began ìGoogling that phrase, I see Hayles writes ..î, but when I clicked on the ìContinue reading “change of visionî link I saw what I presume was an earlier version of the reply starting ìWhere does Hayles write that?î. Just thought you might like to know in case thatís something unexpected that has cropped up in your redesign (just trying to be helpful, not critical; the new site looks great!).

  4. Jill

    Tama, Sarah Kember’s book looks like exactly what I need and I’ve ordered a copy already. Thank you! I don’t know much socio-biology, and I guess that if I’m going to be using Dawkins and memes and stuff (I haven’t read enough to know whether I will but for now it’s totally fascinating me) I’m going to have to know more about how it’s been used – and misused. So thank you.

    Yes, I edited my comment after googling the phrase – I suppose perhaps Moveable Type only rebuilt ONE of the versions? I don’t often edit comments (and this was like two minutes after posting, and just to change the first paragraph since I’d now googled it) and perhaps I should just stop editing them, huh? Or at least rebuild properly.

    And hey, you’re in Perth! I love Perth, Perth is home, though I’ve not been back for ages.

  5. Dennis G. Jerz

    Jill, I thought the section on birdsongs in “The Selfish Gene” was also very interesting, and possibly applicable to narrative.

    You might also find interesting the extended parable that Reddy uses to explain the condiuit metaphor — the pervasive English tendency to use words of containment and transference to describe communication. Reddy says “conduit” memes leads to a self-perpetuating mindset that all communication problems originate with the sender. I’d be interested to know how many other languages also use conduit metaphors for communication.

    My paper for the first Blogtalk examined both memes and conduits in terms of weblogs. That Reddy chapter’s in the book “Metaphor and thought.” Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1979.

    By the way, great site re-design.

  6. Jill

    Oh, excellent, Dennis, that means your paper will be in the Blogtalk proceedings which I think are waiting for me at the library 🙂

    The idea of conduits and ways of talking about communnication in “boxes” is interesting too…


  7. kari

    Jill, you might want to have a look at Robert Aunger’s _The Electric Meme: A New Theory of How We Think_ (2002), which offers a _physical_ model of the meme. In Aunger’s hands, “meme” slips the bonds of social metaphor to become literal, neurophysiological fact.

  8. Tama

    Jill, after my less-than-eloquent posts earlier on Dawkins, I just blogged my review of Sarah Kember’s Cyberfeminism and Artificial Life since that’s the text that made somewhat Dawkins-weary. If you’re interested, my post is here. I’d love to hear your thoughts on Kember’s book when you’ve read it! 🙂

  9. Norman

    Dawkins uses teleological “arguments” about genes to get a senstaional SOUNDING title and message across, then backs away from actually saying what he has said he was saying. Anyone interested in understanding the evolutionary implications for human nature, would do better to read less theatrical and much earlier writers, such as Konrad Lorenz, Carthy and Ebbling’s collection from the Institute of Biology Symposium, or follow up on Lorenz’s work, such as Slukin’s compilation of evidence.
    The media need colour, and dawkins supplies it.

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