The Selfish Gene

When an embryo survival machine is being built, the dangers and problems of its life lie in the future. Who can say what carnivores crouch waiting for it behind what bushes, or what fleet-footed prey will dart and zig-zag across its path? No human prophet, nor any gene. But some general predictions can be made.

One way for genes to solve the problem of making predictions in rather unpredictable environments is to build in a capacity for learning. ... The advantage of this sort of programming is that it greatly cuts down the number of detailed rules that have to be built into the original program; and it is also capable of coping with changes in the environment that could not have been predicted in detail.
Perhaps consciousness arises when the brain’s simulation of the world becomes so complete that it must include a model of itself.
The hardware of the brain is fundamentally parallel, like that of the Edinburgh machine. And it runs software designed to create an illusion of serial processing: a serially processing virtual machine riding on top of parallel architecture. The salient feature of the subjective experience of thinking, Dennett thinks, is the serial ‘one-thing-after-another’, ‘Joycean’, stream of consciousness. He believes that most animals lack this serial experience, and use brains directly in their native, parallel-processing mode. Doubtless the human brain, too, uses its parallel architecture directly for many of the routine tasks of keeping a complicated survival machine ticking over. But, in addition, the human brain evolved a software virtual machine to simulate the illusion of a serial processor. The mind, with its serial stream of consciousness, is a virtual machine, a ‘user-friendly’ way of experiencing the brain, just as the ‘Macintosh User Interface’ is a user-friendly way of experiencing the physical computer inside its grey box.

Humphrey believes that this ‘natural psychological’ skill has become highly evolved in social animals, almost like an extra eye or other complicated organ. The ‘inner eye’ is the evolved social-psychological organ, just as the outer eye is the visual organ. ... Each animal looks inwards to its own feelings and emotions, as a means of understanding the feelings and emotions of others. The psychological organ works by self-inspection. I am not so sure whether I agree that this helps us to understand consciousness, but Humphrey is a graceful writer and his book is persuasive.
Whenever a system of communication evolves, there is always the danger that some will exploit the system for their own ends.
But the trouble with conspiracies, even those that are to everybody’s advantage in the long run, is that they are open to abuse.

The poker face is evolutionarily stable . Surrender, when it finally comes, will be sudden and unpredictable.

A moment’s reflection shows that this simple ‘more means better’ argument cannot be true, however. ... In other words it leads logically to an absurdity.

But you cannot have an unnatural welfare state, unless you also have unnatural birth control; otherwise, the end result will be misery even greater than that which obtains in nature.

When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn’t just a way of talking — the meme for, say, “belief in life after death” is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over.

Nothing is more lethal for certain kinds of meme than a tendency to look for evidence. ... The meme for blind faith secures its own perpetuation by the simple unconscious expedient of discouraging rational inquiry.

Selection favours memes that exploit their cultural environment to their own advantage. This cultural environment consists of other memes which are also being selected. The meme pool therefore comes to have the attributes of an evolutionarily stable set , which new memes find it hard to invade.

We were built as gene machines, created to pass on our genes. But that aspect of us will be forgotten in three generations . Your child, even your grandchild, may bear a resemblance to you, perhaps in facial features, in a talent for music, in the colour of her hair. But as each generation passes, the contribution of your genes is halved. It does not take long to reach negligible proportions. Our genes may be immortal but the collection of genes that is any one of us is bound to crumble away. ... We should not seek immortality in reproduction.

But if you contribute to the world’s culture, if you have a good idea, compose a tune, invent a sparking plug, write a poem, it may live on, intact, long after your genes have dissolved in the common pool.

What we have not previously considered is that a cultural trait may have evolved in the way that it has, simply because it is advantageous to itself.
It is possible that yet another unique quality of man is a capacity for genuine, disinterested, true altruism. I hope so, but I am not going to argue the case one way or the other, nor to speculate over its possible memic evolution. 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 equipment to foster our long-term selfish interests rather than merely our short-term selfish interests .
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.

It starts from scratch, as a single cell, and grows a new heart, using the same design program as its parent’s heart, to which improvements may be added. ... One important thing about a ‘bottlenecked’ life cycle is that it makes possible the equivalent of going back to the drawing board.

Faith is such a successful brainwasher in its own favour, especially a brainwasher of children, that it is hard to break its hold. But what, after all, is faith? It is a state of mind that leads people to believe something — it doesn’t matter what — in the total absence of supporting evidence. If there were good supporting evidence then faith would be superfluous, for the evidence would compel us to believe it anyway.

Faith cannot move mountains (though generations of children are solemnly told the contrary and believe it). But it is capable of driving people to such dangerous folly that faith seems to me to qualify as a kind of mental illness. It leads people to believe in whatever it is so strongly that in extreme cases they are prepared to kill and to die for it without the need for further justification.

Faith is powerful enough to immunize people against all appeals to pity, to forgiveness, to decent human feelings. It even immunizes them against fear, if they honestly believe that a martyr’s death will send them straight to heaven.