The Selfish Gene

For one year, two years, three years, I’ve been convinced that I need to read more nonfiction, and so a day or two ago I downloaded a very decent torrent from ISO called “25 Greatest Science Books Of All Time”—featuring authors who are all dead or, in the case of Richard Dawkins, rich, famous, and in no need of the few cents they would make if I were to waste my hard-earned cash on a price-fixed amazon ebook. This is certainly theft, but only actual theft if I steal from someone who is poor or unknown.

That’s how I justify myself, anyway.

I’m not sure when I first heard of The Selfish Gene, but ever since I came across its alluring, enigmatic title I’ve been drawn toward it, thinking for months or even years, like, goddamn, I’ve got to read The Selfish Gene, because I love science and I’m desperate to possess a greater understanding of the world around me. I’m actually embarrassed that I can’t quite explain how life came to be, how computers and programs function, how an internal combustion engine works, or even how electricity is generated and stored in a battery—all of these things fascinate me to no end, and it’s embarrassing that after 24 years of age I still haven’t gotten around to answering my questions, because for the most part people have already figured a lot of these things out, and rather than going through the laborious process of figuring them out for myself, understanding these processes is as simple as taking the time to read about them. I need to be armed in case I encounter a Creationist; I need to be able to answer the questions my son is going to ask me; and it’s just good to know, because for almost the entirety of history humans have been unable to answer these questions realistically or scientifically. People living now are privileged with an incredible wealth of knowledge, and we really should take advantage of it.

I’m only twenty or thirty pages into the most excellent Selfish Gene, but I was intrigued from the first by the opening lines—

Intelligent life on a planet comes of age when it first works out the reason for its own existence. If superior creatures from space ever visit earth, the first question they will ask, in order to assess the level of our civilization, is: ‘Have they discovered evolution yet?’

When people talk about aliens, I find they project themselves, because aliens are a perfect mystery—their very existence is a completely open question—and a perfect mystery often acts as a kind of mirror, reflecting whatever is most important or most obvious to whoever looks into it. The same goes for the origin of life, or even of the universe—mysteries that are not quite perfect but still difficult, since there are no videotapes leftover from the beginning. Most, but not all, believers in Creationism aren’t really interested in the complexities of empirical thinking, and try to make the evidence fit their ideas; while scientists who have dedicated their lives to answering these questions possess almost obsessively doubting, questioning natures, and work as hard as they can to get their ideas to fit the evidence.

The same is true of aliens. Simplistic Hollywood-ers and writers have, for almost a century, assumed that aliens would immediately seek the destruction or enslavement of the entire human race, and this approach has proven to be an extremely profitable one, generating millions of dollars in reliable blockbuster revenues every summer for decades. Such violence appeals to the lowest, basest, and perhaps even the most natural instincts inside of us—fears and loves of artificial violence which most people seem to possess.

Likewise, Lovecraft, a guy who was definitely into old antiquated stuff, believed that aliens (if you can call ‘The Old Ones’ aliens) were impossibly ancient and malevolent. Arthur C. Clarke—and, so it seems, Ridley Scott—pass the buck on the question of the origin of life (or the origin of intelligence-based sentience), and assume that aliens were behind it. Carl Sagan, someone who seems like a pretty nice guy, assumed that aliens would be equally benevolent, while Stephen Hawking has recently warned that we should stop sending signals out into space because any encounter with a superior civilization would annihilate our own, regardless of how benevolent they may be, much in the same way primitive societies have been annihilated, over the centuries, by encountering unstoppably powerful European cultures. Others have speculated that the surest sign of other intelligences in the universe is the fact that they haven’t contacted us.

Dawkins tells us they’ll ask about evolution. A cheesemaker says they want to know where the best cheese is.

I don’t want to project my self onto the mystery of aliens, because my self is unreliable and subjective, and so the best I can do is assume that whatever they are, their forms and abilities go completely beyond whatever I can imagine. It’s possible that if they have survived the current dangerous stage of existence in which we find ourselves, when at the push of a button (by a president or premier who strongly believes in the coming of the apocalypse) the entire planet could be destroyed, their natures have evolved or transformed to the point where they are both invisible and incomprehensible to us—so bewilderingly complex and godlike that although they might be lurking right under our noses, we cannot see them because we cannot conceive of them without first becoming like them on our own.

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2 thoughts on “The Selfish Gene

  1. Adam Benton says:

    Whilst there’s no doubt that Dawkins is presenting a good chunk of himself onto these aliens, I do like that passage as it helps convey the importance of evolution. We often take it for granted as that sciency thing we were taught at school and sometimes hear about on occasion on the telly. In reality its a theory which underpins pretty much all of life, ever. Its fundamentally important and we often miss that in our day to day lives.

  2. hiddenconnections says:

    I agree. He starts the book by saying that even though Darwin’s theory has been around for over a century, its profound implications haven’t even begun to seep into other intellectual realms, and the study of taxonomy is not really regarded by most people as the most fascinating—even though, obviously, it is!

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