Selfish Genes and Inclusive Values
Richard Dawkins titles an influential book, The Selfish Gene, and opens: “We are survival machines–robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes” (1989, p. v). He claims that, over the last decade and a half, since he first set forth this claim, “its central message has become textbook orthodoxy” (1989, p. viii, 1976). For those versed in the philosophy of science, Dawkins seems unaware how he is framing up genetic activity pejoratively, projecting onto genes an activity drawn from the human moral realm. When he is challenged about this, he replies that he means “selfish” only in a behavioral sense, so that plant genes can be “selfish” if they perform in such way that the phenotype in which they are contained as genotype leaves more offspring in the next generation, compared to genes with which they are in competition. But the “selfish” overtones remain.
One way to see this is to try alternative frameworks, which accommodate the same activity equally well. I will offer a “value” framework here, and a “sharing” framework in a next installment. Metanexus readers are encouraged to respond.
Using a positive axiological paradigm, genes can be interpreted as loci of intrinsic value, expressed and defended in individuals and also inclusively present and distributed in family, population, and species lines. If one is working from a humanist or psychological view of what “value” can mean, this perspective can seem unfamiliar, almost as misplaced as “selfish genes.” On a sentientist and experiential account, when considering all the flora and most of the fauna (microbes, protozoans, insects, nematodes, mollusks and crustaceans with little central nervous system)–all these organisms, with their genes, are not able to value because they are not able to feel anything. These organisms include over ninety eight percent of the species of life. Nothing “matters” to them because there is there is “nobody there,” no experiential self. There is no valuer evaluating anything, nobody taking an interest in what they are doing. Such organisms, driven by their genes, do not have any options among which they are choosing. A minimally sentient awareness is required for value.
Consider, however, a more biologically based concept of value. Biologists regularly speak of the “selective value” or “adaptive value” of genetic variations (Ayala, 1982, p. 88; Tamarin, 1996, p. 558). Plant activities have “survival value,” such as the seeds they disperse or the thorns they make. Bees sting and do their waggle dance. Natural selection picks out whatever traits an organism has that are valuable to it, relative to its survival.
Biologically, rather than psychologically, it is difficult to dissociate the idea of value from natural selection. When natural selection has been at work gathering these traits into an organism, coding them into genes, that organism is able to value on the basis of those traits. Those traits, though picked out by natural selection, are innate in the organism, that is, stored in its genes. In our terms, these are intrinsic values.
Plants, for example, are quite alive. Like all other organisms, they are self-actualizing. Plants are unified entities of the botanical though not of the zoological kind, that is, they are not unitary organisms highly integrated with centered neural control, but they are modular organisms, with a meristem that can repeatedly and indefinitely produce new vegetative modules, additional stem nodes and leaves when there is available space and resources, as well as new reproductive modules, fruits and seeds. Plants repair injuries and move water, nutrients, and photosynthate from cell to cell; they store sugars; they make tannin and other toxins and regulate their levels in defense against grazers, they make nectars and emit pheromones to influence the behavior of pollinating insects and the responses of other plants, they emit allelopathic agents to suppress invaders, they make thorns, trap insects, and so on. They can reject genetically incompatible grafts.
This description of plant activities does not suppose any intentional pursuit of desires. Dawkins claims that intention is not required for behavior to be “selfish.” This alternative claims that sentient experience is not required for there to be “value” defended. There may be some metaphorical elements in expressions such as “defending life” or “repairing injuries”; but we also take this to be a rather literal account, effectively descriptive of what is going on. To say that the genome is a set of “conservation molecules,” or that the plant has a “good of-its-own” is not to be dismissed as mere metaphor. That rather seems the plain fact of the matter.
A plant, like any other organism, sentient or not, is a spontaneous, self-maintaining system, sustaining and reproducing itself, executing its program, making a way through the world, checking against performance by means of responsive capacities with which to measure success. Something more than merely physical causes, even when less than sentience, is operating within every organism. In its genetic set, there is information superintending the causes; without it the organism would collapse into a sand heap. The information is used to preserve the plant identity. Perhaps in physics and chemistry matter and energy cannot be lost, only transformed, but in biology this information can be and often is lost, and the plant activities promote its vital conservation. Though things do not matter to plants, a great deal matters for them. We ask, of a failing plant, What’s the matter with that plant? If it is lacking sunshine and soil nutrients, and we arrange for these, we say, The plant is benefiting from them; and benefit is–everywhere else we encounter it–a value word. Biologists speak regularly of the beneficial genetic mutations and their phenotypic expressions in morphology and behavior, with their adaptive value. Harmful mutations indicate as well that values are at stake.
We are developing here this more biological, more genetic sense of value. We can approach this thinking of an organism’s good-of-its own, its good-of-its-kind. As an heir to its portion of the diversity and complexity generated in evolutionary natural history, any particular organism, with its genes, defends that organism’s good inhering in itself, in its “self”–a somatic though not a psychological self–which in reproduction is passed (in part) to an offspring “self,” which is also such good defended in kin. Every organism inherits its portion of the past genetic line, by which it is self-constituted, and it must also be self-projecting, pushing itself forward. That is the beauty of life, the means of genesis, not something suspect. Self-development, self-defense is the essence of biology, the law of the wilderness.
Why is the organism not valuing what it is making resources of? Life is organized vitality, which may or may not have an experiential psychology. A value-er is an entity able to feel value? Yes, psychologically, and only the higher organisms can do so. A value-er is an entity able to defend value. Yes, biologically, and all organisms defend their lives.
Approach this idea with another set of metaphors. Think of a genetic set, with its cybernetic identity and information, as essentially a set of linguistic molecules, a logical set (Searls, 1992). The genetic set is a propositional set–to choose a provocative term–recalling how the Latin propositum is an assertion, a set task, a theme, a plan, a proposal, a project, as well as a cognitive statement. From this the genetic set is also a motivational set, since these life motifs are set to drive the movement from genotypic potential to phenotypic expression. Given a chance, these molecules seek organic self-expression. They thus proclaim a life way, and with this an organism, unlike an inert rock, claims the environment as source and sink, from which to abstract energy and materials and into which to excrete them. Life thus arises out of earthen sources (as do rocks), but life turns back on its sources to make resources out of them (unlike rocks). Rocks do not of themselves give rise to other rocks; rivers do not reproduce themselves and make offspring. But oaks make other oaks. An acorn becomes an oak; the oak rises from the ground and stands on its own.
So far this can seem only a description of the logic of life. Value more evidently appears when one recognizes that the genetic set is a normative set; it distinguishes between what is and what ought to be. The genome is a set of conservation molecules (if also, in another sense, a set of developmental molecules). The organism is an axiological, evaluative system. So the oak grows, reproduces, repairs its wounds, and resists death. The physical state that the organism seeks, idealized in its programmatic form, is a valued state. Value is present in this achievement. One is not dealing simply with an individual defending its solitary life but with an individual in a species lineage and having situated fitness in an ecosystem. Still, one needs to affirm that the living individual, the “self,” taken as a point experience in the web of interconnected life, is per se an intrinsic value.
A life is defended for what it is in itself, without necessary further contributory reference, although, given the structure of all ecosystems, and given the necessity for reproduction, such lives necessarily do have further reference. Organisms have their own standards, fit into their niche though they must. They promote their own realization, at the same time that they track an environment. They have a technique, a know-how. Every organism has a good-of-its-kind; it defends its own kind as a good kind. As soon as one knows what a giant sequoia tree is, one knows the biological identity that is sought and conserved.
The tree is valuable in the sense that it is able to value itself. If we cannot say this, then we will have to ask, as an open question, “Well, the tree has a good of its own, but is there anything of value to it?” “This tree was injured when the elk rubbed its velvet off its antlers, and the tannin secreted there is killing the invading bacteria. But is this valuable to the tree?” Botanists say that the tree is irritable in the biological sense; it responds with the repair of injury. “The bee is making use of the nectar in the flower, but is the honey valuable to the bee?” Few of us doubt that bees are irritable when they sting. Such capacities can be “vital,” now a better word than “biological,” and a description with values built into it.
These are observations of value in nature with just as much certainty as they are biological facts; that is what they are: facts about value relationships in nature. An intrinsic value, from the perspective of biology, is found where there is a constructed, negentropic, cybernetic identity that is defended in such a somatic organismic self with an integrity of its own. Using its genes, the organism is acting “for its own sake,” or, more philosophically put, “to protect its intrinsic value” These are “axiological genes.”
But the life that the organismic individual has is something passing through the individual as much as something it intrinsically possesses. All such selves have their identity in kinship with others, not on their own. This individual and familial identity is placed in a species line that must be historically maintained in the death and regeneration process, with both information stored at the genotypic level and morphology and behavior expressed at the phenotypic level. A species is another level of biological identity reasserted genetically over time: sequoia-sequoia-sequoia, bee-bee-bee. Identity need not attach solely to the centered or modular organism; it can persist as a discrete pattern over time. The individual is subordinate to the species, not the other way around. The genetic set, in which is coded the telos, is as evidently the property of the species as of the individual through which it passes. A consideration of species strains any value theory fixed on individual organisms, much less on sentience or persons. But the result can be biologically sounder.
Reproduction is typically assumed to be a need of individuals, but since any particular individual can flourish somatically without reproducing at all, indeed may be put through duress and risk or spend much energy reproducing, by another logic we can interpret reproduction as the species keeping up its own kind by reenacting itself again and again, individual after individual. It stays in place by its replacements. In this sense a female grizzly bear does not bear cubs to be healthy herself, any more than a woman needs children to be healthy. Rather, her cubs are Ursus arctos, threatened by nonbeing, recreating itself by continuous performance. A female animal does not have mammary glands nor a male animal testicles because the function of these is to preserve its own life; these organs are defending the line of life bigger than the somatic individual. The lineage in which an individual exists dynamically is something dynamically passing through it, as much as something it has. The locus of the intrinsic value–the value that is really defended over generations–seems as much in the form of life, the species, as in the individuals, since the individuals are genetically impelled to sacrifice themselves in the interests of reproducing their kind.
From such an axiological perspective, we can incorporate what theoretical biologists have come to call “inclusive fitness” (Hamilton, 1964). “Inclusive” is an interesting term for such “fitness,” partly because of the parallels in social circles, recommending “inclusive” language or “inclusive” politics. But in the one framework “inclusive” is bent into “selfish”; in the other it is expanded to mean “altruist” or at least “considerate of others, not-self.”
The prevailing account of the behavior of individuals toward family members goes up to the family level at the same time that it goes down to the genetic level. If one takes the gene’s eye view, as one must when the interests at stake are transmitting information and reproducing in families, one has to think of a gene as being present not only in a single cell but in all cells where there are copies of it. A particular gene is co-present in myriads of cells within any one individual. That particular gene may be likewise co-present in relatives, copies within kin in a different skin.
Facing out, the organism finds that it is sometimes facing in, finding a similar self in others. External relations here turn out to be internal relations. Expanding the concept of the self, the survival and reproduction of a relative is partly equivalent in evolutionary effect to one’s own survival and reproduction. The individual fitness is held partially in common with kin on all sides, all those “blood relations” in whom there are partial copies of “my genes,” of whose genes “my genes” are partial copies. From the “point of view of a gene” (so to speak), or from the point of view of “my self,” it does not matter whether the descendants (gene copies) are mine immediately, as a result of my individual fitness, or in my family (inclusive fitness, within two brothers, or eight cousins, and so forth). If I fail entirely to reproduce copies of any of my own individ al genes, it is just as well to have copies transmitted over there in my cousins. Narcissism and nepotism are all the same. What I value is found to be present both here and there.
Fitness is now spread across the whole family; some is within me, some in brothers, cousins, parents, children. Dawkins insists on interpreting this from the perspective that the individual acts “selfishly” in his or her own interests, but “selfish” is now being stretched to cover benefits to father, mother, niece, nephew, cousin, children, aunts, uncles, and so on, however far one chooses to look along the indefinitely extended lines of relationship, lines that fan out eventually to all my conspecifics. In this more complete picture of what is going on, the “my” that once was located from the skin in has been so reallocated that it is now an “our.”
One must be careful here to set aside any issues of culture or morality and consider this simply biologically, as such genetic dispositions might operate in the nonhuman world. If one gene can locate its interests in a peer gene elsewhere among kin, buried though these genes are in the networked genomes they inhabit, this expands the concept of intrinsic value from something located in any particular self. It distributes value more inclusively. An individual somatic self is helping other selves but, in turn and in return, their in-common genes also means that they are helping this first individual self.
Each organism is in pursuit of—that is, values—its own proper life (L: proprius, one’s own), which is all that the (nonhuman) individual organism either can or ought to pursue. It turns out, however, that any such “own proper life” is not exclusively individually owned, but is scattered about in the family, and that the individual competently defends its so-called “self” wherever and to the extent that this is manifested in the whole gene pool. This means that values can be held intrinsically only as they are inclusively distributed, and that places us in a position to reconsider this process by which diversity and complexity are generated. I will extend this to an interpretive framework involving distributed and shared genetic values in the next Metanexus installment.
Ayala, Francisco, J., 1974. “The Concept of Biological Progress.” Pages 339-355 in Francisco Jose Ayala and Theodosius Dobzhansky, eds., Studies in the Philosophy of Biology. New York: Macmillan.
Dawkins, Richard, 1976. The Selfish Gene. New York: Oxford University Press.
Dawkins, Richard, 1989. The Selfish Gene, new edition. New York: Oxford University Press.
Hamilton, William D., 1964. “The Genetical Evolution of Social Behavior. I and II.” Journal of Theoretical Biology 7:1-52.
Searls, David B., 1992. “The Linguistics of DNA,” American Scientist 80:579-591.
Tamarin, Robert H., 1996. Principles of Genetics, 5th ed. Dubuque, IA: William C. Brown Publishers.