Apr 15, 2021

A revolution in understanding how and why humans came to be: The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

Did you know Richard Dawkins invented the concept of the Meme in 1976? He meant it as an idea that rides around in human brains, can replicate by spreading between us, and can be beneficial or detrimental to its host. It can also mutate, and those mutants could be better or worse at spreading, or better or worse at promoting the survival of its host. It therefore can evolve, and will tend to become better at spreading over time, and usually favour the survival and reproduction of the host, but not always - if it can spread across many brains by sacrificing the current host brain, it may evolve to do so. Observe ideas like technologies in the first category, and religious martyrdom or military self-sacrifice in the second.

"People don't have ideas, ideas have people" - Carl Jung

The extraordinary part is that this is only the final chapter and cherry on top of The Selfish Gene, probably the most important scientific book of the 20th century. In it he provides the definitive update to Darwin, showing that genes are the true replicators, and we are merely a confederation of them. He shows how our most complex traits and behaviours, from childrearing to warfare to the construction of societies are game-theoretical strategies pursued by our genes to maximize their individual success. Unifying genetics with evolution in this way is a similar in importance to unifying quantum mechanics with general relativity, which humanity has not yet achieved.

Dawkins is careful to note that our legacy is not our destiny. We have now achieved the intelligence to cut our own path away from the narrow survival interests of our genes or our memes. But first, we must understand what we are, how we were built, and the nature of our hidden desires. This book is a torch in the cavern of self-discovery, and it is now up to us to carry it forth.

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