The innocent gene

by Joe Carlsmith8 min read5th Apr 20211 comment


EvolutionWorld Modeling

(Cross-posted from Hands and Cities. Content warning: violence, spoilers for King Lear)

“With this and that I tried to keep the bucket together,
and then the bottom fell out.
Where water does not collect,
the moon does not dwell.”


This post re-imagines Richard Dawkins’s description of evolution, with genes not as selfish agents, but as passive, innocent patterns, that don’t want to survive, and that know not what they do. In a sense, this is just the standard story. But in the context of Dawkins’s gene-centered (rather than organism-centered) framing, I find it evocative regardless.

Lady Chiyo (Nyodai) and the Broken Water Bucket. 
(Source here. Author: Yoshitoshi).

I. Microscopic Machiavellis

“Is man no more than this?”

– King Lear, Act 3, Scene 4

In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins presents evolution from a “gene’s-eye” point of view. The gene, he argues, is the fundamental unit of replication. Evolution does not select, directly, over organisms, groups, species, or ecosystems. It selects over genes; and what we get, as a result, is a biological world structured, in important part, by the genes that caused their own survival.

Dawkins’s scientific picture has been subject to (sometimes spicy) debate (see e.g. the “Darwin Wars,” and this book), which I won’t wade into here (and it’s not actually clear to me how much the central premises are in dispute). My interest is in how we imagine the picture in question.

The central, titular conceit of the book is that genes are helpfully thought of as “ruthlessly selfless” (in the introduction to the 30th edition, Dawkins acknowledges the possibility of emphasizing, instead, their immortality, or their cooperativeness, or the altruism of the organism they create; but the text itself focuses on selfishness, and I will, too). That is: Dawkins suggests that we do well, in predicting and explaining the effects of evolution, to personify genes, and to think of them as “trying” to survive, with no intrinsic regard for the interests of anything else.

In particular, genes build themselves elaborate “survival machines” — the giant, lumbering robots we think of as individual organisms — which they use to perpetuate and replicate themselves. They program these robots to prey upon, parasitize, manipulate, and cooperate with the survival efforts of other genes. But they will also happily harm or discard their robots, when doing so conduces to replication (for example, replication of copies of themselves housed in another body, like that of a family member).

Dawkins is clear that his personification is mere metaphor: genes do not have conscious aims. Indeed, all his substantive claims can be rephrased in what he calls “respectable terms” (p. 88). But the book is also, in substantial part, a work of rhetoric and imagination (indeed, I think this is key to its enduring power). It comes, not just with a theory, but with a vision, and an aesthetic.

This aesthetic is partly that of Tennyson’s “nature red in tooth and claw” — a phrase that Dawkins, despite his interest in altruism, thinks “sums up our modern understanding of evolution admirably” (p. 2). Here, for example, is Dawkins’s description of the Sacculina carcini, a type of parasite that uses green crabs as hosts:

“It drives an elaborate root system deep into the tissues of the unfortunate crab, and sucks nourishment from its body. It is probably no accident that among the first organs that it attacks are the crab’s testicles and ovaries; it spares the organs that the crab needs to survive — as opposed to reproduce — till later. The crab is effectively castrated by the parasite. Like a fattened bullock, the castrated crab diverts energy and resources away from reproduction and into its own body — rich pickings for the parasite at the expense of the crab’s reproduction” (p. 243). 

But Dawkins adds, to Tennyson, a twist: he makes genes, rather than animals, the key combatants, brutal and cunning in their efforts to survive. Genes, for Dawkins, reach up “through” organisms, manipulating the world and other creatures for their own ends. The wolf’s teeth may be red, but it’s the genes that are bloodthirsty. They are the mafia bosses, giving orders from the smoky bar-room. The wolf is just their tool.

Genes: the true predators?
(Image source and license here. Author: Cathrae)

Modern readers are familiar with the basic scientific picture here. But it’s possible, in the context of the book’s particular frame and aesthetic, to see it afresh, and to feel, perhaps, freshly disoriented, or disturbed. Indeed, Dawkins references a number of readers for whom the book came as a kind of crisis. One blames The Selfish Gene for “a series of bouts of depression I suffered from for more than a decade” (p. xiii). Another (a publisher) “could not sleep for three nights after reading it, so troubled was he by what he saw as its cold, bleak message” (p. xiii). Dawkins chides such people for “shooting the messenger” of unpleasant truths, and for looking to the universe, rather than the human world, for warmth and meaning. But the book is hardly just a set of abstract, clinical truths. It’s also, centrally and intentionally, a way of imagining them.

II. Sleeping beauties

“I will be the pattern of all patience.”

– King Lear, Act 3, Scene 2

A few years ago, reading over parts of The Selfish Gene, I had an experience that left an impression on me. Over the course of chapters, and partly outside of my explicit awareness, the frame and aesthetic of the book had built up in the back of of my mind, and I had begun to give the “selfishness” Dawkins ascribes to genes some of the term’s moral and emotional connotations. That is: I started to feel a subtle sort of resistance towards these ruthless genes, and towards the pain and exploitation they so willingly cause in their relentless pursuit of survival. I think I may even have felt some resentment at the ultimate indifference of my own genes to the death and degradation of my body — a body that does so much for them. Genes, in Dawkins’s universe, were the main players, the central loci of evolutionary explanation, pulling strings left and right — but they were also callous, and vicious, and Machiavellian.

But then (I don’t remember what prompted this), something shifted, and I let go of the book’s central metaphor. I looked again at these microscopic Machiavellis, and saw, instead of little agents trying to survive, little patterns that know not what they do. Instead of strategists “building” organisms around them, I imagined twists and ripples in the fabric of things, snagging against their environment, echoing and re-echoing through time, accumulating a succession of increasingly complex organisms around them — membranes, cells, organs, brains, muscles, fangs — without ever trying to do so.

The genes that do so much to structure our world, I remembered, didn’t want to survive, or to compete, any more than do (most of) the other tiny patterns that flicker in and out of existence amidst the churn of physics. It’s just that when these patterns happened to click into being, mute and unambitious like all the rest, they stuck, and snagged, and were carried forward. Now, billions of years later, around them roils a maelstrom of sex and violence and death and energy; but still, as ever, they are like some mix of Sleeping Beauty and Helen of Troy. Their faces launch ships; at their gestures, princes and dragons die in fire and blood; but the genes don’t see or understand any of it; they never wanted any of it. They’re innocent.

She has no interest in this guy castrating any crabs on her behalf.
(Source here. Author: Harbour)

III. Gone transparent

“Look with thine ears: see how yon justice rails upon yon simple thief. Hark in thine ear: change places and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief?”

— King Lear, Act 4, Scene 6

In a sense, the “innocence” of genes is obvious. Indeed, it was the utility of personifying genes, despite their lack of intentional agency, that made the conceit of The Selfish Gene interesting in the first place. Caught up in that conceit, genes might seem ruthless and Machiavellian; but when you’re only pretending that something is an agent, of course it looks “innocent” when you stop.

Another innocent pattern.
(Source here. Author: Rocccini. Invention: Byl)

But somehow, after living for a while in Dawkins’s gene-centered vision, I didn’t experience remembering that genes are passive patterns, rather than agents, just as a return to the respectable, scientific default. Rather, something felt different about the world; more tragic; and somehow, more open. The natural world was still the war Dawkins had portrayed (though obviously, it’s not just that), but it was a war fought for no one — or at least, no one warlike. I found myself thinking: “the whole thing is innocent.”

I think this reaction was due in part to the shift in perspective Dawkins hopes to engender, which stayed with me even as I let go of the book’s titular metaphor. Here’s how Dawkins describes this shift, in the beginning of The Extended Phenotype, having just analogized it to the shift in vision that a Necker cube can prompt:

Necker cube
(Source here. Author: BenFrantzDale)

“…the mental flip I want to encourage can be characterized as follows. We look at life and begin by seeing a collection of interacting individual organisms. We know that they contain smaller units, and we know that they are, in turn, part of larger composite units, but we fix our gaze on the whole organisms. Then suddenly the whole image flips. The individual bodies are still there; they have not moved, but they seem to have gone transparent. We see through them to the replicating fragments of DNA within, and we see the wider world as an arena in which these genetic fragments play out their tournaments of manipulative skill” (p. 7).

I think I had made this flip, at least to some degree. The organisms had gone transparent, and the genes had come to the fore. A lion was not a lion, but the armor of a set of genes. If you try to destroy those genes, the lion will be there, snarling, with claws and muscles to stop you.

Gene armor.
(Source here. Author: Sharp.)

The genes, though, had inherited, in my implicit ontology (encouraged by Dawkins’s personification), the substance and agency that the lion used to have. Genes were the true jungle king; they were inside the lion, pulling the strings, trying to survive. 

But when I remembered that the genes are passive, innocent patterns, rather than agents — that they had no desire to survive, or knowledge of the snarls and claws that had accumulated around them — the lion did not regain its substance. It was still armor; but armor for something that doesn’t want defending. The sleeping beauties inside it did not ask for a lion. Yet over evolutionary time, a lion has grown up around them regardless — a giant, ferocious eddy, swirling around something that snagged.

Is this the main thing? All the grandeur and violence and pain and beauty of the biological world, swirling around these tiny, unknowing patterns, these twists in the fabric, carried through time? Somehow, thinking about this, it felt like some sort of bottom dropped out; it felt like the wind could blow right through.

IV. Tragedy

OLD MAN: You cannot see your way.
GLOUCESTER: I have no way, and therefore want no eyes: I stumbled when I saw.

– King Lear, Act 4, Scene 1

Tragedy often has an element of the beyond-moral. We watch the daughters of a foolish king betray him; we watch one of them, and her husband, gouge out the eyes of a loyal earl. We feel the anger. But when king and earl take to the heath, caught in a storm, raging at the thunder and cold, it is not just human sin at stake; it’s the gods themselves, “the extremity of the skies”; the gods who made the daughters, and the thunder; the gods who kill men for their sport, as wanton boys kill flies.

“Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard-hearts?”
(Quote from Act 3, Scene 6. Image source here. Author: Bensell)

And when the play ends, and the bodies lie quiet and scattered on the stage, and we step back to look at what all of it has wrought, human sin and folly sit within a broader frame — a frame in which blame, even towards the gods, seems less apt, and a certain type of sadness, and comprehension, and even love, come to the fore. Blame is still possible, but it’s held within, and suffused by, something else. Thinking about innocent genes gives me some of this.

To be clear: I’m not interested, here, in exactly how much of the natural world, including human behavior, is best explained via reference to genes (nor is Dawkins naive about this — see Chapters 2 and 3 of The Extended Phenotype). And regardless, innocent genes do not nullify our sins or our responsibilities. Neither, indeed, do innocent particles, or innocent physical laws. Granted, concepts of moral responsibility can seem, to some, fragile in the face of naturalistic explanation, and/or of seeing things as what Smilansky (2000) calls the “unfolding of the given” — and some people, on these grounds, give up such concepts entirely. I’m not going to get into that issue here, except to say that there is an art to holding multiple levels of description in mind at once, and to keeping one’s practices and concepts keyed to the contexts that make them appropriate — an art, I think, we do well to learn (and which tragedy, perhaps, helps teach).

Indeed, with such an art in mind, it seems least misleading to say that the “whole thing” is neither innocent or guilty. If we start to see it as guilty, though — as I think I may have started to do, reading Dawkins — I think the word “innocence” may be helpful. Indeed, such a word suggests the possibility, not just of withholding blame, but of a kind of care towards, and even of love for, the innocent thing, despite the harm it does and has done — a possibility I think worth bearing in mind.

Still, even if the “whole thing” is innocent, particular things, I think, can still be guilty. Indeed, genes may not be agents, but humans are, and lions too. Wars still rage, whether the fighters have gone transparent or no. Teeth and claws are still bloody. Indeed, in many contexts, genes aren’t the main patterns to be reckoned with. And perhaps someday, they’ll cease to be a central locus of explanation entirely.

Still, the image of genes as sleeping beauties, carried unknowingly through time, has stayed with me. It doesn’t have the predictive power of the selfish gene picture; but it seems to me the truer image, and perhaps the more remarkable. And beyond tragedy, it gives me some general sense of wonder and strangeness, too. The houseplants in my room are unfurling, in part, from age-old snags in the fabric of things. So, indeed, are the cells in my brain, thinking these thoughts; so is the spring bloom of my backyard — all swirling around these tiny, ancient, passive patterns, who survive without wanting to, who know not what they do.


1 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 11:09 PM
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Hmm. At the time of my starting this comment, this is on the frontpage and at +31 after my strong vote up — but it had no comments on it.

This is somewhat unusual — this is normally a group of people that at least one person will quickly comment with a flash first pass impression, introduce a question, talk about something in the domain, link a research paper or share a related quote...

And no one has yet done so.

So, here is my (somewhat meta) take — I read this in bits and pieces, somewhat slowly, over the afternoon and evening between calls and activities, periodically coming back to it in my browser. At first, I was like, ok, I get where this is going; I’m familiar with the general background and theories and I’ve had some of the personal experience of thinking through genes and their implications and how I relate to them, etc. Your personal experience of reasoning about it wasn’t exactly the same as mine, but close enough to be recognizable and it made sense.

Then you build up to your conclusion and there was this significant shift my thinking — I think It happened for me roughly around where you discuss how learning the underlying genetic theories seemed to “hollow out” the lion, but updating your understanding of the genetics didn’t “re-fill” the lion — and I had this experience of, “Oh wait, I think there might be a significant and large hole in my thinking on the topic.”

This combined with the general stylishness of the piece — for lack of a better word — Shakespeare, the image choices, the language choices, etc... left me in an interesting and unusual place I don’t wind up in after reading nonfiction:

The first was a strong intrinsic desire to think this through more clearly before formulating any other opinions on the topic. The second was — again for lack of a better word — a mild form of something like “awe.”

This was a really delightful and interesting read, and I’m grateful for having read it. I can understand why there aren’t any other comments yet, though — it seems like something of sufficient importance that it would not be fitting to make a snap judgment or contribute a tiny detail, since I should spend some time around what not seems to be a large gap in my thinking on this topic that I hadn’t adequately perceived or reasoned through.

So, anyways, that was my experience reading this. Thanks for writing it. “Thought provoking” gets thrown around rather casually these days, but this was very much the strong version of that for me.