The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

Gene Selectionism

Richard Dawkins and the British philosopher Helena Cronin argue that genes rather than organisms (as Darwin held) are the primary units of natural selection.

Dawkins essentially built on the work of the US biologist George Williams. Williams thought that genes encouraging altruism would quickly become extinguished, and therefore genes must be "selfish" in nature. Every trait serves some kind of self-interest. Genes that serve that self-interest are more likely to survive (because their vehicles are more likely to survive) and multiply. Thus the corresponding traits are more likely to become widespread among future generations.

Dawkins introduced whole new methods of thinking about life, behavior and evolution. Firstly, Dawkins argued that the gene is the fundamental unit of evolution: genes drive evolution and genes drive behavior.  Darwin's assumption that natural selection favors those individuals best fitted to survive and reproduce can then be restated as: natural selection favors those genes that replicate through many generations.  The level at which selection occurs is not that of the individual organism, but that of particular stretches of genetic material. Organisms are merely the means that genes use to perpetuate copies of themselves. The universe is dominated by stable structures, and one particular stable structure is a molecule that makes copies of itself.

A "replicator" is an entity that copies itself, such as genes. A "vehicle" is the organism that carries the replicator in its cells and whose differential survival and reproduction results in the differential spread of the replicator. Dawkins thinks that the superiority of replicators is obvious. A replicator serves as a repository of information (about the organism but also, indirectly, about the environment) that is preserved over time and spread over space. Replicators are immanent entities: they exist virtually forever. Vehicles, on the other hand, are merely “tests” of how good that information is. And, of course, vehicles are also the machine used by replicators to copy themselves.

The US philosopher David Hull offered a slight variation on Dawkins' theme. Hull distinguishes replicators (units that reproduce their structure directly) from “interactors” (entities that interact directly with their environment). Darwin's theory of evolution through natural selection thus reads: differences in the interactions of interactors with their environment result in differential reproduction of replicators. The difference between Hull's “interactors” and Dawkins's "vehicles" is not trivial: genes are both replicators and interactors (they have a physical structure that interacts with an environment), and some interactors are also replicators (the paramecium that splits in two).

However, the general scheme remains the same. Natural selection is about the differential survival of replicators.  Genes can be replicators whereas multicellular organisms, groups and other levels of the hierarchy can only be vehicles/interactors.

In other words, what survives is not my body but my genes. It is not bodies that replicate when children are made: it is genes that replicate in the children. Therefore, natural selection can't be about bodies, it must be about genes. Bodies are in a lose/lose situation, as they will disappear anyway. But genes do have a chance to survive (by copying themselves into a new body).

Of course, this doesn't mean that genes "are" eternal. Genes are perpetuated insofar as they yield phenotypes that have selective advantages over competing phenotypes.  They have a chance of being eternal, but that depends on how good they are at creating competitive organisms.

An organism is a mere gene-transporting device: its primary function is not even to reproduce itself, albeit to reproduce genes.  The mind itself is engineered to perpetuate DNA.  The brain is a machine whose goal is to maximize fitness in its environment.

From the point of view of a gene, any organism carrying it is an equivalent reproductive source. In many cases siblings are more closely related (genetically speaking) than parents and offspring. Adaptation is for the good of the replicator. Therefore, it is not surprising that sometimes organisms sacrifice themselves for improving their kin's survival. Kin selection is part of a gene reproduction strategy. 

"I" am not the subject: I am the object. My genes are the subject. I am but a product of my genes. Genes represent a higher force than my will, a force that has been acting for millions of years, compared to the few decades that my will be performing. Genes tell me what to will. Genes tell me how to interact with other people who are the product of other genes, i.e. they tell me which genes to interact with. Genes tell me what food I should eat and what dangers I should avoid. Whether there is a conscious entity in my genes or not, it is "them" that drive my existence. It is "them" who want me to reproduce: I will be dead soon, but they will still be somewhat alive in my relatives.  My family is not going to be extinguished any time soon. I will be a mere step, soon forgotten and useless, in their process of reproduction, of survival, of progress.

Genes want to live forever.


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