SELFISH GENES ARE PRETTY
NICE EXCEPT FOR THEIR
HATRED OF THE SELFISH GENE
Randolph M. Nesse
THIRTY years ago, Western ideas about human nature bounced off The Selfish Gene and changed direction. Responses and related ideas continue to careen into each other with little diminished fury and successful variations are now creating their own lineages. It is a good time to assess both what The Selfish Gene accomplished and why so many people still hate it with such passion. The answers to these two questions are intimately related, but an analysis of the argument in The Selfish Gene gets nowhere without first acknowledging and seeking the source of its emotional impact.
We don't have to look far. The Selfish Gene illustrates, perhaps as well as any book ever written, the power of metaphor. By shamelessly anthropomorphizing genes as independent actors pursuing their selfish interests, Dawkins created wide understanding about how natural selection works that otherwise might still not exist. His use of metaphor is not only shameless, it is blameless, if you attend to the cautions he includes. Over and over again, he warns that genes are not actually actors, that they obviously are not thinking, motivated or conscious, and that the selfishness of genes is just a metaphor. These caveats slowed readers down about as effectively as 'Slow—Work Zone' signs on a deserted highway. Once his metaphor moved genes within range, our built-in capacities for intuitive social understanding snapped over them and reframed readers' minds. From the unassailable