The Selfish Gene

Thirty years ago, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins published The Selfish Gene, a book dedicated to the idea that the purpose of life was, essentially, reproduction – survival of the molecules of life.  Or, as Robert Heinlein put it,

A zygote is a gamete’s way of producing more gametes. This may be the purpose of the universe.

This is expressed as “Birds do it, bees do it, why don’t we do it?” All species have a drive to reproduce, and we’re told that women have a “biological clock” that ticks down constantly.  Bonnie Raitt’s 1990 song Nick of Time speaks to this:

A friend of mine, she cries at night
And she calls me on the phone
Sees babies everywhere she goes
And she wants one of her own

She’s waited long enough she says
And still he can’t decide
Pretty soon she’ll have to choose
And it tears her up inside

She’s scared,
Scared to run out of time

It’s an old idea. 

Remember this scene from The Matrix?


Here’s what Agent Smith was talking about, Monty Python style:

Well, Agent Smith is wrong – on a number of levels – but the one I’m concerned with here is the part about humans multiplying “until every natural resource is consumed.”  Not so.  In fact, one of the problems the “West” is experiencing right now is the exact opposite.  We’re not “multiplying” enough.  We’re not even replacing ourselves.  It’s a problem that has attracted a lot of attention.  Mark Steyn’s 2006 phillipic America Alone:  The End of the World as We Know It concerns itself almost exclusively with the demographics of Europe, and the fact that Europeans aren’t reproducing.  Here’s another recent example, Forbes Magazine, Declining Birthrates, Expanded Bureaucracy: Is U.S. Going European?

One hopes that the current crisis gripping the E.U. will give even the most devoted Europhiles pause about the wisdom of such mimicry. Yet the deadliest European disease the U.S. must avoid is that of persistent demographic decline.

The gravity of Europe’s demographic situation became clear at a conference I attended in Singapore last year. Dieter Salomon, the green mayor of the environmentally correct Freiburg, Germany, was speaking about the future of cities. When asked what Germany’s future would be like in 30 years, he answered, with a little smile, “There won’t be a future.”

We’re not giving birth, but we’re not dying as fast either.  From Foreign Policy, The World Will Be More Crowded – With Old People:

(W)hat demography tells us is this: The human population will continue to grow, though in a very different way from in the past. The United Nations’ most recent “mid-range” projection calls for an increase to 8 billion people by 2025 and to 10.1 billion by century’s end.
Until quite recently, such population growth always came primarily from increases in the numbers of young people. Between 1950 and 1990, for example, increases in the number of people under 30 accounted for more than half of the growth of the world’s population, while only 12 percent came from increases in the ranks of those over 60.

But in the future it will be the exact opposite. The U.N. now projects that over the next 40 years, more than half (58 percent) of the world’s population growth will come from increases in the number of people over 60, while only 6 percent will come from people under 30. Indeed, the U.N. projects that by 2025, the population of children under 5, already in steep decline in most developed countries, will be falling globally — and that’s even after assuming a substantial rebound in birth rates in the developing world. A gray tsunami will be sweeping the planet.

So we’re not reproducing, but we’re living longer.

The 2006 “comedy” film Idiocracy considered the idea that population growth occurred among people not intelligent enough to control their reproductive habits, while intelligent people just put it off:


But that doesn’t seem to be the case, either. Intelligence isn’t the dividing line on reproduction rates. If anything, it appears to be wealth – wealthier nations tend to have lower reproduction rates than poorer ones. But is it only an economic decision? Do poorer nations squirt out kids at a higher rate than richer ones because intercourse is the best, cheapest entertainment going? Or is there something else, some other influence that affects human reproduction rates?

Mark Steyn noted in America Alone another interesting thing: America, along with maintaining at least a replacement reproduction rate is also one of the last Western nations still nominally Christian.

A while back, I wrote Why I am an Atheist. The gist of that post is the question What’s religion for? I think I have a better understanding now. Let’s watch the rest of that clip from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life:

Every version of Christianity follows Genesis 1:28

And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

I’m not a student of comparative religion, but I’d be willing to bet that the major religions out there have some similar form of entreaty to their adherents.

It would appear that in humans, the “selfish gene” expresses itself as personal selfishness. Cultures achieve material wealth, lose religion, and stop reproducing. Something other than “the selfish gene” is required to keep gametes making more gametes, and religion fills that need. The rites, rituals, rules and ramifications of religion act to produce social pressures to reproduce, and to do it along societal norms. Lose those, and demographic suicide threatens.

That is, unless we really do reach Raymond Kurzweil’s technological Singularity and achieve near-as-dammit human immortality. Of course, if we do cross that particular event horizon, what it means to be human will be redefined.

Anyway, this multimedia essay is the result of a lot of windshield time over the last three weeks. I found the idea intriguing. Discuss amongst yourselves.

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