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Did you know?: Your genes built your body to ensure their own survival?

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But no mind built them. Or anyway, that’s the official story now.

In “Forget fittest, it’s survival of the most cultured” (New Scientist, 5 March 2012), evolutionary psychologist David Sloan Wilson unpacks the paper war between proponents of the selfish gene and proponents of group selection:

Mark Pagel, a professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Reading, UK, is well placed to write on these recent developments. In Wired for Culture he frames cultural development in the language of Richard Dawkins’s selfish gene theory, in which genes are replicators that build individual bodies as vehicles for their own survival. Dawkins famously coined the term “meme” as the cultural analogue of a gene. Pagel’s argument goes one step further.

Memes, he says, have built vehicles around themselves made up of groups of people. We live inside “cultural survival vehicles” that allow us to collectively survive and reproduce in any given environment. Pagel argues that there are thousands of such vehicles, each adapted to different environments, exemplified by humanity’s wealth of languages. Genetically we remain a single species, but culturally we are worlds apart, comparable to dinosaurs, birds and mammals.

A simpler way of understanding this situation is that any effort to link current culture to Darwinian evolution is nonsense, which Pagels conveniently illustrates.

However, you can be pretty sure that D. S. Wilson (not to be confused with E. O. “Dear Pastor” Wilson, the ant king) would never imagine such a thing.

Wilson explains the pieties of selfish gene selection, citing Dawkins and Dennett, then remarks,

Pagel departs from Dawkins and Dennett by portraying cultures as group-level survival vehicles, correctly in my opinion, but seems to think that in employing the language of selfish gene theory he is rejecting group selection. This is a failure of translation. When he makes statements such as: “Any group that failed to acquire these cultural forms could find themselves in competition with others that had”, he is invoking group selection, pure and simple.

Really? But who cares?

The whole whack is utterly lacking insight into human nature today (or, probably, at any time).


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