I have always considered The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype as belonging together (both by Richard Dawkins). If you have read the former, which takes some resolve, then reading the latter will bring your efforts into full fruition.
The Selfish Gene puts forth the gene’s-eye view of evolution: What happens when we focus primarily on genotypes, giving phenotypes (bodies) a secondary role? It is not that this treatment is to the exclusion of others, but only an adjustment of our usual outlook. (For an example of why this is illuminating, turn to the splurge-weed thought experiment on page 258 in the paperback which begins with the question, “Why did cells gang together; why the lumbering robots?”)
The next stage is to consider the environment as a kind of phenotype, and this what The Extended Phenotype covers. After all, drawing the boundary at an organism’s skin seems rather arbitrary, doesn’t it? Whenever a beaver builds a dam, it is also true that the genes of the beaver are building the dam. Because the dam has flooded the local area with water, the beaver’s genes have caused extended phenotypic effects upon the environment and other organisms, and ultimately upon the genes of other organisms. Isn’t that an interesting thought!
Again, this view is not being advocated to the exclusion of others, but rather as the flip side of the coin. Dawkins compares it to a Necker Cube, in which our perception alternates between either seeing it from above or seeing it from below:
From The Extended Phenotype,
To return to the analogy of the Necker Cube, the mental flip that 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, parts of larger composite units, but we fix our gaze on the whole organisms. Then suddenly the 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. Genes manipulate the world and shape it to assist their replication. It happens that they have ‘chosen’ to do so largely by moulding matter into large multicellular chunks which we call organisms, but this might not have been so. Fundamentally, what is going on is that replicating molecules ensure their survival by means of phenotypic effects on the world. It is only incidentally true that those phenotypic effects happen to be packaged up into units called individual organisms.
The above serves as my response to Karen Armstrong’s recent article, in which she re-articulates the tried-and-true misunderstanding behind the term selfish gene, showing a lack of comprehension or interest in what she imagines to be arguing against. The term selfish gene refers to the metaphor of genes acting as if they were selfish, not the human characteristic of selfishness. (See Butterflies and Wheels for more.)
At the heart of Karen Armstrong’s perspective lies the implicit assumption that a scientific worldview is one of dull mechanism, that without religion the universe is somehow dreary in itself, that we should not be resigned to this mere reality before us. But the world presented in The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype, briefly sketched above, is endlessly fascinating; it is enrapturing; it is beautiful. She writes,
In the past, the voices that say “there is something more” have always been right.
Yes, there is something more, and you’ve missed it, Karen Armstrong.