Unselfish Genes - A new look at evolution


‘One of the most crazy-making yet widespread and potentially dangerous notions is ‘oh, that behaviour is genetic’… for most people out there it winds up meaning a deterministic view of Life, one rooted in biology and genetics – genes equal things that can’t be changed.’

– Dr. Robert Sapolsky

One of the most persistent elements of the prevailing Scientific Paradigm is the all embracing power of Genes. Modern (neo) Darwinists cling for dear life to the idea that Genes Rule OK – but they shouldn’t. Let’s just sum up what this means: human beings are allegedly little more than ‘lumbering robots’ (in the words of Richard Dawkins) driven by their DNA, which itself somehow managed to evolve randomly. Since they are what we inherited at birth, genes determine our health and well being – for some – even our thoughts and behaviour. This gives genes an enormous amount of power, doesn’t it? That our very lives might be the product of an invisible set of molecules. (If that’s what they really are.) At the other end of the spectrum is the anthropologist Jeremy Narby who wonders just how all this power is possible if the genes themselves are not somehow conscious. He asks:

‘How could biology presuppose that DNA is not conscious if it does not even understand the human brain … and which is built according to the instructions in our DNA? How could nature not be conscious if our own consciousness is produced by nature?’1

Let’s look first at Richard Dawkins’ ‘selfish gene’ theory, according to which genes ‘created us, body and mind’ and their preservation is ‘the ultimate rationale for their existence.’ This is because ‘we are their survival machines.’ This makes it sound like they possess autonomous, causal power, going about their business ‘like successful Chicago gangsters’ (in Dawkins’ own words) or like an all powerful computer program (hence the supposed ‘genetic program’) at whose mercy we sit. Thankfully, we don’t – there isn’t one. As Joan Roughgarden, professor of biology at Stanford University says, ‘our research suggests that the “selfish-gene” metaphor for evolution is misleading and inaccurate.’ She admits that many human traits cannot be accounted for by evolutionary science and doubts if it will ever ‘explain features of human behavior such as spirituality, morality, consciousness, free will, and so forth.’2

It could be said that any gene (at the risk of oversimplification) is a specific section of DNA that contains ‘instructions’ for making proteins. (Proteins are complex molecules, the workhorses inside cells which perform functions like carrying oxygen around the blood stream or converting food into sugar.) However, these ‘instructions’ are ‘written’ in code, like a cypher. Dr. Nessa Carey writes that: ‘If DNA is a code then it must contain symbols that can be read. It must act like a language. This is indeed what the DNA code does.’ Carey also employs the much better analogy of a ‘script’: ‘We talk of DNA as if it’s a template, like a mould for a car part in a factory … But DNA isn’t really like that. It’s more like a [film] script,’ she says, where the same words or coded instructions can ‘result in different productions’ depending on who is reading or interpreting it.3 We’ve all seen Anthony Perkins’ subtle and sinister portrayal of serial killer Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s Psycho. Imagine the role being played by Carry On star Kenneth Williams or tough guy Arnold Schwarzenegger. Though reading from the same script, the ‘gene expression’ would be very different!

And so genes are a language which must be deciphered, and it’s not for nothing that genes have been labelled ‘inert’ by those working in the field of genetics. During cell division the double helix of DNA is ‘unzipped’ so that the code can be read, but genes neither copy nor ‘unzip’ themselves during this process. In the former case, this is handled by messenger RNA which then enables proteins to be made. Nessa Carey likens this process to copying a digital image as a PDF file (mRNA copying) which can then be printed many times over – thus, proteins. (In the latter case, various enzymes perform the unzipping of the double helix, which is held together with weak hydrogen bonds.)

That fact that genes don’t have any real causal power (being simply the thing that gets copied) is brought out when we look at the Problem of Morphogenesis. This is about forms come into being, and when we look at human development (from egg to embryo to human body) a mystery is present. The conundrum in Morphogenesis concerns how cells develop into tissues, organs and limbs with distinctive shapes and sizes that become our bodies (And how they regulate and repair themselves.) This is because in each of the trillions of cell nuclei in your entire body, there exists the same single genetic code. If this code were wholly responsible for Morphogenesis, all of your body parts would be the same: the same size and shape. How we got to the stage where many different cell functions arose from one single code is another wonder of human life. Admittedly, some kind of ‘program’ is at work – but it can’t be guided by genes. The real question is – how do cells ‘know’ how to divide and to organise themselves in this very systematic way? (Some – even orthodox – biologists now say that cells possess a kind of ‘memory’.)

Where do Genes come from?

But these questions only increase in scope. The crucial one is this: where do genes come from; how did they originally appear in nature? The problem is that DNA is nought but a code.4 For, if all of evolution theory were true, then DNA itself had to ‘evolve’ from something extremely simple – and randomly at that. The code, supposedly, would give rise to living organisms, but it should be obvious that codes (of any description) cannot just ‘evolve’ by accident. Codes have to be written! For modern Darwinists, organic life somehow magically evolved (into more complex beings) by random mutations of DNA, even though such mutations are destructive 99% of the time. As the astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle explained:

‘Life cannot have had a random beginning … The trouble is that there are about two thousand enzymes, and the chance of obtaining them all in a random trial is only one part in 1040,000, an outrageously small probability that could not be faced even if the whole universe consisted of organic soup.’5

Hoyle also famously commented on the sheer unlikelihood of life arising by chance, comparing this to:

‘A junkyard [which] contains all the bits and pieces of a Boeing 747, dismembered and in disarray. A whirlwind happens to blow through the yard. What is the chance that after its passage a fully assembled 747, ready to fly, will be found standing there? So small as to be negligible, even if a tornado were to blow through enough junkyards to fill the whole Universe.’6

This question of the genetic code’s origin has been called ‘the most baffling aspect of the problem of the origins of life’, but the problem gets even worse.7 Not only did the DNA code have to originate itself by random accident but it requires a translator. Remember, the DNA sequence has to be read and interpreted, ‘decoded’, by transcription machinery (the messenger RNA) if life is to reproduce. It has been asked: did the code and it translating machinery evolve simultaneously, for here – as is obvious – we have a chicken-and-egg situation. As the French biochemist Jacques Monod pointed out,

‘The code is meaningless unless translated. The modern cell’s translation machinery consists of at least fifty macromolecular components which are themselves encoded in DNA (!); the code cannot be translated otherwise than by products of translation. It is the modern expression of omne vivum ex ovo [“every living thing comes from an egg”]. When and how did this circle become closed? It is exceedingly difficult to imagine.’8

Here, then, we’re a very long way from Dawkins crude ideas about the gene and its supposed power to ‘mould matter’ (that is, human beings). For there remains profound questions about our essential human nature, ones which gene theory cannot even begin to answer. The New Scientist website lists several attributes which comprise our basic humanity, and for which evolutionary science cannot satisfactorily account. Now, modern Darwinists seem to assume that our basic nature has evolved predicated on a potential gain of some kind. But where, for example, is the evolutionary advantage in homosexuality, one may ask? (Since there will be no genes passed on.)

Neo-Darwinists had to come up with an explanation, then. Hence, the alleged ‘gay gene’, although arguments for how it might have been passed down generations are unconvincing. Richard Dawkins once ruminated on a possible answer, a tortuous ‘Gay Uncle’ theory where the more ‘butch’ types in the primitive family left children in the care of women and more effeminate clan members. As to how this gay gene was distributed there was another type of bi-sexual ‘gay uncle’ who would have mated. (So that solves that one.) But no theory is advanced as to where this gay gene actually began, and which, presumably, only affects men, as all of the ‘explanations’ involve male homosexuals, whilst lesbians are (conveniently) ignored.

Possibly, however, there is no such thing as a strip of DNA that causes homosexuality. No such thing as gay genes. I close with the much saner views of the philosopher Thomas Nagel:

‘In the present climate of a dominant scientific naturalism, heavily dependent on speculative Darwinian explanations of practically everything, and armed to the teeth against attacks from religion, I have thought it useful to speculate about possible alternatives … I have tried to show that [neo-Darwinism] is incapable of providing an adequate account, either constitutive or historical, of our universe …  I have argued patiently against the prevailing … reductive materialism that purports to capture life and mind through its neo-Darwinian extension.’9

1. -Narby, Jeremy, The Cosmic Serpent, DNA and the Origins of Knowledge, Gollancz, 1998.

2. Website: www.Templeton. Org/Evolution.

3. Carey, The Epigenetics Revolution, Icon Books, 2012

4. Hubert P. Yockey, Information Theory, Evolution, and the Origin of Life, Cambridge University Press, 2005)

5. Fred Hoyle and N. Chandra Wickramasinghe, Evolution from Space (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1981)

6. Hoyle, The Intelligent Universe, 1983, (p. 19)

7. L. Orgel “Darwinism at the Very Beginning of Life,” New Scientist, Vol. 94 (1982), pp. 149, 151.

8. J. Monod, Chance and Necessity (1971, p. 143.)

9. Thomas Nagel, Mind And Cosmos: Why The Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception Of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, Voxford University Press 2012

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