|biography, evolutionary biology
Selfish Gene, Blind Watchmaker, memes, replicators
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Richard Dawkins is the author of a number of internationally best-selling books about evolutionary biology including The Selfish Gene (1976; second edition, 1989), The Extended Phenotype (1982), The Blind Watchmaker (1986), River Out of Eden (1995), Climbing Mount Improbable (1996), and Unweaving the Rainbow (1998).
Dawkins was born in Kenya in 1941 and, although his father moved to England for a time to volunteer for
wartime service, raised in East Africa until 1949 when the family relocated to England.
Between 1959-62 he worked as an undergraduate student of Zoology at Balliol College, Oxford, where he was greatly
inspired by the Dutch biologist Niko Tinbergen. Tinbergen, author of The Study of
Instinct (1951) was one of the first of the biologists who stove to explore and to explain the nature of animal
behaviour. Such endeavours gave rise to a new branch of science - Ethology. (Niko Tinbergen was eventually awarded
a share of a Nobel Prize in 1973 for his pioneering work on animal behaviour).
Whilst studying towards his doctorate (1965), Dawkins hit upon the momentously evolutionarily relevant idea of the existence of an ethology of the gene - that genes can and do communicate, co-operate and compete - and that these behaviours fundamentally affect the survivability of each "survival machine." Traditional Darwinism tended to look at entire organisms and to accept that a "survival of the fittest" organism (as a gatherer of food) took place. If the gene was now considered to be the focus of many most decisive struggles where the only "fittest" would survive then genes stood to replace organisms as the real unit in any evolutionary struggle.
Dawkins added a layer to this view of the selfish gene by also accepting that there are "memes" which are to cultural inheritance what genes are to biological inheritance. These memes then are ideas and practices which can again communicate, co-operate and compete and thus have their own ethology. Genes and Memes moreover can act in association jointly influencing survivability and thus the paths of evolution followed by various organisms. Dawkins saw both genes and memes as being efficient when they were also replicators - when they tended to be replicated in succeeding generations such that they tended to re-inforce the survivability of the organisms they had helped to propagate.
It has been suggested in the past that a chicken is an egg's way of making another egg. Dawkins ambitious development of his replicator concept included taking the view that it is unreasonable to think about the evolution of birds without recognising that they make nests, and that it is similarly unreasonable to consider the evolution of Beavers without also recognising the vital significance of their inherited ability to make dams and lodges. In this sense, the egg must necessarily tend to propagate not only a chicken but also tend, eventually, to elicit a nest in its unconcious efforts to generate another egg!!! Bird's nests then are from this perspective highly necessary evolutionary extensions of the eggs out of which the immediate individual makers of those nests themselves hatched. This principle must necessarily hold for birds, for bees, for beavers, and for Human Beings. Organisms may be held to have bodies and behaviours that are determined very largely by their genetic inheritance and to also, in the cases of more sophisticated organisms, to exploit or develop artifacts in line with the subtle, but insistent, suggestions that arise from deep within their own "complex instance of being" that is also largely inherited.
In biology, an organisms genetic inheritance is referred to as its genotype whilst its physical appearance is referred to as its phenotype. Dawkins posited a genetically preordained association of organism to artifact that he called The Extended Phenotype. Dawkins further extended his "extended phenotype" concept to look far beyond individual and artifact towards a more comprehensive view that could encompass the family of the organism, its social group, and any tools and environments created by the individual or the group. Very many such phenomena can be held to be physical manifestations inspired as evolutionarily beneficial aspects of extended phenotype by the genetically transmitted replicating code.
Dawkins also suggests that the evolution of evolvability itself - the appearance of an ability to adapt and to replicate such adaption - has been of the utmost significance in allowing evolution to take its manifold course. Without a sympathetic adjustment in replicating code any adaption in genes or memes, however beneficial in terms of survivability, would be lost to posterity.
Richard Dawkins biography
Selfish Gene - Blind Watchmaker page