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The Selfish Gene - A Dooyeweerdian Account

The Notion of the Selfish Gene

[Here recount Dawkins' proposal that , 'really', human beings and all other living things are merely survival mechanisms for genes. Then discuss various problems with this. ]

The Real Problem

Here say the real problem is actually one of perspective. It is not appropriate just to dismiss Dawkins' idea. But nor is it right in itself; intuition (including our idea that gene 'exist' 'for' human beings and other species) is not just something to be dismissed, as Dawkins seems to.

But when two perspectives clash, often there is no point of reconciliation. So no real discussion can take place, only contention. We seek grounds for real discussion.

When a debate is based on perspective, then meaning or purpose often lies at the root. This is the case here: which is the more 'meaningful' - the human or the gene? We note that, as part of our own survival, our genes also survive. But the question Dawkins has raised is: Which survives for the other? The word 'for' implies meaning and purpose.

To answer this, we need to be able to do two things. First we need to be able to discuss the meaning of each, second to account for one meaning within the other in a satisfactory manner. We do the first by recourse to a stream of philosophy that is centred on Meaning. We do the second by reference to the innovative concept of enkapsis found within that stream of philosophy.

A Framework for Discussing Meaning

Meaning has always been a problem for theoretical thinking, and has always proved elusive and, some claim, illusory. That this is so can be traced to the basic presupposition made by the ancient Greek thinkers that the most fundamental property of things is Existence. Most Western thinking since then makes the same presupposition ("All since is a mere footnote to Plato," said Whitehead in 1937) and Meaning is squeezed out.

But Dooyeweerd (1955) questioned this and started with another presupposition: that the most fundamental property is Meaning. He showed how Existence can derive from Meaning, even though Meaning cannot derive from Existence.

Meaning, he said, is not one single thing, nor is it arbitrary. There is a diversity of Meaning - and he identified fifteen aspects each of which has a distinct kernel meaning. But, he continued, Meaning is not fragmented; there is a coherence among the aspects, borne by the inter-aspectual relationships of dependency and analogy, by which each aspect contains analogical echoes of all the others. Each aspect has its own laws - and these can be determinative laws (as in the quantitative or physical aspects, or normative, as in the social or juridical aspects).

All 'things' (whether things with physical bodies, or concepts, or events, etc.) can function in all aspects, either as subject or as object. When functioning as object in an aspect, then a 'thing' receives the results of that functioning. When functioning as subject, then the 'thing' makes its own response to the laws of the aspect. For example a sheep can function as subject in the sensitive and biotic aspects, such as when it finds and digests food. But it can only function as object in the economic aspect. So when it is sold it has no grasp of the notion of selling or buying; all it is aware of is that it must explore new territory to find food, and maybe regrets no longer having nice patch of herbs it used to enjoy. Some 'things' can function as subject only in certain aspects, and their functioning in later aspects can only be as object. So the sheep can function as subject in the physical, biotic and sensitive aspects, but not in the economic, aesthetic or juridical aspects.

[ I could talk about the four Kingdoms (physical things, plants, animals and human beings) here, but that would merely distract. Dooyeweerd would be seen as a stone-age thinker; Dawkins-like geneticists with whom I wish to engage in real debate would simply stop at that point and cease to debate, because they believe that there is only one Kingdom, and especially human beings and animals are the same kingdom. I don't think we need to refer to it. ]

Now, the Meaning of a sheep, of itself, can be found in the aspects in which it can function as subject - physical, biotic or sensitive. But the shepherd functions as subject in a wider range of aspects, including the economic (it (I say 'it' deliberately) can sell the sheep), the aesthetic (it can appreciate harmony), the juridical (it can ensure the sheep receive what is rightly due to it), the ethical (it can lay down its life the sheep if the wolf comes). So the Meaning of the sheep, to the shepherd, can be economic, aesthetic, etc. - as well as biotic and sensitive.

The Meaning of the Gene

So to genes. We now have a framework for asking "What is the Meaning of genes? And of human beings?" The Meaning of a gene, of itself, is to be found in the physical aspect. It is a complex chemical.

(It might also be found in the biotic aspect, if the gene carries out life functions - but to say the gene carries out life functions of itself could be merely metaphorical, recognising some analogical echo of life functions in the physical aspect as mentioned above. At present we are on firmer ground if we talk about the physical functioning of the gene.)

But the Meaning of the gene to the human being or sheep that has it is biotic: it enables our own human and sheep life functions to be carried out.

So the gene has (at least) two Meanings: the physical meaning that it has of itself, and the biotic meaning that it has for us.


So, we have two perspectives here: that of the gene of itself and that of the sheep or human, in which the gene is considered for us. While most of us adopt the latter perspective, Dawkins (for whatever purpose he has I do not know) adopts the former. In asking "Which survives for the other?" we are asking which perspective is the more appropriate to adopt.

One argument is that the more aspects in which Meaning is found in a perspective, the more meaningful is that meaning. (!) From the perspective of the sheep or human being both the physical and biotic meanings of the gene can be recognised, but from the perspective of the gene only the physical is recognised. Therefore the perspective of the sheep or human must have priority. The perspective of the sheep can include that of the gene, but not the other way round. That is a compelling argument.

But it is not one which Dawkins would accept. And, standing back, we can say that both perspectives are valid. We cannot say that one of them is utterly false and wrong.

Was Dawkins Wrong?

There is a normative element here. Should we call him wrong, or should he call us wrong? [ here about Dawkins 'right' to put forward the perspective of the genes. but what might have been 'wrong' about what he did is to be found in his functioning in other aspects, e.g. the ethical selfishness, the pistic self-aggrandisement, etc. His fault is NOT to have expounded a certain perspective.]

Are Genes Viable Entities?

Some might complain that I have been too kind to Dawkins, and argue that genes were 'designed' for our own life functions. There is some truth in that. Genes cannot in reality be seen as viable entities in their own right (though Dawkins would probably disagree). But I am not going to take that line of argument. Not at the moment. I have said enough in what is above.
This page, '', is part of a collection of pages that links to various thinkers, within The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Email questions or comments would be welcome.

Written on the Amiga and Protext.

Copyright (c) at all dates below Andrew Basden. But you may use this material subject to conditions.

Created: 2 November 2000. Last updated: 7 September 2017 Hadn't been stored as HTML file! dohh !