Given the previous post dealt tangentially with memes, I thought I'd dedicate this post to another brain-child of Richard Dawkins: the selfish gene theory of evolution ("SGT").
The SGT looks at evolution from the perspective of genes and supposes that our genes are running the show. It says we should view sundry forms of life as entities designed to pass on as many copies of their genes as possible. I, and you for that matter, are but protective shells for our genes, machines programmed to pass on half of our genetic material to our offspring. Although inadvertently painting a somewhat chilly picture of life, one which seems to bother so the less misanthropic and more religious members of our species, the SGT was able to explain evolutionary puzzles that had stymied other theories of evolution, such as the group and species centered evolutionary theories.*
The recent, excellent documentary, March of the Penguins, corroborates SGT quite nicely. Emperor Penguins, for instance, make no effort, as far as I can tell from the documentary, to shelter the young of penguins which died from the blistering cold of the Antarctic winter or starvation on the eternal march for a bite to eat in the ocean. One would expect just the opposite behavior if operating from a species centered theory of evolution, since the goal one imposes there is that of maximizing the number of Emperor Penguins. It's a poor strategy indeed to allow potentially viable young penguins to die if one's goal is to maximize the number of Emperor Penguins. So how does SGT explain this phenomenon? Well, with a plausible, sensible "just so" story of course. The amount of genes a random female and baby emperor penguin share is likely small relative to the portion of genes she shares with her offspring (1/2). The risk she bears in taking a newbie under her wing is starving to death. If she starves to death she can't have another go at mating. Her genes have thus hard wired her to "flip the bird" at the helpless little penguins who lost their mommy or daddy and preserve herself.** (I will note that Emperor Penguins, unlike many humans, do not believe most children are worth a damn.)
In the spirit of academic honesty, I will note that the SGT doesn't explain why some female penguins, on the death of their young, attempt to appropriate the offspring of other penguins. Doing so is surely a foolish strategy from the perspective of SGT for reasons noted above. This might be a very rare phenomenon and perhaps results from some mental disorder - penguin postpartem depression?? If it is a very rare phenomenon, then it can be explained away as an anomaly. If it's pervasive, this is a problem for SGT. Given Freeman's narration, if I remember it correctly, it's the former.
I'll note in closing that SGT doesn't explain my behavior well. I have a habit of alienating even those women I find tolerable. My genes, I fear, are destined to die with me, never having found another vessel to house themselves. Fortunately for them, my sister shares 1/4 of my gene pool, so there's some hope for them yet. I feel I've let them down. I'm simply not that good of a protective shell / reproductive vehicle for my genes. And that makes me not that good of a person.
*A species centered theory holds that species X is evolutionarily driven by the desire to maximize the number of members of its species. A group centered evolutionary theory holds that some group, say, a pack of dogs, is attempting to maximize the number of its members.
**SGT explains other quirks in the Emperor Penguins' behavior, but I'll save those stories for another day.